We spoke with Bronson Tew about pushing the envelope while maintaining quality, embracing his role as a facilitator, the point at which sound bypasses his ears and finding success in rejecting compromise.
Keeping each project fresh and interesting is harder at first because you’re trying to push the envelope while trying to maintain quality, but over time, it becomes first nature to take risks.
Please tell me about the origins of your creative and business partnership with Matt Patton at your studio, Dial Back Sound. How do you two work together to create a unique sound with any client you’ve got in the building? What is the division of labor between you two?
Matt and I met through punk rock shows in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, almost 20 years ago. We were both playing in bands there and crossed paths several times, but one night we were both having a bout of insomnia and talked until the morning. We’ve been close friends since.
Matt is a musical encyclopedia. He may own more records than I’ve heard. That makes him great at conceptualizing things and producing from that angle. He doesn’t give a shit what mic I’m using, or how I’m capturing sounds, but he’s tenacious about the end result. I’m an engineer first, an insatiable workaholic and I’m easily bored. I’m all about “how” and “right now.” When I first started here, I’d call Patton over and say “What’s wrong with this mix?” He’d smirk and say some shit like, “It sounds like fucking REO Speedwagon.” It would burn me up, because he was right! I just didn’t have the record collector’s ear or much knowledge beyond punk rock. I started to think, “Fuck, I need to study or I’ll accidentally rip off every record I’ve never heard.”
However, the real key was just getting Patton involved so that we could each stay focused on what was natural to us. I improved my musical vocabulary by osmosis. Patton turned me on to so much that I may have never been exposed to otherwise. It’s a great working relationship because we both want to push things beyond anything we’ve done, but share a deep appreciation of the records that made us want to do this in the first place. We’re not interested in making purely referential music/sounds, but don’t want to reinvent every wheel, either.
Bruce Watson of Fat Possum and Big Legal Mess started Dial Back in 2009 and Patton played on a lot of the early records here. Patton called and told me that Bruce fired the old engineer and set up for Bruce and I to meet. I jumped in and worked with Bruce for four or five years. I learned so much working with him. He taught me a lot about Memphis soul and old-school recording methods and how to not be such a perfectionist, but just get shit done. I got to work a lot with Patton during that time too, which is why Patton stuck his neck out with me to keep this place going when Bruce decided to relocate to Memphis.
Keeping each project fresh and interesting is harder at first because you’re trying to push the envelope while trying to maintain quality, but over time, it becomes first nature to take risks and embrace what’s “happening” instead of what “should be happening.” Patton and I are very different people, but we trust each other’s instincts. We can also both lead or follow. Neither of us are interested in repeating previous works, so every project is built up from scratch. We have new inspirations and influences, we change our workflow and I don’t use the same signal chains. Also, we don’t work with people unless we think we can bring something to their project. Don’t get me wrong — it was hard as fuck to be selective at first, but now the right people find us and we find the right people.
I’d like to talk for a bit about the city of Water Valley, Mississippi where Dial Back Sound is, a place I’ve never been. How would you describe Water Valley? How does the local landscape or culture influence your sonic decisions?
Since I first started working at Dial Back, Water Valley has grown a lot, but in a good way. It’s still a small town, but we have art galleries, local produce, good eateries, a brewery and a queer/feminist bookstore on the one main street that makes up our town. Most importantly for my sanity, it’s secluded. People here are friendly but not intrusive. We have been known to cut drums or screaming amps until 6am and we’ve never had a single complaint.
Artistically, energy has to be kinetic or nothing gets done. We have to jump to the next spark of inspiration and see what comes of it.
What is your conception of time, scheduling and regimens? Are you required to be extremely orderly in your work, music and personal life? Or do you derive more benefit from kind of turning that organizational aspect off and taking things organically as they come?
It’s a balancing act. While running the tape machine, diligent note taking is required. And with all this vintage gear, I have to schedule repairs/service or order parts and repair things myself. Also, I work with a lot of talented people who are in demand and I have to stay on top of scheduling to maximize each months potential, which is a bit like herding cats. Everyone’s schedule is in constant flux, but we all make time to get together and work.
Artistically, energy has to be kinetic or nothing gets done. We have to jump to the next spark of inspiration and see what comes of it. The most important aspect of making a good record is personnel. When a songwriter comes in solo, I call in musicians. I have to figure out a complementary group of players, but once the right people are here, it’s like a chemical reaction. When bands come in, they have a lot of those musical and personal dynamics ironed out, so I take on the role of facilitator. Sometimes songs just flow and we all go with that, and sometimes a disruptive element can change the coarse of the song for the better. There’s an element of luck in all of it, but luck favors the well prepared.
On the personal side, Erogene is my better half. We’ve been married for 10 years as opposites who attract. She’s a planner; I tend to take things as they come. We each have our own careers/ interests and support each other in those endeavors. We talk about everything, but we don’t have to agree. We have two children who are amazing in their own individual ways as well, and we try to teach them be self-sufficient in their pursuits.
Please describe the gear and instruments at Dial Back Sound in as much technical detail as possible, regardless of whether you’re talking to a layperson.
We cut most basics to an Otari 1” 8 track and then bounce that over to ProTools for overdubs and edits. Tape sounds amazing, but ProTools makes shit so much easier in terms of editing, etc. I’m all about making things sound like they should before the computer is ever involved.
We mix by hand on a Sony MXP 3036, so in effect, Pandora’s box isn’t left open. There’s a little pressure inherent in mixing analog, because we have to get it right or remix, but every record before the ’90s was done that way, so it’s not a foreign method for old-school guys or the acclimated. We do stems on things where appropriate, but I’m bored as fuck mixing in the box.
We mostly use analog reverbs and delays. We have an Audicon (Lawson) plate, a Micmix Super C spring unit which are these huge golden tubes filled with springs, and a Demeter spring reverb. They’re all amazing at their respective “thing.” We use Roland RE-301 Space Echo/Chorus and assorted tape machines for echo and delay. I occasionally use a plug in or a pedal for delay when it’s not prominently featured, but plug ins don’t stack up to the real thing. As far as mics, I have Beesneez U47 copy, but I’m a huge fan of the Mojave mics that our friend Jeff Powell from Take Out Vinyl at Sam Phillips Recording Service turned us on to. He loaned us several of their mics and we loved them, so we bought our own. We’re also the proud owners of an old RCA 77 that was used on the Elvis Costello demos Jimbo Mathus did at his old studio in Como, Mississippi. Jimbo works here pretty much anytime he isn’t on the road and is another person who greatly expanded my horizons musically and personally.
I use a lot of API pre-s and EQs, and have several JFL Audio pre/limiters and Lucas Limiting Amplifiers that were built for Bruce by Frank Lacy. What you do on this side of the glass is useless without good music, and as such, we like real piano, organ, Wurlitzer, Rhodes… we use keyboards for otherworldly sounds, but saying your Nord sounds “as good as” a real Hammond is like saying porn is as good as the real deal. It isn’t.
Can you tell me what your favorite sound in the world is, regardless if it comes from an instrument or a human voice? What brings you the purest, deepest satisfaction in the aural realm?
I love piano, but I can’t play the damn thing. Maybe that’s why the sound is so ethereal to me. I also love ambience and how much space you can create in a mix with the right treatment. Unless I’m using a delay/reverb as an instrument, I usually mix until I can’t hear echo or reverb as an effect, but just as an element that makes the track sound wider and deeper. Another trick I’m trying to master now is how to create height in a track. It happens sometimes, but is nearly impossible to do at will. On a purely animal level, a dry, tight drum set and bass would have to be my favorite. If the rhythm section is hitting, it’s almost like it bypasses my ears altogether and just hits me right in the chest, where my soul would be if I had one.
What are your least favorite clichés, misconceptions or misunderstandings about the recording process? Is there any false info floating around out there about what it takes to make a record that you’d like to clarify?
ProTools has seeped into the collective consciousness. A lot of younger cats come in and they’ve read a Tape Op article or a post on a message board and they want us to do things a certain way, but not to achieve any particular end result. It’s good to be interested in the method, especially if you plan to delve deeper into that, which is why these magazines and message boards exist, but reading one article doesn’t make you an expert, and it’s just distracting the artist from what they need to be focused on, an amazing performance.
I was listening to a Tape Op podcast the other day where John Congleton and Larry Crane were discussing how two engineers, given the same gear, with the same band, in the same space would have two completely different sounds. When I see a gear rundown in an article I think, “Wow! He did this with that?” I don’t take out the tape measure and try to rip sounds verbatim, and if I did, the results still wouldn’t be the same. There are more variables than constants at play and professionals in this field know that.
Another related modern problem is the infinite redo. When people have only mixed “In the box,” they’re used to making minuscule changes that do not change the subjective experience of the music in any way. It’s a dirty trick, but early on, when someone would ask me to “Turn the vocal up by .2 db at the top of verse two,” I’d wait an hour, rename the track and send it back unchanged. When they got it back they’d say, “That’s perfect!” All that really happened there was they had stopped listening and started trying to change something. Once they perceived that a change was made, they believed it was better. Our motto here is “We aren’t done until we’re high fiving!” If we don’t all agree that it’s great, we aren’t done, and whatever that requires, We’re happy to oblige.
I’m just not one for compromise, where we both win a little and both lose a little. That’s the case professionally and personally. These days, we don’t run into these problems because the people we work with trust us and want to work here and not just some studio.
Whether or not you’re a gambling person, what do you think of the act of taking bets? Is there any concept, consequence or outcome in this world you can bet on?
I’m definitely not a gambling person, but maybe because I view games as rigged. I have had some good luck, but most of what I’ve gained has been through hard work and associating with people who are moving forward. Even teaming up with Matt in this endeavor is not as much a gamble as admitting that I need his help. I wouldn’t depend on him unless he had proven himself to be dependable, and I think that’s mutual.
I always hear out people’s ideas about the way they think these things are arranged, but I personally haven’t found any suitable replacement for the here and now.
What do you wish for the world at the expense of all else? Is human nature changeable or mutable to you, and what seemingly irresolvable problem in our society do you wish you could repair by your own power?
This may sound terribly pragmatic or even narrow in scope, but I rarely think about the “world” or “society” or any of those broader constructs. In my mind, a “wish” is nothing more than an expression of desire and If I want something, I go after it directly. I’m really intrigued by people who have that faith facility, who place hope in the uncertain. I always hear out people’s ideas about the way they think these things are arranged, but I personally haven’t found any suitable replacement for the here and now. I really hope we as a species are mutable, because if we aren’t, we’re heading for extinction. If I could be granted one wish, it would be that people would learn to fucking drive.
We asked Bronson to describe everything he knows about the first five years of his life and what he wishes for his next five.
Born at Forest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
My family lived at my grandparents’ home while my parents got on their feet.
Lived in a small apartment in Laurel, Minnesota, with my parents. They were trying to escape the cult they were raised in. They returned to said cult in the ’90s because I started getting into skateboarding and punk rock.
First memories. I remember holding a wooden spoon and telling my parents it was a “shit.” Don’t know why I thought this or where I learned the word.
Remember going to visit my great grandparents a lot. They were in a nursing home and my great grandfather could barely speak due to a stroke, but he always got me a Barques root beer in a glass bottle and was so excited to just sit and watch Bonanza with me.
I got expelled from daycare because a kid stole my “Jokey,” a toy bear that I named, so I punched him in the face and got it back.
Obviously, make more records. We’ve started an independent label and are dabbling in publishing and movie placement. I want to sharpen those skills and find more like-minded, hard working people to team up with.
Looking at scary “adult” things like owning a house and sending our kids to college. I didn’t go to school, but my kids already show so much promise that I want to have things in place for them if they go that way. Free myself up to work in various studios. Dial Back isn’t going anywhere, but I’d like to travel some and find a place for my family to call home for good. Some place with brownstones and buildings that go above two stories.
Make millions of dollars, but on my terms.
World conquest. Mind you, this all falls under the broader heading of “Do better each day.” I’m not much of a planner.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: April 16, 2018
Total questions: 9
Word count: 2691
Reading time: Ten minutes
Alabama, ambience, animal, arrangement, Barques, Bonanza, Bronson Tew, cliché, conquest, constant, daycare, Dial Back Sound, Drive-By Truckers, entertainment, envelope, flux, grandparent, Hattiesburg, inspiration, John Congleton, kinetic, Larry Crane, level, Matt Patton, maximum, Memphis, million, misconception, misunderstanding, nature, organ, osmosis, Otari, Oxford, Pandora’s box, piano, potential, pragmatic, project, quality, REO Speedwagon, Rhodes, skateboarding, spark, spoon, Tuscaloosa, variable, vocabulary, world, Wurlitzer
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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