R. Andrew Humphrey took the time to show us who the man behind some of your favorite Chicago band’s music is. We discussed how he adapts to studios as a freelancer, accepts experience as the greatest teacher, balances his own band Sun Cop with work, and more. Indulge below!
Hey, I’m R. Andrew Humphrey and I am a recording engineer and musician.
How did you get into and learn record engineering?
I’m 29 and have been professionally record engineering for maybe 7 years, but I’ve been tinkering with recording equipment since I was about 13. I went to Columbia College in Chicago and although it’s a good school, their program is a very expensive way to learn engineering. You learn the basics and some technical stuff that’s hard to learn outside of a school setting, and you get very limited studio time. I would say that improving at engineering is all self-taught. The more experience you get, the better you’ll become.
As a professional and experienced recording engineer, you have worked out of formal studios as well as home studios. What would be the major reasons to go into a professional studio over a home- recording set-up?
The Twin Peaks studio in Treehouse Records is a professional studio set-up, but all the gear in here is stuff we’ve bought. This studio is the perfect example of a mix of home and professional, but not all the records have been recorded here. The guys and I did the first one, Wild Onion, in a very nice studio called Decade. For their second album, Down in Heaven, we headed out to Massachusetts to record at one of their buddy’s homes. We had to purchase a mixing board, a tape recorder, some microphones, wiring, and other supplies so that we could basically build a studio in the living room. Then back in December, Cadien from Twin Peaks and I were in Canada helping Calpurnia with their record at the nicest studio I have ever worked out of. Led Zeppelin had recorded there in the past and there was equipment that I have never had access to before. Being flexible as a recording engineer is something I’ve learned over the years and being able to work in both settings as a freelance engineer has definitely been beneficial.
What are specific qualities you look for in a musician/band when choosing to work with them or not?
If they can pay me. I would love to lie and say I don’t work with just anyone, but I’m trying to make a living and payment is a priority. The only time I typically turn people down is if a band just can’t play. Those situations are like pulling teeth because you just keep recording and recording takes and nothing ever sticks. Other than that, if you can play and pay you can call me up. Honestly, I think reserving my personal taste, and simply trying to achieve the artist’s vision the best I can, is a healthier and better way to work anyway. That said, I do get excited when I get to work on something that I really love.
Once you agree to work with someone, what is the collaboration process like? Do they trust you to do what you do best or do they work hand in hand with you?
It’s different band to band. Some don’t think about the recording process at all and just want something clean and clear, while other bands are into more experimental and wilder production styles. With Twin Peaks, they are really good friends of mine and I’ve learned their taste over time. They act as their own producers and have four songwriters. Whoever wrote a particular song will usually take the lead and direct the adjustments that need to be made. I like both because working with the people that are hands-off allows me to dial in on my own style as an engineer, but I also love collaborating because that process has taught me a lot about my own style.
Not only are you a recording engineer, but you also make music under the name Sun Cop. What advantages would you say being a musician gives you as a recording engineer?
The engineering I do for Sun Cop is on the stylized end. I tend to push the boundaries and do things that you aren’t conventionally supposed to do as an engineer. Being able to personally pull up faders and twist knobs without having to translate your ideas to someone else makes it an easier process. It can be hard to fully communicate your vision especially since Sun Cop is towards the experimental end of pop. For example, sometimes an artist will ask me to create a warmer sound. I may have an idea of what that means, but it may not be the same idea as theirs since “warmer” isn’t a technical term. There’s a saying that goes, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Verbalizing a sound is hard when the final product relies on the turning of knobs.
Because I’m working on Sun Cop between sessions for other musicians I tend to create patchwork of many different takes and arrangements. There’s a song on my first record that is assembled from 25 different takes. I switch takes in the middle of a word and I don’t use autotune or anything like that, but I’ve developed my skills enough within these programs where I can do that. It is a double-edged sword because all my songs are held together by tape, but they work.
How do you balance creating your own music while helping others create theirs?
I have a lot of artists who help me out. For example, Colin from Twin Peaks plays drums for me and I’ll have him come in when he has free time to record his parts and then work the song around the material I have from him. It’s not “ideal”, but it lends itself to the aesthetic I’m going for, almost like when producers use samples to make electronic music. I get someone in one day and then six months later I’m able to get the other people in to finish the songs. The patchwork is a fun way for me to work when it’s my own project. At the end of the day, I have to put Sun Cop on hold if I have other clients because it doesn’t pay. Obviously, I wish it did, but right now it’s just something I love to do. Record engineering is where my money comes in and that brings me joy too so I don’t mind.
Also as a musician, in an interview with the Tribune, you said you prefer to live in the moment when writing music, which at the time of the interview was politics. What would you say is the moment you are living in now and why?
We are still in this horrifying dream that we can’t wake up from. It genuinely feels like everyday of American politics that goes by it gets weirder and more like a David Lynch movie. The other day when Trump bought fast food burgers for the Clemson football team and served them on silver platters while smiling in front of a picture of Abraham Lincoln is just bizarre. It is baffling and people say all the time now that simulation has long since broken and it really feels like that. I am almost done with the record that I started to write around the time of the Tribune interview and that is still what’s it is about. I’m proud of the record, but it definitely wasn’t therapeutic and didn’t make me feel better about the current state of the world. One of the most terrifying things Trump has is rolling back all policies that help with climate change. There are a lot of questions like, “am I going to die drowning in 20 years?” on this album. Writing about those concepts doesn’t make me feel better because I truly don’t know the answer.
You have helped Twin Peaks with their past 3 albums Sweet ‘17 Singles, Down in Heaven, and Wild Onion. How does the process for a recording engineer change as the band becomes more experienced album to album?
I have gotten more experience along with them. The first album I worked on with Twin Peaks was Wild Onion. I think I was the only person they knew that was at the time pretending to be a recording engineer. I had lived at this DIY spot called Feeltrip. They had played there a few times when they were only 17 years old and had just recorded their own first album Sunken. They liked the work I had done and they hired me to make their new album. We recorded out of The Observatory (now called Decade), which is a professional studio, and I did stuff that record that I learned I will never do again. Working in a professional studio like that when starting out, gets you so excited by all the equipment you have access to so I went a little overboard with things. When it was time to record the next album, Down in Heaven, like I mentioned before it was a very minimalist set up in the living room of a home with all the equipment we could afford to buy. I would say that album is when I learned to do a good job because we had limited equipment that I could work with and no room to cover up mistakes. There is a skill to being a studio musician and one thing Twin Peaks has mastered is the discipline of being prepared and also not getting frustrated by the process. You are doing take after take after take after take and if you can get in the mode of “I like doing this crazy annoying tedious thing” and just let yourself have fun with it then the process will run a lot smoother for the band and the recording engineer.
Outside of the Chicago scene, you produced and mixed for Calpurnia (which features Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things) on their EP Scout and recently were in Canada helping them with new music. How did you get involved with the Canadian indie rock band and how has it been working with younger musicians?
Finn Wolfhard, the lead singer of Calpurnia, is a Twin Peaks super fan. All the kids are big fans, but Finn is kind of obsessed. As far as I know, his Stranger Things co-star Joe Keery, who knows a lot of us in the Chicago rock scene from his time playing for Post-Animal, gave Finn Cadien’s number at some point. They were talking for a while and when Calpurnia’s label was asking about who might produce their debut, Cadien was at the top of the list. I was brought in to help with the engineering.
Musically speaking, I’m always very impressed and proud of them. They sound a lot better than I remember my bands sounding when I was their age. Ayla, in particular, is probably the best guitarist I’ve ever worked with.
Working with kids is definitely interesting. Even on bigger records that I’ve worked on, when it’s adults they just show up and they are normally late and no one cares. It is a musician thing. No one starts before noon and everyone just fends for themselves when it comes to food. When you have four crazy teenagers bouncing around your studio you have to figure all that stuff out. The kids were always in the studio by 10am and we had to plan for catered lunches and such. The dynamics were very different. But ultimately it was an amazing experience, sort of like being a camp counselor or something. The night Cadien and I finished that EP we were both genuinely sad to see the kids go, so it was so much fun to hang out with them again in Vancouver.
How important is it to you to make artist’s music match the same sound they have during a live performance and why?
It is not something I think about much. Usually, people are trying to do it the other way. They are thinking about the record as the definitive piece and how most people will experience their music. All the focus goes into making the recording the best it can be and then when taking the song live they try to recreate it as similar to the recording as possible. I don’t necessarily want a band to sound exactly like they would in front of a live audience except on a tightness level.
As you look back over the years, what has been that one studio session that you will never forget?
When Twin Peaks and I were in Massachusetts to record we were able to collaborate with Juan Wauters. He is an amazing artist that we were all obsessed with at the time and Juan happened to know a mutual friend. One day Juan came to hang with all of us and Cadien had written a song called “Backdoor” that was basically written for Juan in hopes that one day if the band ever met him they would be able to record it together. After hanging out the whole day the band was nervous to ask him, but when they finally gathered the courage, he was more than happy to. It was such a gorgeous and surreal moment. After recording the song, it was pitch black out and we went to hang by the lake. Juan was strumming his guitar and we asked him to play his songs “Water” and “Woodside, Queens.” It was one of those rare moments in life where everything just works out and I will never forget it.
Written by: Colleen Kennedy
Header Photo: Daniel Topete