by Ryan Meehan
As the man who maintains the day-to-day recording sessions at Daytrotter’s Rock Island homebase recording facility, Mike Gentry has heard a wide variety of musical stylings as that establishment’s Chief Audio Engineer over the past seven years. Mike honed his audio polishing skills at the word-famous Conservatory of Recording Arts & Sciences beginning at the turn of the century, dexterity that has proved to benefit all that have the pleasure of doing sessions at the Horseshack. Daytrotter’s setup is very unique in the sense that all of the recordings are mixed live to two-track, meaning that Mike doesn’t use multi-track software or do any overdubs. Everything including the vocals are cut as a live performance, and he records and masters anywhere from between thirty to fifty bands every month of the year which has amounted to over three thousand sessions. From time to time Daytrotter does field recordings at festivals such as SXSW, Noise Pop, and Gentleman of the Road. They’ve constructed a new recording facility across the river in Davenport, Iowa that was acoustically designed by George Augspurger and electrically by Soren Wittrup. This state of the art facility will include a recording studio and a venue all within the same building, and that’s just one reason why Daytrotter has become so important to the Quad Cities and the artists travelling through the greater QC metropolitan area. I am excited to have my close personal friend and Horseshack Chief Audio Engineer Mike Gentry of Daytrotter as the subject of today’s artist profile.
RM: For those reading this who might not be familiar with Daytrotter, what is the central focus of that organization and what is your role within its core? What other contributions outside of that defined role do you make at or outside of work in order to strengthen Daytrotter as a brand?
MG: I think the central focus would be to provide music consumers with music. Sometimes the music is just an artist playing what you already know, and sometimes they play the songs just like they would at a show. But I think the best part about Daytrotter is how a majority of our sessions are unique in that “big” and “small “bands will come up to our studio and use our interesting collection of instruments to play the songs different, play covers, or collaborate with other artists. We have a cool selection of vintage amps and keyboards that most bands don’t have or tour with, so most people kind of geek out and have lots of fun. Even bigger artists will come up to our hole in the wall studio and really let their guard down. One of my favorite sessions I’ve done was with an artist named Raphael Saadiq…an amazing artist. He has been around since who knows how long, and was part of the 90’s R&B group Tony! Toni! Tone! Anyway, he’s on a big tour bus and it’s early in the morning, like 9am. His tour manager comes up to check the place out. I could tell he was a little worried about what he saw, because we’re pretty redneck/McGyver up there. There’s no AC or Heat, so it’s kind of a dump but in a charming way. So the manager goes downstairs and tells me it just going to be an acoustic set, just one guitar and Raphael Saadiq on vocals. Then he goes and gets Raphael. Raphael comes up and just geeks the fuck out. He does this awesome old school Motown thing with his band, and does it amazingly well. I love him. So he geeks out because our place looks like a Motown studio. He sends the manager back to the bus and makes everyone get up to come upstairs and play on our gear in our studio. They fucking killed it. That’s what we offer the music consumer. No other music outlet will give you that. That feeling he had there was his to own and he gave it to us. He didn’t have to do what he did. I’m honored and humbled. That was fucking awesome. In short people get to do many things here: Either geek out, let their hair down, or get loose and wild with their songs. It’s pretty neat. We record it and offer it to the music loving world. Now, the other side of it is; we record a lot of bands that exist, like an archive, that would never get the opportunity to be heard on a platform which reaches people like we do. So often times I feel like an archivist of a portion of music. I know its a small portion of all the music being made today, but still it’s a lot and it’s all there. Sean Moeller of Daytrotter really has made a name by recording bands he likes before they get big. So we are a music discovery website. I hear from a lot of bands that many websites which copy what we do provide really unpleasant experiences, like going to a doctor’s office or something. I take pride in that because I like providing a great experience.
RM: What do we need to know about Sean Moeller? How did the concept of “Moeller Mondays” originate; and how does Sean go about selecting the artists that perform at Rozz-Tox for those events?
MG: Honestly, I’ll have to just make my best educated guess on some of this…I will have worked for Sean now for seven years as of August of 2015. He is a great music man, and honestly never wants to make any deals with a band that are unethical and I mean that. He just wants everyone to win. Now, sometimes he may do some things that make me go like “What?” but I know it’s not something done out of evil. He is a great dude, and here’s how he started all of this. There is a building that was owned by WHBF in Rock Island that was a radio extension of the TV station they run. As far as I can tell. Who knows how old it is, but it’s old. AM and FM, country music, top 40, talk radio…just everything over the years. I would love to know more actually, it’s funny how history like that just gets lost. Anyway, this top floor of this building was “dressed” out as a radio studio and it had been abandoned since the 90’s. So this fella named Pat Stolley who is pretty savvy finds it and rents it out for dirt cheap. Like $150 a month or something silly like that. This place is built like an old radio station: It has two live rooms that are pretty big, as well as a control room. If you look at radio stations today they are the size of a closet. So he puts his bedroom studio in there. No heat, no air conditioning, no hot water, just a dirty shell of a radio station. Mind you, the TV station is right next door through a wall, so loud music can not be made on our side when they broadcast their news production. (8am, 5pm, and 10pm) Those are total dead times for us. So Pat is up there doing his thing, and Sean comes in to record a cheap demo of his band in 2005 and was like,”I have an idea”. Sean was a staff writer at the Quad City Times, Pat was proprietor of a painting business, and Johnnie was working at Music-Go-Round. Basically they just start doing what we do now one at a time. They record a few bands that end up getting big, and next thing you know people are paying attention and they start to become the institution it has become to a certain sector of the music scene. So 2.5 years into it I’m sitting in the control room on that green bench while Pat is doing a Daytrotter session and he whips his head around as says “Today is my last day”, and I said “Well, ain’t that something. I just walked off my last two jobs in six months and I’m surviving on freelancing as a sound engineer”. Two weeks later I was the Daytrotter engineer. That was seven years and over three thousand recordings ago.
As for Moeller Mondays, I think it’s just clever. Mondays work in this town because most bands need to play Chicago or Minneapolis on Fridays and Saturdays, whereas we’re just a small market. The shows usually start and end early, and are not more than two artists. He brings in surprise artists that would normally only be seen in bigger markets, so they are pretty special shows for the music lover. Usually they are friends of Sean’s…people he has made relationships with over the last ten years.
RM: Other than yourself and Sean, who are some of the other power players on the Daytrotter team that have been crucial to the ongoing success of this institution?
MG: Well, Johnnie is a founding member. His art is a big part of who Daytrotter is, so that must be said. Most bands always ask about his art and want to know if they get his visual treatment, so it’s a big part of what we do. We have a parent company that bought in 6 months before I started with Daytrotter so about 7.5 years now. That would be Bill Sagan who owns Wolfgang’s Vault and Paste Magazine, among other things. They have a team that cares for the website, and they instituted the membership model as we were a free service for many years.
RM: How does Daytrotter come in contact with the artists that will be travelling through this geographical region? Of those artists who eventually come in to do sessions with you, what percentage of them would you say contacted Daytrotter because they are familiar with its location and what you guys do within the independent music community?
MG: Well, again I have to guess because I’m just the audio guy. But some bands contact Sean, and some bands he for sure contacts them. Some bands drive here from the other side of the continent just to do this, and most bands are on tour already and are in the area going down I-80. Some bands make tours around coming to us, and some artists fly in just for a Daytrotter session. There are times where its hard not to feel guilty about the artists’ situation. Because of what we do and how we do it, bands only have usually between two to three hours to load in, set up, record and tear down. They book these sessions two hours apart so if I have a band at 10am, most of the times I have a band at 12pm and 2pm as well. So if a band comes all the way from Texas or New York, and I have to say “Sorry, I have another two bands after you and they have to be in another town for a show”…You only get your two hours. Most sessions work out great, but if we record thirty to fifty sessions every month an artist is bound to run into traffic or some other error that creates time limitations beyond our schedule.
We get bands that have dreamed of coming in, and we get bands that are excited to be here who know about us. We get bands that are just doing the normal publicity circuit, and we get bands that don’t know a thing about us. A lot of the bands are super excited to be here and just want to have fun. It’s usually a very fun experience and we make a lot of friends, big and small.
RM: After a session is completed, what steps need to be taken next before the artist’s recording is available to the listening public?
MG: The sessions need to be mastered and edited. I do that “in the box”.
RM: What are some of the inherent reasons behind mixing to two track as opposed to at least having multi-track versions of the sessions available for future editing purposes? Does the increased sense of urgency have anything to do with capturing the magic of that particular moment in the band’s existence, or is it because you want the sessions to have more of a natural feel to them as opposed to being “ProTooled” to death?
MG: That’s how it’s always been at Daytrotter. I think there are a few good reasons they started this way…One is that capturing the artist as a performance is nostalgic. It also keeps a limitation on the process which creates its own vibe that than translates to the recordings. The other side is that if we had multi-tracks of thirty to fifty sessions every month it would be an endless process…everyone would want to change everything forever. The process really is a purification of a recording of a band. It really separates the boys from the men, so to speak. I don’t care what style of music you play if you can make this situation sound good, then that’s saying something about a band. Not to say I don’t have bad days too but all in all I record bands every day in this room with the same gear, and some days it sounds amazing and some days it just is what it is. It’s a very fun process.
RM: I guess the reason I ask that is because when you give a musician or a group of musicians a preliminary mixdown of their work, they almost always come back shortly thereafter and say that something is either too loud or too quiet…Do you find that even though the artists understand the two-track setup is part of the deal they still come back into the control room after a couple of takes and request to do it over simply because the levels aren’t quite where they want them to be?
MG: We do practice runs until we get it. Some people don’t realize what 2-track means because after you tell them and they come in to listen they have a moment of “Oh wait, what?”
RM: How many bands that can be classified as EDM (Electronic Dance Music) would you say you’ve recorded during your time at Daytrotter? Do you manage those sessions any differently considering a majority of the content is coming through a wire as opposed to a set of microphones?
MG: We don’t do a lot of these, but we have done some. I guess one of the reasons is that these artists don’t tour like bands do, all-in-all. We don’t have anything against it, it’s just that some styles come in less than others. Part of it is just the natural lineage of where Sean’s head was when he started asking bands to come in, I guess. EDM tends to be just one guy on his computer, but not always. So a lot of times – same with hip-hop – it’s just a stereo DI and some vocal mics. Sometimes they want to try different things like pumping a PA and recording the room.
RM: Is there any one style of music that is typically more difficult to record using this format? If so, what do you usually have to do in order to make the mix sound cleaner and less crowded?
MG: I think that style has less to do with clear mixes than composition and performance. Think about a speed metal band that’s good…they are loud as hell and play fast. They can sound clean. You could have a solo act and not sound clear, and I really believe that. One of the styles that usually get me are ones that have tons of musicians playing what feels like eighty thousand instruments. It can be done for sure, but if you can’t play it then it will show. I like simple. Sometimes the whole “everything plus the kitchen sink” thing seems gimmicky.
RM: Why do you think that so many people are so dead-behind the eyes when it comes to selecting the entertainment they consume? How does Daytrotter directly – or indirectly – do their part in breaking up the monotony of music consumers continuing to purchase the same tunes they continue to buy year after tireless year?
MG: Big question bro…You’re getting all metaphysical on this one. I think the government is to blame. When I say government, I mean the apparatus of bureaucracy that is. It’s a tool for anyone who has the money to buy its service. The state’s service is a monopoly. So big record labels and entertainment companies have bought the rights to use the monopoly that government is to limit our choices. Radio and TV? Soon to be internet…. Who was the Nazi guy that said, “If you keeping saying the same lie over and over again people will eventually believe it”? So people who are in bed with the monopoly government apparatus have been playing us over and over again what they want to sell, and then it needs to make records that sell so they make more. Long story short, I don’t know but I hate the state.
RM: I understand that recently you got your hands on some new reference monitors…Which set did you get; and what advantages do those speakers give you over the ones that you were previously using in the control room?
MG: I did. I got the JBL SRL4300 4832P. After fifteen years of doing sound and audio its my first “pro” speaker. The clarity, depth and bandwidth is night and day. I used hi-fi speakers for years and years. You have to use what you have for sure.
Some great fucking records have probably been made on speakers that are not considered “monitors”. In fact, I hate that idea. A speaker is a speaker…going from bad to good on a spectrum of choice. If you can afford the best, you’ll pay $40,000 for a set. But the idea that a studio monitor does something different other than be good is silly. I could be wrong but I’ve never read a data sheet that said the studio speaker does anything different than be really good at being a speaker. That being said, my JBL speakers which cost about $1,400 are pretty modest compared to what’s available to spend out there are night and day compared to my last pair which cost me $350 bucks in 2003…My mom would be able to hear the difference. Just spend what you can and deal with it.
RM: What can you tell us about your own musical project that you are currently working on at the moment? Who is involved with that undertaking; and how would you best describe the way that project sounds?
MG: Awesome! I play pedal steel guitar and fill in for my buddy’s honky-tonk cover band. We play old standards from the 60’s and 70’s. I love it…Old country makes me smile like kid on Christmas. I also have a band of guys playing my songs called the “Shit Eating Grins”. My girlfirend can’t always see where I’m coming from, but I like to think we are a cross of styles from somewhere between Ratt and Ministry. Good old heavy guitar rock with no gimmicks. I also make electronic music and hip-hopish beats. I like good music. No stylistic limits except new country and new rap, I hate that shit. I would love to have 5five bands. One Country, one rap. one metal, one Motown, one blues, experimental noise and more! The “Shit Eating Grins” consists of Ray Malone on drums, Nick Eyre on bass, Todd Robert on guitar, Mike Gentry on guitar, and Jason Hamilton on vocals.
RM: Since you are a musician, when you are listening to an artist during a session how do you go about separating the part of your brain that says “If I was on the other side of that window, I would do this differently” from the fact that you have a job to do? In other words, how often do you have to remind yourself that your role is to be an engineer as opposed to being a producer? Is that a conscious decision that you find you have to make each day; or are you at the point where you’ve been doing this for so long that you don’t even think about it anymore?
MG: You just have to separate yourself, it’s a job. I usually have two hours with these people, and have another one chomping at the bit. We are not cutting a record at Daytrotter, we are capturing a moment. That being said, if someone is struggling I’ll sometimes offer advice if they ask for it. I’m no expert, so what I want and what they aim for can be so far removed. So I try and respect the artist and offer help when it seems fitting.
RM: If you had to the opportunity to pick one artist to do an eight-hour session at the Horseshack, who would it be and why? How would you go about approaching that session so that the finished product ended up being reflective of the reason you brought that artist in to begin with?
MG: Ministry with Both Al Jourgenson and Paul Barker, because they are my production idols. They were The Beatles of dark heavy pop music, and I love The Beatles. Ministry was so deep and smart and broke so much ground, that even today the music world has yet to realize the magnitude of their genius. I would ask Al and Paul to produce one of my songs or a record and let them go crazy. I would just soak up the wisdom. Pure genius in the most literal sense. They engineered and produced Ministry albums themselves in their own studio. Again, they are the Beatles of heavy pop music.
RM: If this weren’t the middle of July and New Year’s Day was approaching, what professional “resolutions” would you make that would ultimately result in you becoming a better engineer?
MG: I would love to go apprentice under an old school engineer, that is something of a dream of mine. To go work under a master of craft. I still have so much to learn.
RM: How does an individual go about acquiring a subscription to Daytrotter? Is there a mobile app for those of us who don’t have a home computer so that we can stream sessions on our cellular textiphoning instatwitter devices?
MG: Well, if you live in the QC email Sean at firstname.lastname@example.org your email address and phone number and he will sign you up for free. Otherwise, if you go to the website you can sign up and for $32 a year you get over 700 new band sessions a year plus an archive of over 5000 sessions that you can stream or download. We have special videos of events that we put on. We do have an app so you can stream from your phone. Plus you will get special offers on vinyl releases that we produce and concerts we put on.
RM: What’s up next for Daytrotter in the remainder of 2015 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
MG: We’re about to move into a new building we built that has a new studio and a venue on the same location. The venue will be really cool, and it should make for some really neat shows for the Quad City Area.
Official Website: http://www.daytrotter.com/
Daytrotter on Twitter: https://twitter.com/daytrotter
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