Producer Jon O'Brien's portfolio is busting at the seams, having produced and engineered OC's most prominent indie acts, from Nicole Vaughn and Her Lovely Band, Moostache, Parker Macy, The Gromble, to Young the Giant. Working out of his home studio in Irvine, Jon O'Brien Recording is quickly becoming the go-to studio for local musicians.
OC Weekly: What is the definition of producer/engineer to you personally?
Jon O'Brien: I think a good producer should be able to take any song or idea and visualize what the final recording should sound and feel like. Should the song have 50 layers, or should it have two? Should it feel live and loose or should it feel tight/punchy? Once the producer has made that decision, it's his job to start directing and building all the layers from the ground up, which will eventually morph into the record that the public will hear. The engineer on the other hand is responsible for the tone and timbre of every piece of that puzzle. The engineer is knob turner/gear nerd that takes the producer's vision and makes it a reality.
How did you get into music production? Was this something that you had always wanted to do, or did it just kind of fall into your lap?
I've been intro recording for as long as I've been playing music. I remember being 14 and convincing the guitarist in my band to buy a 2-track tape recorder. We then took the mic from my purple radio shack karaoke boombox and proceeded to record demos. I made a ton of stupid mistakes, like plugging tube amps directly into the 2-track, which in hindsight could have completely fried the amp's transformer. I started recording friends punk bands. I had no concept of overdubbing, so everything was just live, recorded with one mic, and sounded like total shit. At some point I bought more mics and a recording interface for my computer and started charging a tiny bit to record bands, but stopped shortly after high school when I moved to Boston to go to school.
Describe your first recording gig. Did the outcome of this first gig inspire you to do what you are doing today?
I'd say my first real recording gig was probably recording [the band now known as Young the Giant] The Jakes' first EP when I was a senior in high school. We set up at their old bassist's house to do drums, moved to Jake's house to do guitars, and finished all the vocals and overdubs at my house. It actually went very smoothly and was the first recording of mine to get hard copies printed. I think that was pretty cool for me to see. I love having something to hold in my hands that encapsulates all the hard work/good times/bad times that went into making it.
It wasn't till a couple years later that I wrote some songs of my own and flew to Kansas to work with producer, Ed Rose. I spent a week there recording and learning from Ed Rose. While I was there I was lucky enough to have Ryan Pope (The Get Up Kids), Patrick Carrie (Limbeck), and Ben Kweller play on my record. It was my first time working with such a knowledgeable and fun group of musicians and my first time being in a real recording studio. I came back extremely inspired to become a producer and make it my career. That was three years ago.
What sets Jon O'Brien Recording apart from other studios in this area?
For the past two years I have been recording primarily out of my home studio. I'd say 90 percent of what most people hear that I've produced was recorded in my living room/bedroom. I have an extremely supportive family that has left the house for the day probably hundreds of times now so I can record bands. This June I will be moving into a 1500 square foot space to build my new studio. All this time that I have spent recording out of my house has allowed me to accumulate all the gear/experience/clients and credibility needed to create a successful recording business. I think what sets my studio apart from others around here is my love for vintage gear and inspiring instruments for people to play with.
What is the one piece of equipment that you could never live without in the studio?
Lately, I would have to say my vintage Roland RE-301 Analog Tape Delay and Reverb unit. The motor on the thing is extremely squeaky and the tape is really old so the repeats on the delay are really unpredictable and get super warbly/vibey. I tend to run about 40 percent of my tracks through that while mixing to create space and to vibe out boring or cheesy tones.
Name your favorite genre that you like to work with, and a genre that you wouldn't touch with a 10 foot pole.
I have no desire to record a reggae band or a metal band. Just like any band needs to develop their sound and character, I have to do the same as a producer. Last year I was recording a lot of Americana and folky bands like Yellow Red Sparks and Nicole Vaughn. This year I've been attracted to bands with some sort of spastic young energy. I remember being in bands in high school and yelling at the top of my lungs. We were willing to try anything and didn't even know when something didn't make sense. The first band I found with this energy is Moostache.
What project that you are currently working on are you super excited about?
Moostache. We are the perfect match in the studio. I love Patrick's energy and ability to never write a bad song. Every song has great melodies, interesting lyrics, and a cool attitude. We have been working on a full-length for the past couple of months. There will be 11-12 songs on it. Almost all the drum and bass tracks were done live, without a click and without a single edit from start to finish. Its such a pleasure working with great musicians like that. It lets us focus on the creative aspects of the record, rather than editing drums and bass for hours on end. It's definitely the most energetic album I've ever produced and I feel like we did an incredible job capturing the current vibe of the band while at the same time trying some new stuff to push the band forward.
If you were nominated for an OCMA for Best Producer in Orange County, how would you feel? Do you think they should start recognizing the behind the scenes talents that go into making a record at the Orange County Music Awards?
I did not attend the OCMAs. I wasn't invited. A lot of people talk crap about the OC Music Awards but I love how it brings all the local musicians into the same room at least once a year. I go to the showcases just to catch up with people I haven't seen in a while, not so much to watch the bands. On the other hand, the fact that The Gromble didn't move onto best live show finals and that Moostache wasn't even asked to be a part of it kinda blew my mind this year. But you know what, both of those bands are gonna come out with amazing records this year, and they will both do just fine without the OCMA buzz. As far as the producer award goes, I think that's only fair. There are a handful of great producers in OC that usually have worked with at least a couple of the bands nominated. It would be nice to be acknowledged and benefit from the OC Music Awards audience.
What was it like working with OCMA winners, Young the Giant?
I've been really close with those guys for a long time. I recorded their pre-production demos for their full-length on Roadrunner. I think those sessions produced the first recording of “My Body” ever. I've filled in on bass for them a handful of times and played a couple shows on keys with them last year while I was their tour manager. Those guys are like brothers to me and I'm so unbelievably happy for them. They are truly a talented group of musicians and deserve every ounce of what they have today. I always felt that there was something special there and I still get that feeling when I see some of the local bands. It's that goosebumps thing.
Who are your mentors in the business? What would you ask him/her if you had the opportunity to sit down with him/her for a cup of coffee?
A producer that I really look up to is Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Man Man, Rachel Yamagata, M. Ward, Rilo Kiley). Every single one of his records sound so true to the artist yet have a tiny hint of his touch. I really respect that sort of this and try to incorporate that sort of thing into my productions. If I could sit down for coffee with him, I'd get down on my knees and beg him to let me intern for him. I love learning from people in the studio. I've found its the best way for me to learn new tricks and actually retain the information given to me.
Who would you ultimately love to work with on a project if you could work with anyone of your choosing?
Spoon. Those guys have THE COOLEST sounding records ever. It blows me away every time I listen to them. I tend to style my drum sounds after what I hear on their records. Their ability to have the discipline to have sparse arrangements with perfectly vibey performances and tones is something I strive to achieve some day.
What can we expect from you in the future? What is it that you want to bring to the table in this business?
I'm going to be doing this for a long time. I'm just going to keep working on the best records I possibly can until one of these bands breaks and takes both our names to the next level. Its a constant learning experience and thats what makes it so fun. Every single project is a huge challenge for me. It's never easy and I never want it to be. If a producer thinks his job is easy, he must be extremely boring to work with and all his recordings must sound exactly the same.
If you could relay one message to the masses about what you do, what would you say? What would you want them to know about music production?
I'd want them to know how important the producers role was in those records that they listen to everyday. I'd want them to know how different those same songs could have been if a different producer was hired to make the record.
Do you have any advice for aspiring producers?
Do internships. Not the kind where you have to scrub the toilet but the kind where someone is willing to treat you with respect and teach you what they have learned through years of experience. I can't stress how crucial this has been for me. I've assisted for Raymond Richards (Local Natives) and Chad Copelin (Blackwatch Studios in Norman, OK) and both were such good experiences.
Check out Jon O'Brien Recording: https://www.facebook.com/jonobrienrecording