TAPE OP, Sep/Oct 201 – by Olivia Oyama
If you spend some time around Trey Spruance, it’s not uncommon to hear him expounding on Islamic theologians, geopolitics or holes in the Big Bang Theory. Yet Trey is better known not for his encyclopedic abilities, but for his former band Mr. Bungle and current project Secret Chiefs 3.
Trey’s most under-appreciated talent, however, is his masterful engineering ability. He started recording by tracking his high school band, Mr. Bungle, on a Tascam Porta One 4-track cassette recorder. When they were signed to Warner Bros. Records, Trey seized the opportunity to learn as much he could. He befriended engineer Billy Anderson [Tape Op #33], who taught him the ins and outs of studio recording. By Mr. Bungle’s third record, they were linking three 24-track, 2-inch tape machines and two ADAT machines together to accommodate their ever-expanding orchestrations. At the same time, Trey had been tracking his other project, Secret Chiefs 3, in Bungle’s rehearsal space. While Secret Chiefs 3 share Mr. Bungle’s extensive orchestration and track density, they didn’t have the same extensive recording budgets. This forced Trey to develop creative solutions to realize his musical visions in his home studio. Many records later, he has cultivated a set of surprisingly original techniques for getting the most out of home-recording and professional studios.
I’ve heard that you really pushed some crazy limits of the studio with Mr. Bungle.
Our track sheets became these skyscrapers. It was a group effort of everyone — I was essentially keeping track of what was possible. Billy [Anderson] was saying, “If it’s possible, let’s do it.” He’s very intuitive about stuff, like setting an [Universal Audio] LA-2A, for instance, he will literally put an [AKG] C 12 in the room, it’s all the way on, completely crushed, or maybe we’ll back off a little bit, but that’s what we’re using it for. Why use the LA-2A to do half of what you wanted to do? Use it to do all of what you wanted it to do and then back off if you need to. [laughing] I really, really appreciate that approach. It’s milking every unit for what it’s worth. It worked for us because we were very careful about what the tone should be. No one in Mr. Bungle knew enough technically, but we’ll fuck with it until it’s right. Between Billy’s more cavalier intuitive approach, me becoming more and more tech meticulous and the band scrutinizing everything really carefully, it’s a good mix. This is when I started planning out for panning, permanent panning locations. Same idea as starting with your faders flat. I started developing this thing of making stereo pairs and then on input having things be in their panning orientation. In other words, let’s say you have a percussion track, and you know you want it to be at 10 o’clock, and you have two channels set aside for percussion and other random things and there’s nothing going on at that point. Then on input, you take that percussion track and put it in there on two channels at 10 o’clock. You never have to touch the panning knob. It’s going to mix itself from that point forward. Panning location and its gain. A guitar or something similar should be exactly opposite at 2 o’clock. So they live in those panning locations forever. And then you have these nice pairs that you can send to your outboard gear when you mix, in pairs.
But then you changed your approach with Book M.
Well, sort of. I got a PC laptop. A Quantex, 10 gig, black monster that had a PCMCIA slot and Samplitude 3. I found a Korean company called Ego-Sys, that at the time was creating this thing called a WaMi Box — this breakout box that had S/PDIF in on it, which enabled me to hook it into my HHB Portadat, which had really good preamps. The chain was crazy: [AKG] C 414s into my Telefunken V72s, into the HHB DAT, engage the record head and then run the S/PDIF into the WaMi Box and into the laptop. And this was a portable setup. I took it with me on tour with Mr. Bungle and recorded a lot… [+]