Paul Smith cut his teeth mixing front-of-the-house sound for the holy trinity of Philly clubs: The Theater of the Living Arts, The Trocadero (RIP), and the Electric Factory. He has fiddled the faders for everyone from Guided by Voices, The White Stripes, Fantômas, Stiff Little Fingers, and The Misfits (featuring Sir Marky Ramone on drums), to Gillian Welch, Levon Helm, Teddy Pendergrass, and Run-D.M.C.
At Sigma Sound, he was assistant engineer on the Root’s albums Illadelph Halflife and Do You Want More?!!!??!, along with the Gatemouth Brown album Long Way Home featuring some British guitar player named Eric Clapton. After finally getting in the captain’s seat, Paul produced, recorded, and mixed Marah’s Let’s Cut the Crap, and Kids in Philly, and tracked basics on Steve Earle’s Transcendental Blues at Frank’s Auto. In 2003, he co-founded South Philly’s 1935 Studios with Peter Rydberg
Did you get to interact with Eric Clapton during his Sigma session? Or was it all business, a quick in-and-out?
The Eric Clapton session was one afternoon. Being in the same room with him was a very surreal experience. I grew up listening to his recordings. The guitar case his tech brought in was stenciled ‘Cream’ and contained the red Gibson 335 that you see in those pictures. His amp was whisper-quiet when idling. Though it was only a few hours, it happened and is a highlight for me.
You recorded both Marah albums on just seven tracks, but they sound like they were recorded at a fancy spot like Sound City. Do you think you could have done a better job in a high-end studio or did the limited gear keep you hungry and force you to focus?
Thank you for the compliment. I think that the limitations definitely helped make me stronger. I did not have much at my disposal to work with. And I had to keep thinking several steps ahead all the time. It was really good for me. Recording in the conditions we had, while not ideal- a second-floor storage room above an auto body shop- enabled us to spend time on stuff that wouldn’t have been possible at a pro studio where time is money.
Good mics and gear only expose what stuff sounds like- a true “it is what it is” situation. It doesn’t necessarily make musicians sound better.
The acoustic guitars on the track “Fever” sound amazing. Do you remember what treatment was used on them?
Flattery will get you everywhere! I don’t remember the exact channel path, but I had a Rode NT-2, a couple Audio-Technica 4051’s. No Neumanns or AKGs, etc. Plus, a 2 channel DBX 760 mic pre, cheap compressors, and an Alesis Quadraverb.
So, a combination of those elements helped get the sound to tape. We had a Tascam 38 8-track recorder and track 5 wouldn’t switch to the sync head, so that became our tape echo. The Let’s Cut the Crap album was mixed through the tape return section of an eight channel Soundcraft 200B to a Sony DAT machine. The rest of the mixer didn’t work.
I know a lot of bands need an extra van, just for their egos. Who was the nicest group you have worked live sound for?
As crazy as it may seem- pun intended- Insane Clown Posse were really nice people to work with: self-contained, knew what they were doing, and were easy to get along with.
While there are plenty of jerks out there and plenty of good reasons for someone showing up with a “mad-on”, especially on tour just grinding it out, the nicest people are the ones who have been around for a while, are self-assured, like what they do, and know where they are in the big picture.
The most difficult people are usually the new ones who may have just had a little success and now expect the red carpet to be rolled out any place they step. Those types and the other folks on the backside of their time in the biz can be a handful, especially when sales are low.
Recording-wise it’s similar. Those who are prepared and know what they want to accomplish are easiest to work with.
Steve Earle’s Transcendental Blues title track has the drums hard panned in the left speaker, like a lot of early 60’s stereo recordings. What inspired that retro move?
Steve Earle was going through a Beatles Revolver-era production love affair at the time.
What is the fastest way to get on a live engineer’s shit list?
When a musician think’s that the sound person is on site to sabotage their sound on purpose.
‘Does it sound good out there?’ is a question only asked by amateurs. The way a band sounds is a multi-faceted result. It is never down to one person turning knobs. If musicians aren’t in tune, can’t play as an ensemble while listening to each other, don’t have a sense of dynamics, or can’t balance themselves before sound reinforcement equipment is put in front of their gear, then placing a mic in front of an amp, drum, or mouth won’t improve anything. All that stuff has to be worked out before they enter a club or studio. All part of payin’ your dues.
Why do you think Dave Lombardo (Slayer/Fantômas/Misfits) tried to take you on the road with him, before the budget for a touring engineer went away?
Dave Lombardo liked the fact that I didn’t use any processing other than some EQ while I was running monitors for him at the Fantômas performance at the TLA.
The trickiest instrument to track besides the human voice is the drums. Do you have any pro tips? Do you close-mic the drums, or give them space like Led Zeppelin engineer Glyn Johns did?
I try for a less is more concept when micing a drum kit. Too many mics can cause phase issues. I like to get a good close sound on a kit first then add some mics for ambience. If there is a solid close sound and a good ambient sound going to the recorder when it comes time to mix, then you have a variety of sounds at your disposal to add color, and you have the ability to change depth. I never like using the same sound throughout a long project like an album, because it gets dull for me.
That said, a good close dry drum sound will go further than a roomy-er thing. As I have stated earlier, the instrument, it’s tuning, the way it’s played, and what is being played is of greater importance than the number of mics on a kit. I’ve used only a single mic at times, like with the Steve Earle sessions, and got something really nice.
Simpler parts that support the song and aren’t cluttered w/cymbals and elaborate tom fills usually sound best. There are a few things that I like to try to include before tracking begins:
1.) placing cotton balls inside a tom to reduce unwanted sustained ringing
2.) wiring a speaker to act as a mic to enhance the low-end of a kick drum
3.) placing a center cut-out snare head on the snare drum’s regular head, to reduce ring and to drop pitch is also a good thing to try.
How do you keep a good vibe going in the studio? Do you think every engineer plays amateur therapist, or do you just mind your knobs and let them duke it out?
It requires intuition to know when to push and pull and maintain a good vibe in the studio. One thing that determines a healthy mindset is keeping an achievable goal in mind. When time is money and people are trying to record twenty songs in ten hours with a full band, etc., good times just ain’t gonna happen.
Playing small-ball instead of reeling in the big fish usually yields a good vibe. Walking away from a session with one, two, or even three great basic tracks in a single eight to ten-hour session is plenty to be happy and proud of. Walking away from a long day of trying to accomplish too much will sour attitudes quickly. Make an EP instead of an LP and put your best songs on it. You can always record them later if and when you get a big budget, and really turn it out.
What skills from live sound did you bring to the recording studio?
I found it to be a great learning experience to get involved in live sound especially the hot seat- monitors. You will learn so much. For example, how to hear frequencies, how to use an equalizer effectively, what instruments sound like in a room, face-to-face interactions with musicians, all this you can apply to the recording situation.
I can’t say that the other way around is true. I haven’t applied recording techniques to live sound reinforcement.
What high end microphones have tickled your ear drums?
The AKG C12 is fantastic. The only mic that I’ve ever used that made the speakers seem to go away when listening back in the control room to what was captured, as if the source was right in front of you.
Living or dead, who would make up your fantasy rhythm section in the Paul Smith Family All Starr Band?
I haven’t given much thought to the ideal section of players. To my way of thinking, what makes a music ensemble successful is the sum being greater than the parts. Your best musicians don’t always make the best music. Sometimes the people with the most chops are playing parts designed to highlight their technical skill, and not serving the music in any meaningful way.
With today’s technology, is recording to analog tape just fickle, fairy dust?
Analog tape machines are unfortunately near impossible to maintain anymore. Parts are scarce as are the qualified people to work on any given machine. Those classic machines are now money pits. That stuff is old by now. There aren’t any aftermarket companies that I know of making machine tooled replacement parts for Studer’s, Ampex’s, etc.
Look at the analog stuff being sold on the internet at popular gear sites. Any analog-tape related stuff I’ve seen for sale doesn’t look that enticing.
I would recommend everyone get used to digital recording mediums. They sound good. R&D in digital audio has come a long way since its inception.
Should every serious player know how to set up their own guitar? Or leave the intonation adjustment to the luthiers? Where is a good place to learn?
I believe it is good to learn about your instrument and how to make it sound best. There is a great video on YouTube featuring Joe Walsh explaining guitar neck intonation and what the neck should look like.
If you understand what you are reading in the manual and know how to use the basic tools required to adjust action and intonation, then you can make your instrument better just by maintaining those things.
If you are careful, you won’t break anything. Every time a person changes strings the intonation should be checked and see if it requires adjustment.
That mechanical stuff is important in getting any instrument ‘to sing’ whether it’s strings, reeds, drums, or brass.
I learned about these things from good friends of mine who were generous to share their experiences and information. Never assume that you know all the answers all the time. And don’t keep what you have learned to yourself. Share it. Helping others that seek advice goes a long way and can lead to work down the road.
I used to have an ‘I’ll do it myself’ attitude when I first started out but learned that it’s best to constantly be asking questions and learning, not spending time re-inventing the wheel.
David Raouf is the Bob Vila of drumming, and the Buddy Rich of woodworking. Whether he is wailing away on one of his refurbished drum kits, or getting groovy with his circular saw, the guy is always blasting at least 80 dbs of sound from his shop.
Undaunted by warning labels, his superpower is voiding warranties with extreme prejudice, while detailing the carnage every step of the way. Breaking out the heavy machinery to cut cymbals and bore through drum shells, David Raouf spits out new instruments such as pancake drums and trash cymbals. If you are looking for drum hacks—like using gum machine sticky hands as budget drum dampeners— check out his videos.
What did you pick up first? The hammer or the sticks?
Physically, it was the sticks. But, as a kid, I would flex my mental hammer by playing with Legos, building forts in the woods or attempting to put together model kits. Actually, when I was in middle school, I remember asking my mom if we could get a welder. Clearly, she said, “no.” It wasn’t until college that I took a deep dive into woodworking, metal fab, etc.
What is the lure of modding or tweaking something until it’s just so? What mental itches does that scratch?
For me, it’s just something cool to do as a way to add my own character. In general, when it comes to design, I like things that are either super clean and neat, or things that are well worn and have been used. I would look at something like a cowbell and think, “This looks too new.” Then sand off the paint and let it sit outside in the rain. It’s evolved far from that, but adding my own touch of character is still the rationale.
What is your process for bringing an idea from the pupa stage to uploaded and ready to view? Do you typically edit on the same day?
I think through an idea before committing to it. Sometimes, I go straight to filming since I know I have the tools and materials to get it done. Other times, the ideas will marinate before I figure out exactly how to do something. I could have an idea from years ago then out of nowhere that light bulb moment will strike.
When it comes to the video, most often I’ll film and edit in chunks. So, I’ll start filming a project, get to a good stopping point, then start on the edit. It’s pretty obvious how long I drag out filming. Just count the different shirts that I wear in one video.
What was the most frustrating video for you to shoot?
For some reason, I’ll always think back to when I made a Ching Ring. I bought some doofy circle cutting drill bits that would get dull just by looking at it. Now, imagine trying to cut steel with it…
What was your greatest thrift store score?
Honestly, I don’t find too much drum stuff. Recently, I found an incomplete Ludwig Standard kit for under $200. The only other notable item was a Ludwig Acrolite I found for $20. I have a few friends that resell stuff they buy from thrift stores, garage sales, and flea markets. I tell them to send me pictures of any music gear they find, but usually it’s just cheap beginner junk. I bought a Brady Snare off my friend that he found at a thrift store for $10. Even that was garbage since it had a massive crack right down the shell.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s cool stuff out there, but I have better luck on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace when it comes to finding deals on drums.
What is it about an old Ludwig Acrolite student model snare drum that keeps them sitting next to Noble and Cooleys in the professional’s snare rack?
Those drums have always been sleepers. Aluminum shelled snares have a certain dryness to them that makes them great at any tuning. It’s the kind of snare you can use on any recording or any gig for any genre and get the sound you need. On top of all that you can find them for pretty cheap. I’ve owned 5 myself and each one I was able to get for under $100.
What multitool are you slinging?
None. I hate having stuff in my pockets.
How do you balance playing for the song with showing off that crazy flamadiddle that you just figured out?
The internet is a strange place. You can have the most solid feeling groove and people will call you out for being boring. Then you think, “okay, I’ll show you!” So, next time you bust out the chops and someone will complain how you need to groove more and it’s not all about showing off. I stick to the groovier side of things but will bust out the spice when the time calls for it.
What is your drum lug lube of choice? What else can I grease up with it?
Do you use soap or lube on wood screws to drive them in easier?
I’ve never used either. I’m sure it works, but I’ve never come across a situation where I couldn’t drive one in. I guess that came from all the old timers that would drive screws by hand. I’ll stick with my power tools.
Have you played the song Telstar by the Tornados* on your Vox Telstar drums yet? How do you like that weird bass drum? Does it slide less?
After looking up the song, I don’t think I will. Maybe if the drummer played more than the hi-hats I would consider it, haha.
The Telstar is a killer little kit, though. I have no issues with the bass drum. It tunes up easily and sounds like — guess what— a bass drum. It feels rock solid and doesn’t creep away. It’s definitely a novelty kind of thing and after playing if for some time now it’s lost its mystique. I would still love to find an original Trixon Speedfire.
Is that your music playing in the background of the videos? Are there any other players?
I used to use my own music for the background tracks and some of the playing demos. Most of it my own music, but occasionally I would bust out a track from one of my old bands. It got to the point where I was trading music making for video making. Earlier this year I started using stock music for everything in my videos. I can’t complain since I have access to any genre of music now. Plus, I have access to all the stems of those tracks so I can remove the drums and add my own when it comes to the playing demos.
Once Covid clears up, if your favorite band’s manager tapped you on the shoulder, would you jump in the van, or stay in the shop? When I started playing drums my dream was to go on tour and travel the world and play sold out arenas. Of course, I never got to that point. 100% I would take that opportunity just to say I did. My shop will be there when I get home. It’s not every day you get the chance to play with your favorite group.
Do you schelp your cymbal stands in a professional drum case or the army surplus store duffle bag?
Back in 2007 I did a thing called “Bike Virginia.” You would start in one spot, bike 50-100 miles to the next location, camp out overnight, then repeat for 7 days. You would chuck your gear in a giant box truck and it would take it to the next spot. I bought the biggest, baddest duffle bag I could find just for that trip. Sure enough, it turned into my hardware bag after. My stands barely fit inside and I was scared it would explode every time I picked it up. Down the road I invested in an SKB hard case with a nice extendable handle and wheels on it. It takes up more space than the bag, but it’s totally worth it.
What is your beef with traditional cymbal wingnuts?
Ha! I don’t have a problem with them. A crash will move more freely without a felt and wingnut on top. People claim that no wingnuts will increase the resonance of the cymbal, but I think that’s BS. If you really bash or have your cymbals at some crazy angle then wingnuts make sense. Otherwise, as long as you have a sleeve and a bottom felt, your cymbals will be fine. I guess for me it’s a look thing.
Funny story though: one of my friends was at a studio tracking drums and asked if I could come by to help with some percussion parts. For one of the songs, he was playing some crazy, weird,complex part which involved a couple cymbal chokes that were too fast for him to do.
I got recruited to stand next to the kit and choke his cymbal after he hit it. Sure enough, we’re doing a take, and I’m standing there and he wacks the cymbal. A millisecond later there’s wingnut flying towards my face at Mach three and smacks me in right between my eyes. I was fine and it was a good laugh, but from that day, I could never trust another wingnut again.
What interface/DAW do you use to record drum mics?
Right now, I have two analog preamps, the Focusrite ISA 428 and Warm Audio WA-412, that run into my interface, a Focusrite Clarett 8Prex. I also have a Focusrite ISA 828 with an A/D card giving me an additional 8 inputs. I started out using Logic Pro 9 and it was only at the beginning of this year that I made the switch to Logic Pro X.
Time for controversy! Some folks say that a drum sound is 80% drum head. What say ye?
Well, I would say more than that. If you don’t have any heads then how will the drum have any sound?
Hahaha, fair enough!
But seriously, man, I could ramble on about this forever and don’t even know where to start… Everything about a drum comes into play when talking about sound. Bearing edges, shell thickness, material, moisture content, grain orientation, # of lugs, type of rims, etc. Try getting your birch kit to sound like a set of Vistalites. No drum head will get you remotely close.
Old school Internal mufflers: Keep ‘em or chuck ‘em?
Meh. I’m indifferent. The only time I use them is on snares. I have plenty of kits with them but never touch them on the toms. Nowadays, people would laugh if some high end kit came stock with them. Though —kinda ironic— in today’s age of drum technology, every company brags about the amount of resonance their shells have, yet people will still muffle the shit out of them.
Besides drum keyholders that can mount to almost any stand or surface, what is another favorite Sugru project?
The DIY practice tips is probably my favorite. Some more practical ones like a magnet embedded in a drum key and pedal clamp hoop protector are some that I still use to this day.
A card carrying member of the National Collage Society, Joe Castro gets around like a rumor. He’s been published by GQ style, Glamour, and The Age of Collage and has designed Vans sneakers, Hidden River Brewery beer can labels, and posters for legends like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Pavement, and Echo and the Bunnymen.
Joe doesn’t only love listening to music. He makes it. After holding down lead guitar duties in The Situation, the darlings of Pitchfork Magazine, Joe now fronts Mighty Joe Castro and the Gravamen featuring HOOV3R and Dallas, the air-tight rhythm section poached from the ashes of venerable Philly punk band Thorazine.
What advice do you have for people starting out in collage art? What are the tools of the trade? Are you sponsored by X-acto?
You know – anything that cuts: X-acto, scissors, switchblade. Personally, I like to pretend I’m Danny Trejo and use a machete. Makes me feel tough. Or maybe wear a hockey mask and get into that Jason Voorhees mindset.
But in all seriousness, it’s super easy to get started. That’s what I love about collage as an art form. It’s accessible to everyone and anyone can do it, just like punk rock. All you need is some source material–a couple of old magazines or whatever–a blade, and some glue. Personally, I use a gel medium. Some people prefer glue sticks. I even know an artist who uses tape, which is crazy. There are no rules. Just stay away from rubber cement.
I did think about approaching X-acto for a sponsorship but quickly realized I didn’t wanna spend my time creating social media commercials for a handful of free blades. Nothing comes for free.
Can you tell me where you get your source material, or would you have to kill me?
I like to lurk around flea markets and dusty old bookstores, especially ones where the shelves are crammed so much to capacity that the ends of the aisles have books stacked on top of each other so high that they block out the ceiling lights so the whole place is just dark and mysterious. Anytime I’m traveling, I always look for those types of shops. I can spend hours in spots like that. I enjoy the hunt of it.
In the morning, how do you decide whether to pick up the six string or the razor and glue? Do you follow a routine or just the muse?
It all depends. These days, it’s less about the muse and more about the deadline. Like last summer, I knew the plan was for The Gravamen to put out a record in 2020, so I focused all my energies on writing songs. On the flip side, if I have an art show coming up, then I’m going all in on that. If there’s nothing on the horizon, then it’s dealer’s choice. As long as I’m switching back and forth between visual art and music, then I’m good. The balance between the two is key. It helps to prevent me from getting burned out. It keeps things fresh.
Have any of your songs ever inspired a collage or vice versa?
Not directly, but I have borrowed titles for collages from song lyrics I’ve written and vice-versa. It’s been in the back of my mind to write a song about a collage at some point though.
Some compare collage art to sampling music, which ground to a halt in the 90’s after copyright laws choked out the medium. Are lawsuits a concern in the collage world?
Not really – not yet, at least. I’m sure that once a collage artist starts making a lot of money, that’ll change. I mean – sampling wasn’t an issue until artists started selling tons of records, then everyone starts asking “wait, that uses my song. Where’s my piece of that?” But with collage art, I think the key is to not use a whole image, just a small enough part of it. And in the end, the whole has to be greater than the individual pieces. Now, I’ve seen some collage artists just take a photo and add one tiny element to it, like a skyscraper in the middle of a field or something and call it a day. I think that might be an issue for some people down the road. Also, I try not to use really famous photos or celebrities in my artwork – that’s just asking for trouble.
But look, if someone sells a photo of a building, can the architect of the building sue the photographer? If you take a photo of someone and they’re standing in front of a movie poster, does the person who designed the poster get some cut of the sale of the photo? Or the person who designed the clothes the person is wearing? I don’t know. It’s a gray area for sure.
Back in the early 2000’s, punks nicknamed the Philadelphia Rockabilly scene ”The Skinhead Retirement Community.” Do you think racism in the scene has gotten better, worse, or no different?
Yeah, I heard that back in the day as well. Thankfully, that element of the Rockabilly scene seems to have died down in Philly. I’m sure it’s lurking in the shadows though. But as a band, we haven’t run into any major issues, at least not yet.
Down South and in Europe, it’s a different story. But we’ve been pushing the “Rockabilly Against Racism” thing for a while now, so we’re not going to attract that element as much. They sort of know off the bat where we stand and where our audience stands. Plus, we don’t play a lot of traditional “rockabilly” shows anyway, mainly because we write our own songs. We’re not doing the whole throwback thing – covering tunes from the 50s and dressing up in bowling shirts and poodle skirts. There’s nothing wrong with that – I dig a lot of that stuff. We’re just trying to put our own stamp on this. Vintage sounds, not vintage values.
Why do you have Joe Castro printed on your guitar’s pickguard? Does your guitar player, Michael Stingle, sometimes grab the wrong one?
Ha – no, I did that a long time ago, when I was in The Situation. At the time, being the lead guitar player, I was just trying to shine. Like a name on the back of a baseball players jersey – it just lets people know who you are. It says, “look – I’m varsity, bro. practically all-state at this point!”
Has living in quarantine generated more or less output from you?
I’ve definitely been more productive. With less errands to run and no place else to be, I’ve had more time to experiment. And the timing of everything somehow lined up perfectly – we strolled out of Miner St. with the final mixes of our album and then bam – two days later, the quarantine hit. So the next few months were already laid out for me.
I designed the album cover and got everything out to the manufacturer. I shot and directed 3 music videos for the band, which was a challenge since I couldn’t film the rest of the group. I even taught myself After Effects, so I could create an animated lyric video for one of the songs. I’ve learned a lot during the quarantine. At this stage of the game, I just try to focus on what I can do, rather than what I can’t do. And the best thing you can do, if you want to be creative, is to limit your distractions. I’m a big supporter of boredom as a form of creative motivation.
Is your moniker a tribute to Mighty Joe Young?
Definitely! Funny enough, you’re the first person ever to ask me about that. Sometime in 2002, I was looking to create a website to promote my art and music, but joecastro.com was already taken, so I had to come up with an alternative. As a kid in the 70s, living on Long Island, NY, around the holidays, they would show these vintage Monster movie marathons on TV – we’d watch King Kong, Planet of the Apes, and Mighty Joe Young. I love that stuff so I adapted it to my name and it immediately just stuck. That’s the reason why there’s an ape on the stickers I made. I love monkeys.
Backstage at Dawson’s Pub, I saw a maraca rolling around in the back of your amp. What gives?
All praises due to Bo Diddley for that one. Bring it on home. Bring it to Jerome.
Your decennial art compilation has a catchy title. How did Everything We Love is Slowly Becoming Fiction get its name?
I originally came up with that title in 2013 for a collage I made. I thought it was a fitting phrase for a retrospective. As you get older, and times change, and society changes, and people you love pass away,etc. – people and places you love are no longer there. What you believed was true, no longer applies. What was once cool, is no longer happening. We’re all going to be just a story someday. We’ll all be some form of fiction
What current merchandise are you peddling to the people?
My band, Mighty Joe Castro and the Gravamen, are releasing our debut full length album on Friday July 31. It’s titled “Come On Angels!” and was recorded it at Miner St with Brian McTear and Matt Poirier. I’m super proud of this record and can honestly say that, as a whole, it’s the best musical release I’ve ever been involved in. It’s available on vinyl, CD and all streaming platforms.
I still have a few more copies of my retrospective collage book, Everything We Love Is Slowly Becoming Fiction, for sale on my website. It’s a limited edition run of 150, signed and numbered so once they’re gone, they’re gone. Grab one here:
I also recently designed this limited edition skateboard for Artists for Puerto Rico. All proceeds from the sale of the deck will go toward art and education in PR. You can get that here.