Inside Rob Schnapf's Mant Sounds Studio

Rob Schnapf. Photos by Kate Kornberg.

Ants can lift five thousand times their body weight—an analogy Rob Schnapf uses to describe his studio. Small but powerful.

Photos by Kate Kornberg.

He comes from a line of engineers. His father and uncle ran a well-established, independent studio in Manhattan. Rob has managed Mant Sounds for 10 years and, previously, he was camped out at Sunset Sounds for a decade. Things were changing in the industry and, as Rob explains it, "I wanted my own place so I could control the budget. Also, if the record requires crafting, all I have to do is pay my bills and we can spend time and send out a probe in areas that need it. Rather than staring at a calendar and saying, 'We're done.' Erring on the side of art. Not commerce."

With an aversion to doing things one way, no one, including Schnapf, will tolerate boredom. "I really enjoy the process," he says. Over the years, Beck, Elliott Smith, Cass McCombs, Kurt Vile, and many others have also revelled in his process.

To learn more about Schnapf's work, click here.

Mant Sounds' Studio Collection

This was my first visit to Mant Sounds, however, it felt familiar. While walking from the control room to the live room, you mind the slouch in the floor and take in the glowing string lighting and various framed photos and posters. Here, all instruments potentially have a story and every console has history.

A self-ascribed collector, Rob isn't a big seller. The rooms are filled with well-worn instruments and vintage equipment, most of which has been in rotation for years. In the case of one particular sunburst 1963 Gibson 330, decades.

1963 Gibson 330

"There was this really cool guitar store on Larchmont [in Los Angeles] called Betnun's Music. It's where Neil Young bought his Tweed Deluxe. He has a lot of them but that is, apparently, the spot he found the one. Also, the guitar player Pete [Anderson] who played with Dwight Yoakam used to work there. It was an old mom-and-pop store run by Sol Betnun and his wife. If you went often enough they would let you into the back room, which was where the stuff they never sold was. It was a storage room. You'd go back there and there would be a 6x10 Marshall cab from the '60s. I'd ask, 'How much would you sell it for?' They would apprehensively respond, 'Hmm, I don't know if I want to sell it.'"

"You just had to hang around and wait for the right person to be working that day but [the Gibson 330] was hanging on the wall. It was 550 bucks and they said it was a '63 which is my birth year, so I said, 'I gotta buy that.' No one knew about these. It was another outcast guitar in 1992. It's a great one and it's on a shit-ton of records."

"It's also why Elliott [Smith] played 330s. He eventually had a few of them but this is where it started. I lent it to him on an early tour. Quasi was his backing band, so it was maybe even before XO came out they did a tour. We used it on XO [and Figure 8] and that's when he kind of discovered them. He didn't have any real gear. I lent him an Ampeg Gemini I that was also used heavily on those records. The Epiphone Texan and the Gibson J50 you took pictures of were also used to record as well."

Mellotrons

The Mellotron Mark VI is an improved version of the M400 and the first to be produced since Streetly Electronics went out of business in 1986. "The Mark VI has tape and it's when they first reissued them. I had one from the '70s and then they reissued them, fixed some of the chronic issues, and put a tube amp in it. They sound awesome."

"I thought I was going to sell the old one to save room but I compared the two and then I couldn't." There's an "extra key" on the newer one—a black key at the far left end of the keyboard. "I was working with someone who kept complaining and messing up. He was blaming not having the extra black key. So, I said, 'Alright, there.'"

1974 Precision Bass & '62 Jazz Bass

Of the '74 P-Bass, Schnapf says, "This used to be fretless and someone hacked frets back into it. The pickup configuration is a great idea." Meanwhile, the Jazz Bass is super light, with a 'satin' refinish, and also formerly fretless.

Pultec EQP-1A

Intended for broad program EQ, the EQP-1A is a classic. "I do a lot on the front end of recording now where you could probably let tape cover some of that stuff. Though, that's what all of this is for [points to rackmounted gear]. All of it is analog equipment. Look at this one, this is from RCA in New York."

Fender Jazzmaster

"Kurt [Vile] loved the color and wanted Fender to make him one. The color, I couldn't photograph it. Even in the picture, it didn't look right."

Gibson Les Paul Gold Top

"This would have [originally] been P90s with a trapeze and someone did this to it, so I got it cheap. They were trying to make it a '56 with the stop tail."

Recording Consoles

"This is a MCI 428B, highly modified. I didn't do the work. I had John Musgrave do it. It's super tweaky. This is not your average MCI. Then, this is a 1969 Electra Dyne serial number Sinatra 666. I got it from Frank [Sinatra] Jr. Again, highly modified. Records that were done on Electra Dyne, not this console, were I think the first Neil Young album, the first three ZZ Top records, Zeppelin II was mixed on one, Beach Boys, Tighten It Up by Archie Bell and The Drells—all Electra Dyne. I bought it in the '90s; no one wanted this thing. It was deemed antiquated technology."

A Quick Q&A

Reference tape on instruments and consoles was still fresh from a recording session with Cat Power at the studio. Rob remarked, "It's interesting how she [records songs]. She knows the words and stories really well and reimagines the music."

Rob's inviting atmosphere and willingness to work at the pace of the artist leaves room for creativity and inspires an individual sound for each project. As he points out, he is in service to the artist and the session after all.

In our conversation, we discuss some of his guiding principles, thoughts on streaming audio, tips on handing off a recording project to a mixing engineer, and trusting the process.

Could you talk about a few of your favorite records you've worked on?

It's hard for me to pick because oftentimes making records is such an intimate experience. People are vulnerable and we are honoring this by creating a "safe zone." Hopefully, this allows the non-intellectual animal part of the brain to take over so one isn't thinking about it they are just doing it. It's kind of a magical thing and I always enjoy it.

Do you have any favorite Los Angeles studios?

Sunset Sound Studio 2 for big drums and strings, Sunset Sound Studio 3 for making a record, East West Studio 2, and Capitol Studio B. All have great techs. Nothing stays broken.

Records that encapsulate their moment in time?

Revolver. Bob Dylan The Times They Are a-Changin'. The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, Beastie Boys Check Your Head, Beck Mellow Gold, and Pavement Crooked Rain.

Recording engineers you admire or enjoy?

John Leckie (Muse, Stone Roses, Radiohead). John has had a career that spans across many years and changes in music fashion and he always stays relevant making records he likes and wants to make. I find that inspiring and a reminder for me to stay the course and keep making art. The payoff is the body of work. Also, Andy Johns (Television, Rolling Stones), Jim Scott (Tom Petty Wildflowers), John Congleton, and Thom Monahan (Vetiver, Devendra).

Do you have principles regarding making suggestions or being creative with recording techniques?

I have respect for the process. I trust the process. And patience with and for it. Are those principles? If I have something to say, I say it. If I have nothing to say, I say nothing. Everyone has their take and, for me, you work with different people, so there are multiple roads to the top. The path doesn't always have to be the same—it isn't the same. Everyone is different. I don't make it so you have to plug into my method to get us to the finish line.

You also have to stay inspired so you don't stop trying things. The most important thing is the song. You're the conduit. How do we get the song though that mic, out of these speakers, and resonating in someone's head?

What are your thoughts on streaming audio?

You know, how people listen to music, in whatever diminished way, shouldn't alter the pursuit of greatness. Through the whole process, I'm always thinking about the mix. As we're adding parts, I'm making rough mixes along the way to inform how it will all work. Rather than making a shit pile and handing it off to someone else to figure out and then be disappointed. I like mixing and it's part of the arrangement.

You've done projects where you were given projects to mix but didn't record. What is it like being in that position?

I really like it because it cuts out the whole psychological part. You're just handed something. It's sometimes frustrating with modern recording techniques when there is a lack of commitment along the way.

This is a pet-peeve, if you're going to record multiple mics on something, why are you doing it? If you're doing it for a reason, bounce it to one track, so it's that way. The reason is the one track. The reason isn't the four tracks. That's the thoughts. Put it into a sentence. The one track is the composite idea.

When you send me four tracks of a guitar, don't leave it to me to decide, because I wasn't there. I don't know what you're thinking. Also, if I see four mics, I'm probably going to mute three and use the [Shure] 57. I will listen to them a couple of times but it's usually like one of the mics is out of phase. So, I know you weren't listening!

Do you use tape to record?

I started the slow migration to Pro Tools in 2001 but I still did tape. I don't use tape anymore because it's really expensive and inconsistent. I don't understand the point of it. I'm doing so much with transformers. Recording-wise, on the front end, adding color. If someone really, really wants to then yes. Though, to me, that's not what makes a good record. I've made records on tape that sucked. Tape doesn't solve everything. It's a storage medium!

As an engineer, what do you believe your role in the final listening experience is?

Well, I think as a mixer you are the translator. It's up to you to make it happen and communicate all the moments that have been collected in an informed way so that the listener can take it in as an experience. All the tracks combine to something greater and you're in service to the song.

Do you think engineering is an art or a science?

It's the art of science and the science of art.

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