Jim Eno on the Evolution of Spoon's Recording Techniques, From DIY to Public Hi-Fi

The baggy opening bars of Spoon's 2007 hit "Don't You Evah" are punctuated by an urgent request: "Jim, can you record the talkback? Record that, Jim." It's singer Britt Daniel at the mic talking to drummer/engineer Jim Eno in the Public Hi-Fi production booth in Austin, Texas. As Eno recalls, producer Mike McCarthy, occupying the seat next to him, was mouthing off a stream of nonsense to Daniel over the talkback mic in the studio's live room. Daniel wanted the insanity on tape, but what ultimately made the song's final cut was only his side of the exchange.

This environment of informality and spontaneity has been cultivated by Daniel and Eno since the earliest days of their near-25 years together as Spoon, but the crux of their idiosyncratic sound—immaculate sonic captures, calculated, fuzzy pop songs, candidly raw energy—didn't begin to take shape until the late 1990s. Before Spoon's inception, the duo had little studio knowledge. Daniel, a Texas native and prolific songwriter, was jumping from band to band. Jim Eno, a drummer and electrical engineer from Rhode Island, was designing microchips for Motorola in Austin. But after Eno and Daniel met sometime in 1993, Spoon would embark on a journey to become ostensibly the most commercially successful DIY band in America.

Follow the link to learn more about Spoon's Slay On Cue reissue series.

Following the oversight of their first two records produced by John Croslin, Elektra abruptly dropped Spoon after the resignation of their A&R rep Ron Laffitte. The mounting pressure of recording a new album without proper funding encouraged Daniel and Eno to explore alternative options to expensive studio rentals. Thus, Eno, equipped with the knowledge of an electrical engineer and Croslin's studio vernacular, converted a detached garage into a one-room studio. He invested in the studio's vital organs, a Trident 24 mixing console and an Ampex MM-1200 16-track tape machine.

The duo began production with Mike McCarthy on what would become their third album, the canonically beloved Girls Can Tell, and pioneered a string of albums in the 2000s—2002's Kill The Moonlight, 2005's Gimme Fiction, 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga—that would produce a critically acclaimed collection of songs to embolden Spoon's stature as indie rock heavyweights.

As Spoon's reach widened and diversified, so did their studio rig. Eno purchased and restored a vintage Neve 8016 console in 2003, which has tracked every Spoon album since Gimme Fiction (as well the multitude of clients Eno has tracked in the studio). Not long after, Eno tore down the studio's structure to build an entirely new facility in its place, a three-year undertaking that culminated in the newly dubbed Public Hi-Fi studios, one the most pristine recording establishments to ever grace the weird streets of Austin. And still, despite the monolithic rise of digital recording software, Eno remained faithful to recording analog until their recent transition to digital surrounding their last two releases, 2014's They Want My Soul and 2017's Hot Thoughts.

Earlier this summer, Spoon and Matador Records announced a reissue campaign called Slay On Cue, an endeavor that will recut the original masters of their back catalogue to vinyl. Reissues of Telephono and the Soft Effects EP were released on July 24, while Girls Can Tell was reissued on August 14 (A Series of Sneaks and Kill the Moonlight were also released on this day in Europe and the UK). The next to arrive is a fan-curated compilation called All the Weird Kids Up Front, which is set for release on Record Store Day (August 29), followed by Gimme Fiction, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, and Transference in Europe and the UK on September 11.

In the midst of the Slay on Cue campaign, we caught up with Jim Eno to construct a history of Spoon's catalog, explore the origins of his renowned Public Hi-Fi studios, and discuss his evolution as a recording engineer, the nuts and bolts of his rig, and the subtle magic of his production methodology.

Spoon - "Small Stakes" remastered Slay On Cue music video.

Listening back to those early records, namely Telephono and A Series of Sneaks, what's the first thing you noticed about those recordings? Was there something in particular you're proud of? Or maybe some production mistakes that stuck out to you?

Telephono was produced by John Croslin—we recorded it in his little garage area. The thing that blows me away about that record is that we did it on—I think it was an 8-track one-inch tape machine. But we would record on eight tracks, then he would mix those eight tracks down to a DAT. Then he would go to a different part of the tape, dump those two tracks and then we would have six tracks left to do overdubs and vocals and things.

So the thing that blows me away on that is the fact that those songs, the vision and the production of the base track had to work for everything else we layered on top of it. It always really impressed me how he did that. You get into the point where you're adding stuff and then maybe like, "Man, I wish that kick drum was louder." And it's like, "Oh, well. We literally cannot do anything."

Soft Effects to me is still one of my favorites, that EP. I feel like it's one of my favorites as far as when it comes to energy and a good mix of—live but weirdness. I feel like it had a lot of good stuff.

After A Series of Sneaks you got dropped from Elektra and Spoon was in this label limbo. Did that dejected feeling drive you into making your own studio?

An Ampex MM-1200 brochure. Photo by Audio Pimp.

Yeah, yeah. Well, one of the reasons I wanted to get into studio work was to make it more cost-effective for the band. Plus, I have an electrical engineering background, and I felt like it would be cool to help out in that area. Working on Telephono and Soft Effects with John, it was something that I really wanted to get into, and dive into and see if I liked it.

So, we started working on what would end up being Girls Can Tell, and that was on an 8-track one-inch that we rented. Britt and I were just working together. We got Mike McCarthy involved, but the problem was we rented that 8-track one-inch, so we had to get it back to the guy who owned it. I had an early Pro Tools version—I'm like, "Well, just to be safe in case we can't get this machine again, or if there's a problem, I'm going to dump all tracks into Pro Tools in case we need it." It ended up we could never get that machine again, or we never really wanted to get that machine again. I ended up buying an Ampex MM-1200 16-track two-inch, and from there we took the Pro Tools files and dumped those to tape. So that's sort of how that worked.

I feel like the first big shift in Spoon's sound happened around that time, the Girls Can Tell era. All of a sudden there's more instruments at play—there's Mellotrons, there's vibraphones, there's strings. What were the biggest challenges as an engineer when approaching these new textures?

You know how it is when you engineer, you just—you have an idea of what a Mellotron should sound like and you work hard to try that. I mean, there are things like, "Oh, this note's popping out more than this, or it's a little too dynamic when you use a compressor," that kind of thing. "Oh man, there's this weird frequency, let me EQ."

To me, a lot of engineering is troubleshooting, more like figuring out what is wrong, and cutting and fixing things, as opposed to adding things. I mean, there is a lot of experimentation we do too, but I feel like the first order of things is like, "OK, let's just get this thing sounding like a really good Mellotron."

The other thing is, I feel like around the Girls Can Tell, Britt was realizing that the records that we love, and the records that we listened to had piano and loud percussion, and then [Girls Can Tell] had things that we had never put on our records before. I feel like it was sort of like a blank slate. We felt free to experiment and to add those things.

So by the time you guys got to the Kill the Moonlight era, you were experimenting pretty liberally with various production techniques. What kind of tools were you partial to?

Well, we weren't using any plugins at that time. Right around Girls Can Tell, Kill the Moonlight, and Gimme Fiction, our workflow was to record to tape, either 16-track two-inch or 24-track two-inch. I figured out how we could sync to Pro Tools with the tape machine, so that was like a game changer for us.

How did you figure that out?

Well, there were people that were doing it. You could sync two tape machines together using SMPTE, and I think it was a Lynx box or something; Timeline Lynx would sort of sync the two. Basically, it would control the transport of the slave machine. So it would read the SMPTE and then control it to whatever speed you wanted it to be.

There were people actually doing that where you could run Pro Tools and sync. I feel like they had that mainly for video stuff, but it was also for audio. You could run SMPTE into Pro Tools and then click the online button, and it would recognize the SMPTE. You would basically use the tape machine as the master, and Pro Tools would just sync along.

But the beauty of that is: Now our 16-track tape machine or our 24-track tape machine turned into... We had probably 16 to maybe 24 extra tracks. We threw a lot of percussion there, sort of the less sonically important things we could throw into Pro Tools, and then they would just all come back to my console where we were mixing.

A recording session for "Written In Reverse"

You mentioned you have this electrical engineering background, did that include music? Where along the lines did you get the vernacular and really figure out how to translate your knowledge into a studio setting?

It was all learning on the job, that was it, paying attention during Telephono, Soft Effects. Mike McCarthy—who produced Girls Can Tell, Kill the Moonlight, Gimme Fiction, and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga with us—I learned from him a lot and asked him a lot of questions. He's a great engineer and he was driving the ship most of the time there. He's just a... he's a great engineer. I was playing drums and stuff like that, but it just came down to me learning a lot.

Any free time I had, anytime Britt was writing, I was recording other bands. I started producing and recording around 2001, right around the Girls Can Tell time. I just would not really turn anything down.

Mike is obviously a prominent influence in Spoon's history. What kind of skills... or what kind of energy did he bring to the recording process?

Well, Mike can be... Mike. I love Mike. Mike can be a little dark sometimes [laughs]. But I mean, we all worked really well together and would get great ideas. He would work on things until they sounded right to all of us, which I feel like it's an important thing to have in a producer. You don't want a producer who is like, "OK, yeah, that's fine." You want everyone in the room to be psyched about the sound, the part, and everything, so that we know we can move on.

He was great with that. He was also a great engineer. I mean, a lot of times with these drum parts, they would be all on tape, so there was only tape editing. It wasn't like, nudge kick drum, nudge a snare drum.

I've had a lot of hours, just me and Mike alone tracking these drums, where it was just, "OK, let's just do it, me and Mike, everyone else can leave." We would just work on it for hours and try to get the best take that we could. Like really, really focus. Mike—he helped me a lot with that.

And you would absorb Mike's darkness.

[Laughs.] Actually at those points, Mike was usually pretty positive with me. He was pretty positive. There are some other times when he wasn't, but I would say 90% of the time he was pretty good with me.

There's an element of informality on the records, moments where you can hear little conversations in the live room, or some background noises between takes. What is it about that candidness that attracts you guys?

I don't know. I think we've always loved records that had those sorts of things in them, you know what I mean? It gives off an air of having a good time, confidence, things like that. You can also stumble into things when that happens.

It's probably one of the biggest things we miss about not recording on tape anymore, is those little things you just mentioned, like conversations and things. Like for "Don't You Evah," any time we were recording we would usually start at the top of the track, and leave like maybe 15 seconds and then get into the song. Even if we were recording a part, maybe in the first chorus, you'd let it go.

So then all of a sudden the track you're recording on has like, "Hey, Jim, record that." If Britt was doing a part, he would be saying that, or when he was doing his vocal takes. You ended up having maybe like eight tracks of just gibberish on them. But what it ended up doing is it created sort of a sonic collage. It sounded super cool as the song was starting and progressing. Then we're like, "OK, let's clean that up," and we're like, "No, don't clean that up, we need to see what we're going to use because we want to use a lot of that stuff."

Spoon - "Don't You Evah"

There's a comfortability. It's like the listener is right there in the booth with you guys.

Yeah. I remember on "Don't You Evah," I think we ended up paring that down a little bit. Mike was being crazy in the control room as usual, and he was just saying like some really weird shit over the talk-back mic. What I used to do sometimes was take the talk back mic, and then loop it into a DAT or a master link recorder, so we would just have this loop of Mike talking the entire time. Later on it was like, just throw it into Pro Tools and we would just record it there. But yeah, so that's where that intro came from. Mike was talking back to Britt being crazy, and Britt's like "Jim, record the talk-back, record that now Jim."

By the time we get to Gimme Fiction, you were still working a day job, or right up to around that point. So, you quit your job and then you go all-in being a recording engineer—what was that transition like? What were your first big steps as a full-time audio engineer?

It's interesting because when we were getting a lot of interest around Telephono, our very first record, I was talking with John Croslin and I'm like, "Hey man, do I quit my day job? Or what do I do?" And he's like, "Dude, hold on to your day job as long as you can. It's going to be black-and-white when you know when it's time to quit your day job." And I'm like, "OK, cool. I'm going to take that advice."

The whole time, all the way up until Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, it was never a black-and-white moment for when I should quit, you know? So I ended up touring, and my bosses were always OK with me going on the road. I would work from the road—I would do all the same stuff.

Around Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, right before we started that, I knocked my studio down and rebuilt another one, right on the same property. That's what I have now. It's a proper studio, control room, live room, lounge, big live room, loading floors, all that stuff. My company I was working for, it was a little startup company, went out of business about two weeks before we were supposed to start Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. So I was trying to get the studio ready to go for recording this record. And my job went away and I'm like, "Well—

That's black-and-white.

Yeah, and I'm not going to go start interviewing for electrical engineering jobs.

What was your job?

I was designing microprocessors, essentially, computer chips for low-power things like phones and handheld devices, GPS things. I ended up being more of a... it's called high-level architecture and things like that, more of the manager, but that's sort of what my day job was.

The other thing is, the reason I built the studio—and the reason why I really decided to go all in on recording—was I felt like it wouldn't make much sense to just quit my day job to be a drummer in Spoon, I felt like I needed other things to do.

I really fell in love with recording. I was working a day job, and then I was working from like six to two in the morning on records. So I was doing eight hours at work, and then that's another eight-hour day that I was doing after my day job. I was loving it. I'm like, "Man, I think I can do this full-time. I love it, even though I'm exhausted." I was just like, "Just do it and focus on it." So I knew mentally I would be really excited about it.

Public Hi-Fi's Neve console.

What was your first big gear splurge in Public Hi-Fi?

Oh, it had to be the Neve console.

What's the story behind that Neve?

I bought it from a broker in London and they said it was completely refurbished, all recapped and everything. So I bought it, had it shipped to Austin. I had a tech fly in from San Francisco named Garry Creiman, who is John Vanderslice's tech—that's how I found Garry. So the console shows up and it's in awful, awful shape, it was a pretty depressing time. Garry was supposed to be here for about a month and I think it was like four months or so of his time to get this thing working, complete rewiring and everything.

But then we were taking the console apart after about maybe two weeks and on the inside of the armrest was written in pencil and it said "A41." According to Garry and a couple other people, those numbers were sequential back in those times. I tried to contact Jeff Tanner and he said that was actually before he showed up to Neve—he showed up to Neve in 1970 or '71. So he put the year of this console at like '69 or '70.

So all of a sudden we got a little fire and we're like, "Wow, this machine was just going to be parted out, and now we're going to completely restore it." I've had it since 2005, I think. So, I mean the amount of records that have come out of here, and the people that have worked on this, it's pretty, pretty, pretty awesome.

When I think about Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, I think about reverb. Were you guys stocking up on rack-mounted gear during that time? Had you made the switch to digital yet, or were you still all analog?

AKG BX10 Spring Reverb. Photo by Nicole's Used Gear.

No, we were still all analog. I had a BX10 reverb we used a lot, and I have a Master Room reverb, but it's the tall one. The one like in the wooden box, very big spring. I think we used a lot of reverbs on "Small Stakes," but the Master Room is the main reverb on "Small Stakes."

We also used—Mike had a Fender Reverb tank that we used a lot. We used to just bring in the control and then run through it. Those were the main reverbs that we were using. I don't know if I had my plate then. I have an EMT plate right now. That could have been around... Yeah, maybe that was around Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, but I can't remember.

So when you're compiling all of this gear, how are you choosing what to pick? Is this based on recommendations from people you trust? Or is it based on records that you love, and you're like, "Oh, that's a unit that I want in my studio."

It's a combination of things. I would say the biggest influence is other engineers and other producers. But then there's also reading a lot. Like an example of that, there's a company... I think it's Folktek. So like for instance, it was... What's the... Man, there's this producer podcast... Crap. They did this thing on Nine Inch Nails

Song Exploder?

Yeah, Song Exploder. I started getting into those Folktek devices. You should check those out, they're pretty wild. It's interesting ways to distort things, and CV triggers and things like that. That's an example of when I would listen to something and then go off and just make a purchase. But I would do a lot of research and talk to people.

The other thing around this time is like, I guess it was around the Girls Can Tell time, I became friends with John Vanderslice and he told me, "Always buy vintage gear if you can." The reason is because it sounds better. If you look at a Neumann microphone—Neumann microphones were made in East Germany. So they were government microphones that were made when there didn't need to be a profit made on these microphones, right?

So every component is top-of-the-line, the best components, the best attention to detail on these German microphones. Now you think of companies doing microphones as an example: They have to answer to investors, or whoever, they have to keep costs down and be competitive. So the idea is that Neumann microphones, for instance, they were really just made for recording and for other things, you know? So I bought a lot of Neumann microphones, but I feel like I used John's advice around that era. And I do have a lot of vintage things.

So, by the time you got to Transference, Mike wasn't producing. That record feels so stripped back and contained and raw compared to its predecessors. How did those sessions differ from the previous records that you made with Mike?

We tried to do a lot more band recording in those. So like, "Got Nuffin," "Trouble Comes Running" is pretty much a live take. "Is Love Forever?" We had played that live before too. Oh, and "Written in Reverse." I remember tracking "Written in Reverse." They went pretty fast.

But we recorded that record to tape, and then I'm pretty sure it was transferred to digital from mixing. Dave Sardy mixed some of that record. And Nicolas Vernhes also mixed some of that. We did it with Nicolas in New York, so we flew up to New York to do all the basic tracks.

Spoon - "Rent I Pay"

You guys took some time off after that record and ultimately teamed up with John Chiccarelli and Dave Fridmann to make They Want My Soul. That's a record with so much vibrancy and such a spectrum of colors. What did each of those guys bring to the table for that project?

Fridmann, I mean, I've always loved everything he's done. I just remember hearing Soft Bulletin for the first time. It was like being insanely, just so blown away, you know? I would say Fridmann was just sort of a mix game changer on [They Want My Soul], and also tracking things like "Rent I Pay." As soon as we tracked that, we had taken a couple years off and it's like, it's going to be really fun to have a blown out Dave Fridmann snare drum be the first thing people hear from Spoon after like three years. I got a little joy out of that.

But Dave—you look at Dave and he isn't usually referred to as a minimalist. And Spoon, people always talk about us as being more minimal. It was always an interesting thing that we felt: What would those two things sound like once they were combined? The great thing is it still sounds like Spoon, but Dave is all over that. But he's also very respectful and he wants it to be our record. It's not a Dave Fridmann record, it's a Spoon record.

He was a great person to work with, and I feel like They Want My Soul really focuses a lot on Alex too—Alex Fischel, our keyboard player. A lot of "Inside Out," which we feel like if you look at the bridge between They Want My Soul and Hot Thoughts, it seems like it sort of goes through "Inside Out"—like that track is sort of what we were leading to in Hot Thoughts, you know?

You worked again with Dave on Hot Thoughts, which is so sprawling and layered. To me it's probably like the moodiest Spoon record. Did you and Dave approach that project like any other? Or were there some more experimental measures taken?

I mean, we're experimenting a lot with Dave, trying different things. He's great at like, We need a special sound here, and then knowing how we can get that. It's something that you want in a producer, or an engineer for that matter: Knowing what our strengths are, but then knowing how to turn it into something that maybe has never been on a Spoon record before.

So you look at one of The Flaming Lips records, and I mean, those are like sonic masterpieces when it comes to sound. He's been involved in every one of those. So you can imagine how many hours of insight he has into creating crazy sounds.

From Telephono to Hot Thoughts, what's the most valuable insight that you've learned along the way as a recording engineer?

Well, I mean the stupid answer would be check phase, that's for the audio geeks out there. I mean, everything that I like to be involved in when it comes to recording is making it fun. I feel like, when you're an artist, it's hard to instantaneously be creative. You cannot just switch that switch on. So as a producer and someone who works in a studio pretty much all day, you have to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable and is having fun. So that's where ideas come out, that's where creative things happen. You have to create an environment where anyone is free to say any idea, because it doesn't really matter what your experience is. It's sort of like throwing out an idea that may be cool, you know?

For instance, on "Chicago At Night," the Girls Can Tell song, we had two mixes of that song done, and we liked the left side of one mix and the right side of the other mix. So me and Britt, not knowing anything really, decided like, "Hey, is it possible to do that? Can we just use the left side of one on the right side of the other?" And I'm like, "I don't know, let me just throw them into Pro Tools."

So I threw them into Pro Tools. We had mixed the songs onto half inch tape, so when I threw them into Pro Tools, the lengths of the mixes were different because the speeds of the tape machines were different. So I had to time compress one so they would equal out, and then we just hit play. It was like, "Yeah, this sounds pretty weird and wild." Now I just imagine doing that now, like, "What are you thinking?" It was just he and I in the studio, and we were like, "As a band, we really like the left side of this and the right side of this." So, I guess my point is that any idea, while it may seem dumb, could actually give someone an idea to make something cool and innovative and creative.

Spoon - "Chicago At Night"

There's magic in naivety.

Exactly.

After listening to all of these records, which one are you most partial to? Which is your favorite?

When I make records, a lot of it boils down to what the recording process was like, you know? The experience of that record. I mean, so I would say, looking at the Girls Can Tell, Kill the Moonlight era, that was a very fun and exciting time. Also if you look around Hot Thoughts, that was pretty, pretty fun too, right up around there.

So I feel like I liked the Soft Effects EP, Girls Can Tell, Kill the Moonlight for the nostalgia, being naive and trying things, and actually having people listen to our music for the first time. And then I like Hot Thoughts as far as what it's telling us about where we're going in the future, you know? I'm excited about the stuff we're doing now, and I feel like that is a thread from Hot Thoughts.

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