Monday, June 25, 2018

Interview: Andy Bova of Simple Sound Studio in Oceanport, NJ

Andy Bova
Simple Sounds

Andy Bova is a friend of ours here. We met him back when he was drumming for Dentist. He's since left the band to devote his time to recording at his Simple Sound Studio in Oceanport. Bova built the space out himself. It's where he recorded and co-produced -- among other things -- all three of Dentist's LPs, including Night Swimming which comes out on July 20th. CoolDad Music did a session with Andy and Lowlight in the Simple Sound live room at the very end of 2016, and it turned out pretty great.

I spent an afternoon a few weeks ago with Andy. We ate subs, drank coffee (Andy's other passion), and talked about some of Andy's thoughts on recording and becoming a sound engineer.

It also needs to be noted that Andy is a very cool dad to his two young daughters, which we always consider a big plus around here.

Is it "Simple Sound Stuidos" or "Studio?"

Studio is fine... ...leave off the last "S" for savings!


First of all, why don't you tell me a little bit about your background and what got you into sound engineering?

I think the way it happens for a lot of people. You're in bands and there's the cost of recording and maybe the convenience of scheduling; and, if you have any interest in it...

I got myself an 8-track recorder and started trying to demo bands I was in, and a passion for that stuff grew from there. Plus, being a drummer, you don't really get to manipulate your sound that much in the way a guitarist can with pedals on the fly. So it was cool to be able to record drums and change the sound of them. You can start to hear how impactful a change in drum sounds can be in changing the shape of a record or song.

Did you start by recording your own bands for just the purposes of hearing it back or did you make records out of those?

A little bit of both. Sometimes it was just to record rehearsals and capture ideas in a multi-track fashion. As those got closer to being "passable," bands I was in started to use those as actual recordings.

What was the first one you did?

The first thing I ever released as part of a band I was in was from singer / songwriter, Jeremiah Wingerden, from Upstate New York. Those were folk tunes, and that was the first thing I ever put out.

Before that, I had lured some bands in with the caveat that I had no idea what I was doing. I'd bought this big Roland 24-track machine, and I was flipping through the manual as I was doing the recordings.

Did you do those first recordings in a studio?

It was in the basement of our first house. Low ceilings. Nothing acoustically good about it. But it was a space. That's where it started.

Then I started playing with Rick [Barry] and No Wine For Kittens and Dentist. That's when I started doing things more seriously. The idea with Rick was to do a song a month. He had already done This Antediluvian World. Then he put the songs we did together as This Postdiluvian World. Since that was a collection of one-offs, I kind of explored them in different ways. One was like my attempt at The Postal Service meets Phil Collins. One was a very matt pond PA type...

Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in Chicago never takes a producer credit. He always calls himself just an "engineer." Where do you think you fall on that spectrum? Would someone hear a record and say, "This is an Andy Bova record?"

It depends. When I worked with Rick, who didn't have any other players at the time, he would come in and either play guitar or piano and sing and leave the rest to me. I was allowed to add or do whatever, and he would trust me to do that. But the more players that come in, the less I may put my stamp on it.

Sometimes bands may have an exact target, and then it's helping them get there. Other times, they may have less of an idea. They have their songs, but they may say, "I'd like to hear some keys in there," or something like that. You try to feel that out. Some people have a lot of opinions and some people want to just hear something back.

So you went from your 8-track to your 24-track to, now, a studio that you built out yourself and takes up about half the square footage in your house. What did you have to learn to be able to do this beyond construction and the ins and outs of getting permits from the town?

We had sold our old house so that the kids could go to school in this town where I grew up. And we knew then that there was no place to play music in this house.

I had worked for 8 years with Tom Ruff at Asbury Media. Not everything I did there was music-related, but just working with him was pretty inspiring. I knew I wanted to build a space to record in, and I left my job at Asbury Media to be a stay at home dad and with the idea that I'd get myself some training and become more invested in recording music.

Before even getting started on building this out, I continued (and still continue) to work with Tom on doing live recordings. We did a whole summer of recording boardwalk jazz with P.J. Rasmussen. Up to then, I had done mostly "in the box" type recording using software or whatever. But with Tom, I'd be recording every Thursday and then mixing that every Monday at his studio on a console and learning more and more. That was a real hands-on education. I mean, a few times it was an 18- or 20-piece big band where we were mic'ing everything and mixing everything, which was pretty crazy. I actually got my first TV credit for something we did with P.J. for PBS called "An American Christmas."

So through all of that, I was accumulating gear and accumulating knowledge. I also learned a lot working with No Wine For Kittens on those studio recordings. I loved working with Justin [Bornemann] on those things.

And you've worked on all three of the Dentist LPs with Justin and the rest of the band...

We also did like four songs before the first record... ...that was the whole idea of the band. Put together four or five songs and record and mix them in one day. We made our own DIY sleeves and stuff.

Andy co-produced Dentist's Night Swimming which comes out 7/20.

So a band like Dentist is going to change what they want over the course of those early recordings up to their latest LP. Do you feel like you've evolved as a producer over that same time period independently of that? Like has something as simple as your workflow gotten easier or more efficient?

Yeah. Learning more about the room and getting new gear, learning how to use it. You start to get rid of things you don't use or need and focus on the things that are going to be the most impactful sonically, while remaining open to new ideas. It's a balance between having a template and remaining flexible.

Is Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) a thing?

It's a problem. There are a lot of things around here that I MIGHT need.

I had a keyboard phase once. While we were between houses, we had money in the bank from having just sold our house, and I was just buying keyboards, saying things like, "I have to drive to go pick up this keyboard I just bought on Craigslist."

You say there are superfluous things here that you MIGHT need. Is there gear that you find yourself going back to again and again? Do you have favorites or is it more case-by-case?

I think it's more case-by-case. Sometimes, people will come in and say, "What's this??" and start tinkering. Then it will be like, "Oh yeah. Let's do something with that." A lot of cheap little keyboards are fun for that!

Outside of Rick Barry, No Wine For Kittens, and Dentist, what else have you done or are you doing?

Well, I did just record a string section. It was for Rick's new record, but I'd never recorded a string section before. It was a totally different experience working with musicians who were using the sheet music as a cheat sheet and telling me what they wanted in a specific measure. So I was thrilled.

I worked with a guy named Mark Skarecki. He brought a bunch of songs. It goes from kind of smooth jazz to raw funkier stuff. He played the scratch tracks on a mandolin through his iPad with his vocal and drums. I'd import his song, and the band would get it all in the headphones. I'd record bass drums and keys downstairs, while they were all listening to him.

Renee Maskin of Lowlight during our Simple Sound Session

What else do you want to do creatively?

Justin and I had started with Taxi Music -- a licensing service. We would work one or two days a week together on, like, instrumental stuff. I like the idea of composing something that has specific criteria. Like the challenge of commissioned work. I'm not necessarily a songwriter, but I can come up with instrumental stuff. I love playing guitar and keyboards and bass. I love melody.

I also love synth-based stuff. I love drum machines. And I've never been in a band like that, but I'm really interested in those types of textures. That juxtaposition of synthy stuff with something more raw. I would love to make a record like a Beach House record, where it starts with maybe a drum machine and just layers and layers.

I also enjoy working on drums, manipulating that sound.

You've talked about manipulating sound. Do you think it's important for a band to be able to re-produce live what they've recorded?

It would depend on the act and what they're doing. In some cases, it's just a different experience. I've definitely seen bands whose records may have used programmed drums or something like that, and I really enjoyed that sound. But it just wasn't the same when I saw them live with a live drummer.

Are you able to just watch and listen to a show and take it in, or are you now always critiquing things as a sound engineer?

It's probably a little bit of both. Definitely, unfortunately, looking at the gear, I may say "Oooh. I need to get that!" if it sounds good.

I think I get very drum focused, too. When playing shows, I would watch the bands that came on before us and try to change my playing depending on how the room was sounding.

Where can people hear some of the stuff you've done here at Simple Sound Studio?

The best place would be over at Dentist's new record, Night Swimming, comes out on July 20th. If people hear something they like and are interested in working together, they should get in touch. I love being busy.

Simple Sound Studio is located in Oceanport, NJ. You can contact Andy Bova at or 732 977 7264.

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