13 Questions with

Chris Karn

Treehouse in a Deccatree

Chris Karn is an independent music producer and recording engineer from Orange County in southern California. Chris is truly multifaceted, he's a surfer, a self professed 'family guy,' an expert in many types of antiquities, and has an impressive skill set as a musician, engineer, producer, songwriter and arranger.

Karn has been working in the "music business," for the lack of a better term, for most of his adult life. As a musician he got his musical start playing guitar in the popular Orange County combo 'Standing Hawthorn.' Later, Chris signed his first recording contract on Capital Records with his band Sonichrome. From 1995 to 1999 he wrote, recorded and toured with Sonichrome. The band included Chris Karn, vocals and guitar, Rodney Mollura, bass and vocals, along with Craig Randolph on drums. In 1998 they released the album "Breathe the Daylight" and toured to support the album.

After that project ended, Chris started the band Deccatree, and was signed to Atlantic Records. You can see where his heart is when you name your band Deccatree, right? After some well documented "internal transitions" at Atlantic Records, and the overwhelming change in the "record business" in general, Karn walked away from the record contract, but, with the album they recorded in hand. Soon after Karn released the album independently as Deccatree "The Battle of Life".

"The Battle of Life" is a great album and showcases Karn has a mature songwriter, musician and producer. There were several musicians in the band over the years. Deccatree performed their last show at the Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa, CA on October 23, 2012 with the lineup of Karn, vocals and guitar, drummer Dicki Fliszar, keyboardist Jesse Nason, and bassist Natalia Bolanos. After years of shows and other recordings, Karn said goodbye to Deccatree to focus more on recording and producing new projects for himself and others. Note: you can listen or purchase Battle of Life" on Amazon, there are many great songs on there, I recommend you take a listen.

As an engineer, Chris has worked with Rocco Deluca, Daniel Lanois, Joe Chiccarelli, Tyrone Wells, Tom Mcrae and many other local and indie bands in the greater Los Angeles area. His latest projects include: The Social Skuffs, ZZ Lightfoot (feat. Kiefer Sutherland) and the band Hollowell. Chris also plays bass with the Social Skuffs & ZZ Lightfoot live.

Karn primarily works out if his private studio in Orange County which features an SSL Matrix Console, racks of handpicked vintage and new, high end outboard gear and a multitude of instruments and 'noise makers'. But he also is known for setting up mobile recording systems and converting the artist's space that he is working with into a warm, and professional recording environment that inspires creativity. A perfect example is Rocco Deluca's latest album, the self titled "Rocco Deluca" which was recorded mostly at Rocco's house by Chris with his mobile ProTools rig and outboard recording equipment, where the Mercury GPQ15s, M72s and Mercury 66 were heavily featured on those recordings.

You have also heard Chris Karn's productions of original music and film and television. Movies include: 'Blast from the Past', 'Never Been Kissed', 'Fireflies in the Garden'. TV shows include: 'Jericho', 'According Alex' and 'How I Met Your Mother' on CBS, 'Beauty and the Geek' (WB), 'Killer Instinct' (Fox), 'MTV Spring Break', 'Date My Mom' (MTV), 'Scrubs' (Season 3), 'Numb3rs' and many more.

Chris sings, plays bass, plays guitar, and much more on his music projects as well as for clients he records and produces. He is known for his creativity, and honest, positive approach to get the best from everyone involved whether it's his project or yours. His focus is always the song, the way it should be, where he uses his talent and ability as a great songwriter and all-around musician. Most importantly, the fact is anyone who has worked with Chris Karn or has had the pleasure to meet him knows he's one of the nicest and most sincere people you'll ever meet, but I am a little biased because I am lucky to be able say he is a good friend of mine. And I do not mean the 'new', social media, digital kind of friend, I mean the old school, 'vintage,' full of tubes and transformers kind of friend.

Mercury Recording Equipment Company’s 13 Questions

01 When did you know Music was more than a hobby or dream job and was going to be your “career”? Was there one thing that made that happen?

I got a job as a "touring" guitarist for an act on Sony/BMG that toured the states and Europe doing radio festivals with other big name acts that I was honored to be playing on the same stage with - after that I got the bug which later led to a deal with Capitol Records. So it was at that time that I started thinking of music as a career. I've been very blessed ever since.

02 What aspect of music are you known for (i.e. engineer, mixer, producer, musician)? and What do you do that most people do NOT know you do as well (music related or not!)?

I work with mostly up and coming/new artists who are looking for a one stop shop where someone can guide them as a producer, engineer it and mix it as well. 80% of the time it's in my own personal studio that is well equipped with both instruments and recording equipment. There are still a lot of artists and producers that I work with that have no idea that I have a band or release records, still most of the work I get is from an artist liking the production of my own bands' recordings. It's part my fault because I never bring it up during sessions, I feel that would take away from the artist and I never want that to happen. My job is to serve the artist the best I can, not brag or play show and tell during the session.

03 What is your musical ”guilty pleasure”?

The Smiths and REM. Both Johnny Marr and Peter Buck are very amazing and original guitarists. Also, classics like [Somewhere] "Over the Rainbow" (lyricist E.Y. Harburg), anything written by lyricist Sammy Cahn... that stuff kills me.

04 What do you think is the most important thing is to get a great recording? What stage of a recording is most overlooked?

First priority for me is the performance and the part/instrumentation: I think many people miss the true primary elements of an artist and it can get overlooked thru out a recording, we are all guilty of it. Whenever I find the session is about to to go south I take a minute and think about the artists' unique qualities, like what are the 2 main elements that this artist is known for, I then amplify those elements. If what you are chasing has little to do with those unique qualities than that is probably why you are having a hard time getting the track.

Also, being true to the artist can keep you moving quickly with instinct and a natural vibe tand this will usually sound better than anything that is bled over.

Second priority is the tone: for signal chain, I'd say just a great mic and a great pre. In most cases the pre is even more important as a great mic like a 58 or sm7 can cover a lot of ground, but both mics sound radically different plugged into different pre-amps. Picking the right pre for the right mic can really open the recording up.

05 Who do you admire in the recording world (engineers, producers, mixers, etc...) and why?

In no particular order:

Brendan O'Brien - for making us feel like we are there.

Daniel Lanois - for the vibe and musicianship that he brings to the recording.

Nigel Godrich - for daring artists to bend the rules, simple and beautiful.

Andy Wallace - for showing us how to mix.

Jack Joseph Puig - for being such a creative and giving teacher, his mixes and production on the Jellyfish records are sick!

Chris Lord-Alge - for doing such a killer job on the Deccatree record and for being so forthcoming with me on the mix techniques.

Tom Lord-Alge - for the punch and incredible excitement that he can put on a mix, I've seen him do it first hand and it's crazy!

Joe Chiccarelli - doing a record assisting him was eye opening and cool. He has a very natural vibe that has rubbed off on my work. Joe's best advice was "don't believe everything you read about engineering", great advice for sure.

I could go on, but these are the first that come to mind.

06 What are your feelings on TAPE vs. DAW?

Tape softens the sharp edges, where as digital is like a glass mirror. I've been without tape on 95% the records I've done for the past 10 years. We all have to deal with this situation and we look elsewhere for colorful equipment that helps us get that euphoric glow on our recordings. A lot of music we love that has come out recently has been tapeless, I would rather have an inspiring performance and song than worry about the format, but tape would be great. I've found some great work-arounds that help bring the analog vibe with the tube pres/EQs, some cool comps and my console for mixing.

07 What new Artist/Group is in your “player” right now? What Artist/Group has always been in your “Top 10”?

I've been so busy making records with great artists that that is all I listen to now. I do admire Arcade Fire, MGMT, Ray LaMontagne, Fleet Foxes and the Kings of Leon to name a few. There's a lot of great music in LA right now. There is a lot of great music period right now.

08 What generation had the best music and/or recordings? and/or What generation’s music do you connect with the most?

Best could be argued, but I connect best with early Alt rock like REM's first 4 records. They are not perfect recordings but harmonically they are unique in their own way and I connect with that... still do, they can do no wrong in my book.

09 You get to have one mic for vocals for the rest of your career, what is it and why?

Bock 251 on the high end and a Shure SM7 on the low end. They are both perfect designs for what I do, they just come up on the faders sounding great and are multipurpose.

10 When did you first hear of Mercury Recording Equipment Co.? What was your first experience using Mercury Equipment?

My first experience was buying a pair of racked, vintage V72s and vintage Neve modules from David (Marquette Audio Labs), later I heard the Mercury M72s and was blown away.

To my ears the M72 sounds a lot like the the V72, but when I sing into it I feel it has a warm, and very slight, compression not unlike adding my LA-2A after one of the V72s. This to me is a great tool for recording anything from vocals to bass to drums without having an extra piece of gear in the chain. I love the vintage vibe but I'm incredibly excited with the prospect of newly hand made gear that has a vibe that is different but still feels like home, like a record when you hear it back.

11 What piece(s) of Mercury Equipment do you own or have you used? What applications / sessions have you used it (them) on?

I own the Mercury M72s pre amp and find it great on everything, I usually place it on instruments where I want them to be either LARGE or less flat / digital.

I've used both of the EQs, all of the pres and the 66 limiting amplifier. They are all powerful tools and I always end up experimenting with different combinations that continuously surprise me with great results.

At the Hyde Street session (2008's AudiOktoberfest, Mercury's Not Your Average AES Party) I had fun choosing between the softer and faster sounding pres to create the right drum sound for the song we were working on. I love the speed of the Mercury Grand Pre and found it to have a nice punch in the mids (like my 1073s), so I put it on the snare for a good crack and thump.

The Mercury AM 16s have a nice glisten to the top end so I place those on the hat and the outside head of a marching drum we were using for the kick - this helped define the tempo of the track.

It was a toss up between the Mercury M76m and Mercury M72s with the mono ribbon mic we were using to cover the over all kit sound and I think I went for the M76 as it had a mid range quality that helped this kit in this room and the tubes/transformers softened the cymbals for the particular kit we were using in that room.

I then took the kick and gave it some thump and air with the Mercury EQ-P1 (which sounds so much like my Pultec at home that it scared me, cool). I also took the Mercury EQ-H1 and put that on the snare for some adding at 2k as I like the top end of that EQ for that frequency.

I lastly added the Mercury 66 limiter on the mono drum mic in compressor mode (that compressor knob is powerful and cool) to fill in the space a touch and bring out more of the drummer's detail like I heard when I was standing out in the studio next to his kit.

Overall the the track started to take on a great vibe that did not feel overly colored, but just colored enough to help bring out the vibe that I was feeling in the room with the musicians.

I also used the M72 and the EQ-H1 on a record I just did, engineering for Daniel Lanois. The primary application was Dobro and acoustic. On both instruments I got the best sounds that I've ever gotten, the Dobro can be harsh when going to digital and the M72/EQ-H1 was perfect. The acoustic was a late 40's gibson and the finished recording was amazing, you felt like you were inside the guitar... I am very proud of those recordings and it impressed Daniel. Very cool.

Today I'm working on a record for an artist named Jay Buchanan, we're really going after an early STAX tone and we've had both the M72 and the EQ-H1 for most of the recording — the results so far have been perfect for what we are trying to achieve in a purely digital medium. I'm excited to see how it mixes as it is feeling very right to me now.

12 What are your overall thoughts on Mercury Recording Equipment? And please describe Mercury Recording Equipment in 5 words or less.

The proof was in the track I did at Hyde, it just sounded right both in the studio and back at my home studio... it sounded like a record with little eq needed.

5 words: sounds right and feels right.

13 What has been you most rewarding experience in the studio?

The moment you reach the core of someone's emotion and the song connects. Whether it is the artist finally hearing how they truly felt when they wrote the song for the first time or connecting with a listener and they truly feel the vibe that was in the room when we pressed record — that does it for me.