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One-on-one with Harley Zinker, Interpol FOH

We had the chance to sit down with Harley Zinker, FOH engineer for Interpol, at Summer Sonic 2007.

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We had the chance to sit down with Harley Zinker, FOH engineer for Interpol, at Summer Sonic 2007.

Audio-Technica: Youíve been with Interpol for six years now. Itís a rarity to be a front-of-house guy and have a steady gig like that.

Harley Zinker: First and foremost, theyíre a really loyal bunch. They like to surround themselves with competent people they feel comfortable with. There are very minimal changes year to year. They trust usóso we respect that.

Thatís also got to help on your side. From really intimately knowing the band, youíre able to evolve your sound, rather than doing a summer run and then moving on to the next band.
Absolutely, itís not a do-over every time. Itís a progression, weíre building upon what we did, whether itís last year, last month or last week.

I understand you guys are carrying your own desks, which is another rarity, doing these kinds of shows.
Weíre luckyówe have a production manager thatís a former audio guy, who understands the value of carrying your own desks and equipment.

What is the value of that?
Familiarity with equipment. Not having to start from ground zero, even in this day and age of digital desks, itís not quite as simple as loading your file into a desk and starting. Thereís finessing.

Your sound check [at Summer Sonic 2007] was almost a line check, out in about 20 minutes.
I wasnít pushing it. I wasnít rushing it. I got everything I needed. And that gets back to the band. They realize that we need these tools to do our job. It makes it more fun. I donít have to worry about what desk or what gear Iím going to have. It definitely helps.

What Audio-Technica mics are you using?
On kick drum, we have AE2500. On hi hat we have an AE3000. On overheads, which are in our case technically underheads, we have AT3035s. For ride, we have AT3031. For guitar cabs, we have AT4040s. And all vocals are 6100s.

Wow. What engineers know all the models numbers and the prefixes?
Iíll be honest, I just said 6100 because I was fuzzy there for a minute. But I know thatís an AE!

So what about the mics? Why did you choose themóand how are they working out for you?
The AE2500ófor years, I was using two different microphones from different manufacturers. And when youíre using two different microphones on the same instrument, there are phase issues. In the AE2500, both capsules are perfectly aligned, there are no phase issues. It makes my job easier, and it sounds great!
I tried a lot of different microphones and I come back to the AE2500. Itís one microphone. And it does the job.

The AE3000. I love that microphone! Look at it, itís awesome! Iíve used it on snare bottom, Iíve used it in a lot of different places and right now, itís living on high hat. Itís just a great sounding, no nonsense mic.

The 3035and 3031óIím going to sound like a broken recordóthose mics are such a fantastic value for the money! I am using a mid-range microphone from you guys that is so road-worthy. I havenít had any issues whatsoever. Theyíve been around the world I canít tell you how many times. Have I ever called you about repairing anything? No, I havenít! Itís just a fantastic-sounding mic. Itís just about the right mic, in the right place, for the right job. The 3031 and 3035 just suit my needs perfectly.

I use the 4040 on guitars. Years ago I worked in a recording studio when the 4033 came out and everybody was just absolutely blown away, and I was blown away at the timeóthis affordable large diaphragm. That kind of turned me on to the 4040 from there. I hi-pass it. I donít EQ it, I donít have to EQ it. It sounds great as it is.

The 6100 is another mic with that tight pattern and great gain before feedback. Originally our lead singer was on wedges: we had three wedges just screaming, and feedback was definitely an issue. The 6100ís tight pattern certainly helped. Heís now on in-ears, which makes my life significantly easier. The AE6100 is just a fantastic sounding mic that responds really wellI have them on both back-up singers and the lead vocal. I know some guys go for the money mic on the lead vocal; I donít feel the need to do that. This is a workhorse microphone in my opinion.

All the stuff is so robust; Iíve never called you with a repair issue. Iíve got a couple of backups which I periodically rotate just to seeódid something change here? Nothing changes. The stuff is just so rock solid. I sing its praises to everybody, to be quite honest. I can use any thing I want to use, and this is what I choose to use.

Any unique challenges youíve come across in mixing Interpol?
Honestly, no. Theyíre so straightforward. To me, the way they play their instruments is a reflection of their personalities. Theyíre four fairly headstrong individuals. The band is very democraticóin the songwriting process and in everything else that they do in the band, if somebody doesnít like it, it doesnít get played. I know them well at this point, so I hear that. My job is just to capture what theyíre doing and obviously blend and mix. Which is what Iím here to do. Capture it in a realistic manner.

What do you mean by that?
What theyíre doing is how it should sound already. They are not a fix it in the mix band. Letís get it right off the stage, allow Harley to capture it that way. And assemble and mix it from there. The tones are as they sound be. Itís not corrective mixing. Iím subtly enhancing things from time to time. But they give me what I need. Thatís what itís all about.

Sounds like you have a cold.
Itís tour cough. Itís from moving from air-conditioned buses to dirty, dusty fields, to airplanes.

How did you get started with Interpol?
I worked at a small club in New York called Brownies, which was this hip little indie rock 200-capacity venue. Interpol is a New York band. Iíd mixed them a few times as a house engineer. We just kind of built a relationship from there. Which turned intoóďHey weíve got a gig in Boston, want to come?Ē Which turned into, ďHey, weíre going to London for a week, want to come?Ē And so on, and so on, and so on. Then coincidentally Brownies closed, and three days later, I was on the road with them. I spent 18 months on the road with Interpol on their first record. There goes a year and a half of my life. But it opened up opportunities and doors for me. Being associated with them, the phone rings. I like to think itís worked out well for both of us. Iím still here and theyíre happy with my work. I love working with them.

How did you get into the business?
I was a studio rat for a whole bunch a years. It was the wrong time, because budgets were dropping. Major labels were not forking over $700,000 to do records anymore. I stopped doing the studio thing and started working in the mailroom at EMI Capital Records simply because two guys I knew had a job there. Hey, it was a job. Being in the mailroom, I got to see how the whole operation worked. I got friendly with a couple of A & R people, and one of them said, ďHey, have you ever done live sound?Ē At that point I never had. I was very honest with him. He said, ďHow about this. You go hang out at this club for a couple of days, weíll see if you know what youíre doing, then weíll put you on the road. We just signed this band; they need somebody; we think this would work.Ē

So I hung out with them for a couple of days. Brownies ended up offering me a job. I went on the road with this band called Verbena, and it just kind of went from there. I was not looking to be a live sound guy. Not at all.

Did you go to school for this stuff?

You learned by doing?
I worked in rehearsal studios before I worked in recording studios, so I was ringing out PAs all day long. The fundamental single chain and frequencyÖthat was stuff I learned very early on that was applicable both to studios and to the live-sound environment. So I had the fundamentals, I just need to put them into practice. Brownies allowed me to put it into practice day after day, four or five bands a night.

You really learned.
Thatís where I became an engineer and practiced my craft. So as a result, Iím very supportive of house guys. Theyíre looking to get on the road and make that jump. How do you make that jump? By being good at what you do and caring. So many house guys seem to have that I donít want to be here syndrome. Iíve encountered it myself as a touring engineer. If you donít want to be there, you can go someplace else and get another job. But if you do want to be there, itís awesome, because itís a great place to be and you can really make something of it. I made something of it. It baffles me sometimes. I worked at this 200-capacity club, and weíve got Madison Square Garden coming up September 14th.

It can happen. Iím living proof of it. Enjoy what you do, take it seriously, but still enjoy it. I love what I doóthat makes it easy. You know, the traveling and all, living out of a suitcase, thatís a drag sometimes. I look forward to every day. I live for that hour and ten minutes that I get with these guys. Or any band I work with.

What do you like about it?
Itís highly technical, but itís highly creative at the same time. And that works really well for me.

Right brain, left brain.
Exactly. Literally in equal amounts. You have to have the fundamentals. The fundamentals are all the technical stuff. Itís like painting. Before you can be an abstract painter, you need to know how to paint realistically, I feel. Youíve got to know the fundamentals.

What problems do you see inexperienced sound people making?
I think now with digital desksóand this happened with analog desks, tooóyou get too caught up in the gear. Get your fundamentals down first. Bake the cake before you put the icing on it. Thatís kind of how I like to look at it.

Can you say a little more about that?
These days, you can use all sorts of plug-ins on desks, and there are so many options. But you have to be solid in your fundamentals. You have to understand signal flow, gain staging, what happens all the way down the chain. The microphone, the cable, where does it go from there and what happens at each step. Itís so easy for somebody to buy a small Pro Tools rig, some type of multi-track recording studio and do the stuff in their home. Itís a double-edged sword. Itís fantastic that anybody can now do this stuff. But the other side is, if you want to do it professionally, you canít be a tinkerer. You have to have some type of solid foundation.

Thatís a really good point. I canít tell you how many times you can have any PA, and if you bring a professional into that club, it will sound ten times better immediately. You can make any PA sound good. Itís a like a drummer or anyone. You can get a lousy drum set, and you put a professional drummer on it and make it sound good.

No amount of gear is going to make you a better mixer.

I keep saying, you need to understand the fundamentalsógain structure. Understanding what going on all the way down the line before you start throwing all the bells and whistles. All that stuff is good fun. It keeps me interested, because I love the technology aspect as well. But you have to have legs to stand on first. I talk to house guys all the time, because being a former house guy. If you want to get out of the house, be good at what you do. If you donít enjoy it, find something else to do. It helps that I love what I do.

That really comes across.
Iím glad that it does. Iím not ashamed to say it.

What is the creative experience for you in this work?
In Interpol, for example, I have 38 inputs coming off the stage. I have to come up with a way to mix 38 different sound sources that sound like the record in a different venue every single night in many cases not on the same PA system. My only consistencies areóbesides the band and their gearóare my microphones and my mixing desk. Otherwise a lot of the variables change night to night. So thatís where the creative part comes in. The record is always the blueprint. I constantly go back to the record.

Youíre also dealing with personalities. If somebodyís playing a little differently than they were the night before, in the back of my mind, Iím thinking, how am I going to deal with a tone that isnít sounding the way it sounded yesterday.

Itís like what you said, left side and right side almost equally. In some other bands, if the drummer is having a great night, maybe weíll rely on the drummer a little more. All these things need to be taken into consideration. But itís funny, these are all things I donít think about.

Theyíre second nature at this point.
Exactly. But itís good being asked because it makes me think about it. I appreciate it when anybody asks me a question that makes me think. How did I do that? I know how I did it, but can I explain to somebody how I did it?
People are constantly asking about the desk. I can stand there and push the buttons in the right sequence and just make it happen. But sometimes I have to take a step back and say, this does this, which causes this.

Any microphone that really stands out as being indispensable to you?
I think I could do the whole show with AE2500s. I could put them on every instrument and get away with it. I think I could make it happen there. It might be a little weird on overheadsÖ

Push back the dynamic and push up the condenser.
Exactly. Thatís why I choose the AE2500. Because it gives you a choice.