Interview with Kenny Eaton of Mystery Ton Studios

Interview by Guillermo Pizarro
There are a few personally known people in my artistic career that I owe a lot to. Kenny Eaton of Mystery Ton Studios is one of them. His willingness to take me in as a client has been an important factor in my growth as a sound artist, but when I sat and thought about it; and despite being one of his first clients, I realized that I didn't know as much as I would have liked about how he started up his career. I hope this interview will help attract a new branch of experimental artists who may be weary of recording studios to utilize his expertise and awesome gear. Plus, he's just a fun guy to spend the day with. I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve when I know I'm due to be in, you will feel the same.

How did the studio itself and the name Mystery Ton come about? I actually never really thought about it until writing this interview. Sounds great though!

The name "Mystery Ton" is a play on words of my name, "Mister Eaton." I thought it was clever and stupid, but evocative so it stuck. The studio started as a way for me to record my own band, Time Columns, in an environment that was well equipped to capture traditional instruments like drums, bass, guitars, vocals, etc., but also provide an environment that was conducive to experimentation. I had always felt rushed and under pressure when experimenting in other studios with outside engineers, so I wanted to build a place that was completely open-minded and free of restraint but still got awesome drum tones and all the normal stuff like that.

I basically built a fort for myself with all the toys that I like to make music with and eventually my friends would come record here, then their friends would come here and eventually, I quit my day job to work at the studio full-time to keep up with the demand. I'm very grateful for all the artists that have helped me get to this position.

What’s your musical background? In other words, when did you start playing? What drove you to music?

I grew up playing viola and hated it, then switched to bass guitar and eventually guitar. I completely regret falling out of touch with viola. It's such a beautiful sounding instrument when played well, but like most young people, I thought I was too cool for a classical instrument and wanted to play rock and roll. I started thinking musically when I was around 12 or 13 when I picked up bass guitar and fell in love with Jaco Pastorius' playing. I was really into jazz, progressive rock and classical music when I was young and that led me to studying composition at Peabody Conservatory my first year of college. I was also working on a second degree in Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, so I was completely burnt out by the end of that first year.

My stress levels were unreasonably high and it was affecting my health, so I decided to drop out of conservatory and focus on my JHU degree rather than take five years to finish both and probably lose all my sanity and money. I think art and music school is perfect for a select number of people, but for
everyone else, I think it's an easy way for educational institutions to make a lot of money off of impressionable youth. I was looking for my identity in life and I was academically gifted, so music school was the logical next step right? I learned a lot at Peabody, but it also taught me that nothing matters more to expressing yourself through music than your own inner voice. I feel the same way about Audio Engineering Schools. Ironically enough, spending most of my waking life studying about war and conflict for my other degree actually increased my musical output because at the end of the day I just wanted to unplug and create rather than read about how horribly human beings can treat one another. I still find war and security politics endlessly fascinating and a part of me wishes I continued down that path, but when I remember waking up from bad dreams about the subject matter I was studying, I remember that I made the right decision. I help people bring entirely new pieces of art to life every day, why would I consider doing anything else at this point?

What drove you to engineering? Was it out of necessity or something else you felt passionate about? Was it overwhelming to get the ball rolling?

I was always particularly drawn to engineering just because the musical ideas I wanted to execute usually involved a more sophisticated level of production. My bandmate growing up had a Pro Tools system set up in his basement and he recorded all of our band's demos, so I was exposed to engineering pretty early in my musical development. I was always the guy in the room suggesting weird ideas that most of the time didn't work, but I just wanted to try them because it was fun hearing all the pieces of sound play off of one another.

I eventually started buying gear to try all the experimental/overdub stuff on my own so that I wasn't wasting anyone's time and I was completely enthralled with engineering sound. It was definitely overwhelming to get the ball rolling. Opening a recording studio is a terrible investment these days. I broke down and wanted to quit on numerous occasions over the first year or two of opening the studio. There was a lot of pressure on my shoulders to produce good results for my clients when I was sitting behind a console and tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear. Since then, it's gotten a lot more fun.

What engineers or producers influence how you work?

I've always liked Rick Rubin's approach to working with artists as human beings and not just musical instruments. The actual "scientific" part of the recording process (i.e. acoustics, microphone placement, gear selection, instrument, etc.) is certainly important, but the signal chain falls apart if the performer isn't in the best physical, mental and spiritual condition to perform. Singers are a great example of this. I recently bought an original Neumann U47FET mic that cost $4,000 and plugged it into my vintage Neve 3104 worth $5000 into my Distressor worth $1000 into my converters worth $5000 and expected a day and night difference in vocal takes compared to my previous vocal mic that only cost $1000.

After a few sessions with different singers, I noticed some considerable improvements in overall color of the signal and how vocal tracks sat with the rest of the mix, but I very quickly realized that even with such an incredible signal chain, it was worthless if the singer wasn't performing that "oh my god that was special" take in front of it. I make it a point to ask my clients to get lots of sleep, eat well, practice their pieces and communicate to their family, bandmates and significant others about how important their recording session is and to ask them for their support before and after they hit the studio. The relationships I build with my clients is one of my favorite parts of this job. "Engineering" is critical to a good recording, but becoming a supportive and understanding force in the artist's life and their creative process is just as, if not more, important.

What have been some of your highlights in the studio? This could be clients, learning new techniques, etc.

I recently recorded Ron Holloway, who played with Warren Haynes, Susan Tedeschi, Dizzy Gillespie, Gil Scott-Heron, Root Boy Slim and other legendary musicians. It was an honor working with someone who had that kind of musical pedigree. He's a ridiculously good player too... Working with you (Guillermo Pizarro) and Christopher Feltner are always unique sessions because it's different every time and I have no idea what to expect most of the time. Watching Chris bring in a door from his car and stab it to pieces with a huge knife in front of a microphone in the live room was a trip. "A Tribute to Jack Dempsey" was an insane session too.

Your dream recording session? Living or dead, of course.

I would love to work with Steve Reich. Robert Fripp and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez would both be awesome artists to work with too.

You are in gear heaven and I don’t talk gear as much as I used to. Are there any particular pieces of equipment you’re eyeballing lately?

Most of my money is being spent on finishing acoustic treatment and creature comforts around the studio nowadays, so I probably won't be buying anything cool for a couple months. I've been wanting
to build out my Marshall collection more for a while just because they record well across so many genres. I'm always prowling for a JCM800 for a good price.

You recently recorded another peer of mine, Christopher S. Feltner and you mentioned how you love recording this type of stuff cause you can just throw the rulebook out of the window when recording us. I know what rules WE are breaking when we create, but from an engineering standpoint I have no idea. What rules are they? What challenges do you face when recording this type of music?

I wouldn't say you guys are breaking "rules" of engineering as much as "general guidelines," but maybe I'm getting into semantics (like a jerk). Generally, it's not a good idea to clip the master bus into digital distortion if you want a crisp and clean master. I remember multiple mixing sessions with you and Chris where we intentionally crushed the master bus into severe digital distortion because it sounded so gross. I would pretty much never do that with a non-experimental artist unless they specifically asked for something like that and even then, I would probably reach for a piece of analog gear for a more smooth, pleasing distortion. You both have a very good ear and digital distortion (while generally frowned upon) was exactly what those pieces called for.

As far as challenges I face as an engineer working with you and Chris, I'm constantly riding input and output gain on preamps/compressors while recording just because the volume of the signal being recorded varies DRAMATICALLY even between takes. Engineers should aim to optimize the signal to noise ratio while recording just so when it comes time to mix, you're not dealing with tracks that have barely any volume/gain. You also want to avoid digital clipping (most of the time). When a drummer comes in, I set up the microphones and after we get everything placed/tuned/eq'ed/compressed correctly, we focus on getting the take we need. With you and Chris, one take might be through an SVT 8x10 with fuzz and sub octave, while the next take might be a whispered track building into a scream. I've done weird stuff during your sessions like putting a Subkick microphone on a bass amp that I would never do with a normal bass guitar. You guys keep me on my toes.

Tell me about Time Columns, where are you guys at on the new album?

We're finished recording drums, bass and about 60% of guitars. We still have to finish clean guitars, acoustic guitars, vocals, piano, synth, effects and auxiliary percussion. It's a slow process just because I'm always working on between 5-10 records with my clients at any given time and it's hard to get in the right headspace for my own music when I already spend 80-100 hours a week working on other projects. I'm completely satisfied with how everything is sounding so far, so it makes me feel better when I step back and realize that we've been recording this album for a year now. The songwriting and production has grown considerably since our last release. I am very excited to show people this when it's done.

Has running a studio full time helped the creativity / writing process for Time Columns?

Definitely. Producing lots of different styles of music has helped cut my teeth as far as songwriting goes. Our writing process is extremely fast nowadays and I'm sure we'll start recording the next album as soon as this one is sent off to mastering. We're sitting on a lot of material and the process of writing, recording, mixing and releasing our own albums will only get more efficient from here.

What is in store for Mystery Ton this year? Any plans to expand?

My main focus lately has been on making the studio more comfortable for people to relax in. I replaced all the furniture with nice leather couches and set up the green room with a big TV for clients to watch movies or play video games while someone else is tracking. I'll be at my current location for a couple more years, but yes, I have plans to expand into a larger facility that offers bands a place to live while recording. Baby steps!

I think that covers everything! Anything else you’d like to add that I might have missed?

Thank you for the interview! If anybody reading this is interested in working together, feel free to email me at mysterytonstudios [at]

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