If a tree falls in the forest, should the producer give it his signature sound? If I asked New Paltz-based producer/engineer Kevin McMahon that, he’d probably yawn and suggest that, no, it is not really the part of the producer to have and to impose a trademark sound – but sometimes it happens anyway. Being human, producers have tastes, techniques, limitations and unique hearing damage profiles that can influence the way in which sound gets to tape. And in the case of studio-owning producers like McMahon, they also have distinctive recording spaces and specific gear lists and preferences, all of which can impart a recognizable sonic stamp. But, philosophically, no: Producing should be more about discovering the sound of the artist and developing the implications of the song than about the producer’s brand.
Still, at his busy facility – Marcata Recording, a large barn-and-silo studio outside of New Paltz – McMahon, willfully or not, has become a producer with a signature sound and a brand identity – one that national bands deem worth traveling for and that sympathetic local acts want a piece of. Along with Team Love, the national record label that magically appeared on Church Street in New Paltz one day [also featured in this edition of Almanac], Marcata has given indie bands in this town an emblematic reason to like themselves and to hold their heads high – which is not indie’s traditional posture, especially around here.
Once home to at least three kick-ass Grateful Dead cover bands, New Paltz is now the town where the legendary “no wave” band Swans mixed their epic comeback album My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky and recorded its follow-up, where New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus did its wildly popular Civil War-inspired indie punk concept album The Monitor and where chimey guitar popsters Real Estate recorded their glistening sophomore effort Days – and more and more, all with McMahon at the desk. In this way, the producer’s signature sound accrues over time, the residue of affinity-driven word-of-mouth: One band does well, and kindred bands make pilgrimage to the source. Next thing you know, the producer has a sound.
Many sounds, actually, because McMahon is, if nothing else, a radical sound-getter, an experienced audio engineer, a gear aficionado, a working musician and even a repair tech who can service his own two-inch, 24-track tape machine: his medium of choice. McMahon knows intimately how to use and abuse the tools of recording toward extreme ends. A typical Marcata production is characterized by a wealth and density of palpable, confrontational sounds – excited, distressed, remote, weird, abrasive, enveloping and pretty sounds – and by the high drama of their deployment.