The Sound of Brotherly Love: Will Yip

Record producer Will Yip is a rising star in the studio world, thanks in part to being the right person in the right place at the right time, positioned in the heart of the cutting-edge Philadelphia underground music scene. Blessed with golden ears, an acute attention to detail, and some truly legendary gear, Yip is helping to elevate an entire wave of sonic innovators, many of whom practically hail from his backyard.

 

There’s a wave of groundbreaking bands emanating from the Philadelphia/Greater Pennsylvania/Southern New Jersey suburbs, and record producer Will Yip and his Studio 4 facility in Conshohocken, Pa. are ground zero for this burgeoning movement. Armed with a lifelong passion for recording, a drummer’s musical sensibilities, and an impressive collection of studio gear, Yip has helped a lengthy list of innovative rock, punk, and hardcore groups achieve dazzling sonic results, and his career is still only in its early stages. One thing is for certain: There will be lots of impressive new recordings coming from Conshohocken in the future, as Yip just recently purchased a 50 percent stake in Studio 4, which he intends to make his permanent professional home.

After cutting his teeth as a young recording engineer, Yip’s reputation as a producer has recently launched into the stratosphere, thanks to his work on some well-received records, including Title Fight’s 2012 Floral Green; Circa Survive’s Violent Waves (2012); Daylight’s Jar (2013); the moody, atmospheric new release from Citizen, Youth (2013); and Heart Attack (2013), easily the best album yet from neo pop-punk kingpins Man Overboard. To find out more about Yip’s approach to production, the magic of his studio, and the dynamics of his local scene, Get In Media chatted with the producer, who took a break from tracking a new album by post-hardcore band Polar Bear Club.

Get in Media: How did you get started in music?

Will Yip: I was a drummer when I was a kid, and played in a bunch of different bands, but I was also always into recording my own stuff when I was a teenager. As much as I love drums, I felt this urge to be involved with the bigger picture, too, and shaping it somehow, and by 14 I was totally into making my own demos. Eventually I got involved with recording a lot of local punk and hardcore bands; that’s basically how I got my start.

GIM: Did you go to college?

WY: I attended Temple University, in part to make my parents happy, and ended up with a communications degree. I went to Temple primarily just to meet [producer/engineer/professor] Phil Nicolo, take his class, and try to intern at his studio. He taught a class [at Temple] in 2007 called Intermediate Digital Audio. I started showing up at his studio [Studio 4] by the second week of classes; I told him I’d do whatever—sweep floors, anything. I started interning, assisting, and bringing in my work whenever I could. But even back then, it ended up resulting in me getting a credit on a Keane album [the 2007 “Under Pressure” single] and a record by the Fray [2007’s Live From The Electric Factory]. I moved my personal rig into our now C Room about a year later. I’ve been here ever since.

I always tell people, it’s so important to work as much as they can early on and build their chops, which you can’t do in the classroom. Most of what I know I learned from just doing it, and from working under experienced guys like Phil. But on the other hand, my time at Temple was also invaluable, even just for the networking, which is so important, especially nowadays.

GIM: I’ve heard you’re always very meticulous about the drums on the records you work on.

WY: Yeah, I’m definitely a drummer’s producer. For me everything starts with that base level of just the beats and the space between them. From there my mind kind of works out the overall plan, progressively adding layers of other sounds on top. A lot of people don’t know this, but in addition to punk and hardcore I was also raised on a lot of hip-hop, and those rhythms are kind of ingrained in me. It all starts with the drums; without them you’ve got nothing.

GIM: What’s your studio like?

WY: It’s called Studio 4 Recording, and it’s located in Conshohocken, Pa. The owner, Phil [Nicolo], started it back in 1981. He’s part of the [production duo] “Butcher Bros.,” [Urge Overkill, Anthrax, Pete Yorn] along with his brother, Joe, who also founded Ruffhouse Records, and had all those big records with like, Kriss Kross, Cypress Hill, and the Fugees. Phil has this great studio with this amazing Neve console; the kinds of punk bands I produce, we have no business recording there, yet we still somehow get to do it. The other thing we hear a lot is when bigger bands like Circa Survive come here, they can’t believe they’re getting something that they just recently paid major-label dollars for somewhere else.

GIM: So, wow…you record on a Neve console?

WY: It’s not the same series as the super-rare one from Sound City—it’s a Neve 8048 console with 32 original 1081 preamp/EQ modules. It’s from a somewhat later generation, but I like to think of it as the meaner, improved version of the original. It just has a fullness that it brings to the sound that I can’t capture anyhow else. If you play me something from a different board I can immediately hear the difference. The Neve sounds great the minute you turn on and touch the fader. You can’t make it sound bad.

GIM: I know we’re talking about a lot of intangibles here, but what is it that makes these old Neve boards so special, in your opinion?

WY: It’s just the way they were made. [Inventor] Rupert Neve nailed it. It’s kind of like how [Gibson] Les Pauls were some of the first electric guitars, and they’re still being played by everyone. They nailed it. The same goes for the Neve. The quality of the parts and all those hand-soldered connections creates something you can’t achieve any other way. These days the old Neve consoles are sometimes worth more just for the parts, because you could never afford to make these parts new anymore. So people will strip out a one-channel preamp and someone will use it on their vocals. But here, we have the whole thing.

GIM: Since Studio 4 existed before you came along, does that mean you didn’t need to invest as much in gear as a young producer or engineer might if they were building a studio from scratch?

WY: I’ve actually brought a lot of my own gear into the studio. When I was starting out, every dollar I had to my name went into buying equipment. The thing that I need most here at Studio 4 in terms of gear is that Neve—it’s a tremendous advantage to be able to plug in and immediately be starting from that point.

GIM: What’s your personal approach to producing?

WY: It’s different every time. I think my artists would agree I adapt to whatever is needed for the project. Sometimes we do weeks and weeks of pre-production, and sometimes we do none at all. Sometimes I get involved with songwriting and structure, if that’s what’s needed, and other times I hang back. If I’m doing Tiger’s Jaw, I know I’m going for a straight-up punk record, which is going to be different than working with Anthony Green, who’s going to try a bunch of different things. I do whatever is required for the songs in order to make them better, and as a producer it’s my job to be able to hear and recognize what those particular things are.

GIM: Are you picky about who you work with? If so, what makes up your mind about a project?

WY: There was a time when I never turned work away; I took whatever work came in the door, just to keep working. But lately a lot of bands want me to produce their records, luckily, so now I mostly take on projects I’m genuinely excited about. Of course, that comes down to the songs, and how they affect me as a listener. The other part of it is, I want the bands to be excited about working with me, and be fans of my work, too. I want the bands to be super stoked to come here and record an album with me. It makes the whole process a lot smoother and more rewarding that way.

GIM: What are some of the major milestones in your career?

WY: Definitely doing the Blacklisted record [2009’s No One Deserves To Be Here More Than Me]. I was super into those guys, and when they approached me to do the record back in 2008, I wasn’t doing much at the time. That record turned out amazing—that band basically invented that whole shoegaze-y hardcore thing. It opened a lot of doors for me, and I started working with a bunch of those Deathwish-type bands after that. Another would be the Title Fight record, Floral Green. Just like with Blacklisted, when Title Fight approached me to record the follow-up to Shed, I felt like it was a huge vote of confidence in me. The same could be said of the current artists I’m working with, too, like Anthony Green and Polar Bear Club. I really appreciate the confidence they’ve placed in me, and I’m very loyal in return.

GIM: I’ve noticed a lot of your recent projects have a splash of grunge in there. Is that your influence?

WY: It’s the music I grew up with, as well as with a lot of the bands I work with, and so we always talk on and on about how great those records sound. Title Fight, when we were recording Floral Green, talked a lot about Sonic Youth, and how that stuff sounded. But I grew up listening to everything from Nirvana to Tribe [Called Quest] to the Beatles to Stevie Wonder, so I bring a little of everything to the table. Obviously if I’m working with Title Fight or Daylight the grunge influence will be there, but probably not when I’m working with Lauryn Hill.

RELATED: How record producer Machine created a niche for his career by fusing hip-hop sensibilities with a knack for heavy metal. 

GIM: There are an awful lot of really great bands coming out of your area these days; groups you inevitably seem to record and/or produce. So you’re the perfect guy to ask: What’s happening in Philly/South Jersey that’s so magical at the moment?

WY: I really have no idea how or why it’s happening, to be honest, but it’s kind of incredible. There are so many great bands from here right now—Circa Survive, Balance and Composure, Daylight, Citizen, the Wonder Years, Man Overboard—and we have a real sense of brotherhood, of family. But what’s most interesting is every one of those bands is different and has done it their own way. None of them cared about what was popular or trendy or commercial, and they each built these amazing careers doing something that was their own creation. Philly gets a reputation for being a tough town—mostly because of our sports fans—and I think that toughness creeps into the music, but at the same time we’re also a family, and very supportive of each other. It’s so cool.

GIM: What’s your advice to someone just starting out?

WY: Just do it. Record as much as you can. You have to be working all the time, constantly building your chops. Plus it’s what you do. If you’re a writer, you write. If you’re a songwriter, you write songs. When I talk to Anthony Green, he’s always writing songs, at home, wherever. The same applies to recording. You have to keep working at it. People are going to tell you, “Oh, it sucks. You’re not going to make any money.” And yeah, at first that might be true, but when you’re 22 and fresh out of college that doesn’t matter. You have your whole life ahead of you still to worry about things like making money and supporting a family.

GIM: What’s coming up next for you?

WY: I can’t talk much yet specifically about upcoming projects, but I’m definitely booked up for the rest of the year. I also just became a half-owner of the studio along with Phil. It’s really exciting because this place is so special, and there are so many bands I want to bring in here to record in the future. I purchased 50 percent of the studio for now, and whenever Phil retires, I’ll be prepared to buy the other 50 percent.

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