Canines and Compressors: A Talk With Ryan Cohen of Robot Dog Studio

Back before moving to Vermont I was pretty spoiled when it came to all aspects of music. I had friends who booked at my favorite music rooms in town. I had friends who were my favorite musicians in town (or even out of town, anywhere). I had multiple friends who owned studios I could reach out to for advice on tracking, engineering, mixing or even work with them in their studios for projects.

With our move I had found those venues that I love up here. I have even found some new to me artists in VT that I absolutely adore and can go see or hang with. The last piece, a studio with the same vibe as places like Riverview Sound in Waltham, MA or Dirt Floor in Connecticut, seemed to be lost somewhere in the vast green landscape and rolling hills. Then I heard about Robot Dog Studio and its engineer Ryan Cohen from Clever Girls singer/guitarist Diane Jean.

Ryan houses the studio in a nondescript industrial strip of buildings adjacent to an indoor trampoline park and right in front of the deliciously delectable Burlington Beer Company operations. We were just introducing ourselves to network a bit and see what each other were all about and up to, then I decided to roll tape on it and here we are. We must have talked for about an hour and half…below is mostly the music related stuff.

So crack yourself a “Surfing Waves of Dopamine” or “It’s Complicated Being a Wizard” and read on…and if you are a musician in the Northern Vermont area look Ryan and Robot up for your next project. That vibe I was searching for…it lives among a bunch of offices and a trampoline park just south of Burlington.

RLR: So how long have you been at this location in Williston?

RC: 3 years. Going on 3 years.

RLR: And where were you before this?

RC: I was really just going around to other studios in town, doing sessions there and then taking them home to mix and stuff. Before that I had just really done it for 10 years on the side. In whatever basement or what I had in my apartment. Regrets are useless, but I really wish I had jumped in and done this 10 years ago.

RLR: Well that can also be hard, because I am sure over a long period of time you acquired much of this stuff (pointing to the vast array of amps, mics, and board gear – comps, reverb, etc)?.

RC: Yeah definitely. But the more of ‘this stuff’ I get, the more I realize that the main thing is just experience. A good idea. Its crazy because I try to do something new on every session. I have so many different types of bands in and I sometimes stagnant with what I am doing, not improving. But often I will try something new and it just opens the flood gates of new ideas. Like “thats how THEY got that sound” or whatever. I just feel like, even this far in I have so much to learn and always trying to make strides.

RLR: I have seen a bunch of the session videos you have put out in conjunction with sessions. It seems like you do a ton of live stuff in studio. Is that kind of your way of recording or preferred niche?

RC: It has a lot to do with the market here. If there is anything I try to do is try to be really flexible. Its a pretty sparse market, so I just try and be flexible and try to do whats going to be best for each band. So I have ended up doing a lot of live stuff because people have said “Ehhh, I have 300 dollars and I want to record 10 songs.” In that case, we can’t spend a whole day on one song at that rate. So, lets set everything up and once the session gets flowing you can actually do 10 songs in 6 hours. So thats come about by necessity. In a lot of cases its a good thing. In other cases I do wish that we could really slow down and take more time on the songs. Its also just a thing of getting out of my comfort zone and try to control everything. 

It also kind of puts a mirror in front of the bands. You know “this is how you guys really play”. What things can we do to really show that in its best light. I ended up doing so many live things. Even singing live so it felt like kind of a waste if we didn’t get some kind of video of it to. So thats why I have been doing the kind of guerrilla style videos with the GoPro in the corner. Its actually been a huge plus for bands because unfortunately…most of the time…its hard for a band to post their new track on Facebook. Like “hey, here is a link to Bandcamp” or “here is a link to Soundcloud” and it is challenging to get people to click on that link and go to some other website and listen. But with uploading to Facebook, when I see a bit play button, no matter what it is I almost always will click “play it”. Even if I play it for a 1/4 of a second. If I don’t like it I can go to the next thing. 

Also its like “this band is coming into the studio this weekend” or whatever on Facebook or Instagram and then so often people are used to 6-9 months later actually hearing something from that band. That can kind of give studios a bad rep and that can be justified. I have been there taking so long on so many projects. But this gives some people some instant gratification. It makes people think “maybe I’d do that”, dump a couple hundred dollars into it now because its not just sitting on it for months and months. 

Then sometimes the band will be warming up and I run out and toss the GoPro in the corner. Bands will be like “ohhh, yeah. Now you charging us for GoPro time?” and I am just like, you just wait. When no one wants to listen to your Soundcloud link or whatever you are going to be psyched you have this session video you just got for free. (laughs)

RLR: So, what have you been working on lately? It seems like everything comes through that door. The rootsy stuff, the indie garage rock like the Clever Girls EP that just released and then the doom metal we just listened to. Its certainly a unique situation.

RC: Yeah, totally. I think its fun for one thing. Its a challenge. A lot of producers are like, “Indie rock is easy to record. Folk thats easy. What, do you only use one mic? Blah blah blah”. Any genre if you really dig into it and want to do a good job there is so much to learn. There are so many things that can go wrong. 

RLR: Speaking of ‘folk’, I really love Old Sky. They were just in here right?

RC: Yeah! We just did a new thing for them. All live and all to tape. It was great. It was a really wild session. Andrew wanted to do drums live in the room and I thought it wasn’t a good idea. But we did. (turns on video) You can see we sort of made a little “drum area” but he was really just a great drummer and really just played perfectly. If he wasn’t so good it probably wouldn’t have worked all in the same room, with the vocals live and everything. In these types of sessions I really just need to let go of my, you know, control freak tendencies. 

Yeah, so we recording that on this tape machine. An old 8 track. One of the last ones they made in the late 80s, early 90s. Thats what we recorded Clever Girls EP on as well.


RLR: Now are you a purist type that loves recording to tape and thinks its so much more amazing?

RC: Totally not a purist. Like I said before, you have to be flexible. Using the tape machine was just eliminating. Compared to digital, things just really started to click in my head. Why all my favorite albums, why most people’s favorite albums, one of the reason they sounded like they did…anything from 1950 to 1999 or whatever it was…was probably recorded on tape. Its not going to make a bad band great. It just changes, not even so much the tone, but kind of changes the feel of how the music flows. This is getting kind of philosophical or heady, but just the way it kind of soaks up and reacts to the music. Then you play it back and its moving back and forth in speed and pitch, it just becomes somewhat more organic.

The bands usually come in and they are prepared. With that machine, it only has 8 tracks so I can’t get carried away with 15 mics on a drum set. There are numerous advantages to it, but it obviously isn’t for every band.

I use it in combination with the computer a lot. You record it to tape and then record it into the computer. So you can do all the stuff you typically do digitally, but you have the sound and feel of tape.

RLR: So do you get out to shows much around here? What are some of your favorite venues?

RC: Not as much as I used to. Venues, I mean they are all great. Monkey House and the Light Club. I think the most special shows are the sort of DIY type shows around town. House shows, basement shows, warehouse shows. Speaking Volumes does great shows. Clever Girls and 1881 always play there because Winfield from those bands also works for Speaking Volumes. They have just always put on great shows for great events. Like out back at their warehouse and Battery Street Jeans in town. It used to be on Battery Street but now its on College Street. They have great shows. Theres another place called Jim’s Basement which has younger punk shows usually. There is a good variety. I wish I knew what it was like in, you know, other scenes. This is sort of what I’ve known. 

RLR: So how about your endeavors outside of the studio? Do you perform as a musician yourself?

RC: Yeah I’ve always tried making my own music over the years. Right now I play bass in kind of a Soundgarden type grunge band called Phantom Suns. We have played a bit around town. Its good to actually be playing music and out there meeting other bands. We aren’t really playing a ton now. The two other guys in the band are cranking out babies, so. (laughs)

I’ve always been a thoroughly subpar musician. Which in some ways has really worked out great because when I come in here I am not judgmental about other people and their abilities. I’m not threatened or challenged or jealous when someone comes in.

RLR: Do you find you have clients all over the map? Just starting out to people who are longtime, on tour, playing every other day kind of deal?

RC: Yeah totally. I mean, last week I had two 12 or 13 year old kids in here doing hip hop. Then I’ve had 70 or 80 year old lifetime musicians in here. Everyone has a different skill level.

RLR: Here is a toughy. Whats you favorite piece of gear?

RC: I have such a love-hate relationship with gear. Its fun to get new gear and show off gear and stuff but in the end it doesn’t even really matter. A great band playing playing through crappy gear and recording through crappy equipment is still going to sound 100 times better than a band doesn’t have anything worth recording. I must have some gear around here that doesn’t cause me pain thinking of the financial damage its done. (laughs).

Lets see, all these compressors here, and then all those microphones…hmmm. I kind of like the fun stuff. This is like an 80s Sony 8 channel console. I got it, its like for broadcasts. For editing TV shows back in the 80s. I did some mods on it. Now I can get a line out of every track so I can use it for 8 extra channels in the studio. 

RLR: So how old is Robot?

RC: He is 8, but he has always had that wise old dog vibe. I got him when he was a year and a half and I always wanted to take a dog to work with me.

RLR: I guess if the studio is named after him he does have the right to hang, yeah? 

RC: Haha, yeah he has been pretty crucial. He really helps around here. He is pretty good, sometimes I’ll set up drums and he will be hanging around. Then the drumming starts and he will still be out there. Eventually he will slowly walk in and it seems he thinks its getting a bit too loud. Its like a fulltime job for him, maxing and relaxing. Everyone lives to serve Robot.

RLR: So whats coming up. Any sessions you are particularly excited about?

RC: This last month was crazy. I didn’t even really think about how many different bands came in. Tonight at 6 I have a guy coming in to finish mastering his EDM album…yeah, I am serious about the variety that I do here. Thats definitely one genre that is new territory to some extent. Also, not a genre that I know really well. But I was like, ‘screw it. It is all music and something to be learned.’

Then, Old Sky coming in to do some overdubs next week. I have a ton of stuff I have to mix. Phil Yates and the Affiliates. A great 80s-90s alternative, Replacements style rock n’ roll. Elvis Costello type of a band. We recorded them on the 8 track tape machine. We did a digital pre-production session too. 

I think a lot of bands are like “we can’t all play together and record it and have it sound good.” But thats how they play live. When I think of doing a live session I will go to their show or go to their practice. Some bands just blow me away. I feel I would be screwing up if I didn’t capture that. There is just a little something in the way they play together.

But there are so many ways you can produce or engineer a band. So many ways you can attack it that effects how the final product turns out so much. I just try to pay attention to the band and the philosophy of how we record that, and follow where that takes us.