There is no sign outside of Menegroth (aka The Thousand Caves), Colin Marston’s unassuming recording studio tucked away on a quiet residential street in Woodhaven, Queens. For the last 12 years, this has been the unlikely location where Marston has been engineering, mixing, and mastering hundreds of incredible genre-exploding recordings by some of extreme music’s wildest bands.
Menegroth was founded in 2006 in what was once a hip-hop studio. The space has no square corners (to better control unwanted ricocheting sound waves) and no windows. The building has terrible insulation, so every winter they battle with their freezing water pipes. One wall is covered with a striking, ornate black line drawing mural of trees by artist Karlynn Holland.
Despite the location and environs, Menegroth and Marston are often booked solid for months at a time. Marston does zero promotion or advertising for the studio, and the demand is purely generated through word of mouth.
Jamie Myers, the singer in Sabbath Assembly, a band that has worked extensively with Marston says, “Entering Menegroth studio is like stepping into the belly of a ship—it’s windowless interior is dark, and rayless, yet it’s extremely comfortable.”
But Marston is not only an engineer in high demand, he’s also a composer and performer with credits on a host of extreme metal projects that include the black metal band Krallice, the Quebec death metal band Gorguts, instrumental bands Dysrhythmia and Behold… The Arctopus, and a slew of solo albums and collaborations.
Many past and current clients testify to Marston’s rare combination of engineering expertise, relaxed mien, and composer’s ear. As composer Weasel Walter puts it, “He is such a fastidious listener and fan of music—especially crazy, complex stuff—that his ability to quickly comprehend structures and concepts have rightfully made him a highly in-demand producer for challenging musical projects.”
“I love working with Colin because aside from his fastidious engineering skills, he’s an incredible instrumentalist and composer so you can’t phase him with any technical or aesthetic request,” banjo player and composer Brandon Seabrook says. “At Menegroth, Colin creates a special atmosphere for extreme experimentation where you can push yourself to your technical and artistic limits.”
I spoke with Marston over email about his studio, his philosophy, and how he’s been able to strike a balance between production and composing for so long.
You came up playing in progressive bands in Philly, why did you study engineering at NYU instead of music?
As a teenager, higher education seemed pointless, since I already was sure that I was going to devote my life to music. Luckily I was just as interested in recording and audio engineering as making music itself. I have serious reservations about being hired to play music I don’t like, but I can thoroughly enjoy recording and mixing things I don’t care for musically. So if I could develop an understanding of the technical side of recording and acoustics, I could make my own records better, and develop a skill translating to a job that I wouldn’t hate.
My most memorable musical experience in Philly was the show that my high school band shared with Dysrhythmia in late 1999 or early 2000. It was a pretty crushing night of proggy instrumental inspiration for a 17-year-old. Dysrhythmia inspired me so much that I went on to become their biggest fan, and then the bassist after Clayton [Ingerson] left in 2004.
From a recording standpoint, Dysrhythmia was important as well. I tagged along with them in 2002 or ’03 when they went to Electrical Audio to record Pretest with Steve Albini. The first album that I played on in 2005 was recorded at BC Studio with Martin Bisi. Watching Albini and Bisi work was just as good for my education as four years of recording school.
What were some of the larger takeaways for you from those experiences with Bisi and Albini?
Steve ruled because he a had such extensive scientific and experiential understanding of his equipment. He knew what mic to use and where to put it to translate to as little mixing as necessary. As a result, his mixes never sound labored over.
Bisi was great because he used almost opposite techniques to achieve a very similar and equally awesome result for Dysrhythmia. Both Bisi and Albini had large stone/brick live rooms and recorded and mixed all analog. But Albini used top-of-the-line, vintage and modern, custom and obscure equipment and mixed while reading with no automation. Bisi used run-of-the-mill cheap mics and mixed very carefully and actively, doing console-based automation (since it was all analog). They both got a precise clear sound while simultaneously raw, big, roomy, and natural. That’s the kind of recording/mix I usually gravitate toward making myself.
Your decision to study engineering at NYU strikes me as a thoughtful decision for young person. Why do you think you had this perspective?
I fell in love with music when I was 10 or 11, so even by age 15 and 16, I knew it was the only thing that mattered to me. I never remember wanting fame, fortune, or even a practical career involving composition. I just wanted a life where I could write, play, and record as much music as possible. Recordings have always interested me more than concerts, so even back then it seemed like if I was going to study anything in college, it should be recording.
There must be so many roles you take on as an engineer during the sessions you manage. Can you talk about some what you consider your greatest strengths in this environment? And what are some things that you do not come so naturally for you?
I think one of my strengths is meticulousness. I like to take my time with miking and setting up a recording session. Also when I mix and master, I try to always make sure any processing I do actually improves the sound. I’m quite wary of making changes that seem better or more exciting, but don’t actually improve things in the long run. I am deeply offended by the by the idea of music or recordings being a competition, so I’m never seduced by notions of being the ‘loudest,’ or ‘hugest.’ I respect musical content more than any recording quality, so I recognize that it’s more important for a musician to record a satisfactory performance than an unsatisfactory one, even if the sound seems perfect. Perfection doesn’t exist, and therefore is a dangerous thing to strive for. I encourage musicians to only concern themselves with being well-prepared, doing their best, and striving to be good.
What does not come naturally to me is the administrative side of running a studio in modern times. I’m beyond uninterested and suspicious of social networking, so I’ve never tried it. Going through email often seems like a mountain of no-fun, but it’s a necessary part of running my business and planning ahead. I also don’t have an extensive understanding of electronics and fixing gear, so I outsource that—which could be looked at as a waste of money but I’d rather spend more time writing music and making my own records than soldering anything.
To my ear, there is a ‘Menegroth sound.’ The instruments are clear and the mixes are tight. You communicate a lot of power and presence without adding a lot of extra distortion or effects to the material.
I strive for mixes where every instrument is audible and plays a significant role: somewhat ‘democratic’ mixes for lack of a better word. I like it when instruments seem to sound more or less the same on a record as when a musician plays them. Instead of ‘tasteful’ amounts of fake reverb on close-miked instruments, I generally prefer a medium close or very close mike combined with distant room mikes. To me room mikes mixed with close mikes convey a sense of depth, loudness, and realness that reverb can never achieve. On the other hand I love excessive amounts of fake reverb and delay on electric guitars, keyboards, and other non-acoustic instruments. That can be a great way of making ambient, washy, pad-type sounds.
Even though I prefer a natural roomy sound for acoustic and rock instruments, I like mixing very carefully with lots of automation. I also love creating abstract, experimental, and noisy sounds: treating the studio as a laboratory for new sounds. Sometimes the the world of natural instruments and imaginary sounds go together, but sometimes I find myself contained in one world or the other.
Is there any aesthetic throughline to the artists that find a home at Menegroth?
I’d say music with some sort of rawness tends to find a home here. People generally come here to get a good recording of their specific and potentially weird ideas, not to have me deconstruct, reconstruct, produce, and polish a song to make it perfect, popular, or trendy. I’m not interested in the latest, or the rarest and most vintage gear, or ‘modern’-sounding mixes. I am interested in learning the tools I have, using them to accurately capture the sounds being made, carrying that accuracy, rawness, and intimacy into the final mix and master. My favorite recordings tend to be of classical music: simple recordings of awesome musicians playing awesome-sounding instruments, in a space that’s acoustically awesome. That seems like the ideal scenario for any kind of recording. What I tend to dislike are recordings where the actual sound of the instruments are disrespected and processing is employed to transform a sound into a second-rate version of something it’s not. Obviously, there are times when it makes sense to use an instrument ‘wrong,’ and I encourage all kinds of sonic experimentation and blaspheming of the traditional, but I think that requires a basic understanding and respect for an instrument and its sound to avoid unrealistic expectations.
I seem to attract the more avant-garde and experimental [artists], but maybe that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more weird musicians I work with, the more other weird musicians might hear something I did and feel comfortable contacting me. I’m always nervous about some popular, more mainstream band recording a ‘successful’ album here, thus encouraging more mainstreams bands to contact me, or want to work with me because they view something I worked on as ‘successful.’
What intangibles do you bring to the table as a musician and songwriter? Do you find your engineering work feeds into your creative practice at all?
Hard to say, but I have no idea how someone could engineer, mix, or master music without making their own music. I’ve read a few interviews with recording engineers who aren’t musicians, and I’m just not sure how one could have any perspective on what is being recorded without having ever composed, practiced, or performed. Sure, technical knowledge counts for a lot, but you’ll never really understand drumming if you’ve never played the drums yourself, and felt what I means to try to balance the kick with the snare and not hit the cymbals too hard for the mix you are trying to achieve. Composing lots of songs myself has opened up the idea of what a song can be. Struggling with making various sections flow well helps me understand that same struggle in the music of others, but has also made me much more relaxed about what music ‘should’ be like. The more you hear and the more you make, the more you realize it shouldn’t be any particular way: music can be anything and can be captured in any way. Once you’re in that mindset, there isn’t so much emotional baggage attached to every musical decision.
Engineering does help my own creative process as well. Recording is by nature an experiment every time. After conducting similar experiments over and over again, I start to notice trends and tendencies, e.g.: this amp works well for this kind or riff, this mic suites these type of vocals, these two instruments compliment each other well most of the time, Shure SM57s are woefully unimpressive microphones, etc.
Are there kinds of projects you’d like to see more of at your studio?
I wouldn’t mind seeing a little less metal, just because that’s always the hardest to mix and usually takes the longest to record, so it can be a drag… but it’s also very rewarding when it sounds good. I always love doing free jazz/free improv records: least amount of tracking and often mixing time, and musicians usually have the most fun and are under the least amount of stress. Unfortunately, those are the records that tend to get less listened to I fear, but that’s a whole other topic! I think it would be fun to do some actual ‘pop’ pop music. Not rock with songs, but weird, overproduced solo artist shit. I’ve never done anything like that but I love the idea of doing the opposite of what I’m used to: acoustic instruments, mics, naturalness… I’d also love to do more classical and folk music: the most natural and acoustic!
Are you able to talk about these last few years and projects you’ve worked on in more general terms? Are you exhausted? Proud?
Sure! Both! I’m stoked that a lot of those records l am proud of from a technical/recording standpoint but also really like musically. I feel so lucky that so many of the records I’ve done as work are things I want to listen to as music after the work is over.
What are some albums out of the many you’ve worked on at your studio over the last couple of years that you would single out as special achievements?
OK, for an album I wrote and performed on I nominate:
Krallice with Dave Edwardson
I spearheaded most of the music on this album. It’s a surreal collaboration with one of my favorite vocalists (and bassists), Dave Edwardson of Neurosis (who were a life-changing band for me as a teenager).
Very ambitious record. Some of the most produced music I’ve worked on, in the sense that there are many layers, textures and whole parts that are un-replicable live. Still a great live band though!
Die Trommel Fatale
Probably the most complex live recording I’ve ever set up here at the studio: two drummers, vocalist and guitarist in the live room, guitar amp isolated in one booth, and acoustic bass and cello players isolated in another booth (everybody wearing headphones). Some amazing musicianship on this record, playing both composed and improvised material.
Judith’s music doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before. This record is stark, diverse, and unsettling in the best possible way.
Rites of Passage
What was originally more of a Dave Nuss project, fleshed out by Kevin, Johnny, and Jamie has now become a really interesting and unique band. Adding Ron Varod to the group helped too, but the fact that Sabbath Assembly is now super collaborative is taking them into awesome territory.