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Sound advice from Duane Trower: Keep it honest, invest in good equipment

Duane Trower, a longtime musician, producer and sound engineer runs the board at his Weights and Measures Soundlab.
Duane Trower, a longtime musician, producer and sound engineer runs the board at his Weights and Measures Soundlab.

Duane Trower’s time in the Kansas City music community started more than 25 years ago when he was in Season to Risk, the rock band he co-founded with Steve Tulipana.

Since then, Trower has become a fixture in the scene, as a member of other bands, including Quitters Club, the Overstep, Doris Henson and his most recent band, Ex Acrobat, as a sound engineer at live shows and as a go-to record producer at Weights and Measures Soundlab, the recording studio he opened five years ago near 18th and Central streets. Whether onstage or behind a soundboard, he improves the music in the room, friends and colleagues say.

“Duane and I have worked together making and recording music for nearly half my life,” Tulipana said. “He’s a no-nonsense efficiency machine. He knows how to capture what a band truly sounds like. No pig lipstick from this guy. Real and honest through and through.

“That said, his creativity is boundless. He knows how to encourage and allow artists to try new things, to invent. He’s also a mad scientist and tinkerer. I’m sure one day he’s going to unleash a robot army.” Tulipana is a veteran performer in the KC music scene and a bar owner.

Trower, who was born in Marysville, Kan., and raised in Kansas City, Kan., talked to The Star recently about becoming an audiophile and getting the most out of bands while they’re in the studio.

Q: When did sound engineering become important to you and what drew you to it?

A: Many years ago I rented a warehouse in the River Market with some friends. Our band Curious George rehearsed there. I used our small P.A. system and ran sound for the shows, kind of by default. I enjoyed trying to make bands sound good live. I soon started doing sound at the Hurricane, before it was the Riot Room. When I went into studios playing with my next band, Season to Risk, along with Paul Malinowski, I was really drawn to the recording process and also wanted to make recorded music sound as good as possible.

Q: Did you study anywhere or are you self-taught?

A: I went to Johnson County Community College and UMKC, originally as a music major. I took recording classes but mainly was learning music performance. Season to Risk was recording as much as possible and soon we got signed to Red Decibel and then Columbia. We were in a handful of really cool studios.

When I was in town, I interned and brought bands into Westend Recording Studios and got to learn more about the process.

Q: What instruments do you play?

A: Guitar mostly, but I can play some bass, cello and synthesizers.

Q: Is being a musician essential to being a good producer/engineer? Why?

A: Definitely. It’s really hard to understand music and how it fits together best without being a musician.

Q: What are some of the tricks or techniques you use to get bands to go to the next level and get the most out of their sound?

A: I usually ask them if they would be convinced (it’s good enough) if they were listening back to the performance as a listener. Also when we get a take that is good, but may need more character, I’ll tell them that we have a good take, now try something with a little more personality or whatever the situation is needing. And usually with less pressure, since we already have a good take, they will do something really cool.

I’ve joked that I’d like to get a projector to show a bunch of people dancing and having a good time when the performance of a band is good and then project a scene of dreary people waiting at the DMV when the song wasn’t convincing.

Q: When a band wants to go somewhere you don’t think is best, how do you resolve differences of opinion?

A: I will ask them what they are trying to achieve. Getting them to talk about it will allow them to run it over in their heads and re-evaluate their original ideas. It’s easy to be going in a specific direction and overshoot or focus on a certain aspect of it too much. Communication is key.

Q: What piece of sound equipment are you proudest of?

A: I’ve gotten into building equipment, so I’d say most of the stuff that I’ve built. Maybe the Fairchild-style Vari-mu compressor with eight tubes and eight transformers, or the Neumann U47 mics that I’ve built.

Q: Name some recordings you have produced that you are proud of.

A: Wow, too many to remember. Most of the bands I’ve played in for sure. I’ve recently worked with Katy Guillen & the Girls, the Quivers, Scott Moyer, Danielle Nicole, John Velghe and the Prodigal Sons, Lauren Anderson, Lovelorn, the People’s Punk Band, Amanda Fish, Kian Byrne, Jeff Harshbarger, Kristen May, Hipshot Killer.

Q: When it comes to doing sound at live shows, what pieces of advice would you (or do you) give bands?

A: Pay attention to your sound, tones and volume and make sure they are fitting together. It’s always best to give a sound person something good to work with. Try to get decent gear; it’s the brush that paints your songs’ pictures. And, last but not least, play it like you mean it. Just because you have decent gear doesn’t make your performance, or your songs, any better.

Q: What band would you most like to produce?

A: St. Vincent.