“It’s all about trust. That’s where it starts and ends. But not just on the deck — we spend most of tour off the stage living together in a rolling tube. If the chemistry is weird off stage you better believe it’ll carry over and vice versa.”
Donato Paternostro—Monitor Engineer
Hi Donato, it was great seeing you at NAMM and catching up. So a few things really stuck with me from our conversation and I wanted to circle back to them for this interview. We were talking about how you can really cater to your artists’ needs since you’re a drummer yourself — how you can essentially bridge the creative and the technical aspects of sound. I’d love to hear more about that.
First of all Mike, thanks for providing an oasis amid the tornado that is NAMM. It was super to see you and Bryce and spend some time together at the UE booth. As far as bridging that gap goes, everybody does it differently. My main goal is for the artist to be comfortable and confident at the same time. As a musician myself, I know what it feels like to be on the deck and have to make a change and not be able to signal the engineer. Drummers especially find it hard since all limbs are firing. Listening to what my bands’ needs are and also reading body language and lips is a must. Especially when IEM’s are involved. Musicians need an engineer who can make quick and safe moves since with IEM’s you can’t move out of the spread like you can with wedges. When my band knows that I “know” exactly how it feels, it puts us in the same boat rowing for the same shore y’know. Mind reading 101.
And have you noticed that this fosters more trust? That you can get your artists to experiment more with their sounds?
Oh indeed it does! It’s all about trust. That’s where it starts and ends. But not just on the deck — we spend most of tour off the stage living together in a rolling tube. If the chemistry is weird off stage you better believe it’ll carry over and vice versa. 90% of the time when the band and I are trying something new on stage with a mix or instrument it’s because of a conversation we had on a day off that has gotten us fired up.
That makes perfect sense. So does that mean that you’re able to suggest trying different microphones and set ups or just how far can you take it?
I’ll take it as far as they’ll let me. No limits! Yeah, I feel blessed because the engineers, techs, and bands I work with are amazing and we work together. If I wanna tweak a snare tuning or mess with a mic they let me go — with the caveat that I gotta prove it to them that it’s better. That goes for everyone. We’re all always tweaking something and checking each others balances.
Got it. So let’s take a few steps back. How did you start mixing sound?
I was always the de facto “archivist” for the bands I played in. I always had the 4 track, was the one who wanted to “get it down” so we didn’t forget the part, that sorta thing. When we played in clubs I always felt connected to the sound guys and was always the guy who would talk to them about what we were going for. It also helped that I always tipped! (Before you play. Hint. Hint!) Basically it was as simple as I wanted to know and I spent the time digging in.
And did you have any idea that you’d end up a top-touring sound engineer? I mean, how did that really happen? What were your big breaks?
It was the early 2000’s and I was playing in too many bands at the time and doing sessions to pay the rent. I also started working at Bowery Ballroom. This lead to employment at Webster Hall and being involved in the buildout of Music Hall of WillyB. I basically was on stage every night either playing drums or mixing. I was getting a lot of offers to tour but was really focusing on my playing until my good friend Matty, who was working with TVOTR at the time, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. That’s how it began. But wait a sec… The top? cCmon. There’s only one way to go from here! I hold fast to the mantra that you’re only as good as your last show! repeat after me: You are only as good as your last show….Now hose down.
Well said indeed. So I’ve got to ask. Brooklyn has always been doing its own thing musically and now the world’s taken notice and the bands you’ve always been working with are at the epicenter of the scene. That’s got to be a trip.
Yeah this is my home, and I’ve seen it grow in many ways. Some good, some bad. I love it. I like that we all fly home together and we all see each other outside of tour. La Familia.
So just how much of the city do you think is captured in your sound? In your personal mixing style?
Tough to say because I’m never home! But I’m gonna say quite a lot. The people I’ve learned from all live and work here nightly. Whatever you throw at them they could adapt. They’re rocks. I like that trenches vibe. I learned on analog consoles, head up, kissing red and pushing air. But it’s only a starting point; everybody evolves. Nowadays I have many influences and many cities inspire me but it’s the people that make the city not the other way around.
Yep. So what do you try to capture in a performance? What’s the magic in one of your shows?
The magic to me is the chemistry of the band. It’s in their fingers and hands. Their flow. I’m there to add the ingredients that help them. It’s like a Sauce. That’s what I call it…“sono italiano ayyy”
On a more technical level, I look that all input levels are happy, compressors hitting nicely, outputs being maximized, and RF is locked down. I add some zest with select plugs — I like parallel compression to beef up the drums and I use some other tricks — but it’s all about Good in, Good out. The Sauce.
So you have the advantage of doing a lot of studio work and of actually playing with many of your artists. That has to deepen your connection to the music. Any tips that you can share with engineers who are just coming up as to how they can better connect with their work and sound?
I would maybe suggest pick up an instrument and approach audio from another angle. Feel the vibration and the resonance between the different instruments. Ear training helped me so much when I was younger with frequencies and their corresponding note. Don’t worry how good you are, but how well you understand and how to develop your ear. Staying in shape physically also helps me tremendously; when I eat right, work out, and run, it helps my attitude and positive energy. People pick up on things like that and it strengthens the language and relationship you have when working with any artist. Another thing I can’t recommend more: get out from behind the console! Don’t be afraid to be on stage and feel the deck as your band sound checks. Put yourself in their shoes as much as possible.
Points well taken. Which reminds me, you brought up a great point that during an actual show things look pretty calm in your world — that if you’re moving around and in a big hurry then there’s a big problem. For anyone not familiar with all the prep work, can you elaborate on what goes into setting everything up so that it looks easy at showtime?
Sure. Here’s a typical condensed day:
Load in: consists of emptying as many trucks as possible with as much loud yelling as possible.
Build: I set up my console, IEM rack, amps and try to fix what i broke yesterday. i also scan RF and clean ear mold gremlins.
Stage: supervise micing and wiring the stage while making inappropriate jokes about someone’s mom.
Soundcheck: band works on songs they know but keep bungling up. Crew works on bungling stuff up we do know. we all help each other avoid mental catastrophe and lock it down. Coffee pitches in here too.
Break: hockey hockey hockey!!! gotta get my game in. Go Habs Go!
Show: Blast off…be sharp, knock the pins down!
Load out: the worst
That’s basically it. If you’ve built a great crew around a great band then it’s all in the sauce.
And with that, we’ll be seeing you on the road. Thank you Donato.
Donato Paternostro Lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is an east coast native who grew up on the stage first as a live/studio drummer and then as an engineer. He has toured internationally with TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, The Head and the Heart, and many others. He also maintains house gigs at many New York venues and production companies.
This interview was originally published by Mike Dias for the Ultimate Ears UE University