Being hand-picked by Tony Visconti to work on David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ might give some young engineers cause to rest on their laurels but this cannot be said for producer, mixer, and engineer Erin Tonkon. Her strong work ethic reveals itself in turns throughout her thoughtful discussion with us in a buzzing Brooklyn café, describing her relationship with music as an ‘obsession’ that began at a young age.
‘When I was 12, I discovered the Velvet Underground and my whole life changed. I became who I am because of the Velvet Underground. From there I got into Bowie, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits and The Clash’ she recalls. Growing up in Southern California, this led her to the vibrant San Diego music scene – ‘there was a venue called Ché Café where I would go all the time. I would play guitar and hang out with other musicians. I thought I wanted to be a guitar-playing rock star, and then when I was 16, I went to a high school that had a recording studio in it. I recorded myself playing guitar for a project I was working on, and I thought, “I love this other side”. After that, I knew what I wanted to do and abandoned all aspirations of being a musician.’
Attracted to the hustle and music culture of New York City, Tonkon attended the Clive Davis Institute at NYU where she formed an invaluable mentorship under Tony Visconti. Tonkon has since traveled the world alongside Visconti as his assistant engineer on his projects with Esperanza Spalding, Daphne Guinness and many others including, of course, David Bowie.
Tonkon is creating her path with a formidable arsenal of skills to back her up. One of the many lessons she learned at Visconti’s side were the benefits of using Sonnox plugins. Visconti introduced them to her while working on ‘Blackstar’ and she has been using them ever since.
What are you up to right now?
Because I came into music after the industry moved away from recording at the biggest studios with the biggest budgets, I’ve had to figure out how to work with little or no budget. I’m currently focused on my business strategy so that I can be affordable to good musicians that might not have a big-label budget. That’s what I really care about – being able to make a living and work with artists that have something to say. Luckily, there are a lot in New York.
What’s it like working as Visconti’s right-hand woman?
It depends on the day and project – I’ve done everything with Tony. Tony works very hard, and he works constantly. He loves what he does so much.
Sometimes he is working on arrangements, and sometimes we’re mixing or recording or traveling. No two days are alike. I’ve learned to be sharp and ready for whatever is coming. Tony is one of the great arrangers in rock history so what I’ve learned from him goes well beyond the audio engineering taught at school and in the studio. He’s an incredible guy.
What methods have you learned from working with Visconti?
Tony is great at breaking the rules. He taught me to approach gear in a different way and to not feel the need to dial in a compressor just because convention dictates that you should.
Tony constantly tells me to use my ears. He will take a piece of gear and use it in a way that it is not intended to be used and get spectacular results. And that’s completely opened up and informed the way I am as an engineer and in my mixing.
Tony introduced me to Sonnox plugins while using the EQ on ‘Blackstar’. He swore by the 5-band EQ and said it was superior to anything else. Since then I’ve started to use them, and I’ve utilised them in ways that aren't expected, and that’s what I love learning how to do. That is my art-form — knowing how to use a tool well then learning how to manipulate it.
You just mentioned you use Sonnox plugins in an unexpected way - how?
As an example, while using the DeBuzzer I used the difference button and I noticed that it made this sort of trippy alien noise. I’m all about using things in a way they’re not supposed to be, and Sonnox plugins allow me to use them creatively.
Apart from the EQ and DeBuzzer, which other Sonnox plugins do you like?
I love the TransMod. I typically work with real drums, but recently this track I was working on used an electronic drum kit. The artist sent me a stereo print of the kit, and it had some room sound on it. I was looking to bring out the transients and make the kit sound punchier. I was able to accomplish this with the TransMod super easily. The overdrive fader worked in a cool way and gave me the exact sound I was looking for. A lot of overdrives can add nasty digital distortion, but the overdrive fader on the TransMod made the electronic drums sound like a perfect balance of punch and grit. The TransMod has become indispensable to me since the first time I’ve used it. It’s perfect.
The Limiter v2 is awesome on a master. Lately, I’ve been mixing at a lot of different studios. I’m not one of those people who mixes and relies on my master bus to create the overall sound of the mix. I need to like what I hear, and then I want glue and loudness. I like to let mastering engineers do their job as well and with the Limiter I know I can trust the sound. There are no unpleasant surprises and the enhance curve is so perfectly tuned to enhance only the perceived loudness — which is important because too loud is too loud and it will mess with the compression of my track. I find that the Limiter has a great workflow to it as well. And the Recon Meter is excellent because there are no surprises depending on which D/A converter I am using.
How have you used Sonnox plugins to fix a problem in the mix?
The SuprEsser helped me on a recent mix, and it blew me away. I was working on a project I hadn’t engineered where the artist sent me the stems for an electric guitar. They wanted the guitar to sound aggressive and biting but the guitar part was overly distorted to the point where the harmonic content was inaudible. Applying EQ and compression just wasn’t cutting it.
I was worried I would have to tell the band to re-record it, but then I remembered I had the SuprEsser. The ‘listen’ section allowed me to precisely monitor the inside and outside ranges. It was such a time saver and I was quickly able to find the tone I wanted. The next thing that struck me was the wet/dry control because I wanted to bring back some of the distortion but in a way that allowed me to control the balance of harmonics. The SuprEsser is the only tool I’ve found that allows me to do that quickly and easily.
On that same project, there was another recording with heavy distortion, so I used the Envolution on it. There was a Moog synthesizer part that had tons of fuzz on it; certain notes would disappear entirely along with important harmonic information. I realised that I could salvage it if I could shape the envelope of the attack. I figured out how I could have those notes remain even throughout and it was and I was able to find the transients super easily and quickly with the Envolution.
In general, what do you admire most about Sonnox plugins?
They’re great professional tools - I can use them exactly how I want and I’m not going to get anything that I didn’t ask for. The EQ, in particular, I find to be very surgical and exact. They help me to work quicker.
I also love how, with Sonnox plugins, you can have the advanced view and the easy view. They seem to be the only plugins that seem to be made for efficiency. I appreciate that there’s no fluff or visual distractions that hog screen real estate and CPU. Everything is laid out clearly so I can do the work I need quickly and move on. I’m not playing a video game when I’m mixing or looking for cool graphics, after all.
We have to ask - what was it like working with David Bowie on ‘Blackstar’?
It was incredible. Unlike other projects, I was present from the very beginning to the end, from ideas to demos to recording, mixing and mastering. I even got to deliver the test pressings to David’s house.
I think the thing that most impressed me about David was how he never wanted to do anything self-referential; true to his reputation; he was always on the hunt to find something new.
He was brilliant, and yet he constantly wanted to know and explore more. He was also a master of letting other people do what they do best. Watching him work was a masterclass of getting ego out of the way. Even though he was the boss and he had the final say, he was cool and didn’t discredit anyone’s ideas based on their age or gender or experience level. He never got stuck in the past and was always willing to try something different and experimental. He was able to stay focused on the bigger picture, and it was an incredible experience; he was deserving of all of the praise and awards.
He also always wanted to know what I was listening to. He would listen to Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo going into ‘Blackstar’. He never lost touch.
Finally, do you have any advice for any females who aspire to working in audio?
Getting hands-on experience is the best way to learn anything. These days you can look up anything online, you can buy inexpensive audio equipment and learn. I had to work harder than the boys did and, because of that, I got really good.
Another thing that I’ve realized lately is that I don’t have to sacrifice my identity - my traditional female attributes are what make me and being a woman is, a lot of times, an enormous benefit in recording studios. I used to get angry and yell at anyone who just assumed I was someone’s girlfriend or the secretary. Now I just let them eat their words, and I let my work speak for itself.
Interview and editorial by Jackie Smiley