Andrew Hernandez on crafting the perfect sound, in the studio & on the stage
by Emma Banks
Photograph by Leah Muse
Andrew Hernandez has come full circle in more ways than one — after 11 years of working in the music industry, he’s returned as a recording and mixing engineer in the same studio in which he got his start, and what’s more, his band, Meryll, is returning too — with their first album in almost the same amount of time. It seems the stars aligned for this Michigan native turned Austinite; what started as a high school pipe dream in its purest form — what he says was simply a “love of going to see bands play” — has turned into a lifelong career, and one he doesn’t plan on giving up anytime soon (understandably so). When Andrew’s not making magic at Estuary Recording, he’s on tour — either as a sound engineer for local indie legends Balmorhea and alt-rock icons Urge Overkill, or in the spotlight with his own band, Meryll. In either instance, this producer consistently has his priorities straight: music first, always. It’s this commitment to his first love that has made this artist such a standout star on both sides of the sound board, and one sure to cement his standing in the Austin music locale for years to come. We sat down with the man of many musical hats to talk more about his recording business, Arroyo Audio, high school basement bands and Japan.
I’d love to just start at the beginning — how did you first get started in the music industry?
I started learning how to play guitar at the very same time I started learning how to record — in high school. In 9th grade I got my first guitar and my first four track recorder, started recording bands — my band and my friend’s band — and afterwards, I went to college and started my first serious band. We went on our first tour, and I basically booked all of our tours through My Space and email. It was all really DIY — we were on a really small label and had to do all the booking ourselves and all that kind of stuff.
What about recording?
I worked for Local Live at KVRX — the UT student radio station in Austin. I was the director there in college and I got to record a lot of bands during that time. During SXSW there would always be some pretty well known acts coming through (people like Bill Callahan) and we recorded their live shows. At one point I went to go see a band recording in a studio called Premium, and a friend of mine was playing in the band and invited me to come see the place and hang out for a little while. I met someone working at the studio and a few months later, he called me and said, “Hey, would you like my job?” I said, “Sure!” So my first studio job was there, at Premium Recording in 2006, and the owner of the studio was Bruce Robison. After about a year there as a kind-of assistant engineer, he decided to rent it to me because he didn’t want to run the business anymore. So I essentially rented his whole studio and that’s when I started working with a lot of bands, in 2007. It was really just started with me liking bands; my favorite band in high school was MxPx, and eventually I got into others like Yo La Tengo … so I got involved in music just from a pure love of seeing bands play.
I know you do work as both a producer and as a recording/mixing engineer. Can you walk us through the difference between the two roles?
My most satisfying moment is at the end where you can sit back at your house and put on the record you recorded.
When a band comes to me and says they want me to produce their album, that means I’m going to go with them to their practices, hear them working on their songs and make suggestions on how to make their songs better, in advance, before they’ve even booked studio time to make their album. It’s almost like you’re becoming a band member and really helping them shape their songs, and possibly even play some instruments on their album or make suggestions to them for musicians to add to their song. Over the years, almost everything I’ve done has been more like this: the band comes into the studio and they already produced themselves; they have everything worked out and I’m just there to help them make it sound the best it can in the studio. So in that case I do the actual recording and I mix it. Sometimes bands will even record with other producers in town, and then they’ll send me the tracks to do the final mix to get the sound they want. That’s becoming more and more of what I’ve been doing this year — a lot of mixing.
Can you tell us about your work under Arroyo Audio?
I do all my recording at a studio called Estuary, and it’s actually the same studio that I got my start in when it was called Premium Recording, so I’ve been recording in the same space for almost 10 years now — even though the owner has changed and the name has changed. My friend Michael Landon, who is an engineer and mixer and producer as well, is the owner and Arroyo Audio is just the name that I work under to organize it as a business. I usually record at Estuary and then I mix in my own personal space.
I know that with musicians, their style and sound is constantly evolving. Do you think it’s a similar thing, for you as a recording and a sound engineer?
Well, as far as my sound, I don’t think my sound has changed much over the years, except in the sense that I think I’m getting better. As in, I think what I’ve heard in my head is the same — what I’m trying to get — but over the years I’ve gotten better at actually getting that sound out. I really just like a big modern rock sound, honestly, and I feel like I listen to a lot of mostly modern music as opposed to really old school music. That’s also definitely reflected in my band, Meryll.
Tell us more about Meryll.
Yeah! It’s funny because the first two albums we put out were released by a label in Japan, and it’s like the old cliché where a band jokes about how they’re bigger in Japan than here, and we actually did sell more CDs there than we did in the US, even though we toured in the US a lot. I was able to get a producer named Jason Martin who is in a band called Staryflyer 59 — he is one of my musical heroes — to come in from California to the Premium studio to produce one of my albums for me. So that was definitely a highlight for me, to work with him.
Apart from touring with Meryll, you also tour with Balmorhea as a sound engineer?
Yeah, I did sound for Balmorhea for almost all of their tours. So that’s another thing I do — live sound — and I’ve done a lot for Balmorhea and gone to Europe a lot of times. Probably the craziest live sound gig I ever did was last year when I mixed for this band called Urge Overkill. They’re most famous for having a song in Pulp Fiction called “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon,” and when I lived in Chicago I did some work for them, so last year I went back up to Chicago. They played at Wrigley Field opening for the Foo Fighters and Cheap Trick, and that was my first time to mix a stadium show.
Which do you prefer, mixing in the studio or on live tours?
I prefer the studio. They are so different, but I feel like for studio work, my most satisfying moment is at the end where you can sit back at your house and put on the record you recorded with people and you have those memories. Whereas for touring, I think the highlight is that energy when the band is playing a good show and the crowd is into it … like in the case of that Wrigley Field show, there were probably over 30,000 people there, and they’re all feeding off of your mix.
I can’t even imagine having the power to effect 30,000 people by getting to decide what music they hear.
Yeah, and it’s kind of crazy because you feel like with one flick of the wrist you could hit a button wrong or push a fader up…and this multi-million dollar sound system is at stake [laughs]. The pictures of that show are hilarious just because of how many speakers they had hanging in the air, it was pretty funny.
Can you also tell us about one super memorable project in the studio?
The Sword was a big one for me because that was the first band I ever recorded whose album came out and made it to the Billboard charts. One of my favorite artists I’ve ever worked with was Bill Baird from the band Sound Team, just because he’s a really unique creative musician and person. Balmorhea has of course been great; I’ve done multiple albums with them and they’re good friends and we been on tour a lot. One summer I was just watching baseball on MLB.com and their songs we had recorded together appeared on car commercials and stuff. It was crazy! Those are some of the bigger ones. I think that’s a good start.
Read more from the Music + Film Issue | March 2017