Interview with Tom Tatman Catamount Studios

Iowa’s Premiere Recording Studio – An Interview with Tom Tatman

“From the standpoint of recording philosophy, our belief in and implementation of a live, “all playing together in the same room with amps and everything”, production technique is fairly unique. Musicians simply play better that way, and better performances actually seem to sound better, too. I’ve never made a great recording of a bad performance, and anyway, what would be the point?”      Tom Tatman – Producer/EngineerGold Records at Catamount Recording Studio

The Iowa Entertainer is proud to profile Catamount Recording Studio in our premier issue. Nestled on the outskirts of Cedar Falls, Catamount Recording offers Iowa artists a state of the art recording facility, and owner, Tom Tatman has numerous major and independent label credits including engineering and co-production of Stone Sour’s debut album which has recently been certified Gold.

Tom, provide us with a history of your musical background and how this influenced you into you’re current career path?
When I was 14 I bought a $20 Silvertone acoustic guitar and started trying to play Beatles tunes. When I went to college I was lucky enough to room with Jeff Petersen, who has now been with The Blue Band for many years. Jeff was already a tremendous guitarist, and he helped me become competent enough to play gigs. Once I got a taste of what it’s like to really be involved in music, I’ve never done, or wanted to do, anything else.

Tell us how you actually got your start in this business?
With three of our friends, Jeff and I started a band called Headstone, just to play some dorm parties. A booking agency in Minneapolis heard about us, and put us on the road. The band was really good, but I wasn’t, and they were apparently too nice to fire me. Clearly they needed management. So, after three years, I fired myself and became their manager. I bought a 4 track Teac reel-to-reel recorder and started making demos of Headstone and a few other bands. I’d go to their rehearsal spaces and use the mikes and board from their P.A., plus the best stereo they could come up with as a monitor system.

As an engineer and producer, did you receive formal training? Or was it more of a hands on approach?
Totally hands-on. The traditional way to develop recording skills was to get all the experience you could, and pick up as much as possible from other people who had been doing it successfully. When we first opened Catamount, a producer with a bunch of major label credits named Greg Riker (now chairman of the board at Mackie) came in and cut a demo for a power trio called Nasty Jack. Greg moved them out of the dead little room we were using at that time, into the hallway, which had brick walls and cement floors. He brought in their drum riser, big floor monitors, and even some stage lighting. The band played completely live – no isolation, no headphones, Marshalls roaring right beside the drum kit. They played with a lot more energy that way, and it sounded better too. That session probably had more influence on how I produce bands today than any other experience. I got my engineering chops from reading everything I could get my hands on, and then experimenting. I kept the techniques that worked for me and dumped those that didn’t. That process is ongoing.

Can you recall your first engineering gig? When, where & who?
My first session for actual money was 1977 in a music club called The Circle, in Cedar Falls. The group was The Red Rooster Band that later became The Blue Band. I set up in an elevator shaft beside the stage. I think Bob Dorr may have actually released some of those tracks as part of a Blue Band Anthology a few years ago.

When & where was Catamount Recording officially open for business?
For a couple of years, it was a private studio to develop Headstone’s original material. We opened it up to outside projects in December 1979, just to help pay the rent.

Was there an artist or a project that seemed to be a turning point for Catamount?
I would have to say the band, Peter Lorre in 1983. It was the first album I produced and engineered that was picked up by a national label. It was even on the cover of Billboard. The label remixed it badly, gave my production credit to the mix guy, and changed the bands name to Saint. They were so disillusioned that they broke up shortly thereafter. In spite of that, it was a turning point for me, because I learned that we could cut an album in Cedar Falls, Iowa that was good enough for national release. That’s been my focus ever since.

Give us a run down on the services that Catamount provides?
We produce, engineer, mix, master and handle mass replication of music albums.

What would you consider to be the main focus of Catamount’s services?
Recording bands. Rock, blues, jazz, country, pretty much any genre of bands. No jingles, video or any other ad agency work.

Tell us about your new facility, and how you feel this has improved the products that are produced there?
It’s an incredible place to make a recording. We hired one of the top studio designers in the business, Carl Yanchar of Wave Space Inc. in LA. Carl designed several of the most famous rooms in the business, including the studios at Capital and CBS and one of the Record Plants. He gave us a state of the art facility, designed and built from the ground-up. The advantage to starting from scratch is that each room can be designed with ideal dimensions. The acoustics in the big live room are spectacular. The control rooms are extremely accurate to industry standards, which makes it much easier to make mixes that will sound good when you take them home. All the oak walls and floors and the big windows that look out on a nature area give a vibe that©s very conducive to creativity. Musicians actually seem to play better here.

Describe to us your key employees, and their contribution to the studio?
My partner since the beginning has been Rick Bisbey. He’s nothing short of an electronics genius, and I don’t use that term lightly. Biz actually designed and built our first recording console, and it sounded great. He completely refurbished and modified the Neotek we currently use, and he’ll be maintaining the SSL console we’re installing this fall. He does a great job of maintaining our gear, and his consultation on all things technical and otherwise has been a key to our success. Jon Chamberlain is a terrific talent, both as a mastering engineer and a recording engineer/producer. He has ProTools down cold. My lovely wife, Kitty, our studio manager, takes care of scheduling, CD replication, and in general does a great job of keeping us organized. She’s a CPA / MBA, so I know the administrative end of the business is always covered. Henry, the studio Beagle, is an obedience school dropout and has no real responsibilities here beyond sleeping, slurping, and howling.

Catamount offers high end, state of the art gear as well as a collection of vintage instruments and amplifiers. Tell us how this has been a great perk for the artists who record there?
The gear is a creative tools that offers me a great pallet of sounds to choose from. For example, with our selection of several great vocal mics, I can find one that flatters a particular voice better than the rest. Same thing with compressors and other outboard gear. They all color the sound in a different way, so you can use different processors to enhance different voices and instruments. Normally we use the artist’s guitars and amps for the basics, and ours for any additional parts that might be appropriate. However, our collection seems to lend itself extremely well to Americana/Roots Rock, and several of those bands have used our stuff on their albums for nearly every track.

Tell us what is currently happening at Catamount, and a few of the new artists you are working with?
June was mostly big band jazz. Since then it’s been mostly Rock. Stone Sour was back in July to record and mix a couple of bonus tracks for the re-release of their album.

What do you feel is unique about Catamount that you feel differentiates you from other studios?
The quality and quantity of state of the art gear, the vibe and acoustics of the facility, and the talent and dedication of the staff. From the standpoint of recording philosophy, I think our belief in and implementation of a live, “everybody playing together in the same room with amps and everything”, production technique is fairly unique. Musicians simply play better that way, and better performances actually seem to sound better, too. I’ve never made a great recording of a bad performance, and anyway, what would be the point?

How do you feel the Iowa based music scene and artists compare to New York & L.A.?
We have many great musicians and composers here, there’s no question about that. As far as the scene goes, we need more showcase clubs. We have plenty of places with bad acoustics, bad sound systems, and tiny stages stuck in a corner. Better venues would help performers connect with their audiences and have a chance to build a following. That scene would be good for everybody.

In closing Tom, what do you feel has contributed to the incredible success of Catamount, and how do you see the studio continuing to evolve?
The talented artists who have inspired us to do our best work, and build a studio like this to do it in. Somewhere down the road, I expect to start doing fewer projects, and make more time available for outside producers and engineers.

ProSound News Features Catamount Recording Studio

ProSound Studio Showcase

Catamount Recording changed more than just its appearance when they relocated within Cedar Falls, IA this past February. What was a big one-room recording studio, with a co-owner serving as producer and engineer of nearly all of the acts coming through its doors for over 20 years, has been replaced by a higher-end, two-room facility in a new location, with much greater business and creative potential.

The Catamount team got started in 1979, and worked throughout the 1980s and ’90s in its former location, where co-owner and producer/engineer Tom Tatman refined his skills and sound. Catamount co-owners Tatman and electronics whiz Rick Bisbey–who met when Bisbey was a live sound engineer for a band Tatman was managing–began a creative partnership in order to develop the band’s material. Purchasing a Tascam 8-track recorder, the two turned a practice facility into a project studio with no intention of it ever being a commercial enterprise. From that point on, however, the studio has been just that, and Tatman’s producing and engineering career has matured and added a great value to the facility.

“I liked recording better than managing, so made a go at recording,” Tatman recalls. In developing a recording practice, and recording so many bands over so many years, Tatman has generated business through word-of-mouth, many passing on the good word that Catamount is a not-so-clinical recording experience. Now in a beautifully designed new space, Tatman admits that the business is growing. “The new facility is much more ‘live’ than before,” explains Tatman. “When we contacted Carl Yanchar at Wave~Space in los Angeles (who designed the new facility), I told him I wanted the ability to have more of a concert hall kind of sound, and that’s what he designed for us. For awhile, I had to adjust my techniques to take into account the increased ‘liveness’ of the room, but it was a fun problem to have. Bands just love to play in this room.”

Perhaps a critical component in Catamount’s success has been Tatman’s somewhat unique recording techniques–an element that certainly generates a lot of the not-so-local clientele. “Most of the techniques I’ve developed over the years have to do with musicians interacting in real time, playing live,” Tatman reveals. “l’d say in probably 90 per cent of the sessions I do, no one has to wear headphones. The big thing I see is better performances. That was something I figured out quite a few years ago: If I can get the band to play better, my recordings sound better. And, this room is just a much better place to play in, so the performances are definitely enhanced.

Studio A’s control room houses a 34 MIC/56 Line-input Neotek Series IIIC console (refurbished and upgraded by Bisbey), a console Tatman appreciates for its simple worksurface and short signal path. “I suppose we’ll get a new console sometime, but right now it’s like a 57 Stratocaster to me,” admits Tatman. “it’s a funky old console that sounds great. It allows me to really get into the artistic part of things and not get lost in the technical process. Studio B is dedicated to digital mastering and recording, and features Pro Tools and 20-bit ADAT recording systems, with Tannoy SRM 15X main monitors and Event 20/20 nearfield monitors.

Catamount’s other engineer, Jon Chamberlain, works on a lot of smaller recording projects and does a lot of mastering in Studio B. With the option to book two rooms at the same time now, Catamount is generating a lot more money than it used to. “We’ve raised our rates for the main room, and people see the new price as more of a bargain than the old price for the other facility,” Tatman points out. “We’ve just opened our second room and having two sessions at once is becoming more of a moneymaker.

While Tatman’s passion is recording good musicians, he does show some business savvy in that he has developed a facility and gotten the word out to the regions surrounding the small metropolitan city of Cedar Falls. In fact, by developing the studio business in a similar way to a doctor’s practice in Anytown USA, Tatman and his studio have been virtually 100 percent booked since 1984.”Our main goal is in being able to make an album that sounds like a real album for a whole lot less than it’s made anywhere else,” says Tatman. “There’s really no economic reason for a studio like ours to exist in a town the size of Cedar Falls except that we really like the area. We really depend on people in adjoining cities and states coming here rather than other studios. We have to work harder to make a better product for less money. And, that seems to be working out.”

In the process, Tatman has been hooked up with some big-name rock-star types, through an earlier association with some grunge labels in the ‘9Os. A Roadrunner band called Stone Sour, with Corey Taylor of Slipknot, and other members of Slipknot and members of a former band called Dead Front, has done a lot of work at Catamount. S0, in the midst of a lot of local projects, Tatman still brings in some commercially higher-profile projects.

Though Tatman is not a self-proclaimed gear head, he really enjoys the vintage analog gear at Catamount, and the classic instruments they own, many of which have greatly contributed to some of the wonderful recordings to come out of Catamount. “I use Pro Tools for editing,” he says, “but I am personally very much into the tape compression and harmonic distortion you can get from 2-inch tape. That’s still my main medium. I’m definitely not one to want to create the magic. I want to capture it.”

EQ Magazine Cover 2006

Room with a VU

LOCATION: Cedar Falls, IA


KEY CREW: Rick Bisbey (Tech/Owner); Travis Huisman (Engineer); Tom Tatman (Producer/Engineer/Owner); Kitty Tatman (Studio Manager); Henry (Beagle)

CONSOLE: SSL 4048E/G+ w/ Total Recall

DAW: Digidesign Pro Tools|HD3

COMPUTERS: Mac G4 733MHz, G4 Dual 1.25GHz, G5 Dual 2.0GHz

RECORDERS: Alesis ADAT XT-20 (2); Otari MTR-10 1/4″ 2-track, MTR-12 1/2″ 2-track, MX-80 2″ 24-track; Tascam 80-8 1/2″ 8-track, 103 cassette machines (6)

MONITORS: Auratone 5C; Dynaudio BM15A; Event 20/20bas; JBL 4311WX; Tannoy DMT-215 II, SRM-15X

MONITOR AMPS: Alesis RA300 (3); BGW 500; Hafler P-3000 (2), P-4000, P-7000 (2)

MIC PRES/EQ: Aphex 107; API 3124; Chandler LTD-1 (2), TG-2; Focusrite Octopre; Manley Dual Mono; Neve 3118 (2)

MICS: AKG 414EB (2), C-12, D-112 (3), D-1000 (2); Langevin CR-3A (2); Neumann KM-84 (2), M-49C (2), U-87 (2); Sennheiser MD-421U (4), MD-441U (2); Shure SM-7B, SM-57 (6), SM-59 (2), KSM 109 (2); Studio Projects C-1 (2)

OUTBOARD: dbx 160X (2); Drawmer DS-404 quad gates; Manley Tube D.I., Variable-mu (2); Orban 516EC de-esser; Summit TLA-100A (2); UREI 1176LN (2)

EFFECTS: Alesis Quadraverb (3); Delta Lab DL-1; Eventide H-3000S; Lexicon 300L, PCM-70, PCM-60, LXP-5, LXP-1; Roland R-880 (3), SDE-1000; TC Electronic 2290; Yamaha SPX90 II (2), SPX900; custom 6′ plate

BACKLINE: Ampeg ’72 V-4B; Danelectro U2; Fender American Std. Stratocaster, American Std. Telecaster, ’59 Fender Bassman, Champ, ’59 Deluxe, ’63 Reverb Unit, ’64 Twin Reverb, ’66 Deluxe Reverb, ’67 and ’68 Leslie Vibratone speaker, ’73 Vibro Champ, ’82 Precision Bass, Strat XII; Gibson ES-335, ES-135, ’59 Les Paul Jr., Les Paul Studio, SG Classic; Hammond C3 Organ w/Leslie 122; Marshall JCM-800; Rickenbacker 360/12 V64; ’66 Silvertone 1481; ’55 Supro “Chicago 51”; Taylor 410; Vox AC-30TB; Yamaha Recording Custom drumset; Yamaha C7 grand piano

It was 2002 when Tom Tatman and Rick Bisbey decided to take their 21 years served in the business of all things studio-centric and focus their collective efforts towards birthing what would become known as Catamount Recording. Enlisting the talents of famed designer Carl Yanchar — he of Wave Space who masterminded the building of some of the greatest studios of all time, from CBS to The Plant onwards — Tatman and Bisbey had Catamount, a 4000 sq. ft. facility, built from the ground up to provide uncompromised acoustics, great sight lines, and highly efficient traffic patterns. With each room constructed upon separate concrete slabs, with all-oak walls and floors and 16′ sloped ceilings boasting bass traps best described as gargantuan, Catamount offers a bright, clear acoustic environ rich with ambience: a studio where musicians lucky enough to frequent it can be assured that truly great tones will be achieved with relative ease.

Created for the sole purpose of producing albums from beginning to end (Tatman handles engineering and mixing duties for virtually 100% of Catamount’s client base, and their Studio B often houses mastering engineer Travis Huisman — therefore offering comprehensive sonic service), Catamount has been booked solid since its opening date. And it’s to no great surprise; between the talents of the crew and the staggering array of top-of-the-line equipment — from the SSL 4048E/G+ console to the drool-inducing mic locker — Catamount is clearly all class.

So pop your head in if you’re ever in the area. Just beware Henry the canine assistant engineer; we hear he’s a little heavy on the humping.


Making that Magic

Most musicians don’t want or need a detailed list of what’s inside a recording studio. They want to know: can you make me sound good and get me the sound I’m after? On my budget? And not make me miserable during the experience?

One of the best studios in the region for meeting these requirements, Catamount has recorded numerous big-name regional acts; the studio’s list of album projects, released nationally for the most part, is evidence of Catamount Studio’s growing stature on the recording landscape.

On this day, a group called the Starkweathers are taking a break in the studio’s TV lounge, playing on the studio’s mini-basketball court. Inside the control booth, producer Tom Tatman is finishing a rough mix of the band’s taped performance.

“I think it’s good to keep the band out of the room while you’re mixing until you’ve got something worth critiquing, comments Tatman about his working method which involves working solo on a mix, then calling the musicians in for an opinion.

Tatman comes off as the type of person who doesn’t get aggravated easily, a quality that makes him perfect for a business that involves intense concentration, artistic temperaments and money.

Tatman’s interest in recording and producing evolved out of his own background as a guitarist in a regional band called Headstone. After three years, Tatman moved from being a player in the band to manager. He built an 8-track recording studio in the band’s rehearsal room, initially for recording his own band’s material. Tatman soon realized that he liked recording bands better than managing them. As a result, that 8-track studio evolved into Catamount in 1979.

As a producer, Tatman is a firm believer in making a band feel right at home in the studio, a place that can seem alien, cold and sterile. “The most common bad experience players have had with a producer is ‘he put us all in different rooms!’ (In theory, this is done for sound separation so one instrument isn’t bleeding over into another; some producers can take this to ridiculous extremes.) Set them up so they can perform their best and make the recording. Make the tape bend for the band, don’t make the band bend for the tape.” To this end, Tatman has even eliminated the need for the players to wear headphones while recording, but adds “we’ll provide them if the musicians want them.”

Catamount’s most unique feature is that the studio deals exclusively with recording musicians and albums. Offering businesses jingle and commercial work as a sideline has never been a passion for Tatman. “Doing albums for bands and doing jingles are incompatible for me. An ad agency takes four months to decide what to do, then demand their jingle in four days. Our studio is booked two months in advance for bands and throwing jingle work in the middle of an album project is too distracting.”

Tatman sees his main role in producing as making sure the recording artist gets what he asks for. “I always have pre-production meetings with the bands so I know what to expect and they know what they’re going for. Whatever the artist wants to go for, great, because the artist is king.

He’s a firm believer in making every recording count. “I do everything as if it’s going to be released. When you make a master tape instead of a demo, with all the independent labels out there now, the chances of getting it picked up go sky high.”

But a lot of that ultimately depends on how a band and a producer can work together on creating a successful project.

“The ultimate thing you can do is produce the song so it ends up feeling and sounding the way the guy envisioned it when he wrote it.”