Andrew Oswald has been called the “Steve Albini” of the Oakland music scene, which is high praise to bestow on an independent audio engineer. But it’s an analogy that holds up. Both share similar criticisms of the financial side of the music industry and respond by charging unusually low rates to the bands that they work with. Both prefer to be called audio-engineers over producers, likely due to their shared philosophy that their role is to capture the authentic essence of a band rather than exert unnecessary control in the creative process. And both are prolific. Oswald is only 29 years old, but he estimates that he’s recorded more than 200 records, and that doesn’t even include his work on shorter releases. Due to the notoriously high cost of recording — which involves expensive equipment and pricey maintenance fees — it’s difficult to even have a full-time career in freelance audio engineering. Yet Oswald is already carving out a name for himself.
Oswald’s fascination with music technology began when he was just a teenager playing in bands and recording his friends’ projects in the guest bedroom of his childhood home in San Diego. “We didn’t have a name for where we were because it was just my parents’ house,” Oswald said. “We came up with the name ‘Secret Bathroom Studio’ because I had so much stuff in the guest room that the main doors were blocked. You had to go through the side door through the bathroom.”
In 2011, shortly after graduating from Expression College in Emeryville, Oswald jumped on the opportunity to convert an empty warehouse across the street from his home into a medium-sized recording studio. He and his co-owner, Max Senna, named their operation “Secret Bathroom,” a nod to Oswald’s humble start in San Diego. For seven years, Oswald used the space to make records and host Live From Secret Bathroom, a curated broadcast of some of Oswald’s favorite area bands. After getting into a dispute with their landlord, the pair was forced to shutter Secret Bathroom last year.
Yet the closure hasn’t slowed down Oswald, who still makes records almost every day. He has since moved to his own room in West Oakland’s Santo Recording Studio, where he records bands that run the gambit of rock genres. While open-minded about the projects he takes on, Oswald has a particular affinity for bands that fall within the experimental rock or sludge metal wheelhouse, and that strive to pump a lot doom-inspiring ambience into their work. One such band is Black Spirituals, whose improvisational avant garde album Black Access/Black Axes, rife with minutes of uninterrupted feedback distortion, Oswald recorded. Regardless of the particular subgenre of the bands he’s working with, Oswald seems to value the sound of raw, live performances. On many of his projects, it sounds as if all of the band members happened on golden performances while rehearsing demos in a room together, even if in reality, each instrument was recorded separately and came in contact only through multi-tracking after recording.
Like Albini, Oswald is an active musician in his own right (he plays bass for Marbled Eye) who embraces the same DIY ethos that defines many of the bands he takes on. In fact, he considers a community mindset to be one of his strengths. As an integral member of the East Bay’s music scene, beyond just sharing a regional vocabulary for music with the bands he records, he understands the financial and social pressures that a lot of local acts face when they are going through the recording process. “If you go to someone who doesn’t understand the limits of being an independent, touring band on a budget, and they spend all of that band’s money and don’t make something that’s helpful for them, then you’ve taken away your ability to function as a band and share your music,” he said.
Even independent studios, which can cost anywhere from $300 to $500 per day, are too pricey for many bands. Far beyond the technical aspects of recording and the challenges involved with navigating artists’ egos, Oswald said financial issues are the toughest part of his job. “There’s the constant stress of trying to make affordable recording to independent artists possible in a completely fucked capitalist hellscape,” he said.
Despite the stresses, Oswald remains scrappy, given his commitment to giving bands every possible opportunity to record. He has recorded in garages and practice spaces across the country. He once even recorded a band’s demos on a skateboarding half-pipe. That band, Ash Borer, and its demos went on to earn winning reviews from the online publication Pitchfork. A year later, Oswald recorded its self-titled LP, which eight years later is still considered relevant and influential within the metal community.
Some audio engineers might take such early successes as a green light to exert more control over the creative processes of the bands that they work with, but Oswald has deep respect for creative autonomy. Only rarely or when asked will he weigh in on songwriting. Ninety-five percent of the time, he said, his clients have finished all of their music by the time they enter the studio. His creative role is to tease out band members’ answers to broader questions about their project. What will the album mean to them? What cultural reference points were guiding factors in the writing process? How do they want their album to respond to successes and failures in past projects? Oswald will then lend his technical expertise to help the musicians’ visions come to life. “Most artists know what they want, but they don’t know how to make what they have in their heads be something they can pull out of a record cover,” Oswald said. “I fill in that gap.”
When Club Night, an experimental-rock outfit from Oakland, sought to create a cohesive sound for its maximalist project What Life, an album featuring eight tracks of disparate instrumental parts and complex song structures, it turned to Oswald. He suggested that they track the drum part in the live room at Secret Bathroom, a move that allowed for some roominess in the rhythm section despite the music’s incredibly dense arrangement. “This record was challenging […] partially due to the technical realities and difficulties of working with such multilayered and dynamic songs,” Oswald said. “Despite the complex layering, it still retains a live energy and feels like a band, which is not an easy feat.”
Oswald has a lot of reverence for the art of making an album, so much so that he struggled to pick a favorite project that he’s worked on. “No one chooses their favorite kid,” he said. “Even if it’s not something I personally listen to or even something I fully understand, the fact that I can help bands create something that’s more meaningful to them than perhaps anything in their life is satisfying and important.”
His congeniality does not undermine his ambition though. Oswald wants to make albums that have an international reach. He wants his projects to be praised by people in the music industry he admires. His ultimate goal is to have involvement in records that stand the test of time. “I want to name records that [listeners] pick up and it still means something to them 20 or 30 years later,” Oswald said. If creating a gilded album is a numbers game, Oswald’s odds are looking good.