The Technical Side of Music, An Interview with Audiophile Todd Drootin & Music Supervisor Kerri Drootin

From being a vinyl expert to a music supervisor for television, there are many different aspects to the music industry.  What do these two jobs have in common though?  Husband-and-wife musical duo, Todd & Kerri Drootin.  Todd has been working in specialty vinyl since 2006 and now runs LPGuru.com, a boutique shop and service finding premium vinyl pressings for audiophiles and collectors.  Kerri is an Emmy-nominated music supervisor whose credits include The Office, Parks and Recreation, Master of None, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place.

Not many people realize how crucial “the pressing” of a record is and how different copies of the same record can produce such distinct sound qualities.  In steps Todd.  One of his goals with LPGuru.com was to make his expertise and services available to a wide audience, so that music lovers and audiophiles can find exceptional pressings of their favorite albums; those that will perform at distinctively higher levels than those simply picked out of a bin.  Kerri’s job of finding songs to fit in certain scenes also comes with a checklist of requirements, beginning with the lyrics and tempo. Once she finds the right song, then comes the question of licensing rights and the process really begins.  Below these two experts discuss their technical and artistic processes for working in each of their respected fields. Read the exclusive interview here:                                                                       

Todd:

-You have been working in the specialty vinyl business since 2006. How has this business changed in the last 13 years?

The world of vintage vinyl is pretty constant. Certainly, there’s a lot of interest in collecting old pressings right now, with more and more record stores seeming to pop up each month. That does make the work of tracking down great copies a bit trickier than it’s been at other times, but I’m just happy to see people getting interested and involved. I lived through the ‘90s where record companies almost completely stopped pressing new records; I’ll happily take the trade-off of having more people loving records and me having a tougher time shopping for stock over people losing interest in the format.

-You toured with your solo electronic music project Books on Tape and worked at Better Records before launching your vinyl business LPGuru.com. Do you think your previous music work has influenced your current vinyl endeavor?

I’ve been into records since I was a kid and they’ve played a huge role in my life since. Books on Tape began as an entirely sample-based project – it was a way to further interact with my records and bring them to life in new ways. When one of the labels I worked (No Type, out of Montreal) with first proposed releasing some of my music on vinyl, it was one of the most incredible “full circle” moments of my life — just the feeling that my music could stand on a shelf next to the albums that influenced and informed me through the years blew me away. Years later after I was already working at Better Records (another specialty vinyl shop that finds top quality pressings for audiophiles) I decided I needed to put together one last release — Books on Tape had been done for a few years at this point — and my experience in the audiophile vinyl world certainly made me put extra effort into getting everything just right. So the influence actually has gone both ways!

-What is your main goal with LPGuru.com?

I never saw myself becoming an audiophile. I grew up on lo-fi punk rock recordings and 4th generation Grateful Dead audience bootlegs so sound quality was far from a priority to me. But after years working in the industry, I realized just how much joy I found in hearing my favorite music reach new heights on the better sounding copies. I want to share that joy with other music lovers who may not realize how great sound can elevate the emotional quality of music. I put a lot of effort into making the listings on my website and my posts on Instagram as informative and educational as possible, so even people who aren’t interested in buying records from me might learn a thing or two about getting the most from their vinyl experience. 

-To get technical, how can one tell if a vinyl has been ‘pressed well’?

There are a few tricks I use when out sourcing vinyl to decide if a given pressing is worth taking a chance on. Condition of course, country where it was manufactured, numbers and initials in the dead wax, and so on. More often than not this kind of information tells me to avoid a record rather than to buy it. A record can have all the right hallmarks I look for and still disappoint, but it’s much more rare for a record with the WRONG info to actually be good. That’s helpful in keeping my expenses (and eventually, prices) down. But the only way to really know if a record has the goods sonically is extremely labor-intensive. You’ve got to clean it, play it, and compare it with other copies. There’s really no shortcut. My work would be easier if there was, but then there probably wouldn’t be a need for my services!

-On your site you talk about how different copies of the same record can sometimes produce such distinct sound qualities. Why is that?

There are so many variables between pressings. Take a record like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, which was pressed over a million times, at a number of different pressing plants, handled by different people at different times and using different tapes to produce the records. People might think it’s crazy that copies sound differently, but I think it’s even crazier to assume they would all sound the same!

When I’m breaking these ideas down to someone for the first time, I like to compare it to eating at a chain restaurant in different locations. The meal might be very similar, but you wouldn’t expect it to be identical. Sometimes they get the order just right, and sometimes they mess it up a bit. Sometimes an employee might have their own way of preparing it that changes the experience a bit for better or worse. It’s not a perfect analogy, but records are really not that much different — they’re made by people who have good days, bad days, and their own individual way of doing things that certainly affects the process. And I’m not an expert on the manufacturing side to the point where I could explain exactly what makes a record sound good or bad, but having evaluated tens of thousands of copies over the years, I can tell you that the resulting sonic differences can make or break the listening experience if you take this stuff seriously!

Kerri:

-For people that don’t know what a music supervisor does, can you explain?

Music supervisors help pick the songs you hear in movies, TV, ads, commercials and promos. We also secure licensing rights to these songs. We largely work with 3rd party songs via major labels and publishers, indie avenues and music libraries but we also often work with the composers that are hired on our projects as well.

-Whenever you are placing songs on a show, which is more important, the lyrics or the pacing/tempo?

It totally depends on the scene! Tempo is always crucial and lyrics are often crucial. If the song is buried super deep background in a bar type of scene or something like that, lyrics usually don’t totally matter. But, if you have a song that is heavily featured during an important scene, like a montage, than the lyrics have to make sense or the music could totally take you out of the scene, which is the last thing you want to do. I’m a beat and tempo driven person since I grew up as a drummer and a lot of times I really have to force myself to pay attention to the lyrics. Yesterday I almost pitched a song for a scene that felt really good when I played the song to picture. The scene took place in Oakland at a side show with all these kids showing off these awesome car tricks. I thought the track had the right tempo and vibe and just felt really good, and then I listened to the lyrics and it was all about a guy banging 10 girls. The lyrics made no sense with what we were seeing on screen.

-What is the most technical aspect of your jobs

This job definitely a mixed bag of creative and business affairs. I’d say it’s about 50/50. We have to research the rights holders and obtain clearances to every song we want to use via record labels, publishers, managers, random dudes….. Sometimes the info is easy to find and sometimes it could take months of internet stalking and phone calls and emails to track down the missing piece of a song. I also find spreadsheets to be pretty technical.

-You are currently working on The Good Place and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Which show is more difficult to find music for and why? 

Both of these shows are such joys to work on and I really love working on comedies! Neither of these shows are particularly difficult but the one issue I’ve run into on Brooklyn is that we often use 80s – early 2ks hip hop and I’m often putting music to high energy scenes like police chases or helicopter shoot outs and there are only so many hip hop songs from that era that have the energy we need, are fairly recognizable and licensable. Hip hop gets tough, especially when a lot of samples were used, and side artist deals don’t make life any easier on us either. It’s super fun though and I’m excited to start doing the dig for season 7!

-Since your husband has a vast knowledge of the music industry too, are you finding yourself asking his advice a lot on projects you are working on?

Todd and I love to listen to records together on weekend nights when we have the time and energy and that definitely helps open me up to new ideas for songs that I can consider for my shows.  I try to keep my phone out of sight during these listening sessions but I keep finding myself grabbing it to send myself reminder emails of what songs I want to get digital files for when I get back into the office on Monday.

But I think this question can go both ways.  For example, I came across an amazing Dolly Parton song for one of my shows recently and I played it for Todd.  He dug into the shelves and found that we already had a copy of this album.   We listened to it and then he was inspired to write a post about it.

We have both been collecting records for most of our lives so I definitely think our collective knowledge is mutually beneficial.

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