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  • Writer's pictureJon Barefoot

Perfect is the Enemy of Good: An Interview with Nathan Iversen of Smog Moon Recordings

I met Nate in 2018 when my band was looking for somewhere to record. We recorded a track with him for a benefit compilation for Humanity Against Disease. At the time he was recording out of his day job's space (which to be honest felt kind of sketchy at first). I really admired his "non-perfect" approach to tracking and it was a very comfortable and non stressful experience, we ended up going back to record a full EP later that year and a promo in 2019. Nate and I have kept in touch since then, especially since I decided to get into recording, mixing and mastering myself. Here's my interview with him:

First of all, introduce yourself! What’s the name of your studio and how long have you been doing this?

My name is Nathan Iversen and I run Smog Moon Recordings in Lansing, MI where I perform engineering, editing, mixing, and mastering services. I have been recording and mixing on and off since around late 1999/early 2000 but what I have been doing under Smog Moon Recordings has been going on since around 2014 consistently although the name wasn't used until around 2017-2018 where I also started offering mastering services to my clients. 

How did you get into music in general?

I was born in 1980 and raised on MTV. Watching videos by Billy Idol, Guns N Roses, and Motley Crue and then later shows like Headbangers Ball, Alternative Nation, and 120 Minutes just captivated me. I remember getting GNR's Use Your Illusion albums on cassette and I would just hide in my bedroom with them cranked on some headphones. My mind would start trying to mentally isolate individual elements and layers and then I would just do this with everything I listen to. Nirvana's Nevermind album came out that same time and the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit just resonated with me and I started saving up to buy a guitar which finally happened a year or so later. The rest is history, haha.

What led to you getting into recording? 

I was always very interested in how the various sounds of a song came together. I wanted to "know how the sausage is made". So when I was old enough to work a job I bought some analog recording gear and started dabbling in my parents basement. A high school friend/bandmate at the time was also interested in production and we joined up and just bought gear together with every paycheck and learned how to use it all. The internet was barely functional or useful back then so there was a lot of trial and error and hunting down manuals. To this day I read every manual I can when I'm researching or buying new gear or plugins. 

What was your first session like? 

The first time I recorded a band that I wasn't in was around mid-2000 I think. It was in my parents basement and we were tracking through a Carvin MX 1644 console into 2 Alesis ADAT machines synced together for 16 tracks. Then we mixed back through the Carvin into a CD recorder. We had to manually punch in and out to fix mistakes.

One of the guitar players did some vocals as well and they had a really hard time hearing themself when tracking his vocals. Staying in key was really difficult for them and there was no autotune as it was completely out of the box even though we were technically recording digitally. So we just gave in and got a take that was "good enough". It wasn't haha. We went for full song takes on the drums which worked out because the drummer was solid and then just recorded bass and guitar tracks over their scratch tracks, adding vocals in last.

Outside of that and punching in/out there was no editing to speak of. It was a very spartan way of doing things but it worked and I worked in a similar fashion for a year or two that way. I didn't record music with a computer until around 2010 and I very much appreciate the problems that recording in a DAW has solved. I'm very grateful for the struggles of earlier recording processes as I learned a lot but I'm very glad I don't have to work that way anymore.

How did you decide to set your pricing? I feel like this is one of the hardest things to figure out in this line of work. 

I have figured out over the years roughly how long it takes me to work on a song on average and what I think a fair hourly rate is for the level of work and services I provide bands. So I find out how many songs they want to do, how long the songs are and how many layers/post production type stuff, and then multiply that by the hourly rate. Of course things always pop up and it takes more time then discussed but I find that as long as it is within reason I just eat that extra time/work. I want to get the money conversation out of the way as soon as possible so we can just work in a creative state and not have the band watching the clock and start to make panicked decisions that aren't about making the song the best it can be.

What’s the dumbest mistake you’ve made while recording or mixing / mastering? 

Probably not the dumbest thing but this was fairly recent and drove me crazy. An album I was working on a year or so ago had a weird thing going on with the kick drum. The gate on the live kick was misfiring on a lot of hits and making it not blend with the sample layers as well as the kick flamming a lot . No settings on the gate with look ahead or attack/hold/release would fix it.

Then, I finally noticed that I had created a random pre FX send from the live kick straight to my Stereo Master bus that bypassed all the Kick Bus, Drum Bus, and analog routing going on in the mix. This also was outside of plugin delay compensation I had setup for my analog loops. So this raw unprocessed kick was just going straight through and slightly unsynced from the rest of the mix. Finally found it and I felt so dumb. I don't even know why I created that send in the first place.

Have you ever had a bad experience with a client?

I know that in the moment there are tons of things that can frustrate me or hold up sessions that clients do. But once it's over I look back and those things just disappear. I have been very fortunate that the bands I work with are generally well prepared and are able to stay focused on the task at hand. Really early clients when I was doing bottom of the barrel pricing or freebies were absolute nightmares about punctuality and preparedness.

But that's just what you put up with to get experience and start building a name/portfolio so I don't hold that against them. When bands start coming to you with actual budgets a lot of those things just disappear. Having some skin in the game really makes bands come in with their best foot forward.

What’s your editing process like? 

I rarely track to a click and prefer bands just play live together as close to just jamming or practicing together as possible with headphones to get the drums tracked. Then we go in and track the actual bass, guitar, and vocal tracks over that. We just track the drums until we get the right takes using strategic punch in points and then comping 2-3 takes for the "final" performance. I'll take the drum tracks home and clean up some fills or nudge some kick or snare hits that hit early or late enough to throw off the groove. I probably edit the bass the most to make sure that it really locks to the drums the way it needs to provide that glue that bass does between drums and guitars.

Vocals are probably the second most edited layer in my productions. Comping takes for the best overall performance, stripping silence between lines, breath control, slight tuning on main vocals, and pretty hard tuning/stretching on harmonies to lock with the main. After I slice up each phrase I normalize them all to a specific LUFS value so every phrase is hitting my compressors at the right level. Makes for a very smooth and even performance in the mix.

But overall my editing is really about making sure each element hits right with each other in the context of each song so it sounds really good but also like a real band of humans playing together. "Perfect is the enemy of good" would be my philosophy for editing.

How do you balance studio life with real life (spending time with friends and family, avoiding burnout)?

The first quarter of 2020 right up until Covid shut everything down I was the busiest I have ever been with audio. Outside of working 40 hour weeks at my day job, being a husband and father, as well as maintaining friendships, I was working 30-40 hours additionally a week on audio. I had 4-5 different projects going. I was burning out. Now working with bands again more regularly I take a different approach.

My family and personal health come first. One thing I have done is learn to be OK with losing a potential project over pricing or scheduling. I put a lot of work and effort into my productions and I used to greatly undervalue what I do just to work with as many bands as possible all the time. My pricing is still very reasonable but if a band doesn't want to or aren't able to meet that financial threshold then maybe we can work together later when they are ready. If they want to barter with "So And So will do it for $X" I just suggest that they should just work with them then. It's obviously a better deal. (Or as they usually find out later you get what you pay for).

I think that ultimately, even though audio is what I would like to do full time to provide for my family, it's not worth just being really busy with low paying gigs and then missing my kid growing up and neglecting my wife. I have a good day job that I love working at that allows me to provide for my family. So audio is just gravy on top of all of that. I'm still going to grow my audio business but it's going to be slower than I originally planned and that's ok.

What’s a relatively cheap piece of gear that has surprised you and has made it into your workflow?

I think the big one would be Kali Audio monitors. They are stupid cheap but sound great. Every time I consider getting more expensive monitors I just look back at the progress my mixes have made over the years and none of that had to do with expensive monitors. I'll upgrade one day but for now I'm sitting good with them. Treating my room and dialing in my mix position is where I can make the most improvement. Another shout out would be to Lewitt microphones. They sound really good and are built extremely well. I use a handful of them on my drum sessions and they do the job just fine. 

What's your desert island plugin?

Hmm. Probably PSP Audioware's Infinistrip. It's a modular setup with various options for preamps, saturation, eq, and dynamics each. Very flexible and zero latency so you can track through it as well. PSP is an older company when it comes to plugins and they have always made hits. They don't have a huge promotion budget but their track record is amazing and have made what I would consider "vintage" plugins that still sound good and compete with all the new flashy stuff as well as still coming out with new products that are total bangers.

Lastly, what music have you been listening to lately? 

The new Alkaline Trio album "Blood, Hair, and Eyeballs" has been on repeat since January. But I mostly just listen to a steady diet of Superdrag, Matthew Sweet, Fountains of Wayne, Lees Of Memory, The Pernice Brothers, and a ton of whatever Jerry Finn has ever worked on. I'm terrible about seeking out new music and just fall back on "comfort food" jams most of the time.

The whole reason I decided to start doing these interviews is because I feel that a lot of engineers, the people behind the sound of a band's record, are often un-credited or not appreciated. I'm a total nerd when it comes to this stuff and I always want to know who engineers and mixes/masters the records that I like. Thanks for taking some time out of your day to answer my questions!

You can find Nate on Instagram (@Smogmoon) to see what he's up to and check out his band Drop Rate! (@DropRateHC on Instagram).

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