Producer & Rock ‘N’ Roll Artist Jason Achilles on Sending a Microphone to Mars
Photo by Evan Rodaniche
Jason Achilles recently met our Creative Audio Production & Sound Engineering students in a stellar online guest session. Read all about his collaboration with NASA on the sound for the Perseverance rover, his creative process as a producer and his advice to emerging artists.
Got ambition? As our latest guest, Los Angeles producer, composer and recording artist Jason Achilles, taught us, the sky is no longer the limit. His creative rocket fuel literally took his sound engineering to another planet: Mars. Through pure curiosity, the “armchair space enthusiast” landed himself the dream gig of helping NASA design a microphone setup for the Perseverance rover. It all began with one question: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could hear what it sounds like on Mars?”
Jason started out at the very bottom, as a studio intern. Though he rubbed shoulders with celebrities, he lacked the required flair for window cleaning and coffee making to keep the job for long. Through a different kind of perseverance – the one all sound engineers must have in bucket loads – he went on to do his own thing, playing in rock bands and opening his own recording studio. Aside from his recent space mission as an independent consultant for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he’s just finished producing Guns N' Roses keyboardist Dizzy Reed’s solo album. Nevertheless, he’s now moving his focus to his own music, using his fine-tuned studio setup to live stream his performances. Jason’s unconventional career path proves that passion, above all, is paramount to success. As he quipped to our Creative Audio Production & Sound Engineering students, “There’s so much more to making music than making music.”
They were thrilled to have a couple of hours of Jason’s time, when he joined them and tutor Ciaran O’Shea for an intimate online guest session. Ciaran’s wealth of experience in studios around the world, including LA, meant that the pair had plenty to chat about. In fact, Jason’s journey couldn’t be more aligned with Ciaran’s personal motto: “Shoot for the moon. If you miss, you’ll land among stars.”
But what exactly goes into landing a microphone on Mars? As it turns out, Perseverance has two: one for making scientific observations, and the other for the most far-out field recording ever attempted by humans. “The one that I worked on is associated with the landing system,” Jason told us, “which was honestly just there to pair with the video because they felt it would be cool…I think it’s fucking cool.” After a month and a half on the red planet, the microphone is still working, beaming back some increasingly interesting sounds. The sample above, which Jason calls his Martian mix, was processed on iZotope by his team to remove the mechanical pumping sound of the rover as it drives around. He hinted that the next recording to be released by NASA is going to be especially interesting to musicians.
Atmosphere is something we artists are forever trying to generate, though we doubt many have ever had to think about it quite as literally as Jason. “The atmospheric properties definitely affect things,” he said, referring to the project. “There are only a few places outside of this world in which you can capture any sound at all. Mars has about one percent of Earth’s atmosphere, about the same atmospheric pressure as if you were 100,000 feet in the air on Earth, so sound does travel. You also have to consider the chemical composition of that atmosphere.”
“Normally when you’re doing field recording, you want to hear everything but the wind. In this case, there’s nothing else to hear.”
Jason opted for DPA’s 4006 condenser microphone, for which he initially designed a containing metal box to shield it from the Martian wind. However, he and the team ultimately decided against using it. “The wind was probably the only sound on Mars so we didn’t want to negate it completely,” he said. “Normally when you’re doing field recording, you want to hear everything but the wind. In this case, there’s nothing else to hear.”
Another concern was building a setup which could withstand the vacuum on the Perseverance’s six-month journey through space. “When you fly materials into deep space, or into a vacuum, they start to kind of evaporate,” Jason explained. “Small air particles that are microscopically captured inside materials... the vacuum will draw those out over that time and these materials get leached out of these things. That’s why, for example, every circuit board that gets printed and put onto a spacecraft has to be coated with epoxy to make sure everything’s glued in there… we had to be cautious to not include any materials that could lead to outgassing.”
Of course, it wasn’t all space talk. There was plenty of nerding out about the studio space too. Jason praised Catalyst for giving students a chance to play with some of the best equipment in the industry, an opportunity he never had as an intern. Referring to our Trident 88 Classic 24-channel analogue desk (pictured below in all its glory), he joked, “If you’re not in there every day working on that thing, you’re fired! That is a beautiful console and the fact that you guys have access to it is incredible. It’s an amazing console. I would marry that thing.”
Jason prefers to work with a fully analog setup. He and Ciaran shared their love-hate relationship with the time-consuming process of manually splicing and editing recording tape. Comparing the ‘old way’ to working in digital is analogous to the difference between using a typewriter and a word processor. Get it wrong and the results are irreversible (see ‘California Dreamin’’ by The Mamas & The Papas, the solo of which is in a different key). Still, it’s precisely this tangibility that keeps Jason coming back.
“The thing about the analog world that I would say is really good,” he shared, “is that it makes you think about the process. It really makes you consider your edits. I would say that when you do something it becomes more purposeful, and more purposeful decisions make for better music. That’s not to say you can’t make purposeful decisions in the digital world, but analog forces you to...Even if it takes longer and causes you anguish, anything that creates that situation where you ultimately know you’re going to create a better product, at the end of the day, you should be doing.”
On the topic of the ‘old way’ of doing things, Ciaran spoke about one of his favourite producers, Tom Dowd, who went from engineering the atomic bomb to engineering Ray Charles’ music. “As much as you don’t imagine that his past would affect his music,” Jason commented, it definitely affected his decision-making process.”
"You’re Willy Wonka, you’re the one drawing all the crazy colours that no one else understands, but at the end of the day, you’re making this tasty candy for people to listen to."
Ciaran couldn’t end the session without asking about Jason’s creative approach. One of the most important insights he shared was knowing the “character” of your gear. “Every compressor has a character to it, every preamp has a character to it,” he advised, “and you select what you want to use based on the personality of that thing...Think of the character, don’t think of EQs... Think of silky or woody... stupid words we come up with to describe sound that mean nothing to anybody but us. But think about it, that’s your skill. You’re Willy Wonka, you’re the one drawing all the crazy colours that no one else understands, but at the end of the day you’re making this tasty candy for people to listen to… You do, of course, have to understand the technical aspects of these things, but you shouldn’t think about them like that.”
“Your whole school has been designed to give everybody a safe space to record in and try out ideas”
Jason’s parting advice to our students was to get out in front of a crowd as much as possible. “Your whole school has been designed to give everybody a safe space to record in and try out ideas,” he told them, “but I can’t encourage you guys enough to create stuff and throw it in front of a hostile crowd…because that’s how you develop. Get in the studio and then get out of the studio and put it in front of people. Don’t be afraid. Maybe it will get torn to pieces...But that’s the best thing you can do.” He recalled a gig in London where he and his band unexpectedly ended up playing to a bunch of unruly Oasis fans, which pushed them to try even harder with their set. “At the end of the day, you shouldn’t give a shit about people’s opinion,” he continued, “but you should give a shit about whether it’s affecting people. Even if you’re pissing them off, you’re doing something right. If you’re getting no reaction, that’s a problem. Go back and fix things.”
Jason urged our students to make use of everything available to them at Catalyst while they have the chance: “Get in the studio, make stuff, even if it sucks.”