Behind the Board with All-American Rejects’ Nickolas Wheeler

Behind the board with All-American Rejects' Nickolas Wheeler (All-American Rejects, Cassadee Pope, Never Loved, Caroline Dare, & More)

Photo Credit: Libby Danforth
From founding member & guitarist for The All American Rejects to running his own studio as a full-time producer/engineer, we caught up with the multi-talented Nickolas Wheeler to hear the story behind his journey to get behind the mixing board.
He gives us behind-the-scenes access to his process, what gear plays a critical role in recording, and his favorite (and least favorite!) aspects of the creative process.
Let’s get into it!

Most people know you as a guitarist, most notably from your band The All-American Rejects, but what's the backstory and progression for you as a producer & engineer?

I’ve been playing guitar and drums since grade school, and have been in bands since I was 12. Growing up in Stillwater, OK there weren’t a lot of live shows to play or even go to so I was drawn more to recording music. I started with a dual tape deck that had a little karaoke microphone. I would play the drums onto one tape, then play that back while I “overdubbed” the other instruments into the mic.
The quality was pretty worthless in the end, so I eventually saved up enough of my paper route money to buy a used Tascam 8-track. It was around that time that I started recording not only myself but the bands I was in as well as a few other local bands. My high school setup evolved to a Dell desktop running Cakewalk and I eventually upgraded to a Macbook and a mobile Pro Tools rig once AAR got signed in 2002 (off of the bedroom Cakewalk demos) and we started touring.
Since then I’ve been continuously evolving and expanding with each space I’ve been in until recently when I finally got to build my first freestanding (non-spare bedroom) studio in Nashville.

Did you produce any of your own stuff while touring or have side projects? You have such a unique experience and I'm curious how that was part of your evolution to a producer/engineer/music creator now.

That evolution started with my first Mac, so not only was I learning Pro Tools but I was learning how to work on my first non-Windows computer. This was back when Pro Tools only ran on OS9, so I had to partition my hard drive…It was a whole thing!
There were also a lot of peripherals back then. In order to use a MIDI controller, I had to carry a MIDI interface in addition to my audio interface (which back then was the original gray and blue MBox). Not to mention, there weren’t really many external hard drives that didn’t require a power source.
All that to say, it was challenging to create during those extremely busy tour years though I tried my best to keep up with the quickly evolving technology of digital recording. My band did most of our writing in between album cycles at home. It wasn’t until moving to Nashville in 2015 that I started working on multiple projects at once with other artists and taking my (now much smaller and more manageable) mobile rig on the road.
I would set it up in dressing rooms, hotel rooms, on airplanes, and even in airports to make the most of my downtime. It still comes with its challenges, but it’s much easier to multi-task and be creative while traveling.

What are some of the biggest lessons you've learned in the music creation process?

Don’t wait for inspiration. Just start working and the inspiration will come once you stumble upon an idea or get in a groove. This is not always the case, but more often than not you’ll end up having a fun, productive day.
I’ve also learned to start making decisions earlier in the process and committing, mainly due to the implementation of more and more analog gear over the past few years.

What's your advice for musicians who want to get more hands-on behind the board?

Photo Credit: Libby Danforth

These days, you have to be able to do everything. The role of “producer” has evolved, and budgets just aren’t what they used to be so you won’t always have engineers and session musicians available to you. But when you are around them, pay attention to what they’re doing and learn from them.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing producers and engineers, but as the artist. I was always laser-focused on the music (which of course I should have been), but I could have definitely learned more about microphones, pre-amps, tape machines, etc. in the process. I’ve since gone back to fill in the gaps with a year of engineering classes at Berklee Online (which really helped drive home the theory and more technical aspects of recording), but nothing compares to real-life hands-on experience when and if you can get it. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing… Experiment until YOU think it sounds cool.

You now have your own recording studio in Nashville. Why did you want to build your own? How are you planning to use that recording space?

Photo Credit: Libby Danforth

I’ve always had a designated space in my house (wherever that was over the years) that I called the “studio”, be it a corner of a bedroom, living or dining room, a spare room, etc.
But with the kind of projects I want to record, and have been fortunate enough to work on lately, I started to feel limited by the lack of isolation and the amount of ambient noise (air conditioner, lawnmowers, construction, etc.)

During Covid, I had an opportunity to move to a different part of town onto a piece of land that had more than enough space to build a separate structure for my studio. It was a grueling 2 1/2-year project, but it was worth it in the end to have the isolation and treatment I wanted and required (and now I can no longer hear my neighbors mowing!)
In my last three homes, my space had been dubbed “Wheelhouse Studio”, so I thought it was only fitting to carry the name over to this new building. We went a little nuts with the branding and made Wheelhouse shirts, mugs, and even our own coffee with local Nashville roaster Good Citizen. Just for fun, all of that stuff is available on my website even though I don’t have any intention of running the studio commercially.
Right now I’m just ecstatic about finally having a space where I can write and record the projects I’m working on - some of which are bands or artists that bring me on to make their records, and others are passion projects by up-and-coming Nashville artists that excite and inspire me.

Having recorded in a variety of major studios, how did you approach designing your own recording space?

Photo Credit: Libby Danforth

I’ve been so fortunate to have been able to record in some amazing rooms over the years (The Village in Santa Monica, Barefoot, and Conway in Hollywood, Mission Sound in Brooklyn, and even the soundstage at Skywalker Ranch). Obviously, my space doesn’t compare to any of those in size or history, but what they all shared that I COULD draw inspiration from was the “vibe”.

Some had a lot of it, some had no aesthetic at all. Some were laid out great, some had absolutely no flow. I took what I personally liked about each of them, and what I thought would inspire other artists and tried to fit that into my 750 sq/ft building. My priorities with Wheelhouse were the look and feel of the recording rooms, and possibly most important - having an onsite bathroom! I also took into account things like a separate tracking room so everyone in the control room can participate when we’re cutting drums or a vocal, and an iso booth so we can record a scratch vocal simultaneously if a band is tracking live on the floor.
Every room is connected as well, so a guitar player can be in the control room but playing out of an amp in the tracking room or iso booth. I’ve also been integrating a lot more analog gear in my process (for both tracking and mixing) - enter Warm Audio!
Let’s face it… gear looks rad, and analog will never go out of style. Even if you’re recording in a completely digital environment, you’re probably using something to simulate that gushy, saturated analog sound. Having tactile knobs, faders, synths can also keep artists engaged and everyone can participate if needed.

You've been involved in a lot of music making and there's no one-size-fits-all solution, so tell us about your approach for choosing the gear when recording an artist.

Photo Credit: Libby Danforth

Because I’ve moved around so much and because I’ve been touring for over 20 years, I’ve recorded in a lot of different situations, so the first thing I tend to consider are my limitations. When I’m traveling or touring, I usually only have a 2-channel interface in my rig so the only decision really is what mic and what guitar to bring.

If it’s more of a road trip scenario, I might bring a better mic, a pre-amp, and some monitors. If I’m in my studio, however, I try to move at a pace and select the approach that keeps the artist most engaged and gets the result they’re looking for. Sometimes that means using digital amp sims to move quickly, or it could mean dragging out all of the toys (synths, pedals, etc.) and really nerding out.
Budget and time is also a factor. Sometimes you just don’t have the time to try out a bunch of different guitar amps and throw mics on all of them because you also need to record drums AND a vocal in the same day. However, I never skimp on my vocal chain. I have it pretty dialed and really only change the mic and the input level of the pre-amp, which are both totally dependent on the voice. In my chain, I have the Warm WA-2A to catch some peaks on the way in and the EQP-WA for some top-end shine. When I’m tracking drums, I always use my WA-412 with the “tone” button activated. I tend to use these for the room and “flavor” mics.

Who are you recording right now and how are you getting the sound you & they want to achieve?

I’m currently working with several Nashville artists on multiple projects, but I also love when bands come in to really sink their teeth into something over the course of several days or even weeks. We’re so centrally located (and Nashville is such a fun place to visit), that a large portion of my work is with out-of-towners.
Being able to offer a space to record live drums, or have a band set up and play together in one room has really been a game changer in the overall excitement and morale in the studio, not to mention the quality of the finished product.

Quick Hits

  • Favorite music to record?
    I’ve been working with synths and drum machines since the late 1900s when I bought a KORG Triton, but I’ll always gravitate towards recording organic instruments. That said, the genres I enjoy working in the most are rock, pop, and alternative. I love guitars and live drums, but finding interesting textures and combinations to come up with a truly original sound is always the best part!
  • Favorite day in the studio: Drum day, vocal day, string day?
    Drum day is my absolute favorite day in the studio for sure! It can be such a big production, and it’s really interactive for everyone. I love setting it all up, tuning and treating the drums, getting sounds, and finally just getting to work with a great drummer to really bring a song to life together. But I also love vibing out the space and having an intimate vocal session.

    Either way, it’s all about making the performer feel excited and most importantly comfortable. I really enjoy building that mutual trust with an artist so that they feel safe to try anything and also open to being pushed in a way that gets the best performance out of them as possible.
  • Favorite part of the music creation process?
    I love it when I’m so excited about what I’m working on that I lose track of time. Whether that’s editing drums, being buried in guitar pedals, or even just tracking bass when I feel like I’m onto something really great…It’s better than any other feeling.
  • Least favorite part of the music creation process?
    Those mornings when you’re feeling uninspired, or you know it’s going to be a tedious day in the studio. But like I said before, most of the time if you just sit in it and get to work on something you’ll find that inspiration and excitement. All of that said, however, tuning vocals really blows.
  • Favorite Warm Audio gear?
    I love the WA-47 and CX-12 on vocals along with the WA-2A. I run my piano and all my drum room and “color” mics through the WA-412, and finally, I have two WA-EQPs to put on my mix bus along with the Bus Comp.
  • Music maker you admire or influence to your process?
    The music makers I look up to and relate to the most are those who have similar paths as myself - started in a band, fell in love with a particular part of the process, and then really zeroed in on it. I definitely learned the most from working with Eric and Greg, and I really admire Tim Pagnotta and John Feldman for what they’ve been able to do with their careers in the studio.
Check out Nickolas Wheeler's profile for credits and Warm Audio gear he is using.
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