Brooklyn Duo Creates Wondrous World of “Elska”

November 28, 2012 by  

FORT GREENE: There’s something kind of meta about Elska: Middle of Nowhere, a new concept album about an enchanting new children’s character.

Elska – an arctic adventurer who’s discovered a newly formed volcanic island – has a pioneering mind as we learn in the album’s opening song; her story begins with an idea. “It’s so bright and so clear,” she sings, “And it’s totally mine.”

Elska…and a geysir!

Of course Elska is an idea as well – one that’s been realized by her creators with the same wide-eyed determination you might imagine driving Elska herself. And much like the story of Elska, the story of the making of Elska was an arctic adventure, too.

Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Shelley Wollert and producer/engineer Allen Farmelo created Elska over, after and between several trips to Iceland. They produced the album at Farmelo’s Brooklyn studio, The Snow Farm, and Mavericks in China Town, and they brought it to life on stages from Littlefield to Symphony Space, and in videos shot in lava fields in Iceland.

When they launched the record this Fall, Elska was already much more than an album.

But it started as an idea… Like their character, Wollert and Farmelo set out on a journey to find their sound. Along the way they had to jettison some of their musical staples to dream up something entirely new. The result is what one critic called “a transcendent work that your young children will hold dear.”

No Pedal Steel Guitars In The Arctic

The aforementioned opening song, “I Just Had An Idea” lays down Elska’s first sonic footprint – a Devo-inspired minimal electronic pop soundscape with clear and close and totally inviting vocals.

Compared to the JAM-packed tween (and really, pre-tween) pop of Katy Perry and Carly Rae Jepsen, Elska’s is a sparse analog pop sound created with Moogs and other analog synthesizers, vibraphone, celeste, music box, and glockenspiel. Developing a unique sonic palette was essential to this project, which aims to bring listeners into a new, “other” world. It shouldn’t sound like it was made in Brooklyn, or in America for that matter.

“If you’re going to make a character who lives on an arctic island with a strange creature called the Goobler, she shouldn’t sound like Hank Williams,” Farmelo says, jokingly but emphatically. Even though they were going for a more Icelandic-inspired modern sound, Wollert’s pre-Elska singing style was more bluesy Americana than Björk. And they were both more likely to pick up a guitar than a Moog.

They had a lot of themselves to shed to get where they were going.

“We had to get it out of the Southwest,” says Farmelo. “We were trying to portray a vast landscape, which is something Sigur Ros (for example) does beautifully. But when I want to portray a vast landscape, I’ll throw a pedal steel over a 1-4-5 chord change and you’re in the desert. There was a moment where that was on an early version of an Elska song, and it sounded like Calexico. And that was not going to work. It’s just that that’s how I know vastness, as an American.”

Ultimately they decided to strip guitars out of the project completely and try to come at “vastness” from another angle. In keeping with the way Farmelo seems to make records anyway, they established some aesthetic guiding principles that would help focus the sound.

Allen Farmelo and Shelley Wollert

“We came up with ‘playful minimalism’,” says Wollert. “I knew I wanted everything from the illustrations to the color palette to the sound, to be clean, clear, organized, fresh and modern. And that’s how we started coming into those words: playful – because it has this imaginative, childlike focus to it, and then minimalism to bring in that modern, fresh soundscape.”

Because “playful” could take you in so many directions, the duo’s sense of “modern” really drove the musical choices. “When you have so many options in front of you, it’s really helpful to have that backbone,” notes Wollert.

And of course they had their more geographically appropriate Icelandic influences. “We definitely borrowed ideas from Iceland – you have things like Valgeir Sigurðsson-and-Björk microbeats on certain tunes, and chimes and malloted bells that are pulled from a lot of Icelandic music. Nothing on the record sounds like Sigur Ros, but we’re using those elements because they’re non-American sounding elements… For us, and the market we’re in, that creates this unique and otherworldly world.”

Then there was Shelley’s vocal – the kind, loving and at times lulling voice of Elska. “Shelley worked day-and-night for months to train herself out of that bluesy, alt-country style,” says Farmelo, “To come at a vocal approach that would match this new music we were doing.”

Alt-country what? There’s barely a trace of it on Middle of Nowhere.

“It was us taking that principle of minimalism and applying it to the vocal,” Wollert says of the process. “We spent a lot of time at the piano, going up five notes, or down five notes, or just practicing one interval from one word to the next without sliding, without scooping up to it.

“I had to whittle it down to simply expressing the notes. And in a sense that’s what made my voice childlike, but at the same time filled with wonder. It’s simple and wondrous.”

And for Allen’s part: “I would do to Shelly’s music what Devo did to ‘Satisfaction’ – square it off, take away swing, syncopation, feel – all of the elements that locate it in a bluesy or funky way, we took all that away from the music. And what’s left is playful and minimal. You get this really bouncy fun, poppy thing. So it’s not that we robbed it of that rhythm, or feel, but we robbed it of those particular rhythms and feels, and particular inflections.”

Moog bass and pocket piano were also key to creating the minimal, yet vast, Middle of Nowhere soundscape. And the guiding principles were also executed in the production, engineering and mixing of the record.

“Most of the drums are done in mono because that narrows the sonic stereofield and gives you a much more minimalist sound,” Farmelo describes. “And, for example, I knew we had to do a crooning approach on her vocal – a very light approach on the mic to get that intimacy. She’s singing very quietly, on the verge of a whisper, but right on the diaphragm of the [Telefunken AK47] mic, and it’s really hot and the preamp is driven in a certain way to bring out that textural quality of her voice. I knew that had to be there to put intimacy into this otherwise very squared off music.”

On the chimey rhythms, Farmelo adds: “I was layering vibraphone, xylophone, celeste, music box, and real glockenspiel, and that was just to get one sound. I found a combination of those things panned out in stereo would create this beautiful three-dimensional tone.”

Engineering Elska

Farmelo is a process-oriented producer/engineer, and though listeners may not recognize it, his production makes Elska: Middle of Nowhere that much more engaging, transporting and – to the little ones who don’t know it yet, and their parents who are starving for it – sophisticated.

“I always think of music as existing as a surface,” Farmelo says. “Some surfaces are convex and point out at you. Some are flat, which is just horrible – when it neither comes out at you nor invites you in. The records that I try to make are concave, where there’s a space there that invites you in. There’s room to move into it. The singing style and the way that we recorded and mixed it is really about making sure that you’re being pulled into the world of Elska.”

Purchase the album at the Island of Elska store.

Middle of Nowhere is both Wollert and Farmelo’s very first foray into children’s music. And rather than researching and pulling reference material, they purposely remained somewhat ignorant to what’s expected.

“I didn’t care that it was a kids album,” says Farmelo. “I just knew it needed to be mixed to sound as beautiful and amazing as any record. In fact I felt even more of a responsibility to make a beautiful record because it’s these fresh young beings who…this might be the first record that certain human beings ever adopt into their lives.

“So I said, this has to be high art, produced as best we can.”

Farmelo mixed Elska on the custom API console he built last year – a console that was inspired in its design by some of the same mid-century modern and Icelandic influences that brought about Elska. A Tape Op contributor, Farmelo has written about his layered approach to record making – a method he refers to as “sonic varnish”.

“Basically, you’re cascading harmonic distortion, EQ and compression over the multiple stages of the recording process, as would have happened in the analog days,” he describes. “ So, we recorded a lot of stuff with EQ and compression happening; and there were no plug-ins used on this record. It was all done on my API console with another layer of EQ and compression on each channel plus bus compression happening there, all mixed down to the Studer [tape machine] in analog.

“So by the end, I had my 12 layers per track of analog processing stacked up. That’s how I get depth and richness and warmth and articulate sounds on records – and that’s how I approached this record as well.”

One thing he was mindful of, considering his audience: “I purposely did not go too heavy on subsonic bass. I think that’s better for kids – it can be heavy, ear-damaging stuff. And that adds an innocence to the music too; since it’s a little lighter on the bass, it twinkles and sparkles a little more. Feels lighter and more open.”

Then, the record actually went to Iceland to be mastered – by Valgeir Sigurðsson, in fact.

“Valgeir was able to add yet another sonic dimension in terms of depth on these mixes – they became even more three dimensional,” says Farmelo. “I’m not sure what exactly he did, but he just knows his gear so well…I think he pushed the circuit of his analog gear to add that one last tiny layer of harmonic distortion. That final layer of varnish on there just added that bit of depth.

“He also did an incredible job of getting it all to hold together from front to back in terms of EQ. It’s what you want a mastering engineer to do: make it sound better, and make it all hold together.”

The Kids Biz – Rolling Out A Kids Record

Though they may have remained purposely in the dark on some aspects of what a kids record should sound like, Wollert and Farmelo did their homework with regard to how to market the record.

“We hired a consultant, Regina Kelland, who has an incredible history and track record working with labels in children’s divisions,” says Farmelo. “I can’t imagine trying to do what we’re doing without her.”

The kids market, after all, is quite different than the mainstream or even indie music business.  You have to consider things like “how do you get your music into school libraries? And toy stores?” Wollert points out. “And physical distribution still takes the lion’s share of kids music sales. Kids need to have it in their hands. They don’t understand ‘Mommy just downloaded the record.’ Landing that physical distribution was really important.”

Also key to the project, Wollert is a talented illustrator and graphic designer, and created a physical product well worth owning – including a 16-page color booklet with illustrations of the Elska characters and photography from Iceland. They also were sure to perform in Kindiefest, an industry showcase Farmelo short-hands as the “SXSW of children’s music festivals”, which actually takes place in Brooklyn in the Spring. [It was Elska’s first live performance, and she reportedly blew minds.]

It’s clear that as a business, Elska could take off in so many directions. Wollert and Farmelo also produced a series of music videos with acclaimed stop-motion animator Andy Biddle (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wallace & Gromit) and VFX cinematographer Alex Funke (Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit).

“The record is central, but off of that we can see vinyl, video, then merchandise and app development – because it’s a fictional world, it’s just so scalable in so many different directions,” says Farmelo. “It has so many different elements that can be expressed physically, digitally, visually, audibly, even edibly at some point – who knows?”

But the two are cautious about maintaining the integrity of the brand as they consider all the ways Elska can grow.

“I go back to Dr. Seuss and Winnie the Pooh,” says Farmelo of classic reference points. “Winnie the Pooh is a class act. You see that stuff all over the place, but there’s an integrity to those stories and the way Disney’s handled the ownership of that.”

It all comes back to the idea – “so bright and so clear”. And then what you do with it.

“You make a beautiful record. You make videos,” says Wollert. “And then you have to guard it.”

For more on Elska, to watch videos, or to buy the album or Island of Elska merch, visit

To Mock the Stupendous Mechanism: The Story of The Motherbrain’s WSW Console

July 4, 2012 by  

How producer and studio owner Brian Bender turned a time capsule into a modern-day tone machine. Click to read the first and second parts of the series.

PART 3: Console Design

So I guess I feel a little like I owe you guys an apology. If I were playing it cool and this were Masterpiece Theatre, now is when I’d act surprised that you were there. The cliché would then slide as gently into set-up banter as smoking jackets into a velveteen armchair. Since we’re all friends, I’ll instead blame the delay on the truth.

Like most of you reading this, I am actually full-time engaged in figuring out the modern landscape for freelancers while making records to keep the electrons sliding smoothly from Con Ed at my beck and call.  Building this console is the fun-time side hustle. The good news is that means I’ve been lucky enough to be busy working on really amazing shit, the bad news is that this project has occasionally had to calmly play I Spy from the back seat of the van.

Today, this is article is about events that transpired almost a full year ago but there is too much good to report and, besides, we’re drawing really near to the important bit, the fact that this actually is coming together. For Reals. So, more news on the outrageous fortunes later, for now, onto the fun bit.

I’d like to take a second to give it up for Allen Farmelo here. After getting hip to his own crazy custom console, he seemed the perfect resource to rap with about the amazing satisfaction as well as the unforeseen pitfalls ahead of us. So, I found contact info on his website, reached out, and explained my crazy plan. He was super into it so we got together for coffee (Allen is also a total coffee fanatic so we hit it off on that level too). We ended up happily chatting like two nerdlingers for more than three hours over several coffees, rapping about all things aesthetic in the joys of the tactile interaction of our particular art.

A great timeline from Francois' initial proposal of technology's continual expansion in design. Note the super sweet wooden iPhone dock radio. It even includes an app to make your phone look like the bane of your high school career.

By the end, he put me in contact with Francois Chambard, the designer and maker of UM Project who built his desk. What’s more, Allen offered to be involved in an advisory capacity throughout the process! Dig. Now, I had a catalyzing coconspirator who’d already done the shit once, and his buddy, the other genius that built it.

He emailed Francois immediately and I think I had an interested response that night.

Francois is certainly a weirdo of the same cloth. Please, take a second now and check out UM Project’s new terrarium. Or Theremin. Or lamp.

But, backing up a year, our conversation began with the recent past’s vision of the far future. Francois and I found easy common ground via old school sci-fi. Logan’s Run, 2001, Dune, Blade Runner, Alphaville… so many good movies and such cool design themes.

I’m a huge sucker for Kubrik. (who isn’t?) So 2001 became the sort of jumping off point for my end of the conversation. Francois raised another excellent film for design inspiration, Gattaca, so that we weren’t just looking to recreate the past without looking forward. I’d seen the movie once when it came out but hadn’t been watching it with design antennae raised. At Francois’ mention, I rewatched it and was blown away. The design themes were at once very modern but with a very clear tether to classic mid-century modernism in a way that didn’t feel contrived or unnecessarily romantic.

A few days later, Francois sent over a brilliant proposal that included all the themes we’d discussed and a few weeks following that, he sent over the first rounds of designs…

This totally blew my mind and is excellent insight into Francois' meticulous comparative intellect.

Meanwhile, back in the tech lab here, we had started to unravel the mysteries of the pile.

As I’d mentioned in Part 2, we were lucky enough to score schematics for the bulk of the modules at play.  However, as I mentioned, they were all in German. Thanks to several days of diligence in front of Google Translate, my assistant Jon Anderson decoded them into a useable form for us monolingual American public school victims.

So now we had a roadmap for how these modules were installed originally: The 811 510 kompactmodul (our main mono module) was designed as a 5 input, 5 buss out, 3 aux channel strip. The inputs are 2 at mic level, 2 at line level, and an additional input for an oscillator to balance the I/O levels. Buss 1 / 2 was originally implemented as the main master buss and has the original pan pot for the channel out to the summing buss. Busses 3, 4, and 5 were additional post fader sends to recorders, house playback, radio broadcast, etc

Here's a pictographic depiction of what I'm trying to describe here.

In our design, we’ve made several modifications to this basic infrastructure. There is no dedicated Phase invert function, so we have decided to mult each input to its partner, inverted 180 degrees. So, Mic/Line 1 will be in phase and Mic/Line 2 will see the same signal, albeit inverted. This seemed like an elegant way to achieve this incredibly crucial function in analog.

The Auxes will essentially be used as they had originally been intended, however, we are going to mate them into the busses on the Tonelux Vracks so there will be sends that are coherent across both halves of the desk for outboard verbs and delays, etc, that we want to use in realtime.

Next, in order to get the channel outputs into the Tonelux master buss without submixing the WSW side into a stereo pair, we’re using the WSW direct outs as I’d mentioned previously. This way, we get full use of all the mic pres and EQ’s as hardware inserts, or as inputs at mix, as well as 5 discrete post fader outputs which will be incredibly useful for upwards compression, desirable submixing, etc.

In order to get those direct outputs into the Tonelux mix buss with panning, we are going to set up the patchbay so that the direct outputs are normalled into FX2 Inputs that then feed the Summing Master for mixdown. Fig. 2 is the working version of what our patchbay is going to look like.

A work in progress detail of the patchbay labels to give you a better idea of the signal flow we have in mind. This are the actual labels as well, painstakingly drawn up by Mr. Anderson.

The directs are unbalanced in the original system and so we looked to transformers to get them balanced to properly interface with the rest of the room and in a way that would be close-ish to the original vibe of the desk. There are tons of great manufacturers of modern transformers but the easy first choice for us was AMI/Tab-Funkenwerk.

Oliver Archut is, in my mind, very much the torchbearer of the diaspora of classic German broadcast designs. We reached out to Oliver and Joe Hauck (VP of AMI) and they sent over the AMI t188 transformer. After hearing this first one, we didn’t need to look any further…

The Tonelux system is designed with several interior busses on the Vrack that can be configured in whatever way makes sense for your install.

In my case, I have 16 MX2 modules, as well as 4 FX2+ modules, and 2 FX2 modules. The MX2s are my main line input modules and have 4 auxes and a stereo output into the master buss. The master outs are fed into an SM2 summing master and the aux outs feed into the FX2+’s. The FX2 + modules comprise 2 line level inputs that are essentially passive attenuators with pan that feed into the master buss as well as a summing amp that grabs the desired aux buss rail (determined by an internal jumper), sums the signals, and gives you a mono output for effect sends, headphones, key/sidechain ins, whatever devious machinations you can set in motion.

They even make an out of the box solution for inserting external signals into those rails, easy peasy.

For the most part, this implementation will be coherent across all the various modules but there will be more on that next time.


You guys are going to have to figure out what this is on your own but, suffice it to say, foreshadows the attention to detail that is currently happening in Greenpoint. Photo taken July 3, 2012.

Next Up! Put that Voltage in your Cap and Smoke It.

Brian Bender has enjoyed the pleasure of running sessions at Looking Glass, The Hit Factory, Electric Lady and many more beautiful rooms in New York and beyond. His co-conspirators include names as diverse as Philip Glass, The Counting Crows, Al Green. Borusan Philarmonie and Craig Street. Recent clients include Krystle Warren and the Faculty, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, Jose James and Langhorne Slim.

Audio Underground Roadshow Wrap-Up + Pics!

February 29, 2012 by  

As promised, we spent this past Saturday afternoon at SAE in Herald Square at the Audio Underground Roadshow, a new series of demo/meetups with high-end audio manufacturers, presented by TransAudio Group.

The day’s theme was “Analog Audio in a Digital World”, and between the Mark Hornsby-led demo sessions on tracking and processing via select analog hardware (see below), Allen Farmelo‘s thought-provoking presentation on “Analog Commitment in the Age of Undo”, and inventor-led one-on-one demos, attendees were fully immersed in the sounds, science, philosophy and benefits of analog equipment for the modern studio.

Allen Farmelo presenting an argument for analog consoles

Beyond the main presentation room, analog gear designers were setup in individual studios running one-on-one demos as well. That is, Geoff Daking showing the Daking Audio Mic Pre 500, Jon Erickson showing the A-Designs NAIL and EM-EQ2, David Bock showing the Bock Audio 241 tube microphone, Jesper Bo from Denmark with the Tube-Tech SMC2B multi-band compressor and Jesse Anderson showing the Chameleon 581 mic pre.

Alto Music sponsored the After Party, where the conversation continued over Brooklyn Brews and snacks.

Farmelo’s talk made a really compelling case for analog consoles and gear for the short-term time- and long-term cost-benefits. To paraphrase, if you put the time in to have a vision and solid plan for tracking a record, a thorough understanding of your gear, and proven chains, mixing can be a breeze. Projects can stay on time and budget. Clients are happy. Engineers are happy.

Check out Justin Colletti’s reflections on the presentation. Go see Allen Farmelo talk next time you have the opportunity. We’ll do our best to make sure there’s a next time.

And for more on any of the gear that was demoed by A-Designs, ATC, Bock Audio, Chameleon Labs, Cranesong, Daking, GML and Tube-Tech, visit

Here are some photos of the day!

Tube-Tech’s Jesper Bo



A-Designs’ Jon Erickson (right) with an Audio Underground guest.

Jesse Anderson showing Chameleon Labs’ new 500 series mic pre

Geoff Daking (left) with producer/engineer John Siket

Producer/engineer Mark Hornsby leading the tracking demo session

Alto Music founder Jon Haber with Tube-Tech’s Jesper Bo

Allen Farmelo and the argument for (analog) channel strips

Engineer/producer and DIY gear builder Ben Lindell is liking the A-Designs EM-EQ2

Hornsby running live vocal tracking session/demo

Farmelo’s room

The winner of the Bock 195 mic! (l-r) Karen Dunn, David Bock, winner Christian Polley and TransAudio Group founder Brad Lunde.


To Mock the Stupendous Mechanism: The Story of The Motherbrain’s WSW Console

February 1, 2012 by  

How producer and studio owner Brian Bender turned a time capsule into a modern-day tone machine. Click to read the first part of the series.

Part 2 — Fact Finding

...inscrutable Austrian cable snarl

So, a console. Or rather, a pile.  The first thing I did when I got word about this desk was naturally get online and do as much research as I could. Surprisingly enough, early research proved extremely fruitful and I stumbled upon a Czech fansite about a long dead Austrian electronics company. I love nerds.

Not only did have almost all the schematic documentation I needed, scanned legibly, the person who curates this website even has scans of original product sheets from WSW.  We now had factory THD+N specs, pin outs, even graphs of the EQ curves. I can’t even find this shit for most modern gear.

The catch? The site is in Czech and the docs are all in German. Yea.

So after several days of head scratching and a crash course in technical German thanks to Google Translate, Jon and I had enough information to get inside the modules and start figuring out what was what.

I’ve had many experiences dealing with the ol’ pile-of -console and so I wasn’t too put off by the idea of trying to figure out how humpty dumpty went together but, even if we were able to deduce how all the boxes fit together, it wouldn’t make much sense to set up those pop metal boxes in the control room and start making records.

Schematics. Click to enlarge.

Moreover, the sort of overarching ethos of design in the studio here has been based on modularity. After closing so many rooms, I have been more than a little reticent to dig in with a few hundred pounds of metal that can’t go into a wheeled rack case.

However, I cut my teeth on big desks. The SSL E/G that used to live at Looking Glass Studios was a very, very dear friend and I’ve spent many a hundred hour week on the J at Studio C in Electric Lady.  I love working on a well-maintained console.

I will say though (and this is as a tube-loving luddite), that so much of the functionality of large format consoles, while super rad and totally a point of pride for their owners and end users, is horribly redundant at this particular point in history.  Your DAW of choice probably has a better and more flexible automation system than whatever console of your fancy.  Moreover, you never have to clean the busses in Pro Tools with a toothbrush.

The option that ended up making the most sense for me when I went full time freelance a few years back was a summing mixer.  It’s the best of both worlds, really, but that’s a desecrated horse corpse, well-beaten, that I won’t further flagellate here.

I ended up building a 24 ch. Tonelux, which I adore. Paul Wolff, formerly of API, designed and built these modules and I colloquially refer to it as my baby J series. It can be bad-jazz-record clean or will faithfully reproduce the grimiest of overdrives and is slightly Hollywood on top. It’s modular and scalable which is incredibly useful for a freelancer such as myself.

The implementation of their fader automation system is truly genius. (Seriously, check it out if you’ve not already. Genius.) And mine, as configured currently, is 6U. RAD. Recalls are as easy as regularly aligning the thing with tone and pulling up outboard settings. There is no way I would even consider scrapping my Tonelux and so I began to look into interfacing the two.

Detail of the original WSW I/O. (These collectively handle power, audio, buss linking, even sharing the tone generator across the desk.)

One thing that really links the two desks is their modularity: Tonelux has a rack standard à la the 500 series standard, and modules can be added or subtracted easily as bread availability for growth, or tech requirements dictate. Similarly, the WSW modules take all the audio I/O and power simply on three amphenol connectors on the back of the subframe.

These WSW units also have direct outs already so no modifications on a circuit level are required to get 1 in 1 out functionality. We aren’t required to submix to get audio out of the thing.

This obviously makes the entire desk far more useful for anyone’s purposes. The mic pres become a thing. Hardware Inserts for EQ become a thing if you need post fader/post EQ automation, etc. Now, with the addition of some specially purposed Tonelux input modules, we will be summing the entire mix buss through the Tonelux rather than submixing and bringing in the WSW side on a stereo pair.

So then, the real question became how best to do all that. It seemed like trying to rebuild the mess in the racks as delivered was a kind of moot point if the real endgame is to have all the direct outs in the patchbay. This way, the analog routing options begin to approach the flexibility of their digital brethren.

Allen Farmelo's custom API console

In the configuration we’re planning, the Line Inputs will be normalled from Pro Tools outs. Their direct outs will then show in the patchbay, normalled into the inputs for the Tonelux FX 2 modules that get them into the Mix Buss. For tracking, the desk can function easily as spilt console with a simple cross patch to get the WSW outputs into Pro Tools instead.

So we began to look into housing options that could accommodate both the Tonelux half and the WSW half.

My good friend Christian Rutledge then pointed me in the direction of the work Allen Farmelo and Francois Chambard had just done on his custom API. I reached out to Allen and the rabbit hole began to quickly deepen.

Next up:  Wherein Hal 2000 meets Jude Law and they build the Death Star

Brian Bender has enjoyed the pleasure of running sessions at Looking Glass, The Hit Factory, Electric Lady and many more beautiful rooms in New York and beyond. His co-conspirators include names as diverse as Philip Glass, The Counting Crows, Al Green. Borusan Philarmonie and Craig Street. Recent clients include Krystle Warren and the Faculty, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, Jose James and Langhorne Slim.


Session Buzz: The Year in NYC Recording

December 22, 2011 by  

GREATER NYC AREA: There have certainly been some down years in recent recording biz history, but 2011 was not one of them.

By all accounts, this was a big year for recording in NYC: There were the major mainstream Made-in-NY albums, i.e. Lady Gaga’s Born This Way (Germano Studios), John Mayer’s upcoming release (Electric Lady), Beyonce 4 (MSR, Jungle City), Sting’s latest (Sear Sound) and Tony Bennett’s Duets II (Avatar). There were the critically-anticipated indie releases, i.e. Bjork (Sear Sound, Avatar, Atlantic Sound) and Beirut (Vacation Island) and of course a ton of indie activity emanating out of Brooklyn, as well as big moves in the way of new and newly renovated high-end facilities for record production.

Drink it all in with this “Best of 2011” session highlights and studio hits:

We’ll start uptown at StadiumRed in Harlem – home to a team of engineers and producers that includes David Frost, Just Blaze, Sid “Omen” Brown, Ariel Burojow, Tom Lazarus, Joe Pedulla, Andrew Wright and mastering engineer Ricardo Gutierrez.

StadiumRed hosted Chris Brown (Jive Records) for a stretch as he worked on his Grammy-nominated record, F.A.M.E. and a future album. The single “She Ain’t You” produced by Free School was recorded in Studio A at StadiumRed, and two additional songs off his upcoming album were produced by Just Blaze. Rick Ross also worked quite a bit with Just Blaze and StadiumRed this year – his albums Self Made Volume 1 and I Love My Bitches were both produced, mixed and mastered at Stadium Red with Just Blaze producing, Andrew Wright mixing, assisted by Keith Parry, and Ricardo Gutierrez mastering.

Drake’s “Lord Knows” – produced by Just Blaze, Andrew Wright and Ricardo Gutierrez at StadiumRed

The track “Lord Knows” off Drake’s acclaimed new album, Take Care, was produced by this same StadiumRed team – Just Blaze, Wright and Gutierrez. The choir in this song was recorded in Studio A.

Other highlights include Ariel Borujow mixing three tracks for Chiddy Bang’s (EMI) debut album Breakfast, Joe Pedulla and Andrew Everding producing and engineering the new album by rock band La Dispute (click to read our feature about this album produced with no artificial reverb) and the Grammy-nominated Mackey: Lonely Motel – Music From Slide (David Frost, producer and Tom Lazarus, engineer); Far Away: Late Nights & Early Mornings by Marsha Ambrosius (Just Blaze, producer and Andrew R Wright, engineer); and J. Cole (Keith Parry, assistant engineer).

Rufus Wainwright (Universal Music Group) tracked portions of his new album “Out of the Game” in Studio ‘A’ (Neve 8038) at Sear Sound in Midtown, with Alan O’Connell engineering and Mark Ronson producing. Sear’s own Ted Tuthill assisted on these sessions.

“During his sessions at Sear, Rufus’ new opera Prima Donna premiered at the New York City Opera,” says Sear Sound manager Roberta Findlay. “They recorded using our Studer A827 2″ 24 track with BASF 911 2″, as well as Pro Tools. Tracking and overdubs varied from piano and vocal, whole band takes (piano, bass, drums, vocals), to piano overdubs, bass overdubs, keyboard overdubs, electric guitar overdubs, choir overdubs, drum machine overdubs, and many more. Mark Ronson brought in a wide variety of his personal vintage synths.”

Sear also hosted recording sessions for Bjork’s latest Biophilia, with Damian Taylor co-producing/engineering, and Sting tracking for his latest with engineer Donal Hodgson and co-producer/arranger Rob Mathes. And Iron & Wine tracked and mixed their song “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” which can be heard in Twilight: Breaking Dawn. Tom Schick engineered with Brian Deck producing. Rob Berger wrote the arrangements. [Click for a video of this session.]

Regina Spektor is working with producer Mike Elizondo (Fiona Apple, Mastodon) on her upcoming album.

In other highlights, Joss Stone tracked new material at Sear with an all-star band (Ernie Isley on guitar, James Alexander on bass, Latimore on piano and Raymond Angry on B3 and keyboards), and Steve Greenwell engineering and co-producing with S-Curve’s Steve Greenberg. “At Joss’ s request, we built a western version of a resplendent ashram for her, to stimulate her creative juices,” says Findlay. “I believe it worked!!”

Meanwhile, mixing sessions for Regina Spektor’s anticipated new album What We Saw From The Cheap Seats went down in Studio A at The Cutting Room – with producer Mike Elizondo, and engineer Adam Hawkins, assisted by Matt Craig. The album is due out in May 2012 on Warner Bros Records.

At nearby Germano Studios – where Joan Jett & The Blackhearts have been recording this month – it’s been a huge year of pop, rock, rap and R&B. In addition to Jett, who’s been in with longtime producer Kenny Laguna, and engineer Thom Panunzio, Germano’s hosted writing and recording sessions with Ne-Yo, OneRepublic and Alexander Dexter-Jones recording with engineer Kenta Yonesaka for his The Last Unicorn album, and mixing sessions with Sony Italy artist Fiorella Mannoia with Dave O’Donnell engineering.

Highlights from the year include the recording for Lady Gaga’s Grammy-nominated Born This Way, Adele’s Grammy-nominated 21, “Moves Like Jagger” by  Maroon 5 ft. Christina Aguilera, Beyonce’s 4, and the new album…The studio also added new Exigy subs, and launched a joint-venture into Tampico Mexico, creating RG Germano Studios Tampico.

2011 has also been an epic year of releases out of The Lodge. Mastering Engineers Emily Lazar & Joe LaPorta mastered Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light, which received six Grammy nominations including nominations for Lazar and LaPorta in “Album Of The Year” category. And the team mastered countless records released to critical acclaim, including Tuneyard’s Whokill, mastered by LaPorta, Liturgy’s Aesthethica, mastered by Heba Kadry, the Cults debut, mastered by Lazar and LaPorta, EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints, mastered by Sarah Register, and albums by Dum Dum Girls, Cold Cave and Hooray for Earth – all mastered by LaPorta.

As covered here on SonicScoop, LaPorta also mastered the huge Neutral Milk Hotel release, the band’s first (an all-vinyl complete box-set) since ’98′s classic In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. Lazar and LaPorta also mastered Boy & Bear’s award-winning Moonfire, produced by Joe Chiccarelli.

For EastSide Sound and chief engineer Marc Urselli, it’s been a year of recording some of NYC’s finest avant-garde, jazz, fusion and acoustic music greats like John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Chihiro Yamanaka with Bernard Purdie, and more recently John Zorn, John Medeski and Mike Patton. Citizen Cope and Swiss crossover jazz band The Lucien Dubuis Trio have also been recording albums with Urselli at East Side Sound.

In the Fall, Broadway veteran singer Wren Marie Harrington teamed up with arranger/producer jazz wunderkind Art Bailey to record a collection of jazz and Latin infused American and world standards at EastSide with Lou Holtzman engineering and Eric Elterman assisting. Bailey, Dave Acker, Marty Confurius and Diego Lopez formed the band for this record.

Plenty of jazz, avant and orchestral sessions recorded at Avatar Studios this year, including Stanley Jordan, James Carter, Steve Reich / So Percussion, Joe Jackson with Elliot Scheiner, Esperanza Spalding with Q-Tip and Joe Ferla, Chick Corea, Zak Smith Band. One of the big, ongoing sessions of the year at Avatar was Tony Bennett’s Duets II album, produced by Phil Ramone and engineered by Dae Bennett. In March, Bennett and Sheryl Crow recorded “The Girl I Love” in Studio A.  In July, Bennett sang and recorded “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” with Aretha Franklin in Studio C, and at the end of July, he recorded “The Lady is a Tramp” with Lady Gaga in Studio A.

Other pop/rock artists recording at Avatar this year include Paul McCartney recording a Buddy Holly tribute, Ingrid Michaelson recording her upcoming album, Human Again – both with producer David Kahne and engineer Roy Hendrickson – Elvis Costello,  James McCartney, and VHS or Beta.

Members of Delta Spirit with Producer/Engineer Chris Coady and Asst Engineer Adam Tilzer.

And Avatar’s Studio A and C were used on many a Broadway cast album, and TV and film score/soundtrack recording sessions, including: Boardwalk Empire featuring Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks with producer / engineer Stewart Lerman, and Mildred Pierce, also ft. Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, with producer Randy Poster; Louie, produced by Louie C.K. with engineer Robert Smith assisted by Bob Mallory; Glee, with producer Tommy Faragher and engineers Bryan Smith and Robert Smith; and the films  Moonrise Kingdom (the new Wes Anderson),  A Late Quartet, Friends with Kids, and So Undercover.

Across town, some of the biggest pop artists were working out of Stratosphere Sound in Chelsea, where songwriter Amanda Ghost and producer Dave McCracken were stationed much of the year working on new material with Florence and The Machine, Santigold, John Legend, the Scissor Sisters, The xx and Daniel Merriweather.

Ever the awesome rock recording studio, Stratosphere hosted several album projects this year including Canadian band Jets Overhead with producer/engineer Emery Dobyns, Japanese band The Telephones with Alex Newport, The Static Jacks with Chris Shaw, and Delta Spirit with Chris Coady. And, switching gears, both Sarah Brightman and Aaron Neville recorded at Stratosphere – both tracking vocals with Geoff Sanoff.

Finally, The Sheepdogs, a rock band from Saskatchewan, were paired with Stratosphere owner/producer Adam Schlesinger for Rolling Stone’s “Choose the Cover” contest. They worked on several songs with Adam…and they won!


In 2011, Manhattan saw the opening of Ann Mincieli’s impressive, golden-age-reviving Jungle City Studios, and major renovations and new rooms at the legendary Electric Lady Studios, but Brooklyn has been the real hotbed of new studio activity. Converse opened its Rubber Tracks Studio this year, and The End in Greenpoint recently opened the doors to its recording and live performance complex. And much building has been underway elsewhere…

2012 will see three new serious recording facilities open in Williamsburg – all three bigger/better versions of existing local indie favorites.

The Bunker co-owners Aaron Nevezie and John Davis back in early October during construction of the new studios.

The Bunker, for one, has already held inaugural sessions at its impressive new two-room facility which features an exciting new Studio A with large live room with 25-ft ceilings and three isolated sections which can be closed off by sliding glass doors.

In one of the room’s first sessions, Bunker co-owner John Davis tracking the new record for funk band Lettuce (featuring Soulive members Eric Krasno and Neal Evans).  “I tracked all the basics live to 2″ ATR on my Studer A80, and we had drums, bass, 2 guitars, keys (B3 and clav) and one sax going down live,” Davis describes. “Additional horns were later overdubbed. It was a great, super funky party in there the whole time, with a bunch of friends hanging and generally great positive creative vibes going on.  We went for (and captured) a live, raw, authentic funk vibe.”

Meanwhile, across town on the Williamsburg/Greenpoint border, Joel Hamilton and Tony Maimone are preparing to open the new Studio G – this is one of the original recording studios in the ‘Burg now expanded into 5,000+ square feet. Studio G will house one of the city’s only commercially available Bosendorfer grand pianos (to our knowledge), and three full featured studios – a 48-input SSL 8048 “A” room, and an equally spacious Neve 5316-equipped “B” room – with ample tracking space and isolation…built by musicians for musicians. (Look out for our upcoming feature on Studio G!)

According to Hamilton, they’re booking the A room for January and beyond, but “things are already booked in super tight, so call now!”

Besides building an insane new studio, Hamilton’s been making records all year too. He worked with the electronic artist Pretty Lights tracking the band in a live-to-two-track analog scenario – all analog and vintage signal chains with no isolation. The band played live in the room together and the masters went straight to vinyl – only to ultimately be sampled by Pretty Lights (Derek Smith) for his album, I Know The Truth. It’s a production style the artist calls “analog electronica.”

Another engineer/producer with an ambitious new studio in the works for 2012 is Marc Alan Goodman who you may recognize from his “Building Strange Weather” blog here on SonicScoop. While work has been heavily underway at his studio’s new location on Graham Ave in Williamsburg, sessions have continued across the ‘hood at the existing Strange Weather Recording. Among the year’s highlights were Here We Go Magic recording overdubs for their upcoming album with producer/engineer Nigel Godrich who was over doing television sound for Radiohead.

The band Friends also recorded two singles and an upcoming full-length album at Strange Weather with co-producer/engineer Daniel Schlett. And the band Lakookala made an EP at the studio (“start-to-finish in 3 days”) with Goodman co-producing and engineering.

Over at Fluxivity, 2011 was the year that the studio’s recently-completed tracking room got a workout, with everything from full tracking with drums to guitar, vocals and all manner of overdubs. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion has been working at Fluxivity, with Spencer and engineer Brian Thorn mixing the new album. Ed Mcentee assisted.

Says Fluxivity owner Nat Priest: “This was primarily a tape-based project, mixed to the studio’s Ampex ATR 102 tape machine in the ½” stereo format. Jon Spencer and Brian Thorn used quite a few pieces of the studio’s vintage analog equalizers, compressors and delays including the 1/4″ slap machine and EMT plate reverb.”

Black Dice also made a new record in Williamsburg with Matt Boynton recording, mixing and producing at Vacation Island Recording. Free Blood (members of !!!) and Suckers also made new albums at Vacation Island with Boynton this year. And, Zach Cale is currently in the studio completing mixes for his latest EP, Hangman Letters.

“The Internet” is a new project from Odd Future DJ Syd The Kyd and producer Matt Martian

A couple 2011 Vacation Island highlights were Beirut mixing their latest release The Rip Tide with engineer/producer Griffin Rodriguez, and the “Recorded for Japan” compilation which saw Ariel Pink, Kurt Vile, Chairlift and R. Stevie Moore through the studio. Boynton recorded and mixed a lot of this record, and the rest was mixed by Jorge Elbrecht. Vacation Island engineer Rob Laakso mastered the album.

Over at The Brewery Recording, also in Williamsburg, members of breakthrough rap group Odd Future tracked vocals for three songs and started mixing for their new side project The Internet, due out in early 2012. Matt Martians and Syd tha Kyd produced and Andrew Krivonos engineered on these sessions.

The Brewery reports they had 700 sessions through their one-room facility in 2011, running round the clock. Another highlight is happening currently with WZRD, the rock duo formed by Kid Cudi and producer Dot Da Genius. Noah Goldstein has been engineering these sessions.

Brooklyn producer/engineer Allen Farmelo – who you may remember designed this awesome custom console with Greenpoint designer Francois Chambard for his own studio The Farm – just finished mixing a record with noise duo Talk Normal, a project by artist/engineers Sarah Register and Andrya Ambro, with producer Christina Files.

Farmelo also produced/engineered an album for Brooklyn-based children’s musician Elska, out of Mavericks Studio in China Town and back at The Farm, and mixed/mastered two new film scores by Cinematic Orchestra, produced by band-leader Jason Swinscoe for Ninja Tune Records. “These two scores were for films from the 1920s: the Dada-ist masterpiece Entr’acte and the early city portrait called Manhatta. Both were performed live to a packed house at London’s Barbican Center this year, a beautiful night of music and film.”

And, as covered this month in the New York Times, Farmelo produced and mixed a new album by 85-year-old jazz pianist Boyd Lee Dunlop which was tracked at Soundscape in Buffalo by Jimi Calabrese, mixed at The Farm and mastered at The Magic Shop by Jessica Thompson

“An old friend and photographer met Boyd in a state-funded nursing home in Buffalo and began recording him on his cellphone and sending me MP3s and asked if this was any good,” says Farmelo.

“I was blown away by what I heard and arranged to record Boyd with bassist Sabu Adeyola and drummer Virgil Day. Buffalo has few studios, but thankfully I found a room tucked away on Buffalo’s West Side with a Steinway and amazing vintage mics and pres (RCA 77s, Neumann U47s, Neves, etc). I put  up and tracked the session in one day and mixed on the API/Studer combo here at The Farm. I aimed for a vintage sound (late 50s Atlantic Studios in particular), and feel I got it (mono is a big part of that). Jessica Thompson just nailed the mastering perfectly.”

Ville Riippa and Marko Nyberg from Husky Rescue recording vintage Moog 15 tracks at Carousel in Greenpoint

Next, to Greenpoint where Joe McGinty’s unique Carousel Recording – with its heavenly collection of vintage synths – recently hosted Finland electronic act Husky Rescue. Led by Marko Nyberg, the group booked a week at Carousel to lay the groundwork of their next record, utilizing many of the vintage synthesizers in the studio. “They were ace analog synth programmers,” says McGinty, of Psychedelic Furs, Losers Lounge fame. “It was great to see them in action, and I learned a few things as well!

Carousel has also opened a second room to accommodate that ever-expanding keyboard collection, which we featured earlier this year. Recent additions to the collection include a Moog 15 Modular, Freeman String Symphonizer, Yamaha YC-30 organ, and Yamaha CP-70 Electric Grand Piano.

In DUMBO, Joe Lambert Mastering had a record year. First off, Chief Engineer/Owner Joe Lambert was nominated for a Grammy in the “Best Engineered Album, Classical” category for the aforementioned Lonely Motel: Music From Slide by Steven Mackey and Rinde Eckert.

And other highlights include: mastering the major label debut by Fanfarlo (Atlantic Records/Canvasback), produced by Ben H. Allen, and recorded by David Wrench, the popular Washed Out (SubPop) album Within and Without, also produced by Allen, the Atlas Sound (4AD) record Parallax, produced by Bradford Cox and Nicolas Vernhes, and the Panda Bear (Paw Tracks) album, Tomboy, produced by Noah Lennox and Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember.

Over at The Fort, engineer/producer James Bentley has been working a bit with Brooklyn-based Goodnight Records, including tracking for the new KNTRLR LP, and recording/filming an in-studio performance with the venerable Brooklyn band The Big Sleep. “There were about 40 people and a keg, it was an amazing party,” says Bentley.

The Big Sleep performance/recording/party at The Fort


Emerging Brooklyn band Thieving Irons trekked up to The Isokon in Woodstock to make a record with engineer/producer D. James Goodwin, Nate Martinez and Josh Kaufman co-producing. “Incredible songs, deconstructed, then put back together in a left brain way,” says Goodwin of the project. “Very few cymbals, tons of space. Lots of Kaoss Pad!” Stream a track “So Long” from the album.

The Dennis Haklar Project at Big Blue Meenie. Photo by Paul Sky.

Goodwin also made an album up at the Isokon with art-folk group Bobby – tracked and mixed the full LP for Partisan Records.

In Jersey City, Big Blue Meenie is still going strong, and hopping with sessions all year. Highlights include Rainey Qualley mixing her EP with Tim “Rumblefish” Gilles and Matt “Dasher” Messenger (the single “Peach In My Pocket” is featured in the 2011 Sundance-winning film To.Get.Her), and Alright Jr tracking their new EP Scratching At The Ceiling with Chris “Noz” Marinaccio, Colin “Gron” Mattos, Matthew “Debris” Menafro, and Jeff “9/11″Canas, and mixing with  Gilles and Messenger.

Also six-piece NJ prog-rock band The Tea Club mixed their “Live at Progday 2011″ show with Messenger, Marinaccio and Gilles, and – most recently – the jazz-fusion oriented Dennis Haklar Project tracked new material (9 songs in 2 days) with Marinaccio engineering, assisted by Colin “Gron” Mattos.

What a year, and those are just some of the highlights! We can only imagine what 2012 will bring to NYC in the way of new recordings — and we can’t wait to hear them.


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