On March 6th, The Magnetic Fields are slated to release Love at the Bottom of the Sea. It will be a return to form for the band and for their primary member, the absurdist songwriter and Morrissey-sound-alike Stephin Merritt.
After releasing 1999′s critically acclaimed 69 Love Songs, Merritt decided to abandon the drum machines and synthesizers that had been such a key part of the The Magnetic Field’s sound, and started to set his often-comic, sometimes-maudlin, and always-deadpan performances to a backdrop of exclusively acoustic instruments instead.
With Love at the Bottom of the Sea, the synths are back, and the production sounds more streamlined than ever before. As always, the main attraction remains Merritt’s unmistakable two-and-a-half minute wry pop gems.
We talked to longtime Magnetic Fields engineer Charles Newman about what’s like to work with a songwriter who’s known for self-recording, and for a personal style that earns him regular comparisons to Eyeore.
Recording The Magnetic Fields
“Without trying to speak for Stephin,” Newman said over coffee near his SoHo production studio, “I think the last three albums were intended as a kind of synth-less trilogy.”
Newman, who was a synthesis major at Berklee, says he “learned the art of recording Marshall stacks” in the 90s with New York Hardcore bands like H20, Breakdown, and Madball. But he didn’t need either of those skill-sets to work on 2003′s elegant-sounding i, 2008′s fuzz-sonnet Distortion, or the very folky Realism in 2010.
“Even on Distortion, where the whole record is just covered with all these fuzzed-out sounds, a lot of it was done on acoustic instruments,” he says.
And for all the fuzz, the loudest guitar amp they used much of the time was miniature cigarette-box amp, taped to Stephin’s pant-leg. It pointed up into to his guitar to give him feedback.
“Every single instrument we recorded had feedback on it,” Newman says. “Even on the acoustic piano, we had this little Fender Princeton pointing straight into the soundboard to give it some feedback.”
Walls of Synthesizers
On Love at the Bottom of the Sea, tracking began at Merritt’s home in L.A., and when the synths came back, they came back with a vengeance.
“Over the past 30 years, [Merritt] had been collecting synths and drum machines. Ever since he moved to LA and got a bigger space, they just started piling up faster. Now when you walk in there it’s just walls and walls of synths stacked up all around.”
“He had all of these great analog synthesizers – the Swarmatron and the Dewanatron; a Moog Rogue and [a Voyager]; a rack with all these little modules. He really wanted to start using all those.”
Merritt would begin creating rhythm tracks on his own, using drum machines, samplers and by even creating percussion patches inside some of his analog keyboards and modules. Newman, who helped put together Merritt’s home studio in LA, would stop by to help from time to time.
“I think he managed to use every synth in the place at least once. I mean, maybe a couple things didn’t get used, because there were so many of them, but we were really trying to diversify the sounds as much as possible. And I think it probably made him feel good, after buying them all, to know he got to use each one – even if it was just on one little sound,” he laughs.
From there, the sessions came back to New York City where the bi-coastal Newman keeps a personal production room in a SoHo loft. He used to maintain a full-fledged commercial studio called Mother West nearby, but since the lease ran out, he’s been bouncing around from studio to studio, and doing a lot of work from a home studio, too.
“As a freelance producer I can just go wherever, and I like that. Everyone in LA is pretty much that way too. It seems that everybody out there has a studio in their garage, but hardly anyone runs commercial studios anymore. And the people that do? They all work their asses off trying to pay bills because you can only charge so much these days, you know?” Although he might not too interested in running his own commercial space anymore, he still enjoys using them whenever the budget allows it.
Guitars, Big and Small
Newman tracked most of the acoustic instruments on Bottom of the Sea at his personal space in SoHo, and did some of the guitars there as well, using a tiny Danelectro Honeytone amplifier that he likes for tracking.
“Stephin brought all these cool effects boxes and boutique phaser pedals and things with him. We’d do all this crazy stuff, like put the amp under a glass bowl and put a mic on it. For each guitar we’d get two different signal paths and create some really interesting sounds,” he says.
But for some of the parts, he says bigger amps and higher volumes were in order. “We did a guitar tracking at Serious Business too. For modest budgets I’ll go there a lot. On bigger-budget sessions, I often wind up at Downtown Music or Germano Studios.”
They also spent a day in San Francisco at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone recording studio.
Newman says he likes mixing on a console like Tiny Telephone’s vintage Neve when he can, but for Bottom of the Sea, they used his own DAW-based system.
“Stephin has a lot of outboard gear at his place, and we’d print a lot of effects using those: old reverbs, Orbans, and a nice old Pultec filter that we’d pump a lot of things through. We were always trying things and printing what we liked. I’d suggested the idea of mixing live on a desk and getting the inserts going, but in the end we needed to have the mix recall instead. Really, it’s just easier.
“To be honest though, I didn’t really use a lot of plug-ins on [the album]. I have the [Waves] SSL 4000 bundle and you can ask a lot of them without sucking up too much juice [on your computer]. They’re very clear and they make it easy to really clean things up.
“So that was a lot of it. I was adding some clarity to the tracks using the SSL plug-ins, and using a Neve summing amp to open things up a little bit too. I just got their summing amp, the 8816 recently, and that made a big difference on the record, I think. That thing just sounds awesome.”
If a person wanted to get a sense for just how far the quality of affordable gear has come over the years, listening to the latest Magnetic Fields album against their earliest recordings would be a pretty good place to start. While their first records sounds charmingly hazy, Bottom of the Sea sounds charming, simply because the songs are.
The gear has made the process simpler too. In 1999, already a decade into the band’s career, Newman first teamed up with The Magnetic Fields to help complete the tracking sessions for 69 Love Songs. He remembers zipping back and forth from Merritt’s home studio to his own commercial room with an armload of ADAT tapes. Today, Newman and Merritt use the same type of speakers at each of their homes, a pair of Dynaudio nearfields, and of course, file transfers are a lot simpler as well. Newman completes much of the mixing on his own, and then brings Merritt in for the final touches.
“One day, Stephin came by and listened to the entire record all the way through. I told him: ‘Don’t say anything – Just listen, and you can tell me at the end.’ When it was over, he had about ¾ of a page of comments. Little things like ‘Bass drum too loud?’ or ‘Tamborine down a db?’. That was all. We made a couple of tweaks and sent it off to mastering. It was one of the smoothest processes of all time.”
GREATER NYC AREA: It’s midsummer…the middle of a traditionally “slow season” for recording with so many bands out on the road. But this is the city that never sleeps, and slow is a relative term. The following is but a sampling of recent sessions, and works in progress…a snapshot of what’s going on around town:
Starting at Germano Studios downtown…50 Cent has been writing and recording new material with Araab Muzik producing and Ky Miller engineering, Ne-Yo was in writing and recording with Swizz Beatz producing and Moses Gallart engineering, and Justin Nozuka recorded basic tracks with Steve Jordan producing and Dave O’Donnell engineering – all in Studio 1.
In Studio 2, will.i.am continues to record new material which he’s self-producing and engineering, and Oriane recently recorded vocals with Walter Afanasieff producing and Jason Agel engineering.
Nearby at The Lodge, Mastering Engineers Emily Lazar, Joe LaPorta and Heba Kadry have been busy working on Björk‘s epic multimedia release, Biophilia, due out this Fall. The music for Biophilia – featuring a 10-song album and 10 musical iPad apps themed after each song’s scientific subject matter – was mastered at the Lodge in March by Lazar and LaPorta alongside Björk and her longtime engineer/producer Damian Taylor.
Other recent releases mastered at The Lodge include Chris Taylor’s CANT LP, Morgan Page’s new album, In The Air, Ronnie Vannuci’s (of the Killers) solo debut Big Talk – produced by Joe Chiccarelli and mixed by Alan Moulder – the new Boy & Bear album – also produced by Chiccarelli – and Large Professor’s latest for Fat Beats Records.
The Lodge also mastered Ronnie Spector’s tribute cover of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black – produced by Richard Gottehrer – Surfer Blood’s cover of Nirvana’s “Territorial Pissings” for SPIN’s Nevermind compilation, new releases by Zechs Marquise (band formed by Marcel Rodriguez Lopez from the Mars Volta), and Junior Mance, and the new Wooden Ships album – produced by Phil Manley of Trans Am.
Over in the East Village at Flux Studios, Todd Whitelock mixed an upcoming album by jazz saxophonist and flautist Kenny Garrett in the Revolution Room. Garrett – who was a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and Miles Davis’ band – will release his upcoming album via Mack Avenue Records.
And down in SoHo, The Magic Shop has been going steady…Shooter Jennings tracked for his upcoming album with engineer Brandon Mason, assisted by Brian Thorn, Burning Spear tracked and mixed for their upcoming album with Thorn engineering, assisted by Kabir Hermon, and Tom Schick was in mixing for She and Him’s upcoming Merge album.
Other recent sessions in the Magic Shop’s unique Studio A include: The American Secrets tracking and mixing songs for upcoming freecreditscore.com commercials with producer Neil McClellan (The Lodge Music creative director) and engineers Ted Young and Colin Thibadeau; The Gaslight Anthem tracking an iTunes exclusive live session with producer Jason Marcucci, and engineers Ted Young and Mike Judeh; and tracking sessions for new albums by Elliot Sharp (producer Joe Mardin/ engineer Ted Young), Lee Feldman (engineer Ted Young), Ben Carroll (producer Adam Levy / engineer Brian Thorn), The Virgins (engineer Emery Dobyns) and The Universal Thump (engineer Kabir Hermon).
Meanwhile in the Magic Shop’s Blue Room, Warren Russell-Smith has been doing restoration work for the second season of Boardwalk Empire. Recent mastering sessions at the Magic Shop include albums for Rockstar Games, Anna Volgelzang, Warpaint, Nightplane (mastered by Russel-Smith) and Nâ Hawa Doumbia, Vic Varney and Pretty Good Dance Moves (mastered by Jessica Thompson).
At another studio down in SoHo – Serious Business Music – producer/engineer Travis Harrison has had a steady stream of bands in to appear on his BreakThru Radio show. In the last month, “Serious Business on BTR” has featured performances and interviews (by Harrison) with A Million Years, Fort Lean, Les Sans Culottes, El Jezel and Quiet Loudly.
Harrison has also been working on a number of album projects, including an album with a new band called The Cosmos – formed by Dougy Payne and Andy Dunlop from Travis, and Cinjun Tate from Remy Zero – a solo 7” with Doug Gillard from Guided By Voices, and a record with Rocketship Park for Serious Business Records.
In Park Slope at Seaside Lounge Recording, engineer/producer/musician Josh Clark mixed a record by Nashville native Luke Roberts, The Iron Gates at Throop and Newport, to be released by Thrill Jockey Records in 2012. Initial tracking sessions for the record went down at The Beach House in Nashville and Atlantic Sound in Brooklyn (with “Seaside Lounge” rounding out the coastal recording theme.)
On the West Side at Stratosphere, Japanese electro-rock band The Telephones tracked their new album in Studio A with producer/engineer Alex Newport, recording everything to tape on the studio’s Studer 2″.
Also at Stratosphere…Ice T booked an afternoon of vocals and filming for upcoming documentary Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap. Stratosphere’s own Adam Tilzer engineered. Aaron Neville returned to record vocals with producer Matthew Ferraro and engineer Geoff Sanoff.
Daniel Merriweather was back for sessions with Dave McCracken, Amanda Ghost and engineer Chris Shaw, Florence + the Machine was in with engineer Andros Rodriguez, and Nathan Larson (A Camp, Shudder To Think) tracked and mixed music for an upcoming film, Tiger Eyes, with Geoff Sanoff engineering.
Up at Carriage House Recording in Stamford, cellist Dave Eggar (Evanescense, Coldplay) and his band Deoro finished mixes for their upcoming record in Studio A with engineer/mixer Brendan Muldowney, and art-pop songstress Rachael Sage tracked basics for her upcoming release with engineer John Shyloski.
Back in town, at Sear Sound, NYC denizen Donald Fagen tracked in Studio A on the 8038 Neve with Michael Leonhart producing and Charlie Martinez engineering for Warner Bros. Records. eONE Music was in Studio C, reportedly “classisizing” Frank Zappa songs for a new release. In this process, Zappa’s original songs were rescored for classical orchestral instruments and tracked on Sear Sound’s custom Avalon/Sear console in sessions produced by Susan Del Giorno with GRAMMY-winning engineer Silas Brown.
Producer/engineer Gary Maurer also checked into Sear to track an ensemble of 22 musicians for his upcoming HEM album in Studio C. He will reportedly return to Sear Sound shortly to mix a 24 song double album.
Further west at Masterdisk, Scott Hull mastered Sting’s three-CD box set, Sting 25 Years, featuring remixes and a previously unreleased live concert DVD with 10 tracks recorded live in NYC, produced by Rob Mathes. Also at Masterdisk, Vlado Meller mastered a Julio Iglesias two-disc “Greatest Hits” set, with songs re-recorded and re-mixed by Alberto Sanchez, the new Red Hot Chili Peppers album, I’m With You, and the Jane’s Addiction single “Irresistible Force,” and upcoming album, The Great Escape Artist.
Andy VanDette recently mastered the Spiderman Turn Off The Dark cast album and albums by Blessthefall, The Static Jacks and Barefoot Truth, and Ellen Fitton remastered Debbie Harry’s Koo Koo, and Jellybean’s Wotupski.
Premier Studios in Times Square hosted Demi Lovato working on a project for Disney Pictures – a song produced by Sandy Vee, with piano overdubs played by Mikkel Eriksen from Stargate. The session was engineered by Sam Giannelli. Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas produced tracks for Lil Wayne, working with engineer Mike Cadahia with Kevin Geigel assisting. DefJam artist Ace Hood, produced by DJ Khaled, was at Premier recording vocals and mixing an upcoming release with engineer Ben Diehl.
Atlantic artist Wiz Khalifa recorded vocals, with engineer Josiah Hendler, EMI Artist MoZella was in with producer Scyience, mixing with engineer Anthony Daniel, and Scyience was also in with Epic artist Alice Smith, mixing an upcoming release with an engineer by the name of Push Buttons.
Over at Avatar Studios, strings were recorded in Studio A for the upcoming Lou Reed/Metallica album with producer Hal Willner and engineer Greg Fidelman, assisted by Bob Mallory. NYC/Ireland rockers Suddyn recorded their single in Studio G on the SSL 4000G+ with producer David Kahne, engineer Roy Hendrickson and assistant Tyler Hartman. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus was in Studio A recording with producer Bryce Dessner, of The National and Clogs, and engineer Lawson White, assisted by Aki Nishimura.
Music for the upcoming film, A Late Quartet, was also recorded in Studio A with producer Alan Bise and engineer Bruce Egre. The cast albums for People in the Picture (producers Mike Stoller and Steven Epstein, engineer Todd Whitelock) and A Minister’s Wife (producer Tommy Krasker, engineer Bart Migal) were also recorded at Avatar.
And we know there’s so much more going on out there! If you’d like to be featured in “Session Buzz,” please submit your studio news to firstname.lastname@example.org.
SOHO, MANHATTAN: NYC rock band A Million Years is huddled around a pedal board at Serious Business Studios. It’s winter and the band is recording guitars for their debut album, Mischief Maker, available July 6.
As lead guitarist Nick Werber runs through sounds, A Million Years’ guitar-playing front-man Keith Madden and producer/engineer Shannon Ferguson — also the guitarist for NYC indie rock stalwarts Longwave — consider the options. Drummer Andrew Vanette and bassist Andrew Samaha chime in as well. This is a total group effort.
Vanette fills us in: “After we finished tracking basics, all the additional tracking has been done right here in the control room, with all of us sitting around together. The intimate feel of the studio really helps us a lot — no matter what’s going on, there’s always that group element to making this record together.” Madden interjects, “Yeah, nobody’s slinking away to go play Grand Theft Auto.”
Serious Business is a “musicians collective” recording studio and record label headquarters located on Spring Street in Soho. Ferguson, who’s been recording bands in NYC since before joining Longwave in 1999, moved his gear into Serious Business about a year and a half ago and splits time there with producer/engineer and Serious Business founder Travis Harrison (Apache Beat, The Rosewood Thieves). The studio is based around a Pro Tools HD2 system, Soundcraft mixing console, a ton of outboard equipment, instruments, amps, full-band-sized tracking room and iso booth.
“Shannon is a wealth of crazy vintage equipment and pedals,” says Madden, as Ferguson pulls out another guitar flavor.
“Our songs have an undercurrent of pop and going into the studio to make this record, I really didn’t want it to come out sounding too slick, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to work with Shannon. He’s coming from a place of making records with Dave Fridmann, which is like the least slick you can get! We all really like fucking sounds up intentionally, and Shannon fully understands that, and is really good about reigning us in if we go too far.”
A Million Years tapped Ferguson to produce their 3-song EP, Incandescent, last year. They met under unique circumstances when Madden took a job as touring guitar player in Longwave, replacing Ferguson whose wife was expecting a baby.
“It could have been an awkward situation, handing the reigns over to another guitar player,” notes Ferguson, “but from the get-go, it was like we were great friends. Also, almost immediately, Keith was inquiring about recording. After he’d toured with Longwave for a year, he told me that — having to learn all my guitar parts — he’d felt like he was sort of in my head and wanted to continue that relationship with me recording his band.”
And Ferguson felt drawn to A Million Years as well. “I really felt like I could help them,” he shares. “I felt like I could add a lot to what they were doing without stepping on it.”
MISCHIEF MAKING: BREAKTHROUGHS, BIG SOUNDS & SONIC SURPRISES
With Werber in the hot spot, switching between wiry, spaced-out and wailing guitar parts for “Poster Girl,” which — playing back in the studio — recalls early Radiohead, Vanette, Madden and bass player Andrew Samaha fill me in on the making of Mischief Maker.
“When we made the EP, we booked two weekends and did a song per day,” says Madden. “Working that way, you really immerse yourself in the song and by the end of the day have a good idea of what it’s going to sound like. The upside of that way of working is you make choices really fast and the downside is that you make choices really fast.”
The Incandescent sessions jump-started a great collaboration between the band and producer/engineer that flourished in the Mischief-making process. “While we were mixing the Incandescent EP, Keith started bringing in demos of these new songs and that’s when I started to really get excited about doing a whole record with them,” says Ferguson. “I think he had a breakthrough. He came back with a handful of really good songs; sort of all at once he had all these new ideas, new melodies. The songs, in a lot of ways, became much simpler too, which allowed them to breathe more. The sounds can be bigger if there are less parts.”
When the band went back into the studio to record basics for Mischief, they modified their approach. “This time around, we did all the basic tracking live and now we’re building on top of that,” Madden describes. “The songs are already sounding pretty different from the basic tracks, but you can really tell that it’s us playing this time. I’ve been surprised by the way every song has come out, in a really good way. It’s been great.”
Layers of guitars and effects, drum machines and synths build out the sonic space around these live rock performances, some sparse and acoustic, some big and bold.
In tracking sessions, Shannon cranked the AC30, miked with a Shure SM57 and a Royer R-121 going into a Chandler TG2 summed to one track. Bass went through an Avalon U5 into a Purple Audio MC77. Vocals usually went via SM7 to Great River ME-1NV into an LA-2A, and the standard miking on drums included a Beta 52 on kick, Audix i5 on snare and AEA R88s as overheads. Everything was recorded into Pro Tools HD2 with Aurora converters.
At one point, sitting around Serious Business, everyone’s holding a guitar, showing off their new favorites. “I’ve learned that I really like shitty vintage guitars,” notes Madden, wryly. “So that’s why this Silvertone is all over the record. By no standard is it a good guitar, but it’s like the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life!” Vanette, holding up another instrument of choice, adds, “We also found this Hagstrom guitar somebody left here; Keith’s played this all over everything too.”
With Ferguson as their guide, A Million Years approached every song with a sense of sonic adventure and considered the options on each and every part as well.
“In addition to getting cool guitar sounds, it’s really important to us throughout the whole record that the way every song sounds reflects the actual character of the song,” says Vanette. “So we treat every song differently, as far as drums, and every bass tone is different. We’re really conscious of not making a static record where you go one song into the next and they all sound the same, in both production and songwriting.
“On a couple songs, we sort of stepped out of ourselves,” Vanette continues. “One song is all programmed drums, and one has no drums at all — just organ and acoustic guitar and vocals. That entire song was done live with no click track, we just hit record and went for it — and it has a really organic feel to it which is exactly what that song needed.”
Some songs on Mischief combine live and electronic percussion. “On ‘Poster Girl,’ we tracked live drums for the entire song, but Keith also did some drum processing on his iPhone using BeatMaker,” says Vanette. “We want that in-between — not completely electronic and not completely live.”
In a recent interview, post Mischief mixing, Shannon describes, “They wanted Andrew to play drums on a song, but then have me make it sound like a drum machine. So we’d record the drums with that kind of sound in mind. I’d played them the David Bowie record, Low, the song ‘Sound and Vision,’ thinking we could base some of their drum sounds off of that.
“It’s a really strange drum sound, sort of distorted but also a little pitch-shifted in the snare drum. So if you listen to A Million Years’ ‘Holy Ghost Town’ or ‘Poster Girl,’ there’s an effect on the snare inspired by that idea of having the snare sound modulate. I feel like that’s not very common but it’s a cool thing to do.”
Listen to A Million Years’ “Poster Girl” here: here
Other effects incorporated throughout Mischief Maker add texture to the band’s sound. “The Eventide H3000 D/SX is all over the record, including on keyboards and acoustic guitars,” Ferguson reveals. “There are a couple presets that I start with and one is called ‘Breathing Canyon’ that John Leckie showed me on Longwave’s There’s a Fire. And then there’s another one in that same box called ‘Low And Behold’ and you can hear it all over the record just sort of mumbling in the background.”
Also, Ferguson shares, “I have this Line 6 M13 pedal board which is one of those all-in-one boards and not something that I would normally use, but it’s got all these backwards delay settings that we just kept going back to. And then I also used a DOD analog delay pedal that I basically use on every record that I do.”
After all the Mischief-making, the Incandescent tracks found a place on the album as well. “I thought I’d want to go back and work on them, but those mixes really held up,” says Ferguson. “The song ‘Incandescent’ really blends well with the sonic direction we took on the newer songs, and the two other songs have a more straight-forward rock sound which actually helps the album to not feel like a sonic experiment the whole time.”
Listen to A Million Years’ “By Yourself” here! here
A MILLION YEARS: LIVE & ON THE AIRWAVES
A few months back, we went to see A Million Years play the Studio at Webster Hall as part of Rich Russo’s (WRXP) “Anything Anything” Concert Series. It was an impressive performance with familiar flashes of early aughts indie rock, a la Modest Mouse, delivered with youthful, punchy rock-and-roll swagger. We were especially psyched to hear “Poster Girl,” Werber’s lead guitar parts forever etched into our memory, culminating with one of the band’s most raucous jams.
Back during recording sessions, we had asked A Million Years about their hopes and dreams for the record. “We don’t want to have to rely on a label or a publishing deal,” says Madden, “But finding someone or some company that wants to support what we’re doing would be great. Or we’ll invent something unique ourselves that works for us.”
Vanette adds, “Our manager is Lanny West, owner of Tipping Point Entertainment, so we have a whole team of people on our side. With their support, there’s also the thought that we’ve already invested all this time and money into the band, and maybe we can keep it going ourselves.”
Meanwhile, some big NYC tastemakers have already gotten behind A Million Years. “We’ve had a couple features on RXP 101.9. We did an in-studio with Matt Pinfield and a live performance on Rich Russo’s show,” says Vanette. “RXP is like the only legitimate radio station in NYC for rock music, so to have them on our side, it’s more than we could ever ask for in this city.”
A Million Years will be back at the Studio at Webster Hall for their record release show June 18, 2010 (Get tix HERE!) and will play McCarren Park in Williamsburg on June 21 with Ferguson’s band, Falcon.