It’s an all-NYC effort with the upcoming full-length Diluvia by Freelance Whales, due out in October.
The five-piece collective from Queens recorded with NYC-based producer/engineer Shane Stoneback (Sleigh Bells, Cults, Vampire Weekend) in his Brooklyn studio, Treefort Recording. From there, the tracks moved over to Manhattan, where his SSL 4000 G+-equipped SMT Studios was the HQ for mixing.
Judging by the strength of the first single, “Spitting Image” (which you can stream here on NPR), Freelance Whales and Stoneback are a dynamite musical match.
The sounds of this song are big, beautiful, and inspiring, while infused with the producer’s own distinctive infusion of raw/rocking/gorgeous energy. “It’s a great new color palette for the band,” says Stoneback.
Have you heard the expression; “You can’t polish a turd”? I remember the first time I heard it. I was sitting in Studio C at Battery Studios with Shane Stoneback working on a live track for a major pop star that — to put it nicely — was going to require some work.
Shane turned to me and dropped the famous line. This always stuck with me as a challenge. “Why can’t you polish it? How bad does it have to be?”
My name is Jason Finkel: I am a producer, mixer, engineer and part time new music blogger in Brooklyn, NYC. For the last 10 years I’ve seen how far you can take out-of-time, out-of-tune, over-written, under-produced, and poorly recorded tracks. I have found many ways to overhaul broken recordings and even more ways to record better the first time.
Over the next few months I’m going to share some of these ideas so if all you have is a rehearsal space and a few mics, you’ll get better results and see some simple ways to manipulate whatever came out a bit brown.
OK, a little background info. I came out of the NYC large studio system that mostly does not exist anymore. I worked at the previously mentioned Battery Studios with superstar pop-divas, boy bands and almost everyone in hip-hop. I worked at Right Track with icons like Mariah Carey, Gwen Stefani, Rod Stewart, and James Taylor, to namedrop more than a few.
The point is these were hardly budget sessions. I once ran Pro Tools for an 80+ person orchestra plus drums, guitars, and bass for engineer Frank Filipetti and producer Phil Ramone with Clive Davis looking over my shoulder. I was well versed in no-holds-barred recording. When I left Right Track to start my own production company with little funds, I had to learn quickly how to incorporate my own ideas of professional techniques into less-than-perfect recording situations.
So let’s get started by taking a look at mixing tracks that have already been recorded. The subject: CHAPPO’s “Come Home”, a track that was recorded in an apartment in Brooklyn that ended up in an Apple iPod commercial.
During the summer of 2009 I stumbled into Don Pedro’s in Williamsburg and caught the middle of one of CHAPPO’s sets. It was a psych-rock explosion in my face. I knew exactly how they needed to sound. I immediately wanted to work with them.
After a few months of back and forth I found myself with their Garageband-recorded EP in my studio. My task was to just mix the EP. Simple right? Well, I certainty was not going to get off that easy. Zac Colwell (Jupiter One, Fancy Colors) had recorded/produced the EP in the band’s apartment using a few mics and fewer inputs. He had done a great job, but I had a few ideas that were going to require a little more flexibility and a lot more time. After transferring all the raw unprocessed tracks to my Pro Tools HD rig from GB, I got to work. For the first post I’m going to go over mixing the drums. Let get technical.
PART ONE: MIXING DRUMS
I like to pull up all the tracks and see what a song is doing right at the beginning of a mix, but after I have a clear vision for the track, I like to start with drums. The drums for all the songs on the EP were recorded on three separate tracks: kick, snare, and a mono overhead.
Sometimes having a mono overhead is great because it sits up the middle leaving space for big guitars/synths or for whatever left and right. Moreover, if you’re going to use a spaced pair and not an XY it can get real weird if you don’t know what you’re doing or can’t monitor correctly. Not to mention it’s another microphone, microphone pre, and input that you may or may not have.
SWEAT THE EDIT
First, I edited the feel of the drum performance. Now, quantizing drums definitely has a stigma and I would much rather work with tracks that felt great on the day of tracking, but anything less than that is going to get cut. If the rhythm section has a weird feel it’s really going to have a negative effect for the listener despite how good the song may be.
One thing that can be helpful when editing is to listen to the bass or another rhythmic element to see if it has a better feel and cut the drums to that. If I am using a click to record a band live, I try to let only the drummer hear the click so the band plays with each other. If I am only mixing then who knows how it was recorded. If the bass player was listening to the click then maybe his feel is the best for the song.
Just remember, editing drums in an already completed track is like moving the basement in a six-story building, the other levels may collapse, so listen to the other instruments and try to determine what the best course of action is.
Let’s get back to the track. I used Beat Detective to drop markers and then went through the track hit by hit to make sure the markers were at the tops of each drum hit, high hat hit, and cymbal strike and were directed to the right destination point. This may sound tedious, but trying to figure out where your track is out of time or not noticing your tom roll is off the intended beat after you have moved things is way more time-consuming. Measure twice cut once.
After I processed the edits, I listened back to make sure no transients were clipped and there was not any weird double attacks from incorrect cross fades.
Check out this video for an audible demo of the change in feel. If you notice, I only squeezed the performance tighter, I did not edit it hard to a grid:
After the drums were nice and tight I added samples. Yes, that’s right… samples. Remember, we are trying to fix a recording that does not meet the needs of the vision for the end product. The recorded sound of the drums was fine but it was not going to satisfy the vision I had for “Come Home”.
Try to think of samples as both EQ and Compression without having to do either initially. Choose a sample that will fix what the recorded drum is lacking — not by the sound of the sample. If the original snare is tubby then choose a sample heavy on attack or vice versa. The trick is to preserve the best part of the original recorded drum and not try to eliminate it. The consistent level of a sample when balanced with the original also helps to average out the combined level, limiting the dynamics of the drum.
Another great aspect of using samples is the ability to send them to reverb, delays, or other effects without annoying cymbal bleed. In this track’s case, the apartment did not provide the luxury of a nice tracking room’s ambience, so having the extra control to create a believable fake space was helpful. I also heavily gated the snare samples and original leaving just the attack. This allowed me to utilize the mono overhead for the tail of the snare, which gave the whole kit more believability.
Here is how I add the samples: I always go through a track by hand, tabbing to transient, and pasting samples. There are a bunch of programs that claim to do it for you, but in my experience, something always gets messed up. I then have to go and fix it, so instead I just go through manually — that way, I know it’s correct. I often audition samples in the first few bars and then, when I find ones that work, finish the song. With some practice you can drop samples to a drum track in a three minute song before the song can play out. It’s really not that difficult. On a typical track I can use anywhere from one to four samples per drum. I have worked on some mainstream records that have used way more than that.
I want to briefly touch on the topic of phase cancellation. Phase is a deep topic that could have its own column, but to oversimplify: If an instrument is equal distance from two mics that are facing each other, those mics will be 180 degrees out of phase and when summed together can cause major-to-complete cancellation of sound. Pretty much any two microphones pointed at the same instrument that are not perfectly aligned are, to some extent, out of phase. That’s going to make it difficult to have nice drums, let alone big drums.
The solution? Start with the kick, snare, or tom and solo the track. If you have multiple tracks for that drum, solo the first, then solo the additional track and flip the phase of either. Does it sound fuller…more low-end response? More attack? Does it sound worse? Go back and forth. It might not be obvious at first. Repeat with the next drum (generally any under-the-snare or tom mics should always be flipped out of phase). Then solo the overheads and see if they are in phase with each drum individually. Try the rooms and each drum as well. Flip the samples too. They may sit better in the mix.
It might be a puzzle to get the best combination but it will be worth it. Both kick samples in “Come Home” sounded better out of phase.
READY FOR THE FUN STUFF! DYNAMICS, ETC…
Now we have fixed the feel, corrected for whatever couldn’t be captured in tracking and made sure all the elements work together. Now it’s time to focus in on your balances, grab some EQ’s, some compressors and limiters…and maybe some more compressors and make those drums explode! It should be easier to work with now.
Check this movie I made demonstrating how I incorporated some of these topics to create the drum sound in “Come Home”:
Bloggers world-round seemed to marvel at the band’s ability to ignite industry interest without Facebook and Myspace – much like the rest of us wonder how we were ever able to meet at a pre-designated time and place before cellphones existed.
(Hint: Being good at what they do and having ties to the industry didn’t hurt.)
At their best, Cults offer simple, unpretentious, catchy pop tunes with a startlingly-retro production sensibility.
It’s a sound that’s novel and familiar at once, playing on the ear like a cross between The Ronnettes and Peter Bjorn and John.
We talked at length with co-producer and engineer Shane Stoneback who used a combination of vintage and modern tools to help the band craft huge, hazy, reverb-drenched mixes to complement their casually-cultivated air of mystery.
“Are you looking for work? Because I just fired somebody 30 minutes ago.”
The man facing Shane Stoneback was a large one, heavy-set and imposing. He carried a sandwich in one hand and a microphone in the other.
Stoneback, who would go on to work with Cults, Vampire Weekend, Sleigh Bells, F*d Up, and The Magic Kids, told a fateful lie: He said yes.
“Good. I’m going to sit in the lounge and eat this sandwich.’’ The studio manager passed him a Neumann U87 with his other hand. “By the time I come back, have this up so I can hear it in the headphones.”
The year was 1999. Stoneback was on vacation, visiting New York City from Minneapolis where he already had an entry-level job at recording studio.
In what he would later consider “a naïve move,” Stoneback had thumbed through the alphabetical Recording Industry Source Book; making phone calls, hoping to secure a quick tour at one of New York’s flagship studios.
By the time he got to the letter “B”, someone said yes. He found himself in Battery Studios, the home of Jive records, being asked if he wanted a job.
‘This was in their C-room,” says Stoneback. “They had a digital Euphonix console in there. I never would have been able to figure that thing out in time, but I plugged the mic in, and somehow, I heard the headphones click. Whoever used the room before me hadn’t disconnected anything yet! That was it. I got the job and I never came back from vacation.”
If you ask Shane Stoneback about it, he’ll tell you he’s just a lucky guy.
From that encounter, he ended up working for Jive records during its heyday. The experience afforded him what he considers an “amazing pop training,” assisting on sessions with the biggest selling pop-artists of the day: Britney Spears. Backstreet Boys. ‘N Sync.
When Zomba Corporation (and in turn, Jive) was bought out by Sony, their Battery recording studios closed down. Again, Stoneback says he got lucky: He was unemployed for an afternoon. That once sandwich-toting manager had lined him up with a job at a post-production house called Sound One, where he would help veteran film mixers learn their new Pro Tools systems.
But to say it was all luck would discount the 8-hours Stoneback would put in each night after the studio closed up each evening. After hours, he spent his time recording whatever interesting local bands he could find.
“They had a closet full of LA-2A’s and old Neve components – all this stuff that was just kind of old and irrelevant in their work. I got to put some of this stuff into a series of road cases and wheel it all into the studio at night. And they were cool about it, as long as in the morning, the place looked like a post-production room again.”
He’d meet Vampire Weekend through colleague Jeff Curtin (Those Darlins’, Vampire Weekend, Small Black). Sensing they were set to make waves, he “dropped everything” to help them finish their record at Treefort recording, the new Brooklyn studio he had started to build.
That band would go on to receive rave reviews, immense popularity, wide notoriety, and a healthy dose of media backlash. (More on that later.)
From then on, Stoneback was keyed into a world of novel and emerging NYC artists, and into the rolodexes of label executives.
“If you get one legitimate credit under your belt,” says Stoneback ,”it kind of spirals into all these other projects from there.”
When Stoneback met Cults, they already had a sound. Two songs on an internet web page had been all it took to get the right people talking. They called Stoneback, not to reinvent their sound, but to reinforce it.
“Ultimately, we didn’t change much from the original demos,” Stoneback says of the songs that had already made waves.
“We re-recorded one or two things, maybe even tried some new vocals, but in the end it was pretty clear there was some kind of magic about those tracks already.”
“I did go back into the mixes to beef them up a little bit – Just to make them slightly more modern-sounding.”
“As much as there’s this late-50s/early-60s girl-group aesthetic that’s so obvious, a lot of the songs have these almost Outkast-style hip-hop beats underneath them. So I’d add a little bit of low end to each of the mixes, maybe a little more smack to the snare, so they’d have this sort of strange duality of a 50s girl-group with a secret club-banger element going on underneath.”
When listening, it’s easy to imagine the Cults LP as being faithfully captured with vintage equipment and then amped-up with more modern tools. But much of the time it turns out, the opposite approach was at play.
TOOLS, TWEAKS, AND TONES
“I have this old Silvertone amp [model 1472] that’s just beat to sh*t. People call it the ‘TV amp’ because of the way it looks. It’s just a small combo amp with two channels that you can kind of hot-rod together. It’s got a really simple tube circuit and a slightly torn speaker that adds to that kind of broken magic quality. I’ve used it on almost every record I’ve done.”
“That was a big part of the keyboard sounds. A lot of those sounds were coming off of a really modern sounding keyboard – a software version of an FM-synthesizer really. But with that amp, it all came back sounding really vintage and authentic.”
Similarly, vocals were recorded to a DAW through a modern-sounding microphone, then degraded to become an almost-impressionistic exaggeration of an old-school sound.
The team decided early on that, although the albums should ultimately feel more like a collection of songs recorded on different dates with different setups, they’d stick with the main kick and snare sound songwriter and co-producer Brian Oblivion created for their demos. Even when they recorded live drum tracks, they would reinforce them with the kick and snare sounds that had originally come come from a drum machine on Oblivion’s computer.
To sonically warp the voice, drums and instruments, Stoneback used Roland Space Echo extensively – not as a delay, but as a sound-shaping tool.
[For those who aren't familiar with it, the Space Echo is a vintage effects box that uses a small tape cartridge to deliver delay effects. Some of the later models feature a spring reverb, even chorus. This one did not -Ed.]
Stoneback would set the unit for a quick, single repeat. But instead of combining the output of the Space Echo with the original sound to achieve a traditional slap-back delay, he would record the tape-delayed signal into Pro Tools, and slide it back in time to replace the original sound.
“It’s kind of like a tape plugin but with all the genuine foibles of tape. And there’s really no worse tape machine than a Space Echo!” Stoneback laughs.
“I mean the quality is just asinine. But it was perfect. The first time I tried it out as a test, [the band] just loved it. It probably wouldn’t stack well if you wanted to record 9 tracks of vocals. There could be a lot of buildup in one [frequency range] .. Maybe, 2k[Hz]. But for this it was great.”
The work was tedious he says, but worth it:
“The Space Echo tapes have these little splices on them. So if you play it all the way through you’ll hear a glitch each time the tape comes around. I’d have to do 2 passes, knowing that statistically speaking, the hiccup probably wouldn’t happen in the same place twice. Then we’d have to combine those passes together.”
“You couldn’t combine it with the original take [in parallel]. The tapes move at such an inconsistent speed that the phasing is just unbearable. On some places though, you can hear that effect on a stereo source. On certain things, it was a complication we learned to love and didn’t see it as a flaw. Stereo drums, things like that – what they gained from the character of the machine made up for the phase issues completely – it just gave them a really unique sound.”
And it’s perceptible. There are times that the stereo field of the record has a sound that’s huge, hazy and deliberately “sloppy” in the best sense.
THE BIG WASH
Reverb benefited from a similar approach:
“For the demos, the band had been using a reverb plugin in Logic, and had become pretty attached to it. At first I tried making my own version of it with the rack gear I had or with my own plugins, but they just weren’t really feeling it.”
“I ended up bringing a lot of the vocal tracks into Logic to use that particular plugin, and then export the reverb tracks back into Pro Tools, just because that’s what I use, kind of as a default.”
But Stoneback wanted more out of the sound:
“There’s a whole cinder-block basement [below Treefort]. When we were building it, the wiring guy had run a few tie-lines down there, so one day, just for the hell of it, I set up a JBL Eon [a self-powered PA monitor -Ed.], and put a mic near the top of the stairway.”
“It’s not going to go down in the annals of history as one of New York’s great reverb chambers or something, but running the plugin reverb into that – it just came back sounding so much more legit. Once there’s actual air pressure moving around in the room it just makes everything sound so much better.”
“We also used the Space Echo as kind of a pre-delay going into the chamber, with a repeating slapback to get a little more out of the reflections down there. That’s a pretty classic trick that [60s girl-group producer] Phil Spector would use to milk a little more time out of a reverb chamber.”
Since then, Stoneback has continued to use his basement chamber on almost every record in some capacity, and he now has plans to build it out to make it a more flexible space, using microphones mounted on motorized camera tripods to allow him to change reverb settings in real-time.
He says he’s happy to hear how warmly the reverb sounds on the Cults record have been received. He can remember 3 long days of work spent making sure they were going in the right direction with ambiance alone. But he insists what people are hearing is more than a microphone, a few wire patches, and the turn of a knob.
“Really, a lot of the character of the vocal is just the way [singer] Madeline [Follin] sounds. I’ll give you one example: There’s a vamp in the final chorus of “You Know What I Mean” where she modulates up a key. That’s one of the coolest vocal moments on the record, and there’s nothing being done with switches and knobs; it’s just the way she leans into it, really hard. The gear reacts to that, not the other way around. That part is so special because of the way she sang it.”
Now that he’s worked with so many musicians who’ve convinced others they’re doing something worth hearing (and at such a young age) we asked if there was a common thread that tied them all together.
“No,” he laughs. “Absolutely not. They’re all so different.”
Then he adds: “Brian was [studying film and] taking some music and technology program at NYU. If you’ve ever been to one of those, you get the feeling that a lot of kids will record some stuff for class, you know, to turn in the assignment. They’ve got their social lives going on and all that. But with Brian, I know he would just run home to record – to try things out with Madeline.”
“And I will say that a lot of [the people I've worked with],in their most honest moments, they want to be successful. Not in a sleazy ‘cha-ching’ kind of way. But when they make a record, they want people to hear it. They need that as an artist, to feel that real connection to an audience. Otherwise, what’s the point of doing it?”
We also asked Stoneback if his early training with bubblegum divas and boy bands has ever been a liability with hip Brooklyn bands or edgier artists like Sleigh Bells and F*d Up.
Again, a quick “No.”
“If anything, they’re hoping I’ll bring some of that to the table. I make no secret that it’s my desire to bring some of the most pop elements out of their music. None of them are ashamed of it, they encourage it. Even the work I did with a band like F*d up – I think that’s about as pop as that band can sound. Little things, like the levels of vocal-to-snare, panning choices, that kind of thing. Clients are hoping to reap some benefit from that.”
And he has been instrumental in helping some bands find that wider audience. In moments, Cults have come close to risking the kind of backlash engendered by fellow Stoneback clients, Vampire Weekend.
So far, they seem to have escaped the worst of it. Perhaps because they’ve avoided over-exposure, and maybe because they’ve avoided their predecessor’s mistake of making public comments that would make them appear obnoxiously entitled, and culturally sheltered, to many fans and critics.
But to Stoneback, a little bit of controversy isn’t always a bad thing. It can even help a band find its audience. Of Vampire Weekend, he says:
“Any successful circuit has to have polarity to work – positive and negative – and they had that.”
“There were positive and negative things beaming out of that whole thing from the first moment. Maybe universal acceptance would have created a short-lived kind of success. But that polarity required people to not just write it off as some summertime jam, or some irrelevant crap. Eventually, people kind of realized that this is a band that’s gonna be around for a while.”
“It was funny – there were as many people writing about what kind of clothes [Vampire Weekend] were wearing as there were people writing about their music. I kind of just thought to myself ‘Oh no! Is this what these kids are gonna have to go through?’ But of course [that won't be all]. They’re a great band, especially live. That’s pretty rare, and hard to ignore.”
There are already echoes of that story in Cults, although on a smaller scale. Time will tell how they play out the rest.
Brooklyn correspondent Justin Colletti listens to new releases every day of the week except Sunday. Here, he shares the twelve Spring releases that best broke through the noise and captured his imagination.
1. Booker T. Jones – The Road From Memphis
From 1962 to 1970, Booker T. served as one of the essential sidemen who helped shape the sound of classic soul and R&B. As part of Stax’s integrated house band he played back-up for Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, and Sam and Dave. As bandleader for the MGs, he brought instrumentals to the top of the charts with the iconic cut “Green Onions.”
Jones’ latest effort, The Road From Memphis is a rootsy hybrid of hip hop, funk, and soul that makes the rock/fusion hybrid of his GRAMMY-winning 2009 release Potato Hole sound gimmicky by comparison.
Even with his name on the cover, Jones maintains the soul of a sideman. His playing is casual, relaxed, almost conversational, as he cooks through a cover of Gnarles’ Barkley’s “Crazy” on the Hammond B3, or supports Sharon Jones on an original tune.
There’s little musical grandstanding on this record, which features an all-star band of ace musicians who stay firmly rooted in-pocket throughout.
The Road From Memphis was produced by ?uestlove of the Roots and Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliot Smith). It was recorded by Gabe Roth of Daptone (interviewed here over the winter), and features guest performances from Sharon Jones, Lou Reed, Matt Berninger of the National, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket.
2. Dennis Coffey: Controlled Aggression
Here’s a release that reminds us why we should never look to television or glossy magazines for music recommendations. Although you might not think it by the looks of him, Dennis Coffey will melt your face off with the funk.
When he’s not busy swapping fashion tips with George Costanza or posing to reassure you he’d do a great job adjusting your tax returns, Coffey leads a double life as a former guitarist for Motown, and the man behind the steaming new release Controlled Aggression.
Thanks to the good graces of the internet, this unlikely gem of a record doesn’t have to go undiscovered. Click the link below to hear the track “Space Traveller,” selected as NPR’s song of the day on May 31st.
When listening, don’t be afraid to turn up your speakers. Not only does this cut feature an old-school sensibility when it comes to musicianship, it features a refreshing lack of the aggressive over-mastering that’s had musiophiles up in arms for more than a decade. In a welcome blast from the past, the louder you crank this record, the better it sounds.
3. Thurston Moore: Demolished Thoughts
Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore had a new release last month. This largely acoustic, gracefully orchestrated collection of songs was produced by Beck for Matador Records, and has music geeks across Generations X and Y asking, “Where the hell was this record when I was a teenager?”
In some ways, Demolished Thoughts is Moore’s equivalent to Beck’s Sea Change. Although much of this record is as wizened and reserved as Beck’s navel-gazing opus, the tone of Demolished Thoughts remains notably less melancholy than that easy touchstone.
Arrangements are generally sparse and intimate, with subdued strings that are startlingly pretty and never overwhelming. On the production end, the album’s tone is spacious and milky, unafraid to stay just a little boxy and decidedly natural.
4. Kate Bush: Director’s Cut
If you’re a Kate Bush fan who’s disconcerted by musical revisionism, you may have mixed feelings about Director’s Cut. On this album Bush revisits and revamps songs from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes.
Unlike Brian Wilson’s 2004 revisit of the Smile sessions however, it’s doubtful any of these re-interpretations will be accused of ruining old favorites. Bush’s voice has stayed strong, and some of these cuts improve on the source material, which is largely culled from The Red Shoes, an album generally considered to be one of her weaker efforts.
After years of trying, Bush finally obtained permission to re-appropriate Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from the James Joyce’s novel Ulysses as the lyrics for this album’s opening track. It’s unusual to hear a woman of fifty-three take on some of the overtly sensual themes that drive the opening tracks on this record, but she does so with an effortless, unconcerned grace that belies her age.
So, is it worth listening? For those who are not yet fans, the now-classic 1985 album Hounds of Love is probably still a better place to start. (Like, yesterday.) For the already initiated? It’s definitely something to hear.
5. Eddie Vedder: Ukulele Songs
Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder has come out with a solo album. It consists exclusively of him playing songs he wrote for the ukulele.
Diehard fans of Vedder’s voice are likely to connect with the album’s intimate and un-ironic delivery. The rest of us could always use good excuse to gawk slack-jawed at our computers for a few minutes, wondering if our eyes are fooling us, so Vedder’s Ukulele Songs occupies slot 5 on our roundup of interesting spring releases.
But, is it good?
For a solo album that almost exclusively consists of Eddie Vedder playing songs he wrote for the ukulele, sure, it’s absolutely the best one I’ve ever heard.
How about compared to the rest of music throughout recorded history?
Well, it’s less weird than you might expect, and features strong, naked performances from a distinctive singer that you probably really love or can’t stand at all.
As for a rating? No matter which camp you fall in, Ukulele Songs is an odd, but well-realized effort that stands somewhere between the transcendent (Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” “Kind of Blue,” the first four Black Sabbath albums) and the laughably mediocre (Bruce Willis’ solo record, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Christmas album, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”).
6. Beastie Boys: Hot Sauce Committee Part 2
There’s a good chance you heard about it when the Beastie Boys dropped a new album last month. If you missed it, you still have a chance to stream it below.
It’s all too easy to harbor low expectations for any album this far into the band’s career, but once again, the ‘Boys refuse to disappoint: “Hot Sauce Committee” plays out like the Beasties of Check Your Head meeting up with the Beasties of Hello Nasty to compare notes.
Although some disinterest can be expected from early fans whose tastes have changed over the decades, this record is sure to please the ears of anyone still ready for more high-powered and irreverent jams from America’s favorite bratty-New-York-whiteboys-turned-socially-conscious-hip-hop-all-stars.
7. Alfonso Velez: Alfonso Velez
Alfonso Velez is a stunning and rare find: an undiscovered Singer/Songwriter worth watching out for.
Mere moments into “Teddy,” the first cut on Velez’s self-titled LP, I found myself slack-jawed, remarking aloud: “Wow. Dude can sing.” Songs here feel like real performances, unfolding stories that sound refreshingly human and open up over time.
With a production aesthetic that’s informed by The Flaming Lips and Radiohead as much as it is by The Beatles and James Taylor, Marc Alan Goodman’s mixes on Alfonso Velez balance the organic with the epic, the subdued with the sublime.
8. Cults: Cults
Any journalist writing about Brooklyn-based band Cults is obligated to marvel over their “un-googleable name” and (historically) limited presence on social media.
Up until Sony picked up the band in response to the extravagant media buzz that surrounded their debut 7”, the band subsisted with a spare Bandcamp page and a text-only website that listed upcoming shows.
Bloggers marveled over their ability to ignite interest sans Facebook and Myspace, much like the rest of us wonder how we were ever able to meet in public at a pre-designated time before cellphones.
Blog-buzz aside, Cults are easily one of the more compelling new artists to release an album this spring.
Their sound is somewhere between the Ronnettes and Peter Bjorn and John. Co-producer and engineer Shane Stoneback provides giganticlly cloudy, reverb-drenched mixes that complement their casually cultivated air of mystery.
At their best, Cults offer simple, unpretentious, catchy pop tunes with a startlingly retro production aesthetic. After repeated listens there’s some question as to whether there’s a ton of substance behind the style. In the meantime, the style they do have is somewhat substantive in itself and thankfully, it’s of the sonic, rather than visual variety.
9. Sondre Lerche: Sondre Lerche
Vernhes, who’s explored distinctive and sometimes jarring sounds with Dirty Projectors, Black Dice, and Deerhunter, might seem like an unexpected choice for Lerche, an artist best known for his easy charm and earnest pop sensibility.
With Verhnes at the board and Kato Ådland co-producing, Lerche is able to embrace sonic colors in a more raw state than ever before. The new material is mature: both accessible and unusual, friendly to a casual listener, but challenging enough to attract a new kind of audience.
10. Here We Go Magic: The January EP
On this record pillowy textures and contrapuntal rhythms form a blurred bed of sound for Here We Go Magic songwriter Luke Temple’s ephemeral, high-reaching vocals.
From the first plodding bass notes of the opener “Tulip,” Here We Go Magic’s newest release doles out twenty-one minutes of big, fat chamber pop.
It’s dense, atmospheric, ambitious, and invites comparisons to some of the innovative work by Caribou and Grizzly Bear, or the most forward-thinking moments of 60s cult favorites The Zombies.
Like Pigeons before it, The January (covered here in May), stands a far cry from Temple’s sparse solo effort on HWGM’s self-titled debut. The January serves a satisfying soup of sound that asks for repeat listening and suggests an unexpected expanse of space between the speakers.
Listen to “Hands in the Sky” off The January here:HERE
11. Hotels: On The Casino Floor
Since I’ve taken it on to write about the twelve albums this Spring that at least broke through the noise, and at best, captured my imagination, it would be dishonest to leave the Seattle band Hotels off this list, even if I have worked with them on prior releases.
Hotels has a new album On The Casino Floor, and, associations aside, I think you should hear it. They’re easily among my favorite bands playing today.
If band names like Devo, Black Sabbath, Joy Division, Kraftwerk, Wipers and New Order randomly strung together in a sentence holds any appeal to you, this is the offbeat, electronic, post-punk, synth-heavy surf-rock band for you.
12. Bon Iver: Bon Iver
Is it just me, or do self-titled releases seem like a growing trend this year? If I had something profound to say about artists declaring their identity in a culture of fleeting interest I would. Until then: Gee. What’s that shiny thing?
Fans of the sleepiest moments of Iron & Wine and TV On The Radio may enjoy Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore effort. This is music that’s sometimes unusual, and perhaps more pleasant than it is engrossing.
Atmospheric, moody, bold-yet-unobtrusive, the laconic Bon Iver is a thoroughly well-realized album, even if it occasionally bores this reviewer to the point where he forgets he’s even listening to it.
Lady Gaga and the Great Race to Cloud Storage
In other news, you may have caught wind that Lady GaGa’s label was so afraid her sophomore album would fail to make waves, they decided to effectively bribe fans into buying it. Hawking the entire record for $0.99 and giving away 40 GB of storage on Amazon’s new cloud server, they managed to sell 1.5 million copies in total, including a reported 750,000 at the $0.99 cheaper-than-free price point.
If you haven’t yet seen the video for the lead single “Born This Way,” don’t worry. You’ll be fine.
GaGa takes post-modern pastiche to a fever pitch of ADD, referencing more often and more directly than Family Guy. The only problem is that it’s rarely funny (at least not on purpose) and she staunchly refuses to admit to her influences, unlike the early post-modern pop-master, Beck.
Fittingly, GaGa’s latest video begins with music that isn’t even hers. The video version of “Born This Way” opens with Bernard Hermann’s classic score to the Hitchcock thriller Vertigo, which she somehow makes sucky by adding some comically pretentious narration and half-baked visual imagery culled from Frank Herbert’s Dune.
To her credit, GaGa has the theater of music down to a certain degree. She’s followed the playbooks of Freddie Mercury, Madonna, and Britney Spears, but forgot the rule about occasionally putting out an inventive song. Even Britney had “Toxic.”
Once the actual music kicks in, the problem is not that it’s awful. Rather, it’s amazingly plain – befuddlingly mediocre. The actual single serves as a remarkably bland backdrop to over-the-top visuals that are generally too racy for children and at times too vapid for self-respecting adults.
Those who maintain that her first record featured a few worthy pop songs obscured by a questionable production aesthetic will be disappointed to find nothing here to approach even that level of “interesting.” When listened to with any seriousness, “Born This Way” makes Cher’s most questionable 80s moments seem hip and current.
For the few who have cast GaGa as a secret champion of counter-culture, this release continues to reframe hers as work that panders to the easily entertained rather than suggesting a shred of the subversive.
At best, GaGa may have been able to achieve a level of insta-kitsch to rival John Waters. Only this time, it’s by accident. – Justin Colletti
FORT GREENE, BROOKLYN: Like so many indie labels before it, True Panther Sounds began on a whim. Founder Dean Bein and his bandmates in a short-lived San Francisco punk band wanted to go on tour, so they pressed 500 copies of a 7”, booked a DIY tour and promptly sold out of the single.
Instead of pocketing the money, they reinvested it in a second release by their friends in the Brooklyn band Standing Nudes. And the label was born.
But True Panther only really took off once Bein moved to Brooklyn where he saw an opportunity to introduce Bay Area artists to the buzz-generating NYC indie music industry. Two years later, he was signing a deal with Matador, who acquired True Panther as an imprint in 2009.
Last year, True Panther released critically acclaimed albums and EPs by Delorean, Girls, Magic Kids, Glasser, Tanlines and Teengirl Fantasy. Growing with a diverse and uninhibited roster, True Panther is also becoming that elusive label-as-curator, a source of music discovery for fans.
If you want to know what it takes to build a successful indie label, read on, but here’s a clue: it takes heart. Bein is ambitious in the same way he describes the music he loves: that is, brave and adventurous, bright-eyed, exuberant. In many ways, he seems the embodiment of the label, or more to the point, of his audience — hard-core music fans looking for new, awesome sounds.
So True Panther started with releases by San Francisco artists. Tell us about the inspiration to do that once you’d relocated to NYC.
When I moved out here in ’07, I saw how quickly things happened in NYC with a new band. There is all this infrastructure here: it’s almost like if a band practices, they have a manager and a booking agent by the next day. In San Francisco, things don’t work that way. There’s really no industry. And people still hold onto the idea of legitimacy and cred and earning respect over time.
But I was really homesick for San Francisco and I thought it would be cool if someone here in NYC could champion the music I found exciting from the Bay Area. So I put out a single by Girls and then an album by Lemonade. And they both just took off to a level that I really didn’t expect at all.
Do you think that having that angle, or point of view, had anything to do with the label’s success?
I think there might be a certain small pond benefit. I think that can be an element in what can make someone succeed: being the defining voice of a community and either serving or representing that community to the outside world. Whether that be a set of people, or a place, or a type of production, a certain beat of dance music, etc. there’s so much music; people want help processing it.
And [at the same time] I feel like True Panther doesn’t have that angle anymore. At this point, the music comes from all over, and from every genre. Sometimes I wish it was a bit more focused. But there are common threads between what the bands are doing, even though maybe it’s not so explicit.
How did you open up to other acts, after those initial releases? Was there an idea, guiding principles of what you wanted to build True Panther into?
Well that’s the question I’m very much trying to answer in this new year. In the beginning it was very regional and based on personal relationships. And then last year we had this flood of releases — all of this exciting music. I felt really confident that these records were good and that people would like them, and to a certain extent it was about what I wanted to listen to.
But I can see the label growing now, and with that, I feel a much bigger responsibility to try to carry on this thread without any sort of markers. Somehow these disparate points on a map have to connect and you have to create new points and it has to make sense in this language that doesn’t even really exist.
Do you feel like you have a conscious idea of what you look for in an artist?
Yes, though it’s also somewhat vague, but I look for artists who are ambitious, and who are at least playing with, or challenging convention. And by ambitious, I mean brave and adventurous, playing with these formulas to try and make something that is, if not new, unique to the people making it.
I grew up listening to punk and hard-core and the reason I was drawn to that music was really much more about ambience, and the feeling it created. A hardcore record creates an environment. It wasn’t about hooks, or melodies that stick with you; it’s more about a feeling. And so honestly, I don’t think I have a very refined ear for songs necessarily. When I hear new things, I’m always drawn to that feeling it creates, the atmosphere, the story.
But this doesn’t preclude you discovering and being drawn to poppy music, like Magic Kids, that record is pretty classic pop.
Yeah, and actually Magic Kids is a good example: I remember going to see them two years ago and it was a real A&R fest and they finished playing and I talked to someone else who ran a label and I was like ‘god, that was great! I love these guys!’ and he was like ‘yeah, it’s pretty cool, but they don’t have any songs.’ And I really didn’t understand what that meant. I wasn’t really listening for the songs.
Well but other A&R or record labels may focus too much on the song, and miss out on an act that creates that amazing transporting effect that music can have. And I guess that’s one of the threads through your roster, is that they all evoke something.
Yeah. I hope so.
How involved are you with development of the artists you work with?
Very. I place a lot of importance on artist development. Things like the Glasser record and the Girls record – they are very opinionated, strong-willed artists. Magic Kids, too. There were lots of notes back and forth during mixing.
I think sometimes when people are recording, they get so deep into it, they can’t really hear it anymore. It’s helpful to get notes from someone who’s a fan, but who also spends 12-14 hours a day listening to music, and who hasn’t heard the material before. And it definitely varies the extent to which people are trying to take the notes.
There have been a few extended arguments over sequencing and stuff, but that’s the process: if on one hand I’m going to say these are releases that I personally really like, and that’s a thread tying True Panther together, then in turn I have a personal responsibility to the artist and the audience to voice my opinions. To an extent. Ultimately it’s the artists’ call. But it is a conversation and a process, and it’s a process that I enjoy.
Outside of the bands and you, and Matador, are there producers you consider part of the extended True Panther family?
Absolutely. Especially when you’re starting out, you rely heavily on favors. Chris Coady recorded and engineered the first Lemonade album for practically nothing. And actually the guys from Tanlines produced the Lemonade EP. There is a True Panther community and I feel like it’s expanding every day. Shane Stoneback (who engineered Magic Kids) was an incredible person to meet. He’s so talented and hard working. I feel really close to the people who are responsible for capturing those sounds.
And Chris Coady mixed the Delorean record, Subiza, which is awesome. I love that record.
Yeah, glad you like it! I met Delorean two summers ago when Girls and Lemonade played Primavera. We stayed at Ekhi [Lopetegi, of Delorean]’s house. We became friends and he started sending me tracks for this album. It was totally informal, completely friendly, just two music fans, and me giving my notes on it. And at one point, we realized they had an album. And it was really good! I asked if he wanted True Panther to put it out, and he said yes.
And I feel like I was allowed to participate in the creation of the record more so than if I’d actually been involved as the label, as “the man.” It was a nice process. Chris Coady and I would talk a lot, as they were mixing it over Skype. It really makes me feel like the label is accomplishing something worthwhile when you can draw a thread through these people and different musicians can find one another, forge friendships and collaborations, etc.
Like, Tanlines has a song with Glasser; Magic Kids and Delorean met and became friends and now they exchange home recording tips. And Chris very much feels like a part of that, and Jesse and Eric from Tanlines, and Shane Stoneback.
What other skills do you think you have that enable you to do this successfully, besides having that point of view of music fan?
You really do have to love the music, and you really have to trust yourself and be honest with yourself about the music. There has to be an ability to step outside of yourself and to know people, and be able to step away from something and see it for what it is, and what could possibly appeal or not appeal to people about it.
And just like any other field, a knowledge of the history, and the trends that come and go, helps a lot, because you start to see pretty significant patterns in the way that people embrace certain kinds of music. I spend a lot of time listening to older music, just filling up my memory banks with information.
On the business side, the most important thing — and this is something that applies to any small business — is scale and patience. I always thought if I scaled things properly, I could take a small amount of money and keep reinvesting it and with a little bit of luck, just keep it growing at a steady pace, but only if you approach each release with humility and patience. Allow people to come to the music. And try to be realistic about the number of people it can reach.
How do you make sure you’re out ahead of what’s going on just enough that you’re not following a trend, but contributing something new? What do you do to immerse yourself in the music being made right now and stay on top of all that?
Well I still listen to every single demo that I get, and I get recommendations. And I try to be pretty deliberate about it, starting with something that is really immediate and visceral: I like this. And if you have that response, then you have to step back and listen to it in a different context; listen to it on different headphones, listen to it in the car, in the subway, and then see it live.
See the audience: what does the audience look like? What context do you see them listening to it in? And what other artists is this like? If there are no other similar artists, what could it become? And what is happening in music? What are some new things that have happened recently, does this music reflect a movement in that direction?
What has been the record that has sold the most and what did that tell you?
It’s Girls. And actually what I took away from that experience was to really think about what gives music value. What makes people actually want to own music enough to pay for it? I have some criteria, four questions that I think address what value music can have for people:
1) Does it make you feel smart? Not is it smarter than you, but does it enrich you? Does it make you feel like you’re taking part in something that’s enlightened or intelligent?
2) Does it make you feel like you’re stepping into another world where maybe you haven’t been before? In Girls’ case, it’s San Francisco, which I’ve found is kind of a blank canvas for a lot of people. Do you feel like you’re stepping into this world?
3) Does it make you feel young? Does it make you feel nostalgic in its exuberance, (but not in its essence or aesthetic)? Is it ambitious and bright-eyed without being retro?
4) Do you feel an emotional connection?
Yeah, and #2 and #3 can often get you to #4. The feeling of being transported by music can be emotional. Thanks for sharing all that! SO what’s up next? Can you fill us in on any upcoming True Panther releases?
There’s this band from Portland called Unknown Mortal Orchestra. And it’s funny, the cycle couldn’t have been any shorter with him. He literally recorded a song in like 6 hours, put it on Bandcamp and 24 hours later it was on some blogs, and then 3 days later I emailed him.
So the song must have really done it for you…
But again, it wasn’t the song; it was the feeling! He’s writing these 60s style Northern soul and R&B but garagey songs with really intricate, awesome guitar lines, but he put it all over these really funky classic hip-hop breaks. I just liked the sound so much – I thought it was really cool that something could sound so old and yet completely new. He kept sending songs, and it turned from a 7” to a 12” (a 9-song EP). That will come out in March.
And you typically put out a smaller-run of vinyl first?
Yeah, I mean it’s not the law, but that’s the idea with the smaller releases – that it starts with something that feels precious and personal. It’s just 12” that feel good, that you can put up on your shelf and listen to.
There’s also going to be an EP by Zoo Kid, a 16-year-old kid from London who sounds like Billy Bragg. And we’re putting out a Fucked Up 12” that Shane Stoneback engineered. That’s part of their Zodiac series of EPs. There will also be a new Girls album in the Fall — they’re recording it now.
What else do you see going on out there that’s exciting right now?
This dude Robin Carolan does a label called Tri Angle. It’s often described as witch-house music — I see it more as bedroom producers playing with pop music, and hip-hop and rap in really subversive and experimental ways. He’s curated this selection of artists that do that in this post-Salem world. Check out Balam Acab.
For more on True Panthers, and to check out some music, visit www.truepanther.com.
THE FIVE BOROUGHS: 2010 has been busy all right. For anyone involved in New York City’s expansive business of music – producer, publisher, entrepreneur, engineer, artist, and many more – the environment remains fast-paced, ultra-competitive and constantly changing.
With 2011 looming, SonicScoop looked for the news, trends and topics that stood out to us over the past 365 days.
In audio post, it was grow or die in the uppermost echelon. The biggest facilities, including hsr|ny, Nutmeg, and Sound Lounge made serious expansions into audio and/or video:
Large and mid-sized recording/tracking/mixing studios kept making capital improvements and expanding:
Advanced smaller studios – independent and within larger facilities — and producer rooms also opened up at a peppy pace:
Avid capped off a furious year of reinvention and new products with the release of Pro Tools 9.
Music houses and composers still had a ton of TV, film and video game work to go after and win:
Production music and synch licensing remained a solid business, especially for those who got in at the right time or had a smart approach.
One of NYC’s most controversial music business plays, peer-to-peer file sharing network Limewire, appeared to be finally finished.
Tracking, mixing and mastering at NYC’s established facilities did a relatively healthy volume of A-level and independent work throughout the year:
New software and hardware happiness abounded:
NYC suffered losses when beloved people and places left us:
NYC-based producers, mixers, engineers and artists became businesses in their own right:
Producer Chris Coady worked on some hugely acclaimed records this year, including Beach House Teen Dream and Delorean Subiza, as well as records with Hooray for Earth, Zola Jesus, Smith Westerns, Cold Cave.
The studio scene got a lot more socialicious and FUN:
What big stories would you include? And what do you see next in 2011? Don’t be shy – leave a comment and let us know!
– Janice Brown and David Weiss
CMJ has announced its full schedule of showcases and panel presentations! There’s a ton going on next week, find it all at http://cmj.thesocialcollective.com events and plan wisely!
Definitely check out our “Studio Time” event — being co-sponsored by The Deli Magazine — happening on Friday, October 22 at NYU’s Kimmel Center. Studio Time will be a unique two-part panel series, providing emerging artists, engineers and producers with recording and mixing insights and inspiration from expert music creators.
Part I (12:30 – 2:30) is “Mix Reconstruction” – Three top mixers take you through their personal mixing process, explaining how they approached and ultimately mixed a song from their discography, playing pre- and post-mix examples to illustrate how they work. Basic techniques and creative solutions will all be examined in this illuminating event.
Part II (2:45 – 4:45) is “Rough To Refined: Exploring Recording From Demo to the Finished Product” – In this lively forum, artists and their producers appear together to play rough demos for the audience, explaining how their complex collaborations resulted in the final, polished song that ultimately made it onto their album. Professional workflow concepts and the creative possibilities between producers and artists will come to light in this inside look at modern music production.
Studio Time sponsor The Deli will be hosting 7 showcases at multiple venues throughout the week, featuring Bear Hands, Keepaway, Deluka, Buke & Gass, Pearl & The Beard, La Strada, Anni Rossi and more. Click for the full schedule!
And here are some highlights from the panel program running at the Kimmel Center next week (Click for full schedule):
2PM: American Hardcore and the Rise of Modern Rock, featuring Vic Bondi, Jack Rabid, Michelle Rakshys, Matt Sweeney and Steven Blush
3:30: The 360 Deal Does A 180, featuring David Boxenbaum, Bernard Cahill, Jim Cooperman, Fred Goodman and J. Reid Hunter.
3:30: The Sync Is Clogged, featuring Joe Cuello, Daniel Gross, Elliot A. Resnik, Esq., George Stein and Shayna Zaid.
2PM: The Who, What, Why and Differences of the Performing Rights World, featuring Gary Adelman, Samantha Cox, Marc Emert-Hutner and Laura Williams
3:30: Labels in the Black and How They Are Succeeding, featuring Craig Balsam, A.J. Benson, Fred Feldman, Dan Goldberg and Steve Savoca
3:30: Start Me Up (Real, first-hand advice on music start-ups), featuring Andrew Dreskin, Chris Fralic, Catherine Radbill and Daniel Zaccagnino
3:30: The Zeros and Ones of Music Creation, featuring Bryan Abreu, Tim O’Heir and Vinny Valentino
11AM: Times Are Tough; Keep Your Composer: featuring Andrew Hollander, Ryan Shore, T. Griffin and Jonathan Zalben.
12:30: The “What’s Cool” Culture of Indie Placements: featuring Stephanie Diaz-Matos, Tom Eaton, Eric Johnson, Bryan Ray Turcotte and Steve Yanovsky
CMJ also offers mentoring sessions on Music Publishing and Licensing, Music Production, Artist Management, New Media, College Radio and more! For more on CMJ, other panels, artists, shows, etc. and to register, visit http://cmj.com/marathon/register.
On Friday, October 22 at NYU’s Kimmel Center, we will be producing a unique two-part panel series, providing emerging artists, engineers and producers with recording and mixing insights and inspiration from expert music creators. Check it out:
Part I (12:30 – 2:30): Mix Reconstruction
Three top mixers take you through their personal mixing process, explaining how they approached and ultimately mixed a song from their discography, playing pre- and post-mix examples to illustrate how they work. Basic techniques and creative solutions will all be examined in this illuminating event.
Featured mixers include:
Nicolas Vernhes, of Rare Book Room Studios in Brooklyn, who in the last year has mixed Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca and Dirty Projectors & Bjork’s Mount Wittenberg Orca, Spoon’s Transference, Small Black’s New Chain, Versus’ On The Ones and Threes, and Animal Collective’s Oddsac movie, among other projects;
Jason Goldstein, a Grammy-winning mixer most recently known for his work with The Roots (How I Got Over), Beyonce (B-Day) and Bilal (Airtight’s Revenge), Jill Scott (“Hate on Me”) and Ludacris (“One More Drink”); and…
Part II (2:45 – 4:45): Rough to Refined: Exploring Recording from Demo to the Finished Product:
In this lively forum, artists and their producers appear together to play rough demos for the audience, explaining how their complex collaborations resulted in the final, polished song that ultimately made it onto their album. Professional workflow concepts and the creative possibilities between producers and artists will come to light in this inside look at modern music production.
The featured guests will be the following producers and artists:
For more on CMJ, other panels, artists, shows, etc. and to register, visit http://cmj.com/marathon/register.
Artists performing at CMJ 2010 include Phoenix, GZA, UNKLE, Black Sheep, John Vanderslice, Cute Is What We Aim For, Justin Townes Earle, Black Label Society, Corin Tucker Band, Dan Black, Cults, The Bogmen, Clutch, Francis and the Lights, Screaming Females, Franz Nicolay, Small Black, Wild Nothing, Dom, Marit Larsen, Good Old War, Reggie Watts and BRAHMS. Click for the most up-to-date list.
Shane Stoneback: Music Production Career Construction with Sleigh Bells, Magic Kids & Vampire Weekend
DUMBO, BROOKLYN/CHELSEA, MANHATTAN: Shane Stoneback would be the first person to tell you that he’s a lucky son-of-a-gun. Sure this fast-emerging producer/engineer has sharp ears, sharper instincts and a marvelously open mind, but he’s also got an undeniable knack for being in the right place at just the right time.
A quick scan of his expanding discography bears that out, with some of the timeliest artists tapping him to bring new sounds, classic styles, and hybrid approaches to their projects. Vampire Weekend, the arresting joy-noise of Sleigh Bells, updated old-skool of Magic Kids, and mystery-soaked Brooklyn duo Cults, are all his latest clients, and that’s just for starters.
To handle the heavy metal, undefinable psychedelia, and everything in between, Stoneback’s dual NYC studios are seeing an enviable level of action. He often gets things started in the raw DUMBO zone he calls Treefort Studios, then crosses the river to finish at SMT Studios in Manhattan, the SSL 4000 G+/Augspurger-endowed mushroom wood dream room he shares with engineer Brian Herman.
Able to make the most out of every opportunity that comes his way, Stoneback has gone a good distance since his formative years as a tech at Battery Studios and in the machine room of audio post HQ Sound One. Settled comfy comfy behind his big board at SMT, Stoneback caught us up on his latest adventures.
You did some recording recently with Magic Kids, we hear.
Right. I went to MemphisW for about a month to a studio owned by Doug Easley. He’s worked with Cat Power, Sonic Youth, and a bunch other great groups. Previously he had a beautiful, old-school studio with three-story-high live rooms, like at Abbey Road. It was famous, but it burned down four years ago.
Now he’s set up shop in an old insurance sales office. It’s a decent studio, but he has a Neotek board that’s like a Salvador Dali painting, because the knobs are kind of melted. We did all the principal tracking there – guitar, bass, drums – and hired this whole cast of local musicians. The talent pool in Memphis is pretty amazing, and Magic Kids is a big band with a lot of members – their network is pretty extensive, and they’re only two calls away from any instrument you can think of.
Magic Kids’ keyboardist/producer Will McElroy has these elaborate, intensive arrangements in his head. In the 1970’s you would have spent six months making this record, and we spent two months. I ended up getting really sick because I spent so much time making it. I didn’t get a lot of sleep in those two months.
They’ve definitely got a style that stands out – how would you describe their sound?
There’s nine people in this band. The Magic Kids have classic songwriting sensibilities, but with modern tools used in their creation, like lots of big 808s.
That new song you produced with them, “Cry with me Baby”, has some old skool elements, but it also doesn’t sound 100% retro…
Sounding retro was a big fear. When I start with a band, if I can I spend time with them a little bit, at a rehearsal or wherever, and talk about music, or I see what’s on their iPod when they’re not looking. These guys were listening to house music when I met them, which I thought was so odd, but it kept it from being a throwback record.
They didn’t want to make a cutesy throwback record – they avoided that at every turn. Some of the songs are super epic, on a level with Electric Light Orchestra songs. Anyway, the record is coming out in August, and you better get your roller skates on for it!
OK! Or can we just hop on our bike? In the meantime back here in NYC, you’re running not one but two facilities. Let’s take it from the top with Treefort Studios in DUMBO.
Treefort is one of those loft locker spaces. I got it three years ago for a writing room and I started to build it out when one of the kids from Vampire Weekend came in. I wasn’t done with construction, but they came out and started doing drum overdubs, and I started a good relationship with those guys.
The room is great, it’s a raw inspiring environment with books, chotchkes…people seem amused out there, but it is roughing it. I don’t have proper air conditioning, and the last few days have been brutal. But then again, Treefort is a much bigger room. There’s a lot of bands in particular I work with that want to lay down core live takes with three or four band members. They’ve been touring and they have it all locked together. You also have much more options for mic placement there. Plus I have tube organs, weird keyboards, and the room is cheaper because there’s a lot lower overhead.
We couldn’t help but notice the SSL 4000 G+ here at SMT Studios in Manhattan. Why keep it separated, instead of having everything together in Treefort?
We could never build this room in that place for a bunch of different reasons. The zoning would be difficult, and I’m not sure how long that building will last because of housing development in the area. The Treefort is awesome, but it’s collapsible. I could tear it down, put it up somewhere else, and it would be the same.
So now the package is we could have a band record at Treefort, do all the overdubs, and then mix it here in a room that’s acoustically tight with a great board. Every record we’ve mixed here has, in my opinion, been my best record. I just keep on thinking it gets better in this room.
Looking around, it certainly seems like you’ve put together what would be considered a dream facility for a lot of producer/engineers today.
This room is awesome. There’s two reasons we selected this configuration. Previously we had a baby Oxford and a pair of Tannoys that are now at Treefort. At the same time, there was a series of studios closing in the city that had an SSL G and Augspurgers, and that was how all the pop hit records were being recorded. Chung King had one, Battery had one, and there’s clearly been a vacuum for that. If they’re all closing down, then clearly there’s not a line around the block for that flavor, but if they all close down, then there’s still room for one.
Brian and I both worked at Battery, and this was the combination of console and speakers that we worked on every day. Plus, I love this board and the EQ on it – you can get rough with it and it sounds really cool. Or you can do nothing, just push the faders up, and it glues everything together better than it would in your workstation. Also, to get a Neve console of the same size would have been an enormous amount of money and this console, aside from cleaning, was in pretty good shape. I think it was in Usher’s house, so it wasn’t getting abused in a commercial facility.
People need studios. Whether they need me or some other engineer, they definitely need these environments where they can come in and have all the tools. Sitting in your bedroom, making a record, you can do that once, and it sounds awesome. But every band I’ve worked with this year – Cults is a good example – love what they’ve done in Garageband. But then they want to make it bigger.
(Take a video tour of SMT Studios hosted by Shane Himself right here)
With the different things that you’re doing, do you consider yourself to be a producer, engineer or a mixer?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I feel like we’ve all become facilitators more than anything. No two things come in the door with the same ratio of requirements – some people come in with great music and no idea of how they want it to sound and they want you to hold their hand through it. Others come in with it all ready to go, and they just want you to hit “record”. In any event, the line in the sand between producer and engineer has become very difficult to distinguish.
On the facilitator tip, I hear Derek E. Miller of Sleigh Bells is like an engineer…
The way that we met, xl recordings booked a couple of weeks at Treefort for M.I.A., so she could have some time to write and experiment. She was going to meet with a variety of people, but I believe she heard about Derek through Spike Jonze, so how awesome for him, to get cold-called from M.I.A. one day to make a song. I didn’t know who he was – he could have been Danger Mouse or this huge producer, and I could have been Steve Lillywhite for all he knew – we were both nervous around each other for a while.
We had some time to kill, and he started talking to me about compressors and the best settings for a female vocalist. Then he started playing me the Sleigh Bells record [which would become Treats, released May 11, 2010], and I immediately loved it. I said, “Put this out right now!” He said he’d be willing to go into the studio and work on it.
Some people would have stopped him from doing what he was willing to do, like going into the red digitally. That’s “wrong”, but what he and I discovered is that initially it sounds like crap, but if you go into the red further it starts to sound better. You can crank the EQ, sweep the frequencies, and make it start screaming like a guitar distortion pedal. I started to listen to Garageband, Logic and Pro Tools overloaded, they all sounded different, and we used those like tools to get the aesthetic for that. Derek has these specific things that I don’t think anyone has brought to the table as benchmarks – I think he really did want to hurt his ears at those frequencies like 4k! Like that French electronic group Justice, the way it’s filtered it hurts when it’s turned up loud, but it still sounds really cool.
Sounds like a good schooling. What were some other surprises that came up working with Derek on the Sleigh Bells record?
He was working with these vintage drum machines from the early ‘90’s, but he hated using the rock kit on the Korg or Alesis drum machines. They didn’t sound good until we rammed the fader all the way up and just knocked every frequency up as loud as every other.
We tried a lot of guitar amps, and we settled on this Korg Toneworks which is like something for a tour bus. It sounds like crap in the best possible way. Because of the circuitry, it shaves off all these frequencies so it sits in the mix right away – you could triple or quadruple the track and it doesn’t sound muddy. It sounds like the synthesizer you wish you had!
With that record, you couldn’t really do wrong. It was like going off the deep end into some uncharted territory. I liken it to the first time someone cranked a guitar amp and someone said, “You can’t do that!” and you say, “Just give me five minutes and you’ll see what I can do.” Hopefully I won’t get asked to make a record like that again, because I wouldn’t want to repeat it. But I do pull elements from it.
On a parallel tip to all this experimentation, you told us that you’re seeing a return to a more pro studio approach in recording – what do you mean by that?
There’s definitely a slew of records coming out where people are making rock albums that don’t sound bedroomy to me. Yes, there’s a good vocal sound you can get in your bedroom because you’re recording while your roommate’s sleeping, and it’s very intimate. But there’s something about a really well-recorded vocal where people scream, go off, and get the emotion out. You don’t hear the recording, you just hear the artist, you know? I feel like that will come back.
It doesn’t have to be slick with long reverbs and all that. The Raconteurs record (Consolers of the Lonely), that sounds great. The Them Crooked Vultures record, that sounds huge: it’s really thick and sounds good quiet, but it also sounds good in here cranked up loud.
You’re getting more and more credits on projects that producers would want to get the call on – Vampire Weekend, Magic Kids, the Sleigh Bells record — why is your stock going up right now?
Part of it is luck. So I’ve been in the right place at the right time a lot. That said I can still tell I get better at this each day. It was serendipitous that I met Vampire Weekend, and the initial job that I did for them was not exclusive knowledge – anybody could have done it. But I worked up a good working relationship. I was an assistant engineer in studios for years, so I got good at the boring parts: taking notes and backing stuff up. I’m a great Pro Tools editor, and a lot of people don’t want to deal with that. People will keep you around for that.
On the second Vampire Weekend record (Contra), I hammered home the facilitator thing. Rostam (Batmanglij) is a great keyboard player, a great arranger, and picked up the basics of engineering pretty quickly, but he still needed a facilitator to handle things on a day-to-day basis. We rented a marimba that was bigger than this table! We set it up, mic’d it and recorded it. Even if I had never done it before, I’d pretend I’d done it ten times.
– Interview by Janice Brown and David Weiss
The Lodge Chief Mastering Engineer Emily Lazar and Mastering Engineer Joe LaPorta helped put the final touches on the band’s first LP.
Magic Kids’ Memphis was recorded and mixed by NYC-based engineer Shane Stoneback and producer Doug Easley at Easley’s Memphis studio. Stoneback, who recently collaborated with The Lodge on Vampire Weekend’s Contra and Sleigh Bells’ Treats, works out of SMT Studios in Manhattan and Treefort Studios in DUMBO.
Located in Greenwich Village, The Lodge has worked on a number of especially successful indie projects this year, including albums by The Morning Benders, Sleigh Bells and Dum Dum Girls. Between the unique vintage feel of Magic Kids, and the production track record of all involved, we expect Memphis will be one of the summer’s best debut releases.