Delicious Audio recently interviewed Brooklyn indie-rock band Snowmine about their recording process – they self-produced their debut EP, Laminate Pet Animal. They also, more recently, recorded at Germano Studios, with producer/engineer Jake Aron. The band is fronted by new-classical composer Grayson Sanders, whose vocals have been compared to Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, and Jim Jones of My Morning Jacket. Read the entire interview here and an excerpt below…
Like many contemporary Brooklyn based artists, Snowmine is very interested in the creative possibilities offered by the recording studio, but the results we hear on record showcase a band that masters the production process like few others. We took the time to ask them a few questions about this.
How much of your recording is done at home versus in the studio?
A lot of the recording is done at home. We call it batcaving.
If you use a studio, what do you record there and what do you record by yourself and why?
We record basics (drums, bass, rhythm guitars) all live for the sake of the personal interaction. It helps to be able to float off the grid and focus on the performing with each other. I do textures, found sounds and vocals at home. The space to get in your own head and nitpick can only appear without the pressure of the space you’re paying for…
What are the pieces of equipment that you find particularly inspiring when recording at home? (Please mention the brand and model name and say why you like it)
I use a Fender Mini Tone-Master. It’s a small solid state practice amp, and I put literally everything through it. Almost all the tracks for remixes and otherwise go through it, either for grit and gnarly speaker distortion or darkening. I then take the 96k, sparkly hi-fi tracks and balance them against each other. I think it’s cool to automate between two sounds that are hi and lo-fi — adds another sense of dimension.
I also use a tiny compressor called the “RNC” or “Really Nice Compressor” before I get to the amp. It’s no frills, but I push it on synths before the amp, so I can hit it with variable attacks. You can get some interesting results for sure. It also has a “Super Nice” mode, which I can’t exactly figure out, but I think the name is rad.
My choice mic is the good ol’ SM7. You know what they say: “If it ain’t broke, don’t get gas.” (That’s Gear Acquisition Syndrome.)
Click here to read the rest of the interview, by Paolo De Gregorio.
DUMBO, BROOKLYN: I met microphone designer Dimitri Wolfwood and his [Ronin Applied Sciences] business partner Fenton Joseph at the Tape Op party during AES New York last fall. Joel Hamilton had arrived with them and introduced us, and Dimitri immediately took me into his world of ultimate microphone design. Before I knew it, I was swept up in his excitement about capsules and transformers, the virtues of film caps, and the sin of electrolytics.
In his introduction, Joel spoke with excitement about these guys having a new approach to tube microphone design, that – to his ears – had achieved a level of complexity and balance he’d only known from the Neumann classics.
I talked microphones with Dimitri for a while that night, and we kept in touch. After a couple more conversations, I asked him if I could demo his first microphone, the Pegasus. He and Fenton arrived at the studio just as I was setting up for a session, helped set up the mic, and then set me loose.
A Few Words For The Uninitiated…
Large diaphragm condenser (LDC) microphones, especially those powered and amplified by a tube, tend to be more subjective sound transducers. Much more than most small diaphragm mics, a tube LDC traditionally exhibits a strong personality, for which you pay to some degree in “accuracy.” However, when that personality is paired up with the right source, the recording takes on a hyper-reality that can be gripping and emotional.
Traditionally, the small diaphragm condenser, and the tradition of FET-based electronics, has been a quest for different types of accuracy. The tube LDC is the one that’s always strived for character and attitude. In so doing, they wind up being useful for a different type of application.
As an extreme example, measurement microphones have a flat EQ response from a couple Hertz to 20 kHz and beyond – but the results are often “unmusical”. A tube LDC, on the other hand, usually makes no pretense towards flat response, but rather boasts an ability to give a living, interactive response to the source, not unlike a guitar amp gives the guitar and guitarist. Accuracy really has little to do with it: the question is whether its distinct personality relates well to the instrument, like when two people meet each other.
Another side-note about tubes: Tubes have a reputation for being the choice when you want “warmth” or “good distortion.” This is a poor generalization, and one that doesn’t help us understand the Pegasus. While some tube circuits can sound very good when operating in their non-linear (distorted) regions, there are as many exceptions as there are examples. First, tube distortion is not always pleasant or warm, let alone the right choice for the application. Additionally, some tube circuits sound unusably terrible when they distort, sometimes even being a frigid opposite of what is commonly mis-described as “tube warmth.”
Second, some tube equipment, including the Pegasus, can be stunningly linear, and require as much effort to be pushed into the non-linear region as any solid-state circuit. So the choice of tubes over transistors is only in part about distortion: from the point of view of the microphone designer, it’s more about choosing a particular tradition of priorities in signal amplification.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
I tested the microphone at Vinegar Hill Sound, where I engineer and produce records along with studio owner and engineer Justin King. Our live room is about 400 square feet with 18-foot ceilings. Two walls are exposed, rough brick walls; one is drywall, and one is cloth-covered broad-band absorption. We have worked to achieve good spectral and temporal balance within the room’s natural medium-length reverb, and it is a pronounced feature of the room.
We work in Pro Tools HD 9 and use a Toft 32-channel ATB board for monitoring and mixing, but we track through outboard pre’s – API, Neve, Manley, Telefunken, Chandler – through outboard processing, and then feed directly into Lynx Aurora converters.
The Ronin Pegasus Test Sessions
To evaluate, I tested the Pegasus on various sources: voice, drum kit, kick drum, cello, trumpet, melodica, harmonica, piano, and pump organ (I will not discuss all of these). The microphones I compared it to were two tube LDC’s: the Telefunken Elektroakustik ELA-M 251E reissue and the Telefunken R-F-T AK-47; as well as mics of differing architectures: a Coles 4038 ribbon, a Telefunken ELA-M 260 SDC (reissue), a Neumann KM184 SDC, and a Shure SM7 dynamic.
The first source I tried was voice. I tracked vocals for Diamond Doves singer-band-members Nick Kinsey, Wyndham Boylan-Garnett, and Brigham Brough. Each of the three trade off singing lead vocal for each song, so we had to do the “usual suspects” mic shoot-out for each of their three different voices. This was a stark demonstration of the characteristics of each microphone. We tried the Pegasus, the Telefunken ELA-M 251E, the Telefunken R-F-T AK47, and the Shure SM7 (a dynamic mic).
What the Pegasus brought to each voice was musicality and balance: a robust low-end with formidable, but not overwhelming proximity effect; substantial body and detail in the lower-mids; a clarity and depth to the upper-mids, and an extended but well-tempered high-end that faithfully celebrated the higher-order harmonics.
The Telefunken 251E was by far the most similar example, but it had its own character that felt like a different take on the same subject; a more exaggerated proximity effect which made it a little more unruly (and more hyper-realistic), a similar depth to the lower mids, an upper-mid focus that was about half-an-octave higher than the Pegasus, and a sparkly high-end that nevertheless remained on a tighter leash than with the Pegasus. Transients were also a little more “gooey” than the Pegasus.
Neither of these two mics ever sounded like they got pushed into that resonating acoustic-distortion that lesser mics revert to under pressure. They remained open and tolerant of high sound pressure levels as well as ultra-resonant sources.
The Telefunken AK47, on the other hand, was much easier to push into its own resonance. It is a generally brighter mic with less depth and subtlety than the Pegasus, or the 251 for that matter. It has a bit of high-mid hype that can get edgy, which can be useful for pulling out nice natural distortions in vocals. As it happened, that was just what the doctor ordered for Nick’s voice, which has a gritty texture in that territory that distorted nicely with the AK47′s own grit – the two jousted together for a well-formed acoustic-electric distortion that became very flattering. But on Brigham’s Barry White-type baritone, it peeled the highs away into their own separate texture, where they laid distracting and out-of-balance. Likewise, Wyndham’s Brian Wilson-esque falsetto and soaring highs were dragged from sparkly to screechy through the AK47.
This edgy high-end raspiness also seemed to mask low-level information, especially in that range. So instead of casting a three-dimensional image with foreground, midfield and background, as the Pegasus and the 251 did, it depicted a much flatter image with less subtlety.
The SM7 suffered from some of the same problems; but what it lacked in complexity and easily-conjured resonance, it made up for with its characteristic impact and strength. It is a different type of mic that does a different type of thing; but it does it very well. The SM7 gives the transients a rougher handling that nevertheless glues the sound together in a lovely way – an inexact explosive intensity that replaces clarity and depth as the feature presentation. It can get a tiny bit boxy when people start to howl. But I have always found that what the SM7 lacks in precision sonics, it nevertheless imparts by offering the ear a robust landscape to re-imagine those lost details.
The Pegasus sounded universally beautiful on all three singers. It captured the three voices’ low-end weight, mid-range details and high-end harmonics with authority; In spite of that, it was not always the best fit among the group. I chose the Pegasus for Wyndham’s higher voice, but the AK47 and SM7 were much more flattering to Nick’s alto, and the ELA-M 251E had just the right mid-high-end sheen to balance Brigham’s “Papa Bear” baritone.
Pegasus on Strings
The second source I tried the Pegasus on was cello. The night consisted of string section overdubs for singer/songwriter Erin McKeown. I have had success before miking cello with a vintage U47, which brings out the creamy mid-range lushness of the wood, and the depth and size of the instrument; other times, I have used an Electro-Voice RE20 to great effect, getting a tight low-end impact without the bloated, proximity-effect lows becoming overwhelming. But, here, the Pegasus was stunning in the extension and detail of the instrument’s high-end information, couched in a rich, comfortable, and understated low-end.
I have never heard the detail in the rosin and strings emerge with such elegance and complexity, and somehow, those airy, effortless highs were well-merged with the lows and lower-mids to form a very unified sound. The Coles 4038, in comparison, was slow to respond to the harmonics, and only seemed to bring out the velvety lows and mids without addressing the highs. I even tried a high-end shelf boost to bring them out, but the sound never had the wide-spectrum of the Pegasus. They appeared, but seemed to be an after-thought. However, on the violin and viola the 4038′s sounded absolutely regal (unfortunately, there was no time to try the Pegasus on them).
When it came to recording drums for the Diamond Doves, I set up the Pegasus and the ELA-M 251E to be coincident for an old-fashioned shoot-out. I flipped them into omni, and placed them to be mono kit mics. This was another very interesting experiment that demonstrated the capabilities of both mics to take in a lot of information.
The Pegasus had a tighter low-end response, while the 251 has a more sizeable bottom. The Pegasus gave a good deal of focus on the lower and “mid”-mids, from about 500 Hz right on up to a little over 3k, whereas this region was more taught and scooped with the 251. The Pegasus then backed off from there to 8kHz, leaving the cymbals smoother, and rendering the transient mid-highs more realistically. Then the Pegasus had an extended crispness to the high end, up beyond the frequencies this engineer can still hear. The 251 had a gentle rolloff to the high-highs, maintaining a focus on the lows and the mid-highs from 4-8k.
Finally, the transient response between the two was noticeably different – the Pegasus had substantially more stick and batter-attack than the 251, leaving me with a little more of the drummer in the picture. The 251 seemed to get the explosion of the skin without as much information on the thing used to set it off.
With singer/songwriter Keith Polasko, I turned the Pegasus to another usual LDC task: the Kick-Out microphone. I set it about three feet in front of the kick drum inside a makeshift tunnel of insulation panels and blankets. Again, I was struck by the complexity: I could hear the detailed skin of the batter head and the body of the resonating shell as a unified panorama, with neither element competing with the other. Various bands of information lay side-by-side in perfect harmony. I needed no EQ and mixed to taste with a Beta 91 as Kick-In.
On Overdubs (Horns, Melodica, Etc.)
I conducted my fourth round of experimentation during overdubs for Chris Harford‘s upcoming record, Lay the Passage. Ween bass-player Dave Dreiwitz came in to play trumpet, harmonica and melodica over a couple different tracks. The two serious contenders were the Pegasus and the Coles 4038.
With trumpet, the Pegasus’ focus was on the delicacy of the airflow, the higher-order harmonics emanating from the bell, and the resonance of the brass. It was a bright and airy sound that stood in stark relief against the dark and creamy Coles, which focused more on the girth of the low-mids and fundamentals of the brass. For this particular song, the upper-range space the Pegasus highlighted was already firmly owned by banjo and percussive close-miked acoustic guitar, so I chose the mic that held the harmonics in tight rein – the rich Coles 4038 ribbon. But I can imagine that for the right type of music, perhaps up-tempo Latin Jazz or Ska, the Pegasus would deliver the brightness and aggression of trumpets without getting harsh and spitty like many LDC’s.
Harmonica was too honky for the Pegasus to do much with – it was the one instrument where I simply did not like the Pegasus’ response.
The biggest surprise for me was using the Pegasus with Dave playing a cheap melodica – an instrument that seems to have very little complexity to its sound. But through the Pegasus, it became a far richer instrument than it sounded in the room, which was a real brain-teaser for me. Somehow we were getting more information out of the system than we were putting in, which violates many of the principles I take for granted. It became a very artful pad with several different and distinct layers of material in the sound, each with their own winding movement, twisting and turning – out of a $25 plastic children’s toy! It was exciting to see the mic at its finest.
Complexity of Character
Without going into too much detail that can be found elsewhere, I learned from talking with Dimitri that the levels of complexity and low-level sensitivity of this mic are due to an extraordinary and completely rethought approach to making ultra-simple and uncontaminated circuits that are only possible using custom and cost-no-object parts. A Stephen Paul one-micron diaphragm, expensive toroidal transformers, a never-before-used inductor-loaded circuit and a never-before-used tube, film and polypro caps that cost up to $50 a-piece: These are the elements that go into a mic that can capture multiple zones in its dynamic range with equal musicality.
The results shine in a mic that captures complexity of character, while maintaining a balance that makes it a beautiful choice for a wide range of applications. The strength and complexity of the sound make it a unique, 21st-century addition to any great mic closet.
One thing: At $4,200, this is not a microphone for project studios. The Pegasus is only a reasonable investment for full-time engineers and producers who already have a sizeable mic closet with all the usual suspects. An engineer who is still building his mic locker would be far better off acquiring an assortment of the standard, amazing mics that cost less than $1,000.
As the saying goes, the difference between a $200 mic and a $60 mic is much bigger than that of a $200 mic and a $1,000 mic – and some cheap mics are absolutely legendary (see the SM57). But if you have all those, and you’re still looking for something different to fill out your palette, then this just may be an alternative to adding a vintage U47 or C12.
Affordability is a variable like any other, but Dimitri’s creation calls for all top-of-the-line components paired with utmost concern for elegance and functionality of design. He set out to put together his best ideas about every element of the microphone system, and use only high-quality parts to achieve an “ultimate, non-upgradeable,” and completely original microphone. The Pegasus design philosophy falls into the category of never compromising functionality for cost, and never designing by concession to either tradition or to saving a dime.
That is not for everyone, and doesn’t have to be. But for those who are lucky enough to be able to afford this mic, I’m telling you, you will know where that money went.
The Pegasus is manufactured by Ronin Applied Sciences on Long Island. Visit www.roninappliedsciences.com for more information.
Reed Black is an engineer, producer, musician, and songwriter based in Brooklyn. Prior to focusing on studio work, Black recorded and toured the world as keyboardist for Saves The Day and played/recorded/engineered with his subsequent eponymous band of the same members. He joined Vinegar Hill Sound as house engineer in July of 2011, where he has had the pleasure of recording for artists such as Vampire Weekend, Chris Harford, Erin McKeown, and Jeannine Hebb, among many others. Get in touch via www.reedblack.com.
“I try my best to take each project on a completely individual level,” says Producer/Engineer Alex Newport.
It’s the only method that makes sense for a man who began his career playing uncategorizable sludge metal with Fudge Tunnel in 1989 and ended up earning a “Best Alternative Album” nod at the 2009 Grammys for his role on Death Cab For Cutie’s Narrow Stairs.
It’s been a long and varied two decades for this UK native who spent time writing songs with members of Sepultura before bringing order to the frenetic noise of The Locust and Polysics, producing genre-defining artists At The Drive-In and Death Cab For Cutie, and more recently, opening up to acoustic performers including O’Death and his latest collaborator City and Colour.
To Newport’s ear, the common thread through all these projects has simply been “passion, energy, and honesty.”
“Each of them are true individual musicians,” he says when asked about the ties between some of the most recognizable names on his discography. “None of those bands were trying to sound like anybody else.”
“You find a lot of bands that have a confidence issues and try to sound more like some obvious reference point. I try to encourage bands to do their own thing and figure out what’s unique to them.”
BAPTISM BY FIRE
Birthing the sound of sludge in Nottingham, UK
“It was a strange time,” says Newport of his days developing the sound of his own band, Fudge Tunnel, in Nottingham. “Later on we found out that we were a Grunge band. But we didn’t know it at the time,” he laughs. “There was no name for it in 1989. We were too heavy for Punk but too sloppy to be Metal.”
“I had no background with technology, but I had the background of music. At first [my method] was random, but it worked.”
It wasn’t long before he found himself thrust into the role of producer out of aesthetic necessity.
“At that time in the UK there weren’t very many guitar bands. It just wasn’t a popular thing. The people running the studios didn’t seem to have any idea how to capture a rock band sound at all, and we would find ourselves getting into these fantastic arguments with engineers.
“I remember one session in particular where everyone was very unhappy, and I sort of ended up taking over the desk… It was interesting because I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just started twisting knobs left and right. After 30 minutes it just started to sound better to everybody.
“The reference points at the studio were all these Manchester bands, kind of guitar pop. We all loved a lot of that stuff too, but it just wasn’t what we were trying to do. We really loved Led Zeppelin and Punk Rock, and we were going for a much bigger sound. Not a lot of people know how to do that, even now.
“I had no background with technology, but I had the background of music. At first [my method] was random, but it worked.”
Newport started “hanging around” these studios and found that friends and bands around town were asking him to get involved in their projects. “At first I wasn’t charging people money because I was kind of making it up as I went along. But I ended up working with a few good producers and learned a bit from them a bit too.”
For a short time Newport wrote songs and played with members of Sepultura, Dead Kennedys and Biohazard in the band Nailbomb, and toured with the acclaimed noise rock trio Theory or Ruin before ultimately making the choice between producing and performing.
WHERE DO YOU EVEN START?
Or, “I feel sorry for the guy who has to record them.“
One of the themes that often pops up, especially on Newport’s early discography, is his mastery with music that tends toward relentless energy and dense arrangements.
His productions with bands like O’Death and Polysics have skillfully captured those artists’ tightly-wound and immediate dynamic without dilution. Much further down that road lies the jarring sound of The Locust.
Even this band’s most ardent fans have been known to describe their distinctive style as “An undecipherable wall of sound”. But in Newport’s hands, their chaos takes on unexpected clarity, if not order.
“They were friends of the Mars Volta guys. The first time I saw them they were playing a show all dressed in black trashbags. I thought it was awesome, but also such an onslaught. It was Jackson Pollock with guitars and synths. I remember thinking ‘This band is insane! I feel sorry for the guy who has to record them, because – where would you even start?!’ I just knew it would be a real challenge to make any sense of it. Three weeks later their manager called me and that guy was me!
“It was a challenge, but a challenge that I enjoy. With other bands, sometimes I’ll pull up a sound and warp it, make it more distorted and they’ll say ‘No, that’s a little too much’. I can tell you that’s never happened with The Locust. It’s quite freeing.
“But in the end, it’s really the same process as working with a Death Cab or a City and Colour: You’re selectively arranging frequencies and shaping instruments to fit in the space allotted, which is just two speakers. The only real difference is that with The Locust I don’t have to worry too much about song structure.”
RECORDING AT THE DRIVE-IN
Anything I could do to make you feel like you were standing in front of that stage.
On the other hand, At The Drive-In is a band that knows song structure. As their career wore on, these musicians developed an ear for ever-more ornate song forms that bordered on post-hardcore baroque. They’re a band that does a lot with few instruments, always delivering a startling impact. We asked Newport about his role on one of the albums that helped solidify their legacy.
“I’ll get as involved in the arrangement process as I think is necessary. That could be anything from working on the arrangement and structure and instruments or even helping with the lyrics, if that’s necessary.
“In their particular case, I thought they sounded so good that I didn’t want to interfere too much; especially at that point in their career.
“For [In/Casino/Out] these were songs they had been playing on the road for two years, and they were ready. That album was more about the energy and innocence of it. I was very aware of not trying to overproduce it.”
His effort shows: At the Drive-In’s sophomore LP is well-realized, but never over-polished. Big, raw, roomy snares, tightly controlled cymbals, high-tuned toms, edgy guitars, and dynamic, gut-wrenching vocals are delivered with a degree of taste and balance that never detracts from their inherent muscle. First, we asked Newport about the raw and striking drum sound:
“A lot of it is how Tony [Hajjar] plays. He’s such an incredible drummer. I really wanted the band to sound like a band. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them perform live, but anyone who ever did was completely blown away.
“Some bands you want to get away from the live sound, and create something more refined, but in this particular case, I felt like everything about the band pointed to this incredible live energy. So I was trying to do anything I could to make you feel like you were standing in front of that stage. There were a lot of room mics. Too much separation wouldn’t have worked in their case.
A similar approach was taken with the rest of the band. Newport tells of guitar players facing cranked amps to milk out every last bit of sustain and feedback from their speakers, and an animated singer blazing through final takes back-to-back.
Throughout the history of rock records it’s rare to find tight performances delivered with the degree of live intensity and unself-conscious abandon heard on these records. We were curious to find out how Newport helped facilitate those kinds of moments.
“The vocals were recorded through a handheld SM58. I wanted to remove everything that suggested a studio. The only reason we didn’t record [vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala] live with the band was because we didn’t have another room to put him in.
“We did the songs in chunks of four or five because that’s how many would fit on a reel of tape. When it came time to do vocals I’d roll tape and have Cedric sing through the whole reel without stopping. So, a lot like a live show, he’d sing through four songs live in one go. We’d have him do that maybe twice, to give us the option to comp, and there was probably a punch or two, but if I remember, a lot of what we used was first take, live.”
DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE
From Screamo Slamming to Mixing for Grammys
“Energy doesn’t necessarily come from loud guitars or screaming,” says Newport, whose more recent work features albums both from jittery bands like the synth-heavy Polysics and Does It Offend You, Yeah as well as more elegant, open and sophisticated releases from Death Cab For Cutie and City and Colour.
“It’s not really intentional on my part,” says Newport. “I’ve always listened to a huge variety of music. With Fudge Tunnel we took as much from REM and XTC as we did from Godflesh and Black Flag. My taste changes a little bit as I get older, and music styles change all the time. I find myself sometimes deliberately moving away from the more aggressive stuff, and sometimes not. Different projects always come along I’ve enjoyed the variety.”
But what kind of chain of events leads a producer from post-hardcore screamers to indie rock crooners?
“I had mixed an album for a band called So Many Dynamos that was produced by Chris Walla, the guitarist and mixer for Death Cab. For whatever reason Chris didn’t mix that particular album, but he heard my mixes on it and said he loved them. So when [Death Cab] were working on [their own album] Narrow Stairs, they had mixed pretty much the whole thing but were having trouble with one track, and called me.
“My relationship with Chris came together because of So Many Dynamos. I’m sure So Many Dynamos called me because of At The Drive in, and I know those guys reached out to me because of Knapsack. So there’s always this interesting lineage that takes you to new territories.”
Dynamic Duplicates at Future Shock
“I really like parallel compression on a lot of things. I’ll do a lot of mults [a patchbay point that allows an analog signal to be duplicated across multiple channels –Ed.]
I might mult out the kick drums 2 or 3 times. Same goes with the vocal, snare and bass. On that Death Cab mix [for the song “Long Division”] I had 2 or 3 kicks, and I’d slip between those channels on different parts of the song. I’m trying to create a dynamic change in tone throughout the song.
Newport explains that his parallel approach is less about finding a blend between two sounds, and more about creating a distinct tone for each section:
“The obvious example is the vocal where someone’s singing in the verse – you set your EQ, compression and effects, and everything sounds great. Then, the chorus hits and they start belting on the chorus and all of a sudden you’ve got a nasty 2k[Hz] buildup. You could find an EQ setting somewhere in between that’s a kind of compromise, but that’s not really acceptable. So, the better choice is to mult it to two channels and develop a sound for each section.
“At some point I figured, there’s no reason you couldn’t do that with a kick drum or an effects return. Those moves help create these subtle dynamics that really make the song come alive.”
Most of Newport’s mixes are completed in Future Shock, his own personal room on the East Williamsburg/Bushwick border. Although he’s been based in the States for years, transplanting from California to New York in recent years, many of Newport’s sessions keep him traveling.
“Many of my clients are out of the country,” he says. “I have ton in Canada and several in Japan and a lot of British bands I work with. If I’m producing it often makes sense to go wherever the band is, but typically, if I’m asked to mix, I’ll do it at my studio. Having my own space is helpful because I’m able to manipulate budgets and make them work, and since I know where everything is it tends to go more quickly.”
Future Shock is built around an Amek Einstien console that at first glance appears to be an “in-line” console with individual on monitor and send on each channel. Closer examination reveals that this is actually a unique design that crams 80 individual automated channels into a modest 7’ frame. Channels 1-40 line the bottom of his board, with faders for channels 41-80 stacked directly above them.
Although he’s never used all 80 on a mix, Newport says this incredible flexibility allows him to warp individual sounds in parallel without thinking about the board’s limits. He mixes these individual tracks down to 1/2″ tape through a single SSL G384 stereo bus compressor.
Aside from his penchant for avoiding the excesses of digital recording, Newport doesn’t have too many necessities when it comes to gear. “I don’t really need physical or tangible touchstones,” he says. “Just musicians with real honesty and passion.”
“My main goal is to make the bands sound like bands. I don’t really use plug-ins or Auto-Tune and I’m a little wary of doing too much writing in the studio. Better, I think, to do some pre-production with the band in advance so the session becomes more about capturing than constructing. With all of our advances in technology, a lot of peoples’ favorite records still seem to be the ones created with the methods from the 60s and 70s because they sound honest and dynamic.
“I really prefer working on tape, and when I do use the computer, I still mix on the analog desk with automation and analog hardware. Automation in the computer feels fiddly and unmusical to me when compared with working on real faders.”
CITY AND COLOUR
In homage under stained glass
Singer/Songwriter Dallas Green was reluctant to perform under his own name, and so took the moniker City and Colour. We’ll let you make the connection.
“I first heard Dallas a few years ago and was just really blown away. He exhibits some of the same things I heard in Death Cab and At The Drive In. He’s just a real, individual musician. His voice, especially, is just unique and fantastic. He hadn’t done a lot of work with a producer yet, so I was really excited to see what I could bring out of him.”
“The mic that I preferred most often on the acoustic was the Beyerdynamic M160. It’s not too expensive, so it’s within reach for many people, but it’s absolutely fantastic on almost anything. And the main vocal was the Shure SM7- another mic that’s not terrifically expensive. It’s very directional and will take EQ really well.
“On a few of the more rock-sounding things we did use an [AKG] C12. But on many songs the rhythm of the guitar and the rhythm of the vocal are symbiotic and I felt they really had to be done in one take. When I’m recording acoustic guitar and vocal together, it becomes important to choose mics that sound good and are very directional. The SM7 is great for that. With a large-diaphragm condenser that’s not as possible – you get more bleed, and then phase becomes more of an issue.
“We also did quite a few songs where he wasn’t using headphones. We would play the tracks through the monitors and he would stand signing a few feet behind me. It was a pretty incredible experience for me. Dallas is one of the most incredible singers in the universe, and to have him singing that close to me was quite breathtaking.”
At first, Newport was wary of recording in Catherine North studio of Hamilton, Ontario. It’s an open-plan design where the control room and live room are one in the same. He’d avoided these kinds of studios in the past, relishing the sonic distance and perspective that working with a separate control room afforded him.
“Then Dallas told me that his friend Dan [Achen] who had produced the last City and Color record had owned the studio, and he wanted to pay homage to Dan in whatever way he could. As soon as I heard how much of a special place this was for Dallas, I didn’t care about the lack of control room or anything. If it was a place he felt good about and had a vibe, that was good enough for me.
“And it is a really cool studio. It’s built in a former church, so it has these 40-foot high ceilings and stained glass windows. The open plan makes things a little bit trickier, especially when it comes to recording drums, but the vibe of this space more than made up for any of that. In the end, the album was recorded and mixed entirely to tape. We didn’t turn on the computer once. [On this album] I just wanted the sound to be as real as his songs are.”
A “European city” in the States
With clients in Japan, Europe, and Canada, Newport finds himself traveling more often than not, and rarely tracking near his Brooklyn home. So, with a whole world to settle in, much of it more affordable than his current digs, why choose New York City?
“I always wanted to live in New York,” says Newport. “It’s more like a European city with a city center you can walk to. I’d always been thinking of it. I eventually ended up with a New York-based manager, and when my lease came up in California, I said ‘maybe I’ll try New York after all’.
“On a personal level, it’s more my kind of vibe, and I just find it more inspiring. There are so many artists in close proximity; Photographers, painters, musicians, writers. That exists in California too, but it’s so spread out that you’re not quite in the middle of it, meeting people in quite the same way.
“In New York, you just can’t help but be involved.”
SoHo, Manhattan: Travis Harrison — record producer, engineer, founder of Serious Business Records & Studio and Guided By Voices super-fan — met late era GBV guitarist Doug Gillard when his band, The Unsacred Hearts, shared a bill with Gillard at Piano’s.
Harrison gushed about GBV, Gillard dug The Unsacred Hearts, and they stayed in touch. Later on, Harrison inquired about future prospects for Lifeguards, the Gillard and Robert Pollard GBV side-project whose one and only release, Mist King Urth, came out in ’02.
“I was a huge fan of the first Lifeguards album,” says Harrison, “I buy everything that Bob [Pollard] puts out. After I met Doug, Bob had been in touch to tell him if he wanted to produce the music and find a label, he’d be into doing another Lifeguards record. That’s when I swooped in and pitched Doug: I have a studio, a label, the [recording] skill-set and I’m a huge fan. Let’s do this! I expected to get no response.”
Of course, Gillard did respond and the new Lifeguards record, due out February 15 on Serious Business / Ernest Jenning Record Co., was engineered by none other than Harrison. Scroll down to stream “Product Head,” the album’s single released on 7″ in advance of the record. And read on for an interview about the recording and production of Lifeguard’s Waving At The Astronauts by this Guided By Voices super-fan…
Awesome that you got to engineer this record at Serious Business! So tell me about how it all came together.
The way they worked on this project is that Doug wrote the instrumentals and recorded them at home in Garage Band and then sent them to Bob who then created the melodies and lyrics on top of these instrumentals. It’s just one of the many ways that Bob works.
Doug’s GarageBand demos were pretty fully fleshed out — he recorded most of the guitars, and bass and other little sonic treatments. Then he brought it to me and at my studio, I salvaged any less than ideally recorded stuff, but we also tracked drums, bass, re-tracked any guitar that I could get him to re-track and then we recorded Bob’s vocals.
What were your first impressions of the material? Were you so psyched?!
First of all, I was just in awe. As far as Doug’s instrumentals go, the shit’s amazing. He’s a great guitar player, and has an amazing musical mind that always goes somewhere you don’t expect. He’s awesome. But I didn’t actually hear these tracks as songs beyond instrumentals until Bob was actually in the studio, at the microphone. He drove in from Dayton in May to do his vocals. And that was just amazing. The guy is a genius! Obviously I’m a huge fan, but just to see him work and see how completely natural and instinctual it is, I was blown away.
Wow, very cool! And I know you’re a drummer — did you by any chance get to play on the record?
Yes, I played on five songs and Doug played on the rest. He’s a great drummer, he basically plays everything, but it was obviously a crazy honor for me to play drums on this record. There were some parts that were really fast, that either exceeded his technical ability or that he thought I’d have a good groove for – that’s the stuff I got a shot at.
And what was your goal in the studio – what aspects were you re-recording or adding, and how did you approach the recording?
It was very important to me to make it sound as un-GarageBand-y as possible. We didn’t want it to sound homemade at all. And Bob’s vision for the record was like “ARENA ROCK.” He’s known for lo-fi, but we were consciously not going for that. Doug was the producer, so he really called all the shots. He called for a lot of really heavy compression on drums.
On one song in particular, “Nobody’s Milk,” Doug had done the original drum track on a drum machine and it was incredible but it wasn’t totally in time and he’d used the GarageBand compressor at 10 to really squash it. It was really clean but insanely compressed and I begged to redo them.
It took a ton of work to match his exact part because it was very intricate, but to achieve the compression, I used the API 2500 bus compressor as the first stage and then after that, the Fatso pretty much demolishing it in parallel. And I really favored the compressed side and went for this ultra squashed sound to simulate his Garage Band demo. That was my goal throughout the whole project, to please Doug and Bob as much as I could. I willingly and gladly checked my ego at the door!
In that process, do you feel like you learned from them? From following their instincts?
Of course, although this way of working — taking a fully fleshed out Garage Band demo and turning that into the record — is incredibly tedious. So it was a matter of enjoying the tedium of that. I spent an insane amount of time on my own editing, beat-by-beat, that ultra compressed drum track because I didn’t want Doug to hear really anything different from his version. I just wanted it to be real drums instead of these samples.
But do you feel you came up with something new and different in the process — something cool you wouldn’t have come up with otherwise?
Yes, but you know Doug was the producer and this is what he wanted to hear. And when he heard it, he (and Bob) loved it. But the way these guys work…and I should separate them, because Doug is more of a meticulous craftsman. But at the same time, he does kind of bang it out. He’s not going to do 30 takes of something. Where Bob does ONE take.
Tell me about that! What was it like recording Bob’s vocals on this?
I had a [Shure] SM7 set up in the studio. The SM7 is my favorite mic, especially for a singer like Bob. I was really excited. My thinking was to record Bob onto two tracks simultaneously. One track was just about capturing him with very little compression — an SM7 to a Great River mic pre to a distressor at 2:1 (but barely touching it) — and then on the other track, I hit him with an 1176 at 4:1 with the super-spitty setting (the fastest release and the slowest attack). And that’s the track I ended up using for most of the final mixes.
Also, for every track, I printed either Space Echo or Echoplex live. Bob would step up to the mic and say “Alright man, this one is arena rock!” or “This one’s Elvis!” or “psychedelic” and between the Echoplex and the Space Echo, I was able to get what I wanted. I would print that live so there were certain freak-outs in sections — wild, completely tasteless effects stuff.
Bob basically sang the record in sequence. He stepped up and sang the first song all the way through, he listened to it played back over headphones and then moved on. Couple tunes, he’d punch in a word here and there. He did Side A, then we took a break, had a couple tall, cold ones, and then move onto Side B. It was incredible. I’d always heard he was first-take-jake, and he really was. And he was in wonderful voice too. As good as I’ve ever heard him sound.
Awesome. And he was digging what he was hearing?
Yeah, I was giving him Space Echo on his headphones. Monitoring off my Soundcraft Ghost, I was recording the output of the Space Echo back into Pro Tools, and I knew he wanted to hear a lot of it, so I gave it to him and made it long, made it do stuff! I tried to provide him with something he was really feeling.
And that was the vocal chain throughout?
Yeah, this was a bang-it-out situation. He did the whole 10-song record in four hours, and two of the hours we were just screwing around. The thing about Bob is he doesn’t like to spend a lot of time in the studio, but he works really hard. He wakes up every morning and writes. He’d worked hard on these tunes and had practiced them a lot at home. He was on point.
And you mixed the record as well? What was the focus there?
Yes, Doug and I mixed the record together. And he’s into hearing stuff pretty bright. He doesn’t want to hear a ton of kick drum. He has a specific way that he hears records, coming from this late 70s, post-punk place, and the end result is awesome.
We worked very quickly. I mix in Pro Tools, but not in the box. I spread it out on the Ghost as much as I can and try to use as much outboard as I can, but I also keep it as recallable as possible. So I would sit at the desk and get the mix up for a few hours and then when it came time to mixdown, Doug sat at the desk and I would hit record, and he would do all kinds of cool shit!
He ended up using the console in very obviously un-Pro Tools-like ways. Like, panning sweeps on Bob’s lead vocal and on the guitar solos. Expressive moves that you wouldn’t do in Pro Tools.
And I really encouraged Doug to do this because there’s a character to all that GBV music that’s the exact opposite of Pro Tools. In the back of my mind through the whole project, I kept in mind the essential character of the GBV recordings that people love so much, and they’re on 4 track or on ADAT made in a garage somewhere.
How would you describe that “un-Pro Tools” quality? Just totally unpolished and lo-fi, or what?
Well the entire GBV and Robert Pollard’s solo oeuvre is about as varied as you can imagine. He’s obviously famous for being the king of lo-fi. You have certain records, like Vampire On Titus, which just sounds like the shittiest possible thing you can imagine. 4-track and whoa…you can barely hear the vocals! It takes like 8 listens to realize how amazing the songs are.
On the other hand, they made records with Ric Ocasek and Rob Schnapf for TVT, and those are glossy and way more hi-fi. The Rob Schnapf record sounds incredible. It’s a huge guitar record, lots of compression but modern sounding. So they run the gamut.
But the quality I’m talking about is… this thing we all get into when we make records with Pro Tools — even when you’re not trying to make polished sounding music, you polish your mixes because you can do anything you want. You have all these shades of subtlety…all these things you can do in Pro Tools, where when you’re working with this big beast of a board and you’re just trying to get something done, you make mistakes and the mistakes becomes the essential character of the music.
Do you feel you had to hold yourself back from the way you usually engineer records at all to capture that?
Yes, somewhat. But in this case, a lot of times there just wasn’t any time to do things that I should have done. Like getting the drum mics perfectly in phase, or creating musically perfect EQ relationships between all the overdubs — all the things we do as mix engineers. We just did it fast. And that speed is an essential part of the GBV aesthetic. Bob does not ponder the music.
Awesome, well congrats! Now, fill us in on Serious Business — it’s a studio and a record label — how long have you been around?
I started the Serious Business studio in Long Island City with my good buddy, Andy Ross, who’s now the guitar player in OK Go. We had a G4 with Pro Tools and the audacity to put an ad on Craigslist advertising as a studio, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
We moved from there to a big loft in Williamsburg and then partnered up in a collective-type fashion — an engineer friend of mine, Halsey Quemere, brought a tape machine (a Sony MCI, acquired from Jimmy Douglass) into the fold, and then I felt we needed a more proper studio space, so we found the SoHo location. Last year, I hooked up with [producer/engineer] Shannon Ferguson (of Longwave, etc.) and with him came this great influx of cool gear.
And the label? You guys are actually putting out the Lifeguards release, yes?
Yes, I started the label awhile back as an outlet for my own bands, and my friends’ bands, and though it tends to take a back seat to other (paying) gigs, it’s continued as a total labor of love. Artists like Benji Cossa, Higgins, Rocketship Park, etc. it is all music I love. The binding theme of the label is Class A songwriting.
For Lifeguards’ Waving At The Astronauts, Serious Business is partnering with Ernest Jenning to put it out. I did the A&R and recording and production and layout of the artwork, and Ernest Jenning is doing the promotion and distribution, etc.
And you’re also doing a podcast for BreakThru Radio — it’s cool! Tell us about that!
BreakThru Radio produces a ton of original content — including a few in-studio sessions with bands. The main property is a show called “Live Studio,” where the band comes in, plays a set, and talks to the host Maya MacDonald, a college radio-style interview. I started recording the lion’s share of those last year at Serious Business, and after awhile, I convinced them to give me my own show!
My show is the same kind of format, but way less formal — there’s drinking, silly craziness and lots of potty-mouth. My vision for that show is to create an atmosphere of what it’s really like when bands come into the studio to record with me. So far I haven’t gotten fired, which is a miracle!
Tune in every Monday morning for a new installment of Serious Business Music Live on BreakThru Radio Check out Serious Business, the studio, at www.seriousbusinessmusic.com and the label, at www.seriousbusinessrecords.com. And pick up the Lifeguards single “Product Head on iTunes.
CHINATOWN, MANHATTAN/FORT GREENE, BROOKLYN: What headspace are you in? For a music producer/engineer/mixer like Allen Farmelo, getting your talents to that sought-after place is all about finding yourself.
In the process of doing that, of course, people will find you — that explains why one of Farmelo’s fans is an artful outfit like Cinematic Orchestra, the engrossing British jazz/electronic/soul influenced outfit led by Jason Swincoe. The ever-evolving group recently called on Farmelo to engineer their upcoming release for Ninja Tune, a project that he executed in the semi-exclusive confines of Chinatown’s intriguing Mavericks Studio.
Whether working at Mavericks or mixing/mastering at his rapidly evolving Fort Greene facility, The Farm, Farmelo’s primary angle – a sound he gravitates to that he calls “Post-Pink Floyd” – and artist-centric philosophy shows how an NYC audio pro gets on the map. As his list of credits grows (The Loom, Second Dan, Cucu Diamantes, Jonah Smith, Ian Gillan, The Cabriolets, Jesus H. Christ), so does his insight on what makes today’s music, and the business of it, tick.
You’ve been working a lot with Cinematic Orchestra the last few weeks. How would you describe that workflow?
I wouldn’t say it’s improvisational, but I would say it’s a very grand project that operates on a lot of different levels and that there’s a lot of exploration happening. Jason’s done a lot of writing beforehand, and he brings in musicians to flesh out the ideas. The writing is extremely intentional, and harmonically/melodically very plotted out. He knows the goal of those songs.
He’s an amazing producer because he manages to get people to do stuff that works for the song, without telling them what to do. Is he micromanaging? No. But is he getting the micro-details he wants out of people? Yes. So I’m watching him closely and learning from him.
Cinematic’s not like the Beatles where you have the same four members, and without one of them you’re done. Jason’s brought in people he feels will contribute to that particular song in the way he thinks it will happen best. Different singers for different songs, that kind of thing. So far it’s a bit of a different-sounding record than the previous one, and I think the lineup will reflect those changes.
So what’s it like coming into the project as an engineer? Do they let you do your thing, or is it a collaborative process?
Jason knows what he wants to hear, he is extremely good at communicating it, and he lets me achieve that. He can sometimes get right down to the gear. They were working at Livingston Studios in London, using those Coles 4038s as the overheads. He described that setup, and I did that here to get the specific sound that worked well when he tracked in England.
So sometimes he’s very specific, other times he’ll describe a vibe or metaphor to get what he’s looking for, and then the way I achieve that is up to me. Mixing the Grey Reverend record that Jason produced was a lot like that, where both Grey and Jason would articulate well what they wanted from the record. Then I sent them home, said, “Let me do this,” and then let them come back.
My first stab was good on about 70% of the material — and then fell on its face on the other! We talked about that, and they were very good at articulating what they wanted changed. So we freed up some things in the mix, found the center of the record, and let those things happen. As the record went on, I was able to take more ownership of the aesthetic. So the collaboration is very easy and open.
So is it easier to go into this project now that you’re in the same headspace? Are there traditional references to other records he’s listening to as far as the approach, or is it like you’re already aware of what he likes based on the past experience?
Jason has written amazing, amazing music that is dictating everything about what follows. The songwriting is so strong and beautiful that everybody else is just there to serve that song – including Jason. I don’t feel any references to anything outside of those songs happening at all. Instead we’re coming from the center of those songs. And when you hear them, they all have their own character, life, logic, feel, tonality and beauty that’s obvious from the get-go, even when they’re just played on acoustic guitar. You say, “That’s freakin’ beautiful. Let’s make it more beautiful.”
How do you go about taking the song further at that point?
So everything from changing a mic to subdividing a beat to figuring out how to lay a crash down is there to serve that inner logic. Jason makes sure we’re there to serve that inner logic and the inner beauty of the song, and he communicates it very easily. You have the songwriter, the vision, and the songs are giving you tons of information from that.
You don’t have to do that much to know how to get the studio to sing properly for the song, and that’s where I feel I’m trusted to make some good choices along the way. It can be something as simple as, “Wow, slow tempo – let’s raise the overheads and let the drums sing a little more,” or for more complex patterns I might think, “Let’s get things a little tighter.”
For me, setting the tone on the guitar amp is instinctively informed by the guitar pattern. Since we feel very much in tune with the music, we all kind of trust each other aesthetically and say, “OK, let’s make this happen.” There’s not a lot of discussion about this stuff. It’s kind of obvious when things are working or not, everyone’s got great ears.
The thing that’s refreshing about working with these guys is that there’s no ego to get in the way of this discussion, so it’s an aesthetic conversation at all times – a really clean and artistic conversation.
That sounds like a rewarding way to be recording. Why is this studio a fit for this band and record?
Well, Maverick’s fits any project really well, as long as you don’t need to record forty musicians here. I had thirteen here once – that worked surprisingly well. That was a big, amazing, raucous New Orleansy anti-war album. So Maverick’s can kind of do that. We did the strings for Grey Reverend’s upcoming album here – we had a quartet in the main space. I did the whole Loom record, Teeth, which was a six-piece band all playing in the room together. A lot of people come to just do drums. It’s a very versatile space, and as long as your mics are in phase, you’ll sound good. There’s really no crappy-sounding place in here. For the Cinematic record, there’s just something wonderful happening between the songs and the room sound. They match beautifully.
It feels that way. What do you think about the “open concept” (studio in the round) format here?
I’ve been on two Tape Op Conference panels with other people talking about open concept studios, so I’ve thought a lot about it. And of course the most famous reference is Lanois. The number one benefit of it is being able to speak face-to-face with the people you’re working with and not through a talkback system. The alienation of a talkback system is apparent as soon as it’s taken away. It’s so nice to pull off the headphones and talk to the person you’re speaking to.
The drawback is there’s no room for bullshit. Everyone has to be reverent to the music happening. You can’t rattle your keys, text your boyfriend, read Vogue – a lot of what normally happens in the control room can’t happen here. So if you’re not into being reverent, you have to go into the back room where there are no speakers. You’re either in or out.
I didn’t realize I was paying so much attention to what was coming out of the speakers – instead of to the musicians – until I started working in an open studio. It’s a positive for me, but not for everyone – my friend Joel Hamilton jokingly calls us a bunch of hippies that like to sit in the same room together, and he’s kind of got a point as it can be pretty touchy-feely. But the other most obvious benefit is the amount of space I have. We have one of the biggest control rooms in NYC, because we have all this space, and when we’re tracking we can subdivide it any way we want.
If we’d had a separate control room, we’d be like a lot of little studios, but instead we’re like a good midsize studio here. For a facility our size, we have a really big control room and a really big live room. They just happen to be the same space – it’s an incredible way to take advantage of small spaces.
That makes sense. What guides the gear choices here?
First and foremost, we have pairs of everything in the studio: Coles 4038’s, Royer 121’s, RCA BK 5As, Beyer M 160’s, Shure SM7’s, Elux 251s, 87s, 84s, 441s…a pair of everything. The point being that we are really ready to put up a pair of anything on any source, so we are really versatile when recording drums. We can get any flavor stereo overhead and room sound we want.
We used to have a mishmash of preamps, and then came to realize really quickly that we love API, and miss the glue/consistency of having the same preamps working off of a console. So we have 16 of the API 512s. We do have other pres – the Chandler, a pair of original 1073 Neves racked up by Brent Averil…but we have far fewer flavors then we used to, and we love it. We’re thrilled to have the same preamp on everything, because when you bring up the faders it all sits together tonally. We went through the “We could have a little of everything phase” and grew out of it.
We have a lot of really interesting compressors, and a lot of really standard standbys. We have two Purple MC77s, two 1176s, and a pair of DBX 160’s that used to belong to Johnny Cash! We have a pair of Distressors. Where we deviate is the API 2500 – I mix through that 2500 almost exclusively. I have one in my studio in Brooklyn, The Farm, and I have one here that’s always strapped onto my two buss. It reminds me not to over compress and to cascade from the individual channel compressors into that bus compressor. I work with it on all the time, so I know where I’m going to land compression-wise when it comes time to mix.
And there are other non-standard compressors here. We just got the Airfield Audio Liminator Two, which is a beautiful piece of kit, and this Gyrotek Varimu Tube Compressor is stunning – handmade in Denmark. So we have a lot of neat flavors on the compression side, and again, everything is stereo. We have two of everything, so you can run any pair of mics through any pair of pres/compressors.
Do you also mix here, or at The Farm?
I used to mix here, and then I had to mix back at my place because of a scheduling thing – this was like in 2006. So I recorded a record for Rachel Z., which featured Tony Levin, and other great musicians, and due to scheduling and some technical issues I ended up with mixes done on the console here at Mavericks, some summed in Pro Tools here, and some mixed in my room in Brooklyn. When we got to mastering, there were definitely differences – and the analog summed mixes were way better – but my mixes done at home were sounding really good. They were right up there. It was weird: I went to the news stand across the street from my Brooklyn apartment and saw that Rachel’s record was charting in Billboard, then I looked up at my window where my mix room is and said, “Wow, a new era.” So I did what everyone else did: I put together a mix room.
And now my studio, The Farm in Fort Greene, is a serious mixing situation. I have a lot of outboard gear, the Crane Song HEDD which I’m using to print my mixes off a Studer A-80 1/2” machine; a fully acoustically treated room. It’s pretty ideal and I’m doing pretty much all of my mixing there. That allows me to work within the budgets that are coming my way, allowing me to offer better deals to my clients and make a living at it.
That said, mixing here at Mavericks is a wonderful experience. We’ve got the Studer two-track, the center section of the Neotek, which is modified by Purple Audio, sounds wonderful. That console is like the mid-size luxury touring sedan with a badass racing engine in it.
We hear you’re putting together an interesting new console for The Farm. What was the concept, and how is it coming together?
The concept is to have an API Legacy console built from their amazing 7600 channel strips, which each have a 550A EQ, 225L compressor and 212L preamp along with four busses, four aux sends and infinite routing possibilities.
I realized after working on the big Vision console up at NYU’s Clive Davis school and then, days after, tracking at Mavericks with all API 512 preamps that API was a sound I could very happily commit to. But I couldn’t afford, nor did I really need, nor did I want to maintain, a full-on Legacy or Vision console.
The API 7600’s all connect to the 7800 Master Module to form a true, discrete Legacy console with as many channels you want or can afford. So I bought a pair of 7600s to try on a mix session and within about three minutes I knew I’d found my channels, and when I summed through the 7800 Master Module, I knew I’d found my console. Problem was I had to get it built.
Francois Chambard of UM Project in Greenpoint came on board, and our goal was to defy the look and feel of traditional consoles – which to my eye look like either Cold War-era military equipment, a dentist’s office, or some leather bound thing you’d expect Ron Burgundy to tell you he mixed his jazz flute on. I’m a really visual guy, and none of those inspire me, nor did I really want to spend the rest of my career behind one.
Instead we found a great blend between Francois’s sense of modern design and my own fascination with the landscape, architecture and design of Iceland. It’s going to look really different, yet it has the ergonomics of my favorite consoles all bundled together with space for over twenty-four channels, eventually. I couldn’t be happier, and Francois is a bad-ass designer. There’ll be racks and diffusors to match, I’m sure.
Sounds amaaaazing. Switching gears, let’s talk about the NYC recording scene. How would you describe what’s happening here?
There is an incredible energy around making records in NYC right now. Specifically in Brooklyn, there’s an incredibly good, positive foundation of recording happening.
Five years ago we were in distress a little bit, we were watching the big studios close. Now Avatar is still there, Sear Sound is still there – Walter RIP – they’re booked solid. Magic Shop is still there. These amazing rooms that really held close to their missions are still operating and they’re there for us to go in and use as needed. The new era is here, and we’re all relaxing into it.
The market crash happened in 2008, which was a grim year for everyone, but we got used to it. Now it’s a community of people making records. I see NYC as a place that adapted swiftly to a new model, and everyone’s got a room with an increasing amount of gear in it. Between the bigger studio and your own space, records are being made wonderfully that way. There are fewer places to get an orchestra recorded, but a hell of a lot of places for an acoustic guitar overdub!
The big loss is community. That’s not an original thought, but I do miss the community of being with a lot of people doing what you do. Writing for Tape Op helps, being on Facebook helps – when you have status updates, you feel like you’re in a conversation. I find I have to make an effort to find people who do what I do. It’s an effort, but it’s worth it.
So there’s a lot of obstacles to overcome, but musically I think NYC is bringing together the sophistication of indie, jazz and “new” classical music with the street levelness of the rock scene – now it’s almost the norm to have a string quartet on your record. I like seeing those worlds coming together. Maybe because no one can make a living at it anymore, we’ll all play on each other’s records! That cross-pollination is really exciting: Grizzly Bear and Arcade Fire used a lot of NYC string players on their last records, and you can feel a new kind of sound emerging nationally that has a particular stamp on it that, to my ears, says “Brooklyn.”
You’re from Buffalo originally, right? How did you work your way up as an engineer in the NYC studio scene?
I’m very much a self-taught guy. I had a bit of experience working at Trackmasters in Buffalo, now called Inner Machine and owned by the Goo Goo Dolls. It’s an amazing room, designed by John Storyk, and the Goo Goo Dolls are currently packing it with amazing gear. That studio is absolutely iconic in Buffalo’s music scene, and my first time in there I was playing keyboards in my highschool jazz band. We were badass that year, and then all the great players went off to college. It’s funny, I heard that recording recently and thought, “whoh, that’s amazing.”
Anyways, that first experience in a real studio had me hooked, and I soon after got a four-track and had at it. But where I really learned was in the DIY hardcore scene of the late ‘80’s. I did a record at Trackmasters in 1989 with my band RedDog7, then helped some friends make records there. I was kind of producing, but I had no idea that’s what I was doing. We made some seriously good sounding records, actually, and I was obsessed with getting good sounds – I knew guitars, amps, drums, cymbals, strings and even obsessed over sticks and picks. My head was way up in it from an early age, and I was thinking from the player to the instrument to the mic, which I now know is the right way to think.
Then we had a band house for a while, and and then this whole basement situation with the Mackie board and DAT machines. We made deals and acquired gear, recording, doing live sound and playing gigs, and then running this little DIY studio. That’s where I really cut my teeth as a recording guy, struggling to get a decent sound outside of Trackmasters. Over time in Buffalo I had the chance to become a bigger fish in a small pond, which is a nurturing environment, but that pond got too small. It was time to move on, so I came to NYC.
What’s your take on producing? You seem to have a studied approach to that role.
My philosophy of producing is that I try not to carry around any pre-ordained philosophy, but instead to generate a philosophy for the project in collaboration with the artist. I call that “guiding principles” – a very intentional guiding philosophy I try to lock in on and externalize for the project, in case we get lost.
For example, I’m doing a children’s record with the Brooklyn-based artist Shelley Kay, and we have two guiding principles. One is, “Not Romper Room”, and the other is “Playful Minimalism.” Not-Romper-Room is easy – that means that whenever we’re getting into the mamby-pamby kindergarten shit, hit the red STOP button. And “Playful Minimalism” means that when we’re confronted with a decision we ask: Is it playful? It is minimalist? Those two words show us the choice to make. Between two drum patterns for example, if one is more minimalist, that’s typically the one to go with, and the result comes back closer to our original artistic intentions to keep the production clean.
Another artist that I’m working with, the guiding principle is “Sincere Otherworldliness.” I’m putting him through the paces as a songwriter. He’s been struggling to get his sincerity out, and the otherworldliness is an outwardly-stated goal of his to create a sonic world that’s very different from reality, another world one can enter into. To bring those two together is difficult – if you’re too sincere, you can’t get it spacey and amazing, but if you’re too otherworldly, you can miss being right there with the listener, making it sincere. These principles are meant to be challenging.
In production it’s very hard to stop saying, “I like that, I don’t like that.” If that’s going on in the conversation, you’ll never get to the heart of the matter. If you get past “I like that, I don’t like that” and closer to stating what you want to achieve, something like a guiding principle starts to open up, and you have much more productive conversations about what’s happening.
In my work, that’s the best thing I can give to their project: an open, comfortable dialogue about things, but with structure instead of just being completely wide open. One of the functions of the producer is to help the artist specify what they’re doing, and not be all over the place. Not everyone is making their fifth record and bringing all that experience to the table. A lot of people are making their first or second, and I have to be intentional about my role, because if I don’t we get sloppy.
How did you get to be like that as a producer? It sounds like you’ve evolved in that role, just as an artist does with their music.
It’s not a new idea to find artistic growth as a producer, I don’t think. I have to attribute my own growth partly to Bob Power, one of my mentors. He always says it’s about getting to a place where you’re letting the music make decisions, and I know exactly what he means. That idea inspired me to ask, “Well, how do you get to that place?” Like most great ideas, it’s not complex, but it can be a real bugger to achieve. There are so many things that can get in the way, like ego, fear, imagined or real audiences, commercial pressure, well disguised self-sabotage tendencies – basically anything external to the actual crafts of writing, performing and recording music. For me, to get to that place where the music is speaking clearly requires a pretty intentional approach to how I talk about the work being done, and that’s where the guiding principles idea kind of came from.
More and more of us producers are doing the A&R job of developing artists and their material. If we don’t have record labels, who will do all the development work? It turns out to be the record producer in a lot of cases. It’s a big part of the job. So if I can obsess about a compressor as an engineer, I hope I can also obsess about the dialogue that’s going to shape decisions about the album as a producer. That’s been a big area of growth for me, to enter into dialogue about the work with more and more clarity. It’s really fucking hard work, but when it pays off it’s amazing. I even read books about collaborating, about creativity – whatever I can get my hands on that I think might help. Right now it’s where I’m focusing my professional growth.
That sounds like amazing guidance to be able to provide throughout the process…
Yes, although I should also state that all of that development of the guiding principles, and doing the artist and material development, happens long before we hit record. It’s like pre-pre-production. It goes on long before I’m getting things ready for the actual recording date. It’s more of trying to figure out what the vision of the artist is, and helping them shape it. I’ll say it again, it’s not easy. It’s not the easy path of just saying “I like this, I don’t like that.”
The other thing is the kind of music I’m working on can call for this kind of approach. I’ve more recently committed as a mixer/engineer/producer to this specific vibe within modern rock music that I call post-Pink Floyd. Don’t take that term too literally, but one day someone asked that inevitable question “what kind of music do you work on” and I just said it – “post-Pink Floyd.” What I meant by it is this thread of really innovative, beautiful, spacious, compassionate music.
Pink Floyd had incredible empathy, beautiful spaces, beautiful sounds, and brought in influences of jazz and classical without doing them overly in the music. The ideas they brought in were so involved in empathy – it wasn’t, “Let’s go shake our butts and hump each other and party all night long.” Instead, they were dealing more directly with the human condition, and I just wind up working with a lot of artists who seem to have somewhat similar goals lyrically and thematically. So it’s not really about Pink Floyd in particular, but if I had to point to a moment in rock history where this compassionate, open, spacious music began, I’d say “Dark Side of the Moon.”
Cinematic Orchestra exemplifies it. Radiohead and Sigur Ros exemplify it. Elbow’s got it. Peter Gabriel’s work with Lanois has it. In fact, Lanois seems to get it out of people in general – he got it out of Dylan, perhaps for the first time. I work with a lot of artist who seem to want to work towards the aesthetic that are embodied by those examples, even if those records aren’t particular influences. Cinematic Orchestra is an honor to work with, because I feel that they’re harmonically, musically, thematically within that realm. I think they’re masters of space and compassion, and I think the record they’re making is going to blow people away. But that post-Pink Floyd thing comes in a lot of flavors. In American bands I’d include The National, Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, Wilco does it do a degree, and especially Band of Horses. The Loom, whose record I produced, fits under that umbrella for me, even thought they sound nothing like these other bands, really. Again, it’s not really a particular sound, but a set of harmonic and thematic threads that run through the music.
It’s a hard and awful thing to have to put into the limitations of language something you feel and know so intuitively, but I guess that’s the exact challenge I’m putting on the artists I work with when trying to get positive dialogue happening about projects. In a way, post-Pink Floyd is my own kind of guiding priciple as I try to intentionally steer my career in a specific direction. I should probably work harder on clarifying that!
That sounds like an expansive genre to hang your hat on – what else is on the Post-Pink Floyd horizon for you?
I’m currently producing two records that are definitely going to carry some of that vibe. One is with Austin Donohue, who is writing some amazingly beautiful stuff, really finding his themes. He’s the Sincere Otherworldliness guy. The other is with Diana Hickman, who I think is writing some of the most innovative material I’ve heard in a while – like Joni Mitchell and Bjork go SCUBA diving together and surface with a record. Both of them are working their asses off, doing a ton of development work with me. Those will get done this winter.
I’ve also become inspired by Iceland as a place for music and making records. It’s a very sparsely populated, lovely place that just doesn’t go to war or pollute very much, and their landscape and relative remoteness lends itself to music that is really quite unique. When people settled Iceland, they didn’t colonize anybody, and it just doesn’t have this scarred past which so many other places rife with conflict have. It’s quieter. You can feel that lack of conflict and that quiet, and a sense of expansiveness in much of the music there, even when it’s erupting like a volcano.
At least that’s what my tired NYC ears hear. I just went back there in October to the Airwaves Music Festival in Reykjavik and saw amazing bands every night. I’m talking to one in particular about working together, and I really hope it starts to happen for me over there. I’m very interested in putting my foot on that other piece of land.
– Interview by Janice Brown and David Weiss