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Band Name: Comanchero
Album Name: The Undeserved
Recording Studios: CDIA Studios, Riverview Studios – Waltham, MA
Record Label: Horse Fuel Records
Release Date: 9/26/11
Engineer: Andrew Kramer, Sam Margolis, and Greg Moon
Artwork and Photography: Adam Frey
Mastering: Nick Zampiello and Rob Gonnella at New Alliance East
We were either using an Audient ASP8024 analog board or the Yamaha DM2000 depending on the studio, with a more than adequate stack of outboard gear (mic pre’s, compression, EQ, etc. from Universal Audio, Tube Tech, Pultec, Focusrite, Empirical Labs) and a mic locker that included gear like the AKG C12, AEA R92, Neumann SKM 184s, and our personal favorite for vocals, a Shure SM 7B.
What was your pre-production like on this project?
We spent the better part of ’08 and ’09 writing and performing the material that eventually became The Undeserved. We record every live show with a Zoom H4n portable recorder and used our best live recordings as demos for the album, giving us a baseline vision for the final studio arrangements.
Planning our studio sessions was key. Every detail was written down in advance of setting foot into the studio – mic selection, pre-amps, EQs, instrument selection, room setup, etc. We wanted to be as efficient as possible once the sessions started.
How did you choose the studio?
In some ways the studios chose us. Bandmates Sam Margolis and Andrew Kramer were audio students at Boston University’s Center for Digital Imaging Arts (CDIA) at the time when we were ready to start recording. This gave us access to CDIA’s top-tier facilities as we needed them, and it was a no-brainer to take advantage of this.
Around the same time, we rented a band house on the Charles River near Moody St. in Waltham, MA. The old Victorian building happened to have an amazing basement and attic space which through our own blood, sweat and tears we converted into Riverview Studios.
We recorded the majority of the basics and overdub sessions at CDIA, while we used Riverview Studios for mixing and some of the less involved overdub parts. Regardless of where we worked, we often reminded ourselves that it’s not always the studio that makes the album great; it has much more to do with the quality of the song, and how well it conveys emotion and takes the listener to a certain place in time.
What kind of sound were you looking for and how did you achieve it?
We were looking for a clean, polished sound, while remaining true to our sound on stage. When we used studio effects such as delays and reverbs, they were subtle and effective – not over the top. We achieved clarity with careful mic placement techniques and a well thought-out mixing approach. Everything has its own place in the mix, in terms of panning (left/right), depth and proximity (how near/far the sound is), and even vertically, giving atmosphere to the mix – the seagulls in “Undeserved,” for example, or the sub-kick in “Any Day.”
We wanted the clothes to fit the man. If it was a real outlaw country number, we wanted it to sonically nail that style – raw, rootsy, and rugged – and feature instruments you’d expect to hear, like the fiddle or banjo. In the more reggae sounding tunes we were going for a warmer analog type of sound, featuring tube-driven vocals while highlighting the drums, bass, and percussion.
Wherever possible, we wanted big choral harmonies like you hear with The Byrds or the Eagles, and the studio allowed us to add many cool vocal layers, which I think showcases our vocals in a different way than on our previous albums.
Did you use any special gear or recording techniques on this one?
We wanted to experiment more than on our previous two albums. For example, with the drums, we used three different kits and switched out snares, kick drums and cymbals. On some songs, to capture extra punch from the kick drum, we used an old subwoofer rewired backwards and sent through an acoustic guitar preamp as a kick-out mic. Also, not all the drums were recorded first, as on our previous two records. We let the individual songs direct the process rather than the process direct the songs. It created sonic diversity, and that was the goal.
We sent some vocals and acoustic guitars through a Hammond B3 simulator to add a layer of depth. Other songs had a distortion bus that was used to color anything from vocals to drums. The bells heard at the beginning and end of “Undeserved” were recorded using an Earthworks TC20 mic at a friend’s oceanfront Maine house. The actual bell used was a large, steel chi gong.
We experimented with some sound design in “Hard To Breathe” and “When You Look.” To create atmosphere, we captured sounds of shortwave radios and a huge laser printer and paper-cutting machine (a tip of the hat to Pink Floyd). These sounds eventually became the bridge between the final two tracks on the album.
In some cases, we blended sounds to create one new sound. For example, in the intro to “Jimmy Carter,” there is a descending piano, mandolin and acoustic guitar blended together to create an entirely new texture. In the mix these were thought of as one part, similar to how an entire section operates in classical music.
What was your philosophy on live, full-band takes versus individual tracking?
We simply didn’t have the time for live band takes. There is something to be said for capturing the raw energy of a live performance, but tracking separately can be helpful to achieve cleaner sounds with better editing capabilities. At the end of the day, I think we did achieve a very “live” sounding record.
What were the toughest challenges you faced?
Getting the mix to stand up to the writing. So much tweaking. So many late nights. Lots of inter-band debates about how the mixes should sound. Also, as a self-produced album, we relied on our own skills, efforts, time and resources to get this record off the ground. However, with our BU CDIA connection, we had access to some outstanding teachers and mentors (think producers of Radiohead, Warren Zevon, Hole and The Dresden Dolls) who helped coach us along the way and gave us critical mix feedback.
How did you handle final mixing and mastering?
Our bassist Andrew Kramer is a freelance audio engineer, and he took the lead with mixing the album at Riverview Studios. We relied on critical feedback from the other band members and mentors from CDIA. The band would take home CDs from rehearsal or get new versions sent online (via Dropbox) and then send mix critiques by email or sit in on a mix session. We had the album mastered at New Alliance East in Cambridge.
How does it compare to your last release in terms of style and the creative process?
This album is a bit less heavy, includes more acoustic and Americana songs, less Latin influence. In some ways, it’s more diverse with more nuances coming from different recording methods. Stylistically, we went for a more roots-centric sound, true to the core of the band.