Emily Wells is an amazingly talented multi-instrumentalist who, even after finding success, decided to go back and re-evaluate her creative process and artistic choices, culminating with the re-recording of her previous LP, Mama, as a newly imagined, haunting acoustic album.
Mama – Acoustic Recordings shows the artist at her most raw, vulnerable state, and should be a lesson to all musicians to constantly question the choices you’re making, and your process as a whole.
We recently spoke with Wells about the decision to deconstruct her entire approach to making music.
Let’s delve into the new acoustic record. What drove you, creatively, to revisit songs you recorded fairly recently?
I think…curiosity was the main thing that got me going on this set of recordings. It was in no way meant to become a record. It was just me thinking, ‘What would this sound like played differently, or more quietly? How have my feelings about these experiences changed?’ And also, ‘Do these songs still stand up without a lot of production, things to hide behind?’ There’s no hiding when it’s just me and an acoustic guitar.
I just played an acoustic set yesterday, and I started thinking, ‘What have I done?’ [laughs]. But the same things that make it more vulnerable can make it more powerful for the listener.
What did you learn from this process?
I definitely learned that the way that you sing something develops its meaning or can change its meaning…sometimes you sing lyrics a certain way because it fits the tone of the production, but not necessarily the tone of the song.
Do you think other artists can learn, as well, from revisiting their own songs later on?
Sure. I think once a song has been experienced by an audience, it grows and changes, especially when you’ve sung it on the road a million times. Once the record comes out, all those things give an impression to the song that you don’t [necessarily] have when you’re writing it. So absolutely, I think it’s an interesting experiment. It’s kind of like a remix, in a way. And I think remixes are very interesting, and I recommend other artists try them out.
From a recording standpoint, how did you approach the re-arrangement of these tunes to a more acoustic setting?
I have a Tascam 388, a tape machine, that I really love, that kind of looks like a giant 8-track reel-to-reel. I used that for both records; however, the first time around I had created samples and loops. I don’t use any MIDI or time-mapping, but I had some samples that I’d record directly into the tape machine, and all the rhythm, bass, all the essential backing tracks were done on tape, as well. And then, once I was finished with those, I’d send them all into Pro Tools and build [the track] from there. I didn’t really have a lot of limits – I allowed myself to do whatever came to be.
With the acoustic version of Mama, I was incredibly strict, using only the tape machine. I mean, I did eventually bounce it to Pro Tools, but I was more of a purist than I had been with the original record. I was just going off the lyrics to produce it. I only allowed myself a guitar, vocals and a spring reverb – no digital effects, no nothing.
Why do you still choose to record to tape?
There’s a sound difference, a sonic difference, to me. It’s warmer, and it captures the sound of the drums in a way I prefer. And I actually like the way my voice sounds better on tape. But it’s not just sound, it’s also approach. I believe that limitations are really important in any creative process. But recording, in particular, with limitations you’re forced to do something in one take, or a straight take all the way through that you might have just overdubbed [otherwise]. You have to experience the song as you’re recording it. If you have the tricks, it’s hard not to use them sometimes.
So you embrace limitations as creative challenges.
Absolutely, I do!
You also changed up the track sequencing for the new version of Mama. What was the reasoning behind that?
The original record was sequenced chronologically, based on when the songs were written. I was really struggling with how to sequence it, and I actually ended up cutting about six songs from it. So what I initially envisioned was changing, and I loved it as a story, even though the listener wouldn’t necessarily understand it as much as I would. With the new version of the album, throwing in ‘Los Angeles,’ the new song, I wanted that to be the third song right away. I have a theory about the third song, because I always seem to love the third song [on a record]. That was my favorite at the time, so it threw a wrench in the original chronological concept when I put it as track three. Plus we are releasing [the acoustic LP] on vinyl, so I really wanted to think more about an A and B-side type of thing, as far as sequencing goes.
Do you think you’ll ever go back and re-interpret other music you’ve recorded?
I re-mix them all two or three times, not for recording purposes, but for live purposes. I guess it’s in my nature to do something along those lines, and maybe that’ll just take different forms over time. But it won’t be, ‘For this record, I’ll go back and do this interpretation…’ or anything like that.
But I think that’s the nature of touring a lot, too, having to keep the songs fresh for myself.
Having done this experiment, do you think you’ll do anything different in the future, as far as your approach to making or writing music?
You know, I have to think they will inform the next record in some way. I have written the next record already. But it’s only in my head at this point. I’ve performed a lot of the songs, but I think having a focus on less production…the songs that I write lend themselves to a simple vocal with backing or just a strong beat and bass line and not a whole lot else going on. But also, I guess, it’s helped me to test out a song and see how it stands on its own, with just an acoustic guitar and me singing it.
It’s a testament to a song if it works acoustically just as well as with production.
To know that the songs are still good on their own must be rewarding.
Tapping Into Performances From the Road for Recording Inspiration
What was your pre-production like on this project?
We had our demos and Berger made a ton of lists with details and parts and everything, but the best bit that we took into the studio came from touring to SXSW last year. A lot of what we thought we knew about the music went out the window when we were playing it every night in new places to new people. The most basic, strongest elements came out; we found places to lock in, places to play. When we got back, everything felt different, less set in stone, more electric, and a week later we were tracking drums.
How did you choose the studio?
We recorded the majority of the album at GaluminumFoil Studios in Brooklyn. Mel, our keyboardist, did her band’s debut EP there a year ago, and we really liked how it felt like a hideout, a place to steal away the nights together. Gary Atturio, our friend, engineer and mixer, works there – he knew our live show and what we were going for and all that just made it the perfect spot to stomp and yell the summer into pieces together.
What kind of sound were you looking for and how did you achieve it?
We throw ourselves around a lot during our live shows, and we wanted to capture that live energy in the songs, but then dress them up for prom. We recorded the majority of the drums and bass live and did a lot of group vocals yelling along with the lyrics in the background. We didn’t aim for perfection, but energy, which meant trying to get each other to laugh and react and let go a bit.
How does it compare to your last release in terms of style and the creative process?
Like comparing apples and baby wolverines. Pioneer Ghost, our first EP, was recorded right as we were coming together as a band, and it comes across a little flat by our ears. There was so much left to discover about each of those songs, but we rushed the record out. With Modern Dances, we had a lot more time with each track, and found a lot more in each to play with and live in.
Did you use any special gear or recording techniques on this one?
We had a field day with synths. We used a Yamaha CS-5 for some really buzzy, dirty stuff, and a Music Learning Module (made by Wurlitzer for, we assume, really lucky school kids in the ’80s) for some rounder, Rhodes-with-a-stupid-grin tones. There are also some Mellotron patches on “Faith” and whatever that snarky nasal key tone from early ’90s hip-hop is called on “Little Fur.
What was your philosophy on live, full-band takes versus individual tracking?
They yin and yang. The live sound is the most honest for our music, but the songs went somewhere new and exciting with the overdubs. We don’t have many philosophies in Teen Girl. Berger points out that he flunked Philosophy, but we don’t understand why he’s so proud of that.
What did you try to accomplish in the studio that you’re not able to do live?
We were super lucky to have a trio of very awesome ladies play strings on a few of the tracks. We had a violin in the band back when we were getting started, and for some of the songs it was the perfect way to get them to their full potential. Kristine Kruta, our friend and the cellist on the record, arranged some really amazing parts for us – melodic and cinematic. She’s incredible.
Any funny stories from the session that you’ll be telling for a while?
We all swore by blood pact never to mention what we did after the third drink each night.
How did you handle final mixing and mastering?
Gary mixed it for us in September, which was perfect – like looking back over your summer vacation. For mastering, we worked with Alex DeTurk at Masterdisk in Manhattan, a really funny, genuine guy who walked us through all our options for getting the best sounds.
What are your release plans?
We threw a little party for our NYC fans, which was amazing – sold out, with a fantastic group of people in a very sweaty room. For the actual release, we have some dates around the East Coast, as well as an NYC show at Cameo in Brooklyn, when we’ll be releasing the second single off the album.
Any special packaging?
Gliva, our bassist, made a collage from old home improvement books and pictures of flowers and gymnasts for the album proper, and it looks great.
For our first single – “Summer Skin” – the packaging is actually an 88-page Choose Your Own Adventure book that Berger wrote and Pete illustrated. You have to get to the right ending to get your download code. Otherwise, you get killed by a wizard, or have to fight the dragon. Bummer.
Artist: Teen Girl Scientist Monthly
Recording Studio: GaluminumFoil Studios (Brooklyn
Record Label: Self-released
Release Date: February 26, 2013
Producer/Engineer: Gary Atturio
Mastering: Alex DeTurk at Masterdisk
Artwork: Matt Gliva
Yamaha Pacifica Guitars (4eva)
Yamaha CS-5 Keyboard
Wurlitzer Music Learning Module
Marshall JCM Amplifier
Fender Deluxe Reverb Amplifier
Bad Cat Amplifier
Pedals: Tube Screamer, Blues Driver
Lots of tambourines (we will never forget you guys)
“Fitted with custom tube electronics built by Esoteric Audio Research”
Originally built in the 1970s
This unit was originally built by Ampex – they were known as some of the best 2-track recorders and the best sounding machines. The specific ATR-102 that I used belongs to Paul Stubblebine – a colleague and great mastering engineer located in San Francisco.
In general, this particular type of tape machine was used for mixing down to stereo mixes. Nowadays, there are people that still exclusively use tape in their recording projects, but they’re also used as an effect – almost like a plug-in. You can loop material through it just to impart the quality of sound that you get from tape. Tape is basically a kind of compression. It deals with transients like drums and percussion and smooths it out in a very musical way. So using [this machine] is a way to get back to this sound that many agree is the most musical way of dealing with compression. It’s much nicer than listening to a Waves L3 ultramaximizer. Continue reading →
What was your pre-production like on this project?
At the beginning, I had a handful of new songs that were written very quickly, in a sudden burst of inspiration. Then, I spent a year teaching myself to play drums and researching analog recording techniques, which I applied over the process of re-writing and re-recording dozens of demos.
Thanks to Eric Palmquist and Infrasonic in Los Angeles for this month’s gear flashback – an Otari 2-inch tape machine. We think this is an absolutely beautiful machine, and agree that modern-day engineers can learn a thing or two from cutting tracks on tape.
Current Location: Infrasonic Sound Recording Co. – Los Angeles, CA
Year of Manufacture: 1986
History: It’s a mystery! While much of our gear comes with a long legacy from some of the world’s best recording studios, this Otari’s been with us for so long that we just consider it ours at this point.
How It’s Used: We record about 75% of tracking sessions to tape. I love the way it sounds – familiar like your favorite recordings. There is nothing more rock and roll than recording bass and drums at 15ips (inches per second). The bottom end is unreal and the top is smooth as can be. Sonically, the process is one of the most important things in getting the kick drum and bass guitar “married.” This is primarily achieved by great performances, but recording to the tape machine simultaneously helps bring the instruments together in the final mix. It’s a lot like turkey and stuffing.
Care and Maintenance: Despite its age, the Otari is an incredibly reliable machine. We really preserve the gear, making sure to clean and demagnetize the tape heads after every 10 hours of recording, along with many other weekly and monthly upkeep procedures.
Interesting Features: Creative liberties are a great asset while recording to tape. Recently we recorded a backwards guitar solo by flipping the tape upside down so that the song was playing backwards. Then the guitar player learned the chord changes backwards and performed his solo. When we flipped the tape again we had a beautiful backwards guitar solo!
Modern Equivalent: There are no modern tape machines like this in production. There are, however, many plug-ins that emulate the effect that tape has on a recorded track. They can have pleasing results, but it just isn’t the same. There is a very real sense of “glue” that works itself into the tracks [when working with tape].
What Can Modern Engineers Learn From This Piece? So many of us modern engineers learn to record with our eyes as well as our ears. While working with tape, you still use your eyes to ensure proper gain staging, but you’re not staring at a screen. Following and trusting one’s ears ensures a good recording. It’s a fabulous way to work!
Other Notes: Here at Infrasonic, we’re able to combine the best of both analog and modern techniques with a piece of gear called the CLASP, which integrates analog tape recorders with DAWs. This saves bands time and money, but also preserves that larger than life sound you can only achieve when tracking to tape. It’s a nice alternative for a band on a budget.
Eric Palmquist is the Head Recording Engineer and Studio Manager of Infrasonic Sound, a recording studio, mastering suite and production facility in East L.A. Palmquist has engineered and produced albums for artists like Wavves, Fool’s Gold, Mountain Man, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, No Age, Future Ghost and others. For more info, visit www.infrasonicsound.com.
Bob Ludwig, while technically needing no introduction, will still get one here. Why? Because the man deserves it for all the amazing work he’s done in the field of mastering. As one of the top mastering engineers in the world, his skills have been in demand for decades, starting with his work at Sterling Sound, then Masterdisk and later with his own company, Gateway Mastering in Portland, Maine. Even if his name isn’t familiar to you (and as a musician, you should be embarrassed if this is the case), just flip open the liner notes to some of your favorite albums. Ludwig has mastered countless classics from independent bands to superstars, including Jimi Hendrix, Megadeth, Metallica, Nirvana, The Strokes, Queen, U2, Guns N’ Roses, Tool, Bryan Ferry, Tori Amos, Bonnie Raitt, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Radiohead, Steely Dan and more.
He has also occasionally undertaken long projects, such as remastering the entire back catalogues of Rush, Dire Straits, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Rolling Stones.
We recently had the pleasure to speak with Ludwig about the current state of mastering, the loudness wars, how musicians should approach the process, and where the art form is headed as it relates to digital releases.
Can you give us a brief background on your career?
Well, I graduated from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and I used to be the principal trumpet player with the Utica Symphony Orchestra when I was there. I went to work recording with Phil Ramone, who got me into the industry. He was my mentor and I learned the art of mastering there, and then went on to be the first employee for Sterling Sound when they opened their doors. I worked there for seven years and then made a lateral move to Masterdisk in New York. At one time Sterling and Masterdisk were owned by the same public company, so I just switched tabs there at one point. I spent a long time there and then in ’92 I decided I was going to start my own place, which was Gateway Mastering Studios up here in Portland. We opened our studios in January of 1993.
Can you explain what exactly mastering adds to the process after the tracks are mixed and recorded?
Mastering is the final creative step in the record making process. You do the recording, you do the mix down – sometimes using the best mixers in the world, sometimes using your friend who just bought Pro Tools because you don’t have any budget. The purpose of mastering is to maximize the amount musicality that’s kind of inherent in the tape that’s been mixed. We work with some of the greatest mixers on the planet, guys like Kevin Killen, Michael Brauer, the list goes on and on – who are already really great and fortunately for us, when a mix is so finely honed, if we do even just the smallest amount to it, it sounds like we’ve done a lot because the mix is so finely balanced that just doing a little thing really can be the icing on the cake. But a lot of DIY people who are just getting into this – mixing is a very, very difficult thing to do right, which is why there are only a handful of mixers on the planet that actually get a percentage of royalties for it. When someone is doing that at home, sometimes a good mastering studio can really make the difference between a record that sounds like you did it in your basement, and something that sounds commercially viable. We can usually turn a piece of dog meat into something that’s at least OK sounding.
Let’s use that example. What specific things do you add to a poorly mixed home recording project or even a well-mixed DIY project in the mastering stage?
Well, having heard tens of thousands of recordings and having mastered them, I have a great wealth of knowledge as to what constitutes a good-sounding record. When I hear a raw tape, in my head I can envision how it ought to sound and then I know what knobs to move in my studio to make it sound like it does in my head. We have many different kinds of equalizers, some in the analog domain, some of which are solid state, some of which are tube, some of which are used for very broad strokes, some of which are extremely transparent-sounding and are used for more surgical touch ups. And we have a whole plethora of digital domain equalizers that also have a lot of characteristics, some of them try to emulate tube gear and some of them try to be as absolutely perfect as possible. They all have their different sound and they all have their different uses. And we have compressors – both analog domain compressors and digital domain compressors – they all sound different from one another. There are very few pieces of gear that sound exactly like another piece of gear. A good mastering engineer knows what all these different tools sound like, so when I hear something in my head – it might even be a piece of gear I haven’t even used in a year – and I’ll say, ‘Well, this thing is going to be just right for this. I just know it.’ And I’ll dig it out of the closet and hook it up and put it on. Nine times out of ten, I’m right.
Would you say that EQ and compression are the two most common tools that you are applying to a record at that stage in the game?
And level adjustment, definitely level adjustment as well. There are so many other things that we do now, you know. There’s reverb, which is not used very often, but the times you do need it, it’s pretty essential. There’s adding spaciousness or narrowing the sound stage, there’s tape simulators now. Some people feel that going to tape doesn’t buy you anything anymore so you can just put up a tape simulator now. Which may or may not be true depending on what it is [laughs].
I’ve heard some good ones. Universal Audio makes a pretty nice tape simulator.
Yep. And then a lot of producers still do mix actual tape. We have many different kinds of tape playback machines and different kinds of heads, all of which have different sounds to them – solid state playback, tube playback, quarter inch, half inch, one inch stereo, 8-channel analog, 8-track or 2-inch tape – we can cover it all.
Speaking of formats, are there any different steps in your mastering process when it comes to a band releasing a 12-inch version of their album compared to releasing a CD of their album?
If the guys who are mixing it have given us high-resolution digital, which is anything more than 44 kHz, 16-bit – we usually like to master in as high as resolution as possible.
So are you talking like 24-bit, 96 kHz?
Yeah, that’s very common, or on rare occasions 192 kHz. If we master in that high resolution format, then when it comes to doing vinyl, we like to supply that 96k, 24-bit file to cut from because the vinyl has another octave that the CD doesn’t have, let alone the download [laughs], and a well-cut and well-replicated vinyl disc can truly sound better than the CD version of the same material.
Do you even want to comment on mastering for MP3 or is that a touchy subject? Because let’s face it: a lot of our bands are probably going to be sending digital tracks to their fans on the email list or posting them online. And those have to sound good as well.
Yeah, and Apple has a new initiative out right now called “Mastering for iTunes.” And that’s a new process that Apple has, that instead of ripping from a 16-bit CD, you use the high-resolution digital file as your source. Apple has a sample rate converter built into the OS X that if you know how to get to it, it’s a very high quality sample rate converter. And you can take the 96k file and make a 44.1 file of it and the act of making the finals from the 24-bit source creates a much better sounding source than the 16-bit rips do. And then there’s the second thing they have – it turns out that the AAC encoder that Apple uses is a 32-bit floating point encoder so it can use those bits 17-24. And then there’s another step in the process when you are mastering especially for iTunes that looks at any clipping that was created in the act of making the AAC encode.
So will that actually look for distortion?
Yeah. If you have a PCM 96/24 file that has no digital overs on it or clips where it’s exceeding digital zero, the active AAC encoding can actually create some clips where none existed before if that thing is at a very high level, which most pop [records] are. This piece of software they have will let you know – you can take that 24-bit master you’re using for the encode and you can lower the levels, say half a dB or 7/10 of a dB, and you can re-measure it and you can actually get rid of all those clips. And the difference between a hot pop record that’s just ripped from the CD vs. one that’s gone through this extra care – the difference is audible even on laptop speakers.
I know there’s been a lot made against the “loudness wars,” and you had a very interesting process with the last Guns N’ Roses record. Would you mind recapping a little bit of what happened there?
Yeah, that was great. You know most producers are just totally paranoid about their record not being loud enough or if somebody put something on shuffle mode that theirs won’t be as loud as anything else. The really delusional people think that a louder record sounds louder on the radio, which is absolutely not true. But anyway, a lot of producers feel that way. But Axl Rose was mixing the record with Caram Costanzo, so they did these really good mixes, in my opinion, and Axl had taken it to five different mastering engineers before he got to me. All those people just wanted to make it like other loud records and I was totally willing to have it contain all the dynamics of his mix. So we mastered it that way – I mean there was plenty to do as far as level balancing and EQ and bringing out certain lines that were lost in the mixes. But it creates a record where you can have all these layered guitars and you can hear the differences between them all. And then the vocals can come in and sit on top of all layering and there is still plenty of room for them. What a concept!
Well, music is all about dynamics and I think a lot of that is lost in modern recording. We’ve heard a lot of complaints about recent CDs carrying that “remastered” tag, when all that means is they’ve made it louder.
Yeah, it’s true and it’s really a shame. It tends to squeeze out the dynamics already in the music.
Do you have any tips for the home recorder or independent bands during the tracking phase or the mixing phase? Something that can help them best prepare their tracks for when they deliver it to a mastering studio?
When you’re mixing, one of the most difficult things to do and get right is the vocal. Most engineers don’t pay quite enough attention to the vocal, where some lines are easily heard and then other words will get lost here or there. It’s really important to get that right, since the vocal for most pop records sells the record. So it’s always helpful once you’ve created that vocal line to print another one with the vocal up a half or even maybe 1 dB, so that when it gets to mastering, if the act of mastering needs more vocals still you’ll have the mix right there with it. Another big thing for young engineers who are starting out is…you know they’ll get a magazine probably like Performer or one of these review magazines, where every week it seems like there’s a hundred new plug-ins – a new engineer can get really overwhelmed by that. My suggestion is buy just a few well-recognized plug-ins to start, like some of the Universal Audio ones or the Manley Massive Passive EQ, or the Massenburg EQ or the Sonnox Oxford EQ – you know, some really well-respected plug-ins, and just spend a long time learning those really well.
So, learn fewer plug-ins well as opposed to being overwhelmed with all the different options out there?
Instead of trying to keep up with all the latest and greatest. Believe me, I can tell you hardly ever is there a ‘latest and greatest’ that came out that week [laughs]. There might be a different or cheaper one – it’s not the latest and greatest. For instance, get to know the difference between a linear phase equalizer and IIR [filters and equalizers]. And as I said, they’re all not built the same. It’s very difficult to make a very good sounding digital equalizer. If you stick with the ones that are really well-regarded and learn them very well, that will go a long way towards making a better mix.
You’ve mastered countless records – you said in the thousands. Could you name some of your favorites?
Certainly anything Bruce Springsteen has ever done [laughs]. I’ve done pretty much his whole catalog. All the Rush records that I did. I see that they are going through another round remastering the Rolling Stones records…
Again? Didn’t they just do high-res DSD remasters of those not too long ago?
They did Exile and also Some Girls, or something like that.
Okay, so those are the later Virgin years, I guess.
Right. I’m very proud of the ones I did and apparently a lot of people believe that those are still worth having. And you know all those Rolling Stones ones I did for ABKCO are on Super Audio CD. Both the versions that I did in the ’90s and ABKCO – I’m very proud of all those.
The Black And Blue CD, in particular, sounds amazing.
Yeah, it’s so hard – when I first started as a kid I mastered Led Zeppelin 2 and Houses of the Holy. I never dreamt that all these years later they’d still be keeping young bands off the radio!
The choice to mix the analog warmth of tape with the editing/automation capabilities of Pro Tools will help to open up options when it comes to mixing, but will require a well laid out plan. If it’s decided that analog will be introduced to the digital editing world, the pursuit of a tape machine that is in impeccable condition will be necessary to assure the fewest headaches along the way. Here’s a quick guide to make sure what you’ve recorded to tape will import properly into Pro Tools.
Your engineer and producer must first figure out when and where to use analog technology and/or digital and how it will affect the end mix. Tracking is one of the most crucial points in a recording project; getting a clean signal to tape before you even begin to think about touching Pro Tools is key. When recording to tape, one must be savvy with analog gear to get the most out of the machine and its abilities.
Everything that is added, whether analog or digital, is another element in the chain that can potentially add more problem points, which in turn requires more attention from the engineer. So a troubleshooting background in both the analog and digital worlds is essential when introducing multiple audio formats. Also, consider these basic questions: What brand of tape machine will yield the best quality at my price point? How many reels will I need for the project I wish to record? Has the tape machine had any mechanical calibrations done recently? Will an engineer or an audio professional be doing the calibration? These factors will directly impact the quality of the sound coming from the recorded tape. One of the most common factors to a malfunctioning tape machine is the fact that many pro reel-to-reel tape recorders have been dormant for years and have not been properly maintained. So, making sure it has been optimized before basic tracking is essential, and having a professional calibrate the machine will be worth the extra money and will ensure that the machine will operate at an optimum level for the duration of your project.
The analog side of the session will require a little bit of set up. Calibrating the machine will be the first step in making sure it’s ready to go. Mechanical calibration of a tape machine will require an understanding of the way the head stack and tape work together. This is usually best left for a professional. The record calibration will take place on a channel-by-channel process. This will assure that each channel is functioning properly and that they are ready for recording and/or playback of your material. Once the calibration process has been taken care of, connect the tape machine’s outputs to the input of your Pro Tools system.
An external clock that has a time code input will be needed, as this will be utilized during playback. Your analog tape should have had LTC (Linear Timecode) printed to it so that Pro Tools can “chase the machine,” assuring proper syncing of the analog and digital mediums. This should be printed using the last channel of the tape machine. For example, on track 16, since the channel below it (15) is usually left blank as a guard track to prevent audio bleed. Once the LTC is located, the output of the last track will plug into the in port on the external clock. Connecting the outputs of the tape machine to the inputs of Pro Tools will get the tracks passing from the tape machine into the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). For a digital transfer, make sure the tape machine plays back from the reproduction head, as it will have the best sonic quality.
Now that the tape machine is ready to go, the DAW will be the only thing left to set up for the project. Once outputs of the tape machine are connected to the inputs of the of the AD converter, it is time to get Pro Tools set up. The session will first need to be initialized. The desired bit depth and sample rate will have to be set so you can properly edit your analog tracks with your digital tools. Add the number of tracks needed for the transfer; it’s always best to take the time to name all tracks now to avoid confusion later. Putting each of the tracks in input mode will allow for the checking of each one to be sure that they are all being sent properly to the DAW. As always, before moving forward make sure that a good signal level is being sent from the tape machine to Pro Tools by keeping an eye on each machine’s meters. During the transfer it is usually best to keep Pro Tools clean of unnecessary plug-ins, sends, or anything else that could slow down an already intensive session.
The melding of the digital and analog worlds is a big task for any engineer, but with a solid background, some experience and a good team, you can get the benefits of both worlds to truly capture the sound you’re looking for.
Artist: Gaba Gavi Album:Temporary Hero Recording Studio: Fudge Recording Studio – New Orleans Record Label: Self-released Release Date: Out Now Engineered, Mixed & Produced: Tom Drummond Co-Produced By: Gaba Gavi Assistant Engineer: Jacques DeLatour Mastered By: Bruce Barielle Mastering, New Orleans
IMPORTANT GEAR USED:
Hammond B3 & Leslie Speakers
Pro Tools HD
Vintech X73 Pre Amp
API 512c Pre Amp
Vintage Neumann U-47 Vocal Mic
Sony C37a Vocal Mic
Otari MTR-90 MKII 2” Tape Machine
Gakken Analog Synthesizer SX150
What was your pre-production like on this project?
On the flight down to NOLA I had my Macbook and a notepad open. I started off with a list of about 30 songs that I was determined to at least halve by the time I got down there. After I arrived, Tom [Drummond] and I spent a week narrowing down the song choices and then working on arrangements. We ended up with 13 songs. We created scratch tracks and then over the following month or so, e-mailed tweaks back and forth to arrangements until we really felt we hit it. But even then, last minute changes happened right before tracking began when Travis [McNabb] came in to session drums.
What was really great about this project was just a new found creativity. The studio had so many toys that I don’t have access to on a regular basis or have even messed with. Like a Rhodes Piano, I’d never messed with one before. I ended up writing a new song in the middle of the week of pre-production that we only got as far as a verse/chorus with no real lyrics, but we knew it was special. That happened a couple of times, and it was that creative and organic flow that really made the project special.
The other thing that was great was that it really let us find out what wasn’t working. There was a song called “High.” It was on the list, and we did a scratch and everything, and after we tracked all the instruments, it just wasn’t there. If we hadn’t spent the time on pre-production making sure we had enough, we might’ve forced it through because we didn’t have anything to replace it.
How does this compare to your last release, in terms of style and the creative process?
The best way to describe it is really like being called up from the minors. I had never been in a studio at that point. This was a totally different approach, and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to come in and really work with someone else, be able to bounce ideas off of someone, and really be open to hearing, “You know what, that sorta sucks.” Not that that happened, but you know, being open to changing what I might’ve had in tunnel vision; which is easy to fall into when you do everything on your own.
The whole process was really organic, and never pressured. We knew that we had time in between sessions, because of financial obligations and other work. It was a week here, two weeks there, every few months. It turned out to be a great process, for me at least, because it gave a lot of perspective to the songs.
Why did you go with Tom Drummond to produce this record?
I’ve known him for a while; we were friends prior to working together on the album. I had always been a huge fan of his band Better Than Ezra, along with the intelligence and breadth of pop sensibility they put out.
After going through a dark year with some personal issues, I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue to pursue music, and I had to make a decision. Was I was gonna put out another record or not? If so, it would be done right. Real time in a studio, working with a producer, real instruments, and everything that came as a result. I wanted Tommy D to produce it. I wanted that influence, the experience, and the candor from someone who knew how to do it and what it took.
BTE (as they’re often referred to) owned Fudge Recording Studios in New Orleans and up until the point when we recorded it had been their private studio. Just before that, Tom and a partner, Jack Miele, bought the studio out with plans to turn it into a public recording studio. I happened to be one of the first projects to work there during that transitional period.
What kind of sound were you looking for on this record?
Big. Polished. Real. We wanted something that was pop as much as it was singer/songwriter, with some rock thrown in there. My first record was done in three days. I’m not saying it was rushed, but it was a different approach and a different sound. I wanted this record to come out sounding like it belonged. I wanted the songs to feel like if you didn’t know better, you’d think you were listening to something on the radio, or in a movie, or on a TV show. We wanted to have this big and vibrant sound, but we wanted every instrument to be heard. I didn’t want just all these tracks and MIDI files and instruments that all took up the same register and you couldn’t distinguish one from the next.
Sticking amps in tiled & mirrored bathrooms, tossing omni (room mics) in all sorts of places that pick up slight delays in sound two, and three times over. It made the tracks have so much more depth and layers to them. For instance, you pick up those phantom snare drum notes that resonate out and aren’t picked up on the directional mic. Besides being a phenomenal musician, Tommy D is heavy into the technical aspect of the process and it really gave the project a versatile and broad perspective.
Not enough can be said regarding mastering. It was something that I really didn’t understand or think could make such a difference. Props to Bruce [Barielle] for making the songs shine without taking away their integrity. Mastering is sort of this magical place where a shot of steroids is injected into a song, and it breathes a new life, but it’s being able to understand that point of not taking it too far, just because you can, or because that’s what everyone is doing. I think we found a pretty good balance.
Can you tell us why you recorded to tape and digitally at the same time?
We recorded everything to 2″ tape as well as digitally. It gave us the ability to really capture the sounds that were coming through. When you record straight to digital, it’s all 1s and 0s. If your instrument peaks, it’s instantly compressed. That doesn’t happen with tape. Tape captures every ring, no compression. What’s nice is sometimes you’re wanting that sound that’s getting some distortion, or that happens by accident, that would be lost if it was done just digitally. But going parallel really allows transfers to be accurate, as well as the obvious benefits of editing. It was pretty great seeing two sets of technologies working together.
What were the toughest challenges you faced?
Timing and confidence. We had two weeks slated for recording all the instruments. It was a pretty dynamic schedule of people flying into town, organizing the order of recording, and making sure it would work. The day before I was ready to head down (which was right at Thanksgiving) I was in a pretty significant car accident. It was a tough call whether or not to go forward with the session, but I knew it would’ve been next to impossible to get all these people around a short window like that. It was tough on me though, I would get fatigued really fast, random headaches, wasn’t sleeping, and just sorta had a feeling of irritation and depression that I wasn’t able to perform like I needed. I would have trouble with timing on both the guitar and the movements involved with playing the piano. Vocally I just wasn’t there. Normally, I would be happy to track vocals all day and night, but I was a mixture of frustration and pain that ended up coming through in the session.
We were able to get all the instrumentation down because of the scratch tracks we created, but it was clear the vocals would need to have a second pass along with some of my acoustic tracks. They weren’t strong. It was clear that I wasn’t fully there, emotionally, vibe-wise, and performance-wise. This ended up pushing the whole project pretty far back because of schedules with Tom, myself, and the studio, as well as putting me in some pretty serious financial stress.
The result is what caused us to re-shift the direction of the project from a full length into a two part EP series, which will eventually combine as an LP called Something’s Wrong With Everything. The first part of that is what is out now, called Temporary Hero.
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