'In the Studio'

shepherds delight

28 May 2006 by The Hyphens

Chris, John and David in the main tracking room at Appleman
(More photos from this session at Flickr.)

When we were invited to contribute a track to Jimmy Guterman’s Sandinista Project, there were only 2 tracks unspoken for, and only a few weeks to deliver a finished pre-master recording. We chose “Shepherds Delight,” the dub version of “Police and Thieves” that closes side 6.

We rehearsed the tune for a about a week, and came up with an approach to the song that we thought suited us — we were going to play the first half more-or-less like the record, and after the chorus we were going to rock it up more. As it happened, the session seemed to have a mind of its own. We wound up producing something that we’re all pretty happy with, but that sounds like nothing else this band has ever attempted.

We worked again with our friend/mentor/producer/engineer extraordinaire Chris Cugini at Appleman studios. We did all the tracking in a single marathon session on April 17th, with people coming and going through the day. John got to Appleman first and unpacked his gear. David, David’s son/guest percussionist Andrew Zev (AZ), and Doug arrived shortly thereafter.

We started the day by laying guide piano and bass parts down to a click. (John’s piano take had such a nice feel that we kept it in the final mix instead of replacing it later.) With guide tracks done, we moved on to drums and percussion. David has an impressive collection of quirky percussion instruments, and they don’t always fit the vibe of The Hyphens’s original material. The strange little groove of “Shepherds Delight” provided a perfect place to spotlight the talking drum and some other oddments. Andrew Zev, in his recording debut, played solid shaker and wielded the bizarre instrument that we chose to emulate the jet engine noises that end The Clash’s version of the track.

Next, John astounded us all by laying down a mix of both lyrical sax lines and crazy free-jazz sheep bleats and bird squawks. We did the “real” bass parts next, then moved on to John’s guitar.

It was now early evening. David and AZ had left, but Dave, who had to work a full day before he could escape to the studio, hadn’t yet shown up. As darkness fell, we added a few more percussion takes to thicken the mix a bit more.

Dave arrived and we did some takes of him playing guitar to close the day.

Chris sent us all home with rough mixes to listen to. We gave him a handful of comments and he delivered a mix to us about a week later. We were delighted with it and sent it directly on to Jimmy.

Sandinista! Part 1

11 Apr 2006 by Doug

We’re one of the last acts to join Jimmy Guterman’s Sandinista Project — 2 of the album’s 36 tracks were still unassigned. (Our producer’s band, The Blizzard of 78 nabbed the last one.) I think it really says something about The Clash that so many will jump at a chance to pay our respects, even if it means playing one of the lesser tracks on one of their lesser albums. Don’t get me wrong, I love Sandinista! dearly. But it’s not, you know, London Calling.

We have a crazy schedule to meet a tight deadline: Last night the stringed instruments got together to play our tune together for the first time and figure out the arrangement. I’m psyched with what we came up with — it’s not a radical re-interpretation, but we did Hyphenate it a l’il bit.

We rehearse again over the weekend and, uh, write the horn charts. Monday we go in for a tracking session, and we’re gonna mix real quick-like, possibly the following Monday.

studio diary - 2

21 Dec 2005 by Doug

Sunday December 5th was my second day tracking with The Hyphens at Appleman. We got there shortly after noon. I did all my bass overdubs (unless we find something later that really needs fixing) and John got well into his (he finished up his parts the following Monday).

Two things really stood out for me about the second day.

The first was the subtlety with which Chris approached hands-on production. We were definitely looking for an objective perspective and open to changing arrangements. Sunday morning was the first time Chris suggested a major alteration, and I think the way he did it makes a beautiful case study.

The song was “Baby Got a Place to Go.” I’d been playing a walking quarter note bass line throughout the verse. Originally, the beginning of each verse was supposed to be played piano with an abrupt dynamic change to forte in the second half. The walking part was designed to to provide some counterpoint to the vocal line/guitar chords, and to be played quietly more than propulsively.

We did a take or two of my original arrangement, and Chris said something along the lines of “that’s a really cool part, but I wonder if it’s too much, too soon.” He wanted me to simplify the first verse, emphasizing the pulse of the drums on the one and three without moving from the root, then switch back to the walking part in the second verse.

I think I actually recorded a whole take that way, but as soon as I went back to the walking part I knew I’d done a terrible thing — the tune just sagged. Over the next hour I evolved a new part that incorporated Chris’s rhythmic suggestions with a smidgeon of my original melody idea. I was so sold on the new part that I insisted on playing it at a gig the following night, even though our drummer had never heard it.

I think I’m generally pretty good at thinking about what’s best for a song rather than what’s best for my personal satisfaction as an instrumentalist. But I’m certainly not perfect. I think if Chris had led by saying “that bass line is totally wrong for that song,” I might have bristled and gotten defensive. It might’ve taken me longer to realize he was right. Instead, he opened with “it might be too much for the intro.” I was happy to compromise on the beginning of the tune if I got to play my cool part later on. I think he was counting on the fact that I — or if not me, Dave or John — would have the judgment to realize what the song needed throughout if I were forced to play it “right” at the beginning. Genius.

Digression: This is a variation on the crucial strategy of “How to Work for Darth Vader and Not Get Strangled,” one of the chapters from Everything I Need to Know about Middle Management I Learned from Star Wars, a book I will never write. There’s exactly one officer in the original trilogy who survives giving Vader bad news, and this is how he does it:

Officer: The battle station plans are not aboard this ship, and no transmissions were made. An escape pod was jettisoned during the fighting, but no life forms were aboard.
Vader Hooooosh. Whooooosh. She must have hidden the plans in the pod. Send a detachment down to retreive them, Commander. There will be no one to stop us this time.
Officer: Yessir!

See what he does? He gives his superior exactly the information — no more and no less — his superior needs to draw the conclusion he’s already drawn. Vader gets to have the little ego boost of figuring out the solution, and the officer gets to live another day. This is a great way to handle certain obnoxious bosses (especially those who either were or like to imagine themselves as a Major Hardass). And, apparently, it’s a great way to tell me that my bass parts suck.

p.s.: The officer’s use of the passive voice is also brilliant.

Roland Space Echo

The second stand-out of the day was the Roland Space Echo. We had created a minor problem for ourselves by distorting pretty much everything on “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” That meant the trusty Tube Screamer didn’t really make John’s lead parts jump out of the mix. We needed a sound that was more drastically different. I would have suggested my XXL pedal — a very twisted little effects box — but I don’t have a Space Echo at my disposal. It’s got to be one of the most demented artifacts produced by humankind. The sounds it makes are uncanny, unearthly, and often beautifully hideous (and vice/versa). It’s also tempermental and hard to predict, which puts it squarely in what Tape Op’s Larry Crane calls the “moneymaker” category. Once you hear what it does, you just want to spend hours exploring all the sounds you can make with it. To Chris’s credit, he reigned us in a little and didn’t let us get too whacky with it. Someday I want to be left alone with one of those things.

(If you squint, you can see that the needle on the left of the Space Echo is in the red. As it should be.)

studio diary - 1

10 Dec 2005 by Doug

I never get enough of reading other bands’ studio logs, so here’s ours.

We spent last Saturday at Chris Cugini’s Appleman Studio in Stoneham.

The bulk of my recording experience has been in home-based studios, with mixed results. I was initially a little skeptical about tracking at Appleman. But Appleman is much closer to a professional small project studio than most home studios, and solidly better in most respects than one of the project studios I’ve recorded in. If you found this entry by searching for opinions on working at Appleman, I say “go for it.” No question.

Chris has solid, if limited, gear — he has nice mics and a handful of great pre amps, but he doesn’t have the selection (or price tag) you’d expect in a full-time professional studio. There are some cool toys — the Roland Space Echo is a favorite of mine — but not a ton of exotic or vintage gear. But Chris knows his equipment well, which is more important than just dropping cash on snazzy boxes. At some big studios you can spend a ton of money, draw a junior engineer, and get a crappy recording. Appleman Studio provided value-for-money easily equal to anywhere I’ve worked.

Besides Chris Cugini’s ears, Appleman’s other edge is a very professional layout for a home studio. There are two rooms suitable for tracking loud instruments, the ground floor living room (where we did our drums) and a deadened rehearsal space in the basement. The rehearsal room can double as one of two isolation spaces for amps. Best of all, there’s an honest-to-goodness control room upstairs with real acoustic treatment. And Chris has a laid-back, congenial style — it was an extremely comfortable environment.

David and the room mics

Guitarist/vocalist Dave and I got there about noon. Our drummer David and drum tech Andy Plaisted had just swapped in a kick drum Andy had brought, and they were tuning up the toms. A couple hours later we had a pretty massive drum sound going. When I play larger clubs it’s sometimes weird to be in the front of the house during drum check — the house sound guys use their favorite EQ and compression presets, and it often sounds like I’m listening to some other band’s drummer. Chris and Andy’s approach was much more like my experiences with Tony Eichler at Phase — they paid close attention to mic placement, and that was their primary tool for shaping the sound. It still sounded like David, but with some Paul Bunyan mixed in — a little larger than life.

Dave was having some problems with his Carvin — time for new tubes, it sounds like — so he plugged into one of Chris’s Laneys. His Gretsch is still in the shop, so he used his Jaguar for most of the session. John played his Les Paul through his Toad. Chris gently suggested that I might prefer the ‘62 P-bass he “happened to have lying around” to my Bradley. Would I! It had a kinda botched paint job and backwards tuners, but it felt and sounded great. I did my basics through a Bass Pod. I used the Brit Class A setting and mucked around with it a bit till it was as smooth and dark as I like.

David and I ran out to Mother’s Pizza for subs and damned good onion rings while Chris and the guitar players got their sounds together. When we got back, headphone mixes came together with surprising ease — David got his own mix so he could have a domineering click, and Dave and John allowed enough click into our shared mix to keep me happy. I think it helped that we’ve all recorded together before, but it also sure helps that neither Dave nor John are “I need more of me” guys.

We started out with basics for “Two to Tangle,” and got through 7 tunes (one more than our target — a personal first). We did Rock, Paper, Scissors,” “I Don’t Want Her No More,” “Baby Got a Place to Go”, “It’ll be the Last Time” and “See You Soon.” We finished up with “Michelle with Two ‘L’s.” We clicked everything but “See You” and the second half of “Last Time” — we dropped the click out in the bridge and flew blind from there out. We used the second or third take on most tunes. The session had a great vibe, we all seemed relaxed and comfortable.

Dave and John listening to a take

I thought the Pod sounded pretty good on “See You” and was worried that I’d have trouble dubbing the part both without a click and without being able to see David play. The song has tight hits on the quarters with scary stretches of space in between, so it’s unforgiving of the tiniest timing mistakes. We punched in a few sloppy phrases and a couple muffed notes while the Pod was still set up. By then we were all kinda hungry again, so Chris set up me to play in the upstairs control room through the SVT in the basement while the guitarists went out to bring us back some raw fishes. We got lucky: the long cable runs to the basement and back didn’t introduce much noise. By the time we had it together the sushi run had returned and David and John took off shortly thereafter. Dave (my transpo) hung out in the control room.

The three of us agreed that “Rock” needed a dirty, nasty tone. We tracked a clean DI signal and the SVT through Chris’s Rat. I wasn’t completely happy with the first take, but Dave and Chris were, so we let it stand. (Plus I’m always a bit smug when I can get any complete take, let alone a first take.) I made up for it though by struggling with “Tangle,” which we tracked (I think) really fr’n fast. We set it aside after getting a take with maybe more steady bars than unsteady bars (but maybe not). Chris wanted to see if we could get one more, so I laid down a part for “Michelle.” To my chagrin I found I was playing a G# in the tail that noway nohow should have been in that tune. (I have a similar issue with wanting to sharp C’s in “Baby” — it’s not like I don’t know better.) ‘Round about 11:30, I put down one that Chris said was “snotty.” I think we realized we were getting too tired to tell if that was a good thing or not, so we called it a night.

The are more photos from the session on my flickr site.