In Tape Op #31, West West Side mastering engineer Alan Douches observed that sometime in the next millennium, retro-minded sound smiths will be seeking to recapture "that classic late-century ADAT studio sound" and begin scouring the world for the few Alesis tape machines that had survived the ravages of time.
"It's hilarious," says Wrens guitarist/vocalist/recordist Charles Bissell of Douches' prediction. "It's hilarious because it's inevitable."
Bissell is probably right. The ADAT revival will occur, and people will pay through the nose for the machines themselves and for the VHS tapes that they employ. What Bissell is too modest to admit, however, is that if this all goes down as projected, he'll be partially to blame, because the Wrens new album, The Meadowlands (mastered not so coincidentally by Douches), clearly demonstrates how much can be achieved in this much-maligned medium.
Of course, you can make a good record on any format you want if you're willing to spend five years getting it just right. Yeah, you heard me — five years. Every night for nearly half a decade, Bissell would return from a New York City white-collar day gig to the New Jersey house that he shares with bandmates Kevin Whelan (bass/keys/vocals) and Greg Whelan (guitar/vocals) to fire up the studio that occupies much of the living room. Songs were compulsively worked and reworked, parts changed, and sounds tweaked within an inch of their lives. And then, when the last track of their long-gestated third album was finally mixed and mastered, the Wrens did the only thing they could to ensure that the ordeal had in fact come to an end: They brought their ADATs to a local Garden State watering hole, propped them up on the bar, ordered some beers and got sloshed while they erased the master tapes.
The mixes that remain are a shining example of what indie rock can and should be when low expectations — and even lower budgets — are not allowed to encroach upon a desire to create music that is as artful as it is kick-ass. Certainly the Wrens' two previous full-length efforts, 1994's Silver and 1996's Secaucus, are also exceptional home-recordings, but The Meadowlands is an instant DIY classic, worthy of sharing a shelf with Guided by Voices' Alien Lanes or the Shins' Oh, Inverted World. Imagine it's a sinewy long- distance runner, picking up the smart-rock torch right where Wire and the Buzzcocks dropped it. Who could have guessed that that was in a New Jersey swamp?
In the liner notes of The Meadowlands, it says "recorded/mixed on 16-bit ADATs." That seems like and odd thing to boast about!
Charles: That's my own little geeky bit of self- congratulation or something. We're like the only people who are still using these things, although they're kind of like a weird bargain now. We have four of them now — an XT and three blackface ones — although we usually only work with two or three at a time. We haven't bought any for a couple of years, but even then, when one would break, it became cheaper to go buy another one, because you can score these things for between $125 and $150.
Did they break a lot while you were making the record?
C: After a while they did start breaking all the time. There's a function on the ADAT where you can fire it up and see how many head hours you have on it — I think it goes up to about 10,000 hours, or something retarded like that. Well, at some point, we lapped them. I don't think you're really supposed to get that far! ADATs are kind of the worst of analog and the worst of digital all rolled into one. Digital without any kind of flattering analog effect combined with VHS tapes, moving parts and tape transport issues.
Weren't you tempted to switch over to a more flexible and reliable computer- based system or DAW?
C: No. There were financial limitations and I wanted to avoid the learning curve of being on a new platform. There was also stupid psychological stuff like the fact that when we started this record, we thought that we would be done with it in a month. Ultimately, though, we would be better suited to using a computer and we will at some point, if only so that we can compare options more effectively. Because as you're making a record the way we did and noodling around on the guitar and saying to yourself, "Oh this part's really good... but is it better?" When you have a computer you can just put it down and A/B it. Then you realize that if the guitar is going to play this new part, that the bass should really be doing something different as well. Now when you're trying to alternate between these combinations, there's only so much you can do with ADATS and a Mackie 24x8 [console].
Kevin: We had to get it right on one track. We couldn't have 80 versions of our vocals like we could if we were working with the computer.
C: Next time, even if we have a computer, there will be a set of new limitations. And those will be that nothing is recorded until it's right in the basement!
Four-plus years leaves room for a lot of tinkering. You must have redone everything several times.
C: Yeah, except that we never redid any drums. When we originally set up and recorded the songs for this album in the last house that we lived in, we worked on them for a few months, and even got fairly close to completing some of them. And then we realized that it wasn't really what we wanted to do. We had a lot of big rock guitar on there, a lot of Marshall half stacks and Les Pauls. We had a decent traditional guitar sound, but it wasn't serving the music in the way that we wanted. So we worked and drove these songs into the ground across two and a half years and then we had to move, set up shop here. We had already set our first mastering date, which was like in October of 2001 or something...
Setting a mastering date can be a good way to actually force yourself to finish up a project.
C: It really is, and that's kind of why we did it. The time leading up to that session with Alan became the most miserable six weeks of my life because we thought that we were still going to walk in and master the whole record in one shot but we were making big, crucial changes to the songs. And so even though the drums remained exactly the same as this hard rock version of the album that we had made with big distorted guitars, there were songs that were ending up with only a piano or a baritone guitar on them.
Sorry to harp on this, but unless your drummer had died or something, it seems like a really weird exercise to change songs around that much while retaining the original drum tracks.
K: Fucking weird isn't the word for it. It took us five years!
C: There are so many ways that you can sabotage yourself unintentionally, and your working method is one of them. Not redoing the drums almost wrecked us because it was such a dumb way to do it. But I don't know, we got stubborn or something. It would have been much easier to take a break, get our heads together, rehearse and rewrite as a band, make it happen in rehearsal and then make that translate to tape with minimal overdubs. But the overdubbing and rewriting without redoing the drums was part of the learning process. The funny thing is though that we come out of this thing feeling, [assumes big Super Man Voice] at the height of our musical powers! I feel that if we go into the basement now to record a song that we'll be more capable of making those editorial decisions right then and there — like they're supposed to be. I'm sure that every musician who's reading this is like, "Duh! You're supposed to figure this stuff out before you record."
The way that you approached recording and arranging the guitars is of the things that gives this record its vitality. The sounds are all small and colored enough so that even when there are a lot of tracks going at once, you avoid that sludgy wall of barre chords that makes mainstream records and the radio so unlistenable. Guitar sounds seem to just get bigger and bigger. It's like the arms race or something!
C: Totally! Mutually assured guitar destruction! The sound of the guitar on the radio these days is almost like a keyboard or something. All those scooped, huge Korn, Foo Fighters sounds have taken rock music, which I certainly think of as being eighth notes, and reduced it down to quarter notes, because now all you hear is an arrhythmic wash accented only by the kick and the snare. For me, indie rock — or alternative or whatever you want to call it — is still steady eighth note driven. With the Pixies, the Ramones or R.E.M. that's what's driving the song along.
As a guitarist, was it difficult to downsize your own tone?
I always had a crappy sound, and it went very, very wrong for a long time. Recording was the same thing because you lose perspective on — without actually listening your memory plays tricks on you like "I want my clean guitar sound to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan," which has like this huge low end when he hits the strings, and when you listen to those records, the guitar does kind of sound like that, but not exactly the way that you think it does. When you actually listen to the sound you realize that it's actually smaller than you thought and that you're just blown away by the ferocity of the playing.
Beyond the guitars, it seems that you also play with the notion of sound quality a lot on the vocals and other instruments. The sounds of the drums and bass, for example, vary wildly throughout the record.
C: That's cool if it came out that way, because that's pretty much what the goal was. There are so many albums that have a consistent sound from top to bottom. That's not a bad thing — in fact, it's usually a good thing. It's what you do if you're recording a record quickly in a studio. You get a drum sound, you get a guitar sound, and you work accordingly. For us, though, because we don't technically record that great to begin with, and because we're limited by ability and time and money and equipment, we just try and get it to work as musical thing that makes the songs better. If you look back to the sixties, recording was much less consistent because when you went into the studio, you were recording a single and therefore only one or two songs. When things were compiled onto albums, your instrumentation and sound might be different just by default. Those old Stones records aren't about fidelity, they're about each song. Each song seems to stand as an individual, finished product and drums sound different on each one.
K: We didn't want our softer stuff to have the same sounds as the rockers. Like a White Lion ballad or something.
C: Power ballads like that back in the eighties is what first got us thinking this way. We would hear bands doing these ballads, and suddenly, the snare would explode out of the track like "Boom"! But the vocal was all like, "When the children cry...." It just didn't fit.
Speaking of the drums, how did you record them on this album?
C: The drums were done to six or seven tracks. There was an AKG D112 on the kick drum that was generally badly placed way too close to the head. We used old AKG pencil mikes that we borrowed for the overheads. After a while, we had to give those back, and we began to use mismatched pairs of large diaphragm condensers placed wildly apart. In my stupid noggin, I thought that it would be good because it would pick up the whole drum kit. We'd often have one behind the drummer's head pointed down at the kit and one in front of the kit, kid of off to the side. Then I was like, "Why am I getting phasing problems?" The drums would sound great until he went to the cymbals and it would sound like, "Psoweeeeeng!" Like a wild Hendrix freak out, but not on purpose. Needless to say, I ended up using just one of the overheads for most of the mixes.
The vocals all have a lot of lo-fi character. What did you use to track them?
C: For the weirder stuff we used a Sky microphone, which is available in many music stores for about $12. It has the built in cord, the 1/4-inch end and an on/off switch — which is always the sign of a killer mic. And it's solid plastic. It's great if you want something that fits in a different way. For more conventional sounds we used a Rode NT1, and sometimes a CAD E-100.
Did you run through the mic pres on the Mackie or use something else?
C: We only have two outboard preamps an Aphex 107 and this PAiA kit that you order from them and build it yourself. It's tube, and they have it so you can blend it between the tube, which is kind of overdriven, and the solid state. The vocals were mainly tracked through the PAiA but I used whatever I thought would make a particular track stick out in its frequency. So if keyboards were done direct and the guitar was going to be in the same harmonic range, I would run it through something else to at least get some kind of advantage on color.
It also sounds like you did quite a bit of pretty radical EQ stuff.
C: There's a lot of boosting the mids by cutting the lows and highs, because straight vocals sometimes just didn't sit right.
Do you know what you're doing or just grab the knobs and hope for the best?
C: It's like everything else. I'm getting a better sense of it the more I go along. I've found that it's one of the areas where it's invaluable to know the limitations and idiosyncrasies of your workspace. In the last house that we recorded in, there was a certain frequency in the bass that always came through, but it turned out just to be the room. It took a long time to realize that it wasn't actually on tape or in the bass sound. So you begin to learn how to detect things like that. But when I grab for the EQ, it's still always by ear, because it all boils down to what seems to get the job done.
Many of the vocals are also quite heavily compressed.
C: What you're hearing is either an FMR Audio RNC, a Joe Meek C2, a dbx 166 or the Alesis 3620, because that's all we have. I learned one really cool trick while we were making this record — probably the one thing that I can bring to the Tape Op table: The inserts on the Mackie are after the aux sends, so you run into this cool thing where if you're going to a reverb through your aux send and then hit the compressor really hard, the dry signal and the reverb are both going into the compressor so you get this neat breathing thing that we used a lot on the vocals and the drums. When the signal's there, it sounds more or less dry, and then the reverb comes up and envelops it. It gives a neat kind of depth to the parts, and helps things fit into a denser mix. They just seem to come out when you need them to and then fade into the background and sit correctly when they aren't the center of attention.
What kinds of reverbs were you using?
C: Primarily this old Tapco 4400 spring reverb that I got for $20 and a Boss Digital Reverb pedal, which I think sounds great.
Did you compress the whole mix at the end?
C: No, I left that for Alan to do in mastering. I've made too many mistakes doing things like that. I mixed an entire album of ours, Silver, through an Aphex Aural Exciter!
You were working on this record for so long that I can imagine you ran the risk of having wildly inconsistent mixes. When you brought the batches of songs to Alan for mastering was it a disaster or were you pleasantly surprised?
C: Doing the mastering with Alan was really important because hearing it in that context — and the fact that some of the songs actually kind of worked was really reassuring.
So you actually had quite a good handle on your mixes.
C: Well, I don't have good enough equipment or enough experience to rely on one set of speakers to mix on, so I made sure that I had other reference sources in addition to my Alesis Monitor Ones. One day I went to Target and I sat there like a geek and compared boom boxes on the same radio station for like an hour. I settled on this $80 Sony that really seemed to sound pretty good. I also listened to a lot of records really loud on these old Bose bookshelf speakers because they're really horrible and the room is horrible. But after a while you get to know the space. So if we were in some kind of ballpark on the Monitor Ones, the boom box and the bookshelf speakers, that's when we knew that we were okay.