Way back in [Tape Op #39], we received a wonderful report on how The Mammals utilized a bunch of borrowed gear and gathered talented friends to track their Evolver album at home, in upstate New York. Some 14 years later they are still at it, but now have a private studio above their garage (Humble Abode Music), along with various other spots around their property. With the help of engineer Adam Armstrong, Mike Merenda and Ruth Ungar lead a group of musicians through some of the best folk rock music you will ever hear.
What's the recording space like that you have set up at your home?
Mike: We call it "Studio B." It's a single room above our garage with exposed beams and a gambrel roof (i.e., only two parallel walls). It was built by a previous owner as a clogging studio, and from the outside it looks like an old barn. There's a wood stove and a porch, but no plumbing. We set up a "control room" off one of the corners, with monitors freestanding in the middle of the room firing in. The other three corners of the room are for tracking. We also have a cabin about 50 feet away from the studio that we use for some live vocal separation, via a 100-foot snake. Same goes for the piano, which is about 100 yards away in the front room of our house. For songs like "Stayin' Up Late" and "Lilac Breeze," we utilized all three buildings and tracked the songs 100 percent live.
What part of the work was done at Faraway Sound in Brooklyn?
M: Robin MacMillan recorded Aoife O'Donovan and Sarah Jarosz' harmony vocals, as well as Sarah's mandolin parts. Some of those tracks will appear on a companion album in the fall of 2018.
How live are most sessions?
M: Generally speaking, as live as possible. Basics are always live – drums, bass, guitar, fiddle, and keys – and about half of the vocals end up being live.
How are instruments isolated, or not?
M: We use some small "professional" gobos, that I bought cheaply from a lady who was 86'ing all her ex-boyfriend's home studio gear after he disappeared with another woman! We cleansed them with sage and reupholstered them to clear out the bad mojo. We also stuffed a box spring with Roxul insulation for a larger drum gobo. The bass amp gets isolated in the one closet we have, and also tracked via DI. Guitar amps are gobo'd. Ruthy and I both prefer to sing live with the band whenever possible, so the cabin has been getting more and more use.
Adam: We've been mixed between isolation and not. At our most isolated, we had drums in the studio with me, a bass amp in the closet, Mike playing acoustic and singing up in the cabin, Ken [Maiuri] on piano down in the house's stone and tiled laundry room, and Ruth playing fiddle in the living room. At our least isolated we were rehearsing late night on the song "Big Ideas." It was never meant to be the keeper take, with everyone in the room and bleed everywhere. At one moment you can hear the leakage from the control room monitors of a delay I was trying out on the drum set; something that wasn't meant to stay. But that was the take.
How are live vocals captured?
A: Live vocals were captured typically the same as our overdubbed vocals, and if we were smart we moved them up to the treated cabin. But many vocals on the record were recorded to the right of me in the studio. Mike was on a [Neumann] M 49, [Neumann] U 47, or [Gefell] CMV 563 through an API or Millennia mic preamp. Ruth was mostly U 47 or CMV 563, again through an API or Millennia. We did switch it up a lot.
M: Vocals would be in the cabin, ideally. We've also tracked them in the same room with the band, which tends to work best on quieter numbers, although "Rock on Little Jane" from [The Mike & Ruthy Band's] Bright as You Can was captured live in the same room and came out great.
Ruth: We recorded "Stayin' Up Late" – as well as a couple of other songs that have been held back for a future release – during a session in May of 2016. I had a scratchy voice that day and was isolated in the cabin doing true "scratch" vocals, but when evening rolled around I suddenly got my voice back! If I remember correctly, Mike was down in the house getting the kids to bed and I taught...