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 the song to the band (Ken, Konrad [Meissner, drums], and Jake [Silver, bass]) and we cut it right then and there. Ken was playing piano in the house, Jake and Konrad were cutting bass and drums in the main room, and I was up in the cabin; but we were connected by headphones and the magic of having played together all day. It is one of my favorite recordings of my own song/voice ever captured, probably because of the spontaneity and connection – we were really all performing for each other. I know I was singing the song for the guys, for myself, and for tired moms and dads around the world. Mike isn't even on the track, but he wandered up and filmed a couple of the takes, which should be fun to play with for a future video edit. Another live-sounding song is the title track, "Sunshiner," where Mike sang and played guitar simultaneously in one take. It's really not convenient for making an instrumental mix, should someone request one someday, but it provided a solid core for the recording. I stepped up right after and tracked my strummed fiddle and vocal simultaneously to match that spirit. By contrast, songs like "Make it True," "Open the Door," or "Fork in the Road" were done in overdub land (and in some cases doubled), where we had much more control and created a thicker sound. I find we usually know early in the session which songs will take more vocal takes and which ones will be "cut it live" songs. But having the cabin available for isolation means we can always have that live vocal as an option. Amusingly my, "Won't you gimmie some of what the doctor ordered!" and general "Wooooo's" were all sung from the control seat as a placeholder vocal idea when I was resurrecting "Doctor's Orders" from the virtual dustbin. The basic for that track is a Frankenstein edit of mine; part rehearsal, part first take, and all fun. Since we never actually played an ending, I created one by using a snare hit from the warm-up part of the take, and then I smoothed the whole thing over with a second fiddle and some "party time" vocals. The vocal mic was definitely 6 feet away and pointed the wrong way. But, in the end, I never even tried to replace it. It just felt like a good time! "Beautiful One" is a demo I recorded all alone one day into one mic. I think it might have been the CMV 563. You can hear me saying, "Ouch!" at the beginning of the track and I really wish I could remember what that was. Probably stepped on a Lego or something. [laughs] Adam already mentioned "Big Ideas" – that was the most weirdly resurrected and strangely manifested recording of all. I'm pretty sure these awkward engineering moments are not Adam's favorites, but they give the album a variety of sonic textures, intentional or not!
Some songs have cool fuzzy vocal sounds, like "Fork in the Road." What is that from?
A: I am a big fan of distortion. I'll put additional grit on anything. Every song on this record has added distortion somewhere in the mix, often on lead vocal in varying degrees. I feel like a good distorted vocal is reminiscent of so many wonderful things, from old folk recordings to the first band you were in when all you had for a PA was a Peavey guitar amp.
What are some standout mics you both liked on these sessions?
A: We have the luxury of owning some, as well as having friends with great mics. A Coles 4038 and a pair of Neumann M 582s were our go-to drum overhead set up, which allowed us to capture the drums nicely without close mic'ing toms or hi-hat. The piano was recorded with a Coles and a pair of Neumann KM 184s. Fiddle was often a Coles or an all original U 47. Acoustic guitars were anywhere from a U 47, KM 184, Coles, M 49, to our favorite Neumann KM 54. Kick drum was often a new Telefunken M82, which I liked a lot, but I think I like that mic even more on the bass amp.
M: About halfway through tracking we had to give a lot of the loaners back, so we bought an original CMV 563 mic with a M7 capsule that we picked up via Reverb.com. I find that I can do most anything with the CMV or the Coles.
How was mixing done?
A: All of the mixing was done at Humble Abode, but using nearly all my own gear for the mix and mostly in-the-box. Plug-ins from Waves, [Audio Ease] Altiverb, Soundtoys, Plugin Alliance, and more. All were going to my Metric Halo and Lucid converters into a Dangerous Music summing bus, then back into the box. My monitors are ATC SCM20's and I've worked over the years to treat the room, so I'm quite happy with the results. Most of the mixing was hyper collaborative; but being that we were at the house, I didn't need to have anyone hanging around during the boring moments of mixing.
Some of the mixes, like "Culture War," are fairly dense, with drums, organ, and bass. Was mixing difficult, or were there many revisions?
A: Dense mixes with this band aren't all that difficult; they are amazing players and seem to each choose a proper time to have their own moments. A few volume rides help. But when the mixes are super dense, it was typically by design on this project. We wanted to give the listener an energy without the need to know there's an acoustic guitar, or four; [rather we aimed for] a wash of instrumentation.
You had Greg Calbi [Tape Op #86] master it. How did the record change in mastering?
A: Greg is amazing. I had worked with him before and I was so pleased that we could use him on this project. I trust Calbi to do the right thing, and he thinks of music in all the right ways. The biggest beauty with Calbi is that he gives the record a more cohesive sound. Before we went to mastering, we had a pile of great songs. After mastering we had a great record. That's the best way I can explain what he brings to the table.