L-R: Gary Klebe, John Murphy, Skip Meyer, Jeff Murphy

Beginning in 1974, when bands needed label attention and access to a proper studio to get their music out and heard, visionary power-pop band Shoes created their own terms – building a home studio in their living room while learning how to play music and record simultaneously. Shoes’ unique approach to songwriting and sonic identity under these circumstances have been a blueprint for bedroom pop projects everywhere for the last few decades – whether these projects know it or not. I recently got the chance to chat with founding members Jeff Murphy and Gary Klebe. They went into the history of their home-recorded process in the 1970s, recording and mixing classics albums like Black Vinyl Shoes, and what their experiences are today with all the endless options available.

What inspired you to get into home recording records like Black Vinyl Shoes?

Gary Klebe: It was really through necessity. At the time, we weren’t musicians. In fact, I’m still reluctant to call myself a musician. We didn’t play live; it was a band in name only. Recording was our only way to be in music. Playing live wasn’t a realistic option. That came along later, but it was always secondary to recording. We weren’t capable of doing anything but record. There was a lot of punching in and out, and redoing. We weren’t natural virtuosos at singing or playing guitars.

Jeff Murphy: We would say to each other, “You’ve only got to get it right one time.” While we were learning how to play, we were stumbling, and it was like, “I’ve just got to get one good take that I can keep, and then we’ll move on to the next thing.” That helped us learn and mature. We’re more songwriters, arrangers, and producers than musicians. Musically, we learned to play by trying to write a song and play what we heard in our heads, which is kind of the backwards way of doing it. Most musicians learn their craft by playing first, and then later learning how to write songs. We came up the exact opposite. We were born in the studio; it was our home. Now, home recording is more the norm, with Pro Tools and other DAW software.

GK: Without the TEAC [A-]3340S tape machine, there’d be no band. That’s what allowed us to put our foot in the door and see if we could do this. We were very sheepish about it at the time. Anyone we knew – friends, acquaintances, or whatever – would make fun of us. “If you don’t play live, then what good are you?” We thought, “Well, you might be right, but this is all that we can do right now.”

JM: Gary and I both had stereo reel-to-reel tape machines that had the sound-on-sound function. One day, in early 1974, this friend of mine who worked at an audio store said, “Oh, you’ve gotta check out this new TEAC machine that’s coming. You can do four channels. They’ll be in time with each other, because there’s a sync switch. You can do overdubs!” Now, with Pro Tools, most people don’t realize the whole challenge of recording with the limitation of using only four channels on analog tape. With the 3340S, we could record on one track and then listen to it in sync mode while recording on another track in perfect time. Without that sync capability, we wouldn’t have been able to bounce tracks around. Recording Black Vinyl Shoes would have been impossible.

What planning did you do to make the best of the low track count availability on the TEAC deck?

GK: Jeff had a formula for it.

JM: In the very first recordings, we simply recorded one instrument directly to each of the four tracks. But then we got more sophisticated. We remembered reading about how The Beatles recorded. They would talk about making “reductions.” We called it “ping-ponging” or “bouncing.” We would record on three of the channels and then mix those together and “bounce” them down to the fourth channel as we plugged in and played along to it. Now, the fourth channel contained what was bounced from the first three channels, plus whatever additional instruments, handclaps, or background vocals that we mixed in during the bounce. Then we could go back and erase the first three channels and record new instruments on them. Using the same process, we’d continue bouncing between channels as we mixed in new instruments or vocals. It was all recorded piecemeal, bit by bit. The real challenge was that we’d have to guess in advance how loud an instrument needed to be in comparison with instruments that weren’t even recorded yet. We learned to record the bass last, because the bass guitar would get mushy if you bounced it. As we recorded the bass, we might play a tambourine or something with high frequencies, like maracas, along with it. Later on, if we thought the mix wasn’t quite right between the bass and percussion, because they were recorded together, we couldn’t change the volume between the two. But we could still go in with EQ and make the tambourine feel a little louder by adding around 7 kHz or so, and that it wouldn’t affect the bass. So, we would sub-mix the channels this way and EQ the difference. We learned that we could not ping-pong more than twice without the quality really deteriorating.

GK: It was like in the mastering stage these days, where EQ and compression are used to bring up the vocals, or bass, or whatever. We were using a cheap Peavey live mixer for everything.

JM: Yeah, we had a Peavey 1200S mixer, which to us back then was like, “Woo-hoo! Now we’re in it for real!”

That’s so rad. I was going to ask about the Roland Space Echo you had. Was it always recorded and mixed in as you went along, or were you adding any of it in later?

JM: It was always recorded with the instrument, mixed together as we recorded. Since that was our only effects unit, it was the only way to be able to put varied effects on each instrument. But that relationship between the instrument and the effect was locked in. We couldn’t change it later. One of the examples is Gary’s guitar on “Tragedy,” which is very effected, washy, dreamy, and spacey. That was that Space Echo. He’s using it for those effects, so it had to be recorded along with that guitar. In the final mix, we would pan it left, or right, or whatever. But mixing is a deceiving term with that album. Everything was already set in stone because of all the ping-ponging. All we could really do with those four tracks was decide where to pan them and add EQ. One channel would be panned left, one would be on the right, one would be in the center because it had the bass, and another would be in the center because it had the main vocal. There wasn’t a whole lot of mixing that could be done at that last stage.

GK: But we felt lucky. We were like, “Wow, four tracks! That’s a lot!” Another thing that’s interesting, thinking back, I don’t know how we did it, but we didn’t have monitors. We just used headphones.

Until the end with the mixing?

GK: All the recording was done with headphones only. When it was time to mix, we used some Advent speakers from Jeff’s stereo system as monitors. That was the first time we’d used actual speakers in the recording process.

JM: There was a guy I worked with who had a 2-track machine, so we rented that from him to mix down to and set up my speakers in the living room. We used two Tapco 2200 stereo EQs and no bus effects. That was all we had!

GK: Everything we did we had to figure out on our own. We couldn’t turn to the internet for help! We mixed and sequenced songs, straight to the master reel live. We didn’t even know we could edit tape with a razor blade.

JM: Right. The normal way of establishing times between songs is by splicing in leader tape. When we made the master reel for those early recordings, including Black Vinyl Shoes, we would actually roll back the 2-track master to the tail end of the previously mixed song. Then we’d listen together as the song was fading out and say, “Here! The next song should start right here!” We’d hit the stop button and start recording the next mix. If you’ve worked around tape before, you know there’s a little bias dump at the beginning when you hit record. It leaves a little thump sound on the tape. If it was too loud, we’d go, “Damn, gotta do it over!” Instead of editing that noise out, we’d go back, reposition the tape, and start it all over again until we got it right.

GK: If we punched in too early, we’d ruin the previous song and have to go back and mix it all over again! I’ll never forget when we recorded our first record for Elektra [Records] with Mike Stone at The Manor in England. The first time we saw him edit tape with a razor blade, I remember us looking at each other, “That’s all we had to do?”

JM: There was a song where Mike said, “Boy, it’d be cool if there was a double chorus at the end.” We said, “Oh, shoot; too bad we didn’t record it that way.” He says, “No problem!” Then he runs a copy onto another machine, gets the razor blade out, and goes to town. We had no idea you could do that! Right in the middle of the song, he’s chopping this tape and taping it together. We’re like, “What? Now we’ve got a double chorus!” We had never seen that done before.

GK: After that, we were cutting and editing and looping tape like crazy. If only we had known!

Shoes - Primal Vinyl

I’d love to hear about how you got the drum sounds on those home-recorded records with the resources available.

JM: Those drum sounds are really identifiable, even though they’re not necessarily that good. We recorded the drum kit in stereo with six mics: four [Shure] SM57s and two cheapo mics. Skip [Meyer], our drummer, had this set of old red sparkle Ludwig drums. They weren’t great sounding drums, but they did have a distinctive character that became the sound of Black Vinyl Shoes. When we were negotiating with Elektra Records, they brought us out to L.A., and they said, “Hey, do you guys want to go in the studio and mess around?” Of course we said, “Sure!” So, they booked time at the Village Recorder, not some little demo studio. Fleetwood Mac was working on Tusk in another room. They weren’t in the studio at the time, and they let us peek in. We noticed that Mick had a Sonor drum kit, and they had SM57s on the snare and toms. We were like, “Yes! That’s what we use!” We loved it. The SM57 was the only decent mic we had! Soon after, Skip went out and bought some Sonor drums.

With all the available resources and options now, what do you still carry with you from back then that keeps you focused?

GK: When you only have four tracks and so many limitations, well, your options are limited. Most of our gear was inexpensive, consumer quality. I mean we didn’t even have a single high-end preamp. But we made do with what little we had. We learned our gear inside and out. We squeezed every drop of potential out of everything we had. Then we signed with a major label. Suddenly, we were thrown into a foreign environment. We began recording in “real’ studios. All the gear we’d ever dreamed of was at our disposal. That was great, but it never occurred to us that we might miss our trusty MXR and Electro-Harmonix pedals and homemade stompboxes. Sometimes it’s best to grab the gear that you’re most familiar with.

JM: I think one thing we learned is that every single piece of gear has its own unique sound. We were big into the old MXR blue-face Flanger/Doubler and their early delay and chorus units. They have such a great sound to them. Sometimes I think that software-based recording has too many options; it’s easy to get lost in the decision making. It’s like going into a restaurant and they hand over the menu and it’s the size of a bible. “I just wanted a burger.” When you’ve got 40 pages you have to sort through, your enthusiasm fades. In recording, it’s not as tactile now as it was in the earlier years. Back then you felt like you were part of the machine. You’re working on a song, and you reach over and turn the knob until it sounds the way you want it to sound. It’s different now. The potential of digital recording is pretty staggering. It allows you to do some great things, but, in many ways, it can be more cumbersome and unnatural.

GK: We always assumed that we’d make better records using better equipment. We learned something valuable early on. We were recording the Present Tense album at The Manor in England, which had this incredible Helios console. We were playing a guitar part through an MXR Distortion Plus going directly into the board. You’d think it would sound at least as good, if not better, than what we got from our board back home, but it wasn’t even close. Our cheap Peavey mixer killed it. Obviously, the Helios was an infinitely better console, but it goes to show that every piece of gear has its own unique advantage. We had a similar problem when Jeff tried to reproduce this creamy, modulated left-to-right delay guitar effect that we got from our MXR Digital Delay. Our engineer tried to convince us that he could replicate anything an MXR could do. Not so. The studio delay units were cleaner, but lacked all the warmth and color of the MXR. Once again, cheap was the winner.

JM: Another example was a song called “Your Imagination” which is on Tongue Twister, our second Elektra album. I had started recording a demo for the song, and I had gone away for the weekend. John and Gary came in over the weekend and decided to work on this song. When I came back and listened to it, the song started with this fantastic bass sound. I thought, “What the heck?” It was this rolling, growling bass. They had used an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff and a Small Stone phase shifter. It sounded so unique and so cool. When we went to record the album at United Western Studio A in L.A., which is a fantastic studio, we couldn’t reproduce the same effect Gary and John had come up with on the demo with those cheap effect pedals. Ironically, most pro studio gear is designed NOT to distort. Yet, oftentimes, the unique distortions are what give character to a sound. When we first started out, I took the guts out of an old portable tape recorder and used it for my distortion box. We called it a synthesized guitar, but it was just a guitar direct into the mixer through that gadget. But even that sounded cooler on our demos through our cheap mixer than it did through those expensive pro studio consoles!

What advice do you have for home recording artists today?

JM: Don’t wait until you can buy the best gear around. Work with what you have. Just get started. Newer and bigger and cleaner isn’t always better. I used to say to people that a straight road is perfect, and it’s also boring as hell to drive on. Music can be the same way. It’s the same with a guitar amplifier. If a guitar amp is too clean, it might be too sterile. Distortion may work better, because it creates all these weird overtones and character flaws. The distortion and harmonic details create character and thickness. We learned that by accident, by trial and error. If you’re going to use a plug-in, rather than a real amp and mic, alter it, change it up; don’t always just go with the standard presets.

GK: The first thing I’d say is to read less and experiment more. Sometimes I think that with digital recording there are almost too many options. It can be hard to know where to start and, more importantly, when to quit. “Which of these 100 compressor plug-ins should I use on this track? I guess I’d better read all the reviews and download the demos to compare them.” Creativity can become the real casualty. When you’re making your own record, you don’t want art to take a back seat to the technology. There are so many great online tutorials for learning what your gear is capable of doing. The problem is that information overload can become a huge distraction. All the reviews, ads, and forums will lead you to believe that your studio is lacking if it doesn’t have a certain microphone, preamp, EQ, or plug-in. The fact is that you don’t need all the gear that they claim you need in order to get the job done. If you can afford an API console and vintage Neumann mics, that’s great, but with experimentation, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish with minimal gear. Never underestimate what that old beat up stompbox can do. The results depend more on the person using the gear than the gear itself. Jump right in.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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