Trans Am have made their name by inventing the nexus of Neu!, ZZ Top, Kraftwerk, Van Halen and Mike Post. They've kept themselves in the fast lane by keeping their ears to the ground for new beats and textures and their recordings reflect their music's diversity. A Trans Am album gives you everything from drums like a thousand hammers on anvils, slashing guitars and throb- bing bass to rump shakers for teen androids. During the last six years or so, the band (Phil Manley: guitars, keyboards and vocals — Nathan Means: bass and keyboards — Seb Thomson: drums and programming) has been finding recording spaces and accumulating gear. The latest incarnation of Trans Am's studio — National Recording Studio — benefits from wide-open spaces with high ceilings, a thriving transves- tite prostitute industry, a fabulous mustard collection and the boys' kitchen sink approach to recording. The band's DIY studio ethic is a logical extreme in the DC music scene but, as Seb, Nathan and Phil explain, it makes sense no matter where you're from.
You guys have [John] McEntire in your corner and you've got a label [Thrill Jockey] — so why did you even go to the trouble of building your own studio?
Seb: It was fun.
Phil: Yeah. Yeah?
S: It's like, making this last record [Red Line] was so different — it was so much fun, just having our own studio, goofing around, doing whatever the hell we wanted to. That was the main motivation.
How long have you been in this space?
P: Two years.
And just the most recent record was done here?
Where were the two before that done?
P: Futureworld was done at WGNS [in Washington, D.C.], though we mixed it in New York.
Nathan: And then The Surveillance was done at the Bridge in Silver Spring [Maryland, a previous incarnation of the band's studio].
You've got two Trident boards... what are you tracking with?
P: Right now we're using Mackies.
P: We've got two Mackies set up but they're about to get [replaced by the Tridents — see sidebar]
And what are you recording to?
P: 2" 16-track [3M M-79].
What kind of mic pres are you using?
P: APIs and Sytek, four of each. And then occasionally, if we have to, we use the Mackie pres, which actually sound kind of cool. They're just like gnarlier sounding, in a way.
S: That's what The Surveillance is.
P: It's all Mackie driven to hell.
S: [The mic collection] is pretty standard. [AKG] 414s
P: We have a couple of ribbon mics. This one was at the Beach Boys' studio — RCA BK-5... ummm, an old STC 4038.
The kind Albini [Tape Op #87] likes?
P: Yeah, it's the total Albini collection. And then the Russian not-that-good mics, Oktava. They kinda suck.
S: But they come with hand-made wooden cases.
It looks like the gun that gets hand assembled in James Bond. You smuggle it in and then...
S: Right, right [mimes assembling a gun]. It's got a silencer.
P: We've got a matched pair and they don't sound at all alike.
Dannielle: Maybe your matched pair are fraternal twins.
P:We've got Beyer M-500.
How do you like it?
P: They're cool — I like 'em on vocals. And then this one is really good on guitar.
P: The Beyer 160 ribbon mic. [Grabbing more mics] This is an RE20. These are Chinese Neumann copies.
Are they good? A friend of mine was telling me about them.
S: We were really excited and then
P: They sounded really trashy. I think they may be good if you're only recording a single sound source, but when you have lots of people in the same room, they're getting awful bleed. [still digging] Sennheiser 421.
[Seb pulls out an ATM25]
P: We use it on the beater head.
S: We used that on The Surveillance.
P: We also have a couple pairs of good compressors [two blackface Urei 1176s and 2 LA-2a copies made by Bill Skibbe [Tape Op #44] who was Albini's tech for some time]. Those are sort of the most notable additions to the studio. The LA-2s are cool because they have so much gain you can actually plug a mic straight in and use them as a mic pre. For instance, if you were going to compress something to tape anyway, why not plug it straight into the compressor?
Some bands have come in here to record but not that many?
How much of this is supposed to be a commercial concern for you guys? How much ambition do you have to get this into a commercial space?
P: Not really.
S: We don't want to be here, like, nine to five or 40 hours a week. Like, having a real job.
P: We've been doing that, though, but I think the more we do it the more we realize we want it to be more of a Trans Am [space].
S: Like, this summer we had a bunch of stuff going on here and we really haven't had the chance to do our own thing. But don't get me wrong: It's really fun.
The rest of this article is only available with an archive subscription or by purchasing back issue #25. For an upcoming year's free subscription, and our current issue on PDF...