Howie Statland, one of the brightest guitarist/songwriters in New York City and founder of the gritty rock group NYCSmoke, is out of milk, so he's making me drink my coffee black. Normally, I would never do this, but his one-bedroom apartment/recording studio is five flights up, and neither of us feels like leaving this lo-fi cradle of creativity. Instead, we get straight to talking about how to make the most out of tight quarters, getting great guitar sounds, and why learning audio engineering turned him into a better songwriter.
When did you start getting into recording?
When I was in Thin Lizard Dawn [dearly departed pop group on RCA], the extent of my audio engineering was on a Yamaha MT100 4-track. I used to take that everywhere with me, I just wanted to record everything — songs, weird noises. But it wasn't until 1998 when, towards the end of TLD, I got this Tascam 1/2" 8-track and Ramsa 18 channel board that I really got going. One of the reasons I had the 4-track was because I didn't have a place to live. I was going all over the place my first seven years in NYC.
What are the other key pieces of gear here?
If I could only have a couple of things, I'd have the 8- track and these Daking 52270 mic pres. They're really amazing and warm, and that way the signal is record album quality.
What's the biggest challenge you face working out of your home?
I would say the biggest problem is recording drums. I used to have a kit set up in the bedroom, but people started throwing beer bottles at my windows when I recorded them! One solution is recording drums somewhere else. The other solution to that was drum machines like my Korg ER1 and EA1, and Roland SP808. You can get really into drum machine programming. I also use a Suzuki RPM-40, which not a lot of people know about. It runs on batteries and it sounds amazing — I'll hook it up to a Digitech digital delay and put a tight delay on it, so it sounds like John Lennon, the Plastic Ono sound. You wanna hear it really quick? I bought it from someone through the classifieds at HarmonyCentral.com, which I like better than eBay for getting gear online.
How do you build a song here?
The first thing I do is sit down with my acoustic guitar and I write the song before I get any fancier. If a song sounds good that way, then it will be a good song. Then I'll record the drum machine so I get the tempo, and then I'll record with a mic on my acoustic guitar and an AKG 1000 or Rode NT1 mic on my voice. Those are all mono tracks... Well, actually one and two are stereo, because the vocal mic is picking up the guitar and vice versa, so it's like a stereo room mic. That's a technique I discovered on my 4-track.
How did you pick your vocal mics?
Whatever came my way that was cheap, to be honest. They're low-budget, high-quality mics.
You've got a lot of cool little amps.
I like small, vintage, all-tube amps. For instance, I have a '60s Magnatone Custom 410, which has two speakers. One works as a tweeter. I like to use the amps plugged in straight if I'm recording the rhythm part, and the lead part I use an Ibanez TS-9. I have a lot of effects, but I try not to use them, because you can go crazy. The best tone is distortion from the amps. I really like the sound of just the guitar, the way it's supposed to sound — I just mic it with a Shure SM57 really close to the speaker. I usually don't get into the room sounds with the guitars. I find that makes the mixes really muddy.
All the guitars on your last NYCSmoke album, For the Posers, sound really great — raw and present. What's tougher, nailing acoustic or electric guitar sounds?
Probably it's harder to get a good electric guitar sound. I think the most important thing is to have it sound good before you even mic it. Acoustic is easy for me because I have a great acoustic guitar, a Dove from the '60s. You can't make it sound bad. With the electric guitar I have more options, like a different pedal or amp, but the more options you have, the...