The Shins debut album, Oh, Inverted World, is a testament to the power of home recording. A band with great songs captures those songs using the gear they can afford and manipulates the recording process to turn technical limitations to their advantage. For their second release, Chutes Too Narrow, the band, led by James Mercer, returned to the basement with more experience and some better gear. They also spent some time at Avast! Recording Co. in Seattle with engineer Phil Ek. We sat down with James after he had returned from tour only to find that his house and home studio had been broken into.
There's a big sonic difference between Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow. Was this an aesthetic decision, or just the outcome of different gear?
Well, it was an aesthetic decision. I think one of the reasons I used so much reverb and delay and stuff like that on the first record was because you can kind of hide a bad-sounding mic with reverb. You can make it sound a lot cooler. So I knew right away that when I was done with that record, if I could get some money I would buy some better preamps. I didn't have any real preamps — I was running through a Mackie board. Sometimes I was just running directly into the computer. So I bought the UA 6176 and the HHB Radius 10, and I think that made a huge difference. And I have a couple of Rode mics now, and an [AKG] 414 that made a huge difference sonically, I think. I was able to just not hide behind the reverb as much. So those were the changes and they were sort of half practical, half an aesthetic choice. Like, I have a good acoustic guitar, you know, and if you can record it nicely, it sounds good just by itself. So I think that's where we're at now. It sounds pretty good.
We've read a few conflicting reports about how Oh, Inverted World was recorded. Could you give us the definitive story?
I started recording it when I had a Hewlett Packard Pavilion, one of those little ones, with Cool Edit Pro. The computer had a really slow processor. Then I bought a Gina sound card that was 16-bit. So, some of the songs were recorded with that. Halfway through I bought a 24-bit Digital Audio Labs soundcard, and I also bought this Rode NT-1 mic, which blew my mind. I'd read a couple reviews of it and was impressed, then bought it. And this is how amateurish I was: When I bought the NT-1, I also bought an XLR cable. You know what I mean? I did not own one before that. I put that thing on my computer and I was absolutely shocked at how quiet it was. I mean, I thought that something about my computer was making all that noise. That there was no way to prevent it, because I was like, "What am I doing, it's just this mic, this SM 57 plugged into this thing," you know. Also, I did use a Roland VS- 840, the very first Roland digital recorder. It was a 6-track. So I used that for the drums. Then I would transfer them onto my HP one track at a time — I had to manually sync them all up. I had to run it through the card that only had two inputs.
The NT-1 is what, $200?
Yeah, I think they were like $250 when I bought that. But they sound really good in comparison to a SM 57 with a guitar-type, unbalanced cable.
So how did the new record come together?
I've been working on probably 30 songs over the last two years. I decided to pick ten of those and work on them, finish up the writing process and record them. We began recording probably two months before we ended up going up and working with Phil at Avast! A few of the songs were just done, recorded entirely in the basement, using the equipment I bought, which also included a Digi 001. So I worked with Pro Tools, switching back and forth between Cool Edit Pro and Pro Tools. I like the effects in Cool Edit Pro, so I ended up using those a lot. I actually have a sponsorship with Cool Edit Pro now. They send me stuff.
Did the thieves take the 001?
They did. But, I think I'm going to buy a Mac. It would have made going and working with Phil a lot easier if I had had all Mac-based Pro Tools files. We had some trouble switching from PC to Mac. Not a huge amount, but enough to where it's like, "Why do I care about being on a PC?" I...