We just put out a compilation collecting some of my favorite songs recorded in my basement analog studio. I had the tracks all remastered by Steve Berson at Total Sonic Media. Below is the track listing along with some of my thoughts on each track. You can get the compilation on all the standard places you get music:
1. Your Room - The New Rags
This was the song that launched the label. I bought a house in Jersey City, moved there from Brooklyn and started getting the studio up and running. In the meantime, The New Rags were messing around with a 4-track recorder and produced a demo version of Your Room. Once I got the studio up and running, we went to work recording the New Rags’ debut EP and even with my ½” 8 track reel to reel, Tom wanted to keep the feel of the 4-track recordings. My gear at this point was bare-bones and the drums were done with 1 MXL Chinese condenser I bought at Guitar Center for $99. It’s amazing how well using 1 microphone on drums sounds compared to mic’ing up every piece of the drum kit. We ran Tom’s vocals through his DOD delay pedal and printed that effect to tape. We spent hours trying to set up my bathroom as an echo chamber, but it never gave good results besides sounding like a small bathroom so we bailed on that approach.
After we released the song, it got picked up for a Nike commercial and we found ourselves having to find a lawyer since now we needed contracts and all that stuff. As part of that process we formed the label to give us an official entity and things moved on from there.
2. Satisfied - Nouvellas
One of the first, if not first song the Nouvellas wrote. This song was coming off our previous band the Dansettes and we wanted to put an imprint on how the Nouvellas would be different from the tightly controlled and more polished Dansettes. Our idea was to have a raw rock band with strong soul and country influences fronted by 2 female lead vocalists. There’s definitely been girl groups, and on the male side, you had some duos like Sam and Dave and The Everly Brothers, but not too many female duos, so I think we had a unique thing going during our time together. I became obsessed about trying to cut the entire Nouvellas album live with minimal overdubs. I love the energy and feel of early 60s Nashville recordings and was challenged by the fact that they recorded those songs with everyone in the room together - even the lead vocals. But after struggling trying to cut an entire album live, I started to realize that these musicians were full time players with hundreds of sessions under the belts. It’s hard to duplicate that feat when you are playing a handful of sessions a month. Eventually I had to concede to doing some overdubs and punches, but I'm happy that the bulk of this track was recorded live which contributes to the energy of this track.
3. Growing - Fascinations Grand Chorus
The surf sound is a huge part of the studio with Andy being a Beach Boys fan. The surf reverb found in Dick Dale recordings is great, but I’m also interested in how the Beach Boys car and surf songs guitars don’t take up a ton of space. The rhythm guitars are so much more dead and percussive compared to a live, sustained modern guitar. I think the use of flatwound strings played a part along with less gain on the amps, so I always try to keep that attitude in mind when I layer my guitars on for a surf song. This song features 5 guitars, well 3 guitars and 2 basses, but I think even with that many guitars, they don’t dominate the track. I try to emulate how Al Jardine and Carl Wilson would arrange where one plays a Chuck Berry shuffle on a guitar with 0 sustain. It almost sounds like the strings are more percussive rather than ringing out. Then you get a 2nd guitar playing higher chords on just the 2-&, and 4 beats and you can get a lot of mileage out of that sound.
4. Hold Tight (Go Out of Your Mind) - The Black Hollies
Speaking of guitars, I loved this era of the Black Hollies with the dual (duel?) guitars of Jon’s angular 12 string rhythm vs. Herb’s musical, fluid, and trippy leads. This song was done as a one-off for a 45 release on our former manager and Brooklyn music impresario Lee Greenfeld's label. The first night we shared a bill with The Black Hollies, I was blown away from their sound right off their opening song. I was working the merch table and usually that’s a good opportunity to step away from the show while the other shitty bands on the bill slog through their set, but as soon as I heard The Black Hollies’ first song, I was hooked. These guys had a classic sound, but they made it their own with Jon’s aggressive 12 string rhythm guitar. You think 12 string and you think chiming Byrds stuff, but Jon’s approach was more staccato and aggressive which you never hear someone play on a 12 string. This was the perfect foil for Herb’s leads. And then you had Justin fronting the band while playing killer bass lines AND they set up Scott, their drummer, right in the front. It was an exciting visual and aural display. Anyway, enough gushing, so for the recording, I wanted Justin’s vocals to be a little less distorted compared to the Black Hollies albums so I think I pushed him to go cleaner than he was initially thinking, but he sounds great and I think it works for the track. Herb’s solo work is top notch on this track and I think the phrasing during his solo flows so naturally. In 60s tradition, Nick is playing his ass off, but we smeared the drums out and made the tambourine louder than the drums! Also listen for the reverb tank smashes throughout the song.
5. He Knew - Chalk and Numbers
Another surf-influenced song and an example of sometimes less is more. Notice Andy isn’t playing any hi-hat or cymbals on this song. With no cymbals, it frees up the room for the bass and other instruments to blossom more. In modern recording this isn’t an issue because they now separate and mic everything individually but on vintage recordings, drummers had to mix themselves more. A performance that sounded great in a live environment may not work in the studio. Ringo was great at creatively employing drum beats that didn’t use cymbals or hi hats and we’ve employed that approach on lots of recordings. It’s also arranged between bass and guitar so they don’t step on each other’s toes. The Steve Cropper guitar style of only hitting the 2s and 4s is a lost art and most guitarists love to overplay everything. By having the bass accent the 1s and 3s while the guitar jumps in the 2s and 4s, you get a nice swing to the rhythm instead of both instruments steamrolling through the song.
The track also features a strong vocal from Sable who also provides her own harmonies. Harmonized vocals from the same singer goes back to Patty Page and Mary Ford. I always think it adds a nice mid-century modern space-age sound to a track and is so much cooler than using harmonies generated by a machine. Without a machine, it's a bit more effort because you have to sing the parts multiple times to get it right, and Sable does a great job blending her multiple vocals together.
6. Only Talkin’ - Souvenir Stand
Before starting Fascination’s Grand Chorus, Stephanie had her own band. The style of recording we do is a very specific approach and has pretty much gone extinct in commercial studios. Stephanie ran into that issue where she wanted to make a song using analog recording techniques, but when you work with a commercial studio, they steamroll you into doing things the "correct" way - meaning a super clean, crisp sound with every instrument in your face. That's fine if you're looking to get on the pop charts where the louder and more in your face, the better. But if you're looking to sound like Bobby Gentry, you need to have some mystery, hiss, and darkness in your recordings. So after Stephanie made a few recordings in standard studios that came OK, but end up being a bit too vanilla (modern) sounding, we decided to work together to try and make some sounds that better represented the music she was writing and listening to.
First off, to stay true to the 60s vibe, I ditched her band and replaced everyone with studio players. Another song where Andy lays of the cymbals to good effect. I tried to go for a cross between George Harrison and Steve Cropper in my guitar parts, while Stephanie worked up a pretty cool mid-60s Beach Boys harmonies for the choruses. Since I wanted the verses to sound as desolate as possible I went with just a single vocal from Stephanie and a percussive part on guitar/snare that I was ripping off from a Janis Joplin song. The choruses are brighter and when the doubled vocals and sleigh bells kick in, there’s a more hopeful sheen to the music. We offer no apologies for going into 12/8 for the ending.
7. Perhaps - Boss Tweed
Boss Tweed are all amazing players and musicians this recording shows that when you have great musicians who can play the song live, you just put mics up and hit record and get a good result. Like most Boss Tweed songs, this song features the mesmerizing vocals of Carolyn Sills. Carolyn totally gets how to approach vocals from a classic style and her phrasing is impeccable. One of the missions of the label is to avoid digital processing of vocals to clean up performances or make them more in tune. Some effects like echo and reverb are used for mood, but I want to hear the humanity of vocals. I want to hear breathes, lip noises, maybe a slight crack - all of that are cues that you are listening to a real human sing, not a robot. I won't even go into using autotune to correct vocals that aren't in tune. This song highlights vocals as they should sound with Carolyn singing closely into a ribbon mic for the intimate verses before she takes a step back to belt out the choruses. To me, Carolyn's vocal is like watching a person do a tightrope act with no net. You're emotionally invested because you connect to the person and acknowledge the risk involved if they wobble or stumble a little, but when they pull it off, you're overjoyed. Where a processed auto-tuned vocal is like watching a movie using CGI effects with a person standing against a green screen to simulate a tightrope walk. You'll be entertained, but ultimately you know it's all fake and won't deeply resonate with you. Carolyn's performance is the real deal with no tricks.
8. In The Dark - Chalk and Numbers
I love these types of song where there’s a strong vibe, especially if the vibe is a little dark and creepy. During Chalk and Number’s run, Andy definitely was exercising his Brian Wilson chops were I think we nailed some very good sounds honoring the Pet Sounds tradition. To separate things a little from the Beach Boys, I always tried to nudge towards some country guitar on the tracks for a different flavor and on this song I was trying to channel Clarence White’s playing. My part is a million times simpler than anything Clarence White would play, but I love his out of phase tones and creative accompaniment. Also, the autoharp on the choruses is a nod to the Carter Family.
Another feature of this song is real backwards guitar - done by flipping the tape over. At this point we’d gone crazy with bouncing since Chalk and Numbers were pushing past the limits of the 8 track. So when we bounce, we’re doing it old school where there’s no going back after the bounce is done. During mixing, I was annoyed with the volume of the tambourine, but since it was on the bounce mix, there was nothing I could do to address it. We tried to have Steve Berson our mastering engineer target it and make it quieter, but once you start eq’ing things, the overall mix sounds weird, so I just accepted it. That’s a huge difference with modern recordings compared to the past. In the past, you’d hear weird things in the recording like an overly loud tambourine, a buzz, or a cough, but it would be left in the final master. These days everything is micro-managed where you can scrub out anything and have the ability to go back and second-guess things. It's definitely a different mindset where you have to commit to artistic decisions and then live with them to move forward.
9. The Cascades - The New Rags
A fresh take on a 100+ year old song written by Scott Joplin. Tom’s electric piano playing is the star of this track, but I want to also highlight Andy's drumming. The foundation of music for me is a creative drummer. Drummers get no respect in a band with people swapping out drummers without any concern as to how it affects the sound. Andy’s performance on this tune shows that this recording is two people in a room interacting and playing off each other. This isn’t Tom sitting down to some canned beat and going to town (there’s nothing lamer than a blues rock guitarist wailing over a steady drum beat!) This track shows the energy and excitement that comes from two players making music together. The drum part ends up being really musical because it feeds off what Tom is playing - something so simple, but still sounds so good.
10. Hearts on Her Arm - The New Rags
This song was done for the New Rags’ 2nd album and I think of this song as a brother or sister to Your Room. Another example of less is more where with Tom’s left hand, you don’t miss a bass guitar. I love how Tom falls off his double-tracked vocals during the bridge. The bulk of vocals done at Silent Stereo are doubled. Doubling was a popular technique in the early to mid-60s and the Beatles probably did the most to popularize the fad, even though it’s found on Beach Boys, Mamas and Papas, and countless other 60s pop recordings. It’s a little tedious because it means the vocalist has to perform the song twice and many times you can his slight discrepancies between the 2 performances. Even the Beatles got sick of this and around the mid-60s they had an engineer create an automatic system to double vocals. We have not had such luck so we still manually double everything at Silent Stereo.
11. Actor/Actress - Fascinations Grand Chorus
A catchy pop song from Fascinations Grand Chorus. The production on this stretches out a little more into the 70s as per their aesthetic although the electric sitar and mellotron are definitely 1960s. With a pop song like this, I would imagine that the drums would be done with a machine instead of with a person. The beat for this song could easily be set up in a drum machine, but I think the track would lose something. Drums machines have replaced drummers in most pop music and the supposed advantage of machine over human is the steady beat pumped out from a ticking computer clock. People want a steady beat to dance over and even in rock, if the drums are played by a human, many times the performance is manipulated by editing to smooth out any tempo fluctuations. Not that this song has bad tempo fluctuations, but I think it's a good thing to have a little bit of push and pull to a beat. If a drum beat is a primal thing related to the rhythm of the human body's heart beat, it's clear the heart doesn't stay tied to a metronome. If you get scared or excited, your heart rate raises. I guess it's fine to listen to music with computer beats if you are running off a pacemaker?
12. Lie Down With Sinners - Chestnut
Chestnut was a project for Greg Remilard to flesh out a bunch of his original songs into a full album. I learned a lot working with Greg because he was a professional engineer who had already done many recordings out in California before moving to NYC. He was the main guiding light during the early days of the studio helping to pick out gear and showing me how to use it. We got a chance to try tons of different set-ups and approaches during the Chestnut sessions which was not only fun, but a great learning experience. For a raging country rock song like this, we wanted to cut things as live as possible. The entire backing track of 2 guitars and drums was cut with the 3 of us playing together (me, Greg, Andy). Since we’re a humble studio, the 3 of us were all in 3 different rooms for a little separation, but it still worked. I feel like the recording is on the verge of going off the rails and I like we could capture that sound. It's good to color outside the lines a little bit.
13. Never Go Home - Nouvellas
Jamie and Leah wanted to have a grittier vocal sound for this track so I recorded their vocals into the board and also out of a guitar amp for some distortion. I also printed the slap back echo to tape so that vocal sound is burned into the takes rather than added in mixing. If you have the courage, there’s a beauty to committing to a sound up front and going with it. Most modern recordings are recorded without any effects or processing and a lot of work is done during mixing. That means that the vocalist or musician comes in, does their job, and then someone fucks around on a computer for hours to make it sound cool. There’s opportunities to revert and undo things if you don’t like it because it’s all in a computer. It’s like working with Microsoft Word where you can save versions and undo mistakes. That’s all fine for business documents, but for music there’s some excitement to be gained from committing to something up front and just going with it. If the singer is performing with echo, they may approach their performance differently than if they heard a plain, dry sound. Jon Gonnelli joined the Nouvellas to provide a 2nd guitar on this track and I had a ton of fun weaving our two parts in out. Hopefully we ended up being more Mick Taylor and Keith Richards instead of Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir.
14. Emily - The New Rags
A nice straight-ahead pop song from the New Rags. This was recorded around the time I started figuring out how to combine echo with reverb on vocals. I use mostly spring reverbs but I also acquired an EMT plate reverb by this point. I started experimented with attaching the reverb to the vocal’s echo and it opened up a bunch of cool sounds. I feel like I'm always chasing the vocal reverb found on Etta James' The Same Rope. Not sure if this song hits that, but it gave Tom’s vocals a little dreamy quality. We always had fun coming up with the weirdest sounds for Tom’s solos. Tom had a combo organ that we ended up running through a treble booster to mess with the sound. I read about the treble booster as being a staple of late 60s/early 70s guitarist’s set-ups where now it’s kind of a forgotten effect - mostly replaced by distortion pedals.
15. Be Nice To Me - Carolyn Sills
This song comes from Carolyn Sills’ solo work. The core is still Boss Tweed, but augmented by a vibraphonist/percussionist and myself on 12 string guitar. Carolyn sent me a batch of songs to record and this one jumped out as having a cool mid-60s Beatles pop sound. We rarely have Strats used in the studio but Gerard’s tone fits in perfectly with the overall sound of the song. I’m a big fan of going smaller in my instrument sounds rather than huge. The sound of the unadorned Strat has a very narrow and distinct range so it sits nicely in its own space which makes the rhythm section have space to bloom. My goal is to end up having the smallest guitar sounds on tape as opposed to huge walls of stacks and distortion. Having the space carved out for the Strat also allows me to throw in the 12 string raga-rock leads without things getting too chaotic and keeping the focus on Carolyn's vocals.
16. I Hope You Do - Chalk and Numbers
This sound I would say is my default production mode - dark, reverby, and moody sounds. The sparse, airy instrumentation lets the song breathe and an expert bass line from Justin Angelo Morey from Sunshine and the Rain/The Black Hollies bounces around the restrained drum part from Andy. One of my personal favorite guitar solos if I don’t say so myself.
17. All My Reason - Chestnut
Obviously Tomorrow Never Knows was on our mind when working on this song, but there’s no shame in that. Since I’ve been part of and have worked with projects that get dismissed as “retro pastiche”, I’ll go on the defense of our approach using this song as an example. For some reason, there are certain styles/sounds/phrases that become trigger points for people saying you are ripping off things. The truth is every musician is ripping off something, but it’s in the marketing as to whether you are new and fresh or not. For example, you could say the Stevie Ray Vaughn approach to electric blues guitar has been beat to death, but as a guitarist that would still be a totally acceptable approach to take. You could get up there with a Strat, Tube Screamer pedal, and a gaucho hat, and people would think you’re a cool dude playing solid blues rock. But if you decide that you want to go down the Steve Cropper path to guitar playing, people will be like “Awesome, you're doing the Blues Brothers, right?” People have poured over how to play and sound like Stevie Ray Vaughn for decades, and that's OK, but then Steve Cropper gets dismissed as a gimmick style. His guitar style is just as valid for people to explore and make new music inspired by it.
So we're using Tomorrow Never Knows as a jumping off point for this song. We went back to the 1 mic on the drums approach for this track. The guitar part sounds like reverse guitar, but I was able to make it sound like that using a swell effect, but I'm not saying which one!
18. When You Make Your Mind - Fascinations Grand Chorus
This song had a long time to marinate in our studio and ended up on Fascinations Grand Chorus’ 2nd release. I feel like we reached peak tape bouncing with the amount of time it took layering tracks on. This song captures the beauty of tape bouncing in that everything is smeared and kind of blurry. I love this type of sound and it’s a lost art. With tape bouncing, each time you do it, you lose some crispness and fidelity. It's now considered a bad thing and something recording engineers would avoid because it's "wrong" to have stuff buried or not clear, but I don’t think all music should be clear and in your face. There's more fun having the mystery some layers of haze to sift through and figure out what's playing on a track.
19. The Ballad of Lee Mellon - Nouvellas
The final Nouvellas song we recorded and finished and shows a possible route from country-soul-rock to British Folk if we kept going! Also, a departure where we went crazy bouncing tracks instead of doing a simple straight-ahead recording sound. This song is definitely hazy with tons of guitars and drum overdubs. Beautiful vocal performance from Jaime who I think can give Sandy Denny a run for her money. To show how out of hand things can get when recording to tape, we spent 1 whole session just working on the echo feedback at the end of the guitar solo. Not the guitar solo, just the echo feedback. We used an Echoplex where I hit the note, and then Joe played the Echoplex to get just the right amount of feedback on the track. Andy was running the tape, so we ended up having to have three people to record that one effect. But it's fun to be able to craft something like that rather than dragging and dropping echo_feedback_3.wav into the song.
20. Aces and Eights - Carolyn Sills
This song was done previously as Boss Tweed, but then augmented with percussion and pedal steel guitar. There’s a lot I love about this song. Carolyn’s vocals are as always beautiful. Special mention goes to Carolyn and Eric as a rhythm section. Eric is a great drummer and knows how to play in a recording setting. He mixes himself really well and that’s why the drums sound good- not because of any recording tricks. Also, Carolyn is not only a great singer, but also nails it as a bass player. Listen how well the drums and bass lock in with each other and just provide a pleasant feel through the entire song. A lot of country music gets dismissed as not being rhythmically interesting, but there's a beauty and challenge in just taking a simple 4/4 beat and making it sound fun to listen to. Buck Owen's rhythm section was great at that where the songs are simple, but they just sound good to listen to and you want to hear more. I'm happy I got to play pedal steel guitar on this track. Although my steel guitar part is Steel Guitar 101, I think hide my deficiencies as a player by not trying anything stupid and playing for the song.
21. Butterfly - Spectres of the Erie Cut
Jon Gonnelli brought this song to the studio and it’s always fun to work on his material because his approach to song craft is very organic. When I work with Jon, where we start is never where we end up. Early recording, like from the 40s and 50s was initially focused on capturing a live performance. The musicians all set up in a room and the recording is reflection of that performance with no gimmicks. Tons of great performances were captured that way, but then in the mid-60s people started using the studio as an instrument where you’d build songs in the studio and not on stage. It got to the point where the Beatles stopped playing live due to the complexity of recreating their studio recordings on stage. Jon’s songs are fun to watch blossom in the studio. We record the basic tracks and then we have additional sessions where new parts are added and as we hear ideas, we can start evolving the song into those directions. Jon is great at this style of working because he can pick up any instrument and get cool stuff out of it. We started with the base tracks of drums, guitar, bass and pedal steel, but we kept adding vocals, mellotron, 12 string, piano, and more guitars. It got to the point where we added so much that I don't think this song could ever be performed on live on stage.