Beyond his general recording ethos, what Nick 13 is speaking to specifically is the process undertaken during the sessions for the band’s latest album Music From Regions Beyond. Heralded by fans and critics alike as the band’s most realized work yet, Music From Regions Beyond is a delectable arrangement of punk-infused rockabilly drenched in ’80s pop sensibility — a play on the band’s time-honored psychobilly standard of aggressive, yet catchy, punk laced with golden oldies rock and roll and spattered with honky-tonk. And it’s a genre that Tiger Army has been largely credited with popularizing on American shores; a mixture of sympathetic musical styles that have won them legions of fanatic, adoring fans (one look at the band’s Myspace page and the hordes of those bearing the tattooed mark of the group’s mascot is proof-positive that Tiger Army is more of a lifestyle these days than anything else) and landed them the headlining slot at one of the summer’s most popular package tour offerings.
But it’s not that the world has suddenly caught on to what is by and large still a very underground form of music and just decided to rally behind Tiger Army. They aren’t that lucky. To the contrary, when one first spins Music From Regions Beyond it becomes immediately obvious that the band had tasked themselves to take the psychobilly style and mold it into something more immediately appealing to the masses. That’s not to say that the band has softened up or is simply turning out pop rubbish in hopes of striking it rich — Tiger Army have just successfully refined the style and released an album that satisfies the visceral urge of the punk rock congregation while simultaneously providing the kind of catchy tunes that morning commute radio fiends find themselves humming in the BREAK room come mid-day.
“Our style these days can’t be summed up in one word,” Nick affirms. “But if you have to categorize it, it would still be called ‘psychobilly’. Sure, it’s morphed into a new thing, but the roots are still there — namely punk and 1950s rockabilly/rock and roll.”
It’s a clash of genres that, to the band, ultimately makes sense. “The first wave of both British and American punk bands were very directly influenced by ’50s rock and roll,” he continues. “Whether you were talking about the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, X, the Damned . . . the two genres were always connected. And I was always intrigued by those connections. Look at the Sex Pistols’ The Great Rock and Roll Swindle — it had three Eddie Cochran covers!”
There’s a lot more to the Tiger Army sound — especially on Music from Regions Beyond — than just the coalescence of punk and old time rock and roll. When asked about the country twang, juke joint rhythms, and *gasp* new-wave pop hooks rolling throughout the record, Nick responds: “Going from punk to Eddie Cochran, the Johnny Burnett Trio, Charlie Feathers — all that old Sun Records stuff — is easy. But if you move back another degree, you find that those artists were rooted in the hillbilly/bluegrass/honky-tonk traditions. Our influence follows the same path — Tiger Army starts with punk and then moves all the way to the pre-rock and roll acts. But you can also hear in us what punk gave way to: the new-wave/dark-wave/post-punk ’80s acts like the Cure and Joy Division. If you listen to it, you can see where it makes sense. All those bands are kindred spirits, I believe.”
For all their branching out stylistically, the punk approach to not only songwriting and performance but also recording is clearly evident in Tiger Army’s sound. Though long gone are the days of the boys releasing seven-inches made entirely of super raw four-track basement recordings, the band still prefers to work in the fashion of their forefathers, largely ignoring modern means to the recorded end.
But when it came time to begin tracking Music From Regions Beyond, the band did decide to operate in one way that is decidedly non-punk: Hire a producer and forego the DIY method of self-producing.
This is all the more shocking considering that up until Music From Regions Beyond, Nick had produced all of Tiger Army’s releases. “I was pleased with the way our last album — III: Ghost Tigers Rise — sounded. And because I was actually happy with the recording, I felt that I had taken things as far as I could as a self-producer,” he humbly confesses. “I wouldn’t have come to this conclusion after II: Power of Moonlite, because I felt we were pretty far off at that point. I wanted to learn more about the process — get a closer point of reference — before I collaborated with anyone else.”
Enter punk rock super-producer Jerry Finn — he who has been behind the board for bands like AFI, Rancid, Green Day, Bad Religion and . . . Morrissey? “I was so extensively familiar with his catalogue,” he says, “especially Morrissey. I could listen to the albums he produced and hear exactly what he would bring to the table.”
As luck would have it, long-time Tiger Army pals AFI invited Nick to the studio in 2006 to lay down backing tracks for the Decemberunderground album, introducing Nick to Finn. Finn was exactly the type of producer Tiger Army needed — someone with the production chops to track a dyed-in-the-wool punk band such as Rancid and then turn right around and offer up the pop treatment necessary to make a mega-selling Morrissey album.
“By the end of the sessions, I had a good idea of Jerry’s perspective as a producer. He became the only choice to produce this album. The way he works is rooted in punk. His punk background really shows [in the studio],” Nick enthuses. ”It’s all about keeping the energy of the track and not flogging it to death during the mix — that’s how you make a punk album. That’s how Jerry does it.”
Being ballsy enough to bring a devil-may-care attitude into the tracking room is only the second step to cutting a album that sounds like a middle finger in the face of the status quo — a band must, of course, first have a place to flip the world off from. So Finn and cohort/engineer Joe McGrath took to streets of Los Angeles searching for a studio that was not only functional (i.e. stacked to the ceiling with what Tiger Army had specified as their must-haves: vintage Neve or API consoles, a tape machine or three, and a live room that would hold the trio comfortably so they could track their basics all together) but also had serious vibe. They wanted a studio that had housed the production of classic albums. They wanted a studio that, if possible, would hearken back to the famed Sun Studio — the birthplace of the rockabilly sound.
The team settled on Sunset Sound’s Sound Factory Studio A. As McGrath recalls: “We knew Nick wanted to work in a room with a very specific feel. We walked in and it felt like the place had not been touched by time — it still had the original tiling on the walls! And it had a custom 36 x 16 x 38 custom API console! And a Studer A827 24-track! And an Ampex ATR 102 2-track! We knew we would be able to get a warm recording to match the vintage sound the band naturally has there.”
Studio A was also a practical choice given the drum sound the band was aiming for. “The room there is not all that large,” McGrath continues. “That would be a deal BREAKer for most people that think classic sound = huge drums = big room. But a huge drum sound isn’t what psychobilly music is about. The drums are close and punchy, so we needed a smaller room to help keep the drum sound naturally tight.”
Beyond this, the layout of the live room and its satellite rooms was perfect considering the band’s intentions to cut their first-pass tracks live. With a main live room (26' x 23'), a “piano room” (14' x 20'), and small receptionist’s office converted to an iso booth (9' x 14') laid out in an L-shaped pattern, sectionalized by sliding glass doors, Nick 13 and upright bassist Jeff Roffredo could join drummer James Meza in the main live room to lay down tracks while keeping their amps isolated in their respectively assigned rooms and minimizing amp bleed into the drum and room mics.
“They really didn’t want to be crammed into booths. They are a very ‘live’ band, they needed that interaction, that eye contact, in order for them to perform the songs with the right dynamics,” McGrath confirms.
Even with Studio A being more than well equipped to handle Tiger Army’s needs, there were still a few foreign components that needed flown in before the band could get to work. “I’m not an analog purist,” Nick says almost defensively. “I like to cut vocals in Pro Tools — it’s a workflow thing if nothing else. But bass and drums in particular just sound better on tape. We had to have those instruments to tape. The natural compression of tape is really flattering to those sources . . . but that’s not enough. We had to make sure the signal chain was up to par with what was going in, and what it was going to.”
What was missing? The band’s go-to mic pres — what McGrath calls “my desert island piece of gear” — the Chandler TG2.
They didn’t need just one — they needed lots of them. Modeled after the EMI TG12428 (think: Abbey Road and Dark Side of the Moon), the band insisted on running almost every mic signal through their TG2s, ascertaining that, in the past, the naturally warm distortion the unit lends to the source is key to nailing the somewhat dark Tiger Army sound.
“The TG2 tends to color the sound a good bit,” McGrath explains. “They aren’t transparent by any stretch of the imagination. But colorful pres are good for this kind of music. I like the equipment to do some work — making an album is about adding to the natural sound of the band. We weren’t recording classical music; it didn’t need to sound ‘true.’ It needed to sound milky, vintage, warm. You can crank the output on the TG2 and run the input really hot and it won’t BREAK up. That’s what makes this pre great. So Jerry and I brought in ten of them . . . and got ready to run every mic through them.”
Assembling Nick, Jeff, and James in the main room of Studio A, Finn and McGrath armed the tape machine with 1/2" Quantegy 456 reels and began cutting the band live, with the intention of later transferring to Pro Tools and making slaves of the tracks. But the plan wasn’t foolproof. Straight out of the gate the band began experiencing problems arising from the bass and the guitars not syncing up pitch-wise after the first few takes. Not a day into their sessions the decision had to be made to focus solely on getting great drum tracks first, leaving the guitar and bass parts as scratch tracks to later re-cut.
Sitting behind what McGrath calls a “Franken-kit” assembled by drum tech extraordinaire Mike Fasano, Meza’s minimal set up consisted of a 20x22" DW kick, a 8x10" Pork Pie ride tom, a 12x14" Pork Pie floor tom, and 5x14" Ludwig Black Beauty snare — a brass drum long-held by purists as one of the most desirable snares for drummers looking for a crisp, sharp, and dry snare sound. McGrath, needing to capture a very present and cutting kit, was forced to custom-tailor his standard miking approach to bring the best out of a kit made up of somewhat disparate pieces.
“For the kick, I used an [Audio-Technica] ATM25, since it’s a hypercardioid and that translates to extreme directionality,” McGrath informs. “We needed some attack for the articulation, but also a good deal of ‘woof’. Instead of setting a [Yamaha] NS10 outside of the kit on the outer head to get the ‘woof’ and just using the ATM25 to get the attack from the beater head — which I sometimes do — I just placed the ATM25 about half the depth of the drum, pointing a half-inch to the right of where the beater strikes the head. This way we got the attack of the kick, but also the ‘boom’ of the shell and the head. It sounded punchy, but solid.”
When it came to Meza’s Black Beauty snare, McGrath again went the hypercardioid route, employing a beyerdynamic M 201 pointed at a 45-degree angle at the sweet spot of the head (“dead-center of the head”). The polar pattern of the M 201 allowed for serious isolation, which gave Finn plenty of room to work with in placing the cutting snare sound prominently in the mix and getting a charged snare sound — a must for a proper punk production.
“B&K 4011s were each placed at 45-degree angles on the toms,” McGrath shares, noting that he used them due to their ability to survive enormous SPL. “[They handle] around 130 dB,” he continues, “so they can take drums. I prefer condensers to dynamics when it comes to toms. Condensers have a nicer top to them; they are smooth but pronounced. They really bring out the true tom sound. And the B&Ks just sounded good. They sound like they were made to record James’ toms.”
On the subject of overheads, McGrath shares: “I only used the overheads to pick up the cymbals. I’ve been doing this a lot lately: relying on my room mics to widen up the stereo image.”
Many engineers are doing this now that we live in the age of (near) unlimited track counts, stating that it gives them more flexibility when it comes time to balance the drums out in the mix. McGrath further elucidates: “I put a matched pair of Royer R-121s, each two feet right and left, respectively, of where James sat, about one foot above the cymbals, centered over the kit.”
Since the R-121 is a ribbon and thus has a figure 8 pattern, both sides equally pick up sound from the source. Turning the R-121 so the back is facing the source yields a brighter response, while the front is somewhat darker and thus better for already bright sources such as cymbals that need a mic to mellow them out.
“A matched pair of R-121s are also what I used for the room mics. I placed them at 180 degrees on each side of where James sat, about 12 feet from the kit,” McGrath continues. “I always put room mics as far back from the kit as I can, so I can get as much of the room as I can, even when we aren’t going for a real big, roomy sound. Later, you can just take those two mics and pan them hard left and right and really fatten up your stereo image.”
The room ‘pumping’ is apparent on Music From Regions Beyond, so obviously McGrath and Co. hit the compressors hard and often, right?
“I believe in smashing drums to tape, especially the room mics. So we ran the room signals into the Chandler TG1 compressor, which has a squishy, vintage sound. We set the attack mid to slow, the release mid to fast, and used the device as a limiter. This is a similar sound as you’ll get with a [Universal Audio] 1176, but in that case you’ll need to set the ratio to 8:1 to get the same results.”
Compressing during the tracking process is brave enough — after all, it’s not a commitment you can BREAK later down the line — but McGrath didn’t stop there: All of the Tiger Army drum tracks were EQ’d to tape as well. “We weren’t afraid to commit to a sound right off the bat,” Nick 13 adds. “That’s part of the punk recording process — feeling confident enough in what you are doing to just do it.”
McGrath wholeheartedly agrees. “Mixing should be about balancing what you’ve tracked, not overhauling your entire sound,” he says. “So we’ll compress and EQ certain instruments during the tracking. On the drums, for example, I used a Pultec EQP-1A on the overheads as a high pass filter, with a little boost at 10 and 12kHz to make the cymbals sparkle a little. When we heard the snare, we thought it needed some extra ‘snap’, so we used an API 550 to boost between 5 and 8kHz and add that extra ‘crack.’ The kick was sounding a little muddy, so we ran that through the EQP-1A, engaged at the 60Hz setting, and cranked the boost and attenuation knobs until the 200Hz range got scooped. It took the ‘mud’ out of the kick, and left some low-end room for another sound to live in.
“It was going to need it at some time or the other. Why not just do it now?”
"The rule was: No guitars in the studio that were made past 1960,” McGrath says with a laugh. Nick 13 concurs: “That dry wood that you’ll have in an old guitar is the key to the vintage guitar sound. So I brought in my collection, and Jerry brought in his, and we went to town.”
With the drum tracks now laid to tape, the Tiger Army guys forged onward, cutting the guitar tracks before Roffredo’s bass lines in an attempt to take advantage of the relative pitch regularity of the guitar as opposed to the upright bass, leaving Roffredo with a more concrete point of tonal reference from which to work instead of putting the onus on Nick to match the somewhat finicky nature of the upright bass.
“I used to play an early ’60s Gretsch Anniversary,” Nick tells, adding that the hollowbody guitar caused massive feedback problems in a heavily amplified environment and thus was retired from both the stage and the studio. “I went out and got a ’57 Gretsch Duo Jet because it had a semi-hollow enclosed chamber in the body that gave me some of what I loved about the hollowbody tone without all the problems. Jerry also brought in a ’59 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins model and those two guitars became the primary guitars for Music From Regions Beyond.”
Needing a guitar that sounded more aggressive, more full, more bottom-heavy, Nick fell for Finn’s ’59 Les Paul Jr. which was used to track the album opener “Prelude: Signal Return”, the almost-metal “Hotprowl”, and the band’s radio-friendly hit single “Forever Fades Away.”
“I swear by Fender Tonemaster heads and the matching 4x12 cabs live, so we brought those in to the studio,” Nick adds, hiding not his affection for what has long been regarded as the ultimate surf/rockabilly guitar amp. “We ended up using the Tonemaster in conjunction with a Fender Bassman, blending both signals and comping them down to one track to get a sound that was clear but appropriate for everything from the cleaner rockabilly parts to the punk guitar tones. And for everything clean, we just went through a silver-face Fender Super Reverb.”
Having Nick’s tone dialed in from the source (“all the distortion is from the amp,” he says), McGrath threw his trusty R-121s up on the cabs and started getting to work. “I placed the mics slightly off-axis from the cone, about four or five inches from the grill — so about six inches total from the actual speaker itself,” he explains. “This was great for the rhythm tracks . . . you’ll usually get too ‘washy’ of a sound adding room mics in on rhythm tracks, and they wanted a focused sound. Plus, since the R-121 is a figure 8 pattern mic, you get a little kick back from the room as is and that’s enough to fatten the sound up sufficiently.”
Lead guitars were a different beast altogether. “We wanted some room sound for those,” Nick says.
Moving to just the Tonemaster, McGrath says: “I put a Neumann U87 18 inches back from the R-121 and a Røde NT2 54 inches back from that to avoid phase issues. The mics were placed in a direct line from one another, with their diaphragms lined perfectly up. Since we weren’t measuring, I could just pop the mics out of phase, move them until I got the thinnest sound possible, and then pop them back in phase and we would be good. We mixed both mics up just a bit under the R-121 track and then comped all three tracks down to one.”
All mics were run into McGrath and Finn’s massive TG2 racks, straight to tape, with no compression added. “The natural compression from the tape is enough for guitars,” McGrath says matter-of-factly. “I don’t want to slap the tape too hard by putting a compressor in the chain during tracking. Not for guitar at least. I wanted to leave Jerry some room to mess with that in the mix.”
But this wasn’t indicative of any “cold feet syndrome” on behalf of the band or the production team. Again, the troupe were daring — if not borderline indignant — when it came to tracking with effects and EQ.
“We’re going for the vintage sound, but we’re also following the vintage modus operandi,” Nick says. “No plug-ins; no emulators of any kind. The guitar delays on the album are mostly from my Boss DM-2, set to approximately 150ms to get that slap-back, rockabilly sound.”
“All the reverbs are from an Echoplex or an old Fulltone Tube Tape Echo. The settings are the same as they are when they are in the practice spot,” McGrath adds. “We didn’t reamp and then apply effects; we didn’t save it for the mix. We weren’t scared to commit to the sounds they came up with when writing the album. Plus, it’s never the same when you add effects after the tracking. It doesn’t sound like it does when you run a guitar into a pedal, through an amp, out of the speaker, through the air, into the mic, through the pre, and then to tape. It doesn’t sound as real when you do it after the fact — it sounds fake, like the guitar sounds they used to get on ’80s pop records.
“We needed to open up the top end on the guitars. And we needed to do it before the signal hit the tape,“ McGrath laughs. “So we gave the EQ a boost between 2 and 5kHz to let that top end breathe. Then all we had to do was pan the rhythm guitars hard left and right to get a real wide guitar sound. We sent the solos straight down the middle so they really hit you in the chest, with the levels matched to the lead vocal so they cut through the instrumentation . . . and then it was on to the bass.”
"The upright bass in psychobilly is a direct atavistic link with early rock and roll,” Nick remarks. “A lot of the rockabilly and honky-tonk in the earliest days didn’t have drums. So there’s a holdover in style from when the upright bass provided the rhythm for the song, when it served as the primary percussive device. This goes back to the Scotty [Moore] and Bill [Black] Sun Studios stuff in 1954.
“An upright bass interacts differently with a band when drums are factored into the equation, when you introduce cranked amplification into the picture and try to combine it in the way it was played in the Presley Sun Sessions.”
Recording upright bass is notoriously difficult when tracking what is by all definitions — regardless of their diverse tastes and ambitious sonic palette — a loud rock band. Upright bass is a rather quiet instrument, and when laying down tracks live in the studio it almost always must be amplified. This brings in a host of other problems: It’s a fretless instrument that reacts wildly depending on the player’s attack and nuances that aren’t meant to be amplified are made suddenly glaring when the bass is cranked. This results in a loss of perspective, and it’s easy for the player to play less than dynamically when they are forced to compete with louder instruments. It’s a delicate musical tool, and the Tiger Army guys were not of the mind to sacrifice clarity or low-end just to get the bass lines to tape. So with Roffredo bringing his vintage Kay upright into Studio A for the Music From Regions Beyond sessions, McGrath and Finn were forced to figure out a way to accommodate the rather “overparticular” instrument.
“We needed to get the sound of the body of the bass,” McGrath explains. “So we set up a [Neumann] U47 and a Royer R-122V — which is a vacuum tube ribbon — pointed directly at the f-hole, since this is where you’ll get all your low-end information. Personally, I felt the ribbon captured the natural sound of the bass better than the condenser. It may sound like a cliché, but the ribbon made it sound like your ear was right up on the body of the bass. We wanted that effect.”
Capturing the percussive effects of Roffredo’s left hand slapping against the fret board were of the utmost importance to the band, so McGrath placed a B&K 4011 approximately 18 inches dead-on from the midpoint of the neck. “It really brought out that ‘tic-tac-tic-tac’ sound of the fret board,“ McGrath says. “To me, the 4011 is just a great all-purpose mic. It’s smooth top end really worked well in this application because it kept the percussive sound from being too harsh.”
Roffredo’s Kay, as Nick tells us, is also outfitted with two custom upright bass pickups — one fastened in a bridge position and another in the neck position. Both pickups have separate outputs and are actively engaged during the tracking process. “The bridge pickup brings out more of the body of the bass sound,” McGrath explicates, “and the neck pickup gets more of the neck action and high-end.” This produces an effect similar to what one would get if they decided to mic the upright where the neck and the body meet.
“Both signals run into a dual DI with separate outs, with the bridge pickup signal running into an [Ampeg] B15 and the neck pick-up into an old Comet 40B guitar amp, loaded with 2x12s,” McGrath further elucidates. “The Comet has a great ‘broken’ sound when you run a bass through it. If you soloed the track, you could swear something was loose and rattling around inside — it sounds like two pieces of metal clacking together every time the bass hits the head. It was a great compliment to Jeff’s style on the neck.”
Placing another B&K 4011 on the Comet 40B and a DPA 4041-T2 omni-directional tube mic on the B15 (due to it’s ability to handle up to 144 dB SPL and because the tube design adds a small amount of color to the source), the two signals were put through a two channel Tube-Tech LCA 2B compressor, used as two mono compressors.
“We compressed the R-122V and the 4011 from the physical bass itself as well,” McGrath adds, describing the signal path as “through the TG-2s, of course, and into an EAR 660 compressor — which is modeled after the old Fairchild 660. The controls on the front panel are pretty arcane, and it’s a really variable unit. You have a ton of control, but you are also stuck just twisting knobs until you find something that sounds right.
“I was very light with my compression, I can tell you that much,” McGrath continues. “I don’t suggest crushing a bass too much before it hits the tape — it’s easy to lose valuable headroom if you do that. So a light compression and a cut in the 200–250Hz range for the R-122V, which was to clean up the murkiness you get when miking the f-hole, was all we needed to do. Then we just assigned each mic to a separate fader on the API, balanced the tones, then comped them down to one track for the mix.”
"Working in Pro Tools, in my experience, is just plain faster,” Nick 13 explains when asked why the tape was packed up and Sound Factory’s Studio A vacated. “We knew the instruments needed to be put to tape, so we put a lot of our resources there, and then headed over to Paramount Studio B and cut the vocals in Pro Tools HD3.”
While certainly not the most luxurious of the Paramount facilities, Studio B — with it’s 40-input SSL 4000 E/G, was adequate for the band’s needs. “It’s a smaller studio,” McGrath says, “but it had a large vocal booth — large enough that we didn’t feel like we were tracking in a closet. And it was fine for the few overdubs we still had to do.”
First things first: McGrath and Finn had to find a mic that suited Nick’s dark, tenor vocals. Though the BLUE Bottle had been a go-to vocal mic on past sessions, the trio decided to shoot out an AKG C12, Neumann U47, and a Neumann U67 to see if — given the slight sonic change in direction for Music From Regions Beyond — perhaps an old standard vocal mic wouldn’t be appropriate.
“We ended up going back to the BLUE,” McGrath tells. “The mic has great clarity. It’s true to the source, but it adds a lot of body . . . plenty of ‘chest’ sound. It’s not nasally at all.
“Nick’s voice is low enough that I had to shelve the low-end a tiny bit,” he adds. “But the BLUE’s sound is so crystal clear that I didn’t need to boost any mids or highs. The color of his vocals is due to the TG2, which has a real Neve-like quality to it, especially when the source is vocals.”
From the TG2, Nick’s vocals ran into the EAR 660 before hitting Pro Tools. “Even though we were recording into Pro Tools, we wanted the front end to be all-tube,” Nick discloses.
Expounding on this recording philosophy, McGrath comments: “Adding the 660 to the chain put one more colorful tube component in the line before we got into the digital world. It’s the tubes and the circuitry of the components that makes Nick’s vocals sound as warm and retro as the other instruments. We knew we could make this work in Pro Tools, and that it would make our lives easier. We could track more on the fly, comp easier, and play around with vocal effects without committing them to tape, which is too expensive as it is.”
To make Nick’s vocals more immediately manageable and dynamically consistent, McGrath compressed down 6 dB with the EAR 660. “I just got them sounding good; I didn’t bother compressing too much during the tracking stage,” he states. “Plus, Nick didn’t really need it — he’s a great singer and he knows how to control his voice. We didn’t have to cut and paste everything, crush his vocals, or auto-tune all his parts. In fact, most every vocal part is a single take, a single track. We’d only double the vocals for the choruses. Otherwise we’d go with one vocal track. I find that doubling all your vocal tracks to get a fatter sound is a good way to keep the choruses from hitting as hard as they could. I definitely suggest keeping the verse vocals singular and only doubling for big choruses.”
It’s pretty bare bones, pretty punk rock. And that’s important to the band given their roots. Taking it one step further in vocal department, and giving a huge nod to the old New York Hardcore and Oi movements, the band decided to bring in a group of friends to Studio B and add the icing to the proverbial cake: sing-along gang vocals.
“We just piled the band and however many of their friends we could fit into the vocal booth,” McGrath laughs. “We put the BLUE about a foot above the tallest head, pointed down at a 90 degree angle to get that ‘crowd to the stage’ perspective. We wanted a more massive group sound than we could get with just the bodies we had, so we did three takes and then Jerry just mixed them all together so it sounded like a huge mass of people.”
Classic guitars, vintage upright basses, small and punchy sounding drum kits, and minimal, crooning vocals — it’s hard not to hear the psychobilly in the “new” Tiger Army sound even if there is a fair amount of New Order and Depeche Mode popping in now and again. There was one important element, however, that the band felt they needed to round out their sound on the record: pedal steel guitar.
Bringing in long-time Tiger Army contributor and world-renowned pedal steel player Greg Leisz to play on the country-inspired heartBREAKer “Where the Moss Slowly Grows” was tradition, as Nick 13 explains: “We were put in contact with Greg back in 1999, and he’s played on one song off of every album we’ve recorded since then. He’s an incredible musician, very well regarded in the industry. And he’s a staple of Tiger Army records now.”
Wielding his trusty Fender Champ pedal steel and carrying a Fender Blackface Twin Reverb in tow, Leisz set up in Studio B and banged the section out in no time at all. “Greg is such a great player that there is nothing you can do to make him sound bad,“ McGrath laughs.
“We liked the sound we had achieved for Nick’s clean tracks, so we kept the signal path the same,” McGrath tells. “I put the R-121 five inches from the grill of Greg’s Twin Reverb, slightly off-axis, and then ran that through the TG2. We had our sound pretty much right off the bat. With a pedal steel, the player is very much in control, dynamically speaking — he’s controlling his sound with the volume pedal. There’s not a lot popping up that you have to crush down with compression. Still, I put a TG1 in line set with a ratio of 2:1 with 3–4 dB of compression just to keep things nice and even. We sent him straight into Pro Tools from the compressor and let that be that. It was real easy.”
"Easy” is perhaps the best adjective one could muster to describe the sessions for Music From Regions Beyond, at least relatively speaking. From day one, Tiger Army has experienced their fair share of hardships, from personal tragedies befalling band members (such as the shooting of ex-drummer Fred Hell), to regular turnover in the player department, to never quite realizing their true intentions in the recorded medium. This time, though, Nick 13 has little, if nothing, to lament.
“When I started this band back in 1995, almost nobody in the states was familiar with this style of music. There was no crowd for psychobilly here,” he says with a sigh. “I simply couldn’t find musicians who were interested in playing this style, let alone a large audience. It was frustrating — I wanted Tiger Army to be a full-time vocation. I was left in the position of recruiting every friend I could just to get through a recording session. There have been lots of people in this band that have fallen into the session category, and there were plenty — once the ball got rolling — that I intended to have stay as permanent members but just couldn’t. But when I found Jeff and James, I was immediately struck by their chemistry as musicians. Everything quickly coalesced and I knew this was the strongest lineup I ever had. And I knew we were going to make the strongest album we ever had. If I could think it, they could play it. And if they could play it, Joe and Jerry could record it. It really helped push the music forward and now, for once, we are where we need to be.”
Digital-audio workstations offer near unlimited track counts, and with such a bounty of sonic space available, it seems silly to commit to anything before the final mix. Go ahead — ecord gazillions of tracks, critically evaluate every single one, refine anything that’s not perfect, and then comp the hippest performances from millions of little pieces of music. Be sure to spend eons doing all of this assessing and tweaking, because you certainly don’t want one less-than-stellar moment spoiling the majesty of your track’s total running time. Nope. You must be sure every element is absolutely flawless. It’s like living with your significant other for 100 years to make sure their every utterance and personality quirk bring you nothing but bliss. If the century of scrutiny has failed to reveal one unseemly trait, you can safely schedule that wedding for Year 101. Until then, hold back on that commitment.
Well, some will find this scenario appealing. But to craft the ballsy psychobilly of Tiger Army, you’re going to need to find love fast.
Part of the appeal of punk and its subgenres is that energy, passion, and mission are prized more than chops, technique, and sonic perfection. Some of the most influential ’70s punk singles totally sound like crap — even compared to what a newbie with a home studio can produce today. But winning a Grammy or selling enough records to behave badly at Cannes was never the point. It was all about the fire of the performance — which is something the Tiger Army team understands.
Many of the original punk tracks were at the mercy of finance — meaning that the budgets were often so miniscule that they were recorded in small studios as quickly as possible. But as Nick 13 reveals, the concept of tracking live, tracking fast, and tracking in a vibey room also harkens back to the era of seminal rock and roll rebels such as Eddie Cochran. Heck, even the Brian Epstein-sanitized Beatles recorded their first record in less than ten hours.
The point is that a group of musicians who can really play fiercely — really shake every wisp of soul from their instruments and voices — are often best served by documenting the performance with as little fuss as possible. Multiple retakes, vast numbers of tracks, massive signal processing, and epic mix sessions will likely kill that messy and elusive spark of live fervor, leaving you instead with very well-recorded songs that are emotionally as flat as binder paper. To achieve the propulsive impact of live-in-the-studio passion, you must commit to sounds, EQ, and limitations. You must conceptually cripple your DAW, and most of the advances of the past 50 years.
So, if you’re game, here are three suggestions for bringing the Tiger Army method to your own personal-recording scene.
It’s Not About the Gear
Nick 13 and Music From Regions Beyond producer Jerry Finn had some very nice tools at their disposal, but the punk ethic is more about the process. So don’t fret about your piddling microphone collection, your lack of vintage mic preamps, or any other gear-related snafus. Just start by rehearsing your band (or session musicians if you’re a solo act) until everyone can play your hopefully well-crafted songs with confidence and style. Of course, don’t over-rehearse everyone into a stupor. You want the songs to sound loose, but powerful.
Strangle Your Options
In order to ensure that I can’t get paranoid and track a project into oblivion, I severely limit my tracking options. Drums are recorded to no more than four tracks (kick, snare, overhead left, overhead right). Guitars are confined to stereo rhythm tracks, and two solo/sweetening tracks. The bass gets one track, and keyboards no more than two. The basics — drums, bass, and rhythm guitar — must be recorded live, and vocals get one final track (although I allow myself up to three complete tracks of vocal performances from which to comp a master). Background vocals get a stereo pair of tracks. That works out to about 16 tracks — it’s back to the ’70s!
Commit to Sounds As They Go Down
The Tiger Army team tracked with EQ — a practice that cuts the crap and gets sounds down fast. When you limit your options to around 16 total tracks, it should force you to envision the overall sonic landscape early (as you pretty much know immediately what elements you’ll be dealing with), making EQ choices less than scary. This is also where tracking basics all at once is key, because you can easily EQ the drums and bass to work with each other, rather than waiting to construct basics from various different performances. Tracking guitars with appropriate effects and EQ tweaks is usually a blast for the player, as it almost simulates the feel of a live gig.
If you’ve done everything right, you should be able to do a final mix by merely moving faders and selecting a vocal reverb and/or delay. Everything else should sound like a record. This is the true beauty of sonic commitment — you don’t have to worry over details after the wedding, so to speak. Once you say “I do,” you’re done.