Huffing and puffing up the steep, winding street that Michael “Fitz” Fitzpatrick lives on in the artsy Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, you know immediately which house is his: It’s the one with music blasting out of its front room. This front room, which looks like a keyboard graveyard, is where Fitzpatrick and his group the Tantrums recorded their debut album, Pickin’ Up The Pieces. This very same room is where its follow-up, More Than Just A Dream got its start.
Fitz and the Tantrums caught the public’s attention with Pieces’ guitar-free, Motown-inspired, brash sound revolving around a rescued-from-the-trash-heap Conn organ, saxophone, piano, and Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs’ dueling vocals. What caused a stir more than the album was Fitz and the Tantrums’ high-energy live show, which catapulted the indie L.A. band to national fame. This winter, with two years of solid touring experience, they returned to recording, vowing not to replicate what they’d already done. They retain the soul factor, but update it a couple of decades for an ‘80s flavored, R&B-tinged sound.
Writing and preproduction were done in Fitzpatrick’s front room, where he feels the most safe being creative. Work was done either on Pro Tools 7 or at a Yamaha upright piano. (Extracted from his parents’ storage, it is the same one Fitzpatrick learned on.) Most of the arrangements are fleshed out here before technology takes over the song idea. The goal for Dream was to find a producer that could seamlessly bring together the analog and the digital—and to get out of Fitzpatrick’s front room. To this end, the group enlisted Tony Hoffer (M83, the Kooks, Beck) and headed to Sound Factory in Hollywood.
“It was the first time I got to make a record from start to finish in a formal setting with a producer.” says Fitzpatrick, arranging and rearranging his hat, flashing glimpses of his distinctive skunk-streaked hair. “We wanted someone that would challenge us as songwriters, but also come with solutions. Every day that we worked with [Hoffer], my trust in him multiplied exponentially. I could feel finding the balance between letting our intuition and our opinions marry with his.”
One of the key elements on Dream that required a fine touch with both the organic and the synthetic was drums. To create a dryer, tighter feel on the standout album opener “Out Of My League,” kitchen towels were taped over all the toms and the snares and a tent was created to contain the sounds. Alternatively on the epic album closer “Merry-Go-Round,” treatments were removed to capture arena rock energy. The chorus has a live, almost fractured drum fill (courtesy of drummer John Wicks) that matches its triumphant tone while contrasting with the verses’ sentiments of loneliness.
“It’s live drums, but chopped and filtered,” Fitzpatrick elaborates on the latter’s drum sounds. “Then take off all the filters, percussion, but with a programmed kick and then another set of live drums, big hall ones. You can hear the programmed kick with the one version of live drums but filtered again. On ‘Out Of My League’ it’s all been fused into one drum part so you can’t tell it’s three different parts.”
Pianos, vintage synthesizers, and virtual synthesizers are used in tandem, but are not recorded direct; The sound is captured through a combination of guitar amp and reverb (Eventide is a favorite) and room tone.
“When you’re using all these mixed mediums, you push air whenever possible,” says Fitzpatrick. “The further away the mic gets, the more air there is in the room. This helps an instrument that feels a little dry. Even if it’s just a synthesizer, it feels more organic. This was one of the tricks we used to make the pianos, the Conn organ, and Farfisas merge with the Korg MS-20 and modern synthesizers. We created our own unique path for it so by the time it got into the track, it stood apart as its own unique thing that no one else owned but us.”
Coming up with signature paths is one of Fitzpatrick’s musical characteristics. For his vocals, almost all of which were recorded in his front room late at night, he uses an ancient Neumann CMV-563 microphone going into two TL Audio mic pres and tube compressors into Pro Tools, where he adds Universal Audio’s 1176 virtual compressor and Wave Arts MasterVerb reverb plug-in.
“I wanted crunchy and slightly distorted vocals,” says Fitzpatrick. “I had struggled forever to find the right way to get distortion. I would put guitar amp simulators on there and it would give me that distortion, but it would be harsh and ugly. One day I pulled up one of the plug-ins that’s been on Pro Tools since time began. It has a little distortion and saturation that is perfect and not piercing.”
Fitzpatrick takes this vocal manipulation to a different level on “Out of my League,” layering seven vocal tracks on the last chorus. Opting for a synth bass but not wanting it to sound sterile, bass player Joseph Karnes played the notes, which are then translated into MIDI messages. 50 synth bass sounds were scrolled through to find the perfect one, but the way it plays is organic and natural.
“On each song, there is a different character and personality for the drums, bass, keyboards,” says Fitzpatrick. “It was an interesting way to build these structures while still trying to make the performance aspect come through. We took time sorting out the tempo, which is something [Hoffer] put in our head, and is such a big part of what can make a song come to life. By moving tempos, things were revealed on songs that made us re-orchestrate the way we approached them.
He continues, “There are engineering producers and big-picture creative guys. Then there are those people who can do both, that’s [Hoffer]. I grew up in the bedroom-studio school of music. To have a producer that is also a musician really helped bring my ideas to execution.”
Lily Moayeri is a regular contributor to Electronic Musician.