When a brilliant songwriter and singer like Aimee Mann sets out to make a pop record using The Cars as a sonic point of departure, cool things are going to happen. The artist who was once best known as a pioneer in the wide-open field of Internet music distribution has an Elvis Costelloesque facility with words and a beautiful melodic sense. Meanwhile, she and her producer/bassist Paul Bryan (Grant Lee Phillips, Nina Nastasia) have a deep knowledge and critical distance, which help them use sounds of their musical influences as springboards for brand-new ideas.
Mann’s latest, Charmer, does point to elements of The Cars’ massive, hooky guitar and synth sounds, but there are loads of other evocative moments, too, stemming from source material that spoke to Mann and Bryan as they made the album. They found inspiration in everything from New Wave to old detective shows.
Mann and Bryan are constant collaborators, so sounds and arrangements are always being developed, even from the songwriting stage. “He’s always around,” Mann says. “When we’re on tour, we play together, and we’re really good friends. When I write a song, I always send it to him and we start talking about it way before the [recording] process starts.”
By the time Mann has a full album’s worth of material written, Bryan will have a reasonably firm grasp of the sounds that they’ll be working on in the studio, so he pulls together the musicians and instrumentation they’ll need, and then he and Mann will rehearse with the band for a couple of days before their studio session.
“Paul takes great players that play together in an interesting way, and he knows how to ensure that there is a group thing that happens—that magical thing that’s more than people playing the songs,” Mann says. “He’s so good at directing it and allowing it to happen. Some producers are not sensitive to that. For instance, one thing that will really kill it for me is doing too many takes. It really helps to rehearse beforehand, because if you get the band in the studio and try to learn the song on the spot, all the spontaneity is wasted on takes that have mistakes, when people are just learning the chords. The goal is to get fresh takes when people are really inside the song.
Mann and Bryan have a kindred spirit in engineer Ryan Freeland (Bonnie Raitt, Ray LaMontagne, Joe Henry), who tracked most of Charmer and mixed on his carefully designed Pro Tools-meets-analog rig in his personal studio, Stampede Origin (ryanfreeland.com). This is Freeland’s sixth Aimee Mann album; he started with her when he was Bob Clearmountain’s assistant and she was making Bachelor No. 2 (2000). So if you trace Freeland’s path, Mann’s albums are markers along his successful and rewarding career. And he’s definitely with her in terms of his general approach.
“I like making quick but informed choices and keeping the creative momentum,” Freeland says. “You keep everybody on track and focused that way. The thing is that it can always be different. Do you want something brighter? Something darker? Something softer? Something more distorted? Something cleaner? It could be anything, you just need to make a choice. I constantly think of this quote from [Willem] de Kooning that says, ‘In art, one idea is as good as another.’ In engineering, the decisions you make are what define your style; someone else will make a different choice. There isn’t a definitive right or wrong, there’s just what you like and how you hear it.’”
Not surprisingly, the musicians did a fair amount of full-band, live tracking in Freeland’s 900-square-foot studio space. The largest room at Stampede Origin is the control room, so the keyboard rigs—two of them, for multi-instrumentalist Jamie Edwards and keys/ piano player Jebin Bruni—were set up in the room with Freeland. Drums and bass were in the main (medium-sized) tracking room, electric guitars were in one iso booth, and Mann sang and played acoustic guitar in another booth.
Freeland captures her vocal with effectively the same chain he’s been using since 2000: a Neumann M49 mic (in the past she’s also used a U47) to a Brent Averill 1073 MPF (mic pre with filter) to a Summit TLA-100 compressor.
“On a number of the takes, we got keeper live vocals,” Freeland says, “Or they were close enough to where I could edit between live takes. What’s interesting with Aimee is her guitar playing is fairly loud and her singing is fairly soft, so if you put mics in the right positions—even though she’s playing acoustic and singing live—I can actually replace the live vocal while keeping the live acoustic. This is great, because the live acoustic is often driving the track and difficult to replace without messing up the vibe.
To showcase the vintage and offbeat instrument sounds Mann was going for, “I used more funky stuff on the keyboards,” Freeland says. “I really like air on instruments—on acoustic instruments or even with amps I like to have a little bit of air or a little bit of the room in them. So with keyboards I always tend to use old tube mic pre’s, like Ampex MX10s, which are just interesting sounding. Or I’ve been using my pair of Retro Instruments Powerstrips: They’re really amazing- sounding boxes with a great DI. I wanted to run the keys through something that sounds a little weirder than what’s coming straight out of the keyboard DI.”
Electric guitars were taken with a Royer R-121 and an SM57. “I play with the blend or the pan,” Freeland says. “If you want a wider sound, you can move them wide; if you want a really pin-pointy sound, move them close together. I’ll use the brighter back side of the 121 if I want it to match the 57, or the front side if I wanted a darker contrast. It happens really quickly, but often within one take I’ll run in there and move mics back a bit and spread them wider. I have to make quick calls about what it seems like will work in the mix. This is the fun of being the recording engineer and the mixing engineer; you can blur the line and make what are usually mix decisions while recording.”
Meanwhile, however, some of the in-session musical ideas weren’t sitting right with Mann. "I was having a hard time explaining. I had a really specific thing in mind for certain songs, but it can be like: “I’ll know it when I hear it,” which is not helpful to anyone. “Just keep trying some shit and we’ll see!” That’s not an instruction. [Laughs.] So when something didn’t seem right, Paul and I holed up together at his studio and went back to certain source music that had been an inspiration for me when I was writing the record.”
“‘Charmer’ was the big struggle,” Mann continues. “The guitar was hooky, but it was almost too hooky, and it was starting to drive me crazy. So we went back and listened to The Cars and Split Enz, which is a perfect example of that kind of stiff, chunky rhythm guitar with a synthesizer on top, and we listened to Blondie—pop music of that era. It was very instructional. Another thing we went back to, one of the big points of reference, was actually the Rockford Files theme. If you listen to the song, that sound was right at the forefront. The Rockford Files theme was a big influence on this record.”
Revisiting their source material helped Mann and Bryan pinpoint and capture the guitar, synth, and keys sounds they were after. They re-recorded a few parts, and Freeland incorporated the new parts into the mix in Stampede Origin. “Most of the sound of my mixing comes from my 2-bus chain and the way I control it,” explains Freeland, who employs an API summing mixer and a host of analog outboard gear. “It’s the sound of my analog EQs and a little bit of analog compression. Also my reverbs are all analog: I have an EMT 140 plate and some old spring reverbs and a Watkins/WEM Copicat echo. All the effects for everything I’ve done for the past two years have been outboard analog effects. In a way, it’s part of defining a signature sound for my studio. I’ve heard plate reverb plug-ins sound really good on individual things, but as soon as you start trying to put a little bit of everything there, it doesn’t work the same. There’s an interaction that happens when you’re hitting a real plate with multiple instruments—and the kind of smear of the picture it gives you—that I find really compelling.
“I went for a very specific kind of sound on Charmer that’s very different from Aimee’s other albums,” Freeland continues. “The sound I was going for was very specifically trying to ride that pop line, but also being more ragged and tough and not quite so beautiful, because we wanted to rock out a little more. Sonically, we went for a little less smooth, a little more punk. To some extent, it came from the drummer, J.J. Johnson, being so subtle in the way he’ll shift the groove from verse to chorus. And of course Aimee is always going to sound like Aimee, but it’s fun that after all these years we keep reinventing.”
Barbara Schultz is a frequent contributor to Electronic Musician and Mix, as well as a book editor and reviewer, among other things.