In the Studio: Jesse Malin with Brian Thorn

Recording 'New York Before the War'
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Recording 'New York Before the War'

Jesse Malin describes the sound of “Addicted,” the first single off his album New York Before the War, as “The Ramones meet Paul Simon.” It might not be the easiest thing to imagine, but trust him—the song is tough, tuneful, raw, yet elegant. The entire album is a beautiful capsule of Malin’s joyous approach to hard-core rock ‘n’ roll.

The album was made in a few different New Yorkarea studios, with several special guests (Peter Buck, Alejandro Escovedo, Craig Finn, Wayne Kramer), and a stellar band including bass player Catherine Popper (Jack White, Ryan Adams), drummer Randy Schrager (Scissor Sisters) and guitarist/co-producer Derek Cruz (St. Marks). Handling the lion’s share of the recording and mixing was engineer Brian Thorn.

“Jesse was looking at recording in The Magic Shop, and that’s where I came from,” Thorn says. “He wanted to record to tape, live in the room, and he wanted to walk out with a pretty complete picture after the first four-day session. We then spent months working on it, but that was the approach we started with!”

Thorn captured basics to a Studer A827 machine, though things got off to a slightly rocky start. “Something was off,” Thorn says. “It wasn’t sounding like what I was hearing on the floor, and I kept checking my gear to see what wasn’t working.” Ultimately, Thorn realized they were using defective tape. “Always check the reel,” Thorn says. “It’s something you might not think is the weak spot, but it can happen.”

During basics, Thorn says his drum-miking scheme was “typical,” but he used varying amounts of compression on the Neumann U67 room mics. “I might use more on a song that was a little more clean, and less on a track that was more bashy. That was definitely part of the drum sound,” he says.

Another essential ingredient to Malin’s band sound is Popper’s bass playing. “Cat used the Magic Shop’s house Ampeg B15 amp,” Thorn says. “We’d use a combination of miking the amp and a Music Valve tube DI. Sometimes I’d take that DI and mult it to another channel on the Neve console, and blow up the preamp a little bit so I’d have a distortion channel as an option. Her tone is incredible, though, and I think Jesse requested to turn up her bass on every mix I did: ‘Can we hear more Cat?’”

Malin’s guitar mainly went through a Fender Combo amp, but Thorn changed up the miking scheme there to vary the sound a bit (Shure 57, Royer 121, RCA BK5). However, Cruz used a few different amplifiers: a vintage blackface Fender Bassman, and a Bogner Shiva Combo.

“We’d bring in a little old Airline amp or a ’60s Silvertone as well,” Thorn says. “Sometimes I’d take the guitar mics for each player and add some LA3A to both. I might have used a little LA2A on the bass DI as well, but I ‘m not one to go crazy with compression.”

The studio also has a great collection of vintage outboard equipment, but Thorn stuck with the inboard pre’s. “Their Neve is actually two custom, vintage desks put together—a 32-channel and a 24-channel version of the same make,” Thorn says. “You sit in the middle of it, and it goes around you like a ‘U.’ When I have that Neve in front of me, I don’t feel like I have to reach for anything else.”

Other stages of the project happened in different facilities. Malin continued writing throughout the process, and some later songs were tracked in Mission Sound (Brooklyn). Most of the guitar overdubs and lead vocals were cut in Think Tank Studios in Hoboken, New Jersey. “The idea was to capture a lot of guitars, but whenever Jesse says he’s ready to do some vocals, we’re always ready to go,” Thorn explains. The engineer had a Shure SM7 and a Neumann U47 set up through a couple of outboard Neve 1073 preamps, but most of the keeper vocals came from the SM7.

“There were long hours in Jersey when we didn’t want to miss the last train back to New York, but we’d keep going on vocals, because Jesse was really delivering.”