In the Studio: The Secret Storm

The making of The Secret Storm's new album, song by song, with John Morand in Sound of Music Studios.

The recording industry has changed a lot since Lauren Hoffman’s first album, Megiddo, released in 1997. However, engineer/producer John Morand has been a frequent presence in her process, all along.

“The first record we did was on 16-track, 2-inch analog tape,” Morand recalls. “Then came the 24-track era, and then we did a record on an Otari RADAR system in 2002. I think the last record we did before this was in 2010, after we’d finally switched to Pro Tools.”

Morand works in Sound of Music Studios, the facility he first purchased with artist/producer David Lowery in 1994 and now co-owns with a few other partners, including Hoffman. SOM is now apparently on its fourth recording platform, in its sixth location: a large two-studio space that holds all of the gear and instruments Morand and co. have collected during 22 years of studio life.

Currently, Morand and Hoffman are midway through recording an album to be titled In the Sun, which Hoffman is making under the name “The Secret Storm.”

“I chose a project name that says something relevant to what I’m trying to do,” Hoffman explains. “I started thinking about how there’s this calm exterior that we walk around with, but the emotional life that we don’t necessarily share—whatever internal drama that might be going on—you can’t show that. Songwriting and performing and building up songs in the studio are ways we can explore that ‘secret storm’ inside us.”

The title track from The Secret Storm’s debut is out now; Hoffman and Morand plan to put the tracks out individually—many with videos— over several months, with the full-length releasing in 2016.

“The way people consume music has changed, obviously,” Hoffman says “Now you have smaller things to ask people to pay attention to: ‘Watch this one video.’ ‘Here’s a single.’ Don’t overwhelm anybody. In the end, the album will be almost like the archive that puts everything into context.”

At press time, Morand, Hoffman, and her band (Cathy Monnes, cello and electric violin; Ethan Lipscomb, piano and keyboards; Jeff Diehm, bass; Jordan Marchini, Drums; and Tony Lechmanski, guitar on some tracks) had five songs finished, with another five in progress. Some are being tracked live in the studio, while others begin with Hoffman’s vocal and guitar, and a click track—an approach that Hoffman says results in trance-ish arrangements.

In any case, Morand captures Hoffman’s vocals mainly with a 1957 Telefunken U47 mic. “We used a [Shure] SM7, too,” he says. “Most of the preamps were the Fairchild ones we have that are phono preamps from the ’60s. I also used a lot of Altec stuff: the 438C and Altec 1521 integrated preamp compressor.”

Electric guitars were recorded with a Shure SM57 and a Sennheiser 409, through Neve 1272 preamps, “plus some of my specialty odds and ends, like Fostex 4-track studio compressors,” Morand adds.

Monnes’ strings went through a Coles ribbon and API pre’s. “We put her in a booth so she could be on the live sessions,” Morand says. “She also uses a lot of effects, so on some songs there’s not much acoustic cello; it’s a lot of her playing through her Line 6 pedal. We used some tube Echoplex [delay] on a few songs.”

On drums, Morand says he puts up “the normal mics, but then I’ll also have three or four channels of mics that are fairly heavily processed going in. We use the [Empirical Labs] Distressor a lot. There’s also places where used keying—he’d hit the snare drum and the room mic turns on, then turns off again. On the electronic side, we used a fair amount of Korg ES-1 machine along with [effects in] Reason and some Native [Instruments] stuff.

“I’m excited about Lauren’s record,” he says. “She started when she was like 17, and she’s still getting better at singing and songwriting every year. You’re lucky when you get to work with someone consistently like that.”