The Shacks were not even legal when they started recording. Guitarist/producer/engineer Max Shrager met singer/bassist Shannon Wise when he was only 17 and she was 16 years old, and they’ve been making music ever since. Now in their early 20s, the friends, along with drummer Ben Borchers and keyboardist/engineer Leon Michels are ready to release their first album, Haze, and it includes tracks from their teen-years.
“I had been into recording since I was 14. Ben and I started recording together in high school,” says Shrager. “I met Shannon when I moved to New York when I was 17. I was already involved in the studio scene, so we just brought her into the fold and we had The Shacks.”
The studio scene that Shrager had connected with largely revolved around the Daptone label and studios. The young artist has worked with Gabe Roth, the engineer/producer/bassist who also serves as musical director of the Dap Kings; as well as Thomas Brenneck, who was Charles Bradley’s producer, engineer, and guitarist. Brenneck co-owns The Diamond Mine studios (Queens, NY) with Michels, and all of this has given Shrager not only a place to record but also insider access to Daptone sessions and techniques.
“I definitely learned a ton from and Gabe and Tom,” Shrager says. “I’ve also spent a ton of time studying different artists and labels that I liked from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, researching what they did, hunting down interviews, and learning as much as I could about Stax and Sun, Chess, Willie Mitchell and Hi Records. With The Shacks, the sound has a lot to do with those records, and it has to do with how Shannon sings—her quiet vocal turned up to regular band volume.”
The high school-era recordings on Haze, including the title track, began in 2014 with rhythm parts tracked to a Tascam 8-track 1-inch tape machine at The Diamond Mine.
“I think ‘Haze’ was the first thing Leon and I co-produced,” Shrager says. “The first thing [we tracked] was my electric guitar, and then we added some percussion elements off a Maestro Rhythm King drum machine from the early ’70s, then bass and vocals. It went through a lot of reworking over the years and it was a very layered, track-by-track production.
“I played a ’60s Fender Jaguar they have at The Diamond Mine, through a little Danelectro amp that was miked with an old Electro-Voice RE15 or RE16,” Shrager continues. “The combination ended up sounding thin and twangy, which allows for a lot of the other layers in that song to breathe.
“There’s also an Omnichord synth, a little ’80s toy kind of thing where you strum a little bar and hold down different notes. It’s that dreamy bell-type sound that’s so prominent on Haze; that and the guitar interweave with each other.”
As for Wise’s vocal, Shrager says: “The whispery vocals are just Shannon. People ask how she developed her sound, but that’s her natural voice. That’s the volume it is, that’s the quality it has. I’ve recorded her with millions of mics at this point, and you can get all kinds of cool flavors. Back then we would have used that EV mic through a Purple Audio 1176 compressor to tape.”
The band kept working on songs for the next few years, eventually moving most of their sessions to Shrager’s home studio, where they tracked to a Tascam 388 8-track, quarter-inch machine. Among those later songs is “Texas,” another cool example of the way The Shacks combine vintage sounds with synths from space, and couch it all behind Wise’s pure, gentle voice. Listen to the song first, and then check out what Shrager has to say below about making it.
“‘Texas’ was the first thing we ever recorded at my apartment,” Shrager says. “Eventually, I ended up building an isolation room with Shannon’s dad, who used to own a studio, and my bedroom became the control room. But before any of that, it was just a big wooden loft. So for ‘Texas,’ we started off with drums and acoustic guitar, and we put drums in that big echoey room before there was anything in it, and set two Shure PG48 dynamic mics left and right as overheads. The PG48 is the handheld mic you buy at Target for like 30 bucks. It’s just trashy enough that it has good character if it’s the only overhead for home recording. I think the most noticeable thing in that song is the bombastic drums, and that’s from the room itself.
“I recorded the acoustic guitar with drums live, and then I added that synthesizer sound that repeats throughout the song—that’s a MiniKorg doubled with a lot of EQ and compression. With those plucky synth sounds, I like to compress with a really high ratio, like a 20 setting on an 1176 compressor. I set the attack really slow and the release really fast to give it a very plucky, sharp type of transient sound. Then I did the bass as a DI.
“We did vocals later with a ’70s U87,” Shrager continues. “It had a nice clarity on Shannon’s voice, and we were able to pull out some of the high mids. The vocals were doubled, and then we gook the stems from the 8-track and put them into Pro Tools at The Diamond Mine, and then Leon and I worked together on the keyboards, like the solo at the end. Leon’s a keyboard specialist, and he would often have some little final-touch ideas that would tie it all together.”