Web Exclusive: Plain White T's in the Studio

Producer/Songwriter Dan Monahan Talks About Recording 'American Nights'
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Plain White T's new album, American Nights, is bright, infectious, with plenty of warm moments and lovely guitar work. While this album began with a few songs getting made in L.A. studios, several songs on Nights were recorded in T's frontman Tom Higgenson's personal studio in Chicago.

Higgenson's facility, Wonder Studio, is also the home base of Red Jacket (something worn with a plain white T, perhaps?), a production collective that includes Higgenson, producer/engineer Augie Schmidt, and producer/engineer/songwriter Dan Monahan, among others. Just before the release of American Nights, Monahan talked to EM about the work that got done in Chicago.

Which songs did you make in Chicago?
The songs we worked on were "American Nights," "Never Working," "Heavy Rotation," "Stay," "Pause," and "Someday You're Gonna Love Me," and "Love Again." "American Nights" was already recorded, but we remixed it and we recorded a few extra things.

What was the recording process like?
The guys had been doing some odds and ends touring and filming a video right when we started this. They would rehearse, but there wasn't much pre-production besides what they had been playing live.

We'd come in and do the drums first, talk about the song a little bit, DeMar [Hamilton, drummer] would lay down some of the tracks. We wanted to do the songs one at a time. So we'd do the drums and then we'd move onto the rest of the song. We'd have some guitar amps set up and other things.

How fast were you guys working?
We were cutting a song a day, or maybe every two days. There might have been some 24-hour days. I can remember going upstairs and sleeping on the couch, and then coming back down and there was still music going on at 5 a.m. It was fun—a very relaxed atmosphere with everybody in the house.

What is the recording platform in Wonder Studio?
Pro Tools 11. We'd record straight into that. There's no console; it's just a Mac Pro running Pro Tools. Aurora 16 was basically our interface into the computer.

After you got the drums right, what came next? Was everything done piece by piece?
Most of the instruments were done individually. Sometimes there were gang vocals, or group hand claps. We did that together, instead of using samples; we would try to keep it as organic as possible.

There's one song where we had a lot of horns—a New Orleans-style track—and those are organic as well. The bass player, Mike Retondo, is a jack of all trades. He plays anything. You could give him a flute right now and by 5 or 6 tonight he would know how to play it. So, he did some horn parts. Later we would maybe add some spice, some candy with samples, but very little.

How did you mike up instruments, guitar amps, for example?
We were using a lot of Sennheiser mics. Sometimes we would use just a good old [Shure] SM57 on the guitar amp. We switched things out a lot, just trying to get the right tone. It would depend on the song.

We spent a lot of time just really listening. I mean, that sounds obvious—everybody listens. You're making music. But there's something I learned awhile back: You've got to close your eyes. Once you do that, something in your senses changes, and you can understand what you're doing and what you're hearing in a different way. Mainly, we just tried to keep a fun atmosphere and really try to cater to each song.

Did everybody in the band hang around, even if their parts weren't being recorded?
Absolutely. There's a chill/hang room across the way, and if it wasn't your part, you could just blow off some steam or do some emails in the other room. But everybody was on call at any moment to come check something out. That's crucial. If any of the guys aren't there to give their opinion, you might be recording a scratch track.

What was in the vocal chain?
We used a Pearlman mic into an Avalon preamp and then into our APIs, and then we would try to EQ a little bit going into the box.

Where did you have him sing?
The studio has a live room and control room, and there's a vocal booth in the control room, but we would often do vocals in the live room because it felt better. A vocal booth can feel like you're in a closet.

How about the acoustics and the vibe of the studio? What sound does it impart to the recordings?
The way they [treated] the studio, there are velvet walls. It has almost a library feel. There are a couple of tiny chandeliers. The main thing about the studio itself is, it serves as this great meeting place.

A lot of times we would if we wanted a bigger room sound, we would manipulate the sound a little bit. One thing we use a lot is actually the bathroom in the live room. I can't tell you how many times we would take our Pearlman mic, put that in there, turn it around at the reflective surfaces, and capture the drums. You want some live room sound? Go to the bathroom!

Did you mix the album, too?
No, Sean Small did the mixing and a lot of editing in Cubase. That helped with the process. We would finish recording a track, send the files to Sean to do his thing, and then we could move on to the next track. It helped keep things flowing.

It sounds like you guys really worked hard.
I feel like there's something awesome about right now, where if you've got a laptop you can make amazing sounds. The sample libraries out there are amazing, and the plug-ins are amazing, but to do it for real like we did is genuine. I don't know if most people can hear it, but I can hear it. And you know what? The grunt work feels good. It feels good to put in a long day, and the songs sound so good. It's nice when hard work equals awesome.