Orso Changes Its Tune

The ambient hillbilly twang of Chicago's Orso first emerged from the musical backwoods in 1999, when multi-instrumentalist Phil Spirito, a former member

The ambient hillbilly twang of Chicago's Orso first emerged from the musical backwoods in 1999, when multi-instrumentalist Phil Spirito, a former member of the indie group Rex, emigrated from New York at the behest of friends in the Midwest. Spirito joined Ben Massarella of Perishable Records, engineer Brian Deck, and a broad supporting cast of musician friends - all of whom play a hefty list of instruments - to form Orso's original lineup.

Orso released its self-titled debut album on Perishable in 1999. Following its first release, the band gained a fourth core member, multi-instrumentalist Gillian Lisee. Orso completed Long Time By, its second album, on Perishable this year. Although both records were created by essentially the same set of folks, the processes involved in producing each of them differed drastically.

Spirito recalls the prevailing spirit of the first Orso record: "With Rex records, people thought, `Wow, you did this on a 4-track?' It wasn't that we were out to make our records on a 4-track; we always worked with whatever gear we could afford, or whatever we already had around. With the first Orso record it was the same: we borrowed a 11/44-inch reel-to-reel machine and some other gear from friends out here, and then drove all of it out to Ben's house in Indiana, about an hour away.

"So we started to record out there at Ben's," says Spirito, "and most of the basic tracks were done when the tape we were using started to fall apart. We watched as pieces of the tape fell off the reel. So we immediately took the machine to a studio here in town and transferred the tracks to ADAT. We rented an ADAT to finish the record; it was kind of thrown together. Still, Brian was able to take tons of different kinds of gear, old and new, and spit out that record, which I think has a pretty unique sound."

During the interim between the first and second Orso albums, Deck and Massarella worked to finish the renovation of a space that they leased together on the first floor of a Chicago apartment building. It was a multicar garage that would eventually house Perishable Records' headquarters and Deck's Clava recording studio.

Recording Long Time By at Clava required that the band abandon the "elementary school" style of recording that they had developed for the first record. Instead, they recorded 16-track basics onto 2-inch tape and used Deck's Digidesign Pro Tools/24 Mixplus system. "It was heaven," says Spirito, "but it was also different. Instead of taking a more hands-on approach, such as running a signal through an effects box, Brian would change a sound by using a plug-in in Pro Tools. I wondered for a while if the recording would sound too clean, but I'm really happy with how the album turned out."

One thing about the band's recording process that did not change was the final stage in which all of the elements were balanced. "Brian tends to go into overdrive while we're mixing," says Spirito. "He changes his focus from getting the sounds to record well to actually taking the music and transforming it into a finished product. And with Pro Tools this time out, we were able to go further with the electronic end of Orso."