When it comes to making a record, Math and Science is mostly self-taught.
Math and Science, aka John Wolf, is a one-man band. His self-titled debut for Brick Red Records is an album of radio-friendly alternative pop. “A lot of my heroes were front men in bands, and I loved well-written pop songs,” he says. Wolf has no formal musical training, aside from drum lessons during the fifth grade; he taught himself to play guitar, bass, and piano.
Wolf relocated from his native Indianapolis to Los Angeles, landed a gig playing drums with Columbia recording artist P.J. Olsson, and distributed demo CDs. The Brick Red label appreciated the quality of his demo. “I was preparing to work in a big recording studio with a producer,” Wolf says, “and what I didn't realize was the harder I tried, the more I was taking on those roles myself.”
When Brick Red proposed a recording budget, Wolf purchased equipment. He built a studio around a 450 MHz Mac G4 and a Pro Tools/24 Mixplus system equipped with one Mix Farm DSP card and one Mix Core card. “We saved some money for mixing in a pro studio,” he says. “It was like building an airplane in your basement. Once I got it finished, I had to figure out how to squeeze it out the door.”
A rehearsal studio served as his recording space. “Most bands are in here at nighttime,” Wolf says. “During the louder hours, I could do live drums and electric guitar.” He miked his drums and guitar amps with Neumann M 147, AKG C 1000, Shure SM57, and AKG D 112 microphones. “I tried some double-miking techniques [on the amps], but nothing worked as well as getting the sound I wanted,” Wolf says.
Keyboardist Aram Arslanian, bassists Matt Fitzell and John Fremgen, and P.J. Olsson contributed to a few tracks on Math and Science. Wolf also sought advice from a friend, Goldo, an experienced Pro Tools user. “I had him as a spiritual adviser,” Wolf says.
Wolf created all of the samples and loops on Math and Science. “A lot of time was spent editing my live drum tracks,” he says. “I felt that any sacrifice of sonic quality might be made up for with pure inspiration or a personal vibe. I never bought a sample CD in my life.”
His setup includes a Kawai MP9000 digital piano, Roland JP-8000 synth, and Roland SP-808 phrase sampler, which played a key role: “I used it as an effects processor, an idea box, or a toolbox for weird sounds.” He also used a consumer-model Casio keyboard and Koblo's Studio9000 software synth bundle. Digidesign TDM plug-ins handled pitch-shifting, lo-fi processing, EQ, and compression. “I had [Line 6's] Amp Farm [plug-in], but I didn't use it for the guitars,” Wolf says. “I used it for some keyboard overdrive and to thin out some drum loops.”
Math and Science sounds like a polished effort, and Wolf says that he spent three months recording it. “A lot of tracks were recorded quickly,” he says. “None of the parts are played perfectly; it's all in the editing afterward. I try to bring a real 4-track cassette attitude to the whole thing. It's just that I have more processing power now.
“This production was in support of the songwriting, as much as I love loop-based music,” Wolf says. “It's a real challenge in a pop song to try and use production elements that people like in more of a DJ scene, without wrecking the song's quality — so I'm having a good time trying to combine the two. But if I had to pick one, I'd have to go with the songwriting.”