It's always tempting to get scientific about reproducing the sound of old records you love. Replicate the instruments, mic placement, and signal path from a timeless recording, and maybe you have a shot at rebirthing a classic sound.
Or so the thinking goes. Yet time and time again, the producers and artists who made those records reveal how very unscientific their own methods were. They set up their noisy mics in poorly insulated rooms with imperfect analog gear and made some of the greatest recordings ever.
In his San Francisco apartment one floor above a Laundromat, Kelley Stoltz is successfully tying into the vibe of some classic rock 'n' roll records. His modest personal studio contains a handful of stock instruments, bad carpeting, and a Tascam 388, the ¼-inch reel-to-reel introduced back in 1985. “The 388 works great, it's pretty reliable, and it's easy to use,” says Stoltz. “It's not so lo-fi that it sounds like I recorded on a boombox, and not so hi-fi that it sounds slick. It's a mid-fi sound — right in the middle.”
A songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Stoltz values the 388 for its middle-ground fidelity and because it's so well suited to the way he works. He explains, “I just enjoy the ritual of the tape machine: cleaning the heads, waiting for the tape to rewind. A lot of the music I love — the Beatles, Pink Floyd — they were using 2-inch rather than ¼-inch, but they still had to wait for tape to rewind. It just feels more like it used to be. I feel as though I'm partaking in the same process.”
Stoltz is no technophobe; his choice is a conscious and informed one. “I've tried several other setups,” he says, “but when I record into a computer, I generally end up making kind of down-tempo shoe store music. I don't know why.” And who wants “sole” music if you can have Below the Branches (2006), Stoltz's first full-length release for the Sub Pop label? Kaleidoscopic arrangements, ageless hooks, and wry turns of phrase are the songwriter's own even when his influences are in stark relief, and he makes no argument that he's taken cues as a musician and as a producer from heroes such as the Beach Boys, Ray Davies, and Nick Drake.
Below the Branches
Like the songs, the instruments on the album aren't overly precious. Stoltz says that the CD is heavy on piano because there happened to be one in his new apartment. The guitars he used include a Fender Telecaster, a hollow-body Gretsch, and a Vox knockoff of a Gibson ES-335, which Stoltz describes as a “plinkophonic tone sucker.”
He runs his guitars and basses through a Fender Princeton Reverb amp, which he also uses to cut vocals with reverb. Two of his favorite oddball instruments are a Stylophone similar to the one David Bowie used on “Space Oddity” and an Optigan (see www.optigan.com). Everything — everything — gets miked up with Shure SM57s plugged directly into the 388's built-in mixer.
Getting the songs out of his head and onto tape quickly is key to Stoltz's process, and it's another reason he likes working with the analog 8-track. Anyone who has written with sophisticated music software knows how easy it is to get distracted by a program's features. “You start out saying, ‘Maybe this would sound good with a little vibrato,’” Stoltz says, “and then you end up spending hours figuring out the right oscillation on a vibrato plug-in.”
Stoltz concludes, “For me, when I'm chasing a song idea that's in my mind, it's best to get it done as quickly as possible because it doesn't stay there forever.”
Home base: San Francisco, California
Multitrack of choice: Tascam 388 reel-to-reel
Oddest instruments: Stylophone and Optigan