The Fiery Furnaces

The music of sibling duo Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger has been described as quirky and playful, even annoying. So it’s no surprise that as The Fiery Furnaces, the Friedbergers draw on everyone from Harry Nilsson and Van Morrison to The Who and Karlheinz Stockhausen. On their eighth album, I’m Going Away [Thrill Jockey], the Friedbergers pursued a minimalist recording approach that depended as much on home studios and affordable equipment as engineer/producer/bass player Jason Loewenstein’s pet pig, Emmett.
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STRANGE WAYS: The Fiery Furnaces Fearlessly Tackle Bizarre Songwriting, Uncommon Recording Tools, and a Pig


The music of sibling duo Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger has been described as quirky and playful, even annoying. So it’s no surprise that as The Fiery Furnaces, the Friedbergers draw on everyone from Harry Nilsson and Van Morrison to The Who and Karlheinz Stockhausen. On their eighth album, I’m Going Away [Thrill Jockey], the Friedbergers pursued a minimalist recording approach that depended as much on home studios and affordable equipment as engineer/producer/bass player Jason Loewenstein’s pet pig, Emmett.

The music of sibling duo Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger has been described as quirky and playful, even annoying. So it’s no surprise that as The Fiery Furnaces, the Friedbergers draw on everyone from Harry Nilsson and Van Morrison to The Who and Karlheinz Stockhausen. On their eighth album, I’m Going Away [Thrill Jockey], the Friedbergers pursued a minimalist recording approach that depended as much on home studios and affordable equipment as engineer/producer/bass player Jason Loewenstein’s pet pig, Emmett.

“Jason’s pot-bellied pig made us stop at 5 o’clock every day,” Matthew Friedberger says from his home in Germantown, New York. “Emmett would get too restless after a while, so we would have to stop. So, essentially our recording schedule was determined by the pig.”

Beyond swine concerns, I’m Going Away benefited from Loewenstein’s in-the-box approach and preference for relatively inexpensive software and hardware. Based out of his small Williamsburg, Brooklyn studio, Jake- Rock (www.jakerock.com), Loewenstein’s setup includes a home-built ASUS-based Q6600 Quad computer running Cockos Reaper 3.02 and Stillwell Audio plug-ins (Bad Buss Mojo, The Rocket, Event Horizon), with a PreSonus FirePod preamp/interface, Line 6 TonePort UX2 interface (for guitars and bass), and a handful of Shure, AKG, and Audio-Technica microphones.

DON’T FEAR THE REAPER

In addition to recording I’m Going Away for the Friedbergers, Loewenstein has worked a handful of local New York acts with tight recording budgets.

“I don’t do this as an aesthetic,” says Loewenstein, formerly one half of popular indie duo Sebadoh. “If I had unlimited funds, I would have a roomful of crazy gear. I was in a semifamous indie band, but I’m not famous as an engineer, so I charge bands a very minimal amount of money, and I have to make good records with the gear I own. When I bought the PreSonus FirePod for $600, I thought that was a lot of money.”

“Working with Jason is a totally different experience, because he doesn’t use Pro Tools and all the typical plug-ins,” Friedberger says. “So much in recording is about using the method that you know works because you are always rushed for time. It’s great with Jason because it’s none of the gear I know. It was fun to be in his shareware world. We did a simpler record using Matt’s desktop computer and Reaper software but recording traditionally, often just me putting on one overdub after another with the computer. Even though it was done in different recording spaces, the approach was like home recording.”

I’m Going Away was essentially recorded live with little studio trickery, with tracking taking place at various locations across New York City. Drums and bass were recorded (along with scratch vocal and guitar tracks) in drummer Bob D’Amico’s Bedford-Stuyvesant basement; piano and guitar overdubs took place at Eleanor Friedberger’s Greenpoint, Brooklyn home; vocals, remaining overdubs, and mixing happened back at Loewenstein’s JakeRock Recording in Williamsburg. Thoroughly guerilla, Loewenstein transported his desktop and array of hardware effects (in a guitar case) and mics (via backpack) in his car to each location. His choice of Reaper as recording platform informed every decision.

“Reaper was created by Justin Frankel, who made Winamp,” Loewenstein explains. “He’s a musician, so he wrote this amazing platform, which is the same ideology as Pro Tools or Logic. You have your edit and mix windows, all your channels can have mixed media, and there’s MIDI in different formats of audio, all in the same track. It’s got a really good nested folder system, and the internal routing is incredible. And it’s super robust. The full commercial license is $225; noncommercial use is $60. There’s no difference between the hobbyist and professional program.”

And how does Reaper compare to more expensive DAWs?

“I’ve used early versions of Pro Tools and the last Cubase version, and Reaper stacks up incredibly well,” Loewenstein says. “Updates are expensive with those platforms, but with Reaper the updates are free for the next two version numbers. Reaper releases new patches twice a week. It’s not packaged, it’s downloadable, and if you post problems on the site (reaper.fm), the developers themselves read them and often fix problems within a day. They’re bug-testing the entire time. Once people find out about Reaper, it’s going to be a problem for these other companies.”

PERFECT PLUG-INS

Loewenstein used Reaper’s native plug-ins for compression (ReaComp) and delay (JS Delay), but depended on Stillwell Audio for the bulk of effects, including the Bad Buss Mojo distortion, The Rocket compression, and Event Horizon limiting plug-ins.

“Bad Buss Mojo is not an analogifier, which is what it sounds like to me,” he says. “It makes things sound more edgy. It’s an awkward plug-in until you play with it. Then you learn with your ears what it’s doing. It emulates overdriven amplifier circuits—not tubes, but solid state with way too much voltage. That is the attraction of some of the more sought-after boards. Bad Buss Mojo is very useful if you don’t mind it being dirty and you want to control the level.”

But according to Loewenstein, Stillwell’s The Rocket takes the cake.

“The Rocket is the finest software compressor I’ve ever used,” he says. “It’s super versatile, it can be a master bus compressor, it can make things tiny and squashed, or it can be a bass-drum expander. It’s worth its weight in gold, and the registration price is only 50 bucks (Bad Buss Mojo and Event Horizon are $40 apiece). I used The Rocket on everything for I’m Going Away. In spots where I would usually use tube compression on vocals, like a twostage compression scheme, I didn’t need that anymore using The Rocket. It can be very colored or very uncolored.”

Another effect that also had obvious benefits was Reaper’s Varispeed plug-in, ReaPitch. In “Drive to Dallas,” Matthew Friedberger plays what sounds like a hair metal guitar solo performed at 45 RPM, but the end product was created in ReaPitch.

“That’s another cool thing about Reaper,” Friedberger says. “You know how you can turn the motors higher or lower on a tape deck and they call it Varispeed? You can actually record Varispeed in Reaper, which is something I don’t think any other software platform can do. There is literally a slider down at the bottom and you control the speed of the entire session through the slider. So if you turn it down and record something and turn it back up, what you just recorded will sound faster when you’re done. We recorded ‘Drive to Dallas’ very fast, with a hammer-on guitar solo, and put it through the crazy Reaper software distortion, then turned it back up to normal speed.”

WHO YOU CALLIN’ “CHEAP”?

Adding to the el cheapo sweepstakes, Loewenstein used a Line 6 TonePort to DI guitars (discontinued, $139) and PreSonus FirePod for vocals (relaunched as the PreSonus FP10 and selling at online retailers for $399.95). His budget studio leaves him plenty of change for a Happy Meal and a subway token.

“Using the FirePod means I don’t have to run around with a mixing board. And its preamps are great,” Loewenstein asserts. “I’m as materialistic as anybody, and I have to watch it. If I got into buying high-end gear, I would go broke fast and not make any records.”

Fortunately, with help from the FirePod, Loewenstein didn’t get into any credit card debt for the making of I’m Going Away.

“We recorded all the vocals for the entire record through the same preamp settings on the PreSonus,” he says. “It’s a simple machine with a preamp gain level for each input. I set Eleanor’s channel at 11 o’clock, and that gave me just enough ambience in my little room to establish a four- to eightinch [vocal miking] distance. Eleanor goes close on the mic for the quiet passages and lean backs for the yelling. She has great mic technique.”

Ultimately, Fiery Furnaces’ “strange” music has more to do with inspiration than technique. I’m Going Away began with the Friedbergers’ gleefully madcap songs and ended with Loewenstein’s JakeRock Recording rig. When compared to the Friedberger’s earlier recording methods, I’m Going Away is the most traditional release of their career—but the one recorded in the most truly modern fashion.

“If you love a record like The Who’s Tommy or a Nilsson record and you want to imitate it, you have to make it different so it can add something new and be legitimate,” Friedberger says. “What’s the point of copying it? It has to be your version of that record and be at a slant. But if you think about The Who, what is a typical Who song? There’s a big difference between ‘Substitute’ and ‘Behind Blue Eyes.’ The same for Nilsson: He has standard pop songs, but also some really bizarre songs. If that is your template, you’ll go to some weird places structurally in your songwriting.

“The huge, super successful rock records of the late ’60s and early ’70s, they were really strange. They sound normal to us now, after a million listens. But if you want to make a record along the same lines as those, it’s going to sound really strange.”