Often described by mainstream press as the quintessential jam band, the upstate New York quintet Moe has never adhered to that scene with the ambition displayed by peers such as Gov’t Mule, Umphrey’s McGee, Medeski, Martin and Wood, or String Cheese Incident. Sure, the band appeals to the same fan base—and the members are known to indulge in the type of improvisational excess favored by the “chops to burn” players that fill out the ranks of celebrated jam acts—but it’s glaringly obvious that Moe is made up of much more than tireless tour hounds striving to fill the empty holes left in the absence of the Grateful Dead or Phish. Dig deep into any Moe album—from 1993’s Headseed to 1998’s breakthrough Tin Cansand Car Tires to the latest release, Sticks and Stones [Fat Boy]—and you’ll hear a band that’s obviously as in love with the song as the jam that may propel it. But while the standard Moe track is rife with intricate harmonies, hummable melodies, and strong vocal hooks, the group’s preference for recording live (and then bringing the tracks into the studio for editing and overdubs) versus making conventional studio albums has made it easy for some to lump the act into the jam-band category.
For Sticks and Stones, however, Moe men Rob Derhak (bass), Al Schnier (guitar/keyboards), Chuck Garvey (guitar), Jim Loughlin (percussion), and Vinnie Amico (drums)—along with producer John Siket—decided to write and record new material in the studio, as opposed to playing and refining songs for months on the road. The band members still embraced a live approach, setting up their instruments—as well as a Sony DMXR100 console and an IZ Radar V hard-disk system—in a 30-foot circle in a converted church amid the bucolic Massachusetts countryside, and facing off in real time.
“We wanted to get fresh ideas, and be really excited about them,” says Derhak. “When we’ve been playing the music for a long time on tour, and then we release an album of those songs, it’s not quite as exciting. You get kind of sick of the material after a while. The way we did it this time, we were actually recording as we were writing.”
“We were also trying to keep the recording as close to the band’s feel as possible, and to get the most natural sounds we could,” adds Schnier, elaborating on the band’s decision to track at The Cathedral—a 150-year-old church, complete with 30-foot vaulted ceilings, tongue-and-groove wood floors, and a central open space. “It was approached as if we were tracking to an analog reel-to-reel deck, even though we didn’t really go in that direction.”
Why did you alter your recording approach for Sticks and Stones?
Schnier: We recorded our last two albums in concert, and then went back to the studio where we tweaked, edited, and rearranged the music. We pushed the envelope in terms of capturing the essence of what Moe does live, but, because we tour all the time, some songs end up being played live for as long as two years before we record them. So we felt we had maximized the potential of that method, and, for this album, we wanted to create a new set of variables—to see if some new parameters would be conducive to producing some creative music. We work really well in that situation. Otherwise, the project can wander too much because there’s no direction. We envisioned something that would be more song oriented, and less about flexing our arena and prog rock muscles with big, 20-minute explorations and long guitar solos. We wanted to make our Sticky Fingers or Workingman’s Dead.
And you thought that recording at The Cathedral studios would help you achieve that feel?
Schnier: Yes. We were looking for a large, comfortable space that was conducive to us being able to work around the clock. The bonus was that The Cathedral has huge vaulted ceilings, and the acoustics were just perfect for killer drum sounds.
What were the challenges to recording in an open church space?
Derhak: Isolation issues. We recorded all of the basics together as a band, so the sound of the other instruments would bleed into the drum overheads. The whole goal was to get as much of a live band sound as we could at The Cathedral, and then do overdubs at The Magic Shop in New York. We wanted to isolate the guitars with gobos, and record them in one take, but certain sounds required going back and playing different guitars at lower volumes through different amps. We’re not a loud band in the studio, and we’re not loud onstage, either. Vinnie hits pretty quietly, and that allows us to play at a decent volume. We couldn’t have done this if we were cranking, because the church was a quarter of a mile away from the police station in a small town. They would have shut us down.
Besides the overall performance, what do you feel is the most important element for a recording engineer or producer to capture?
Siket: For me, it’s about getting a good vocal sound. If the listener doesn’t like the way a vocal sounds, nothing else has a chance. The record buying public listens to vocals. I always use this analogy: When you are driving on a long trip, and you flip between radio stations, the first thing you notice is the vocal. If the vocal sound is good, the person running the dial will stop and listen for at least a minute.
How do you go about getting a vocal sound that’s radio ready?
Siket: You know, you can call these guys a jam band, but we spent a lot of time auditioning microphones for this record. We took way more time dialing in vocal sounds than we did for guitars, drums, bass, and keyboards combined. For basic vocal tracking, we used good dynamic mics, such as the Shure SM7—which is one of my go-to mics, especially in a live situation. It has a good frequency response, a good amount of rejection, and a built-in pop filter. We actually ended up using one live vocal, with Al singing through the SM7 on ‘Raise A Glass.’ Al’s voice also worked well with the Telefunken U47 reissue. Rob liked the Violet Amethyst—it sounded very natural with his voice.
We initially did an exhaustive side-by-side mic comparison. I thought the Telefunken would be the outright winner, and it sounded great to me, but it always comes down to the singer. Even when we were in the overdub process, I put everything up in the monitors to make sure. I’m not one of these people who thinks the Telefunken U47 is the ultimate vocal mic, for example, and just puts it up without auditioning it critically. On a couple of songs, we used the Telefunken 251 for Rob and Chuck’s vocals, but we used the Violet Amethyst quite a bit, as well. You get a nice bass boost when you get close to the U47, and Al’s voice benefited from that. The 251 didn’t have the same proximity effect, and I had to position a pop filter within six or eight inches of the mic to smooth out the highs and cut down on sibilance.
Did you have a favorite mic preamp for the sessions?
Siket: I love the Daking 52270 for both vocals and acoustic guitars, and API 212s were used on everything else. Most of the vocals were recorded in the studio, but Rob recorded a couple of songs at home, and here and there, a background vocal by one of the other guys was done at home, as well. As everybody owned Daking 52270s, that’s what I used for 80 percent of the album, because I wanted to work with uniform vocal sounds.
What guitars and amps were used on the album?
Schnier: I played a 2005 Fender Custom Shop Telecaster, a 1961 Gibson SG, and a 2004 Gibson SG Junior. For amps, I used these amazing hand-built, bomber amps by Oldfield—a Marquis 30 and an HT Deluxe—as well as a ’54 Fender Deluxe and ’64 Fender Super Reverb. The Oldfield Marquis 30 is a combo amp with two 12-inch Hemptone Tone Tubby speakers that roll off some of the grit when you hit higher frequencies. The Marquis 30 is like a supercharged Vox AC 30.
Was there a rule of thumb when miking the guitar amps?
Siket: I always position dynamic mics very close up on the amps to minimize signal bleed from the other instruments. I used a Sennheiser MD409 on Al’s Marquis 30. Because of how the band set up, there wasn’t a lot of room to fit in a mic stand, so I just draped mics over the fronts of the amps, right up on the grille cloths. We also tracked the guitars with some light compression from a pair of Universal Audio 2-1176s.
You’re not a fan of recording guitars direct to combat leakage?
Siket: No—I want the amp sound. That said, sometimes I couldn’t get a good miked sound with all the guys cranked up, so on Al’s mandolin, we used a Fishman pickup and ran direct. But even for recording acoustic guitar—where I was having similar leakage problems with my Neumann KM54—I preferred to place a gobo in front of the performer to shield the mic.
Rob, how did you get your bass sound?
Derhak: I use a Pedulla MVP JJ with Bartolini pickups, a vintage Gibson EB2, a Ritter Classic 4-String, a 1977 Musicman Stingray B00, a ’72 Rickenbacker 4002, and a NS Design WAV upright. Generally, I cut a lot of midrange around 800Hz, and I add a little treble. I used an old Ampeg Portaflex amp with one 15-inch driver miked with a Neumann U 47 FET, and I also ran direct. I aim for a fat tone without it exploding. I usually run the volume on the bass all the way up. I tend to favor the bridge pickup, and I blend in the neck pickup for the low end.
Was it difficult recording some of the softer percussion instruments given the live approach to tracking the album?
Siket: We initially used a Heil dynamic mic on the xylophone to minimize bleed during the live tracking, but we did have to go back and overdub it. During the overdubs, we switched to a Royer Stereo SF 12 ribbon, positioned about six feet back from the instrument to get a more ambient sound. For the vibraphone, I placed a pair of Violet Design Finger mics in an XY configuration about 12 inches over the middle of the instrument.
Did you have to save the accordion tracks for the overdubbing sessions as well?
Siket: Yes. We used a Violet Amethyst for the accordion, placed about a foot away from the soundhole. We wanted to pick up the sound of the air entering and exiting the instrument.
How much punching in was done during the sessions?
Siket: The strings were punched in here and there. In some cases, we did up to six string takes, and then Al and I picked the best parts. I put together what he wanted from different tracks, and we assembled a performance. We also punched in a few guitar parts. I’ve gotten away from the technique of assembling a super-tight drum track. I worked with Steve Lillywhite back in the mid ’90s with the Dave Matthews Band, and I learned to gather as much info as you possibly can, and don’t microscope out the drums so much. No one is going to be listening to just the drums at home! So I would rather do edits based on band performances, rather than just drum performances. I just want everybody playing well together, and if I have to punch in a couple of guitar or bass things later, so be it. The recording process was all very natural for the band, and they could also do their own headphone mixes—which meant each player was hearing exactly what he wanted to hear, and was comfortable enough to get their performance where it needed to be.
What about recording the synths—especially the ones you hear in “September”?
Siket: That’s an ARP Solina. They also used a Moog Voyager and an Optigan Music Maker, which Al preferred to run live through his Oldfield amps. I also ran a direct line for a clean version, and then combined the amp and direct signal. The Optigan was so old and wheezy that I felt like it had to be direct. It was vintage sounding to say the least! For the amp sound, I draped a Sennheiser MD409 over the cab.
For all amp miking, I use a technique taken from an EQ article on how Brian May miked up his Voc AC30. When I place a mic, I will listen on headphones for any hiss coming back from the amp. I will sweep the mic around until that hiss gets very bright and very fine. I don’t listen to the actual sound—I listen to the white noise that is coming out of the amp when it’s idling. Then, I move the mic around until it becomes its most present—that’s the spot where the microphone is most on axis. You’ll get the most rearward rejection, as well as the brightest sound. For me, this is the most efficient way to work. If I feel the sound is too bright, I will have the player decrease the treble on the amp, but I will generally leave the mic in the same spot.
“Cathedral” features a pretty impressive string section.
Siket: For that song, I fed the band potential string ideas, and then I wrote a string part in Propellerhead Reason. We bought in two violin players, and played them the Reason track. The first violinist, Allie Kral, mimicked the Reason parts, and overdubbed them acoustically. I placed a Telefunken U47 two feet away from her. The first violinist laid down a bass part, and then a harmony part, and so on until we built up the string section artificially via overdubbing. We also overdubbed viola. When you do a string section, it is best to have sheet music, but we weren’t operating at that level. At the last minute, the song needed an uplifting violin part so the second player, Emilio China, added a couple of tracks, and embellished the initial tracks, recording them direct. I didn’t record the two players together—it was all multitracked.
How were the drums recorded?
Siket: In keeping with the minimal spirit of this record, we only had a rack tom and a floor tom on the drum kit. We just wanted high and low sounds. I also went conservative with the drum mics, because we wanted a simplified sound. In the initial ten-day period we spent just getting sounds, I went through a lot of different bass-drum mics. I tried the Sennheiser MD421, and an Audio Technica AE2500, which has a dual dynamic and condenser element. I had high hopes for that, but, in the end, I went back to my old standby, the AKG D12E. I felt that was the right sound, and it took the least amount of EQing to get a workable sound. It just fit the other mics on the set. I placed the D12E inside the shell about half way in, and pointed it at the beater. For the snare, I placed a Heil PR20, angled about 45 degrees, and pointing towards the rim to get some of the ring of the drum.
I also experimented with detuning the bass drum as low as it would go without sounding ridiculous. You get a lot of slap and bottom end if you tune it toward the low end of the spectrum. It’s a quick and dirty way to get a good rock sound. I used two ambient mics on the kit—an AKG C12A condenser as an overhead, and a Royer R-121 ribbon as a room mic. I didn’t close mic the hi-hat, or any of the toms. I couldn’t go too crazy with room mics, because when I started turning those up in the control, there was a lot of bass and guitar leakage.
Does your minimal approach extend to effects processing, as well?
Siket: I shy away from drum reverb in general—it tends to sound dated to my ears. I use natural ambience on the drums—although I couldn’t use it as much as I would have liked, because everybody was playing in the same room. As far as outboard reverbs, Allaire has a nice EMT plate that I used. I was raised on plates. I actually like the sound. In front of the send to the plate, I will generally use an analog delay to set up a pre delay, but I try not to go to many discrete reverbs, because I want everyone to sound like they are in the same space. Having said that, I’ll print echoes and other effects if I think they’ll suit the song. I don’t like waiting until the end to create all that—it’s too big of a job.
You decided to mix the album at Allaire Studios, going from a Neve Air Montserrat console to an Ampeg ATR 102, 1/2-inch analog tape machine. Which track was the most challenging to mix?
Siket: “Cathedral” had the most processing going on. I set up several types of delays to get all those different effects going on with the vocals. I also used an EMT plate on the vocals, the strings, and a little bit of guitar. Allaire has an electronic reproduction of a Watkins Copycat—which is an old tape delay, like an Echoplex—and I used that on the lead vocal. In the beginning of the song, there are some long repeating delays, and those are Roland SDE 3000s. Al’s Roland Dimension D analog chorus was used on the strings and background vocals.
Which final track was the most untouched?
Siket: “Queen of Everything.” That was a live jam without any real lyrics. The band tried to re-track it, thinking they could tighten it up, but Rob said, “This is the reason we came to record like this. I don’t think we should change it. We should use the original one.” So we did—even with a dropped tambourine, and people petering out at the end. It’s very unadulterated and pure.
In hindsight, how did the end product benefit from being recorded in such a guerilla fashion?
Derhak: We were able to envision the entire song before taking it to a live situation. Before, the music went through the live process, and then it was recorded. But, this time, we could make decisions about specific instruments, and we were able to control the sound of the recording more. In other words, we were able to write for the recording, and not just write for the live show, and then come back and figure out how it would work out in the studio. There was no more, “Oh, you have been playing that for last year? It clashes with what I’m doing.” Everyone was filling up the space better, but trying not to overlap, and have the whole thing turn into a sonic clusterf**k.
Schnier: We were in a space unconfined by the limitations you would normally have in a studio. No clock. No schedule. We were on our own time—free to record whenever we wanted—so we could experiment. When Siket played back the music, we knew what we were hearing was an accurate representation. The room at The Cathedral was conducive to making a very rootsy, organic album.
Derhak: Creatively, it’s a great outlet to do it this way. You get to make an album documenting where you are at, and not where you were.