Don Quixote on Mars Recording

Scores of recent press have raved about the Atomic Swindlers’ new CD, Coming Out Electric. Touted as “a lesbian-fronted sextet combining David Bowie’s glamour, Barbarella’s sci-fi camp, Pink Floyd’s sonic extravagance, and Goldfrapp’s gauzy vocal drama,” the Rochester- based collective have surely made an impression as being a bit “eclectic”; but the real question we have is this: Who in their right mind would work with such a group of admitted weirdos? Themselves? Christopher Hooker? Who else?

Back to the Future

The space cadets behind the console are an odd collection. The drummer, with little studio experience, serves to do the bulk of the recording. Much of it is to be done in a basement on an old Korg D16 v. 2, whose shelf life has long since past. To keep in the spirit of things, the guitarist gleefully donates his Vestax HDR-8, gear that even the Soyez cosmonauts would label as antiquated. The flight captain, an engineer in his mid-20s who really doesn’t listen to a whole lot of music in his free time, is in charge of the mix down. Fortunately, the band will mix the basement tracks at the well equipped GFI Productions; which has an A Room (complete with the vintage MCI JH-636 Metallica used to record Kill ‘Em All), a B Room (outfitted with a Mackie D8B console clocked to a Lucid Gen-X word clock generator via an Apogee Low Jitter Clock I/O), and its own resident “Yoda.” The young engineer tells the band, “hey, forget the analog board with the pedigree rock ‘n’ roll history, we’re gonna mix on the little Mackie,” even though the band wants a lush sounding 23rd Century concept CD modeled after the multi-layered, high-fidelity sounds of Tony Visconti’s recent work with David Bowie — on a $5,000 budget of course. Major Tom to ground control: count down, 4,3,2,1, disaster?

Blast Off

Step one: Get a decent drum sound. The cellar is carpeted, the walls paneled and the ceiling is soft acoustic tiling. So far so good; but it’s one decent size room with no way to separate the instruments. The solution: Make sure the drummer can play to a click track sans band. Don’t forget new heads, nicely tuned drums, and a good kick drum mic; in this case a Shure Beta 52. Throw SM-57s on the snare, on the rack tom, on the floor tom, and two as overheads. NO mic on the hi-hat (it bleeds through everything anyway). Play it safe with the EQ on the D-16, make sure the recording levels are reasonable, and deal with the fine-tuning while mixing down.

Bass? Just go direct with a newly restrung Fender P-bass, of course. Guitars? Well, recording in the basement is actually very cool-no mojo and you go home without a bill. Plus, casual often equals creative. At heart, this is a guitar-based band, so capturing a great guitar sound is crucial. Chris Yockel is an electronic technician who at one time worked for the signal processing company MXR. Staying close to his roots, he uses the MXR Dyna Comp, MXR Noise Gate, the MXR Delay System II, and a MXR Analog Delay combined with a Fender Super Reverb Tremolo for the “outer-space” sounds. The amp is a vintage reissue, miked front and back (just as Jimmy Page did) with, once again, SM-57s. Guitars include the Fender Showmaster with a Floyd Rose tail piece, and a Fender Strat. The ultimate in cool: a Jerry Jones sitar is brought in to cascade the effort back to the hey-day of psychedelia.

Scott Ostrowski, guitarist #2, who has plenty of studio chops, prefers to take the D16 home and record at his own time. His gear: a Stratocaster with a Seymour Duncan pick-up, a Hughes and Kettner pre-amp and 120 watt power amp, and a Marshall 4x12 1960 Vintage cabinet, all miked with the trusty SM-57.

Acoustic guitars are where the D16 really comes in handy. As most guitarists tend to be good buddies with music store owners, it follows that the folks from House of Guitars freely grant the band access to the best Martins and Taylors in their store. The strategy is thus: an AKG C-3000 a foot away from the 12th fret, and an SM-57 about two feet away from the sound hole as a back-up and/or to layer into the mix.

Keys? Rent top of the line Kurzweils for the string sounds. Use Korgs and Rolands for the spacey sounds and organ. When you need a good grand piano there’s nothing like the real thing. D16 will travel. April, the lead singer, works at the International Museum of Photography (the George Eastman House). Their elegant Steinway located in George’s huge wood-floored living room sounds amazing. You just gotta ignore the huge stuffed elephant head to get into the proper vibe. Two SM-57s perched 18" above the lower and higher strings seem to do the trick.

Violin? It helps when your neighbor, Howard Weiss, is the retired concert master of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Record him in the best-sounding room of the house, i.e. the hardwood-clad kitchen. Howard agrees that the natural reverb in the room is perfect for recording; just remember to turn the refrigerator off. Two SM-57s, one about a foot and a half off his shoulder, the other three to four feet out front, are set up while Howard, who has spent decades recording in various analog studios around the world, falls in love with the quick rewind and auto-locate capabilities of the digital world.

ET Phone Home

Getting the tracks transferred from the old Korg D16 into the computer at the studio for mixdown is no easy feat. There is no available software for the version 2 to dump the tracks en masse. But, fortunately enough, both the D16 and one of the computers at the studio are equipped with Toslink optical I/Os; so the transfers can be kept in the digital domain with no degradation to the recordings. Note, however, that I said Toslink (two channel) not ADAT lightpipe (eight channel), which means we have to transfer one track at a time, in real time, and some of the songs have over 100 tracks! The good part? The studio owner doesn’t charge the band for the transfer time and you get to hear every crackle and pop on each track for future fixing in the mix. The bad part? The physics of bouncing a quick two-track mix back to the 2GB D16 so you can erase tracks to make room for more overdubs. Initially there are some time-drifting problems. Since drift can be caused by using separate and independent clock sources, the fact that there is drift means that the D16 didn’t slave to the clock coming through the Toslink connection. There are no settings for master/slave on the D16 v2. This dominatrix of a deck must always be the dictator of temporal dealings. Thankfully the solution to the drift dilemma is rather simple — connect another optical cable from the D16 back to the computer so that you can set the computer to slave to the D16 on transfers both to and from the deck. A quick re-recording of a transferred rough mix compared to the original file verifies that synchronization has been achieved.

Turning over the Helm; Kirk to Spock

Since most of the recording work is done, it’s time to turn the controls over to the engineer. He and other band members will spend hundreds of hours together producing the record — but let’s give Chris a chance to tell his story in the first person: “After mixing a few songs for the ‘Swindlers before starting this album, I had an idea of the pace the band liked to work at, and the fine-tooth comb production style that they approach their music with. Combine this with the fact that the band members have odd schedules, and the A Room at GFI (the room with the analog board) is in use a lot, I weighed the options and decided that using the digital board in the B Room was a wiser decision. There, we could work on a mix for however long we had time for on one day, hit save, and then be able to come back to it three days later, and with the push of a button, have it exactly as it we left it. Try doing that on your old purely analog gear. No more wasted 45 minutes of session time to write down mixer settings, another 45 to manually recall them, patch back in all your outboard gear, set it up exactly as you left it, only to have it still sound different because, well, it’s analog.”

“The other option would have been to mix everything entirely in the box, and use the board merely for monitoring and recording additional tracks. Alas, though the music we were dealing with may have been of the future, our computers weren’t. At an average of around 100 utilized tracks per song, it just would have been too much. As it was, being limited to 24 channels of output from the computer (the same number in either room), required me to submix instrument groups together, and therefore do any needed processing on those tracks within the computer, driving its CPU into the red.”

“Logistics aside, it was time to launch the process. The first step in bringing in the prerecorded tracks for each song was to set up the tempo of the project file. Once the tracks were brought in, this would allow us to pick and choose between various takes of different performances and drop the best lines into every section of the song where it should be repeated — a process that would help whittle down the track count . . . a little. Each track had a snippet of the click track at the beginning for easy lineup. All I had to do was match the click at the beginning of every track, and thanks to our Toslink word clock sync, we were in business.”

“For a few of the tracks, we actually did record the basics in GFI’s A Room; with its big open hardwood floors, non-parallel walls, and cathedral-style vaulted ceiling, it makes drums sound great. Mics for this included an EV RE20 for kick, an SM-57 on snare, 421s on toms, and Beyerdynamic MC740s for overheads. Some scratch guitars, bass, and vocal were cut, as well, but most were later replaced with more thought-out and perfected takes. On one song (“Float”) we even started by constructing a drum loop from various one-shot samples pulled from an assortment of sample libraries, ACID loops, our own recordings, and some handcrafted 808s tuned to the song. There was so much stuff going on in just the drum loop itself that we had to create its own project file just to process it, then create a mixdown of that to import into the full song’s project.”

“For recording final vocal takes, as per usual, we tested several mics on lead vocalist April to see which sounded the best with her voice. The Rode Classic, the Neumann TLM 103, and a few other medium-to-high-end mics were auditioned, but we eventually settled on an MXL V67 through an ART Digital MPA pre-amp. While the V67 was the least expensive mic of the bunch, it seemed to complement April’s vocal in just the right way — enough warmth to fill out the tone without being too dark, and enough top end to keep things clear without adding too much zing or harshness.”

The Intergalactic BlueJay(high)Way

Continues Chris, “The band brought in a recording of the Beatles tune ‘Blue Jay Way’ and asked me to get that vocal sound for some of the lines in their songs ‘Drag’ and ‘Underground Love,’ as well as a couple string parts and keyboard lines. The Beatles obviously had a vocal sent through a Leslie cabinet. There is a Leslie in the studio, but with its proprietary multi-pin cable, I had no way to connect anything but the Hammond to it (unless I wanted to gut the Hammond in an attempt to figure it out, an idea which I didn’t think the studio owner would be too fond of). Trying to duplicate the sound digitally just didn’t give us the right tone. I considered suggesting to April that we use John Lennon’s idea of tying a rope around her legs, suspending her from the ceiling, and swinging her around the microphone while she sang; but luckily enough for her, another client, who often plays his guitar through a Leslie, was recording in the A room and offered us his Trek ll Leslie interface. We were able to use this interface to reamp the prerecorded tracks through the Leslie, resulting in ‘Blue Jay Way’ perfection.”

“Other effects on the album were a bit easier to pull off (as well as being less of a potential health risk to the artists). We used a combination of Waves plug-ins inside Sonar for various effects such as flanging snare drums and vocals, piano tremolos, octave vocal layers, automated delays and reverb swells, as well as standard stuff like EQ and compression for anything that needed to be submixed; some static delays from the D8B; and rounded it all out with some external reverb gear including a Lexicon PCM60 for percussion plates and room verbs, a TC M-One XL for main vocal and lead line verb, and an ART Quadra/FX for strings and distant tones.”

The Final Frontier

“Since attention to detail has been the spirit of the project, Tony highly recommends seeking the right mastering house and engineer, in this case Dr. Toby Mountain at Northeastern Digital in Boston — whose résumé includes relevant artists to this project such as Bowie, Zappa, and Alison Krauss. A couple of the band members and I loaded into the car and spent 12 hours at Toby’s studio, where he did a fantastic job of mastering the audio portion of the ‘Swindlers disc.”

The Eagle has Landed

The results? The Atomic Swindlers have since played on over 350 radio stations, made the Top 20 on XM Satellite Radio, and are receiving acclaims from a vast array of sources. A.L. Sirois of Sci-Fi channel’s says, “It’s probably no exaggeration to say that almost any of the songs on this CD could be a hit with proper airplay and marketing push.” From Ron Netsky of City Newspaper: “Coming Out Electric is a throwback to a bygone era when the music industry cherished poetic lyrics and albums that were works of art.” Gannett Newspaper’s Jeff Spevak proclaimed it “a sonic boom — grand Beatles pop as told by Barbarella.” Perfect.