Noizes In The Bedroom: The Menahan Street Band Tracks Between Trains

There is no bed in the bedroom of Tom Brenneck’s apartment on Brooklyn’s Menahan Street—just drums, amps, tape machines, and speakers. It is just as well. The periodic noise of the M subway line going by would make sleeping—not to mention recording—in this long narrow space problematic.

“It has become a superstition,” says Brenneck. “If we are about to roll tape and the train goes by, we know it will be a good take. We have three minutes of quiet until the next train comes.”

The title song of the Menahan Street Band’s Make the Road by Walking [Dunham], must have been one of those good takes. An earlier release of the tune was sampled for Jay-Z’s “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is),” deemed by Rolling Stone to be the number one song of 2007. Brenneck explains: “The Hit Men [the production team that works for Puff Daddy] sampled the peak section of the song—about four bars—sped it up, and put drums on top of it. They just layered on top of our single.”

Brenneck, guitarist for the Dap- Kings (of Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse fame) and the Budos Band, started the Menahan Street Band as an outlet for compositions that didn’t fit the other projects.

“Those bands have really strict guidelines,” he says. “For example, Budos’ music is always dark and aggressive, and the members rejected some of my songs as too ‘pretty.’ So I’d come home and record them.”

“Home” is located over a community center in a residential area, and sports virtually no soundproofing. “We try not to record the drums until after 5 o’clock, when they finish up downstairs,” he says.

If this sounds low tech, he is just getting started.

Brenneck reveals the entire record was recorded through a TASCAM M312b board to an Otari MX-5050 1/2- inch 8-track deck. “We miked the drums with one microphone—a Shure 5455D that predates the SM57. I found it in Portland for about 50 bucks. Its high end really breaks up, so we stick it under the drums—about a foot away—and point at the snare drum. It doesn’t sound good on anything else, but it sounds great on drums. All we do is pull out some of the bass frequencies, so that we can bump those when we mix, and have better control over the tone. Then, depending on what we are doing, we might push the treble or the mids a little bit. It is more about hitting the tape. Usually, we hit the tape until it breaks up a little too much, and then we back off the input signal a bit so there is a lot of tape distortion on the drums. We love the old funk 45s where the drums are distorted. We spend a lot of time moving the mic around inch-by-inch while we are getting sounds. Once we find the sweet spot for the mic, we start messing with the input levels until we find the sweet spot for tape distortion.”

Brenneck’s radical recording techniques extend to the direct-recorded bass guitar. As he plays back the bass track, the needle slams into the red. “You don’t hear it as distortion,” he says. “That’s how I learned to use tape machines—don’t look at the meters, just listen. See—the bass levels on the board are maxed out, and the preamps on the tape machine are maxed out, and every note is in the red, but the sound is still not breaking up. The Otari’s preamps are really good, so you can crunch the tape hard before it begins to break up.”

Electric and acoustic guitars were typically recorded with a Shure SM57. “That’s all I’ve got—the 5455D and two 57s,” he says.

Bouncing tracks was inevitable, but the process was viewed as a positive rather than a negative. “I got really into it,” he explains. “By the end of the record, I would be bouncing over and over—just to give the drums more tape distortion. We put a lot of effort into the songs and into the performing, so you get these beautiful songs with really crappy sounds. I think that makes for an interesting record.”

The Jay-Z hit brought validation to Brenneck’s recording style, as well as enough money to build a new studio at another location. But Brenneck’s aesthetic remains intact.

“All we are going to do is stick these drums in another room, and record them with the same mics,” he states. “I don’t think the new studio is going to change the sound, because we are going through the exact same machine. However, before we leave the old studio, I’m going to record the subway train rumbling by so that we can play it for inspiration.”