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Thu February 28, 2013
How A Studio Changes Your Sound
Originally published on Thu February 28, 2013 10:26 am
On the first floor of the building that houses the Mexican Summer / Kemado record label in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood lives Gary's Electric Studio. Studio A is an expansive space that can house a small orchestra (which it recently did for a film score recording), while Studio B — in marked contrast — has the intimacy of a LES bedroom. "Studio A creates a sonically spacious environment, its size sweetens the sounds," explains Gary's in-house producer Al Carlson. "While Studio B kinda throws it under the microscope." It's also a hub for musicians looking to move beyond the confines of the bedrooms. Take the cases of two recent yet diametrically opposed indie rock albums rendered here, Ducktails' The Flower Lane and Autre Ne Veut's Anxiety.
Ducktails' Matt Mondanile (also the guitarist for Real Estate) has released a handful of albums, 7-inch singles and cassettes over the years, mostly made at home. But as Real Estate broke out to bigger success in 2011, Mondanile grew more ambitious with his solo project as well. "I had worked in a studio with Real Estate before, but it's a much different process working as Ducktails," Mondanile tells me about recording at Gary's Electric. "It was a completely new experience."
It was also a new experience for Arthur Ashin, another Brooklyn bedroom producer who releases music as Autre Ne Veut. Ashin decided to expand his sound for his just-out album Anxiety, by booking time at the studio. "On my first two releases, I recorded everything on my own at home," Ashin wrote via email. "But I was more intimidated before entering the studio than once I was actually settled in there."
Aiding and abetting both projects were the duo of Joel Ford and Dan Lopatin, who made two ADD-addled synth pop albums (as Ford & Lopatin) but are more renowned for their abstract electronic work. Last year, Ford released an EP that (legally) minced Mariah Carey's "Prisoner" into a delirious electronic track while Lopatin's evocative synthscapes made as Oneohtrix Point Never have garnered coverage in The New Yorker and — most recently — on the cover of Britain's Wire magazine.
"Melody is something I do across the board, even in situations that seem more structurally abstract," wrote Dan Lopatin via email. "In the studio for these sessions, it was more about how to make the right decisions with sound in a way that best serves the artists." Lopatin and Ford served in a conglomerate of musicians (including members of fellow Brooklyn indie acts like Big Troubles, Cults and Future Shuttle) contributing to Ducktails' album and then comprised the core band for Autre Ne Veut. In both instances, Gary's Electric accommodated these different band approaches.
And the end products couldn't sound more different. With Mondanile's slack vocal stylings in the fore (though he'll cede vocal duties to others), The Flower Lane feels jangly yet relaxed, while Ashin's Anxiety is well ... anxious, a strain of modern R&B voiced by an angst-racked singer rather than an assured one, its music similarly twitching and taut. Perhaps it's telling that Anxiety was tracked in the dead of winter 2012, and The Flower Lane was recorded in the summer of that same year.
Ducktails takes its cues from early jangly R.E.M. as well as another famous North Jersey band, The Feelies, with some elegant electro-pop moments and tricky jazz licks thrown in for good measure. Producer Al Carlson recalls how the studio space itself could have determined the course of the music: "Ultimately it is a project that really couldn't have developed solely in a bedroom. In a way each song was kind of dictated by, 'Who's gonna stop by the studio today?' We had all these different musicians popping in all the time. The roots of home recording are very much there, but the sound is more akin to a Steely Dan record." To which Lopatin responds with a laugh: "Yes, I know my jazzy minor 11th chords."
Autre Ne Veut's album was written at home over the course of a year before going to Gary's Electric to lay it to disk. "I came into the session with a bunch of demos and songs prepared," Ashin wrote me. "Then Dan, Joel and I had more time to flush out the arrangements in a jam/live context. We were just three dudes taking a lot of liberties with our behavior."
In the process of recording Anxiety, Autre Ne Veut's original vision for the record began to change. "Everything was recorded so well that the sound changed," Ashin said. "But as a result of this clarity, I was forced to think of my production arrangements in a completely different way." But as the music itself became refined, Ashin changed his own approach to recording his vocals. Rather than layer them, adding innumerable effects to his voice as he had on his previous albums, Autre Ne Veut and his team began to strip back the effects. "Originally, we framed the rawness of his demos in a much more hi-fi backdrop," said Carlson. "But Arthur was killing the vocals so hard that it became more about getting to heart of his performance. The rawness was there with out any need for embellishment."
The result is a mix of rough and smooth. On standout songs like "Play By Play" and "Ego Free Sex Free," the keys and drum programming feel sleek and polished, all of it offset by Ashin's vocal styling, which approximates the likes of Prince and Usher after a night of screaming at the top of their lungs. And thanks to the production touches of Carlson, Ford & Lopatin, it sounds put together and unhinged at once, considered and reckless.