New York MetroNew York City presentsA Tale of Two Albums. The setting is Stratosphere Sound, a low-key studio in West Chelsea where two of this year's future-classic 6/01/2007 8:00 AM Eastern
New York City presents…A Tale of Two Albums. The setting is Stratosphere Sound, a low-key studio in West Chelsea where two of this year's future-classic candidates, America's Here & Now and Fountains of Wayne's Traffic and Weather (see April 2007 Mix), were recorded in the same time span.
The central figure in this drama is Adam Schlesinger, one of the most unassuming pop master craftsmen you could ever hope to meet. Schlesinger first proved his chops to the world by writing the Oscar-nominated title track to the 1996 That Thing You Do and has been going strong ever since. In addition to being a driving force behind two rock groups, Fountains of Wayne (FOW) and Ivy, he's an in-demand TV/film contributor and a partner in Stratosphere, a Neve 8068-endowed room that happens to be one of the few facilities in New York City to nail the financial sweet spot and stay extremely busy.
Back in 2005, Schlesinger found out he could add another line to his resume: object of admiration by Gerry Beckley, co-founder of the band America and loving provider, along with fellow America mainstay Dewey Bunnell, of iconic songs like “A Horse With No Name” and “Sister Golden Hair.” A friendly e-mail from Beckley to Schlesinger started a working relationship that would eventually lead to their recording two songs together and seeing what happened next.
“I think we hit it off,” Schlesinger says from the comforts of Stratosphere's Studio A. “Gerry and I realized we had similar tastes. He's very current, and we both like melodic pop music with harmonic choruses and catchy vocals. We also had a bond because we're both in these bands that are centered around two-man writing partnerships, and we traded a lot of stories about what that's like: Two different writers with two different personalities trying to find common ground.”
Following the success of the initial two-song experiment, the common ground was Stratosphere Studios, where Schlesinger and partner James Iha teamed to begin co-producing Here & Now, a two-CD collection of 12 new America songs and a live performance that has been rightly lauded for its pristinely transparent production, addictive next-level songwriting and overall deeply moving gorgeousness.
At the same time, Schlesinger and his FOW bandmates knew they had to begin producing the follow-up to the 2003 outstanding rock collection Welcome Interstate Managers (“Stacy's Mom,” “All Kinds of Time”). Not surprisingly, as the two projects formed a checkerboard across Stratosphere's calendar, they began to blur happily together. “America is a band that plays a minimum of 120 shows a year,” explains Schlesinger. “We knew from the start we weren't going to be able to block out two months and make a record from start to finish, so we worked on and off for a few days. Whenever they came to New York City, we'd do a little tracking, writing, arranging with America. I was able to keep writing stuff for the FOW record, and when Gerry and Dewey were available again, we'd go back into the studio with them.”
The projects began to feed off of each other technically and creatively, as Schlesinger soaked up lessons from his heroes and applied them to the songs that would become the irresistibly catchy, constantly clever Traffic and Weather. “There were several cases of one album influencing the other,” Schlesinger recalls. “One of America's signatures is these vocal pads that they do. They almost sound like keyboards, but they're human voices — Gerry is a brilliant vocal arranger, and I was so blown away watching him put a vocal arrangement together and listening to how it transformed a song from something ordinary to something enormous. There are definitely different places on the FOW record where we also did these lush vocal pads, like on the song ‘I-95’ where this breathy ‘aaaaah’ comes in, and on ‘This Better Be Good.’
“Also, in terms of tempo and feels, I tend to always cut things too fast and then regret it later. Watching Gerry and Dewey with this relaxed vibe — how they find the sweet spot for a tempo was something I learned from. Sometimes in the studio, messing around with a snare sound for 45 minutes, you can lose perspective of the groove of the song, and then you come in the next day and realize you were way off on the tempo.”
Another constant was veteran audio pro John Holbrook who engineered and mixed Here & Now, and mixed several cuts on Traffic and Weather, as did superstar mixer Michael Brauer. “The typical vocal signal path for America was a Neumann U47 into a mic pre on the Neve 8068,” says Holbrook. “Depending on what I'm doing, I'll run one or two compressors, a UREI LA-2 and maybe an Emperical Labs Distressor. The LA-2 evens out vocals without being too obvious, and then we add the Distressor if we want it to sound a bit more accentuated — punchy but a bit compressed in the mix.
“On a given tune, we could often be looking at 24 tracks or more of background vocals, but there's also a law of diminishing returns once you get more than four voices on one given note,” Holbrook continues. “With these vocal pads, when you stack up that many tracks of the same guys' voices, sometimes there's a frequency in the lower-mids that starts to build up, so we might take out a little bit of lower-mid to clean it up and make it a little more airy.”
Don't think that all this talk about dreamy vocal pads meant Schlesinger went soft, however. In his universe, subtleties generally take a back seat — just view his philosophy on the humble tambourine, which can be clearly heard shaking out in song after song. “Tambourine can be as important as the drum kit,” he says. “It's a rhythmic element that's very bright, and it really changes the feel of a section if you throw it in there. I was always into Beatles mixes, where things would be hard-panned and pop into the mix really loudly. I try to make things really noticeable when they come in and stay away from a mushy wall of stuff so that if a tambourine appears, it's a big deal, not just part of a soup. You shouldn't have to be an audio engineer to notice it either — the average person should say, ‘Oh, there’s a tambourine!'
“The other thing that I learned from America is that space is very important. Their biggest hits are very minimalist records — they barely had drums on a lot of them. A lot of times, it was just acoustic guitar, percussion, harmonies and a lot of vocals. Even though that's not always what FOW does, it made me focus on what people listen to when they listen to a record.”
Although old-school sensibilities may have abounded elsewhere in the projects, all recordings went straight to hard drive via Pro Tools HD. “There are still certain projects where I feel like tape is the appropriate thing, but these two were not those,” Schlesinger notes. “We still bounce the 2-track mixes down to tape, but also have a digital version available as an option. Then when we're in mastering, we'll A/B the two to see if there's something you get from one or the other that you like. There are certain songs where the tape provides glue, but there are also some songs where you're missing some bite and presence, and the digital mix makes it a little snappier.”
All the better to bring out the essential elements of 26 total cuts from two bands and a resident virtuoso with a very firm grasp on the meaning of the word song. “The core of a song is rhythm, its melody, it's the sound of the lead vocal — those are the three main things,” Schlesinger says simply. “You kind of have to build everything else around that.
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