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Rail Recording: Sleeping Car, Dining Car, Studio Car

LOS ANGELES, CA—Station to Station, a not-for-profit public art project made possible by Levi’s, recently crossed the country from sea to sea for a series of concerts and multimedia events featuring musicians, artists and cultural icons.

LOS ANGELES, CA—Station to Station, a not-for-profit public art project made possible by Levi’s, recently crossed the country from sea to sea for a series of concerts and multimedia events featuring musicians, artists and cultural icons. Described by organizer and artist Doug Aitkin as “a nomadic happening,” Station to Station—as suggested by the title— traveled by rail from New York to the Bay Area, stopping at nine cities, towns and remote locations along the way.

Touring by train rather than by bus is hardly new. Janis Joplin, the Band and the Grateful Dead rode the rails through Canada for their Festival Express tour back in 1970, an idea that has been revived in recent years by Mumford & Sons and Skrillex. But outfitting one of the railroad cars as a full-blown recording studio for the artists to use? That has apparently not been attempted previously—on this scale, anyway.

The idea to outfit a car with analog recording gear was inspired by Moog Sound Labs, according to Trent Thompson, product marketing manager for Moog Music. “We figured out how to maximize the experience for the artists and make sure all of our most relevant products were there. We basically sent at least one of everything and then sent some extra Moogerfoogers,” he said. The list included several models of Voyager and Phatty synthesizers, a Minitaur, a Theremin and the full catalog of foot pedals (times two) as well as a Moog Lap Steel and two Moog Guitars.

Moog also arranged for a selection of gear from Rupert Neve Designs (RND) and sE Electronics to be delivered to the Amtrak rail yard prior to the tour through connections between the companies. Justin Stanley, an engineer, producer, songwriter and musician, was brought on-board to assemble and operate the recording set-up, assisted by engineer and musician Josh Lovell. (In Minnesota, Stanley, on drums, and Lovell, on bass, were also drafted in at the last minute for Patti Smith’s performance.)

Engineer Justin Stanley was a-rockin’ and a-rollin’ as he rode the rails recording on the recent Station To Station art project. “We had two days at the depot,” said Stanley during a stop at L.A.’s Union Station near the end of the tour. “We had to walk everything over eight or 10 sets of train tracks. I was still plugging things in on the first leg up to Pittsburgh.”

Stanley, whose credits include Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow and Jamie Lidell, and has been associated with Beck in the studio and on tour, was already familiar with some of the equipment. “I’d used the sE RNR1 microphone on a Clapton record a few years ago. I loved it; I used it on his vocal, double bass and as a room ambience mic,” he said.

“I was really interested to hear the Centerpiece; it looks amazing, and everything it can do is pretty phenomenal,” he said of the RND 5060, a 24×2 desktop mixer. The Rupert Neve-designed gear complement also included a Portico II Master Buss Processor, Portico II Channel and three 5024 Quad Mic Pres.

Stanley additionally took along an Overstayer AMPEQ-02 dual mic/ line amp, a UA 2108 dual mic preamplifier and a Bricasti M7 reverb, plus an Apogee Symphony to sit between Pro Tools, running on a laptop, and the Centerpiece. “I have some microphones from sE, Miktek, Royer, Shure, and some other bits and pieces. For drum room mics, I’m using the sE RN17s. They sound amazing.” Fingerprint Audio, sE’s distributor, also supplied a pair of sE Munro Egg nearfield monitors.

Large diaphragm tube mics were out of the question on a noisy train, commented Stanley, who relied mainly on dynamic and condenser mics: “I don’t mind bleed, but I need some control.”

But surprisingly, he said, “Walking into a situation like this on a train, you think, there are going to be buzzes, hums and power issues. But it’s super-clean, and the sound on the train is amazing, because it’s old, there’s a wooden floor, a wooden ceiling, and the walls are curved with carpet on them.” In fact, he reported, “Ariel Pink said it sounded better than his record.”

Stanley also recorded some vocal takes while Cold Cave’s singer was filmed for a video, singing between two of the cars with the landscape rushing by the open doors, assuming he would have to re-record them later. “But there was almost zero bleed; it was really weird. I’m going to record my vocals on a train from now on!”

Visitors to the recording car during stops, and even while on the move, also included Thurston Moore and John Maloney, Lucky Dragons, White Mystery and numerous others. “It’s a quick turnaround—some stops are long, but others are really short. A lot of these artists spend months and months on a project. It’s a great realization that you don’t need that long.”

Moog Inc.

Rupert Neve Designs

sE Electronics