In our latest guest blog, Bryan Akcasu of LA-based pop rockers Two Cheers discusses in great detail the ups and downs that came with recording the band’s brand new album Splendor. You can also stream the album in full at the end of the article, so give it a listen while you’re reading and enjoy!
As Al Aguilar, friend of mine and frequent Two Cheers multi-instrumentalist, put it: “Some people are all gear and no ear.”
We had spent a day recording in a studio in Los Angeles. The studio was decked out with custom guitars, a vintage console, retro hardware signal processors, and all the coveted high-end studio microphones a studio could ever need. The producer was a genuinely passionate and encouraging person, and I enjoyed working with him that day. Alas, when the mix came back, it fell far short of our expectations, and we were all let down. As I listened to the stems later, I realized how poorly even the source tracks sounded despite having been recorded on a magnificent array of gear. The bass was floppy, the kick drum was all woof and no click, and the acoustic guitar sounded like it was recorded inside a sock drawer. The vocals, despite being recorded on a legendary vintage Neumann microphone, were plagued by obnoxious early reflections from the poorly treated walls of the room I sang in.
Indeed, some people are all gear and no ear. On the other hand, some people are all ear and no gear. I would put myself somewhere between the two, but definitely closer to the latter category. I have a handful of what could be considered professional quality devices: a couple versatile preamps, a few hardware compressors, basic but capable equalizers, decent monitors, and a microphone for every situation. I also have a small collection of carefully considered software signal processors because I mix almost exclusively “in the box”, which to audio engineers means “on the computer”. I had to buy all these things, and in every case it was a very selective, well-researched investment. I also didn’t settle for the cheap gear that would just “do the job”, because I think that even if I have all my fundamentals down, there is something to be said for those special pieces of gear or software that make the process easier, or more natural, or more magical, or more fun. It was with this modest set-up that we recorded and mixed our new album, Splendor, at the beginning of this year. I’m not really bragging, because I don’t think the mix is sonically groundbreaking, and the production is nowhere near as immaculate and polished as something you’d hear on Top 40 radio. No, it has flaws, imbalances, flubs, and a host of other imperfections. But it’s with great pride that I can say it’s listenable and even sounds almost exactly like we want it to!
The elements of a mixed recording that we consider most important are there for the most part: The performances are the best takes we could have achieved at the time, because if a take wasn’t right we took the time do it over, and we also took great care in capturing sounds that wouldn’t require excessive processing later. The recorded material is free of unwanted artifacts of the rooms they were recorded in, meaning mostly unflattering early reflections, but they don’t sound dead or stuck either. The various instruments are distinct, but they also fit together like puzzle pieces so that they aren’t crowding each other. The beats have impact but they are contained in and glued together with the music. The parts are always breathing and bouncing to the rhythms of the songs. The high frequencies aren’t harsh, but they aren’t completely ironed-out, and the bass frequencies give the song muscle and weight without sounding too muddy. The songs sound alive, like they are happening for the first time. For all the roughness of these mixes, I think they are still palatable, and yet for all the production value I was able to impart, they aren’t neutered or lifeless.
Again, I’m not really patting myself on the back too much, because what we achieved with these recordings is really just the bare minimum of what I consider an acceptable mix, and I could be completely wrong about all of the above. I am under no illusions that an industry standard studio with a big name producer at the helm might not have done a much, much better job, especially considering the highly technical level of engineering in a proper studio and the sheer mojo of some of the truly high-end recording equipment. But that’s not where Two Cheers is at right now! We have a tiny following, no label, small budgets for everything, and of course, day jobs. It’s not all about the money though, and besides, there are lots of B- and C-level studios we could have recorded at, plenty of aspiring producers we could have afforded, and lots of capable mixing engineers who aren’t yet commanding major label income. So, why record in my apartment and do it all ourselves, and how did we manage it? I’m tempted to say that we were confident that we could do a better job on it than anyone we could afford to pay, but we didn’t really give everyone the chance to prove us wrong, so we’re not going to say that. We didn’t really leave ourselves an out this time, because we were determined to make it happen in a certain way to show ourselves it was possible. If we could manage it, there were three major reasons to take on the task of recording our own songs.
First of all, making a studio recording is about capturing and crystallizing the band’s sound, and no one knows what that sound should be better than we do. If we know how we want to sound and we know how to get it, we don’t need a producer. I’m sure there are producers out there who could coach us and make us sound edgier, trendier, louder, more pop, more original, etc. but we made the album because we already liked our music the way it was when we thought of it. This is a garage band in many ways, but we attempt bring a certain amount of finesse to the table. We know how to use the tools we have, and we know what it is we want to build. For those who haven’t recorded a song before, I can only relate an anecdote from the band’s experience.
During one of the few recording sessions in which we went to a studio and hired someone to record us, Al butted heads with the producer because he insisted Al use a vintage Fender Jazz Bass through an old, woolly sounding vintage amp instead of Al’s MTD 535 and Sansamp Bass DI that he usually records through. Compared to the producer’s rig, the DI’d MTD gives a pristine, punchy sound that doesn’t necessarily sound as impressive as a growly, meaty vintage Fender while tracking. What Al and I knew, however, was that his MTD could actually get us exactly what we wanted for the song with a little tone sculpting and some additional processing during the mixing phase using one of my favorite plug-ins. Unfortunately, it didn’t fit with the vintage-everything paradigm of the producer. We wanted to trust him and we didn’t want to fight about it, so we ended up with a bass sound that was his instead of ours. It sounded blobby in the mix, and the one-dimensional way it was recorded allowed no flexibility to give it more bite after the fact.
I typically know, for instance, what kind of bass sound we need to capture because I know how I’m going to treat the bass when I mix. More importantly, I know how the kick drum is going to sound locked into it, how the guitars are going to sound swirling around it, and how the vocals are going to sound riding on top of it. A producer has to have all of that in mind from the start, even when it does come time to try out other instruments or other amplifiers, because the tone of the instrument by itself is meaningless. Of course, experimenting and letting pleasant surprises happen is part of the process, but we rarely just plug in and cross our fingers. I didn’t like being told, as I know Al didn’t, what was an acceptable bass guitar sound by someone who didn’t have a clear understanding of what the mix was going to sound like, despite our best efforts to communicate. Again, I’m sure not all producers are like that, but the story drives the point home: If you have some vision of the big picture, the technical skills to attain it, and at least some decent gear at your disposal, then you have the opportunity to cut out all the middlemen and do it your way.
As a side note, I started learning how to engineer and mix when I was young songwriter because several of my idols produced and recorded themselves, and I kind of thought that’s what a really good artist should be able to do. Mukai Shutoku of Number Girl, my favorite band, produced their first few records. Elliot Smith produced his first few records on a Tascam four-track from what I understand. Brian Wilson, of course, produced all the Beach Boys greatest material. Jimmy Page produced all the Led Zeppelin albums. I realize now that it is actually a somewhat specialized skill that a singer or songwriter doesn’t necessarily need to spend time learning, and I probably would’ve become a better singer and songwriter sooner had I not spent so much time obsessing over the production side of the work in addition to my song craft. But I still feel somewhat strongly that an artist should be able to produce his or her own records, if not engineer them outright. Especially in modern music, the production is so much of what can make someone fall in love with a band, and almost everyone who writes a song has an idea of what it should sound like when it is done. I always knew how I wanted my songs to sound, and I was stubborn in that I insisted on learning how to make them sound like that on my own.
That brings me to the second major reason we produced the album ourselves. We don’t like having a time limit for every step of the process and we like to be comfortable with the people involved as well as the environment we’re working in. Recording can be a rushed, tedious, high-stress process, or it can be convivial, thoughtful, and at times, even a bit of a party. When we’re on the clock at a studio, we have a tendency to accept tones and performances that we might not be happy with otherwise. We don’t like having one chance to nail down a tricky guitar part. We don’t like not being able to afford to go back and change out one keyboard sound for another. We don’t like thinking of a better ending to a particular lick and not being able to go back and punch it in.
Furthermore, since everyone in the band has a different approach and a different style of working, recording at my apartment affords us the chance to customize the way we record each member. I like to do a number of whole takes, playing through the whole song from beginning to end regardless of any mistakes, making mental notes each time, refining the whole performance as I go and adding improvisations. I never punch in edits, instead I sort through all the performances and take the best elements of each and combine them later. Mitchell takes a more targeted approach, punching into certain spots and looping them on record until he’s nailed that particular riff or lick. He’s very particular about what a good take really is though; it’s not always about what is the most technically performed, but what has that special “ring” to it that sometimes only he understands. Al prefers the combined approach of doing a few full takes and then honing in on certain spots to try a number of different variations. He’s a bit more virtuosic than Mitchell and I, so he has the proclivity to invent complicated runs in the heat of the moment, and he works very quickly. “The main thing for me in a studio is that I need to feel comfortable and be able to trust the engineer and producer because I want to be able focus on playing instead of too many technical aspects of the session,” he says. “The great thing about working at Bryan’s studio is that he can quickly dial me in so I can get creative right off the bat and keep the momentum going from the very beginning.”
On a personal note, I am very wary of doing vocals anywhere other than my studio. I like to get into the frame of mind of the song I want to record, because it’s really obvious when I am not giving a sincere performance. I’m not a virtuoso, so I am not able to use vocal devices to give a convincing performance regardless of how I feel, and even if I was, I would still prefer to be convinced myself of what I was singing. Sometimes, I have to work myself back into the state of mind I was in when I wrote the lyrics by contemplating them for a while. Or maybe I just have to sit quietly for an hour or two to let a certain sentiment pass through my consciousness. Sometimes I have to sing the song ten or twelve times to kind of hypnotize myself into the headspace of the music. Other times, I will be brushing my teeth before bed and find myself in the mood to sing a particular song. Well, these are not the kinds of luxuries an indie band can typically afford, even in a budget studio situation, unless we are recording ourselves in our apartments. Even then, I like to be alone when I do vocals; Mitchell and Al typically take off for that. I don’t feel comfortable bearing my soul and giving an all-out vocal take if someone is scrutinizing my performance, laughing at my experiments, telling me when to start, when to stop, where I was off-key, where I forgot some lyrics, where I need to be more evocative, etc. Not to say that Al, Mitchell, or some producer is necessarily going to give me a hard time, but when I record in my apartment studio, I cherish being completely free to let the process unfold, however long it takes or however weird it gets. I am sure many singers find the direction of a professional with a critical ear very helpful in the studio and have no problem opening up completely to a stranger, but that’s not my method lately.
The last thing I want to mention as a reason for recording the album ourselves, is that there is always the possibility that our album is a sort of portfolio of what my studio, for all it’s limitations, could be able to achieve for other artists on a budget. I like to think my home studio has the potential to be more than just a workspace for me and Two Cheers. Right now, it’s like our nest; it’s the place we come together to make the music that we want to show the world and where we turn it from something ideal into something tangible. But this studio is also something I want to grow and build up for other people too. I want to be able to record other singers and bands here, to extend this space to others if they want it, and to show people the freedom of working the way we do. It’s more of a dream, more of a challenge, to have those expectations for this studio on top of the ones I have for Two Cheers, but it is no less important to me. Hopefully, I’ve already got that ball rolling because Mitchell and I just recorded a handful of songs he wrote, produced, and arranged on his own, and I am going to start mixing them this summer. But the tracks we recorded already sound superb, and I am so tempted to offer up this studio to every band I meet. I’m not sure I can accommodate every possible recording situation quite yet, but I am working towards that. And obviously, I am still learning!
I’ve made it sound like recording this album was such a big deal, but it really wasn’t too difficult. Actually, the hardest part wasn’t turning my apartment into a studio, which mostly involved my own education over time on how to engineer a record. That is something I gave myself by reading Sound On Sound Magazine, studying the works of my favorite mixing engineers, reading tutorials on the internet, and watching YouTube videos. Instead, the hardest part was battling our work schedules and not being able to dedicate our time to it as consistently as we’d have liked to. And I’m no expert by any means. Maybe our new record sounds like shit and we are just too naive to realize it. But we like it, our friends and family like it, and a few strangers that have heard it like it, so how bad could it be?
I sure have written a lot about it here, considering it could be that very few people ever hear this record and that our band might just live in obscurity forever. But Splendor is one of the most important things we’ve ever done, if not for the end result, then for the experience of devoting so much to the process of expressing ourselves in our own way, on our own terms, and by our own hands. We did this completely on our own, and it feels good to say that. We’ve been obsessed with it for months because we absolutely love it, and we hope you listen to it and love it as much as we do.
Huge thanks to Bryan for contributing this incredibly insightful article on the album’s recording process. You can stream the excellent ‘Splendor’ in full below and if you’re digging it as much as we are, you can purchase a CD here.