Recording and producing Tom Allan and The Strangest “Little Did They Know” - Clouds Hill Recordings
Written by Johann Scheerer
Date: 27th November 2019
Recording and producing Tom Allan and The Strangest “Little Did They Know”
Reading time: approx. 12 MIN.
The essence of playing live
I knew that the band was unbeatable in their live performance
The last time I wrote something about Tom Allan and The Strangest a couple of months ago, I was explaining my motivation to record the band live, straight to 8-track. I thought the band would profit from a sound that is stripped down to the core of performance. Although the “Tom Allan and The Strangest live at Clouds Hill” sounds extremely rough I still like it and was very happy when Tom called me and said that he loved the recordings even though he needed some time to get used to it.
When it came to their second album we tried a different approach. But then again, did we really?
After his first album, Tom tried to work with the same producer again which put me in the position of being the Clouds Hill label’s A&R. So, I called a meeting and told the band that I wanted a super rough record. I wanted them to sound courageous, unexpected and cool. Of course, we all knew that this could only be achieved with the right songs, arrangements and an unneglectable portion of self-esteem. When the band came back to me with rough mixes of the first studio session neither Tom and Evan nor myself were satisfied with the results. It sounded boring and uninspired.
To cut a long story short: Many things got in their way. A lack of communication maybe. Misunderstandings about what we meant by “rough”. Finally, we came to the conclusion that the only practicable way to record this album was … live. When I said “live” during the phone call with the band I heard that they thought that this wasn’t the most groundbreaking idea of all times. Then I started to explain:
I knew that the band was unbeatable in their live performance. Even though it’s still old-school rock music, and I am personally not a huge fan of (ordinary) rock music, I realized that I enjoy watching the band live a lot. So, I started to ask myself why. I am still impressed of what a simple setup consisting of guitar, bass and drums can do to an audience when played right. It can be magical. I explained that I wanted the band all in one room. I wanted them to already rehearse in the recording room for a week before the recordings to really adjust to the room’s atmosphere and sound. I knew that the foundation of their performance was that they feel as comfortable in that studio room as they do in their rehearsal room. So, we would invest at least 2 days in sound check and one of those days in monitoring. They should try everything. Headphones, no headphones, speakers in height of their heads, classic concert monitoring on the floor, anything to make them feel as comfortable as possible. The core of the setup was an array of three room mics put up as a Decca-Tree. I want to mention that I came up with the mics and the setup but the entire sound check was done by Sebastian “MUXI” Muxfeldt, Clouds Hill Engineer, when I was on a business trip to LA. So Muxi set up three Soyuz 013 FET mics with omni characteristics. The middle one facing the drums. Tom and his Vox AC30 was placed on the left side of the setup and Evan with his Vox amp on the right side. So, the guitars already had their place in the stereo picture. He recorded some bits and sent me the rough mixes of the different mics. I listened to them in the early morning as I was jet lagged anyway and immediately gave Muxi a GO.
But before we dig deeper into the tech side of the recordings … After telling the band about the extensive sound check, monitoring and acclimation ideas, I came up with another idea to wring out the best of the band’s performance. I wanted them to play three concerts with an audience. All on one day at 4pm, 6pm and 8pm. I thought the presence of fans could give their performance an extra push. If not during the first concert, maybe during the second or third. I would then cut together the best of the three shows and ideally have the record finished a day or two after the shows.
At first the band had many questions
What about applause? What about all other human noises? What about mistakes? Tuning problems, spill, wrong harmonies, speeding up or slowing down … all these common “mistakes” that happen during a live show. I was confident that Muxi and I would be able to deal with all this stuff if we add two days of postproduction. We agreed that we would do harmonies and vocal effects as overdubs. Everything else should be done live.
Both guitar amps got a Sony c37a and an additional ribbon mic. Royer 121 for Tom’s and a Beyerdynamic M130 for Evan’s guitar. Muxi miced Robin’s Bass amp, the best amp for live recording in my opinion, the vintage Ampeg B15N, with a Sennheiser 421 and an additional DI for the low end.
We had Tim Schierenbeck, our fantastic drum tech, coming in on the first day of rehearsal to explain how to tune the drums to Nico, the drummer of the band. On the day of the recordings he stayed the entire day to retune the drums after each show.
All the drums we used were from Clouds Hill’s vintage collection. The bass drum was a 24“x14“ Sonor Phonic with an Aquarian Super Kick II batter head and no resonator head. The Super Kick has lots of low end and, other than the name might suggest, very little kick. We put in a blanket and a pillow and still had enough life left to work with. We used a 16“x 17“ Sonor Lite Floortom with an Aquarian Performance II Batterhead and also took off the resonator head. There was a lot of duct tape involved to get rid of the overtones. We tuned it a little higher than usual to get a nice musical tone rather than just bass mumble. The main snare was a Sonor Phonic 14“x8“ with an Aquarian Response II clear batter head with a power dot. We tuned the batter head very high on one side and very low on the other. Some might say that they wouldn´t do that to a hoop but it sure sounds great! Very aggressive and drum machine like. We also used a Ludwig Supraphonic 14“x6.5“ with a Texture Coated single ply head with an ultra low tuning and a plastic muffle ring on some songs and a 14“x6.5“ Yamaha Mike Bordin Copper Snare, also with a Texture Coated single ply head and an open, mid range tuning on some others. The Cymbals were: Bosphorus Black Pearl 20“ Crash, Bosphorus Traditional 20“ Crash, Bosphorus Traditional 14“ Hi Hats and a Meinl Big Apple 22“ Ride.
Muxi set up a Neumann UM57, an AKD D20 and a Yamaha Lofi Speaker in front of the bass drum and summed it together on track 1 of the Studer A820 24 track. The Snare got a SM57 in which we removed the transformer. Next to it we put up a Josephson e22 to give the Snare sound some extra shimmer. But as we listened to both mics we were surprised how similar they sounded. Removing the transformer from the Shure SM57 really made a huge difference. We decided to keep both mics none the less and even added a Sennheiser 421 for the bottom to make up for the slight loss of punchy pressure which came from the customized SM57. The Floor Tom got a Sennheiser 421 on the top head and a vintage Neumann U87 on the bottom. Classic Led Zeppelin setup. Especially with the removed resonator head… We loved the sound! All summed together to track 2 of the tape machine.
The core of the drum sound was a Beyerdynamic M88 one meter in front of the drums, preamped with a distorted Roland Space Echo. A sound I found when I recorded drums for Omar Rodriguez-Lopez solo record which I will tell you more about in a couple of weeks. Overhead microphones were Coles Ribbons combined with Soyuz 011 tube mics.
Additional to the Decca Tree array in the middle of the room we set up a vintage AKG C24 stereo tube mic in the top corner of the room above the bass amp because Muxi and I knew that we could capture some low end room sound at that particular position.
Tom got a Shure SM7 and Evan a Sennheiser 441 for vocals. Everything, except the M88 was preamped through the vintage API preamps of the desk and, after adding some compression and EQ, went straight to tape. The Decca Tree was summed down to stereo through the fantastic Vacuvox U23m. The Overheads got some compression with the Vertigo VSC-2 and Urei La-3a. The low Tom and Evan’s vocals were compressed by the Urei 1178. Tom’s vocals got some La2a compression.
Now it was up to the band
What can I say? The shows went great!! I got Muxi to rough mix all three shows and send them to me the night after the concerts. I downloaded the rough mixes and gave them a listen during an extensive walk through the park in the early morning while making notes on my phone. Then Muxi and the band cut the best bits together and I added some crazy delay with my favorite Fradan Amp. (Read more about the Fradan in “Recording and producing Okta Logue”). Evan, Tom, Robin and Nico sang some harmonies, we Melodyned some detuned guitar bits and that was about it.
Then the files got sent to Norman Nietzsche and Greg Friedman who already mixed Tom Allan & The Strangest debut album. I must admit that I was a bit jealous to not being able to mix the record myself. (I had another project coming up but the Clouds Hill label wanted a single ready in November when the band started touring with Mando Diao). So, my inner A&R and music producer were having a conversation in my head about my personal priorities.
During mastering, Chris von Rautenkranz and I added some crazy noises I found in the various sessions to make the record sound even more unique. We added tape noise, little hisses and swirls, sudden applause and funny atmospheres. I wanted to make the record sound artificial and special even though it was recorded in the simplest way possible. One band in a room performing the hell out of it.
Johann Scheerer, born 1982, started to be a professional musician in the age of 17 when his band signed their first major deal. He founded Clouds Hill Recordings in 2005 and the attached label Clouds Hill in 2010. As a music producer and engineer he worked with various international artists. In 2018 he released a best-selling autobiographic book.