The production process behind the album 'Pretty Little Secrets'
This album is unique to any we’ve created before, and the recording and production process has been a mixture of everything we’ve learned along the way. There are as many ways to make an album as there are people making albums. Our process is unique to us. It’s DIY. It’s built from the ground up.
This month, as we count down to the release of “Pretty Little Secrets”, we’re taking a look at the technical side of how the album was made. What went on inside the Grifters & Shills studio? Why was the album recorded like it was? We’ll answer all of that here, in a deep dive into our world of audio production.
The History (or, “What would Streeter do”?)
In 2016, we were talking to our friend John Streeter (a very talented artist, who also happens to be designing the art for this album). After a show, he mentioned that he really liked seeing us live, but that our albums lacked that visceral energy you get at a live show. We took this comment to heart (and others like it that we’ve heard since). In early 2018, we decided to make an album (“Long Tongue Liars”--our blues tribute) that would be recorded entirely different way than any we’d recorded previously. We started really examining the differences between our recordings and live shows, and taking a long, hard look at why these differences existed. And throughout the process, we recalled that conversation in 2016, repeatedly asking ourselves: What would Streeter do?
An Initial Experiment
For “Liars”, we decided to set up in the studio exactly as we set up for live shows. The only difference was that we also plugged our instruments (guitar, bass, and stompbox) into a DI (direct input) unit that would capture a clean copy of the signals directly from the instruments (not capturing any sounds or effects from the amps). That clean copy was recorded directly into the DAW (digital audio workstation--fancy talk for a computer that is set up to record a band in a studio). Meanwhile, we were able to play just as we normally do--plugged into our amps, unencumbered by click tracks, headphones, and deathly quiet isolation booths (i.e., our master closet, but that’s another story). So we played those songs just like we always performed them live, while capturing the direct, unenhanced sound of the instruments in real-time. (Spoiler alert: It was a lot more fun this way.)
After the songs were recorded, we used a technique called re-amping, where we sent each of the directly-recorded clean signals out of the DAW and back through a guitar amp (later this would become many amps), recorded the amp output with a mic, and presto! We successfully captured the sound of a good amp, but driven by the energy of that initial (“live”) core performance. What was missing previously was that live in-studio performance, that dance we share when we perform together, for better or worse, where the tempo varies a little, the timing drags or pushes by tiny bits, and occasional guitar notes missed here and there.
We’d go on to replace the vocals we recorded live in the studio, and layer a “few” production elements over the top (“Liars” would become our first experiment into soundscape production), but that core of the recorded song, the energy we give and take when the two of us are playing together, remained intact throughout the process.
“Pretty Little Secrets” is Brought to Life
We released “Liars” that summer to much acclaim, and as we neared the holidays, we decided to start a year-long project that would be our first all-original album since 2014. Our previous two albums had been gospel and blues projects, paying homage to some of our musical roots, but we were sitting on 15 originals that needed to get out in the world, songs that we’d been playing live and that people had been asking for, some for quite a while. It was time to figure out how to do it.
We knew one thing that worked--the “live” technique we learned with “Liars”. We employed that technique again, and completed the initial tracking of 15 songs in a couple of days in November and early December. These were fun days, not the grind of the studio that can happen from time to time. We played loud, did each song a couple of times, and called it complete when it felt like a good time. That’s when we’d stop and declare that we had gotten it right (right, as opposed to perfect, which ended up being just that).
Our previous re-amping experience would come into play again, but before we started doing that, we took a step back.
The New Approach
We didn’t want to limit ourselves in the expression of these songs, and we didn’t want to simply re-amp what was recorded and call it done. It’s important to note that we’re not trying to make a “live studio album”, where a band records live in the studio and applies the purist approach of adding nothing else, so that the band sounds like they do live. This approach can work, but it limits creative expression. After all, hearing and watching a band play live and hearing a recording of a band (with no visual experience) are two very, very different things.
So we expanded our approach. We took a careful look at the lyrical content and the backstory behind each song, and we set to producing each song in a manner that would help propel and deepen the stories, amplify the themes of the lyrics, and create visual scenes. This would serve as something of a “third dimension” to the songs, adding scenery to the lyrics and composition.
Instruments were chosen carefully and deliberately, to help convey the themes of the songs.
‘Music Man’ focuses on inner demons, so we used a homemade gourd banjo in an open tuning to achieve an encompassing, haunting, droning sound. ‘Sarge’ has military themes, so we used a percussive guitar and a marching snare pattern. ‘Highway Ride’ has jarring themes of risk and destruction, so we used distorted metal guitar riffs.
‘Disappear’ conveys loss and innocence, so we plugged a guitar into an amp with the reverb on full and made it sound like a music box. ‘Last Leaf Has Fallen’ has themes of family and home, so we used a simple acoustic guitar and no pick. ‘Hell and High Water’ talks about summoning the strength to rebuild, so we used a full band approach (with a mighty drum track played by our friend Nathan), a 5-string bass, and amps turned up as loud as they’ll go to create a powerful soundscape.
‘Running Out’ has themes of mindlessly following the words of self-proclaimed experts, so we used samples of hellfire and brimstone preaching. ‘Sweeter with Wine’ is about drinking and getting ideas, so we used a downtuned sloppy baritone guitar with a slide, plugged into a tiny amp turned up all the way. ‘Never Again’ is a hold-on-to-your-ass party, so we plugged a Les Paul into a Marshall and cranked it.
‘Keepin’ Score’ is a swanky dirty little number so we used a trash snare and a tiny cymbal (and of course that raging kazoo). ‘When the Deed is Done’ is all darkness and desolation, so we used a baritone backing guitar run through a haunting, creepingly slow phaser pedal.
‘Left Right Left’ is all about unending, relentless drive, so we kept those rockabilly guitars straightforward and tight, running hard through a Fender Princeton. ‘2-55’ is the story of youth cutting its teeth and running hard, so we built a wall of rhythm guitars using a Fender Jaguar, a Gretsch Streamliner, and a Gibson SG.
‘Somewhere to Go’ is a lilting throat-punch to social media, so we featured a heavily distorted rhythm guitar in the chorus. And ‘Taxidermy Town’ is a creepy real-life story about the lingering, closeted skeletons of small American towns, so we used an old out-of-tune piano, live recordings of carnival rides in Kemah, TX, a theremin, and some very careful vocal layers.
An arsenal of instruments is fine and good, but putting it all together was going to require a level of production we had not attempted before. It would also require objectivity and a fair amount of ruthless pragmatism (not usually the first things you think of when considering artistic expression). But we had to get out of our own ways a bit, and remove personal attachment to any ideas we might have. John would spend a full day in the studio and try a dozen different ideas. Rebecca would come in later with a fresh perspective and help sort through what worked--what honored the story--and what didn’t. Ideas were judged on their merit after they were recorded, not before. Some things that were complex and amazing and unique and took several hours to lay down were cut in an instant, not because they weren’t good, but because they weren’t right. We could have easily called the album “Killing Your Darlings,” but Faulkner made that one famous some time back.
The studio became hallowed, sacred ground--a space where we both trusted each other 100%, to be honest, to try, to fail, to succeed, to listen to that little itch of a feeling when something wasn’t quite right, rather than just letting it go, and most importantly, to serve The Story.
The Technical Side
This rapid-fire process of trying new things required a flexible technical setup that allowed for things to happen quickly. Taking an hour to set up different rigs for every idea every time would have severely limited things.
Our setup in the Grifters & Shills studio is simple. Our computer is a home-built machine. We use Sonar XL as our recording software on our Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), and we use a Universal Audio 710D as the front end. We have Black Lion Micro Clock that we use to sync the 710D with the DAW’s soundcard. The soundcard is an old Yamaha MR816, and we’re not using the A/D capability of the soundcard at all. The 710D is the preamp and A/D, and the 710D hands the signal off to the 816 via lightpipe.
This is our way of getting the highest sound quality possible with the smallest investment possible. This whole process is DIY. For you kids following along on the social medias, you may have noticed our #diytilidie hashtag.
Remember our initial “live” tracking sessions with these songs? Well, when we got “the core” of the songs recorded, and re-amped the guitars, we also saved the original DI tracks. This would come in handy later as we continued to produce each song--sometimes the amp tone would end up being the wrong tone, so later on we’d re-amp the guitar again, using a different amp or different tone that better matched the overall feel of the song.
We then proceeded to produce the songs, one by one. This required mic’ing instruments and amplifiers, and we kept the approach simple. We got some cheap portable clothes racks and affixed blankets to them--instant budget gobos that we would use to surround whatever sound source we were going to record.
On the amps, we used two Sennheiser e906 mics, one in front of the amp, and one behind. These were equidistant from the speaker, with the phase of the rear mic reversed. On vocals, we used a Warm Audio 47, an absolutely fabulous sounding mic, particularly for vocal.
On the gourd banjo and the ukulele, we used a combination of a Warm Audio 47 in cardioid pattern, and a Audio Technica 2050 in figure-eight pattern, combined together in mid-side format. These mics are both physically large, so it was comical to see two mics that, in the case of the ukulele, were larger than the instrument being recorded.
On the snare, we used e906 mics, one on top and one underneath. On the kick, it was an Audix F15 (the mic that used to be in the Westbound stompbox, for those familiar with our early years and interested in G&S trivia!), with the AT 2050 in figure-eight pattern. Yes, we used mid-side mic techniques on the kick drum--that’s how we manage to get a massive sound out of a tiny 20” kick drum.
The bass was run through Rebecca’s very favorite tone machine, her Sansamp VT Bass DI. No amps were used for the bass. She gets her tone from the VT Bass. (Short-scale basses have thump; you just have to find the right tools to coax it out.)
Finally, for the song ‘Taxidermy Town’, we took our portable audio recorder, a Zoom H6, down to the Kemah TX boardwalk on a Saturday evening. We walked around recording the sounds of various carnival rides, midway games, and all the general amusing chaos (using the X-Y mics that come with the H6).
Nearing the Finish: Mixing and Mastering
We recorded everything, piece by piece, and because we’re using a home-built computer (that is to say, we’re pushing the poor thing about as hard as it can go), we bounced everything down as we went. This is a technique where we’d commit a few tracks of audio and the various plugins we’re using to a single “downmix” track. It was very common in the early days of multitrack recording, where (for example) only four tracks of audio were available. Collapsing three tracks into one would free up those three, so more could be recorded. For us, this was required to free up computing power so we’d be able to record the next tracks. It was all part of our DIY approach to making a lot with a little.
Mixing was an iterative process. Listen to a mix, make a tiny tweak, listen to it again. Listen to it in the car, listen to it in earbuds, in any speakers we could get our hands on to try and get a feel for how this thing would sound out in the real world, when it wasn’t coming out of perfectly positioned studio monitors.
Mastering involved further iteration of a chain of plugins, making endless and countless tiny changes to glue each of these songs together so that the album holds together as one statement--despite the many different elements contained in each of the songs.
Our choice of plugins for DIY mixing and mastering are fairly limited (no pun intended there, audio friends). We used Waves L2 and the iZotope Ozone suite, along with the built-in equalizers where necessary to correct for frequency build-up.
One of our favorite plugins was a freebie--it’s called SPAN, and for all of our friends that are out there recording their own music, we highly recommend it. It’s a frequency analyzer, and it helps you figure out what’s actually going on with your mix. If your mix room is like ours, it is “less than ideal” from an acoustic perspective, so SPAN can help you see what your speakers aren’t telling you.
As of this writing, our mastering process is in its final iterations, hopefully to be complete in the next few days. It’s been a long and exciting process, and we can’t wait to hear the final result, and more importantly, to share it with you all.
Thanks for taking a read through some of our more techy material. We’ve had a surprising number of folks ask us about this side of things, so it seemed like a good time to pull back the curtain a bit and show you all the gears and springs. We’ll try to whip up something a little more scandalous for ya next month.
And thanks as always for sharing the journey with us! It wouldn’t work worth a damn without you.
#griftersandshills #prettylittlesecrets #highlonesomeheavymetal #diytilidie