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Brendan Brown is the musical force behind the band Wheatus, best known for the alt-rock anthem “Teenage Dirtbag.” More than just a naturally gifted songwriter, Brown is also a fiercely hardworking producer that obsesses over every detail of the sounds he shapes.
In 2016, Brown helped the band re-record Wheatus’ debut album using a dozen AMS Neve 8803 dual-channel EQs to help capture the sound of the original recordings. Vintage King spoke with the New York musician to learn more about the recording process and what it was like trying to recreate a classic.
You originally recorded Wheatus’ self-titled album in 1999—what was that process like?
We recorded our first album in 1999 but the process really started all the way back in 1996 on a TASCAM DA-38 digital recorder before we upgraded to a DA-78HR. It was the second half of the 90s and ADAT was being used to record a lot of hip-hop in New York. The “Hi8” tape format was destined for the junk heap, making it extremely affordable and popular during our first record, so that was what we wound up using.
Wheatus was a 32-track recording and we used the Tascam DA-38. We used an Akai MPC200 to make a click track and built fake drums on it as well like a hip-hop production suite. There was a lot of tinkering with those pieces of gear from 96 through 99.
In 2000, we set up a studio in my mother’s house and made the record over three weeks. We took all the tapes that we had up to that point and sort of boiled it down to making the best version of it we could. We had been sort of recording and re-recording it through the years, trying to get to the point where we understood what we were doing—because I didn't really know what to tell a producer.
What was it like re-recording the same album two decades later?
We came up on really cheap gear, but recording the album over again was a challenge because the original master tapes were gone. I sent all four of my main sets to Sony. I assumed the best that they had future-proofed them in some meaningful way, but I don't think they did that. Over the years, whenever the opportunity for a license came up that required the multitrack, it never came together. It just never happened.
So, I took the tapes that I had and meticulously transferred them to Pro Tools. The tapes were not the final masters from the record—they were from the week before and were missing vocals and some percussion. But the click tracks and the drums and the bass and most of the guitars were still there, which made a nice template for us to start rebuilding.
We used the Neve 8803 EQs heavily on vocals and drums to find the right shape on the drive of the song and vocal space. I used the 8803's on every track on this re-record, 21 songs total—and others as well, like the Kinks cover. My favorite feature is definitely their surgical nature and the fact that, unlike other surgical EQs, it's never cold. The hi-lo pass and shelving also mean you get something like two bonus bands per channel.
One thing I love about the 8803s is that they can take a hot signal. The input attenuation is perfect for chilling things out or making them much bolder. I noticed that you can control an instrument's transparency with them—drive it harder and the instrument becomes more opaque and dense, back it off and you can see through it more. Don't be afraid to drive them and go extreme. That's where they can shine.
What was it like working with James Good from Vintage King when you were building your studio for this project?
Man, James has kept me out of so much trouble. He was really good to me. He steered me in the right direction and taught me a lot––he wasn't just a salesman. He was like a professor who taught me a lot more about the studio I was trying to build. He was super practical and cost-conscious. He knew that we were an independent act and he wasn't looking for a big record company budget or anything like that. As a result, James is kind of like a member of the Wheatus family now because we trust him that way.
What’s life in the studio like now that you have great gear to work with?
I mean, we’ve still spent most of our careers taping things together and not feeling like we had the luxury gear. But now that we do have the luxury gear, I kind of feel like I've softened up a little bit. I still spend a huge amount of time, especially with drums, setting up different microphones to capture some sort of punchiness that you can hear in the room.
Do you have any weird techniques for capturing or producing sounds?
I use tons of blankets whenever we're recording. I'm constantly building baffling out of mattresses and foam and rubber––whatever it takes to isolate the drum kit from itself in the right way, you know? It’s never the same twice though.
How did you approach handling the original record’s flaws and imperfections? Did you weave them back in or aim to “correct” them?
I think the way people remember “Teenage Dirtbag” is by feeling the awkwardness of it, the imperfection, so we had to respect that along the way. I remember experimenting with plugging my Martin OOO-16E into a SansAmp Tech 21 PSA-1 preamp with all of the knobs on full, like radioactive metal with an acoustic guitar. I recorded it standing in front of the speakers with the volume so loud, just below the feedback threshold. This fake snare that we used to build the scratch drum track was ringing right through, treating the guitar like a microphone. So I had this snare ambience coming down the guitar line.
When we sent the tapes to Dave, we thought we had cleaned it all up but if you listen to the original recording, on the left side, you can hear this kind of snare artifact that's happening. It's such a big mistake that we thought this is never gonna be right unless we recreate that. So I got out the old Martin guitar and I put it through the SansAmp along with the Joemeek and some heavy Manley Massive Passive EQ, cranked it to the point where I have to wear earplugs in the control room. There were other things like that where we had to make these decisions, like, do we make the mistake again? Is this an important enough mistake to recreate?
How do you view the relationship between songwriting and production—are they completely independent of each other, or woven together?
They happen in tandem. I'm sort of mystified and envious of artists who can just write and get the songwriting into its own space that has no other concerns. As soon as I have a guitar chord, a melody, a story and a title that makes sense, my brain is in the kick drum and the snare tuning and what kind of high hat we’re going to use. My songwriting imagination and my production imagination are completely intertwined. I'm not sure that that's a good thing, but that's how I do it.
How do you approach shaping guitar sounds?
I use a lot of DI preamps and EQs. I have a ton of SansAmp PSA guitar preamps—that stuff just kills. I like to create curves that don't exist in the natural world for guitar. It’s like moving the guitar into a new harmonic space that I couldn’t do without lots of EQ.
How do you feel about plug-ins?
Plug-ins can be super fun. You can make your own unique combinations of them. You can drive them in a way that makes you happy. However, it is just a simple mathematical fact that every plug-in is mathematically identical to every other plugin. If it's a plugin that's in Pro Tools or Logic, it's the same exact one that everybody has. And in some ways, that's a good thing—it levels the field when everyone's got the same toys, but it can drive modern music to become homogenized.
Do you have anything coming up that you're excited about that you can share?
Of course, we're working on finishing this 20-song version of our first record. We also recently got a chance to record a cover of a Kinks song for a compilation that's coming up, which I'm really happy about. It's totally kick-ass and because it came out so nice, we did a mono mix and they're gonna put it on a seven-inch. Dave Davies said that he's excited about it on Twitter—it's all very cool. I sometimes can't really believe the things that are coming out of my mouth.
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