Meet The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow's newest member, a 1980s 24-track Studer
The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow sets up its studio space to the backdrop of an analog machine
DALTON — "This is amazing."
David Tanklefsky had just entered the third-floor storage room at The Stationery Factory where he and the rest of The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow would begin recording their first full-length album in less than 24 hours. The space resembled a cross between furniture and electronics stores, cables snaking over several rugs to equipment with boggling amounts of switches. And instruments — mostly guitars — were everywhere.
"So cool," Tanklefsky said.
Up until this sunny Sunday afternoon, the Boston resident had been participating in the group's preproduction process from afar, following the group's progress through texts and emails. Those communications included updates on the new studio that his bandmates — Tory Hanna, Billy Keane, Chris Merenda and Greg Smith — and others had created from scratch. Over the course of two weeks in the beginning of November, the group transformed a dusty old mill room into a groovy home for new sounds, a rare feat in an era of home studio setups. Originally planning to record at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the Americana group opted to tape its bass-and-drum-driven material at the former Crane & Co. building before traveling up Route 8 to capture its acoustic tunes at the North Adams institution. County businesses and residents have donated rugs, baffles and other items to support the cause.
"It's going to be a Berkshire recording session," producer Johnny Irion said on Nov. 3, the day after unloading some of the group's equipment in Dalton.
Convenience and familiarity were both factors in the group's decision to record material at The Stationery Factory, according to Irion. The producer resides close to the building, as does most of the group, and he has performed on its stage. The Stationery Factory Co-Owner Stephen Sears was receptive to the group's project. From a musical standpoint, he views the property as more than just a concert venue.
"Our goal is to have a permanent recording studio here," said Sears, who is still working out a compensation arrangement with the Roadshow for its use of the space. (Mass MoCA is allowing the band to work there for free.)
The Stationery Factory also provided ample room for an early 1980s 24-track Studer A80 tape machine, the studio's vintage centerpiece. Though albums are often tracked digitally today, Irion wanted to take an analog approach to the Roadshow's record, ascribing a "warmth" to the Americana group's sound.
"I just feel like in today's digital age, I can tell the difference [between digital and analog] when I listen to Spotify and listen to other streaming services," he said.
The process of tracking to tape also creates a different workflow for musicians. Digital recording allows for near-instantaneous listening and a vast amount of computer space for audio files. Tape recording requires rewinding and managing physical limitations; you can run out of $350-per-reel tape in a hurry. Thus, each take has a little more urgency attached to it.
"Tape is definitely a mentality," said Grant Wicks, the album's audio engineer.
Irion felt that "the Studer," as he and others called it, was vital enough to have it transported across the country for the endeavor. Ravi Shankar protege Alan Kozlowski owns the machine, which was previously residing at Jackson Browne's Santa Barbara, Calif., studio. Irion recorded his last solo album, "Driving Friend," there and is looking after the Studer for the time being.
"It's in the family," he said.
From Santa Barbara, the Studer went to the Las Vegas basement of Irion's bus-driving friend. He eventually hauled it to Washington, D.C., where Wicks and Irion picked it up after a shared Connecticut gig. They took turns driving a van overnight to the nation's capital, a mattress set up in the back for sleeping. Upon loading the Studer, they immediately headed back north, moving the machine into Wicks' Easthampton work space. It wasn't an easy trip.
"Pouring rain the entire way," recalled Wicks, who spent a few weeks testing the machine's functionality.
Similar weather greeted the Studer's arrival at The Stationery Factory just before 8 p.m. on Nov. 2.
"We didn't drop it!" Hanna said of the loading process in Easthampton.
Hanna was part of a group removing the heavy chair-shaped machine from a trailer in the The Stationery Factory's rear parking lot, raindrops falling as they labored. With help from area residents Will Beemer, Bob Bishop and David Stuart, Hanna and Keane ran a dolly underneath the Studer and shimmied it into the building. Irion emerged a few minutes later, a rug draped around his neck. He and some of the others rolled the Studer to a freight elevator that would take the machine to the third floor. Crates, dollies and equipment offering insight into the building's history, such as a Golding Jobber press, filled one-half of the high-ceilinged room that would be housing the Studer for at least the next few weeks. The other half was mostly empty. Irion and Wicks were impressed that the rain pounding outside wasn't making too much of a clatter.
"Looks like a good place for some rock 'n' roll," Irion said, surveying the room with his audio engineer.
Irion chose Wicks for the project in part because of the engineer's affinity for analog sound. As an undergraduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Wicks wrote a thesis on analog audio preservation. The 31-year-old's relationship to music has long been tied to its recording.
"When I started playing, I'd have cassette recorders and junky home reel-to-reel decks and stuff like that, so I was always fiddling around with this stuff," he said.
While he has helped record numerous albums across a wide array of genres, Wicks had never worked with a Studer before this project.
"Some of it is a learning curve for me ... but it's a lot like other tape machines, just the controls are in a different place," Wicks said.
By the afternoon following the load-in, the audio engineer had positioned the Studer in a corner overlooking Flansburg Avenue. That area soon became known as Wicks' "HQ." With some help from engineer Ed McEntee, who traveled from New York City for the occasion, Wicks assembled an iMac, mixing board, pre-amps, speakers and analog-to-digital converters, among other items, along an L-shaped table setup. The converters were essential; they would turn the Studer's analog information into digital signals. Wicks would then use Pro Tools music software to review the sounds on the computer. The engineer's station also allowed the band to record digitally if the Studer started having any problems.
"It's the best of both worlds," Wicks said.
The engineer felt comfortable with the equipment at his disposal.
"As far as your average production goes, this is pretty luxurious, high-end," he said.
Across the room, musicians' instruments were soon miked up and linked to some of the tape machine's channels. (Wicks was aiming to use 12 channels at one time.) For example, the snare drum could be recorded on channel 7 while the bass was being taped on channel 11. Vocals could also be preserved.
Along with the album's guest artists — bassist Pat Sansone of Wilco and drummer Steve Gorman of The Black Crowes, among others, each Roadshow member had his own work zone. Sound baffles divided some of these areas, creating musical cubicles that couldn't fit much more than a couple of instruments and a body. Beemer, a director of Heartwood School for the Homebuilding Crafts in Washington, constructed the rectangular wooden baffles, which act as noise mitigators. Exotic rugs and blankets were flung over them; Dash & Albert rugs covered some of the floor.
"All of the Berkshires has opened its arms," Irion said of the various people and businesses that have contributed to the album-making process.
Over the course of the following week, Roadshow members would stop by the space, dropping off instruments, amps, stands and pedals, as well as items that contributed to a "chill" ambiance. A couch and chairs, for instance, occupied the patch of floor between Wicks' station and the musicians. Merenda visited on Monday, Nov. 5, bringing his banjo, rugs and more.
"Young G," he said, referring to Wicks, "where do you think I should set up my musical lair?"
He settled for an area next to the baffle-filled space, constructing a drum set with his son Da'Jaun. He also began hooking up his electronics; he had used some of them at a Roadshow gig two nights earlier in Boston and was now feeling the effects of a hasty cleanup.
"Untangling cords: This is the hardest part of the business," he said.
After their equipment drops, Roadshow members would jam and drink beer, often reimagining tunes they had presented to Irion during sessions at his Washington home. In addition to these meetings, the producer had connected Hanna and Smith with John Goodwin, a songwriting coach who contributed to the "Crazy Heart" soundtrack. Hanna and Goodwin worked on "Cross My Land," a tune spurred by the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Less than a week before tracking, Hanna wasn't sure which of his songs — or anybody else's — would be getting put to tape.
"It's a complete unknown," he said.
On Thursday night, Irion wanted to record two of Keane's tunes and one of Smith's as a test. A near-constant presence at the studio since move-in, Wicks had begun running tape the previous day, capturing vocals and instruments' sounds. Keane and Smith played drums and bass, respectively, as Irion and Wicks observed. Initially, Wicks was picking up a crackle in the bass channel, but it relented. "Bleed," or unintended sound picked up by the microphones, was at a minimum.
"It sounds f------ awesome," Keane said as the group sat and listened.
Keane subsequently sang "Pass the Peace" and "Hey Lady," a song about women's rights he had played for Irion at their meeting. Keane and Smith high-fived after each of the tracks. Keane was particularly impressed with his playing partner.
"Greg, you sound so good, it's insane. I can't stop smiling," Keane said before departing.
Smith closed out the night with "Rock 'n' Roll Deja-Vu," a tune he also played on Sunday with Hanna, Keane and Tanklefsky. The bandmates ran through a number of songs, at times referencing lyric sheets to build familiarity with another songwriter's work. Making his first preproduction appearance, Tanklefsky shared multiple pieces that the group endorsed.
"We've got a bunch of good tunes to go on this record," Smith said at one point.
They had a better sense of which songs they would be playing with Gorman and Sansone, the latter of whom was playing shows with Irion that weekend.
"I think Dave's the most excited to meet Pat," Hanna said.
"Oh, yeah," said Tanklefsky, a big Wilco fan.
As the group prepared to leave that night, Irion called Wicks. He wanted to make sure that the engineer's Ludwig drum kit was dialed in to the Studer. Wicks had already done four tests to ensure that it was.
"Johnny's nervous because his friends are coming," Wicks said to the group, alluding to Gorman and Sansone, "and he wants it to be really good."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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