Bottle Rockets latest: How we did it. by Eric Ambel


November 20th, 2015 by bsradmin
[Here's a wonderful write-up by Eric "Roscoe" Ambel (who played in Bloodshot band The Yayhoos) about how he and The Bottle Rockets made their outstanding new album South Broadway Athletic Club, out now on CD, vinyl LP, and digital]

The Bottle Rockets are one of my all time favorite bands. I’ve produced a bunch of their records, The Brooklyn Side, 24 Hours A Day, Leftovers, Brand New Year, Lean Forward and their latest South Broadway Athletic Club. I also mixed their Not So Loud live acoustic record and the audio for their upcoming untitled long form concert movie.
We had been thinking about the new one for quite a while. In their 20 year plus career the band had never recorded in their home town of St. Louis. My engineer Mario Viele is from St. Louis and he had been giving me a lot of info on the current recording studios in STL. We had a couple ideas over the years and literally waited out the improvements we needed to come to be at Sawhorse Studios (Recording & Mixing Facility) on Virginia Avenue, not to far from Iron Barley.

This move was about vibe and location for the band but it was also about sound too. Sawhorse was able to record at our preferred higher res sample rate of 96k with 24 bit resolution. You could drive yourself to drink reading about digital vs analog comparisons and the virtue of various formats but I can tell you as a guy who’s been in recording studios, some of the greatest ones on earth, it wasn’t till I heard the 96k/24 bit sound that I was convinced that digital could be a part of the process. What I learned at Neil Young’s place back in the 90’s was with digital you really had to put it down the way you wanted to hear it so Sawhorse’s collection of microphones, pre-amps and compressors played into our process too.

Mario and I came down to STL for the first round of tracking in October of ‘14. We arranged to get into the studio the night before we started to load in, set up and sort of ‘cast’ the mics and pre-amps that we’d use for the recording. After some experimenting for the most part these selections remained unchanged on our subsequent visits.

Sawhorse control room Studio A
The next day while I rehearsed the band in the studio Mario and our host Jason McEntire got the sounds dialed in for recording. We ran through a bunch of songs to have a preliminary look at the feel and arrangements, recording those “work versions” as we went before picking a song to start with. After we were happy we settled in on what would be the work mode for the rest of the album. One song a day. We would pick a song and work on that song until it was virtually finished. This was key to the result that you are hearing. There was no cutting the rhythm tracks and coming back a few days later to work on the overdubs or add a tambourine. We started with the song Monday (Every Time I Turn Around) and stayed with it through tracking the band, working on the lead vocal, adding guitar bits, harmony singing and percussion. I’ve been lucky to work the song a day way in the past including recording with the well known Hard Core Troubadour and I’ve found it to be much more creatively rewarding than any other way of working. It’s not the most economical but it’s really the very best for the song.

The Bottle Rockets in Sawhorse live room studio A

We continued working like this for 3 more days to finish our first round. At one point it was suggested that Mario and I come down for a longer stay the next time but we all wisely decided to limit the blocks of recording to 4 days at a time. This would mean we’d have to make 3 trips to STL but knowing how completely drained we all were after the first 4 days it would be best to stick with the plan. These breaks also helped us with the song selection. After we’d get some “points on the board” we’d know what we had which could also point out what we might need, song-wise, for the album.

Fighting our way through the Iron Barley Bottle Rockets Tasting Menu.
As we were recording there were a few things to keep in mind and the vinyl was one of these things. Vinyl is a lovely format and it’s more than just ‘that great analog sound’. It’s the beautiful 12 inch square art format, it’s the 2 sided listening experiences. It’s waiting for something real. It also has some wonderful limitations. The biggest one being that there’s only so much music you can put on a side of vinyl. After 18 minutes or so the quality starts to go down. Years ago when they were pushing the length of a record they’d put the acoustic song last on the size ‘cause the grooves literally weren't that wide.
Sawhorse in STL worked out flawlessly for us recording. It was great for the guys to be able to go home after each night. We went out to eat a few times and even though Mario’s been living in NYC for quite a few years I people seemed to know him every where we went. The Iron Barley folks were out of their way friendly to us and we ordered a couple pizzas with that local delicacy on them that would and probably did catch the ire of our esteemed pal Mark Spencer but the next part of our plan had always been to bring the record back to Cowboy Technical Services Recording Rig in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to Mix.
Cowboy Technical Services Recording Rig in Williamsburg Brooklyn

Tim Hatfield and I established Cowboy Tech in 1999 after working together at many different studios in and around NYC. Our place would have great recording equipment set up in a ‘workshop style’ environment. We also have a great collection of instruments and amps. To mix the new Bottle Rockets record we were going to go from the digital into our Calrec BH6A console (built for the BBC in England in 1985) and rather than use plugins in the computer the sound would hit our extensive outboard gear. Compressors and EQ’s mostly of many different types. Tubes, Transformers, OP-amps. All kinds of stuff. When we got the mix how we liked it we would then print the mix over to the 1/2” 2 track STUDER A-80 RC analog master recorder. This analog stage is a very important part of our process. After we liked how it sounded on the 1/2” we would capture that sound back in the digital format at our highest resolution 192k/24 bit through our very best Analog to Digital Converter (Burl B-2 Bomber) and that’s what we sent to have mastered into the record.

Studer A-80RC at Cowboy
After we finished a song we’d take a series of digital photographs that we would use as re-call notes in case we wanted to come back to the song later for a tweak. These notes helped us greatly because we did come back a few times to get everyone happy with the mixes.
When it came for mastering I was searching for someone to help me do the absolute best job for this record knowing that I wanted it to be available as a great vinyl version but also as hi-res digital. Many mastering guys I spoke with were talking about vinyl as a fad and hi-res digital the same way. As I was speaking with these guys I asked myself “who buys music nowadays”? Meaning, who actually buys it as opposed to who streams it? People who buy vinyl and hi-res that’s who. Now this excludes the unbelievably loyal Bottle Rockets fans who kicked in money as “Executive Producers”. Along with the incredibly supportive folks at Bloodshot Records in Chicago those awesome Bottle Rockets fans are directly responsible for us being able to deliver the real commitment to excellence collection of recordings you are hopefully listening to by now.
While discussing mastering options I was speaking with Richard Dodd. Bottle Rockets liner notes readers may recognize this name as the guy who mixed 24 Hours A Day for us back in the ‘90’s. We had a terrific time working with Richard including daily Jamaican tuna sandwiches for lunch. Richard listened to my described work flow with the analog mixing to tape and flying back into digital and said that that was one of his favorite methods. I really was talking to him for advice, knowing he was busy with a lot of super star stuff like The Tom Petty, but at the end of a long conversation he quoted me his rate which brought the Pulp Fiction-Samuel L Jackson “why didn’t you say so” scene to mind.
We had Richard master the record and he delivered it to us in several formats including the 44.1/16 bit WAV files for CD and download but also the high res 96k/24 bit and 192/24 bit versions. We had Paul Gold at Salt Mastering in Greenpoint cut the vinyl lacquer from the non-limited 192/24 bit version so those who got the vinyl record would get every last drop of goodness we had poured into the record. Depending on your playback gear the idea is you are hearing exactly what we heard. Also, if you have the ability to playback hi-res audio the record is available at HD Tracks in the 96k/24 bit version. If you have good converters in your rig this is a listening experience not to be missed.
I wanted to share some of this tech stuff with you. Social media can be a wild ride. It can help us connect to other music fans in incredible ways. Many of you have asked me questions that I hope got answered in this note. I’d like to say thanks again to the great Bottle Rockets fans for their patience. It takes quite some time to follow a record from start to finish. Thanks to the wonderful people at Bloodshot Records that have worked so hard to get the Bottle Rockets music to you. Thanks to the Bottle Rockets manager Bob Andrews and his terrific team at Undertow Music Collective and thanks to Mark Ortmann, John Horton, Keith Voegele and Brian Henneman for sticking with me for all these years. It’s my pleasure and one that I do not take lightly.