Robert Schneider Goes Back to Mono

March 1, 2005

Robert Schneider is well-known in indie-rock circles for the stunning audio productions crafted for his releases with the Apples in Stereo. But for his recent Ulysses project, 010 [Eenie Meenie], the restless creative kingpin abandoned conventional melodicism and layered sound spectrums.

“The Apples were on tour in Spain when I realized I was getting bored writing happy pop songs based around melodies and chord progressions,” Schneider recalls. “So I started composing songs by playing a standard-tuned guitar as if it were in an open tuning. I’d place a couple of fingers on the fretboard, and move them around while letting the remaining strings drone.”

To help document the sparse, moody sonics of these new compositions, Schneider enlisted John Ferguson (drums) and Ben Fulton (bass/synth bass) from the band Big Fresh. Ultimately, the homegrown recordings that were meant to be demos for Ulysses ended up being the final album tracks.

“I’d been recording our practices with one mic in the middle of my garage, and I liked the raw vibe of that approach,” says Schneider. “Eventually, I configured the band in an equilateral triangle around a Neumann U87 set to its omnidirectional pattern. I positioned the U87 about chest-high, and five feet away from the front of the drum kit. Then I placed the bass and guitar rigs at equidistant points of the triangle. To dial in the instrument sounds, I stood in the middle of the room next to the mic, and turned my ear towards each amp while the guys adjusted the controls. I even had them move the amps back and forth until the depth and balance were just right.”

The recording chain was kept simple: A Bellari RP220 tube mic preamp fed a Urei LA3A compressor, and, finally, an Echo Layla soundcard and Hewlett-Packard laptop running Sonic Foundry’s Vegas software. Each musician’s setup was similarly stripped down. Schneider played a Jerry Jones Neptune Shorthorn routed through a Danelectro Pastrami overdrive and a Vox Berkeley II feeding a Silvertone Twin 12 cabinet. Fulton’s bass rig consisted of either a Squier Standard P-Bass or a Moog Opus 3 synthesizer routed to a “an old Peavey amp with a built-in compressor.” Ferguson sat behind a Rogers Holiday kit.

Four hours after setting up the mic and adjusting the instrument sounds, Schneider had completed the basic rhythm tracks for 010. To ensure seamless conformity with the sound of the basics, Schneider tracked his lead vocals—all in one take each—in the same room with the same U87. “I even had John sing his background vocals standing in various places around the room to make it sound like there were people squeezed between the amps,” he says.

At the mixdown, all the elements were kept in their original monaural formats. “I was really happy with the initial recordings when I listened back to the tracks,” says Schneider, “so I just balanced the levels between the basics and the overdubs, and that’s the record. I’m convinced this method is perfect for a band that wants to get a recording of what it really sounds like.”

Despite the success of the monaural method, don’t expect Schneider’s subsequent productions to be rendered exactly like 010. “Once I figure something out and have it pretty well refined, I tend to lose interest,” he admits. “So you can bet that the next Apples album will not be mono, and that the next Ulysses record will be super hi-fi.” —Jimmy Leslie

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