Column 161: Applying Lipstick on the Pig; Live Review: UUVVWWZ; Simon, Capgun, Bear tonight…

Category: Blog — @ 6:38 pm February 21, 2008

First, a correction to yesterday’s blog entry: The Focus Mastering open house is March 1, not this coming Saturday. Don’t go there this Saturday!

Column 161: Fresh Ears
More Doug Van Sloun

More with Doug Van Sloun of Focus Mastering. If you haven’t already, get caught up by reading yesterday’s profile. We’ll wait for you.

Van Sloun’s been busy mastering the first batch of music in the Focus pipeline. It includes new recordings by Alessi, Beep Beep, Son, Ambulance, Tilly and the Wall, M. Ward, Stephanie Drootin, Midwest Dilemma, Tokyo Police Club, Akita Ken (formerly Your Face), Montana Christian band Sky Collide, and Jerusalem rockers Man Alive.

And the beat goes on. Fact is, while other areas of the music industry are in free fall, business is booming for Van Sloun. As CD sales continue to tunnel ever downward, more recordings are being made than ever before, especially with the advent of home recording.

It’s a trend that Van Sloun saw on the horizon years ago. “I could tell more people were doing a lot more recording on a project-studio level,” he said. “I know a ton of people with studios in their basements. They’re doing modest work, but good work. Meanwhile, no one around here was doing mastering.” And that’s where he came in.

But along with home recording came the challenge of finding new and better ways to apply lipstick on the same ol’ pig, Even worse, a pig that some guy built in his garage.

Actually, Van Sloun said the quality of most home recordings he’s heard has been pretty good. And a new hybrid is emerging, where tracks are recorded in a home studio, then professionally mixed elsewhere. That’s how Neva Dinova’s new CD, You May Already Be Dreaming, was created. “It was home recorded, but mixed at ARC Studios by Ian Aeillo,” Van Sloun said, adding that most of the new Narcotic Self CD also was home recorded, then mixed by Jim Homan at Ware House Studios.

In the end, artists that want to take it to the next level hand their recording over to a mastering engineer like Van Sloun, who approaches each project the same way — whether it was recorded at home or in a multi-million dollar studio.

The advantage he brings to the project is “fresh ears,” having never heard the recording before. “And I also won’t listen to it a thousand times,” he said. “I max out if I listen to a song for an hour. Part of the process for me is to be decisive, fresh and subjective, and not biased.”

How many times have you heard someone say that their demos sounded better than the record? “That’s because they’ve listened to it one way for so long,” Van Sloun said. “You can’t be unbiased when you’ve heard something a thousand times. It’s the classic demo-itis situation.”

He lets them down easy by trying to figure out what they did wrong during the recording session. But what about just plain ol’ shitty music? There’s got to be stuff he doesn’t like, right?

“I’m like a doctor. I can divorce myself from the content and not listen to it,” he said. “At the same time, nothing trips me out more than if it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do musically. If something is supposed to sound like Pantera but sounds like Benedictine monks, you’ve got a problem.”

And there’s only so much you can do during mastering. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about stuff I can’t do anything about,” he said. “If something is out of tune, I hear it, but I can’t do anything about it.”

I expected Van Sloun to be down on mp3 files like all the other audiophiles I’ve spoken too since the advent of the iPod. But he was less than dismissive. “It’s really a garbage in garbage out operation,” he said. “The better the recording going in, the better the chances of it coming out OK.”

When anyone listens to music with earbuds, it all begins to sound the same, he said. “It’s that deflavorizing effect, where everything sounds homogenous, and mp3s do that to some degree, but it’s still a garbage in, garbage out situation. But it can also sound pretty good if the source is good. I don’t think mp3s are inherently bad. I think 128 kbits/s (compression) goes too far. My iPod is filled with 224 kbits/s and up. And the only time I listen to it is in the car with road noise, which covers everything up.”

Does he get discouraged that the next generation of listeners may only hear recordings in mp3 format? “Yeah, it’s a little discouraging,” he said, “but mp3s are still better than most cassettes. There was a time when I was making a lot of cassette references for people, and that was frustrating.

“When I started in ’93 or ’94, there were no CD burners. Cassettes were all we had. The pitch would be off a half percent, or more typically you had drop-outs and wobbles. And cassettes wear out. Whenever I start to get depressed about how mp3s suck and how no one will hear good music again, I think about the 8 Track tape and realize that mp3s are better than that. I would rather have a good AAC file from iTunes than a cassette tape.”

Someone asked me what I thought of the Tilly and the Wall and Beep Beep stuff that I heard at Focus. All’s I can say is hold onto your hats. One of the Tilly songs was a complete and utter departure from the usual tap-dance routine. In fact, it had no tap dancing at all that I could hear. Instead, it was a full-out dance-floor raver that, if released, will take the band into an entirely different direction. When I heard the Beep Beep stuff, I had to ask Doug a couple times, “Who is this again? This isn’t Beep Beep, is it?” It was. Doug played a couple songs that sounded like something you’d actually hear on the radio — incredibly tuneful, down-right laid-back. Exceptionally good. Yes, there were still the usual quirky numbers, but they weren’t nearly as sharp around the edges as the stuff on their debut. Doug had some good stuff to say about the new Son, Ambulance as well, but I didn’t get a chance to hear any of it (we ran out of time). Boo.

* * *

I went to UUVVWWZ at Slowdown Jr. last night to see if that show at the Saddle Creek Bar a few weeks ago was a fluke. It wasn’t. That said, the band sounded better at SCB than at Slowdown. Who knows why? Had nothing to do with the sound system. The only time it seemed to make a difference was during a couple of the bluesy, slow numbers. When UUVVWWZ played them at SCB, they were more cohesive, each part blurring together in a gorgeous, gritty brew. Last night, however, there was too much separation between band members and Teal, and the result was disjointed and a bit staid. There simply is nowhere to hide within Slowdown’s premium sound system. I’m convinced that no two UUVVWWZ shows will ever be the same. You’ll get what you get on any given night — or even within the set itself. I’m also convinced that they’ll be one of the more divisive bands when it comes to crowd response. One guy next to me thought they were fun, and asked me if I ever heard of Deerhoof. “This is the closest this town will ever get to a band like that.” Meanwhile, another guy was freaked out by Teal, and didn’t care for the slow numbers (which are some of my favorites). He compared her to Diamanda Galas, of whom I know nothing. He did, however, like the bombastic rock numbers, which is where the band really took off last night. Recording these folks is going to be a challenge for whomever takes them on. In the right hands, their record could be ground-breaking. Looks like your next chance to see them in Omaha is at The Brothers on March 11 with Chinese Stars and Plack Blague.

* * *

Benson is where it’s at tonight. At The Waiting Room it’s Capgun Coup with Simon Joyner, Bear Country and Noah Sterba. It’ll be Capgun’s first show in four months, and their last in Omaha before they go back on tour (this time with Tilly and the Wall, including a show at Noise Pop 2008 in S.F.). $7, 9 p.m. This show will be wall-to-wall. Meanwhile, down the street at PS Collective, it’s Shiver Shiver and Jenna Morrison. $5, 9 p.m.

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