Recording guru Bob Schwenkler has worked on a lot of records over the last decade. As he prepares to move on from our humble town I sat down with him to delve into one of my favorite pieces of his work, Kickball’s, ABCDEFGHIJKickball album. We got into the nitty gritty of it all; Bob shared some of his recording tricks and a few tidbits of Olympia history for those of you who care.
Sam: How did you end up working on this album?
Bob: That’s a good question. I think that…so this album…so I’d met Adam already. I forget who I approached, I think I probably just approached one of them at some point and asked if I could record them.
S: Were you already a fan of the band at that point?
B: I didn’t really know their stuff super much, I was, I can’t remember, I must of been. I don’t think I was a big fan or anything. I hadn’t even seen their shows ever, except for once. But there must of been a reason I wanted to record them.
S: It was 2003-2004?
S: Who were the musicians on this album
B: There was Drummer, Lisa Drummer [Schonberg], and Adam Olsner play the bass and some keyboards, and then Jacob does the guitar and the vocals, Jacob Wilson.
S: Was there anyone else brought in for overdubs or was it just the band?
B: I think it was just the band. It was pretty much the band. The album credits would tell you exactly…
S: It just credits the band.
B: Yeah, pretty much the band.
S: And was the music written…like all complete at the time you started recording?
B: Yeah, they had all the songs done. There were a number of overdubs, sort of like interesting sounds that we ended up putting on. There was one song where Drummer put some rice on a drum head and then I stereo mic’d it, and she swished it around so its sort of like this oceany sound. So we did that on one song. And there’s the sound of scissors snipping as the percussion on another song. We did some weird stuff like that on the album. So that stuff wasn’t written but the songs were.
S: Where was the album recorded?
B: We recorded it at the Puget House, in the basement…of the Puget House. We tracked it there over the period of…I don’t even know, probably three days or something like that for the basics. And then we recorded Jacob’s vocals upstairs in the living room which has a wooden floor. I think that that…did I do that on that album? I think that album might have been the first time that I did this trick on the vocals where I put up a pair of room mics and then he had a close vocal mic, and heavily compressed the close mic and left the room mics normal. So that way when he gets loud the room level comes up and the close level goes down, so it gives this sort of shift in feel, and I think I did that on that album, and if I did that would have been the first time I did that. So we did that upstairs and then we did a little bit of work at Evergreen. I reamped – I had taken a direct bass – which I reamped at Evergreen, and then I mixed it at my house.
S: How do you think the spaces you recorded in affected the final product?
B: I think it did some, not super dramatically, the most would be on the vocals, I think, and he drums some I guess, but I didn’t use a ton of room on it. On the guitar, I also had two mics on the guitar, and one was right up on the cabinet, and one was just like a foot back, and they were panned apart a little bit, but I don’t think I got much room in the farther back one. It’s a really dry album, it’s very up front, especially like the drum and the bass, all the instrument sounds.
S: Were any of them living at the Puget House? Is that why…
B: Yeah, Adam lived there.
S: What setup were you recording onto, like digital/analog etc?
B: Yeah, digital.
S: What interface?
S: And your DAW [Digital Audio Workstation]?
B: Digital Performer. I had some 7th Circle preamps, and a pair of ART preamps, and then the MOTU preamps.
S: So six mics at once?
B: No more, ten.
S: And it was mixed at home, off the computer, all in the box?
S: What plugin set were using at that time?
B: I think mostly Waves, and not even very good sounding ones. Oh and for the drum sound, which actually defines a lot of the sound of the album, I used this plugin called “The Vintage Warmer” by PSP, its like…I still don’t even know how the damn thing works exactly, but its like a multiband compressor and it has some good sounding distortion. So I really slammed the drums, a little bit too much in retrospect, but I slammed the drums through that.
S: What did you monitor through?
B: I think I had some Alesis speakers, nothing fancy at all.
S: I wanted to talk a little bit about about each of the instrument sounds, maybe starting with the drums. I wanted to know what your goals were, what you actually did, and whether you think you met your goals, what you think about the final product?
B: I didn’t know how to listen to sounds well enough at that point, so I mostly just put things up. And I still am that sort of way, sort of, to this day. Although I have a better idea of what I want to go for, but that was like my 4th or 5th album or something like that and I hadn’t done that much. It was the first album, and I’ve done this many times since, where I used an RE20 on the snare though, I like that sound a lot. I just put a pair of overheads, and close tom mics, and a bass drum mic.
S: Do you remember your mic choices beyond the RE20?
B: I had the Schoeps as overheads, the CMC641s, so the super-cardioid caps. Probably the [AKG] D112 on the bass drum, and something that I discovered that I may have used on that album, that I’ve done many times also, is turning that mic around backwards inside of the bass drum, and it can sound really good.
S: How would you describe the sound?
B: It scoops out the mud, it really scoops it out, and gives it a little bit more of a low – like subs low end – and more of an attack. So it sort of just scoops the sound, gives it a more modern sound.
S: Do you know what the tom mics were?
B: I think I had [Sennheiser] 421s for the toms.
S: Do you remember what kit Lisa was playing?
B: No. It was some kit, if you found one of them, they’d be able to tell you. She had it for years. She had a piccolo snare, I know that.
S: So the bass was DI’ed live…
B: Yeah, it was in an amp also, a little bit, but I took the direct of the recording.
S: And then you reamped it at Evergreen. Do you remember your reamping setup?
B: It was just through one of the new Ampeg Rocket amps. Is that what they’re called? Like square ones.
S: Like a Reverb Rocket?
B: Like a Reverb Rocket but a modern one. I don’t know, its an okay sounding thing.
S: Do you remember the mic?
S: How about the guitar setup?
B: It was just like I mentioned: a close mic, and I think at the time I had a Blue Dragonfly mic, and that one was back maybe two feet and angled slightly away from the guitar amp. Which caused phase problems and I ended up manually phase aligning the guitar tracks in the computer.
S: Did you have room mics up?
S: Was it a lot of takes for each song?
B: I don’t know. I don’t think a ton. I don’t recall though.
S: Probably not if it was three days.
B: Yeah, it could have been more than three days. But they were pretty practiced at the time. I don’t recall it being grueling.
S: Was there a lot of digital editing?
B: Like fixing stuff?
S: Well I guess I had two questions. On this album the songs are very dynamic and there’s a lot of these very abrupt changes, and when I first heard that I was like maybe they just tried it out a bunch of different ways and spliced these songs together…
B: No that’s the songs.
S: And it’s also very, very tight and I was curious…
B: That’s the band.
S: Did you do any fixing?
B: Probably a tiny bit, but not very much, if any.
S: Given the dynamic nature of the songs and all those abrupt shifts, how did you deal with that in the mix?
B: I don’t know, that’s a good question. I think probably like manual volume automation. I don’t think I used a ton. But I know for a song like this one, Shoulders, I would of. [plays back middle of song]. Here I probably would have had to bring the guitar up and then bring the drums up and then bring them both back down again for the next loud part, I definitely did that. That’s such a good song.
S: Was there any pre-production on this album? Did you talk alot about sound or anything?
B: No not me, we mostly just got together and did it.
S: Were they in on the mixes?
B: Yeah. Jacob was always the most active. And he was so fun to work with. He kept being like, “Turn up the rip!” I’d put the guitar track on and he’d be like, “Can you turn up the rip on the guitar?” I just loved that so much. And so I just crank it up at like 2, 3, 4k. And Adam was around for the mixing some also.
S: What’s going on with the first verse on the first track?
B: Its, well, its just a little cassette recorder. Except for here’s the secret thing that nobody will ever know in the world, is that the tape recorder we had wasn’t quite working well, so we took my little digital recorder and we recorded the first verse of Little Thing, and then we took the clicks from their actual tape recorder and edited them in, so it sounds like somebody’s starting and then stopping, at the end of the song you can hear them stopping the tape recorder again. It was just some crappy pocket thing.
S: Is there anything else interesting about this album that you think is worth sharing?
B: Just listening to Jacob’s vocals, they’re distorted, and then we did the room thing, they’re definitely compressed and a little distorted, so if you listen to that you can really hear the room come up in the parts that he gets loud. I compressed the entire drum mix, that’s why it sounds so flat. It’s not the worst ever but…
S: Through that plugin?
B: Through that plugin yeah, so I wish I put a little bit of parallel clean drums in there, even just like a little bit. It sort of kills the pop of the drums, but what can you do?
S: Did you have any phase issues with the drums?
B: Nothing totally outrageous.
S: Did Jacob use a lot of effects on his guitar, did he have pedals?
B: No it was all clean.
S: Did you do effects in post?
B: A tiny bit, but not much on the guitar.
S: Looking back -we already talked about the drum compression- is there anything else you would’ve done differently?
B: No…the vocals are low, the vocals are a bit low overall.
S: I was going to ask about that too…
B: That’s my eternal problem. I always mix the vocals low.
S: I have the opposite problem.
B: Me and Jacob sat down one time and plugged these crappy little mics into my tube preamp that I had and just turned up the volume a bunch and you can hear that on…that’s on…on this song (listening to “Take”). It was just a really fun moment, sitting down and being like, let’s just try this out, act like little kids and go, “DOOV, DOOV, DOOV, DOOV!” And so we just did that, and the song sounded sweet. It’s mixed in there pretty quiet but you can hear it come out halfway through this loud part [plays Take]. That’s one of the things I always think of when I think of making that album is just…one of the funnest moments of making an album ever I think.
S: There’s all sorts of great little sonic touches on this album.
B: Well its funny, I was embarrassed about the sonic quality of this album for like years after I did it and I swear I think like 5 years later I listened to it again and I was like, “Wait this album is actually fucking totally cool! This is one of the coolest albums I’ve ever done.”
S: What were you…
B: I think because of the drum compression, and its got a “clean” sound some people were hating on that. Because its a huge step away from their previous album. Maybe not hating, but at least didn’t like the sound of it.
S: Definitely was a huge step away from Huckleberry Eater.
B: I think it served their sound really well. And the songs are much more rocking too, and like dense, and heavier.
B: Another tidbit about this album is that I actually came up with album name. I’m super proud of that. I think it was me and Jacob and Adam were riding bikes over on the west side and they were brainstorming names, and Adam has the alphabet tattooed on his arm actually, and I was like, “What about ABCDEFGHIJKickball?” And they were like, “Yeaaaah! That’s awesome!” So I think its the only album that I’ve ever named.
S: Do you know who did the art? Its not credited.
B: Michelle…did Michelle do that? I think Michelle Lamanet. She lived in town and played as…this is something you need to hear for Olympia history (plays Swimming album)…Swimming. And her and Jacob were going out at the time. There’s some true Olympia history.
S: There’s so much true Olympia history.