“It takes a really good band to make digital sound really good.”
Nostalgia is a funny thing, especially when it comes to how we view the music we love. What’s come before is usually either looked back upon fondly as having set the template for what’s followed in its wake, or else it’s looked upon with disdain and viewed as a restrictive, shackling format that need to be broken at all costs.
Then there are those artists who embrace our collective recorded heritage as something that can be built upon — artists like Aaron Smart, the singer/songwriter/guitarist who found a way to soar to new sonic heights with the rock-driven collective he’s aptly dubbed Silverplanes.
In fact, Smart did something very, well, smart by asking noted producer Jack Douglas (John Lennon, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick) to get behind the board and guide his vision for what ultimately turned into a three-part series of five-song EPs — the first of which, Gulfstream, is available now digitally via Volume Unit Records.
I thought, “My God, what am I doing wrong?”
Fact is, Smart initially wanted to release the first 15 songs the pair had worked on together in the album-length format, but Douglas had another thought.
“Jack came up with the idea of having three different people mix these songs — Shelly Yakus [U2, Tom Petty], Jay Messina [KISS, Supertramp], and Geoff Emerick [The Beatles, Elvis Costello] — and then we’d split the songs up into three EPs,” Smart confirmed to Digital Trends. “And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a cool idea — if we can get them all to do it.’ And we got ’em all!”
Right away, Smart had to get over the intimidation factor of collaborating with such heavy hitters in the production arena. “When I started working with Jack, I was kind of nervous,” he admitted. “I had played all the drums and he went, ‘What was that? Don’t ever play that drum beat!’ And I thought, ‘My God, what am I doing wrong?’
“But after a few times of running through the songs,” Smart continued, “Jack went, ‘Yeah, this is starting to come out really well.’ That’s when I thought, ‘OK, I’ve got his approval now. We’re finally doing good work.’”
Digital Trends got on the line with Smart while he was on a break from the final mixing sessions for the second Silverplanes EP at Sterling Sound in New York to discuss recognizing how a modern audience wants to consume music, what it’s like working with legends in the production field, and some of the key differences between digital and analog recording.
Digital Trends: How early on did you guys agree to do the EP thing with those first 15 songs of yours?
Aaron Smart: At first, we had those 15 songs mixed pretty quickly on an old SSL [console], just to get it done. But a partner of mine said, “Don’t put this out yet. I want you to keep making new songs.” So we started recording more songs right away.
Then Jack was talking to a magazine about it where he said, “I want Geoff Emerick, Shelly Yakus, and Jay Messina to mix it.” Jay said he’d do it right away, but we weren’t sure we could get Shelly or Geoff. Once we had them all, I said to Jack, “Let’s do a full record with all of their mixes on it.”
And Jack said, “You know what? Their mixes are going to be so different. It’s going to be odd to put them together as one record.” Then we thought, “OK, let’s split this up into three EPs.”
But we didn’t decide which groups of songs they’d mix until we started working with them. We did Jay’s first, and then Shelly’s next. Since I wanted Golden Age to be one of the first songs we released, we put Shelly’s EP out first. Jay’s will come out next in either January or February, and then Geoff’s will come last, to cap it off.
Can you share the names of the other two EPs with us?
We’re doing them all after jet names, so the first one is Gulfstream, and the second EP is going to be called Bombardier. I haven’t decided on the last one for Geoff’s yet, because we might want that one to also be the title for the whole thing. People were saying the jet name for Geoff’s EP needs to be a big one, so I’ll have to get back to you on that. (laughs)
Fair enough. I think it’s a smart decision on your part to release these tracks in multiple EPs, which totally fits the modern ADD listening vibe. You give us five good songs now, and then five more in a few months. You’re feeding it to us more like the way a modern listening audience wants to receive it.
Yeah, thanks. Though we did do these songs as a record, and it feels like a record. I actually had 40 more songs written that Jack had whittled down to 18, beyond the 15 we did for the EPs, plus some possible B-sides. In a year and half, I think we finished 36 and a half songs together.
We were just in the studio all the time, and my wife said, “Are you ever coming home?” I’d go, “I’ll be home at 10 or 11!” (chuckles)
Hey, if lightning strikes, you gotta be there to capture it.
A lot of hip-hop producers want to get those Beatles sounds for their records.
And that’s what Jack said too: “I’ve got time to do these records with you now, so let’s do that before other things come up.” He’s working on a lot of film stuff now, and with a lot of hip-hop people too. And so is Geoff Emerick, because a lot of hip-hop producers want him to get them those Beatles sounds for their records.
I wonder if a lot of that has to do with those fat bass sounds [Paul] McCartney was laying down …
It is that! They hear that and they go, “We’ve gotta make tracks with that sound on it!”
Sometimes you just have to follow your instincts — which is what I’m guessing you did on a song like Golden Age, where it really sounds like you’re in the zone.
For the longest time, that song had some horrible lyrics. Sometimes I just write the melody for a song, and finish the lyrics later. Jack was like, “You know these lyrics aren’t going to cut it, right?” And I’d go, “I know, but I just can’t think of what to write for this song right now.”
And then I started thinking about society and being addicted to phones and computers, and that everything can come to us right now and you can take whatever you want from people, and how the central banking system works in the U.S., and then boom — it just came right out. After I wrote all that, I thought, “Yeah, that came out pretty cool.”
And when Shelly mixed it, it was like, “Wow — it really came to life.” I really got into the song when I was playing the rough mixes in the car, but when Shelly did his mix, it was like, “Holy shit! OK.”
At the very end of that song, am I hearing pickup buzz from your guitar, or are you flipping the toggle on it, or what? What is that?
At the very end? I went “chk-chk” with my pick on the strings, and then I pulled the cable right out of the guitar. I had the strings ringing out and I was using the pick to stop them, and I just yanked the cable out. Jack was like, “What are you doing? (slight pause) Actually, that sounds pretty cool.” (chuckles)
I didn’t even think they were going to leave that in there, and now I wait to hear that at the end before it goes to the next song.
It lends more humanity to the song’s mix, I think. In Seeing Red, are you the one playing slide guitar, or is that someone else?
On that one, I played drums and rhythm guitar — a couple of the melody parts that go [sings the chords]. Rand Ray Mitchell played that slide part. I would sing the part to him, like, “This is what I want to hear,” and two seconds later, he would go, “Like this?” and he’d play it. And I’d say, “Exactly like that! Wow.”
He’s pretty amazing. I would sing him most of the leads I’d want him to play, and he would just play them right away.
What’s the word or phrase that’s being repeated at the end of the song?
At the end, I’m kind of scatting “Come on!” there in the back a few times. Jack just took one of them and repeated it. and then it fades right into World Spins Round.
Were you intimidated at all working with Geoff Emerick?
I was just floored with Geoff, because of The Beatles.
Right? Geoff is the guy who came up with the idea to put the sweater inside Ringo’s kick drum to get that sound.
He told us he almost got fired for putting a [Neumann] U47 [microphone] on the kick. They said, “Why are you putting that mike so close to it?” He said, “Just listen to the sound. That’s the sound I wanted!” And they were like, “Oh, OK, that’s the sound he wanted,” and then they were cool with it. (chuckles)
Well, clearly, Geoff more than proved his ideas were spot-on.
It’s so wild. I have this really revered piece of gear, a Fairchild 670 [stereo compressor/limiter] I got here in New York. It was right after our Avatar Studios sessions and I went, “I want one, but I can never find it anywhere.” And a guy there went, “Oh, I’ve got a friend who’s selling one. Do you want it?”
When I told Geoff we got it, he was like, “Ohh, I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings because everyone liked the 670 — but it was really the 660 that I wanted.” We were like, “What? Why didn’t you say that in your interviews?” And he said, “I just didn’t want to tell anyone the secret.” (chuckles) He told us why, so now I’m on a hunt for a 660 — but they’re impossible to get.
And we’ve just made it harder for you by talking about it. Nobody’s going to hand one over to you now.
Nope, they won’t do it! If they even exist, people are not going to be putting them out there now.
What’s the difference between digital and analog recording, to your ear?
Even if a record’s made digitally, there’s something about the way you hear it on vinyl. It just adds some kind of air to it, some kind of space.
I know what you mean. Sometimes there’s something missing in a purely digital recording. It’s the way those 0s and 1s get deployed that can make it feel more insular.
Yeah — the 0s and the 1s are all squared. It’s really high fidelity, but it’s still a square. Whereas the way you think of analog is as being round, and not having an edge.
You want that human element in there — especially on a song like Trains, which has that acoustic vibe to it and is a little more understated than some of the other songs here. You need to hear that space in there.
Yeah, and that one’s really thick too. That’s a track that’s going to sound really good on vinyl, when we get to putting it out on vinyl next year.
Digital is square but analog is round, without all those edges.
We knew we were going to mix to half-inch tape. We didn’t record to tape, though. We used Pro Tools and a lot of tube stuff, and a lot of vintage gear in my studio in L.A. We did them into the computer and then we A/B’d them to tape, and we went, “Oh my God — that’s it!”
You know, I actually bought the machine we mastered the half-inch tape on from Sterling — an old Ampex ATR [mastering tape recorder].
Oh, nice — you gotta preserve vintage gear like that. That’s the kind of thing that connects you to source, too.
To me, the Golden Age of Recording seems to be the late ’60s to late 1979 or 1980, and then people got into some digital stuff where they didn’t really know what it was yet. The sounds were getting a little bit harsh, a little bit thin, and less human.
And then digital began to come around. There were some good records in the ’90s that were done half digital and half analog — but it takes a really good band to make digital sound really good.
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