TapeOp Interview With Adam Lasus
by Paul C. FitzGerald
Deep in the industrial wasteland of Red Hook, Brooklyn, Adam Lasus has turned an old firehouse into a recording outpost called Fireproof Recording. With the pole still intact, the firehouse proves an interesting place to make records. After checking out other studios, my band North Sea Story, decided to do our record Working for Wellness there. Having never worked with Adam before, the time spent at his studio developed into a perfect opportunity to observe and ask him questions about many things. Adam’s work can be heard on records by Yo La Tengo, Space Needle, Versus, Gigolo Aunts, Varnaline, Ditchcroaker, Mark Mulcahy, the Lilys, Sugar Plant and many others. After his start in Philadelphia with Studio Red, he relocated to New York City to discover that there is more than just a tree that grows in Brooklyn.
How did things get rolling for you?
My cousin was in Miracle Legion and I got interested watching them record. I had a 4-track and eventually an 8-track in my Dad’s house and was recording my own band and Jeff’s band Baby Huey.
What was your first real studio like?
My first real studio, Studio Red, was in the basement of my apartment in Philadelphia. I had an 8-track and began recording the Gigolo Aunts, Madder Rose, Versus, Chris Harford and Matt Keating at the beginning of their careers. Fortunately in 1991 a lot of the bands I was working with got signed. When they came back to do their bigger-budgeted records with me I was able to buy more gear and grow from there.
How long in Brooklyn?
Three years. When I first moved to Brooklyn, I thought I would be a freelance producer. The first project I did was a band called Muler who was on Dedicated Records. They lived in Rochester, New York so I set up all my gear in a space near them that was once a working studio. A cool thing happened when I opened a closet and found a Neumann KM86 mic that someone just left behind. I still have it. It’s not the killer vocal mic they make but it’s good on acoustic guitars. Anyway, shortly after doing the Muler record I found this space which became Fireproof Recording.
When you started Fireproof Recording, what did you have to do, physically, to get the room ready for recording?
The building is the first firehouse built in Brooklyn sometime in the 1830s. The room has 14 foot ceilings is 60 feet long and 25 feet wide, so it’s pretty large. After moving in, I started immediately recording Clem Snide’s first record, You Were a Diamond, and then Haywood’s, Men Called Him Mister. Soon after, a neighbor knocked on my door and complained about the noise level. I was told I had to soundproof or get out.
What did you do?
Luckily my father is a general contractor and was able to design a soundproof room within the large room for me. I had to shell out a bunch of money for building materials. We framed a room and floated a floor. I did the dry wall and brought some friends in to help with the ceiling. I thought it would take a month. It took close to five. We had to be careful not to make the room too big, so as to preserve a large portion of the big main room, which has a lot of character.
Since you got to build a tracking room from scratch, what did you do to customize it?
We designed it in such a way as to make it sound natural and big. We built a bass trap in so we wouldn’t have standing waves and some corner absorbers to eliminate some of the reflection. We kind of lucked out. It just ended up sounding great.
When we did drums for our record, I was amazed by the built-in sound already in the room, we didn’t have to fool so much with the drum sounds.
Your drums were tuned pretty well coming in so it was pretty easy to get those sounds. Some bands come in here and we spend a lot more time on the sound and tuning. I always keep my house kit tuned well and leave the mics in place, so I can have drums ready to go in 15 minutes, for convenience’s sake. I learned a lot about drums from Carl Plaster, who I had a chance to work with on Juliana Hatfield’s Hey Babe record at Fort Apache. He has a great approach of tuning really well and not using any tape on them. I use AKG 451s as overhead mics. They sound great. I also use a Russian mic, the Oktava MK219, as a room mic and compress it as much as I can stand.
How is your room for recording non-rock instruments, like cello for instance?
Great. I produced Clem Snide’s first record here, which was a breath of fresh air after doing a lot of loud indie rock records. Clem Snide has a cellist and an upright bass player and when they would bow together you got this nice orchestral sound with built in reverb. I also did a record for Leah Coloff, who is a cellist/singer-songwriter. I recorded her cello and live vocals in the big room with many room mics and was able to get a huge sound.
We knew the records you had done in the past and when we saw the space, we were definitely excited to record here. Not a lot of control rooms have giant windows in them … it makes it a little less stiffling when you’re listening to a song for the 50th time, at least you can look out the window.
Part of my job, obviously, is to make the process as comfortable as possible and the bands I choose to work with, I think, benefit from that. By accident, one of the things that attracted bands is the relaxed atmosphere in which to record. When I had Studio Red in Philly, bands would often stay at my house… it was like a camp and sometimes still is.
When we came in here for our record you didn’t know anything about us really and had no idea what we wanted.
That’s sort of an exciting part of doing any record from the beginning. You get to experiment and learn about different working styles. That’s how I’ve made a living for 10 years. Whether I do label work or something self financed by a band, I treat it the same. I’m lucky that I have a really great space and have collected some nice gear. I don’t have the high fees like other studios in Manhattan and can charge a reasonable rate.
What was your take on lo-fi especially since lo-fi is really high tech now?
Well I used to be confused about lo-fi. I used to think that a 4-track demo was lo-fi and that when you record in a studio the point was to make it sound as good as possible. That changed when Mary Timony from Helium came to record and wanted the sound to be trashier. When we did The Dirt of Luck we were listening to Mary’s 4-track demos and they sounded intense. The drums were distorted and the vocals had no low end. So after trying all my mics and outboard stuff to get a similar sound, I said, “Get your 4-track and mic and we’ll use that.” Almost all the drums and vocals were tracked through the 4-track’s electronics with a crappy mic and fed right into my 16-track.
How do you feel now that you have a pretty decent amount of gear and a great space?
I have a constant jones like anyone who reads Tape Op or is an engineer. I just bought a 2-track Studer A80 1/2″ mastering deck. I would love to get a 24 track 2-inch and a Distressor.
What was your first real deck?
A Tascam 38 1/2″ 8-track. I learned a lot on that deck, about fitting everything on 8 tracks, creative bouncing, that kind of stuff. I eventually saved up enough for a 16-track.
Didn’t you have a board that you had craned in here?
Yeah, an old API from 1970.
What did you do on it?
I did the first Clem Snide record, Trolleyvox, and Haywood. It was very punchy and thick. You didn’t have to EQ very much because the board had such a rich sound. I had the board for a year. I was leasing it from someone, but had to give it up because the repairs were too expensive. I had it craned back out and bought a 32 channel Allen Heath Saber from the 80s with mute automation.
I heard you had Daniel Johnston in here.
He came to record three acoustic tunes. He’s a really sweet guy. That was a cool thing. It wasn’t really supposed to happen. He was in town and wanted to record some songs. Kramer was supposed to do it and it didn’t work out. I didn’t know all that much about him other than his reputation as an eccentric and talented songwriter. He came in here with his manager and pretty much played his nylon string guitar and sang. He doesn’t do a lot of takes. Live vocal and live guitar. He added some trumpet and organ and that was it. You definitely feel like you’re in the presence of a unique artist with Daniel. He just does really basic singing and guitar and hands the songs off to others to finish. A pretty interesting approach. He was here for four hours and then wanted to go buy some comic books.
It seems like you get to work with some pretty interesting and diverse people.
I’ve been lucky to work with the people that I’m interested in. I just finished a record by a songwriter named Tiffany Anders, for Up Records. Polly Jean Harvey produced and I engineered. I recently finished recording Mark Mulcahy’s (formerly of Miracle Legion) new record, I also finished a nice rootsy record with a band called Violet that I really dig.
What is Tiffany Anders music like?
She has kind of an indie-country sound. Pretty mellow, good melodies and arrangements. Much different obviously than recording a rock record.
What was it like working with Polly Jean Harvey?
It was her first time producing and I have to say it was a great experience. She was really focused on getting the job done and making the right choices. I definitely respect her, not just because of her music, but for her work ethic. We would start recording around noon and pretty much have the song mixed by 10 PM. She knew exactly what she wanted. She played guitar, bass and keyboards on Tiffany’s record as well.
Who else played on the record?
J Mascis played drums on a couple of tracks. He’s an excellent drummer. All the stuff he played on the Dinosaur Jr. records is pretty intense and hard, while the stuff on Tiffany’s records was soft. He learned the songs in a couple of passes and then laid them down a great sound to build on.
Do you ever work at other studios?
I have but it’s tough because I know my studio and don’t have to wonder how the stuff will come out. I’ve worked at the Power Station, which is now called Avatar. Massive SSL set-up with every piece of gear you could ever imagine. I mixed the Muler record there and it turned out to be a nightmare. In the end, it just sort of “expensified” everything. When I brought the mixes home, I was like, “What is this?” It sounded really flat. The record didn’t need all the automation and fancy gear. We remixed everything back at Fireproof. It was a good lesson for me. I have also worked with Mitch Easter at the Drive In [now Fideletorium], which is a great studio.
When we come in here to do our second record, anything you would do different with us?
It’s cool to do several projects with one band or artist because you get to experiment a little more. It’s a challenge because you don’t want any two records to sound the same. I think you guys have grown as a band and I probably wouldn’t suggest any great departures but we will certainly experiment with different mics and sounds. On your record we did a lot with drum sounds and the guitar sounds all have a real distinct tone. Now that you’re a trio, we’re going to have to work hard on the vocals and harmonies a bit more. Chris Harford has done some of his records in a real straight-ahead recording style but on his new record there were drum machines and a cello, lap steel and Moog that we ran through all sorts of crazy pedals. It was great working with Chris. I could not push the sonic envelope far enough with him. We both broke some new ground in the making of his record, Wake.
You mentioned doing a record with Mark Mulcahy from the band Miracle Legion recently. What went on there?
Mark’s not into a lot of sonic waste – delays or flange – on record, but he did some pretty interesting stuff. Lots of layered background vocals. For his record, we took the better part of a year to do it. When you work on something for that long you can really get inside it. We were able to spend the time to get all the ideas fully realized.
I see your Studer over there.
That’s a great machine. It makes things sound so much better than DAT. It gives my mixes a great, thick sound. The tape compression makes it sound so real and warm. I use BASF Maxima 900 tape so I can hit it hard.
Do you play any instruments?
Yeah, bass mostly. I played with Matt Keating on most of his records and toured with him as well. I was great to get out of the studio and see the country.