Four blue-chip engineers—Dave Fridmann, Eric Bauer, Colin Marston, and Jarvis Taveniere—explain what you need to do to prepare your home recordings for prime-time mixing—and sonic glory.

Some time ago, home recording was a field largely occupied by ambitious amateurs who weren't quite ready for a pro studio and wild eccentrics whose limitless creativity knew no bounds. This made the rare home-recorded release a special treat, and albums by artists such as Brian Wilson, Daniel Johnston, and Guided By Voices gave us a glimpse into their raw creative processes. But as the ubiquity of laptop DAWs replaced 4-track machines and portable digital recording consoles as the de facto home setup, the field became democratized.

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With his beloved Fender Jaguar named Dorothy hanging next to his Blueridge Dreadnought, Kevin Morby sits above a copy of Lou Reed Live, but his instincts hew closer to the foundational figures of Americana, like Bob Dylan and the Band.
Photo by Dusdin Condren

A Brooklyn singer-songwriter makes an acoustic psychedelic album, Singing Saw, using cheap flattops, a Fender Jaguar named Dorothy, studio savvy, and—yes—an actual singing saw.

There is no substitute for great songwriting. Regardless of what trends have taken the day, it doesn’t matter how you dress up a song if it doesn’t have strong bones, and this alone makes Kevin Morby not only refreshing, but a rarity in 2016. He’s a singer/songwriter whose songs truly require little in the way of decoration to move the listener deeply.

Perhaps best known as a former member of Brooklyn-based psych-rock collective Woods, or from his days as the frontman of indie-rockers the Babies, Morby stepped out on his own in 2013. His work has rightfully drawn its share of comparisons to the heroes of archetype, including Bob Dylan and Levon Helm and the Band. However, Morby’s music represents more than fresh fruit hanging from the tree of Dylan-worship. With Singing Saw, his third full-length album, the Kansas expat has solidified his reputation as one of the most intriguing and singular voices to come from the current crop of folk-oriented songwriters.

Singing Saw finds Morby’s writing and singing presented in stark, haunting arrangements and captured beautifully by producer and multi-instrumentalist Sam Cohen of Yellowbirds at the Isokon studio in Woodstock, New York. Flourishes of unexpected guitar fiber abound, and unique touches—like the ethereal tones of an actual singing saw—provide the album with just the right amount of filigree to keep things interesting, while allowing Morby’s inspired songcraft and voice to do the heavy lifting. For fans of Americana, whatever that label has come to mean in 2016, Singing Saw has the makings of a classic.

Self-professed gear minimalists, Morby and Cohen didn’t sweat the equipment used to produce and capture the beautifully written songs of Singing Saw too much. However, the resulting sonics certainly belie the pair’s “nothing’s precious” attitude. We spoke with Morby and Cohen about some of the unconventional recording techniques employed in tracking Singing Saw and the uncanny sounds that resulted, the wonders that hide in the wood of unfancy guitars, and avoiding the clichés of hero worship while still letting important influences shine through.

“I never really think about the politics of writing when I write. If I like it, I like it; and if I like it, I’ll stand by it.” —Kevin Morby

Tell me about your guitar, “Dorothy.” Sounds like it’s a particularly sentimental instrument?
Dorothy is my red Fender Jaguar, and it was a really big deal for me when I got it. I went on a tour with my old band, the Babies, and we each made around $1,000 at the end of that tour, which was the most I’d ever made in that band at that point. I immediately went to a guitar shop and bought that guitar with all of that money! I was probably 21, and it was important to me that I put that money back into music and buy something nice for myself instead of using it for two months rent or something more practical. I want to do what I do for a long time, and that was a symbolic thing for me. It’s funny, because that was, like, six or so years ago, and since then I’ve bought so many other guitars, and I always wind up selling them again because I only ever want to use Dorothy. Dorothy’s a reissue and she was new when I bought her. I haven’t modified her at all aside from putting in a Graph Tech bridge to help keep things tight and where they belong, because Jaguar bridges can be finicky.

What is it you like about Dorothy so much?
She plays really well, I love the shorter scale ... and I really just love how she looks. It’s actually really funny that I named her Dorothy, because I named the guitar after my grandmother and I honestly didn’t even think about the fact that it’s a ruby red guitar and I’m from Kansas. That connection actually didn’t even dawn on me until after we shot the music video for the song “Dorothy.” But the truth is, there is just some sort of special thing with it being the first piece of really nice musical equipment that I ever bought for myself, and it was purchased with money I made from making music. I can’t quite put my finger on it besides that, but, like I said, I’ve bought nice Rickenbackers and other Fenders since owning Dorothy, and I’ll try to play them live and I just can’t do it. There’s something missing without her.

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Jeremy Earl typically plays this 1970s Yamaha FG200 or a vintage Silvertone solidbody. Photo by Matt Condon

The genre-defying New Yorkers take us inside their elegantly eclectic City Sun Eater in the River of Light.

Over its 11-year existence, Brooklyn-based psych-folk collective Woods has made a comfortable home for itself writing and producing albums that hide between genres and transcend sonic definitions—without sacrificing musical personality for the sake of style hopping. With its ninth, City Sun Eater in the River of Light, Woods has rendered yet another glowing portrait of that personality, painted, as usual, in songs that naturally flow where they may.

City Sun Eater is an adventurous affair that finds frontman/guitarist/principal songwriter Jeremy Earl exploring his art along a path through West African-infused psych-rock meditations, the dusty back roads of steel-guitar Americana, spaced-out dubs, and rhythm-heavy freak-outs—all tied together by his smooth falsetto vocals. Stepping away from his usual 6- and 12-string duties, Jarvis Taveniere co-piloted the album by writing songs with Earl, engineering, co-producing, and laying down bass tracks.

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