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Home Studio Feature - Tobin Sprout (GBV)
Musician Magazine - September 1997 - By Bradley Bambarger
Perhaps no band merits a home-studio feature more than those titans of lo-fi, Guided By Voices. From a basement laundry room in Dayton, Ohio, Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout, and their various cohorts have concocted sprawling soundtracks of pop nostalgia and abstarct melancholy at a prodigal pasce for more than 10 years. And even though they graduated to real recording studios of late, Pollard still has that home-brewed sound swimming in his head, necessitating four-track futzing for one of the SteveAlbini-produced tracks on last year's Under The Bushes Under The Stars, as well as the inclusion of three basement tapes on the newest GBV opus, Mag Earwhig! (Matador). Sprout is no longer in the day-to-day, touring version of the band, but he and Pollard still spend time in Sprout's laundry room, putting rudimentary tools at the service of febrile imaginations.
"In the beginning, we never had much success with recording studios," Pollard says. "By the time you booked the place and got everything together, the spirit of what you wrote would be gone. With the four-track down here in Toby's basement, we could just come over and do it. The important thing was the immediacy and the economy. Plus it was with the four-track that we came closest to getting the sound that we had in our heads. For some reason, you sometimes get a better vocal sound in a kitchen or bathroom or basement than you can in a big studio." A good chunk of GBV's 10 albums and sundry EP's, 7-inch singles, and discographical miscellany was recorded on Sprout's four-track TASCAM Porta One Ministudio, with vocals and other detail work cut in his basement and full-band tracks taped in drummer Kevin Fennell's garage. But after employing the Porta One for several songs on his and Pollard's solo albums last year, Sprout has retired it in favor of a Yamaha MT8X eight track, which he used to cut the epigrammatic Mag Earwhig! tunes "Can't hear the Revolution," "Are You Faster" and "I Am Produced."
Several Guided By Voices tracks feature a distinctive vocal echo, courtesy of Sprout's Electro-Harmonix Memory Man delay pedal. "It's got this real warm, Sixties radio tone," Pollard enthuses, "like on James Brown or John Lennon's vocals. That's a pretty fucking inspiring sound." The effect was introduced on Bee Thousand's "Hot Freaks," one off GBV's recording breakthroughs - which, typically, came at the expense of commercial considerations. "I was having a garage sale that day," Sprout remembers, "and Bob was yelling 'Hot Freaks' down there at the top of his lungs and chasing all the customers away." The Memory Man has borne a marking on the appropriate setting for "the Hot Freaks' sound" ever since.
According to Pollard, lo-fi gear and the limited palette of four- and eight-track recording can be liberating: "Making records like that forces you to be creative, like the Beatles." More than anything, he says, "records don't have to sound like a million dollars. They just have to capture the spirit if the music. A lot of bands spend so much time recording their songs when they should pay more attention to sequencing and the titles, the graphics and packaging - that's the art of it."
For recording vocals, Sprout has come to adore a Conneaut Audio Devices Equitek E-100 tube microphone for its warmth and prescence, in league with an ART Tube MP mic preamp; he also employs a Shure SM57, a Shure Prologue, and a Electro-Voice RE18, which works well with the Memory Man on vocals. He has a new drum kit, a spare mid-to-late-Sixties Singerland, and an old drum machine, the Roland TR-505. Sprout records drums and vocals in the laundry room and tracks piano and guitars in the adjacent garage, which usually holds a customized Hiwatt 100 head, as well as a Sovtek MIG 100 head, a Gibson Hawk, a Fender Dual Showman, a Musicman 212-HD amp, and an Ampeg SS-140C amp. In the garage, Sprout also keeps a Yamaha PSS-270 stereo keyboard and a George Steck upright piano, which belonged to his great-grandmother and is at least 80 years old.
Sprout's main guitar is a Fender Telecaster (a '66 or '67, he's not sure), and he also uses an early-Eighties Gibson Les Paul Studio and a Fender Squier bass; Pollard strums an old Harmony semi-hollow-body. Longtime GBV guitarist Mitch Mitchell brings over his Les Pauls and Marshalls for that " 'Heavy Metal Country' sound," Pollard says (referring to the psychedelic power ballad on the recent Sunfish Holy Breakfast EP), and Pollard's brother and frequent collaborator Jim brings over his Gibson SG on occasion. For guitar effects, they'll use a fuzz box sometimes but mostly like to "turn it up really loud and get that natural distortion," says Pollard.
Sprout and Pollard spend most of their time working on vocal effects, at times even taping the band live on one track and using the rest for vocals. Besides the all-important Memory Man, Sprout's other processing gear includes an Alesis MicroVerb 4 and an ART SC2 compressor/limiter/gate. For monitoring and dubbing, his setup is decidely retro: a late-Seventies Yamaha CR-240 stereo receiver he's had since high school, a JVC TD-W218 dual-cassette deck, a small early-model Advent speaker, and an old Pioneer HPM-900 speaker.
Although he's recording songs on his eight-track for his second solo album, Sprout says he's getting frustrated with his equipment and is considering an upgrade to 16-track ADAT. Pollard, too, is seeking more expansive sonics. "You can get some cool sounds at home, but you can't get a room-filling big rock sound - although I think we got a bit more crunch on our records than a lot of lo-fi bands," he says."Our challenge now is to go into a regular studio and make records while incorporating all the things we learned in the basement. Still, I'll probably always want to record some things here: short songs, acoustic things, stuff that has no chance of getting played on the radio."
Both husbands and fathers, Pollard and Sprout fully appreciate the advantages of home recording, with the wife and kids close by and a beer-stocked refrigerator that never closes. But they realize the disadvantages, too, what with the wife and kids close by and a beer-stocked refrigerator that never closes. "Once Mitch and I came home drunk at four in the morning and cranked the shit up at my house," Pollard says. "We wrote 'Postal Blowfish' and some other cool songs that night. But then my wife almost divorced me the next morning."