A Conversation with Rob Mathes, Co-Producer of Sting’s Symphonicities

Rob Mathes
Rob Mathes
Rob Mathes is a musician with a very broad set of talents: he’s a celebrated composer, arranger, and producer – and those are just his main gigs. Rob has a number of critically lauded albums to his name, including the cult favorite Evening Train, as well as many production and arranging credits with high-profile artists such as Lou Reed, Bono, Panic! At the Disco, Tony Bennett, Elton John, and Rod Stewart.

But Sting’s new album Symphonicities, which Rob co-produced, is — even for an artist as successful as Rob — something different. “This is easily the most significant project I’ve been a part of,” he says. “It’s very difficult to describe — it’s incalculable how important Sting’s music was to me coming up.”

Symphonicities features Sting singing in front of orchestral treatments of some of the greatest songs in his canon, arranged by some of the best arrangers in the business, like David Hartley, Steven Mercurio, and Rob Mathes himself.

Rob brought Symphonicities to Scott Hull here at Masterdisk for mastering, so we’ve had the pleasure of being able to work on this remarkable record, and also the pleasure of working with and talking to Rob, who is as gracious and humble a guy as you’ll find in the music business. On a break from his current project — producing the debut album from Glee star Matthew Morrison — Rob took some time to discuss Symphonicities.

I asked Rob what it is about Sting that made him such an important influence.

He has this extremely rare thing: the whole package, the presence and charisma of a rock star but alongside superb and deep musicianship. From a musicological standpoint, he understands rhythm so deeply, and his melodic sense is incandescent. Listen to some early Sting records; they have beautiful melodies. Take the melody out and it’s beautiful on its own. He had the foresight to collaborate with Stewart Copland and Andy Summers and to marry that amazing sense of melody with the exciting punk rock and reggae rhythms in The Police. Like “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”: alongside the ferocity of that groove, the melody is like Gregorian chant! And then to see Sting grow, and leave The Police, and then write songs like “They Dance Alone” and “We Work the Black Seam” …he’s amazing.

Symphonicities
Symphonicities
Rob’s involvement in the Symphonicities album came about in a remarkable way. Chris Roberts, the president of Universal Classics and Jazz, made the initial introduction. Chris had been talking with Sting in the early stages of the project, and suggested that he meet with Rob based on his broad experience in both classical music and pop. So they did meet, and they discussed the music, and Sting asked Rob to show him some arrangements. Typically, at this point, an arranger would either produce a printed arrangement to be performed remotely for the artist, or he’d produce a demo recording using high-quality digital samples of orchestral instruments. But Rob did something remarkable.

This is Sting. There is no freaking way I am going to write arrangements and send them out to be performed without my being there. You put the chart on the stands, and it can sound OK, but it will probably need some work. And your typical demo recording, even with the greatest sample library in the world, wouldn’t be effective enough. The first impression is everything. So something in me said “I already have a session booked at Abbey Road in February…”

Rob had the studio time booked at Abbey Road for one of his own projects.

I know the results I get at Abbey Road — the quality of the sound. I’ve recorded easily one hundred projects there over the last decade. I adore that room, the sound of it — it’s legendary. Just put a microphone above the orchestra; it sounds like God. So my gut reaction was that if I could create the tracks exactly as I wanted them, Sting would get a truer picture of what I could do to bring a legitimate symphonic approach to his canon.

So I went back to my hotel room after the meeting and I asked my wife, “Would it be insane to ask Sting to pay for the studio time and musicians so I can record these arrangements for him? I’ll pay the travel costs and do the work for free. He can pay me if he wants to use my stuff, otherwise, he doesn’t have to pay me anything.”

Rob told me, “honestly, if he hated what I had done I would have wanted to pay some of the studio cost back to him!” Sting, remarkably, agreed to the plan. “Sting saw the fire in my belly”, said Rob. “Going out on that limb is the reason that all this happened.”

Sting
Sting
I asked Rob if he had always conducted his career with such confidence. He said:

That was the boldest suggestion I ever made to an artist. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that it altered the further course of my life. I mean, the idea came out of the air. It was almost a God thing. Some people were skeptical about me doing it this way – they said that it was going to be an awfully expensive demo. But with all of the extraordinarily gifted people on the planet, the only way to get yourself heard is if you’re insanely passionate about what you do.

Symphonicities was released digitally and on CD this week, to strong sales and critical response. Before our interview, early in the morning on the album’s release date, I had read the first three reviews I could find, and they were all positive. But Rob knows that some negative opinion is an inevitability, especially on a project that orchestrates rock songs.

My approach was to meet Sting’s records directly face to face; not try to cop them but to create an orchestral version with the energy of original. But if critics say anything mean, can I learn from it? One example is a criticism I received of the arrangement for “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”. The critic said that the track was a little “Disney” in a few moments. That’s not what I was going for! So I listened to it again, with this in mind, and realized that I had always had a suspicion about the chorus. There are these underlying Cuban rhythms there in the song, but I hadn’t really brought them out; I didn’t go for the jugular there. So, I went back into the studio and added percussion, and fleshed out what was just implied before. I’m proud of it. This new version, which is going to be called the “Bronx Street Fair Mix” should be available on an upcoming vinyl edition of the album. So in this case, a negative review turned into something positive.

Now that the record is finished, Rob still has nothing but praise for Sting. I’ll wrap up with a few quotes plucked from a post on Rob’s blog, dated July 15, 2010.

He is constantly learning and endlessly curious. [Sting] recognizes the gift he has received: the reality that so many people want to hear him sing these iconic songs. He just wants to keep it interesting. I admire him for it and working on this project was a privilege. Above all listen to that voice. Just extraordinary!


Rob’s blog writing is full of insight and energy. Read it here: www.robmathes.wordpress.com. And his website has some great content, including video and music samples. Visit here.

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Interview: Mastering Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3 with Tony Dawsey

Jay-Z The Blueprint 3

Tony Dawsey is a Masterdisk mastering engineer with a long list of hit records under his belt. In the interview below, Tony discusses his experience mastering Jay-Z’s 2009 hit record, The Blueprint 3.

Tony, you’ve got a lot of fans online — people who love the records you’ve mastered.

I hear that a lot, that people like the way my records sound. And it’s a compliment, it makes me feel good, but I realize it’s not just me, it’s a group of people that come together to make the record sound right.

Did you hear a lot in particular about The Blueprint 3?

Yeah the last Jay-Z album I got a lot of people sending emails and just showing love and saying that they love the way it sounds, that it was loud but not too loud and so on and so forth. It definitely makes you feel good when you’re part of a project that people admire for different reasons.

When you work with Jay-Z does he attend the sessions?

He normally comes at the end to go through everything and make sure it’s the way he wanted the spacings from track to track. Out of the 9 albums we’ve done together, he was only here for the whole album once. That was American Gangster a few years ago. I came in on a Sunday, spent the day with him, and went through the whole record. Other than that normally it’s Guru, his engineer, and myself, and Jay normally comes in at the end just to make sure everything’s okay.

“Empire State of Mind” was huge.

Yeah, it was! Jay was in and we were going through the album just making sure everything was the way he wanted it. We got up to the 5th track on the album — “Empire State of Mind” featuring Alicia Keys. I said to him, “This could be an anthem for New York. With the Alicia Keys hook I find it’s so uplifting and motivating. You need to get the word out to your people!” And little did I know, not only was it Jay-Z’s first #1 record, but the Yankees did pick it up as an anthem for New York on their way to another Word Series championship. They even invited in Jay-Z and Alicia Keys to perform it during the play-offs, so, it was kind of special. I’m not going to tell you I “know” what record’s gonna do well out there, but I know what moves me. I was born and raised in New York and I loved that record — it really moved me in a positive way. It was my favorite record that year. I felt really glad that I got to work on it.

Photo of Tony Dawsey
Tony Dawsey
Did you do anything particularly different in the mastering of that record?

The equipment I used on Jay’s record I tend to use on all records that come my way. I know Guru is a very good engineer, so I know for the most part it’s going to come in sounding very very good, and I’m just hired to enhance what he’s done already. I can’t say I do anything special or use any type of equipment on that record and not on anybody else’s record. Most of this gear you can find in mastering studios all over the world. There’s nothing secretive when it comes to the equipment — it’s how it’s used. People gave a lot of love for that album, winning Grammys, so on and so forth, and I let people know it’s not just me. I’m just one of the engineers that worked on it.

You’re extremely modest.

At my stage, at the mastering stage, I have the last word on the EQ and so forth. But people need to know that Guru has a lot to do with the sound of the record and I just represent the “icing on the cake” which is what I’ve been saying for years when it comes to mastering.

This wouldn’t be an interview about mastering if we didn’t touch on loudness.

Whether or not I use compression really depends on what I’m given. Sometimes you need some compression just to push everything out front and so forth. But these days a lot of people mix very very loud, so a lot of times you don’t end up needing compression because of that. But it really depends on the project. You just gotta take ‘em individually and deal with them. And try things. I use trial and error. I’ll listen to something. I may try to put in the NTP compressor and see if that works, or I may try and use a Manley compressor or something to see if it works. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

Thanks Tony. One last thing: How did your relationship with Jay-Z start?

There was a referral. At the time I had did about 3-4 albums with Ruff Ryders. The artist was DMX. Then Lenny Santiago, who worked over at Def Jam as an A&R man, had asked the guys from the Ruff Ryders who they used for mastering because they liked the way the DMX records always sounded. They told him, “Check out Tony at Masterdisk.” The first Jay-Z album we did was La Familia. That was kind of a collection of different artists under Rocafella Records. It’s been a wonderful relationship, doing a lot of albums for Rocafella Records and 9 albums with Jay-Z.

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MASTERING AN INDIE PROJECT: The Diary of an Obsessive Artist, Part II

This is the second of a three-part article about the mastering process by singer/songwriter Kirsten Thien. Read the first part here: Part I. Visit Kirsten online at www.kirstenthien.com. -James Beaudreau


People Get Ready
Preparation is key for staying on budget. When you consider the hourly rate you’ll pay for a good mastering facility, your preparation becomes exponentially more valuable than it was even when you were preparing for studio recording or mixing time. Even if you negotiate a day rate, you will pay more if you go over a certain amount of time — or you’ll have to cut corners when you run out of time. My biggest fear was running out of time or money because of things I could have avoided. Here are a few things I did to get ready.

Kirsten Thien
Kirsten Thien
  • Talk to the engineer: I found out his process for using alternate mixes. Could he work directly from my stems in Pro-Tools to create alternate mixes on the spot? Or is it better to have important alternates already bounced down to stereo mixes? What is the fastest way for him to get the files into his system? Tell them the bit depth and sampling rate of your highest-quality mixes. (If you’re mixing in 24-bit or higher, don’t compress to 16-bit for the mastering engineer. His equipment for doing this is much better than yours and he should do it after other mastering techniques have been applied.)
  • Prepare Files: I created a folder on my hard drive called “All Master Mixes” that would hold individual folders for each song. Within each song’s folder was a Pro-Tools Session of the master mixes of that song, along with the associated audio files. This is where all my alternate mixes were. All of these files and folders had already existed in different places on my hard drive, depending on when or where we mixed it. But I copied them all over to this one “All Master Mixes” folder so my mastering engineer didn’t have to search around the hard drive to find the files he needed. (This came in handy later, as you will see.) I re-named audio files to names that make sense, like “Vox Up”, “Bass Down”, etc. (Be careful not to accidentally disassociate your files from your session if you rename.) Finally, I also added one additional folder that had a Pro-Tools session with the choice mixes lined up in order on a single stereo track (45 minutes long), and copies of the choice mixes only in the session’s “Audio Folder”. This is where we would start off our mastering session and where the engineer could grab all my audio files to drag to his system.
  • Alternative: If you’re not working with a hard drive and have CD’s or DVD’s from several studios and mix sessions, try to at least make a screen shot of your various file structures and make notes on each alternate mix for each song. Give this to your engineer as reference so he’s able to see his options on each song as he masters and as “problems” present themselves.
  • Song Order: I’m a big believer that song order on an album is super-important. There are the commercial goals of the record to consider, but, more importantly, it’s your last chance to affect the flow of your tunes and how they affect listeners who hear the album as a whole. I spent hours listening through to different song orders and making notes. I also got some outside advice because by this time, I’m sure I had lost my objectivity! Even if I didn’t stick with the “final” order I came up with (we eventually did change the order), I was sure of why I picked this song order and its advantages and drawbacks compared to other song orders. Mastering would affect how each track sounds next to another, so anything was possible when we got to the end of the session. Nonetheless, we had a really solid starting point.
  • MASTER CLASS – DAY OF THE SESSION

    I eventually chose Jigsaw Sound in SoHo because their new engineer, Scott Hull, came highly recommended. [Scott was at Jigsaw in 2005. -Ed.] My research on him made him my top choice in my price range. It turns out that the fit was more than serendipitous. I chatted with co-owner of the studio, Dave Ares, before the session and learned that he and his partner Mike Iurato started jigsaw in 2001 specifically to fill a need they saw in NYC. “We were seeing so many indie records that weren’t even being mastered b/c the budgets wouldn’t allow it.” says Dave. So they created a top-level mastering environment, and offered it in a price range that made it accessible to indie projects. Over the past 3 years, Dave has seen many an artist come through the doors with anticipation on their faces, and watched them leave, sometimes ecstatic and dying to get their product out, and other times devastated and wondering what they did wrong. I thought this was a good person to get some advice from, so I asked him for some tips on preparing for a successful mastering session. He came up with some great ones.

    Inexperience with the process will cost you time (and money you don’t have): Even if it’s your first session, do some research ahead of time so you’re not completely surprised about how the process works.

  • Don’t be too attached to your mixes: You’ve been listening in your project studio, on headphones, on many systems. Be open to what the mastering studio environment reveals about your mixes and be prepared to hear EVERYTHING. It’s a vulnerable place to be, but you’ll have to quickly face your mistakes and work with the engineer to make your mixes and your album the best they possibly can be at this stage. That is, unless you have the cash to go back and do some re-mixing or re-recording.
  • Be open-minded, but don’t go with too many choices to make. Have your song order picked out ahead of time. Have your “choice mixes” decided on. Song order, or which mix you master from can easily change during the session but your familiarity with your choices will save you time (read, money) during the session, and ultimately, it helps you get toward the best product you can achieve on your particular budget.
  • Listen to your engineer’s advice. He knows this room better than you do, and he should know how masters from the room sound all over the outside world. If you agree on vision with your engineer, his input can be very useful at this point; so make sure you listen.
  • Keep track of time and the big picture of your album: “I’ve seen lots of artists get too zoned in on one small piece of the whole album in the mastering session”, Scott tells me. “You’re dealing with a stereo mix at this point, so there’s a limit to what you can fix without messing up other parts of the album”.
  • Get some rest the night before your session, and especially let your ears rest: I agree! If you haven’t attended a mastering session before, I probably cannot convince you of how draining and demanding it is on your ears and your brain. If you have attended a session, you know that at the end of the day your ears physically hurt and you’ll be more tired than after running 10 miles. So get some rest and don’t listen to loud music the night before your session.
  • Scott Hull
    Scott Hull
    SCOTT HULL –- Quiet Please. Mastering Session in Progress.

    When you walk into a well-designed mastering room, the first thing you notice is that it is completely and utterly silent (except for the ringing in your ears). You almost feel like you’re in outer space, and the words you speak just disappear the minute they come out of your mouth. This environment is created to be the most unforgiving, transparent, and revealing listening environment on Earth. Be ready to hear every little thing when the music comes on.

    Scott and I said hello a bit, plugged in my hard drive, and started the session off with opening up the tracks in my ProTools session. We started listening to the songs at a low-to-medium volume. While the music played, we talked a little about the goals of the project. “A lot of times, the music tells the story on it’s own, but one thing we have to talk about is the ‘volume question’.” Scott explained.

    If you hadn’t already noticed, do an experiment and play (in chronological order) some CDs that you’ve purchased from 1995 to today. Especially in the last few years, you’ll hear a noticeable volume increase over time. Pop music, particularly music that is driven by radio play, is getting louder and louder. The loudness does not only affect the actual and perceived volume, but also the overall sound presentation because of the extensive compression and limiting that is used –- it’s crunchier, there’s less “space between the notes,” and there may be less overall dynamic range because it starts out loud so it only has so far to go. The “volume question” is one that even the big-budget producers and artists are grappling with. We indie artists who want to compete with the big boys need to give some thought to the question and work with our mixing and mastering engineers to make sure that our intentions for both commercial success and artistic expression are carried out.

    After he had listened most of every song, Scott had a good idea of where the mixes and album were going as a whole. He found some areas he knew he’d want to work on to improve the overall sound. And then he got to work on Song #2. “As I listen through,” Scott told me, “the starting song sort of picks me.” It turns out that a lot of times, the 2nd song is a good place to start because it gives some guidance as to how far you can push the envelope on the first song. You want the first song to pop and attract attention, but if it pops too much and Song #2 doesn’t lend itself to that treatment, you could end up making it sound a little flat.

    When we got to Song #3, I noticed Scott looking around on my drive while the choice mix was playing. Next thing I know he turns and asks me if I mind if he checks out the “Bass_Reg” mix. When he heard a “problem” with the mix I had chosen, he went straight to my drive to scan my alternate mix choices for the song. Since they were all in a folder named after the song, and had file names that told him what made the mixes distinct he was able to find his alternatives very quickly and keep us moving forward. I took a moment to pat my self on the back, feeling at the height of organization!

    We mastered a couple tunes, and I could totally start hearing a major difference. As the end of Song #3 played, the bass was ringing oh-so quietly for what seemed hours after everything else died. I had never heard that before. Easy to “fix” in this case, but Scott told me that one of the most common mistakes made in studios is either abruptly cutting off quiet parts at beginnings and endings, or, alternatively letting something very quiet (chair creak, voice click) stay in the mix that shouldn’t. The mastering environment is unforgiving in its exposure of these little bits. In a recording studio, with computers and gear whirring, there is a limit to what you can hear through the speakers. Before you print a mix, make sure to listen through headphones or you might end up in mastering and find all sorts of little sounds popping up or disappearing inelegantly.


    Go to Part III.

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    MASTERING AN INDIE PROJECT: The Diary of an Obsessive Artist, Part I

    In 2006, when her album You’ve Got Me was released, singer/songwriter Kirsten Thien wrote an article about the process of mastering a record from an independent artist’s perspective. It’s really one of the best primers I’ve ever seen on the subject. Happily for us, Kirsten chose Scott Hull to master her record, and there’s a lot (starting in Part II, posting tomorrow) about what a mastering session with Scott is like.

    As of this writing, in June 2010, Kirsten is in the process of wrapping up the recording of her third album, which numbers among its guests the great guitarist Hubert Sumlin (Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf). Visit her online at www.kirstenthien.com Thanks to Kirsten for allowing us to post “Mastering an Indie Project”! -James Beaudreau


    Kirsten Thien
    Kirsten Thien
    As an indie artist with high hopes, a marketing plan, and an album full of material, the challenge of realizing your musical vision while sticking to your budget can seem insurmountable at times. You know that after the CD is complete, you need some dough to promote your album. But as recording, editing, and mixing expenses add up you start to have fewer options for finishing the project before running out of cash.

    Because it’s a bit of a black box for many artists, mastering is often one of those expenses that gets slashed to a bare minimum. There are lots of programs emerging that add mastering to the list of things you can now do at home. You could also buy or “borrow” a program/room and master your project on your own. Or maybe you’ll consider a mixing engineer who recently started mastering in his recording studio. These are all options for the budget-conscious, and are better alternatives to not mastering a record at all. All these alternatives considered, I decided that mastering by an experienced mastering engineer, in a carefully designed listening environment, would be the best way to ensure that my recording would sound the way I intended it to no matter where listeners were tuning in.

    From Recording to Finishing
    Like so many of us do now, I financed my entire CD project out-of-pocket. We scrimped to get the most out of every dollar, learned to do a lot on our own, and had to make some compromises to save money. Part of that meant being very flexible in how, when, and where everything was recorded and mixed. Some basic tracks and vocals were recorded in a great studio environment; some were done in well-equipped project studios, and I did a fair amount of recording with my Pro-Tools rig in living rooms of guitar players, kitchens of harmonica players, and in my own apartment. Dan Myers, the mixing engineer, was our first stop on the highway of pulling everything together. He mixed almost every track on the record, but even so, mixes were done over the course of 6 months and in two different studios (Dumbo Studios in New York and Mixolydian in Lafayette, NJ). Even so, there were two tracks recorded and mixed by other engineers entirely in a totally different studio environment. This is where “mastering” valiantly entered the picture, so we could be sure that the differences that made each song unique were not a distraction to the listener.

    Choosing an Mastering Engineer and Room
    The decision on where you will master your record and who will engineer the session is going to depend on many factors. Here are some things I took into consideration:

  • Budget: That again. It was clear that with my expectations of what mastering would do for my album, I would be paying more than $1000. How much more I could afford or even stomach became the question. I put on my best negotiator’s hat and made sure that the engineers or assistants I spoke to knew this was an indie project. I also found out every way they cut a deal. Having some flexibility (time) may help you get a deal on the price. Mention if you are willing to be “on call” to do your session at the last minute when a top-paying session is postponed and the room would otherwise be empty.
  • Recommendations: Nothing beats recommendations to get you started in finding engineers to look into. Ask artist-friends, musicians, read liner notes of indie and small label projects that you liked. Especially remember to ask your mixing engineer who’s mastering work he can recommend.
  • Location: If you’re not in a major music town, this will be a big one — use someone local? Or travel? If you decide to use a mastering engineer that isn’t near you, that could actually work in your favor on the budget side if you’re willing to set up an “unattended session”. More on that later. If you are in a major music town, don’t forget to consider mastering facilities that are outside of town, whose prices might be lower because overhead is lower. Being willing to travel will expand your options, so don’t rule it out.
  • Unattended sessions: The “unattended session” concept was totally new to me, and it brought some mastering facilities I thought I couldn’t afford into my realm of possibilities. Some mastering engineers offer a lower price for an “unattended session” as it gives them the freedom to fit your session in between scheduled projects. It may also give them the chance to hand your project over to their assistant engineer to do most of the work. But if you are confident that the lead engineer you have chosen is of high caliber and wouldn’t let anything out of their room without their stamp of approval, you might get extra bang for your buck with this approach.
  • Vision of the mastering engineer: Do you want a more scientific, or commercial, or an artistic view on the mastering of your project? Mastering is your last stop in the creative process, and it’s an intensive 1-day collaboration before you go to market with your product. There’s not much time to warm up and get to know one another. Understanding the engineer’s vision can help you make the right choice and help things run more smoothly and quickly during the session. Use the internet to find interviews that your engineer has done in the past. That’s also a good way to learn more about the process.
  • The engineer’s experience in your genre/style of music: I wanted to know that my engineer had worked on projects similar to mine, as well as projects that I knew and respected. If you’re in a heavy rock band, think twice about going to master with someone who’s known predominantly in the jazz world. Yeah, he’s a pro and should do a great job, but is he faced with dealing in your market and its unique requirements for radio and sales on a regular basis? Most engineers work on a huge variety of projects, so its easy to come up with a good list no matter what genre you’re in.
  • Equipment: There is some standard equipment in almost every top-notch mastering studio. The environment and tools are crucial to the best possible mastering job, so make sure to review and compare equipment lists of your top choices. “Sonic Solutions” is pretty much the industry standard mastering platform for the pro-mastering facilities, and there are about 10 pieces of gear that are really common tools used by the top mastering engineers. Make sure you consider the equipment list along with your other factors.

  • Go to Part II.

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    Masterdisk’s 18 in SPIN’s 125

    SPINDid you see SPIN magazine’s feature this week (in the mag and on the web) about the “125 Best Albums of the Past 25 Years“? There was a lot of tweeting going on about it, as will happen whenever anything as contentious as a “best of the past 25 years” list appears in a major publication. I enjoy a good list myself, so I was all over it. And I thought it would be neat to figure out how many of them were mastered at Masterdisk. Just ’cause. So here’s a list of 18 albums from the 125 that were mastered at Masterdisk. There’s probably more, but some credits proved difficult to track down. If you spot one that I missed, please let me know!

    125. Moby – Play (1999)
    99. PJ Harvey – Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000)
    92. Jay-Z – The Black Album (2003)
    88. Jeff Buckley – Grace (1994)
    79. The Breeders – Last Splash (1993)
    70. Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)
    67. Tom Waits – Rain Dogs (1985)
    61. The Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream (1993)
    44. Beastie Boys – Licensed To Ill (1986)
    39. Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
    38. Run-DMC – Raising Hell (1986)
    25. Nas – Illmatic (1994)
    19. Jay-Z – The Blueprint (2001)
    17. De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
    14. Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique (1989)
    13. Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation (1988)
    6. Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
    4. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)

    Countdown to Record Store Day, Part 5: Academy Records and CDs

    Academy storefront on 12th Street
    Academy Records on 12th Street
    If its used CDs or vinyl you’re looking for in NYC, Academy Records is your place. Or rather, it’s your three places — they have locations on 12th Street (all vinyl), 18th Street (CDs with some vinyl and a big classical section), 6th Street in Williamsburg (the very large vinyl annex).

    Here’s a little further breakdown of the three Academy zones. Interested in digital? Rock/pop/indie? Jazz, classical, or international? 18th Street is your spot. I like visiting there often because they have high turnover in their bins — so you’re always looking at new titles — and their prices are excellent. Average prices for used CDs range from $4 to $8 a pop, with the emphasis on the lower end of the range. God bless. They have a pretty big “budget” section now too where you’re getting into the $2 to $3 range. You’ll also find tons of very nice classical vinyl, CDs and DVDs (if you’re into that kind of thing), and lots of rubber toy dinosaurs too, for some reason.

    For your used and new non-classical vinyl you want the 12th Street spot on the East Side. Lots of jazz, plus a decent rock section, a little metal and prog, disco, soul and smaller bins for soundtracks, lounge and more. They carry a really nice selection of vinyl reissues too, from the latest African comp to classic rock. Plus jazz, audiophile labels, krautrock, brazilian, metal… basically if it’s indie vinyl, they carry it. (And a little bit from the major labels too — like the recent Hendrix reissues on Sony/Legacy.) The guys on 12th Street play good music in the store too — aside from Downtown Music Gallery, Academy on 12th is the place where I find I buy stuff because they’re playing it in the store.

    Vinyl bins at Academy 18th Street
    The vinyl bins in the front of the shop on 18th Street.
    The annex in Williamsburg is sort of like the 12th St. shop on steroids, though the genre distribution is different. Proportionally, they carry more rock, less jazz, and less new stuff; and they have tons of international, disco, and soul. Some classical too, but you really need the 18th St. store if you want high quality there. The place is BIG, and as a result there seems to be less turnover in the larger sections than in the other locations. But there’s a LOT of mass here, so especially if you’ve never been, you’ve got to go.

    As far as Record Store Day goes, the 12th Street shop and vinyl Annex are carrying some of the limited edition items — mostly from the indie side of the spectrum, though Ben at the Annex told me they’ve gotten some of the more mainstream stuff too. 18th Street — whose product is 99% used, isn’t carrying the exclusive items, but they’ll be having a celebratory day anyway, with some special stock coming out into the bins and an in-store performance.

    Another cool thing about Academy is that they recently started their own reissue label, with a focus on very rare African stuff. They press both vinyl and CD.

    For more information, visit their website.

    Used vinyl wall at Academy on 12th Street
    The used vinyl wall at Academy on 12th Street.
    Some of the classical collection at Academy on 18th Street
    Classical at Academy on 18th Street

    And that concludes my pre-record store day blogging! There were some other stores I wanted to cover like Sound Fix in Brooklyn, which is a really neat store, but I didn’t have enough time. I will, however, be tweeting and blogging from the field tomorrow — so I’ll see you in the shops!

    Countdown to Record Store Day, Part 4: Downtown Music Gallery

    Downtown Music Gallery
    The entrance to Downtown Music Gallery's underground lair.
    If you’re in NYC for Record Store Day tomorrow and are into experimental music, prog, jazz, avant-garde and downtown sounds, you gotta go to Chinatown and duck down into the marvelous Downtown Music Gallery.

    I’ve been a big fan of this store since I first happened upon it when it was situated on 5th street off the Bowery. In fact, I was so immediately smitten with their amazing selection of Canterbury prog, obscure European experimental jazz offerings and forgotten 60s psych outfits that a few months after my first visit I walked in one day and owner Bruce Lee Gallanter looked at me and said, “you know, you’ve spent a lot of money here over the past few months — I want to thank you!” And that, dear readers, is the story of what happened to my 2002 tax refund.

    I kept up my few-times-a-week visiting schedule through their next move, when they were situated on the Bowery below 3rd Street. Since then they’ve moved to Chinatown and I haven’t been able, for a number of reasons, to get down there anywhere near as much as I used to — but the love is still there!

    Bruce and Manny
    Bruce and Manny, Downtown Music Gallery's primary movers. (Photo by Geoff Smith, from the DMG website.)
    Downtown Music Gallery is a record store lover’s record store. They guys that run the place, Bruce and Manny “Lunch” Maris are extremely knowledgeable about all kinds of music, and they’re usually willing — if they’re not too busy — to chat about any kind of obscure artist or title you like, or make a recommendation, or even occasionally play a request.

    Their main categories are Downtown, Jazz, Rock/Psych/Prog, and Composition, and they offer used as well as new product. And like I said they have lots of super-obscure product on hand. Recently they’ve bought a few large prog collections, so if you’re into the prog you really should go.

    Masterdisk has an important connection to Downtown Music Gallery too, since they’re the distributors for John Zorn’s Tzadik label, and Scott Hull masters all the Tzadik albums. Certainly, if you want something on Tzadik, this is the place to go. DMG has also released some great albums on their own label, DMG ARC. (Check out the Raoul Bjorkenheim / William Parker / Hamid Drake CD called DMG at The Stone — it’s powerful stuff.)

    Downtown also has a cool selection of weird music books, CD box sets, shirts, hard-to-find music DVDs and other interesting odds and ends.

    Though they’re not carrying much, if anything, of the limited edition items on offer for Record Store Day (most of that stuff is more mainstream then their areas of expertise), pretty much every day is Record Store Day at Downtown Music Gallery. Stop by and you won’t be disappointed.

    Visit Downtown Music Gallery on at their website.

    Countdown to Record Store Day, Part 3: Other Music

    The vinyl wall at Other Music
    Vinyl at Other Music. Note Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music on the third shelf up, recently mastered here by Scott Hull.
    Other Music is definitely the most photogenic of the stores I’ve visited this week in preparation for Record Store Day. It’s a small spot, but it’s got high ceilings, and it’s lit more like an art gallery than a record store. Not that aesthetics are the most important thing about a record store , but it’s an added bonus considering OM would still be a top 5 NYC record store even if it was a dump!

    Other Music’s main focus is indie rock, plus significant sections on more obscure artists from the past 40 years, a nice international section, experimental, electronica (still don’t know what to call this genre), and the indie side of dance music. It’s probably an even split between vinyl and CDs, and they sell both new and used.

    What Other Music can’t offer in selection they make up for with quality. The staff is plugged in to the music they carry, so what you get there is a carefully curated collection. They’re all about the cutting edge of the genres they specialize in, so it’s a good place to go if you want to bone up on what’s happening in music right now. Just take a look at what’s being featured on their shelves, and read the handwritten reviews taped up under the music.

    CDs at Other Music
    CDs at Other Music. Yes, I couldn't resist -- that's my CD Java St. Bagatelles in the bin.
    As far as Record Store Day at Other Music — they’re doing it in style, with guest DJs taking over the store’s sound system for hour-long intervals (including Avey Tare from Animal Collective and Dan Houghland from Excepter), many limited RSD releases, gift cards and tote bags from Converse, and live in-store performances. The artists playing are The Drums and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and they go on at 9PM, an hour after the regular shopping portion of the day ends at 8.

    Considering how small Other Music is, and how much cool stuff they have going on there, the place is going to be packed! So if you’re looking for one of the limited releases, you should probably get there early.

    Special store hours for Record Store Day: 11AM to 8PM

    Read more details about OM’s Record Store Day plans at their website.

    Other Music Artist Wall
    Photos of some of the artists that have played at Other Music.
    Other Music Storefront
    Other Music

    Countdown to Record Store Day, Part 2: J&R

    J&R Vinyl
    One corner of the J&R vinyl department
    Now that Tower and Virgin have vanished from the New York music retail scene (RIP), the only place in town to still get that old school multi-floor record store fix is J&R.

    This is the place to go when you’re looking for new CDs and vinyl (they do have some used bins but it’s far from their specialty). J&R has three major strengths when it comes to serving the music buyer: selection, scope, and price. A pretty good combo if you ask me!

    The main floor is mostly given to a very large pop/rock section. When it comes to classic artists like The Doors, Steely Dan, and Talking Heads, you’ll usually find their full catalogs plus some unexpected import items. Lots of lesser known artists too. Captain Beyond? Humble Pie? Free? Pretty much if it’s in print, you have a good chance of finding it here. They also carry a lot of indie labels, so you’ll find stuff from Relapse, Light in the Attic, Merge, Nuclear Blast, and on and on.

    In addition to the rock/pop selection, you’ll find dedicated sections for oldies, rap & hip hop, a good sized jazz room and large classical and opera rooms, country, blues, and a sizable world music collection. There’s also a dedicated “audiophile” section (with gold CDs, SACD and DVD-A releases), folk and gospel sections, and more.

    J&R’s regular prices are on the low side, and, even better, they always seem to be running some kind of sale. New releases in particular seem to go for sometimes surprisingly low sale prices.

    Well, that’s a long intro. Let’s get to the Record Store Day stuff. J&R is definitely the place to go in NYC if you’re looking for the special limited releases, particularly the more mainstream ones like the Stones, John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix items.

    J&R window sign
    Some of the items coming on Saturday.
    I talked to Senior Store Manager Charlie Bagarozza and Marketing Manager Wayne Olsen at the store on Tuesday. Record Store Day has grown exponentially since it’s debut in 2008, so much so that in 2009, Wayne says, there was more demand for the special items than either record stores or record labels had expected. Customers weren’t able to get everything they were looking for. But this year both record companies and shops are taking extra steps to make sure that the demand is better met. Wayne said he’s feeling good about the stock they’ve been getting in in preparation for Saturday. That said, these are limited items, and Record Store Day is expected to be even bigger than last year, so get there early! The store opens at 9 a.m., but keep in mind that there was already a line formed outside before opening last year.

    In addition to the special releases, J&R has a lot of fun stuff going on including free giveaways, autograph signings, and performances (including one by Judy Collins). Check the full list of goings-on here: J&R Record Store Day Events.

    Did I mention that they’re running a sale all week on all CDs and vinyl in the store? Yeah, J&R is a pretty great record store.

    Countdown to Record Store Day, Part 1: Princeton Record Exchange

    Prex Storefront
    Princeton Record Exchange
    If you live on the East Coast you’ve probably heard of Princeton Record Exchange (or Prex as it’s affectionately called). Heck, if you’re into records, you’ve probably heard of it wherever you are; it’s a pretty famous spot.

    I’ve known about it for years, being a dyed-in-the-wool record geek myself; but I never made the trip before this past Saturday. I can report to you now that the place lives up to the hype!

    Prex didn’t look huge when I walked in (years of hearing the name had clearly charged my imagination) but my estimated browsing time of an hour easily ran over another 40 minutes and could have gone on well beyond that. They’ve got a ton of vinyl, CDs, box sets, DVDs (if you’re into that kind of thing) and who knows what else, in new, used, and budget divisions.

    I spent most of my time with the rock and jazz vinyl and CD sections and trawled very fruitfully through the budget CD wall and “new arrival” bins. Then I spent some more time with the punk and metal sections, and marveled at the selection of box sets — including dedicated bins for out of print Mosaic boxes! That’s the kind of detail we’re talking about. But I didn’t get near the big classical section, or into the vinyl “recent arrival” bins, let alone all the understock — TONS of understock. So when you make the trip, be sure to give yourself lots of time.

    Prex Mosaic Bin
    The Mosaic Bin at Prex
    Another thing that was interesting about the shop is that it was very busy the whole time I was there — and this was, I take it, a typical Saturday. The folks running the place were nice, and helpful, and there was a lot of upbeat talking and trawling going on in the shop. New stock streams into the racks fairly constantly. It’s a fun environment.

    Aside from the ogling (and the purchase of a number of choice items), the other point of my trip was to get the skinny on the Record Store Day preparations from Jonathan Lambert, the store’s General Manager. Turns out that not only is this a big week for Prex because of Record Store Day, but they’re also kicking off a week-long 30th Anniversary celebration on Saturday. There will be live music (in Hines Plaza, a block from the store), raffles, freebies, and, of course, a huge amount of limited edition merchandise.

    The raffles are pretty amazing, starting with T-shirts and gift cards, and culminating in prizes like a USB turntable and a grand prize of BOTH the Beatles stereo and mono box sets. The free raffle tickets will be available at the library concert and at the store throughout the week. There’s going to be Prex 30th anniversary stickers and even temporary tattoos too.

    Prex Raffle Sign
    The Raffle at Princeton Record Exchange
    And then there’s Saturday’s main attraction: the over 150 limited edition titles released on Record Store Day, including 7″ singles from Elvis Costello (on Hip-O), Elvis Presley (on Legacy/Sun), John Lennon (on Capitol) and Peter Gabriel (one on Realworld b/w Stephen Merritt, the other on Jagjaguwar b/w Bon Iver), a 4 LP vinyl reissue Wilco box set from Nonesuch, and lots more. (You can check out the complete-for-now-but-still-growing list here: Record Store Day Special Releases.)

    Jonathan said that he feels good about the diversity of titles and quantity of stock they’ve been receiving, and hopes that Prex will be able to meet customer demand for the limited edition items. But, considering how busy Prex is on a normal Saturday, I’d say you’ll definitely want to get there early if you have your eye on any of those special items!

    Visit Princeton Record Exchange on the web: www.prex.com