Wired 02: Analogue Birds
Tom Fronza from Analogue Birds talks a bit about his multi-instrumentalist experience on stage and in the studio. He also shares insights into his workflow and technical expertise in the recording studio, as well as certain processes of his album: Azimut.
I’m an Italian born professional artist/musician from Germany, and in this job for 25 years. I play gigs, record and produce music, and also own a small label. I’m a multi-instrumentalist and I have more than 1000 concerts under my belt. I sometimes play solo gigs but mainly perform with two projects. One of those is called Analogue Birds which started off as a busking project in 2004.
I was a busker and lived from street music for more than 8 years before the stage became a more important part of the mix. Nowadays I rarely busk at all. I learned to play bass, guitar, tabla, didgeridoo, other percussion instruments, a little bit of keys and the greek bouzouki (long neck lute), most of them as an autodidact.
Azimut was sort of a creative need I had (to produce downtempo music inspired by music I listened to 30 years ago) and the album was inspired by a few confining lockdowns and the abstract photographs of the artist Ulrich Raschke.. It gave me the opportunity to use his great pictures, which are a mixture of photos from space and abstract paintings if you want. The way he sees things through the lens transcends micro- and macrocosmos and plays with it. I was able to lay out the CD, which is still thrilling, and then lay out the big format of a long vinyl player with photos. The photos also lent inspiration to the song titles and finally the music, so it ended up being a well rounded concept. As the Analogue Birds is my main project, I wanted to release the songs under that name, even though it displays a completely different kind of music than the one we play in front of an audience. So it’s kind of the other side of the project/me that appeared with the circumstances of a lockdown if you want so.
When you intend to produce an album, what do you have ready within the composition and arrangement before starting the recording; how is your sketch, layout and pre-production work?
That process has changed quite a bit over the years. In the beginning of the band it was more of a group effort. In most cases I came up with a musical sketch: a rhythm, a phrase, a special tempo, chord changes or any other musical idea; and from there we developed it further on the street or in the rehearsal room. As we played live a lot and in front of small audiences, we started developing many of those ideas on the fly, and were able to jam on them extensively. That way we composed them out organically while using the audience's feedback instantly.
A few years ago I started with creating random licks in my DAW, and all those musical inspirations I mentioned before and developed them further and further on my own up to the point, where the song actually told me to introduce it to the musicians. Mostly, rather than creating the song actively, they left their color and interpretation on the material I programmed.
For Azimut I made up pretty straight arrangements which still left some room for interpretation, but mostly they were fully arranged drum-patterns, basslines, chords and melodies I created in the DAW, and then invited all those musicians to record exactly that.
I also had a lot of the sessions on my own, playing guitar, programming synths and finding the right basslines to record; those trackings stayed in the production for good. After that was done, I arranged the almost ready song further, put in breaks and intros, wrote the lyrics and invited vocalists or other musicians who would add the icing of the cake on top of the nearly finished song.
When I look back It was almost like flying on autopilot. It’s strange, if you have a plan, follow it and in the end you really get the result (and the musicians) you asked for :-D That’s only possible if you have musicians who create a flow instead of obstacles, even though sometimes we would fight over certain aspects; but even that is fun and makes the results better if you work with professionals.
Which were the factors that determined the participation of 14 external musicians, could you tell us a little about them and their instruments?
All those musicians are very dear to me. Either because I had worked with them already for a long time and often, some because I wanted to work with them for a long time or they recently caught my attention. Some of those musicians are really top at their craft internationally, some are famous only in Germany but they are all great people to work with. When I looked back It was almost like flying on autopilot. It’s strange, if you have a plan, follow it and in the end you really get the result (and the musicians) you asked for :-D That’s only possible if you have musicians who create a flow instead of obstacles, even though sometimes we would fight over certain aspects; but even that is fun and makes the results better.
My musical background is very eclectic and I wanted to merge a TripHop, Jazzy, Electronic and World Music vibe on the album altogether. There are Armenian Duduk flute, didgeridoos, mouth harps, tablas, the Arabian lute oud, Eurorack synths, drums, trumpet, fretless bass guitar, three different drummers, three female singers, one male rapper/singer and two guitarists on the album. I also played bass, guitar, didgeridoo, mouth harp and programmed synths on many of the songs.
There were many restrictions in those years, how was it possible to record more than 15 musicians from different regions, could you tell us a little about the process of microphone and capture of the album in general?
It had to be in single sessions over the course of almost 18 months, which gave me a lot of time to work on the production. The cast of musicians is very international but they are all based in Germany. It was on and off with the lockdowns in Germany in '20/'22. Sometimes it was impossible to leave the house at all, and sometimes I would even catch one of the musicians between two random gigs, when he or she passed by my town and they stayed for a few days so we could make recordings and enjoy a fire in the garden after work or a nice walk in the woods.
My studio is in the attic of the old house I live in with my family. With 50 square meters it’s not big but it’s good to record drums and small formations. If I need something bigger I have the option to rent great spaces. It generally sounds really good in that attic, at least that is what other musicians tell me :-D No, I actually think that’s true. I also have a proper singing booth but I mostly do spoken words in there. The studio, otherwise, is a big room and the sound is very warm because of all the wood. With a couple of spanish walls, the room sounds amazing for vocals too. So I’m very lucky, as the sound of the room is as important as the skill of a musician or the quality of his instrument.
I have a good collection of microphones that range from different Neumann small and big membrane condenser mics, Sennheiser classics, different quality ribbon mics (different for each job) and a lot of studio standard mics. Before the last days of recording, I fell in love with a Manley Big Membrane Tube Condenser. I had it for a few days and did a test recording and a direct comparison with the other mics I normally use on vocals. I was so amazed how it would come up exactly with the sound I wanted. I bought one straight away even though I had bought some pretty expensive mics shortly before that, but it had to be :-D I was able to finance it thanks to another production I was hired for, and used it extensively in that production and on the vocals, mouth harp and didgeridoo for Azimut.
For my vocal chain I use a Neve style WA-73 EQ that goes into an Apollo X8P. Other than that I have SPL Goldmike preamps, Midas and RME converters/preamps. As I sometimes make recordings in a live environment, my channels add up to 32 A class preamps and converters that way. It’s all stuff I get really good results with. I do work with Logic X mainly as I started working with that program in 1998, so I get a good workflow out of it. I also have quite a lot of DSP to host UAD plug-ins on, which I really like to use.
Do you have an established workflow for your editing and mixing processes, was it very different for this album?
I have to admit that I always start with a few basics, and then see where it leads me. As I said, if you have the right room, the right mic positioned in front of the right musician with the propper instrument, after the tracking you can do a lot of shaping and carving of the signal to where you want to have it. When I realize that the Kick signal sounds good, but it finally isn’t what the songs really needs, I start to bend it, push it till it’s there.
I will learn that from the next production because it’s an ongoing process of development. Once you decide to start learning about production, it never stops even though the learning curve flattens over time, and you have less of those epiphanies you had at the beginning.
I don’t like to do a lot of editing, only roughly without messing around with the nitty gritty stuff. Also what I want to record should be recorded in three or four takes, and if there is a major mistake in it I don’t use it. But then I’m blessed to work with a lot of good musicians and this almost never happens, hence I just have to edit very roughly so that the material would keep the essential organic feeling.
Any particular tool or chain with which you would not have been able to achieve this result?
Again, it’s the room, the musician, and the instrument first; then the microphone and its right position. I don’t do a lot of equalization or compression during the tracking, so I’m not old school, I do it afterwards. I really like the combination of the Manley, the Neve style, and the UAD converters. This gives every signal enough quality to turn it into a high-end production. Surely I want to play around with other stuff in the future, but I don't see myself going fully into analog desks with a tape machine at the end. If I really want it, I can always go to friends and colleagues who are specialized in that kind of production. I guess as long as I have plenty of room to experiment with my setup, and get compliments for good sounding productions, I’m fine.
How is the moment where you decide that the album is finished and ready to master?
That’s a tough one. It was very hard for me to find that sweet spot. I even left it kind of hanging there for a month or so without doing any work, and generally I also had a week of break from production after all the recording was done. It’s amazing how basic a production you had worked on for a long time can sound after you left it there for a week or so. Time is a very important factor for the production process. I still see what I could have done more or better, but then I’m also the practical type who knows it has to be finished anyway.
I also had deadlines as the album was sponsored by a crowdfunding, and a grant from the German cultural department. Therefore, after leaving it another week I told myself: you might be able to make it better, but it would take more time to find out how than I actually had left on the project. I will learn that from the next production because it’s an ongoing process of development. Once you decide to start learning about production, it never stops even though the progress slows down over time, and you have less of those epiphanies you had at the beginning.
Could you share a bit about the mastering process, how and where it was done?
Mastering and video are two of the things I don’t do myself in the process of being a musician and producer. I always feel better by giving my production to someone I trust and I have heaps of good experiences with.
Over the years I became more active in the mastering process. Even though I leave most of the decisions (especially those which are utility) to the mastering engineer , I can come up with a few of my own ideas even shortly before it’s a wrap. I was very happy with those decisions for Azimut as it became more spacial, both with the stereo picture and the frequency range; also in the vinyl edition as I had been able to find out a few days ago, or even listening to the music on Soundcloud with my cellphone.
I listened to the test pressing with a friend who is sort of a specialist for vinyl, and he was stoked about what kind of sound I had brought to the medium. On Azimut I worked with Ralph Happe of Masterblaster Audio in Frankfurt, Germany, and I've worked with him for almost a decade. He doesn’t master every production I do but he's done a lot of them. He takes his time, he gives space to his imagination, but has a very wide ear to my notes and ideas. This process really turned out great on Azimut in my opinion, and it’s more valuable than spending a fortune on mastering as Masterblasteraudio has also a good pricing, a wide range of techniques to master music, and a lot of fun finding out what’s good for my music. That’s a convincing mix and I always liked the results.
Were there any challenges or quirks outside of normal work that you remember facing during the production of Azimut?
There is always doubt but I still see it as a quirk because that doubt always has another face.There is always doubt but I still see it as a quirk because that doubt has another face. Azimut was growing completely outside of what I would play live or on CD with the Analogue Birds as a trio or even as a quartet. I might play a bass line that reminds me of a groovy soul piece, fiddle around and come up with a a twerking odd meter programming drumbeat; or suddenly with a melody that caught me while doodling distracted on guitar. All those sketches end up in a completely alienated context.
So I just came up with random ideas that I formed into music I always wanted to make, with a lot of musicians I most likely will never perform those songs with; and I surely don’t know if I’m going to sell any of that music, or if anyone will like my strange stuff at all. I guess that this almost says it all. That's the challenge, that’s the doubt which is a huge part of the creative process. The same goes for its blind-brother-trust who will not appear for the show undoubtedly :-D It's always challenging, at least for me. Apart from that, the lockdown and the heavy atmosphere of the pandemic had to be incorporated into the music. Being creative always helps in challenging times.
You have a lot of experience as a producer and working in the studio, anything you learned new in the production of this last album?
Nothing in particular I guess, but I was again reassured that in the end it all works out if you put in the right effort, and that your own personality always contains more abilities than you think. I have many producers around me with a lot of experience, and I have the big luck that they like my work, are very honest and willing to do listening sessions with me. I also found out that I still enjoy listening to the songs, which is a great thing after working your ass off on them in countless sessions.
Furthermore, I realized myself and got feedback on a few very tiny weaknesses in the mix (apart from those that are up to the listener's taste). This was also because I had the opportunity to listen to it on a few different studio monitors, which are far beyond my budget. The mix and mastering was still sounding spiffy, but it’s like having a better binocular so you can see further (into the mix). It was mainly about rounding some sounds and giving them a tiny bit more frequency space/compression, or some sounds had a tad more frequency space/compression around them. That also led to the conclusion that my ears are ready to mix on really big and much better monitors than my Genelecs 1029 A with its subwoofer.I would love to own a pair of Tannoy Supergold, for example. It was amazing how exact everything sounded on those monitors.
Tell us a bit about your graphic work, how do you land an entire album in a single image cover?
Doing layout and graphic design is simply a part of the job. I started layout and design in 2003 and it brought really bad results by that time. :-D I’m still not the world's most talented designer but I did many CD layouts/designs, posters, flyers, and other graphics over the years; and that experience adds up. I also had to save some money, and the really amazing work is still mainly done by people who ask a well deserved price for what they do.
For Azimut I had the chance to make a kind of concept album that tries to connect visual and sonic aspects, as it is inspired by the abstract photographs of Ulrich Raschke. Nowadays I’m still in the process of promoting it. I love the amount of good feedback, and I accept when critics tell me that they find it very interesting, good and well produced, but it’s not musically their cup of tea. Fair enough! Very soon this production will be a thing of the past. Soon I'll be finished with the promotion and harvested all the reviews and feedback with the release of the vinyl in January '23. That means, I'm already looking forward and brimming with ideas that are going to get killed in the creative process, or are going to grow into something of importance to me.
The rough plan is to come up with song ideas and musical outlines, and then work very, very closely with my drummer, who has, among other things, a lot of talent in arrangement and editing. I think we will be able to enhance each other in the process. I'm looking forward to that, as it will be music that will most definitely end up being performed on stage by us together, and the material will surely end up on a release.
It was awesome to work with so many gifted musicians, and really have the feeling of closure after wrapping the album up. Nowadays I’m still in the process of promoting it. I love the amount of good feedback, and I accept when critics tell me that they find it very interesting, good and well produced, but it’s not musically their cup of tea. Fair enough! Very soon this production will be a thing of the past. Later I'll be finished with the promotion and harvested all the reviews and feedback with the release of the vinyl in January '23. That means, I'm already looking forward and brimming with ideas that are going to get killed in the creative process, or are going to grow into something of importance to me.
Pat Appleton Umlaut Recording Bodek Janke
Analogue Birds - Azimut - Release Date August 01. 2022
2.Sulky Cockatoo Ballad
4.Early Morning Mist
5.A Twinkle Of the Hurricanes Eye
7.The Fallen Seraph
8.Alley Cats Remix
Physical distribution (CD & Vinyl) exclusively via Umlaut Recordings Shop https://umlaut.de/shop/
and Analogue Birds Bandcamp Shop https://analoguebirds.bandcamp.com/
The release is also available as download in both shops.
Tomas Fronza - Bass, Guitar, Bouzouki, Didgeridoo, Jews Harp, compositions, lyrics, programming, arrangements, recordings and mixing - Umlaut Recordings Studio
David Bruhn - Drums and Percussion Alexander Lipan - Guitar, Oud - Germany/Romania - https://dirtyblackshirts.com/
Gianluca Scagliarini - Trumpet, Trumpet - Italy - https://landmasse.com/
Bodek Janke - Tabla, Percussion - Ukraine/Poland - https://www.bodekjanke.com/
Leon Brames - Drums - Germany - https://www.instagram.com/leonbramesdrums/
Sebastian Winne - Drums - Germany - https://www.sebastianwinne.com/
Tobi Born - Guitars - Germany - http://tobiborn.de/
Timo Gross - Guitars - Germany - https://timogross.com/
Martin Gerke - Synths - Germany - http://www.martingerke.de/
Ramona Kozma - Vocals -Poland/Germany- https://ramonakozma.weebly.com/
Franziska Loos - Vocals - Germany - https://www.franziskaloos.de/
Pat Appleton - Vocals - Germany/Liberia- http://appletone.com/
Ufo Walter - Bass Guitar - Germany - www-crazybass.de
Luzingo Monimambo - Vocals - Angola/Portugal - https://www.instagram.com/real_luzingo/
Phillip Gerisch - Germany - https://gerischmusic.com/
Alex Klein - Remix - Russia/Germany
Ralph Mappe - Mastering - Germany - https://www.masterblasteraudio.de/
Umlaut Recordings - www.umlaut.de
Interview by Arturo RR