To some, “analog” is just a word signifying an old school recording technique used during the times when Hippies roamed the Earth. To others, such as Bill Nobes, it is far more.
In a world dominated by digital downloads, Nobes is on a quest to return to the days of tape-recorded studio magic while documenting the process like an accidental vinyl historian. Enter the album, Analog Trenton.
Analog Trenton is a project that mirrors its passionate, driven, tenacious and curious creator. This undertaking grew from a desire to ensure that mistakes of the past were not repeated while leaving a physical presence to be enjoyed for generations to come.
To understand more about this bold new retro-futuristic concept, we must get a glimpse into Nobes himself.
“My background is working in video, the movies and theater and clubs in the East Village in New York City,” he said. “About three years ago as my son grew up … I’ve been a single dad since he was two and a half years old … once he hit age 15 or 16 I realized that life isn’t over and that I could actually do things. So what that inspiration led me to was to start building an analog studio. I missed live music because that’s what I did for a living for a couple of years on stages as a sound guy and technical director. Everything that I was hearing recorded was so processed and so soulless that I decided to start a space to create authentic recordings — which I thought was a pretty stupid idea, at first, but I decided to do it anyway.
“About a year after that, I was introduced to the Trenton community and things just started taking off. One of my first events was (a staged reading of the play) ‘Antigone’ and things have not stopped. The pace has been mind-bending, with what’s going on in Trenton, and just how much is going on in Trenton.
“So I continued building the studio … I think what is going on here is kind of special because it’s supportive, it’s collaborative, everybody works together to help each other.”
Nobes praised the scene’s diversity. “In one night, you’ll have both hardcore and hip-hop on the same stage and the same crowd appreciating this. I’d never seen that before. So I thought, I want to document this, and as the studio was getting to the point where I could record, I thought, ‘What am I going to do with this?’ This turned out to be a natural fit; I could do this community-based project, benefit the community, benefit myself by learning and that’s how Analog Trenton was born.”
Nobes set off like Leonard Nimoy “In Search Of” the elusive equipment and intangibles needed to further the project. Along the way, he acquired some help, and once that was in place, it became something of a runaway train.
“I couldn’t find tape decks at first and then I found two old one-inch decks in the back of Frank Russo’s Music Box and things took off. So I took on Nikki Nailbomb as a co-producer — she runs Champs Bar and her dad owned City Gardens, so there’s a legacy there — and Griffin Sullivan from Pork Chop Express, and they book Champs and Mill Hill Basement so they’re really involved in the scene. We recorded two days at Champs and a day at The Trenton Coffee House with the solo acoustic people and then I just kept recording in my studio.
“I thought I’d be lucky to get 20 bands and I ended up with 40. There are 40 tracks on this thing and that’s a lot of music. We couldn’t do a double album but it is a double CD and all 40 tracks fit on the double CD. However we didn’t have the budget for an album because it would have been a triple or quadruple vinyl. So we distilled the tracks down to the best representation of the Trenton scene — not the best tracks but the best snapshot of the scene and also the shortest songs. We didn’t use the six-minute songs because we didn’t have the space; so the album represents a subset of the entire thing.
“The visual artists were excited, too … so I included them as well. There’s artwork from 27 artists in Trenton on the vinyl cover and the limited edition is on colored vinyl. There’s a six-panel cover and an eight-page booklet because I was so moved by how enthusiastic the visual arts community was, and I thought, ‘We have to include them because this is a collaborative community and it’s not right if everyone is not on it.’ So the whole thing just kind of took off with a life of its own and it’s been running my life for a year (laughs).
“People were still calling and calling months past when I had planned to stop recording. I just had to say no more and I was also nearly worn out because at that point it was all in studio and every couple of days I was recording another band. I had to stop at some point, so I stopped at 40. The bands all showed up on time, ready to work. We had zero issues; 100 percent professional. We recorded at night and on weekends; we’d do one take for sound levels, two live takes and then the track version. A singer-songwriter could take around three hours and a full band four to six hours per track to record, but we had to put constraints on time because we just had to, and the same thing with the mixes. We spent about six hours per track, which took several months.”
Live recordings, once a staple in every artist’s catalog, are rare in today’s industry and Nobes hopes that Analog Trenton will be the tip of the iceberg that changes that. But as he has discovered, the disarray in the present music marketing scheme is frustrating.
“I learned that getting an album out into the world may be more work than making it,” he said. “That’s what I’m going through now; at least with making an album I kind of knew all of the moving parts and how it worked but the music marketing and publicity world right now is totally on its ear. Nobody knows what’s going on, no one knows how to do it, everyone disagrees and if you go on Google you’ll find a thousand people trying to sell you books or programs on how to do it and none of them probably know anything. That’s the fight I’m fighting right now. Once you get it on Spotify … how do you claim it as a Spotify artist? iTunes, the same thing. All these places say they’ll do it all for you … well, they absolutely do not!
“I kind of look at the music world right now and watch many artists go to places like Disco Kid or CD Baby; you may as well buy a lottery ticket because millions or hundreds of thousands of people are doing the same thing and they’re not really doing anything for them. They’re not doing any promotion; they’re just dumping it out there with all of the other works and it becomes white noise.
“That has become my next challenge: How do I rise above the noise? Now with Analog Trenton, I really want to push the idea that it is a unique project because it captures a sound, captures the ethos of a city … That’s one of the reasons we stayed in analog: because I find it makes it more authentic. Analog is not better than digital; it’s just a different tool and it makes it harder to stray from the real sound. We did mix it, it’s a full multi-track, we recorded it on one-inch with compressors and limiters and all the standard stuff.
“I learned that the job of a mixer is to recreate the sound, because microphones are not the human brain. When you mix something you’re actually trying to recreate what it sounds like, because microphones in a room just won’t do it. You’re trying to fool the brain into putting it back in the room.
“I realized a couple of times that I was in over my head, so I reached out for some help, and one of those who really helped was Sean Glonek from SRG Studios. I didn’t know Sean but I followed him and knew some of his work and I admired his mixes and one day I just called him up and said, ‘Hi Sean, you don’t know me but I need help.’ (laughs) Sean very graciously did all of the recording for both days at Champs and the day at Trenton Coffee House. Sean couldn’t help me with the mixes, so, coincidentally, one of our contributors introduced me to Brian Young, a professional audio engineer who spent a few days with me and got me started. I’d done live mixing but production mixing is a different thing. Also Bern the Bastard came in and did a lot of mixing with me as well.
“I learned an incredible amount, which was one of the reasons that I wanted to do this. First of all, I like trying to take on things that seem impossible. Secondly, I realized that I could keep on buying more studio gear but that wasn’t going to teach me how to make what I wanted to make with the authenticity that I wanted to produce. So by going out there and doing it, even though it is an expensive project, to me it’s worth far more than what I’ve invested in it.”
The mixing was covered, but an important part is the mastering of the product, and Nobes spared no expense.
“Carl Rowatti did the mastering; he runs Truetone Mastering Lab and has been doing it for 40 years … he was the most expensive part of the project. There’s not many people who do analog mastering anymore so the vinyl is true analog. It went from my tape deck to his tape deck to his equipment to his lathe cutter and right to the press. It was never converted, and on the CD it was analog until the last possible second.”
Now that the CDs are done and the vinyl still being pressed, what’s next for the project after its Sept. 20 “soft release”?
“I want to get Analog Trenton national because I don’t think there has been something like this, and if there has, I don’t think it has gone beyond one city. Part of my inspiration was, back in the ’80s there was a monthly album put out of folk music recorded in New York City and I subscribed for years. Back then it was recorded on reel-to-reel, a couple of mics and it launched the careers of people like Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman. A lot of people got their start playing in these places and that series may have helped them, and I’d like to see the same thing happen in Trenton.”
Nobes says he’s “also forming a micro-label, which is kind of an artist collective of people who have a unique voice and a unique way of saying it. People who I relate to closely and work on the same frequency with. I’m not charging them so they don’t have to look at the clock. I hope to make it up on the back end but it’s a learning process and I’m investing in that process, and I feel comfortable with that.”
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