October 9, 2012

Studio Apartment #4: The Turtle Shell

Studio Apartment is Jon Bernson's effort to document the interaction between musicians and their recording spaces. Jon is the prolific multimedia artist behind Exray's, Window Twins, THEMAYS, Ray's Vast Basement and numerous soundtracks for theater and film.

After releasing a winning streak of albums in recent years, Glenn Jackson, Adam Myatt and Matt Tammareillo have established themselves as central voices in the Bay Area electronic pop scene. They channel their music through a variety of monikers: James & Evander, Shortcircles, Hoodcats, Empty Pockets, etc. Each outlet has a distinctive voice, but all share a love of studio experimentation, synth worship and expansive musicality. The rich collaboration that exists between them is undeniable; a rare example of three artists living under one harmonious roof. They call it "the Turtle Shell".

You guys make a lot of music under different monikers and with different combinations of the same people. Can you give everyone a breakdown?

James & Evander is Adam Myatt and Glenn Jackson, along with a small group of friends who help us out here and there. We've labeled our music a lot of things over the years (indie-tronica, weed-wave, future-pop), but the title of our latest album, Bummer Pop, perhaps sums up our sound best—somewhere between melodic, melancholy pop and stoned-out electronic music.

shortcircles is Matt Tammareillo's solo project project which lands somewhere along the lines of bliss-hop or new-agey future-beats. The songs are fleshed out live with the help of James & Evander and Forest Floor (another Oakland musician).

Hoodcats is the combination of all three of us, basically just having fun and making guilty pleasure-inspired beats—almost over the top but (hopefully) more irresistible too. Adam has taken to photographing the immense amount of street cats that live in our neighborhood, which in turn inspired the name and the artwork.

[The "Hoodcats"]

Adam: In addition, Glenn makes music by himself as under his own name [Glenn Jackson] and alongside Elephant & Castle as Benefits, while Adam does a solo project as Empty Pockets and has started a yet-to-be-named collaboration with fellow Easy Bayers Jon Latimer and Andrew Macy (of The Aimless Never Miss/B. Hamilton).

Glenn: Really, all these projects are in some way a collaborative effort between all of us. Living under one roof, we're constantly listening to tracks and helping to write parts or critiquing each other's music and giving each other constructive feedback (i.e. "That arp sounds fucking siiiiick") and ideas (like, "Why don't you try putting some more space-echo on that Casio sound yo?"). When it comes time to mix, we try to book time at Sharkbite Studios (where Adam's worked as an engineer for years) to finish things off in a real studio. Regardless of the project, we usually end up—for better or worse—following the teachings of the Big Beat Manifesto: "Big beats are the best, get high all the time."

Matt: Also, it should be noted that the house is also the HQ for Glenn's net-label/blog Mapzzz, an "Oakland-centric" online community that all of these projects have done releases for and has turned into a loose collective of beatmakers from the Easy Bay and beyond through its free releases.

Describe your basic living situation, including any neighbor /roommate constraints/creative bonuses related to your physical space?

Glenn: We live in a two bedroom apartment in the bottom half of a duplex which is located in the "hoodskirts" of Oakland (the no-man's land between Uptown and West Oakland). We converted the living room into Matt's bedroom/studio, and our kitchen (the biggest room in the house) serves as a combination kitchen/DJ booth/living room. When we first moved in, our upstairs neighbors were using their apartment as a practice space (for various renditions of awful rock/punk/funk/grunge bands) which was gnarly—like shake the shit out of our light fixtures and toilet gnarly. We didn't complain much (even when it would interrupt us) because we can only imagine that they must get a steady dose of kick drum at all hours from us. Fortunately, some other neighbors wrote them a few letters complaining about the noise (and, incidentally the quality of the music) and they finally broke down and got a real practice space. Our lives have been much better since. Adam has also used to the house to record and mix various engineering projects including Parentz, B.Hamilton, Some Ember, Courtship, and Vir. When he tracked Man/Miracle's Valleys EP, he even used the laundry room to got an awesome room sound.

Describe the basic layout of your room/studio.

Adam: The studio is built around one big table where the main computer (which runs Pro Tools and Ableton) sits along with some rack gear and our monitors. There are a number of synths and keyboards spread throughout the room on a bunch of tiered keyboard stands, and a good amount of the floor space is filled with boxes, drawers, and shelves full of pedals, mics, cables, and various noisemakers. We also have a large PA (which is leftover from Glenn's days a high school mobile DJ) which is used for practicing/house shows. Lucky for us the room is big enough that we can practice here as well as record.

Matt: Two of the biggest walls in my room are covered by record shelves and the rest of the area is either my recording equipment or storage space for my recording equipment. There's a window in front of my music computer that looks into the driveway of the house next door where I do a lot of cat watching. Above my room is the staircase that leads to the entrance of the top unit so I usually can't record things that require a mic because of our heavy-footed upstairs neighbors. (Seriously, it sound like they are constantly moving furniture)

What is the main program or device you use to record?

Adam: Nothing too fancy, in the studio proper, we've got a rack mounted Digidesign 002 that serves as the interface to Pro Tools and/or Ableton Live and Matt uses a Firepod into Pro Tools and/or Logic in his room.

How linked is your recording process with your writing process? Explain how they interact, especially your two step process of beginning at home and then moving over to the studio.

Adam: Writing and recording goes pretty hand in hand for me. I rarely have the full structure of a song down before I record it. For Bummer Pop, Glenn and I had 14 or 15 songs tracked, and a good portion of them mixed, then we printed stems to take over to Sharkbite to do final mixing/pre-mastering (and a little bit more tracking) before we eventually cut the album down to ten tracks. It's really helpful to get the songs out of our space and into a properly tuned room at some point, especially one with some awesome pieces of gear to run things through. After a while of staying up till two or three in the morning obsessing over tracks, it's nice to get into a fresh space and get a different perspective on the music.

Glenn: Really, there is no difference between writing and recording for me. I have never been able to take musical ideas from my head and bring them into existence, it just never comes out right. I usually have to just jam and then find a loop or a sample to jump off from, then the writing and building can happen.

Matt: The writing process for me is actually more thinking of how to chop a sample the best way or coming up with a melody/chord progression for a song while on Bart or at work. Other than that, the process of writing and recording is one fluid (sometimes frustrating) event.

Talk about your process of making the music you're working on right now.

Adam: I've been working on a batch of piano-based songs (recorded in various places onto a sampler or my phone) and then importing them into Ableton to edit and build a structure for Empty Pockets. Also, I've been working on another batch of songs/ideas I've been stuck on for a while, but am finally finishing with Jonny and Macy. Those guys have in the past been a big part of J&E too (laying down bass/guitars/vocal parts on various songs) and it's been fun to have them play around with these new tracks to get a slightly different perspective on the music. We'll be finishing the tracks for a Mapzzz EP of some sort and will be playing a show in September, but don't really have a name for it all yet.

Glenn: After working solely in Pro Tools and with hardware for years, I've finally made the jump to Ableton and I can't really look back. I just love making music on it, it's so fast and fun and intuitive. I've been putting together some more avant-house type stuff as of late, revisiting my love for sampling records and making dance music while high, and Ableton has served as the perfect tool. Although I usually end up bouncing the stems into Pro Tools for a final mixdown cause I don't like what Ableton's master buss does to stereo bounces (sorry!).

Matt: My most current music has definitely been the biggest leap from what I'm most comfortable with musically. As someone who has never really grasped music theory, it is always a bit intimidating to begin a new song, but it also leaves a large sense of wonder and amazement when I experience a song start presenting itself throughout the process. I usually start with a sample or chord progression and just throw as much stuff at it as possible and then pull away the mess until I have something that I recognize as a song and just sculpt from there. One thing I've found making my latest album is the importance of saving and cataloging old sessions for future use. I'd say 50% of the new music I'm making is built on the foundation of sessions that I started about two years ago. Everything we've done so far has been a sharing/learning experience, and to me that's the beauty of having all of these different projects going on under one roof. You work with different sets of people and pick up different tricks and ideas that you can then go and apply to the other projects you're doing and it's just a big supportive, creatively incestuous, environment.

Can you share a sound bite or a soloed track from something you have made recently?

Glenn: This is a soloed track off of a J&E jam we started not too long ago. It's a string patch on the Korg M1 keyboard through Ibanez AD202 analog delay and Cameleon Labs 7602 preamp, into Ableton with a little bit of that sweet, sweet "Empty Club" reverb setting.

Do you draw inspiration from other mediums beside music? Why is this important to your process?

Adam: Coming back to the cat pictures for this one! The computer in the shell has a screen saver slide show of all the cat pictures I've taken over the past year or so...and trust me, there's a ton.

Glenn: Honestly, no. I don't watch a lot of films or take in much art that isn't music-based. I'm pretty much consumed with sound and that's what keeps me going!

Matt: I'd say cinematography is another medium I find inspiration through. I usually find the most inspiration from people like Michel Gondry—there's something about his ability to create great things with such minimal tools that really captures me.

Describe a favorite item of hardware or software and why it is important to your recordings.

Adam: I love delay, and one of the first "real" pieces of gear I ever bought was a Roland RE-150 Space Echo Tape Delay. So for me it's between that and the Ibanez AD202, another analog delay unit. I'd say just about every time we set something up, the chain is: instrument/synthesizer into Space Echo (or AD202) into Chameleon Labs 7602 into Digi 002.

Glenn: I was even a little surprised by my answer when I actually thought about this, but I could not live without the Casiotone MT-70. We've got a lot of great synths in our workspace (three Moogs, two Junos, a Rhodes, etc.) but somehow that little keyboard makes it on to just about everything I do. Maybe it has a nostalgic appeal that I'm not consciously aware of, but for most every song I make, it serves as the final piece. The organ, woodwind, and flute tones add just the sweetest touch of air, and the bell and piano tones can either serve as soft, inviting leads or almost imperceptible melodic reinforcement.

Matt: Adam's Roland Juno-6 is the most magical beast I have ever been lucky enough to play. Software wise, GleetchLab is something I often come back to for inspiration when I'm stuck with a song. It provides a lot of possibilities for beautiful mistakes.

Talk about the way you like to sequence [the recording of] your tracks.

Adam: Every track is different, but it'll usually start with weed, then a sample/drum beat/synth line/guitar riff, which is sampled into the computer. Then, more weed will be smoked, followed by some more weed, and then I'll build the structure of the song, try and figure out what project the track will be for, and then figure out who and/or what can help finish it off.

Glenn: It's always different, but it usually begins with a base loop of some nature. Whether it's a record sample or a drum pattern or a chord progression, there just has to be something that repeats so I can add to it for a song to really go anywhere. Melody is usually the last thing I add to a song because I find it is the easiest part of the song to come up with.

Matt: If I smoke weed before working on a track, I won't get much further than opening and naming a session (sorry guys). I usually start with a sample or something I worked on so long ago that there is no personal tie to it anymore so I can jut treat it like a sample. I lay as much melodic elements down as I can before I begin adding drums. Once I start on drums, I usually put a very simple beat down just so I can get a groove started and keep the other musical elements going. Basslines are the hardest thing for me to decide on, so I spend a lot of time working those out.

Which song is the best example of where you're at right now?

Adam: Most of the new J&E and Hoodcats tracks that are in the early stages of development are obviously fresh to me. And this track, "Slim Voyage" (named after a rack of synths a touring friend lent us which included a Moog Slim Phatty) is something I've been working on with Jonny and Macy. It's a good example of where my head has been for the past week or two.

[Slim Voyage Mega Synth]

Glenn: I've been hugely inspired by an ongoing obsession with French producer Pepe Bradock and, more recently, the LOL Boys this year (their Changes EP and Fader Mix in particular), so I've pretty much slowed down all my tempos to rolling house territory (around 115-119 BPM) and this is just a skeleton of the kind of things I've been after lately.

MP3: GJ Sample

You guys have worked in a variety of musical settings and studios outside of your place. A few years from now, when you build your dream studio, how will it be constructed and what will be a few of the key pieces of gear you will not live without.

Adam: The two key things for my dream studio would have to be ceilings we can't touch (our current place is probably about 6.5-7 feet tall, which is surprisingly a step up from The Turtle Shell 1.0 which was like 5'8") and natural light. Gear wise, I'd love to have a Bricasti M7 Reverb unit. Sharkbite had one for a little while, and it's one of the only pieces of gear that has really blown me away and made me want to run everything through it.

Glenn: As I continue further down the rabbit hole of music production, I am starting to lean towards a more is less ethos. My ideal space would have a modest-sized mix room and tracking space that was comfortable and properly set-up (nothing is more frustrating than buzz on a channel or gear that doesn't work properly). Aside from the obvious gear—a pair of decent preamps, a few choice time-based processors—the only essentials would be good lighting, a clean monitoring setup, and a grand piano of some nature.

Matt: If this is a dream studio…. it will definitely be in SPACE. I would have a grand piano, a decent mic pre, a decent mic, a (working) HS-60 or Juno 106, a Manley Vari-Mu compressor, and a Space Echo. I also find comfort in having a kitchen, couch, and other things in the same room as my recording set-up just because I work a lot of music out in my head with a loop playing while I'm making food or doing dishes.


  1. musically, this was pretty interesting, but the ~smoke weed every day~ attitude is very irritating to have to read.

  2. Maybe you just need to smoke some weed?

    1. that's exactly what i'm getting at. also it's illegal where i live, so there's that.

    2. I think the way weed is talked about sometimes acquires the forms of an "affectation", but only because it's marginalized - for people that imbibe, the interpersonal dynamic is in pride of ownership, ie, that weed is not "harmful" or a disastrous influence on society, but a personal decision with only personal implications. Any instance of severe disagreement will tend to reinforce respective viewpoints, so I think the way it's discussed above should be read with anthropological interest for the bizarre explosion of a pre-colonial commodity in a part of our country where it is only newly regulated by common social expectations.