Petaluma, CA (April 29, 2019)—Life can take you in interesting directions. In 1988, it took Too Much Joy, an indie pop-punk band from Scarsdale, NY, to Venice, CA, to record its first proper album at the now-defunct Radio Tokyo Studios with producer Michael James. Realizing they had something special on their hands, but that they needed to go over budget to do it justice, each band member—and James—threw in $800 apiece to buy an extra week of studio time. It was a good investment; the record, Son of Sam I Am, vaulted both the group and its producer to the big leagues as the band signed to a Warner Brothers label and re-released the album, scoring an MTV hit with their rocked-out cover of LL Cool J’s “That’s a Lie.”
After a string of albums, the group wound down in the late ’90s as band members scattered across the country to pursue new careers. This past January, however, found three-quarters of the group—singer Tim Quirk, bassist Sandy Smallens and drummer Tommy Vinton—coincidentally all in New York at the same time. Sensing an opportunity, a last-minute session was booked with engineer Matt Noble at WSDG-designed Riverworks Recording (Dobbs Ferry, NY) to capture “Death Ray Machine,” a stray song from 1991 that the band had never gotten around to recording.
While Too Much Joy had to head cross-country 30 years earlier to record in California, this time their tracks made the trek; the song was sent to Los Angeles so guitarist Jay Blumenfield could overdub his guitar parts with engineer Johannes Luley. Continuing the remote reunion, the group corralled Michael James into mixing the song. It was a good fit, too, as James spent the intervening decades producing and engineering the likes of Hole, Jane’s Addiction, Reverend Horton Heat, L7, New Radicals and others before becoming a mix specialist in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
While James produced Too Much Joy at Radio Tokyo back in the day using a prosumer desk and a 3M M79 24-track tape machine, 30 years’ worth of audio advancements meant this time the band’s sound came together on a unique analog console built around a Dangerous Music summing, monitoring and conversion platform, with 64 channels of 2-Bus+, Convert-8 DA, Convert-2 DA and Convert AD+.
“Because my signal path has a low noise floor and my Dangerous Music converters are so fast and accurate, I was able to stay out of the way and let the band’s performances do the talking,” said James. “Dangerous Bax and Manley Enhanced Pultec EQs were applied tastefully. Compression was less subtle, courtesy of Avalon AD2044, Manley ELOP and Variable Mu on busses, Purple Audio MC76s on individual vocals and Empirical Labs Distressors on a parallel drum bus. A Dangerous Compressor—always my last line of defense in the signal path—glued everything together before hitting the Convert-AD+ on the way back into Pro Tools Ultimate HDX, where I printed the final mix.”
With the mix completed, revisions went quickly thanks to a real-time live stream of James’ console via Nicecast and iTunes. Band members 3,000 miles away were able to listen and comment as if they were sitting at the console; by the next day, the song was released to the world.
“I often get asked about the difference between mixing independent versus major-label albums, and a track like ‘Death Ray Machine’ is a great example,” said James. “TMJ was a major label band, but they released this single independently. Nonetheless, they are accustomed to—and expect—a radio-ready, major-label sound. So what did I do differently? Absolutely nothing.
“From my perspective, the biggest differences are the budget, terms of payment, number of revisions, layers of creative thumbprints from upper management and fresh flowers. Indies have less money to spend, therefore I have less time to get it right and they have less time to make decisions—but the quality always needs to remain top shelf. You never know who’s listening; that’s what we learned back then with Son of Sam I Am, so I make sure every mix I send out the door reflects that today.”
“Death Ray Machine” • https://toomuchjoy.bandcamp.com/track/death-ray-machine
Too Much Joy • www.toomuchjoy.com
Michael James • www.michaeljamesproducer.com