Spacebomb Studios’ old-school production values and teamwork have made Richmond, Virginia one of the hottest recording locations in the USA.
Finding inspiration in the house bands and production teams of Motown and Stax Records, Spacebomb are a highly unusual proposition for modern times. An independent operation based in Richmond, Virginia, their output echoes those labels’ elaborate musical creations, in arrangements replete with live-recorded strings, horns and choir. Spacebomb was founded by Matthew E White, whose two albums, Big Inner in 2012 and this year’s Fresh Blood, have showcased the team’s impressively authentic sound, along with fellow Richmond singer Natalie Prass’s equally brilliant 2015 eponymous long-player.
Aside from Stax and Motown, White says other key producers and session bands with trademark sonic identities helped influence Spacebomb. “I think an underrated one in terms of what people talk about in my music is the Jamaican music community,” he points out. “Channel One, all that stuff. And Phil Spector and the Wrecking Crew. I love that music and I love how it was made.”
Spacebomb arranger, guitarist and co-producer Trey Pollard brings his own inspirations to the team. “For me, it’s classic songs and singers like Frank Sinatra,” he says. “That era is a big one, those larger-than-life productions. We were also listening to Tropicalia records. That’s what was appealing to us musically. Some of that older, amazing stuff is what inspires me as an arranger.”
It’s ambitious stuff, for sure, and all the more impressive given that it’s recorded entirely in Spacebomb’s own studios with a pool of musicians from their US hometown. “When we first started,” says White, “I was listening to a lot of music being made by house bands and sort of dreaming about that. But then I came to this realisation that it’s all here in Richmond. I can do that. I can actually organise a session like that. That was a real breakthrough. It was like, ‘Hey, let’s try to make use of this musical community here, because its strengths are really unique.’”
The roots of the Spacebomb team and sound can be traced to the Jazz Studies programme at Virginia’s Commonwealth University, where most of the participants first met. “It’s been a magnet for musicians,” says White. “But I really don’t see myself as a jazz musician. In the United States, when you wanna learn more about music at higher education, you either learn jazz or you learn classical. So for me, it was about going to the store, buying jazz records and committing myself to that music for four years.”
In his spare time, White began recording what was to become the soul-oriented Big Inner in his attic studio at home in Richmond, based around a Fostex 16-track tape machine and 16-channel Allen & Heath desk. The first step was to record the contributions of crack Spacebomb rhythm section Pinson Chanselle (drums) and Cameron Ralston (bass).
“We’d do bass and drums live, and then everything else we were layering,” White explains. “It was always very important for me, and it is still, for us to do as many things as we can live. But in the attic there was no separation and really not a lot of room. We had three channels of UA preamps, so we’d have three mics on the drums and a bass cab and that was that.”
At this point, White hooked up with university friend Trey Pollard with a view to the latter arranging the Big Inner songs for strings, while the former scored the brass. “We had worked together a little bit on some side projects,” says Pollard, “and he asked me to do the string arrangements ’cause I’d just started dabbling in doing the arranging thing.”
Their approach is very old-school: they painstakingly produce written scores, which the players don’t actually see until they walk into the session. “Me and Matt get together and think of the concepts,” Pollard explains. “Then we go off and write the arrangements and just show up on the day of the session with the music. There’s no way to really demo that kind of stuff. You just have to trust in it and go in and knock it out.”
Big Inner, although recorded in a fortnight on a shoestring budget, featured an eight-piece horn section, a nine-piece string section and a 10-strong choir, all of which mainly featured students or alumni from Commonwealth University. These overdubs for the album were added at a larger Richmond facility, Minimum Wage. Looking back, and perhaps judging himself too harshly, White feels that the only aspect of the multi-faceted production of Big Inner which was somewhat lacking was his own hushed, double-tracked vocals. “It was probably two or three takes max of the first one and then one or two takes max of the second one,” he recalls. “That was purely because of time and because of the scope that we were sort of thinking that this record was gonna have which was at most a little bit beyond Richmond, y’know. I would be the first person to say that the vocals on that record were done too fast. I mean, I did them probably all in three hours or something. It was just like, go, go, go. And I don’t think that was good for me and my voice at that time.”
Elsewhere, White’s distinctive retro-sounding guitar parts were created using only his Godin Multiac Jazz guitar and Fender Vibrolux amp. “Kind of a weird sort of jazz guitar,” he says of the former. “It’s got a lot of bells and whistles, but I only use the back pickup basically. I just made one purchase of a guitar and I tried to make it a smart one and then I got the amp that I really like. So much of it really is about how you play it. The signal path is so important, but the first two steps are the player and what you’re playing.”
“Matt just beats his Vibrolux to shit,” says Pollard. “It can get crazily distorted. He never uses pedals. He can get that feedback and distortion hurricane literally just by plugging right in.”
After Big Inner was completed, but before it was released, Natalie Prass, a Richmond musician living in Nashville and hoping to catch a break as a singer/songwriter, got wind of what White was up to back in her hometown. Intrigued by what she heard of the productions he was creating, she contacted him with a view to recording together.
“When Matt and I got together and started talking about the project we wanted to make, it was very natural,” she remembers. “It was very fluid, just because we kinda have the same musical background. Matt grew up on Motown and that’s what my dad would always play. We had a very clear vision of what we wanted the record to be. But I’m also into more dramatic kinds of productions as well. I love Dionne Warwick and also really emotional stuff like the Carpenters, so we wanted to bring that element in as well.”
White and Pollard saw working with Prass as an ideal opportunity to utilise with another artist the production techniques they’d developed on Big Inner. “She sent me a bunch of demos,” White recalls. “She’s a prolific songwriter, so there were maybe 20, 30 songs. We picked through them and I sort of recommended which ones I thought would make a good record. Natalie’s record was really where Trey came on board a lot more heavy with Spacebomb. He was involved in that record from the get-go.”
“Matt and I would send reference tracks [of other artists] back and forth for each song,” says Prass. “Like, ‘Oh I’m thinking this kind of vibe for the strings.’ We’d send multiple songs with each track. It just kinda helps. It keeps everybody on the same page and it kinda opens up the imagination a little bit.”
As with Big Inner, the sessions for Natalie Prass began in White’s attic. “We did bass, drums and guitar and percussion — congas, vibraphone, clap tracks,” Prass remembers. “All the basic tracking, including piano.”
The sessions then progressed to the Richmond studio Trey Pollard was running at the time, Songwire, which was later to be taken over completely by Spacebomb (see box). Along with the brass and string overdubs, Pollard took responsibility for recording Prass’s vocals. “Natalie’s a tremendous singer,” he enthuses of the vocalist’s expressive, upper-register tones. “She liked the [Shure] SM7 on her vocals and she would just do three takes. Then we would sit and comp the takes, but do it super-quick. I think it’s important not to dwell on those decisions. Then she’d be like, ‘Let me double this.’ She was sort of the boss for a lot of that vocal stuff, just ’cause she’s so good. You just kinda let her do her thing. If you have an idea, fit it in there. But she was really fast.”
For her part, Prass remembers certain thrilling moments in the process of recording with Spacebomb, not least the brass section being added to the end of atmospheric Southern soul track ‘My Baby Don’t Understand Me’. “When we heard that live with the horn players in the studio,” she says, “that was one of the most magical moments for me. Matt was in the live room with the 10-piece horn section and I was in the control booth with Trey and once that horn part came in, hands were in the air and we were cheering.”
Other production standouts include ‘Christy’, recorded live with Prass singing along to a string quartet and harpist. “That was a really amazing experience,” she says. “I sang it with them, then after they left I did the harmony. But usually, I do maybe three vocal takes and I’m like, ‘I’m done.’ Just ’cause you start to lose the emotion if you keep doing take after take.”
Stretching Pollard’s arrangement skills to the extreme, meanwhile, is the closing track ‘It Is You’, where harp, strings, horns and woodwind conspire to create a cinematic production that evokes 1940s Hollywood. “The only direction we had was, ‘We wanna take this all the way,’” Prass laughs. “We wanna make people just fall on their face. Trey had full rein on that one and that is just a masterpiece. He deserves an award for that arrangement.”
The amount of instrumentation meant mixing sometimes became a question of choosing certain focus elements over others. “Picking what elements were going to shine and which ones were going to maybe be in the background or taken out,” Prass explains. “But it was already kind of laid out, like ‘Oh this is a more string-heavy song,’ or ‘This a more horn-heavy song.’ So that was always the balance.
“We actually didn’t mix it until probably a year and a half after tracking the record. Trey mixed it while Matt and I were sitting in there with him. And Trey just has an amazing ear and wants to try different things out. Like on the bridge of ‘Never Over You’, we took the drums out. Moments like that kind of transform the song into something so exciting.”
The reason that Natalie Prass’s record was forced to be shelved by Spacebomb for nearly two years was because of the success of Big Inner, which took the team aback. “We needed all hands on deck just to handle the situation,” White admits. “We certainly just took our time and wanted to release Natalie’s record correctly. I think that’s been really an important thing for us with the records we’ve done. Y’know, in the music industry you can spend a lot of time just banging on doors and trying to push them open. Or you can kind of wait for the timing to be correct and a lot of those doors will sort of open for you.
“Really Spacebomb’s not in a position where we have a lot of resources, people, time, money, to bang down doors,” he goes on. “We have to be smart about timing and let a lot of doors open for us. It’s a complicated industry with lots of moving parts, and with Natalie’s record, it wasn’t the right time for a couple of years. What it’s doing now, it wouldn’t have happened.”
In approaching the making of Matthew E White’s second album, Fresh Blood, the Spacebomb team had the luxury of time. Where Big Inner was squeezed into a fortnight, here they had three months to create its follow-up. Nevertheless, there was strict planning involved. “We’re really schedule-orientated,” says Pollard. “We have spreadsheets. You kind of have to do that with the way we make records.”
“Even though we had a lot more resources to make the record,” says White, “for me it was about investing in the same process. Really trying to make something better as opposed to making something different. Everything was a little bit more patient. We could be more proactive and intentional about what we were doing. Me and Trey worked very closely the whole time. Producing yourself is really hard, so having someone that you trust to help you through making a record, which is a psychological nightmare really, was really helpful. But y’know it’s funny ‘cause as many things as were different, I really think the truth is that more things were the same. It’s the same people, the same process.”
There were some differences, however. White and Pollard cut loose from their pre-planning modus operandi for one track, ‘Fruit Trees’, where they layered tracks over tracks without a clear vision of where they were heading. “That was difficult,” Pollard laughs. “We don’t normally make tracks where we record just a ton and then we sort of figure it out later. That’s not how we do things generally. It’s very much thought out and literally written out and then we just basically execute it and it’s done.
“‘Fruit Trees’ was definitely written out, but it was a little bit more like we were just gonna figure it out once we got it all in there. So that was tricky just because you have too many good ideas. You end up having 160 tracks and then you have to kill your babies when you have to erase things. I think it’s turned out awesome. It was just a little bit of a mountain to climb.”
Having been frustrated by his vocals on Big Inner, White decided to take a more considered approach on Fresh Blood. “Trey is really producing those vocal takes,” he says. “He’s on the other side of the window really coaching. Much more now we do a handful of takes or we really pick our way through a song meticulously.”
“With scheduling, we made sure he could just knock out a tune here, a tune there,” Pollard adds. “We just used the 47. He’ll do a take or two, and then we kinda listen and talk about it. I think he works best when we do section by section. A lot of punching. So that’s why Pro Tools is the way to go when we’re doing vocals.”
White’s trademark double-tracked vocal sound is still evident on Fresh Blood, though it’s more subtly done. “The reason he doubled on Big Inner,” says Pollard, “was just because he’d never really sung before and he thought it made it sound better. I think he’s a better singer now and that’s something he’d been working on. A lot of it is doubled, but I like the double where it’s not equal. A lead and a double in there just to soften the details of it. But not all the way up.”
One key development with Fresh Blood was that Spacebomb decided to bring in an outside mix engineer, namely Patrick Dillett, whose wide-ranging credits include R&B and hip-hop artists such as Mary J Blige and The Notorious BIG, alongside more alternative acts including David Byrne and Anna Calvi. Pollard and White attended the mix sessions in New York.
“We wanted to see what it was like to actually have a real mixer work on something,” says Pollard. “He was super-cool. He kept a lot of the stuff I’d done, sort of pre-mix stuff, but he just made things pop and sound awesome.”
“We handed Pat very good rough mixes,” says White. “A very organised file set and a record that already had lots of personality. We didn’t need production, y’know. Pat is very transparent in a way, when he’s mixing, in the sense that you don’t hear Pat Dillett in that mix necessarily. But there’s not a lot of engineers who can deal with orchestral sounds and ensemble sounds there’s a craft to dealing with that correctly in a mix. People don’t record that way a lot and he really did a great job with that. He just made the record sound 10 times better than it would’ve sounded if we’d have mixed it.”
Giving the growing reputation that Spacebomb are earning for their characterful productions, it’s perhaps no surprise that bigger artists have begun to approach them with a view to future projects. Both Pollard and White are, however, remaining tight-lipped when it comes to revealing names.
“There’s not anything that I can talk about on the record,” laughs White. “But there’s been a little bit of energy, y’know, that’s come in. And I sort of anticipate a little bit more of that. The nice thing with Natalie’s record is that now people are able to see what Spacebomb actually is. I’ve said from the beginning that Spacebomb is a collage. It’s gonna be a mosaic of records. And the more we get out there, the more people will see what we’re about.”
One very pleasing aspect of Big Inner’s international breakthrough was the fact that Matthew E White was able to fully relocate the Spacebomb operation out of his attic studio. As such, he cut a deal whereby both Trey Pollard and Songwire Studio, now renamed Spacebomb East (the attic being Spacebomb West) became a full part of the team. It was an arrangement which suited both parties. “It sort of folded into my studio getting involved,” says Pollard. “Just because his attic could only do so much.”
“Because of our model, we spent a lot of money on studio time,” White points out. “Trey and I were talking and it was sort of apparent that Spacebomb was looking for a space to be a little bit more active in. Trey was looking to get out of the studio game a little bit, to maybe get rid of that weight, and we were very used to that space. And Trey is now in a nice position where he can still basically have the studio that he built, but under a different name.”
What is now Spacebomb East was designed by Pollard in 2010 and is housed in a former tobacco warehouse in an industrial area of the city. “Building after building used to be full to the ceiling with tobacco,” he says. “They’d just been sitting vacant. There was really nothing in here, just powder brick walls. We had to build the whole thing from scratch. It’s a pretty small space that we have, but we were able to get a really nice-sized control room, a decent live room, a booth and an amp closet.”
Tracking at Spacebomb is shared between Pro Tools and a restored MCI JH110C eight-track, one-inch tape machine bought from Nashville. “It’s in immaculate shape,” says Trey Pollard. “It’s essentially like a brand-new machine. Really tight and beautiful-sounding. We were looking around for a long time, knowing that we wanted an eight-track.”
Pollard says there were a couple of specific reasons why he wanted an eight-track, rather than a 16- or 24-track machine. “I think for us, tape is about a sonic thing, for sure,” he explains. “But it’s about workflow more than anything. I mean if we want infinite tracks, we’re gonna be in Pro Tools anyway. But especially with the bass and drums, we want to be able to just go for it and get it in one take, and that’s sort of the tape thing. We erase it and we go back. And something about having a sheer ton of tracks just seems to give you too many options.
“So we just keep it simple and do a minimal amount of mics on the drums. And sometimes we’ll do a piano in there too at the same time. Everything goes in that’s gonna go in at the same time: maybe a guitar, maybe a scratch vocal. Then when we get into the arranging part of the session, strings and horns and choir and whatever, we’re usually in Pro Tools at that point. Sometimes we’ll bounce back and forth for sonic reasons, if we wanna send strings to the MCI or do some buses. It’s sorta like you get this cool marriage of improvisatory, sonically strange basic tracks and then you can go crazy in Pro Tools and overdub ’til the cows come home.”
Aside from a Euphonix digital mixer, there’s no actual desk in Spacebomb East. Instead, the team use an array of Universal Audio, SSL, Avalon and Focusrite preamps. “We like the UA 610s that we have,” says Pollard. “Those are sort of very dark and we use them on drums. We’ve also been doing this mono [Neumann U] 47 drum thing that we really like. The four-channel SSL is super-clean and nice on acoustic guitars. The Avalon we use on vocals and bass a lot. Then there’s the eight-channel Focusrite just for overflow things.”
Mic-wise, alongside familiar models by Neumann, Shure and AKG, Spacebomb’s collection includes Cascade ribbon mics and a custom U47-style mic built by Virginia company Peluso. Particularly when it comes to recording horns and strings, Pollard experiments with different mic combinations and placements.
“It’s generally ribbons on brass,” he says. “Sometimes we’re fighting for inputs, so I try to use as few mics as possible. Our live room is not huge, so if I use too many mics, it tends to get a little funky in there. You hear the walls too much and maybe even some phase problems. Sometimes we’ll sit horn players on either side of a figure-8 ribbon. It’s usually [Neumann TLM]103s on saxophones.
“For the choirs, we’ve tried a lot of things, but we generally did a centre room mic for everything and then some close-miking. For strings, I’ll do a centre omni room mic, then some condensers on each section, so like violin one, violin two, violin three, ’cello. But never close-miking those guys. Sometimes I’ll put ribbons on ’cellos, which is really nice. Sometimes we’ll do ribbons on gospel vocals. Although you have to be careful not to break your stuff.”