Tidal Arms: Interview with Guitarist/Vocalist Tom Tierney

In my humble opinion, the best three records of the year are Gorguts’ Coloured Sands, Kayo Dot’s Hubardo, and the new, just released today, self-titled album from Tidal Arms. Yes, all of those bands are at least partially based out of Brooklyn, so I think we finally have proof that you can’t write a good record anywhere that you can’t find a good bagel.

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I had a chance to chat with the band’s guitarist/vocalist Tom Tierney, who also mixed and co-engineered the affair at his studio, Spaceman Sound.

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So the first thing that struck me about the new album is how much more doomy and metal it is. Was that the plan, or did you get a few songs in and say, “huh, this strikes me how much more doomy and metal it is”?

It is a heavier record, for sure. We never sat down and decided to make it that way, but it also wasn’t an accident. I think we’ve always had more fun playing the sludgier, doomier parts live. It’s just so cathartic. Our songs are written through jamming ideas out in the space, as opposed to sitting down and writing a song. We record every practice and listen back to what we played, learn the ideas, then string them together. We’ve been playing more of the heavy parts recently when improvising, so those are the ideas that stick.

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You used to use a Fender Blues Jr. to get the distorted vocal tone at shows. Was that also the vocal distorter in the studio?

Yeah, the Blues Junior has been a big part of our vocal sound. Live, I sing through a clean dynamic (usually a 58) going to the PA, and a vintage Electro-Voice M-43 harmonica mic that gets sent to a delay, then into the Blues Junior. I still sometimes use it at shows, but in some rooms, the feedback is too wild – I find using an amp modeler can be more controllable in those situations. On this record, we did use the Blues Junior quite a bit to get the distorted vocal – that, and/or a microcassette recorder. It’s an old Olympus Pearlcorder, and it has a pretty awesomely broken sound when you hit it hard.

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The guitar tones are pretty massive. I saw in photos that you had at least 80,000 microphones set up in some kind of Fibonacci pattern. Can explain what was going on there? Were there patents involved?

Yes, all of our recall sheets are encrypted. I confess, we used an obscene amount of mics on each source, but the idea was never to have them all on at once (phase cancellation makes that a fool’s pursuit), but to be able to use whatever combination of usually 2 or 3 mics work best for a given part. I’d rather use a different microphone on a guitar double than a different guitar or amp, it just feels more like one big guitar to me. We also relied heavily on room mics for guitars, to keep the sound in the space. The main guitar amps used on the record were a Hiwatt Lead 30 head, a Sunn Sceptre head (both through 60’s Sunn 4×12 cabs) and a Fender Super Reverb for the cleans. Bass was typically Patrick’s SVT Classic into an Emperor 4×12, on loan from our friend Miles. Much of what makes the guitar stuff dense is arrangement – we’re a trio, but many of the arrangements are written to be 2 or 3 single note lines, played on one guitar. I like the crunch and beating between those different lines – the distortion glues them together helps to thicken the midrange. It’s muddier than splitting them up and performing the lines on different tracks, but it can help make it heavier if you keep the low mids under control.

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Was anything tracked live or were all the guitar and bass parts overdubbed?

Mad Glacier was tracked completely live, amps screaming. You can actually hear the pipes in the live room rattling all crazy from the bass. Otherwise, mostly overdubs. When we tracked drums, we recorded bass and guitar DI’s with them, and for some moments, those performances just had that little magic that overdubs weren’t getting, so we would re-amp the DI’s through our rigs while overdubbing. A lot of the parts have dense harmonies and a lot of distortion, which means the guitars and bass have to be super in tune for it to keep from turning to mush, which is something best left for overdubs.

The new Tidal Arms was tracked the studio that you own, Spaceman Sound, yet you also mixed this new one yourself, unlike the previous record The Sun Exploding which Andrew Schneider (Cave In, Made Out Of Babies, Big Business, Rosetta) mixed. Why the change? Is it just because Andrew smells like baby poop now? It’s not pleasant.

We love Andrew Schneider – he’s a close friend, and a legendary producer/engineer. We’ve been fans of his work for a long time now, and he’s made some of our favorite records ever. The short answer is that we had never tracked and mixed a record of Tidal Arms music at Spaceman, and we thought it would be fun, so we did the whole thing. We recently released our song “Molasses” as a benefit for Andrew’s studio, Translator Audio and The South Sound, who lost their studio in Sandy. They’re rebuilding, and every little bit helps. We love Andrew, and I really hope we get to have his ears on a Tidal Arms recording again in the future!

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What’s it like recording your own band, as compared to tracking someone else? Have you ever had to yell at yourself for not playing well enough?

The hardest part of recording myself in general is that I feel like I have a way of thinking about things as an engineer, and a way of thinking about things as a musician. Sometimes those work together, sometimes in conflict. In most sessions, there’s a division of mental and physical labor between engineer and musician, making things faster and more efficient. Most of the time I was there alone tracking guitars and vocals, and when it’s just me setting up mics, preamps, running Pro Tools, as well as playing the parts correctly, in the pocket, in tune and with conviction, it means it requires more time to make all of that happen.

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Have there been any moments when you had difficulty taking a step back and looking at the big picture of the recording because you were neck deep in the physical act of playing the music?

For sure, and vice versa. Mostly it was cool and fun, but sometimes I wouldn’t realize until the next day that something wasn’t quite right. Sometimes I’d get a really awesome take only to listen the next morning and realize it wasn’t the right tone, or the other way around. Sometimes I’d spend so much time getting mics in place and getting levels that by the time I go to play, I’m still thinking about phase relationships or whatever, and not purely in the moment with the music. I don’t think we ever lost the big picture, but maybe the small picture at times.

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How long did it take to build your studio into the setup you have now? Which pieces did you acquire first? Was there a piece of gear that became a game-changer once you picked it up?

It’s been a slow process of building a setup since high school. I had a Tascam 4-track in high school, and a Fostex digital 16-track, which I did my first few recordings on. Patrick (bass) and I had a band in college, and we used some band money at some point to buy a used Digidesign 002, and a handful of chinese sm57 clones. That was a big step – I started recording everyone at school who could pay me. About five and a half years ago, when Alex Mead-Fox and I teamed up to do Spaceman Sound and first starting getting serious, I got a Universal Audio LA-610 tube channel strip. Before then it was a mystery how people got such great sounds out of their microphones, but when we made our first recording with it, everything immediately sounded bigger and better than we ever could do before. I think that was really a game-changing moment. Most of the audio equipment currently at Spaceman belongs to either myself, my studio partner Alex Mead-Fox, or Jon Cohrs of Spleenless Mastering, who works out of Spaceman’s facilities.

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How analog or digital is your recording setup? Do you mix in the box or out (assuming you’re not tracking to tape)?

I think we have a pretty happy balance between digital and analog. The studio is centered around Pro Tools (and Logic), as opposed to being centered around a large format mixing desk. Our “console” is really a mastering-style desk with racks of compressors, a monitor section and an API 8200 16 track summing mixer (basically the master section of API desks.) The idea is to be able to EQ, automate and do little detailed tweaks in the box, then send things out to the API, where the tracks get summed and hit with multi-buss parallel compression and parallel mix buss compressor. That way we have that gluey, warm sound of the API being hit with compression, but with the recall-ability of digital on the individual tracks. We do record to tape at Spaceman (8-track Tascam 38), but we did very little tape stuff on this Tidal Arms LP, other than maybe printing vocals to it once or twice.

If you had an unlimited recording budget, would you still choose to record on your own and just put the money into gear and limitless time for experiments, or do you think you’d choose to work with an engineer and/or producer?

Who’s to say? I love recording/mixing us and would be happy to do it again, but with limitless funds, I think we would work with another engineer/producer. There are so many great ears in the world that would be fun to hear our music through. We’ve often talked about how fun it would be to work with Kurt Ballou or Peter Kadis, to name a couple. Randall Dunn would be great, not to mention working with Andrew Schneider again. I like recording, but I also do it for a living, and am happy to just play music and be in the hands of talented people. That’s easier to do when you have a limitless budget though!

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Now that you have a finished product, what aspect of the recording are you most proud of, and what would you change if you could?

I like that it sounds like our band in our room. Overall, I’m super happy with how it turned out. I think the extra time and stress that goes into doing everything yourself is something I would maybe lay in someone else’s hands in the future, if possible. At the end of the day, we’re glad to put this record in someone’s hands and say “enjoy,” without regrets.

Tidal Arms’ new self-titled record is out now, and can be procured at the band’s Bandcamp page.

Written by

Chris Alfano has written about music and toured in bands since print magazines and mp3.com were popular. Once in high-school he hacked a friend's QBasic stick figure fighting game to add a chiptune metal soundtrack. Random attractive people still give him high-fives about that.