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March 11, 2010

Manic muse

by Natalie Rutsch, Page Editor
The Takoma Park basement is quiet for an instant before junior Jack Naden springs into action. The drum set vibrates under Naden's flying sticks, filling the room with music.

The drums are marked with an interlocking M and A, for Manic Attack, the band composed of Naden (drums), fellow Blazer junior Riley Harris (rhythm guitar), Wilde Lake High School junior Joe Ciccarello (lead guitar) and Washington International School juniors Grayson Flood (bass) and Noah Maruyama (vocals/keyboard). Manic Attack is a self-described progressive/grunge band based in Takoma Park. And, like many other fledgling bands, they have reached a major milestone: recording their first album.

According to Dan Ball, creator of HomeRecordingConnection.com, home recording gained popularity in the 1990s. The low cost and flexibility of home recording sparked its popularity - and these reasons spurred Manic Attack to record their debut album out of Naden's basement.

Striking up the band

But long before the lengthy band practices working on their album, Manic Attack was just an idea in Maruyama's head. Maruyama first approached Naden, an old friend, during their freshman year about starting a band. Maruyama, Flood and Naden combined with Jack Howsham, the band's original guitarist, to form Massive Attack. The band played with the line-up until Howsham moved to England, sending the band on the hunt for a new guitarist. Despite their efforts through Craigslist and Facebook advertisements, they were unable to find a fourth member until the summer after their sophomore year, when they attended a Takoma Park band camp, Combo Camp (now called Groove Camp). Flood remembers dreaming about going to camp and finding a band-less guitarist. At camp, his dreams were answered twice over — the band found Ciccarello and Harris, two guitarists who fit their style and skill level.

Newly reformed, Manic Attack quickly began working on their songs. At camp, they wrote "Hungry" and "Mockingbird," two songs on their upcoming album. "Everything went really well. We were stoked to have the whole band," says Naden. Meanwhile, the camp helped songwriting flourish because it allowed the band to work for ten days in a row, according to Flood. "In songwriting, you need that continuity," he says.

Naden estimates Manic Attack has played between 10 and 15 gigs at small venues. The band's performances include a talent show at Austin Grill, an acoustic set at the Takoma Park Folk Festival, a set at the Students for Global Responsibility (SGR) Spectacular and a show at River Hill High School in Howard County, says Harris.

Their arsenal of live experience growing, in November the band began recording their album. The album will mix some of the band's old songs written before Harris and Ciccarello joined, such as "Burning Brakes" and "Prototype," as well as new songs they wrote during and after band camp. Currently, Manic Attack has finished recording "Burning Brakes," and are putting finishing touches on "Prototype" and "Mockingbird."

A 'Logic'-al process

It's the small finishing touches that can take the longest, and be the most enjoyable, according to Flood, who edits the music using Logic software from Apple. But before it's possible to tweak the minute details in a song, the band has to lay down all the instruments. They mic the instruments and individually record each part - first the drums, then the rhythm guitar and bass, and finally the lead guitar and the vocals, says Harris. The band records all the takes, and then Flood sifts through the takes, picking out the best. He compiles the components of the songs and splices them together, fixing each instrument's timing, volume, reverberation, pitch and other elements. Flood describes this whole process, which may seem like the bulk of recording, as the first half of recording. Next comes tweaking all of the small details. "That's the creative part; the long part, but also the fun part," says Flood.

The importance of tiny details is evident in the recording of "Mockingbird." "Do you want to do a click before and after the first chorus or just before?" Flood asks Naden, who sits readily at his drum set. Flood is behind his laptop, preparing to record a small addition to "Mockingbird." They listen briefly to the song through large headphones, until the phrase in question plays. Naden is unsure. They try a "click," a small tap on the drum, but Naden isn't satisfied. He goes for his brushes, to no avail. Finally, they reach a compromise: a few hits with the mallets on the cymbal. They listen to the newly added cymbal through their headphones, smiling and nodding. These kinds of detail-oriented changes are an essential part of the recording process, and they are what bring the recording to the next level, according to Flood. "The thing about recording — you lay the foundation of the song pretty easily but then the little things take longer. That's what distinguishes a good recording from a mediocre recording," says Flood.

After all of the minor tweaks are made to perfect the track, Flood changes volumes in the song, then bounces and normalizes the recording. Finally, its time for the last stage of recording: mastering, the stage in which the songs are ordered and effects are put over all the songs. It's what gives albums a cohesive sound. Manic Attack says they will go to a professional to have the album mastered.

The great compromise

The decision to record at home was driven by money, but the band has found other benefits in their basement studio. At first, the band explored local professional studios. Eventually, they decided that the most economical option would be home recording, so over the last four to five months they've purchased everything they need to home record using their own savings. "We spent on it what you'd pay for about three or four songs worth of recording," says Flood. Ball has had similar findings in his experiences with home recording. "A full weekend of recording can cost $1,000," he says, "Take that $1,000 and buy a nice audio interface and piece of software for your PC and you can record forever."

Another benefit of home recording is that the band has flexible recording hours. "I like that we can do it any time we want. We can do as much of it as we want. We can take as long as we want," says Naden. With this flexibility, the band is able to perfect each song.

A major concern of home recording is compromised quality, but the band thinks that their recording quality has been almost as good it would be in a professional studio. "I thought you'd need a really manicured room, but we've been recording in Jack's basement and we haven't gotten too much reverb or delay," says Harris. But one thing that is missing from the basement studio, the band admits, is a recording professional. The band agrees that an expert would help them improve their recording efficiency. "There's so many little tricks of the trade to learn. We knew some of that stuff but obviously we weren't that experienced, so it would have helped to have a professional," says Naden. Ball says that it is often highly beneficial for a band to record a few times at a studio just to learn essential techniques. "There is a great deal to be learned from one of two visits to a real recording studio and learning some basic processes and methods from a real pro," he says. But regardless of the missing expert guidance, the band prefers their basement studio for its price and flexibility.

Looking toward the future

Maruyama regards the band's purchase of recording necessities as an indicator of their long future together. "Buying recording equipment is a gesture of trust," he says. So what does the future hold for the grunge-progressive quintet? Naden is shooting for more albums, an expanded fan base and many more shows. "Ideally make a bunch of albums, get popular, go on tour. I just want to play a lot of live gigs," says Naden. Flood says that if in five years the band is playing shows, or even opening shows, at 9:30 Club-caliber venues on the East Coast he'd be satisfied.

Currently, Maruyama, Flood and Naden plan to take a gap year after high school to work on their music. They want to keep the band going, in hopes of finally getting a break. "We'll try to keep it going through college and out the other end. We haven't had an opportunity to break out. We just need a chance to get our music out there and really come alive. That's what I'm aiming for," says Flood.

But for now, the band looks forward to their album. They plan to give it out for a low price, or possibly even for free, to help spread the word about Manic Attack. "It'll be a CD for fans so people have an idea of who we are, what we sound like, where we're going," says Maruyama. And their direction is full of possibility - for Manic Attack, the view from a Takoma Park basement has never looked brighter.



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