Mastering Neutral Milk Hotel: Joe LaPorta on Sessions with Jeff Mangum

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NOHO, MANHATTAN: It’s been a dreams-do-come-true kind of year for fans of Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel. After an extended hiatus following the release and tour of his 1998 masterpiece In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Mangum emerged a few months ago to announced a new Neutral Milk Hotel website, full schedule of performances, and news of the first release in over a decade – a complete box-set of the band’s recordings on vinyl.

The Neutral Milk Hotel boxset will include 7 records (two 12”s, 2 10”s and 3 7”s)

The box set, along with pay-what-you-want MP3s of the previously unreleased songs, will be available in December. (Pre-order here.)

In Mangum’s absence, his music has gained legions of new fans over the years, transfixing listeners and leaving everyone wanting more. The new box set features the full-length albums on vinyl, as well as some lost recordings and alternate takes of classic tunes – it’s a collector’s item to be sure, but it’s also the “more” that all Neutral Milk Hotel fans have been waiting for.

To assemble this latest release – compiling recordings of varying quality from various sources – Mangum needed a mastering guru and facility accustomed to a wide variety of indie sounds and sources. His colleague/coordinator Ben Goldberg, of Ba Da Bing Records & Management, called Joe LaPorta at The Lodge Mastering – having mastered Tuneyards’ whokill with him earlier this year. But it was Mangum himself who worked through the material with LaPorta in extensive mastering sessions at The Lodge.

“He had a really clear vision of what he wanted, with regard to sonics – EQ and compression – down to how he specifically wanted to sequence and space the tracks”, says LaPorta. “If one song was a little sibilant, we’d work through it together. He was very methodical so his attendance was key.

“If he had any doubts, he would immediately let me know and I would try to give him an unbiased opinion.”

The classic Neutral Milk Hotel albums, On Avery Island and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, are decidedly lo-fi, recorded on 4 and 8-track machines back in the mid-90s, and beloved for their imperfections, their fuzz, and their blistering, in-your-face vocals and drum sounds. While these records are part of the vinyl box set, they were not re-mastered for this latest release.

Instead, LaPorta focused on all the previously unreleased material, including the tracks making up the two 10” EPs – Everything Is, which features alternate versions of the songs from the band’s original debut EP plus bonus tracks, and Ferris Wheel on Fire, featuring eight previously unreleased acoustic recordings. He also mastered/re-mastered the music for two 7″ records (Little Birds and You’ve Passed/Where You’ll Find Me Now), and a 7″ picture disc with fold-out poster (Holland 1945/Engine).

The unreleased material came into The Lodge on a variety of formats – digitized 4-tracks, cassettes, vinyl, even home video. LaPorta took it track-by-track, enhancing the quality and – moreover – the sonic experience of the material, considering that Neutral Milk Hotel sound.

Joe LaPorta

“This was a really interesting process as far as the engineering challenges were concerned,” says LaPorta. “The key in creating a final product that was cohesive and natural was making the most out of the incredibly varied source material, while still making each track sit well next to the other.

“For example, some of Jeff’s acoustic material was tracked extremely hot on his 4-track, so with all that gain and distortion, the track yielded a compressed lo-fi quality that he wanted to preserve. My inclination was to make the listener feel like they were right there with Jeff while he was recording the demo and just subtly EQ’ing it to bring out the presence and liveliness of the room and his vocals. So I kept a very light hand on compression.”

Other tracks, however, needed a complete facelift. “On some of the demos and live recordings, there was quite a bit of hiss and noise warranting some restoration work right off the bat,” says LaPorta.

“Every track posed a different challenge so it was great to have a few options to audition how well the plug-ins responded to the material in question and see which would treat it the best.  Jeff had a lot of input as far as how much ‘cleaning’ up he wanted me to do.  Things sometimes can get lost in that process – like the charm and the realness of the recording.  Ultimately, the restoration work had to be subtle enough not to distract the listener from the actual music.”

From there, LaPorta would process the audio through an analog chain that he modified for almost every track. “Before I would start working on any song, Jeff and I would just spend some time listening to it and figuring out what was necessary. I ran some of the tracks through The Lodge’s vintage Pultec EQP 1A’s which add a lot of tonality and greater depth,” he notes.

“The Pultecs are positively superior for midrange control and perhaps the most musical EQ because of their unique shelving circuitry. Other items in the arsenal included the Avalon 2077 and the TubeTech SMC 2B multi-band compressor that was sometimes patched in at the end of the chain to ‘seal the deal.’ But it’s never one set formula.”

There were a few even more extreme cases of track revival during these sessions as well. “On some of these songs I really had to pull out all the tricks,” he says. “I had to do some of the most drastic enhancements I’ve ever done.”

For example…LaPorta salvaged a song/performance Mangum had brought in on video. “Jeff played an intimate show in what looks like someone’s apartment and he wanted to include that particular performance on the album – but it hadn’t been properly recorded,” LaPorta describes.

“It was extremely thin: the recording was basically whatever was fed into the camcorder’s tiny little mic. Here, I really had to dig in and try to bring some life and warmth while working around the limitations of the recording. I was really happy with the end result on that – it’s the B-side of Little Bird.

“Another track was pulled from a limited 7” release that only existed on vinyl”, LaPorta explains. “We used this great VPI turntable and Dynavector cartridge and mastered directly into the analog chain.”

"Holland 1945" 7" Picture Disk

Speaking to LaPorta about mastering Neutral Milk Hotel, we expected the unreleased full band tracks would be way raucous and loud, as on Aeroplane, and that this would be the unique challenge in mastering all this material.

“Well, the band tracks on Everything Is are a bit tamer compared with Aeroplane,” LaPorta notes to our inquiry.

“I did master one song off of the Aeroplane album, “Holland 1945”, which is included on side A of Holland Picture Disc. But yeah – the Aeroplane album is pretty loud! (laughs) I was surprised at how loud it is, compared to today’s releases. Jeff told me how they used some heavy normalization in the mastering process at the time. Personally, I think it sounds great – it’s raw and aggressively in your face! A daring aesthetic that was not very popular with indie music bands at that time.”

Only a mastering engineer who can appreciate this bursting-at-the-seams sound could do justice to the work. Having mastered records for sonic renegades like Sleigh Bells and Matt & Kim, along with plenty of bands influenced by Neutral Milk Hotel’s brand of fuzz-pop, LaPorta was the right choice.

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  • Gore Lando

    Awesome, thanks for the scoop.