Bully's Alicia Bognanno on Tape Machines, Room Mics, and Returning to Electrical Audio

Bully released their second LP, Losing, in October, and like their 2015 effort, Feels Like, the record comes stocked with raucous hooks and fuzzy, guitar-forward mixes.

Like the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. before them, Bully finds power in dynamic shifts. On songs like "Running," songwriter Alicia Bognanno follows a classic grunge template, sliding from a gentle sing-song to a ragged shout, ramping up the rhythm section to match the heightened intensity of different sections.

Bully - Losing

The arrangements are simple, which serve the songs well. Both albums were tracked live to tape at Electrical Audio in Chicago, a studio where Bognanno once worked as an intern. While the band is now based in Nashville (35 miles from Middle Tennessee State University, where Bognanno earned a degree in audio engineering), Bully has a familiar musical homebase at the house of Albini.

When I recently had the chance to chat with Bognanno about the record, I was mostly interested in discussing how her studio background informs Bully's music. Bognanno is a songwriter who cares about the recording process, and as you'll see below, the feedback loop between notebooks and signal chains makes her something of an auteur of the indie rock format.

Read our conversation for insights on the analog process, mic placements, and pedals, and check out Bully's website for upcoming tour dates and more.

You recorded both of the LPs at Electrical Audio in Chicago. Can you speak at all to how your recording process has changed from the first record to the other? What's your studio process like?

In studio B, there’s a large room with really high ceilings that we use for drums. Then there is another room with a sliding glass door, and we set up all three of our amps there, with bass guitar and guitars facing the drums. There's a talkback mic, and I’ll do a scratch vocal, and we just go for it and try to get everything live. If [guitarist Clayton Parker] and I mess up, we’ll end up getting at least drums and bass. Then we’ll go and overdub our parts.

Once we get basics done, we move on to seeing if there’s anything else we should add, like any little guitar licks, or if we’re happy with our tone, or if there needs to be a shaker somewhere or something. And after we’re done adding any sort of ear candy (though we usually don’t end up doing much), I’ll track vocals.

This time around was a little bit different because my voice totally gave out on me. So I flipped over from tracking vocals to mixing a little bit and then took a break and then came back and finished vocals. And then mixed more.

Bognanno tracking vocals for Bully's "I Remember"

I know Electrical is a very tape-first operation. Can you speak at all to why you enjoy recording to tape over Pro Tools?

I like the process a lot better. To start, it made more sense to me when I was in college trying to figure out [tape] than Pro Tools, since it was a more physical process. I felt like I could actually see what the computer was replicating.

It clicked with me a little bit better, but I also like that it limits us. We don't have an endless budget for reels, so we have to commit to something. It definitely forces us to commit, which, since I’m very indecisive, is really beneficial, especially when you're tracking your own record.

It’s cool to try and have to get everything in 24 tracks, or you could even do 16. We do 24. I like just having it there or doing a mix, and then you just have to move on from it, instead of having the ability to endlessly tweak it. I don’t think I would ever be satisfied.

In-studio photos from Bully's Facebook

From your days interning at Electrical to having recorded multiple records at this point, what are some of the cool studio toys and mics and things that you’ve enjoyed getting your hands on?

I really like the Coles 4038. And the Beyerdynamic M380s I use for a lot of stuff. For kick, I used that and a smaller condenser on the other side of the head and then Beyerdynamic M380 maybe like a half a foot into the port. Then for bass, I’ll also use that in addition to another mic and just blend the top and bottom bass. Those are definitely my two favorites.

We did use a leveler for some vocal effects, which are cool. That was actually Greg's—he’s a staff engineer there and that was his personal piece of gear. I enjoyed using that. We could use it whenever we wanted to blow out vocals a little bit, get some grit and overdrive on them. So for weird back-up stuff we would use it, and it works out really well.

What about the guitar tracks?

I remember specifically not using the Altecs for guitars and going in and changing it because it was too bright for me. For my amp, I used a Coles 4038 and then maybe also a [Sennheiser MD]421 and blending them.

When you go to the studio and you’re doing guitar parts, are you experimenting with amp tones or pedals or anything?

Every song. We actually had all our pedals written song-for-song because they switched for every one. We used a lot of Earthquaker stuff, like the Ghost Echo and the Acapulco Gold. I also have a Greer Amps overdrive that I really like.

What guitars are you touring with and recording with?

It’s actually weird because I do a lot of songs in drop D and drop C, so I have two guitars. One is the first electric guitar that I’ve ever had. It was a gift. It's a Frankenstein guitar. It's a Squier ‘51 body with a Fender neck. It was made by a company called Bluesman out of Nashville. It looks like a Fender neck and it looks like a Fender, but it’s actually this Bluesman that put it all together.

I had another guitar set up specifically for drop C, and I would start playing it, but I wasn't happy with the tone. So I just stuck with that one guitar the whole record. And Clay pretty much stuck with his black Jazzmasters.

Do you have any go-to tips or tricks for home recording engineers out there?

I’m a big room mic person. I love room mics. Especially for drums. And you can hear that on the records.

It’s really nice when a scream or something kicks in, you can just pull up that fader for that. It sounds awesome. Or if you have a song that's really short and kind of fast… you can usually pull up the room mics on the drums and that'll sound awesome. You can delay them 18 to 33 milliseconds, depending on what you want.

I know you went to recording school and then got the internship at Electrical—do you have any wisdom for younger readers who are interested in getting into the studio world at all?

I would definitely say that if you’re frustrated with Pro Tools, there are other ways to record… and aside from the more technical stuff, there’s not really a wrong way to do it. So just find the way that makes the most sense to you and the way that’s the most enjoyable, and I think you’re just going to get way more out of it that way.

Lead photo by Alysse Gafkjen

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