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Joel Hamilton Records Puss n Boots with ATC

Puss n Boots is a three-piece, all-female, alt-country band led by singer-songwriter Norah Jones and backed by accomplished vocalists Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper. All three women learned new instruments for five years before recording their debut album with engineer/musician/producer Joel Hamilton (Tom Waits, Black Keys, Sparklehorse, Elvis Costello) at Studio G Brooklyn. Titled No Fools, No Fun, the album was recently released on Blue Note Records. As co-owner of Studio G Brooklyn with Tony Maimone, Hamilton installed ATC SCM25A three-way reference monitors and ATC SCM0.1-15 subwoofers in Studio A, a change that happily coincided with his first Grammy nomination (Pretty Lights, A Color Map of the Sun), a Latin Grammy nomination (Bomba Estereo, Elegancia Tropical), and a Latin Grammy win (Gaby Moreno, Postales). The ATCs were purchased from Audio Power Tools in New York.

“The ATCs have changed the way I work and improved the quality of my work,” said Hamilton. “I’m lucky to have a nicely tuned control room with an SSL and plenty of vintage outboard gear, and with the ATCs, I’m suddenly able to make decisions that are smaller – and yet more critical – than I have ever been able to make before. I have the ability to resolve a finer shade of the colors I’m hurling at the end-listener, and it’s been a revelation. It’s not a small thing, and that’s why I’m reaching for dramatic words like that. It’s tectonic. The entire continent has shifted.”

The glorious harmonies delivered by Jones, Dobson and Popper are a huge part of Puss n Boots’ magic. They form the emotional foreground. “The balance of those harmonies is crucial,” said Hamilton. “You’ve got these three gorgeous women with gorgeous voices, and they’re all coming at you like gangbusters because they can all project. We recorded everything live to analog tape, including the vocals. That gives a particular nuance to how the instruments sit against the vocals. You can feel the beat push and pull so beautifully. I needed to make sure that all of that nuance would come shining through for the listener. Striking the right midrange balance of those harmonies is critical, and I had to make sure all of that beauty would be immediately apparent to, say, my mom!”

While Norah Jones’ existing albums might safely be described as “polished” and most classic country albums might safely be described as “rough,” Hamilton had to walk the line between those extremes. “The balance is deliberately raw, which is perhaps unexpected by traditional Norah Jones standards, but it also has to be informed,” he said. “We were shooting for a tiny bulls eye, but we also had to make sure that everything felt unfettered and natural; just on the edge of scratchy so that it felt rough but didn’t actually hurt people. With the ATCs, I could find that line and make adjustments with confidence. I could tell where I was overcooking it on purpose. I could dial in just the right amount of ‘road house.’”

With the introduction of the ATCs, gone too is the need to translate for the client how a mix will sound outside of the studio. “After spending a lot of time in front of other monitors, I could tell when certain things would sound bad in the studio but fine outside of the studio,” Hamilton said. “The challenge beyond that, however, was convincing the client that those bad things would be fine later on, which is just one more thing to heap onto the already-skittish nature of an attended mix session. And so clients would ask, ‘why don’t you just get monitors that sound like it will sound like?’ It seems so simple, but of course it’s not.”

Hamilton used to switch between a number of monitors and loudspeakers all day long, but now he just hangs out on the ATCs. Depending on the task at hand, he can turn the ATC subwoofer on or not. “With the sub on and the volume cracked, the ATCs rock and serve as ‘mains,’” he said. “When I’m listening closely and resolving small moves, the ATCs are my nearfields. Either way, I now have complete confidence in what I’m hearing and doing. When a mix sounds good on the ATCs, I know it will sound good everywhere else. With Puss n Boots, we were able to make solid decisions that stuck. We totally avoided the hell of endless revisions!”