So... What Do You Do Exactly?

AHHH, THE AGE OLD QUESTION OF WHAT A PRODUCER ACTUALLY DOES. It's the kind of thing you can never explain to your mother for some reason.

 

      Lots of people will hear the term producer and think hip-hop artist, making beats with turntables and samplers. They're not wrong. That certainly is one kind of producer and it is a popular image, but that's not nessesarily what I do. I like to consider myself a sort of concierge of sound.

      If an artist comes to me and says, "I have this song, but by the third verse it sounds boring," I can help with that because I am a songwriter and arranger across several generas. If an artist comes to me and says, "I want to record these songs, but my duet needs to find a rhythm section that can back us up." I can find them a bass player and drummer who can learn the parts, and potentially write those parts myself depending on how involved the client needs me to be. I can do that because as an active musician myself, I know plenty of other great musicians around town that can be brought in on a project. And of course I can record, mix and master (either at my home studio or another studio in town depending on the artist's budget and goals) because at my core I am an audio engineer.

      Does that seem like a long answer to a simple question? 

      The thing is, the music biz is a wishy-washy sort of thing. Most independent artists are "freelancers" or "self employed." Some only consider themselves hobbyists. As such, they don't have a label directing them in the creation of their music and digital presence. They all have different budgets, time constraints and different visions of what they want from music and how they're going to get it. My job as a producer is to figure out their vision and use my experience to help them attain it.

      Here's an example:

       In 2015 I got the opportunity to work with my friend Ari Lerner- a phenomenal vocalist with a great jazzy tone. She was working with a new band that wanted to cover Style by Taylor Swift and they needed something quick and honest to shoot out to promoters so that they could book more gigs.

      I recommended we do a sort of hybridized live session to capture the energy of a live performance. Easy in theory, except her budget didn't allow for studio time in a commercial studio. My home studio at the time, was on the top floor of a repurposed piano factory in South Boston. It was great for an overdubbing workflow, but recording a six piece band was going to get a little cramped because acoustic isolation is really important when recording live with high fidelity mics. 

      What we ended up doing was running a snake across the roof into another unit in the building and putting the drums and bass in there. The relationship between the drummer and the bassist is always the foundation of the song, and the ability for them to see each other move and make eye contact is crutial. 8 mics on the kit: Kick In & Out, Snare Up & Down, Hat, X Y Pair Stereo Condensers Pencils for the Overheads and a nice vacuum valve driven condenser for the room. The bass was DI'd- easy.

      I threw the rest of the band in the control room with me. The keys player had a midi only keyboard, and lacking a super nice midi clock, USB was the only option- so proximity to the computer was key. We played around with some sounds and ended up synthesizing a nice vintage electric piano sound which I sent through a leslie simulator for sauce. The nice thing about electric keys and DI'd bass is that you never have to worry about isolation issues since they're going strait in to the system. 

      The guitarist was my friend Cecil (Cecil and Ari are now married! Congrats guys!). We had him going through a Vox AC15 with a Senheizer 906e - a great little mic for loud sources that never picks up anything but the source when the source is loud. I always have some acoustic paneling around, so I shielded the amp at about 2 feet from the face of the cab. This would allow for the right frequencies to develop, while also cutting down on higher frequencies finding their way into the vocal mic.

      Ari's set up was simple. We had her in the center of the control room with Cecil and the keyboardist, singing into a SM58 or something similar for scratch vocal tracks. We wanted to capture the energy of live, but also have to ability to play perfectionist later. 

      Finally the sax player was placed on the other side of the room behind some gobos. I was a bit concerned that some guitar would find its way into the condenser I was using on him, but in the end I decided that the live feel was more important and the Sax notes could be gated around in the post production phase if the room noise was too much.

      They were all heavy hitting, pro musicians and banged it out in 3 takes. We overdubbed a few extra sax solos for options and finally overdubbed the final vocals using a nice full sounding Rode K2, vacuum valve condenser. The whole thing took about 2 hours from start to finish. 

      All that's to say that each project is unique, from the musicians to the facility to the equipment and the sound. Getting the best sound possible with those factors is what I do. It requires a keen ear for detail as well as an experienced understanding of how all the moving pieces will work together. Hopefully this gives the reader some perspective on my thought process and, to some extent, my work flow.

     I'll put the music video below if you'd like to check out the finished product, but keep in mind that the actual video was taped to the recording so it will not show the musicians actually tracking in my studio.

                                        https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=dVLbk4HEAR4

Till next time,  

 

RR

 

 

The Move Towards More Synthesis

THE WINTER OF 2014-15 WAS BOSTON'S HARSHEST ON RECORD. Deep snows and PSA's urging citizens to "not expose skin for more than 30 seconds," made everyone a bit of a hermit for a while.

      I spent the month of December barely leaving the studio. My clientele - at the time mostly Berklee students and friends - didn't want to venture out into the cold any more than I did, so I found myself strangely isolated in the midst of the most densely populated metropolis in the state. Fortunately I had a ton of mixing to do for the now released album, The New Review, among other projects. But I spent most of my spare time drastically changing the way I interact with music. 

      Up until then, my full concentration had been on recording analogue instruments to faithfully capture the sounds I could hear. A four piece horn section is recorded with separate cardioid mics in relative isolation with an omni room mic to glue it all together. Pan it, add some compression and a touch of reverb and you've got your sound. 

      That's all well and good for more traditional types of music, especially 60's-ish velvety soul/funk stuff that I was used to working on, but I found myself wanting more, sonically, for clients with smaller arrangements and for my own music.

      I'm not sure how exactly it happened, but one day I found the answer in the form of a square wave from a Nord Lead A1. I was almost alarmed by how pure it sounded which, looking back on it, can probably be attributed to the fact that I was used to acoustic sources that have some room tone. A dry synth tone is so totally isolated that, if you're not used to it, it sounds like it's coming from inside your own head! Mathematical and sterile, but with tons of musical potential. That was it, I was hooked.

      I spent several weeks researching synthesis- something that I previously only had a vague notion of. Analogue vs digital, the unique internal systems of circuitry signal flow... what the heck an LFO was. I purchased a Moog Sub 37 paraphonic analogue synth and went to work figuring it out. I quickly discovered that any noise that can be produced by an acoustic or electric instrument can be created through synthesis- but unlike my then dogmaticly traditional approach to recording, I felt the need to create new sounds that had never been heard before. 

My Sub 37 currently sits atop a 100 year old school desk near my mixing desk. It is often elemental to my writing/arranging process.

       Ever wonder why people think hip-hop when they hear the term "producer" these days? It's because hip-hop is a genera created by producers, for producers in a studio setting in which they have 100% control of the sound. This method of creation was only possible with the advent of overdubbing and is first seen in disco. Producers would arrange a song and then record it piece by piece: Rhythm section, horns, a string section and finally bring in the vocalist, making sure everything was perfect along the way. Then it would be mixed and mastered, often in the same studio it was written in.

      Once electronic instruments were popularized in the 80's, the process of layering well isolated sounds became easier and much more affordable. A producer could have a perfectly isolated 808 kick and snare and bring in, say, a Juno-106 without worrying about the acoustic qualities of the space. They could lay down the foundation of a track at Carnagy Hall or in a wigwam in a wormhole and it wouldn't matter- the sound would be the same.  

      I discovered these qualities after I fell in love with the sound, but I guess the move towards more synthesis was purpose driven to the extent that I love the idea of being able to craft sounds that fit texturally and tonally exactly where they need to sit within the mix. That level of control lets you have the scientific precision that every engineer craves. And as an independent producer who often records and mixes from a home studio, the control over sonic isolation is very valuable.

      Another big change during that period was making the switch from Pro Tools and Logic (more traditional Digital Audio Workstations) to Ableton Live. This introduced an entirely new process for writing and arranging. Recording is a constant battle to capture creativity in the midst of stress, time constraints and technology that always finds a way to go awry. True art is perfect, even when it has mistakes in it because the momentum of inspiration is there. Think about anytime Charley Parker hit a wrong note- he never has because he keeps the momentum going and incorporates the surprises into the music. Jackson Pollock, throwing paint at the canvas- there's a level of control that the artist must give up in order to channel inspiration. Sound is molten until it hits the tape head, but interupt that flow of that inspiration and you'll end up with a track that has a kink in it. Nothing can distract an artist more than telling them to wait in between takes. I cringe when I have to hit the talk back button and say, "one moment, let me find that."

      Ableton is usually known as a platform DJ's use on stage as well as a DAW that people produce their own music in. As such, it is rare, as far as I know, to see it in a studio being used with more traditional, disco era production methods. But I love it because it is a recording platform that I can "play" like an instrument. It's unique "Session" layout is a grid mode that allows me the same kind of immediacy in arranging, writing and recording that the artist needs from their engineer, and because we're both able to be creative in real time, it's easy to find that momentum of inspiration and channel it together. It's also an excellent platform for digital synthesis with it's integrated system, Operator and others.

      That winter I dove deep down the "synth hole" [colloquially dubbed by my friends], and emerged a producer with a brand new lease on the creative process. Fast forward to today, when synthesis plays a critical role in how I develop new tones and textures, experiment with rhythms, and arrange parts. I'm always researching and learning more because the depth of possibilities is really bottomless. It's funny how something that is so often undervalued to most commercial studios can be the perfect tool for endless creativity. If you're a musician or an engineer itching to try something new, I'll warn you to proceed with caution because it can pull you in.