MIDTOWN, MANHATTAN: There is something afoot on West 37thStreet. Taking a stroll down this intensely bustling block, those in the know may see a sudden influx of familiar faces – a producer, an engineer, a platinum-selling artist – all caught in a tractor beam leading to the same address.
Follow one of these sonically-centered citizens into the elevator at 36 West 37th and ascend upward — when you step out, you should recognize this mecca. You’re in one of New York City’s most essential recording studios, with a classic 1970’s live room that’s been the birthplace of hundreds of huge hits over the years, if not thousands.
But what domain have you entered? It’s hard to know, because it’s had multiple owners, multiple name changes, and wars have been waged for the right to run it. It’s been called Skyline Studios…Alien Flyers…Chung King…Skyline Recording Studios…
Suddenly, a force you can feel enters the room. You are face-to-face with New York City’s most tenacious studio owner – a musical maven as every bit as committed as he is controversial. And then it hits you: Chung King Studios has returned.
A Room of His Own
The 6000 square feet and two studios of the third facility to bear the Chung King name may seem sizable to some. But for John King, the storied midtown space he now occupies is a perfectly cozy house of sound. Especially in comparison to the two-floor, 20,000 sq. ft. behemoth that he had managed at 170 Varick Street, starting in the mid-1990’s until a fast-furious flameout in January, 2010.
“The reason I came back is: I love studios, I love equipment, and I love my friends who I’m working with,” says King, speaking rapid-fire yet somehow more relaxed. “Towards the end of my run at 170 Varick, I had a $1.2 million nut that I had to cover, and I realized everything was changing: It required too many people, we had to take two inventories a day – there was too much required to keep everything going.
“So I had a lovely vacation. I had a lovely time. And then the call of the wild sounded – I had to come back. Only this time, I wanted something more manageable.”
His chance came in April this year, just after Jonathan Mover, who had been owner/operator of Skyline Recording Studios for several years, vacated the space. For King, the opportunity to move in was irresistible: at one point in the 1990’s he had been a partner in the rooms, knew them very well, and held them in extremely high regard.
The respect comes with good reason. While being helmed by Paul Wickliffe, President and Chief Engineer of Skyline Studios from 1979-1994, the list of platinum-selling artists, producers, and engineers who frequented the facility mushroomed into an awesome A-list. A tiny sampling includes Babyface, David Bowie, James Brown, Mariah Carey, The Cult, Miles Davis, Duran Duran, Mick Jagger, Meatloaf, REM, Talking Heads, and Frank Zappa, along with Jellybean Benitez, Frank Filipetti, Scott Litt, Hugh Padgham, Phil Ramone, Nile Rodgers, Ron St. Germain, Don Was, and Hal Wilner. In later years, it continued to be a hotbed of rock and jazz recording. Get the point? Plenty of platinum has been produced here.
“The original designer of this room really knew how to build the perfect studio,” King says of Chung King’s 1500 sq. ft. centerpiece, which he has dubbed “The Empire Suite”. “After making my classic CK mods, it’s ideal in here, because of the diversity of reflections and absorptions that are happening. This live room is so versatile, and it’s wonderful if you know how to use it. We’ve got a custom Yamaha C7, and I’ve never heard a grand piano sound so fabulous as it does in here.”
Inside the Empire Suite’s spacious control room, King has installed the Musgrave-modified Neve VR72 that formerly occupied his famed Red Room on Varick. Augsperger mains, Pro Tools 10 HDX with all the new trimmings such as UAD and Softube plugins, a comprehensive collection of outboard gear, and a vast collection of classic tube mics from the past and present complement. A palette of available tape machines is also on hand, for those purists who crave the sound.
“That console has made more hits than any other board I’ve ever had,” says King of the Neve VR72. “And analog is still analog – steak is still steak. I was doing a mix with this board the other day and I kept pushing the faders up. The meters were pinned to the right, and I got a Pultec-like sparkle. I couldn’t overload the console! It sounds fabulous. That’s where a Neve is the bomb.
“And the Empire control room is just the most accurate room I’ve ever worked in: What you hear is the exact presentation of what the music sounds like.”
One recent return customer to the room is GRAMMY-winning producer/mixer Patrick Dillett (David Byrne, Mary J. Blige, They Might Be Giants, Glen Hansard, Arto Lindsay). “I think it’s the biggest-sounding small room in the world,” Dillett says. “It’s a really nice, warm-sounding drum room, but also very good for vocals because it’s not overpowering. The ceilings are high, and the walls are treated with a nice-sounding cedar. So what you get is a reflective – but not overly-reflective – space.
“John King is a real studio guy,” Dillett adds. “He understands what makes the recording process enjoyable, and how to make sure that it stays enjoyable. I think he’ll be a good steward for what should be one of the better studios in NYC.”
Meanwhile, Chung King’s “B” room is The Genius Suite, a 120 square-foot production suite optimized for writing and mixing. Here, a Digidesign C24 control surface connects with Pro Tools 10 HDX and a Shadow Hills Equinox, a crafty two-rackspace unit which features two GAMA mic preamps, 30 channels of analog summing, and a mastering-grade monitor controller.
“I love a room this size – I like to be in a place like this, shut the door, and just work,” says King, who was instrumental in shaping the sounds of rap and hip hop royalty including Run DMC, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and many more. “I especially love the Shadow Hills Equinox passive mixer that we have in here. It’s really cool – you have two mic pres with different ‘metal’ you can run them through, either your classic Neve, and then your API. And then you have your pads, your phantom power: It’s a classic console in a box with a great monitor section. For the personal studio, that’s generally all you need.”
In both the Empire and Genius Suite, as well in the hallways, the distinctive look and feel that defined Chung King’s Varick Street complex is revealing itself in the new space. Whether its the wood wings surrounding a control surface, the angles of a producer’s desk, or the hues of a wall or hallway, all you see directly reflects King’s trademark visual aesthetic.
“Appearance should never overtake your focus on the music – you should be able to lighten up and darken down your room if you want,” he notes. “But I’m a fabric freak. I have connections with very fine fabric wholesalers, and I like to pick fabrics that go together. Color has feeling, which is why in the Varick location we had the Green Room, the Red Room, and the Blue Room. And the Gold Room was very popular…because it was GOLD.”
Free of entangling partnerships and hostile landlords, John King has entered a rather simplified space. For the moment, maintaining and refining great spaces to make great music is Job One, as he tends to details on the Empire and Genius Suites and surrounding common areas. He’s also looking ahead to the remaining raw spaces that he hasn’t played with yet.
And from the looks of things, he’ll need to move quickly. Tracking and mixing clients eager to revisit the legendary live room are emerging, as word of the resurrected Chung King spreads. It’s a buzz of activity that already has King and his chief engineer Ron Allaire, along with engineer Jamie Zabrek, on the move.
But King is also going steadily forward with his long-gestating plans to establish a multimedia production company, Chung King Live. King had begun to build that venture in a large ex-warehouse in Jersey City, but soon grew frustrated trying to do business in the state where he lives. “It’s a police state,” King opines of New Jersey. “It took me forever to get building permits. Finally I just put the NJ location on hold, although I still have the property.”
While he may have less space to work with in Manhattan, King has big plans for Chung King Live. A multifaceted entity, it will allow him to produce original video content, as well as provide artists with a cost-effective path to create their own videos. Simultaneously, he promises that the upcoming Chung King Records will be anything but your typical record company.
According to King, it’s time for him to go back to his first love of writing songs. “I’ll be producing and touching up unfinished songs for clarity in an ever-increasing sea of medium,” he says frankly. “Producers of the original variety are sorely lacking in the music chain.
“Chung King Records will be a simple, very common-sense path to finding music that you like,” continues King. “I want to distill it so that the artists that are really good and inspiring are all in one place. And let’s worry about one song at a time, like George Martin did with the Beatles. Instead of making a whole album full of crap, can we get a little flavor back?”
Rounding out the updated business model is an audio education program, whereby Chung King is already hosting small groups of advanced students. “I get the kids who know what they’re doing,” King says. “I take them back to songs like ‘Play That Funky Music White Boy’, where we were just using simple stuff.”
A Sonic Rennaisance
Both the studio at 36 West 37th Street and its newest owner have histories as chaotic as they are beautifully musical. Kindred souls are reconnecting. That could prove to be a very positive development.
“I want to take advantage of every square inch of this space,” John King says. “The expectations are high, but I’m going to work with the well-funded, and the beggars and borrowers, at the same time. I’m not particular about that. The ones who notice that the rooms sound good will come here.
“I jump out of bed every day now. Things are just getting bigger and better. Do I worry? Of course! But it’s like they say, ‘Do you want to worry or work?’ I may as well work.”
– David Weiss
Skyline Recording Studios, the world-class NYC facility that operated for many years at 36 West 37th Street, has closed.
The studio, which was owned and operated by drummer Jonathan Mover, was renowned for its spacious live room, Musgrave-modified Neve VR60, and its superstar rock, jazz, and pop clientele.
Over the years, its client list has included many of music’s top names including Steely Dan, Billy Joel, Patti Smith, Avril Lavigne, Shakira, Gov’t Mule, David Byrne, Jessica Simpson, Natasha Bedingfield, Mariah Carey, Wu-Tang Clan, Madonna, David Bowie, The B-52’s, Tori Amos, Tony Bennett, Michael Brecker, James Brown, and many more.
In May, 2010, the Southern Federal District Court of New York ruled against Skyline in a suit brought by software developer Waves, which charged Reckless Music, LLC d.b.a. Skyline Recording Studios NYC with intellectual property infringements and the illegal use of its software. The suit followed a covert sting operation undertaken by Waves to root out studios using crack versions of its software.
The studio will apparently continue on as a music production hub, however. A visit by SonicScoop to the facility today revealed that John King — who abruptly ceased operations at the famed Chung King studios at 170 Varick Street in January, 2010 – was moving gear into the former Skyline.
According to King, Skyline’s previous owners had been out of the space for approximately two weeks. King estimated that the studio would once again be operational in one and a half weeks, and would be the new home of Chung King.
King added that the Chung King music facilities on 37th Street would be just one part of a multimedia company, which will also offer video production and other capabilities in a large Jersey City, NJ complex.
Phone calls and emails to Mr. Mover requesting comment for this article were not returned.
SOHO, MANHATTAN: The studios of NYC are not sitting still. As evidence consider the latest sonic escalation, launched from right below Broome Street and Broadway. There, Downtown Music Studios has upped the Big Apple ante with the installation of a vintage Neve 8014 console into the control room of Studio A.
Extra musically satisfying and aesthetically amazing, this 16-channel board represents more than just a fancy bunch of faders from the year 1970. Its addition provides a focused window on NYC studio economics in 2011, shedding light on the artistic and technical demands of the sector’s current clientele, as well as the informed interplay between facilities striving to be competitive instead of repetitive.
The console has been busy since it arrived earlier this year. Early projects on it include Santigold, David Guetta, Mike Posner, Benny Blanco, and Jason Goldstein mixing SNL-borne rock stars The Lonely Island. Downtown Studios Chief Engineer Zach Hancock explained to SonicScoop exactly why this bold new board has rolled into town.
How long has Downtown Studios been going now?
The studio is approaching our third year. It’s evolved from a production space that we rented at Chung King to the full-fledged, two-room commercial recording facility that it is now.
We initially started this facility with two control surfaces, moving from two Digidesign D-Commands to just one of those, in Studio B. That’s because of the importation of an 8014 Neve into Studio A.
What led Downtown initially to the D-Command for both rooms?
For the longest time we were large format console people, and we fought passionately to prove not only to ourselves, but to the world that mixing in the box was a viable option. The move from SSL desks to mixing with a Pro Control and an HD5 was a revolutionary phase for us in the early 2000′s. Working with Tony Maserati and Vaughn Merrick, they proved that it could really be done. Implementing mixing-in-the-box with a control surface in both rooms was in part an outgrowth of my relationship with Vaughn, and his astute idea that it was the best way to work.
Part of what makes Downtown Music Studios special is that as a record label, and a publishing company. We’re generating content ourselves. We provide a commercial workspace for clients half the time, and the other half we are the client. I wanted artists and the publishing company to be able to use the space as creatively as they could.
Downtown is a brand dedicated to forward-thinking artists, and that comes out intensely in the music. Part of that is having the studio time that they need, therefore a device at the center of the workspace that isn’t proprietary. If we had a large format console that was doing the mixing, I felt that they’d have a hard time translating that at their personal spaces, or in another commercial studio.
I saw other people’s workflows following suit — mixing in the box. So that’s why we equipped studio A to what we previously had. I still believe in it, and it was an amazing opportunity to work that way for two years.
What paved the way for switching to the Neve 8014?
Something happened when Avid acknowledged to the rest of the music community that native processing was just as robust as a small TDM system. When PT9 came out, I realized all at once that so much of our workflow – editing, doing overdubs, mixing – was going to happen in personalized spaces. It was an outgrowth of the music community, an outgrowth of the robust environment the computer now provides.
I saw the opportunity to focus Studio A as a tool to record bands, and handle all the elements of a project’s tracking. I thought that if you’re going to end up doing 30 to 40% of your workflow at home editing, maybe some mixing, etc… that it would free up your budget to work at an “A” level studio to do your recording. So we picked the console that was best for that.
This Neve 8014, working in coordination with PT9 and a EuCon control surface, is the perfect implementation of the modern workflow we’re talking about. It is truly the best of both worlds, a hybrid analog digital environment. It sounds astonishing, everything works in a very elegant workflow, and people are reacting to it very strongly.
What were the criteria going in to the new console search, before you settled on this particular board?
The selection process was laborious, we looked at every option out there: SSLs, APIs, Neves of different variety. Ultimately, the most important things for us were that 1) it was not counterproductive to the way we had worked previously, and 2) that it had had the best sounding mic-pres, the best sounding EQs, and it could really bring something to the table that wasn’t there in the market before.
I’m close to people who, on paper, could be considered to be our competition. It didn’t make a lot of sense for us to be doing what they were doing. I’m really happy to see that the community of studios run by people in NYC are really good people. That wasn’t always the case.
Let’s drill down to this Neve 8014 that’s sitting in front of us. Why did it finally make the cut?
The main reason is that this console is in pristine condition, and it has the best of what we want for tracking, mixing, summing or any other in-the-box permutation of analog and digital equipment.
One of the things that we’re very mindful of is the acoustical installation in this room. It sounds like one of the best rooms I’ve ever worked in, and I’m not the only person who feels that way: Tony Maserati, Jason Goldstein, Vaughn Merrick, Ari Raskin, are serious engineers. We work out of this room for different reasons, but one is that it’s acoustically flat – Pilchner-Schoustal knocked it out of the park.
I didn’t want to get a console that would require us reworking the acoustical or mechanical infrastructure. I didn’t want to have to put in another AC unit or bulkhead, or rip apart the room to get it in, because to me the most important part of the room is the acoustics, and the ergonomics. The equipment is always within reach, and the fact that there’s not a credenza behind you is meaningful. That’s why if we had put in a 72-input console, that would have been counterproductive.
Where did you locate this particular board?
I always said I wanted an 80-series Neve. The difficulty in acquiring an 8068 is that it would have been too big a car to fit in our garage. The 8014 is really the perfect-size console, given the modern integration of the computer, and the way Studio A is layed out. We found this board in Ireland – I sent Joe Russo, who’s an amazing young tech, to Ireland to inspect it, and he spent four or five days there. We did a very thorough inspection, and decided it really was the console. Rock-It Cargo handled the logistics of getting the desk here quickly and safely.
We split a lot of hairs when it came to planning the actual switch from the D Command to the 8014. When the time arrived, we executed the plan and there weren’t a lot of surprises — it went very smoothly. The people at Neve and Geoff Tanner were kind enough to send us some documentation, and Alto Music NYC provided us with a lot of outboard gear and a new Pro Tools rig. Everybody did a really exceptional job.
You’ve been working on this board since January – how has it matched up with your vision of an ideal tracking tool?
I think that there’s an “X-factor” to the sonic architecture of the mic pres and the EQ that make you feel as though you’re listening to a record. Working in the box is transparent, and sometimes indicative of something a little bit lifeless, but this console sounds a little less like real life in a super-natural way. Ergonomically, it’s the best way to work in a tracking situation. All of your mic pres and EQs are there. It’s not arduous. It’s logistically easy to accomplish tracking.
The other thing is that the Class A mic pre really is a cut above. I think these mic pres are the best for pop and rock music. It’s a very clear, robust sound, and it has a harmonic detail in certain frequencies that are very musical. It’s difficult to explain how they sound better, but they’re famous for a reason. Having them inline, directly in front of you and your PT rig is great. You can get what you need really fast.
The artists we’ve been working with on this console have been excited about the sounds that we’ve gotten. That gives you confidence in your ability, and that’s what it comes down to: making sure the artist can create. This console has definitely augmented our ability to do that. That’s a really rewarding feeling after working so hard to acquire it.
How are you’re using the 8014 in the mix phase?
The first thing I should note is that it’s not an inline console – it’s a split console. It’s got an interesting set up for monitor returns. We’ve integrated the monitor returns at mixdown to become inputs to the console, but with a flick of a switch they can function, as they would have when they left the Neve factory in 1970. Some engineers prefer this for tracking.
So we have, essentially, 32 inputs to the desk; 16 of those inputs have faders and 1084 mic pres and EQs etc…, and the other 16 inputs allow the room to use some of the other pieces of the installed outboard– the Chandler TG1, the Distressors, 1176, Pultec style EQs, GML EQ, tube limiters. Everything can fold down to the stereo bus.
It’s all new outboard equipment in Studio A that we thought would be the perfect complement to the console, and we made a point not just put in vintage equipment. There’s some incredible new gear, and we’ve adopted a lot of that stuff in the workflow. I think of outboard processing as an opportunity to add different spices to your mix. So we bought valve EQs that would complement the Neve – they have some color that the transistors in the console don’t have, and the dynamics that we have are different than the compressors in the desk. We wanted to have mono tube limiters and compressors that you would use in a tracking environment, and the stereo bus compressors that you would use in a tracking environment or on groups in a mix.
The automation comes from the Euphonix Artist Series Controller with EuCon, integrated into Pro Tools 9, which together works like the D Command. So we were able to get the same level of integration into this amazing analog console as we had before.
Can you explain exactly how that EuCon-to-Neve connection works?
We’ll come out of Pro Tools, and dedicate an analog output to a group of audio i.e. a “stem”, or one analog output per instrument. So that comes from Pro Tools into the desk, and then the desk functions as an analog mixer.
It goes a step beyond a summing mixer, in that you can do inserts on the console that allow you to step away from hardware inserts in Pro Tools. That requires a level of digital-to-analog conversion, then analog-to-digital, so you covert twice while you go out of the box then back in. The beauty of the Neve is that you can use the inserts on the channel fader and avoid all that conversion.
For automation, we modulate parameters in Pro Tools, volume data etc… with the Euphonix control surface. Any volume changes happen before they arrive at the console. It’s an important step in making recalls easier, more convenient for all parties involved. Most people are doing automation in the box so if you open the session the next day, the automation is there. There’s no lengthy recall, and that can save your client money. You can also bring it home, etc…
You said before that you were paying attention to where Downtown fits into the overall scene, in NYC and I guess that goes for nationally as well. Why is that so important?
One of the difficult things about owning or running a studio is that there are so many choices at hand for people. At the same time one of the incredible things about making music is you have so many choices.
For me, the challenge was to live on the side of the debate where you’re making music and loving the choices. I think it’s silly to be doing the same thing that five or six other people are doing. So it was a no-brainer for us to do something a little bit unique. But it’s not just the console – the truth is I feel that we have the best Pro Tools rigs – an HD5 system, an HD Native system and an Avid Symphony system. We take each one seriously, whether its Logic or PT. We can accommodate at a high level of integration. We have almost every plug-in you could want, and a UAD 2 card, which I’ve been raving about.
The bottom line is that the computer has always been the most important thing for us. One of the ways to find a lane is to take our expertise as computer and process people, and combine it with the best hybrid approach which we’ve been developing over the last 10 years. It’s not completely unique, but it’s not run-of-the-mill by any stretch of the imagination. It’s something that people are really excited about – the response that we’ve gotten so far is amazing.
In the last several months we’ve covered some significant console switches in NYC – the ICON was switched out for an SSL G+ at Stadium Red, and prior to that Tainted Blue traded their SSL J9000 for a Euphonix System 5. Why this increased activity?
I think that studios have always changed consoles. I read Stadium Red integrated Just Blaze into their workflow. Not only is that an amazing facility, but he’s one of the greatest producers of all time. Just Blaze has had an indelible mark on hip hop and R&B. His work is amazing. The guys at Tainted Blue I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting, but time to time you hear glowing reports of what they’re doing. I can’t tell you why they switched, but I know the System 5 is the pinnacle of post production consoles. Some people use it for music, and for post it probably is one of the best tools.
I do think that technology is at a place where for the last four or five years there was an identity crisis of how people wanted to work. The expediency of working in the box became really important, because recording budgets have scaled back. The need to make changes at the last minute possible has made a definite impact on our workflow.
Computers have gotten so good that a large-format console isn’t a need, it’s a want, whereas before you had to have one. Whether or not a studio needs an analog console is something you need to look at on a case-to-case basis. But for us, this change is exciting. It makes a lot of sense.
– David Weiss
When I started my career working at a big NYC recording studio, I – like all of the other interns and assistants – just wanted to look at, play and experiment with all of the high-end and unattainable classic gear decking out each room. Although most of us had very little experience with the piles of gear we were exposed to, we all had strong opinions about each piece based on hearsay and watching experienced engineers work with the stuff. The debates never ended and conclusions were rarely reached.
One piece of gear that had a presence in most of the rooms at the studio where I got my start (Chung King) was the Valley People Dyna-mite.
It didn’t hold a place of honor in the producer’s desk, and it always seemed to be racked in the back of the room next to the timelynx and clock generators. Because of its dubious placement in the control room, we tended to treat it as a 2nd or 3rd class piece of equipment, often overlooking it altogether.
Most engineers tended to ignore it, always picking something more tried and true…and if they did go outside of the console for a gate, the Drawmer always seemed to be the first and only choice. After all, that’s what the Dyna-mite is… a gate, right?
When I left Chung King, I have to admit that I don’t recall seeing the Dyna-mite in any of the other studios I frequented, and hence, it slid out of my consciousness. That is, until I was made aware of Softube’s new emulation of this mysterious processor. My first thought was “who needs another gate?” especially in the DAW world where that specific tool was even less necessary than ever before.
My second thought was that there must be something “special” about it that I had overlooked over the years while gleefully being blinded by 1176’s, Fairchild’s, and the rest of the superstars of the outboard world.
SWITCHES & SETTINGS
As it turns out, the Dyna-mite is much more than a gate, and can be configured to be used as many different things:
- A fast attack limiter.
- A slower attack limiter.
- A gate.
- An expander.
- A de-esser.
- Any combination of the above.
Admittedly, I initially had to reference the manual quite a few times to keep track of what exactly it was doing and how to set it. Luckily however, Softube has had the forethought to add a window to the interface that explains each mode as you toggle the switches, so it’s quite easy to get moving quickly.
For the most immediate gratification it is best to start working with the limiter. The basic mode is achieved by setting the detector source switch to INT (internal), the mode switch to limit, and the detector type to either AVG (slower attack) or PK (fast attack). The threshold, release, and range control are all typical in function in this mode.
Using this on a snare drum will make you smile: instant smashing and pumping that sounds very good right away. In the sheer aggression department, this limiter is a force to be contended with. While it is supposedly more transparent in the AVG mode, it is actually anything but. The minute I heard this thing doing its work I was able to get awesome drum sounds out of it, and quickly too. I almost felt guilty about neglecting some of my other more refined compressors for this work. Almost. The overt character of the Dyna-mite’s limiter screams at the listener: “I used aggressive compression on this track!” and thus, should be used accordingly!
For additional functionality, you can toggle the detector source switch to DS-FM, which adds a high-emphasis filter into the detector circuit. This makes the limiter more sensitive to higher frequencies, allowing for double duty use as a de-esser or simply a way to tame source material with a lot of high end, like cymbals in the overheads for instance. Ultimately, however, I found this functionality better suited to making alterations in the character of the source material, as the limiting functionality is a bit to brutish for fine de-essing.
Although earlier I noted that there is some redundancy in using a gate in conjunction with the editing power of the modern DAW, I’m afraid I may have been a bit glib, as I actually use gates all the time. With the right source material they are very quick to solve problems, and also have a distinct sound to them that can add a cool character to different sources.
The Dyna-mite’s gate is no slouch and works very well. The detector source can be set to int (internal) or ext (external) if you’d like to trigger the gate open with another track/sound source. This is perfect for the old hip-hop kick drum trick of triggering (keying) open a gated 60 Hz (or lower) sine wave in conjunction with a regular kick sound. The gate is keyed to open by the original kick source, and then blended with the sine tone: instant low end.
As a matter of fact, after I remembered this trick, I actually incorporated it into a rock track where the kick was only miked on the inside of the drum. I was instantly able to capture some of that bottom end I needed.
Setting the detector source switch to INT, the mode switch to EXP, and the detector type to GATE creates a scenario in which the Dyna-mite behaves like a traditional gate. Any signal that is below the set threshold is reduced by a 20:1 ratio in gain directly proportional to the value set on the range control. Adjusting the detector type to either PK or AVG results in a kindler, gentler gating scenario with longer attack times. The gate exhibits little/no chatter and does what it should well.
I rarely, if ever, use an expander in my work, and experimenting with this aspect of the Dyna-mite made me a believer almost instantly. I had a set of drum tracks that had a lot of room in the overheads, definitely more than I wanted. As I played around with the expander settings I was thrilled to find that I could keep all the space I wanted around the snare/hat/tom attacks but greatly reduce the apparent level of room decay. Awesome!
In this case I had the Dyna-mite set to EXP mode with the detector type on peak. Essentially, any transients above the set threshold are allowed through with the preferred amount of decay, and any transients below the threshold are gently reduced by a 1:2 ratio.
In the Dyna-mite manual, Softube makes specific mention of “Weird Limiting” mode. Although I have not yet found a use for this, it is an interesting, odd side-effect that may not have been intended in the original Dyna-mite’s design phase.
True to form, the Softube engineers have faithfully modeled this functionality (or lack thereof) into their emulation. If the detector mode is set to LIMIT and the detector type is set to GATE, you end up with a scenario in which any signal above a certain threshold is hard limited. The range and release controls really come into play here. If the range is set too high, you end up hearing nothing except clicking, presumably the attack time of the limiter as it is engaged.
Similarly, if the release time is set too long, you also end up with silence, as the compression takes to much time to be released. However, if your range is set to around 5-6 dB, and the release time around a few ms, you’ll hear some interesting pumping and modulation effects on your source. A fascinating idiosyncrasy that I expect may end up saving the day once or twice over the coming years…
As I have duly noted above, the Dyna-mite is far from a simple gate, in fact it may have more surprises for me still lying in wait. You may ask yourself whether it’s worth the $279.00 price tag, and I would have to answer yes. Although it is not the most romantic of emulations, the fact is that it is now on so many of the sessions that I am working on that it must be worth the price of admission.
At any rate, it is definitely worth checking out the demo available on Softube’s website, you’ll be thrilled the first time you hear that limiter obliterating everything in its path…
Softube’s Valley People Dyna-mite is a plug-in that will work with VST, AudioUnits or RTAS compatible host applications. Click for more information and sound samples. And to purchase the Softube Valley People Dyna-mite plug-in, visit Softube’s U.S. distributor, MV Pro Audio. Visit www.mvproaudio.com for more information.
Bo Boddie is a Grammy winning engineer/producer and composer who has worked with Santana, Everlast, Korn, Reni Lane, and many others. He is currently beginning work on Imperial Teen’s second release on Merge Records. Also check out Psychic Friend, his new band with Will Schwartz(Imperial Teen) and Patty Schemel (Hole).
CHELSEA, MANHATTAN: No one can say Ari Raskin hasn’t paid his dues. This in-demand freelancer engineer may regularly make the rounds of NYC’s top studios today, but it’s only after he’s sweated it out for a decade-plus, making a name for himself in the city’s fiercely competitive studio scene.
Raskin can contribute in many ways to a project – tracking, mixing, editing, drum programming, and even the occasional master – and has done just that for a wide range of artists: Whitney Houston, Wyclef Jean, Meshell N’Degeocello, Black Eyed Peas, Kanye West, Kid Cudi, J.Dilla and Illa J — Yancey Boys, and Justin Timberlake among them. His career got moving after he departed Berklee College of Music with the goal of being the next Brendan O’Brien or Andy Wallace, then went from being an intern at Chung King to House Engineer.
Today, no longer afforded his home base that was Chung King, Raskin makes music all over Manhattan and beyond – a positive vibes traveling man that makes him the perfect subject for the return of our Nomad Engineer series.
How would you describe the ups and downs of a New York City freelance audio engineer in 2011?
The real benefit of freelance engineering and traveling is getting to choose which studio is right for the project — be it the sound of the live room, the sound of the control room, the vibe of the control room, the gear, the rigs’ plugins, the budget, or just how late the staff stays — so that you can comfortably make a great recording that fits the music. Also, having clients agree that you suggested a good studio for them is a nice thing too.
If you’re a staff engineer at a small Pro Tools studio with a 5′ x 8′ live room, and a rock band is introduced to you by the studio manager, you’re never going to be able to tell them, “We should do the rhythm section at Avatar or Skyline. You’re never gonna get real big drum sounds here, and these reissue mic preamps and 414′s just don’t have the real rock-star vibe you’re after.” Although of course most of us now would just shut up and do the modern thing and use Drumagog or SoundReplacer.
I’d like to note, though, that when I first stepped into the major-label part of the recording industry when I moved to New York 10 years ago, there were LOTS of freelance engineers working from studio to studio. It seemed much less common for labels to use house engineers unless it was for a transfer session. Engineers definitely used to be more highly regarded before everyone and their sister had Pro Tools, so I think that’s why hiring the respected freelance guys was much more the norm in the day, whereas now labels just want a house engineer who knows how to use Pro Tools and isn’t expensive.
Lately, whenever I run into former Chung King clients at other studios, I constantly get told “Oh, I didn’t know you were still working since Chung King closed,” or “You work here now?” as if the idea of a tracking engineer being freelance is now an unknown concept.
We’re glad to get the inside track from you on your fave NYC recording spots. What made you say “Yes” to this article, rather than keeping your top studios close to the vest?
Seemed like a fun topic, and I do work around, and do have opinions on a number of various rooms. I just wish there were more large-format rooms in this city, with all the standard vintage outboard gear and mics. Five years ago there were a lot more real-deal pro-studio choices, and 10 years ago a lot more than that. It’s getting hard now, especially when your first choice-room is already booked, and you’re actually trying to do a serious recording and not just track vocals. Therefore…
Downtown Music Studios, Studio A; SoHo, NYC
Many positives about this place. For one, there isn’t a vibe like they are dying for business and need to squeeze every penny they potentially can out of your clients. Also, the ProTools rigs have more plug-ins than any other rigs I’ve seen. Unlike so many rooms, the studios at Downtown were planned and configured by good working engineers, so things make a lot of sense in real world practice.
Studio A there is possibly the most accurate-sounding control room in the city that I’ve worked in, and has no room EQ on the mains. The almost-mint Neve 8014 console they just installed is not only amazing for its sixteen 1084 pres for tracking, it’s also possibly the best summing amp in Manhattan for Pro Tools in-the-box mixing. There’s also a ton of clean vintage and high-quality modern gear — they won’t let someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing assist in sessions.
The live room in Studio A is very clean and neutral-sounding, great for tracking vocals, instrument overdubs, or a live band. You can easily get a dry drum sound, or put up some far room mics, 1176 them, and get a big rock sound. Studio B has a great rig as well, with good external converters, a totally different vibe from Studio A, and is probably the most-equipped room for the money in Manhattan.
Some of my recent sessions there include Sean Paul, Black Thought, Kat Deluna. I’d recommend this studio to any type of client, other than a gigantic orchestra or those craving a huge castle drum sound, or those wanting to mix on an SSL. The Neve console they have has no automation, but for mixing a jazz, acoustic, or a small production, it sounds incredible.
Platinum Sound Recording, Studios J and K; Times Square, NYC
The “sexiest” of the big studios in NYC. I think it’s the only studio I know of — not that I claim to have worked in every studio — that has a designated receptionist and interns always ready for runs, 24 hours a day. That might seem like a minor detail, but for those who have clients who like to work past midnight, it’s a major concern. Very cool vibe, cool staff.
They have a real live K, and a J — and unlike most SSL’s in NYC, they get used for mixing regularly still, so the assistants aren’t new to that: big board mixes with old-school engineers who use lots of gear are often the most demanding type of session for an assistant. Also, I haven’t heard the new Augspurger speakers in studio K, but the J room has the HEAVIEST bass of all time — although Studio C at MSR is quite thumpin’ too.
Some of my recent sessions there include Wyclef, Kat Deluna and Ritz Crackers. This is a good studio for SSL board mixing; good studio for late-night artists/producers; decent-sized live room with some good mic pres, so it’s not a bad choice for producers who like live instruments. The best for those who like it so loud their faces melt and eardrums shred. Great for those who like to vibe and create.
Premier Studios, Times Square, NYC
Premier is the former Studios A and B of Quad, renovated and heavily cleaned up, with two newer, very good Pro Tools “writer’s” rooms, very fairly priced. Studios A and B were both recently tuned and both sound accurate and get quite loud. The live room in B is great for a clean drum sound, and great for any vocal or instrument overdub.
The staff there is eager and friendly and understands the concept of working towards the future — in other words, they don’t take the clients that come in for granted. They have real LA-2A’s in most rooms — which didn’t used to be unusual anyway — and they are maintained.
Another great thing — they have four rooms, all with excellent Pro Tools rigs with all the necessary plugins, so if a room is booked, there’s still likely others open. How many other 3+ room studios are left and commercially-bookable in NYC today? Also, so many other studios are opening now with gear you can also easily get at Guitar Center, and not enough real mic pres or compressors in the room, forcing clients to rent every little thing (which, along with today’s tight budgets, can make a freelance engineer seem needy). Instead, Premier seems to be constantly investing and trying to improve their gear arsenal to impress engineers and producers. The recent addition of two perfect vintage Neve 1073′s and the overhauling of their Studio A Steinway piano are both welcome improvements and important tools for making great recordings.
My recent sessions there include Oh Land, Duane McLaughlin, Rich Hil, Kat Deluna. Premier is great for J9000 mixing, Pro Tools in-the-box mixing, instrument and vocal overdubs, pop songwriting sessions, and jazz and rock bands that want some real isolation but don’t want to pay for one of the city’s massive rooms.
Grand Street Recording, Williamsburg, BKLYN
I only worked there once, but I think it’s by far the best studio for tracking instruments for the money. Amazing selection of vintage mics, pres, keyboards, amps, and drums — nothing I used there seems modded or overly repaired, and none of the current reissue stuff (that doesn’t actually have any magic. I’m a snob about having the real vintage stuff, clearly).
The staff is knowledgeable too. The ceilings aren’t that high and live room isn’t terribly ambient, but for plenty of bands it’s perfect. You can make a real, classic-sounding, proper recording there for not a lot of money. And their vintage mics may be in better shape than any other studios I know of.
I recently did a tracking session there for the jam/rock band Moose Convention. I think Grand Street is great for rock or jazz band tracking — live and overdubs — and vocal tracking.
(Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to this studio as Grand Street Studio. It should have referred to Grand Street Recording.)
jrock Studios, Chelsea, NYC
I saw you guys did a piece on Jamie Siegel and his studio recently, and I will second that it’s a cool spot. Great location, nice dry-sounding live room that has some breathing space so it doesn’t sound like you’re tracking in a closet, some nice pres, and a real chill pleasant vibe, good for getting work done. And of course, not nearly as pricey as the big SSL rooms.
Recently I did some vocal and percussion sessions there with singer/songwriter Erin Barra. Recommended for anyone who wants a relaxed spot to do overdubs, writing, or Pro Tools mix sessions.
Next Week! Return of the Nomad Engineer Part II: More finds, from Midtown to Greenpoint.
HARLEM, MANHATTAN: Everything old is new again for Ricardo Gutierrez, the Chief Mastering Engineer at Stadium Red’s new mastering facility. A disciple of the legendary Herb Powers, Gutierrez honed his ears and technical chops at The Hit Factory, where mastering studios and recording facilities worked harmoniously together under one roof.
Now he’s back into that classic workflow, where a record can get tracked, mixed and mastered without leaving the floor. Doing his listening in a new 5.1-ready room designed by Frank Comentale (The Hit Factory, Chung King, Daddy’s House), Gutierrez is more than down with the comprehensive Stadium Red scenario.
“I had been looking for opportunities to set up a studio, but it never felt like the right situation,” he says. “When Claude asked me if I wanted to be on board, I knew the energy was right. We were all of like mind about how we want the music to sound, and how we defined our jobs. The concept is for Stadium Red to be a destination. This is a creative place you can come to and enjoy, but you can also come here and you don’t have to leave. Someone like Just Blaze or Omen can produce here, then record with Tom Lazarus or Ariel Borujow in the live room, and finally master here as well.”
According to Gutierrez, security and enhanced efficiency are solid arguments for having mastering in the house. “A lot of people, especially high-profile artists, don’t want to have to send a file over the Internet, because leaks still happen. People feel 100% more confident in having it mastered in the same place, and we’re not ‘mastering’ in the B-room with plug-ins. We have a dedicated room with an experienced mastering engineer, and that appeals to our clients.
“Another scenario that happens is that an artist starts it in their personal studio, and then they bring it to us for us mixing. Or they record their music in the A-room and mix it at Stadium Red. Now they’re saying, ‘You guys already have the music there, why don’t you master it?’ It’s the end piece of the puzzle.”
Tech heads will take notice of Gutierrez’ uncommon center of operations: a Sony DMX-R100 “Baby Oxford” console that feeds a pair of Legacy Audio speakers and his tight collection of digital/analog processors. “That’s actually what Herb uses,” he says of the classic Sony board. “At first he used a Neve DTC console, 20-bit, but when went back to the Hit Factory, he needed a new digital console and went with a Baby Oxford. As a result, I knew it inside out. It gives me some workflow advantages, and when we switch the room to Surround I’m set up for it.”
The Stadium Red setup is ideal for a mastering engineer who wants to be involved in the creative process, and not just the last stop on the way to iTunes. “The mentality of a typical mastering studio is, ‘These are our hours. We’re opened and closed then, and we don’t go beyond that,’” notes Gutierrez. “But I’m already here in the studio with the mindset that you’re there as late as you need to be. We need to be here so we can listen in on a project in any of the environments here, hear the master back where it’s mixed, and then decide what needs to be tweaked next, if anything.”
– David Weiss
Shane Stoneback: Music Production Career Construction with Sleigh Bells, Magic Kids & Vampire Weekend
DUMBO, BROOKLYN/CHELSEA, MANHATTAN: Shane Stoneback would be the first person to tell you that he’s a lucky son-of-a-gun. Sure this fast-emerging producer/engineer has sharp ears, sharper instincts and a marvelously open mind, but he’s also got an undeniable knack for being in the right place at just the right time.
A quick scan of his expanding discography bears that out, with some of the timeliest artists tapping him to bring new sounds, classic styles, and hybrid approaches to their projects. Vampire Weekend, the arresting joy-noise of Sleigh Bells, updated old-skool of Magic Kids, and mystery-soaked Brooklyn duo Cults, are all his latest clients, and that’s just for starters.
To handle the heavy metal, undefinable psychedelia, and everything in between, Stoneback’s dual NYC studios are seeing an enviable level of action. He often gets things started in the raw DUMBO zone he calls Treefort Studios, then crosses the river to finish at SMT Studios in Manhattan, the SSL 4000 G+/Augspurger-endowed mushroom wood dream room he shares with engineer Brian Herman.
Able to make the most out of every opportunity that comes his way, Stoneback has gone a good distance since his formative years as a tech at Battery Studios and in the machine room of audio post HQ Sound One. Settled comfy comfy behind his big board at SMT, Stoneback caught us up on his latest adventures.
You did some recording recently with Magic Kids, we hear.
Right. I went to MemphisW for about a month to a studio owned by Doug Easley. He’s worked with Cat Power, Sonic Youth, and a bunch other great groups. Previously he had a beautiful, old-school studio with three-story-high live rooms, like at Abbey Road. It was famous, but it burned down four years ago.
Now he’s set up shop in an old insurance sales office. It’s a decent studio, but he has a Neotek board that’s like a Salvador Dali painting, because the knobs are kind of melted. We did all the principal tracking there – guitar, bass, drums – and hired this whole cast of local musicians. The talent pool in Memphis is pretty amazing, and Magic Kids is a big band with a lot of members – their network is pretty extensive, and they’re only two calls away from any instrument you can think of.
Magic Kids’ keyboardist/producer Will McElroy has these elaborate, intensive arrangements in his head. In the 1970’s you would have spent six months making this record, and we spent two months. I ended up getting really sick because I spent so much time making it. I didn’t get a lot of sleep in those two months.
They’ve definitely got a style that stands out – how would you describe their sound?
There’s nine people in this band. The Magic Kids have classic songwriting sensibilities, but with modern tools used in their creation, like lots of big 808s.
That new song you produced with them, “Cry with me Baby”, has some old skool elements, but it also doesn’t sound 100% retro…
Sounding retro was a big fear. When I start with a band, if I can I spend time with them a little bit, at a rehearsal or wherever, and talk about music, or I see what’s on their iPod when they’re not looking. These guys were listening to house music when I met them, which I thought was so odd, but it kept it from being a throwback record.
They didn’t want to make a cutesy throwback record – they avoided that at every turn. Some of the songs are super epic, on a level with Electric Light Orchestra songs. Anyway, the record is coming out in August, and you better get your roller skates on for it!
OK! Or can we just hop on our bike? In the meantime back here in NYC, you’re running not one but two facilities. Let’s take it from the top with Treefort Studios in DUMBO.
Treefort is one of those loft locker spaces. I got it three years ago for a writing room and I started to build it out when one of the kids from Vampire Weekend came in. I wasn’t done with construction, but they came out and started doing drum overdubs, and I started a good relationship with those guys.
The room is great, it’s a raw inspiring environment with books, chotchkes…people seem amused out there, but it is roughing it. I don’t have proper air conditioning, and the last few days have been brutal. But then again, Treefort is a much bigger room. There’s a lot of bands in particular I work with that want to lay down core live takes with three or four band members. They’ve been touring and they have it all locked together. You also have much more options for mic placement there. Plus I have tube organs, weird keyboards, and the room is cheaper because there’s a lot lower overhead.
We couldn’t help but notice the SSL 4000 G+ here at SMT Studios in Manhattan. Why keep it separated, instead of having everything together in Treefort?
We could never build this room in that place for a bunch of different reasons. The zoning would be difficult, and I’m not sure how long that building will last because of housing development in the area. The Treefort is awesome, but it’s collapsible. I could tear it down, put it up somewhere else, and it would be the same.
So now the package is we could have a band record at Treefort, do all the overdubs, and then mix it here in a room that’s acoustically tight with a great board. Every record we’ve mixed here has, in my opinion, been my best record. I just keep on thinking it gets better in this room.
Looking around, it certainly seems like you’ve put together what would be considered a dream facility for a lot of producer/engineers today.
This room is awesome. There’s two reasons we selected this configuration. Previously we had a baby Oxford and a pair of Tannoys that are now at Treefort. At the same time, there was a series of studios closing in the city that had an SSL G and Augspurgers, and that was how all the pop hit records were being recorded. Chung King had one, Battery had one, and there’s clearly been a vacuum for that. If they’re all closing down, then clearly there’s not a line around the block for that flavor, but if they all close down, then there’s still room for one.
Brian and I both worked at Battery, and this was the combination of console and speakers that we worked on every day. Plus, I love this board and the EQ on it – you can get rough with it and it sounds really cool. Or you can do nothing, just push the faders up, and it glues everything together better than it would in your workstation. Also, to get a Neve console of the same size would have been an enormous amount of money and this console, aside from cleaning, was in pretty good shape. I think it was in Usher’s house, so it wasn’t getting abused in a commercial facility.
People need studios. Whether they need me or some other engineer, they definitely need these environments where they can come in and have all the tools. Sitting in your bedroom, making a record, you can do that once, and it sounds awesome. But every band I’ve worked with this year – Cults is a good example – love what they’ve done in Garageband. But then they want to make it bigger.
(Take a video tour of SMT Studios hosted by Shane Himself right here)
With the different things that you’re doing, do you consider yourself to be a producer, engineer or a mixer?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I feel like we’ve all become facilitators more than anything. No two things come in the door with the same ratio of requirements – some people come in with great music and no idea of how they want it to sound and they want you to hold their hand through it. Others come in with it all ready to go, and they just want you to hit “record”. In any event, the line in the sand between producer and engineer has become very difficult to distinguish.
On the facilitator tip, I hear Derek E. Miller of Sleigh Bells is like an engineer…
The way that we met, xl recordings booked a couple of weeks at Treefort for M.I.A., so she could have some time to write and experiment. She was going to meet with a variety of people, but I believe she heard about Derek through Spike Jonze, so how awesome for him, to get cold-called from M.I.A. one day to make a song. I didn’t know who he was – he could have been Danger Mouse or this huge producer, and I could have been Steve Lillywhite for all he knew – we were both nervous around each other for a while.
We had some time to kill, and he started talking to me about compressors and the best settings for a female vocalist. Then he started playing me the Sleigh Bells record [which would become Treats, released May 11, 2010], and I immediately loved it. I said, “Put this out right now!” He said he’d be willing to go into the studio and work on it.
Some people would have stopped him from doing what he was willing to do, like going into the red digitally. That’s “wrong”, but what he and I discovered is that initially it sounds like crap, but if you go into the red further it starts to sound better. You can crank the EQ, sweep the frequencies, and make it start screaming like a guitar distortion pedal. I started to listen to Garageband, Logic and Pro Tools overloaded, they all sounded different, and we used those like tools to get the aesthetic for that. Derek has these specific things that I don’t think anyone has brought to the table as benchmarks – I think he really did want to hurt his ears at those frequencies like 4k! Like that French electronic group Justice, the way it’s filtered it hurts when it’s turned up loud, but it still sounds really cool.
Sounds like a good schooling. What were some other surprises that came up working with Derek on the Sleigh Bells record?
He was working with these vintage drum machines from the early ‘90’s, but he hated using the rock kit on the Korg or Alesis drum machines. They didn’t sound good until we rammed the fader all the way up and just knocked every frequency up as loud as every other.
We tried a lot of guitar amps, and we settled on this Korg Toneworks which is like something for a tour bus. It sounds like crap in the best possible way. Because of the circuitry, it shaves off all these frequencies so it sits in the mix right away – you could triple or quadruple the track and it doesn’t sound muddy. It sounds like the synthesizer you wish you had!
With that record, you couldn’t really do wrong. It was like going off the deep end into some uncharted territory. I liken it to the first time someone cranked a guitar amp and someone said, “You can’t do that!” and you say, “Just give me five minutes and you’ll see what I can do.” Hopefully I won’t get asked to make a record like that again, because I wouldn’t want to repeat it. But I do pull elements from it.
On a parallel tip to all this experimentation, you told us that you’re seeing a return to a more pro studio approach in recording – what do you mean by that?
There’s definitely a slew of records coming out where people are making rock albums that don’t sound bedroomy to me. Yes, there’s a good vocal sound you can get in your bedroom because you’re recording while your roommate’s sleeping, and it’s very intimate. But there’s something about a really well-recorded vocal where people scream, go off, and get the emotion out. You don’t hear the recording, you just hear the artist, you know? I feel like that will come back.
It doesn’t have to be slick with long reverbs and all that. The Raconteurs record (Consolers of the Lonely), that sounds great. The Them Crooked Vultures record, that sounds huge: it’s really thick and sounds good quiet, but it also sounds good in here cranked up loud.
You’re getting more and more credits on projects that producers would want to get the call on – Vampire Weekend, Magic Kids, the Sleigh Bells record — why is your stock going up right now?
Part of it is luck. So I’ve been in the right place at the right time a lot. That said I can still tell I get better at this each day. It was serendipitous that I met Vampire Weekend, and the initial job that I did for them was not exclusive knowledge – anybody could have done it. But I worked up a good working relationship. I was an assistant engineer in studios for years, so I got good at the boring parts: taking notes and backing stuff up. I’m a great Pro Tools editor, and a lot of people don’t want to deal with that. People will keep you around for that.
On the second Vampire Weekend record (Contra), I hammered home the facilitator thing. Rostam (Batmanglij) is a great keyboard player, a great arranger, and picked up the basics of engineering pretty quickly, but he still needed a facilitator to handle things on a day-to-day basis. We rented a marimba that was bigger than this table! We set it up, mic’d it and recorded it. Even if I had never done it before, I’d pretend I’d done it ten times.
– Interview by Janice Brown and David Weiss
Straight outta Jersey, Moroz puts a subtly sultry spin on her blues/pop/rock explorations. From smokey to sweet to just plain pissed off, her many moods and new collection of songs create a cohesive musical journey.
Recorded, mixed and mastered 100% in the NYC area, SonicScoop gives Ms. Moroz a thumbs up for being 100% home-grown. Among the studios used to record Tatiana were Avatar, Chung King (RIP), Quad Studios, and Big Fat Suite. Mastering was by Angelo Montrone of Majestic Music Factory.
Congratulations and props to SonicScoop compadre Tatiana!! Party with the best of ‘em at The Bitter End!
New York, NY — Fans of the HBO series Flight of the Conchords might have a hard time imagining slacker-heroes Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement racing between the show’s stage in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and recording studios city-wide to get all of the show music fully written and produced and albums of it recorded and mixed. But, that’s exactly what they did during both seasons of the award-winning series.
Their second full-length record, I Told You I Was Freaky, comes out on Sub Pop in October, produced by Mickey Petralia and recorded by NYC-based engineer Matt Shane: the production team responsible for capturing all of FoTC’s musical antics for TV.
It’s a compilation of songs from season two — including the R. Kelly-inspired “We’re Both In Love With A Sexy Lady” and club anthem “Too Many Dicks (On the Dance Floor)” written/produced during the show’s production.
Shane describes, “As opposed to season one, most of the songs for season two hadn’t been performed live, so instead of starting out with two guitars, we were starting out with these full-up beats they worked up in the studio with Mickey, and then they’d add elements later to make it fit or change genres.
“The guys would do 12-hour days shooting during the week and then we’d be in the studio at nights and on the weekends. We split the work between a handful of studios — Mission Sound and Metrosonic in Williamsburg, One East, Looking Glass and Chung King in Manhattan, and A Bloody Good Record in Long Island City.”
In appropriate contrast to their TV persona, Flight of the Conchords is a highly active band, releasing singles via iTunes during the seasons, albums post-season (including a Grammy-winner) and touring in support of all. For their U.S. tour last Spring, the Conchords tapped Shane and My Morning Jacket FOH engineer Ryan Pickett to help them take the show on the road
BIGGER SHOWS, BIGGER PRODUCTION
“We were going to be doing way bigger houses than we did on their first, smaller tour last year, so they stepped up the production as well,” explains Shane. “They share management with My Morning Jacket, who happened to not be on the road at that time, so Ryan and Marc (Janowitz), MMJ’s lighting designer, were available to get involved.”
Being so familiar with the material, having recorded all the music, Shane took on monitor duties on the road. Orientation took place at Soundcheck in Nashville, where the crew staged the show and Shane and Pickett put their heads together on how to best present this unique act, live.
FoTC enlisted fellow kiwi and multi-instrumentalist Nigel Collins to fill in musically on cello, background vocals, keyboards and percussion. “The second season had just finished airing and the songs had been created in the studio and never played live,” says Shane. “With only a few days of rehearsal, the guys used the first couple weeks of the show, during sound-checks and even the actual concerts, to sort of reverse-engineer some of these fully produced tracks and bring it back down to two guitars and vocals.”
Technology helped them genre-hop and do their best Prince falsetto or T-Pain croon. “They use a lot of effects in some of their songs — like in hip-hop tunes where they copy the AutoTune effect, and they wanted to be able to do that, live,” says Shane. “So, we researched and found the new ElectroHarmonix Voicebox, a vocal synth processor pedal that matches whatever reference signal you send to it. With that, they were able to do all kinds of things — harmonies, vocoder, etc.”
RULE ONE OF COMEDY CONCERT: EVERYTHING IS MATERIAL
Though rehearsal got everyone in gear, the FOTC shows were largely dictated by band-audience interplay and therefore quite unpredictable. “It was very common that songs would not be done the same way twice,” explains Shane. “Jemaine would play an Omnichord on a song in sound-check and then during the show, he’d stay on guitar for that song.”
Pickett adds, “I’ve never had to be on my toes quite so much; for having such few musicians on stage, it was pretty intense. I never knew where they might go, because of dark-outs and things like that, which kept it fun.”
The variable set-list became a joke with the crew. “It was just a list of 30 songs, but they hardly ever went in order and rarely played them in the same order twice,” describes Shane. “That improvisation added to the comedy routine. So, if Marc didn’t bring the lights up or didn’t change the colors in time for a sad song, they’d ask, ‘Can you make it look like we’re inside a tear?’ They’d make us part of the show. I’d become part of the bit if I had to run out and fix something. Everything is material.”
RULE TWO: THEREFORE, EVERYTHING HAS TO BE HEARD
Allowing for audience interaction in large halls, Pickett had the band on wedges. “In-ears just wouldn’t have worked for this show, since every song came out so different each night, in terms of tempo and instrumentation,” he explains. “And sometimes one of the guys would lay out and then come back in — if they were on in-ears and the levels were locked in, and there were no ambient levels or they couldn’t hear the other guy’s wedge or bleed, etc. they’d be alone, out in space.”
Diction and comic timing were key show elements that needed to come across as much as the music in these large halls. “I’ve done a few acoustic arrangements, but the whole comedy factor of this show really adds a whole new element to what we’re doing,” adds Pickett. “Every little corner of the room needs to hear what’s being said, and their accent is a bit of an obstacle for the audience to begin with, so you really had to be on your mark.”
Shane elaborates, “It took a lot of tricky microphone placement and EQ to give us the most headroom before feedback possible. We never knew where they were going to go during any given song, so we had a lot of mics open all the time and since they were on wedges, there was a lot of foldback that Ryan had to deal with.”
Never a dull moment during this tour, Shane also ran sessions with the guys on days off to finish the next album. “We’d be doing vocal overdubs in dressing rooms so that we could send stuff off to Mickey who was re-mixing the songs for the record.”
Look out for the Flight of the Conchords’ record, I Told You I Was Freaky, in October.