First it was a Neumann U 87 going through an Avalon 737sp. When the studio I was previously working at began to get new gear, our signal chain began to evolve as well. Eventually a Vintech 473 was added so we opted to give his voice the Neve-style vibe.
But with the U 87, I also noticed that the harmonics in the 1073 style pre added a lot of sibilance and mids to his already mid-heavy voice. So we changed to an AKG C414 BLS, and it seemed to work better as it had a slightly less overstated high end.
Beyond the signal path, were there other things you did in the studio to help Talib deliver his best possible vocal performance (things like dimming the lights, etc.…)?
I was always available — morning, afternoon and night well into the next morning. If he needed me I was there. I rarely ever said “no.”
In general it’s just about knowing what the client likes and being able to setup an environment that caters to that specific person’s creativity. It might be as little as having his favorite drink there when he walks in.
I used to work in advertising and much of the process of retaining accounts was simply to know what the people on the other side of the table liked. Of course in this field I really love what I do, so I always just translate those corporate experiences to this current career path.
This is a service industry as well as a creative industry. Being able to offer your client the most relaxing experience isn’t something most people ask for or expect — and Kweli never asked I just offered and provided, he is very unassuming in that regard, he just wants to make music. But going that extra mile is a way of showing your clients how much you care about them, and it’s one more way to make their experience with you more enjoyable and the vibe for creativity more vibrant.
Audio is a service industry, no doubt. You said that working fast is an important facet of working with Talib. What adjustments did you make to your own workflow in order to be able to keep up with his creative pace?
As I mentioned before it’s mainly about being on his rhythm and working quickly.
As a drummer I used my ears and my fingers to be quick on the transport and in editing. Sometimes you get tracks that are definitely not on a flat BPM and you need to work quick to get those beats on a click because at any moment he might want an edit, or switch the second verse to the first just to hear how it sounds. Again some engineers are quicker than others, but these skills are very important — it’s like rudiments for a drummer.
Some of it is more production oriented. The first time I suggested that strings would be a cool addition, he wanted to cut it the next night. He asked me to put the guys together, the next night we did it and it came out great.
That was for “Rat Race” on Idle Warships’ Habits of the Heart, which we were recording simultaneous to the Prisoners of Conscious album as well. Over the next couple of months we did this for a few more songs on Prisoners of Conscious, including “Hamster Wheel,” “Human Mic,” “Before He Walked,” and “Fly Away” off of the Attack the Block mixtape.
Last question: What’s particularly satisfying to you about recording vocals — how do you continue to evolve your techniques in that specific area of audio engineering?
I find recording anything satisfying, but in terms of recording vocals it’s about matching the right piece of gear to the voice. I love it when someone says to me that they never had their voice sound that good.
The more gear you get to use it adds to your production vocabulary. I became a good engineer because I learned how to make something sound good in a bad or mediocre room. When I started working in different rooms and had a chance to work on different pieces of gear I became more versed in how things work. I wasn’t formally trained; I picked my skills up from anyone and everyone that had an opinion about something.
Trial and error solved the rest. After some years you tend to just figure out what works and what doesn’t — you hear a voice and in your head you start to put that perfect chain together for them.
On the production side, I have a pretty good sense of harmony so when I work with vocalists I enjoy being able to help them get through certain parts, maybe suggest a good harmony. Sometimes a vocalist will get frustrated on the same part. Most of the time it’s not skill deficiency, its more pronunciation, enunciation and breathing.
Even though I’m not a trained vocalist I have some perspective, and sometimes even great vocalists need to be reminded in that one moment when they are feeling frustrated in the booth that there might be a different approach. I never really did that with Kweli though, only the occasional mention of a word that wasn’t as clear.
Even so, if you hear something, say something — as long as you are sure. It’s always better to tell them before they discover that, in fact, there is a problem with a part.
— David Weiss