It’s no wonder that producer/songwriter Greg Laswell is such a favorite with TV music supervisors (he’s had six placements on Grey’s Anatomy alone). He wears both hats as producer and songwriter equally well, creating beautifully produced and memorable, sing-along songs that cut to the core emotionally. His last three of four solo albums, including his latest, Take a Bow [Vanguard], follow the trajectory from the dissolution of his marriage through his mental recovery.
For Take a Bow, he hibernated in a cabin outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, escaping the distractions of his current home base, Los Angeles. He packed up his car with his dog, a few mics and outboard items, a Martin tenor four-string guitar (which he calls Take a Bow’s secret weapon), Gibson J-45 acoustic, Fender Telecaster, banjo, Vox Pathfinder and Fender Tweed amps, Nord Stage and Electro 2 keyboards, an E-mu E5000 sampler (loaded with drum and Mellotron samples), and his computer and software (including the Miroslav string library and Waves Renaissance compressor). Live drums were the only tracks recorded outside of the cabin, right before mixing. Here, Laswell relays some try-it-yourself studio techniques he tested in the cabin.
On His E5000
“I like pulling up a preset in edit mode, detuning it, and playing it while it’s still in the edit screen. It allows you to come up with some pretty cool sounds that otherwise you wouldn’t be able to.”
“I had the Neumann TLM-103 and Blue Mouse for vocals, amps, and other things, but I used the Royer R-121 for acoustic guitar tracks. If you turn those mics backwards so that the back of the diaphragm is facing the acoustic, they really bring out the best parts of the acoustic guitar.”
The Millennia Origin STT-1 preamp/EQ/compressor has a really cool transformer button. It’s not the cleanest thing in the world, but when it’s pressed in, it gives the right kind of character that I like on vocal tracks. With most of my vocal tracks, I’ll cut around 500Hz and at 180 or 200. It’s really sensitive, so it’s just one or two dBs in each frequency while I’m tracking. It really opens the whole thing. I also ran some bass, keyboard, and the Royer through a Focusrite ISA-1, a really clean single-channel preamp. The Millennia was just a tiny bit too noisy for the ribbon because a ribbon needs a lot of gain.”
Barely There Vocals
“One of my favorite things to do is to record the lead vocal to get it perfect, and then track two more but turn them down almost to the point where you can’t hear them at all. I actually make them so low that if you mute the lead vocal in the center channel, you can just barely, barely hear the extra two vocals, which are panned hard left and hard right. It still sounds like a solo vocal, but it adds a little space, width, and stereo image to it.”
“[Synthogy] Ivory is the best-sounding piano sampler I’ve ever heard. Within the program, you can adjust the key noise and the reverb in the room. Key noise is basically increasing the noise of the hammers. I pumped that up quite a bit and let the mixing engineer duck out those frequencies if he wanted, but it really adds a really amazing sense of realism.”
“I find that if you add at least one true performance of a real instrument and put it next to a sampled one, they both become the real thing by proximity. For example, there’s a marcato-type string part in the breakdown of ‘Around the Bend.’ I did a sampled cello and then had a bass player play a real upright bass line with a bow. I miked up his f-hole and picked up all the bow noise of his performance. And then there’s also this banjo part that doesn’t even sound like a banjo because it’s being played right alongside these string arpeggios. That’s the biggest thing with making records like this. It doesn’t have to sound real. If you want something to sound real, then do it, but your only job, really, is to make it sound good.”
Get out of the Way!
“I had this huge, enormous string arrangement on ‘My Fight (For You)’ that I spent so much time on because in my mind I was like, ‘It needs a wall of sound.’ And it didn’t. It needed a little weird, spaghetti-western guitar, some Mellotron strings, and bells. I spent so much time trying to force it that it didn’t work, and it was never going to work. Finally, right when I decided to throw it out, my manager said, ‘No, you gotta go back and keep trying it.’ So then I went back to square one and started from the ground up with the vocal, main piano, and acoustic track.
“Sometimes working with a song is like a marriage. You go through a really bad, difficult time, and you either stick with it and get through it, or you part ways. With that one, I went to marriage counseling, and we’re so happy now! [Laughs.]”