In the Studio: Ben Harper

Essential music for turbulent times
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“Songs either find you, they taunt you, or they need you to work in a collective that somehow brings them to life,” Ben Harper says. His latest album with the Innocent Criminals, Call It What It Is (Stax, April 2016), includes all three types of songs, in equal measure.

Examples of songs that “found” Harper include the blues rocker “Pink Balloon,” which Harper says came in “a complete burst, fully formed.” Likewise, arriving of-a-piece was the lead track, “When Sex Was Dirty,” which features the memorable refrain “I remember when sex was dirty, and the air was clean/And everything worth knowing was in a magazine.” That says it all.

The cornerstone of this powerful, eclectic album is another of Harper’s found songs: the title track, “Call It What It Is.” An intense, almost brutal, electric blues performance of this track underscores the violence of lyric: “They shot him in the back, now it’s a crime to be black/So don’t act surprised if it gets vandalized/Call it what it is call it what it is call it what it is—murder.”

Ben Harper, producer/engineer Ethan Allen, and the band recorded Call It What It Is in The Village, Studio A. Once the song occurred to Harper, it was undeniable. However, recording it was quite a different story: “That was the last song we recorded,” Harper says. “There was debate about me doing it with just me and guitar, because I’d already done a version like that and it was out in the world. There was a nervousness about approaching that song and being able to take it anywhere else.

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“We left the better part of a week for that song, and it came together in a true band effort,” the artist continues. “Everybody was just digging in with a fearlessness, and it went in a few different directions. It wasn’t an easy production, that one, but Oliver [Charles, drummer] and Leon [Mobley, percussionist} and Jason [Yates, keyboardist] really took the helm. In the chorus the beat turns over into kind of a more rocking thing and then it’s more blues in the verses.

“For a long time the song spooked us. It spooks me to this day. But that’s one that definitely found me, and said, ‘You gotta say this.’”

The tracking dates for “Call It What It Is” took place during the last of four separate week-long sessions at The Village. The entire album was captured to Pro Tools by engineer/co-producer Ethan Allen.

“We would get together every month or so and do another week of recording,” Allen says. “It kept everybody fresh creatively and maintain some objectivity about the songs. We would, each week, concentrate on about three songs. Then we would listen to them over time, and perhaps revisit them later with new ideas. We took time to digest the work that we’d done, and then we moved on. It was really different from being constantly in the trenches.”

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Each of the tracks on Call It What It Is started with live full-band tracking in The Village’s Studio A, where the facility’s centerpiece, a vintage Neve 8048 console colored much of the sound.

Electric guitar amps, for example, were taken through a single Neumann KM84 mic, into the pre’s in the console, with just a bit of Teletronix LA2A compression. A few keyboards were taken direct—Mellotron, some synth parts—but all Wurlitzer, B-3, and piano parts also went through the Neve mic pre’s.

“On the B-3, I would set up a pair of AEA R88 ribbon mics or [Sennheiser] MD421s at 90 degrees on top of the cabinet, and a [Neumann] U47 on the bottom to get the bass,” Allen says. “Sometimes we’d just go mono with everything, but often I would keep it in stereo if we wanted a wider picture.”

Allen’s piano-miking scheme involves two Neumann M49s, spaced apart but both near the hammers. “Since they have that nice Yamaha grand, it had a touch of natural brightness to it, which was good in a band context,” Allen says. “Sometimes I would EQ it a bit, but the piano sounded so good, it was just more about capturing it.”

Harper would sing into a ribbon mic, such as an RCA 44 or an AEA R88, or into an M49, any of which would, again, be sent into the Neve board. “Then I would use either an LA2A or an RCA BA6A tube limiter, sometimes into a Pultec at the end, just for the top—but not always. There were also times when we did something different with a [UREI] 1176 to get something more aggressive,” Allen explains.

Mic placement was also key to a wide variety of sounds on the album. “The great thing about a great room is how many sonic options you have,” Harper says. “You can go down to just one mic on the drums and it’s just another version of good. The room sounds great in every corner.

“You can use the room to change your era of sound. If you want a modern vocal sound, get right up on the mic. If you want a Motown vocal sound, step away from the mic three feet and sing harder. Production can be as simple as moving the mic 10 feet back from the amp, and what started as a clean guitar sound becomes a funky sound, without changing the amp.”

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Allen and the musicians also used creative distortion to push the sound they were after, and the gritty “Pink Balloon” is a great example of the ways mic placement was paired with sonic manipulation for effect.

“We had a basic drum setup with an interior kick drum mic, usually a 421, plus a FET 47 on the outside of the kick, 57 top and bottom snare, 421s on toms,” Allen explains. “I also used a pair of 67s as overheads, a Coles ribbon out in front, and then a spaced pair of room mics.

“But that being said, sometimes I would go for something completely different, and wherever possible I would try to get an unusual drum miking picture. I would use a single ribbon mic, compress it quite a bit, and try to get the whole picture with just that, just as an example. We might have a tomcentric song, or brushes—give some more interesting fabric to the picture of what was going on.

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“On ‘Pink Balloon,’ I took just two or three of the mics on the kit and made them real character pieces, overdistorting the Neve mic pre and compression,” says Allen. “There’s also an acoustic guitar on that song that’s sort of a brash and non-beautiful—an acoustic sound that had a Leadbelly-ish primitive blues approach. It’s meant to have an aggressive edge, but it’s coming from an acoustic rather than an electric guitar, so it was a unique sound.”

“That acoustic guitar was played through my Dumble amp,” Harper says. “It’s a pretty clean acoustic sound driving the riff, but the bass is distorted. The dirt, the girth underneath it is the bass.”

The sonics of the title track were also carefully shaped during the tracking sessions. “We looked at how to make the drums more turbulent and dark on that song,” Allen says. “The sound was informed by these dark, indirect drums, some distortion, and percussion that was used in unusual ways—that sounded very mid-period Marvin Gaye.

“We had a kit miked up but we emphasized the ribbon out in front of the kit,” Allen continues. “That was compressed through an 1176 so we had a very dark, low-centered picture of the drum kit. There was a proper kick drum of a normal size—probably 22 inches or so—and then in front of that, a much larger, older kick drum with two heads that would resonate, so there was a lot of boom going on, and the snare had a more distant kind of sound.

“Oliver also played an overdub that was meant to approximate the sound of a gun, and we did that using the real plate reverb at the Village. There was a lot of effort to reach for something more turbulent and dischordant like the song is talking about. The bass was distorted—everything was a little distorted in that song.”

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Allen and the musicians put a lot of care into nailing down the feel and sound of the songs during tracking. Other musical approaches that are represented include an Al Green-ish arrangement on the song “Bones,” reggae on the tune “Finding Our Way,” CSNstyle harmonies on “Deeper and Deeper,” and more.

“You can’t ever duplicate the authenticity of a brave sound going down on the floor,” Allen says. “If you can get the character going down, then it remains throughout the process and the life of the song.”

That said, Allen is confident about the mixes he gets in his personal studio, Royal Triton. “It’s a fairly modest setup,” he says. “I have a Pro Tools HD rig that I use with a Dangerous Music D-box—just eight channels and summing, four stereo pairs—and I print it all through a Burl B2 bomber digital converter.”

Allen’s monitors are Barefoot MM27s. “They seem to have a great stereo picture,” he says. “I like how there’s a lot of clarity in the midrange to the upper end, and especially in the low end on a record like this, where your picture seems to go clear down to the bottom and there are potentially competing elements in the low end. These songs have so many large drums and organs, plus the bass itself, and synths—a lot of low-end information that needed to be managed well.”

Mixing in Pro Tools, Allen used some of his preferred UA plug-ins to enhance the tracks. The UAD 1073, Roland Dimension D, Plate Reverb, and Tape Emulator plug-ins all came into play.

“I also used the Slate Digital Virtual Mastering Console a fair amount on the mix bus on this record,” Allen says. “Sometimes, I used something like Melodyne, not for its usual tuning properties, but to elongate an outside kick drum mic in an unusual way—a bit of unnatural processing here and there.

“And then Gavin Lurssen, in mastering, did just a fantastic job of pulling it all out and really making it feel grand. He has a real ability to make something bigger without it ever feeling strained. It always feels like the music he touches is its natural self on its best day.”

“What an exploration this was,” Harper adds. “We put so much into the production on this album, and it makes me think about what a shame it is that people steal music at such a low-grade level, because they’re not hearing the way it was intended to be presented. I recently got an audiophile-grade system at my house—I grew up! And I was listening to [Joni Mitchell’s] Court and Spark the other day and just having the sonic time of my life, re-listening and delving into this music. Music at a high-quality level, to me, is still worth its weight in freaking gold.”