In the Studio: Robert Glasper

The 'Covered' Studio Sessions
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In the category of Problems We All Wish We Had, you’ll find Robert Glasper’s challenging decision as to how to follow up his Grammy-winning Robert Glasper Experiment albums, Black Radio and Black Radio 2.

Glasper formed the Experiment after recording with the Robert Glasper Trio for several years. The first Black Radio album shook his fan base and the R&B world mightily with its blend of electronic and acoustic jazz, spoken word, R&B, and hip hop, all embellished with inventive arrangements and effects, and featuring multiple guest vocalists.

With Black Radio 2 (2013), Glasper continued this avant-garde approach, and built on a new fan base that extended into the R&B and electronica realms.

“Now, it’s been five years since I played trio,” Glasper says, “and my friends in the jazz world are like, ‘Where’d you go? You left us!’ I was also feeling like this is the time to give the Black Radio vibe a break. I wanted to go back and do a trio record. I missed playing piano and the piano trio vibe. But I also always want to something different that I haven’t done before.

“So I thought, if I’m going to go trio, I’m not going to go back and just do jazz tunes again. I’ve acquired this mainstream audience, and I want to bring them along on the trio journey. That’s why I chose to do cover songs.”

Glasper also saw potential pitfalls in choosing covers that would fit with his trio return. “I didn’t just want to do all R&B songs,” he explains. “Because that can be corny. I decided to do songs from my iPod: different songs that I’ve loved through the years, from different genres.”

So while the tools and the lineup are stripped down for the trio album Covered, the palette of material is almost as broad as can be, featuring the music of Joni Mitchell, Radiohead, Macy Gray, Jhené Aiko, Kendrick Lamar, Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte, and more. “It’s random as hell,” Glasper says. “I love the fact that it’s random.”

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The Robert Glasper Trio and Keith “Qmillion” Lewis tracked Covered live in Capitol Studio A. Glasper also decided to inject extra electricity into the trio’s performances by cutting the album live, albeit in an optimal studio environment: Covered was made in front of an audience, in two nights of sessions at Capitol Studios, Hollywood.

“We rented a bar and couches and put them into the studio, so it was a little swanky and had a little more vibe to it,” Glasper says.

In most ways, the environment was ideal, but Glasper’s longtime engineer, Keith “Qmillion” Lewis, explains that creating a hybrid between studio and nightclub environments posed particular challenges.

“We had to sort out what we were going to do with the audience,” Qmillion says. “In a studio situation, in the best of all possible worlds, you don’t have any extra people around. You don’t have noise. You don’t have a P.A. in the room. We actually didn’t make any of those final decisions till the day of. We got there and said, ‘Okay, if we do the drums in the room, everything’s not going to sound as good. The drums are going to sound great [to the audience], but everything else is not going to sound as pristine as we would like [on the recordings].’

“So at the last minute, we decided to throw the drums in the booth and keep everybody else out in the room. The people in the room were not really hearing the drums except for what was bleeding through the isolation booth, but when you consider the number of people who are going to hear in the room vs. the people who are going to hear the record, it’s a big ratio. We had to go with what sounds good on the record and hope the people in the room understand why they don’t hear the drums.

“After we made that decision, and we knew we weren’t going to put a P.A. in the room, it was just a regular miking setup—the same way we do anything else—and it’s a Neve [VRS] console in there, so we tracked to Pro Tools, but we went through the Neve.”

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So, with drummer Damion Reid in a booth, and Glasper and bass player Vicente Archer situated in the tracking room of Capitol Studio A before an invitation-only audience, Qmillion miked up the studio’s Yamaha grand the way he always does on a Glasper session:

“I used my three [AKG] 414s,” the engineer says. “The two that are in the front, the stereo pair that go for the low and the high, are placed in the middle of the piano toward the front, above where the keys strike everything. They’re positioned by ear to get a good spread. The third one goes in the back for the low end.

“Rob’s playing style is very unique to him,” Qmillion continues. “I’ve used this same mic setup on other piano players who are like: ‘Give me that Robert Glasper sound.’ I can use the same mics, same setup, but it does not sound the same. No one plays like Rob plays. His touch is very light at times, because he uses a lot of dynamics; he doesn’t bang on the piano. The 414s really capture the nuances of his playing. If you listen to it, my idea is to have you feel like you’re inside the piano—kind of surrounded by Rob’s piano.”

Qmillion’s drum miking scheme was also his goto setup for Reid: On kick, an AKG D112 inside and a 414 outside, as well as a reverse NS10; Shure SM57s on snare top and bottom; Neumann KM84 on hihat, Sennheiser MD421s on toms, another KM84 on ride cymbal, and Neumann U87 overheads.

“On bass, I did something slightly more unusual,” Qmillion says, “I used an AKG D112 as well as a 414, and we also had a live signal going—two mics plus the live direct. It gives me choices in what kind of sound I make [in the mix]. Different songs on the album are more hip hop and some are more traditional jazz. The different mics gave me options to create a different bass sound for different tracks.”

And this illustrates Glasper’s confidence that Qmillion is the ideal engineer for his projects. “Keith used to do sound for Mint Condition,” Glasper says. “They’re a live instrumental band that plays urban music, which is very scarce, but they’re also jazz-based. So, Keith understands the instrumental part, and he understands R&B music and hip hop.

“A lot of times when you play instrumental, an engineer might mix it really light in the booty—there’s no bass, no mmph to it. But Keith understands all that stuff, plus he’s a musician himself. And that makes everything easier, when you have an engineer who is a musician.”