Less Is More

Cake’s John McCrea lives in 2011, but his stance is pure 1948. Cake is the last anti-establishment band, and McCrea is its prickly circus barker, a deceptively mellow fellow veiling lyrics rich in social criticism and harangues at a bloated America within the band’s primitive-sounding, almost folk productions.

Technology minimalists Cake return to the world of Pro Tools and plug-ins-but not without a flight

Cake’s John McCrea lives in 2011, but his stance is pure 1948. Cake is the last anti-establishment band, and McCrea is its prickly circus barker, a deceptively mellow fellow veiling lyrics rich in social criticism and harangues at a bloated America within the band’s primitive-sounding, almost folk productions. His mindset extends to Cake’s recording aesthetic: Showroom of Compassion, the Sacramento quintet’s first album since 2004’s Pressure Chief, was entirely recorded, mixed, and mastered using solar power. Self-produced and self-engineered, Showroom of Compassion revels in McCrea-speak, the articulate singer, lyricist, and Oakland, California resident dropping phrases like “tools of production,” “cognitive dissonance,” and “the magic of technology” in conversation as he skewers his targets. Of course, like any true believer bent on exposing fraud and avoiding waste, McCrea is suspicious of certain technology. Ask him why $5,000 microphones and expensive plate reverbs make him ill, and you’ll get an earful.

“There’s certainly an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ thing going on in all kinds of hi-fi systems going back to the ’60s,” McCrea says. “We have to avoid the idea that a microphone can be categorically better. And also that the cost or the status of a microphone is necessarily going to make it appropriate for a song.”

Cake—McCrea, Vincent DiFiore (trumpet, euphonium, keyboards), Xan McCurdy (guitar, synthesizer), Gabriel Nelson (bass, guitar, Rheem combo organ, bandalero) and Paulo Baldi (drums)—chose recording microphones based on what they used on tour. Cost-conscious, they didn’t bother with overheads or room mics when recording drums, nor did they treat the live room at their Sacramento house/studio, the Cake Shack. One UA 6176 was used as the constant mic pre/EQ/compressor; McCrea recorded vocals into a Shure KSM 27, which he regularly dropped on the floor when the sprechgesang mood grabbed him, according to Cake’s mixing and mastering engineer, Pat Olguin. Budgetary concerns definitely play a role in McCrea’s recording views, but it’s the fetishism of gear that bothers him most.

“I am not saying a Shure SM 57 is better than a vintage Telefunken or RCA mic; you just have to careful assuming that it’s appropriate for the song,” he says. “Don’t come in with preconceived ideas that an expensive mic is necessarily going to be better. You have to let your ears guide you, not your sense of economics or studio propriety. That is a very big mistake that a lot of engineers and producers make. Assuming an expensive mic is better is wasteful, and it doesn’t seem to be pragmatic. I’ve seen engineers come in with an expensive mic and they get all these subtle tonalities and when it comes down to the mix, they carve out all the extra stuff that mic gave them because there wasn’t room for it in the mix. A hi-hat or some other instrument was using those frequencies, and that was more important. So the whole purpose for having that mic was removed. They could have used an SM57, or an old tape recorder mic from 1973.”

Do Luddites Dream of Electric Plug-ins?
Cake eschews vintage technology, but when it comes to Pro Tools (version 8LE with a 003R interface), they’re all in. If anything, while Cake appears to be a simple band of straightforward musicians performing rather pedestrian parts within their catchy songs (“Sick of You” recently topped the Billboard chart at #14), Showroom of Compassion is as much a product of Pro Tools technology as anything on the Hot 100. Almost every Cake song is pored over on the grid, decisions being made based solely on how each part fits into the mix. And those parts are often stacked and stacked, and stacked again. Cake’s music may sound like it fell off the back of a delivery driver’s truck, but it’s a finely crafted, seriously engineered product.

Cake (left to right)—Paulo Baldi, Gabriel Nelson, Vince DiFiore, Xan McCurdy, and John McCrea.

“It might surprise people to know that we don’t just jam these songs out and we don’t record straightforwardly,” Gabe Nelson explains. “A lot of that might be because we’re not very good engineers. And we do like to edit. It’s us being able to take five thousand parts for all these different instruments, then matching them to each other. And keeping the dynamics interesting; that’s what we’re good at.

“We’ll take a trumpet part or guitar line,” he continues. “We’ll try it on the chorus, or on the verse, we’ll try a long version of the guitar part, then we’ll trim it way back to where it’s just a couple notes from the original solo. We just experiment and turn everything over a million times. It can be grueling. But in the end it works for us to really go through all this experimentation. Sometimes we end up right back where we started, but we try it every different way.”

And that occurred in practically every song. “Long Time,” which begins with a sequenced keyboard and includes drum machine, still sounds pretty simple—a Cake trademark. But that was just a starting point.

“Vince cracked it open,” Nelson explains. “He had this chord pattern for the keyboard [a Korg MicroKorg]; he recorded a bass line with it using a certain pattern. We tried reversing the bass line. We had to cut and paste all of these changes, then we reversed the phrasing. We were using a drum machine [Pro Tools Boom] at first, and we wanted to get real drums in there, too. We did ten drum takes; in the end, we made a mishmash of all the drum parts, and there were different drummers, too.

“‘Long Time’ has the most going on of all the songs,” he adds. “We sifted through that for days. That started out with an African beat; once the parts were stacked it, became more streamlined. ‘Bound Away,’ that was obviously simple. We didn’t do a techno beat on that one.”

“Easy to Crash” was another dense production workout. “The first thing we recorded was pretty bare-bones,” Xan explains. “Drums, bass, and guitar. And we had an arpeggiated keyboard line. It doesn’t even change keys; all the chords are surrounding one figure. We recorded guitar, bass, and drums around that. The Theremin line is the Motif 6. You get a keyboard station like that, you wonder how you will ever finish. It’s like Pro Tools, there are so many options, you can get stuck because you do want to try everything. But by the end of six months you have it down, you know what’s there, and you’re thinking, ‘wow, this only has 7,000 sounds?’”

A Mic is a Mic is a Mic
“I do all the miking,” Nelson says. “On the tour, before recording, I looked at the drums. They had a Shure Beta 52 on the kick and some expensive overheads, which we really didn’t use. So at the Cake Shack, we just put SM 57s on the toms, and an Audix mic from touring on the snare— mostly because it said ‘snare’ on it and it had a clip for attaching it to the rim. We bought a couple of mics because of what we saw onstage; I just wrote down the names. But we kept it on the cheap; we only got the Beta 52 and used SM 57s on the rest of the drum kit. We put the snare mic through the UA compressor and everything else directly through Pro Tools into the Digi 003 unit.”

Cake adopted many live miking setups in their recording sessions.

As with many bands, cost is a defining element. Sure, Cake had some hit singles in the mid-’90s. But after getting out of their Sony contract, the band wanted to regroup. Showroom of Compassion was recorded over five years, and McCrea wasn’t sure if the record would even see the light of day. His views on technology kept costs low while the band decided on their next move.

“There is a distrust going on between technology and the band,” Nelson says. “John thinks that these companies make microphones and charge a lot of money and the mics are really not much better. He is starting to change that opinion, but at the time, he was only willing to spend so much on mics. So I had to find the mics that were reasonably priced.

“Placement was pretty random for drums,” he continues. “We would put the mics on the drums, and say, ‘That sounds okay.’ Then a while later, somebody might move them. At first, we put SM57s way up in the air. But we only had five inputs in total, so we close-miked the drums. Keyboards [Moog Prodigy, Yamaha S-30, Rheem combo organ, Nord Lead, Alesis Micron] went direct. For guitars, we used a tiny Jordan amp, which weighs two pounds; Xan was too lazy to haul his amp down from Portland. We used a Beta 52 on the bass amp. We used the 57 on the Jordan, or sometimes a Shure KSM 27, which we also used on the voice a lot. John liked that mic; he’s got a baritone voice and it was able to capture all his lows but it still had a little edge. So we got his voice to cut, but without making it tiny or thin. That was a big deal; that is when John started to realize that mics do make a difference.

“Our idea was to buck the system, do it on the cheap, and make it work, no matter what. We figured The Beatles did Sgt. Pepper’s on a 4- track. I mean, Abbey Road is gorgeous. Beat that! It’s very pure. And warm.”

An Engineer’s Take
Engineer Patrick Olguin (VT Productions) has worked with the Black Eyed Peas, E-40, and Papa Roach, and knows what matters most: the band’s good vibrations. Except for some frustrating mixing/mastering concerns, Olguin embraced Cake’s DIY approach.

“I am firm believer in working at somebody’s comfort level,” he says. “My studio has very large assortment of high-end vintage outboard gear, and I like working like that. But I also like working at the comfort level Cake works at it. They’re working in the box. They feel confident that they can make changes when they need to. I don’t look at it as a limitation as much as I do a little bit more of a challenge. Overall, Cake sound like they sound because of what I refer to as ‘bone tone.’ When Xan plays a guitar, he achieves a certain tone with his fingers. Gabe is the same way. Run him through any mic pre and you can’t get away from his sound. Same with John. A Telefunken might be wasted on him; his voice cuts through in a very distinct way.”

Olguin brought in his very vintage, very expensive gear to master Showroom of Compassion. He couldn’t master elsewhere, as Cake insisted that every element of the recording be solar-powered.

“I brought in a Pultec EQP-1A, from the ’60s,” Olquin says. “We used that to make the low-end bigger sounding, and for some high-end tweaking. And we used a Sontec EQ on some songs, an old MEP 250. And a Millenia EQ is everywhere. A Tube-Tech LCA 2B tube compressor is my main mastering compressor; it pumps in just the right way. It tends to make the bottom end a little bit bigger without sounding overdone. It’s a great leveling compressor overall, and made it sound like a record. The Tube-Tech was used for the mid elements, and the side elements were processed through a custom compressor that I built.

Engineer Patrick Olguin.

“I master the mid elements separately from the left or right side,” he continues. “You have more control that way; your kick, snare, and vocals and bass will all show up in the middle of the mix. They’re mostly panned center. Overheads, keyboards, backup vocals, horns, guitars, will show up in the sides. I like to treat those separately, so if I am EQing the general mix with the mid elements, it doesn’t affect the cymbal and guitars. It lets you widen the mix more if you want to. It’s more difficult doing it all in the box. But I would rather the band be comfortable than me.”

Embracing the Beast
Though McCrea maintains a pure aesthetic, for the first time ever on a Cake record, he embraced reverb for vocals. But it took a while. “On all our previous albums, I had a moratorium against reverb,” McCrea says. “And I had a moratorium against acoustic piano. I didn’t want us to sound classy. I didn’t want us to sound grandiose, so no reverb.

When the band started, it was a reactionary response to what I saw as the grandiosity and false low self-esteem of grunge,” he continues. “We wanted to be small and in-your-face. We thought, in a country as bloated in a culture as prosperous and excessive as this, that the only truly subversive thing you could do was to be small. All those effects like reverb reminded me of The Wizard of Oz—the guy behind all the machinery, the manufactured importance and classiness. We found perverse satisfaction in that. But now I can deal with a little bit of reverb.”

“We used the TL Space plug-in and the stock impulse libraries in Pro Tools,” Olguin says. “I also like to use [Pro Tools’] D-Verb for some of the delay-sounding reverbs. It adds a certain character, and it sticks out a little bit more than the TL Space reverb seems to. And there is a little editing going on, as far as automating the reverb returns, so that it disappears and makes it a little bit less obvious in the gaps of songs. I like to have that bounce going on while John’s singing, but they don’t like to hear the after-effects of it.”

The megaphone effect on McCrea’s voice in “Sick of Me” is Olguin’s judicious use of Pro Tools Lo-Fi compression, as well as other basic plug-ins. But when it comes to vocals, nothing gets in the way of McCrea’s one ritual: “Sometime I burn a candle, but I wonder why I am doing it,” McCrea says, laughing. “I guess it gives me something to look at. It’s simple, and it distracts me a little bit. I really do that! Honestly. When I am feeling daunted by a vocal, I will do something to distract myself from the challenge. I do get nervous sometimes. I am not cool when it comes to vocals. I don’t have a great voice, but I am a perfectionist. That is the cognitive dissonance that creates a little nervousness.”

McCrea is not against comping when necessary, pure-fectionist that he is. “I prefer getting a live take all the way through if I can,” he says, “but I can’t always to that. More often, I will like the first verse from one take, and the second verse from another take. What I don’t like is when I have to punch in a word. I can always hear that for the rest of my life. The goal is to get something live, all the way through the first take or second take. It’s dangerous to go back and forth from word to word. Because there are very subtle rhythm variances in a vocal take, and you lose consistency doing that, I think. If you’re really getting a vocal and it really feels good, the reason it feels good is because there is some repetition of emphasis. That is very subtle and hard to repeat. And if you’re just cutting one word or line and cutting to another one and returning to the first one, then you’re losing that repetition that is so satisfying. I’ve made mistakes in the past with that, where there’s been too much cutting back and forth.”

At the end of the day, when the recording is completed, McCrea ultimately doesn’t want Cake to sound too good. This isn’t a T Bone Burnett record, after all. It’s not even a Phil Collins record. “We don’t want to sound classy,” he says. “We don’t want to sound expensive; that goes against what we are. I hated it when blues records started using really good microphones, when the drums sounded more like prog rock and less like music from the street. Blues is supposed to be about being on the street and not having excess; it’s about scarcity. Cake has a little bit of that esthetic. Less is more. And more for us is not more.

“If you need an expensive grand piano to make classy music, then you need that. Get back to the paper route and earn money for the next few years. But if your music is more of a down to earth, economical esthetic, the means of production are at middle-class level now. That is such a great thing, and people don’t talk enough about it. The tools of production are now accessible to everyone.”

Showroom of Compassion proves a DIY project can hit the charts, that you can buck the system and win, and that you can make your own music, your way, on your own terms. It also proves that the major label stranglehold is anything but all-encompassing.

“I was expecting the system would be so corrupt that we would disappear, like Prince,” McCrea says. Maybe I was wrong about the music business. Maybe you can get stuff through now without being connected to the huge machine. I told everyone we are going to release the record on our own label, but we’ll never be on a late-night talk show again. I was wrong. I was sure it was over for us, but I wanted to release the album anyway. I am sure there are opportunities that will not be available to us, but it’s not as bleak as I thought it would be. Maybe that’s why I was subconsciously dragging my feet for so many years with this album. But I was pleasantly surprised.”