Little Dragon: The 'Nabuma Rubberband' Sessions

Mixing Instruments and Synths In the Studio
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SWEDISH FOURSOME Little Dragon keeps the musical job descriptions loose. Members include vocalist Yukimi Nagano, Hakan Wirenstrand on keyboards, Fredrik Wallin on bass and keyboards, and Erik Bodun on drums—both acoustic and synthetic. But each member is involved in all aspects of the Little Dragon sound. On their fourth album, Nabuma Rubberband, Little Dragon taps into a soulful side, veering into R&B tones and organic elements.

Part of the softer sound of Nabuma Rubberband is attributable to Little Dragon’s choice of material and part of it comes from Jaycen Joshua, who mixed the album. This is the second time Little Dragon went outside their lair for mixing; the previous time was for their sophomore album, Machine Greens, where, according to Wirenstrand, some of the vibe got lost in the process.

Joshua’s first attempt at mixing Nabuma Rubberband also conflicted with Little Dragon’s desires—particularly his auto-tuning of Nagano’s voice, which is a big no-no in the Little Dragon camp. Joshua, who is known for his radio-friendly touch in the soul and R&B world had to adjust his approach with his second stab at Nabuma Rubberband. This time it worked on both sides.

“[Joshua] made it easier to listen to,” Wirenstrand says. “He said that people want him to mix according to his taste, but we didn’t want that. He was really open and listened to where we were and where we wanted to go. It was super professional. He made a contemporary, pop-y, radio-ish album.”

“It was interesting to try someone external, to let go of the music,” says Wallin. “That was tricky in the beginning because it’s so precious to us and we produce and mix at the same time so it’s part of the song’s character. You have to trust that the song and production has its own life and it’s going to come through, even if someone else, someone that has more of a focus and that’s what they do, works on it. And it definitely came through.”

The warmer sound on Nabuma Rubberband also stems from the instrumentation. This album marks the first time Little Dragon uses actual strings, played by Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra’s string section. Production of the song “Lurad,” for example, started with synth strings from Cubase’s HALion. Little Dragon then wrote some score for the live strings, but when the Symphony’s strings played it, it wasn’t what they had it mind; they needed to clarify their intentions further.

“It was the phrasing,” says Wirenstrand. “We had to communicate a lot. They knew they were in a different situation than their normal setting and they were up for it. We’ve got the notes and the right time signature, but then there is glissando and staccato, all these things that make it musical.

“Most classical musicians are used to getting as much dynamic directions,” concurs Wallin. “We haven’t worked in the classical field much but after a while we made our point by being more descriptive, explaining, singing of the melodies, and playing the original.”

When songs on the album are performed live, however, the symphonic strings have to get taken back to the synthesizers, as do other parts. Synthesizing various elements to take on the road takes longer than the actual rehearsal, especially since the members of Little Dragon make a point of avoiding loops and backing tracks if they can help it, finding it more interesting to change things up in the moment.

“If the sound has a specific character, you want to play with that live,” says Wallin. “Certain sounds are a bit more generic, so you could probably tweak those out from the synth live. But sounds that have been processed a lot and are specific combinations of different synths or software, we sample the stems from the recording. But sometimes they’re too short and not enough to sample and work with, then you have to re-create it more the best way you can.”

Wallin uses a Nord Wave live while Wirenstrand uses a Yamaha Motif with a MIDI controller. This combination of sample workstation and synth engine, where the sample is either mixed from the stem playing straight or in conjunction with synth sounds, provides them with the character they’re looking for live. Bodun also triggers kick and snare drum samples from the stems on his Roland SPX pads, which are played along with his acoustic drum set, creating layers of synthetic drum sounds.

Drummer Erik Bodun manipulates parts recorded using the Drumagog plug-in to make them sound more organic. During recording the Drumagog plug-in is used a lot; Bodun tweaks it, so it doesn’t sound like a plug-in. In some cases, such as on “Cat Rider,” everything is played live. “Bodun is the best drummer I know,” says Wallin. “At the same time, there’s something phat about the drum machine sounds, so the combination of his groove and touch with an 808 is perfect to make it more punchy and present. It’s the best of both worlds.”

On the plug-in front, Nabuma Rubberband marks the first time Little Dragon has used Universal Audio software, which allowed the group to color in the sounds and create sounds characteristic of hardware that the band had never had the budget for in the past.

“We often joke about having GAS: Gear Addiction Syndrome,” says Wallin. “There always another plug-in that can give you something else, something more.”

Lily Moayeri is based in Los Angeles. Visit her website at pictures-of-lily.com.

Bonus! Check out a list of choice recording gear used on the Nabuma Rubberband sessions HERE.