Every month, Electronic Musician reveals technology and tips for improving your music. And in Grammy season, our usual approach gets revved up big time, to bring you the sonic secrets behind some of the most celebrated productions of the year.
Here, we give you an insider's view of 12 nominated projects in various categories, from Alternative Rock to Dance/Electronica to Metal. Ever wonder what's in Beck's vocal-recording chain, or what makes Jay Joyce's productions so extraordinary? These profiles will give you a better appreciation of this year's nominees, and tips you might use on your next project.
Album of the Year, Best Rock Performance, Best Rock Song, Best Rock Album, Best Engineered Album Non-Classical
Beck: Morning Phase and the song "Blue Moon"
Beck's latest includes parts recorded in numerous studios worldwide; much of the basic band tracking and string parts were done with engineer Darrell Thorpe in various locations. But the facility most used on the project was the artist's home studio, where Beck recorded to Pro Tools with engineer David "Elevator" Greenbaum. The facility, which includes two control rooms and one live room, is fitted with a custom console and loads of vintage mic preamps, EQs, compressors, and effects.
"It provided a convenience and comfort that commercial studios don't always give you," says engineer Greenbaum. "Most of the time there were overdubs of guitars, percussion, vocals, or various other instruments going on in one room, and editing going on simultaneously in the other."
Greenbaum reveals some of the pieces and approach behind the album's lovely, airy vocal parts: "Beck's vocals were all recorded with a U47; however, the rest of the chain would vary song to song," the engineer says. "Before beginning work on the album, we did a massive series of blind tests of a bunch of different consoles and mic pre's.
"This process had a really big influence on what gear we used for the album. I highly recommend any engineer do this with the gear they are using or considering using. The results can be very surprising. Our minds project a lot onto what we are hearing based on preconceived notions about each piece of gear. By blind testing, you can negate this and therefore get a much more honest and accurate picture of the color and nuances of your gear, leading to better, more musical decision making when deciding on a vocal chain, or anything else.
"Though there was a lot of the best gear on the planet used on this record, the real magic bullet was Beck’s meticulousness. His attention to detail combined with impeccably good taste are the biggest contributors to what made this album sound the way it does."
Producer of the Year, Non-Classical
Joyce is recognized for diverse projects this year, ranging from Sleeper Agent’s About Last Night to Cage The Elephant’s Melophobia, Amos Lee’s Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song, and Eric Church’s The Outsiders. And just as he cannot be pinned to a single music genre, Joyce tends to take on on a variety of roles in the studio, from producing to engineering to playing. “Every record is different. For the punk record I just finished with FIDLAR, I was a totally different guy than the one I was during the previous project with Halestorm,” he says.
“Some of my creative responsibilities are discussed before we get into recording. The artist may need songs and wants to write in the studio with me, or he doesn't have a band and I'm playing multiple instruments. Some records require so much attention and concentration instrumentally or structurally that I leave it up to my engineer Jason Hall to handle the whole recording side of things. He's been working with me for a long, long time, and we barely have to talk when we're in the studio.”
To Joyce, capturing the magic of the moment will always be take precedence over tweaking gear. “I can't tolerate the ‘hit your snare again’ and ‘Hmm, should we run it through the Banana Eater 4000 or maybe the new Ball Grinder 410c I was reading about in Ball Sniffer Magazine?’ You gotta get out of the way or get out. All that matters is going to be gone in about five seconds, and if we don't get it, we're going to spend the whole day making it sound like we did. Someone once told me they'd shot out 50 mic preamps...50! I care a lot about the sound, and I spend long hours experimenting with things and breaking stuff, but I have to remember that if there's nothing good to record, then who cares?”
When asked to talk about sone of his favorite session, Joyce recalls recording Eric Church's beautifully spare "A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young" from The Outsiders. “[My engineer] Jason Hall and I had been messing around with sounds before Eric got there. We were busy getting the tape machine up to par (I have an old MCI tape machine that I love, but it's a bit finicky), and when Eric arrived, he started talking about the song. I said "Why don't you plug in that Gretch and play it for me?" I had just moved into my church studio, which was a big change from the confines of my old place Tragedy/Tragedy. So Eric began singing, his voice echoing through the church sanctuary, and Jason reached over and hit Record on the tape machine. We were really just making sure the machine was running smoothly, but when he finished singing, I think we all realized something amazing had just happened. I quickly suggested trying a few more takes, and it was obvious with each pass that whatever went on that first time was really incredible. If you listen to the recording on the album, you can actually hear that we didn't get the beginning of the song, and you can hear the assistants moving shit around in the background. It was pure magic. But hmm, which mic pre did we use?”
Best Contemporary Instrumental Album
Nathan East: Nathan East
The first solo album from beloved session bass player Nathan East comprises fresh interpretations of 13 of East's favorite tunes, featuring a few guest stars: Michael McDonald on "Moondance," Sara Bareilles on "I Can Let Go Now," and Eric Clapton on "Can't Find My Way Home."
[Producer/label exec] Chris Gero and I took a white board and put down about 50 tunes that we both liked," East recalls. "Some of those songs were especially close to my heart. 'Can't Find My Way Back Home,' I used to play with Eric Clapton onstage."
But one of the sweetest moments is East's cover of "Yesterday," which starts: "Are you ready, Dad?" "Ready, Son." Nathan East and young Noah East play a tender, beautiful bass-and-piano duet that would tug the heartstrings, even if the listener didn't know the relationship.
"Your heart is just torn wide open, and it's just surreal, it's magic, and it's everything," East says about recording with Noah. "Since music is such a spiritual thing, it awakens a lot of spirit in your body."
That duet was recorded in Ocean Way Nashville. Other sessions took place in Yamaha's studio in Franklin, Tenn., and in Ocean Way Hollywood, where East has logged thousands of hours over the years, recording with Clapton, Phil Collins, Kenny Rogers, and many other luminaries.
For all of the sessions, East brought his TC Electronic Blacksmith amp and Radial Firefly DI. "It has two inputs, so I can use my electric upright or my electric bass simultaneously and set up individual tones and levels," he says.
East's main instrument is his signature Yamaha BBNE2 bass. "We also have a six-string version of that bass that I use for solos and high-register stuff," he says.
East has been working with Yamaha for more than 30 years, and on other people's albums even longer. His first solo record is a long-held dream finally realized.
"I'm completely honored that it was recognized," East says. "The first call I received [after nominations were announced] was from Chris Gero, and then my phone blew up with messages. That was really a special day, after all the work we put into the record."
Best Rock Performance
Arctic Monkeys "Do I Wanna Know" from the album AM
The opening track on the Arctic Monkeys' fifth studio album, AM, fascinates with a roomy sound, where simple but unusual beats and voice are judiciously blown up with fantastic distortion and vocal harmonics.
The band made their album with producer/engineer James Ford—who also worked on the albums Favourite Worst Nightmare, Humbug, and Suck It And See—in Sage & Sound Recording Studios (L.A.), beginning by capturing ideas and demos to a 4-track cassette recorder that singer/guitarist Alex Turner had received as a birthday gift. They then expanded upon some those early ideas, and built tracks piece by piece.
“We’ve always gone for a big, live sound,” says drummer Matt Helders. “We wanted people to know that we sat there and played it, from start to finish ... If we can’t do it live, why put it on a record? Now that we’ve gotten more comfortable and better at being a studio band, we relaxed that. We thought it more important to make a good sounding record than hold on to the idea that we should have to be able to play it live.”
“We focused a lot on percussion, lots of claps, tambourines, and strangely-miked drum setups,” says Ford. “The percussion was generally recorded with a Coles 4038 ribbon microphone, but often there was a trash microphone in the room going through a cassette four-track or a Roland Space Echo through an amp or even through guitar pedals. Sometimes the simple backbone of a beat was done with a traditional drum setup and overdubbed with a random setup in the middle of the room, like [Helders] playing a bass drum with sticks and an old military snare.”
Ford captured vocals to a Neumann U67 mic through a Neve or BAE pre and a UA 1176 or Empirical Labs Distressor. He notes that the approach the Monkeys took on this album was definitely a departure from their previous albums: “There were definitely more vocal layers than normal, with important parts tracked in octaves,” he says. “[Turner] would take the lead and generally double his voice the octave up in falsetto. [Helders] would also track this octave up and do any high backing vocals and [O’Malley] would generally track the octave down with his nice, rich baritone.”
Best Alternative Rock Album
St. Vincent: St. Vincent
Producer, engineer, and musician John Congleton connected with Annie Clark through their work with a Polyphonic Spree project, and has since collaborated with Clark on four of her albums as St. Vincent: Actor, Strange Mercy, Love This Giant, and this year’s St. Vincent.
Congleton says that on St.Vincent, Clark upped the songwriting ante. “Simply put, the songs were more in a written form from day one of recording, whereas there was a lot of putting songs together [in the studio] on Strange Mercy. Upwards of about a half a year before we started recording, she was sending me songs.”
Capturing the essence of the performance was critical for both Congleton and Clark. “I just don’t believe in perfect sounds, so I don’t look for them; I just go with what feels right in the moment,” he says. “I like to work as fast as possible and operate on a visceral level. Luckily, Annie feels the same, so we get along well in that capacity.
“I came up learning real, honest-to-god engineering chops, and I certainly can capture anything completely literal, but there are a lot of people who can do that. And after doing this for so many years, what really impresses me is a sound or a vibe I’ve never heard before, or an impassioned performance...and none of those things seem to come out of grinding away at something.”
With his work on so many dark-ish, richly layered albums by St Vincent, Amanda Palmer, Antony and the Johnsons, Polyphonic Spree, to name a few, it might be tempting to label Conglan as having a particular sonic style, an idea that he rejects. “I suppose it’s cool, but never let that overtake the job at hand; otherwise it’s just vanity. I would prefer that the talk of a sonic footprint of a producer be more of a discussion of music journalists, geeks, rock bios, and people who choose to care about such things; otherwise you might be getting the way of what’s important.”
Best Country Album, Best Engineered Album Non-Classical
Lee Ann Womack: The Way I’m Livin’
This warm, heartfelt album from Grammy, ACM, and CMA Award-winning artist Lee Ann Womack was recorded with the same team that has contributed to Miranda Lambert’s recent successes: producer Frank Liddell (also Womack’s husband), producer/musician Glenn Worf, and producer/engineer Chuck Ainlay.
Working in the Frontstage studio at Soundstage, Nashville, Ainlay captured Womack’s band live to Nuendo at 96k/24-bit; Womack sang a scratch vocal during tracking.
“With a singer like that, that's so important, because the musicians feed off of her," Ainlay says. "The musicians are not just reading chord charts. They're responding to the singer, and they as soon as Lee Ann started singing, the whole level of the playing field gets raised; the whole thing would come to life."
Ainlay’s vocal chain for Womack was a Neumann U67 through a Martek MSS10 mic pre and a touch of Tube-Tech CL-1A compression.
“She has so much dynamic capability and control,” Ainlay says. “She's one of the greatest female country singers ever. Her pitch is amazing. With her, it’s really about trying not to get in the way.
“In fact, after we tracked the vocals, Frank said, ‘It feels like there's a bit of a veil on her vocal.’ So I said, 'Well, let me take the windscreen away.' It was just one of those sheer nylon-stocking-type windscreens, but we pulled that away, and it was like a little bit of a curtain was lifted. It's a minuscule thing, but it sounded more open and it made her more reachable, like she's right there in front of the speakers."
Best Blues Album
Ruthie Foster: Promise of a Brand New Day
This soulful nominee was produced by artist Meshell Ndegeocello, who is also nominated in the Best Jazz Instrumental Album category, for Jason Moran’s All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller, which she co-produced with Don Was. On Foster's release, Ndegeocello not only served as producer, but also played all of the bass parts live on the floor with a band of musicians she selected for the album.
"We recorded the music first so Ruthie could come in, hear the track, and just let loose vocally," Ndegeocello says. "I wanted her to be able to think about just her instrument, owning the lyrics and the vocals, and give that her full attention. Her voice is overwhelming and she can do so many things with it; I just wanted to her to be free to let whatever was going to come, come."
The musicians Ndegeocello brought into the project are players that she has enjoyed working with on her own albums: "[Guitarist] Chris Bruce is the kind of musician I envy and love to work with," Ndegeocello says. "He can play anything, anytime, and anywhere and can find that one angle, the sentiment behind the sentiment, that gives his tone the kind of dimension and feeling that make it richer than others. He did that for Ruthie, without ever overpowering anyone else. He is as steeped in the blues as the rest of us, but his sensibility is modern, which is why I asked him and Doyle [Bramhall II] to be on the album."
Having a comfortable working relationship with the musicians is also helpful to anyone doing double-duty as producer and musician. "I love to play and I love to produce, but I am sometimes [too] distracted by one to fully enjoy the other," Ndegeocello says. "The rewards are just in being able to feel in it and out of it, to tweak out on the inside and then tweak out on the outside. It helps me understand where I am headed when I know the notes that well."
Best Metal Performance
Mastodon: "High Road" from the album Once More ’Round the Sun
Produced by Nick Raskulinecz (Alice in Chains, Rush), Mastodon's latest album was recorded to Pro Tools mainly by engineer Nathan Yarborough in Rock Falcon Studios (Franklin, Tenn.). Additional engineering was provided by Tom Tapley, Jon Albritton, and Noah Landis.
"Rock Falcon is part of a larger facility that’s about 30 miles south of Nashville, out in the woods," Yarborough says. "Nick and I took over a room down there about a year-and-a-half ago."
Yarborough works exclusively with Raskulinecz these days and says that one of the producer's strong suits is the way he digs into pre-production with his artists: "I think the biggest thing is him getting in there with the band, working on songs from the ground up," Yarborough says. "He's involved in the arrangements, looking at the smallest details and helping to construct songs."
Raskulinecz tracked most of Mastodon’s vocal takes privately—with just himself and bandmates Brent Hinds , Troy Sanders, and Bränn Dailor in the studio. Yarborough tracked most of the instrument parts, however, including Hinds' and Bill Kelliher's guitar parts.
"We usually start with their primary amp and then we'll add a couple supplemental amps to it with a splitter," Yarborough says. "They're usually playing a two or three different amps at a time, and I single-mic each cabinet. On this session, I think we used mainly [Neumann] FET 47s, [Shure] SM7s, and maybe [Sennheiser MD] 421s."
On Bränn Dailor's drums, Yarborough close-miked each piece of the kit, and placed pairs of [Neumann] U87s and Coles 4038s as room mics. "We're able to get good sounds out of the main tracking room, off the control room," Yarborough says. "It's not too live, but it's live in the right ways. Because the walls are not too far away, I feel we get sounds from the toms and snare drum that you can't get from a bigger room."
Best R&B Performance
Ledisi: “Like This” from the album The Truth
According to singer/songwriter Ledisi, The Truth, her most personal album to date, represents the culmination of positive changes in her journey toward self-discovery, and with her new attitude came a new songwriting process.
For "Like This," which she wrote with longtime collabortor Rex Rideout, she listened to a track he had started, wrote a melody down, told him to turn on the mic, and sang the whole song. “He was shocked! Usually I talk about what I want, but with this album I let everything come to me,” she says. “The Truth was so personal and painful to get out, I barely spoke about what I wanted; I just said, turn on the mic…I found freedom and strength going through my painful process and that's what I wanted to express. I am so grateful the songwriters and producers I chose went there with me. I gained a new attitude and a new audience because of it.”
For capturing those powerhouse vocal tracks, Ledisi likes to work with Neumann microphones (“they really help me get an amazing performance)” and engineers who are adept at isolating her vocals from her movement in the room. “I've recently started to learn how to stand in front of the mic and I've gotten better at pulling back…In a vocal session, I am looking for someone who can capture my dynamics, diction, and treat my vocals like they are present with the music. So many of today's producers are into covering up vocals with production. I am not to be covered. I'm a real singer! [laughs] I can hold my own. It's a shared moment.”
Best Dance/Electronic Album
Little Dragon: Nabuma Rubberband
Swedish arthouse electronic quartet Little Dragon move toward a mainstream sound on their soul-tinged fourth album, Nabuma Rubberband. To create a more radio-friendly aesthetic this time around, the band, who often mix their own projects, brought in engineer Jaycen Joshua.
“It was interesting to try someone external, to let go of the music,” says bassist/keyboardist Fredrik 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.”
Nabuma Rubberband also features the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra’s string section. Production sometimes started with Cubase HALion synth strings; when scoring for live strings, however, the band worked to clarify their intentions. “It was the phrasing,” says keyboardist Hakan 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,” adds 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.”