Buckets N’ Bass Drums

J. Robbins Goes for Massive Grooves on Rahim’s Latest Album

It’s the hottest day of summer, and New York-based indie rock merchants Rahim are once again making the trip to Baltimore to team up with producer J. Robbins. The mission: Record the as-of-yet-untitled follow-up to 2006’s much celebrated Ideal Lives.

A D.C. music scene legend in his own right, Robbins has sat behind the board for bands such as The Promise Ring, Dismemberment Plan, and Jets to Brazil. But it’s not just his production chops that make him a perfect match for Rahim—a post-punk band born from the influence of the famed Dischord, Jade Tree, and DeSoto records movement. Robbins is also one of Rahim’s musical inspirations, having served time in seminal D.C. punk-rock bands such as Government Issue, Jawbox, Burning Airlines, and, most recently, Report Suspicious Activity.

“We wanted to work with J because of a couple records he has made—especially the Faraquet album [The View From This Tower],” says Rahim drummer/percussionist Phil Sutton.
The admiration is reciprocal.

“I love Rahim,” says Robbins. “They’re the only band I know with an equal abiding love of no-wave post-punk, African music, and the Beatles—and they still sound only like themselves.” 

Entering Robbins’ Pro Tools HD2-equipped Magpie Cage studio, Sutton and bandmates Michael Friedrich (lead vocals, guitars, keys) and Chris Bordeaux (bass, guitar, keys) had ten days to record and mix 12 new songs chock full of buzzing synth lines and pulsing rhythms. In addition, Rahim was looking for a more intimate sound than what the band achieved on Ideal Lives.
“We wanted the listener to hear everything up close,” says Sutton, “as if he or she is watching us practice in our basement.”

First things first—get a tight drum sound. To do this, Robbins deadened the Magpie Cage live room.

“I have two big plywood panels that hang off the wall at about an 80-degree angle to the floor,” he says. “One side is very reflective and the other is dead. For Ideal Lives, we had the live side turned out, so for this session, we’ll turn the panels around.”

Then, Robbins drew from what he calls “the Steve Albini” files: Tune the drums meticulously, avoid muffling, use condensers as close mics, and employ the M/S (mid-side) stereo-miking technique to capture a room perspective of the kit. The M/S setup consisted of a Neumann M147 (mid) and AKG C12VR (side) placed about head level, directly in front of the kit above the kick drum. For the snare, Robbins captured the attack of the top head and the rattle of the snares by placing a beyerdynamic M201 on the top head, and a Shure KSM 141 on the bottom head. A Shure Beta 98 mini-condenser was clipped on the rack tom, and an AKG C414 was positioned directly over the floor tom.

“Phil’s kick drum has both heads on it,” Robbins remarks, “so I miked both the inside and outside heads. At the mixdown, I occasionally used a ducker to key off the bottom snare mic to control the bleed from the snare onto the beater-side kick mic. That’s something I learned about from a band that had recorded with Albini.”

Robbins also placed two Crown PZMs on the floor—approximately six feet back from the kit—and a single Oktava ML52 positioned roughly one foot above Sutton’s head. The Oktava was run through a TL Audio Ivory 2 5050 Valve Preamp/Compressor combo with the input gain cranked and the compressor engaged. With the basic drum tracks down, Rahim and Robbins begin experimenting with various percussive overdubs.

“Going into this record, Rahim talked about the way Brian Eno made those Talking Heads albums [Fear of Music, Remain in Light], and the Eno/David Byrne collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, where each song was basically a jam, and then all these overdubs would get stacked up on top,” says Robbins. “The final arrangements were determined by subtracting certain elements throughout the song. It’s a really cool way to make records—although if you only have ten days to make an album, it’s probably something to keep in the back of your mind, rather than apply to every song.”

While it wasn’t the most time-effective approach to assembling a record, Rahim were dead-set on following the overdub method. Laying down basic tracks quickly, the band began chipping away at an ambitious list of overdubs that was affixed to the control room wall.

“We were going for more of an industrial-percussion feel,” explains Sutton. “Instead of using bongos to get that world beat sound, we incorporated really raw and abrasive sounds—like garbage cans and Spackle buckets—to bring in a sort of urban-style groove.”

All three members contributed percussion overdubs. Robbins had never miked a bucket or a trashcan before, and the operation was further complicated by the fact the musicians’ feet would tip the bucket up while they were playing.

“On some tracks, we put a Shure Beta 52 under the bucket for that deep ‘P.A. kick drum’ low end,” says Robbins. “Otherwise, we miked them at a distance of about four or five feet away with either the M147 or the M147/C12VR M/S array.”

Rahim’s main goal in the studio is to make a record capturing the energy and immediacy of its live shows. So, percussion overdubs notwithstanding, the band decided to stick pretty close to its stage instruments for the new recordings. Robbins miked the guitar amps with a beyerdynamic M500—complete with a Steven Sank ribbon-stock mod—and a Royer R121, both placed off-axis, at about five inches away from the speaker, and run through API 312s. For the acoustic guitar tracks, Robbins aimed a M147 at the soundhole, and also pointed an AKG C414 TL2 toward the soundhole from the 12th fret. For Bordeaux’s bass, Robbins used an Electro-Voice RE20 and Audio-Technica AT4033, both run through a Universal Audio 2-610.

“I used no compression on the bass,” notes Robbins. “They have a weird Fender Bassman cabinet with 12" speakers aimed in at each other at a 90-degree angle. So I took off the speaker grille, and put the mics inside the cabinet—each on-axis to an opposite speaker, but 90 degrees away from each other.”

If any studio techniques pique Rahim’s interest, it’s the tactics used on early Beatles recordings, such as panning instruments hard left and hard right.

“For Ideal Lives, we panned the bass and guitar across from each other,” says Robbins. “This time, because there are so many more overdubs, we had to pan things a little differently. For example, we used two mics on the guitar amp, so I panned one mic to the left, and one to the right. It’s hard-panned, but it’s still a fairly narrow stereo image of the guitar. Then, we brought in the ‘extras’ in a kind of fun way, so you may hear the cowbell all the way over to one side, and the tambourine coming in way over to another side.”

Ten and a half days after hitting Magpie Cage, every song was recorded and mixed—a feat Robbins attributes to strong and decisive songwriting and pre-production.

“The mix is really mostly about balancing the tracks,” he says. “It’s down to the band’s sense for arranging its material and their sounds. Rahim knew exactly where everything belonged before they got into the studio, and that, to me, is the best way to work.”

Home Cooking

Adding and subtracting percussion overdubs to basic tracks is a technique that has been employed, to varying degrees, in a number of different genres. The trick, of course, is ensuring that all those cool overdubs actually add rhythmic interest, rather than run the groove off the rails, or gum up the percussive impact. Happily, Rahim also wanted to evoke the panoramic stereo of old Beatles records, and savvy panning and positioning of mix elements can help clarify even the densest amalgam of overdubs.

The first step to percolating rhythmic layers is to consider narrowing the stereo spread of the drum kit. Pan the kick and snare to center, and pan the toms and overheads no wider than 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock. Now, experiment with moving the percussion overdubs around the basic drum pulse based on their frequency ranges (low end, midrange, high end). Try doing a bit of a Phil Spector-ish, monaural wall of sound with bass-oriented instruments—such as big floor toms and congas—and pan them in the middle. You’ll also need to tweak the relative volumes of these overdubs to ensure that the low end delivers a propulsive, dance-club boom, rather than just a bunch of muddy bass. If anything starts getting goopy, pan the offending low-end overdub ever so slightly to one side, but leave most of the hard-right and hard-left space for midrange and treble elements. I tend to pan midrange sounds (slapped congas, tablas, wood block, etc.) between 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock, and high-end parts (tambourines, triangles, hi-hat counter-rhythms, etc.) full left or right at 7 o’clock and 5 o’clock, taking care to nudge level relationships so as not to have everything chattering right in the listener’s face. I also mute parts here and there to open up mix space, and then add elements back to punch up a song section as needed. Ultimately, you should go with whatever methodology works for you, and as long as the groove cooks, you can rest assured you’ve managed your percussive textures brilliantly.
—Michael Molenda