So goes a hook-laden lyric from Psycho-Delic-Ghetto-Vibe (Artform Entertainment, 2006), the new release from SonnyBoy. Anyone who records as a one-man band knows that the art of sounding simple and natural can get complicated fast. Digital audio technology has incredible capabilities, but one thing that no workstation can offer is the gift of groove. Even players with an excellent sense of time and feel can have difficulty building a convincing groove outside of a group setting.
So how is it that SonnyBoy (aka Shel Riser) managed on his own to sound like the hippest soul outfit this side of Paisley Park? He wrote, recorded, mixed, and mastered Psycho-Delic-Ghetto-Vibe almost entirely himself, and it's as genuine as a Motown record and as warm as a crushed-velvet sofa.
“I've been able to nudge my way toward getting it somewhat right,” Riser says with a dose of humility. Describing his process, he says, “If I sit down at the kit, I try to keep that bass line in my head. I try to get into the other instrument as well as the one I'm playing so that I know where they both should be. I always focus on how to make my drums and bass feel as natural as I possibly can.
“Another key, for me, is laying down a scratch vocal,” he emphasizes. “Even if I don't have the lyrics, as long as I have an idea of what the hook will be, that's what I try to build around. The flow of everything needs to be right before you start making things permanent.”
If this all sounds earthy and retro, note that Riser and his coproducer, Jinsoon “Dr. Jay” Kim, are heavily entrenched on the digital side. Beyond the vocals and a modest set of time-honored instruments — a Nord keyboard, a MusicMan StingRay bass, and Fender Teles and Strats — almost everything was laid down with Propellerhead Reason. “That program is a monster,” says Riser, who used it ReWired to MOTU Digital Performer on an Apple Power Mac G4. He and Kim recorded strings and horn parts with Reason and wired up drum pads to trigger the flexible kits in Redrum.
Sometimes the trick behind an effortless sound is using what you need from programs like Reason and DP without getting caught up in all they have to offer. When things aren't working, it can be tempting to stop recording and search for a fix in the pull-down menus — even before you know what the problem really is. Riser finds it better to play through the part and listen back patiently.
“I try to give a track some air and let it breathe,” he says. “I know that I can get caught up in overanalyzing a track if I don't give it time. I'll never understand why it isn't working if I don't give it time and space; that way, I can go figure out later what's wrong with it.” It's like the DAW police are speaking through a megaphone: “Take your hands off the keyboard and step away from the computer. Step away from the computer!”
“We have a way of getting things to flow naturally so we don't overprocess a track in the course of trying to make it sound organic,” Riser concludes. “Otherwise, it takes away from songwriting. It's one thing to add after a song is built. But before I start adding tricks, I just want to make sure that a song says what it needs to say.”
Home base: Brooklyn, New York
Sequencer of choice: MOTU Digital Performer
Favorite bass: MusicMan StingRay