Inside Talk: Carmen Rizzo | Planes, Trains, and Hotel Rooms


Carmen Rizzo recently released his latest solo album, Looking Through Leaves.

Photo: Marc Goldstein

As an in-demand producer, remixer, and musician, Carmen Rizzo doesn''t have a ton of time left in his schedule for working on his solo albums. But by taking a laptop-based setup with him on the road, Rizzo can work in his down time between shows and sessions. That''s how he was able to accomplish much of the songwriting and production for his latest album, Looking Through Leaves (Electrofone, 2010). On this album, his third solo effort, Rizzo intentionally steered clear of the world-music influences that filter through a lot of his work and tried to go for a purer electronic sound.

When he''s off the road, the two-time Grammy winner makes his professional home in a well-appointed project studio (see Fig. 1), which is located in a commercial building in downtown L.A. During his career, he''s worked with a diverse group of artists including Seal, BT, Coldplay, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, to name a few. I had a chance to speak with Rizzo recently about his new solo release and his production techniques and gear.

The new album, Looking Through Leaves, sounds great. What was your overall plan for this record, musically?
To just do something that I don''t always get a chance to do on most records. I''m fortunate that people hire me for my style—for better or for worse. But when you do an artist record, there are no boundaries and you can really express yourself the way you want. And when I write music and do records, it sort of is dark and kind of goes to the heart or the soul, and this record kind of naturally came out that way, where it was a little darker than I expected.

Tell me about your process when doing a solo album. What''s your workflow?
I''m usually working on other people''s albums, so it''s difficult for me to kind of stop working, and say, “I''m going to write or record my own album.” So what I often do is, in between other projects, I have a little window, and as I find inspiration [I write the material]. And so that''s why this record was written mainly on planes and trains and in hotel rooms over the whole world.

Is Ableton Live your main DAW?
No, it''s actually [Avid] Pro Tools. I sequence MIDI; I''m probably one of the few people who actually use [Pro Tools] for MIDI. [Laughs] I do everything in Pro Tools, but Ableton is my second DAW, and I find that I do a lot of songwriting in Ableton. And, of course, I perform with Ableton. It''s becoming kind of a close second.

So when you''ve worked on a bunch of things in Live, and then you''re coming back to your Pro Tools setup, do you just ReWire them together and get the sounds through that way or do you bounce out stems?
Both. I either ReWire it or I freeze it. Because when you ReWire, you can''t use VST, and I have a lot of VST instruments so I have to print that stuff and then send it over. That''s the one drag about ReWire.

You have a Pro Tools HD setup in your L.A. studio, I assume.
I have an HD2 with the Universal Audio cards, the new ones [UAD-2], and a D-Command. I forget the name of it, it''s like the mini-ICON.

So you like working with a console?
Absolutely. I can''t understand how people make records with just a mouse. I realize [why you''d do it] if you''re disabled or on the road, but not for making serious records. I need to use a control surface, whether it''s a Euphonix or a D-Command of some kind. It makes no sense to me.

FIG. 1: A look inside the control room in Rizzo''s studio.

Photo: Wendy Le

Because of the moving fader part of it?
Yeah, it''s faders and knobs. I mean nowadays, all of us, I think all of us, are mixing as we go. Nothing is a demo, and for me, when I start to create something, it''s a finished product whenever I start it.

Right, most people I speak to say the same thing.
You''re mixing as you go, and I like to use the console as an instrument. And maybe I''m showing my age because I was kind of schooled that way, but I just think that you treat it much differently when you have knobs and faders as opposed to only a mouse. And maybe that''s just a technique, but...

I could see if you have an old Neve or SSL or something that has a sound that it''s imparting on your audio, but something like an ICON is more neutral and it''s all digital. So is it the physical motion of moving the faders and knobs that you like?
It''s the physical motion, yes. It''s not like, “Oh, running it through this Neve makes me smile.” It''s more like, “I need to push that fader to a level where I feel what I''m doing,”

A lot of people are drawing in automation curves to deal with level tweaking and have no mixer at all.
Well, I think that''s fine; I think that''s wonderful that we can all draw fades in. But I just think that something about having a control surface—whether or not it''s digitally controlled—means something as a performance. And I think that that''s something about performing—and maybe this is parlaying it to a live show more than in the studio, but not really. Everything can be treated as a performance, in a studio or onstage, and not all instruments are musical. What I mean by that is, the same thing with a cutoff filter of a synth—where you''re physically moving it—is often no different than playing a chord. And I just think that sometimes people forget about that, especially with technology, where you can automate everything and you can hit Play and it does something. You know, stage, of course, is different than in the studio, but there''s something about a control surface that I need and that I like when I make my records.

So tell me about some of the synths that you''re using on the album.
I should point out that my writing partner, Jamie Muhoberac, a wonderful musician and dear friend, worked together with me in getting sounds, and all those sounds were very well-crafted and took time. But I would say my favorite synths that I used on the record were the Rod Papen stuff.

Which ones? Do you use Blue?
I used Predator an awful lot, I used SubBoomBass, and Blue a little bit. But Predator was probably the most-used synth on my record. And probably Alchemy by Camel Audio; I love their stuff, as well as the Cakewalk stuff: Rapture and Dimension Pro, which are the two most under-rated synths out there.

Yeah, I''ve used them; they''re quite good. There were several songs with synth sounds that sounded arpeggiated.
They''re actually played.

Yeah. [Laughs] By Jamie, actually. On “Strada,” for instance, I had this idea and I did a rough arpeggiator part myself, and then I had Jamie do it much, much better. I think that particular one was two synths together—I think it was [GForce] Minimonsta and Predator, and kind of filtered with [McDSP] FilterBank stuff. I do a lot of processing, and this was interesting because most of the records have a lot of Native Instruments stuff—you know, of course, all their stuff''s amazing—but I would say out of all their products, Machine and Battery 3 were used the most. On the other records, I used a lot of Reaktor and other stuff, but I didn''t use as much on this one. I have to say Rob Papen [synths] led the way on this record. I just love his stuff, and he''s such a sweet guy, and he makes such great products—as well as effects now; he''s making a reverb and he''s coming out with a delay. His reverb is unbelievable.

Thanks for taking time out to talk to EM.
No, thank you, Mike. And I have to say, on the record, your magazine is by far my favorite out of all the magazines that are still left. Some don''t even get read in my household [laughs], but yours when it comes in is the one I pick up immediately. And honestly, it really is the best one out there.