Key Issues: One-Handed Synth Tricks

Super Adventure Club is one of many hipster outfits across the planet informing its style with ’60s film soundtracks and Esquivel-inspired lounge melodies, and spicing up the musical mélange with dashes of whimsical humor. SAC is very good at what it does, but that’s not really the story. The shocker is that drummer Jake Wood and bassist Michael Winger sought to expand their sound with keyboards, albeit without actually adding a keyboardist to the group. This necessitated performing their main instruments and their keyboard parts simultaneously, which is a pretty thrilling visual statement live, but the duo also decided to bravely (or insanely) record its tracks the same way. (Check out “Former Ladies of the Cold War,” “Mexican Gun Fight,” and “I Could Tell You But” at No loops. No sequences. No overdubs.
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Okay, why not just play basic tracks—drums and bass—and then overdub the keyboards?
We wanted a live sound, and we had little interest in spending hours doing unnecessary overdubs. Of course, refusing to track one instrument at a time meant that it took a bit longer to get a solid take. Playing keys and drums simultaneously is challenging, but keyboards happen to be instruments that can be easily played one-handed.

What is the overall production concept for SAC?
To fill as much sonic space as possible with only two people. The keys handle many jobs, because there aren’t any guitars. We use them for pads, lead melodies, comping, and synth bass. We also do a lot of pre-production listening to save time during the recording process. We recorded our rehearsals with a room mic, and I would go home and religiously comb through the recordings to pick out the stuff that worked, and the stuff that didn’t.

Winger: I definitely gravitate towards a punk vibe. This is a chance to go balls out and get experimental. We just aimed for great performances, and a trashy punk sound with eerie textures.

How do you assign keyboard parts to each other?
Jake’s a better multitasking keyboard player than me, so his lines are usually a bit more complicated, and he handles the melody parts. My keyboard parts are either pads or quick little accents. Another aspect is that neither of us are trained keyboard players. But most of my favorite bands from the ’80s art-punk era didn’t know how to play their instruments that well, either. By multitasking with keyboards, bass, and drums, we force ourselves out of our comfort zones, and that has a huge effect on how we write and record. Basically, we’re making everything up as we go.

What’s your typical recording setup?
It’s all Pro Tools|HD, and I mix in the box using Lynx Aurora converters. We both use Mac Powerbook G4s running Ableton Live 6 and Reason 4. I use an M-Audio Axiom 49 USB MIDI controller, and Jake uses an Axiom 25. Ableton functions as a host for the soft synths.

Wood: We recorded the audio and MIDI from the keys using Digidesign’s Mbox 2 Pro and Digi 002 as audio interfaces. We’ve found that when running a lot of Ableton 6 instruments on our Powerbooks, the sound gets a bit glitchy as they take up a lot of CPU power. As awesome and smart as Ableton is, Reason seems to be much less taxing on the computer. However, much of our sound has been crafted by tweaking various Ableton operator patches, so we’re kind of stuck with it for now. The tracking was split between two locations that couldn’t have been more polar opposites: my tiny rehearsal space and the enormous live room at Broken Radio in San Francisco.

How did you process the keyboard parts?
Recording soft synths direct tends to sound pretty generic and lame, so we like to reamp everything. To me, it’s important to get the sound of actual air by using speakers and microphones. I think the synths sit in the mix better that way, and they tend to feel more like you’re listening to a real band. And, nine times out of ten, using real amps is going to give you more unique results than piling on more plug-ins on top of plug-ins. The amps we used were mostly a Vox AC15 and a very loud and beefy handwired Victoria. We’d crank the amps to the gills, hit Record, run out of the room, and go have coffee.

I guess that committing to playing and recording everything live tends to keep your arrangements pretty tight?
Well, at this point in my career, I think I have stepped on enough songwriters’ toes that I’ve become fairly adept at writing parts that fit. Of course, this is also partly due to the fact that one hand on each instrument greatly inhibits the ability to overplay!