New York Grooves

The Big Apple’s premier producers and engineers share their secrets for putting some urban grit into your mixes.

Is the immediacy of the New York sound—from old doo-wop records to modern rap and hip-hop hits—a byproduct of the city’s vibe seeping from its subway tracks to an artist’s basic tracks? Nile Rodgers rode the group Chic to stardom and a fertile production career that has included hit records for Madonna and Duran Duran. But he also rode the subway a lot, and he says the rhythmic groove of the cars made its way onto more than a few records.

“If you listen to the very first Chic single, ‘Everybody Dance’—that’s where the groove for that song comes from,” he says. “The subway connected us. I even lived on it when I was a runaway. We called it the ‘20-cent hotel’—a reference to the cost of a token in the 1970s.”

The subway was also Rodgers’ introduction to ambience.

“The public restroom at the West 4th Street station was large, and it had a wonderful reverb,” he recalls. “My acoustic guitar would sound so amazing in there. So when we did Chic at Power Station Studios, we would use the ladies bathroom as the reverb chamber. At the end of ‘Le Freak,’ when you hear the words ‘Ahhh, freak out,’ you also hear [engineer] Bob Clearmountain putting a ton of plate reverb on the kick drum. That became a signature of the New York sound.”

“When I first came to Los Angeles in the 1970s, I could really compare how the two places worked,” says transplanted Brooklyn native, and multiple Grammy-winning producer/engineer Al Schmitt. “You could see the things that were special to New York. For instance, not a lot of guys in L.A. were using tube microphones back then. But in New York, everything was tube. And there was also the attitude. There’s nothing like it anywhere else. Guys like Tom Dowd and Phil Ramone were aggressive mixers. They had a lot of input into sessions. They weren’t just setting up microphones and getting balances. They were giving you their opinions—whether you asked for them or not! Maybe it’s because you have to fight your way on the subway every day, but we never held back in New York.”

“If you listen to records made in Los Angeles, and what we did in New York, the L.A. tracks tended to acquire a glossier pop sheen,” says Elliot Scheiner, a Grammy-winning producer/engineer who is well known for his work on classic Steely Dan albums, such as 1976’s The Royal Scam. “That was fine, but it’s not New York. Here, the kick was tighter, and there was more space between the instruments. They’re pop records, but they’re jazzier-sounding, and New York is jazz central. There was also a lot of emphasis on the low frequencies in New York. For example, we’d put a saxophone through a rotating speaker cabinet to get more textured lows onto it. If you want to hear the contrasts between the two sounds, listen to artists who recorded in both cities. For example, compare Van Morrison’s Wavelength and Astral Weeks—which were made at New York’s A&R Studios—with his later work in Los Angeles.”
Michael Brauer—a native New Yorker who has worked with Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, and Hall & Oates—describes New York sounds as having a prevalent snarl.

“At Media Sound where I worked, if people didn’t have a ‘snarly’ look on their face, it meant you probably weren’t giving them what they wanted,” he explains.

Media Sound is long gone, but the snarl lives on. Brauer added some New York-style grit to the mix for John Mayer’s Continuum—a “throwback” to the Media Sound days, he says—by running the vocals, snare, kick, and bass through a Thermionic Culture Vulture stereo tube distortion unit. To get just the right blend of snarl and source sound, Brauer routed the Culture Vulture to an aux send, and then brought the effect return up on another channel. This routing strategy also ensured that the original sound retained its impact.

Independent engineer/producer Joe Blaney mixed the Clash’s “This Is Radio Clash” single at New York’s Electric Lady Studios in 1981—as well as recording the band’s Combat Rock with producer Glyn Johns—and he says his studio approach was heavily influenced by the city’s urban club culture.

“You’d hear these huge, raspy kick drums coming out of the hip-hop clubs from early rap records and 12-inch B-sides, and you would incorporate those sounds into your own records—maybe even subconsciously,” recalls Blaney. “You wanted to make the kick drum sound dangerous, and we did that by saturating the tape and distorting it. You can hear this kind of kick drum all over ‘This Is Radio Clash.’”

To get a tough, Clash-like kick today, Blaney suggests sending the kick signal through a Tech 21 SansAmp, or running the track out to a guitar amp and miking the speaker. Back in the day, Blaney often saturated the analog tape by boosting subsonics between 30Hz and 50Hz. In the DAW environment, you can let the amp or processor deliver the grit and saturation, and boost a more audible frequency range of around 80Hz to 100Hz for the low-end boom.

Bob Power’s engineering career spanned numerous eras in New York’s R&B and urban genres, including work with Michel N’degecello, Chaka Khan, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul.

“A component of the New York sound is the fact that the music is loop-based,” he says. “Everything tends to sound close-in, and, as a result, the sound is a bit tighter and less ambient on a New York record.”

Noise is also a factor. Power remembers A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory LP—which, upon its release in 1991 was credited with establishing alternative rap as a definable genre, and putting Busta Rhymes on the map—used audio artifacts as an element of its gritty sound.

“I was asked not to clean it up,” Power recalls. “Noise became part of its authenticity.”

Purposefully going for noisy artifacts today can be as simple as capturing sounds with cheap microphones, suggests Power. “You can also apply both high and low bandpass filters to a signal, and then crank the ‘ugly’ area of midrange between 900Hz and 1.5kHz. Another technique is simulating the days of low-resolution, 8-bit samplers by taking the input signal way down on a modern sampler as you capture sounds. You lose one bit for every 6dB you’re down on the conversion. When you’re done, slam the sound with compression. And if you want that telephone vocal sound, don’t just turn the mids way up. A cooler option is to take a Sennheiser MD451, place it just above the speaker of an actual speakerphone, and add a lot of compression to that.”

“I like running vocals through headphones, miking them, and then putting them back in the mix as an effect,” says Pat Dillett, engineer for They Might Be Giants. “It makes a kind of eerie, scratchy thing that’s hard to describe, but very New York.”

Engineer Ari Raskin, who has engineered for Talib Kweli and the Brand New Heavies, suggests that having the guts to do things that go against conventional recording wisdom is also a component of the New York sound.

“I was doing the Brand New Heavies Get Used to It album at Chung King Studios,” he says, “and we were recording what we thought would be a scratch drum track for the song ‘Sex God.’ The situation didn’t really allow me time to get a full-blown drum sound. Instead, I opened the vocal chain—a Sony C-37A mic and a Universal Audio 1176 preamp—as well as a Royer ribbon mic positioned on a nearby guitar amp that wasn’t being played through. We all looked at each other, and thought, ‘Whoa—that’s an aggressive and gritty drum sound, and it’s all mic leakage from a typically small New York City live room!’ When I mixed the song, I sampled that scratch kit’s kick drum—also cranking up the Neve VR EQ gains to accent the anger of the drum room—and I blended it with the final drum track to give the kick more up-front punch. It’s a sound you probably wouldn’t expect to hear coming out of Los Angeles, London, Miami, or Nashville. It’s very New York.

Home Cooking

In the current era of home studios, mobile-recording strategies, digital modeling, and easily replicated timbral landscapes, it’s arguable whether regional sounds truly exist. For example, a Los Angeles producer can certainly evoke the mythical toughness of a New York producer’s sounds—even if the recordings are being made in a wood shed in New Zealand.

However, environments can certainly impose themselves on the artistic temperament, as they did most prominently from the ’50s up until the mid ’90s, when big studios often possessed unique and magical sonic resonances, and were run by idiosyncratic staffs (the Sun Sound, the Motown Sound, the Muscle Shoals Sound, the Trident Sound, the Sigma Studios Sound, the Criteria Studios Sound, and so on). Of course, the culture and vibe of a city and its musicians also enter into the equation. So if you want to immerse your homegrown recordings in the stereotypical angst, energy, and immediacy of classic tracks birthed in legendary New York studios, you’ll need to get yourself into a New York state of mind.

Do it NOW, putz! Sure, you could overthink everything, and spend days dialing in every minute detail of your recording. But then, you’d be what Sinatra would call a “Harve.” Practice your piece so you can strut in and get it recorded quickly, while passion, excitement, and the soul-shaking shock of delivering something fresh and untested are pulsing through your body. Don’t forget that “immediacy” is derived from “immediate.”

Groove. Joe Blaney mentioned the influence of New York’s club culture while recording the Clash, and the city’s diverse, vibrant, and sweaty dance scene has absolutely funked up much of the music made within its borders. Make sure your tracks punch, stutter, and pulse. If you can’t move to your music, it’s probably too white bread to evoke a NYC vibe.

Snarl. Michael Brauer talks about the snarl in New York sounds. Clean, calm, and polite tones are only groovy if you’re committed to bringing back the Andy Williams production style. Get belligerent. Tough. Compress signals until they snarl and spit like a cornered raccoon. Hammer the mids until they’re sharp enough to rend flesh. Pummel the lows until they’re as powerful as a body punch from Chuck Liddell. Distort everything—at least a little bit—and be daring enough to leave the ragged edges alone. If you can’t handle the aggressive snap and roar, it might be time for you to forget about dialing in the New York sound and consider moving to Boca Raton.
—Michael Molenda

8 Ways To Add a New York Vibe To Your Home Studio

  1. Raise your own rent.
  2. Acquire a rodent problem by purchasing lab rats at a bio supply house.
  3. Arrange for an aspiring rapper to get capped in your foyer. 
  4. Instead of saying “Testing 1, 2, 3” for a mic check, shout “F**k me? F**k me? F**k you!” 
  5. Answer your cell phone with an irony-laced “Home of the hits!”
  6. Keep on hand a large assortment of grease-stained menus from delicatessens and Chinese restaurants that closed at least a year ago.
  7. Install a rickety, noisy generator in the next room to get that subway-running-under-the-building sensation during tracking sessions.
  8. Shut your studio down.

—Dan Daley