PRODUCTION VALUES: Home Cooking with Cake

When describing the sound of the band Cake, many music reviewers often have to stretch their imaginations to come up with just the right words. Wry, ironic, iconoclastic, contrarian, sardonic, mechanized, organic — the list goes on and on — are all appropriate descriptions for the band's unusual sound. Although
Image placeholder title

When describing the sound of the band Cake, many music reviewers often have to stretch their imaginations to come up with just the right words. Wry, ironic, iconoclastic, contrarian, sardonic, mechanized, organic — the list goes on and on — are all appropriate descriptions for the band's unusual sound. Although Cake's music may be hard to categorize, the band developed a loyal fan base and a number of hit songs simply by staying true to itself.

Cake's debut album, Motorcade of Generosity, was released in 1994 on the band's own indie label. Picked up by Capricorn Records, Motorcade was rereleased and garnered a college radio hit, “How Do You Afford Your Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle?” Cake's second album, Fashion Nugget (Capricorn, 1996), scored platinum success and spawned the hits “The Distance” and a cover of Gloria Gaynor's disco classic “I Will Survive.” (Cake's penchant for out-of-left-field covers is evident on its latest CD Pressure Chief, which includes a version of Bread's 1972 hit, “Guitar Man.”)

Image placeholder title

FIG. 1: From an engineering standpoint, the recording of Pressure Chief was essentially on-the-job training for the members of Cake.

Based in the Sacramento, California area, Cake has endured both personnel and label changes. Front man, principal-songwriter, and guitarist John McCrea and trumpeter Vince di Fiore are founding members. Bassist Gabe Nelson has been settled in since 1997, and guitarist Xan McCurdy joined in 2000. (The band currently has no permanent drummer.) It was then that Cake signed with Columbia Records and recorded Comfort Eagle, which produced the hit single and video “Short Skirt/Long Jacket.”

Cake plays a singularly original and intelligent style of pop featuring sparse arrangements, wry lyrics, often-funky grooves, solo trumpet fills and lines, and melodic guitar and synth work. The band members have always produced their own music and videos and designed their own album covers. Pressure Chief (see Fig. 1), the group's fifth and latest release, continues and expands upon that same tradition. The CD was recorded democratically by McCrea, di Fiore, Nelson, and McCurdy in a converted, two-bedroom house in Sacramento (see Fig. 2). Cake's surprisingly modest setup was based around an Apple Macintosh G3 running a Digidesign Pro Tools LE system through Digi 001 and 002 interfaces.

The CD, which was recorded mainly without the benefit of an engineer, is a punchy-sounding delight. In typical Cake fashion, it's skewed, deadpan, and ingenuous. EM caught up with McCrea and di Fiore just a few days before Pressure Chief's release and asked them about the studio, their production techniques, and a lot more.

Why did you choose to record this project outside of a commercial studio?

Image placeholder title

FIG. 2: The members of Cake in their unassuming Sacramento-based project studio. Left to right: Nelson, McCurdy, McCrea, and di Fiore.

McCrea: Because we finally got smart! We wasted a lot of energy recording in conventional studios. It took us a long time to have the confidence to do this: get an old house, buy microphones, get a computer, and learn how to record ourselves. There's something to be said for not having a stranger in the room with you who's thinking about that TV show he's missing and looking at his watch. It's really about creative expression. I think that, in the past, we were somewhat held back by the false professionalism of conventional recording studios.

It sounds like you've had bad studio experiences.

McCrea: Conventional studios work for a lot of people. I'm not against them. But we've produced ourselves from the very first album, and it was always an effort to communicate. We expended a lot of energy trying to describe to other people the exact color red we wanted in a painting, or how thick the paintbrush should be. All that energy could have been focused solely on music. There's a lot of diplomacy and communication that has to happen when you're trying to get an engineer — who knows the right way to do things — to do something the wrong way. And from the very beginning, we've done things the wrong way — technically. Especially on this album. I think this album hearkens back to the ineptitude of our first album when we really didn't know what we were doing. The engineer back then, who was sort of a hard-rock engineer, was pretty much rolling his eyes. The fact that we wanted things to sound smaller was completely alien to him. I wanted things to sound small and economical, very different from the typical early '90s bombastic, big-time rock.

Did you have any engineering help onPressure Chief?

di Fiore: We engineered the entire album ourselves, but we brought in an engineer named Patrick Olguin to help during the mix. We needed somebody confident, who could help us organize some of the files that had become disordered. In case anything bad happened that might take us a day or two to fix, we wanted somebody around who wasn't going to make the problem worse.

Did you all engineer equally?

di Fiore: We did. Everybody learned Pro Tools on this record. Xan, our guitarist, was a little faster. He's also very impatient, so he ended up at the [computer] keyboard a lot. For the most part we all took turns, but it's hard to be at the keyboard with someone tapping his foot wishing you were going faster. So Xan ended up in the hot seat a lot of the time. Pro Tools is a great program, and once you learn to use it, it's a lot of fun. We just kept on sharing information with each other about new things we'd learned.

Did you use manuals?

di Fiore: Our bass player brought in this book, one of those red-and-gray ones you see in the bookstores for iMovie and Macintosh software. That was helpful. The learning curve wasn't that steep once we got going. We were able to track right away, and as we got better with it, we were able to do all the things that we needed to.

Did you find it interesting to be a total novice at something?

di Fiore: It's liberating, and it also keeps your mind on the [song] arrangement. Everybody had to keep really sharp. When you're recording by yourself and you have all the time in the world to come in late at night and track your parts, it's easy to pile things on. With us, everybody's got their head in the mix. You don't want to come in as an individual and pile on a bunch of ideas that everybody has to wade through to make sense of the song again. So I think [being novices on Pro Tools] did make us more aware of arrangement issues and of keeping space in the song. It was, “if you have something really good to add, track it. But if your ideas aren't developed, then maybe wait for later.”

Image placeholder title

FIG. 3: The one piece of outboard gear that the band relied on for recording Pressure Chief was the Universal Audio 6176, a tube preamp and compressor that was used both during tracking and mixdown.

How long did the project take?

di Fiore: About nine months. We got a two-bedroom house, and we got what we needed: the latest version of Pro Tools, the Digidesign interface, and a tube Universal Audio 6176 for preamping and compression (see Fig. 3). It's the remake of the 610B preamp and the 1176 LN limiting amplifier. We also had some Tannoy [Reveal series] speakers.

McCrea: There were a few months of learning curve, just recording things, which you can actually hear on the CD. A lot of bands now are meticulously working to sound a little bit roughly hewn. I call them wax-museum bands: they sound exactly like spring of 1968, or New York Bowery early summer 1973. I admire the craftsmanship that goes into being able to suss out exactly the right kind of mic to use and how much to compress it to re-create a sound. But we're not able to do that. Instead, we have unintentional distortion on things that shouldn't have it. We could have redone things, but we ended up liking the way it sounded. To me, it's not about having things sound perfect. It's about things sounding appropriate for the song.

Did you work on one song at a time?

McCrea: No. We recorded basic tracks on things, then we made editorial decisions, sometimes weeks later. Luckily, we had the luxury of working with a lot of songs. If we got stuck, we could just leave a song for a while.

What instruments are in the basic tracks?

McCrea: Drums, bass, guitar, and vocals.

The keyboards, especially the synth parts, are particularly cool on this album.

McCrea: You know why? When we recorded at conventional studios, we had to lug huge keyboards in the back of the station wagon everyday and then drag them into the studio, dinging up the doorways and dropping them on our feet. Out of laziness, on our earlier records, we had fewer keyboards set up.

Did you have tons of gear set up to experiment with?

McCrea: Not a lot, but enough so that we could whimsically decide to try something out. Having everything set up all the time made all the difference for us.

Were the keyboards running through a console?

McCrea: We tried to have everything running through a little Mackie mixing board.

The keyboard programming sounds pretty sophisticated.

McCrea: Actually, we're pretty much Luddites in disguise. For example, we didn't use MIDI at all. We tried, but it was a big hassle and it seemed easier to play things.

“No Phone,” the first single from the album, is about wanting to get away from constantly being in touch. It's kind of an electronically sophisticated presentation of a Luddite philosophy.

McCrea: It's really not a Luddite anthem; it's just sort of wanting to talk about it. The inability to disconnect is kind of the opposite of freedom.

Infinite choices don't equal freedom?

McCrea: Infinite choices are actually a prison. It's all energy expenditure. You don't get more energy because you have more choices. That's especially true in the studio.

Did someone set up your studio for you?

Image placeholder title

Recording Pressure Chief on their own allowed members of Cake to more fully control their artistic vision.

McCrea: Somebody tried to help us, but they didn't really know what they were doing. So we ended up doing it, which was very empowering for us. We took the tools of production into our own hands. That's something that I think is also a greater societal trend. It's really a very salutary feeling to have made this record by hand. It's like a craft project we did that went too far; especially because we design our own CD covers and make our own videos.

Did you have Pro Tools knowledge before you started?

McCrea: Just barely. But it's not that hard. We went a little farther than the tape-machine level, but we didn't go all the way into it, certainly. We didn't want to or need to.

Did you overdub one by one or play together?

McCrea: We play together sometimes. It depends on what the song requires.

There are live drums on the songs.

McCrea: Yes. We used several live drummers, and Gabe Nelson, the bass player, played drums at times. There are some live drums on just about all the songs.

You can't really tell which drums are live, and which are programmed.

McCrea: We didn't want that to be the point. I think sometimes people get caught up in the form rather than the song. We're just trying to communicate musical ideas.

Most people think recording live drums requires some engineering expertise. How did you do it?

di Fiore: One thing we did was to use one mic above the snare and one below, kind of a tricky thing that our bass player showed us. You get a different sound from above and below, and you either choose one or mix the two. We also used overhead mics. We pretty much miked everything, so we ended up with about six tracks of drums.

What mics did you use?

di Fiore: To be honest, since we were engineering ourselves, it seemed like we were more successful if we didn't have a system that we stuck with. We just felt around in the different situations. We didn't have a regular drummer at the time, so we had different setups for two drummers. And a lot of the drum tracks were programmed, and we mixed live drums in with them. We really manipulated them a lot, bringing fills up, etcetera. It's hard to hear which are the programmed drums and which are the live ones, but on one of the tracks, at least, I can think of a fill that really does sound different from the rest of the track. But we were careful not to do that too much. We didn't want to bring attention to different timbres in the drum sound.

Did you use a click track?

di Fiore: We played to a hi-hat click. That's one of the first things we put down, which turned out to be a good reference for us when we'd go back and try to line things up.

How do you come up with your arrangements? The word cinematic comes to mind to describe them. Not wide-screen, but …

McCrea: [Laughs.] Certainly not wide-screen. Sort of like a Super-8 movie, maybe 16 mm. Again, the arrangements were a product of our feeling unencumbered by the traditional studio process. I think that sometimes studios can, inadvertently, slow things down. Maybe it's just that they're trying to be thorough and professional. Or maybe it's something else. But if you're on a creative jag and you need to move quickly to keep the idea from dying, to have to spend a half hour to set up is stultifying. Without the official studio rhythm, we found that, in our own clumsy way, we were able to move with more mercurial ease. It's not so much about saving time to save money; it's about saving energy. When you feel really creative and then everything you have to do takes a long time, you end up not wanting to try ideas because it takes too long to make them happen.

What microphones did you use the most?

McCrea: [Shure] SM57s. We tried fancy-pants microphones but we ended up liking the SM57s.

What about preamps?

McCrea: The one with the purple light. I forget its name.

In general, you used the same preamp and microphone on everything?

McCrea: Yeah. I'm not into the pornography of equipment.

Did you play with room acoustics?

McCrea: Yes, especially with the trumpet. We tried a lot of different rooms for the trumpet. We had lots of cables leading to different rooms and getting crushed in doors.

Let's talk about recording trumpet.

di Fiore: One of the reasons it's fun playing trumpet in this band is that I'm not part of a section. It's a guitar band and I'm the thing that sounds different. The trumpet is a good foil for the electric guitar. It gives it something different to react against.

We recorded trumpet mainly in a small bedroom where we'd put some carpet on the floor. There was a little bit of room sound, but not too much. The reverb wasn't washy, and for the most part, I played right up on the mic. We used an SM57 quite a bit. I tried other, more lush mics, like the Røde NTK. The Røde sounded really present, and we used it on about half the songs, but we got a tight sound on the SM57 that worked for a lot of the songs.

Once you're sure you're using the right mic, it makes it easier to record. You don't feel as ambivalent about things, because once you understand the mic, it's all up to you as the player. You know what you're going to get out of it, and the rest of it — the tone, etcetera — is up to you.

It's important to spend a lot of time with a mic, to listen to it in different rooms and see how it's responding. That gives you a sense of consistency. That's why I went with the SM57. I understood it. With some of the other mics there seemed to be too many factors that went into getting the most out of them. A lot of times I had to play something really in the moment, without time for an elaborate setup. I didn't have to have to treat the mic gingerly. I could just slap up the 57 and go.

Image placeholder title

That's true with the board setting too. You want to know what's coming from the mic, and what's coming from the board. I have to admit that I didn't want to even begin learning about the mics. I thought they weren't as important as the performance. But that's not really true. There are a lot of subtle and not so subtle characteristics about mics. In this case, it was usually best for me to stick with the simple thing and concentrate on the performance.

Do you improvise your parts or write them out?

di Fiore: If it's a solo for a record, it's written out. This isn't a jam band; I want to be sure of what we're doing. Whenever there's an idea — mine or somebody else's — it's a real time-saver to write it out first and play off of the sheet music. That way, you can be consistent about your takes. You're not fishing around for the right notes. Since it's all right in front of you, it becomes about how you physically feel to perform it right.

What kind of preamp did you use on the trumpet?

di Fiore: Mostly we went right through the Mackie, with no compressor. Actually, my trumpet was pretty neglected [laughs]. There are no other horn players in the band, and we don't have a producer who's worked with horns. I end up going on the fly and hoping it sounds good. If it doesn't, we'll usually just rerecord my part and try to get lucky in some other way. We tend to go for the distorted sound, and then we make it more lush by overdubbing a second track.

Cake's arrangements leave space for the trumpet.

di Fiore: That's right, and that's different from most bands. In general, we make my horn parts sound not too good on purpose. Instead, they're kind of junky, not super smooth. That caters to the record and how it works with the electric guitars. Just like John plays his nylon string guitars through a Fender Sidekick amp, then overdrives it all the way so it sounds really grainy and scratchy and unnatural. It's a similar approach with the trumpet. We're trying to get good melody and rhythm, but we don't necessarily want it to sound too smooth.

The lead and backing vocals are very present. It sounds like you're not processing them at all.

McCrea: We don't put anything on my vocal, as far as reverb, effects, or delay. I don't think any of that works for my voice. I compress it a bit.

The other band members were more involved in singing background vocals onPressure Chiefthan on past CDs.

McCrea: That's another really important advance that we've made as a band. It was a big hurdle for certain people in the band. Again, it could be a product of not having a stranger in the room.

Are the vocal parts written out?

McCrea: They're all in our head. We just listen to the song and imagine what will work. I think it's better not to sing the first harmony that you come up with. It's better to live with it for a week.

How do you record the background vocals?

di Fiore: We all gather around one mic. Sometimes we leave one person at the board, or one person presses play at the board and runs in the room to get on the mic. We usually use a Sennheiser or a Røde NTK [in omnidirectional mode] and try to match each other's timbre a bit.

Was the album difficult to mix?

McCrea: We were sort of mixing the whole time. But there was a time when we sat down to do final mixing, and of course, it was brutal. Mixing is really the left-brain part of the process. It's about cutting things away to give space, and throwing away hundreds of hours of work. It's very much an editorial process. Some people are good at that. Most people aren't.

I tried to get everybody in the band involved in that part because it's really a magical process. A magical brutality, all those beautiful parts that you basically have to throw away. It's fascism, really. It's not about whether something's great; it's about whether it's appropriate.

di Fiore: The hardest part is deciding what to take out. We always end up taking out a lot more than we expected. Patrick Olguin showed us an EQ trick that helped get us through mixing. For example, if the guitar isn't sitting right, you can separate the frequencies, accentuating the high and lows to spread it out, but leaving room in the middle for the vocals, which are in the same frequency range. We tried to make not only rhythmic space, but also frequency-range space for things. We also used the Pro Tools onboard compression quite a bit to get things out of the way.

So you're happy with howPressure Chiefturned out?

McCrea: Yeah, I think I'd buy it if I weren't in the band.

Patrick Olguin (see Fig. A) lives in the Sacramento area where he's an engineer and the owner of Velvet Tone Studios. He was called in to help toward the end of the recording of Pressure Chief. “It was just a service call originally,” Olguin says with a laugh. “I've known Gabe [Nelson, Cake's bass player] for a long time. He called up and said, ‘we're having problems with our Pro Tools rig. Can you come in and clean out our computer?’“

Olguin's facility with Pro Tools convinced the band to ask him to stay on for final mixing and editing. He describes the band's recording setup as “very, very basic.” Except for the Universal Audio 6176, mixing was entirely done within Pro Tools.

“We worked mostly on the 001 system, using only 32 tracks,” he continues. “I spent a few days and got it working better, but it was a Macintosh G3 that, for some reason, had incompatibilities with the Pro Tools software, and caused us problems all the way up to the end. There were instances when we were bouncing mixes to disk when we didn't know if the system was going to be able to handle it.

“The 1176 is one of my main choices for compressor, so the 6176 worked out pretty well,” Olguin notes. “We used it mainly for vocals, inserting it when we mixed. For some songs it was a little too harsh, so we used the stock Digi compressor that comes with the system. For a couple of the bass tracks we also used the 6176. We printed it so that it would be free to use on the vocals for mixing. Except for that, we pretty much stuck with those stock Digi plug-ins. There were times I wished I had more to use, but I caught myself and thought, ‘I can handle this. I can make the best of what I have.’“

Image placeholder title

FIG. A: Patrick Olguin helped Cake with engineering and mixing during parts of the Pressure Chief recording process. FIG. A: Patrick Olguin helped Cake with engineering and mixing during parts of the Pressure Chief recording process.

Asked to describe the room that was used for both recording and mixing, Olguin says, “Take your basic everyday living room, don't do anything to it, and drop a Pro Tools rig in. The console, Pro Tools, and the speakers were all backed up against the wall in a little desk type of area. You weren't going to get an ideal listening spot, no matter where you were at in the room. I just kept that in mind when I was listening and went for the vibe of the songs rather than getting too technical.”

In addition to the Tannoy Reveal monitors, mixes were auditioned, through iPod playback, on a portable sound system complete with a built-in subwoofer. Headphones were also used for listening, as was John McCrea's car stereo.

When Olguin came in, he laid Cake's tracks onto a grid to preserve their original tempos, making slight adjustments where necessary. He conformed the grid to Cake's existing tempos, rather than the other way around. “I think it was a bit of an eye opener for them. When they tracked things, they did a pretty good job, but they didn't do it as quickly as they would have liked to. Also, while a lot of the drum tracks had a great feel, they wanted to make some adjustments, sometimes moving certain instruments to another part of the song. I didn't want to lose the original feel of how they had put it down,” he recalls. “To me it would have been sacrilegious to alter the rhythm or feel they'd already established.”

Olguin is used to working on a Pro Tools HD3 system, so the Cake project was a bit of an adjustment. “We really had to slim things down to make it work,” he says. “But it was fun, and we had a good time. Going into an environment like that really humbles you. It makes you open up your ears and listen.”

Maureen Droney's engineering credits include, Carlos Santana, Aretha Franklin, Kenny G, and Tower of Power, among many others. Currently she is Los Angeles Editor for Mix magazine and general manager of House of Blues Studios.