Ray Chew has worked alongside R&B’s most talented artists as a musician, arranger, and producer. Diana Ross. Alicia Keys. More than you can shake a stick at really. His work with Alicia Keys, on a mammoth orchestral recording at The Hollywood Bowl, involved arranging and orchestrating an entire 63-piece ensemble. All in all, there were 20 songs that needed orchestrating/arranging, many of which were classic works from the likes of Gershwin and Billie Holiday. EQ recently caught up with Ray at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater, where he hosts “Amateur Night” every Wednesday (the talent at “Amateur Night” is far beyond amateur level, by the by, and the experience is electric).
So fresh off this whirlwind project: Ray SPEAKS!
12. Use the right tools to capture the feel of how you want the end result to sound. Ray used Sibelius and Logic to capture arrangements. He took it song by song, first using Sibelius and his own hand to capture notation. “Sibelius was great because wherever I was, whether on a plane, in a hotel room or wherever, I could accurately capture these notes. Then I would bring song files into Logic to see if my ideas would work. Then I would go and re-apply my ideas to the written notation in Sibelius.”
11. Try unconventional miking techniques. “There was once a project I worked on that had seven tubas. One of the techniques we applied was to use one mic way in the back of the room blended with one on the total opposite side, opposite ends, in the corners, equally distant. The idea was to create some natural phase that they would then mix with some of the other mics. This created an atmospheric, phased sound, but not an undesirable one. It added another dimension to the tubas.”
10. Double or even triple the takes. “This makes the whole thing sound thicker, giving more presence overall. A simple technique that gives you more to work with.”
9. Use two mics on reed instruments. “I like to hear what’s going on in the mouth area. I want to hear the sound of the wind and the reed, but also I want to know what’s going on at the bell; I want that tone. So I use two mics on things like clarinets, saxes, and oboes. If you listen to classic old recordings, you can feel them blowing all that stuff, and that was because they had dedicated mics for each area. So you get a mic to capture it and blend it all in.”
8. When recording piano, listen to every note on the instrument in succession to perfect mic position. “I plug two AKG 414s directly into my Digi 002 and listen to each and every note up the keyboard with a pair of headphones, starting from the low end. I have a mahogany Baldwin, and I really want to hear that wood. I play each chromatic, and when I hear something that doesn’t sound right, I’ll adjust the mic a little bit, then do it again. I keep doing it until it’s nice and balanced before I lay anything down.”
7. Know thy mics, and never overlook inexpensive ones. “I like Sennheiser MD 421s on horns and percussion. Also, the AKG 414 is a great mic, one of my favorites; I use it on vocals and just about everything including piano. Also, I bring in a ’58 and record congas with it, it sounds great! A key thing to remember when miking up a musician, though, is not to interfere with the player and don’t make them feel boxed in.”
6. Cover your bases when it comes to number of mics. “It’s worth it to use 50 or 60 mics because now you have a signal that you can control and you have a security blanket. Controlled circumstances afford you the ability to have a nice blend of overhead ambience and individual close mics.”
5. Retain the purity of the performance. “Some people have all these wonderful gadgets and toys. I’ve seen them use everything, but I say ‘give it to me clean’, especially when it comes to compression, which can permanently alter the signal. It may ‘save’ a vocal performance, but I’ve always been able to hear a compressor kick in, which when I hear it, blows it for me. You’ve got to keep the purity of the performance.”
4. Position the performers so they can hear one another and so you can hear them. “We had to level the room and get everybody able to hear each other. The rhythm section was right up in the front blasting, and you couldn’t hear the other stuff, so we broke the room down and re-set everything. It took us most of the first day, many hours, trying to balance the performers correctly. We ultimately created a sweet spot right in the center where Alicia would perform. On the second day, I told Alicia, ‘You have to stand right here.’ From this spot, she could hear the oboes speaking, the French horns, the violins, 2nd violins, and rhythm sections in one giant crescendo. Once she was in this spot, she didn’t want to move. We are going to need to replicate that sweet spot when we mix.”
3. When mixing, create a sonic image according to how you think things should be, not at random. “I like to have my violins on my image right and my cellos image left, and violas sort of in the middle. We’ll have close-miking mixed with some overhead miking so I can get the sound rising off the strings. I also want to be able to fade up or fade down the violins or violas as a group, and mix and blend them in. I don’t want the sound of 10 strings, I want a string section.”
2. Have a good understanding of what the goals of the performer are. “I had to map things to Alicia’s needs and keep in mind her ultimate vision for the vibe of the songs. Everything else was secondary to this. I had to see how much work they had done already on the road with these tunes, and somehow sweeten them and make them better. This means reworking many of the musicians’ roles since we now had a mammoth orchestra to contend with. I spent 40 days writing and arranging the music for this purpose, and I also spent days listening to their road show, listening to how other people recorded these works, just drinking it all in.”
1. Keep a real vision of what you’re looking for in your mind’s eye and in your heart. “Whatever your position is — arranger, songwriter, producer — you have to keep a clear vision. I really appreciate the artistry of Norah Jones, because they just put her in a room and let her do what she does like she would do in a club. Arif, and some of the other people she works with, are able to play up to her level and capture it, without ‘making’ it anything.”