Z.O.N.K. is an alternative pop band on the rise, having opened nationwide for acts such as the B-52's, Concrete Blonde, and De La Soul. Half Human (Harmony Machine, 2005) showcases the band's signature blend of trip-hop, dance, rock, and pop styles. Z.O.N.K. consists of Nic McFiendish (vocals), Dave L (guitars, keyboards, programming), Uncle Bergie (bass and harmonicas), and Walt Dizzle (turntables and vocals).
Z.O.N.K. produced Half Human using a Digidesign Pro Tools/24 Mix system and a dual-processor 867 MHz Mac G4 running Ableton Live, BIAS Peak, Propellerhead Reason, and Digidesign and Waves plug-ins. The band's hardware includes a Digidesign 1622 I/O audio interface, Focusrite Platinum VoiceMaster Pro single-channel voice processor, Line 6 Pod Pro guitar direct box, Røde NTK and Shure SM58 mics, Genelec 1030A monitors, Pioneer CDJ-1000 and Technics SL-1200 Mk II turntables, and a Stanton SMX.501 DJ mixer.
“Our studio is in a room in a 1920s flat in San Francisco,” Dave L says. “Vocals are recorded in a small room next to it. I would have liked to use a guitar amp, but I just put the Pod Pro in manual mode and dialed in the sounds. Bass was recorded through the VoiceMaster Pro, turntables were recorded out of the DJ mixer, and MIDI sequencing was done mostly with Reason.
“A song could start with samples, a guitar riff, a bass line, a set of lyrics, a chord progression, a jam, or a concept,” Dave L says. “We record all the parts together, usually against a rough beat. Then I do an arrangement in Pro Tools and we'll tweak it. I'll work on the beats and add keyboard parts, other textures, and samples. Then we rerecord everyone's parts, unless the initial takes were good enough. I'll do any final editing.
“Usually we do a few [complete vocal] takes, and then work on specific areas,” he continues. “I then comp them together. Sometimes we double-tracked the vocals.” Effects processing plays a prominent role in Z.O.N.K.'s compositions. “The lines between sound design and music started to blur for me after listening to Brian Eno, the Orb, and Future Sound of London. I do all my effects processing with plug-ins, mostly in Pro Tools, taking advantage of effects automation.”
The band also created effects from scratch. “The vocal-stutter effect in ‘Radio Me’ was achieved by drawing in mutes on different divisions of the beat in Grid mode in Pro Tools,” Dave L says. “Audio Caffeine” includes a recurring, rapid-fire audio collage. “I drew in 32nd-note drum hits and a volume curve, played a chromatic organ glissando, freaked out on the guitar with a wah-wah pedal, and did pan automation.”
Uncle Bergie's harmonica adds warmth to Z.O.N.K.'s sound. “We had him hold an SM58 in his hands with the harmonica and sent that through the VoiceMaster Pro with compression,” Dave L says. “I turned up the gain all the way. I used some pretty drastic EQ in Pro Tools and got a raunchy sound full of overtones. For ‘Dark and Light’ we went for a cleaner sound, so I rolled off a lot of high end and used a cheap-sounding mono reverb.”
In mixing Half Human, Dave L carefully balanced and distinguished dense layers of electronic sounds. “I double-tracked most of the guitar parts and panned them left and right,” he says. “Vocals are usually center unless they're doubled. Every track has a different set of pan positions for synths and other textures, and sometimes they move within a track. I cut a lot of low end out of the bass tracks to give the kick drums space. Uncle Bergie plays the bass melodically anyway, so it works.”
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