Beck's career inspires hope-and a little envy-in most home recordists. His 1993 grassroots hit "Loser" led to the smash 1994 album Mellow Gold (DGC), which maintained its popularity throughout the following year. "Loser" is a prime example of how you can make popular music with basic tracks recorded on a 4-track cassette machine. The song's success gave Beck the freedom to work in any way that he sees fit, and he has explored many musical avenues since first becoming a household name. Directly after Mellow Gold, he recorded a lo-fi blues record with indie poster child Calvin Johnson. The album, One Foot in the Grave, was released in 1994 on Johnson's love-rock imprint, K Records.
Beck then delved into major studio recording with well-known producers. He released two critically acclaimed albums for DGC, 1996's Odelay and 1998's Mutations. Odelay was a Dust Brothers-fueled monster; Mutations was produced with a lighter hand by Nigel Godrich, who is probably best known for Radiohead's remarkable OK Computer.
For his latest album, Midnite Vultures, Beck wanted to bring the recording process back home. The results are some of his funkiest, most suggestive, and most tongue-in-cheek jams to date. He began by enlisting some longtime friends and touring mates to track songs at his home in Pasadena, California. Several months into the project, he moved to Los Angeles's happening Silverlake suburb, bringing with him not only his belongings, but the recording equipment and tracks as well. So engineers Tony Hoffer and Mickey Petralia, who also produced a few songs on the album, moved their work to Beck's new house. I spoke with Hoffer and Petralia to learn how they captured Vultures' sleazy funk on hard disk.
You recorded most of Midnite Vultures at Beck's houses?
Hoffer: Yeah, we went out [to a pro studio] a couple of times to do overdubs, but we did 95 percent of the album at the houses. The overdubs were minimal-strings and vocals, really. The vocals amount to a couple of sections here and there.
Did you do any soundproofing?
Hoffer: No. The Pasadena house was on a large spread of land. The Silverlake house, where we did a lot of the editing and some of the overdubs, wasn't close to anything either.
Petralia: Our Silverlake neighbors knew what we were up to and were very cool about it. They probably could have complained, but we never had blaring mains at full-on levels or a whole rock band blasting away.
Hoffer: And we had already tracked the main drums and other instruments at the Pasadena house. By the time we got to Silverlake, we were basically doing the fine-tuning. It was very well planned, actually.
Petralia: [Bassist] Justin Meldal-Johnson had a lot to do with the smooth move. He kept the equipment and backups organized, right down to the adapters and cables. It was a big job. We had to deal with a lot of stairs and a lot of gear: a couple of organs, a Leslie, some kettle drums, an upright bass, and an upright piano.
Walk through the Pasadena setup and describe a typical day of tracking.
Petralia: The house is late-1950s post-and-beam; it's been called a "Brady Bunch" house. The center of the recording setup was in a really cool den. About a month or two into the project, we started a second tracking room upstairs. We had tried to record upstairs at the beginning, but that was during a major heat spell in July, and upstairs wasn't a good place to be.
We were pretty much self-sufficient-we had a little kitchenette, couches, a telephone. We did everything but sleep there.
Everyone arrived between noon and one o'clock and slowly eased into it. By eight o'clock we had hit full stride, and we stayed until three or four in the morning. Time flew by for the most part.
Hoffer: In Pasadena, we had three separate computer setups, and we were switching between 38 9 GB hard drives. Mickey was working on a record with Luscious Jackson in New York at the time, so we'd switch off. Mickey would be at Beck's for a week or two, then I'd be there for a couple of weeks.
Petralia: That's the way it started out; it wasn't a full-on assault. Before we knew it, though, we were there 6 days a week, 14 hours a day. It became a lifestyle. I learned the names of all the people at the local diners and health-food stores.
What were the recording setups? Did you have loose preamps or consoles?
Petralia: Both. We monitored through Mackies and tracked through both the Mackies and other separate preamps. For the most part we used the Brent Averill-modified APIs or his Neve 1073s. Unless you're doing drums or a string section, you just need a good pair of mic preamps. Of course, EQs and compressors help.
Mario Caldato, who records the Beastie Boys' albums, always says the same thing: "All you need are a couple of good preamps, one good tube compressor, two EQs, and a good mic, and you're set." If I ever ask him, "Should I use this converter when I'm going from analog to digital?" or "Do I need this compressor?" he comes back with, "The Beatles didn't have that, and listen to their records." It's about using what you have and, more important, it's about the songs.
How did you handle ensembles, drum kits, and other tracks that required a multiple-mic setup?
Petralia: At the Pasadena house we did some horns and drums. Initially we intended to just lay them in as scratch parts, and we went through all of the songs, more or less, in one night.
[Drummer] Joey Waronker came down, and we pieced together a little drum kit. We didn't have a stand for the floor tom, so Justin put on earplugs and held it for a couple of tracks. We got an amazing sound, but that's mostly because Joey is an amazing player. And Joey was locked to the click, so we could loop drum parts by simply lining up an editing point with the click track. That helps so much when you're editing.
Hoffer: Joey takes care to tune the drums well, too, which makes the set record well.
Petralia: Because the drums and horns were in a separate room, we had a lot of loose XLR cables and a snake or two running through doorways. That's the beauty of home recording: you close the door as tightly as you can and go with it. When we compared the original drums from the house with the ones done at a big studio, we often found that the house drums felt and sounded better.
Hoffer: We'd round out the sound in the mix, running individual tracks out to 2-inch tape and adding some subtle EQ and compression. We used [Empirical Labs] Distressors a lot, in addition to Urei 1176s and Teletronix LA-2As.
Petralia: The Distressors are good because they can either mess up your overheads nicely or just kiss something. When we book time in a studio, we usually bring a pair of Distressors, and they always come through in the end.
Hoffer: A Distressor is like a Swiss army knife. It's great for shaping and changing the envelope of any sound.
Petralia: While tracking at the house, we occasionally brought in our own gear, equipment that we had recently bought or had forgotten we owned. I also learned how helpful equipment-rental companies are. Who has $6,000 to spend on a mic?
Hoffer: Especially when you're going to use an AKG C 12 only once or twice a year. The rental companies are handy, and more sprout up all the time. For the most part, the people running these businesses are cool and want to help you.
How did you record the vocals?
Hoffer: We recorded many of the vocal tracks with Shure SM58 mics through the API preamps. We did it in the rooms where we had the computers, and the monitors were blaring.
We especially liked the way Beck's vocal sounded through the BLUE bottle mic, but that mic shows up only on the song "Pressure Zone." We recorded a bunch of songs with it that probably will be released later.
Petralia: The dynamic at the house was constantly changing. Everything was always up in the air and the ideas were flowing wildly, so we had limited time to set up. The SM58s made it easy to get rolling. Beck and the monitors were in the same room. Did that come through in the vocal track?
Hoffer: Yeah, but the SM58s are superdirectional, so it was never bad. Beck likes to feel the music when he's tracking vocals, which is harder for him when he's wearing headphones.
He would sit on the couch in the den and just start going for it, doing vocals as roughs-scratch vocals. But we ended up using about 90 percent of those vocals on the record. With Beck it's all about the first few takes, and sometimes he keeps the mistakes, too.
So instead of using a mic with a pop filter, he sang straight through a handheld?
Petralia: That's the nice thing about the SM58: it has a built-in pop filter.
Is Beck's vocal the only track on the record with any bleed-through?
Petralia: There was headphone bleed when we recorded acoustic instruments. And Joey hummed the different songs while he played drums. But yeah, bleed was minimal.
You did vocal takes only for a line here and there. Did you match levels to get them sounding the same?
Petralia: We just ballparked it. We didn't punch individual lines, just the sections. For instance, on "Pressure Zone," Beck wanted to give the verse a different vocal tone and character, so we used different mics from section to section.
In music such as this, with things changing drastically every four bars, that probably doesn't matter as much.
Hoffer: It doesn't matter, and people may not even notice. We often make song sections sound completely different from one another, almost like different songs. Listeners won't focus on the vocals' sound quality, but rather on the attitude and vibe of all the elements together. We worked intensively on sections of music and combined them with other sections to create songs.
Petralia: A friend of mine recently listened to the record on his super stereo system. He told me, "I have a new appreciation for what you guys do. I could hear so many things in there." He thought we just turned on the tape machine and started banging on instruments. Once you hear the tweaks and fine touches, you realize what went into it.
It seems as if you double-tracked the lead vocals as a matter of course. How about the background vocals?
Petralia: A lot of people ask, "Who's the woman on 'Get Real Paid'?" That's Beck! [Laughs.] He'd do his vocal and double it. Then he'd add a falsetto and a harmony. For songs like "Peaches and Cream," in which the chorus is sung in unison, everyone-Justin, Roger, Tony, and I-stood around one mic. We did multiple passes and stacked the tracks.
What sequencers did you use?
Hoffer: We started in [Opcode's] Studio Vision, but we ran up against a brick wall when we'd recorded too many tracks. We had to wait about ten seconds after we hit Play or Record.
Petralia: We had so many tracks that needed so much processing-Pro Tools was the answer. We sometimes ran 90 or 100 tracks at a time. We probably couldn't have done a project like this using Pro Tools before Digidesign refined its MIDI capabilities, and that's one area in which Vision excels.
Hoffer: I still run Studio Vision in the background because I use MIDI a lot, and Pro Tools doesn't have an event list editor. I either slave Studio Vision to Pro Tools or vice versa, depending on what I want to do.
Petralia: We discussed checking out other programs, but we were so entrenched in what we already had.
Hoffer: We considered porting the tracks to [Emagic's] Logic Audio in the middle of the project, but the thought of transferring all the Studio Vision stuff was overwhelming. It would have meant learning a whole new sequencer. Beck likes to work superfast, and you need to be three steps ahead of him if the project is going to move efficiently, so the switch was pretty much out of the question.
Were you recording at 24-bit rates?
Petralia: I recorded some stuff at 24 inadvertently. [Laughs.] But 24-bit files cause complications when you want to work in [Digidesign's] SampleCell, so we tried to stick with 16-bit files.
Did you use plug-ins a lot?
Hoffer: Not during tracking, but for the Silverlake editing phase, yes. We would use a plug-in to tweak a little section, such as a one-second piece of sound. Steinberg's Magneto is cool. So is TC Works' Chorus, especially for comb filtering drum sounds. Renaissance Compressor, Renaissance EQ, Q10-all of Waves' products, really-are good, too. At the time we were beta-testing the new Bomb Factory plug-ins, and those are all great. I'm into the ones that truly tweak stuff, the ones that don't do just one thing.
Right now I'm using BitHeadz's Unity DS-1, which I'll take on the road for Beck's tour. I'm going to bring the whole Pro Tools rig, and I'm trying to leave the sampler behind. We can't use SampleCell because we just got a new G4 and we've filled its three slots with the SCSI and TDM Farm cards. It doesn't have room for a SampleCell card, and I don't want to carry a 3U sampler. So Unity is great. The program also reads SampleCell instruments, so we can bring a lot of our old songs into Unity.
Did you use any software synths on this record?
Hoffer: We used Propellerheads' ReBirth to filter individual sounds. ReBirth has a great filter. I'd record a pass of something as I was turning the filter, distortion, or delay knobs, then I'd chop that recording into individual sounds. There's nothing quite like ReBirth's filter and distortion sections. We didn't get a lot of the other host-based applications, such as [BitHeadz's] Retro AS-1, until later on in the recording process.
Petralia: And we had Roger Manning.
Hoffer: Yeah, Roger has every analog synth imaginable: Moogs, Oberheims, ARPs-vocoders, patch stuff, and keyboard stuff. Roger has all of the old Roland stuff, too: the TB-303, TR-808, and TR-909. [For more on Roger Manning and his band, the Moog Cookbook, see "In the Kitsch-en with the Moog Cookbook" in the March 1998 issue of EM.]
Petralia: He's a living Retro. We could hear Roger carrying his eight cases up three flights of stairs.
Did you ever feel the need to leave the house and get some sun?
Hoffer: Yeah. We had a little portable 8-channel mixer that we'd run into the 1/8-inch audio input of a PowerBook, and we'd just use Sound Manager. So we could go anywhere. When we had to get the car washed, we recorded in the car. We brought an SM58 and a book of lyrics, and off we went. We drove through the car wash over and over again and paid the attendant 50 bucks or so. It was fun, and the vocals sounded good. We ended up using them on a couple of songs.
Petralia: They loved us there. They even threw in free Armor All on the tires.
Do you have any other helpful advice for someone working in a personal studio?
Petralia: Get a big hard drive. The price goes down every month. It's best if you're not constantly worrying about how much space you have while you're tracking. A big drive is also nice for backing up. We used to burn CDs for every song; now I just drag back and forth between 18 GB drives to back up.
Hoffer: Don't be afraid to experiment. People think that everything has to be pristine and precise. Understanding the principles of recording is good, but there's nothing wrong with placing your guitar amp face down on the ground and recording its back side. On Midnite Vultures, we didn't follow the normal recording practices. Beck works so fast that the best thing to do is to get a track down, without a ton of takes. It was like flying by the seat of your pants-recording an electric guitar with the amp in the control room, no separation, no soundproofing, sometimes even no pants.
Former EM assistant editor Rick Weldon has found a name for his home studio that accurately reflects its aesthetics as well as its Bay Area location: Oakland Scavenger.