Victor Wooten is a musician's musician. Best known for his electric-bass work in the acoustic jazz fusion group Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, he is one of the premier bassists on the planet. And with his creativity and technical prowess, he has taken the instrument to new heights.
Raised in a family of musicians, Wooten has been recording since he was a kid. He toured for years with his four brothers as the Wooten Brothers, and his brother Roy, aka Future Man, is the Flecktones' percussionist. Victor's first “studio” consisted of a pair of 2-track decks that he used to overdub between. He later progressed to 4-track cassette recorders, Roland VS-880 and VS-1680 personal digital workstations, and, in his current setup, a Digidesign Pro Tools HD system with a Digidesign Control 24 console, Meyer Sound HD-1 monitors, and plenty of additional gear. Wooten has recorded several of his solo CDs at home, including his newest, Palmystery (see Fig. 1), which was released in mid-April.
Wooten's studio (see Fig. 2), which he calls VixMix, is in the basement of his house, which is located in the hills outside Nashville. The studio includes a large control room, a drum room, and a vocal booth. The quality of gear in his current setup gives him recording capabilities he'd never previously had at home. “Now, I literally don't have to leave home for any part of the process,” he says. Wooten enjoys the flexibility that his studio provides; it allows him to work on his music while remaining only a few steps away from his wife and four young kids.
FIG. 1: In addition to Wooten and his four brothers, Palmystery features a stellar musician lineup that includes Mike Stern, Dennis Chambers, Neal Evans, and Keb'' Mo''.
Shortly before Palmystery was released, I had a chance to visit Wooten at his studio and talk to him about his CD, his outlook on recording, and a lot more (see Web Clip 1).
What did you do to set up the basement as a studio?
The first thing we did was to waterproof the concrete: the floors, the walls, the cinder-block walls, and everything. There was some kind of paste we put on the walls. I live on a hill. When you're in the studio, the right wall, by the soundboard, is underground. It's also underneath the kitchen, and I didn't want any leaks from above, so we had to do stuff to the ceiling. The good thing is that there's part of that wall that didn't have to be sound insulated, because it's underground. And then for the internal walls, we used maybe 4-inch-thick insulation. And then we doubled all the walls, so we have double drywalls, double wood, and double insulation on each wall and on the ceilings.
And the sound in there is good?
The sound in there is great. Now if the kids are jumping or bouncing a basketball, I'll hear it. But most of the time, it's me in there recording with a bass direct. It's just when I have drums or vocals or anything like that, where I may sometimes have to ask them to be quiet. The way the studio is laid out in relationship to the house works out very nicely. The drum room is under a room where there are only books, so there's really nothing going on in there most of the time. The living room, where the kids might be, is in a different part of the house. So the drum room stays pretty quiet. I also [either] triple- or quadruple-insulated the drum room — I can't remember. But when you look at the drum room, you'll notice that the ceiling is a lot lower, so we put more stuff in there.
FIG. 2: In this shot of the main room of Wooten''s studio, you can see some of his primary gear, including his Digidesign Control 24 console and his monitors from Meyer Sound, Genelec, and AAD.
Not that you have to worry about any neighbors nearby.
No, we don't have to worry about the neighbors; we can play all hours of the night. The drums can go all night. And the back wall of the drum room faces outdoors. So there is a window out there. If the kids are outside playing, sometimes I'll hear them through that window. But for the most part, we don't have a problem.
Did you get a professional room tuner to come in and do any special acoustic treatment?
No, I didn't. I didn't have a special guy come in at all. I had a lot of friends come over. What we did is a lot of listening. We took records that we know and just listened to them. And I had a good friend, a friend of mine named Curt Storey, who was engineering for me at the time. We went in, and he has really, really good ears. And we did do some listening to try to figure out the best place to put the mixing board. We had a few options of which way to face it, and we decided to go into the back corner, which was totally underground. The wall was very, very solid, and we put the board facing the way it is right now. But as far as having someone come in and tune it, there are a lot of those big professional steps that I skipped. I could have floated the floor — I could have done things like that, but I skipped them. Because I felt that the room is for me. I can do a record in a cathedral or a bathroom, as long as I know what it sounds like.
You generally record your bass direct, right?
For the most part, I do. And it's just because I'm old school and I don't know a lot of the high-end technical stuff. In my studio, I use a Control 24 board, and it has Focusrite preamps in the back. So most of the time I just plug straight in. A lot of the time I have an idea in my head and I want to hear it right away, so I don't feel like setting up. So I plug in, and I just start trying stuff right away. And if I like it, I keep it. I just acquired a bunch of great Radial Dis, and I've been using those lately. I've been using them on my latest stuff. On some of the new stuff that I'm doing with the Flecktones, I'm using some of the Radial Dis, too. So for the most part, I use a DI or just go straight into the board. Every once in a while, just to do something different, I'll mic an amp, but that's rare.
I see you've got a couple of bass amps here. What's that — a B-15?
Yeah, exactly — an old Ampeg. And I've got a few other amps. But it's rare that I'll mic an amp, because I don't want to take the time to set up.
What about compression — do you use it much on your bass?
When I'm recording, I don't do much at all. On the bass, I rarely use compression.
Even in the mix?
It's rare that I do, even in the mix. A lot of times on the final mixes, we may compress [the bass] for the sound, to make it sound bigger — in case we get lucky and it gets played on the radio or something like that.
Wooten generally records his bass direct rather than through an amp. For sonic variety, he''ll switch to a different bass from his collection.
Photo: Kristina Marie Krug
What about from a dynamics standpoint? Do you do a lot of automation to level the bass out?
I can't say a lot, because I don't have anything to compare it to. Most of the things that I do are jazz records, not pop. But yeah, I definitely do some automation on riding things, riding solos, but I would have to guess that there's not a lot of automation compared to, maybe, normal records.
Does some of that have to do with your dynamics as a player?
It's definitely dynamics as a player. I would say that a lot of pop records are not performed by people who are used to playing live with each other, listening to each other. If there's any live playing at all, it's [done by] studio guys. Again, I'm speculating on this. But the people I'm usually playing with — a lot of times they're my brothers or my band, or I'll bring in a special person like Mike Stern, or Dennis Chambers on drums — we're really listening to each other, and we're playing together that way. So there's not a lot of adjusting levels that really, really needs to be done. But, of course, we still have to do it in the mixing phase.
In a lot of situations, it's routine to throw a compressor on a bass part to make it sit better in the mix.
Yeah, most people do that, but that's not my sound.
Let's talk aboutPalmystery.I noticed that there were a lot of songs in which you were playing melody parts on the bass, and then you had a conventional bass part underneath. However, it was always somebody else playing that underneath bass part, not you. Why didn't you just play both parts?
On previous records, I have. But on this record, I decided to use bass players whose sound I liked. Like my bass player, Anthony [Wellington], who travels with me. I enjoy playing a melody or solo on top of his playing, so he's playing on two of the tracks.
So in your live show you have another bass player?
Yes, when I'm touring with my band, I have Anthony. You have to think about this: when everybody else plays a melody or gets to solo, they get to play on top of a bass player — the bass player is supporting them. But for the most part, us bass players don't have that. So when it's time for us to solo, usually everyone drops out and we have to work a little harder and carry it ourselves. I like having that bass underneath me so I can take on the role as the soloist or the vocalist or the melody or something like that — that's great. Every bass player has their own feel and is going to drive the band their own way. That's fun to play over. So I enjoyed having different bass players supporting me on this record.
I was listening to the song “Left, Right, & Center,” and I noticed that at one point the drum kit was panned totally to one side. I know you were involved in the mixing, and so what was the thought on that?
Well, there are three drummers on that track — three drummers playing separately and together. We have J. D. Blair, Dennis Chambers, and Will Kennedy. They all recorded their parts here at the studio, separately. What happens is that J. D. starts the track. And then when Dennis comes in, you'll hear J. D. move over to the left. And Dennis comes in from the right and takes the center. And then, a little while later, Dennis will move off to the left, and Will moves into the center; he comes in from the right. And then when all three are playing, J. D. is on the left, Will is on the right, and Dennis is in the center. Left, right, and center. So the drums are moving all over the place.
That's wild. I was listening to it, and all of a sudden I said to myself, “Wait a minute!”
I like doing things that are unconventional, because it just grabs your attention if you're listening. Even if you're not listening, you know something different happened.
I think that's good. There are a lot of people who are too conservative in their mixing. They think they have to do it a certain way because that's how everyone does it.
And sometimes we have to be that way. Because if you go out of bounds a little bit, the radio stations, or whatever, may not play it. But I don't expect my music to get played on the radio anyway. So I just do the music that I'm going to die happy about. To go back for a minute to “Left, Right, & Center” — Mike Stern played guitar on that, a guy named Neal Evans from the band Soulive played B-3, and, of course, all of that was done here. And Mike is such an incredible player. I was listening to his solo and I thought, “I should learn this.” [So] I started learning it. As I was playing it in unison with him, I realized how cool it sounded. So I learned his whole solo and recorded it. So on the CD, when you hear this burning solo, when the song goes into double time, there's a burning guitar solo that's doubled with the bass. So you're getting me playing his solo an octave lower than him. And it's such a fun part of that song.
“Miss You” was another amazing song onPalmystery. I've never heard slide bass before. Did you just use a regular bottleneck slide?
Yeah, I bought a few different types — glass, there's one that's all black (I don't know what it's made of), and a metal one — just to see what sounded good, because I don't know how to use a slide. I just go for the sound. I don't know what the technique is.
And who was the engineer?
Mostly Robert Battaglia [see the sidebar “Victor's Secret Weapon”]. His brother Richard does sound for Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Now Robert and Richard together record the Flecktones' records at Béla's studio. But Robert's also done a bunch of other stuff; he used to live in California. “Miss You” was another song with a different bass player. Basically, a couple of Januarys ago, the Flecktones did a cruise called the Jam Cruise. I heard a band on there called the Lee Boys [that was] kind of like a gospel band, a funky gospel band. And they have a guy in that band playing steel guitar, just rockin'.
Sort of like Robert Randolph's style?
Totally. Same type of thing. They're all friends. In listening to them, I just started getting ideas. And I always have a way of either writing something down or [using] a little recorder that I can talk into. And I got an idea for this song. And since they inspired the song “Miss You,” I had all of them come in and play on it. So it's their drummer, bass player, pedal steel player, guitar player, and two of their vocalists. Two of the uncles sing — they're all a family. I only played the melody. I brought my brother Joseph in to play keys, and then my female vocalist, Sandra Williams, added some vocals to it.
That's a great song. It could be a single.
Thank you. I think it could, too. But most people see me as a jazz musician, and it's hard to get out of that. It's hard to get the radio stations to play [my material]. But I'm okay with that. I'm doing the music that I enjoy.
Because you made your name being flashy — not in the bad sense, but by showing a dexterity on the bass that few people do — have you found that people don't think of you when they just want a grooving bass player?
People don't think of me that way at all. I did an interview yesterday for a gentleman who was saying that one of his favorite records was a record by an Irish artist named Paul Brady. And he heard this song and he loved it, and he wanted to know who the bass player was — and he found out it was me. But it was a record where Paul called me just to play bass. There were no solos, nothing fancy, no thumb work, and I got to play bass. So it was nice that someone actually heard that and liked it for that reason. So for anyone out there, I like to just play bass. I like not to have to solo. And it's funny, because that's how I grew up, playing R&B soul music. But when the Flecktones hit it big, I got really known as a soloist. And that's what helped me develop my soloing: playing in this jazz fusion band.
So tell me what it's like to play with Béla. Does he really push things to the edge?
Yes. It keeps us all on our toes musicianship-wise, writing-wise, knowing how to work in the studio. I've learned so much from being in that band. I've learned so much from Béla himself. Each member is at the top of his game. My brother, who they call Future Man, he's just walking creation — he's [very] creative.
He plays that unusual drum controller.
That electronic drum controller that he came up with. Now, there are other companies making similar things, all based on his idea. He's even got a piano version of the same thing; it's all electronic. And then we had a guy named Howard Levy, and he was the original fourth member of the Flecktones. He was a guy who could play a chromatic scale on a blues harp. He never used a chromatic harp, [but] everyone thought he did. He was a guy that invented a whole way of finding notes that don't exist.
So even if the song is modulating, he can keep up on the same harp?
It doesn't matter. He can play in all 12 keys on the same harp and sound like Charlie Parker. And he can also do it on the piano, in unison with the harmonica. And at the time, he could play any instrument. He doesn't anymore. He could pick up the bass and blow you away; he could play saxophone, Chinese instruments, tabla. But now he's gotten himself to stick to the harmonica and keys. Then there's Béla, and what he's done on the banjo. So you could imagine traveling the world with these guys, just sitting around listening to them talk. Me, I was the young guy, probably in my early twenties when I met Béla, so I was just soaking it all in. But at the same time, I grew up with four guys like that. All my brothers are strange like that.
Compare playing in the studio with playing live. Do you feel as though you can be more creative as a live player or as a recording musician?
Well, both. But [they 're each] a different type of creation. I can afford to take my time in the studio. When I play live, it's fun to be spur of the moment. Like we're talking right now. We're just saying whatever comes to mind. We could write it out, and think it out, and possibly make it better, possibly not. But both phases of it are creative, and I like both phases. If I had to choose one, I'd choose live, because I love the interaction with people. Like if I had to live by myself or live with other people in the world, I would choose being around people. Both Béla Fleck and Edgar Meyer, a great bassist, told me — and I'm going to try to paraphrase their words — that composing is like improvising in slow motion. You're still improvising, but the creative process is spanned out over time.
But in the studio, you can stop and go back and fix something.
You can stop and go back, yeah. And there are ways of doing that live. If I make a mistake, I can fix it. I can go back and make you think it's not a mistake.
It goes by so fast. A mistake live is gone in an instant. A mistake on a recording is there forever.
And then a mistake repeated becomes a part. And all of a sudden you're correcting it — what was a mistake is now okay. So there are ways of doing it, but they're different ways. I think it was Béla who said that a good improvisation will sound composed. Like when we listen to Charlie Parker or Trane, it sounds like they worked on it and wrote it out. But it's totally improvised. Good composition will sound like soloing. People might not know that Jaco Pastorius — one of my all-time favorite bass players — composed all the solos on his records. They were worked on, written out, constructed, but they sound improvised. Neither way is better; they're both legitimate. It doesn't knock Jaco because he composed them. But man, it's just amazing to be able to do both [composing and improvising], and I'm fortunate that I get that opportunity.
Do you often go in and edit your parts in Pro Tools and move this or that note around?
I will do some of that, but I do a lot less than many people. I'm an organic musician. I love the rawness, I love the mistakes. I could fix things and make it perfect, but it's more perfect when it's not — when it breathes. You rush a little here, you know that note wasn't clean, but it felt great. I like that. So I'm always listening to see what it sounds like and what it feels like. Because a note may not sound the best, but it has that feel. I try to meet in the middle, between how it feels and how it sounds.
(Editor's note: For more of this interview, in Podcast format, go toemusician.com/podcasts/elecmus_podcasts.)
Mike Levine is EM's executive editor and senior media producer. He also hosts the twice-monthly Podcast “EM Cast” (emusician.com/podcasts).
FIG. A: Robert Battaglia helped Wooten engineer and mix Palmystery.
VICTOR'S SECRET WEAPON
In addition to bass, Palmystery features guitar, live drums, horns, keyboards, lead and background vocals, and percussion. With so much to record, Wooten decided to bring in an engineer, Robert Battaglia (see Fig. A), to help him throughout the project. Battaglia, who has engineered for Béla Fleck and the Flecktones (Battaglia's brother Richard is their front-of-house engineer and road manager), Edgar Meyer, Dar Williams, Little Feat, and Bobby Womack, among many others, spent years engineering in Los Angeles before moving to Nashville.
Robert was heavily involved with both the tracking and the mix phases of Palmystery. I asked him if he finds it advantageous to work with artists like Wooten, who understand recording techniques. “Generally speaking, it helps,” Battaglia says. “It would be pretty unusual if it didn't. They let you do what you're supposed to be doing, and they understand sometimes why you're doing something. And if they don't, they know you're doing it to try to get the project done.”
I was curious how much Wooten's disdain for compression on his bass parts runs up against Battaglia's instincts as an engineer. “Victor and Béla have it in their head sometimes that they don't want something to hold back their emotion when they're playing,” Battaglia explains, “so it's a catch-22 to try to get them to have the best of both. [Battaglia would say about adding compression,] ‘Trust me — the emotion will still come through.'' So I did some compression after the fact, but definitely never a lot.”
Although Wooten was heavily involved in the mix process, Battaglia did bring mixes home and work on them in his own studio, which, like Wooten's setup, features a pair of Meyer Sound HD-1 monitors. Battaglia also has a subwoofer and a pair of Genelec 8020As. “It was a bass record,” Battaglia points out, “and I wanted it to be good, and I wanted a lot of bass. But you know, it had to be right. So I really had to struggle and work like hell to make sure that I could get it sonically correct at home first, and then let Victor change any volume stuff later.”
VICTOR WOOTEN: A DISCOGRAPHY
- Palmystery (Heads Up, 2008)
- Soul Circus (Vanguard, 2005)
- Live in America (Compass, 2001)
- Yin Yang (Compass, 1999)
- What Did He Say? (Compass, 1997)
- A Show of Hands (Compass, 1996)
With Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
- The Hidden Land (Sony BMG, 2006)
- Live at the Quick (Sony, 2002), DVD
- Outbound (Sony, 2000)
- Left of Cool (Warner Brothers, 1998)
- Live Art (Warner Brothers, 1996)
- Three Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (Warner Brothers, 1993)
- UFO Tofu (Warner Brothers, 1992)
- Flight of the Cosmic Hero (Warner Brothers, 1991)
- Béla Fleck and the Flecktones (Warner Brothers, 1990)
Other Credits (Selected)
- India Arie, “Summer” from Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship (Motown, 2006)
- Mike Stern, Who Let the Cats Out? (Heads Up, 2006)
- Jaco Pastorius Big Band, Word of Mouth Revisited (Heads Up, 2003)
- Dave Matthews Band, Live in Chicago 12-19-98 at the United Center (RCA, 2001)
- Paul Brady, Spirits Colliding (Mercury, 1995)
- Marc O'Connor, New Nashville Cats (Warner Brothers, 1991)