Adam “Red” Lasus was one of the many pioneers during the “first wave” of indie music, producing and engineering bands such as Julianna Hatfield, Chris Harford, Versus, Madder Rose, Helium, and Yo La Tengo during the early ’90s. Originally from Philadelphia, he built his first facility, Studio Red, around the block from the Khyber Pass, a club where most of the country’s hardest working indie acts would ultimately pass through. Lasus frequently hung out there, befriending interesting groups he would lure into his studio, or “musicians playground” as he calls it.
Since closing Studio Red, he moved on to become the owner and resident producer of Brooklyn’s Fireproof Recording, originally the borough’s oldest hook and ladder company. [Editor’s Note: He has since relocated Fireproof to Los Angeles.] EQ caught up with Adam just as one of the newest records he produced/mixed, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (the debut album by the group of the same name, with additional engineering by Keith DeSouza) began to catch fire. The album was funded and distributed solely by the group, and to date has sold over 60,000 copies — and in the process, skyrocketed to Number One on the CMJ New Music Charts.
YOU GOTTA BE ABLE TO SWITCH GEARS . . .
Lasus is quick to point out that “indie rock” took him by surprise, and when he began he wasn’t looking to fit into or work in this rapidly emerging, if elusive, genre. Instead, during the ’80s, Lasus was focused on groups like Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure, and Velvet Underground, eventually gravitating towards The Beatles and The Stones. As a result, his productions became largely oriented toward guitar and drums rather than, say, big keyboards and samples.
GO OUTSIDE YOUR “COMFORT ZONE”
Although indie rock represents most of his work, Lasus frequently draws techniques and ideas from altogether different genres. “I did a record with a buddy of mine, Matt Keating, and he was kind of in a Motown kick and wanted to have a horn player come in. So we listened to Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On, and if you listen, they have the little bongo going on all the way through the track that gives it this really cool little groove. So when we went to do the basics, we thought ‘Let’s play real sparse and leave room for all these horns, cool piano licks, and other hooks.’ We were able to build up that great vibe, definitely Motown-y flavored,” he recalls.
Lasus believes that cross-genre sampling is also a healthy thing: “One of my favorite examples is Beck, who samples Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones, Devo; then he’ll do a riff on top of it. I don’t do that because I don’t work with samplers, but why not try to build your production by emulating these other productions? The end result might be something totally different and better than what you anticipated.”
“CLEAN” IS NOT ALWAYS “GOOD”
Lasus offers this advice to producers working in any genre: Be careful of making things too clean. “This happened on the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah record. I put up a $1,000 mic, and the band came in and said ‘The vocals sound way too good — way too clean.’ So I broke out my mini Marshall amp and a $2.50 Radio Shack mic, the cheapest one available to us, and ran the vocals through it (Figure 1). Similar techniques were used on Beastie Boys records and on Beck records to different degrees. Some mic it up with a cheap mic, others with a high end mic.” [Editor’s Note: Another easy way to get a cheap mic sound is to use a headphone “in reverse,” with the earcup acting as a mic. This technique is used a lot by DJs.]
Lasus also notes that one can go direct out through the headphone jack, and that the tone controls on the amp enable a gritty or clean sound, depending on preference. “I love using this cheap combination of the Radio Shack mic and the mini Marshall amp — it breaks up the artist mentality of ‘I’m looking at a $1,000 microphone.’”
RE-AMPING: NOT JUST FOR GUITARS
He also uses the mini-Marshall amp as a re-amp — in other words, to take the output of a track and re-process it to get more of the sound he wants. “If I’m getting that boomy proximity effect on an expensive tube mic, I’ll use the headphone amp as a send, and run the vocal into the mini-Marshall, then mic it up as a re-amp. It works perfectly as a re-amp on anything: snare drums, bass, vocals. You can create a whole bus of this thing if you want. I use it all the time.”
NEW TONES THROUGH “TENOR” GUITAR
One of Lasus’ favorite tricks for recording acoustic guitars was borrowed from his alt-country counterparts. “I use what is called a Nashville tuning, and it turns the guitar into almost a tenor guitar. It sounds like you’re playing with a capo on the 12th fret. I took a reissue Martin small body guitar, like the Nick Drake 00-15 size, stripped off all the regular strings, and put all the light gauge strings from a 12-string guitar on it. You put this on somebody’s chorus, and you get this gorgeous texture, kind of like a banjo sound.”
We’ve all been trained to hear a guitar a certain way, and Lasus says this technique breaks up the preconceptions we’ve all built up over time. The technique even works on the cheap $100 guitars, which project the higher frequency range just fine. Intonation challenges are not much of an issue because the high gauge strings bring less tension on the neck anyway. [Editor’s Note: You may need to make some bridge adjustments to correct the intonation for lighter gauge strings.] “This tuning also changes how you can mic up the instrument,” claims Lasus. “You don’t get those booming tones, so you can place the mic as close as 3" away from the body without any problems.”
“PLUG-OUTS” SOMETIMES BEAT “PLUG-INS”
Fireproof has an extensive collection of effect and processor pedals (Figure 2). While these gadgets were originally designed mostly for guitar, they get serious mileage in Lasus’ shop during both the recording and mixing phases. Where other people might reach for plug-ins during a tracking or mix session, Lasus finds that the right effect pedal can lead to a more genuine or desirable result. “I often run vocals through a Electro-Harmonix Big Muff or a Rat pedal, or a Boss Delay. A Boss Delay pedal, for example, might sound better than your rack delay. It’s only low-fi and has 8- or 12-bit resolution, so it sounds a little more old school. Sure, you can use a plug-in to get phase and flange, but why not use a real MXR Phase 90, or a real Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress?”
He also uses pedals on the aux channels during his mixes. “Let’s say you have an organ, and it’s not quite stereo enough. Run it through a stereo flange pedal in the mix! If a bass isn’t thick enough, I’ll often run it through a Big Muff as an aux, return it on a channel, and just put about 20% of the Big Muff in there for some more bottom or some fuzz.” He also uses tape delays (Figure 3) instead of digital rack delays, something he borrowed from the famous Johnny Cash productions.
ANTICIPATE YOUR CLIENT’S NEEDS
The bottom line for Lasus is finding the comfort zone for his clients. “I once had an artist called Amy Ray come in, and she brought Joan Jett in to play guitar. Jett came in and I pulled out my SG Jr., with a single P-90 in it, and plugged it into my cheapest, dirtiest little Ampeg Rocket amp. She turned it all the way up, and she was like, ‘Okay, that’s my sound. Let’s go!’ Then ten minutes later, we were done. The SG Jr. was just right for her, because she has smaller hands than some other people and this guitar had a slim neck. If I had pulled out a regular Les Paul or a Jazzmaster, it might have been a different story. So you always have to be sensitive to those things.”