The project came together three years ago when the producers flew out to Havana over a ten-day period. There, they were given the run of the place in terms of talent and studios. The only direction given was to avoid getting so authentic with the Cuban sound that the tracks sounded dated.
Armed with a drive of programmed ideas, DeVries and engineer Jason Bushoff set up at Egrem Studios, one of the older recording spaces in Havana where Buena Vista Social Club recorded. Egrem has a Pro Tools rig, but all the other gear was antique, with plenty of crackles and fuzz.
Poet and his engineer AGDM had a similar experience in Abdala Studios, where there’s also a Pro Tools rig, but everything else is “dusty, but dusty cool,” Poet says. The guys showed up with basic skeletons of ideas laden with percussion and brass, using a combination of Pro Tools, Live, and Reason.
On “Dark House Love,” Notion music-notation software played a part in the preproduction process. The software uses a sample library recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road, but a Cuban orchestra gave the material a more local vibe.
“Once all the string parts were lined up, I soloed tracks, chopped out, cut, pasted, and layered in Pro Tools,” Poet says. “At the same time, I went through crazy outboard Eventide effects and blended them with a lot of my synthesizer sounds. The musicians added the organic feel.”
“We wanted to use a significant amount of the sonic vocabulary generated in Cuba by Cuban musicians to give it that texture,” adds DeVries. Even though the production techniques and programming have that contemporary feel, what it’s made out of has that old world-y, otherworld-y vintage Cuban flavor that gives them a particular spin.”
For “Guantanamero,” DeVries recorded vocals with Oktava mics through an AMEK Mozart console. Horns, percussion, guitars, and tres were recorded with Neumann U 89 i and Sennheiser MD 441 U microphones.
“We put the musicians in a crescent shape at the other end of the room, grouping the specific horns together in pairs, and slightly facing each other because we were limited to what we had,” Bushoff remembers. “There was the raucousness of having them all play together, as well. As much as we tried to tell them what to do, someone was always doing something slightly different.”
DeVries and Bushoff were also asked by the house engineer not to change any of the routine switches on the desk, as they would be too difficult to reset. Because of this, they added lots of inputs in Pro Tools, which meant an enormous amount of audio to deal with. On top of that, the musicians were so eager to show what they could do, it was hard to get comes in. You’ve got a visual reference onscreen, and you’re listening to where things fit in the groove and you start shifting audio forward or backward in time so that it starts to lock within what was done.”
In contrast, Poet was not quite so limited—specifically in his choice of live rooms. There was the above mentioned wood room and another that was all mirrors, which he used to record the horns. He miked the mirrors and also miked the players at a 90-degree angle to the mirrors, which he says gave him added ambience without resorting to a plug-in.
“There is one part where we made a tent for our kick drum, because I love to experiment with miking techniques,” Poet says. “We used chairs to connect this long tube, and we miked the end of the tube, which created an 808-type sound. Then, we played an actual Roland TR-808 and made the drummer play on top of that. They’re so ninja, they knocked it out in one take.”
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