Rafter Roberts on Improvisational Recording

There are no steadfast rules to recording, but, sometimes, it helps to be reminded of that as you spend countless hours trying to figure out how to record a zither. That’s why, in the middle of a hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing session, I decided to call producer Rafter Roberts (Arab on Radar, Black Heart Procession, Tarantula Hawk, and Upsilon Acrux), and ask him to wax sentimental on the recording of his latest album, Music for Total Chickens [Asthmatic Kitty]. Here’s what he had to say about throwing caution to the wind, and tracking one of the past year’s most intriguing releases.
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There’s a lot going on stylistically on Music for Total Chickens. There are tracks that remind me of John Carpenter’s soundtrack work set up against really clangy, dissonant songs. But what strikes me most is a perceived lack of compression on many of the instruments.

I love abusing compression, but, for this record, I went for a very naturalistic approach. I tried to keep what little compression I used on some instruments as transparent as possible. But the drums are pretty squashed. They were run through the PSP VintageWarmer with some serious headroom reduction. I did that to add body, and to rein in the dynamics, as there is a lot of ticky-ticky, crash-heavy percussion that can get real washed out.

How did you achieve the quiet, lilting tones on “Encouragement”?
That was recorded in a completely dead control room, with a Neumann U87 a few inches away from the guitar. I didn’t do any distant miking on this record. I’d record in different-sized rooms, but I’d always have the mic close to whatever instrument I was playing. I wanted everything to be precise and detailed—which doesn’t lend itself to a really live feeling.

No room miking? Then, why are the stick clicks as loud as the drums themselves?
That has as much to do with compression as it does with mic placement. I used only three mics for most of the kit. It was the “John Bonham method”—one overhead mic above the snare, one mic by the floor tom, and one mic on the kick. Of course, it doesn’t sound like Bonham [laughs].

What was Music for Total Chickens recorded on?
It was tracked entirely on a PC running Sony Vegas. The album took three years, so I started it on version 4.0, and I finished it in 6. Thankfully, there were no backwards compatibility issues. That software is awesome.

Why Vegas?
I’ve gone back and forth between different DAWs throughout the years, and the Vegas interface has always struck me as the most intuitive. I come from a 4-track and 8-track background, so the way Vegas handles bussing and effects routing makes sense to me.

How do you approach recording guitar for your albums?
I love recording guitars direct, but not through a Line 6 POD. I’ll run the guitar into an old Radio Shack Realistic Electronic Reverb I got in the early ’80s. It’s more like a weird little delay box. If you plug the guitar into the mic input of that thing, and crank the input, it gets the most delicious distortion. So I’ll play a chord, reach over to the reverb knob, and give it a turn. It sounds great.

There are some “bite-y” guitars that serve as accents, and those were run through a crappy, no-name preamp I got as a teenager. A friend and I opened the unit up, started soldering things together randomly, and then we’d see how it altered the sound. We turned that thing into the gnarliest monster. The EQ got screwed up, and now it makes a biting, harsh, and unpleasant sound. Also, the reverb circuit somehow got soldered back into the input channel, so when you turn it up, you get some really crazy feedback. You can hear it on “Tragedy.” I also love the Z. Vex Fuzz Factory. It’s total chaos! When I wanted the guitars to produce an uncontrolled feeling, I’d run them through the Fuzz Factory, and then into an API 512.

What was the songwriting process like for this album?
The entire album was born from drum improvisations I recorded. I would just set up mics very haphazardly, and record a few friends and myself banging away. I’d guide the players by telling them things like, “Play a beat until you understand it, and then switch,” or “Play eighth notes, and vary the dynamics by starting quiet, getting as loud as you can in the mid-section, and then quieting down in the end.” Then, I’d go back and play guitar in, say, 15-second spurts over the drum tracks. I’d chop up the drum and guitar tracks into some sort of structure, and, from there, it was just a matter of layering. I’d add pianos, horns, strings, and, finally, vocals. None of the songs were songs until they were almost completely recorded and mixed.