Robbers on High Street: Tensions in the Groove

“In the beginning, we had a lot of big ideas,” Robbers on High Street’s lead singer and principal writer Ben Trokan recalls of the composition process for Grand Animals [New Line]. “I was writing arrangements on piano for other instruments, and I thought, ‘I have zero experience writing a string part.’ So, originally, we thought we would find someone to help bring a kind of soundtrack experience to the project.”
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Scheduled to enter Sonora Recorders in Los Angeles in the not-so-distant future, Trokan and crew called upon Italian film composer Daniele Luppi in hopes that the cinematic mastermind could help take the band’s raw, relentless rhythms and unorthodox melodies to a grander level. As luck would have it, Luppi was up to the challenge, and with engineer Seth McLain in tow, the unlikely conglomerate entered Sonora. There was a slight problem, however. The drummer had quit, and the recording budget wouldn’t allow hiring session musicians.

“Ben was put in the position of playing about 75 percent of the album alone,” says Luppi. “He had to play a zillion guitars, piano, and all the drums and percussion.”

Did I mention that Trokan is not really a drummer?

As a result, the basic tracks were recorded by dialing in a click track, and then praying that Trokan could hold the beat together. To help keep the grooves on track, Pro Tool’s Grid feature was employed to quantize Trokan’s somewhat naïve bashing. However, when it was time to layer instruments, Luppi didn’t want to grid the overdubs in order to sync the tracks with the time-corrected drums.

“We just kept the drums on the grid, and then tracked the rest of the instruments, which produced this surreal push-pull effect,” says Luppi. “There’s an enormous tension between the overdubs and the drums on the grid. It doesn’t always match up, but it works.”

Luppi also pushed the band to perform many of the sonic sweetening parts themselves, rather than rely on samples.

“‘Guard at Your Heel’ is a good example of that approach,” Trokan says. “We wanted some tuba and a marching bass drum, so Luppi gave Morgan [King, bassist] a tuba, placed a Royer R-121 in front of it, and then handed me a marching bass drum with an RCA 44 mounted about four inches off the skin. Then, he said, ‘Here you go. You want a circus sound? Make it.’”
“I’m convinced a human being will always do it better than a sample—even if it’s not right,” explains Luppi. “I don’t ever want to use a GigaOrchestra, or whatever. Why even bother staring at a computer, looking for sounds, when you can just have a person play the instrument?”

The recording of Grand Animals wasn’t entirely reckless, of course. Luppi is incredibly sensitive to mic selection and placement, saying that, next to the players themselves, this is the most important part of making an album.

“They had a 1965 Ludwig drum kit in the studio,” Luppi says, “and I wanted to capture as much of the instrument with as few mics as possible. We put an Electro-Voice 666 right on the head of the snare, a pair of Neumann U67s about three feet up—one pointing at the snare and hi-hat, the other at the floor tom and ride—and an AKG D-112 a few feet out from the kick.”

For Robbers’ guitars, Luppi and McLain settled on miking Trokan’s Vox AC30 and Fender Deluxe Reverb with a Beyerdynamic M 160 ribbon positioned right on the grille cloth, pointed at a 90-degree angle to the speaker cone. King’s bass was also miked, rather than taken direct, with an Electro-Voice RE20 positioned right on the cone. For mixing, the gang decided to go analog, burning the songs to 1/2-inch tape at 30 ips.

Though it was a somewhat arduous journey, both Luppi and the Robbers are glad to have collaborated.

“Luppi really helped us develop our compositions,” Trokan says. “The songs are more refined, and the scope is broader than ever.”

“Every song is a little gem,” Luppi adds.