This hands-on approach to being hands-off is what separates Carranza from many of his peers, and possibly what has led the producer/mixer/engineer to multiple Grammy awards and earned him the unofficial role of “hardest working man in the business.” But it’s not because he’s heavy-handed with his tools; to the contrary, it all hinges on Carranza’s ability to never cross the line of over-producing his acts. “When I get a template from someone that’s really raw, but really great, I’ll always ask ‘how much further do you really want to go with this?’ Carranza adds. “When a band comes in with just a skeleton, it excites me. We can build from that, and that way the band leaves feeling as if they contributed to the whole of the record rather than just writing some songs that I recorded.”
FROM THE HIP IN THE STUDIO
Speaking of the making of The Mars Volta’s follow-up to their critically acclaimed Amputechture, Carranza says his role in the shaping of their sound will likely follow suit to the band’s highly progressive, largely improvisational brand of noise-meets-rock. “Omar [Rodriguez-Lopez], has enough energy to light up a city,” Carranza says of the band’s figurehead guitarist. “He doesn’t bring anything to the table until the last minute; he brings his riffs and then teaches the rest of the band in the studio. Bruce Springsteen is known for doing the same thing — he doesn’t tell anyone what is going on until it’s time to do it.
“There’s a genius behind that; it keeps everything fresh for everyone, it forces creativity. Spontaneity is the big thing for me. We did a similar thing with Los Lobos on the last record [The Town and the City]. We would go into the studio each day, sit around during lunch, and talk about the song for an hour — what the song meant. The chords and the basic structure were laid out, but then we would walk into the room, they would play for three minutes, and we would have the song almost completed. It was amazing.
“A band plays together on stage — that’s their performance. There are moments that are unique unto themselves . . . why can’t that be done in the studio as well? It’s not magic; it’s the result of the camaraderie that happens while playing together. That’s why, for at least 80% of the records I’ve recorded in the last year, I’ve kept the rhythm section from the very beginning. For the last Mars Volta album, we kept almost everything. Set them up in a room and let them go. I’d rather just deal with the bleed. The eye contact, the ability to feel the kick drum . . . you can’t do that with headphones.”
WORKING FROM HOME
Though Carranza sets up shop in many “big-time” studios such as Burbank’s Glenwood Place and Hollywood’s Ocean Way, he also spends a good deal of time working in his project home studio, especially when the time comes to mix his projects. Says Carranza, “Trying to get into a room at a pro studio can be hard, unless you have a booking months in advance. It’s nice to be able to work at home; I’ll usually track at a big studio, but come home to edit and mix.”
Working on mixes for the likes of Jack Johnson (held by some to be his greatest work) and Spearhead, Carranza sometimes finds himself mixing “in the box.” But how does he manage those huge mixes with a somewhat limiting technology? “I’ve got my outboard gear, such as the Dangerous Music 2-BUS, that I use along with my plug-ins. I don’t hate plugs; it’s just another tool — but using summing amps helps my sound a lot. It’s almost like a hybrid style of mixing.
“I’ve found that when I was mixing in the box at home, I would spend hours and hours trying to make it sound . . . right!” Carranza says. “I was venturing out, looking for something to make my mixes sound better, when a friend told me to check out the 2-BUS. I had known Chris Muth from mastering projects in the past, and I had known what he had been doing with mastering consoles. His stuff is the kind of stuff I’m really interested in: really high end, product of ‘out of the box’ thinking. Using summing amps, nothing gets lost in translation.”
DRUMMING UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Thumbing through Carranza’s discography — whether you settle on Beck or Ricky Martin — it becomes immediately apparent that the man knows how to get great drum sounds. Claiming that he begins the process by letting the drummer play naturally (“never ‘hit the snare, hit the kick’ — it doesn’t matter what each drum sounds like by itself”), Carranza then begins placing room mics, adhering to a few rules he’s drawn up for himself over the years. “I try to use the least amount of room mics possible. And I place them away from the drums — they’re not supposed to face the drums, they are supposed to face the room. I’ll start by turning them around to get the first reflections of the drums. I’ll also start by setting them high, and then work my way down. If the drummer hits especially hard, I’ll usually have to move them lower to find the best spot. What’s most important though is to make sure the overheads and the kick are moving the same amount of air through the room mics.
“The Neumann U47 FET is my go-to for kicks, usually with a little pop filter on it to control the air hitting the mic. For the top of the snare, I like a Shure SM57 with an AKG 451 taped to it, both capsules aligned. Sometimes an extra 451 on the bottom works well too, about six inches down, but it really depends on the player. I have a philosophy: You would never put your ear right next to the snare to listen, so why would you record that way? This goes for amps as well.”
Carranza admits that he favors large diaphragm condensers for toms, usually settling on Neumann U87s or AKG 414s to get the job done, outfitting them with pop filters that have pre-cut pieces of foam taped to the filter material to keep out cymbal bleed. For overheads, Carranza employs the AKG-built Telefunken Ela M 251s in many cases, though recently breaking out the reissued AKG 451s. “The small diaphragms tend to reject a little better,” Carranza says. “I’m also a fan of the Audio-Technica AT4033. I have a Royer SF-12 that sometimes helps the stereo image when putting it in the back of the room, especially if the drums are placed physically wider apart from each other. Another cool thing is what I’ve dubbed, like an idiot, the ‘bass drum stereo mic technique.’ Basically, I take a pair of 57s, or the Neumann M49s, and put them in an XY pattern, or XY so that the mics are horizontal, based on left and right so that the heads are on the sides. I start very close to the set, moving backwards as I listen to the player. There’s always that one sweet spot where the kick and snare are represented evenly. If you find that, you can get the perfect kick and snare sounds, and it’s out of phase. It’s time-consuming, but it’s worth it. And if you’re laying everything down to a DAT, like I do, when you’re moving the mics around, you can more easily compare the sounds of each position and maintain objectivity. You can hear the differences instantly.”
OLD WAYS FOR NEW TRACKS
“A lot of people treat the bass like the bastard child of the mix. To me, it’s always been one of the most important aspects of the overall sound. It’s funny that so many people just put the bass through a DI while guitar players are busy trying out 20 different guitar/amp combinations. I haven’t used a DI for a couple albums now. I always mic up the amp.”
Similarly, Carranza is a bit disillusioned by many recordists’ approach to modern tools. “I come from the time where analog and digital collided,” Carranza says. “I’m young enough to understand the computer stuff, but old enough to remember tape, so I’ve been disciplined in it all a bit. But what has changed that is bad is not the tools, but the way albums are put together because of those tools. The process of slowing down the tape, having to rewind, change reels . . . those moments of pause were liberating. Now we’re rushing through Pro Tools, doing ten takes at a time, editing on the spot — it’s like we’re fast-forwarding through our creativity.
“Lately, I’ve made a rule: no more than three whole takes an hour. I want some time to hear the differences before we go forward. You’d be surprised at what that will do to the mood, and what that mood will do to your recording. For the new Mars Volta record, Cedric [Bixler-Zavala] was great. We’d cut a vocal, hang out for a minute, take a shot of Jaeger, get loose, and then try it again and knock it out of the park. You have to think . . . when Van Gogh was around he wasn’t just painting, painting, painting. I’m sure he took a step back once in a while. You should do the same when you’re recording.”