Session File: Kaada - EMusician

Session File: Kaada

Norwegian composer John Erik Kaada’s new album, Music for Moviebikers — a gentle collection of lush acoustic arrangements set as soundtracks to imaginary films — could well double as a shared dream between Tom Waits and Ennio Morricone had they been residing in a Bergen hostel during choice career moments. It’s a kind of chamber orchestra suite, quite different from Kaada’s earlier work, though approached with the same sleight-of-hand production techniques that have made Kaada a favorite among DIY musician-producers in recent years.
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Kaada’s artistic approach is non-traditional, in that oftentimes what you hear has been achieved through rather bizarre means, and not only in the pure performance aspect (as he tells EQ, “People think that on my albums it’s all sampling — there are some samples, but also we tried to play like samples”). His unconventional ethos is also apparent in the mixing process, where a deep understanding of the science of sound comes into play, outlining the boundaries which Kaada calculatedly, and continuously, pushes. Never has this been more evident than on Moviebikers — an album where Kaada has further stepped outside of the box, both figuratively and literally speaking. “When I sum up the last 10 years, I’ve spent most of it in front of my monitors,” Kaada tell us via phone from his home country. “I wanted to do this away from the computer as much as possible, achieve something very organic sounding.”

A GRAVE SCENARIO

After the initial tracking of drums, bass, and placeholder keyboards (recorded to a click track at Kaada’s own home studio, Wrongroom, for the purpose of more efficient supplementary tracking in different “facilities”), Kaada was privileged enough to stage a session at Oslo’s Vigeland Mausoleum — a vaulted, windowless tomb built by Norwegian painter and stained-glass artist Emanuel Vigeland to store and display his artwork (as well as his remains). “The whole idea was to get that fantastic reverb on tape,” says Kaada, who is known for his elaborate signal treatments via various “natural” locales for their characteristic resonance(s). “I recorded some claps and snaps to import into my convolution reverb, like impulse/response, for future reference,” information that came in handy for overdubs and mixing, when three Eastern European street musicians caught his attention and were corralled into a taxi and taken to contribute overdubs at Wrongroom. This snapshot of the Vigeland acoustics enabled Kaada to place the trio in essentially the same acoustic space as the initial Vigeland session.

Access to the Mausoleum was fairly restricted — the Norwegian government disallowed the presence of drums, most electric/amplified instruments, and even additional lighting (to preserve the paintings stored within). Originally Kaada expected to combat these harsh impositions by recording to a Mac G5 through three rented Daniel Weiss ADC1 MK2, 24/96 AD converters in a bus outside, but soon found that a vestry at the mausoleum’s entrance could serve as a control room, crammed with not only the recording gear but a separate mixing desk to accommodate monitoring of the pre-recorded tracks.

Running a 75-foot snake out to the cavernous main room of the mausoleum, Kaada found the expected low mid-tone pile-up, a problem solved by activating the low-cut switches on all the mics, plus a little more roll-off bottom and mid, and boosting a little high end on his Millenia HV3D preamps (units he tells us he employed due to their transparency) before going into the desk. However, there still existed many barriers, not so much in achieving a good sound but more so in the performance aspect — a lack of adequate lighting coupled with the fact that Moviebikers, composed by Kaada and relayed via notation, left many of the session musicians simply squinting in the dim light, while Kaada himself tried, in the dark, to properly manipulate his outboard gear.

at what time ye hear the sound of . . .

The aforementioned issues, however, did not stop Kaada from employing a wide array of “government sanctioned” instruments, from dulcimers to Harding-fiddles to autoharps, in the Vigeland sessions — traditional instruments that Kaada hardly treated with reverence. He rarely adhered to traditional strategies of producing or capturing their sounds, whether by putting rubber over, under, or between strings, using bows for plucked instruments, unorthodox mic placements, and/or a healthy dose of effects processing and re-amping after the fact. A fine example of this is the piano track on the album-opening “Smiger,” a ghostly sound achieved by placing an E-bow over the piano’s strings — captured with an AKG-414, placed near the pedals to give a looming quality to the piano’s gentle, quiet sound.

Kaada also favors the 414 as a room mic — telling us that he put up four, arrayed around the mausoleum. (“These were recorded straight into the desk,” Kaada notes, “I’ve often found myself dropping the preamp to let the high timbres shine through.”) Though none of the ambient mics made it into Kaada’s end mix, he does save them in case the album ever gets treated to a surround mix.

Other mics in Kaada’s arsenal ranged from the standby SM57s and U87s to the esoteric: On most of the Eastern-European string instruments he used a rare mic called the Symfon BC-10. This is a hyper-cardioid condenser built with military radar technology — one he likens to an improved AKG C535 — developed and made by the father of the director of one of Kaada’s videos. “He came up to me and said, ‘My Dad made this great mic.’ I assumed there would be a reason it never made it into production, but it was fantastic — it supposedly picks up over 50kHz, sounds we will never hear, but it’s nice to know they are there.”

DI(Y) BOXES

One of Kaada’s favorite tools for tonal coloring is the use, or misuse, of his many amplifiers — most of which are custom jobs he’s modified personally. He uses a DI box to lower the noise that arises from impedance mismatches, though at times he’s been known to push the signal backwards through the DI, or skip even applying the box in his chain.

At Kaada’s blogspot (http://wrongroom.blogspot.com), he discusses how he used an old 1930s Philips speaker due to it’s “really thin, far off sound,” telling us “it brings the instrument over, on top of everything; an extra very special timbre, that EQing doesn’t always allow.” Pointing to the track “From Here on It Got Rough,” Kaada attributes the use of the speaker to the “exhalation sound” of the autoharp, adding that a good portion of the dominant-melodic instruments were run through the Phillips to achieve a similar effect.

ORDERING CHAOS

Kaada’s prime recommendation to those looking to augment their sounds, especially those relying on soft synths, is to “get things out of the computer and through some fresh air — re-amp tracks, and move the mics away from the speaker. Do anything to add the complexity of the sounds.” An admitted spring reverb fetishist, he prefers to use the reverb of naturally resonating physical objects. For example, he sometimes amends his re-amping tactic by playing the re-amped signal into a piano with the damper pedal, or certain keys, held down, then miking the combined sound with that of the resonating piano strings. Basically, the piano becomes a bulky spring reverb.

Kaada has also added springs to some of his rack-mounted effects units, and even built one specialized four-channel reverb — a unit showcased on the guitar tracks of “The Mosquito and the Abandoned Old Woman.” Kaada tells us, “I installed four different stereo pairs of springs into a metal frame, and split the signal into four, with volume pots on each input. It has an amazingly rich and flexible sound, maybe because the springs have different lengths, and the frame itself is stretchable.”

Another method Kaada employs to add complexity to his sounds is that of running a signal through one of many old tape delays loaded with heavily worn tape, a technique used to impart a unique distortion. “Everything sounds better with a small touch of distortion”; distortion he oftentimes exploits by pitch-shifting extreme intervals with an Eventide H8000FW, rather than simply changing key. He speaks of regularly pitch-shifting a track one octave down, then removing the artificial top and bottom via EQ — a technique Kaada promises will result in bigger, darker sounds for percussive instruments.

In the name of symmetry

The mausoleum takes on Moviebikers clock out to 59 minutes, 58 seconds of audio, to which he added two seconds during mixing, a running time Kaada found rather significant: “The fact that we ended up with almost exactly an hour of music was spooky, as the last composition is called ‘In Hora Mortis,’ which means something like ‘In the Last Hour.’ Being in a tomb and everything, it kind of freaked us out.” While this smacks of Led Zeppelin studio lore (i.e. the appearance of the mysterious black dog), it loosely speaks to what Kaada sees as the lessons of Moviebikers, and his general working philosophy. Kaada encourages others not only to run with happy accident, but also to experiment freely with the tools they have. “It’s really time-consuming, but it’s worth it. Because people react to it, and it’s more fun.” It’s an easy concept to lose sight of while the studio clock is ticking, perhaps, but well worth the effort to remember.