TOCA and Producer Colin Fairbairn On How to Make an Album the Hard Way

No one ever said that making a record is easy. TOCA—an L.A.-based band that seamlessly combines indie rock, hip-hop, and Latin music into a refreshing musical gumbo—can attest to that fact; as can their producer, Colin Fairbairn, who was tasked with helping the band assemble their self-titled album from over 50 songs, culled from five years’ worth of various lo-fi home recordings. “It was hard,” Fairbairn modestly states. “Really, really hard.”

“These songs are mostly from 16-track demos recorded at our rehearsal space with just a handful of [Shure] SM57s and 58s,” admits Ceschi Ramos, TOCA’s guitarist and primary songwriter. “After five years, we decided to take them to Sounden Studios and get Colin to help us put them all together. I don’t think he knew what he was getting into.”

“About 60 percent of the album is rehearsal space recordings,” Fairbairn adds, “but those recordings were already huge on the production front. We’re talking upwards of 30 vocal performances, bounced down to four tracks, that we had to then fit into the re-recorded tracks from recent sessions.”

These re-recorded tracks, Fairbairn says, were originally planned to be just the drums, bass, and guitar, though the band ended up bringing in everything from a Fender Rhodes to “a bunch of weird, cheap drum machines,” running the signals through a Korg KAOSS pad and manually sweeping the panning parameters to further twist their already significantly twisted sound. “It was a lot of fun to track, but we ran out of time at Sounden and had to retreat to this small, Guitar Center-built studio that only had a Pro Tools HD 2 system,” Fairbairn laments. “It would constantly crash because our track counts were so high. We were murdering that system. And, to top it off, the place didn’t even have a console, so we had to mix completely in the box. I’ve never done that before, and I hated it—going from a Neve 8026 to a laptop. It was a learning experience, but I never want to go through that again.”

The basic tracks that the band recorded at Sounden, however, were a joy to engineer, Fairbairn admits. “I had a lot of fun with the drums. I got to bring in my old ’60s Rogers Holiday kit for David [Ramos, drummer/percussionist/vocalist], which is always good for a real garage-y sound.”

To capture the kit, Fairbairn applied one of his favorite miking strategies. “I used two AEA R88s as overheads,” he says. “Since they are ribbons, they naturally give a darker, warmer sound than, for instance, a pair of [AKG] C12s. We then put a [Sennheiser] MD 441 on the snares. We used anywhere between five and eight snares for each song, layering the tracks to get a really fat, thick snare sound. The rest of the kit’s sounds were all from a pair of [beyerdynamic] M 160s that I set up about 12 feet back from the kit, running the signals through a pair of Neve 2254 compressor/limiters that were crushing the tracks. Compressing the hell out of room mics is a great way to get a real nasty drum sound. If you take that sound and use it as your main tracks, just adding the snare and overheads in a bit in the mix, you can get an awesome lo-fi drum sound out of your kit.”

When it came time to re-record Ramos’ guitar tracks, Fairbairn describes the process as “a mad dash to get the perfect sound.” With the clock ticking, Fairbairn quickly set up a Royer R-121 in front of a Silverface Fender Vibro Champ, laid on its back, and a Peavey Classic 50/410. “I’d split them out. I would use a pedal, flip the signal to the two amps and do stereo modulation,” Fairbairn informs. “I have this Electro-Harmonix Clone Theory pedal with a dry out and chorus out, and the dry out went to the Classic, the chorus out to the Fender. Beyond that, Ceschi just grabbed the knobs, gave each amp a quick tweak, and we just laid down all the guitar tracks.

“We were still arranging the songs when it came time to mix,” Fairbairn adds. “We knew we had the drum parts, so I’d put together a submix of the drums, drop the faders on every other track, and then we’d just build the songs up around the basic rhythm tracks, editing as we went. It was a difficult process for me, since I’m used to finishing a mix of a song in less than six hours. This album, however, is just a series of revisions and overdubs, and we spent days on each song just finalizing the compositions. Psychologically, it’s a hard way to work, but I feel like I’m better at recording now for it. When I listen to that album now, knowing what went into it, I know we’re all very proud of what we did.”