While many producers and bands are collaborating with other artists remotely, Galactic is keeping it decidedly homegrown with their latest album, Ya-Ka-May [Anti-]. Despite the ease of swapping files over the Internet, the band worked exclusively with singers and musicians from their vibrant, ever-rebuilding city of New Orleans.
Jazz, bounce (a style of hip-hop), funk, gospel, R&B, and rock all filter through the music, with the help from veterans including the Rebirth Brass Band, Irma Thomas, Big Chief Bo Dollis, Allen Toussaint, and Walter “Wolfman” Washington. And then there are the younger collaborators: Trombone Shorty and Corey Henry, John Boutté, Josh Cohen and Scully, Glen David Andrews, and Cheeky Blakk. And then there are the cross-dressing, transsexual “sissy” rappers Big Freedia, Katey Red, and Sissy Nobby. It’s a long, diverse list.
?Here, Galactic saxophone player and producer/engineer Ben Ellman and producer/mixing engineer Chuck Brody discus the process of recording and mixing Ya-Ka-May.
?What was the step-by-step process of creating “Heart of Steel,” from writing to recording to mixing? ??
Ellman: On “Heart of Steel,” we gave Irma Thomas a demo of a really cool, but very straight-ahead R&B tune that we worked on with the Rondo Brothers a few years back that was never recorded. She was recorded singing to that demo using an AKG C 12 through a Neve preamp into Pro Tools. I used an aux send with some reverb—Overloud Breverb—to make her feel more comfortable, and we tried to spruce up our studio’s vocal room by getting some fresh lilies for the day she came to sing! ??
After we had her vocals, I stripped away most of the tracks from the demo, and we started to rewrite the tune, from the drums up. ??I recorded the drums using a pair of stereo Coles mics placed around three feet away and one foot above the kick tilted downward 25 degrees. This avoids picking up cymbals and gets some of the brightness of the bottom snares. I put a Shure SM57 on the snare and an Electro-Voice RE20 on the kick. ?
?Then I placed an SM57 six to eight inches above the center of the kick, above the edge of the rim of the beater side—basically pointed towards drummers knee. This is a mic I always set up. It’s a great position to pick up both kick and snare. Later, this track will get messed with heavy compression, guitar effects, etc., to create cool effects. I use very little compression during tracking. Finally, I used a pair of Schoeps condenser mics as overheads.??
I chopped pieces of her vocals in pro tools and used an MPC1000 to play them back into the song, using words she sang as samples, and an adlib vocal take to create the chorus backgrounds. ?We then sent the session to our co-producer on the song Chuck Brody.
??Brody: When I first got the sessions for “Heart of Steel,” I was a little timid about how I approached it. I had loved what Ben had already done and was amazed at how Irma Thomas sounded. I basically cleaned up the tracks a little on my Pro Tools|HD system in New York and mixed it through the TubeTech summing amp with most Oxford EQ plug-ins and the Digidesign Impact compressor. I re-amped a few things with my API mic pres and UA 2-610. I also used some UA1176 compressors and printed some of the tracks back in to Pro Tools. ??
After I sent what I had done back to Ben and the label, I got a call from Andy at Anti- who told me they wanted more of “remix” of the track. They were determined to push the boundaries of what galactic had done in the past. I went back and decided to try and do something that used the elements Ben sent me, but went way outside the box of what Galactic does. I figured if I took it too far, it would be easy to come and find a middle ground that everyone was happy with. I sampled some of Stanton [Moore]’s drums into my MPC2000XL and programmed another beat on top. I reprinted these new sampled drums back into Pro Tools and played a new bass line with a Fender P Bass through a vintage Ampeg B-15 amp. I resampled some of the Irma vocals that Ben cut up in to my MPC and made some remix-style vocal effects with the slider on the MPC. I did three or four live passes experimenting with using the fader to play with the attack and decay of the vocal samples I had taken. I added a keyboard part with my Roland Juno-60 and spent a couple hours editing and cleaning all these rough parts Then I sent off a rough mix to Ben and Andy. ??
Unbeknownst to me, Andy and Ben had the same conversation that I had with Andy. Simultaneously, Ben had been working to try and push the Galactic sound by programming an 808-style beat and stripping the track way down. Andy ended up being a fan of both new versions and gave me the task of combining them together. I’m a big fan of simple tracks, so it was easy for me to find the brilliance of what Ben had done and work it in to the track I had made. I mixed this final combination of the two new versions and printed stems back in to Pro Tools. I sent the stems to Ben, and he did his final changes and got the band’s approval.??
You worked with a diverse group of New Orleans-based vocalists. How did the signal chains change from vocalist to vocalist, and how did use you layering, panning, compression, and effects to suit each voice???
Ellman: Each song called for a different approach, but it was mostly post-production. Some examples would be running Allen Toussaint’s vocal through a Leslie speaker—as a nod to [his song] “Southern Nights”—and cutting and sampling vocals on an MPC [for Galactic’s “Bacchus”]. Most vocals on the CD were recorded with either the C 12 or the Blue Blueberry mic. The latter was used for most of the bounce rappers. I would use compression very lightly, mostly as a limiter if needed.
How much is programming/sampling, and how much is live instrumental performance? How did you balance the two?
??Ellman: Most of songs come from demos that we record in writing sessions. As a band, we try to get about 40 ideas before we pick the group of 15-20 songs that we want to work with for the project. We start with recording just our drummer for a few days. After he’s gone, we pick loops, and I’ll chop pieces for the band to write to. Towards the end of our writing and tracking process, our drummer will come back to replay what we’ve made. If any synthetic drums were used, I’ll try to replace them with organic drums if possible. Our drummer has some great-sounding marching drums, that de-tuned sound like 808s! Sometimes we’ll keep some of the programmed or looped drums in the final mix, but we’ll always have our drummer do fills and transitions to keep a live feel.??
Did you try any recording experiments on the album? ??
Ellman: I like to mess with the drums early in the writing process to see if anything happens that might change the direction of our writing. I like to use SoundToy's EchoBoy plug-in. I find they have great rhythmic delays and cool-sounding sweeps and filters. I’ve also run some drums through a wah pedal or other cheap guitar pedals our guitarist has. We have a staircase in our studio that gets some twisted-sounding reverb, so I might put a mic up there while tracking drums to see what happens. ?
When I’m tracking guitar, I use an A/B pedal and track a Fender Mini amp pushed through an Empirical Labs Distressor or Urei 1178 compressor in a separate room to blend with the good amp. I like to have the option with the doubled guitar track for when we mix. If needed, I use the iZotope Trash plug-in for any guitar amp modeling.
What are five pieces of gear you couldn’t live without??
My Selmer Mark VI saxophone: It doesn’t get any better.?
Coles microphones: They sound good on most things.?
Akai MPC or my latest addition, Native Instruments Maschine
?SoundToy EchoBoy: my plug-in of choice?
A well-tuned drum kit and great drummer—our drummer, Stanton Moore, is pretty amazing!
[photo by Taylor Crothers]