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Mixing Modern Production with Stadium Rock Ambience
Band Name: The Lights Out
Album: On Fire
Recording Studio: Mad Oak Studios in Allston, MA
Record Label: Broken Bulb Records
Release Date: Spring 2012
Clavinet Tech, Engineer and Producer: Benny Grotto
Artwork: Creative Outlaw
What was your pre-production like on this project?
(Jesse) We started with a set of rehearsal recordings, and listened for sections that needed tightening. Next, we started playing to a metronome, to hone in on the right tempos. With the help of an iPhone app called “iLift,” we were able to adjust the tempos up or down in real-time, without changing pitch. The final step was running the songs over and over to the final tempos, without lead vocals, to make sure we were playing them confidently. The time you put into pre-production not only makes the performances better, it also saves money once you’re on the studio’s clock.
What kind of sound were you looking for and how did you achieve it?
(Adam) We have modern rock, high and lonesome Americana, a power ballad, British glam, arena rock and soul. It’s the first record we’ve made with three different band members singing lead vocals, and our first bringing keyboards into the mix.
(Rish) Big arena rock is always at the root of what we’re doing, so we can branch out into whatever genre we want and still feel like us.
(Benny) The band came to me describing an eclectic sound: modern production mixed with ’80s stadium aesthetics. Because the schedule was pretty tight, I decided it would be best to set them up in a manner that would let us focus first on the musical performances, and then worry about the tones later. I set up more mics on the drums than usual – in particular, ambient mics to capture different “pictures” of the acoustic space – and split the guitar signals off to give me a raw amp tone along with a DI signal I could later reamp to create a wider variety of tones. I didn’t want to bog the band down in endless studio experimentation when they were feeling inspired to play.
Did you use any special gear or recording techniques on this one?
(Benny) One of the major clues to the time period a record was made is the use of ambience on the drum kit; ’70s records tended to be dry, ’80s records had the huge (and often gated) stadium ambience, ’90s records tended towards a naturalistic, roomy-but-not-too-roomy sound. Given the band’s eclecticism and aesthetic demands, I set up a few different sets of room mics to reflect that. The most interesting was probably the distant room mics. In addition to the acoustic sound in the room, I set up a PA being fed by the individual close mics of the kit, and used a stereo pair of mics near the back of the room to capture the combined sound of the kit itself, as well as the reinforced amplified sound coming from the PA. This gave us a pretty badass “club” kind of drum sound, plus it afforded me a bit of extra control over which elements of the kit were loudest in the room.
Once we’d gotten takes of everything, I did some experimenting running different sections of tunes to different amps to create some tonal variety. This was accomplished by routing the guitars’ DI signals back into a few different amps; a technique called “reamping.” We were able to layer in some AC30, Ampeg Gemini and Jet, and some Fender combos. I’m pretty psyched about this technique, because it moved the tracking along very quickly, and gave me an opportunity to branch out and try some different sounds without burning too much studio time.
(Jesse) Benny had me try out one of their house snares, a Pearl Steve Ferrone Signature 6.5″ Black Beauty style drum, and I fell in love with it. Immediately after the session I went out and started scouring eBay for one. I found out later that Benny unknowingly outbid me on one for himself in an early auction, and then I scored a later one. At around $350, pick one up if you can find one. They’re one of the best deals and best kept secrets when it comes to amazing snares.
(Adam) This being our first album with keyboards, we dove right in and used every keyboard sound under the sun. That’s how we do it! My favorite was the real Hammond B3 with a Leslie. I kept looking at it and wondering where Greg Allman would put his ashtray. A Fender Rhodes, Clavinet and Mellotron make appearances, some done with the microKORG XL we’ve started using in our live show, run through Benny’s virtual rig because of the unreliability and pitchiness that comes with certain vintage instruments.
What was your philosophy on live, full-band takes versus individual tracking?
(Rish) I don’t think I can ever go back to laying basics one part at a time. There’s just something about looking at each other in the same room that jacks everyone up. You can subtly play to each other in a way that’s more natural than if it’s all done piece by piece. Then you just go back and punch the clams.
What did you try to accomplish in the studio that you’re not able to do live?
(Rish) I used to subscribe to the idea that your live performance should sound like the record. Now I just want the record to sound like a record. They’re still close.
What were the toughest challenges you faced?
(Adam) Remembering to hit “save” on the computer before we knocked the building’s power out.
(Benny) Tuning a clavinet with a coin!
(Adam) Trying to execute perfect Nigel Tufnel faces while cutting important guitar parts.
(Rish) Hitting a high A! I don’t know why I keep writing those.
How will you handle final mixing and mastering?
(Adam) Benny is taking a first crack at the final mix, then we’ll all come in to annoy him by asking our parts to be turned up, like we always do.
How does the new record compare to your last release in terms of style and the creative process?
(Adam) Our albums are getting more dynamic and showing a greater range and depth of writing. This record is our biggest step forward in terms of variety and texture. Creatively, we’re spending more time on song ideas as individuals, before putting them in front of the group. Not because we’re any less trusting, but as a measure of increasing respect for each other and the limited time we have to work together.
(Rish) As time goes by, I think we just care less and less about doing anything other than exactly what we want. We’re moving away from a strictly democratic approach to writing, toward a whoever-has-the strongest-vision-for-a-song-generally-takes-the-lead ethic. Not that we don’t write our own parts or speak up if we hear something less than superb. But if someone comes in with a basically completed song, now we’ll usually focus our energy on helping the idea along and tweaking here and there. With the last album, it was a little more of a struggle to get your stuff across without a lot of pushback on what chords you’re playing, or whatever. But we’ll always have those true Frankenstein babies, with everyone sewing a limb or an extra ball onto the little cherub. “Bitter Honey” is one of my favorite songs of this new batch, and it’s a true writing collaboration by all of us.
What is your release plan?
(Adam) We’re previewing the album at South By Southwest and releasing it nationally this spring.
Photos courtesy of JustBill.net