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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Producing Is 10% Seducing and 90% Reducing

In the course of playing music in the past twenty-two years I have produced four albums of my own, remixed two for other performers (Michael T and No Policy), released countless singles and compilation tracks as well as played on a million other bands' records like Pressurehed, Ether Hogg, Anubian Lights, and a few others. If there's one thing I've learned in all those years is that no two recording sessions are alike. Musicians never get to say that each day in the studio's like "just another day at the office". It never is.

Generally, there are basically two kinds of producers: highly skilled, well-seasoned engineers who can work miracles in the studio and make any band sound brilliant, or someone who sculpts the band's sound and carefully arranges all the songs so he goes into the studio with the sound already worked out completely in his/her head. I belonged to the latter camp.

ARRANGING: My band Trash Can School had three guitarists and I had a pretty good idea of each one's strength and weaknesses, so when it came time to arrange the guitars I already had a clear idea of who could play which part the best. One guitar was delegated the lead, one for the rhythm and the third would play fills to thicken what the other two guitars were doing.

If one song needed a fast, complicated solo the first-string guitarist would get it, but if another song needed a slow, simple solo then the rhythm guitar played would get the lead, because they were usually good at that sort of thing. It always worked out real well.

Some guys played slide better than the others so they got the lead part to show off their slide guitar skills. It was great having three different guitarists with diverging styles to choose from. The funny thing was that Trash Can School was the reverse of the old Fifties band where there was one guitar and three horns, with us it was one saxophone and the three guitars, a veritable guitar section. The result, on tracks like "Silver Surfer", was astonishing.

Whenever I arranged a song I always thought of showcasing a band member if it enhanced the song, which is why I stuck in a wild Gene Krupa drum break in "Yes I Mean No", or a melodic pulsing bass solo in "Pistol Whipped/Pussy Whipped". I wanted to give everyone a chance to show their stuff.

When it came to arranging covers I wouldn't tackle anything unless it fit within the parameters of what we could play. We tinkered around with "Horses" by Patti Smith by playing the first half of "Gloria" and the second half of "Land" as a slide guitar drenched dirge. After performing "Shove" by L7 a few times and getting bored with it I decided to gravitate towards "Godzilla" by Blue Oyster Cult, which sounds identical and allowed me to insert a ripping saxophone solo on top of it. Later on in Cockfight I covered The Plasmatics' "Sometimes I" and gave it a driving, moody Cramps back beat.

RECORDING: But enough about arranging, let's talk about the recording process: some of the best recording studios I've worked in were as small as a living room, which is exactly what Radio Tokyo was, a converted living room in a craftsman style house. We got some big sounds there.

Setting levels is something adjustable to your preference, but one thing I distinctly went for on my records was more of a jazz drum sound. I always veered towards rhe ride cymbal rather than the crash cymbal. A rock record will always emphasize the crash cymbal but I went for a hot ride cymbal sound. The ride rules in jazz; the crash rules in rock.

I also think too much baffling can make a record sound too sterile and flat. Baffling for those who aren't familiar with the expression is when baffles, which are large dividers, are placed between the drums and the guitars and the keyboards so each instrument gets a good, clean sound in their channel. I always enjoyed working at Radio Tokyo because of all the leakage in the room. Leakage means when the other instruments sonically leak into each others tracks, which gives the band a definitely live sound.

My records sounded pretty live to me but there always a few people who said my "record didn't sound like the live show". Of course not. When I'm in the studio I have a large vocabulary to work with in terms of effects and instrumentation. Why would I want it to sound like a live show when I can make it sound so much more dynamic? Some people think too small.

On the other hand there have been reference vocals that turned out better than the polished vocal, like when I kept the Yoko Ono braying in "Powershred" that was originally meant to mark the saxophone solo, but it sounded do witch-like I kept it in.

Another reference vocal I kept was in "Liquor Store" where I overdubbed a more frantic vocal over the reference, then we lower the octave eon the reference like a slowed-down record, so you get a double vocal with different octaves. I was pretty happy with the end result.

Now as the title of my essay states, producing involves seducing, also known as persuasion, persuasion meaning making musicians play things that they either don't think they can play or simply won't play because they don't think it "fits their style". While there's nothing wrong with having a style, it's an artistic thumbprint, I know, it wouldn't hurt to expand their skills to make their bag of tricks that much more exciting.

As a result I have assured many musicians that they can play all sorts of strange things they're not accustomed to doing. Reluctant at first, after a few takes they actually find themselves very excited in the knowledge they've just expanded their vocabulary because somebody believed in them. I've never accepted a drummer saying "I can't play that" or a guitarist saying "That's not what I'm known for". Too bad. You begged to play in my band, prove to me you were worth the trouble of my bringing you into my band.

Sometimes you have to make lemonade out of lemons, like when the drummer came in a beat too late at the beginning of "Horses". Instead of throwing a fit about it I simply overdubbed a horse whinnying saxophone line covering the flaw, which enhanced the drums kicking into the song pretty well. Happy accidents mean covering any flaws that happen during the recording process.

I hate the idea of having the band just coming in and playing the same rock band crap over and over again. I'm definitely a fan of bringing in sound bites, non-rock instruments like vibes on "Hardware", or even industrial percussion, like Ted Carroll of Distorted Pony banging on car parts during "Godzilla". Once you're in the recording studio you have an unlimited palette of sounds to work with. Fuck this live band sound bullshit.

Sometimes the way you visualized a song in your mind doesn't pan out the way you wanted it to once you get into the studio, and it's a battle you sometimes can't win, so be prepared to let go, or else you'll just go crazy. You'll have to settle for less than perfection, or to put it more coldly: IF YOU CAN'T GET IT DONE IN FIVE TAKES IT CAN'T BE DONE.

MIXDOWN: Many terrible recordings have been saved through the magic of mixing tracks and adding effects to make the unlistenable sound listenable. Its truly miracle working made flesh. I remember leaving the studio after recording "Baby Lust" and almost crying, thinking I'd just wasted my money on a shit recording. I called Donnell Cameron at Westbeach Recorders and booked some time and he helped me save this track from being a bomb to being a hit.

I already had some familiarity with Donnell's work when he pre-mastered my track "Silver Surfer" for the Flipside compilation "City of LA Power". Donnell had a pretty unique approach to mixing I'll never forget. Halfway through mixdown once our levels were set and we did a rough mix of the song, he would transfer the tape to cassette, and then pop the cassette into the world's most beat up boom box I'd ever seen.

"Okay, we know what it sounds like on some nice, big, expensive studio speakers. Let's hear what it'll sound like booming out of your car".
The song started playing on this dinky player and all the cool parts as well as the shitty parts rang through loud and clear.

"Well, dude what do you think?"
"Wow, this makes everything sound totally different", I opened my eyes.
"Track definitely needs more low end and the vocal needs to come up higher. A little chorus on the guitars should smooth out a lot of the overdrive on the treble".
"Yeah, I agree. Let's go back in and make those changes".
I think we did the Ghetto Blaster Test two more times as we went along, the last pass being the final mix and sounding pretty majestic.Donnell's a brilliant engineer and we got a wild Plastic Ono Band sound on that crazy song.

Getting Geza X and his studio on my album Volume War was great because we already had a history together. He mixed the sound for The Screamers when I played with them and we played in our punk big band Arthur J. and The Gold Cups in the late Seventies. His guitar playing in The Deadbeats was legendary for its twisted inventiveness and made even more manic in his solo configuration Geza X and The Mommymen.

We also shared an affinity for avant garde music, so I didn't have to explain myself or my strange musical ideas to him. He already knew where I was coming from, so there wasn't a lot of head scratching as some engineers did whenever I asked them to use weird effects or filters on my tracks. In fact Geza came up with a lot of great sounds and contributed greatly to the hairball cacophony of that record.

Mixing tracks also gives you a chance to have the last word in the recording process. I had a guitarist who had to end every track with an orgiastic wail of long, long droney feedback. EVERY track. Instead of losing my shit after every take I simply thought, "Well, we'll see about this idiot's feedback orgy when it comes to mixdown". Once I was alone with Geza X in the studio, we'd look at each other smirking and do a quick audio fade on his track as soon as that clown would do his feedback dick slapping. Geza X is the best recording wizard on the planet.

Then there was another time when the rhythm section in Cockfight decided to have a party the night before our recording session (GOOD TIMING, ASSHOLES!) so they ended up hungover the next day at recording. And they played like a pair of bombed out dick heads. The drummer was guilty about his shitty playing he offered to pay for the session. I said, "No, the damage is already done, thanks a lot".

When it came to mixdown Randall O'Malley and I did a lot of jumping up and down of levels with the drums whenever it was time to hide his fuck ups. It was like an audio trampoline. No shit. There were some parts that were so tore up that we had to throw a few space echoes just to hide how shitty he played. Thank God for Randall O'Malley, he rules.

The funny thing is that after all the bullshit you go through you DO end up with a great record that makes other bands want to use your engineer and recording studio, and sometimes even your musicians. The magic is in the music and the music needs your magic.

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