Johnny Cremains – The Leave It To Believers Sessions

Johnny Cremains as a band has a sort of vintage sounds to them. When I was asked to record them, I immediately knew more or less how I wanted it to sound. Because of their live vibe, Sean wanted to do live takes. Works for me.

When a song is played from start to finish regardless of little mistakes, there is a certain momentum that can build up. When recording in sections, to a click, or in isolation, the effect is just that. The performer is more focused on their own part at that moment instead of working on the whole. This isn’t generally the case with live performances. The show must go on! Deal with the gaff and keep on moving.

There’s also unspoken, and often even unrealized visual ques that get communicated between band members. The drummer might shift his position a bit right before a change or the keyboardist may hold a chord with one hand and flex the finger of the other right before he jumps up to a higher melody. Seeing this subconscious little language can help considerably with the timing and dynamics of the performance. A band should play like a band.

Photo courtesy DRC

I had a sound in my head from the start. I wanted to capture them with a sort of Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” method. Spector was known for packing musicians into a relatively small space and recording them all in unison. The way that the air and ambiance responds to this approach just can’t be replicated. The result isn’t just various instruments being summed together. The air in the room itself is being knocked around harder. Everything’s pushing against everything else. You want to talk about analog processing? There’s nothing more analog than air. We did everything right in their rehearsal space. This pic is from the third session. Everybody could high five if they wanted to.

The trick to tracking all of this so tight was just a bit of strategy. First of all, I used all cardioid mics for their control. No omnis or ribbons here, although I would’ve loved to move one of Doug’s amps a little farther away with a ribbon on it, but whatevs. Secondly, all of the amps were aimed at least 90 degrees off axis from the drum mics. There is some mic bleed, but it’s easily controllable.

In fact, I’ve found that as long as the bleed is at least 12dB to 16dB lower than the primary signal, the timing and phasing anomalies that turn up can actually add to the tone and sense of depth to the recording. Our brains get spacial information in various ways and allowing slight timing and phasing effects to creep into the mix naturally helps our auditory centers place the sounds deeper into the 3D stereo image. Science!

About ninety five percent of the tracks were done in only eight tracks. For the drums, I used a variation on the classic Glyn John micing setup. I used two area mics and a kick mic. No snare mic. Didn’t need it. Mike plays hard. The bass and keys were both DI’d even though they were going through a Fender Bassman full stack and a Roland keyboard amp respectively.  Doug got a mic for each of his two amps, and I took Sean’s vocal mic right from his PA. Yup. Even Sean’s vocals were done live. Since Sean never sings and plays theremin simultaneously, we just ended up using his vocal mic on the theremin amp for those parts. The ONLY overdubs were Doug’s backup vocals and the occasional Hammond track. Oh wait. We also tracked some radio dialing from an old shortwave in the studio and added a sample to “The Great Silence.” That’s it.

After everything’s setup and teched comes my favorite part: letting the band play while I press the occasional button, eat snacks, and drink a beer. Take your time guys.

Old Abbey Road Console

So, I wanted to mix this similar to something mixed in the 60’s, eh? What gave a lot of those 60’s era studios their sound? Well, the two main factors were the mixing consoles and the reverb. Analog mixing desks have characteristic sounds. Mixing through a Sound Techniques desk sound different than mixing through a Midas desk. It’s the same as with guitar amps.  For example, a Fender Twin sounds different than a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier. Why? Different circuits and components.

So, since I work almost entirely in the box at this stage, I had to build a desk sound. Digital mixing is just that. Digital. A plus B equals C. That’s not quite how analog works. Analog mixers have some interplay between tracks. Just like multiple instruments in a room together effect the air differently simultaneously then they do when solo, multiple tracks running through an analog mixer effect the electrical components differently. Analog mixing generally sounds more “glued” together. That and the electrical makeup of the boards also tended to add their own color to the mix, as well. So, with the help of some secret ingredients, I assembled a custom master buss chain to help glue and color the mix in a way similar to an older mixing desk but without overdoing it. Just enough to watermark a vintage vibe across the mix.

Zappa’s reverb room at UMRK

The final big piece was the reverb. Older studios had their own reverbs. Some where chambers. Some were plates. Some were stair wells. Whatever worked for them.  And studios usually only had one of these things. So, come mixdown, signals had to be bussed into the reverb setup as a whole and brought back in as a whole. All the tracks that were getting it had to share it. So that’s what I did. I set up one reverb buss, a plate reverb, and just sent what we wanted through it. Everything with reverb, with the exception of Doug’s guitar effects, is sharing the same plugin. The piano and vocals got most of it. Sean’s vocals were also getting sent to the reverb pre-fx, meaning the louder he physically sang, the more reverb he got. This made his quiet parts fairly dry sounding, but when he really belts it they also fill up more space. I think I might have stole that idea from one of David Bowie’s engineers. Oh well.

As for individual track processing, that’s way too boring. But I do like to treat my plugins like their hardware equivalents. Nobody’s got one of every piece of hardware. If you do use hardware, you have a select batch of gear that you like, and that’s what you use. I do the same. I only allow myself a few compressor/eq/fx plugins per project.  Having everything use the same virtual set of gear also helps make the mix sound more believable. Leave it to believers. Ouch.

Enough of all that.  Here’s a short clip from the track “November’s Coming Liar“.

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~ by poundtownsound on October 17, 2012.

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