Hey Andrew, how long have you been working with Ra Ra Riot?
It’s been about 2 years now. I’ve known them for about 4 years though. Both the band and their manager, Josh Roth, went to Syracuse University with me. A majority of the band members are 2 years older than me, so they graduated at the end of my sophomore year. In the two years I was still in college, they built up their fan base, recorded ‘The Rhumb Line,’ and really made it on the map. I had kept in touch with them, and the summer after my graduation they asked if I wanted to come out on tour to learn live sound and join the team. It’s been all uphill from there. The opportunities and contacts I’ve gained via working with them are countless.
What does it take to do live sound for the band?
You really have to understand the frequency spectrum. You have to know what 250 Hz sounds like. You have to be able to identify 4K really fast if it starts feeding back. Live sound is first and foremost about damage control — sucking out problematic frequencies and getting a nice balance really fast. Usually, you have the luxury of taking care of most of this at sound check, but often at festivals you are thrown at the board with absolutely nothing dialed in. I had to do this at Coachella this year for a tent crowd of 8,000 people. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, but making it through is a confidence builder. Not to mention, Jay Z and Beyonce were watching the set side-stage! I think overall, live sound is about having confidence in your understanding of audio, taking risks, and simply going for it. Being on tour is a lot about being a good teammate, a responsible hard worker, and getting along with people. Go out of your way to be a cooperative person; house engineers can be a nasty breed! Take the high road.
Are you using your own boards or house-provided gear?
We are using house gear for anything PA related except a small rack of extra compressors and effects. We carry a full back line though which fits in a trailer attached to the van. 7 amps in roadcases, drums, and instruments. Ra Ra Riot tend to play rooms around 400-600 in smaller towns, and places no bigger than 1500 in large cities. Hopefully we hit the next tier once the new album gains some momentum in the fall, but all those kinds of venues have little leeway for a console to be brought in. There are a few venues in the tour that are big enough, but it’s not worth it to carry anything right now. Besides, the big venues have great consoles usually.
What is the most important part of your mix?
I like to get all the dirty work out of the way fast. This includes a clean mix with a tight low end and even balance. From there, I start to get ambitious with what power I have over the mix. Everything can be exaggerated with live sound in a cool way because in some respects its very visceral. Subwoofers can truly shake your body. So, for example, I like playing up dramatic moments with boosted kick drums, boosted effect sends, making sure solos are soaring.
The other cool thing about Ra Ra Riot is that there are so many layers to the sound. The bass and guitar provide one thing, and the violin and cello provide something totally different. Being able to push and pull those two worlds can really help make their songs dynamic. When I’m feeling confident in the sound of the band, this is the stuff I think about.
Can you describe the band’s onstage setup a bit?
It tends to evolve a bit, but here’s the gist of it right now: Gabe has a pretty straightforward rock kit. Mat plays an SVT Classic head and 8×10 cabinet, and uses fender basses with flat wound strings. His tone is quite identifiable, thick, and plunky. Milo tends to use both a Vox AC-30 and Fender Super Reverb with a splitter. He’s mostly a Fender guy as well… strats and teles. Allie and Rebecca play a Yamaha electric violin/cello, which have a skeleton-like outline of the real instruments. The pickups are built in and essentially feedback-proof. Keyboard-wise, they just got a new Dave Smith Prophet 8 and Nord Electro 3. Wurlitzer and Juno-60 type stuff are found on the new record, so these two synths should provide a nice canvas of reliable sounds for the tour. Allie plays an Alesis Micron for “Too Too Too Fast,” and that will likely make it out as well.
In general, what are some things you need to look out for while the band is playing?
Depends on the venue a little bit. If its a small place, chances are high that I’m running their monitors from front-of-house via aux sends on each channel. If anyone needs an adjustment during the set, they have to catch my eye to let me know. That can be really difficult. Otherwise, monitors are taken care of by a separate side-stage engineer and I mainly just need to feel it. Keep my ears open for any malfunctions, feedback, blaring problems.
What mics are you using on stage and where?
Live micing technique is about as simple as you can possibly imagine — tight, close, and reject as much as possible using polar patterns. We don’t carry any mics except vocals right now, so it’s always house mics. They usually have really great stuff though, so it’s usually not an issue. For vocals, we carry Shure Beta 57s. There’s something about that mic that is just so intimate and present for Wes’ voice which I find to be more exciting than an SM58. As the stages get bigger and the PA’s get better, I’m sure we’ll start being more decisive about which mics we want covering ground for the rest of the band.
Awesome, let’s talk about the new album, ‘The Orchard.’ Were demos recorded before heading into the studio?
We recorded some pretty comprehensive demos last summer up in Penn Yan, New York at the orchard (this is the house on the orchard where the band lived for about a month that inspired the theme of the record, also the cover of the album). I joined them for 4 days at the very end of that period with all my gear to track demos. It was an unbelievable couple days, I wish I could have been there for longer. It was so beautiful there, and there were so many inspired musical moments happening. The demos of “Foolish,” “Too Dramatic,” “Shadowcasting,” and “You And I Know” were full blown, multitrack, full-band versions. They’re actually quite cool and may be released as bonus tracks one day. ‘The Orchard’ was still in the works, but recording the demo and experimenting with mix ideas actually solidified the vision for that song. It was a bit up in the air, and was originally a demo that Milo made which sounded like something on Radiohead’s ‘Kid A.’ Allie, Rebecca and Mat wrote really creative parts to that demo, and they were so powerful on their own that it formed as this meditative, ethereal track instead of a full band song. The first “Boy” demo was done in about 20 minutes with a Casio drum machine, Mat playing his line, Milo playing his line, and Wes ad libbing over the little beat. The “Keep It Quiet” demo was tracked outside with an old, musty pump organ in the grassy hills of the orchard at dusk with tons of crickets chirping. The photo used on the Boy EP cover was taken just before that recording.
When you did get into the studio, take us through a typical day.
We were living and working at a brand new studio called Black Dog Recording Studio in rural Stillwater, NY, about 30 min north of Albany. The studio is this fantastic building at the end of the owner’s driveway. It’s got a massive control room with a cool vintage Sphere Eclipse A console and a great wood live room. The studio has a loft, futons, and break room where a few of us slept, and the rest stayed in a house up the driveway. We had 24 hour access to the studio, which was fantastic and essential to the workflow. We worked our asses off; probably a solid 10 hours a day for 6 weeks in November/December of 2009. We tracked all the drums in the first 5 days with Gabe and a fantastic drum tech named Jon Cohan who brought a lot of great drums and cymbals (http://allthingsloud.blogspot.com/). Then we tracked bass in about 4 days, and started bouncing around between strings, guitar, synths, and ultimately tackled vocals at the end of it. Our typical day started around 11am, we would track about 3 or 4 parts, take a dinner break at 7 up at the house (Becca, Allie, and Milo doubled as chefs!), watch some NHL (Mat and Wes are huge hockey fans), play knee hockey, head back to the studio to tackle some more parts, and then watch movies or TV on the big screen mounted above the console. We watched a lot of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job, and [strangely] Cat In The Hat starring Mike Myers… several times. After the first 6 weeks, we came back to Black Dog in February to re-record a newer, better version of “Too Dramatic” and add “Keep It Quiet” and “Shadowcasting.”
How did you record “Boy,” the first single off ‘The Orchard’?
“Boy” was an exciting one to do because the band had been playing it live on their fall 2009 tour just before recording. We all had a feeling it was going to be a single, so we put extra care into it. But it was actually the most difficult on the album to record I think. We all had such a high standard for what it should be, and we were struggling to make it feel right. Some songs, despite how inherently good they are, just don’t land to tape like you’d think. “Boy” was one of those songs. We re-tracked guitar, keys, and vocals several times trying to get it to fit together and sound right. The kicker for that song was Chris Walla’s mix. He did an incredible job bringing it to life. It was actually Walla who added the floor tom reverb bombs in the verses. He also added the swelling delay on the bass solo. He just had all these cool ideas which we all loved, and his vocal treatments were perfect. The bass used is a Fender “Sting” signature bass with flat-wound strings and a roll of felt lodged under the strings at the bridge so it had almost no decay; just a plunky, stubby note. It was also recorded through Milo’s Fender Twin Reverb with a 15″ speaker so it has some midrange grit to it and a bit of a choked low end. The keyboard at the beginning is Wes’ little crappy lap Casio.
What was the main key when capturing the vocals?
The biggest thing at the beginning was finding the right mic, pre, and compressor for Wes. We had a bunch of options but landed on the Neumann TLM 103 into a Vintech 473 with an 1176 pushing just a few dB on peak notes. During tracking, Wes would sing through the song about 10-12 times, and then tackle a few spots that he wanted to focus on individually. The coolest thing about vocal tracking these days, specifically with Logic (which we used to track the whole record), is that you can so easily comp vocals using the swipe comp feature. Essentially, Wes would sing the song multiple times, and then you have all those takes stacked on top of each other, and you can piece together any moment of any take with seamless editing. Its a really fast process and tactile interface. It allows you to quickly juxtapose specific moments and let your gut instincts dictate which take has the right energy and pitch. This is one of the main reasons that I swear by Logic at the moment.
Did you have go-to pieces of gear in the studio that you kept coming back to?
The studio has a lot of great stuff, and Chris Walla lovingly loaned us some of his mics and preamps for the tracking process. Between both piles of gear, we found a certain process for repeatability and keeping the process swift. We used API, Vintech, Aurora, and Millennia preamps, as well as the Sphere console press from time to time. Also certain instruments seemed to repeatedly match with a certain mic. We loved the Beyer M88 on the bass cab, loved the Sennheiser 421 on guitars, and the Neumann TLM103 for vocals. We used the band’s Wurlitzer electric piano a lot, and most of the synth sounds on the record are from Wes’ Juno-60.
How did you mic the violin and cello?
If there’s one thing I’m absolutely proud of from an engineering standpoint on this record, it’s the immediacy and richness of the strings. Rebecca’s violin was mic’d with a vintage AKG 414 down at chest level to capture the underside body warmth of the instrument. Over the top of the violin was an AEA R84 ribbon mic to capture the string gloss and hair. With a lot of experimentation between mics and placement, we found this blend that was quite breathtaking. We did the same thing with the cello, using a Soundelux iFet7 by the f-hole/bridge and a Telefunken RTF47 over Allie’s left shoulder. Allie suggested we try positioning a mic up near the scroll and her head, because that’s where she’s always heard her cello from and it sounds good from there. Simple logic that really worked! Violin can be a grating sounding instrument when closely mic’d if not done right. Same goes for cello and its “woof.” So we were really careful about what we were capturing. Almost every string part on the record is either doubled or tripled as well to give it extra energy and richness.
How much was done completely digital and in the box? Were you using a lot of analog and outboard gear?
The whole album was tracked with nice outboard preamps and an occasional hardware compressor to Logic 9 via Lynx Aurora converters at 96khz. Chris Walla mixed most of the record at his home studio on a Neotek Elite console with a stunning rack of outboard like Manley, GML, Chandler, Empirical Labs, Smart, DBX, Purple, etc. He also has a spring reverb unit and tons of awesome old Lexicon stuff. He mixed “Too Dramatic,” “Shadowcasting,” and “Keep It Quiet” at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco on a vintage Neve. Almost all the mixes were bounced down to half-inch tape which were shipped and used in mastering. I think it’s safe to say plugins were used incredibly sparsely to perform very simple technical jobs, like sliver EQ adjustments and simple gain structuring.
Did everyone track their parts together or separately?
Almost everything was done separately. We tracked drums with live bass and vocals for Gabe to feel the song, but they were re-done later. The violin and cello for “Kansai” and “Keep It Quiet” were tracked simultaneously.
How would you describe the production process behind ‘The Orchard’?
For the actual album recording process, It was more or less about executing the songs as they were written beforehand, with the exception of “Massachusetts.” On the whole, there was little experimentation in the studio regarding parts and arrangements. Most of that was done in the writing/demo process. There was a lot of experimentation regarding sounds though. We did a few things that were quirky, like recording an alternate version of “Keep It Quiet” outside by a bonfire at night. This is the version found on the Boy EP. It was crazy because it actually started raining at the end of that take. You can hear raindrops on the mics, and the fire crackling throughout. Milo rigged up all his pedals through 4 amps simultaneously and turned them up all the way for “You And I Know.” He was using the room and feedback as part of the performance. The drum set used in “Massachusetts” was a total frankenstein of crazy shit. Toms tuned as high as they would go, tons of cymbals, a soda can with change in it mounted to the hi hat shaft, a cowbell, cymbals laying on toms, a tambourine taped to the kick drum, an extra kick drum set up on its side for Gabe to use as a tom. We tracked it all the way through only 4 times without any idea how it was going to turn out. We took a lot of influence from The Police and Stewart Copeland going into that one. Gabe brilliantly improvised the beat differently in each take. One of the takes was 11 minutes long! I think we used the second take for the final version, and it is indeed one performance with zero editing. That song was largely created by experimenting on the timeline in Logic as we tracked parts. Creating a flow by muting certain things and building parts as we saw fit. Putting it together like a puzzle.
You got it! Thanks for your interest in the record.[img credits: Andrew Maury]
Pick up Ra Ra Riot’s new album The Orchard
Andrew Maury is a multi-versed musician, producer, engineer, and member of the Remix Artist Collective (RAC). Andrew is also a touring live sound engineer, mixing front-of-house for Ra Ra Riot, and co-producer of their latest album ‘The Orchard.’
Check out his website at http://www.andrewmaury.net/