bands

I love recording bands. I mean, I love recording all kinds of instruments and ensembles, but there’s something special about capturing the chemistry that exists between a handful of people who have a bond that is more than a friendship but less than significant others. A band’s dynamic is really its own category.

I was thrilled to get the call by the Stereo League boys to do a day together at Retro City. The band wanted to record live, to really tap into that aforementioned special dynamic. They’d been playing and gigging a lot, so putting everyone in a room together to hit record just made sense.

Another great aspect of working with bands is the temporary feeling of being a part of the band, even if it’s just for the day. I always try to find my place within their existing framework, as I find it helps the production feel like a lighter lift, and the songs always benefit.

The guys just released one of the songs we started that day. Since our session, the song evolved quite a bit, so hearing the final master was a combination of familiarity and surprise. I hope you enjoy!

 

take a breath

I’ve been making more of an effort to pay attention to breathing. Call it mindfulness, deep relaxation, meditation – whatever it is, I’m finding how powerful and impactful it can be on my daily life. It sounds so simple, since breathing is an involuntary function. But it’s not simple, and I’m finding how important it can be during my day to take small pauses for intentional breathing as opposed to short, pressured breathing that can creep in and serve as a backdrop and vehicle for stress. I’ve casually read about the science of why the focus on breathing makes a measurable difference, but my own experience is enough for me.

This preamble really exists to plug an event happening tonight – Aquifer of the Ducts by James Allister Sprang. Tonight, James shares a 40 minute, multi chapter work that incorporates tape loops, modular synths, and sound design. It’s meant to be absorbed as a complete meditative experience.

James called me to mix and master his piece. I always try to tap into that “creative flow” while working, but for this project, I truly made an effort to monitor my breathing and physical response while working. If a change I made elicited a measurable response for me, I kept it. It’s not unlike mixing non-ambient music, but with the absence of traditional melody, harmony, and structure, keeping tabs on my response became my main measurement of how the mix was shaping up.

Aquifer of the Ducts premieres tonight. If you, like me, feel like you need a collective breath and break from anything and everything going on right now, tune in.

Nerdy tech indulgence: for most of the mix, I would automate several parameters. These could include volume, filters opening and closing, resonance, etc. For a few of the automation tracks, I spelled the word “aquifer” while handwriting the data points into the software.

we watched the moon

I’m attempting to get my website up to date, share projects that have been released during the pandemic, and practice gratitude. Let’s see if I can do it all in this post, or at least kick things off as the first in a series of updates.

I first met Drea D’Nur at the Singing Nina fest that I produced in May, 2019. Her performance, along with my friends in Rootstock Republic, was nothing short of spellbinding. She truly encapsulated the spirit of Nina Simone, which was particularly impressive considering that her voice does not resemble Nina’s one bit. Anyway, we hit it off after that performance and proceeded to work together on subsequent stagings of Dear Nina in later 2019.

So, when Drea called and asked me to travel to Buffalo to mix her album release show, I was both honored and a little intimidated. She was entrusting me to convey and deliver her sound in a foreign venue. Oh, and it was an enormous show. Drea was the center piece at the piano, but was surrounded by electric and upright bass, drums, percussion, a horn section, keyboards, backup singers, poetry, and dancers.

The performance was a complete immersive experience. Even in writing this, I’m transported back to that night (I can’t believe it was earlier this year – somehow it feels both immediate but so far away). It was an icy night in Buffalo, but the theatre was ablaze. Drea is a commanding but giving performer, and she took all of us with her that night. Thankfully, we recorded the entire show. I took the files home to mix and master. Drea released everything as a live album several months ago, so this post is long overdue. I will say this: treat yourself to all 20 minutes of “Moongazing,” you won’t regret it.

how long we were fool’d

Lots of factors can come up that complicate, hinder, or expand the scope of expectations for a project. I try not to judge when these factors emerge, but rather acknowledge and evaluate them to see if they make the project better (it’s a tool I’m working on all the time). That’s really all that matters – does it elevate the project? Then it’s likely worth chasing. But sometimes, that ever elusive flow state can happen naturally, and when everyone is on the same page, there’s a beautiful feedback loop of energy that occurs. This post, and my last post, are about projects coming together quickly.

When one of my current quarantine collaborators and friend, Miles Butler (who also owns my favorite coffee shop – it’ll be so great to get back there!), asked me to help him with something for the Philadelphia Jazz Project’s celebration of Whitman at 200, I was happy to get on board.

With a deadline looming, we quickly booked studio time and got musicians together to lay down the foundation. Miles had a sketch of a song, but nothing fully formed. Sometimes this can lead to lots of wasted studio time. In this case, with the aforementioned everyone-on-the-same-page energy, some good stuff happened. Miles, Jasmine Thompson, and Kim Pedro Rodriguez did an extended jam with guitar, piano, and drums based on the original demo sketch. Thankfully, I had all the gear dialed in, ready to go, and was recording the entire jam (so grateful to be prepared, rather than the musicians waiting on me). The trio played around for about 11-12 minutes straight. They came in to listen to the result, and that was it. Everyone was happy with it. From there, we asked Miles’ dad, Paul Butler, to record some woodwinds. He did three passes on the full tune – one take each on clarinet, bass clarinet, and alto sax. We were out of time for the day.

I took all of the files home and did my best to mine the gold and piece something together. While a 12 minute song is great, it’s a lot to ask of a listener. I was able to trim the song down to under 6 minutes, pulling the best of the best. I then added my bass part and a subtle mellotron texture. We did vocals with Miles and Waverly Alston, and had some last minute guitar overdubs with Jeff Podlogar. I asked my friend Tom Volpicelli to master the song once the mix was finished. Special thanks to Homer Jackson at PJP for his guidance, positivity, and kindness.

There’s a lot going on in the tune, but seemingly everyone knew how to find their space and allow space for others. I think there are lots of tiny moments throughout the song, tied together with excerpts from Whitman that we repeated or strung together to form a cohesive message. He was a complicated character for sure, but this particular bit of text is a great reminder about connecting with nature after being pulled away. Seems especially important right now.

sound of yore

During this beyond bizarre time, I, like presumably many of us, have been afforded the time to do a little reflecting. For better and for worse, but time nonetheless. Today, I thought I’d reflect on a project that came out earlier this year. I play in a 10-piece soul band called York Street Hustle. Last fall, we were approached by Max at Brewerytown Beats to do a recording project. Max is on a mission to shine a light on the Philly Soul Sound, paying special attention to songs and artists that may have slipped through the cracks. The thought was to use York Street Hustle as vehicle for re-recording some of these tunes from a bygone era. Max was also interested in original material from the band.

I offered up my engineering services in addition to playing the bass. I was practically salivating at thought of working on this project. As a young bass player, watching Standing in the Shadows of Motown forever changed my outlook on music, both as a player and as a producer. I quickly became obsessed with that sound, which was further nourished through subsequent discoveries of Sharon Jones and the whole Daptone roster, really. This was such formative material for me that the idea of being able to help shape the sound world in this vintage style presented an incredible opportunity.

Admittedly, the band lacks a real catalogue of original material. So, members of the band offered up old demos and quickly wrote tunes to add for consideration. The easiest choice was a song by Ryan, one of the singers in the band. “Cruelty” had the perfect mix of vintage modern, and a nice hook. To my surprise, a tune that I wrote was agreed upon to record. This was an old demo of mine, written about 3 years ago. It began life as a psychedelic rock jam, and I morphed it into a groove centric soul/surf/funk tune that I called, “All Beak.” The band also learned, “There’s Nothing Better Than Love,” a tune from the late 60’s that was part of the initial inspiration for this project.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

All photos by Paul Best

We worked with producer Aaron Levinson at his studio in Ardmore, Range Recording. I had never worked in that room before, which is always a thrill for me. Part of what I love about being an engineer without a “home” studio is that I enjoy adapting to each space. I think that it forces me to stay present with what a studio offers and how to pair that with what the project needs, instead of perhaps reaching for the same setup that I might do if I always worked in the same space. Aaron, Max, and I all agreed that we wanted to embrace vintage production techniques. We put almost the whole band in one room together, and recorded all of the music in one day. I employed as many old school production techniques that I could cram in (minimal setup, green light on mic bleed, tube driving, roominess, and lots of compression), but I did not want to be precious or disingenuous. I truly wanted to nod to the vintage sound, but not replicate it, nor ignore the developments in recording technology over the last 50 years.

We turned around the whole EP in a month, from tracking to mastering (with product in hand!). Working quickly also forced us to commit to certain production and mix choices, rather than trying things from different angles, as modern recording technology affords us to do. Without the extra time, decisions were made, which I think was also a nod to an older style of making records.

This EP was a blast to make. It pushed me creatively in so many ways, and to that I’m grateful. We have received a few nice write-ups so far. Here’s hoping it’s the first of many more to come.

the right fiction

In thinking on what to write about this new project, I realized that I’ve never been in a band that was this collaborative. For about a year and a half, Aaron, Adam, and myself would get together about once a week for the sole purpose of writing. We’d alternate who hosted (the host made the coffee), and we would just see what came of it. As a bass player, I’m usually in the position of writing my bass parts, and often contribute structure ideas, will write an occasional bridge, etc. And as a producer, I’ve certainly written songs and collaborated with songwriters. But to write as a weekly exercise with others, well, refreshing doesn’t do it justice.

When the songs felt drum ready, we asked Fred Berman to join us. Since everybody in Philly knows Freddie, I don’t have to expound on how perfectly he fit into and expanded upon the songs we started.

Now, we are in the middle of recording a full length album. We chose our favorite 12 songs from those writing sessions, and hope to have the record out later this year. Until then, we’ll be releasing a series of live in-studio performance videos from a session we hosted at Rittenhouse Soundworks this past January. Thanks for checking us out.

story of a soul violinist

In my attempt to get current with my website, I couldn’t think of a better album to start the updating process than “Free,” by Monique Brooks-Roberts. This record displayed a transformative artistic process in a way that I’ve never witnessed before. Working piecemeal over the course of about 2 years (Monique lives in Colorado, so we had to carefully plan studio sessions for when she’d be in town), “Free” became a cathartic story of a truly special artist.

One of the highest honors of doing what I do is the trust an artist gives me with their sound. We all know what a violin sounds like, but it can be a challenging instrument to record in a natural and expressive way. And Monique is not playing solo etudes, either. Her sound has a vibe, complimented with a full band at times, electronic production at others. Effects are also a big part of her sound, which can be easily overdone. Since the album is largely instrumental, the violin is doing everything a voice would be doing, and more. It had to sound full, rich, natural, and hopefully, unique. At our first session, we did a microphone shootout, just like we would do for a vocalist. Finding the perfect signal chain for her violin was everything. When we were reviewing recorded samples from all of the different signal chain options, we both immediately knew which one worked. That set the tone for all of the following sessions, as the “voice” became an established entity.

Some thank yous: thanks to Daniel Bowen of Symphony 21 for connecting me with Monique. Also thanks to Retro City Studios for being a great facility run by excellent people. I firmly believe in finding the right recording space for each project, and Retro City was a great fit for Monique’s energy.

I’m so grateful for Monique’s trust and artistry. She created a beautifully fresh record – an album that has depth, variety, and soul. Check it out!

i’m not great at this

Hi all,

I’m not great at maintaining this blog. I’m even worse at telling people about my upcoming gigs. Here I am trying to change both! Here’s a list of some upcoming dates that I’m really excited about. These include performances as well as shows that I’m producing and/or mixing. Hope to see you!

Saturday, September 13th

Weekender EP release show

Johnny Brenda’s

Info

 

Thursday, September 19th

Vince Tampio Jazz Quartet

Chris’ Jazz Cafe

Info

 

Sunday, September 22nd

Weekender EP release show (NYC)

Gran Torino, Brooklyn

Info

 

Sunday, September 29th

Dear Nina: A Sonic Love Letter to Nina Simone

Milo – The Meeting House

Info

 

Sunday, October 20th

Dear Nina: A Sonic Love Letter to Nina Simone

Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center

Info

 

Friday, October 25th

The Right Fiction

World Cafe Live

Info

symphony 21 on tour

This past March, I spent a week with Symphony 21, an organization that aims to promote and inspire young people through music. It’s a brave mission fueled by seemingly endless ambition and energy from the founder, Daniel Bowen – someone I am honored to call a friend.

This isn’t a music education program that gives kids glockenspiels or ukuleles and attempts to connect some dots via Mary’s little lamb. No, Symphony 21 flies in world class musicians from around the country to give a multi media performance and presentation of original content with lighting, sound, visuals, with full interaction and participation from the audience. The bar is set high, with the idea to get young people excited about music and thinking creatively.

Not only that, but the targeted schools are located in underserved communities. These programs aren’t presented in cities with access to music and live performances everywhere. The programs are presented in areas where students might not be able to identify each instrument being played, let alone hearing a live performance of those instruments.

The work feels important, and the response from the students has been incredible. During the hour long presentation, Daniel has the ensemble perform his own compositions as well as compositions of members of the group. The students get to see that a violin can be electric (literally), and it can be hip and modern. They get to see how technology and music interact through the use of live looping an instrument. We even present a song where we live sample the students stomping and clapping and loop them into a track while projecting the whole software process on the screen. It shows these young minds the limitless possibilities of many disciplines in the arts, and hopefully opens them up to considering directions they didn’t know existed.

I have to share a particular high point during the tour. During one school program, I could feel someone staring at me. Even while the ensemble was playing full blast (we’re loud) with backing tracks, projected visuals, and dramatic lighting, someone continued to stare at me. I looked over and saw that a little girl was seemingly mesmerized by the mixing board. I motioned for her to come over and put my headphones on her so that she could listen to the mix up close. That moment was such a great reminder of our obligation to share what we know. While the school tour is pretty draining and demands my full attention to help present the programs effectively, that moment is exactly why we do this.

The weeklong tour culminated in a community concert at the end of the week. We presented an expanded version of the school tour program with more music, different presentations, and oh yeah, a 30 piece orchestra and full rhythm section. As previously mentioned, we go for cinematically loud, so mic’ing up strings to get them to show volume can be a real challenge with feedback. This year, we rented 30 special microphones that mount on each string instrument. To some, spot mic’ing every instrument might seem like overkill, but I am here to say that the result was incredible. We really rocked that concert hall. It was easily the largest show I’ve ever mixed (especially as a studio rat who infrequently mixes live sound). Between the orchestra, rhythm section, and electronic backing tracks, we were well over 50 channels of audio. With the lighting, haze, and celestial theme to much of the music, I felt like I was at the helm of a space ship.

I’m incredibly grateful for this week of music. My body was exhausted by the end, but my soul was full.

All photos by the fantastic Sarah Murray.