The fans who showed up early for the John Legend show in Chicago a couple of months ago got an earful of opener Raphael Saadiq's latest offering, The Way I See It. According to the singer/
songwriter/producer, that was by design. “We're going all-in tonight,” Saadiq said a handful of hours before hitting the stage. “We're not playing any of the old songs. We're only playing the new album.”
Saadiq, who spent November and December on the road with Legend after touring Europe on his own during the summer, has a lot of material to draw from during a live set. In addition to songs from his solo releases, Saadiq can play tunes from the seminal New Jack Swing outfit Tony! Toni! Toné! that he founded in the late '80s or from Lucy Pearl, an R&B supergroup of sorts that featured En Vogue's Dawn Robinson and Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest.
The Way I See It is Saadiq's homage to the soul music that he grew up with in Oakland, Calif. Homage, yes. Retro? No, he says. “People seem to have a problem with retro,” Saadiq explains. “To me, [this record] is more real than retro. I think retro is when you're trying to do something that doesn't fit in a real place.” Still, there's no mistaking the fact that Saadiq's album is a wonderful throwback to Motown's Golden Age, both in terms of the songwriting and the sonics. With its echoes of early Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and others, it almost sounds like it could have been made in 1965, yet there are still nods to modernity, and Saadiq's passionate vocals are always unquestionably him.
Before he and engineer Chuck Brungardt set out to record the 13 tracks on this release, Saadiq admits with a laugh, he had to forget a lot of what he has learned over the years. “Oh, about 85 to 90 percent of the new techniques,” he says. The duo replaced that experience by reading books like The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years and looking at photos from old Motown and Stax sessions.
Saadiq and Brungardt got to work on this album shortly after wrapping up work on the 2007 release Introducing Joss Stone. One evening, the duo had a studio full of musicians in to work through some of the songs, running tape along the way to catch anything interesting. (They moved over to Pro Tools fairly quickly as some of the jam sessions were running more than an hour.) Turns out that Saadiq's demos were beating what the studio pros were coming up with, Brungardt recalls. “What Raphael had done had the right vibe and tone,” he says. “The players were like, ‘You probably don't want to change this.’”
So the two got to work when possible, recording between production gigs with other artists. Saadiq has lent his production skills to artists like Joss Stone, The Roots and John Legend.
All of the sessions took place at Blakeslee Studio in L.A., which Saadiq owns. Having Brungardt in the studio was important for Saadiq. “I'm pretty open with the people that I work with,” he says. “I would ask his opinion and I was challenging him every day, in a polite way. He has a good ear, and I would say, ‘I'm thinking of this.’ Instead of him saying, ‘Okay,’ he would push back with some ideas. That's how it should be when you're working on music — whoever is in the room should be in accord.”
That said, Saadiq did discuss the sound that he was after early on. “We knew where we had to go and where we could go,” the producer says. “We wanted to make it sound old, but at the same time we wanted to make it our own. We knew what it was like to throw an 808 [Roland drum machine] on top of something, but that wasn't going to match what we were trying to do here.”
Inspired by the books and photos they studied, Brungardt set up the studio and the microphones as simply as possible. That is not to say that they avoided modern recording devices, considering Pro Tools was the recorder of choice, but they were careful to be sparse with microphones and judicious with outboard gear. For instance, before they started to record, the two took a trip down to a used-gear store to purchase some old tape machines to get some warmth on the drum tracks. “The guy there said that we could take the pre's out of the tape machines, wire them up and use them before we went to Pro Tools,” Brungardt recalls. “So we gutted some old Ampex tape machines and did that.”
The philosophy for miking a '60s-era Ludwig drum kit that Saadiq purchased specifically for this album hearkened back to the three-mic technique of yesteryear. “Our mics would change, but a lot of the sound came from the overhead mic, which was either a [Neumann] 47 or a 67,” Brungardt explains. “We also have an [AKG] C2 4 that's pretty nice. As far as the kick mics, we used an [AKG] D 12 or sometimes an AKG 414 so we could get the low end of the kick. On the snare we played with different things, but we kept it pretty standard because we wanted more of the crack of the snare drum rather than the overall tone.”
Saadiq's bass tracks were inspired by Motown legend James Jamerson. “He set the vibe on this record,” Saadiq says. “I'm really into Jamerson and the [Fender] P-Bass.”
To capture as much of the instrument as possible, the decision was made to go DI into an Avalon M5 with a bit of compression via the Crane Song Phoenix plug-in that was a hit during the mix dates. “When you crank the gain on the Phoenix, it makes everything so fat and wide that it allows you to get a nice bottom,” Brungardt says, “but it compresses the muted sound of it, too, so it really sticks out and cuts through. We also used the [Pultec] EQP-1A to pull out the bottom.”
On the guitar side of things, Brungardt went right to The Beatles' book for inspiration and used a U47 on the amps. “It really gave us warmth and character,” he says. “It allowed the amp to breathe and we got the tones of the amp along with the room. For me, that really opened things up so that I could play with the live room, using different reverbs to get a sound.”
The compositions on The Way I See It feature sonic touches that will remind many listeners of old Motown songs. The Jack Ashford-supplied tambourines, vibraphones, bells and shakers on songs like “Love That Girl,” “Staying in Love” and “100 Yard Dash” are examples.
When it came time for Brungardt to mix those tunes, he relied on the FilterBank plug-in. “When we got to those tracks, there was a lot of high end,” he says. “So we used FilterBank to make it a little dirtier, a little darker. We rolled off the highs just a little to give it that old-school flavor and to make sure it fit the track.”
For all the care taken on the recording and mixing of the instrument tracks, the most obvious nod to old-school soul is the slightly distorted nature of Saadiq's vocal tracks. According to the singer, that was by design. “I wanted to bring an edge to my vocals,” he says. “I did some of that at the end of Instant Vintage [Saadiq's 2002 release]. I always like when the vocals are pushed to the limit and it sounds like it's cracking just a little bit. I wanted that crackiness to be like the dirt on the record. I didn't want it to be too polished.”
Using a [Shure] SM7 microphone was the first ingredient in that successful recipe, reports Brungardt. “It made his vocals real thick,” he says. “Because it's a dynamic mic, the harder he hit it when he was singing, even if we had our gain right on the preamps, we got a nice little distortion.”
Working dirty was a change for Brungardt. “On most albums I work on, they want it clean with no distortion,” he reports. “I was taught to make sure it was polish, polish, polish, and to make sure everything fits right, the bass hits and things are clean for the big pop vocal. On this record, I switched gears because I felt like it was all about performance and about the way it's supposed to sound, not about following all those rules.”
So the distortion stayed and he was careful about EQ'ing Saadiq's vocals. “We left them where they were,” he says. “Maybe we cleaned up some upper-mids, but not really any high end. We left that kind of dark and worried about it on the mastering side of things. To get the vocals to sound older, we kept it darker and didn't use the EQ on the SSL 9000 to push the brightness. Then, when we went to mastering, we told Tom [Coyne at Sterling Sound] that we wanted it to fit where everything is today and he instantly picked up on it.”
According to Saadiq, who recorded his own vocals for the most part, pushing the high end was not a concern when he sang “100 Yard Dash.” “When I sang that song, my voice came out so high that I thought something was wrong,” he admits with a laugh. “I had to go get Chuck and ask him if it sounded like I was on helium or something. He said, ‘No, man, that's you.’ It was just the vibe of the song and we were able to leave it right there, but I thought it was a little weird at first.”
The vocal tracks were compressed slightly during recording, but then smashed via a Fairchild during the mixing. Brungardt also used the Tape-Head plug-in during the mix to add distortion, especially during the song “Keep Marchin'.” “We just need to add a little something,” he says. “Tape-Head gave us that little saturation that sent it over.”
Saadiq is confident that the studying and care he took with these songs has paid off. He says that the crowds are paying close attention to what is happening, and the band is thriving as result of this music's undeniable authenticity.
“People used to take recording very seriously,” he says. “They used to wear lab coats at Abbey Road. So I got serious with what I was trying to do, both mentally and physically. I feel that the way you work in the studio is the way you marinate the sound, so when people hear it they'll get the spirit and the energy of what you were doing when you were recording it. I've always felt that the more time you spend with a song, when you're playing it through the speakers and listening to it, but not critiquing it, you need to move to it and make sure it makes you feel good. That's the way the energy should get out to the people.”