From left: Rudder keyboard player Henry Hey, engineer Nic Hard and bassist Tim Lefebvre
Beg. Borrow. Steal. Repeat. That hardly sounds like it should be the recording M.O. for a New York City sideman supergroup like Rudder (www.ruddermusic.com), but that's the way it went for their self-titled instrumental/space rock/funk debut. Take a look at how the recording of this ultragroovy disc went down, and you'll get a good idea of the fragmented workflow that comes with the typical New York City rock record today.
Keyboardist Henry Hey (Rod Stewart, Harry Belafonte, Bill Bruford) had to lay down the law to make sure the album got made at all. The nonstop schedules of his bandmates — saxophonist Chris Cheek (Paul Motion, Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra, Bill Frisell), bassist Tim Lefebvre (Saturday Night Live band, Chuck Loeb, Dennis Chambers) and drummer Keith Carlock (the Blues Brothers, Steely Dan, Sting) — certainly weren't making things easy.
“I was the musical director for Rod Stewart, and when he finished some touring I had the free time to force this thing to get done,” Hey explains. “This is really a band: collective sound and collective music. When we play live, about a third of what we do is improvised. This collection of musicians has been together for a couple of years, but because we're all busy as sidemen we couldn't play together on a regular basis. But we had to commit to do this thing — otherwise, we were just going to continue playing a gig every four months and never record a record.”
After agreeing on that, the group agreed on something else — the key to the album would be capturing the walloping force coming out of Carlock. “That was most important for us — we just wanted the drums to sound like Keith,” Hey says. “He uses unusual tunings.”
Sax player Chris Cheek
“Keith's drums have no deadening whatsoever,” adds Nic Hard, whose engineering and mixing skills would have a large impact on the Rudder record. “He uses single-ply heads for this open, ring-y sound that's pretty much the opposite of what anybody else does. We wanted a large room sound.”
Determined to get things moving, Hey pulled a typical New York City maneuver: He took 400 square feet of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, commercial space that he was renting and converted it into a recording space, with a Digidesign Pro Tools 001 setup. “We wanted to have the liberty to not be billed hourly and explore stuff,” he says. “Tim and I said, ‘We have to start recording this,’ so we rented some APIs, some Vintechs, and we just started playing.”
After six days of initial idea tracking at Hey's place, Rudder stepped it up another notch by congregating at Bushwick Studio (www.bushwickstudio.com). Founded by Josh Kessler, Bushwick is a split-level facility featuring an elite mic selection and a 500-square-foot live room with variable acoustics. Although its location in one of Brooklyn's more notorious neighborhoods (beware the packs of roving stray dogs) may give some pause, to the budget-conscious New York City recording artist it serves as a way to assure favorable rates over the more posh locations in Manhattan.
“It's a long rectangular room, but it ended up sounding really great for drums,” Hard says of Bushwick Studio. “From the moment we set up on the first day and I heard the music, I saw that the opportunities for creative engineering were endless.”
Hard tracked the drums with “more compression than normal,” using heavy LA-3A on the kick. Dual Royer 121 mics fed into Universal Audio mic pre's and on to a pair of Empirical Labs Distressors, where high gain with extremely fast attack and release times mutilated everything nicely. “The idea was to get a big, open, wild drum sound,” says Hard.
Not to be outdone, saxophonist Cheek chimed in with unusual effects on his horn, including delay, Eventide Harmonizer, phaser and a Musictronics Mutron 3 filter. Bassist Lefebvre added to the psychedelia with his own secret sauce of pedal effects, including a Moogerfooger envelope unit. Hey came in playing Rhodes, a Nord Stage and soft synths from Native Instruments. “Some of the Rhodes tracks were double-tracked through Marshall stacks,” Hey rhymes. “That made it more punky and nasty, but I tend to lean toward darker, more messed-up sounds.”
Tracking completed, the musical data would sit on a shelf for a good six months before the men of Rudder could get together again at Hey and Lefebvre's houses to start reviewing the raw recordings. Many of the songs had been recorded as long-format jams that would have to be cut down.
“It was very daunting at first because we had a lot of material,” says Hey. “It was a big weeding-out process. If you have 30 segments of music that are one-third jams, you can cut it [together], but then you end up with a Frankenstein. If you're tempted to edit something, you might because it's easy. We were unable to do that and came up with something more organic.”
Song chunks in hand, Rudder didn't exactly borrow time at their mix facility of choice, Manhattan's One East Recording, but they did once again finagle a very good rate. With a vintage vibe, advanced outlook, an Amex 102 half-inch tape machine, a Motown EQ, RCA BA6A tube compressors and a gorgeous 24-input, 8-bus Neve 5316 console, One East fit Rudder's bill perfectly.
“The studio was set up for mixing and tracking from the get-go — I like to think of it as the best of the old and the best of the new,” says studio owner Matt Wells. “The Neve console is from a German TV studio where it was never used; the EQs have the original grease from the studio. I've been collecting outboard gear for years, specializing in vacuum tube and analog equipment.”
Hard — a New York City-based engineer/producer with credits including The Church, Aberdeen City and The Bravey — immediately felt at home on One East's 5316. “It's on par with most Neves,” he says. “You put something through it, and it sounds good. The mix was very much like when I used to mix records seven or eight years ago, in that we were relying mostly on outboard gear and doing a lot of manual rides. This isn't an automated console, so we tried to do a lot of hands-on, playing with delays as we went to tape. We did use some plug-ins, but we predominantly went about it the old way.”
On a tight schedule that allowed just five 12 to 13-hour days to mix the album's 13 tracks, Hard and Rudder fed off the spontaneity of their method. “Where the music was jamming, there was an extent of that happening in the mixing,” observes Hard. “On ‘Circle of Jerks,’ we did three takes and picked the one we liked. It's great to mix an instrumental record because it's more unlimited. You can try out some effects — see if it works, see if it sounds cool.”
After getting finished off in the mastering suite of Scott Hull, Rudder's debut is a growling psycho-funk collection that will steal your musical heart. Like so many independent New York City albums today, it was made through was a true hybrid of home studio, Brooklyn joint and world-class.
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