Time should not be a luxury in the recording process, yet so often it is. Sometimes time is short due to budget, and other times it’s because the band gets caught up in the merry-go-round of needing to be on the road to promote an album, which shortchanges them when another project comes due. According to 311’s drummer Chad Sexton, time had been the missing piece of their musical puzzle, made particularly evident by the recording experience of their current project, Soundsystem.
“On our last record, Transistor, we would make a song, learn it, record it, and it was on the record,” Sexton says. “With this album it was more like, ‘Make a song, go away from it for two months, come back to it, see how you like it, something’s not right so change the chorus, or add a part, or get rid of the song altogether.’ We tried not to force anything with the attitude of, ‘Oh, we can make this song great.’ If we weren’t feeling it, we didn’t even mess with it. Time really gave us perspective, and we were able to make the right judgments.”
In June 1998, 311 leased the building that housed L.A.’s Kendun Recorders in the ’70s. They brought in their equipment and created a stable comfort zone in which to rehearse and then record. Back at the helm was Scotch Ralston, whom they had met as an assistant engineer on their Capricorn debut, Music.
As the “young ‘uns” of the studio corps, 311 members and Ralston had bonded, so they called him up out of the blue in ’93 during the recording of Grassroots. They had had a falling out with producer Eddy Offord and wanted to know if Ralston would finish the record with them.
“They had a whole bunch of tracks on ADAT, so we had to take all the ADATs and lock them to a tape,” Ralston explains. “They had already done all the music-all the guitars, vocals, percussion, everything-and then they wanted to redo the drums. So we did the drums last on that record, which is kinda weird. But they had done everything to a click, and Chad is pretty much a rhythm machine, so we came in and knocked it out, and it turned out all right.”
Ralston and the group then lost track of each other until the band parted ways with their live sound engineer and called Ralston to bail them out again. “They said, ‘We just need you to finish this tour, it’s only a couple of months,'” Ralston recalls. “And it turned out to be four years!”
311, or what they call “the Blue Album,” followed. There was another tour, and then it came time to record again. “After the Blue Album I think we felt invincible,” Ralston admits. “We came up with all these songs, and everyone had a little bit of affection for every song, so we didn’t want to cut out any of them. We wrote and recorded 30 songs in three months, so it was every day, all day-a lot of work. It was a little hectic, and I think maybe we should have refined it a little. Transistor lacked focus, which is a lesson we learned for this album. On this album we really took the time to refine the songs, and we concentrated on a small number of songs so they could have our attention, which I think will benefit the album in the long run.”
Ralston also considers producer Hugh Padgham’s involvement in the initial sessions invaluable. “At the beginning of the project it was mostly Hugh, and we were consulting with each other to make sure we were consistent with the other albums and that we were getting good sounds. Hugh’s approach to recording is that a sound really starts at the source. You can’t polish a turd, so we really concentrated on getting the drum tuned right and made sure it sounded good without any mics before we put a mic on it. I think it was really a good thing to do because sometimes you put a mic up and start EQ’ing stuff right away to make it sound better. He listened to everything totally flat for the longest time, and at first I was going, ‘Come on, EQ it a little.’ But then he’d say, ‘Okay, let’s try moving the mic a little bit over this way,’ and we would move it, and it would make so much of a difference.
“After he left, I continued that method of recording for the rest of the instruments and even the vocals. We’d put them in a room and if it didn’t sound good, we’d try them somewhere else, and if that didn’t sound right, we’d put them somewhere else. We had a little booth that we tried, which was pretty tight and dry, and it sounded good. Some songs sounded good out in the main room, which had a little more air, and then other songs we did in the control room,” says Ralston, adding that for guitarist/vocalist Nick Hexum they used an AKG C-12 and for vocalist S.A. Martinez they favored the Neumann M49.
“The main concern about the vocals on this album was that the guys were comfortable with the mix in their surroundings,” Ralston explains. “On Transistor, we had them out in the studio with the headphones and the whole deal, and I think they felt isolated, like they were far away from the music. They would do two or three takes, and then it would be, ‘I don’t want to sing anymore, that’s it.’ On this album we made sure they were feeling good with everything around them before they tried for takes. They put a lot of work into it and got good performances.
“Also, one of the comments about Transistor was that the vocals were a little too effected, so one thing Hugh mentioned after he had listened to the other albums was that maybe we should try to dry up the vocals a little more and present them more in front,” Ralston continues. “I tried to do that on the mix and not double every vocal. I think it was a good idea, and the vocals sound really strong.”
Padgham also insisted on recording the bass sans EQ, which raised some eyebrows. “I’d heard P-Nut’s bass a million times so I knew the frequencies that sounded good to push and pull out,” Ralston says with a laugh. “I was just going to say, ‘Hugh, watch this,’ and go boom, pow, there’s the sound; thinking he’d be amazed. Instead it was, ‘What’s all this EQ on here, sonny boy? Let’s experiment with the knobs.’ So we tried the knobs and different pickups and active and non-active stuff that we never really thought about that much. We got the bass to sound really good with no EQ whatsoever, and I was totally amazed. When it came down to the amp sound, we decided to mike the amp. We went through a bunch of different mics and mic placements and different bass amps and cabinets and finally came up with the one we used throughout most of the album. It’s just a DI and a mic signal. Hugh said, ‘If you EQ the bass when you record it, when you go to mix it, you’ll probably EQ it a little bit more and there’s going to be a massive phase shift.’ So just for a goof I decided to record the bass the old way on a couple of spare tracks. When we got to the mix, I had almost forgotten about it, but I put them on and EQ’d them and man, he was so right-I couldn’t believe it. It sounded like it was in a beer can or something.” The result of Padgham’s production tactic was that they used very little EQ on the entire album, and, Ralston says, they even avoided going through the Yamaha O2R.
“Not because we don’t love the O2R,” he says with a laugh, “But we had a bunch of Neve modules and we went right from the mic into the module, right from the module XLR into the back of the machine. It was interesting. I haven’t done that in a long time. So we really just monitored through the O2R, and it was cool.”
On the drums, Ralston insisted on using a bottom snare mic, which at first Padgham resisted. “When Hugh first set up the drums, he didn’t have one on there, and we had to poke him in the ribs a little to get him to put one on,” Ralston says. “Even though he was reluctant, I think after a while he thought, ‘This isn’t too bad.’ We used it a lot in the mix, so we were glad we had it.
“I think one of the best things you can do for drum recording is to get a good room sound. First you have to have a good kick and snare sound, then a good room sound. You just experiment with mic placement and move them around until it sounds good, which, of course, is subjective. This is going to sound amateur, but for some reason I’ve really gotten to like a Shure SM91 on a kick drum. It’s a flat mic, kind of PZM style, and I just lay it in the bottom on a towel, and it sounds great. I use it live, and we ended up using it for many songs on this album after many mic comparisons.” (Incidentally, Ralston has decided not to resume his road duties with 311 on their upcoming tour, so he can concentrate more on his recording career.)
Ralston mentions “Evolution” as one of his favorite songs on the new album, as well as “Leaving Babylon.” “We had originally recorded ‘Leaving Babylon’ for a Bad Brains tribute album, and then we found out Bad Brains had nothing to do with the album. So we saved the track and put it on this album instead. I really think this is a strong album,” he concludes. “The one song I didn’t like got cut. I seriously like every single song, and that’s a good sign.”