After what he terms a few “harrowing” experiences withrecord producers, singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright has finally foundan aural ally in Marius deVries. “Marius has been a completedream,” Wainwright says. “I like him a lot because he's anice person and he's very British in his sensibilities in the studioand extremely efficient and diplomatic.” Each of those qualitiesbecame paramount as Wainwright and deVries worked through what wouldbecome two releases: the acclaimed current offering, Want One;and Want Two, which will be released this spring. WantOne is an extremely clever and complex production, with hugevariations in arrangements and instrumentation from track to track, asWainwright ladles out heaping helpings of insight andautobiography.
Wainwright enjoys his time in the studio. “I'm perhaps morecomfortable and confident in the studio than I am in real life a lot ofthe time,” he says with a laugh. “I grew up in and aroundthe studio [he's the son of another talented singer/songwriter, LoudonWainwright III]. I definitely associate it with the womb. I've alwaysloved the studio and I'm very old-school about it. I know absolutelynothing about the technology of it whatsoever, but I love peoplerunning around doing things.” Absolutely nothing? “Iliterally am allergic to knobs,” he says with a laugh. “Ibreak out in a sweat and become dyslexic. I still say, ‘Could youfast-wind that, please?’ So, no, I'm not technical atall.”
So it was fortunate that he and deVries crossed paths. Their initialrecording dates took place at Looking Glass Studios in New York Cityduring a long weekend in October 2002. “This went verywell,” deVries recalls. “We ended up with three songs ingood shape.” The chemistry between producer and artist wasobvious, deVries says, and production kicked off in January 2003.
Wainwright explains that he would come in with a song and the twowould put down a click track with scratch vocals and either a guitar ora piano. “Then we would hang out together and play keyboards andfigure out what kind of bass line we wanted or what kind of horn lineor find some weird synth sounds,” he says. “We'd get anidea of what kind of direction it was going in and then usually we'dhire a great guitar player to give it a real feel. Often times, we'dprogram drums ourselves, just for the idea, and we'd go back later [andcut drums]. So we'd sketch out a lot of what you hear beforehand, butthen once the musicians came in, it was just a sketch for them tofollow.”
“Rufus writes very thoroughly, more so than anyone I've workedwith before,” deVries reports. “He brings his songs in veryconceptualized in terms of harmony, melody, countermelody, evenorchestration. Groove-wise and feel-wise, there was more room for me tohelp guide the songs, especially in the more uptempo numbers. But I wasalways concerned to work within the spirit of the original gesturesembedded in the songwriting.”
Wainwright and deVries worked in seven studios: Looking Glass, TheMaid's Room, Loho and Bearsville in New York, The Strongroom and Angelin London, and the Record Plant in Los Angeles. “This is mymulticity, multicoastal album,” Wainwright says with a laugh.“It seems like this happens on every record of mine except forthe first one, which was all in L.A. I get bored easy, Iguess.”
According to deVries, each studio was selected for a specificreason. Looking Glass was used for the vibe and The Maid's Room for its“utterly noncorporate and homey feel,” deVries says.“We were there for the main New York City sessions, which weremainly Rufus and myself building up the tracks in Logic with a fewinstrumental overdubs.” During The Maid's Room dates, the crewmoved over to Loho to record drum tracks.
The main band sessions were recorded at Bearsville. “We'd bothalways wanted to work there and it turned out to be a smartmove,” deVries says. “The live area sounded fantastic, andwith the very wintry conditions, it snowed us in for days at a time; inthe rural environment, it made us really focused. As it happened, wewere sadly the last session ever in Studio A.”
The Strongroom in London, where deVries has his own studio, wascalled on for its SSL console and mixing flexibility. Angel was usedfor the orchestral and choral recording dates. The Record Plant gottapped for the albums' final touches and for its Los Angeles location,where both Lenny Waronker and Robbie Robertson could listen to thetracks — “Their astute ears and wisdom wereinvaluable,” notes deVries.
John Holbrook, who engineered the Bearsville sessions, set up thedates with maximum possibilities in mind. “We needed to be ableto go quickly from tracking a full rhythm section to overdubs or toRufus doing solo piano and vocals,” he says. “We workedthrough a lot of music in a fairly short time.” Studio A's bigroom enabled them to have the drummer, bassist (the bass amp went in abox of baffles), keyboard player (set up with gobos) and guitar players(amps were set up in the iso booth near the control room) in the sameroom. “We also sometimes used Bearsville's movable gazebo vocalbooth — which sits out in the room — for acoustic guitarand vocals or upright bass,” Holbrook adds. The control roomhosted a MIDI station with a Kurzweil keyboard and several modules thatdeVries brought, which were all tied into the Pro Tools and Logicsetup.
Holbrook's mic philosophy while at Bearsville was fairly simple:“We had several drummers so the setup changed a little bit foreach guy,” he explains, “and we varied the amount ofliveness by means of a beach umbrella and gobos around the kit. On sometunes, we tightened things up by lowering the umbrella and closing upthe gobos. Either way, the ambient mics were printed on separate tracksfor maximum flexibility.”
As for bass, Holbrook used a MusicValve tube DI, which is made byNat Priest in New York, and a Neumann FET 47 on the amp, which was anSVT bottom driven by a B15 head. On electric guitars, a combination ofRoyer R121s (close) and tube 67s were used. For the acoustic guitar, hecalled on a vintage Neumann tube pencil mic, and pianos were miked withAKG 414s.
Wainwright's vocals were recorded with a Neumann U67 through a Nevepre into a LA-2A followed by a Distressor — both set for moderategain reduction. “Rufus' voice presents a particular challenge inthis respect; it's very dynamic and varied tone-wise from song tosong,” deVries explains. “With him, you really want tocapture the moment, the emotion and the performance.”
For the music beds recorded at Bearsville, Holbrook relied on dbx160X or 160s on bass and guitars, while the piano got a Neve stereocompressor. The acoustic guitars ran through a vintage UA 175compressor. All were moderately compressed, except the drums. The wholekit went direct to tape except for the snare, which was put through aPultec EQ to add some brightness. Bearsville's vintage Neve consolemade it possible to work without any outboard pre's.
The majority of the recording sessions were recorded to 2-inch tapeand Logic Audio Platinum driving Pro Tools|HD. As deVries explains, thekey was to have the choice. “Some things worked much better inanalog; some things didn't,” he says. While working in Pro Tools,deVries turned to plug-in standards such as Audio Ease Altiverb, AmpFarm and Emagic's tape delay.
Once the recording was done, the tracks were handed over to mixengineer Andy Bradford. As Bradford explains, there were some softsynths running during the mix sessions. “Marius and I sometimesdo this,” he says. “So when it gets to the mix stage, someof it can be a work in progress, which gives us amazing flexibility ofbeing able to change stuff on the fly. Some of the initial tracking wasdone on 2-inch for the sound of it, but for ease of editing andtransportation, it all ended up in Logic. I mixed from Logic AudioPlatinum running on an Apple dual 1GHz Macintosh G4 on Digidesign HD 3hardware. We had 64 outputs feeding the desk.”
Bradford used an SSL 4000 G+ console for the mixes while somesubmixes were done in Logic because of the number of tracks in a coupleof the songs. One of the tunes, “I Don't Know What It Is,”had 128 tracks in Logic and 64 tracks on direct TDM. “Those wererunning on the Mac itself but bused into the TDM mixer with ESB,”he explains. The song was such a monster because it included a fullband, four guitarists, a full orchestra, a programmed drum kit, achoir, five pianos and, oh yeah, Wainwright's vocals. “It was avery complex and intricate arrangement with an incredibledynamic,” Bradford recalls. “It goes from whisper-quiet tofull-on. We ended up tackling this one a couple of times before wewrestled it to the floor.”
To be sure, one album of such enormity must have been achallenge. So how did producer deVries keep up the energy knowing thathe and Wainwright were working on two albums? “Adrenalineand enthusiasm,” he answers. “Working on a project asmagical as this one was is rare, and the body responds. There wasn't asong that didn't demand maximum care and attention — plus, thesupport of a team of great people full of dedication and love for theendeavor.”