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Recording in a Rolls-Royce

Capturing his latest track in a Rolls-Royce Phantom, UK Grime artist Skepta brings a whole new meaning to ‘high-end mobile recording,’ but he’s not the first person to lay down tracks in a car.

Musicians have always had a thing for Rolls-Royces, but these days, it may be the other way around, as the car manufacturer recently teamed up with Skepta to promote its brand-new Phantom VIII with a new online video featuring the artist recording inside the vehicle.

  • UPDATE: This is a bootleg repost of the video. Rolls-Royce pulled the original clip after social media critics pointed out that Skepta was not wearing a seat belt.

Throughout the clip, Skepta and a pal are chauffeured through the Swiss Alps, making music on a MacBook and rapping through a Sennheiser mic along the way. That may be as in-depth as the recording part of the clip gets, but hey, nice work if you can get it. To be fair, Rolls-Royces are famously quiet cars, so the clip may illustrate how silent it is inside a Phantom VIII (not that I’d know—I’ve never been inside one, but Rolls-Royce is welcome to lend me one to test. I’ll need it for a year or two, just to be certain).

Skepta isn’t the first musician to dig Rolls-Royces; likely the most famous music-related Rolls is John Lennon’s psychedelic 1967 Phantom V. The gaudy car outraged many in the moneyed classes at the time, yet today the vehicle now lives in Canada’s Royal B.C. Museum.

Likewise, Skepta isn’t the first musician to record in a car either, as there’s been numerous examples over the years. Back in 2013, Chevy teamed with Detroit band The Gentlemen Mutineers to record “Detroit Throttle” in a 2014 Impala in order to show off the car’s quiet interior.

Lead singer Frankie Turner belted into a Blue Microphones Snowball while Grammy award-winning engineer Mark Pastoria of Harmonie Park Studios captured the result on his laptop computer. Turns out Ryan Romanik’s harmonica and Julian Lambert’s trombone were also recorded in the car as well.

However, my favorite example of car-based recording goes back to 1996—long before the days of DAWs on laptops and Garageband on your iPhone—when roots rocker Ben Vaughn created an entire album while sitting in his 1965 Rambler American.

The appropriately titled Rambler 65 album spawned both an ultra low-budget mockumentary (excerpt above) and one of the funniest assignments I’ve ever covered—here’s the resulting story from the January, 1997 issue of Pro Sound News. Enjoy!

Ben Vaughn Was Born A Rambler Man
by Clive Young

Rock music and cars have always gone together—countless songs rhapsodize about hot rods, everyone has a favorite tune to blast while breaking speed limits, and there’s a couple of fun things you can do in the backseat when the radio’s on, too (ahem). So perhaps it was inevitable that sooner or later, the two would merge. Lots of artists like to listen to mixes in their cars to see how the tunes sound in ‘real life’—Ben Vaughn took that idea one step further by tracking his latest album in his jalopy. The result is Rambler ’65—an album that brings new meaning to ‘automated recording.’

Due out on Rhino in mid-February, Rambler ’65 showcases garage rock recorded on a driveway. From the straight-ahead “Seven Days Without Love” to the melancholy “Too Much Sorrow” to the off-beat “Heavy Machinery” (dig that engine solo!), the songs come together to create a cohesive, fluid album and not merely some gimmicky curio. It’s a point that Vaughn himself noticed: “There’s a real edge that surprised me. When I was done recording, for me, the experiment was over. I didn’t think whether it would be my next record or if I would even play it for anybody. I moved my studio back into my house and as I mixed it, I realized all these tracks had something special that I hadn’t found in my own work before. There’s an edge to it and it really excited me. And when I started playing it for people, they were really, really into it.”

Vaughn’s love for the Rambler has been documented before—his earlier albums have included odes such as “El Rambler Dorado” and “Motor Vehicle,” the latter in which Vaughn croons the immortal couplet, “You’re gonna flip when you see that highway line rolling by the hole in the floor / C’mon and hop in my passenger side baby, but make sure you really slam that door.” The Rambler American in question was actually his father’s—”Me and my brother used to throw stuff out that hole and then look out the back window and watch things roll.” Following in his father’s tire tracks, Vaughn’s always driven nothing but Ramblers; he’s owned five overall, and currently has a ’64 and a ’65.

Despite his adoration for his Americans, Vaughn wasn’t inspired by the car itself to record inside it. Instead, it took a rough experience in a Hoboken, NJ studio, producing demos for another act. “We were cutting a conga player and it just didn’t sound right. No matter what we did, it was just not pleasing to the ear. So in frustration, I said just jokingly, ‘We should just put him in my car and run a microphone out. It’s got to sound better than it does here.’ And then I thought, ‘Heyyyy….’ And that gave me a new project to work on.”

Once he returned home to Camden, NJ, Vaughn climbed into each of his Ramblers with an acoustic guitar and recorded himself to see which car would sound better. He eventually chose the ’65 model. And the reason why? “Water damage…I’m not kidding. There’s a leak in the roof where the headliner was real soggy, and also when you stomped your foot, the car had more vibration to it than the other one.”

Playback By The Dashboard Light
In order to nail down his 10 songs, Vaughn spent six days straight in his backseat rocking out. Even though he was experimenting with ground-breaking recording techniques, money was no option when it came to making Rambler ’65: “The album cost $48—I went overbudget. I think I bought a sandwich and charged it to the account.”

Bringing his home studio equipment out to the car, he set up a Tascam M208 eight-channel mixing board in the driver’s seat, propped up on top of a milk crate and a bottle of motor oil so that he could reach it from the backseat. In back with him was a Fostex 1/4-inch reel-to-reel, and an ancient home stereo placed in the front passenger seat served as a power amp for monitoring, plugged into a pair of Radio Shack speakers sitting on the dashboard. “The album was recorded with extremely antiquated home recording stuff—not even in a cool way like tube equipment or anything. It’s antiquated solid-state, early ’80s stuff.”

The trunk served as a handy isolation booth for Vaughn’s guitar so that he could sing and play at the same time without bleeding sound. The trunk lid wouldn’t close over the wires however, so he removed a taillight and fed a mic cable through, rather than drill a hole into the car.

While digital equipment might have fit inside the Rambler, Vaughn was pleased with the way analog recording helped flush out the album’s sound. “When you really hit tape with hot levels,” he said, “there’s something about the magnetic particles on the tape that mushes together with some nice natural tape compression. When you do that with ADATs, it doesn’t respond in playback with a better sound. It kind of responds by telling you that you went too far. It gives you an accurate reading instead; it’s not forgiving at all.” He was also surprised to find that he was capturing the best acoustic guitar sound he’d ever gotten: “It was just a Shure SM57 right on the 12th fret of an acoustic guitar in the backseat of a car—no compression, no EQ or anything.”

Still, recording in the backseat was not without its difficulties. Playing bass required rolling down a window and sticking the neck out. Only a very small drum and cymbal could fit in the car, requiring that drum machines and other devices be used to keep time on a number of tracks. The only instrument on the album that Vaughn didn’t play himself was a sitar featured on the psychedelic “Levitation.” The size of the instrument not only dictated that the neck had poke out the window, but Vaughn couldn’t even fit in the car at the same time that his friend played. As a result, he had to engineer while standing on the driveway, leaning through the front seat window to reach the equipment.

Good fortune and good planning combined to help get the record completed: Good fortune shone in that it didn’t rain once during the sessions. “That would have been bad,” said Vaughn. “I might not be alive now!” Good planning, on the other hand, dictated that Vaughn commute to the studio down his back steps by 10 A.M. each morning in order to get in as much recording as possible before mid-afternoon. “About 3:30, the neighborhood kids would come home from school, so I had to stop because they would start hassling me—you know, ‘Hey mister! Whaddaya doin’?’ ‘Ahhh, get outta here! Leave me alone!'” When recording was over, he simply locked the doors, brought the instruments inside his house and covered the car with a tarp.

But Vaughn’s planning extended even to figuring out how best to approach each take. “It’s kind of claustrophobic in a car and you figure ‘OK, I’m going to cut this vocal; this has to be the final vocal.’ And even before I cut it, I would think, ‘OK, how can I ensure that this will be the take?’ It was great, because it forced me to work faster than I usually do and make decisions quicker. I think that the record has an immediacy that I’d been looking for in other ways, and making it kind of forced me to just find out whether I had the goods or not. It was really cool.”

Accidents Will Happen
No matter how much planning went into recording the album though, Vaughn still had to deal with a few things that came up out of nowhere—like bees, for instance. “Bees were kind of swarming around, and a couple of them got in the car when I was working. It was hard for me to get out fast because I had headphones on and I was plugged in with the bass, so when I jumped out of the car, I was dragging everything out behind me.”

But fortunate accidents happened as well. Although all live mics were recorded with the windows rolled up, according to Vaughn, the occasional car horn and dog bark can be heard when individual tracks are soloed up. When mixed together though, the stray noises disappear—with one exception. On one track, he was about to record the vocal when an airplane flew overhead. As a goof, Vaughn stuck the microphone out the window and recorded it, figuring it was one more variable to add to the song; if it didn’t work, during mixing he could just mute the sound until the vocal came up. As it turned out, the plane flew out of earshot just as the vocal began, and the sound worked fine within the musical context of the song. It wasn’t until during mixing that it dawned on Vaughn that an airplane sound was a perfect complement for the song’s title: “The Only Way To Fly.”

Besides dealing with curious local kids, Vaughn tried his best to not let his neighbors know what was going on next door. “I didn’t want the entire neighborhood to know that I was out there doing it, so I didn’t monitor very loud. Well, they always knew that something strange was going on in my house, and then when it started happening in my driveway, they figured that it was going to start happening on their lawn next, or on their porch. I’ve since moved—I had to leave town!” In truth, Vaughn moved to Los Angeles shortly afterwards to write music for the NBC comedies Third Rock From The Sun and Men Behaving Badly, as well as for a new show on Fox, Secret Service Guy, and a number of independent films.

Since moving out to California (driving one Rambler and having the other towed), he’s had another kind of TV experience, making a 20-minute promo video for Rambler ’65: “It was my acting debut…and my car’s acting debut. And we both came out OK, too. I can actually watch myself, which really surprised me.” A mockumentary of sorts, the promo features three music videos and a laid-back storyline about—what else—recording in your car. Background music for the flick, however, was recorded in Vaughn’s house—the place where his recording equipment is staying from now on.

Despite the LoFi recording techniques, Vaughn has high hopes for the album: “It seems that my time may have finally come—because I’ve been doing the same thing all my life. When I was 12, I had this sound, but that was when ‘Aqualung’ was big, so it was, ‘Who’s gonna care?’ This is what I’ve always been doing, and now popular taste has come around to the sound that I do; it’s really great.”