Ziggy Marley has a home studio in his converted garage. This is not a big deal. Most musicians have a garage-cum-studio setup. Most of them don’t have an API 1608 console with Genelec 1038B monitors, a fully functioning vocal booth, and enough space so a whole band can rehearse there in preparation for an upcoming tour.
Marley pauses before entering this haven so he can kick off his shoes, as all his indoor spaces are shoe-free zones. He pads around the fragrant studio—where on one wall, semi-crumpled printer paper is pinned onto corkboard with a different Psalm assigned to each day of the week, and another sheet displays some music-related positive thoughts—before he sits in what is obviously “his” seat. The multiple Grammy Award-winning Marley is clearly comfortable here. That’s a good thing because by all accounts he spends the majority of his waking hours in this space, particularly over the past two years while working his sixth studio album, Ziggy Marley, the second that he has self-produced.
“I really love [Marley’s] DIY aspect,” says Carlos de la Garza, who engineered and mixed Ziggy Marley, his first foray into reggae music, working very closely with Marley during the process. “He’s doing everything. He is the producer. He is the A&R man. He is the artist. He is recording a lot of the album on his own. He’s the engineer on a lot of it, as well. He helped me mix. He has a definite vision. I was most especially impressed with how focused and hard working he is, unlike any artist I’ve worked with before. All the records he has done and the career he’s had, he is still in the studio, easily 12 hours a day, at all times. The guy doesn’t stop. That work ethic combined with talent is an unstoppable force.”
Marley has no intention of repeating himself, no matter how successful or well-received something has been from his past. With every album, he looks inward to find both the emotional message and the musical one he wants to impart. For Ziggy Marley, he purposely avoided any political message or commentary, instead reflecting his reactions to what he sees around him and what he would like to see changed. Naturally, there is a reggae net that is strung under everything. Other areas are explored such as the indie dance of “Love Is A Rebel” and the wrenching acoustic ballad “Heaven Can’t Take It.”
Despite Marley’s elaborate setup, which includes a Pro Tools 12 rig, his songs start in his head and end up on a no-brand, cheap acoustic guitar, pen plus paper, maybe to a cassette or to his phone. “The old-school way is the best way,” Marley chuckles, as he does making most of his statements. “You have to get a good song, vibe, music. No electronics, no manipulating, nothing.
“Where the technology comes in is when I make something sound how I imagine it,” he continues. “I make a demo with my drum programming, my bass thing, my guitar idea, my keyboard idea, but I’m not proficient at playing and technology helps me get my ideas across. It’s a long process, and it takes a lot of patience when you’re doing everything.”
Once songs were together enough to bring in the band, Marley and the musicians camped out at The Village Studio D in Los Angeles with de la Garza. The musicians are not the same as those in his live band, and they are recorded together.
“People from outside my crew, they interpret the ideas and bring another feeling and flavor to it,” Marley says. “The conversations are interesting. You learn so much more. It makes the music wider. Music is about not just us but other human beings, as well. I want to bring a different human aspect using different musicians.”
“The vibe we were going for was lively, so I was trying to get as much room sound as possible,” de la Garza says. “It’s not the biggest live room, and with all the players there, it’s tricky trying to not capture too much of their movements. Too much room sound and you’re going to get clicking from pedals and tapping on keys. The way we were set up, with the drums facing the short, closer walls, as opposed to the further walls, I set up the microphones differently than I normally would, which would have been the long way: front of the isolation booth, facing the control room. You start from a big, natural sound, getting the best tone you can out of every microphone, close to room, but then dial back as necessary. It’s a fine balance trying to achieve a natural sound for the room to speak as loudly as possible.”
Unlike its predecessor, Ziggy Marley has a lot of programmed drums, as Marley was going for a tight sound that he wanted balanced with feeling. He got this from programming the drums alongside Khris Lorenz, who worked within Cubase using the DAW as his sampler, pulling from sounds collected over the years, putting them on the grid and working out a groove. He then went in a number of directions, from traditional reggae vibes such as on “Marijuanaman” to 808s and even trap hi-hats on “Heaven Can’t Take It.”
Ziggy Marley with engineer Carlos de la Garza at The Village.
On some of the songs, Marley knew he wanted programmed drums; on others he knew he wanted live; and on others they tried both to see what worked. The live drums were recorded at The Village, using the ideas Marley captured on his son’s four-piece Pearl kit at home. De la Garza likes Shure SM91 for the inside kicks, AKG D12 VR for the outside, and a third microphone in conjunction with the Yamaha subkick, bussing varying amounts of the three together to get the kick sound. The snare has a Josephson e22S on top and Shure SM57 on the bottom. The toms have ATM25s on the top and 421s on the bottom. Due to the nature of Studio D, C12s are used as overheads and U 67s as room mics.
Ziggy Marley being a reggae album, the guitars have a percussive aspect to them, functioning as a rhythm instrument. This has more to do with the players’ instinct than recording, which involved a Royer R-121 and Shure SM57 bussed together.
“I was trying to maintain the authentic vibe so I was following their lead in terms of what they were hearing and trying to capture that,” de la Garza says. “The guitars, for example, on the clean sound, the pickup choice was middle or top as opposed to the bottom, which I thought they would prefer. I told [Ziggy] that I have never worked on a reggae record before, and he said that it didn’t matter, or that I hadn’t mixed a reggae record. He said, ‘Music is music.’ He didn’t want your average reggae record.”
De la Garza does have plenty of experience in recording brass from his time at Capitol Studios, where he was fortunate to observe the engineering techniques of the legendary Al Schmitt. Brass was recorded in the big, reverberant Moroccan Room at The Village. De la Garza captured the room using the tube Royer SF24C as the first far room microphone and a pair of U 67s as the second far room microphones. The Royer 122v is on the close trumpet and trombone, with an EV RE20 on the alto saxophone.
Vocals were recorded at Marley’s home studio, as, he says, “The studio is such a weird place to do vocals. It’s sterile. You’re not free enough. Vocals should be done in the room where the music is created, around your own environment so you can get the feeling.” A lot of back and forth between microphones and they ended up at the starting point, which is Marley’s Neumann U 87 through a BAE 1073 and Tube-Tech CL1B.
The mix sessions, on the API at Marley’s studio, were critical. As on Fly Rasta, Marley decided to go with a rock mix. “I like the freedom of rock music,” he says. “When it was played on the big systems in Jamaica, it was like, ‘Why it sound like that? Doesn’t sound like the other songs we hear.’ We had to mix Ziggy Marley so it can play on those speakers. That was a big part of the mixing of the album.”
Playing back through Marley’s Genelec monitoring system, with a 7071APM sub—the biggest de la Garza had ever seen at a home studio—they were conscious to not make a bass-heavy record. Every night de la Garza would leave with the day’s mix, listen to it in his car, and come back with notes. Then he and Marley would get together the next day.
“I learned about frequency charts because I’m trying to learn more,” Marley says. “If I learn what I’m dreaming of, instead of asking somebody else to do it, I can do it myself. While we’re mixing, I’m in the frequency too, but not by numbers, by the way I feel. I use my ears. And I use de la Garza for the numbers. It’s a balance so you can appeal to more people.
“I wrote down some of the stuff in my head about what the album was going to be,” he continues. “Maybe in the past I would have been too stiff to write down an idea. This time, I wanted to. When you put it down on paper, it’s like science. Instead of feeling, when it’s on paper, you can see if you can go for it. First man said go to the moon then wanted to go to Mars. That’s what it’s like for me. I went to moon. Now I want to explore more. I don’t want to stop.”