March 16, 2012

Ambassadors Sessions – #Road2SXSW – Atlanta

I want to stress as much as is humanly possible that recording sessions can and often do go badly. There is only so much an engineer can do. We can prep our session, check our wiring, make sure we’re capable of providing things quickly and with ease. After that, there’s an expression: “Crap In, Crap Out.” Everything, really, is up to the band. I always try to focus on creating a positive space where people can give their best performance. In my opinion, the vibe is everything. If you doubt this, try being a jerk to a band and then getting a great track out of them.

On the other hand, Martin Hannett basically created the Joy Division sound by being insanely cruel to the band, but that is another story. Probably a significant detail that their singer eventually killed  himself; so do what you will with that. Don’t even get me started on the cruel taskmaster style of Phil Spector.  All that aside, you can do a million things to accomodate and prepare, but if the band isn’t ready, things can get ugly. Maybe the drummer can’t play to a click track. Maybe the singer is a diva. Maybe the band just isn’t terribly good. Lucky for me, when we decided to hunt down a band for our “Road to SXSW” Idea, #Road2SXSW, we found a band with none of these problems.

Ambassadors are from New York and fall somewhere in their own hard to pin down indie vibe. They are touring with Lights and winning hearts across the country. I can’t honestly compare them to anything directly, but there’s everything from hints of metal to flourishes of Johnny Marr to straight on Coldplay style stadium rock. Lucky you, they still fetch a darn reasonable ticket price and, as we saw the night before my session when I went to record their live show with our StudioLive console, they put on a hell of a show.

Fronted by one take wonder vocalist Sam, the band is made up of Sam’s brother Casey on keys, guitarist Noah and drummer Adam. Talking with the band, I quickly learned that Sam typically creates all their stuff in his home studio and then the band kind of adds their own touches to the live animal; and then they take all their combined efforts into the studio and record the finished product. This approach works well, in my experience, letting the primary writer flex and get things to where they want it, then letting everyone else in.

This approach clearly works well for Ambassadors. Once we had locked our session in with the band, I had them hand me Sam’s original demo of the track we were going to record: “Habits” To say the least, this was better than what one thinks of as a demo. The night before, I saw them perform it live with the bands additions. It was very easy to grasp their process at this point, as I had been able to follow things from creation to collaboration. Lucky me, I got to be a part of the phase of tracking it with the band. It’s a great song with big stadium hooks and a killer guitar lead from Noah on the outro. Casey plays the bass on his Nord and they sidechain it to the kick live; so it instantly has a pumping bass sound and very modern vibe.

Getting to know the guys the night before a little, I was instantly relaxed about the session as they are all complete professionals and I knew we were going to be able to it the ground running; inasmuch as their end was concerned. So we all high-fived a bit at the end of their Masquerade show and parted ways until we would meet the next day at the bus in Atlanta.

Professional though Ambassadors might be, we were actually in the middle of rotating a lot of new and old gear in and out of the studio as all the lovely treats from this year’s sponsors rolled into town. We ended up struggling a little bit to get the version of Kontakt we were triggering with our new Alesis DM 10X. This issue was quickly rectified after the fact, but led to a brief panic on my end just because I don’t like making people wait.

The major saving grace of all technical difficulties during this was that I was able to recover insanely quickly thanks to the dead simple functionality of my Studiolive 24.4.2. When there’s so much to route in the studio, between MIDI and individual mixes, as well as sending things all over the room, making sure your levels are all right and being absolutely certain everything is how you want it; the StudioLive is hard to beat. The learning curve on this thing is not too steep. If I were the kind of man to be having babies, I would probably be seeing how quickly I could get them running sessions on the board… but I digress.

We resolved our drum issues and worked our way through getting everyone their monitor mixes and then began tracking the drums with Casey and Sam providing accompaniment scratch tracks. I have to hand it to Adam; it can be a real chore to switch from how you are used to playing the drums and then have to play on a virtual pad set, let alone pulling off a passionate performance with these other variables in play. Adam, however, destroyed it. We did one pass, then restarted and let him approach a certain section again. Once he had a second run through on the ending he just took the whole thing in one pass. Less than five minutes of tidying up and we had ourselves a solid foundation to keep tracking with.

One thing I want to mention here is that these guys are all fantastic. Not one of them required punching in at any point in the session from day 1 to day 2. Sam’s scratch vocal track was so solid that I was able to actually use it to get a solid mix of our basics between sessions and start steering the track towards what I was hearing in terms of production style. The dude is a machine, it’s kind of ridiculous. Later, when I was doing a little prep and clean on the tracks, I found that I was mixing an unfinished track that could have been declared finished and been just fine.

The clock was ticking, the boys had to hit the road and we were in a similar mode, so we only had four hours. With the clock ticking down, we decided the last passes would be to get Casey’s keys all tracked so I could begin dealing with side-chaining the bass and setting up some other bells and whistles between sessions. Because Casey was ultimately sending out 3 stereo lines, I decided to take advantage of our ADL pres to add some tube warmth to the Nord keys and Casey pretty much nailed everything in one take with the exception of a single line he wanted to hit again. Perfectionists, what are you gonna do?

Even with just our foundations laid, we all seemed a bit giddy as the track started to come together, so there were hugs and high-fives all around as we got ready to say goodbye and then meet up in New Orleans. That part of the story will be in the second installment of tis tale. What I can say is that this is a solid track. We’re all very excited about the final mix and I’ll be showing it off in the not so distant future. So stay tuned for part two of our trip with Ambassadors.