March 19, 2012

Ambassadors Sessions – #Road2SXSW – New Orleans

So if you’re keeping up with our Ambassadors story so far, #Road2SXSW, you know we got the basic tracks laid down with Casey and Adam; as well as a dynamite scratch vocal track from Sam. We parted ways with our boys for a few dates and then headed to catch up with them again in New Orleans.

The Mobile Studio actually made amazing time on the way to NOLA thanks to our amazing driver Dave and we secured amazing parking thanks to some friends at the House of Blues. We got in so early that we were able to drop by one of my favorite places to stop whenever I go through: Verti Marte. I won’t go too far into it, but thanks to this institution, Francis Ford Coppola and I have a shared a favorite sandwich. If you go to NOLA and don’t hit up Verti Marte, I’m not gonna say you’re wasting your trip, I’m not gonna NOT say that either. Hit it up, order the “All That Jazz” and taste the best thing on a bun since proper BBQ pork.

The guys were dragging a little bit on the way into town so we had a little while to wander the streets. Zack had never been there before so we kind of took in as much as we could in two hours. I used to feel like I didn’t know my way around that city, but it’s funny how every town becomes an old hat after you go through it a few times. Once we’d seen enough and got the text from Ambassadors’ tour manager, Alex, we made our way back. There was a lot of hooting and high fiving when we all reunited and then we decided to get straight down to business.

First order of the day, after a little planning, was to go ahead and knock out Sam’s vocals. My numbers might be a little screwy, but if I recall correctly, we did two tracks of the main vocal, both one take, no comping needed. Did I say “pro” enough yet? Then we came back and we hit harmonies, again with the one to two takes thing. We did the awesome little post chorus vocal part in a few passes and were done with Sam in miracle time. We tracked his vocals with the Neumann and the new True P2 Analog preamp we were given by our buddy Tim from Sennheiser. I cooked all the vocals up with a light touch of compression and a high cut using the Channel Strip plug in that now comes stock in Pro Tools and has fast become my new utility knife for all things.

Between us, Sam and I were both very satisfied with the vocal takes. It almost seems too simple when it goes like that, but the fact is; tools, talent and a capable engineer can do great work together. Vocal tracking can be a real bear to deal with if one part of this equation is missing, but Sam’s control and mic techniques are killer. The guy really is talented. I guess the lesson this should impart to you, dear reader, is that with a little time and the right tools, you’ll get this vocal tracking thing sorted. All I knew at the time and know now as I prepare to spend some time mixing this stuff in the next few days; is that I have everything I need to do a mix as big as this song deserves. There was only one missing piece at this point: Noah’s guitar.

That said, we decided to hit Noah’s guitar parts. We had made great time tracking Sam’s vocals and I was ready to have fun recording what is always my favorite part of the session. Noah plays through a great sounding Fender Twin that gives proof to the idea that Twins get better with age and wear and tear. We set it up to the back of the bus and I put a dynamic mic off axis close to the grille (left speaker for those who were wondering), and then threw up a large diaphragm condenser microphone about three feet away. I was feeling cheeky and wanted to figure out how to make our heavily acoustic treated tracking room sound a little more live; so I let our rear monitors bleed the tracks in from the control room while Noah listened to his mix on headphones. We pulled the keyboard tracks down a little so he could have some breathing room to get his feel right and then we banged through a quick test with the mics up. It was immediately clear that the decisions of how to track this were dead on. I actually sent both mics through the True preamp again, because new toys are fun. Especially when they are this lust-worthy.

Noah had a few different parts and while they weren’t specifically different in tone, they definitely would be easier to record in multiple takes than a single pass. “Work smarter not harder,” I say, so we broke things up. We did a few passes of the verse parts, which Noah and I ended up satisfied with once we had a solid double tracking of the part. Then we hit these cool little rhythmic parts he lays out after one of the choruses. Just for my own perverse satisfaction I laid it down across four tracks so I could add a bit of “chimey-ness” to the part and mix in delays on one end while preserving the heart of the rhythm on the other. This is where it gets awesome though: the solo on the way out of the song is the kind of stadium lead any band would sacrifice a sheep for. Our tone had reached such a level of sheer “ballsiness” that I just wanted to nail it, then nail it again, then nail it again, then nail it again. It must have been a good idea because each time we got through it, we smiled a little bigger.

All told, at the end of the session we all seemed quite happy, had time to spare and a great track on our hands. If I can walk away from the session with no worries about the final mixdown; life is good. This was a great start to my week of recording bands at SXSW and had been such a comprehensive tracking test of the studio that I was worry free about the fact that bands might well come in and throw anything at me. I may have been recording for more than a decade, but I’m not going to lie about the fact that the Mobile Studio is new for me. With other folks having manned the desk in here in the past year before I came on to just be the dedicated guy who does this thing. I can’t say enough about how pleased I am with the setup we have here.

The StudioLive has been insanely efficient not just for getting tracks into ProTools 10, but also is a dream for sending multiple mixes back out. It’s really as simple as creating a few sub mixes with busses and then pointing them to the right channels on the desk, then sending those out through the aux sends on the console. The Fat Channel and all the other tools are amazing, but flexible routing is everything and PreSonus really have set us up to move at an amazing speed. This is good because I have been running some sessions here in very short windows and it’s not exactly a low pressure gig to get a good performance and recording and make sure I cover my own concerns to get everything I need in the four hour slots I often find myself working in. I am able to quickly and easily switch my setup from tracking to mixdown and the thing just makes every step remarkably easy to deal with.

I suppose the main thing I will point out is that no, this is not a board that comes loaded with API/SSL/Magic Expensive Unicorn Console of Your Choice style preamps built into every channel or anything like that. To that end, we supplement the system with the Presonus ADL 600s we have and the new True P2 I keep gushing about. This is simply the difference between studio tracking and live tracking or mixing. It’s nothing new and certainly not a shortcoming by any stretch. The affordability of the console is nothing to sneeze at. The fact that it is one of the most stable firewire devices I have ever used in addition to being a mixer is a major consideration to take in before thinking of the need for enhancement of your front end with different preamps as a drawback. In fact, I prefer this system as it lets me operate similarly to how I handle my own studio at home, with whatever preamps I want and so many options I’m spoiled for choice. Flexibility is king when one is hustling for dollar bills or racing the clock of dwindling inspiration and the StudioLive doesn’t disappoint.

So we’ll talk about the mixdown soon as I am about to be banging through it. As for the story of the rest of Ambassadors live coverage, we’ll hang on to that too. We hung out with the guys for a bit and then all headed into the House of Blues to tape the show, StudioLive and cameras in tow. By default I also got to hang out while Lights did their thing at the soundcheck and I also got to watch a hell of a show that night. Sometimes touring with bands really is the best way for me to appreciate them, as the quality of their product travels from venue to venue, tightening each day as they roam the country selling their art. Ambassadors are no exception to this rule. The crowds love them. Sometimes it’s just great to see a band working hard and seeing a bit of the love and fortune they’ve earned through their efforts. I feel very lucky that this was the band we followed out and I’d be glad to work with the guys again. In the meantime, however, I’ll just mix this song. Then you can see what it is I’m so happy with.