DIY music production is behind the majority of new music that’s released here in Shanghai, and these skills are essential for the up-and-coming artists of today. That being the case, we gathered members from four prominent Shanghai Bands, (JC Heinbockel of Moon Tyrant, Ryan Baird of Song Dynasty, Dennis Nichols of Rainbow Danger Club, and G of X is Y, who are largely responsible for the recording and mixing of their bands' albums, to talk with them about what it takes to learn the ropes and how to go about it.
S24/7: Musicians writing music often start out emulating the artists that inspire them. Do you guys have producers that you know of and strive to emulate?
G.: Steve Albini - he did Nirvana's album 'In Utero'. And Nigel Godrich.
Nichols: Radiohead, Beck... I go by albums, 'In Utero', and people will hate me for this but Weezer's 'The Blue Album'. I'll think of some more, you go next.
JC: Most producers are fairly anonymous, so it's hard to track down one guy who has a consistent sound you really like unless you put in the time to look up his name.
Nichols: And sometimes we do. Like I said, 'The Blue Album', Ric Ocasek, I know that one of his techniques that I use is that he turns the gain on the amps up really high so it's a really warm sound coming in. He uses tapes on the drums so there's this warm compression when the drum hits the tape, there's something special about drums on tape. I'm sure other people know way more about this, but it's something I like to do. Now, I didn't use tape, I had to use a tape simulator to get that sound, but it still gave me ideas!
JC: I tend to be into a lot of older records, some of the old, old guys like Tom Dowd, where it was really all about capturing a sound and getting the quality of the audio as high as it could be, getting a really great-sounding record and not worrying as much about all of the crazy effects and stuff, just getting a really clean, natural, organic sound.
S24/7: So when a musician tries to emulate their idols, it's usually easier to copy. Is it the same with production? Can you guys listen to a certain production style and understand what you have to do in order to go for that same sound?
JC: Certain producers, especially.
Nichols: I've actually gotten a lot more into electronic and dance music since starting with production because I realise now how much effort is involved. There's a lot going on there, especially with the more complex, crisp recordings. There's a lot of technique and work involved in that.
RB: Especially when you find people who are doing the whole process themselves and getting good results, like Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, who just did an album that I think won two Grammys and it sounds like he did the whole thing himself, which blew my mind. Musically, maybe it's not my favourite music, but it's so impressive in an industry where one guy is in charge of recording and another guy mixes, and he just sat there and wrote all the songs and brought them out.
Nichols: I saw him them live and the live sound is just so much more beautiful... I kind of want him to redo his album, record it live in the studio or something.
Baird: My biggest complaint with the album is it just doesn't have enough balls to it.
G.: Yeah, but he's got his own sound so it's even better. He writes his own songs and produces it in its own way. I think it's the most interesting thing. If the same guy does everything then you'll get a really specific colour. You won't get a producer who's gonna make your band sound like heavy metal if that's not what you want to sound like.
S24/7: What limitations do you see for a band that goes to an outsider for production?
Nichols: That brings up another thing; I think when you are producing your own band there's a lot more heart into it. It's your band on the line. When you're learning something you've got to have that passion and I think if it's your own band then that passion is inherent.
JC: You have a vision of what you want things to sound like when you record your own material. For some people, bringing in that outsider can help them realise that vision, but for a lot of other people the producer has his or her own opinion of what that should sound like. So that was definitely part of it, just wanting to get it the way we wanted it.
G.: the thing I don't like is when we play a show and the sound guy is just mixing us like any other band and it doesn't sound like us anymore.
RB: The fundamental limitation is even if you know what you want, you might not know how to get to that sound. If you employ someone else you've put a time limit and a financial limit on that discovery, whereas if you do it for yourself you can sit there for ten days working on that track until you get it.
JC: Plus you have to be able to translate your thoughts, which can be extremely difficult when you're trying to capture an idea or a sound. It's one of those things like trying to write about music, when you're trying to explain music and sound but it's something that often can't be done. Music is something that you have to experience and know. So unless the outside producer is really on the same page and the same wavelength and can pick up on the same cues and figure out what you want then you're talking to a wall and you're getting a different reflection back.
Nichols: Writing about music is like
JC: dancing about architecture.
S24/7: So you're doing this yourself, and you're all in bands, not solo acts. When you do the recording and production for your group, are you offered much input from the other members of the band and do you act on it?
Nichols: I think for Rainbow Danger Club the partnership there with me and Jesse, we work together on writing songs and producing but at the end of the day he's kind of like the songwriting guy and I'm the producing guy. If he's really passionate about something in the songwriting thing and I disagree, that's kind of his domain and I think the same usually goes with me and production. Generally, what I did during that whole process when I was mixing something, I'd email an mp3 and he made comments. At the end of the day it was really on me, and a couple trusted confidants who told me what they thought about it.
RB: In the Song Dynasty the writing is mostly Nick and I together; Nick is the keyboard player. When it comes to production we're both there but have completely different roles. I'm the ‘big picture’ guy and he's details. So he'll stop the tune and say 'Okay, I want to see this, with this instrument, for this long,' and then it's up to me to say 'Okay, how the hell do I do that? Do we have to do some crazy automation?' It's great because that's the next stage of composition rather than you write the song and hand it on. It's the new stage and it's a good way to do it.
G.: For production and recording we always try to go for a live sound, so we just play the song and try to make it sound like a band playing in a live room. Input I had from Fabian was that I had too much overdrive so I lowered the overdrive a little bit on guitar, but just those kinds of things.
JC: We're the complete opposite. Moon Tyrant... Our first record is in a lot of ways is just basically trying to capture our live sound, but it's got a lot of overdubs and editing and all that. We're a very collaborative band so for the most part everyone has input, especially during the mixing process. During the recording process there's definitely some of me taking the reins and saying 'All right, Murray, let's get an additional guitar track here,' but everyone had a say, whether it was Ivan saying 'Make the riff just a little bit more like this,' or something like that. That's the way we work, for better or worse.
Nichols: They're like the democracy band.
JC: We are! That's why it takes us forever to do anything! We are the Congress, we get nothing done, we just talk a lot all the time...
S24/7: I always envision myself as a producer for my band just saying 'Shut up' when they suggest things...
RB: I had to do that recently just because one of the band members wanted an acoustic guitar in the track for the chorus of the tune, and the chorus already had a million instruments and acoustic guitar traditionally eats up space in a mix...
S24/7: I was curious about that. If you do include your band members in the process, what if they make outrageous requests. You, the producer, knowing how this works, do you have to say 'No that doesn't work'? Does that come up often?
JC: I'm usually willing to try anything, so even if I think it's a bad suggestion we'll do it and then they can see that it doesn't work.
Nichols: That's where DIY is pretty cool. If you're willing to put in more time you can just, on your own, try anything. You can render a mix and they'll either like 'Okay, you're right, that didn't work,' or you're like, 'Actually, that's pretty awesome.'
S24/7: When you're recording a song, what are the differences in terms of playing for recording as opposed to just playing a show live? Does everyone just sit down and play as if it were a live performance?
Nichols: Our drums, guitar and bass play the songs in full, and then we add vocals and other stuff on top of it. There's only one song on our album that's not a live performance.
G.: That's what we do too. We record the drums, the guitar, and the vocals together and then we overdub new guitar and vocals with better sound.
Nichols: I personally hate metronome - you guys didn't do metronome did you?
G.: Two with metronome and one without. I like metronome!
Nichols: I dislike the feel, because you can't clock a metronome to our songs, it would be completely off. That makes it harder to produce, but… I don't know, there's something about it. We tried it both ways in a couple of songs and it just didn't feel right to us.
S24/7: Do you guys do lots of tempo changes or something?
Nichols: Well, little subtle tempo changes. When a song's intense and everyone's building energy, it's naturally going to speed up. That's expected! If you listen to an orchestra, the conductor is not a metronome, he's gonna get intense too. Maybe we didn't mean to, but that was maybe why we didn't like it.
G.: Both ways have their own pluses. The metronome… it sounds very stable, it's easier for the listener to follow things. Both sound interesting.
Nichols: If you're looking for ease of recording or ease of production, go with a metronome.
JC: I would disagree! A lot of times we bring in the metronome if we're having tempo trouble. The one we did for the ‘We Are Shanghai’ CD, ‘I Am the Way’, we started that with a metronome and it just got messier and messier. Eventually, I think we just did parts with it and parts without it.
G.: Part of it depends on the drummer - if he's able to play with the metronome or not. Steve Albini, instead of using a metronome, he used a flashlight.
JC: I was reading an interview with Neil Pert the other day, the drummer from Rush. He was saying that for the recordings they're doing now the producer actually stands there in front of him basically conducting him. He didn't want to sit down and really write a drum part, he wanted to just go around and do it. While everyone's playing, he's got the producer standing in front of him telling him like 'Now go intense!' or 'Go with a fill!' and it's a very improvised part.
RB: Our process is very strange. We basically recorded a whole album to MIDI drums that I programmed and then sent it to the States, where my friend has a studio… he's a drummer. He's got everything hooked up and he's got all the right gear, which I really couldn't find in Shanghai. I wanted the right gear… I get obsessed with that. And then he recorded it and sent the files back, then we re-recorded everything over the drums. We get into how the drums feel, so it's not metronomic, but we can do all the metronomic tricks like delays that are to the tempo and whatnot. It's crazy intensive, the work that goes into it, but so far it's been worthwhile.
S24/7: You talked about programming drums. The only thing I've seen, as someone who doesn't know anything about producing, are programs where you can go in great detail and lay the beats out and painstakingly construct these really complex beats as though you were a drummer. Is that what you're talking about?
RB: That's one possibility. My intention was never to make it sound good - it was sort of like if you're doing architecture and you just do a quick sketch of the dimensions and then hand it over to someone to design it. I knew I wouldn't keep it so I didn't spend much time so I just got on the keyboard and did something quick. The electronic music I'm making now, Nick and I spend hours on the drum programming, but since that's the end result we're going for we get really meticulous with it.
Nichols: None of us did MIDI drums for the recording, I've only been doing MIDI drums recently because I've been messing around with electronic stuff.
JC: One of the things we've been talking about for our upcoming recording, at least on one of the tracks, is mixing drum machines and live drums. It's going to be a nightmare.
G.: That's one of the things you can do, you can mix drum machines with live drums and it sounds good. But usually just electronic drums isn't very convincing.
S24/7: Is there software that can allow you to program drum tracks that sounds like live drums? Or do you need a live drummer to get that sound?
RB: I'd say it's totally merged. You can get sample drums to sound pretty authentic, where you couldn't tell. Then you've got tons of commercial recordings with real drummers where samples are mixed in to cover things that you wouldn't want in the mix. It's hard to tell nowadays...
JC: The other thing is that with computerised drums you can mix up the velocities a little bit of the different hits so it sounds a little more played than just, say, it's the exact same high-hat hit every time. Computer drums still sound like computer drums if it's the only thing you have, but filling-in a snare hit somewhere, you can get away with it.
Nichols: I think it also depends on who your audience is. I think 85-90% of people would never know the difference. I think we would, but maybe not. I was looking into that because I was considering doing something like that just because it's so expensive to go to a studio.
There's a lot of options out there, it costs money though. There are a lot of really good sample libraries. You can use randomisation on the hits; you can use multiple samples of the same snare or whatever. There are a lot of options out there and it's probably only going to get better.
RB: No computer program can get that feel. I haven't found one that can get the best feel; it has to be human.
S24/7: If you're recording something live then I suppose you just play the same as if you're practising or performing on stage, but if you're doing overdubs or something, is there any difference in the way that you play? Are there any considerations you have to take during a recording as opposed to when you're on stage playing?
G.: I would never add anything that we don't play live. If I want to try new things it’s like doing a demo.
Nichols: And we're like the opposite. We were always, from the beginning, thinking that the album is the album and the live show is the live show. It's like two different bands sometimes. That's one of the reasons we put out the live album, we just wanted to show how some of the stuff is completely different from the album. I personally think that's cool, and at the same time I like bands like his that just captures exactly what it is. That's just not us, we like to mess around in the studio and then we like to see how we can pull it off live and that's our challenge.
G.: Because you basically write your songs in the studio.
Nichols: We do. We do both, actually.
JC: That's one of the tensions we have in Moon Tyrant. I really like the idea of using the studio as an instrument and going away a little bit from the actual song, whereas Ivan, for example, thinks that's heresy. So we kind of find a middle ground. We do want to capture the live sound but, like Murray sometimes has five different guitar tracks going on at the same time or I've overdubbed my voice seven times in the same place, and we obviously can't do that live. But the record is a record; I think that's part of the point.
Nichols: Yeah, we share that. I like using production as an instrument.
RB: I want people to fade away into the album, into this land they've never been to before. But I agree with Nichols, too. The approach of capturing the live thing is an incredible thing too. It's like apples and oranges, both are equally delicious.
S24/7: If you're going for that live sound, as true as possible to how the band actually sounds, is that it's own beast entirely or is that just easier, like record it and leave it alone?
Nichols: Oh no, I think it has a lot to do with the space. Where you record, microphone placement and the method of recording, that's where that really comes in.
RB: This conversation inevitably leads to gear, and gear means limitation for us. If we had all the gear we wanted to get the sound we hear it would be amazing, but often times we have about 5% of what the industry standard would call for. It's a struggle.
Nichols: For our microphones we used an SM57 and a 400 kuai condenser mic that we bought in China. That's what we had and we did the best we could with that.
S24/7: The Shure SM57 comes up a lot in a search for recording gear. A lot of people online say that's the one you've got to have in your collection.
Nichols: Hmm, not for recording. It's good live because it's durable and dynamic, but for recording... I don't know anyone who really seeks it out.
G.: Lots of people say it's good on drums.
RB: And guitar cabinets.
G.: Some people just hate it and never use it.
Nichols: I think this gets us more into the conversation of DIY style and genre, DIY as a method. Some people prefer that sound, maybe because they're used to it or it reminds them of something in the past. Same reason why people play 8-bit Atari video games at the bar, it's comforting. The same reason why people listen to records or tapes…
Watch out for the final part III next week!