Not too long ago, I was talking with a friend about recording other people. When someone comes here to record an album or an EP, most of the time they want me to do some amount of playing and arranging. “Just do your thing,” is a wonderful thing to hear. Even so, you want to make sure you don’t bring so much of yourself into someone else’s music that it starts to sound like they’re little more than a singer in your band of evil clones. You want to add layers to their voice without diluting it.
This has always been an enjoyable challenge for me — finding a way to incorporate whatever ideas I have while serving the songs. In my own music, I can throw an intentionally off-key bugle blast or the slowed-down sound of a squirrel screaming in the middle of a ballad and think nothing of it. In someone else’s song, that’s usually not going to fly.
My friend and I were talking about all of this when I sent along a rough mix of a song written and sung by someone else that had me playing most of the instruments. “There’s that familiar Johnny West snare sound,” he said. And I thought, I have a recognizable drum sound? Really? How did that happen?
I imagine this is what most producers are chasing on at least some level. A sound that’s their own. It’s just a little weird when you realize you got there almost by default, while trying to avoid certain sounds.
I do seem to have a drum sound that’s “mine”. The thing is, it only ended up that way because as much fun as it was to hear my drum sound change every few albums when I tried out some new mic placement strategy, I got tired of having to move those mics around all the time and wanted to stick with something simple that ate up less tracks on the mixer. I also wanted to get away from anything that felt like it resembled a conventional “produced” drum sound. Too many homogenous drum recordings heard on mainstream radio stations took their toll on me over the years.
So I stuck a stereo ribbon mic in front of my drum kit, patched it into a nice mic preamp, added a bit of compression and a slight EQ boost to counteract the high frequency roll-off inherent in most ribbon mics, and said, “That sounds about right.” Give or take a few experiments with adding a distant room mic, this is the way I’ve been recording acoustic drums for ten years now. It’s by far the longest I’ve ever stuck with a single approach.
This means my “drum sound” is the sound of my drums in my room, recorded to sound as natural and unaffected as possible. That’s kind of hilarious. An anti-sound became a sound.
I’ve developed ways of recording other instruments that work for me, even if in some cases they might be a little unorthodox. Sometimes recording with other people has opened up alternate approaches I wouldn’t have been able to attempt on my own. The way I like to record acoustic guitars with Gord when we’re working on Papa Ghostface songs, both of us playing at the same time, with the guitars mic’d in such a way that the bleed is emphasized instead of negated, and then doing it a second time and layering the tracks — that’s impossible when I’m recording by myself, for the obvious reasons. I love experimenting and discovering new ways of doing things, but when I’m recording someone else’s songs and they ask me to play a lot of different instruments, I’m going to grab the microphones I know work for me and put them in the places where I tend to get the best sounds.
If someone asked me to throw more mics on the drums, I would. For whatever reason, that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it’s because every time a drummer is supposed to come in and play on an album I’m recording for someone else, they never show up, and I end up having to do it myself.
It would probably sound like a mess if I tried recording a different drummer the way I record myself. I’ve learned how to get the most out of this setup. I had to change the way I play to make it work. I used to be a much busier drummer, as you can hear on things like the PAVEMENT HUGGING DADDIES EP and BRAND NEW SHINY LIE. These days I prefer a more minimal approach. Something tells me that would have happened anyway, regardless of what microphones were involved.
As with any other studio, if an artist has any thoughts about recording here, I imagine it’s because they like at least some of the sounds I’m getting. I always want to keep an active dialogue going so I know what they want to hear, what their musical vision is, and whether or not what I’m doing feels right to them. But I do have a pretty specific way of doing things, and it isn’t going to be for everyone.
The great thing about not advertising and keeping this whole thing low-key is I end up working with people I already know, or people who have heard enough of my work to know what they’re getting themselves into if they come here. Working with people you like, recording music you can get excited about, and sensing they’re happy with the work you’ve done when it’s all over and they wouldn’t fire you out of a cannon into a vat of bacon grease if given the chance…that’s a pretty great gig.
Now, if someday Vampire Kate Beckinsale hears an album I’ve produced for another artist, without knowing I was involved, and says, “Hey, I know where this was recorded! That’s the Johnny West drum sound!” my life will be complete.