Mike Fabulous on recording The Black Seeds' 2012 album ‘Dust And Dirt’
22 May 2012
Author: Derek Johnson
Band guitarist Mike Fabulous was at the controls, engineering the sessions and mixing the final result. Working in its own space gave the band time to relax into the album, without the inevitable clock-watching worries when working in a commercial studio. Perhaps as a result of the lack of pressure from that angle, the Seeds were able to explore some new writing angles, with songs coming in from new teams within the band. In fact, according to Mike, some first-take jams made it onto the final CD.
To turn the space into a studio, Mike brought in his Avid ProTools rig, with digital I/O provided by an RME Fireface clocked to an Apogee Mini Me, with an M-Audio Profire for an extra eight channels. Add “a bunch of microphones and a couple of preamps, monitors, cables and stands” and you have, as he puts it, “a pretty ghetto kind of set up”.
The band invested in a Toft Audio Designs eight-buss mixing desk and a few other bits and pieces, to add to their usual instruments and gear.
“It wasn't high end professional studio level, in terms of the equipment, but I firmly believe that you can make a great record using one SM57 and a shitty preamp! Your gear can make a difference but ultimately it's about songs. If your songs are shit then all the flash gear in the world isn't going to make a lick of difference.”
There's always a warm analogue vibe to a Black Seeds album, and even when recorded to hard drive rather than tape, that vibe is maintained through judicious use of a select collection of classic outboard gear, old and new. Playing live through the Toft desk helped for a start (“It has flexible routing and nice EQ”). Then Universal Audio LA610 mic preamps proved a definite advantage for adding fatness and warmth. Still, while some audio – mainly from the drums – would pass through the LA610, most of the balance would head straight via the Toft desk, to be treated during bounces to disk after the sessions were finished.
“I definitely enjoy the convenience of plug-ins, but I think you find unique sounds as soon as you start routing audio out of the computer, through unusual pieces of physical gear,” says Mike. And there's nothing like a LEM EC30 tape echo/spring reverb to enhance the retro classic dub reggae vibe at the heart of the Black Seeds' sound. And let’s not forget his two-track Otari MX5050: nearly all audio went to tape and back to disk via this classic open reel mastering machine.
Microphones he had to use included a classic RCA 44BX ribbon, Heil PR40, AKG D19, and “a couple of ribbon mics of uncertain origin”. Bandmate Barnaby Weir contributed his Neumann U87 and Oktava pencil mics. Shure SM57s and Sennheiser 441s were also part of the mix, the dynamic 441 used as much for kick drum as for vocals.
“My ears have never been attracted to high frequency sound, so I've had to train myself to add top to mixes. I've always just preferred the sound of dynamic mics to condensers, and while I appreciate that they just offer different colours and it's about choosing the right colour for the job, I still really like dynamic mics for vocals!”
Modern classics finding space in the racks included some well-loved workhorses. Spotted in the studio after the sessions were a Shure Vocal Master, chunky Musitronics Mu-Tron Bi-Phase phaser pedal, plus Roland SH-101, Roland Juno-60 and Hohner Clavinet D6 keyboards. The Akai MPC2000 almost looked out of place in its flash modernity.
The Black Seeds are a kick-ass live band, and although there was a certain amount of trickery and surgery on the computer, the raw material is real songs and real jams cooked up by a band doing what it does best. Being both engineer and a member of the band presented its own problems, especially since the studio didn't have a control room.
“It was challenging. I couldn't hear what I was doing much of the time and wouldn't notice problems until I'd play something back later with fresh ears. But as a musician, I get bored if I just have to sit in a control room and record other people having all the fun. So while it sucks not being able to hear what you're doing properly, it's quite nice to be really close to the music.”
And as a musician, Mike is aware of how unnerving playing in a studio can be and wanted to do away with headphones for monitoring.
“Which I wasn't quite able to do! I had Jarney and Tim (drums and bass) in a room off the main studio, and they had headphones – but I don't think they minded. Everyone else was in the main room, and we got a balance between the levels of the amps in the room and just ran a little bit of drums and bass back through the monitors into the room.”
Some baffling and heavy curtains were called into play but it was essentially a matter of balancing the players – turning amps up or down – and what their various mics were picking up.
The result was much fewer overdubs than on previous albums. Adding vocals during the live recordings would have added another layer of complexity but since writing was ongoing during the sessions, lyrics weren't necessarily finished. Vocals were thus overdubbed, as was a bit of extra percussion, and the horn parts.
“That's what we've done in the past; it's just easier with those tricky acoustic instruments!”
The final mixes for ‘Dust and Dirt’ were passed through the main desk at Lee Prebble's studio The Surgery, which has hosted the Seeds on numerous sessions in the past.
“Often when I'm setting the stuff up and it's all going well, I just love it. It's got to the stage where if I go without recording anything for a while it's the same as if I haven't played music for a while. I just start hanging out for putting some mics in front of a drum kit!”
To celebrate the release of 'Dust And Dirt', The Black Seeds will play nine shows across the country, kicking off in Dunedin this Thursday. We have a Double Pass to the show of your choice to give away.
For your chance to WIN, simply email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line 'Dust And Dirt'.
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