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Juno-Worthy Workflows Series: Ben Kaplan on Recording Five Alarm Funk & Ninjaspy

Ben KaplanAn abbreviated version of this interview originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Professional Sound magazine.

By Michael Raine

As anyone in the pro audio and music industry knows, sometimes the people behind the console have a more interesting perspective on the music than the musicians themselves. Ahead of the 2018 Juno Awards, which were handed out on March 24th and 25th in Vancouver, Professional Sound caught up with this year’s five nominees for Recording Engineer of the Year.

In these candid conversations, each engineer shares the behind-the-scenes stories of how the pair of songs they’re nominated for came together and how each found its distinctive sound.

Ben Kaplan

Nominated for:

“Widowmaker” by Five Alarm Funk from Sweat

“Speak” by Ninjaspy from Spüken

PS: For “Widowmaker” by Five Alarm Funk, what was the song like when the band brought it to you in the studio?

Ben Kaplan: From a production standpoint, those guys have the songs together, for the most part. So my role as a producer in that sense becomes more of sonic producer. For certain songs on that one, they’d already been toured a bit as well. They tend to want to get those songs out on the road first before they get them into the studio. So they work out the arrangements and all the parts and stuff beforehand. There is certainly an element of things that happen in the studio, but it’s more so on the sonic front; like what mics to use and are we going to go for a room sound or a tight drum sound or big distorted [sound] and all that stuff.

In fact, for both of those bands, [Five Alarm Funk and Ninjaspy,] or both of those songs anyway, they’re real eclectic arrangements. Certainly not pop arrangements. So both of those bands sort of put together the songs and then it becomes my job to execute the sonic integrity of it all.

PS: For “Widowmaker,” sonically speaking, did the band give you a reference of what kind of vibe they wanted?

SweatBK: I mean, I guess going into it I was kind of hearing some kind of a ‘70s car chase or something, you know what I mean? But, you know, so from a recording standpoint, we went to tape – we did it at The Warehouse in Vancouver so it had anything we wanted to use from a mic standpoint. We used the Neve Air Custom [A6630] on that. That console itself, I mean, you don’t have to do much on that thing, you just push up the faders. I was just there a couple days ago with Mother Mother and was talking to one of the guys who is also a budding engineer himself and he was asking about the board. I was like, “Man, I got to tell you about this console. You put anything through this and you push up the faders and you’re fucking done!” There is nothing you got to do! It’s unbelievable, that thing. Every time I go back there I always shake my head, like, “Wow, this thing is unbelievable.”

So that had a major role in what everything sounded like. But you know, I ended up using quite a few ribbon mics for room mics and I even used Coles on the overheads. I didn’t want a particularly over-the-top modern sound, per se, even though it’s still a modern sounding track, I think, but it’s still got a retro vibe going on. It’s kind of crunchy and kind of saturated, which had a lot to do with the tape and the console.

PS: Was this a live recording or was everything recorded individually?

BK: The way we record with those guys is the band comes in and does the track and then we redo what we want. When we do those records with those guys, I mean, they’re a live band and they’re just kick ass live. But when we go into the studio, we’re not there to make a live record, we’re there to make a studio record. So on one hand, that being said, from the first time I saw those guys it was like, “How do I get that energy and that bravado and that juggernaut of a sound coming at your face and how do we get that on tape?”

Part of that is getting them to play live, obviously, so we don’t use a click – with both those bands actually. Whenever we can, I don’t use a click. If I get a band in there that knows how to play, I will 9.9 times out of 10 not use a click because I love that push and pull and up and down and that’s what those guys are all about. You put a click on those guys and it’s lost. It’s not there anymore. So although we did do overdubs, from the ground up it’s a live performance. But we do go back and hone in parts and make sure the tuning is good and the timing and all that stuff. But it’s got push and pull through that whole thing. It’s a remixer’s nightmare, right? We sent a few of these out to remixers and they’re just like, “What the fuck, man? This isn’t to a click.” It’s like, “Well, there’s a click but it’s moving like the ocean, man,” and they hate that!

That is just one of my things, unless I’m doing a straight up pop record where, really, it is part of that sound. But if I’m doing a band, that’s a big thing. I love that push. Like you do a little break or something like that and it just slows down, even just a BPM or two, and it slingshots back in after that. I love that stuff. That is what I think a lot of records these days, particularly in the pop world, it’s just straight up gridded drums to perfectly one tempo and it really loses that sort of movement that is really hard to fake. That is a major part of it.

PS: This is such a dynamic song with a lot going on instrumentally, but there is really good definition between the instruments. Everything sits really comfortably and clearly in the mix…

BK: Thank you.

PS: So was this a difficult song to mix? How were you able to thread that balance between on the parts so well?

BK: Well, it’s not so much that it’s a difficult mix to do, but those [Five Alarm Funk] records, I’ve done a few of them now, they typically take longer than other records. Even when I’m recording it, right, it’s like, “OK, I’ll put away this amount of time” and even in my mind I’m always thinking four or five guys, right? A typical rock band scenario. But then I think, “Oh fuck, there’s like eight or nine guys in this band. Fuck, I need more time.” That also does affect the mix as well. It’s not so much that it was a harder mix, but I do end up spending more time on it for that very reason. It’s a longer mix than most.

But how do I get it in there? The way I mix is, like most guys, you start with broad strokes and kind of get the vibe going and then really get into that critical listening stage where it’s not so much fun. I kind of have fun for the first couple hours. You know, I turn it up really loud and I’m in there and I’m being kind of ridiculous with how loud it is but I’m having fun with it, you know what I mean? I get the vibe going and then it’s time to really do the work. Then you turn it right down and do the actual critical listening stuff. So I spend a lot of time on my Auratones and have a little Bose system on the side and I have a whole bunch of different references and I spend a lot of time going back and forth on those. Probably more than a typical rock or pop mix, I’m going back and forth a lot because there are so many different elements in there and each one of these guys is so important to the whole sound that I do spend a lot more time on these mixes than, perhaps, on any other rock or pop scenario.

PS: Is it a very different approach to mixing for an instrumental track like this compared to a typical rock or pop track with vocals?

Ben KaplanBK: A little bit because usually when I start a mix with vocals, I get those vocals in pretty fast. For me personally, I typically start with drums and vocals and bass pretty quick and that is the anchor of everything and then everything else fills out the sides, kind of thing. But with these guys, to me, although some of their songs have some vocals in it but they’re not really a feature, so the horns become the feature. The horns are kind of the vocals for these guys, and to some degree the drums. When these guys play live, Tayo [Branston] is out front. He’s not in the back like where with most bands, the drummer is in the back and everybody else is in front. But all the percussion guys, the drummer, Tom [Towers] the conga player, and Ricki [Valentine] the percussionist, they’re out front and everybody else is in the back.

So even when you listen to the mix, the drums are pretty far out front by design. So it’s really like the drums and the horns and then everybody else comes along with it. That is different from a vocal mix, which I would typically have that vocal in there pretty quick.

PS: As far as mics, particularly on the horns, do you remember what you were using?

BK: Yeah, I used ribbons on the brass and pretty sure it was a Royer 101 on the trumpet and the on the sax, actually, I believe I used an [AKG] 414. But ribbons on the brass all the way. That is pretty standard.

PS: Anything else interesting or unusual to add about recording “Widowmaker”?

BK: Well, I think the big thing is that console at the Warehouse, which I’m sure you guys have talked about before. That was the console that was built for George Martin, right.  That Neve on the second floor was one of three made for George Martin and then long story short, Bryan [Adams] got one of them and it’s lived there for 20 years now.

That is definitely a very important part of that record is that console. Like I said, as far as EQ and compression and any processing that I did, there is not a lot going on there on the record side of things. Maybe a little bit of high-passing here and there, but through the console to tape and, you know, some minor compression on the drums and stuff like that, but nothing outrageous. I mean, what you’re really hearing is that console and tape machine and the band and really nothing getting in the way of it. I think that’s always been the way we start with those guys is really about the band and not about studio trickery. There is not a lot of effects and stuff like that. There are records I’ve done with those guys, like there is a record before called Abandon Earth, which is slightly opposite where we were going and really cinematic and full-on over-the-top as far as some of the effects and throwing 808 bombs in there and stuff like that. But really, the story as far as the sound of that record has a lot to do with that console. I just love that thing. I could on and on about it.

PS: To move on to “Speak” by Ninjaspy, first, what studio were in for that one?

BK: That one was at my studio, Fader Mountain Sound, which is the old Little Mountain Sound.

PS: From what I know about them, Ninjaspy have been around quite a while but this was their first or second record?

SpukenBK: We did an album called Pi Nature about nine years ago that wasn’t commercially successful by any means, but their fans love these guys. They have a pretty good cult following but they’re by no means new.  But these guys are musicians. I always call them “samurais.” They’re three brothers from a very musical family and they’re all samurais at their instruments. Like, they’re the best of the best. Adam [Parent] is a phenomenal drummer and Tim is a phenomenal bass player and Joel, you know, singing and guitar player, these guys’ favourite band is Steely Dan, you know what I mean?

I remember one time we were up at the studio and mom and dad and the sister came by and it was after dinner or something and Joel picked up a guitar and the next thing you know, these guys are singing four- and five-part harmonies; like the whole family! It’s like mom, you know, has degrees in music and teaches classical flute and this, that, and the other.

So it’s interesting with a band like that how they push each other. Whereas with typical bands they’re like, “Hey man, you know that thing you’re doing there? Do you mind if you do a B flat rather than a B?” These guys are like, “You asshole! You fucked that up again!” They push each other and push, push, push. So these guys have become so good at their instrument. So, by no means are they new to the studio but those guys, as well, have a pretty great idea of where they want to go with the music and it is by no means a pop format.

The song “Speak” that we’re talking about, as far as a structure of a song, is probably the most normal of the bunch. When you get into some of their other stuff, it’s out there. When I’m finding my cue markers and stuff like that, it not – verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge. It’s like, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K and all the way down the alphabet.

PS: Was this song fully arranged when they brought it to you?

BK: For the most part, although I did that record with Garth [Richardson] and Garth did help them out with some of the arrangements as well. But for the most parts, because it’s so out there, a lot of the arrangements were there but on a few of those songs that we were considering “singles” there was a little bit more thought as far as the arrangement, which was addressed early on in pre-production.

PS: Were you guys deciding on a vibe for this song and was that informing the mic and outboard choice?

BK: Not really, man. I mean, he has a really big kit. Like four or five toms and cymbals everywhere and so I was kind of going for a little bit of everything on that. In other words, it was a pretty big mic set up. Covering my bases really. Whereas on the Five Alarm record I used a lot of ribbon mics – I think I used some Coles in a room [with Ninjaspy] and kind of thing, and that’s a pretty typical thing I do as everybody does – but there wasn’t much more than that as far as ribbon mics go. So, it was definitely a more modern – for lack of a better term – approach to the miking. If you saw a picture of the drums, you’d probably think it was a little over the top. You know, double miking the toms and they got to be big and then close mics and far room mics. I might of, I think, at one point I had a mic in the fabled Little Mountain loading bay to get some of the big snare shots.

Guitar wise, it was pretty straight up. You know, 57/421 combo throughout, but we had a guitar splitter, several different amps all running at once. It wasn’t a big stack of guitar, per se. in other words, we weren’t layering guitar over guitar to get that big wall of guitar sound, but I think we did one or two guitars and then within those guitars I think we had three or four amps running cabinets for each sound.

PS: The vocals are very at the forefront and they’re pretty dynamic, especially between the chorus and verse. What was the vocal chain and were you doing multiple takes with a different vocal chain between the chorus and verse?

BK: Well Joel is such an aggressive vocalist for the most part. I mean, the verses are kind of tamed down. So when you get a vocalist screaming like that, that is a [Shure] SM7 all the way. That’s the mic for that kind of thing. I wouldn’t stray too far away from that. Now, Garth did a lot of those vocals and I know that he likes to use a couple [Teletronix] LA-3As in tandem, one limiting and one compressing. But the heavy lifting is done by the SM7 for sure.

PS: Was this an analog mix or in-the-box?

BK: I do a hybrid set up. So I have a Neve summing mixer, Neve 5059, and then mix bus is all analog and then I have outboard gear that I use that’s analog. Of course, in the in-the-box side, I use a ton of UAD plug-ins and whatnot.

PS: What was your approach to the mix on “Speak” and what was the defining characteristic of your mix on it?

BK: That’s a good question. I can’t remember! It’s funny, man, I don’t always have an idea of where I’m going with these mixes. I’d like to say, “Well I was inspired by the blah, blah, blah…” but really I can’t. I just get in there and do it and with these guys, we’ve got four different elements, including the vocal, guitar, bass, and drums, and all four of those elements are massively important to the overall sound of these guys. All four of those have to sound like a truck coming through your living room. So really what it came down to is, similar to the Five Alarm thing, I’ll go over and over and over and focus on each instrument and make sure that one is not trampling over the other and each one is at the forefront.

With these guys, I didn’t find it particularly hard because there are not a lot of overdubs going on in the sense of layers. There are not a lot of keyboards going on and there are not a lot of pads, like stuff kind of clouding up the mix. It’s essentially a power trio. So I guess when we’re talking about approach to the mix, I guess that was the approach. You know, make it sound like three guys, bigger than life, but still those four elements have to be paramount and not getting lost in the overall slick production of it all. It’s got to be raw and it’s got to be in your face. Besides some vocal effects in there, the rest of it is pretty dry and in your face and that has always been the case with those guys.

PS: Anything else that stands out about recording “Speak”?

BK: Again, no click for those guys. Very important with them and, like I said, with their other songs, they’re all over the place. Even if I wanted to implement a click, it would take way too long to program it, number one, and number two, it would handcuff them and it wouldn’t sound like the band. They’re all over the place, again, by design.

I’ll tell you my favourite vocal compressor that I use pretty much all the time is the [ADR] Compex Vocal Stresser, the F769X, which is a pretty tough piece of gear to find.

PS: What does that give you?

BK: It’s got this spitty, aggressive compression. It’s not clean, it’s not pretty, it’s so in your face and so nasty. It’s not unlike an 1176 with the buttons all pressed in. It’s in that realm, but it’s also got this EQ on it. They recently came out with a plug-in that’s pretty cool, but there is something that this thing does and it’s almost one of those pieces of gear where it’s just got this thing it does. Even on drums it’s incredible. But it lives on my vocal chain as far as the mix goes in pretty much anything.

PS: Just one of those things that’s imperfect in the perfect way?

BK: Exactly. And, you know, I’ve used a few of them and none of them are really the same. They do kind of the same thing but how you get there on each one of them differs greatly. They’re all kind of calibrated differently or whatever. Sometimes the input doesn’t work or whatever, but if you get it right in the sweet spot, it just takes that vocal and slams it right in your face. It’s unmistakable. It is my desert island piece of gear for sure. I love that thing.

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