Daniel Freedman: Percussionist, Composer & World Traveler

Percussionist, drummer and composer Daniel Freedman’s latest album, Bamako by Bus, on Anzik Records, was recently mastered at Masterdisk. I wanted to find out Daniel’s tricks of the trade, but it turns out there are no tricks. Hard work plus talent got him where he is today. We chatted on the phone the other day, here’s what he had to say about making music, New York, and travel.

Q:What’s it like to be a working musician?

A:It’s a challenge of course! I have always done a variety of things to get by, but as long as I am doing music….  I used to play for afro cuban dance classes, modern dance sometimes Alvin Ailey or Martha Graham as well as playing a lot of gigs.  At the time I wanted to learn more percussion, so dance classes were perfect.  Things come organically… in 2000 I got in to the home studio thing and I started recording more and more things, and some people asked me to write for picture and produce tracks for them.  The past several years I’ve been on the road a lot and I try to balance playing and producing. My advice is to stay open, because you may have to do many different things.  Very few musicians only play the music that they want to play in order to make a living. That said, I still try to put my head in the sand and do music that I want to do.  

Q:Easier said than done.

A:Setting up the environment so that you can stick your head in the sand and work is so helpful.  Same goes for practicing. Time is so limited I have to get right to it. Also I guess I rely less and less on inspiration these days and just get to work until something sticks.

Deep Brooklyn by Daniel Freedman

Q:How did Bamako by Bus evolve as a project?

A:The song “Darfur” was created years before and then we finished it live. I thought about which musicians I really loved and I wrote with their voices in mind.  It’s different from other records I have done, it started off as a project with Avishai Cohen: I would create bass lines and grooves and then he would improvise over them and we would edit the pieces into songs.  I could never seem to finish, and I asked Meshell Ndegeocello if she would be into playing on some of our sketches and she was enthusiastic about it.  So two tracks were done at my house, and then we finished the rest in the studio. Jason Lindner helped a great deal, he’s a master of harmony and form, but everyone was really helpful. There was direction, but with that level of musicians it’s great to leave things open.

Q:And production-wise, how did that go?

A:Jean-Luc Sinclair mixed the record at my house.  We then took it to Michael Perez Cisneros‘ studio and he helped give it a more analogue feeling. Matt Agoglia mastered it and is a real pro; he had a musical quality to his approach and was generous with his time.

Q:Do you think growing up in NYC gave you good opportunities as a musician?

A:Growing up in New York seems to have chosen my musical direction for me in a way.   My father Joel played on a bunch of free jazz records in the ’60s and my uncle Alan is a great guitar player. He’s on a ton of records. My uncle is the rocker so he got me Marley and Prince records. Also hiphop and breakdancing was such a huge thing in New York and I was into that. I discovered my father’s record collection when I was about 12 and fell in love with Art Blakey and Coltrane records. Going to Laguardia High School was a really pivotal time for me. Many of the students there were already working musicians around town and I knew that’s what I wanted to do as well.

Q:How do you like writing music for pictures?

A:Its almost always fun for me and certainly takes a different sensibility.  My mother is a painter and my grandparents were as well.  I wanted to be a painter myself before I found the drums. Writing for pictures requires that the music serve the picture first of all; that brings the emotion of what you’re viewing to life.  But you’re limited, especially with commercial work, you have a very short turn around time and it has to sound great right away.   

Q:Listening to this album it’s clear you’ve done some traveling; where have you been so far?

A:I always felt a connection to all different music from around the world, and New York is such a great place to be if you are into hearing and experiencing so many different cultures. I also felt that hearing/experiencing music at its source would be incredibly helpful. I had maybe a dozen “study” trips: Mali, Egypt, Cuba, Brazil, Morocco, and Senegal come to mind. Jazz of course lends itself to using almost anything that you can find and with groups like Third World Love, we have been doing this for a while, bringing these influences into jazz or whatever you want to call it.  This isn’t new. Duke Ellington was doing that kind of thing way before I was born! But all those sounds and experiences influence my writing and playing. I try not to make it too deliberate but have it inform my general language and vocabulary.

Q:Did you pick up any traditional forms in your travels?

A:There are so many sounds that I heard around the world and loved. Sabar is one, senegalese percussion…mostly really fierce stick and hand.  Jeff Ballard showed me some of that way back.  Recently, I’ve been playing with Angelique Kidjio’s band and the percussionist is Senegalese, so it’s been great to hear that sound consistently on the road and learn more about it.  I always was moved by music when it was in front of me and loud! And I always wanted to experience music by being next to it and feeling it. You know, to play jazz you eventually have to come to New York, so I felt that it would help me in a similar way to go to Africa, Cuba etc…To sit next to the real thing and hear how loud and powerful it really is. In New York I used to hear Elvin Jones, Art Taylor and Billy Higgins all the time and there is nothing that can replace sitting next to the person making the music and soaking it in. Those trips charge my battery and I need to recharge every so often. I’m looking forward to going to West Africa again this winter.

Koolarrow Records Masters La Plebe’s New Album with Matt Agoglia

La Plebe is one of the pillars of the bilingual community in the Bay Area. Their most recent album, “Brazo en Brazo” (“Arm in Arm”) was released on Koolarrow Records in 2010 on CD and vinyl, and mastered by Matt Agoglia.

La Plebe was formed in 2001, “among friends who liked to listen to music, drink beer and smoke things,” says trumpeter Antonio Cuellar, in an interview in AMP Magazine (American Music Press).

The interesting thing for me is the music, the angst-y-ness of it, the horn-driven lines, and it’s easy to imagine a mosh-pit with this music; Mick Jones of The Clash even appeared on stage at a concert in London in 2008 to sing “Guns of Brixton.” What could be better?

Their songs also have a social awareness aspect with titles like “Siempre Unidos,” (Always Together) “Guerra Sucia” (Dirty War) and “Venas Abiertas” (Open Veins). And then there’s the song “Been Drinkin'” which speaks for itself.  Because these guys have experienced discrimination in their lives, they champion the cause of La Raza against ICE raids in the Bay Area and around the country, and they also have something to say about border politics around the world. With the influence of their producer Billy Gould, a lasting member of Faith No More, who has traveled extensively in the Balkans, the union of musical influences is actually electrifying (no pun intended).

Photo of La PlebeCuellar says that “the fact that we have the ability to express ourselves in two languages… has definitely allowed us to reach a wider audience. However, I will also say that we have often played in places where the spoken language was neither Spanish nor English and still received a gracious response from the locals at the show. So hopefully, it is the international language of music, along with our deep love and appreciation for what it means to be part of a group, that makes us stand out.”

La Plebe seem to really enjoy what they do, and this is a good parameter for success in my book. Cuellar says he especially enjoys playing in small towns in California, such as Chico, Oxnard, Watsonville and Salinas, and some of his favorite cities around the world include Mexico City, Belgrade, Berlin, Skopje (Macedonia), Pozega (Croatia), Bucharest (Romania) Sofia (Bulgaria) and the area of ​​Brittany in France.

The band’s writing process is an exchange of melodies, riffs, rhythms and lyrics thrown around between members.They never know if the song will be in English or Spanish until they write the lyrics; and they’ve even attempted to write lyrics in Italian.

Tips for other bands now trying to survive and thrive? Cuellar says “work hard and try your best to be earnest in what you do. Don’t take gestures of kindness for granted and don’t encourage any feelings of entitlement. Mix all that with a few parts vodka and make sure that you all stay alive on tour. That should be a good start, or continuation, for any functioning band.”

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Masterdisk Presents: First You Get the Sugar

Masterdisk Presents First You Get the Sugar Graphic

First You Get the Sugar is an exciting young band from Montreal who are building an impressive career through sheer hard work, talent and positive energy. Their first, self-titled album was mastered here at Masterdisk by Andy VanDette last year, and it’s a powerful, polished statement of power-pop and classic rock intent. Not “classic rock” so much in terms of the genre, but “classic” in terms of offering those key elements we all look for in great rock: excitement, hooks, and maybe a touch of danger. The band made a big impression on us here at the studio not only through their music, but by their friendliness and positive attitude. Since that first album, First You Get the Sugar recorded three songs at the Converse Rubber Tracks studio in Brooklyn and brought them to Andy for mastering — all in a whirlwind three-day period. One of those songs is attached below. I hooked up with the band’s drummer, Daniel Moscovitch, on Facebook to discuss the band’s career so far. If you’re in Toronto for NXNE you can catch the band tonight at the Wrongbar.

Dan, thanks for taking some time for the Masterdisk blog. OK, let’s go through some basic dates… when did the band form & how did you meet?

Photo of First You Get the SugarAdam [Kagan] and Mick [Mendelsohn] formed the band in 2007. I answered a Craigslist ad, and it turned out that it was posted by their temporary lead guitarist at the time who I was actually good friends with, so I went to see them play at a club here in Montreal. By the end of the next week, I still had some of the hooks stuck in my head, so I went in for a meeting and right away we all knew it was a great fit. We spent the next year or so honing our sound and looking for a permanent lead guitarist, and that is where Alex [Silver] came in. He was actually a fan of ours, who we hung out with. We brought him in for an audition in January ’09, and we’ve been family ever since.

When did you make your first recordings?

Right after Alex joined us we knew it was time to make an album. One of my closest friends and long-time musical colleague of mine, Adam Stotland, came on as co-producer. He had just finished building a studio in his house, so the timing was perfect, and in April 09 we settled into his studio and hit the ground running.

What was the studio setup?

It was very simple. Good mics, through a very transparent Allen & Heath board into Samplitude. Most of the guitars were amped with a Fender Concert 4×10 cranked for natural breakup, and we also experimented a lot with a sweet vintage Leslie cab. We did a lot of layering, and luckily had all the time we needed to develop parts and build the songs from the ground up.

How long did you take to record?

Recording went through until about January 2010. At that point, we spent a lot of time making sure every second of every song was arranged the way we wanted it, and were looking for someone to do the mix. We finally decided on Glen Robinson, who splits his time between Montreal and NYC. He’s a truly amazing engineer with a custom gear list that is basically staggering. Fully customized old-school Neve comps and EQ’s, UA limiters, basically a dream setup. We had done zero mixing on our own before Glen got his hands on our work, so when we got the first ‘balances,’ our minds were blown by how much life Glen was able to breathe into the recording with his skill and gear.

With the mix in hand, I consulted a heavyweight producer in L.A. who I had become friends with over the internet. He was the one who recommended Andy VanDette for the mastering of the album. This was a no-brainer, and in August 2010 our debut album entered Masterdisk for 5 hours, and left ready for the world.

What kind of pre-production did you do, if any?

For our first album, pre-production was really centered around arrangement. We worked at our rehearsal space to get everything tightened up so we could be super-efficient when we were recording later. We did that for the Rubber Tracks recording as well, and it was even more important because of the way we recorded there compared to our first album. I have a nice little project setup at home with an M-Audio Profire 2626 and we laid down the tunes with a drum machine and recorded all the parts one by one into Ableton Live on my computer. It was very bare-bones. From a personal standpoint, it was that pre-production process at my house in 2009 that really gave me the bug to want to learn all I can about mixing, mastering and production in general.

How did you guys hook up with Converse?

When we released our album, we did all we could to publicize it. Converse Music Blog heard our album and decided to do a writeup on it and an interview with Mick from the band. When it was published, and I went to read it, I noticed on their site all the ads for their brand new recording program at Rubber Tracks in Brooklyn. I clicked the links and ended up signing us up an a whim. I specifically remember saying to the guys that I signed us up for this thing that would be amazing, but it’s probably a massive long-shot. Which it was, because a TON of artists signed up for it. When the email came in saying we were accepted, we just could not believe it. We’re always working on new stuff, so we had great material ready to go, And not only that, they were bringing in CNN and MTV to follow us through our 2-day session at the studio. [Check out the Converse video story at CNN/Money.]

What was the recording experience like there?

As far as approaches to recording goes, this experience at Rubber Tracks was a complete 180 degree turn from how we recorded our debut album. Our album took about a year-and-a-half to track, mix and master. At rubber tracks we had 2 days to record and mix 3 full songs. An ambitious endeavor to say the least! We put most of the music down live off the floor on the first day, and got all the vocals, guitar solos, and mixing finished on day two. This studio that Converse has is as world-class as it gets. Brand new API console, Fairchilds, Neves and all the goodies anyone could ever dream of. Tons of incredible instruments to choose from thanks to Guitar Center. Our engineer was Grammy-winning Geoff Sanoff, a real heavy hitter, and he is someone we would want to work with again any day. He really understood what we were going for and has the coolest and calmest demeanor, absolutely necessary for the pressure cooker we had been thrown into. Aaron Bastinelli is Rubber Tracks’ in-house engineer and a genius in his own right, and he acted as Mr. Sanoff’s right hand the entire time. Between him and Mr. Sanoff, we were in insanely capable hands, and we could really just focus on performance and leave the production to the masters. We left Rubber Tracks and came straight across town the next day to have Andy VanDette perform the mastering duties. Recording, mixing and mastering in the span of 3 days was a thrill of a lifetime. Definitely unforgettable.

Back to your first album — did you do the promotion yourselves or did you have help?

PR is a tough game. We hired the best publicist available for the budget we had at the time, and she turned out to do an amazing job. I’d recommend this approach to anyone. The press contacts that I have made over the years are great, but we’d have never come close to the same reach without some professional 3rd party help. The expense paid for itself and then some, to say the least. Of course, there’s never a guarantee of success when a publicist is brought in, so we were lucky that we had great songs that were recorded mixed and of course mastered to a level of world-class sound. All of this can be daunting to a band doing this for the first time, but if you dig really hard then affordable solutions are always waiting. My mantra for finding the right people to work with was this: irrespective of budget, start at the top and work your way down until you find someone that fits your budget. That way you’l get the best people to work with possible without selling yourself short. You’ll always be surprised by the amazing people that will come to your aid if you have the balls to ask.

Have all of the Converse tunes been released now?

So far, we’ve released two out of the three songs we recorded at Rubber Tracks as digital singles (on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, etc). We released “Pearson” in January and “Hannah” in March. The third single is called “No Surprise” and we’re going to put it out sometime soon. We have very cool ideas for the third release, which will most likely include a physical manifestation but the plans are still under wraps. I definitely know that when the time comes, you guys will be the first to know.

Excellent! Well, my final question is about the future of First You Get the Sugar. What are your plans?

The part of this job that I love the most is that in the spaces between our deliberate plans, amazing surprises pop up. All along with this band, I’ve found that if we keep pushing forward with baby steps, we keep growing. Especially looking back on the last year, we have made amazing strides, so many great things have happened that I could have never predicted. It’s really exciting to think about the year ahead and all that it might bring with it.

Tell me about your upcoming gigs.

We’re playing this Friday, June 15 at the NXNE festival in Toronto. Our set is at 8pm as part of the Converse City Carnage Showcase series at The Wrongbar. It’s going to be an insane night, we’re sharing the bill with Uncle Bad Touch, DZ Deathrays, the Death Set and Bass Drum Of Death.

In the Fall, we’ll be back in Toronto for Indie Week, and we are really hoping to be a part of CMJ in New York this fall too. Somewhere along the way this year, it would also be great to get back into a studio and record all the new material we’ve been working on.

Visit First You Get the Sugar online: http://www.firstyougetthesugar.com/

First You Get the Sugar on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/FirstYouGetTheSugar

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Inda Eaton’s “Go West,” and How To Choose a Mastering Engineer

Photo of Inda Eaton in ConcertInda Eaton is a globe-trotting singer-songwriter-performer-bandleader now based in eastern Long Island. Her music has found favor with fans of rock ‘n’ roll, country, and acoustic music all over the world since she started touring behind her first album “Thin Fine Line” in 1996. Her latest album, “Go West,” was recorded by Cynthia Daniels at Monk Music Studios and mastered by Randy Merrill and is set for release on June 15, 2012. Inda took some time out of her busy pre-release schedule to fill us in on some of the details of her new project.

Hi Inda, thanks for taking some time for The Masterdisk Record. That’s a great video you have on your site on the recording of your new album [below]. I like how you’ve talked about the music as illustrating a feeling of anticipation — of something new coming up “around the bend.”

I try to be in the moment – but I can’t help but think that there’s something greater around the corner…it’s quite possibly an American thing.

You worked with (engineer and studio owner) Cynthia Daniels on “Go West” — how did you choose to work with her on this project?

Cynthia is a good friend and kick ass engineer who had just finished her state-of-the-art John Storyk studio in time to track “Go West.” Cynthia and Eve Nelson (piano/co-producer) had worked together on Chaka Khan’s ClassiKhan album and have a great working relationship. “Go West” has Cynthia’s fingerprints all over it. A great engineer cannot be overlooked: the vibe, the room, the competence. Cynthia has seen it all. We were in great hands. Beyond that – we had a great time.

How long have the songs on “Go West” been around?

“Go West” was written in three writing chunks with the last song being completed on the morning of the first day of tracking. Most of the songs had live “show life” to let them breathe. I taped every live show for the past three years to listen back for the cool stuff that only happens in the moment. I came to the conclusion that we needed to track all the songs live in a live room. There’s no substitute for musicians tracking together, looking at each other, feeling each other out and playing the energy. All of the songs were written with live, seemingly out-of-control performance energy in mind.

Cover art for Inda Eaton's Go West albumThat’s an interesting process — taping all the shows and learning from them. A very methodical way of seeking out something that’s very wild and hard to capture. Are you more methodical or spur-of-the-moment as an artist?

I’m more spur-of-the-moment improv with a great blueprint in the background. I prepare and analyze, but when on the stage – it will be what it will be. I didn’t know this when I was younger. Now I get it – it’s freeing. “Go West” is a direct result of controlled chaos.

How did you choose Randy Merrill to master “Go West?”

When I came back from mixing the tracks at Eve Nelson’s studio in LA – we needed a mastering engineer and didn’t know where to begin. The recommendations were flying around, but they didn’t fit the project. Other than sitting in on some sessions for past projects, I didn’t really know much about mastering and so I ended up charting the history of mastering since 1973 and came up with the coaching tree. I found out that many of the original mastering gurus are still working and the the history traces back to very simple roots. In an ideal world – I wanted someone from the 2nd generation of mastering engineers that I could relate to with a mutual understanding and respect for creating an album – not a collections of songs on a disk. I found Randy Merrill immediately on the Masterdisk website and then his name kept popping up on blogs/chats about mastering. From there we had a discussion about the intention of the music and our shared background of growing up with albums…I knew he was the right one. Randy knocked it out of the park. I truly believe that he is heading toward the path of mastering guru for our generation. I’m glad that I got in the door early.

I wish everybody approached finding a mastering engineer the way you did! Honestly, that’s one of the best stories I’ve heard. So what’s next on your schedule? The album release is set for June 15 — is there a tour? Promotions?

Currently we are about to launch a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to sell pre-orders, house concerts and all kinds of value to get the promotion off the ground. Our next official date is June 15th for the release and concert out here in Amagansett at the Stephen Talkhouse. We were just out west in Wyoming for a sneak preview at the prison, schools, clubs and art council – the response was overwhelming. This summer is all about spreading the word with shows, radio, print, handshakes, hugs and barbeques. The ‘Go West’ release will be as organic as it was created. ‘Studio to Stage’…’Go West’ is all about the live interaction.

Visit Inda on the web at indaeaton.com.
Inda on Facebook: facebook.com/inda.eaton

A Visit to Satori Shiraishi’s “Happydom”

Satori Shiraishi may not be well known outside of Japan, but in that country he is a top composer, arranger and producer. Among his accomplishments is producing the band Orange Range (Sony-Japan) which has sold over 10 million CDs. We were lucky to get to work on Satori’s album Happydom through Scott Hull‘s longtime client Atsushi “Sushi” Kosugi, who was the musical director on the project.

Photo of Satori Shiraishi
Satori Shiraishi

Sushi is a Japanese-American record producer based in New York. He runs Beat On Beat Inc., which is a full service production company specializing in recording projects. If you need to get the right musicians for a project — and the best musicians — Sushi is your man.

You could probably best describe Satori’s Happydom as pop-soul with some rock and funk mixed in and a touch of a retro, 70s vibe. There’s a lot of joy in these tracks, as well as passion and commitment. And the music is presented with world-class production values: recording sessions took place at Avatar (NYC) and Henson (LA) among other top studios.

Cover art of Satori Shiraishi's "Happydom"Sushi assembled an incredible group of musicians for the project. He and Satori discussed who they should get before the project began, and they chose some of the finest musicians in the world. These musicians — Omar Hakim, Will Lee, Vinnie Colaiuta, Nathan East, David Sancious and Ray Parker Jr. (among others) — are Satori’s dream team. Happily, Sushi has worked with each of these greats before and considers them friends. He was able to bring them in for the sessions. When the recording and mixing were done, Scott Hull mastered the album and it was released on Coconut Palm Records in Japan.

You can hear samples of Happydom on Amazon. Or, better yet, check out the NY and LA session footage at Beat on Beat to get a sense of how much fun these sessions were.

Satori always has multiple projects happening in Japan, but we were glad to hear that one of them is his next single, called “Lover’s Soul.” Sushi is always involved in a number of projects. A recent highlight was the album Marica Hiraga Sings with the Duke Ellington Orchestra which was mastered by Scott Hull and released in Japan on April 25.

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A Conversation with Composer Mikel Rouse

Photo of Mikel RouseMikel Rouse is a multi-talented, multi-disciplinary artist who’s been a vital part of the Downtown New York scene for 30 years. He’s done so much work, and such varied work, that it’s a challenge to try to squeeze even part of it into an introduction. So here’s a real whirlwind pass through some career highlights: With his ensemble Broken Consort, Mr. Rouse released several albums including A Walk In the Woods (which was listed as one of The New York Times‘s “Ten Best Records of 1985”). He has written three operas, directed and scored films, created a CDROM library of prepared piano samples from John Cage’s Sonatas & Interludes, scored International Cloud Atlas for multiple iPods set to “shuffle” (commissioned by The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the John Cage Trust and Betty Freeman), toured with a production of Cage’s The Alphabet playing the part of James Joyce, and he has released 29 albums of music.

Boost|False Doors is Mikel’s 30th album — and it’s a double album actually.

Mikel brought Boost|False Doors to Masterdisk’s Matt Agoglia for mastering, and after the project was done Matt brought it to my attention as something “really special.” And he was right — Boost|False Doors is a fascinating collection of music.

A couple of weeks ago Matt brought me into his mastering suite to play me some of the music. We listened to a number of selections (and I have to say it sounded incredible on Matt’s system), and then Matt gave me a copy of the CD to take away and absorb. Because, as Matt told me, the music works as an ALBUM. It’s not just a concatenation of tracks: it’s a thought out experience for the listener; a story with a beginning, middle and end; ups and downs; and a wide spectrum of emotions. These are the kinds of projects Matt likes to work on. His primary interest as a mastering engineer is in the art of the album. And he certainly had a satisfying time working on this one.

Mikel and I had the following discussion via email.

James: Hi Mikel. Good to meet you. Let’s start off with some basic background stuff. Where did you record Boost|False Doors?

Mikel: It was recorded at Center of the Earth. That’s the name of my studio, which during False Doors and Boost was located at 321 West 44th Street in New York.

James: I read in your piece at the Wall Street Journal that it took 960 hours to record Boost|False Doors — that’s over 3 months of 10 hour days! Can you describe a typical day working on this project?

Cover art of Boost False DoorsMikel: For False Doors, it started as a follow up to Corner Loading (Volume 1) which was a solo guitar/vocal record (sort of a country blues approach, hence the title, but with the guitar and vocal often doing intricate counter rhythms). So I recorded the guitar and lead vox live. But then it seemed to want some other stuff, like the prepared piano samples (I produced a John Cage Prepared Piano Sample library in 2000 — so I like to use those samples). Then it seemed to want mellotron. Then, quite a backwards way to work: drums and percussion. So I recorded the drums at 321 [West 44th Street] with Rob Shepperson, my old band-mate from Tirez Tirez. Now, I really exaggerated the tempos cause I thought it was gonna be a solo recording. So this presented a challenge. But it ended up giving the recording a funky loping feeling, similar to those 60s recordings that sometimes laid rhythm tracks after the songwriter had recorded his parts. I like that sound, as it’s odd and could only be done in a studio.

Boost is just the opposite (except for the unique sound of steel guitar with beats) and is a pure sonic electronic sequenced record. It uses all the kinds of sound so current today, but because of the shifting metric combination, it’s much more musical and interesting, well, at least to me. You might also notice that Boost is dedicated to Ron and Russell Mael of the LA band Sparks. They did some groundbreaking pop music in the 70s including a pop/disco record with Georgio Moeroder.

James: What is your composition process like? Is it connected to the recording process or separate from it?

Mikel: It’s both. A lot of stuff starts with a musical sketch or a lyric snippet. False Doors especially came out of songs in progress or songs composed while walking down the street. Then I fleshed them out. Boost on the other hand it a typical (well, not so typical 😉 ) made-in-the-studio recording. Starting with all of the formulaic beats, changing the metric structures and getting some really hard hitting and solid grooves, and then letting those grooves dictate the guitar and vox. I also continued my interest in sampling conversations (seen in Recess) and using dialog I overheard in cafes and bars. That whole diatribe in “The Movie We’re In” is from our local bar Rudy’s [on 9th Avenue].

James: Matt told me that Boost and False Doors were recorded at separate times and were not initially linked. Can you tell me how they ended up together?

Mikel: Thats correct. I saw False Doors as a recording whose theme revolved around accepting things you can’t change. And obviously, it’s a more organic sounding recording. But as the lyric content of Boost started to develop, I could see them, both lyrically and sonically, as bookends. They kind of reference each other in interesting ways. And I’ve loved the fact that the reviews have been very good thus far, but some people focus more on one disc than the other.

James: What were your primary tools used in recording the albums?

Mikel: Gear. Lots of gear. You can see from the photo [in the CD package]. I swear by the Barefoot monitors. The DW Fearn compressor is my go-to compressor for very clean sounds. And I love the combo of the Cranesong EQ with the Manley EQ. I used 414 mics on the drums. Just two as I wanted to go for that Ringo Star “swoosh compression” sound on the cymbal/bass drum attacks. I’m particularly pleased with that effect. U47 mic for the vocals and acoustic guitar. U87 for steel guitar and percussion.

James: A lot of your music is rhythmically complex, but the complexity is not “difficult” sounding or academic. Nor does it sound “organic” — one gets the impression, rather, of multiple radios or TVs playing different programs at the same time. Can you talk a little about rhythm in your work?

Mikel: I love that you notice that. I’ve always been interested in complexity, but through known vernacular music. So i’d hate it if it sound academic. I would make the argument that it is organic, as I use multiple metric combination to achieve a new kind of harmonic resolution. So think if you have a combination of 3 against 5 against 7. It would take 105 beats for all three permutation to come back together. And if you’re skillful (and lucky) you can make that metric conversion feel like a resolution, in the same way that a I IV V cadence has a harmonic resolution. I’ve been using this technique in pop music for 30 years. You don’t have to understand the mechanics (another reason it’s not simply academic noodling) to feel that something is ‘right’ just as ‘Ti’ resolving to ‘Do’ feels right.

James: I think I didn’t express my thought well in the ‘rhythm’ question, but I love your answer. What I meant by ‘not organic’ is that the rhythmic layers sound intellectually designed, rather than a product of chance or intuition or ‘feel’… they’re too consistently orderly and extended for that to be the case. And yet the result is a very natural “feel” anyway. Having worked with rhythm this way for a long time do you do it ‘off the top of your head’? What is your process of working these rhythms out in your songs?

Mikel: It’s become pretty intuitive now. I actually think of music this way. If I hear a tune on the radio, I’m always harmonizing to it in a different meter. I can play guitar and sing in a totally different meter and it feels natural. Like rubbing your head one way and you stomach the other. So I hear the ‘resultant’ combinations in my head and sort of write them down or program them from that.

James: Can you tell me something about your approach to mixing?

Mikel: I’m going for a very understandable sonic signature. I want the mix to sound clear, like a good pop production. That’s no small challenge, as my mixes are usually incredibly dense with metric information. Even with False Doors, which feels organic and acoustic and open, there’s a ton of metric stuff going on. Check out the acoustic guitar counterpoint in “Blow Dried Bodies.” It all locks together and has a nice warm analog feel to it. But listen closer and you see that the guitars are circling each other. It has to sound as normal as two acoustic guitars playing together even though it’s much more complicated than that. It took me a long time to figure out how to make the mixes non-fatiguing.

James: What led you to choose Masterdisk for mastering?

Mikel: I got to know Matt through the 3 years i was over at 321 W 44th St. [Matt’s mastering suite is down the hall from where Boost|False Doors was recorded.] I liked his very wide knowledge of music. I’d always wanted to do something with him, and as Boost was recorded quickly I thought it would be a great opportunity. He did a test of “Hurdle Rate” which I loved so I had him do the record. Then, when I started thinking about combining Boost|False Doors, I thought it would be great to get his take on False Doors. Also, as the two recordings are somewhat different, I thought a similar sonic stamp from Matt would help bring them together.

James: What are you working on next?

Mikel: Working on a score for a new piece starring the actress Olwen Fouere based on James Joyce text. Also working on a new theater piece with Ben Neill and Bob McGrath called The Demo, based on the 1968 demonstration given by Douglas Englebart which accurately predicted the work of personal computing and the internet. Also and always, working on the next record. Number 31.

Read more about Mikel Rouse at his website www.mikelrouse.com

An Interview with Deolinda and Nelson Carvalho

Photo of Andy VanDette with Deolinda(This post is also available in Spanish.)

Andy VanDette (pictured with the band in the photo to the right) has been mastering music from Portugal and Brazil for years. One of his clients is the quartet Deolinda, who are now on tour in their native Portugal, as well as the UK and Germany, until June. Deolinda is Pedro de Silva Martins, his brother Jose Luis Martins (guitars), their cousin Ana Bacalhau (voice) and her husband Jose Pedro Leitao (bass), and together they play an optimistic and faster-tempoed version of the classically fatalistic fado. Their second album, Dois Selos e Um Carimbo (Two Stamps and a Seal), released in April 2010, hit the Portuguese charts at #1.

I spoke briefly with the band and their producer Nelson Carvalho, who also works with other chart-topping bands in Portugal such as Wraygun, Clâ, Virgem Suta, Sergio Godinho, David Fonseca, Ornatos Violeta, Rita Redshoes, Christina Branco, and others.

MW: How did you find Deolinda?

NC: They chased me for a while. I was not feeling too keen on working on what someone told me sounded like fado. Then I was sent a demo with a very nice booklet and the music was a very refreshing way of playing the old tired Portuguese fado. They knew what they wanted, all of the songs were good, and I connected quite easily with the members of the band.

MW: How is it to be a family quartet? Is the music-making more enjoyable? Or more complicated?

Deolinda: It is quite nice, actually. Being in a band is like being with your second family, because you travel together and go through so many things together. For us, because we are related, the process of getting to know one another, musically and personally, happened way before we were in Deolinda. When the band started everything just went faster and easier. The sound was already there, perhaps because the human connection was already there.

MW: How was this recording different than the first album?

Deolinda: With Dois Selos e Um Carimbo, we wanted to try out new things in terms of song structure, themes and sound, but we also tried to maintain some of the characteristics of our debut album, Canção ao Lado. So we decided to record all the songs live on tape, with all the musicians playing and recording at the same time.

NC: It was a live setup, with clear eye communication between them. Deolinda is more jazz ensemble, and less pop group.

MW: How did you find Andy VanDette?

NC: Pedro Tenreiro, A&R from Valentim’s label, introduced me to him on the first Suzana Felix album we did together. I like how he works and we have built a solid working relationship. He is great, and I don’t talk about people this way very often!

MW: Did your lives change because of the #1 song in the Portuguese charts? The Beatles say that people started treating them differently, did this happen for you, even in small ways?

Deolinda: Well, they did change. For the better, of course. We had other side jobs we had to ditch, much to our content. We became full-time musicians and did nothing but music, so it was quite a thrill to be able to do that. We did not feel that people in general started treating us differently. However, we can say that all our technical requirements for the live shows started being met by promoters without much negotiation, which has made life on the road quite a lot nicer.

MW: What’s next for Deolinda?

NC: Touring and touring and the next CD maybe, with me I hope.

Deolinda: Lots of mileage on our part, which means a solid and dynamic show, with every ounce of feeling and delivery we have inside of ourselves put into it.

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Susana Baca’s Afrodiaspora

Cover of Susana Baca Afrodiaspora(This post is also available in Spanish.)

Afro-Peruvian music experienced a second revival around the time when David Byrne and Yale Evelev of Luaka Bop released the compilation album The Soul of Black Peru (mastered by Masterdisk’s Scott Hull) in 1995. The release granted world-wide recognition to artists such as Nicomedes Santa Cruz, Chabuca Granda, Peru Negro, Eva Ayllon and Susana Baca among others, launching the careers of several into the World Music limelight. Eva Ayllon and Peru Negro were both nominated for three Grammys each and Susana Baca won a Grammy in 2002 for her first solo album Lamento Negro.

If you catch her live or listen to her latest CD, Afrodiaspora (mastered by Scott Hull in 2011), you’ll be impressed by the music, but also by the energy and spirit with which she sings. Even before there was a Luaka Bop, David Byrne’s first impressions of Susana Baca were lasting. He heard her singing the song “Maria Lando” of the well respected Chabuca Granda on a cassette, and some years later when it came time for the compilation album, David remembered “the haunting intensity of her voice.” (As quoted on the Luaka Bop website.)

In fact, it took David and Yale some effort to track her down. But eventually they did. David was on tour in Austin, Texas, and happened upon an exhibition of Afro-Peruvian photographs in a gallery. They contacted the photographer, Lorry Salcedo, about providing photos for the compilation booklet, and asked him if he knew a Susana Baca. “Amazingly enough,” recounts Yale, “she was his neighbor in Lima!”

Afrodiaspora is a unified album filled with diverse popular tunes from the African Diaspora in the Americas. This is music that Baca remembers as distinctly part of her own heritage in Peru, if only because many of these genres were being played on the radio when she was a child. (The following quotes are from the Afrodiaspora page at the Luaka Bop site.)

At that time there was actually “little Peruvian music on the radio,” she remembers, so “when I heard Celia Cruz play ‘Palo Mayimbe,’ it felt like something very much ours, even though it was Cuban.” There are tunes on this album from Venezuela to New Orleans, and somehow they all have Baca’s signature Afro-Peruvian flavor, yet remain a tribute to the origins of the music. She says “this is how I feel about this record, it is our celebration of the African presence in the Americas and the way it has become a part of Latin America.”

I asked Yale Evelev about the appearance of popular bands Calle 13 and Quetzal on Afrodiaspora, and he said “it’s a roots thing.” He said it’s done on hip hop albums all the time, but apart from that, it’s important for the different audiences to know more about the roots of the music they are listening to.

Calle 13 has included Baca as well as Totó la Momposina and Seun Kuti on their recordings, and now Calle 13 and Quetzal both appear on Baca’s album. It’s a shout out to a different audience, a way to acknowledge how so many musicians are influenced by each other.

Calle 13 celebrates pan-latinamericanism in their song and video “Latinoamerica.”


…and Susana continues the party with Afrodiaspora.

Recent accolades for Susana Baca include being named Peru’s official Minister of Culture and the President of the Commission of Culture for the OAS (Organization of American States) for 2011-2013. Pomp and circumstance aside, she’s still on the road and planning to perform at New York’s Joyce Theater April 17-22 in collaboration with the dance troop Ballet Hispanico.

Here are some of Susana’s notes on the songs on Afrodiaspora (from the Luaka Bop site):

1. Detras de la Puerta: a cumbia written by the great Columbian singer/songwriter, Ivan Benavides (Bloque, Sidestepper, Carlos Vives)

2. Bendiceme: written by Javier Lazo, a young Peruvian singer-songwriter

3. Yana Runa: means Black Man in Quechua. This song honors the Afro-Indian tradition so common throughout Latin America.

4. Plena Y Bomba: Javier Lazo added some lyrics to this song to give it a Peruvian flavor; it also includes the beautiful poetry of Rene Perez (Calle 13).

5. Reina de Africa: This song weaves the flamenco, tango and panalivio rhythms, evoking the image of the African goddess who survives in our continent.

6. Baho Kende Y Palo Mayimba: Susana visited Cuba and saw Merceditas Valdes sing songs to the orishas with 35 drummers, playing as one.

7. Coco y Forro: rhythms from the Northeast of Brazil, it features Wagner Profeta, on percussion, ex member of the group Ile Aiye from Salvador, Bahia.

8. Takiti Taki: from Venezuela, one of the many complex rhythms played by the drummers of Guatuire.

9. Que Bonito tu Vestido (Featuring Quetzal): homage to Amparo Ochoa, one of Mexico’s great voices who introduced Susana to the Son Jarocho style of Veracruz.

10. Hey Pocky Way: “I saw the families in the park on Sundays [in New Orleans], cooking, singing and dancing and it brought back memories of my own experience in Chorrillos the way the culture is passed on through the generations.”

11. Canta Susana: written by Victor Merino, and sung by the famous Peruvian salsa singer, Carlos Mosquera.

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Masterdisk Presents: Electric Teeth/Ghost Leg

Header graphic for Masterdisk Presents Electric Teeth aka Ghost Leg
Masterdisk Presents is a blog series spotlighting some of the incredible artists we work with. Note: Since the release of Meeting My Ghost, the Electric Teeth have become known as Ghost Leg.

I cued up the Meeting My Ghost EP for the first time, at home on a gray Sunday afternoon in late November. It is the most recent release from the Nashville-based band The Electric Teeth/Ghost Leg, a 5-selection record mastered by Drew Cappotto at Masterdisk. I had listened to the band’s previous release, a 10-track album, and maybe that’s why I found the new EP so surprising.

Photo of Electric Teeth aka Ghost Leg in concert

The leaps a band takes from one release to the next speaks volumes about the musicians’ visions, ambitions, and interpersonal development. Too often we see bands releasing monumental debuts, with disappointing follow-ups – the Sophomore Slumps, as they’re known. But on the lucky occasion that we find a group or artist that releases consecutively developmental recordings, that consistently pushes their own creative boundaries, we pay attention. We offer our support by going to their shows and buying their records, and we become invested in the music because we have experienced the musicians’ growth along with them. Like cliffhanger at the end of a chapter, we can’t stop reading – we need to know what happens next.

The Meeting My Ghost EP has a dark and spacey vibe, perfect for a mellow weekend or morning subway ride. Think of Portishead meets Placebo… in a dimly lit dive bar with Joy Division on the stereo. But, despite the group’s identifiable sound, this band cannot really be reduced to easy comparisons, for a simple reason – they are continually developing. It’s easy to hear, when comparing the first LP against this new EP, but even more apparent when speaking with the band’s song-writing duo, Nathan Goodwin and Taylor Lowrance, who have an eye on the future and further experimentation with their sound. Taylor tells us, “Being from Nashville, there aren’t a lot of bands around here that sound like us, and we want to keep it that way… We aren’t interested in being cool, we’re doing exactly what we want.”

So as the first track started, and I settled into my chair, I couldn’t help but feel some excitement. From the top, this EP is nothing like the Electric Teeth’s first album. Sure, you can hear the band’s roots in the winding guitar countermelodies and Taylor’s mournful, gravelly voice, but there’s a sense of depth to Meeting My Ghost that was missing before. A feeling that the band has grown up a bit, figured out who they are, what they want to create, and how to achieve it. You can hear the guys working together, understanding each others’ styles and roles, and building a sound. Twenty-two minutes flies when you let yourself get lost in a record, and this record is easy to get lost in. I opened my eyes, as the last note faded into its own reverb, all I wanted was more. I need to know what happens next!

Thankfully, it seems the wait won’t be long. Taylor and Nathan are hard at work, finishing the writing for a full-length release under their new moniker, Ghost Leg. Taylor tells us, “For this LP, we’re focusing on keeping the songs tight and flowing, with a strong sense of atmosphere.” I suppose I will have to be patient to find out how the story unfolds, but if you haven’t heard Meeting My Ghost yet, you don’t need to wait for anything. The EP is currently streaming at electricteethmusic.bandcamp.com.

Ellen Fitton on Mastering the Motown Catalog

Around the same time that Vlado Meller and Mark Santangelo came on board the Masterdisk roster in September 2011, another mastering engineer — perhaps more low-key but no less impressive — joined the team: Ellen Fitton.

Ellen has worked for some of the top studios in the New York area: Right Track, Atlantic, The Hit Factory, Sony Music Studios and most recently, Universal Mastering Studios-East. She learned so much about engineering in her early days at Atlantic Studios, working with legendary producer Arif Mardin, and his long time engineer Michael O’Reilly. Years later she would continue to refine her skills recording classical music, working with the late Bud Graham, and producers Steve Epstein and David Frost.

Complete Motown Singles Vol 6In her last position at Universal, Ellen’s main focus was the restoration of the famed Motown catalog. Her work on The Complete Motown Singles box set series gave her the rare opportunity to remaster every (yes every) A and B side ever released on the Motown label, from its beginnings in 1959, through its heyday, and ending with the hits of 1972. This work, which was released on the Hip-O Select label, won her a MOJO award in 2007. Ellen was also nominated for a Grammy for her work on Sony’s 100 Years Soundtrack for a Century box set.

I sat down with Ellen and asked her about her experience with Motown.

JB: Thanks for taking a moment to discuss your work on the Motown catalog. If you don’t mind, I’ll get right down to it: the sources! What did you use for these archival releases?

Photo of Ellen Fitton
Ellen Fitton
EF: The goal was always to get as close to the original master as possible: the original 2 track or mono masters. If they weren’t available — or if the master was damaged or missing, we’d use whatever the next best source was. But I had the original masters for most songs.

JB: And what was the condition of the tapes?

EF: They used Scotch tape, so overall they held up well. Though there were some years that fared better than others — primarily due to how much action the tapes saw. The main challenge was finding the correct master versions. Luckily I had a great team of Motown historians to work with, who understood the cataloging system of that era. Motown had an usual way of storing their masters. There wasn’t a dedicated artist on each reel like we have today — there would be many artists masters co-mingling on the same reel. Often multiple versions of a given song as well.

JB: That’s unusual!

EF: Definitely. They were very cost conscious, I think. Tape was expensive so they wanted to use every inch. When the master was done, one copy went to the plant, and another was kept in-house. These in-house masters (called DM’s for Duplicate Master) were very unusual configurations. Initially, they used a half-inch 3 track tape running at 7.5 ips. They would print on track 1 from top to bottom (different artists and songs), and then they would go back and do the same thing on tracks 2 and 3 until the reel was full. Imagine what the label on each reel looked like! I had never seen anything like this before.

The Complete Motown Singles Vol 1In later years, when they had stereo masters, I might find a mono master on track 1, and the stereo master on 2 and 3. Often the mono track would be at 7.5 ips but the stereo tracks would be at 15 ips. All on the same reel, it was pretty crazy.

JB: Did you do a lot of processing for the CD releases?

EF: No, very little. A primarily analog chain — with Sontec EQs, minimal compression — and then we’d do a 96 kHz conversion. Sometimes I would do a little digital work, but not always. And then we’d re-capture at 44.1khz.My goal was always to stay true to “the sound” of the period, using the technology to restore it so that it could be heard through today’s equipment the way it was meant to be back then.

JB: What was it like listening to every Motown single? Are you an expert now?

EF: It was like listening to history being made, it was amazing to see the progression. And, in terms of how to handle that catalog, I guess I’m probably one of the foremost experts at this point! (laughs)

Contact Ellen at ellen@masterdisk.com or, to book a session, contact booking manager Peter Cho at peter@masterdisk.com.
Read more about Ellen on her page at the Masterdisk site.
Check out the Motown box sets at Hip-O Select.
Reviews of the Complete Motown Singles sets at Pitchfork.