[5 May 2008]
Photo: Meg Sheff-Atteberry
Under Mics with the Oranges Band
PopMatters has had plenty of nice things to say about Baltimore’s The Oranges Band (specifically here and here. When the band announced that they were headed into the studio to begin work on their new record, having soldiered through personnel changes and struggles at their label, Lookout Records, it seemed like an excellent time to catch up and to allow them to speak for themselves by cataloging the happenings. Over the next several weeks, Oranges Band frontman Roman Kuebler will write in with updates from the sessions for the band’s third full-length. Here’s part four…
I really have a great time singing in the studio. For some reason the set up seems so pro. The room is cleared of the instruments, the baffling goes up and instead of microphones hanging all over the place, like when the band is tracking, there is just one. It is a strange experience also, in the context of writing, practicing and recording your songs because, as long as you are a singer who plays an instrument, it is the only time ever you will sing a song without playing it as well and the only time you will sing a song without anything in your hands. So besides being a little anxious and overwhelmed by the formality of the studio setting you also have to approach the song in a much different way. It is rather exciting but also very nerve racking. For me, walking into the room after you do your first vocal take on a song is a roller coaster ride. You’ve worked hard to perform the song but you haven’t any idea what you sound like. The voice is very sensitive to placement of microphones and slight changes in sound can make a huge difference in the perception of the vocal take. It’s like the perfect storm when it happens to come together. And for the first time, you are hearing the lyrics resonate within the song and the voice is totally audible. Anyone in a band can relate to the fact that you never hear the vocals at practice.
Me at the mic part 1. I had to take off my jacket because it was making a ton of noise.
So why, with all these “hardships”, is singing in the studio fun? It’s simple. For me, when it works—when you get a great vocal take—it is the most satisfying part of making, playing or recording music that there is. I guess it is a risk/reward thing. Which is why, in a demonstration of appropriate cosmic duality, that when it doesn’t happen it is the most frustrating part of making music.
In approaching this album I wanted my lead vocal tracks to be distinct and adventurous. I wanted them to be energetic and irreverent. In the end though, I knew I would settle for them to not suck and be on pitch. A lot to ask in some cases I am sorry to say. I guess we are all our own worse critics and for me, if I am ever feeling a little over confident, I could take a crack at singing a song in the studio to bring me back to earth.
But as I said in an earlier installment, a record is a document of what you did when the tape was rolling so you don’t really have much choice but to step up and do something, right? And so I did. When Adam (co-producer, engineer) and I were doing vocals I’d start by describing which song I was trying to rip off and he would respond with an appropriate microphone, mic placement and effect scenario. The best part about trying to rip off songs, though, is that you can never recreate someone else’s magic so you hope to stumble upon your own. So here it goes, first song.
Me at the mic part 2. Less noisy…
We started with a song called “One More Dog”. Why? Well, it was the shortest. Short and fast and to the point. It reminds me of a Pink Flag-era Wire thing so that is where we started looking for sounds. When ripping off other songs (take notes, kids) I like to go right to the source so we played some songs from Pink Flag. We decided they were relatively dry (no reverb), mid-range (not quite a radio voice, but close) with maybe a slight delay on them. We picked out the right mic for the job and ran it through the effects and got the EQ just right… and it sounded nothing like the Wire song. Of course. The other thing about trying to rip stuff off is that what you are hearing is the whole song. You can’t isolate the vocals, necessarily, and predict how they will fit into a totally different song in a totally different context. It’s why trying hard to rip something off is a great way to work. It provides the parameters, the boundaries, and I think I said before that in the context of recording, I need some boundaries.
OK so, here we are with this vocal sound that doesn’t do quite what we thought it might, but it does sound pretty cool so we tweak it just a bit and forge ahead. Once you have a sound you can concentrate on the performance. This song was pretty straight forward, meaning I didn’t expect that it would change much from the practice room to the recording so it was just about getting the lines right—one at a time. I feel like I can always find some reason to re-do a line. A quiver in the vocal, just a little flat, I don’t like the “r” sound in that word, etc., etc. Basically, it is really hard to commit to the idea that the line you just sang will be the way that song exists… pretty much forever. Scared of commitment? Yikes. Oh well, you gotta say yes sometime and I am paying for this thing by the hour so eventually we make it through the song. The funny thing is that when you finish a vocal take you are so sick of hearing it that you can barely listen to it and appreciate it. In fact, coming back to it the next session is always kind of scary… did I really get it right or was I just sick of trying? Am I a hero or a heel? Like I said… a real roller coaster ride.
So instead of recounting my triumphs and tragedies while singing these songs… and there were a few of both, let’s just do a quick run down of what a few of the songs on the record are called and what I tried to ripped off while recording them. I imagine this could be an incriminating document in a court trial, but luckily I was unsuccessful in truly copying ANY of these brilliant works. When our album does finally come out (in 2012 at this rate) you can check these against the originals… you’ll see, total failure!
My view. With my favorite mic, the fabulous Shure SM-7.
“Everyone Burns Out” (working title): The Replacements - “Takin’ a Ride” complete with a… “referential” line.
“When Your Mask Is Your Revealing Feature”: Peter Gabriel “Steam” and “Shock the Monkey” also ESG for the female back up vocals. This one doesn’t sound at all like those things… but it came out ok anyway.
“Gordon’s Night Club”: I thought could be a Kinks song… but it totally isn’t. I did do a Phil Lynotte thing in the beginning that is really funny and a weird trill at the end that was ALL ME (or is that Paul Macca?).
“Absolutely (Instru)mental”: As the name suggests, this song doesn’t have vocals but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try to rip something off to get it. Ha ha! It is modeled after Laika & the Cosmonauts - “NY ‘79” a truly complete and catchy song with no vocals. It was recently announced that Laika and Co. will be breaking up at the end of this year… say it ain’t so!?!
“Ottobar (Afterhours)” - Hot Snakes - “Automatic Midnight” and “Salton City” (whoos!)
“I Wouldn’t Worry About It”: This one is pretty original, really. I was going to come up with something to steal eventually but we were doing some back up vocals on a different song (Ottobar) and had a really cool sound going. Really distorted and delayed and weird. When that song was over, this one was next on the reel so we just let it roll and I did the lead vocal… in one take. Easy. It also relieved me from having to rewrite the lyrics, which I was going to do for some reason. I mean why would you need more than two lines in a song?
This is the studio room cleared out for the vox.
Well, that ain’t quite all of them but it is most of them. All secrets revealed right here. Man… these things take forever; albums that is. There are so many tiny parts to get right and it’s like an automobile or a golf swing… so many things working in harmony that when one things is off, your whole program is interrupted. This is just to say that here we are, nearing the end of tracking and it still feels a light year away. OK well, stick with me here. Thanks for reading.