Talk about exiting your comfort zone. Brooklyn post-punk band Butter the Children were a million miles from home in Austin, TX, recording a song they had never heard before – because it hadn’t been written yet.
After just three hours with fellow artist/songwriter Ben Arthur, BtC had a jangly rock tune in completely in the can. It’s hard to believe that the wisened hooks of “Made” were created almost simultaneously to when they were recorded in an Austin home (located via AirBnb) during SXSW amidst the Subway Sessions – but that’s exactly the point of the video series SongCraft Presents.
SongCraft Presents documents the creative process musicians and songwriters, uncovering the magic that happens when two artists are thrown together in a recording studio to write and record a song – make that a great song — in a single day. Past episodes have featured author/singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding, celebrated cellist Ben Sollee, and GRAMMY nominee/Latin film star Ximena Sarinana.
After Arthur helps the artist create the song — verse, chorus, and bridge — from the ground up, the world-class producers Al Houghton and Mike Crehore of New York City’s Dubway Studios track what happens.
“Butter the Children have this great wild energy, and their tonality is so different than a lot of what we work with on SongCraft, so I was excited to get them in the studio with us,” Arthur says. “Like all the sessions we did down in Austin, the challenge is baked into the process: we only had three hours to write and record the song, so there’s really no choice as far as pulling the song together quickly. Either it comes quickly…or there’s no song.”
You heard it here first: The premiere of “Made” on Songcraft Presents
How Two Pros Tracked it in No Time
Session veterans Creore and Houghton are the perfect pair to have on hand for SongCraft Presents, keeping a steady hand on the tiller through every phase – from selecting the location, to curating a mobile recording rig, and the mix that comes afterwards. Meanwhile, the sharp video you see here was made by director Matthew Hendershot and Joshua Park.
“It’s extremely hard to tell what you are getting into booking a house in Austin for SXSW through AirBnB!,” Creore laughs. “I have a pretty good sense of space in three dimensions from my work designing and building much of the last two iterations of Dubway and other projects over the years. I pushed hard for this house on the south side of Austin due to the dimensions and the separation from other buildings — as much as we could — as opposed to the craziness of the downtown scene.
“Acoustically, it was very live,” Crehore continues. “I brought along three ribbon mics just in case – they are much more forgiving and proximity affected. Telefunken lent us some great mics as well, but I really only used their AR51 for vocal duty after the song was laid down and their M82 for vocal during tracking (like an RE20). Also their M60 FET prototypes which were really killer on the drumset, which was made from a Genelec box and a tissue box! The drummer didn’t even have sticks with her, so she played with bbq skewers taped together.”
Crehore also brought along a Metric Halo ULN 8 audio interface, which fed both Pro Tools and the camera rig for audio sync later on. “And we picked up a $100 monitor from Best Buy for more screen real estate – that 13″ screen just doesn’t cut it for these old eyes!” he says. “The ULN 8 has incredible mic pres and a beautiful DI, so it really is my go-to box for everything I do at this point.”
For Crehore and Houghton, an assignment like this means knowing when to unleash their expertise, and when to go virtually vanish. “Al and I have the same approach to bands I think: Let them do what they do, and try to be as transparent to the process as possible,” notes Crehore. “Since the writing process is being documented both with video and audio, Al was manning the wireless lavaliers and doing a bunch of the mic placement as I was tracking on the fly.
“The artists feel a little in a fish bowl, but luckily we have enough experience at this to see where things are going, talk amongst the two of us about the best way to get there, and actually start setting things in motion while the band is still writing. We always try to take the band live if at all possible – “warts and all” I like to say- so that we can get the initial feel of the song. Especially a new song. Remember we wrote and tracked the basics in less than 3 hours.”
According to Crehore, the biggest “no-no” is for the engineer to impart their vibe on the situation in a bad way, which shuts down or intimidates the creative process. “I like to tell the young engineers that are obsessed with gear,” he says, “to get over it quickly – 95% of the process in the studio or in a makeshift studio like the one we worked in in Austin, is people skills – 5% is technical. If you get a great take that isn’t 100% perfect, it is so much better than a so-so track that is perfectly recorded and lacks life.”
“As an engineer in this high-pressure and unpredictable situation — for both artists & producers — the best play is to be as invisible as possible,” Houghton adds. “Keep our problems to ourselves, and impact as little on the artists’ head space as possible so as not to distract.
“We were hyper-attentive to the artists, stepping outside this engineer ‘cloak of invisibility’ only to address issues affecting their comfort and ease with the physical environment and recording situation. Basically, as hosts, we endeavor maintain a very respectful, yet friendly vibe.”
Mix and a Match
Back in NYC, Crehore imparted only what was necessary to bring out the natural goodness of “Made”, which is a love song in disguise. “I mixed the song in my cellar lair here in NYC,” Crehore explains. “I wanted to keep all the great energy that the band provided, but have a big drum sound, so I used Massey DRT to replace the Genelec box and the tissue box drum kit with a Toontrack Superior drummer kit I built for the song. I left the live tracks in the mix, but the drumkit is mainly Superior.
“Ben did a synthy pad to help flesh things out and I overdubbed three quick guitar parts in the bridge to take it up a notch. The acoustic was Ray from the tracking day, the bass was live as well. The vocal was the first or second take as well as a group vocal on the choruses including Ben as well. I mainly left the song as it was, made them sound as good as I could and added just enough to make it rock.”
For Ben Arthur, who’s overseen more than two dozen lightning-fast collaborations, making “Made” maintained his amazement with the SCP process. “I love it when we stretch ourselves stylistically,” he says. “That we’ve done not just singer-songwriters of various stripes, but also an Afrobeat song with Kaleta, and an electro-pop song with Ximena Sarinana and Alex Wong and a sardonic country song with Steve Poltz, and a hip hop track with Hired Gun, makes me really happy. I can’t wait to do a metal song!”