PROSPECT LEFFERTS GARDENS, BROOKLYN: No slave to the studio, Nic Hard. For this in-demand indie producer/engineer/mixer (The Bravery, Aberdeen City, The Church, The Kin), professional recording often means a move away from controlled conditions into creatively comforting confines.
Hard’s latest project, capturing the arresting rock/new wave/electronic concoctions of Baltimore’s the Perfects, bear out his current preference for recording world-class albums in the living room, as opposed to the live room. A former Philadelphia DJ, Hard had meshed well with the Perfects’ love of synths, electronic drums and ‘80’s influences, first on their 2005 self-titled debut EP and subsequently on the 2009 full-length future automatic.
Collaborating on the Perfects’ upcoming (Spring 2011) album, Hard recently had the band come up to a Bushwick loft where his own personal “Living Room Studio” workflow could be effectively deployed. Recording in sonically informal environs happens every day, of course, but Hard’s approach – borne out of an unexpected set of sessions with the Bravery – shows that there’s always another spin.
Tell us about your take on the “Living Room Studio”. How do you go about it?
Basically, the idea is taking the recording process away from a traditional “pro studio” setup with the big desk, the glass, the sweet spot and the perfect listening environment, and forcing yourself to listen in a more casual way. Instead, we set up a room — rehearsal space, warehouse, house or living room — with whatever gear is needed centered around a couple of couches, coffee tables, and maybe a nice rug.
For most of my career I’ve worked primarily with independent bands. Most bands don’t have unlimited funds, and therefore booking Electric Lady for three months isn’t usually in the cards. I’ve always leaned towards working at less expensive studios so that more time could be spent. To me time is by far the most valuable thing in the recording process: If it came down to it, I’d rather have a month with a Mackie and 57’s than a week at a studio like the Hit Factory (RIP). That’s not to say I don’t use good stuff, but the time means more to me.
That seems like a sound theory and a music-first approach. When did it start to take shape for you?
I’ve done a bunch or recording where gear has been brought into an ordinary space, like The Kin’s “Rise and Fall” record which was done in an old farmhouse out in Pennsylvania. Even with that record there was still somewhat of an attempt to have a “control room” type situation.
It wasn’t until I was working with the Bravery on their most recent record that I got the idea to take it one step further. I ended up cutting almost all of the vocals for that record in the singer’s apartment — oh — and a couple of hotel rooms and on their tour bus! This was done mostly so that (vocalist/guitarist) Sam (Endicott) could be totally comfortable, and take as much time as he needed in an environment that he was used to listening in.
The record was mixed by Michael Brauer, but when it came time to pass the tracks off we still had stuff to finish, so we setup in Brauer’s lounge, which also happened to be a live room. There was a couch, a TV, nice rug and a pair of ProAc loudspeakers. As I sat on the couch and kicked back with my laptop finishing things up I realized that not only it was way more comfortable, but that I wasn’t listening as much to the quality of each individual thing — not focusing in on the technical aspects — but more just listening to the song. Since then I’ve done a handful of records where I’ve gone out of my way to setup in a way that was non-traditional.
I think personal workflow innovations are always best when they’re discovered like that, organically. When it came to the Perfects, where did you and the band work, and what kind of rig did you take with you to the space?
For the last round of songs I did with the Perfects we sublet a loft in Bushwick. Logistically this ended up being more convenient than Baltimore for me, because I was also doing a couple other projects and needed to be close.
The rig consists of a 192, a tower with three Pro Tools cards and a Dangerous Music D-Box. The D-Box has been great in a tracking situation, because one of the things I’ve missed about tracking with a console is the ability to blend mics on guitars or keys down to one track — you know, commit! Using the sum inputs on the D-Box has been great for that.
Typically in these situations I have a friend who I’ll rent mic pres, compressors and mics from as-needed. In the case of the Perfects we had a couple of Vintechs, a pair of Distressors and an LA-2A. We were also lucky enough to have been loaned a couple of BAE pres and a Burl B2 bomber by Audio Power Tools to test out. For this project, a lot of the drum sounds were a hybrid of live and electronic, so I opted to track minimal mics on the kit, sometimes just the Royers as a pair of “kit mics”.
You told me that you’ll also mix in the band’s gear where appropriate…
Since Pro Tools and Logic became “consumer” products i.e. cheaper, it’s allowed artists to have the ability to track themselves. When this began I remember being worried that I’d be out of a job, but it has actually turned out to be great: I get tons of demos that people have put together in their bedrooms or sometimes I’m mixing something that has been tracked entirely in that way.
What I’ve found is that it’s led to is a level of creativity that is unobstructed by technology, and people can come up with some crazy shit when they are up at all hours of the night with the ability to multi-track. The advent of these bedroom room studios also means that a bunch of bands also buy lots or recording gear, and this can always be used in the process and keep the budget down.
The “Living Room” approach sounds like it would be perfect – no pun intended – for a straight-up rock band. How does recording the Perfects’ many electronic/programmed elements live work in this scenario?
With the Perfects it’s a lot of synths, heavily-effected guitars and electronic stuff. I’ve recently been getting into Ableton Live and found that it allows me to do more on the fly, because when searching for sounds it’s just so fast to tweak/add/destroy things, all without having to stop and add a plug-in. Sometimes I’ll loop Pro Tools on my rig and run Ableton on a laptop, synced with MIDI through an Ethernet cable just to have more fluidity in the process of finding a sound.
Moving on to the mix, where did you take the tracks after the recording? What’s your own personal approach to mixing?
As of the beginning of 2009 I’ve had my own mix room in my house, which has been awesome! It has by far been the smartest thing that I’ve done for my mixing — about half the work I get is straight-up mixing, so it has really enabled me to hone my skills because of the ability to gain perspective. I’ll mix for as long as I feel fresh, then I’ll do something else, then later on come back to it. I’ve been way happier with the mixes I’ve been turning out.