Fans of singer–songwriter Ben Folds expect piano music — but a full–on piano concerto is certainly a new development!
“Making an album that I haven’t heard before was a treat,” say Ben Folds. “It doesn’t happen very often, and some people make great records but never get to do that. No one knew what category to put it in, so we are number one on the classical charts — which is probably fair enough, because it’s got a piano concerto on it, but it makes it hard for over–thinkers to get their heads around! Should it be two records, or should it be one?”
Once thing is for sure: the album is likely to confuse a lot of people. So There has no bass, hardly any drums, comprises one–third piano concerto and two–thirds chamber rock, and has been mastered for dynamic range rather than loudness.
Work on the hard–to–categorise album began when, improbably, Ben was commissioned to write a piano concerto by, jointly, the Nashville Ballet, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra. For a songwriter with an alternative rock background it was certainly a challenge, and he spent 18 months immersed in the scores of Rachmaninov, Bartók, Ravel, Gershwin and others. Armed with what he’d learnt from the process, and with a little orchestration assistance from composer and arranger Joachim Horsely, Ben produced three pieces, calling them Concerto For Piano & Orchestra: Movements 1, 2 and 3. Having taken the completed works on tour, he then decided to make a studio recording of the project.
Fortunately, he already had the ideal venue to make such a recording. Built by Chet Atkins in 1965, RCA Victor Nashville Sound Studios (often called simply RCA Studio A) was specifically designed for orchestras, and has played host to innumerable classic sessions with artists like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Leonard Cohen, the Monkees and Billy Joel. Upon discovering that the huge studio was available to rent when he moved to the Tennessee state capital in 2002, Ben impulsively took the plunge, renaming it Grand Victor Sound and overseeing the installation of a 1976 API 3232 console previously owned by Rich Costey.
For Ben’s concerto, the studio was filled with the 83–piece Nashville Symphony orchestra and the sessions were engineered and produced by Elliot Scheiner. “He must have had 10,000 mics!” jokes Ben. “There were mics everywhere. That was all done live, so he was doing things the way he needed to for the session to work.”
The resulting recordings, mixed by Richard King, amounted to 21 minutes of music, but the cost of hiring the orchestra to record enough material to complete an album would have been prohibitive. It was then that Ben came into contact with a chamber sextet from New York called yMusic, and began a collaboration which would eventually generate the eight songs that complete the 11–track release.
“yMusic do everything imaginable,” says Ben, explaining why he decided to work with them. “I mean, at the age of 30, they have all done it all, so they were very comfortable on all settings. We’re soulmates, in a way. But also, when you are playing with these ensembles, you notice speed rather than latency. In an orchestra, they are slow and expressive. People could argue that point: you could listen to some Shostakovich and that’s just balls–on, but that’s not the way it would have been recorded the first day. That’s come about as part of their training. So it’s like yMusic are a sports car, and when you need a sports car you need a sports car, and when you need a tractor trailer to carry a house’s worth of stuff... They are different, so I really enjoyed going between the two. You can score any of the pieces for either of those situations. For example, we’ve now scored the yMusic stuff so that it works with a symphony orchestra, and we’ve interpreted and scored my piano concerto so that yMusic can play it.”
Ben explains that for each song on the album the collaboration process with yMusic varied. “I had bits and pieces of songs and some demos, but the songs came about in different ways,” says Ben. “For some, I just said to the guys in yMusic, ‘Here’s how the song goes,’ and they arranged something, but other times we did it together. I gave them a demo of ‘I’m Not The Man’ and I’d arranged a whole lot of the song ‘Capable Of Anything’ on an aeroplane just with an iPad and GarageBand.
“In particular I brought in the scores for a good part of one tune called ‘So There’. There was a whole instrumental bit that was important to me to be very specific about, so I literally scored it for them on a piece of staff paper and we played it. Basically I was doing my best impersonation of yMusic in my score, because there are certain gestures that they are capable of doing which I think are really special. For instance, there’s a really fast arpeggio played by the bass clarinet and piccolo two octaves apart from one another, and it’s just spot on. To me it has the feeling of a monophonic synthesizer, where you split the oscillators two octaves apart and you arpeggiate, and as a rock guy these were the things I was gravitating towards.
“It’s easy to listen to the music on this album and think ‘This is a rock guy and here are his classical references: Rachmaninoff here, Ravel there’, but there are probably just as many rock references applied to classical music, which maybe a classical ensemble can do better. I mean you have drum machines imitating drums, but now we’ve got drummers imitating drum machines! What I was interested in was more like: here’s the disco synthesizer, or barre chords, applied to classical music.”
Recording commenced at Grand Victor Sound in late October 2014, with Joe Costa engineering the sessions and Gena Johnson acting as his assistant. Ben’s plan for the recordings was to try to capture the sound of his piano and the yMusic instrumentalists all playing together in one room, using the room ambience to bind everything together. Everything was recorded to the studio’s Pro Tools 10 HD2 system via the API desk with no EQ or compression applied. With no bass instrument in the ensemble, mic placement focused partly on capturing a sound that would not be lacking in the lower frequencies. “To give it a satisfying amount of bass we redefined the things that were low end and made sure we captured the ensemble in the warmest way we could,” explains Ben. “We had ribbon mics all over the place, and when we had something that had space, it was a stereo recording with two ribbons.
“There aren’t a whole lot of tracks, especially on songs like ‘Yes Man’, which was just me on piano and six yMusic players: three on strings and three woodwind. There was maybe only five or six mics on that whole song, including the room mics. Everything was spilling onto everything, but we kept subtracting mics so we no longer had a close mic on every instrument.”
Joe Costa used gobos to gain a little sound isolation for each of the yMusic musicians. Violin was recorded with a Coles 4038, viola with an AEA R84 and cello using a Korby KAT System with U47 capsule. For clarinet and bass clarinet Joe chose an Audio–Technica 4081, with an AEA R92 for flute and piccolo and a Neumann CMV563 on trumpet and French horn. Then, high above the ensemble, Joe set up a pair of Audio–Technica 4050 capacitor mics in omnidirectional mode to capture the room sound.
“We also had an overdub station, which was another Coles 4038,” recalls Joe. “Sometimes we would record just the three string instruments as a section on that one mic.”
“We had to do a couple of overdub things in some of the songs,” confirms Ben. “If there was a piccolo or flute playing it had to be an overdub, and there were a couple of trumpet moments that needed to be overdubs. That was because at certain points they would spill into everything else and wash it out. I love bleed, but that was not OK for me.”
Ben’s piano, a 1935 Steinway B, was positioned side–on to the other musicians but some distance away and with a gobo in between on some songs to provide a small degree of separation.
“Depending on the song, I either miked the piano with a pair of Neuman CMV563s or a pair of Royer 121s,” recalls Joe. “It was recorded through a pair of Neve 1084 preamps and a pair of blackface [Universal Audio] 1176 compressors. I had started out using the EAR 660s on the main piano mics, but we switched to the 1176s and stayed there. Also, at some point, I added a Coles 4038 in between the low and high piano mics and I recorded that through a Neve 1073 and one side of a [UA] 2–1176.”
“My piano was miked a little bit further away than you’d think and squashed pretty hard with the 1176,” remembers Ben. “The lid was open full stick with two mics probably just on the inside of the line between the lid and the piano, so if you closed the lid you’ll tap the mics. I would say they were maybe two feet above the piano.”
Ben wanted his vocals to sound as though they were recorded together with the piano and yMusic. At one point he even considered capturing vocals live with the ensemble performances, but in the end, the decision was made to do them as overdubs. According to Joe, this was done using a Neumann U47 on some songs and a Shure SM5 on others, sometimes processed using a dbx 160 compressor and at other times with a Universal Audio LA2A. A fair amount of compression was applied without overly squashing the vocal, but EQ was not used.
“I like the sound of it all going down at the same time,” says Ben, “but often I didn’t have the words finished while we were recording and most of the time I’m a little afraid to commit because two or three days later I’m realising more about the song and how I might do it. I like a U47, that seems to be really good for me. We almost always went flat through our API console because we were not going to tape.”
Ben’s vocals on So There are very unprocessed compared to most modern productions, so the sporadic occurrence of harmonies and double–tracked sections has a considerable sonic impact. “I sent the members of yMusic who sing — flautist Alex Sopp and violinist Rob Moose — an overdub guide of what I wanted,” explains Ben. As these were afterthoughts, they recorded them and sent them back to us. Also my daughter, who’s 16, came in right after I’d recorded my vocal and sang the harmony on the song ‘So There’ using the same setup. She just sang it once or twice, got the syllables right and was done.
“Where there’s doubles, for instance on the song ‘Long Way To Go’, I made two lead vocals of the whole thing and we used one to accent the song and the other for the rest of it. Usually with double vocals, I’ll listen to a verse and then take a couple of stabs at getting close. I like them nailed when it’s a double, so I have the option of being able to pan left and right. I like the sound of people doing it all sorts of different ways, but for me, the best way is to pan my lead to the left and my overdub to the right and just go for it.”
As much as possible, Ben tried to make sure that the overdubs were done in the same studio space as the rest of the song so that they matched up, but it wasn’t always possible, especially as two of the tracks were recorded elsewhere. ‘Phone In A Pool’ was recorded at Windmill Studios in Ireland by Leo Overtoom, with yMusic overdubs engineered at Groovemaster Studio in Chicago by Joe Costa’s assistant Gena Johnson. Other vocal overdubs were done at House Of Blues, Studio D in Nashville, while the piano and drums for the track ‘Long Way To Go’ were taken from a recording that Elliot Scheiner had made at Avatar Studios in New York.
As work progressed it became clear that the initial plan of recording without bass or drums wasn’t working as well as Ben had hoped, and he decided to overdub the necessary parts himself. The challenge was to record a drum track that matched the ensemble recordings and didn’t sound glaringly like an overdub.
“I’d hoped for no drums and percussion, but that was not a policy we could stand by,” admits Ben. “There were some attempts to overdub drums in different circumstances that failed, and we came back to the studio. For example, we had a really weird–sounding track on ‘Capable Of Anything’ where the drums were recorded somewhere else and they were brighter, deeper and kind of ‘fake large’. I was playing loudly and it just sounded like an overdub. So I was listening to these Dave Brubeck records where the drummer is panned left and the piano is on the right and you can quite clearly hear the drums popping up in the right channel with the piano as it gets louder. We weren’t going to pan things that way but I liked the idea of that nice violent threshold, where if you get too loud you are spilling into the room mic a whole lot. That’s a complicated way of saying we were just trying to keep it real with the mic bleed. I didn’t want a dry drum sound that didn’t happen with the rest of the band, and in a perfect world I’d have had a drummer playing with us. So with my drum overdubs I wanted to simulate being in the room with yMusic, so we had a mono mic in the middle of the room roughly where we’d had one over the chamber group and just set it to the level that we figured we’d used before, and I had to play drums quietly. We discussed doing that for the vocal but at the end of the day a traditional vocal overdub with the vocal out front sounded the most reasonable. We’re all used to the sound of vocal overdubs!”
“The drums were recorded through an old ‘50s Collins tube radio console and then went line–in to the API to access the 550A EQs and phase switches on the way to Pro Tools,” recalls Joe Costa. “The kit was a Gretsch jazz kit with 18–inch bass drum, 12–inch rack tom and 14–inch floor tom. I had an AKG D12 and AEA R92 on the bass drum, a Shure SM57 on snare and Sennheiser 421s on toms. The room mic was a Neumann M582 set to omni and we had a Miktek CV3 set to wide cardioid as a mono overhead. I really loved the way the Miktek sucked in the entire kit. On playback we were listening to the bass drum mics and the overhead only.”
Drums and percussion are used sparingly on the album, but when they appear they are extremely effective. The instantly catchy lead track ‘Capable Of Anything’ is carried with a simple soft kick sound for the first 90 seconds before the full kit appears, leaving plenty of space for the busy piano, string and woodwind flourishes. But, as Ben explains, the kick was actually a carefully programmed sample.
“That took some real manoeuvering!” laughs Ben. “The problem was that we didn’t want any drums, but as we did the things that we’d charted it was sounding like something was missing. So for that song I got out an old Rhythm Ace from the late ‘60s and we sampled the kick drum, but we rolled off a load of the low–end information. One thing I like about sampled and electronic drums is that the bass drum is often just a smack. It often doesn’t have normal low end, and that’s what I was going for, so that the drums wouldn’t take over. Then when the drums start we muted the Rhythm Ace, and that switchover gave the song a bit more low end and made it broader.”
The job of mixing the album went to Dave Way, whose work with Fiona Apple on her album The Idler Wheel... had impressed Ben greatly. For So There Dave mixed everything ‘in the box’, using his SSL Matrix control surface. “I was surprised to show up at his house and see this big interface controller and two computer screens,” Ben admits. “We always mix through my API in my studio so I’d never seen this done in the box before, but I really liked working with him.”
“Overall, I did very little in these mixes compared to most albums,” recalls Dave. “As a matter of fact, when Ben and I got into the first mix, which was ‘So There’, we dialled back some of the processing I had started with and went for a more natural sound as opposed to a poppier one. As Ben put it, we wanted to ‘crack the code’ on the first mix, which meant finding that line between chamber and rock, after which we could dive into the other songs.”
“The more we tried to make the record traditional, the more problems we had,” adds Ben. “But there wasn’t an issue when we treated it almost like a chamber record and didn’t try to go all rock & roll with it. So the mixes are pretty much that. Then all we had to do was add the vocal. The idea was to put the vocal out front, because it’s the only thing that makes it a rock record. Not even the drums make it a rock record, because the perspective on the drums is pretty much that of the drummer playing in the room with everyone, and there are no close mics. It’s all distant area mics. There must be three on the drums.”
Dave confirms that although the individual kit components were recorded, he only used the overhead, mono room and two kick mics in the final mix. More generally, Dave and Ben were both keen to bring out the sound of the Grand Victor Sound studio. “We wanted to make sure the listener could hear that space,” explains Dave, “so on most songs I compressed and brightened the ensemble room mics to bring that out.”
“The room in Nashville is a massive orchestral room, so there’s a sense of ambience that doesn’t need to be fabricated,” says Ben, “but if I feel that the vocal is separating in a way I don’t want it to, I’ll often ask the mixing engineer if they can apply the same reverb subtly to all the other instruments so we can feel we are there. So Dave applied a little bit of reverb to the vocal, but he was subtle with it.”
“Overall, I was just trying to find the pannings and space to let the music breathe and do some automation to help things come alive as much as I could,” concludes Dave.
Having come away from Dave’s studio with some very dynamic mixes that suited the classical and chamber music material, Ben was understandably reluctant to have them crushed too much at the mastering stage, so he took the album to Bob Ludwig, who was already familiar with Ben’s piano concertos. “He was really on the same page about the kind of record this should be,” explains Ben. “I took a deep breath and let him make this one of the quietest records! It’s very dynamic because it’s not loud. I don’t know if I went too far. We are so used to the artifacts you get from compression that when you don’t hear them it can sound very plain–Jane. I think we did the right thing, but it does scare me when I hear the record and it sounds half the volume of all the other releases. People can turn up the volume, but you can understand the artist’s insecurity!”
Despite being quite uncompressed, and having no bass, So There has a remarkably warm and upfront sound, reminiscent of the Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’. “I think that’s a function of the recording,” says Ben. “The recordings that blow my mind are of that era. I don’t want to be a sentimental dude where it all has to be done the way it was years ago, because that’s not the world I live in, but damn if the results on those old records don’t kill me sometimes! Back in the day, they didn’t have choices so they had to get certain things exactly right and I think that when you aspire to get those things right, plus you have the choices, then you should be fine.”
It just remains to be seen whether or not the wider world can come to terms with the genre–bending format of chamber rock and piano concerto on one album!
Mix engineer Dave Way’s work on So There was done almost entirely in software, using an SSL Matrix controller.
“I tend to use a good deal of automation, and I ride things with faders on the Matrix,” he says. “Sometimes I use a mouse to ride or draw in some precise rides, but mostly I do it in a similar way to how I used to use my SSL E–Series; with eight VCA/submix faders at my fingertips, and I ride things linearly, particularly vocals, as a performance.
“‘So There’ was one of the more dense mixes, with about 45 tracks including drums, percussion, piano, bass, trumpet, French horn, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, lead vocal and background vocals. I had a few in–the–box reverbs set up and also my real EMT 140 but I didn’t really use much reverb in the mixes, mostly just on vocals and maybe a little on piano and some instruments in spots. Instead I used the natural ambience and room tracks for space.
“On the vocal track there was a Brainworx EQ filtering some lows along with some medium compression with the [Waves] H–Comp. That vocal track is bused to the vocal submix track where some more compression, de–essing and EQ were applied. The vocal settings on the rest of the album are pretty similar to this. At some point towards the end of our tweaking, Ben said ‘I’ve found that a little boost around 700Hz usually gives my vocal some strength. Just something I’ve realised over the years.’ He was right.
“The yMusic tracks were mostly submixed to brass, winds and strings, depending on how they were performed. On the string and/or yMusic bus I used the SoundToys Devil Loc, which is pretty much my favourite plug–in for adding subtle–to–crazy amounts of saturation, the Massey Tape Head and Brainworx EQ. Nothing radical, just some light vibe really to help make the tracks sound a bit more ‘recordy’.
“‘Capable of Anything’ was another one of the more dense arrangements where we dug in a bit more. There’s a piano in the intro that Ben wanted to sound more like an echo, so I drew in some automation to fade the endings of the phrases down. He knew every note of the arrangements, so it was great to have him steer me through all the nooks and crannies.
“On the other side of things, I did very, very little to ‘I’m Not A Fan’. There were only 21 tracks on this song and outside of some mix–bus coloration and some warming up of the strings, I did practically nothing. There’s little to no automation, just some EQ on the piano to find a place where it could stick out a bit. I used a delay on the brass to put them a little further back in the room and added some top to the winds. Vocal treatment was similar to the other songs.
“What we ended up using on the master bus was a Brainworx EQ, basically adding some lows and highs. I believe the setting pretty much stayed on the master bus for every song. Some songs I added the SoundToys Devil–Loc which has some very mild saturation just to add a bit of ‘analogue’ harmonics. And there’s a Waves L2 in there just for protecting the ceiling.”
Ben Folds describes himself as a stickler for getting the voice–leading aspects of his compositions right, and very often writes out his harmonies on staff paper to get them clear in his head.
“I don’t need to do that if I am just playing piano in a rock band,” says Ben, “but a lot of vocal arrangements I’ll write on staff paper because it can get confusing when you are doing overdubs. Way back on the first Ben Folds Five record I was sketching out the background vocals on staff paper, just for me to see where the voices were going and how they’d work against the piano. I don’t like the sound of bad voice leading and dumpy harmony, and I don’t put it in my piano playing or background vocals when I can help it. When you’ve got lots of parts it’s important to make sure you’re not doubling up on certain things, otherwise you’ll make your mix sound very small.
“A method I used for Ben Folds Five, when the two guys would join me for longer notes, made them sound like background vocals. If I sung ‘I’m looking up at the skyyyyyyy, it’s so, so bluuuuue,’ then on ‘sky’ and ‘blue’ they wouldn’t sing the consonants at all. They’d go ‘aaaah’, but they would sing two notes that weren’t mine, so suddenly I would become a background singer at that moment, giving us a three–part harmony. I hear a lot of people do those things where they just step on the vocal and then have that note playing on the guitar and then something else, and when you start doubling up certain parts of the harmony like that, you are really crowding the recording.
“If you want to hear how amazing orchestration can affect a recording, listen to when Mozart is placed in the middle of a movie score. Generally what happens is the person who is scoring the movie — who’s probably really good — is making a lot of pedestrian mistakes in their voice–leading and orchestration. You might be thinking, ‘Wow, sounds great!’ But as soon as the Mozart pops up you think that you’ve got a new recording studio and engineer, when it’s usually the same people. The sounds becomes unbelievably massive, because Mozart was observing the harmony things I’m talking about, and then adding touches that really only dead Germans and Viennese can do!
“It’s a beautiful art. Imagine you’re a painter. Do you want to be the guy who is grinding leaves and dirt to make your paints, or do you want to be the guys who buys some paints and just does it? Orchestration requires you to be more like Vermeer, where you’re doing it all from scratch. Some of it is dynamics, but most of it is simply where the harmony is, and that’s all relative to the tessitura of any given instrument.
“I know about one percent, and before they bury me, my goal is to get up to a good 10 percent!”
Ben Folds Five, a deceptively named three–piece who scored international hits such as ‘Brick’ and ‘Landed’, were notable for making guitar–free rock records based around vocal, piano, drums and bass, occasionally supplemented with orchestral arrangements. Ben went a step further on So There by leaving out the bass.
“Leaving the bass out was exciting,” he insists. “On the surface it’s a technical consideration, but it ends up being a philosophical, musical one. What does bass stand for? As a foundation? As a bass line? Sometimes you just want a big cushion of air moved, or you want rhythm, or you might put it on so that everyone feels OK. That’s completely fair, but when you take it out life becomes a lot more complicated! Sometimes it’s because you need the bass line to determine the harmony, and when you take that out, you are making assumptions about what chord it is and who is defining the chord.
“We can easily analyse which chord it is, but it really puts you in a different headspace to arrange for that. Jazz music, for example, basically says that a chord is only two notes. A jazz player thinks of the chord as the third, which qualifies the chord as major or minor, and an extension. That’s all you need. Then the bass player comes along and decides what the chord is called. So if I play the third and seventh, and he plays the root, then we have the chord we were expecting, but if he plays a tritone away from that, then suddenly the seventh becomes the third and third becomes the seventh and we have a new chord!
“You can re–harmonise it all over the place and it becomes really mathematical, but at the same time it’s also philosophical because you are saying, ‘No, I live on the 10th floor,’ or ‘I live in the basement.’ It’s perspective, and I think it’s wonderful.”