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Do The Right Thing: Gear Talk with Rob Oberdorfer from Ages and Ages

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OK. Before we start this feature, you have to listen to this track. The album won't drop until 3/25/14 but the lead single is starting to make its way around the Blogosphere. Robin Hilton from NPR's All Songs Considered said that "It brings a tear to my eye, it's just so uplifting." And I have to agree. I wouldn't normally post something here about a band that's not as well known but this music is so damn good, that I just had to share. Simply click on the album cover below to open up the SoundCloud page.




See what I'm saying. And now that you're hooked, let's talk some shop. Rob Oberdorfer, the bassist and frequent Head-Fi visitor, was kind enough to talk about how the track and album were recorded. And for those of you who were listening closely and thought that you heard some binaural mics, keep on reading...


Hi Rob. Thank you for taking time out of your day to answer some questions for us. So listen, while it’s the melody and harmonies that hook me when listening to Divisionary: Do The Right Thing, the recording itself is what really holds my attention. The song feels so simple. Which makes me think that it was anything but. So just how many people are actually singing on the chorus?

First off, thanks! Glad you dig the record! It has been really gratifying to get such a warm response so far. I think Head-Fi is a great resource, btw :)

We had up to 11 people singing live together on our group vocal sessions. As I recall, the main "Do the right thing..." part was split into higher and lower octaves, and at least one harmony. Those were probably groups of 5-9 (depending on people's ranges), and most were double-tracked. There are also two counter-melody parts which were big groups double-tracked. We'd shuffle people around the room and sometimes switch mics for the double-tracks to enhance the crowd effect. That song in particular has a ridiculous amount of voices on the outro - like the lonely dude from the intro eventually becomes surrounded by this altruistic mob.

And while recording, were they they singing individually and then layered or were they singing as a group?
There wasn't any vocal layering that I can recall - except for Tim's lead vocal parts and some individual harmony parts. It is really tough to convincingly simulate the effect of people singing together in a room. Voices interact in space a lot differently than they do in a reverb send... Since we are a vocal-oriented band, we are used to doing it that way anyway. It can be tough at times to get everyone nailing a part at the same time, but that is part of the excitement and challenge of being in the band (and recording that way). We'd much rather have a raw, raspy, charmingly-flawed performance than a pitch-corrected, over-analyzed stack of perfect tracks with little emotional impact. 
What microphones were you using for the vocals?
Most of Tim's leads were with a mid/side pair of U47's (modern Telefunken and Soundeluxe versions). Some of the group vocals were through those as well. We also had a binaural head (serious-looking foam face) set up with a pair of Neumann KM83's. The third option was a pair of Bock/Soundeluxe U195's which were nice for a little more bite compared to the omni's and tube mics. We'd switch between the mics and see which had the right flavor for the part. In fact, almost the entire record was recorded with just those stereo sets of mics, including drums, percussion, piano, organ, etc. Tony Lash's (producer) philosophy was that the record should sound like the listener was standing there in the room with the band, so we went to pretty great lengths to maintain that perspective. We'd move people and instruments around the room rather than moving mics. 
And were there any particular effects being used on Tim’s voice?
Some of his tracks were double-tracked. Other than that it was mostly just using distance from the mic to get the right amount of roominess. 1-2 of the songs have Tim's vocal run through an amp in the back of the room, and then that mixed in to add a little extra depth. 
Any chance that you’d ever release an a cappella clip of some of the track? 
Interesting idea! We'd have to hear what it sounded like that way...some parts would make more sense than others. It would be fun to release stems of some of these songs for remixes, to hear the vocals with different musical beds and structures. 
So besides for being the bassist/ percussionist, you’re also an audio engineer. Did you spend a lot of time behind the desk on this project or were you too close to the project as a performer? 
I don't mind balancing engineering and performing on Ages and Age's recordings but it can be really helpful to work with an outside producer who has an objective ear and fresh perspective. Both Tim and I like Tony's work and have worked with him in different capacities before so we knew we could let go of the reins a bit and not end up with something mediocre. Tony's also an excellent engineer, so it made sense for him to take the lead on that stuff, as he was the one expected to mix it in the end. I did end up doing a fair amount of the work both at Jackpot! and at my home setup. It was cool for me, because I could just focus on performing when needed, and then dig into the sound stuff more when I wasn't. 
I understand that you recorded at your home studio and at Jackpot. How did each situation compare? 
There are the typical drawbacks and advantages of working in a home studio: It's free and comfortable, but it is still a home with people living in it, so there are built in scheduling issues and noise limits. Beyond that, the live room at Jackpot! really was integral to the sound of the record. That meant the tracks recorded at my place had to blend in sonically as much as possible. I've got a basement studio which is heavily treated and acoustically very dead - great for the meaty 70's drum closet type of sound, but not for the "live in the room" vibe we needed. I ran a snake upstairs into my living room and tracked a bunch of stuff there, including some of the smaller group vocals, guitars, percussion, and drums. It is a darker, quirkier space than the rather neutral-sounding live room at Jackpot!, so it took a little extra messaging on my part (and Tony's in the mix) to get things to appear seamless. Part of that consistency was using my own "poor man's" version of some of our setups to mimic our signal path at Jackpot! For example, I don't have a pair of U47's laying around! Instead, I borrowed a friend's Pearlman TM-1 to get in the ballpark for some of Tim's lead vocals. For the stereo room setups, instead of KM83's I had Beyerdynamic 930's. The U195's were mine and Tony's mics, so those were consistent. Instead of API 512's, I had CAPI's (Classic Audio Products of Illinios, budget-friendly classic API console preamp recreations). It was all done in Pro Tools, so there was never a problem recalling sessions at different places. 
Got it. Any other details about your home studio set up? 
It's a really comfortable basement project studio. Although it is ideally geared for overdubbed projects or mixing, I've also managed some pretty presentable full live band (mostly rock or folk stuff) recordings both in the studio space and upstairs. Sometimes the dead basement studio is the perfect vibe for a track, and sometimes upstairs in the more lively space is better. I've got a vintage upright piano in the living room and it sounds lovely in there, as do big rock drums. I don't think there is a room in my house I haven't used at some point. The kitchen is great for clap tracks. The bathroom has an interesting slapback effect... One of these days I hope to put a couple of wall panels in upstairs so I can use the whole house on a whim. 

Anyway,  there's lots of instruments, little funky guitar amps and keyboards — plenty of odds and ends to keep things interesting. I've got a small, but versatile mic and outboard gear collection. I've cycled through a lot of things and recently weeded out as much filler as possible. I'd rather have 4-5 great, versatile choices than 20 boxes that are only good at one or two things. Monitoring-wise, I've got a pair of Neumann KH120 monitors, along with some terrible $10 computer speakers for reference. They are getting fed by a Dangerous D-Box for conversion and routing. I also picked up some Shure 940 headphones recently (partially based on reviews found on Head-fi.org - thanks!).
Any advice to up and coming engineers reading this?

Assist for friends/mentors. Sit in on sessions every chance you get. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Recording geeks love to talk about this stuff. 

Read "Mixing With Your Mind" by Mike Stavrou. Ignore the chapter on digital audio (it's outdated), but otherwise it is full of brilliant, unconventional advice you won't find elsewhere.
Train your ears by testing your equipment: In the last couple of years I've started shooting out my stuff in my free time. Whenever I buy or borrow a new piece of recording gear I set aside time for objective listening. I take notes on my mics on different sources and run the same drum loops through every compressor I get my hands on. It has helped me know what my gear really is (or isn't) capable of, what's good for what, and it helps to clear out misconceptions and marketing hype. I'm faster and more intuitive in real sessions. Even if you are just processing with software this applies. 

Learn more:


And feel free to ask questions in the thread. I'm sure that Rob would be happy to answer. Like all of us, can any gear head really resist talking shop.





Mike Dias is a huge fan of music, of telling stories, and of laughing. And lucky for him, he’s somehow managed to make somewhat of living from this. He designs funny and creative apps for the iPhone. He is the music supervisor for Ultimate Ears and he writes about music and the music industry. He’s always happy to talk about artists, apps, and in-ears so feel free to reach out about any of those topics. Email him directly.



post #2 of 3

Thanks for casting more light toward a direction we look and love... music! thumbsup.gif

post #3 of 3

soundcloud? It's just compressed so badly that digital artifacts stand in the way of any sort of enjoyment. In this track it really stands out in the cymbals. For me, this prohibits a listen.

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