Though perhaps best known for his Zen-like pacing and gorgeous live feel as the drummer for both Beck and R.E.M., Joey Waronker has spent equal time exploring the darker reaches of electronic beat programming and radical plug-in methodology. And as producer for cutting-edge alt-bands Yeasayer and Other Lives, and drummer for Radiohead singer Thom Yorke’s extraordinary Atoms for Peace project, Waronker has pushed drum sonics into exciting new territory
We chatted with Waronker about his drum and production philosophy, his favorite UAD plug-ins, and a session he recently produced and performed on at Universal Audio’s Studio 610, tracking The New Pornographers' A.C. Newman exclusively through Apollo interfaces and the included Realtime Analog Classics plug-in bundle.
"The coolest thing for me is to be challenged by the people I work with," says Joey Waronker.
Does tracking in real time with Apollo, and printing UAD preamps and EQs restore some of that old-school commitment to bold artistic decisions associated with traditional analog recording?
I think so. There’s a magic involved in the analog experience that gets clouded over with too many choices in the digital world, and tracking through Apollo and UAD plug-ins splits the difference. The fact that the UAD preamps and EQs are truly reacting and responding as you’re recording, in the way that the original hardware units would, is pretty incredible.
With Apollo and UAD plug-ins, your project studio feels and sounds much more like a high-end studio, because you can create your own full-scale mixing board. If you have, say, an Apollo 8 and you’re using all eight inputs with a UAD Neve 1073 Preamp & EQ Collection plug-in on each channel, it’s really like you’re using a proper outboard console. If someone wants me to work with them in their studio, and it turns out they have an Apollo, I’m happy.
For the A.C. Newman tune, “Colossus of Rhodes,” you relied exclusively on the UAD Realtime Analog Classics Bundle. Talk about 610-B Tube Preamp & EQ, 1176 Classic Limiter, Teletronix Limiter plug-ins included with Apollo’s Realtime Analog Classics Bundle.
A.C. and I wanted to track “Colossus of Rhodes” in a style that’s often called “Countrypolitan” — country records out of Nashville in the ’60s and early-’70s, with a bit of psychedelic feel and some urban sophistication. So to that end, we were thinking, “What gear would be in the studio in 1976 if we walked in to do a record like that?”
So you printed tracks with the 610-B, 1176, and LA-2A plug-ins. What did those plug-ins give you sonically?
This was a fairly large multi-track Pro Tools session, too, so having the entire rhythm section going through the 610-B Tube Preamp & EQ and 1176LN compressor plug-ins on the front-end really helped glue all the bass and drums together in a really nice, round way. I also use the grey UAD Teletronix LA-2A a lot on certain things, because I love the way it flattens out the tone.
The 610-B is such a simple preamp, yet you had a trick that shaped the tone substantially, you flipped the phase switch. Why?
The flip-phase on the under-snare mic is definitely a go-to move for me and for just about everybody I’ve ever worked with. You’re basically adding the under-snare mic to add a bit of brightness, so if it’s out-of-phase it can kind of make the snare drum sound a little thin and even go away. If it’s properly in-phase, though, it retains, and even adds a little bit of midrange so the snare pops.
“If someone wants me to work with them in their studio, and it turns out they have an Apollo, I’m happy.”
What are your personal go-tos for recording drums?
A few things: I really like the sound of a mono overhead mic, aimed at the kick and snare, that’s compressed quite aggressively. It may end up low in the mix, but I love having it. Also, I gravitate toward old dynamic mics like the Electro-Voice 666, which sounds great on the kick drum.
A lot of those older dynamic mics have a quirky tonal character already, which means that I don’t have to go crazy trying to sculpt something out of EQ or compression after the fact; instead, as with UAD plug-ins in the Apollo Console app, I can get most of the way there on the way in, from mic to “tape,” rather than having to chip away during mixdown.
Your manipulation of drum sounds is one of your biggest calling cards as an artist and producer, and collaborator. What are some of your recipes to capture your sounds?
Often I want to isolate the kick and snare, so I use the Neve 88RS Channel Strip to really gate each drum, almost making them sound more like samples, so from there I can process them quite a bit without any extra ringing or noise.
I use a UAD Neve 1073 Preamp plug-in on both kick and snare pretty consistently for EQ. I also use the UAD Moog Multimode Filter quite a lot for distortion and for making drums sound rounder and more musical.
Likewise, a great way of distorting and gating and tonally shaping the drums in more adventurous ways is using the UAD Valley People Dyna-Mite limiter plug-in. It sounds really true to me, it sounds real.
What do you use for ambient effects?
For re-amping stuff, I used to literally put a speaker in the tracking room, pump out the track, and record that. But now, I can just lazily use the UAD Ocean Way Studios plug-in for that kind of room or chamber effect.
The UAD EP-34 Tape Echo is a definite go-to for vocals. Lastly, I love the UAD EMT-140 Classic Plate Reverberator. For drums, I like to tweak it a little bit brighter than usual, and take out the low-end frequency boom for most things. Seriously, for how good the UAD EMT-140 sounds, and the sheer amount of adjustability, it’s pretty stunning. I can easily end up with three of those on a session, no problem. I love it.
“The fact that the UAD preamps and EQs are truly reacting and responding as you’re recording like the original hardware units is pretty incredible.”
How do you negotiate the balance — or let’s say, the dual roles — between producing and playing drums?
If I’m producing and playing on something at the same time, as I’ve done with both Yeasayer, on their most recent album, Amen & Goodbye, and with Other Lives, on their latest, Rituals, I will mangle and reshape my own live drum performances quite a lot, which is a really satisfying process for me, and the result is that it becomes more like I’m programming the drums rather than playing them live. This is really how most of the things I’ve produced that have been the most successful creatively have gone down.
Do you ever miss tracking live in the more traditional sense?
To be honest, purely live tracking sessions, with session musicians, can often be very linear and somewhat mundane-sounding for me. Like, “Oh, my God — this sounds so normal. But generally, I get involved with artists who are interested in a little bit of experimenting and taking risks with production, and even their writing ideas are partly based on the creative use of sounds and effects.
"Tonal colors are very important to me," says Waronker. "I just want to arrive at a tone that works for me, rather than set out to accomplish a particular end result."
Drummers are almost always principally collaborators, whereas producers often take a “My word is final!” approach. Where do you, a drummer and a producer, fall in that spectrum, philosophically?
I feel that I’m always a collaborator. The artists I work with may not always officially be producers, but in effect, they are — their songs come from a place in which production ideas are central, which is increasingly common. And that’s a happy thing for me. I like to have that back-and-forth with artists. That’s rewarding and enjoyable, because they’ll do stuff that I wouldn’t have thought of, and vice-versa.
The coolest thing for me is to be challenged by the people I work with, rather than the idea of the producer as someone who comes in and “fixes” something. When I was in bands, we’d always come into the studio with these grand ideas, and it was so sad to have them generally shot down by a producer who says, “Oh, I know how to make a record, let me do my thing.” I feel that my role is to find a way to make an artist’s idea work, even if that idea is not fully formed or articulated yet, rather than just scrap it and “do my thing.” Now, mind you, I’m not making millions of dollars in production royalties, but I am having a very good time.
— James Rotondi