Rufus Wainwright

Feb 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By David John Farinella


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After what he terms a few “harrowing” experiences with record producers, singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright has finally found an aural ally in Marius deVries. “Marius has been a complete dream,” Wainwright says. “I like him a lot because he's a nice person and he's very British in his sensibilities in the studio and extremely efficient and diplomatic.” Each of those qualities became paramount as Wainwright and deVries worked through what would become two releases: the acclaimed current offering, Want One; and Want Two, which will be released this spring. Want One is an extremely clever and complex production, with huge variations in arrangements and instrumentation from track to track, as Wainwright ladles out heaping helpings of insight and autobiography.

Wainwright enjoys his time in the studio. “I'm perhaps more comfortable and confident in the studio than I am in real life a lot of the time,” he says with a laugh. “I grew up in and around the studio [he's the son of another talented singer/songwriter, Loudon Wainwright III]. I definitely associate it with the womb. I've always loved the studio and I'm very old-school about it. I know absolutely nothing about the technology of it whatsoever, but I love people running around doing things.” Absolutely nothing? “I literally am allergic to knobs,” he says with a laugh. “I break out in a sweat and become dyslexic. I still say, ‘Could you fast-wind that, please?’ So, no, I'm not technical at all.”

So it was fortunate that he and deVries crossed paths. Their initial recording dates took place at Looking Glass Studios in New York City during a long weekend in October 2002. “This went very well,” deVries recalls. “We ended up with three songs in good shape.” The chemistry between producer and artist was obvious, deVries says, and production kicked off in January 2003.

Wainwright explains that he would come in with a song and the two would put down a click track with scratch vocals and either a guitar or a piano. “Then we would hang out together and play keyboards and figure out what kind of bass line we wanted or what kind of horn line or find some weird synth sounds,” he says. “We'd get an idea of what kind of direction it was going in and then usually we'd hire a great guitar player to give it a real feel. Often times, we'd program drums ourselves, just for the idea, and we'd go back later [and cut drums]. So we'd sketch out a lot of what you hear beforehand, but then once the musicians came in, it was just a sketch for them to follow.”

“Rufus writes very thoroughly, more so than anyone I've worked with before,” deVries reports. “He brings his songs in very conceptualized in terms of harmony, melody, countermelody, even orchestration. Groove-wise and feel-wise, there was more room for me to help guide the songs, especially in the more uptempo numbers. But I was always concerned to work within the spirit of the original gestures embedded in the songwriting.”

Wainwright and deVries worked in seven studios: Looking Glass, The Maid's Room, Loho and Bearsville in New York, The Strongroom and Angel in London, and the Record Plant in Los Angeles. “This is my multicity, multicoastal album,” Wainwright says with a laugh. “It seems like this happens on every record of mine except for the first one, which was all in L.A. I get bored easy, I guess.”

According to deVries, each studio was selected for a specific reason. Looking Glass was used for the vibe and The Maid's Room for its “utterly noncorporate and homey feel,” deVries says. “We were there for the main New York City sessions, which were mainly Rufus and myself building up the tracks in Logic with a few instrumental overdubs.” During The Maid's Room dates, the crew moved over to Loho to record drum tracks.

The main band sessions were recorded at Bearsville. “We'd both always wanted to work there and it turned out to be a smart move,” deVries says. “The live area sounded fantastic, and with the very wintry conditions, it snowed us in for days at a time; in the rural environment, it made us really focused. As it happened, we were sadly the last session ever in Studio A.”

The Strongroom in London, where deVries has his own studio, was called on for its SSL console and mixing flexibility. Angel was used for the orchestral and choral recording dates. The Record Plant got tapped for the albums' final touches and for its Los Angeles location, where both Lenny Waronker and Robbie Robertson could listen to the tracks — “Their astute ears and wisdom were invaluable,” notes deVries.

John Holbrook, who engineered the Bearsville sessions, set up the dates with maximum possibilities in mind. “We needed to be able to go quickly from tracking a full rhythm section to overdubs or to Rufus doing solo piano and vocals,” he says. “We worked through a lot of music in a fairly short time.” Studio A's big room enabled them to have the drummer, bassist (the bass amp went in a box of baffles), keyboard player (set up with gobos) and guitar players (amps were set up in the iso booth near the control room) in the same room. “We also sometimes used Bearsville's movable gazebo vocal booth — which sits out in the room — for acoustic guitar and vocals or upright bass,” Holbrook adds. The control room hosted a MIDI station with a Kurzweil keyboard and several modules that deVries brought, which were all tied into the Pro Tools and Logic setup.

Holbrook's mic philosophy while at Bearsville was fairly simple: “We had several drummers so the setup changed a little bit for each guy,” he explains, “and we varied the amount of liveness by means of a beach umbrella and gobos around the kit. On some tunes, we tightened things up by lowering the umbrella and closing up the gobos. Either way, the ambient mics were printed on separate tracks for maximum flexibility.”

As for bass, Holbrook used a MusicValve tube DI, which is made by Nat Priest in New York, and a Neumann FET 47 on the amp, which was an SVT bottom driven by a B15 head. On electric guitars, a combination of Royer R121s (close) and tube 67s were used. For the acoustic guitar, he called on a vintage Neumann tube pencil mic, and pianos were miked with AKG 414s.

Wainwright's vocals were recorded with a Neumann U67 through a Neve pre into a LA-2A followed by a Distressor — both set for moderate gain reduction. “Rufus' voice presents a particular challenge in this respect; it's very dynamic and varied tone-wise from song to song,” deVries explains. “With him, you really want to capture the moment, the emotion and the performance.”

For the music beds recorded at Bearsville, Holbrook relied on dbx 160X or 160s on bass and guitars, while the piano got a Neve stereo compressor. The acoustic guitars ran through a vintage UA 175 compressor. All were moderately compressed, except the drums. The whole kit went direct to tape except for the snare, which was put through a Pultec EQ to add some brightness. Bearsville's vintage Neve console made it possible to work without any outboard pre's.

The majority of the recording sessions were recorded to 2-inch tape and Logic Audio Platinum driving Pro Tools|HD. As deVries explains, the key was to have the choice. “Some things worked much better in analog; some things didn't,” he says. While working in Pro Tools, deVries turned to plug-in standards such as Audio Ease Altiverb, Amp Farm and Emagic's tape delay.

Once the recording was done, the tracks were handed over to mix engineer Andy Bradford. As Bradford explains, there were some soft synths running during the mix sessions. “Marius and I sometimes do this,” he says. “So when it gets to the mix stage, some of it can be a work in progress, which gives us amazing flexibility of being able to change stuff on the fly. Some of the initial tracking was done on 2-inch for the sound of it, but for ease of editing and transportation, it all ended up in Logic. I mixed from Logic Audio Platinum running on an Apple dual 1GHz Macintosh G4 on Digidesign HD 3 hardware. We had 64 outputs feeding the desk.”

Bradford used an SSL 4000 G+ console for the mixes while some submixes were done in Logic because of the number of tracks in a couple of the songs. One of the tunes, “I Don't Know What It Is,” had 128 tracks in Logic and 64 tracks on direct TDM. “Those were running on the Mac itself but bused into the TDM mixer with ESB,” he explains. The song was such a monster because it included a full band, four guitarists, a full orchestra, a programmed drum kit, a choir, five pianos and, oh yeah, Wainwright's vocals. “It was a very complex and intricate arrangement with an incredible dynamic,” Bradford recalls. “It goes from whisper-quiet to full-on. We ended up tackling this one a couple of times before we wrestled it to the floor.”

To be sure, one album of such enormity must have been a challenge. So how did producer deVries keep up the energy knowing that he and Wainwright were working on two albums? “Adrenaline and enthusiasm,” he answers. “Working on a project as magical as this one was is rare, and the body responds. There wasn't a song that didn't demand maximum care and attention — plus, the support of a team of great people full of dedication and love for the endeavor.”

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