Music: Inner Circle

Sep 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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The album was two-plus years in the making; not surprisingly, it was tracked at Circle House in the group's own space. Roger Lewis notes that it started out purely as a group effort: “None [of the songs] were done with the guests in mind originally. The thing about creation is you don't know where something is going. You start with a riddim, you start with an idea, you start with a feel, let it evolve. You come up with something, work wit' it, and than maybe later you say, ‘Damn, that would sound more wicked wit' dis guy on there or wit' dis kind of sound.’ But we started trying to record the tracks live, as a band, like old-time Jamaica.”

What was a typical session like? “Gather around midday or one o'clock every day,” Roger Lewis replies, “then go to one or two in the morning, depending on the vibe. Jammin', workin' songs out. In between there's a lot of food eatin' and the domino playin' and arguing.'” [Laughs] The group doesn't have to worry about the expense of studio time, or hiring an outside engineer, either — bassist Ian Lewis has been covering that end of things for the band for some time.

Asked who his mentors were in learning engineering, Ian Lewis credits Jack Nuber, who cut some of Bob Marley's later albums and worked with Talking Heads, Robert Palmer and others down at Compass Point and other studios; producer/engineer Alex Sadkin (Marley, Third World, Black Uhuru, Thompson Twins, Duran Duran, et al); and, more recently, Lou Diaz, who he says taught him Pro Tools. State of Da World was a hybrid analog/digital project, “using a lot of tube stuff — LA-2As and old EQs and preamps. I used [Neve] 1073s and 1081s, bringing them in through Pro Tools — that's why the kick and the bass sound so good; we work a lot on that to give it that old reggae sound.

“What's funny is most people don't realize that a lot of that [classic reggae sound] was just two mics in a room, but you had very good musicians who were creating the sound. A lot of it was 2-track and 4-track — when we went to 16-track in Jamaica, it was like, ‘Man, it's too much tracks!’ [Laughs] Now, with Pro Tools you can hit 60 tracks and not realize it. You have so many choices, and you say to yourself, ‘Where am I going with this record?’ You do one bass line and you really like it, and then another and you like that even more, and then when you go back to the old one, you can mix and match the pieces. Those choices are good choices, but when you're going to stack 23 tracks of vocals, that's when it's the bad choices.”

Reggae, Ian Lewis says, has unique challenges from an engineering standpoint because of the importance of the drum and bass rhythm. “It's not like hip-hop where you got 16 tracks of drums and you might hit them all hard [in a mix]. With reggae, you want to make sure you get that crack off the side stick, use some compression to hold that bass tight, get the kick drum hitting right, work the rhythm guitar…you have to know when the points are going to collide and then guide it so it all hangs together and nothing gets in the way of anything else. It has to work together right but not lose the overall feel. Once you get the drums, bass and guitar together, overdubbing is easy.”

Ian Lewis notes that Junior Jazz's lead vocals were captured with a Neumann U87, “and we didn't need to comp them — when the red light goes on, he knows what he's doing. He's got a good strong voice. Sometimes we'll double on some notes. And, of course, we'll use some unison vocals and maybe a two-part harmony on top.” And then there were the guests: “Oh, man, every one was different,” Ian Lewis says. “Every guy works differently. But it was cool. Technically, it's no problem. It's all about the vibe.”

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