L.A. Grapevine

Feb 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Bud Scoppa


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Greg Laswell recorded his brand-new Vanguard EP, How the Day Sounds, completely by himself, which is the way he's been operating since transitioning from a bandmember (Shillglen) to a solo artist in 1994. That's when he taught himself to make records as a sort of one-man band, coming up with the parts, playing and programming them, engineering, producing and mixing.

Mix and Electronic Musician served as Laswell's primary textbooks as he studied the ABCs of recording. “Those magazines were like porn to me,” he says jokingly. The neophyte producer made his first solo album on a Roland 1680 16-track recorder, then he hunkered down and sold copiers for nine months to “go computer,” as he calls it, “and I've never looked back.” His digital palette presently includes a high-mileage Mac dual G4, MOTU Digital Performer, a 1296 interface and Apogee Big Ben clock. He also does some work in Propellerhead Reason and makes extensive use of an Electron PCN plug-in reverb. “It's a modest setup,” he says, “but it's better to get a few really high-end things and learn the shit out of them than it is to get a bunch of low-grade stuff.”

The seven-song EP follows Laswell's 2006 album, Through Toledo, his first for Vanguard. That record not only drew critical accolades, it also generated the opportunity to make money on the road while leading to song placements in TV series including Shark, Smallville, One Tree Hill and Without a Trace. Concurrently, he's continued to serve as producer/player/programmer on various indie projects. The combined income from these activities has allowed him to make a decent living.

As he's done ever since getting the bug, Laswell has used part of any extra income, as well as the recording advances from his label, to upgrade his rig. His most critical acquisition has been a Millennia Origin Twincom compressor/limiter. “I pretty much send everything through it — vocals, guitars, drums,” he says. “There's a really great switch that you can flip on the left-hand side that makes everything magically sparkle.”

He's also fallen in love with the drum-sample libraries of Drum Kit From Hell and, for the latest project, BFD. “I can play drums,” he points out, “but I end up programming them most of the time because it's now extremely hard to detect that they're not real drums. On the EP, the drums are completely programmed using BFD, and then I just added some real tambourines, shakers and handclaps, which help to legitimize the tracks. It's the easiest thing you can do to make a track a lot better.

“On the EP, I did a bunch of the drum parts first,” Laswell continues. “The drum part for ‘Embrace Me' came right out of BFD, and I liked the drum part so much that I decided to write a song around it. I don't even really play on that song — I just hold down whole notes on the piano, get out of the way and let the drums take over.”

Laswell conceived and executed the EP's title song in a sustained burst of inspiration, enabled by his trusty set of digital tools. “I stumbled across this little piano line that I liked and laid it down really quickly so I wouldn't forget it. Then I decided to put down a quick guitar part, too. At that point, it got a hold of me, to the point where I started singing a melody over it just so that I could remember it. So I sang my fake lyrics and I actually liked the fake lyrics, so I decided to finish the song right then and there. I got all the verses by looping them, came up with a chorus, went back and programmed the drums. I literally wrote it and recorded it simultaneously. That's one of the great things about a home studio — and GarageBand is a big part of the process because you can immediately listen back to an idea and get an objective view of it.”

Laswell remains in his comfort zone with Digital Performer for both recording and mixing his projects, and he's been planning to pick up a top-of-the-line Mac to replace the G4, but he wasn't about to do so in the midst of recording the EP, knowing from bitter experience the perils of changing horses midstream. He's also getting into Logic after receiving an NFR copy from Apple. “It's an amazing program, and I'm thinking of using it next time around,” he says.

In December, Laswell started work on his next full-length, once again commuting between his Hollywood apartment and the garage studio in Santa Ana he leased before cutting the EP; he decided to separate life and work when he moved up from San Diego six months ago. But work remains play for him on a fundamental level. “You have to love the process as much as the end result,” he asserts. “If you don't love the process, you'll never get there because the process can be brutal.”

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