Here at iZotope, we don’t just make products for musicians, nearly everyone who works here is a musician themselves. Every Friday during our company meeting, people have an opportunity to share what gigs they have coming up, which can range from solo sets at a local coffeehouse, to taking a couple of weeks off to headline a tour.
We’ve been eagerly following the development of the new EP from indie garage rockers The Rare Occasions, featuring iZotope’s own Brian McLaughlin. What’s particularly interesting about their new EP Futureproof (released August 5, 2016), is that they’ve recorded it across coasts. Two of the band members are in Los Angeles, one in Brooklyn, and Brian is here in Boston. Before taking off for their CD release tour, we sat down with Brian to pick his brain about how they wrote, recorded, and mixed remotely, and how working across distances can influence the sound of a record.
Interestingly, their approach has relied on simple, free cloud collaboration tools, like Facebook and Google Drive, over new audio-specific sharing and collaboration services. When the band first formed in 2012, the band members were split between Berklee College of Music and Tufts University (both in the Boston area), so even though they were living within a few miles of each other, they were already starting to collect ideas online. “We have a massive Facebook thread where we exchange song ideas, riffs, details about potential gigs and business,” says McLaughlin.
As the band grew in distance, they also grew in popularity. In 2014, after winning Song of the Year in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition, they were invited to perform at the NAMM Convention in Anaheim, CA. This, and other big gigs, required some creative cross-country collaboration. Members would fly in for the gigs, and they would book sessions and rehearsals around each gig so they could work together while they were all in one place.
“On our previous EPs and singles, we had always produced things ourselves.” When all the band members were in Boston and could rehearse and gig regularly, “we would have the songs pretty well fleshed out before we got in the studio, then go into the studio just to track drums with some scratch tracks.” From there, they would do most of the overdubbing at home, layering parts, learning new techniques, and mixing as they went. “I’d post mixes to our Facebook thread and people would weigh in ‘tweak this,’ ‘tweak that,’ and I’d do that and send it back out to them” until they had the sound they wanted.
For the new EP, they brought in Steve Sacco to produce and mix. It’s been two years since their last EP, and since then they’ve been collecting ideas, hooks and riffs, and connecting them in times when they’re together. “Things were more experimental. Because of the remote collaboration, we had more time to just mess around with ideas.”
They shared stereo reference tracks on Google Drive, cut parts in their own locations on whatever DAW and equipment they had, then uploaded the individual high-resolution files back to Google Drive. Sacco would collect them all into the master session. “This kept the band from having to deal with a million tracks at a time; only Steve had to do that. You just have to make sure that everybody is starting their tracks at the exact same starting location, and exporting their takes that way too. That way they’ll all line up when they come back together in the master session.”
Drummer Luke Imbusch cut his tracks at HAUS Music in Los Angeles and The Record Company in Boston. For the LA sessions, drums were cut to a stereo reference of the rough song demo. “We would watch Luke do drum takes over Google Hangouts and give feedback like ‘you missed accenting the guitar with a snare hit on that beat’; that sort of thing. We also attempted to ‘jam’ over Google Hangouts while writing when we couldn't get together. It doesn't work for real-time playing, but you can bounce ideas and riffs back and forth almost as quickly as face-to-face.”
Once the drum tracks were added to the master session, other tracks were layered on by the rest of the band, with each taking the new stereo reference track and recording new tracks to that. Brooklyn-based bass player Jeremy Cohen would audition ideas directly into his computer with a DI. The finals were recorded in the iZotope studios in Cambridge, MA, where they could mic up the amp and blend that with a DI. Lead guitarist Peter Stone cut his guitar tracks in his LA apartment, using just one guitar, amp, and microphone. McLaughlin, who sings and plays guitar, cut most of his parts at iZotope as well. Imbusch (who is also active as a composer for film and television) also wrote and recorded the string parts for the record.
As the tracks came in, the mix started to form. “We would hold off on reverb and effects just to keep CPU down, but we were working on things as we went and they were just settling over time so there wasn’t much to do when it came time to mix.” Nectar 2 came in handy as they went to audition vocal effects. “The presets were a really good place to start. If we wanted a filtered megaphone, we could just start with the preset and go with it. Having the whole effect chain right there, it didn’t take a long time to set everything up and try out an idea.” You can hear Nectar 2 in action on the lead vocal of their song “Bug Eyes.”