Mark Ronson Gets Real

Grammy Award winning producer/DJ/guitarist Mark Ronson mines past and present with the help of Boy George, the Dap-Kings, Duran Duran, Afrobeat, and stacks of analog synths on Record Collection

Grammy Award winning producer/DJ/guitarist Mark Ronson mines past and present with the help of Boy George, the Dap-Kings, Duran Duran, Afrobeat, and stacks of analog synths on Record Collection

Holed up in London’s Metropolis Studios while putting the finishing touches to Duran Duran’s hopeful comeback album, Mark Ronson acts dumbfounded when asked how he has extracted brilliant performances from some of the best vocalists in the music business. Ronson’s success with Adele, Christina Aguilera, Lily Allen, Bebel Gilberto, Robbie Williams, Amy Winehouse, and others suggests a magic touch, someone with a Svengali-like key to an inner world where sensitive singers give their best, perfect take after perfect take.

“Being a good producer means you’re part shrink, part diplomat,” Ronson says. “It’s knowing what people’s limits are, taking them there and not making them overshoot it. The worst thing is when a singer is trying to get a note that they can’t hit and you say, ‘C’mon you know you can do it’ and they can’t. Their ego is destroyed. Being a good producer is having a sense of people’s personalities and their limits.

“I’ve always admired Ross Robinson’s At the Drive-In records,” Ronson continues. “His thing is to get the singer so pissed off that he gets these amazing performances. But I am not capable of that and no one would buy it if I pretended to suddenly be angry. It’s not in my persona.”

Far from provocation, Ronson can be a pussycat: coaching, cheering, and even pleading if the vocalist is particularly . . . problematic.

“There’s no secret to the Amy Winehouse record (2006’s Back to Black),” Ronson confides. “With a lot of singers you’ll do takes, then comp it down to get the best parts. With Amy we would hit record and do three takes and it would be excruciating to decide which one to use, it was like asking which finger you want to cut off. When Amy sings something she cares about she will deliver a heartbreaking take every time. The only time she needs a little encouragement is when she sings something she doesn’t care that much about, or does a cover.

That’s when you have to tap dance to get her to do it. It’s me jumping around saying, ‘It’s going to be great! C’mon, Amy! You’re great! Let’s record it, please? Can we just go home soon?’”

Beyond Version

For Mark Ronson, home is where the studio is. The 35-year-old producer/guitarist/DJ/songwriter is the kind of multi-tiered talent that moves in a perpetual state of hipness and happening. His 2008 Producer of the Year Grammy Award for Back to Black followed his own wildly popular 2007 album, Version (RCA/Red Ink). A concept album of sorts, Version offered startlingly oddball and original covers of songs by Ryan Adams, Coldplay, The Jam, Radiohead, The Smiths, Britney Spears, The Zutons, Kaiser Chiefs, and various others. Version was awarded three top ten hits and multi-platinum sales by Ronson’s UK fans.

Currently traveling between homes in London and New York, holding down DJ gigs while scheduling A-list production duties, Ronson has finally found time to record Version’s follow-up, Record Collection (Allido/Sony BMG). Credited to Mark Ronson and the Business Intl., Record Collection combines Afrobeat rhythms, ’60s-styled R&B melodies, and ’70s- and ’80s-era analog synths with the vocals of D’Angelo, Boy George, Ghostface Killah, Phantom Planet’s Alex Greenwald, Simon LeBon, Nas, Q-Tip, Spank Rock, and the list goes on. Record Collection is an eclectic, often garish, bombshell packed with energy, ideas, and enthusiasm. Beginning with a synth obsession, Ronson soon called his friends to join in the fun.

“While producing Duran Duran, I fell in love with the tones and textures of Nick Rhodes’ synths,” Ronson recalls. “Before that, keyboards to me meant Wurlys and instruments of that era. Back in New York I started to collect synths: the Elka Synthex, Crumar Performer, [Sequential Circuits] Prophet-5, [Roland] Juno-6, the [Roland] Jupiter 4 and 8, ARP Solina, Moog Voyager. I moved this towering stack of synths into the Dap-King’s Dunham Studio (in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn), which looks like The Band in Woodstock in 1971. Then I had the luxury of getting my favorite musicians together in one room.”

Record Collection was recorded at Metropolis Studio in London, Downtown Music Studio (Manhattan), Merrick West 90 (Williamsburg, Brooklyn), and at Dunham Studio, with the Dap-King’s drummer Howie Steinweiss providing much of the album’s churning Afrobeat flavor. The songs are the product of heavily populated writing sessions (Cathy Dennis, Kaiser Chiefs’ Nick Hodgson, Alex Greenwald, and many more), and instrumental jams with Steinweiss, keyboard whiz Victor Axelrod, guitarist (and Dap-King’s engineer) Thomas Brenneck, and Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra’s bassist Nick Movshon. Record Collection is synth-fueled, overthe- top retro pop, pushed and prodded by a rolling Afrobeat pulse—and the groove never stops.

“There is a lot of information,” Ronson admits. “There are never more than eight tracks per song (recorded on Dunham’s 1977 MCI JH-400B eighttrack console), but when you’re writing and recording with such talented musicians, everyone plays a strong melody, and nobody wants to write the ‘album tracks.’ Maybe that is why there is sometimes too much energy. But you just know when something really good is being walked all over by another part, and it’s time to stop.”

Touched by Humans

“Bang, Bang, Bang” features Q-Tip (left) and MNDR (right), pictured with Ronson.

Ronson and his core band of Axelrod, Brenneck, Movshon, and Steinweiss recorded rhythm tracks live, without a click, and stacked synths track by track without sequencers, all at Dunham.

“It’s all live,” Ronson confirms. “Even on the hiphop track (“Introducing the Business”), you’re just hearing a live four-minute take; there are no loop sections. I am not a great guitarist, on my own I might get four good bars and loop it. But recording Nick, Victor, and Homer, there are going to be so many brilliant idiosyncrasies. Still, we didn’t cut anything to click. There are even a couple points that bugged me ’cause they pulled back so much, but that is just what makes it human.

A focus on “making it human” also figured into Brenneck’s approach to recording rhythm tracks. “I insist on recording analog,” Brenneck says. “The rhythm tracks and a couple synthesizers were cut live to half-inch, an Otari MX 5050. To me, analog sounds beautiful, and digital sounds terrible. It’s the way I’ve been recording since I began with Daptone Records nine years ago. I don’t have any ’60s gear, but a tape machine is a tape machine. I can still record drums really hot to tape; I can push it and get natural tape compression and saturation and all the characteristics that happen when you hit tape. Then we dump to Pro Tools [HD 8] at the end of day.”

The album’s stacks of synths were tracked running direct to the Otari through a Chandler LTD-1 with “a slot of EQ to make them sit well with the recording sonically,” Brenneck explains.

Ronson enlisted vocal pals from America and the UK for Record Collection, the variety befitting his wide ranging DJ tastes. Ghostface Killah emailed his contributions, LeBon and Boy George recorded at Metropolis, while the further cast of characters—Andrew Wyatt (Miike Snow), Rose Elinor Dougall (The Pipettes), Jarina de Marco, Dave McCabe (The Zutons), and Alex Greenwald— tracked at Dunham.

“With Boy George’s ‘Somebody to Love Me,’ Andrew and I were going for ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me 2010,’” Ronson says. “We wanted to capture the same kind of emotion. When I heard Boy George in the booth, I realized his voice was more mature; he was singing two octaves lower than in Culture Club. I thought ‘Is this going to work or am I going to have to politely pretend we are doing the sessions knowing it’s going nowhere?’ But as soon as he sang the chorus, there was so much power it sounded like an old beautiful blues recording. It’s incredible.”

Back in Brooklyn, Brenneck took the old school approach to recording vocals. As with the Dap-Kings, Brenneck likes his sounds gritty, natural—even ugly.

“I like the really classic Neumann U67 and we also used the Shure Unidyne III 545s,” Brenneck explains. “The Neumann is really crispy; the Shures have a lot of character; they don’t sound as open or beautiful. But we could overdrive the Shures and hit the tape really hard and get this gritty, natural analog distortion. I prefer the Shures over the condenser mics. Their high end isn’t as nice as the later Shure SM57s; it’s a little ugly. Depending on the song, we would A/B both microphones to see which one sat better with the rhythm track.”

Vocal signal chain details included the fastest compressor they have: a Universal Audio reissue 1176LN. “It has the quickest attack and release,” says Brenneck, who “loves” the MCI 400B’s preamps because “they’re loud and clean.” He compared them to the Chandler LTD-1 and the Purple Audio Biz Mk Pre and says, “The Purples are clear but they hum when you turn them up loud. The MCIs are loud and warm and have no hum. The Chandler sounded really close to the MCI when we A/B-ed them; it was hard to tell the difference. The signal chain was the microphone into the board then to the compressor to tape.”

The Spooky Art

While Brenneck’s vocal approach is standard, his drumset miking technique is radical: one mic, and one mic only. Given the huge, wraparound quality and feature role of Howie Steinweiss’ ’60s era Ludwig kit on Record Collection, Brenneck’s achievement is substantial, and not just a little spooky.

“Capturing drums on this record was very simple,” Brenneck says. “I used a vintage RCA DX-77 in the figure eight position for the entire drumkit. If you’re facing the kit, the RCA is to the right of the bass drum, almost underneath the snare drum, so you get that nice subtle left hand stuff really loud. The RCA has so much warmth. We just roll off the bottom end because it is so heavy. We’ll spend an hour moving the RCA an inch forward or an inch back. We’ll do that rather than messing with more mics or compressors. We only use the one mic but the EQ is pretty heavy handed. This room has a lot of low mids so I roll them off to get a really in-your-face snare drum.”

Brenneck only uses the one RCA on drums, but he’s not precious about it. He and Steinweiss will experiment, moving the mic, drums, and cymbals around to achieve the desired sound.

“Because we are using one mic, if the hi-hat is too loud, we will put a small baffle between the mic and the hi-hat. We do a lot of things like that to get the drum sound. We spend more time on the drums than anything, two hours a day for different songs. Sometimes we wanted the drums to sound ugly and heavy, other times, like on the Boy George song, we went for a less distorted, cleaner sound. For that we backed the microphone up a foot to get more room sound. If we wanted an in-your-face drum sound, we put the mic right up in there.

“There was no debate how the drums were going to be miked,” he adds. “One microphone, decisions on the spot and a good take. I don’t want to spend a day putting together a drum set again. I am working on eight-track—some of the limitations become the challenge of getting a great sound.”

It’s Mark Ronson’s World . . .

Currently working on a track for a Quincy Jones tribute album and awaiting the response to his pet project release, The Like, Mark Ronson muses about his future, his life, and his afterlife. After all, he’s getting the business, and business is good.

“My epitaph will be as a producer because that is where I have done my best work,” Ronson selfassesses. “Rock star, DJ, artist, those come as a result of the music you make, which in essence, is what you do as a producer. If I didn’t produce Amy Winehouse’s record nobody would have been interested in hearing what I had done as my own artist. That paved the way. It’s fun to run around the stage holding a guitar but I am not Jack White, I’m not Jimmy Page. That is not what I do great. We live in an era where producers are lucky to do all of those things. You can produce, you can do shows. We live in a producer’s era.”

Mixing Record Collection

Mix engineer Tom Elmhirst helped make Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black a success. He has also mixed records for Seal, James Morrison, Corrine Bailey Rae, Goldfrapp, Adele, Paolo Nutini, and many others. Working exclusively on a Neve VR console in Metropolis’ Studio C, Elmhirst mixed Record Collection using a bevy of hardware beauties.

“I used a lot of external reverbs: a Fairchild 670, old spring reverbs, and a couple 1970s Pioneer Reverberation Amplifier Model SR-202s. They’re old home hi-fi units; they’re not normal! I am not a fan of digital reverb, so I have a few springs I really like and the Trillium Lane Labs [TL Space Convolution] reverb plug-in. Spring reverb was a big part of the Winehouse record, and it’s in Mark’s sound as well. I use two or three different springs on a track and even on the vocal. I have an Orban 111B Spring Reverb, which is quite bright. The Pioneers are quite dull and long springs. So I combine the two. We added spring to the drum tracks and I combined the Orban with the TL plug-in for some vocals and guitar as well, but not so much on the synths.

“On some tracks, I like to keep things quite dry,” he continues. “I will probably keep the beat dry, then add a spring reverb on the chorus. The bass will always be dry. Some of the synths have huge amounts of effects on them. For instance, I use an old Boss CE-1 Chorus Pedal a lot on the synths, and a Lexicon Model 92 Delta-T. That was designed for stadiums to offset speaker delay. But it’s beautifully made. I use that for choruses; it’s a short delay on synths where I want width but I don’t want echo or reverb. And I use the Lexicon on vocals as well. I also use a DeltaLab Effectron for slap because I like its very short repeat.”

Treating the album’s many vocal sources brought out even more of Elmhirst’s hardware wonders: “Simon LeBon’s vocals have traditionally been double-tracked,” Elmhirst says. “We used an Eventide Harmonizer, and an old AMS [Model DMX 1580-S] Delay as well for Simon for doubling. Boy George was more suited to a wetter sound. I used the AMS Delay for that too, some Orban spring, a Watkins Copicat tape delay, and a nice Italian tape delay, a LEM EC-10. I used an echo chamber, the Altai VC-01, as well. All these units are really full of character, which is what I go for. I also used the Chandler TG-1, Manley Stereo Vari-Mu on the mix, and Waves plug-ins on the mix: I need the de-essers. In general, I like mixing plug-ins with strange outboard gear.”