Running their own power-pop kingdom, California alt-nerd rockers Weezer perfect themes of partying, hot girls, mall cruising, and universal love on their seventh album, Raditude [Geffen]. Recorded at four different studios, Raditude reflects Weezer’s newfound recording approach. Drummer Patrick Wilson handled the bulk of guitar duties with rhythm guitarist Brian Bell, while principal composer and vocalist Rivers Cuomo mostly showed up to record vocals, handing off arrangement and sonic decisions to producers Butch Walker (Pink, Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry, Dashboard Confessional) and Garret “Jacknife” Lee (U2, Snow Patrol, R.E.M.). Still, with the band members’ roles seemingly in transition, Raditude is the ultimate Weezer production, a gleaming slab of radio-ready rocking pop that combines contemporary studio techniques with old-school songwriting skills.
Working with Lee at The Village and The Document Room, and Walker at his Ruby Red Studio (all in L.A.), Weezer also enlisted hip-hop mogul Jermaine Dupri for “Can’t Stop Partying” (with Lil Wayne, produced by Polow Da Don) and Luke Gottwald, a.k.a. Dr. Luke, on “I’m Your Daddy.”
Keeping up with Cuomo as he co-wrote songs with various artists (including Adam Lambert) for Weezer and future projects, the producers found guerilla tactics worked best. A renowned introvert, Cuomo didn’t want to record vocals in a proper studio, so Walker invited him to his Santa Monica home (he and Cuomo live on the same tree-lined street) where he coaxed the singer with a laptop, API Lunchbox, Apogee Duet, Blue Bottle and Telefunken U47 microphones, and backup singers (a.k.a. girls from the local coffee shop). Over at Ruby Red, the rest of Weezer—also including session drummer Josh Freese and bassist Scott Shriner—laid down instrumental tracks with engineer Jake Sinclair (who founded the ultimate Weezer tribute band, WannaBeezer, in high school) adhering to Ruby Red’s celebrated all-mono approach to drum tracking and gritty, supersaturated guitars.
Meanwhile, Lee used spare time surrounding Cuomo’s rare appearances to experiment (often effecting drums with Ohm Force Ohmicide plug-ins). He and engineer Tom McFall recorded a different kit for each track, typically trolling through Lee’s iPod for inspiration to create a different mood for every new Cuomo song.
Raditude grew out of Cuomo’s rough demos, which he works up on an ancient Sony Vegas video editing program. Later, Walker and Sinclair used the demos for the basis of many of Raditude’s tracks, sometimes keeping Cuomo’s fully fleshed out demos and only replacing drums and guitars, track by track. But just as often they recorded Weezer live in the studio, occasionally keeping full-band performances, sometimes stacking parts as the muse hit them.
From the first single, “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To,” to pop-punk kickers like “Let It All Hang Out” to the Bollywoodinspired “Love is the Answer,” Raditude finds Weezer perfecting their sound and style, settling into the band’s middle age, taking names, kicking ass and, oh yes, moving mass quantities of product. Now, that’s Raditude.
RIVERS CUOMO: ON LAB COATS, RECORDING VOCALS, AND LIL WAYNE
After seven Weezer records, do you favor a particular recording approach?
For our first record [Weezer], we hunkered down for five weeks at Electric Lady in New York with an engineer and producer. It felt very professional and traditional. Nowadays it feels like small potatoes. You’re at your neighbor’s house, just the two of you. I am old-school guy. I would be happiest doing it early ’60s style where the recording crew wore white lab coats. Actually, Jacknife’s crew wore white lab coats during some of the sessions. I like that vibe.
You don’t like the modern recording sound?
I can’t complain about the sound. But I guess my childhood dream of singing in a rock band and making records was always about going to a recording studio where there’s no sunlight and lots of gear and there’s a sense of excitement and pressure when you’re doing a vocal. Now it’s so much more casual and less professional feeling.
Then why do it that way?
I guess it’s just way cheaper. But at the same time our records cost more than ever, so I don’t know what’s going on! But yeah, I’d rather be at Abbey Road. Definitely.
How did you hit on using Sony Vegas for demos?
It’s very rare that musicians use it, but ten years ago that’s the program I got a hold of and that’s what I learned, so it’s impossible for me to switch now. Sometimes I create full demos on it with my Dell laptop. [For] a song like “Trippin’ Down the Freeway” I just went into my little shack and fully arranged the song. “Can’t Stop Partying” was just one mic, and I sang and played acoustic guitar for the demo. That’s all it needed.
How do you like to record vocals?
As I’ve been working with different producers from different backgrounds over the past year, I’ve been exposed to a number of ways to record vocals. When we made the Blue album in ’93, I was shocked when Rick Ocasek wanted me to sing the song four times and then he comped the takes together. That blew my mind. I’ve stuck to that ever since. And with digital I can do even more takes and comp from there, usually line by line. And we do a little tuning if we have to. I’ve also been exposed to other ways, just singing eight takes of a verse and not singing the whole song. Then singing the whole chorus. Recently, we recorded a song for Yo Gabba Gabba!, and I didn’t know the song, so I literally sang one line at a time, and I would do four takes of each line. It came out really good! I love experimentation and trying different approaches.
Also, I don’t want any effects on my voice when tracking but I do want a ton of compression. I want to hear all the sounds in-between the words, the sound of my breathing and the sounds my mouth makes. I think there is a lot of expressiveness in those sounds. I want to be able to hear all of that.
How do you prep?
You’ve got to get your whole physical system heated up. I do pushups and sit-ups. Or I run on the treadmill or just do a bunch of vocal takes. All that energy, your blood pumping and your heart beating: That ends up on the tape or the hard drive.
Besides co-writing a couple songs with Butch Walker, you also wrote “Can’t Stop Partying” with Jermaine Dupri. That must have been a new experience.
It’s a combination of a party attitude and also some darkness and sadness and complexity. We just traded files over the Internet. To top it off we got Lil Wayne to do the rap. At first his lyrics bothered me ’cause they were so hedonistic. But even though the lyrics sound like they could have been written by a kid, they’re just perfect. I ended up rewriting the music and putting it in a minor key, which gave a different spin to the lyrics. The lyrics are about partying, but with heart-breaking music under it. It’s so satisfying to me.
Can you contrast working with Butch Walker and Jacknife Lee?
Jackknife does a lot of work in Logic, and he does a lot of experimentation with texturing, effects, and processing guitars so much that they don’t even sound like guitars anymore. It sounds more atmospheric. You hear that on “I Don’t Want to Let You Go,” the beautiful closer to Raditude. And it takes a long time to cut a song with Jacknife. But it’s worth it.
Butch is more straightforward. By the end of the first day you have all the instruments tracked, and it sounds like a live rock band playing together in a room. Butch does like some ear candy, so on “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” he tapped on a bottle of water to get that little bell sound in the pre-chorus. And he’s not afraid to bring in some girls from the coffee shop to do background vocals, like on “Let It All Hang Out.”
BUTCH WALKER: ON MONO RECORDING AND WHY CYMBALS ARE THE ENEMY
How did you come to write with Rivers Cuomo, then produce tracks for Raditude?
It escalated from being asked to co-write a song—“(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To”— then Rivers liked it so much he asked me to produce. He’s an interesting character; he didn’t know I produced records. “You produce what you write, as well?” Next thing I know Rivers wants me to produce Weezer.
You’re a big Weezer fan. What was your overall approach to recording the band?
The dilemma we were all having is pop radio in its current state. Shit is so ridiculous sounding now. The songs on the radio all sound like a slot machine at a casino at 6 A.M. It’s all bells and whistles and sirens and autotuned glitch vocals. It’s overkill. Here’s a rock band trying to stay faithful to their fans and be somehow relevant on the radio, when radio is playing goofy-ass music. I just thought we could get away with it sounding kind of bombastic and in the meantime give it this Violent Femmes trashy acoustic bass and drums. Just marrying those elements with the big sounds but not make them sound like a contemporary record either.
Artists come to Ruby Red [Bob Dylan’s Rundown Studio in the late ’70s] for your sound, which includes mono guitar and drums recording.
Current rock music, emo records in particular, sound so generic—20 distorted guitar tracks piled on top of each other. Very rarely will I more than double a guitar; it will be a stereo double of a rhythm guitar to get a big sound and without a lot of distortion. We don’t quadruple rhythm guitars, but we will take a slide part or guitar lick and make it mono up the middle and record that four different times. We also make it kitschy and out of tune with itself. I might double a guitar part and do an overdub where I lean on the headstock [bending the neck slightly from the headstock], making the second take rub with the previous take. That creates this weird tension [and chorusing effect] and makes it sound bigger. That’s one of those Brian May techniques where his lead guitar sound is almost like a string section. But if you keep stacking the same sound on top of itself, you get this weird frequency buildup that cancels out the bigness to me.
And you record drums in mono?
We’re big fans of mono overheads. That ’80s and ’90s hard stereo panning of the drums is annoying. We put the drums straight up the middle. And cymbals are the enemy! Most drummers abuse them and don’t know how to play them. When John Bonham and Keith Moon had to make a drum kit sound really big, they didn’t have 14 mics on the kit. To make it sound good by the time the drums got compressed and sucked through the room mics, you couldn’t bash the cymbals and expect that to sound good. Cymbals take up all the space in the recording. We’ll overdub cymbals later. We make the drummer play the drums without any cymbals up. That’s an old Roy Thomas Baker trick. Your possibilities are endless then. We do that just to get the kick and snare and toms so controlled that we can blow them out and make them crazy distorted without having any cymbals in the sound. Then we go back and get nice controlled overheads and room mics for cymbals.
JAKE SINCLAIR: ON SECRET WEAPONS AND NITTY-GRITTY DETAILS
What’s the main gear at Ruby Red?
We use a Digidesign Icon console. We always stay in the box. We run everything coming in through such old gear, it’s warm and toasty by the time it gets to Pro Tools.
How does Butch work typically?
Butch likes to work fast. We don’t spend a long time getting sounds; we leave everything miked up all the time. Weezer used all our gear, except for their Diezel “Wiezel” [VH4] amp and Rivers’ Boss Turbo Distortion pedal. He likes guitars super dirty. They played live tracks as a band, and we would build piece by piece to focus on parts depending on the song. Sometimes it was all live; sometimes it was piece by piece. For a couple songs Butch and Rivers wrote, they had a great-sounding demo with MIDI drums and guitars and bass straight in. So we cut the drums on top of that and added a new bass. At the end of the day we’d have a really big track.
What are Ruby Red’s secret weapons?
We have two Collins compressors (26W and 26U) that I pretty much send everything through. They’re ’50sera ham radio-looking compressors. All tube. They are like a poor man’s Fairchild with their own unique sound. One of them has a slower release, and we use that for kick drum and bass, and the other has fast release, slow attack, so we use it for vocals, piano, and guitar. I try one or the other, and it’s always magic—it’s perfect for what we’re doing. Another secret weapon is the Altec 1567a four-channel mixer. I use that every time for bass, without an amp. It’s so rich, warm, and full. We turn it all the way up.
And for vocals?
For most of it we used a Telefunken U47. Also a Blue Bottle and a Neumann M 49. The M 49 is super warm; it really suited River’s vocal. We always only use our Neve 1073 for everything. I like the sound of always using the same preamp for everything: drums, bass, guitars, vocals. It makes everything feel like it’s glued together. Butch also brought a Neve 1084 to his house for Rivers’ vocals. He used the Neve 2264 compressor on the vocal at his house and we ran it through the Collins 26W. The Blue Bottle and U47 sound pretty close to each other. There’s a little less high end with the 47. They are similar in the midrange; you get that larger-than-life vocal sound. For EQ, I like to boost at 1.6kHz on the Neve—that’s like the magic spot for me. Then we usually highpass everything really steep at 3 or 400 then add a bunch of 12kHz to get that gritty sound.
Butch likes mono drums, but how do you actually record drums?
We send all the drums and the overheads to the Digidesign Lo-Fi plug-in as an auxiliary, and it blows up the drums. We put maxi pads on the toms to get them really dead, and yellow notebook paper and tape on the snare, tuned down low. The paper gives the snare drum the deadness we like and a faster release. We have a lot of room mics happening—AKG C 24 high, Neumann M 49 mid-room. That way when we crunch the drums up, they really sound explosive. We also remove the front head from the kick, sometimes the bottom heads off the toms. We are huge ’70s recording fans; that’s it for us.
Which microphones and mic preamps for drums?
We use [Audio-Technica] AT4047 and Calrec CM1050C mics on the snare, pushed together so they are in phase. An Electro-Voice RE20 underneath the snare, another AT4047 on the rack tom, and an [Electro-Voice] RE20 on the floor tom. Sometimes a Shure SM7 on the hi-hat. And Coles 4038 for the overheads set up the Glyn Johns way, where it’s set like a triangle 36 inches above the snare measured from the middle, then 36 inches next to the floor tom looking at the snare, one on top, one on the side. If I can get the drums to sound right there, then I start sneaking in the close mics. That gives you a real natural picture of what real drums sound like without being overhyped. The Coles really boost the high end, but they are very warm. The Calrecs are a big part of the sound, too. It’s the perfect snare mic for what we like; it sounds very crisp
Do you rely on overheads for Butch’s mono approach? It’s 60 percent room mics, then overheads and close miking. We like to switch between the mics, and we always like to blow up and enlarge everything. We hit the Neves—2264 and 2074—really hard on the way in, and it sounds so natural using the room mics. Once those are right, getting the attack is easy. I don’t compress snare and kick very much; I have them going through the Smart C2 compressors, but just barely. We split the signal to have clean and distorted; that’s another part of our sound for drums. Everything is sent to distortion at some point, but with clean mixed in so we can go back and forth between the two depending on the song.
Raditude’s guitars are so saturated and in your face—it’s pure classic rock.
We look at guitars as oil and water: two separate, different-sounding guitars. Pat played a lot of guitar, usually a Les Paul or a Strat, going through the Wiezel amp [the band taped a “W” over the “D” in Diezel]. We put that through our Bogner 4X12 miked with a Sony C37A; that is the best guitar amp mic ever. We usually go straight in front of the cone right up to the grill— we like that brightness. The Sony creates this larger-than-life sound.
The Sony goes through another Neve and a Pultec EQP-1A EQ. We don’t compress guitars. We use a Visual Sound V2 RT66 Route 66 compressor pedal or sometimes the Holy Grail pedal. It sounds like a spring reverb, and all our reverbs are broken! But by compressing before it hits the amp, it makes the amp breakup a little more evenly and creates a more inyour- face feeling. Brian used the Epiphone Trini Lopez through this tiny little amp, the Port City 12, a 12-watt amp that’ll fit in your pocket. That was the thinner, cleaner sound we used against the big metal sound of the Diezel. And sometimes we’d put Brian through an old Silvertone head. It’s got a very honky tone. And we run the amps all the way up!