Behind the Glass

Solo, Two Ways

Nellie McKay

In December of 2012, Nellie McKay had an image problem.

Or rather, she had a video problem. In one of the most-impromptu sessions we ever recorded, Nellie swooped in three hours after we called, expecting a radio interview and a few tunes.

Stepping inside our video studio with its deadish ambience and bright box lights, it was obvious we were doing a little more than a simple radio show. Nellie wasn’t phased, just surprised. She had just arrived in Boulder and was fresh out of the shower, and hadn’t packed anything to wear with some “pop.”

But she did have a secret weapon with her: Robin Pappas, a former actress with roles in The Shining, Superman II and Chariots of Fire, who also happens to be her mother. The two escaped to the well-appointed newsroom bathroom (our studio was built into Boulder’s newspaper’s newsroom), and 5 minutes later Nellie emerged blow-dried, made-up and swathed in a coat of many colors. The jacket she wore for the performances was perfect. Her style has a touch of the formal, her voice is luxurious and her message can be unexpected and vividly direct.

She brought a simple setup into our studio, playing simple tunes. I’ve written before about finding magic in the essence of an artist’s presentation, and while I think it also applies here, I think it does so to a much lesser extent. Nellie’s recorded work is expertly produced and wildly entertaining and nearly every track has feels  different from the next. She’s a talented multi-instrumentalist, and on her first album, Get Away From Me (the first female debut double album in history, by the way), she plays nine different instruments and each track features her voice prominently. She’s also on the bill as composer, arranger and associate producer.

So she has that old school kind of music knowledge and skill, the kind you come across in the practice rooms of music halls in serious educational institutions. But she doesn’t carry the self-importance of some in those academic circles; in person doesn’t seem too weighed down by a healthy intellect. Her presence is as  light and charming as her presence and vocal delivery, and she is quick and witty in her in her lyrics.

For these recordings, we had the opportunity to listen deeply into what is perhaps her best instrument: her voice. In the video below (as always, look for related videos or search YouTube for the others — we shoot three songs with each artist) the ukulele is almost an afterthought as accompaniment, a subtle touch of rhythm or the whisper of a chord here and there. The main event is Ms. McKay’s amazing voice, replete with its own subtlety and touch.

I tried a few different microphone sizes and patterns on her voice, and settled on a large diaphragm figure-8-patterned mic for the task. The ukulele was so soft in volume I found I could use any pattern I wanted, and I liked what the large diaphragm figure-8 did for her tone. It was a new mic and captured her very disciplined high frequencies well (I rarely encountered such control over sibilants and consonants in the studio), and the bipolar pattern provided a little sense of space to the otherwise intimate sound.

I’m quite happy with the result, and since the recording have used the high resolution version as a personal reference for the female voice. Despite our awkward start, at the end of it we were all smiles, and the artist was satisfied. Though her YouTube presence more heavily highlights the pizazz-y side of her as an entertainer, I’m glad we got to capture a more intimate take on Nellie and show it to the world.

Otis Taylor

The videos I’ve featured and written about were recorded in a random office on the second floor of an office park  building in Boulder, home to the city’s newspaper of record. Really nothing special to the room except that its walls were extended all the way to the roof, sealing in the area above the suspended ceiling. The rest of the top floor had one conjoined ceiling space, so the mild isolation was a plus for us when, say, we were recording a raging rock 4-piece replete with Marshall stacks and multiple Fender Twin Reverbs blasting, and someone was trying to hold a conference call a few doors down.

Noise battles aside, the connection to the newspaper was only a plus. Traditional media may be in massive transition, but it still holds great weight in the music and arts promotion industry. We were able to record one major band a week for three years because the bands were coming to us, and so many were calling that we could afford to be choosy about whom to record.

But sometimes we still had to seek out artists who were hard to pin down. Consider Otis Taylor among these. It helped that the newspaper already had several ties to the Boulder resident and world famous blues musician. For one, his wife Carol trained me to archive the newspaper before she left in 2008. Carol was the librarian at the newspaper for many years, and I regretted that I recognized her razor-sharp wit too late. All I remember about the training session is that I was constantly snickering.

Otis is known in the blues world as a fierce champion of African heritage and social justice worldwide. Most of his songs feature serious lyrics about serious subjects. And I found that even his in-studio demeanor is solemn and direct. I won’t deny being a bit intimidated as I set up for our recording in October of 2013. Otis had few words for me during the two-hour session, but I was surprised to watch him and my creative partner at Second Story Garage, videographer Paul Aiken, joshing around like old chums.

Paul and Otis had met many years prior, at a party, I quickly learned. Paul is one of a kind: as director of photography for several newspapers in Colorado’s Front Range, working 12+ hours a day, you’d think he’s already in pretty good shape. But actually, in his off time Paul teaches martial arts to young bucks at a dojo across the street from the paper, and occasionally (very occasionally) would show up to work with a black eye. As a black belt with a hard job to do, Paul often could be as professionally intimidating as Otis seemed that day. So I suppose it makes sense that the two would get along well.

The track I referenced is Otis’ “Be My Frankenstein” from the 2003 album Truth Is Not Fiction. Otis actually wrote this song about Paul’s heart condition, after learning about his faulty heart valve and the cadaver valve installed in its place. I was thrilled that Otis chose to record this one with us; though I hardly noticed Paul crack a smile while he was shooting (typical), I might have spied a smirk.

The way I chose to record Otis, given the semi-dead ambience of our space, was to use reflectors and diffusors strategically to enhance the sense of space in the instrument mics. I placed his stool above two sheets of plexiglass, to get a reflection off the otherwise carpeted floor. To each side of him I placed large wood diffusors to kill any slap-back echo, and to help swallow frequencies in the “boomy” range.

I was presented with the same challenge as with Nellie, namely that the voice and the instrument are recorded separately but are only a foot or two apart from one another. The classic singer/player live challenge, usually solved by extremely close miking.

I don’t like to get extreme with any recording style, so I set up a stereo XY cardioid pair for his instruments and used a tight super cardioid pattern condenser for his vocals. The vocal mic I placed just close enough that it didn’t hide his face in the video but focused squarely on the voice. I then backed the stereo pair up until just before the instrument became background in the track.

There’s not a lot of stereo to be gleaned from stereo-miking one instrument relatively closely. Even though different frequencies emanate from different parts of the guitar, it’s still largely a point source. But it adds a little something the the sound, and was useful in this case. In contrast, because Nellie’s minimalist uke playing wasn’t as much of the whole sound that Otis’ playing was, I believed a simple mono mic was sufficient.

Recording both in minimalist fashion accentuated each of their unique voices and pushed their lyrical messages to the forefront. You’ll be hard pressed to find two more different artists in today’s musical landscape, but in my studio they were on similar footing and produced similarly refined recordings. I’m honored to have witnessed both from my seat on the other side of the glass.

More information about Nellie, including where to purchase her music, can be found on her website, www.nelliemckay.com. Likewise, you can find out what Otis is up to at www.otistaylor.com