September 12th, 2012
Auctioneer - Our Future Faces
For Craig Hendrix, making music in Philadelphia is a busy affair: a resumé dotted with successful local bands (Buried Beds, Birdie Busch), founding The Agave Opera Company, producing records, etc. It comes as no surprise then, that his own project, Auctioneer, is as ambitious as his resume.
For Hendrix, collaborating with friends and songwriting on his own is as natural as a conversation with the man himself. His willingness to grow and his ambition for large scale arrangements in his songs was what drew us to Auctioneer. The band features some of the best musical talent in Philly: Todd Erk (Bass) and Todd Shiede (drums), with Hendrix on guitar. For the session, Auctioneer also had the help of other esteemed Philadelphia musicians: Brian Rogers (Tenor Saxophone), David Fishkin (Alto Saxophone) and Adam Hirschberger (Trumpet); along with Eric Slick (Percussion) and Jaron Olevsky (Piano). The band came in on a humid day in early June to record a song for Shaking Through.
Craig’s writing process is very personal, a process that involves “taking actual personal experiences in the real world - fusing them together, and making narratives in the song,” explains Hendrix. For him and band mates Todd and Todd, making music is an everyday calling. “We are a little bit like recording nerds. We talk about gear and stuff - we like to “oo” and “ah” over pre-amps and microphones...”
When the band came into the studio, it was clear that the three soft-spoken musicians could dive right into the basic track. Of course, the ambitious “Our Future Faces” brought up important points about composition and arrangement, and ultimately whether the production itself could make it all work.
Compositionally, the song is unusual, with movements throughout that are difficult to classify simply as verses, choruses and/or bridges. It would be a real accomplishment in the end if it worked, that is, if the listener would “get it” without any confusion. The song had numerous ideas and parts: afro-beat inspired arrangements for 3 drummers, horn arrangements (meticulously written for the players), lots of overlapping, cascading vocal parts, banjo and piano sharing melodies, and that’s only the beginning. In music production, the more special features in a song, the fewer options a producer has for where to put them, and the more crucial it is that they sit in exactly the right place.
The simplest part of the day was the basic track. After that, producer Jonathan Low recorded the vocals using the Neumann U67, a Pacifica and a vintage Gates SA-39. Background vocals were recorded as a group with the stereo pair of Telefunken ElaM 260s.
In a mix, it’s important to have a clear sense of the lead vocal, and to have it stay in balance with the backups. Several of the background vocals were written as long melodies with occasional unison moments as well as instances of loose call and response to the lead vocal. The moments of unison make the producer’s and mixer’s job very challenging, as these occasional doubles can have the effect of periodically panning the lead vocal toward the side close to the background vocal.
For the drum overdubs, Dr. Dog’s Eric Slick joined Hendrix and Shiede around random
drums from the studio. Low captured the three simultaneously in several passes spot-miking with a pair of Telefunken ElaM260s through API512s and an AKG D112 through a Purple Biz.
The horn arrangements, performed by David Fishkin, Brian Rogers and Adam Hirschberger, recalled much of what Hendrix created for the background vocals - long, languid tones, bending between harmony and unison. Jon used the ElaM260s through Pacifica pres, into a vintage DBX162 stereo compressor for the recording.
The way the horns were arranged brings up some other interesting challenges. The melodies were beautiful but every instrument is made to occupy an ideal range. You can cheat a little bit, but the more hairpin twists and turns and the more layers piled on top - especially electric instruments - the more it really must stay true to range to be audible. When they periodically fall in and out of range, the mixer has to perform a little magic, leading the listener from one point of focus to another, without obviously doing so.
The first rounds of mixing were therefore very difficult. There were simply too many parts to maintain clarity and focus. Interestingly enough, we gained some clarity from the video editing process. This is something that’s never happened for us, but we’re glad it did. Director Peter English uses stems from the mixing process to arrange music for Shaking Through videos. With the stems he discovered a few key points where removing the background vocals, the horns and drums would ultimately refocus the final mix.
Besides discussing everything that went into the song and the obstacles we overcame, you’d never know it was difficult. Auctioneer’s Our Future Faces is a beautifully complex success; a flowing, ambitious arrangement, and a great, great song. The final cut of “Our Future Faces” showcases not only Hendrix’s vision, but it also gives a glimpse of Auctioneer’s future as a band.