Insight From Omar Hakim: Working With A Technically Savvy Artist

6/5/2014 5:06:00 PM
By Rich Tozzoli
Recently, I finished up a recording and mixing project with drummer/producer/composer Omar Hakim. Well-known for his work with such greats as Sting, Weather Report, Miles Davis and the recent Grammy winning Daft Punk release, he’s also highly knowledgeable about home recording and studio production. Working in his comfortable, well-equipped studio, he crafted a great new release called We Are One, where aside from world-class guests, he also played guitar, bass, keys, vocals and percussion. We sat down to talk about how he got started with the studio bug and where it’s taken him.

R: How did you get to this depth of understanding about how to use a home studio?
O: Well, the story actually starts when I was 15 years old. I was in a one-hit-wonder band as a kid that was on Arista Records. We were actually signed to producer Stan Vincent who produced “Ooh Child” by the Five Stairsteps and so on. We went into the studio and cut a song called “I Need You” under the name Harlem River Drive that was a number one R&B hit for Arista in 1976. The reason that was significant was because that was one of my first experiences being in a major recording studio. The studio was The Hit Factory in NYC. The chief engineer was a guy named Ed Sprigg, and when you were there, many amazing artists were walking in and out of the studio. They were giving us some spec studio time to do a follow-up for the single, which we never came up with. But the experience being with Ed and seeing Earth, Wind and Fire walk into The Hit Factory or John Lennon or Foreigner doing their first record, or hearing a Donna Summer record being mixed was amazing. Gladys Knight and the Pips were down the hall doing vocals. For a 15-year-old kid, it was mindblowing. I would sit under Ed Sprigg, who was a super talented engineer, and even after the Harlem River Drive thing fell apart, I would call him after school, head down to the The Hit Factory and watch him work.
One day I called Ed after school and Ed said “Omar, you have to get down here now. Stevie Wonder is here, he’s recording a record.” That record was Songs in the Key of Life. “Come as soon as you can, Stevie Wonder is doing a drum track, you have to see this!” So I get on a train—I was going to Music and Art High School in Harlem at the time —I go flying down to the Hit Factory, and I get to the studio and he actually put me in the drum booth with Stevie. “Stevie, I want you to meet this young drummer kid, Omar.” He slapped some headphones on my head, put a stool in there and sits me in the booth with Stevie. So I’m sitting this close to Stevie, watching him play this really unusual samba groove—I’d never seen a drummer play a samba groove like this. A brush in one hand, a stick in the other, he was swishing the floor tom with the brush and playing the accents with his left hand. Being a big fan of Stevie’s music and knowing he played drums on his early hits like “Superstition” made this moment like a drummer’s wet dream to witness.
So this is the kind of stuff Ed Sprigg would do for me. I would just watch him. I would watch him and the assistant align tape decks. I watched him cut and edit. I remember bits of two-inch tape hanging all around the control room, because that was the editing process. You’re searching the walls for, “Okay, where’s that first chorus?” It was a really interesting time for me to observe these guys. The Hit Factory was using MCI recording desks and MCI tape desks, with the occasional Ampex 2-track, an old-school Scully now and then, and you know, the usual analog stuff that you see.
So my eye was getting used to watching him work, and for some reason, he liked me and he would answer all of my questions. It was remarkable to just hang out. That sort of kick-started my interest in recording.  Another thing that happened was, a very dear friend of mine who I grew up with in Queens, NY named Fountain Jones, (now an Emmy Award-winning technical director for CBS) was a friend to the local bands. When we were getting instruments from our parents, his parents were getting him microphones and tape decks. He would come to our gigs and record all of our shows. And Fountain had a huge pair speakers, and I would just go over to his house and freak out and listen to these amazing speakers he had in his basement. I really have him to thank and blame for getting into this home studio thing.
One of the first things we did when I was 18 or 19, was he and I used his Revox A77, we borrowed an Otari 4-track and we used an old PA board, and we sort of rigged the whole thing together and started doing demos in my parents’ basement. That process also got me into the possibilities of what you could do in your house.
Now this is like, '79-'80. So from there, I guess I was right on the cusp of when home studio recording was starting to become a normal thing. One or two years later, MIDI gets introduced. I met a guy named Jim Southworth in the mid 80’s, he came out with one of the first multi-input MIDI Interfaces called the JamBox. It didn’t work all the time, so I renamed it the “Jam-Up” Box. I was able to do jam sessions with midi. I’m giving you a serious overview, but it’s all significant, because after that, I went through all of the iterations of what was available from reel-to-reel, to 4- to 8-tracks, to Tascams, then ADAT. I sold off my ADAT system in like '96 or '97 when I met David Charles, who was at the time working for Digidesign. He would come by my studio and hear my stuff, and he would say, “Omar, you are a prime candidate for ProTools.” So I invested in my first ProTools 24 system when that came out.
Then right after that, the Mix Plus system came out. I switched pretty quickly to that, constantly upgrading computers. Also, in the early days, you were trying to get the right clocking device to get everything to sing and dance together. I remember I invested in the Aardvark clocking device for that early ProTools rig. In the early 2000s, ProTools HD happened and it sort of changed everything again. The TDM system got even more powerful. So I’ve been a ProTools guy since the late 90’s.
R: Take us to where we are now.
O: Okay, fast-forward to 2012, I upgraded my ProTools HD to a ProTools HDX system. I traded in my original ProControl for a D-Command ES. I’m using the new Avid HD interfaces. I have a 32-input system with a collection of things I’ve sort of collected over the past 15 years, which include an API 3124, a Focusrite ISA428, two Mindprint DTCs, PreSonus ADL600, a Trident S40 and an Amek System 9098. And I also have two of the original 8-channel Digi PREs.
I’ve been an ADAM speaker user for a long time. I used the ADAM A8Xs for the recording and mixing. I’m also using Chris Pelonis Model 42 cubes, just when I need to reference a small speaker…kind of get a real-world vibe going.  So with this system, I have a lot of variation in what I can capture tonally and everything, and it works really great.
R: Let’s talk about what’s in the box.
O: Plug-in wise I’m using a variety of products. I love the McDSP stuff, I used the 4030 Retro Compressor quite a bit. I also dig using Sound Toys EchoBoy, FilterFreak, Tremolator and PanMan. I’ve got the Waves Platinum collection, and my latest addition is the Sonnox Elite Bundle, which is a really amazing tool box of sonic loveliness. I used a lot of things like the Limiter, TransMod, EQ and Reverb.
Also, iZotope RX3 helped me out a lot. On one of the tunes, I was I pulled out my bass, played a track I thought I was going to replace, but actually the track came out pretty good. But it was a passive pick-up bass, so it was a little buzzy. The RX3 just cleansed it like, “No problem.” The almost-ruined perfect bass take was saved by the RX3. That’s the power of plug-ins.
R: That lets you do a lot of production on your own.
O: And knowing all the software, it just gives me the freedom to kind of do whatever it is I need to do. I can do my own comps. There are times when I might record three or four takes of drums, just rip through them. I like to do that without thinking. And I would say most of the time, I get one linear take that I like. Every now and then, I might want to cut between those takes and make a greatest hits. With ProTools, it’s super easy to do.
R: Luckily, you do have the knowledge to do your own comps.
O: Exactly. I had a lot of fun with a song like “Walk the Walk,” where I was really constructing a drum solo. It was a song that really started off on V-Drums, just because I like to experiment. I like to experiment in the control room. I actually have V-Drums set up in my control room with my keyboards, a couple of guitars and my bass. They’re just kind of sitting here so when I have an inspiration, I can just get to ideas. With that song, I realized that even though the V-Drums sounded pretty cool, this is one of those songs where I needed air moving around some acoustic drums. That’s when I came to you.
R: So let’s get into that point. An outside engineer such as myself comes into your home and your space. How about the give-and-take on how you work with an audio engineer–since you can do a lot yourself?
O: Being a professional drummer for a number of years and making tons of records, I find my best acoustic drum set recordings have always been a collaboration between a knowledgeable engineer and myself. In other words, when I’m playing acoustic drums, I don’t feel like I need to have my brain entire in the recording process. I mean, yes, I’m an engineer, yes I understand the whole vibe. But when I’m a drummer, I’m a drummer. I need somebody in there that I trust to collaborate with me on how to get a great sound and to capture the performance. For instance, I started playing one way at the front of the session, but as I get warmed up, I start playing louder…who is watching the levels on the mic pres? Who is watching the peak input levels as I start going nuts? Whereas I might have hit that snare one way, two hours later, I’m whacking the mess out of that snare drum, and I have somebody in there who’s just keeping an eye on it, who’s also going, “Since you’re doing this, have you considered putting the mic here?” It affords me the opportunity to be Omar, the drummer, and kind of take my mind out of engineering and have that collaborative thing.
R: So within the collaboration we also combined gear. In other words, I brought some of my gear in and we did some mic techniques that were a little different and so on.
O: Well, the experienced engineer who’s been doing sessions for years, they also have their tricks that they bring to the table. So what’s fun is, when my favorite engineers bring their stuff with them. And they always have a surprise for me that blows my mind. Like you and I, we did really great stuff with ambient miking. We understood that we needed to create something aggressive on a certain track. We were able to create the illusion of a large room with some creative placement and processing of mics.
R: That gave us more options in the mix.
O: Exactly. And what that did for us in the mix is it gave us dramatic ambient content to draw on—options—so when the drum solo came, we could throw up another set of mics that makes you go, “What’s that?!” You gotta record those elements. We used DPAs, Beyers , MiLabs, Shures, and even a super cool kooky pair of Samson ribbons that I got. Those Samson ribbons are a surprise. It’s a quirky mic that takes compression well. You crush the crap out of them, and they sound really amazing.
We had a range of super high-end microphones with kind of entry-level, great-quality, but low-cost microphones. The home studio right now and the home recordist has an incredible range of gear available at wonderful price points. Maybe you can’t afford $3,000 to $5,000 mics. But you can get the job done if you use your ear and the gear you have on hand in a creative way.
There are the microphones everybody uses, but then there are the microphones you use that actually give your music its own unique sound. I used to have a buddy that would say, “It’s not the toys, it’s the noise!” And it’s true! It all about how we incorporate our use of these tools, whether they’re high-end or entry-level doesn’t matter, because in this game, there’s no wrong or right—it’s just what feels good. If it’s feeling good to you, if it sounds the way you want it to sound, if you’re capturing what it is that you need...and you know what, the coolest stuff is sometimes the surprise stuff. It’s a surprise thing! You have to be open to the experimentation part of this. Sometimes, the greatest stuff comes from that unexpected moment of discovery.
R: Therein lies the value of the home studio. You can find uh-oh moments. You’ve got the ability to say, “Let’s experiment with this.”
O: That’s what made me do this. After I did my first record, I vowed to never do a record like that again. It wasn’t that it wasn’t a fun experience, but most of the record pre-production was already done in my studio, the label wanted to commit the final stuff to tape. But a lot of it was already done. So I went, “Wait a minute. I just spent an ungodly amount of money that’s going to be on a record that, after I pay for it, I don’t even own it…” So I was like, no. I’m not doing that anymore. I want to enjoy the freedom. I want to enjoy the ability to get in the space and get in the creative vibe.
R: That lets you also take your time on mixing, where we also worked in a collaborative way.
O: Yes. Something that I’ve always done is, I’ve always bounced my mixes off of people that I trust. One of the main guys I’ve done this with over the years is Scott Hull. Scott is so freaking cool, because I could call Scott with rough mixes. I could go hang out with him, I could say, “Scott, am I in the ballpark?” He could say, “Alright, what’s going on with your high-end? What’s going on in the room?” And then I would take that information back to my studio and do a second draft of my mixes.
I think it’s good for the home studio recordist, who is also mixing themselves, to have somebody to bounce off of. I had you to bounce off, which was fantastic, because I would spend six to eight hours on a mix, and at that point you’re definitely too close to it. You’d come in—your ears are fresh like the morning dew! And you would catch stuff that I missed. I’d say as a result, just as recording drums is collaborative, there’s nothing wrong with making your mixing collaborative. Bounce that off of somebody with knowledge. Let them know what your goal is, and then make sure you’re both on track. Once you have those parameters set, you can just rock.
R: This current release was tracked and mixed at 96 kHz sampling.
O: Interestingly enough, when I got my ProTools HD rig back in the early 2000s, I started recording high res audio. I understood that (though it might not be needed at that present moment) there would be a time that I would be glad that my masters were 88.2 kHz and 96 kHz. The argument in the beginning was that the 88.2 kHz was double the CD rate which made the dither down and rendering smoother to CD spec; but then eventually, I said, “I’m just going to do 96 kHz/24-bit for everything.” I guess being a drummer, I notice a lot of things are revealed in 96 kHz. A drum set has the potential to occupy the entire frequency spectrum. Also, tails…cymbals decaying. You notice when things start to occupy the lower part of the bit spectrum, and you want that extra resolution for the dynamics that you’re doing. If you’re playing a rock thing and you’re slamming the heck out of every track, there’s an argument that it doesn’t matter as much. For me, it does. When you play a giant power chord and that entire mix starts to decay, and you hear the fullness of the bass, the shimmer of everything in the high-end…it was like everything I loved about Analog tape at 30 ips without the tape hiss. You know what I mean? So for me, to record 96/24 was a no-brainer as a drummer.
R: So the final 96 kHz mixes from the new release go to Scott Hull.
O: Yes, the hi-res mixes go to Scott. I mentioned to Scott that I wanted to take advantage of the Mastered for iTunes delivery. I think it’s important that, as a producer, we go the extra step to give our fans the best quality we can give. So when I saw that Mastered for iTunes option, we did that. Giving a mastering engineer high resolution audio gives them a better chance of going into a thing, forensically, if they need to, if there’s deep correction needed. And it’s important to also not over-compress and over-limit your final mix, to actually leave some dynamic information there. A lot of home recordists make the mistake of over-limiting and making their mixes really super loud, and they remove all of the dynamic information out of the mix. They don’t give a mastering engineer something to work with. What I try to do when I’m mixing is try to come up with a balance of just loud enough without taking away natural dynamics of a performance in a mix…and leave that space! If I’m looking at the waveforms, I see the dynamics. And the helpful tool this time was the definitely Oxford limiter. The Oxford limiter is a unique piece, because you are able to increase the amplitude of the mix without overly undoing the dynamic feeling. So I needed a limiter that would give me just enough punch while retaining the dynamics. In the end, I was able to hand Scott Hull something that was punchy, but it still had all the dynamic information of the session in there.
R: On this record, you compose, produce, sing, play multiple instruments, etc.
O: As a composer, my composing tools are piano and guitar, as well as drums. Some of the songs actually started off as improvised drum grooves. Then I would improvise melodic and harmonic content over the drum set. Typically what I’d do…I’d create the demos, then I’d have the guys come in and we’d recut some things because I had a really good idea of what I wanted them to do. But then, a few of the songs on the record I actually used my first draft recording as a multi-instrumentalist, because the original mood and intention was there!
Like, the title track, “We Are One,” is pretty much all me. It’s an acoustic kit with me playing with Vic Firth “Rute Sticks.” I’m playing piano, percussion, vocals, synth…sharing the vocals with a lady named Angel Rogers who helped me with the backgrounds. This is something I’ve been doing for a long time. Some people probably don’t know I’m a writer or even play piano or guitar. And maybe it’s the explanation for why my early solo albums are the way they are. I was always thinking of my music from the writer’s perspective. The mistake on the early albums for me was, I wasn’t really self-aware enough to actually go, “Wait a minute, I need to make a record for the drummers.” So this time I was like, “Okay, instead of having just three instrumental tracks among some funky, pop, rock influenced vocal songs (which was the music I grew up loving as a kid) I decided that for the We are One album, I was going to make a primarily instrumental record, where I used my voice as a textural element that supported the melodies. There’s no extended song/lyric writing, but there are bits that sort of tell the story of the song. It’s very much a part of the overall fabric and story of the record. From that standpoint, I feel like this is the first record where I actually balanced everything out, from a songwriting perspective, the drumming and the engineering.
R: How is the new record released?
O: It’s a self-release on OZmosis records—the O is for Omar, the Z is for my Wife, Rachel Z; it’s our baby. When we formed the Trio of OZ back in 2010, we self-released that record, and we liked the feeling of freedom. With this, our second official release, we made it available on iTunes. It’s also available on and Amazon. There are also physical CDs available on CDBaby and Amazon. What’s cool about CDBaby for the indie artist is, they’re able to monitor demand for the thing, and they also have some distributor and one-stop partners that can also get you into certain brick-and-mortar stores that are interested in selling your product. Yes, we are in a time in the industry that there aren’t so many brick-and-mortar stores, you know, because the Tower Records and the HMVs…these places are gone. But there are still some mom n' pop shops, jazz and progressive music specialty stores and bookstores that still carry music and so on. I think CDBaby offers a tremendous service to the indie community, especially if a CD is hot. They can get these records out to fans who want a physical CD. It’s a wonderful time to be an indie artist. I’m really proud of this project!

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