By Clive Young.
Christian Rock act RED recently made a big splash on the charts with its third album, Until We Have Faces. Debuting on the Billboard Album chart at Number 2 with 43,000 sold its first week, the CD also topped Billboard's Christian, Rock, Alternative and Hard Rock Album charts. While it’s a strong showing for the band, it’s also a feather in the cap of Rob Graves, who discovered the act and now produces and co-writes its albums. Pro Sound News sat down with Graves to find out more about his studio style, working with RED and what’s next for the rising producer.
You come from a songwriting background; how did you move into producing?
While my first success was as a writer, I was always involved in some aspect of production. For example, my first cuts ever were for Joy Williams (now a member of The Civil Wars), and I fully produced my demos. Even though I didn’t produce her album, the producer hired me to program the tracks and do a lot of the guitars, all based on my demos. So that album became a calling card for what I could do, and it didn’t take long for labels and artists to start hiring me to produce for them.
Do you feel your songwriting informs or shapes how you approach producing? For instance, do you find you approach producing differently if it’s not a song you wrote or co-wrote?
Yes on both counts. Almost everything I write has some production aspect built into it. Even if it’s just a simple guitar progression, there’s usually some way I’m playing it with the inversions or rhythm that implies a production element. When I start building a track I’m writing, I’m usually building the production and song together, so the two are very related. For a track I didn’t write, I really dive into the song and find some way to make it my own, almost as if I’d written it. So ultimately it ends up feeling like the same thing.
Some producers tend to lean on the song, while others depend more heavily on technology and current production styles. Is it possible – or even advisable – to find a balance between the two?
I’m very song-focused, and anything I do to a track, whether it’s utilizing technology or otherwise, is to serve the song. I try to be conscious of the technology I’m using and do my best to make sure what I’m adding isn’t just the flavor of the moment and won’t sound outdated in six months. A good example would be something like stutter edits--even when that was “cool” to do in the early 2000s, I avoided it because it just seemed like the kind of thing that would immediately date the recording to that decade.
As long as I have a great song, I think any variety of production will work. And for me, finding the balance always lies with letting the song shine--sometimes I need to do as much as I can to stay out of the way, other times I think it’s OK to really dive in and go for it on the production end. It can be a challenge taking on a massive production--like the RED albums for example--because the chances to fail are a lot higher. You really need to commit to the production and not play it safe.
So, working with RED on their new album; have things developed into a pattern at this point?
This album was different than the others because we had a relatively short time to do it--only four months from beginning to end. That sounds like a long time, but there are a couple factors that make it difficult for us to do a record that quickly; mostly RED is a band that tours non-stop and I am heavily involved in the co-writing of the albums, plus the productions are pretty immense. So all that combined leads to some crazy scheduling gymnastics, with me traveling with them on the road, recording parts on the tour bus and in the green rooms, etc. All in all, I’m extremely proud of this record and a lot of people think it’s their best, but early on, I didn’t know how it was going to happen. But the band really stepped up along with some other great co-writers.
How’d you meet up with them?
One of the founding members of RED, Jasen Rauch, used to be an intern at a studio I leased space in [Paragon]. We got to know each other pretty well and I knew he had some real talent. Eventually he asked if I wanted to hear a demo of his band, and that was the infancy of RED. They didn’t even have a name at that point; they were just forming. I liked the singer’s voice and I knew they had some raw talent, so I started working with them and writing. After a while, we got some really cool stuff going; I eventually signed them to my production company and we spent the better part of two years developing the sound. I wanted them to come out of the gates swinging, so the demos we did were full-on masters. Live strings, full mixes, mastered in New York with Brian Gardner--this was just the four-song demo. In fact, those four songs all went on the actual first album [End of Silence] as is; I didn’t make any changes to the tracks. So once we were done with their demo, they had deal offers pretty quick. It was important to me to show the labels exactly what they’d be getting without any guesswork. Now we’re three records deep and it’s still going great.
It sounds like the recording of this album was really different from previous work with them.
Definitely. First off, Jasen is no longer officially part of the band; he left to pursue production. He was an integral part to the writing and the sound, so that was a big question mark. Second was the shortened time frame, as I mentioned before. Given Jasen’s history with the band, they still wanted him involved in the writing. We all have a strong “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” attitude, so we're on the same page. I was really impressed with how the band embraced their role on this album, and they really stepped up. Anthony Armstrong, the guitarist, had a portable Pro Tools rig built that was set up in all the green rooms on their tours, so we could work every day on the demos. During soundchecks, they were writing riffs and recording the drum parts into Pro Tools, so we could track the demos to them later.
We’ve already discussed the next record being different, and making sure they have the time off that’s needed to make the record. We just want to all go somewhere, sit in a rehearsal space and write the entire album together.
Where did you record it?
Most of my work was done at my studio in Franklin. As I mentioned, a great deal of the writing was done on the road, and I always take a trip or two alone to work on writing and overall album ideas – production flavors I want to incorporate and so on. The drums and strings were recorded at Paragon Studios in Franklin. Fred Paragano always engineers my drums with Brian Calhoon. I like very transparent sounds and Fred always gets that. Jasen and I engineered all the guitars ourselves and I handle the vocals.
Got any “go-to” pieces of gear or mics that you turned to for recording the album?
RED has a pretty wide range stylistically, from full-on metal riffs with screams to orchestral songs, so I try to use gear that matches the song, and as such, we’re all over the map. Most screams were done on an SM7, and the vocalist, Mike Barnes, has a pretty bright voice, so I’ll often use a darker mic on him--something simple like a 4050. I’ve tried tons of different high-end mics on him, but they don’t respond well to his voice. I’m a big believer in trusting what you hear, not what the label is on the mic, so I have no qualms about using a $500 mic when there are C12s and CM7s lying around. That being said, I did use a CM7 for some songs. We used a pretty even blend of APIs and an Avalon 2022. Something else I found myself using a lot this time around are the new AIR plugins from Pro Tools, particularly for vocal effects; I highly recommend diving into those.
Any unusual or different approaches to recording? Any unexpected turns of events, like the pizza guy wound up playing tambourine or something?
We always try to find something different for each album, to take it a little further. We’ve switched up amps every time, though we’ve used mostly the same guitars--almost all PRS. The first album was a lot of Diezel, the second album was a lot of Hughes and Kettner, and this album was a mixture of those two, plus a lot of simulators. We spent hours upon hours scoping the simulators--mostly Amplitube and Eleven--and A-B-ing them against the Diezel and the Hughes. We sent some tracks to our mixer, Ben Grosse, and once he’d signed off on the sound, we knew we were okay to blend in the simulators. I don't recommend using a simulator unless you are willing to dive into it very deep, or the results will not be good; I’m talking about playing with the simulated mic positions, the tubes you’re using, every detail.
We always like to put hidden stuff on the record, and we try to do it in unique ways. For example, in the first single, “Feed the Machine,” we flipped the phase of the entire track for just two beats, so we could hide a whisper track. In the regular mix, it’s a wall of sound, but flip the phase and everything goes away but our whisper. Another example is at the beginning of the track “Lie to Me (Denial).” All through the intro you can hear someone yelling in the background, then everything drops out for the whisper “A lie becomes the truth,” which is a variation of Lenin’s quote, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” Although it’s not obvious, the “someone yelling” in the intro is Lenin himself, from a famous speech. So we hide stuff like that all through the albums. To most listeners, it just sounds like a cool effect, but if someone wants to dig deeper, they’ll find it’s actually very deliberate and it means something. Most of RED’s production is like that; we want a pissed off 17-year-old to be able to scream along with the song, so it has to work on that level, but we try to make the songs work on deeper levels as well, both musically and lyrically.
So looking back now, what are some of the ways you facilitated the band achieving what they wanted with the new album?
They wanted this album to be focused around their live set, so we have way fewer breakdowns on this album. I’m a big fan of dynamics and the earlier RED albums had a lot of breakdowns, even in the heavy songs. Of course, the payoff is that when it kicks back in, it’s huge, but it didn’t work well for their live shows. They were pretty clear about this and we made sure to have more songs that just hauled ass the entire time and never let up.
Given the high debut of the album, I guess it paid off. So what’s next for you?
Right now, I’m working on a solo album from Brian “Head” Welch from Korn. I’m also developing another band--my first unsigned band since RED. They’re called Wavorly and I’m hoping to achieve the same thing I did with RED, except Wavorly is a pop/rock, Top-40 kind of band, not nearly as heavy as RED, so I’m focused on that. I’ve also recently signed with EMI Music Publishing and they’ve been great about getting me tons of co-writes [Boys Like Girls, Hey Monday] as well as some Film, TV and video game uses. I just did a trailer for the Electronic Arts game Crysis 2, and that was a blast. I hope to do much more of that through the year.
To close things out, any advice for those just starting out?
Production is difficult to break into and usually there’s a backdoor in. I started as a writer and worked my way into production; other guys start as A&R or managers, maybe engineers or session players. If you’re just attacking it as a producer, it will be more challenging and you’ll need to build up quite a reel of demo work before a label will consider hiring you. The way around this is to work with as many bands as you can, recording their demos and hopefully you’ll find a great one that you really click with. Once that happens and you make some great music, other artists will be eager to work with you as well. I think so much of this is about attitude and just being ready for opportunities when they arise. Be assertive, and make it happen.