For the last 10 years Dan Rathbun has been writing, performing, producing and recording some of the most distinctive music around. He co-owns and operates Polymorph Recording, in Oakland, CA, with fellow musician/engineer Mark Stichman and electronics maven Lawrence "Rance" Fellows-Mannion. The studio has seen many well-known San Francisco Bay-Area artists (The Mommy Heads, Ralph Carney, Papa's Culture), plus countless punk rock and avant-garde bands (many on Vaccination Records, also based in Oakland). Several of Dan's personal projects have also been tracked, mixed and mastered there, including CDs by the late Idiot Flesh "Nobody Rocks Harder... three to seven measures at a time", the current Charming Hostess "Bulgaria-go-go with brains, brawn and beauty", and compilation and mastering of the first ever Residents tribute CD "Eyesore: A Stab at the Residents". The studio itself features a Trident 65 series board, a Tascam 58 8-track and a Tascam MS-16 16-track synched for 22 tracks (both of these are slated for replacement with a 2" machine), many "warm and fuzzy" electronic devices, and a few "cold and clean" ones. Among the many microphones Dan finds himself using an AKG C-414 and a Neumann U87 the most. The recording room and the control room were designed cooperatively with Rance's technical expertise, Dan's construction skills, and Mark's many years of recording experience. The design maximizes effectiveness and versatility within the somewhat limited space (less than 500 sq. ft.). The site also features a separate editing/mastering room and Rance's repair shop. We spoke recently while he was taking some time off.
Sounds cool. So, ready to talk some shop?
I'll just lay some groundwork first. It'll be like a lecture.
Most of the music I'm working with is made by vibrating membranes — be it a metal string or a vocal chord or a drum head, it's a vibrating membrane of some sort. And a universal characteristic of vibrating membranes is that they vibrate more strongly at some frequency ranges than others and that intensifies as you play louder, which, in effect, means that any instrument you play louder tends to gets more midrangey.
Because the upper harmonics are coming out more?
Just because some frequency ranges are easier to reproduce for a vibrating membrane. You know this intuitively if you play a bass string really lightly. It has this huge, fat sound, but then if you lay into it, it sounds like "clank, clank". When somebody's talking really quietly, you can hear all of these highs and lows, and then if they start yelling, it becomes more midrangey. To some extent, this is present in every instrument. You know how drums being played hard sound when you hear them through a mic? It's always struck me as not quite right. It's not what you want to hear. When things get louder you don't want more midrange, you want more of everything. The idea, therefore, being to compress the midrange frequencies more than you compress the highs and lows so that, as an instrument gets louder, the spectral balance remains pleasing. You can really just divide a lot of instruments into highs and lows then compress the highs one way and the lows another way. It's not always the mids that pop out, sometimes it's the highs and the mids. It's not universal. A typical application is a bass guitar. Every time a player goes up to the high strings, the bottom drops out, and every time they hit the low E, the thing just gets outrageously fat. It's annoying! You can't get a consistent low-end picture. So in my studio I have a crossover, which is like what you'd use for a public address system to separate the lows, mids and highs. I can either use it as a mono three-way or a stereo two-way. So the first thing I do when the bass leaves the tape deck is run it through the crossover, and then I run each of those signals, the highs and the lows, through their own compressor. Then I bring those up on the board so I have a high-end portion and a low-end portion. The advantage of using a crossover is that when they recombine, there's minimal overlap.
You don't have phase problems?
You have less phase problems.
So your crossover is pretty discerning?
I have one that has a pretty high slope≤24 dB per octave, which means that one octave away from the crossover frequency the signal is attenuated by 24 dB In a normal mix this is inaudible. Some times a gentler slope is preferable. I have one of those too. But then you've got to choose the right compressor for the high-end and the low-end. Typically you want different compressors. The one that you're going to compress the low-end with has got to have much slower attack and release characteristics and be something that sounds punchy with low-end. Whereas the one for the high-end wants to have a lot faster response. I like the Urei 1178 for the low-end. But there are many that will work. You've just got to know your collection of compressors to make the right choice. Now let me give you another example of the power of this technique.
You sound like a barker.
(Laughs) It's the gong/kick drum sound, which you get if you put a nice coated Ambassador head on a kick drum, tune it so it rings and maybe play it with a mallet, sort of like a timpani. You know, you're doing a marching band kind of thing where you want a big "BOOM, BOOM, BOOM". But if you just put that in the mix and say, "I want some low-end on that thing," it just goes "wooom, wooom". It just clutters...