Today Ray frequently plays Schecter S-1 models, but with the DKs he favored Telecasters and Stratocasters for a tough-yet-twangy and clean sound. Photo by Pixie Vision Photography
How prepared was the band before going into the studio?
We were generally prepared. We’d spend time writing the songs, which we’d do with an acoustic guitar on a sofa. That way you can hear the structure and melody of the song much better. If you can play a song on an acoustic guitar, it’s usually a good song. You don’t get fooled by the groovy sound, so to speak. Then we would go to a rehearsal studio, play the songs with the full instruments, tweak the arrangements of the parts there, and actually write down what kinds of overdubs we wanted. Some of our songs, we’d have Paul Roessler from the Screamers playing keyboards and Klaus plays clarinet on “Terminal Preppie”—so that stuff was planned out. We’d work on the arrangements and see what was working and what was not before we got to the studio.
You are credited, even back in the early days, with producing and mixing. When did you learn your way around the studio?
I financed our first single, “California Über Alles/The Man with the Dogs.” We basically recorded that in one day, possibly two days—I think it was eight hours. We then tried to mix it. Everybody in the band was there. The mixes were coming out horrible and the problem was too many chefs in the kitchen. I said, “Let me go into the studio and mix it.” It took 30 hours of mixing and remixing for “California Über Alles,” and that’s where I learned how to mix—eight hours to record and 30 hours to mix.
The problem with hard rock and punk records is there is a lot of midrange. You have an aggressive snare, voice, and guitar in the midrange. That’s very unusual and it’s really hard to balance them. On a lot of records, the voice is in front. In more instrumental metal bands, the guitar is in front. But in punk rock we wanted the snare, voice, and guitar to be equal. So that took 30 hours.
For our next single, “Holiday in Cambodia/Police Truck,” we had a producer, Geza X, who did a really brilliant job, but it was the same thing. He did a mix, the band did a mix, and nobody liked them. I said, “Let me go in the studio without everybody yakking and remix them.” I remixed them and this time it didn’t take 30 hours. This time it took like five hours—actually less. I did “Holiday in Cambodia” in about four hours. The band voted that was the best mix, and that’s the single.
And there was no engineer in there pushing the buttons? It was just you?
No, there was an engineer there, but the decisions were mine. That 30 hours was my grad school at mixing. What I found—talking to engineers and stuff—is that punk rock is hard to mix. People think, “Oh it’s simple stupid music,” but it’s actually hard to mix because you have three elements in the midrange which are very aggressive. It’s really hard to get them to bounce in a small speaker.
What’s the secret?
I don’t know [laughs]. You have to listen. Actually, one of the tricks is to use as little EQ as possible. EQ tends to change the phase and that makes it more fatiguing. Later, our lead singer mastered a song, “Buzzbomb from Pasadena,” and he put like a 6 dB midrange peak in it in order to make it, quote, “sound aggressive,” unquote. That’s basically the telephone frequency. It made it really tinny and thin sounding and it’s also very fatiguing. You can only listen to it once or twice and then it’s like, “Ow, this is like fingernails on the chalkboard.” We discovered that when we remastered stuff and we were like, “Oh my God, this one is just a nightmare.” It takes experience and listening to a lot of stuff.
Did you have different tricks or experiments that you tried when miking guitars?
One of the things people don’t realize is that mic technique is very important. We learned this from day one: You can take a microphone on a speaker, move it a half inch, and get a totally different sound. There would be an engineer and he’d have an assistant—or I would do it—and we would move the mic a little bit and find the one spot that captures the full spectrum.
I actually do that live. I have my mic through the monitor and I move it around while we play until we hit that sweet spot. It’s pretty amazing how radical you can change the sound just moving the mic around. And it’s better to move the mic around than it is to add EQ. If you need a little brighter, move it towards the center, if you need it a little fuller, move it toward the edge—until you find that sweet spot.
Also, when we were doing overdubs, there would be one or two mics on the guitar and then there’d be a room mic—to pick up the room ambiance to make it sound more real.
Do you do that for every show and session? You don’t stick a piece of tape on the grill and say, “Put the mic here.”
Live, the backline is supplied so the speakers are usually a little different each time, but I know approximately the spot. Some speakers are bassier, so then I move it in. If it’s a brighter speaker, I move it out a little bit. It also depends on what microphone they use. Most people set the mic right at the center of the cone, and that’s like the brightest stuff. I can see the soundman cringing at the high frequencies rattling in his ear [laughs].
Do you have a preferred mic in the studio?
The Sennheiser 421 and the classic is the Shure 57. The room mic would be a Neumann condenser mic. That wasn’t hard and fast; we’d change it up just to keep it interesting.
Mic placement is really the key. If it’s not going into the microphone, everything you do after is not going to be very constructive. You get a good sound from the mic first and that will make everything easier. But it’s basically using your ears. The good thing is to always use a model. Play something in the studio, in the control room, so you can hear. The studios have really good speakers and really good mics and everything sounds good. You need to hear a record that you like—that’s mixed well and recorded well—in the room and then try to get in the same ballpark.
East Bay Ray’s Tonal Toolkit
Although East Bay Ray’s most often seen with a Schecter S-1 slung over his shoulders these days and frequently plays live through a Marshall JCM2000 DSL100 when he’s not using a promoter’s backline, his big, clean, and classic Dead Kennedys’ tones were mostly generated by a pair of Stratocasters—a gray spray-painted parts guitar and a sunburst model—and a Telecaster with a humbucker in the bridge slot.
Before moving to Marshalls, he employed a plenty loud Fender Super Reverb for the Dead Kennedys’ first singles and the album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. His longtime magic box was an Echoplex unit that he placed atop his amp and plugged into as the first stop on his signal chain, to give him more control over his often surf-like tone. Today he’s replaced the ’Plex with a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler that he uses in a setting that emulates his old favorite, linked to a Boss CS-1 Compressor that he deploys primarily as a volume boost.