|Brooklyn-born Bruce Waynne and Canadian DJ Dirty Swift met while cutting tracks for rapper Bad Seed. They spent two years working for Sony Studios and became Midi Mafia in 2003.
DJ Dirty Swift and Bruce Waynne
Los Angeles, CA
What are some key pieces of gear you use for recording guitars?
Swift: It depends. We use a few different preamps. The API 512c’s are really good because they’re fast, to capture transience well. They’re clean in and give more natural amping. I prefer a clean signal. Our guitarists use different things. For example, one of them uses the Line 6 Pod for amp simulation. We also use the Avalon M5 preamp. For mics, we use the Neumann U47 or AKG C414 [condensers], which have a warmer sound. I like a nice preamp and then go to Pro Toolsand amp simulators. If we want to do something interesting, we can use a fuzz pedal as a layer, and distortion to mess up the sound and add extra flavor.
When was the last time you recorded in analog?
Swift: We used tape probably four years ago. We would mix on Pro Tools through the SSL and go to half-inch for mastering, but now we go back to Pro Tools. Most studios don’t have half-inch anymore. Strictly to tape… I can’t remember the last time we did that. In 2001 we dumped beats from Pro Tools to tape to Pro Tools for saturation and it didn’t make a difference after a whole day’s process. Memories of tape are better than the reality. Pulling out the machine, cleaning the heads—no!
What is your definition of a producer?
Waynne: Someone who does whatever it takes to make it happen. Whatever the project, you take the lead, whether it’s assembling tracks, assembling the team, budget, schedules, using the musicians the record calls for, keeping everything inside the box. It’s not limited to being a track guy. Quincy Jones only plays horns and he produced Thriller, one of the biggest-selling albums ever. He’s about direction and keeping things on point.
Swift: If you consider yourself a producer because you work with rock bands, can you go into a hip-hop session and know what to do? You’re the captain of the ship, you’re steering. Rick Rubin did Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash and Jay-Z—that’s a producer!
Is there a track that you feel you truly captured the essence of the guitar and what the guitarist was trying to say with the instrument?
Waynne: That’s a hard question because when you take a track like 50 Cent’s “21 Questions,” which really opened the doors for us, the guitars were sampled, and yet they drove the record and launched everything we do now. We go through phases. Last year we experimented with a lot of guitars on David Archuleta’s record and on Brandy’s “Torn Down” [Human]. We captured the guitar with hip-hop mixed in. This year what we’re doing is very different. A couple of years ago, with Talib Kweli’s “We Got The Beat” [Beautiful Struggle, 2004] we did rock guitars. To dig through our discography is to see the evolution of our thought processes. Also, as music evolves, we’re evolving and moving to a space where we’re starting to lead, whereas before, we were following.
Swift: Talib Kweli is a good example of a heavy guitar track. Remember when Afrika Bambaataa did the electro beat on “Planet Rock” and had the guy come in? With Kweli I played the guitar on the original track. I had an acoustic guitar with a pickup through an amp simulator and pieced it together into Pro Tools. Then, the guitarist from Fishbone came in and laid down the tracks during the mix. He took what I did and used real amps, and then Axel Niehaus mixed it to get the guitars to sit right. It was done through a real amp to get it warm. On Brandy’s song we did a lot of acoustic stuff with pickups with the API and Pro Tools, and after coming up with two or three ideas, we added hip-hop drums. It was all very straightforward with no tricks. With acoustic guitar you want to capture as natural a sound as possible.
What are the biggest or most common mistakes guitarists make in the studio?
Swift: Being out of tune. Always tune your guitar and have fresh strings. There is nothing worse than an out-of-tune guitar. It messes up everything. Everything needs to be bright. Even if you have to stop between takes to change your strings, you can do that, but you can’t fix what’s out of tune later. Be professional, quick, do what you’ve got to do and be in tune, man, please! You can fix everything else, but not that, plus it makes you sound like an amateur.
What has been the most valuable technological advancement for guitarists and producers?
Swift: Hands down, the DAW. All the editing and stuff you can do makes your life so easy. You have the ability to record raw guitar signals and mix them later, and to put things in the computer and move them around. Before, we were married to a sound. There are almost too many options, because you can play around too much.
Are guitarists as willing to stick to their guns today in terms of originality?
Waynne: It depends. We use a lot of different session musicians, and their job is to do what they’re told. They’re chameleons. If a guitarist has a bag of tricks, and if he can also make suggestions, he’s more valuable to me. If you come up with things I never would have thought of, you’re golden. As a session player you have to complement and understand the whole picture so that what you’re playing makes sense.
Bassists and drummers always talk about being “in the pocket.” Where does the guitarist fit into that equation?
Swift: It depends on the style. In rock, the bass and drums hold down the low end, the guitar is mid-range and drives it, and the vocal has to fit. In hip-hop, the guitarist has to groove around what the bass and drums are doing. Sometimes you need picking, sometimes you need chords; sometimes you need it all weaving in and out. If you’re doing an acoustic arrangement, like Brandy, it’s a lot of rhythmic strumming. “21 Questions” was solo guitar, admittedly sampled, but appropriate for that style. It was very sparse. In hip-hop everything needs room to breathe. It’s about drums and vocals, and everything else need not take up space. In rock, you can fill the space with strumming and distorted guitar.