An Antidote To Bublegum
A little past midnight on a warm end-of-summer night, Ben and Rani dragged me down to
the Cafe Bukom in the heart of Adams Morgan, Washington's old melting pot neighborhood.
We could hardly force our way in. The place was packed with swaying hard-core reggae
followers. Up on the stage, a band was deep into a slow, hypnotically powerful reggae
groove. A tall, slender, lean-muscled singer with nearly waist-length dreads and the
deep-set, burning eyes of an Old Testament prophet had jumped down off the stage into the
midst of the dancing throng. With his arms stretched out over their heads, he was
calling the Rasta faithful to Jah.
Up on the stage, flashing a brilliant smile, a
vigorously-dancing keyboard player was ornamenting the striking, erudite imagery of the
singer's lyrics. Right behind him, a powerful tree-trunk of a man, playing surprisingly
few notes on a bass that disappeared in his large hands, was laying down the most
granite-solid bass groove I'd ever heard. Just next to him, a gracefully loose-jointed
bone-thin drummer accented that amazing bass groove with an equally spare, powerful
snare-tom-and-kick pattern, occasionally punctuated by startling fills on cymbals and toms.
I listened for a minute or so, then turned to
Ben and Rani, my music-loving friends who'd insisted I came hear Midnite: "Damn, I've
been looking for a reggae band for three years and heard nothing but bubblegum. This
is the band I've been searching for."
Needless to say, I stayed to the last encore.
When the roar of the faithful had died down, I threaded my way through the crowd to
tell the band how much I admired their music and how I wanted to record them.
Mapleshade Gets Vetted
Two weeks later, about eleven at night, the phone rang.
"Hey, this is Ron, the keyboard player from Midnite. I'm comin' out. You'll
Half an hour later, Ron breezed in. With
a disarming smile, he said, "I'm here to check you out for Midnite."
We walked into the dimly lit studio. He
took in every detail of our funky-looking, hand-built minimalist electronics and mikes.
He asked a few incisive questions. I started telling him about our no-time-limits
creative approach and our credo of ultra-pure, no-cosmetics, no-reverb, live-to-two-track
sound. He instantly understood the radial artistic implications of our approach.
We were about ten minutes into this
conversation when Ron interjected, "I like the spirit of this place. We're going to
do our project here."
An intense, two-hour conversation ensued, all
about things close to our hearts. We talked about Midnite's hard, then-year road and
about Mapleshade's fifteen-year evolution. He told me about the closeness of the bonds
that locked Midnite together. We compared notes on our struggles to keep the music
industry from corrupting our music. I got a glimpse of the record deals and producer
hustles they'd turned down over the years to protect the spirit of Midnite.
An Audiophile Is Born
Little did we know how thoroughly our commitments would be
Our first trial sessions started in January.
From January till June we worked, in session after session, on capturing the band's
real sound. Ron proved to be a discerning, enormously demanding critic of the sound we
were laying down. Midnite's demands for sonic perfection probably stretched me more than
any band I've recorded - and I'm grateful for the good things that came out of that.
I remember one early session when I was trying
to get the sound of the drums, particularly the impact of the kick drum, just right. Ron
came over to the tape machine, put on my headphones, then handed them to me: "Listen to
that bass drum in the room. Now listen on the 'phones. The 'phones are not telling
the truth, my brother." He was perfectly right - and far more poetic than most
Elation And Depression
By June we had made great strides, improving both the Mapleshade
electronics and the instruments themselves
On the instrument side, we started with
Bosie's drums. He had the usual over-damped, thuddy-sounding bass drum you find
everywhere today. After lots of half measures, we took out all the stuffing and put the
front head back on. Suddenly we had both impact and resonance. Tweaking Bosie's
cymbal mountings gained us brilliance and shimmer. Likewise, remounting Ron's keyboards
on three-point suspensions unveiled exciting new overtones. I dismantled and unshielded
Tuff Lion's guitar chorus pedal. The pedal's muddying effect disappeared and T.L.'s
extraordinary tone emerged.
Recalibrating the tape machines brought out
new warmth. Trying out some weird new silver double-tube wires gained us a half octave
But, at Ron's insistence, we put the real
sweat into improving the way the electric bass sounded in the studio - quite crucial since we
weren't using EQ or other cosmetics to band-aid the recorded bass sound. We went through
endless, backbreaking variations of head-amps, speaker cabinets, speaker mountings, wire,
speaker placement, you name it. Session after session we canned because the bass sound
wasn't there yet.
At the first session in June, after two hours
of setting up some new bass amps and speakers that Tuff Lion brought in, we hit paydirt.
The bass finally had the delicately soft attack, the subterranean sustain that did
justice to Joe's unique touch on the bass strings. By two in the morning we had two
heavyhitting takes that were keepers. So we called it quits, elated at the prospect of
laying down another half dozen equally fine tracks on the morrow.
When the band arrived the next night, we fired
up the untouched equipment. The bass sounded muddy; that beautiful earthquake rumble in
the sustain was gone. We labored for two hours - redoing amp settings, tweaking speaker
mountings, changing wires - in a desperate attempt to recapture the previous night's superb
bass. To no avail; Jah was not smiling on us. With heavy hearts we broke down the
band's equipment and loaded it back into the van. It was a crushing disappointment.
Out Of The Jaws Of Defeat
Three weeks later we reconvened, Tuff Lion brought yet another
new bass amp. We set up and, almost immediately, the bass surpassed the first magic
night. The subterranean rumble was back with such a vengeance that every door on the
studio's first floor was rattling. I had to quickly jam every one of them with a wedge.
Everything else fell in line: guitar, drum and
keyboard sounded better than ever before. For the first time, the band was every bit as
tight and confident in the studio as they always are on stage. Vaughn's voice had that
powerful, appealing hoarseness that's so much a part of his live performances. We laid
down song after song. None, even the three new ones written in the studio, needed more
than two takes. Despite heavy fatigue, no one wanted to stop. Joe finished the
last song dead asleep - and never lost his flawless touch on the bass!
By three in the morning Midnite's CD was
Epilogue: Naked In The Sonic Mirror
A month later, Vaughn and I were deep in conversation after a
good seafood dinner in a little joint outside Washington. We'd just spent the day
editing the Midnite CD. It was the first long, non-working conversation I'd had with
Vaughn - and it was at least as intense as that two hour dialogue I had with his brother Ron
at the outset of our project.
Eventually we got around to reminiscing about
our sessions and the unfamiliar new ground all of us were traversing. Vaughn was trying
to make me understand, from the viewpoint of a studio-experienced reggae musician, the culture
shock of recording in an environment so bare of all the comforting electronic cosmetics of the
standard 48-track studio. I hadn't realized how much that shock had reshaped Midnite's
music until he leaned forward, speaking with sudden intensity:
"I'm telling you, recording that way
forced us to hear our music stark naked. I haven't had to confront myself like that
since I was fifteen."
Upper Marlboro, Maryland