BENNETT & GAGA: CHEEK TO CHEEK
Tony Bennett’s son Dae took up the reins from Phil Ramone on his father’s latest album of duets, this time with just the one (surprise) guest, Lady Gaga.
Story: Paul Tingen
“What I find with everything I record like this is that spill is a crucial element,” said Dae Bennett — engineer, mixer, producer, and son of the legendary American singer Tony Bennett. And when the junior Bennett says, ‘record like this,’ he’s referring to the live tracking and producing approach of Cheek To Cheek, the senior Bennett’s latest album of duets with the inimitable Lady Gaga. He continues: “There’s no other way to achieve that sound. There is no ProTools plug-in, no piece of racked gear, that can do it. There is something about the resulting live sound that’s a little scary and unpredictable, and that is exactly the point. For me, it makes for exciting records. I see people who beat tracks to death, endlessly editing and treating them and fitting them to a grid, and these tracks are dead on arrival. They just sonically lay there all the time, lifeless, without any movement. I like it when things are a little different, unsettling, with some things jutting out more than others.”
For both Bennetts, the album delivered their second American number one and Australian top 10 — the first number one came in 2011 on the back of the Duets II album, itself a follow-up to Duets: An American Classic, which was released to celebrate Bennett’s 80th birthday. That first batch saw him singing a selection from the Great American Songbook with Paul McCartney, Elton John, Celine Dion, accompanied by a jazz quartet, supplemented with a big band or orchestra. Five years later Bennett did the same again, this time sparring with Amy Winehouse (her last recording), k.d. lang, Aretha Franklin, Sheryl Crow, Natalie Cole, Michael Bublé and most strikingly, a surprisingly energetic and natural sounding partnership with Lady Gaga on the song The Lady Is A Tramp.
Lady Gaga isn’t the sort of gal you’d expect to see duking it out on the mic with crooning royalty. While she does pull a few vocal tricks out of the bag live, and has tried to establish herself more in the line of Warhol. Most of what the public knows of Gaga is her p…p…pokerface and that she often wears outrageous outfits, while at other times, hardly anything at all. Her vehicle to date has been pop music, performances heavy on the burlesque, and videos designed to shock you to attention, giving skeptics plenty of leeway to critique her work as entirely surface-level theatricality with little-to-no substance. The bigger the target, the easier to hit, and Gaga’s dos can be quite voluminous.
Yet here she was, on The Lady Is A Tramp putting in a stellar jazz vocal performance. It showed an entirely different side of Gaga, and took many by surprise, especially in the context of how both Duets albums were made: with the singers and Tony Bennett’s quartet all recorded live at the same time in the same room, without vocal booths or drum iso booths. The recording approach’s tsunami of spill gave engineer and mixer Dae Bennett very few, if any, options for tuning and timing manipulations. In other words, Gaga’s performance was the real deal.
“If everybody’s having a good time and we’re getting great takes, I’m not going to say, ‘do everything you’re doing, but please stand still and face the mic”
GAGA’S TRAMP STAMP
Lady Gaga’s revelatory performance on The Lady Is A Tramp greatly added to her credibility as a singer. Moreover, in the song’s video the chemistry between Bennett and her almost literally sparks off the screen. But staking an entire album on this chemistry was a big move for both artists. For Bennett, he was forsaking the collective star power of his previous albums, and for Gaga, it was becoming more than a dalliance, but a real mark on her style. In a way, it’s hats off to Gaga, for not only doing something different, but potentially dragging her fanbase into unfamiliar, yet important musical territory.
Cheek To Cheek sees the duo croon, vocalise, and in Gaga’s case occasionally belt, their way through a selection of classic songs, ranging from Cole Porter’s Anything Goes to Duke Ellington and Irving Mills’ It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing). In line with the ‘don’t change a winning formula’ adage, the two singers were once again accompanied by Bennett’s quartet regularly augmented by a big band or orchestra, and captured for posterity by the same production team. The only changes are the occasional appearance of Lady Gaga’s quintet, and the absence of Phil Ramone, who sadly died in 2013. Ramone had produced Duets: An American Classic, co-produced Duets II with Dae Bennett, and Ramone’s passing meant Dae was all on his own producing Cheek To Cheek.
The winning formula on Duets: An American Classic, Duets II and Cheek By Cheek was established by Dae Bennett in 2006, when his brother Danny, their father’s manager, approached him with the idea of Tony making a duets album. At first, Dae wasn’t too excited about the suggestion, because “this type of record often sounds so canned and artificial, with singers not performing live with each other, and usually singing to a backing track. I suggested instead that we made a feature out of recording entirely live in the studio. This was pretty much how we have always recorded Tony, and the best way to capture him. If you want to kill a take of Tony singing, put some headphones on him. It’s not his thing. He is a performer and he likes spontaneity. So he sings with Tannoy Little Red monitors off to his side, introducing yet more spill. After recording the vocalists with the quartet I comped various takes of each song together, and once these comps were approved they went off to the arrangers for additional orchestral or big-band arrangements.”
While the vocalists/quartet sessions had all the spontaneity favoured by the Bennetts, organising the sessions themselves wasn’t exactly spontaneous, with Dae and Danny having a hard time getting the two exceptionally busy main protagonists in the studio at the same time. This eventually happened for seven days of recording at the beginning of 2014, at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Astoria, New York — the neighbourhood Tony was born in. During pre-production Tony, Dae and Gaga decided on the songs and the interpretation of each; including tempo, key, and who was to sing what. Bennett’s quartet — Gray Sargent on guitar, Mike Renzi on piano, Marshall Wood on double bass, and Harold Jones on drums — together with the producer, also spent time working out the arrangements.
“It was a true collaboration between Tony and Gaga,” explained Dae. “We were aware that people may have heard these standards a gazillion times, but they really wanted to bring these songs forward, so they could reach a new audience. We then made sure we had a roadmap for each song, because you want to have things sketched out before you start recording. The moment you’re getting takes is not the time to be working on arrangements. We were tracking two to three songs a day during those sessions, which was great. It’s a speed I like to work at, because it keeps everyone fresh. I did not want anyone bogged down doing 20 takes. If we felt that a particular song wasn’t happening after a couple of takes, we would move on to another one and come back to the earlier song on another day. In general we did three to four takes of each song, and moved on to the next one. The room at Astoria was also set up for a video shoot, and many of the videos you can find online of Tony and Gaga performing were compiled from these sessions.”
One of the hardest engineering accomplishments in the Cheek To Cheek sessions was dealing with both singers’ relentless motion. The pair were seemingly oblivious to the presence of the mics during their performance, and there was no containing their enthusiasm with taped ‘X’s or a handspan measurement from the mic. With all the leakage that was seeping everywhere, the lower off-mic vocal levels when the singers moved away must have been a nightmare to deal with. While the producer in him enjoyed the spontaneity and liveliness, the engineer in him had a job on his hands.
Dae explained how he went about combining the different hats he was wearing: “They were moving about quite a bit while singing, which did make editing and mixing a little bit of a challenge in some places. There were some moments when they were totally off-mic and I had to dig deep during the edits later on to get a matching sound. But I didn’t want to put any constraints on them while they were singing. I would rather deal with any issues after the sessions. If everybody’s having a good time and we’re getting great takes, I’m not going to say, ‘do everything you’re doing, but please stand still and face the mic.’ That would be bad direction. I’d rather have them be loose and having fun. But yes, being an engineer as well as a producer can be tricky. You have to take the shit with the glory. You have to be both the good guy and the bad guy. That comes with the territory. But it was tough to lay down the law with those two! What I did do was edit the evening after each session, and if there was an issue I’d play the edit to them the next day so they could hear and see themselves what was needed, or what direction they could explore in more depth. We were getting really good results that way.
“On this album I used a Neumann U47 to record both my father and Gaga, going through a Neve 1073 and a Urei 1176 into ProTools at 24-bit/96k. During sessions later in the year at Avatar, I tried that studio’s beautiful RCA 77-DX ribbon on her, and really fell in love with the sound of that mic on her voice. So I started running it in conjunction with the 47. You will see both mics side by side in some of the videos. If I had figured out earlier how much I liked that mic on her voice, I would have used it for all the sessions. She has a very powerful voice, and I find that some of the modern Neumanns can be almost too accurate. The modern M149 is a beautiful microphone when you use it on an opera singer 10 feet away, but put it up close on a female vocalist and it bothers my ears. It’s a little too detailed. By contrast, the 77 sweetened her voice in a way that was a perfect match. The 77 is used on the songs I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Let’s Face The Music And Dance, and Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.
“On the quartet, my drum mics were pretty standard with a Neumann FET 47 on the kick, a Shure SM57 on the snare, Audio-Technica 4080 ribbons as overheads, a Neumann KM184 on the hi-hat and Sennheiser 421s on the toms. I placed all mics very close to cut down on spill and have at least some degree of separation. The double bass was DI’d from a Fishman Circle pickup, and miked with a Neumann U47 going into a Neve 1073 and a Teletronix LA2A. The piano had two AKG C414 mics under the lid — we kept it closed to limit leakage — and the guitar cabinet was recorded with a Coles 4038 ribbon right on the speaker. Once again these mics went through Neve 1073 mic pres, of which I’m a big fan.
“We recorded another four or five songs during the sessions in August with Gaga’s quintet, and for these I used the same setup on the drums and bass, while the B3 had two Shure SM58s on the top and an SM58 on the bottom of the Leslie, the sax a Neumann U47, and the trumpet an RCA 44. Her band’s arrangements were something Tony wasn’t used to, so I had the band lay down some preliminary tracks with rough vocals by another singer, so Tony could familiarise himself with the direction they were taking. That helped tremendously. In any case, to have another band in there provided a different texture and a really nice contrast within the album, and it was fun and exciting for me.”
EDITING LIVE TAKES
Dae’s home studio setup, just north-west of New York, comprises a 12-core Mac Pro with 48GB of RAM, running ProTools HD Native 10, and a whole range of plug-ins by Universal Audio, Izotope, Waves, Sound Toys, Celemony, Antares and IK Multimedia. The hardware in his studio consists of the Avid 16×6 analogue HD/IO, Avid Artist Mix fader pack, Focusrite ISA 428 mic pres, Bryston 2B amp, and Genelec 1031A, Yamaha NS10M, and Avatone Mix Cubes monitors.
It’s here that he locked himself away to edit together the final takes of Cheek To Cheek.
Dae: “For me editing already starts during recording. I have a grid box on all the lyrics sheets, on which I quickly mark the scores as things are going down. This also allows me to make sure I have enough recorded material to create a good edit from. After we finished the first set of recordings in January at KAS, I locked myself in my room for two weeks to edit everything, and I then sent things out for approval. It’s just about edits at this point, I don’t really go for effects or other mix treatments; even though I set up a quick rough mix in ProTools for a general balance and to get a clear idea of what I have. My prime focus during this stage is editing the vocals, and I take care of all the moments when the singers were off-centre and so on. But because of the spill I need to edit the band behind the vocals at the same time.
“You can see the amount of spill on the vocal mics in the screen shots! The band did not play to a click track, everything was free, so if I wanted to do a vocal edit and tempos were not close enough, I couldn’t do it. It may sound challenging, but I’m used to cutting tape, so for me, cutting wave forms in ProTools is easier and more flexible. Of course, these are fantastic musicians, which is the key. Without that, making a record like this would be next to impossible, or at least, it would take three times as long.
“You can also see that I would mute, or at least reduce the level of one vocal track while the other was singing, and vice versa, so the spill level always stays more or less the same. This may sound tedious and time-consuming, and that was exactly what it was! When they’re both singing I had more spill, but the track was usually louder at those points, so I could get away with that. When I do those vocal-with-band cuts, a lot of the time you listen to each instrument individually to make sure the edits work well at each point, and sometimes you have to stagger the band edits. Maybe Tony sang a brief pickup just before an edit point, so I would have to open his vocal edit sooner than the band. In other cases I may need to let the vocal hang over a little bit longer, going into the incoming quartet edit. You can see these edits as horizontal lines in the screen shots, with the band on top; then my father and then Gaga; and below that the big band or orchestra edits, which were done separately and independently, as they were overdubbed to the edited band-with-vocals tracks.”
The Tony Bennett quartet sessions at KAS happened at the beginning of 2014, and the four days of recording with Lady Gaga’s quintet at Avatar were in August. These bookended the recording stage of Cheek to Cheek, with the big band and the orchestra recording sessions taking place in between. “The orchestra arrangements were done by Jorge Calandreili and the big band arrangements by Marion Evans,” said Dae. “The orchestral recordings took place at Manhattan Centre Studios a couple of months after the quartet sessions, with a 60-piece orchestra, and we later had another orchestra session with 25 musicians at Avatar for the song Don’t Wait Too Long. 90% of the orchestral sound comes from two Audio-Technica 4080 ribbon mics overhead, which sound phenomenal. I place them as high as possible, behind the conductor, about 30-40 feet apart, with the mic on the left pointing to the right and vice versa. Jorge loved the sound of those mics.
“In addition I had spot mics on the strings, with quite a few stereo pairs of KM184s on the string and viola sections and the cellos each had an individual 47FET, while French horns were recorded with 421s at the bell, oboe and bassoon with Neumann U87 mics in front, about one foot away, the flutes had KM184s close-up and for the harp I used two KM184s, one pointed at the side and one wrapped in foam and shoved in the back hole. The big band sessions were recorded at Avatar Studio C, and I had Coles 4038s on the trumpets, Neumann TLM103s on the trombones, and Neumann U87s on the saxophones. The trombone and trumpet mics went through the Neve VR mic pres, and the sax mics through the studio’s Neve 1031s. We also overdubbed Paul Horn’s flute and Joe Lovano’s saxophone solos at Avatar, and I used a U47/1073/1176 chain on each.”
MIXING IN HALVES
Shortly after the big band overdubs at Avatar Studio C, Dae began the final mix at the same studio, a process that would take him nearly three weeks for a total of 18 songs. Bennett was working with what he called a ‘hybrid’ mix setup, using both ProTools and the Neve VR console automation. However, before he began the mix, he first engaged in what he called the ‘premix’, i.e. editing his recordings. Given the “unpredictable” nature of the live-in-the-studio recordings, the editing stage is crucial, and time-consuming. In fact, Bennett spent a lot of the time at his home, between the two vocalists-with-band sessions in KAS and Avatar, editing the recorded material.
Dae explained that he tried to take care of the ‘editing minutiae’ before he started on the final mix because the two processes require a totally different state of mind. “When you’re dealing with all these editing details you’re less focused on the overall picture, whereas when mixing I like to spread everything out over the desk, and my aim is to get the entire song to sound exciting and musical. At this point I use the desk, and ProTools, more like a musical instrument. I had a number of different mix configurations on the album, one for Tony’s quartet with big band, one for Tony’s quartet with orchestra, one for just Tony’s quartet, one for Gaga’s band, and one for her band with orchestra. In each case, once I had set up a configuration, I would mix all the songs I had in that configuration, so I didn’t have to go back and forth between them. I mixed Anything Goes first — which is quartet and big band — because it was to be the first single, released while I was still mixing.
“When I first put up a configuration, I generally started with the rhythm section, and then I worked my way through, incorporating the piano, the guitar and then the big band or the orchestra. I added the vocals last. I like to get the track to the point where I enjoy listening to it without vocals. If I can get it to sound great like that, the vocals are the icing on the cake. But I do spend most of my time with everything up, and get a feel for levels and panning. I do these moves mainly on the desk. All tracks from the ProTools sessions are individually broken out to the Neve console, apart from the orchestra tracks, which I had bussed to the desk as first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, French horns, woodwinds and harp. I run the Neve VR with the automation active, and work mainly on that.
“I love the sound of the VR! I use a few plug-ins in ProTools, and some outboard, and a little bit of EQ, to touch up the occasional instrument, and mainly to cut some low end on the orchestra, but overall I’m big on getting things to sound right at the source, and recording them the way I want. So I don’t need to change things that much during mixing. Similarly, the sounds of the rooms where we recorded were very important, and most of the space and reverb you hear on the album comes from them. I like the randomness of just having the room tone in the recordings.”
To supplement the room Bennett treated a number of instruments with a few global effects, and injected some specific nostalgic effects to taste. “All I had on the most of the instruments, as well as the vocals, was maybe a little bit of additional reverb, and very occasional EQ on the desk,” said Dae. “I set up two plug-in reverbs for the entire project, the UA EMT140 and UA Lexicon 224, which came up as effect channels on the desk. I occasionally pushed the 140 on the horn stabs played by Gaga’s quintet for a bit of a late 1950s vibe. In addition, I used an outboard Lexicon 480L if I wanted a longer reverb on some of the ballads, and I really dipped into that for Paul Horn’s flute solo on Nature Boy. Paul unfortunately died three months after I recorded him. He was an amazing player who made a lot of new age-y recordings I loved the sound of. So I ended up tweaking the 480L to mimic the timbre and length of the sound on his records as a personal tribute to him, and it ended up working great in the mix, so I kept it.
“There was very little compression on individual channels on the album. The only time I used it was on the solos, some of the vocals and the bass. I recorded the vocals via the Universal Audio 1176, but more as a catchall, because they go from a whisper to a canon shot in a matter of seconds. I ran the 1176 on them again during the mix, this time as a textural thing. I also spent a while making sure the bass cut through more than it normally would on a traditional jazz record, using a Teletronix LA2A on the DI as well as the mic signals. But it wasn’t so much about compression as it was about finding a better balance between the DI and the mic, and a little bit of EQ. These are traditional songs in a traditional format, but I didn’t feel that the end result needed to be wholly traditional, in part because we wanted this album to also appeal to Lady Gaga fans — we wanted to give them something they can sonically relate to. Did this mean that I brought a rock sensibility to the album? I don’t know. I grew up hanging around band stands and hearing a big band playing live, it hits me with the level and power of a rock band does. So when I mix a big band, I mix it like that, because it’s the way it sounds to me. And a song like Let’s Face The Music is all about the drums and bass! I don’t think records have to come with a certificate of authenticity. If it feels and sounds good, and everybody involved loves what’s happening, then that’s where I am at.”