Paul Northfield on Recording Vapor Trails

Rush recorded Vapor Trails in 2002, after a break of several years. The band produced the record themselves with Paul Northfield as co-producer. Northfield had worked on three previous studio albums with the band, Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures, and Signals, but as engineer, not as producer. He also did some synthesizer work on Grace Under Pressure, and engineered two live albums, Exit . . . Stage Left and A Show of Hands, and the compilation Different Stages. Moving Pictures has been praised for its audio quality, but Vapor Trails has been criticized for being mastered too high (recorded too loud), crushing some of the musical dynamics. Here’s an excerpt from a 2009 Recording Hacks interview in which Northfield talks about the recording challenges of that record. (Part of the excerpt has been edited slightly.)

Northfield: “There was a huge amount of psychological baggage involved in recording Vapor Trails. Geddy and Alex had both done solo albums at that point. Neil had gone through a period where he didn’t play drums for about 18 months. I was dealing with three individuals, as opposed to a band.

“There was a certain kind of apprehension on Neil’s part, and on Geddy and Alex’s parts, about how comfortable everybody would be, and how Neil was going to feel. Even though Neil had been [practicing] a lot, you don’t stop playing for two years and then come back into it at the same level; as he said, ‘It takes a long time to build up the calluses.’ And there was the fact that they’d been doing projects with other people, and this was the first time they’d recorded together after spending a couple of years apart, so it was a very different environment.

“Geddy and Alex had done writing demos using Logic, so the tempos were all established, and a lot of very interesting arrangements done, sometimes some very interesting performances. The way that they would write is Geddy and Alex would kind of jam around a programmed drum part, and then structure a song in Logic. When I came to work with them on the album, we took the writing demos and rebuilt everything around those. We fine-tuned the demos in case there were any structural things we wanted to change, and then cut drums over them.

“To get back to your original question about how differently we recorded it [from Permanent Waves, the first Rush album Northfield worked on], that was probably the single largest thing that changed—[recording] drums over pre-recorded demos. The advantage to that is you can spin it back and punch in the drums, and Neil can have something that’s very consistent. He can rehearse to it, and it’s not going to change when he sits down in the room, as opposed to playing live with everybody where somebody pulls this way, somebody pulls that way. They’d arrived at that way of working 20 years between Permanent Waves and Vapor Trails.

“So Neil liked to overdub drums to a guide track, and then they’d recap the guitars, and recap bass, and put the vocals on. In the past, most of the time nothing would be used from the demo. In this case, because the demos were done on Logic and [were] quite sophisticated, there were interesting things that were worth keeping, so we did keep some interesting guitar parts.

“The other thing we did was use the studio that they were comfortable with. When I first started working on it, they wondered whether they wanted to stay at the same studio [Reaction Studios in Toronto]. It was convenient from their families’ point of view, and it was the place where they had spent the time writing, but it wasn’t a very live room. They really preferred the idea of just carrying on in the same studio, so I had the studio just tear out all of the deadening in the ceiling, and put drywall almost in the entire studio, which gave it a lot more of a live feel. It didn’t necessarily turn it into the best drum room I’ve ever been in, but it certainly gave us a very satisfactory result at the time, so we were quite comfortable. That was a rare occasion, that I literally changed the entire sound of the room to make it make sense. I wouldn’t normally choose to do that, I’d rather just go to a room that sounds like I want it to sound.”

Read the entire interview, in which Northfield also talks about recording Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures, and also talks about working with Dream Theater and other bands. Complete interview.

More about Vapor Trails.


~ by rvkeeper on September 18, 2011.

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