Drums In The Key Of (Stevie) Wonder

Capturing The Magic

As I mentioned earlier, the rest of the instrumentation for “New York Times” was just as Stevie-oriented as the drums. The keyboardist, Michael Blankenship (Sheila E., Lauryn Hill, Lyrics Born), used an M-Audio Axiom Pro 61 controller, MacBook Pro, Apple Mainstage 2, and Native Instruments plug-ins (specifically, Scarbee Clavinet & Scarbee A-200 patches). Willie captured that directly out of Michael’s rig and ran it through an API preamp. With that setup, Michael was able to dial in a perfect serpentine clavinet sound as well as a classic-sounding electric piano patch; we ended up blending both voices.

Bassist Darryl Anders, known for his work on the video games Guitar Hero, Rockband, and Karaoke Revolution, was recorded direct-only through an Avalon U5 DI with the Vintech X81 preamp and DBX 165 compressor. Willie also added some Mutron phase for a “funky synth” vibe. The diverse guitarist Michael Cavaseno, who plays with P-Funk guitarist RonKat and the Latin/electro/rock group Bang Data, played a Les Paul guitar for his overdubbed parts.

Willie and Michael selected Trilogy’s Orange amp head along with a ’60s Marshall cabinet (with original Greenback speakers); Willie double-miked the Marshall with a Royer R-121 (put through the Chandler TG2 preamp) and an Audio Technica 4033 with the Manley preamp. He then “blended the two mikes to taste” to one track. Finally, for Chase’s scratch vocal, Willie chose a Neumann M269c with the Manley Preamp and a Tube-Tech CL1B compressor.

The plan from the beginning was to track the drums, bass, and keyboards together. We’ve been doing that consistently throughout the making of Chase Martin’s album. Willie and I joked about how having the musicians play live together was actually ironically inauthentic in this case, since Stevie Wonder often painstakingly overdubbed many of the tracks himself on the records we were trying to emulate.

Just before we began tracking, Kevin and I had a brief exchange about the specific drum figures he might play for the song. We decided that employing an archetypal Stevie swinging hi-hat pattern might be cool. When Kevin sat behind the drum set, he began playing around with a fresh beat that sounded somewhere between two of Stevie’s much-loved classics: “That Girl” and “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” With Michael and Darryl dialed in and Chase posted up in his vocal booth ready to sing, we began capturing takes of “New York Times.”

The first take established a groovy ’70s vibe, with Michael’s clavinet sounds front and center. We ran through a few takes, messing around a bit with dynamics and nailing the accented hits in the chorus. Thinking back to what Kevin said about how Stevie’s drumming often allows a song to grow dynamically over time, I asked Kevin if he could keep both hands on the hi-hat and withhold snare hits until later in the song. When executing that idea, he decided to bring in the snare about halfway through the first verse; a smart choice that helped propel the verse toward the catchy chorus.

We also decided to “break down” the final verse a bit, giving the lyrics additional breathing room and creating anticipation for the final round of choruses. Chase’s guide vocals sounded great on every take, and the musicians were unfazed when Chase busted out with completely rewritten verses at around take four. Soon after that little curveball we were done with the drums, bass, and keys tracking, and Michael Cavaseno popped in to record his guitar parts, which we completed quickly and smoothly.

Thanks to the exhaustive research and preparation of a passionate engineer, a team of experienced and savvy musicians, a dynamite song, and a willing, enthusiastic artist, we achieved our goal of recording a tune that would not be out of place on one of Stevie Wonder’s classic ’70s albums.

At the heart of it all, of course, was the drums ... which were played and heard in the key of Wonder, all day long.

PC Muñoz is a San Francisco based musician, producer, writer, and educator. His past productions include the Grammy-nominated album Strange Toys by composer/cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, the award-winning multi-media project “Twenty Haiku”, and the CMJ-charting album A Good Deed in a Weary World. He can be found at pcmunoz.com.

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