Although Rouse attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music from 1982 to 1988, he credits his father’s keen ear for turning him onto the finer points of music production. “My dad would always point out how the Beatles arranged their stuff,” he says, “and how different genres have different types of arrangements.”
Rouse’s production mantra is preparation, and Marbletown is no exception. “The whole process took about eight months,” he explains, “but most of that was pre-production. When we finally hit the studio, we tracked the whole album in ten days. Our gun was cocked, and we blasted away.”
As a producer, what is your main goal when you enter the studio?
It’s my job to make sure the artist looks back and says, “This record is the best thing I’ve ever done.” To that end, the best way to achieve that goal is to be involved with a project from its inception all the way through to the mixing of the record. So for Blue Highway’s Marbletown, the first thing I did was sit down with the group and gather all of the songs they were working on currently, plus all of the songs that didn’t make it on their last record. Out of about 30 songs we whittled it down to 15, and out of those, we ended up with the 12 that made it on the record.
After you choose the tracks, where do you steer the process?
We rehearse the tunes incessantly so the musicians can figure out little parts and motifs for each song. That way, when we get into the studio, they know exactly what they’re doing at all times. Then we get into a cycle of recording, listening, and then tweaking some more. After we do that for a couple of weeks, the band will go out on the road, play the tunes live, and live with them for a while.
How important is it that a band live with the songs for a while before tracking?
It’s very important, because you get more perspective with regard to tempo, groove, and the kind of mood you want the song to convey.
Some may say all of this attention to detail could suck any vibe or life out of a tune.
Hell, listen to something that Mutt Lange has produced. Some of his stuff has been combed over for years and it doesn’t sound lifeless.
At that point, is it up to the band to bring the performance to life on record?
Exactly. The key is having good musicians that can make the music sound spontaneous and fiery, even though it was labored over. And the Blue Highway guys are amazing players. They’re bluegrass guys, but deep down, each of these players has the chops of a jazz musician. They can figure out the feel they want and then execute it with as much fire and passion as the tune calls for. It typically takes a band a while to get comfortable in the studio, but those guys are right on the minute they walk in the door
How did you track Marbletown?
We recorded the whole thing using either Digidesign Pro Tools or Steinberg Nuendo. When we were rehearsing, the guys set up in the traditional bluegrass way—everyone in a circle playing around one mic. But when we actually tracked the record, we used individual mics on every instrument and isolated them so we had more flexibility when we entered the mixing phase.
So you’re not concerned about capturing the natural ambience of the room?
It’s funny, because the engineer for this record was my good friend, Gary Paczosa. We’ve been working on records together for 15 years. But every time we work on a project, we get into a fight about adding reverb after the fact. I’m always reluctant to add any effects to acoustic instruments, but Gary has such an amazing ear and can implement reverb so tastefully, you never know if you’re hearing the room or a processor.
How important is it for a producer to have an engineering background?
It’s important so you can at least communicate with the engineer you’re working with on some type of technical level. There are a lot of guys who will produce and engineer at the same time. That’s great, and a lot of folks do a great job at it, but I feel doing both jobs takes away from your brain power. As a producer, you can’t stand back and listen to tracks with a critical ear while you’re busy running around plugging in different mics or setting up a compressor. You need an engineer that allows you as the producer to focus solely on the music, and not worry about anything. That’s why I love working with Gary. The world could be exploding and Martians could be landing, but I know that the sonics of the recording are going to be perfect. And that leaves me free to craft the best record possible.