Albert Allenback in studio with keyboards

Welcome back to our behind-the-scenes column you might have seen in previous years as “Take One” or “Red Light Fever,” now revived and remixed for all your gear nerd, console rider, and circuit bender pain and pleasure.

Albert Allenback

Albert Allenback, the playful, badass, GRAMMY-nominated flutist-saxophonist-multi-instrumentalist of Tank and the Bangas, SaxKixAve, and solo project Alb the Builder, brought me on a video tour through his home studio recently. While we wandered, we talked about microphones, portable rigs, gear goals, favorite flute accouterments, and the importance of having a good studio closet.

Can we get a tour of your home studio?

I usually stand while I work, so it starts with an adjustable standing desk. Also, I’m a pacer, so you’re gonna get the whole apartment on this call. This is the Big Freedia-sized vocal booth I’ve told you about. It’s about 5x5x7. I think we can get anybody in here except for some NBA stars. That’s the couch—you want a good place to hang. This is the control room, which is a studio as well, the studio-living room. Then I have this other room over here, which is a drum room. What I’ve done to make it recordable is, I have a snake over here with all the inputs going under this rug here, up along the wall, down, back, across, along here, then up to the interface inputs. It’s a little exhausting running back and forth but it’s kinda fun. It feels really kinetic when I’m in here making stuff.

I have two mics back here [behind the piano]. They’re Warm Audio 251s [tube condenser mics]. They’re modeled after old Telefunkens. It’s not the best sound, ‘cause the piano’s closed up but if I want something with low effort, that’s how I do it. Sometimes I’ll open up the lid and use a Neumann U 87 on the strings and hammers and whatnot. [The Neumann] is the most expensive piece of gear I own and, right now, it’s being used as an auxiliary drum mic, tucked away in between the tom and the snare and the kick drum. I move this thing back and forth all day ‘cause it’s so good on everything. I was doing some stick stuff on the rim and it picks it all up so well.

This is another one of my favorite mics: the Audix SCX25A. I have a pair of them. You can put ‘em on guitar amps. I’ve used them on the piano. I just recorded Cally [Cole for her new solo project] on it. We had a shootout between the Audix and the Neumann and [the Audix] smoothed out frequencies in Cally’s voice that worked really well, whereas the Neumann was full presence, all the highs—it was almost too lifelike. And they both go in the most important part of the studio: my cable, mic, percussion, and flute closet. Every studio needs a good closet.

You hand-built your studio, learning as you went along (and earning the nickname Alb the Builder) so what are some mistakes you made?

There’s so many holes everywhere. There were so many mistakes just making the vocal booth. Everything’s pretty well hidden in insulation now. The location of the drum room to where I am right now is not optimal: no line of sight and I end up exhausted ‘cause I run a lot around here. The thing that’s been the most painful is trying to connect everything and working out which cables can cross each other. The electrical stuff has been a pain in the ass. I still, to this day, have weird ground buzzes because I don’t have stuff properly grounded or shielded. This is not a commercial property and I’m just doing what I can, plodding along, learning stuff, working on it every day I’m here.

The last time you and I spoke, the world was shut down and we were all stuck at home. Now tours have come back full force. Fill me in on your tour-life balance.

When you’re on tour there is very little life balance. It’s this all-consuming thing. People who don’t know better will ask me for advice about it and my answer is, “I don’t know how. If you figure it out, we can learn from each other.” Work-life balance when you’re on tour is about 100% tour, to the point where that’s real life and life feels…

I’d imagine you get some ideas on the road and want to capture them though, so what’s your portable rig look like?

I bring this iRig Pre 2 [mobile microphone interface]. It’s got a full XLR in it and batteries, so it can supply phantom. I bring one of the Audix mics and a tiny desktop microphone stand. I prop it up on a desk and angle my voice or horn at it. I got tired of bringing an interface and headphones and everything with me, so I just bring that little rig. If I’m producing stuff, I work with [pre-recorded] audio or use the musical typing on Logic instead of trying to bring out a keyboard or MIDI controller on the road. I don’t make great stuff in the backs of vans. If I have to comp vocals or play some bass, I can, but with anything more complex I think, “Do I feel creative and good doing this?” The answer is, “No.” Saxophone sounds really bad recorded into phones. I’ve tried. I’ve put pillows around the phone and done my best but you can’t even do that in the back of a van. You just can’t pull it off with a saxophone.

What’s the most important piece of gear in your studio?

The most important piece of gear for me is the piano, past any lovely microphone, synthesizer, pre-amp. Putting a real piano next to my desk where I work (I did it years ago when I lived in a 200-something square foot apartment and couldn’t do it comfortably) provides every sound, every timbre, every orchestral possibility. It unlocks me in a way that nothing else ever could—if that’s not what gear’s supposed to do I don’t know what is.

What type of piano is it?

I’m not sure of the model. It’s a Baldwin. I want to call it a “granny” piano? It’s just something that would be in a church basement or a civic center practice room. It’s nothing special but I’ve gotten it tuned, had a little work done on it. They’ve had questions ‘cause there’s some weird prison dentistry hammer work going on in there and I’m just, “It was like that when I got it.”

Do you mix your own tracks?

Everything that I do, even if somebody comes to me and I’m producing something for them, I’m like, “Yeah, we’re gonna get this mixed” because it invariably makes the final product better. Getting another set of ears on it, having it mixed in a different room, it’s not only good for the creative economy but it’s like a life raft when you get a mix back from a good engineer. I can mix about 70 to 80% of the things I like, get it in position, then send it off, and they take it to the next level.

What was your first piece of gear?

This is the first thing that came into my life, in 2015. It’s a[n Access] Virus TI Polar and it is such a great synthesizer. I got it because I had read in an interview that Flying Lotus used it and I was like, “Well, that’s some of my favorite stuff, so I’m gonna go from there.” It’s got so many unique parameters. It’s got three oscillators and you can turn on a sub-oscillator on the third one. It also has frequency modulation, an independent noise filter, which isn’t so unusual but it makes these really digital blankety, crackly sounds. I really love this synthesizer. It’s got modern stuff, it’s got stuff that feels wobbly and organic, and it’s got a really good glide function. A lot of people think of Junos and Prophets but with this one, the sound bank is totally different.

A synthesizer

Can we deep dive into flute and saxophone gear?

This is the coolest piece of flute gear I have: It’s a wooden headjoint. With most flutes, the headgear is metal, although this is becoming very popular now because it sounds so good. This specific one is made by Tobias Mancke. It’s a [Mancke] pink ivory headjoint with a golden embouchure. If you look very closely at the tone hole, it’s lined with actual gold, so the air has more of a chance to break on that far edge and it’s a very, very crisp sound. I’ve had one of these where the tone hole was not lined with metal and it was an entirely different playing experience. The wooden headjoints have a little bit more depth to them, so they’re almost like playing a simple 6-hole flute and with that metal in the tone hole you get the best of both worlds. A few years ago, I was up at Flute World, one of my favorite stores, right outside of Detroit, trying a few mouthpieces. The first one was a Mancke rosewood headjoint. I used that for about a year and a half. I loved it. It’s how I discovered that wood was even on the table. Then I went to the Flute Center of New York last year and found this one. I sold one of my kidneys and a lot of plasma to raise up the funds. I didn’t have a mortgage to re-mortgage but I would have if I had it and now I’ll pay off this headjoint for the next couple of years—totally worth it.

Check this out! This is my flute mic. It’s from a Greek company called RMacoustics. I think I just found them through a Google search but it’s the best flute mic I’ve ever used. It’s got a little ring and it hooks directly onto the flute. It’s directional, so it just points directly where the sound comes out of the tone hole. (The sound travels throughout the whole body but this is where the lion’s share of it is.) [The mic] has a cable that goes to a preamp but this is the main thing and, yeah, it stays on and everything you play will be heard. The flute is so funny because it literally just can’t be heard in certain situations if it’s not amplified. Your message won’t reach anybody. When we were down in Cuba I learned so much about flute. Down there, the upper register is highly developed [by players] because they have to play over drums and trumpets in these huge bands on the streets, so they’re playing in the extreme upper register just to be heard. Suddenly, this instrument projects up there but if you were to play it down low, where it’s generally played, you’d have absolutely no shot.

I’d imagine the RMacoustics clip-on mic is for live performance, so when you’re in recording studios that aren’t your own, what do you use for your flute and saxophone?

Usually, in the studio, I’ll just try the best large diaphragm condenser they have. Maybe they’ll have a nice Telefunken, maybe a Neumann (Neumann picks up such cool things on flute) but I’ve also had success on a [Sennheiser] 421. You use it a lot on saxophone too. It can sound great. I think that’s what they threw on both for the big [Tank and the Bangas] Red Balloon sessions.

Is there an inexpensive microphone that you would recommend to budding flutists?

Years ago, I made such great demos with this $199 mic called the Studio Projects C1. [Inflation has since brought it to about $299. —SS] I recorded all my horns and flutes with it. Keep in mind, I don’t consider myself a big gear person but, with producing, I have to have a handle on the options. Oftentimes, in the studio, engineers haven’t recorded flute before and I’m the one with the most experience doing so. For me, I also focus on the environment, because I find that the actual barriers are not where the track pad is, or where you mic the flute, or how good the mic is. The actual barrier is about you feeling the least amount of scared you can be to do your best work.

Shelves of music gear

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Photos by Ansel Albert.

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