The Magic of Steve Rodby

January 14, 2015

“MUSIC IS A MAGICAL PHENOMENON,” says Steve Rodby. “Recording music is like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. You want to capture these magical moments, and my job is to assist in that.” In his role as bassist, producer, and music and video editor, Rodby has logged countless hours creating incredibly enduring music—on the bass, in the studio control room, and in post-production. He knows more about recording, editing, and producing bassists than practically anyone in the business. “Content is everything. I can take almost anything and ‘fix’ it in the studio. But I can’t make music intrinsically better than it really is. Content in every sense of the word is ultimately what’s going to matter. It’s more important than good microphones or a high-tech studio. It’s about the music, from the very first stages to the very end.”

Rodby’s bass playing expresses a warmth and groove that reflects the nature of the man behind the instrument—music first, presented with a maturity and instrumental command that only comes from years of experience onstage and in the studio. Currently, he devotes much time and energy to his work as bassist and producer with the Impossible Gentlemen, a British–American supergroup featuring guitarist Mike Walker, pianist Gwilym Simcock, drummer Adam Nussbaum, and electric bassist Steve Swallow. The 2013 CD Internationally Recognised Aliens features Rodby producing and playing acoustic bass on “Just to See You” and “Barber Blues,” with Swallow playing electric on all other tracks. “A couple of years ago there was a tour that Steve Swallow couldn’t make because he’s so busy with his own band. They asked me if I could sub, and of course, I said yes. I had recorded with Gwilym in Chicago several years earlier, and was completely blown away.”

Rodby has since played on several Impossible Gentlemen tours, and is set for their next road trip in 2015. “It’s a blast playing live with them because it’s a very loose band—we take the music very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves so seriously. I’m going to be producing the next record as well.”

As a bassist, Rodby came of age in the fertile Chicago jazz scene of the ’70s, playing with top local players and visiting jazz legends like Milt Jackson, Art Farmer, Sonny Stitt, and Joe Henderson. He often played in the house band at the fabled Jazz Showcase in the ’70s and early ’80s. He was raised in a musical family and heard a lot of classical music as a child. Predicting the future, his music-teacher father bought him an electric bass, acoustic bass, pickup, and amp by the time he was in the 6th grade. “It was probably an economic decision, because he thought: ‘Bass players work—they’re always going to need bass players!’ I got started first with classical music and then almost immediately added jazz and pop. They have each changed the way I play and the way I approach music.”

Rodby came to international attention in 1981 when he joined the Pat Metheny Group, replacing Mark Egan on bass. In the beginning, he played electric 4-string on the legacy tunes from the Egan era, but concentrated on bringing his lush, rhythmically agile acoustic bass voice into the Metheny mix. For over three decades, Rodby and Metheny have worked together onstage and in the studio. In recent years, Rodby has been the guitarist’s go-to sound editor and producer for several projects.

Rodby’s producing and editing career has grown alongside his bass-playing career and now consumes a large portion of his daily life. He does most of his post-production work in his home studio. “I’m not a recording engineer, or a mixing engineer. I do roles in between. I might end up supervising a recording session or entire production, so I end up running the show. It’s about time management and quality control.” As a seasoned studio pro, Rodby knows how to bring the best out of musicians during the session and in post-production. “The artist should be as comfortable and relaxed as possible. They need someone to look out for them. I started recording at a young age, and I got very comfortable in the studio.”

When talking about his work with bassists Esperanza Spalding, Michael Manring, and the late Charlie Haden, Rodby is candid but admirably respectful. “They make records that have ideas behind them. They’re not just making another version of some jazz standard. They’re great musicians, but even that’s not enough. They have a story to tell; there is a narrative element to the songs, even if it’s only musical meaning.

“If you listen to Esperanza Spalding’s Chamber Music Society or Radio Music Society, they’re like an interview; the ideas are so crystal clear. Charlie Haden’s projects were also exceptional like that too. The records always had something brand new, always an interesting point of view. Those aren’t gimmicks—those are things that structure the listening experience. Music that has such a strong aesthetic compass is so compelling, it makes it easy for me to contribute.”

As a producer, Rodby is a realist who tries to reveal the artist’s musical heart and soul in the most flattering light. “So much of the magic of jazz is about improvisation—a one-time thing, with wrinkles and all. That’s a part of its charm and power—hearing a one-time performance.” In the modern world of digital editing, many of the rough edges can be polished away. But “perfect isn’t perfect,” and the goal remains to present a musical performance that sends a message. “From Glenn Gould on, we are often listening to an idealized version of the music. I think of myself as a bit of an archeologist, psychologist, and dream interpreter. I try to coalesce as much of the magic in one place as possible. Technology often robs music of its spirit and its soul; it justifiably gets a bad name, but the tools are ultimately neutral. It all comes down to sensibility and what you do with the tools.”

INFO

LISTEN

The Impossible Gentlemen, Internationally Recognised Aliens. [Basho, 2013]

EQUIP

Acoustic bass German Wilfer, circa 1975, customized by Robert Daugherty, amplified with two pickups: Fishman Full Circle and Wilson K4. The pickups are buffered, phase-adjusted, and blended in a custom volume pedal with an impedance-setting preamp built by Bob Palmieri. Blend: Full Circle 70%, Wilson 30%.
Travel acoustic bass Eminence Portable Upright Bass by G. Edward Lutherie Inc. with a Fishman Full Circle pickup
Electric basses Fretted Sadowsky 5-string, fretless Modulus 5-string
Rig Benz Genz Shuttle 6.0 amp, with AccuGroove speakers: Tri 112-L or Tri 115-L; Markbass Minimark amp

Steve Rodby’s Tips For The Recording Bass ist

ON THE DOUBLE BASS

I was always a “two-microphone and DI guy.” You need a good pickup, and whatever you plug into should have a high enough input impedance not to kill the low end. People don’t realize that the frequency response of a transducer pickup is an interaction between itself and the first thing it’s plugged into. This is true for amps, direct boxes, and pedals. Most amps and DI boxes aren’t labeled with their input impedance, but that’s changing slowly. You want to have the impedance at least one or two million ohms. This is why preamps can be so helpful.

With microphone placement, I like to have one mic parallel to and in front of the bridge, often a bit higher, and then another mic much higher, up where the neck joins the body. I’m looking to capture the three main elements of the sound of the acoustic bass:
1. The bass drum aspect, like a bump, bounce, or thump. That’s where the swing comes from.
2. The middle, which I call the tenor part, like a tenor voice. You hear the fundamental, but the tenor voice tells you the pitch.
3. The high sounds. You want a little noise, finger sounds, a reality factor.

I want to hear all three parts of the sound. Every time you play a sample, it’s the same. But from a real bass player, you hear all three parts of the sound interacting, and it’s pleasing to the ear. The most important part is the balance between the first two elements, with a bit of noise thrown in. When the bass is soloed, it might sound like too much, but in the track it blends very well.

The mistake some people make is they think they can’t hear the bass, so they turn up high frequencies too much, and it sounds ugly. Or they try to use the pickup for definition. As good as many new pickups are, they often aren’t so attractive in the high end. They often have a better place adding a little evenness to the bottom of the recorded sound.

ON THE ELECTRIC BASS

The electric bass comes down to the player, the sound of the instrument, and the direct box. One way to avoid a dead studio sound is to record an amp—it makes an electric bass less sterile. Another thing that helps on many electric basses for recording is to raise the strings a bit higher, to get more dynamic punch. Of course, these tips are what work for me. Your mileage may vary, and there are other ways of getting great sounds.

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY

Steve Rodby’s massive discography includes 13 Grammy Awards for his work on various projects as bassist, producer, and co-producer. Here are just a few of his career highlights and roles:

Eliane Elias, I Thought About You [2013, Concord Jazz; co-producer]
Ryan Cohan, The River [2013, Motema; producer]
Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society [2012, Heads Up; mix preparation]
Charlie Haden, Rambling Boy [2008, Universal; co-producer]
Michael Brecker, Pilgrimage [2007, Heads Up; co-producer]
Pat Metheny Group, The Way Up [2006, Nonesuch; bassist, co-producer]
Oregon, Oregon in Moscow [2000, Intuition; producer]
Ross Traut/Steve Rodby, The Duo Life [1991, Columbia; bassist, co-producer]

STEVE RODBY’S PRACTICE TIPS FOR THE ASPIRING BASSIST

LEARNING TO LISTEN TO YOURSELF

Record something, play it back; record something, play it back. When you hear the playback, it should be like you’re hearing it for the second time, because you actually did listen while you were playing. You need to make music and listen to music at the same time. Your goal should be to never let the playback surprise you, at least in a bad way. An inexperienced player is often hearing a sound in their head that they want to make, but they’re not actually hearing what they really sound like—as if they were sitting in the front row or listening to themselves on a recording.

TRANSCRIBING

Transcribing bass lines is insanely important. If you want to learn licks, just go buy a book of licks that someone else transcribed, but the person who wrote the book got all the benefits. It’s the ear-training aspect of transcribing that’s so important. That’s what all the good players have—good ears—and they can hear stuff and make something personal of it. Just take your favorite four bars, try to learn what it is, and then record yourself playing it back. Then go back and forth and compare it to the original. Ask yourself, Why don’t I sound like the original? What’s going on there? Play it over and over until you get it very close in feel, and then make it your own.

PLAYING WITH GOOD TIME

When you hear great music, people are playing very well together. In addition to playing together, they each have their own independent groove. The independent groove needs to come first. There are two things happening in a groove: How lined up you are with somebody, and then there’s what the bass sounds like all by itself—the glue, the swing, the rhythm in between the notes.

A lot of us learn the internal groove by playing with drummers who are better than we are. If we line up our notes with them long enough, we can get that feeling coming from them. If we practice a lot, we can also get that feeling on our own. But it’s never good enough just to be accurate. There’s no replacement for that internal groove on everyone’s part independently. It has to swing.

LEARNING TO SWING

Swing feel is one of those secret sauces, like a mole poblano with 27 ingredients that make it potent. In the beginning, I couldn’t figure out the ingredients abstractly, but once I emulated the sound, I started to get it. By listening over and over to something Paul Chambers played, I’d just try to get that sound and feel in my ear, then make that sound. Also, playing with great swinging drummers was key.

LEARNING TO SOLO

I tell bass players to study soloing with a piano player, guitar player, or horn player. Bass solos are so idiomatic that they can all start to sound alike in a way. If you’re transcribing and learning Hank Mobley’s sax solos, for example, it’s going to come out on the bass really different.

Great players are constantly developing their melodies when they’re improvising—I like to call it rhyming. They keep referring back to what they just played, while staying creative. The jazz greats are great because listeners can follow what they are improvising.

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