CRAS Grad Chris Pummill is riding high on the coattails of a once in a lifetime opportunity. Finishing the CRAS program in 2011 with a 3.79 GPA and perfect attendance, Chris has lucked out with this latest peg in his recording career, coming by way of assistant engineering on Talib Kweli’s latest record.
Released May 7th, the album hit #48 on the Billboard 200 chart and sold over 10,000 copies the first week it was out. This is a stellar follow up album from one half of the Black Star duo, and features guest appearances from a number of artists, including Nelly, Curren$y, Kendrick Lamar, Ryan Leslie and Busta Rhymes. Here is a little breakdown of Chris’ experience working on the record:
“I believe work on this album started in the fall of 2010 and when I got the chance to start working on it, it was my first day at Rough Magic Studios in April 2011. I had just interviewed and was slated to come in the following Monday when I got the call to come intern/assist at the last minute. After that 1st session, I ended up assisting on most of his sessions alongside Alby Cohen (engineer).
Originally, the setup was a Neumann U87 Ai (roll-off engaged) going through an Avalon VT-737sp. On the Avalon, we would do light compression (around 3:1) and very light EQ. Later we switched to the AKG 414B XLS (cardioid, 6dB pad, and 40Hz roll-off). Combined with the Avalon, the 414 did a good job of rounding out the highs that are synonymous with his voice. The U87 was great, but was a bit harsh and brittle at times. Recall of his usual settings and mic placement was very important as he was the type of artist that would just walk in and go! He would give Alby time to check the level and signal quality but more than a minute and you were just taking too much time.
There were a few sessions where I had to fill in for Alby either because he had Jury Duty or because he was sick. Right then I learned the importance of working quick, precise punches, following lyrics without a guide and NEVER RECORD OVER TAKES WITHOUT DUPLICATING THE TRACK FIRST! It was a serious “Baptism by Fire.”
Although there are a lot of great featured artists on the album, we only had 1 or 2 come through the studio. However, we did get to work with a slew of amazing session players. On songs like “Human Mic,” “Hamster Wheel,” and “Before He Walked,” we recorded with string players Chad Hammer and Gene Back. Due to the fact that it was just a cello and violin, we did layer after layer of the same parts and then added more layers of harmonies and little flourishes to make 2 guys sound like an entire string section. We direct mic’d the violin with a Nady RSM-4 ribbon mic (which sounded amazing despite its cheap pricetag), the cello with the EV RE-20 and used a U87 Ai over each of their heads to get a more ambient sound. The 87s ran through the Focusrite Red 8 mic pres and the direct mics ran through a couple of API 3124 pres.
On “High Life,” we ended up replacing the bass and guitar parts in the original beat with live guitar and bass by John Cave and Brady Watt. The bass went direct through the Avalon 737 with 5:1 compression and light EQ, which was a very common setup for bass in most of our overdub sessions. Guitar went through John’s pedal board into an Orange Dual Terror head into a Marshall half-stack. On the cab, we used an SM57 off-axis through the Joe Meek VC6Q for a gritty sound, the 414B XLS (6dB pad) through the API 3124 for a bright tone, and a U87 Ai in Omni as a room mic going through a Vintech 473. We got an incredibly clean and balanced sound with this setup, which I have now adopted (minus the room mic). In most of these OD sessions, Talib was not on hand to direct the players and trusted Alby to essentially produce the parts along with the players.
For most of the songs with features, Alby would have to import session data from outside sessions and marry our sessions with theirs. However, that wasn’t always the case. On “Rocketships,” we only had an mp3 bounce (vocals and instrumental) of the Busta Rhymes verse that we had to fly in, meld, and balance with our instrumental track. Mind you, this was a song produced by RZA and therefore was pretty much impossible to get on the grid. The final version of the song turned out great, but it was a nightmare to manage between studios and producers.
It was an incredible experience to work with someone that I’ve listened to and been a fan of for years. I learned a LOT and get to have my name next to some hip-hop greats.”
Sometimes in the music industry, it takes years to get a chance like this, and it was incredible to see Chris literally get dropped right into the lap of greatness, working on an amazing session right out of school. Congratulations Chris!