How engineer Russell Elevado found the vintage sound of Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun
Russell Elevado walks us through the analogue equipment used to capture Badu’s sound during a famed era of creativity at Electric Lady Studios
From 1996 to 2002, there existed a period of musical excellence, in which iconic artists made their imprint on the musical landscape at New York’s Electric Lady Studios. The Soulquarians were a collective who took up residence at the studios – famously set up by Jimi Hendrix in 1970 – during this era; one particular artist who’s gone on to inspire the generations that followed was Erykah Badu. To create her trademark neo soul sound, engineer Russell Elevado focused on using analogue equipment.
Below, we catch up with Elevado to discuss the recording of Badu’s second studio album and how he achieved Badu’s a certain timelessness through vintage equipment.
Firstly, what can you remember about the atmosphere whilst recording Mama’s Gun?
Erykah was very sweet and was always making sure everyone had what they needed. I remember there were lots of musicians and artists around. For a time, a typical week would go like this. I would be working with D’Angelo one day, then Erykah for two days, then Common the next day, then back to D’Angelo. It was a very inspirational vibe at Electric Lady with so many amazing musicians walking around and playing on different albums.
How did Erykah describe the vision for the album?
I remember her mentioning she wanted her record to be a classic one day.
You used a lot of analogue equipment and vintage microphones for this record, what inspired that?
Well, at that time I was focusing my engineering on achieving a vintage sound but with a modern approach. Meaning, I wanted to create organic sounds that sounded like they might have been recorded or sampled and treated in such a way to make it sound like a hip-hop record. So I studied what gear the engineers and producers of the 60s and 70s used and what sort of recording techniques they utilised to create certain effects or textures.
How do you think the use of vintage equipment can impact the music an artist is making? Does it change the atmosphere of the studio?
Yes, absolutely. I know that having their instruments sounding just like an instrument from a classic record definitely inspired them, and helped their creativity and develop ideas.
For the audiophiles among us, can you break down a few specifics of what equipment was used? What piece of equipment, if any, was your secret weapon?
All of the recording sessions were recorded to tape which also added to the vintage sound and added to the overall vibe of the sessions.
I used the Neumann U47 and U67 quite a lot on Erykah’s vocals as well as on drums and bass. I also used the RCA 44-B ribbon mic to record Roy Hargrove’s horns. The RCA 44-B microphone is from the 50s and the Neumann microphones from the 60s.
All of the mics would go through vintage mic preaamps like Neve and Telefunken.
I also used an Ampeg B-15 amplifier for the bass, and vintage Pultec tube equalisers.
What, if anything, were you listening to?
We were listening to records from Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder. You know, the classics. Also, we were all inspired by Jay Dilla and the mixtapes he would play for us by Slum Village.
How do you think recording at Electric Lady affected the sound of Mama’s Gun?
We were all caught up in the mystique and the legend of Jimi Hendrix and recording at the studio he built. And knowing all of the great albums that were done there makes it a very special studio indeed.
Voodoo was being recorded at the same studio at the same time, were Erykah and D’Angelo sharing equipment?
Yes, most definitely. Sometimes we would just swap rooms because I would already have set up to record drums with Questlove for D’Angelo and Erykah would want to record a song idea. So rather than setting the drums up again, we just told her to come over.
What’s your favourite song from Mama’s Gun?
Green Eyes which is one of the songs I mixed. The song has three movements and each movement has a different sound from three different eras of music. The first section is meant to sound like an early jazz recording with a lo-fi sound. [The] second is supposed to sound like a jazz recording from the 60s – a bit fuller in sound – and the last movement goes to a fuller, more contemporary sound with full bass and loud drums.
Why do you think the album is still so loved?
I think because, somehow, we created a sound and music that is timeless. Music that when you hear it, you could mistake it for being an older song or something that may have just come out. Also, I think it has so much soul and the musicians and production has a certain sophistication that gives it its own style.
The Analogue Foundation – helmed by Elevado, Audio Technica and Soundwalk Collective – will be bringing their Listening Station to Prenzlauer Berg’s Oye Records, on 22-29 July