Ola Onabulé – capturing the spirit
Posted on: Tuesday 13th of August 2019
As part of our continuing series profiling musicians, Resolution discovers how a talented singer set about recording his new album.
British-Nigerian singer/songwriter Ola Onabulé has more than 20 years’ experience behind him. He has performed at some of the most prestigious jazz festivals – Montreal, Vancouver, San Sebastian, Istanbul, Washington and Umbria to name a few – as well as at concert halls and jazz clubs around the world. His compositions cross cultural and musical boundaries. He is also a veteran of the recording studio, where he takes a hands-on approach, immersing himself not only in musical creativity, but also in the technology necessary to produce it.
With his latest studio album Point Less – 14 original tracks that tell tales of violence, immigration, xenophobia, betrayal, and dignity, at once celebrating life and warning the social forces threatening it – due for release at the end of August, he talks us through how he captured the complexity of the music, its heart and its spirit.
When Onabulé started out, he had a four-track Yamaha ATX which, he says, was part of the play, the musical game – recording onto a couple of tracks, mixing those tracks down to one track, and so on. “I just kind of kept playing in that way, like a child in a sand pit,” he smiles, “and everything since has been a continuum of that game, making sure I always have that system of technology to help me achieve whatever idea I’ve come up with.”
Whilst Onabulé is open to adopting the latest technology, he has stalwarts to rely on. Neumann and Sennheiser microphones play a big part in both his recording and live work – his devotion to the two brands is based on audio fidelity and the support they provide – and he uses Reference Laboratory cables, aiming to achieve a noiseless connection between his mics and his favoured Hazelrigg VLC-1 mic pres.
“In the main, I work with acoustic instruments, so I need microphones that allow me to hear everything in the recording; the thing that got me emotional, or inspired me, or gave me 20 other new ideas…” he says. “I want to hear that on the recording, so any microphone that can give me what I heard with my ears is the one for me. Both Sennheiser and Neumann have developed a range of tools for people who don’t want things to sound too lofty and want to capture the truth. Neumann in particular has a reputation for designing microphones that do that. Sennheiser has a slightly wider range of microphones, with dynamic as well as condenser mics, giving me a different part of the spectrum to play with. Between the two ranges, they cover just about all of my needs.”
The Hazelrigg VLC-1 came via Onabulé’s admiration for the DW Fearn range of valve based mic pres and signal processors. “They are much coveted professional interfaces of the highest quality that I knew would be forever beyond my reach,” he says. “A couple of years ago, the Hazelrigg Brothers, who had become responsible for building the DW gear for a number of years, thought to license its circuitry and present it in a considerably less expensive package (the VLC-1), a deal I just could not walk away from. These mic pres are as good as it gets; an all-valve signal path, incredibly flexible I/O with a DI input, XLR connections on both the front and back panels and phase controls. It has seriously musical passive EQ and the most solid build of any piece of equipment I own. I love to pair it with all my mics (U87ai, M150, M149) for vocals and use it as a DI for electric bass, and it never fails to impress with its sonic performance.”
Point Less has been recorded in Onabulé’s own recording studio, one room measuring around 7.5 by 7.5 metres. His setup is now totally digital, having switched from analogue around three years ago, using an RME Fireface interface along with Logic and occasionally Pro Tools, depending on what the session requires. His microphone choices are predominantly Sennheiser and Neumann including a Neumann M 150 Tube. Onabulé knows this is an unusual choice, being a small-diaphragm omni microphone, but he finds it works particularly well for male vocals, especially those in the low/mid-range, avoiding the proximity effect when getting up close and personal. Monitoring is via a Neumann KH 310 A system with a KH 810 sub.
“When we moved here, the main prerequisite was that we had to have enough space to build a proper studio with a separate control room, live room, a booth and a supplementary booth where I could put guitar amps, bass amps and things like that. Everyone else thought we were looking for a home, but that wasn’t our main priority,” he recalls. “I was secretly looking for somewhere at the back that I could fit a reasonable-sized studio. We spent a couple of years building it, ensuring it was exactly how we wanted it, so that we could do these kinds of recordings independently. It also means that you can take your time and spend months getting all ‘Steely Dan’ on yourself.”
Ola and his band, which includes a bass player, pianist, guitarist and drummer, record in the live room with no real isolation between instruments – only the drummer has the most minimal of drum screens – as Onabulé wants to maintain eye contact between everyone, emulating their stage performance. This necessitates setting up the songs and the recordings so that, although there would be bleed in the room, it would not ruin the performance.
“None of the instruments will have too much captured in another’s mic, so when the mix engineer gets it, it will still make musical and audio sense,” he explains. “These are the kinds of challenges I think about when I am writing, too. I’ve always felt that writing a song, recording a song, production and arrangement are all part of a wider process. The guys that I admired whilst growing up, people like Prince, more or less lived in the studio – the distance between his bedroom and the mixing desk was a very short one. I have always envisaged music making in the same way. I know a lot of folks think I write my songs in a note pad, I sing them, then a whole team of other people gets involved to make it the thing that I’ve imagined. But that’s not the way I do it. Writing and production – both technical and creative – are all part of the same process to me. Every idea immediately starts to formulate a concept of how I might mike it, how I might EQ it, how many parts I might play, the frequency arrangement for the guitar to play, does that conflict with the chord or maybe the spread of notes that I want the pianist to play? I might choose different chords so there’s no conflict between instruments. Each thing is distinct and can be heard, even though the music is busy and lively.
“I also do very elaborate and detailed demos which are essentially mock-ups of exactly what I want the guys to play. I’ll play the percussion bits, guitar, bass and drums first, so I know exactly what’s going to be happening on session day. That means I have all the possible miking options available to me. I can kind of future-proof what is about to happen with the recording. The music is so intricate, with lots of fiddly bits that need to be caught, so I have a very detailed recording list and plan sorted out so that I can make sure I avert any shocks or surprises on the day.”
Over his last three albums, Onabulé has refined this process, making everything ‘sing’ in his constricted studio space. He uses careful mic placements, making sure that each one is perfectly positioned so that, for instance, the double bass mic does not become a glorified drum mic, capturing everything else in the room.
“I have also created this thing I call a bass cave around the double bass,” he says. “It’s a structure that protects it from a lot of the sound around. I have the mic facing directly at the f-hole, which is the most sensitive part of the quietest instrument in a room such as mine.”
Having had a sneak preview of Point Less, it is clear Onabulé has more than achieved his aim: capturing not only all three-and-a-half octaves of his powerful, yet smooth baritone voice, but achieving perfect separation of the instruments.
Point Less will be available from 30thAugust 2019.
Kick (outside the drum)- Neumann TLM 149 [SS1] Kick
Kick (inside the drum) – Sennheiser e 602
Snare (One above, one below) – 2 x Sennheiser e 904
Drum Overheads – 2 x Neumann KM 184
Toms – 3 x Sennheiser MD 421
Piano (Under lid) – 2 x Neumann TLM 170 R (matched stereo pair)
Piano (Under piano on the floor) – Neumann TLM 107
Double Bass (wedged in bridge Hole) – Neumann M 147 Tube
Double Bass (In ‘Bass Caveʼ 1ft from F hole) – Neumann TLM 102
Room Mic – Neumann M 150 Tube
Guitar – Cascade Fathead Ribbon
Guitar – Sennheiser e 906
Acoustic Guitar (M/S config) – Neumann TLM 170 R (matched stereo pair)
Guitar Amp – Shure KSM 44
Sax (Tenor) – Sennheiser MD 441
Sax (Tenor and Alto) – Neumann U 87 Ai
Sax (Alto) – Cascade Fathead Ribbon
Vocals – Neumann M 150 Tube
Vocals – Neumann U 87 Ai
Vocals – TLM 149[SS2]
3 x D.A.V. Electronics BG Series
Dakin Mic Pre II
TC Electronic Gold Channel Gold
Midas Venice 320
Audio Design F760X-RS
2 x BSS DPR 402
TK Audio Buss Compressor
Drawmer Quad Gate DS404
ART Pro CLA II
Bluthner Aliquot Grand 6ft Baby Grand
Yamaha 5000 1970s drum kit
Neumann KH 310 A system
Neumann KH 810 Subwoofer
3 x RME Fireface 800