Based in Burlington, Massachusetts, Pray for Sound is building a serious reputation worldwide as purveyors of instrumental rock bombast. Fresh off the release of their new self-produced album Everything Is Beautiful, they have recently completed a tour of Europe, including an appearance at Dunk! Fest, alongside titans like Swans and God Is An Astronaut.
We sat down for a chat with producers/band members Chris LaRocque and Steve Aliperta at their home base Kennedy Studios, to talk about the challenges (and rewards) of self-producing their latest release.
Do you have any musical training? How did you get into the engineering side of things?
It’s worth mentioning off the bat that we’re a two man team at Kennedy Studios, so we’ve got two slightly varied answers here. I (Chris) taught myself guitar and bass when I was around 13, but kept pretty active in school choir my whole high school career, so I definitely learned some things from that class I otherwise might have not come across. Steve took piano lessons from seven to 10, and then picked up drums and took lessons all the way through his time as part of the Music Business Program at UMass Lowell where he went through the music program’s usual rigorous training.
The engineering side of recording music came into our lives pretty naturally. I was always interested in audio gear whether it be learning about it through the AV company my grandmother works for or messing around with whatever cheap or free DAW I could get my hands on in middle school. When I entered high school I took on leading the tech side of our theater department and had a pretty intense four years of trial by fire teaching myself all I could about live sound and how to use the tools of that trade as effectively as I could.
When I graduated high school I met Steve and began playing in his band, all the while messing around with recording my own bands’ demos for fun. After having a particularly bad experience with a studio owner in NH Steve and I believed we could be doing right by bands and preventing our friends from having experiences similar to ours so we opened a business credit card and combined our gear to get the essentials to get going, and it’s naturally grown from there.
It’s fair to say that music led us to engineering, simply because we wanted things to sound how we imagined them, as well as be able to record all the great musician friends we’ve made throughout the years of being in bands around Boston.
Before you started this project, did you have any specific influences or interest in post-rock?
No. Both of us could appreciate the beauty of bands like Explosions In The Sky and Caspian, but Steve and I were both pretty heavily rooted in our pop sensibilities. It wasn’t until Bruce [Malley] asked us to be in his band for Pray For Sound that we started to be exposed to post-rock.
Does post-rock present specific challenges or opportunities when tracking, mixing, and mastering?
Post-rock, like all genres of music, provides its’ own set of challenges and surprises. A lot of the concepts remain the same when it comes to engineering instrumental rock music (as opposed to the ‘normal’ pop/rock projects we have come through our studio).
The main challenge I find myself struggling with is trying to balance guitar tones when things start to get dense. Our band has three guitars, and we have the tendency to stack parts when recording to get things to sound as huge as possible, however we often find ourselves subtracting parts to be sure that each of the three parts can be heard clearly and sits in its’ own space in the mix.
Another fun challenge with post-rock is trying to trick the listener to treat the main guitar melody almost as a vocal part.Vocals are the most crucial part of the mix. Swapping to instrumental music can be tough because you want to have that main melodic focal point, while having to treat that element differently than you would the tone of a recorded vocal.
In what ways was self-producing the record easier than having someone else produce it? How was it harder?
Obviously, a huge bonus to producing it ourselves was that it costs us nothing; however, being able to determine our own schedule and take as much time as we needed to complete the recording was huge for us as well, to ensure we were happy with the finished product. We stressed to each other throughout the whole recording process that we have all the time in the world (with no deadline), so we should make sure we get it right. It’s also great because we’ve been with the songs from the moment they were created, so if anyone has a specific vision of how something should sound we can dive a bit more strongly in that direction than certain producers may allow.
There are for sure a ton of benefits from seeking outside help for producing and engineering. It would be super nice for Steve and I not to have to be at the desk every second of the process. We’d also love to have an outside perspective to be able to develop new, overall sounds that we can’t achieve ourselves in the studio. We’re very open to bringing someone in for our next record, but we’re cautiously weighing our options to find the right person. If there’s one thing that this past record has taught us, it’s how to streamline the recording process and work well together, so we want to be sure we’re bringing in someone who’s a perfect fit and will serve to enhance that process.
What have you learned from self-producing your own album? Which things would consider doing differently?
Luckily for us, this record was the eighth recording we’ve self-produced between all the bands Steve and I are in, so we’ve had quite a bit of experience with the concept of self-producing. This particular process wasn’t much of a learning process besides allowing me to dive deeper into the challenges presented by post-rock that I described earlier.
There are several pitfalls that can present themselves when producing yourself. I think the biggest pitfall of self-producing is getting too in your own head. Sometimes something is perfect and doesn’t need touching, other times you’re working on garbage and think you can dig your way out of it. The lesson I try to always keep in mind when we record ourselves is to treat it like I’m recording any other band—to (hopefully) remain objective and let the sessions roll smoothly, instead of diving too deep into my own self doubt.
What are some staples of your home recording studio?
Right now this is our only recording studio. Anytime I’m doing demos or anything at home I can usually get away with stealing our trusty Shure SM7B for vocals. For programming drums the David Bendeth Expansion pack for Steven Slate Drums has been awesome for getting solid sounds with little to no work. Bias FX has been our amp simulation as of late, but I’ve been eyeing the Toneforge Ben Bruce pack, so we may be making a swap soon.
While it’s considered a big no-no, having a solid pair of headphones you trust for home recording is pretty huge. Personally I never feel comfortable with any bedroom situation to set up proper monitoring for doing real work, but I commute with my Sennheiser HD280 Pro headphones every single day, so I know how to at least get close to my goal when working at home with those headphones.
How did you use iZotope products on the album? Which songs did you use our products on, and how?
We ended up using Nectar and DDLY quite a bit on returns to add different texture and harmonization to tracks. Our work with the iZotope plugs was extremely subtle but in my mind made all the difference.
I’ve been using Ozone as our main mastering tool for almost three years now, but we were lucky enough to get to send our record to the incredible Ed Brooks at RFI Mastering, so unfortunately no Ozone made its’ way onto this record.
From recording this album, what became clear to you that you're missing (gear or otherwise?)
In all honesty, I realized we need a better room. We were lucky to get to record our drums in two really incredible sounding rooms, and coming home to our small, poorly treated and boxy room was a brutal reality check.