Show And Studio

Victor FeldmanVictor Feldman


by Dave Levine

Victor Feldman is a distinguished veteran of the recording industry. His unique abilities as a keyboard player and percussionist are sought by such artists as Hubert Laws and Joni Mitchell, plus groups like Steely Dan and the LA Express. His knowledge and experience in the processes of live and multi-track recording were the subjects of our interview.Much of the recording that Feldman does takes place after everyone else has left the studio. This type of “multiple track” recording is so common that Feldman is currently building a 24 track studio at his house so that he can work at home.

“I enjoy it (multi-track playing). It’s fun being creative, but, if I do too much of that I miss doing dates with other people around. I enjoy both. When you do a lot of dates by yourself there’s a lot of pressure,” says Feldman.

Because of this need to do more live recording Feldman decided not to use any over dubbing for his own albums. The Artful Dodger and In My Pocket (featuring Hubert Laws and Harvey Mason) are both “live” recordings.

Some of the most recent (and recognizable) recordings that Feldman has played on include Stephen Bishop’s and Rickie Lee Jones’ latest releases. He was also the percussionist for Cher’s Take Me Home and Barbara Streisand’s Main Event. These situations called for combinations of live and multi-track recording, and typify the way pop records are made. Feldman was called for the recording session and had the trunks containing his instruments sent to the studio. When he arrived he and the producers discussed what they thought would be best in the way of percussion sounds. Feldman was also given copies of the rhythm charts to help familiarize him with the songs.

In a recent session with Nicolette Larson a different situation presented itself. There was no written music. Feldman had to sit down at a piano and figure out the song. He then listened to the instrumental lines that were already on the tape, deciding which to play with and which to be independent from. After trial and error he found a marimba pattern that both he and the record producer liked. Feldman pointed out that this type of recording process is common, though not standard.

Since tape recording enables the player to edit, correct, or add to what he has previously put on the tape, normal playing techniques sometimes have to be adapted to fit studio recording needs. Improvising may often become memorizing. A spontaneously improvised section might have to be repeated or slightly changed to better fit with the rest of the tracks. The player has to remember what he played before so that he can play it again. Under normal circumstances, improvisation is not thought of in those terms.

Perhaps the best examples of changing to fit the recording process can be found in the unorthodox methods of Steely Dan, on whose records Feldman’s name consistently appears.

“Donald (Fagen) and Walter (Becker) use the studio as a laboratory,” he explained.

“They may spend long hours on one song. We would go from 3 or 4 in the afternoon to 3 or 4 in the morning, with just a dinner break. There were long charts, quite a few pages long.

“The basic Steely Dan track has 2 or 3 keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums. Everything else comes later. Percussion is one of the last things to be added, after listening to the recording to see what, if anything, is needed. Donald and Walter don’t even think about percussion until the basic tracks are put down. Months may go by between the time the rhythm tracks and percussion tracks are recorded,” Feldman explained.

On the Aja album Feldman received no advance knowledge of what percussion would be used. The wood blocks and light percussion used on the title track are an example of on the spot arranging.

“Donald and Walter like the feeling of spontaneity, and yet they have definite things that they want to hear,” said Feldman. When recording, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” Steely Dan was looking for an African sound. Feldman had his Flapamba sent to the studio along with his other percussion instruments. The Flapamba is a marimba-like instrument with a more authentic African sound. During the session it was decided that an introduction, featuring the Flapamba, would have to be added to the already existing tape.

As a member of the LA Express, Feldman has performed on records and in concert. Though he can play keyboards and percussion on the records, Feldman is limited to one or the other in live performances. On their latest album, Shadow Play, congas and percussion were added after the rhythm tracks were recorded. Leaving out parts or adding players may be necessary in live playing, although in the studio one player can do everything. Feldman pointed out some other differences between studio and concert performances.

“The things you can do in a recording studio are different from the things you do live. In the studio, they put you on separate tracks and put a microphone right on you, and there’s no audience or any other instruments around you. When you play live you have to project. You might have a shaker that you can play on a recording date which would never be any good on a live stage. You’d have to use a louder version. Some congas may be good for recording, some good for live work. You may need to tune them differently, or even have a different set for each situation.” Another of the numerous things Feldman has learned about multiple track recording is to plan ahead.

“Put on as little as possible to begin with and find a pattern that leaves space for the next double. When there are two or more percussionists someone has to take charge and decide who will play what.” Many times the player becomes an arranger, laying tracks on top of each other. The player has to know how it’s going to turn out before he starts the first overdub. Feldman prefers doing the conga track either live or on the first overdub. He then adds tambourine, wood blocks, cowbell, or whatever is needed on successive dubs.

Much of Feldman’s respectability and success in the recording field is based on his ability to communicate and work with drummers. He lists Steve Gadd, Ed Greene, and John Guerin as his favorites because they are easy to work with. They leave him space to play.

“There are good drummers who don’t leave room for any percussion but they aren’t necessarily bad players. Drummers aren’t trained to leave anything out.”

Feldman described two important areas that will help the percussionist in working with a drummer. First, he should know complementary rhythms to the existing ones on the track, or those rhythms being played by the drummer and rhythm section. Feldman has found that his background as a keyboard player has helped him to develop a “third ear.” He finds that he has greater empathy with the rest of the players because of his ability to “comp,” or to fit his part in with what else is going on. Feldman strongly recommends that all percussionists become acquainted with the keyboard instruments.

Secondly, the percussionist must know complementary instruments that will enhance the feel and flavor of the music. If the drummer is using mostly tom-toms and low sounds, congas would be lost. The percussion player should try to find something in another register. At times, the percussionist may want to double the sounds of the drums, but he’d be better advised to “spin-off from the drummer. For example, don’t use a shaker playing 16th notes if the drummer is playing 16ths on his hi-hat. But, if he’s playing 8ths, adding 16ths on the shaker will add a new sound.

Feldman gives credit to Airto for “changing the conception of percussion playing.” Practices that Airto has popularized, such as using common instruments in uncommon ways, or having an array of percussion instruments on a table, are ideas that Feldman often finds useful in his recording work. But Victor Feldman has also had a hand in shaping the musical direction of the accessory percussionist. His prolific work on countless records, for numerous artists, puts him in a category with Airto and Ralph MacDonald as the most influential studio percussionists of our time. Regardless of the recording process, or creative process involved, the artistic results that Victor Feldman has achieved are, in every sense, original.