Backline

w/ Lauren Ross

Who are you, and what do you do?

Hi! I’m Lauren Ross — lover of musical instruments, roadtrips, problem solving, Google Sheets, Mahayana Buddhism, and freshwater rivers. I founded the sync licensing and publishing departments at Terrorbird Media and I have a solo project called La Louma. Most of my alone time is spent in my music studio (f/k/a garage) in LA.

What hardware do you use?

I record with an Apogee Duet. Since I’m just one person, two inputs works just fine for me — one for a mic and one for a guitar/bass cable. Plus it’s easy to travel with!

For mic, I recorded most of my debut album with a Rode NT1-A, though I got a really good deal on a Gefell UMT70S FET and switched to that about halfway through. It gives me some extra flexibility and sounds good whether I’m doing vocals or winds/brass.

My mic stand is worth mentioning cause it’s a kick drum mic stand. This is intentional. Aside from being portable for travel, it’s quick and easy for me to move it around the room which is helpful since I’m one person playing a variety of instruments. For example it’ll be perched as tall as possible at the front corner of my desk when I’m doing vocals. But for bass clarinet, I set it on the ground so it’s in front of the instrument’s bell. Or for french horn I have it sitting on the desk tilted downward, and I turn around and face the opposite direction so the bell is at least gesturally pointed at the mic.

The best hardware of all though is my beloved family of musical instruments!

In descending staff order….

Piccolo (Yamaha)

My instrument of choice in high school marching band. For my La Louma recordings, I use it when I’m hearing a part in a stratospheric upper register, though one of my actual favorite ways to use it is to play in its lower register when I want that extra wispy watery sound of breath.

Flute (Emerson, open hole with B foot)

My #1 crush. My entire life revolved around the flute for most of my middle and high school years and I’m so grateful that somehow I never once thought that was nerdy. Flute was the first instrument I fell in love with and I still consider it to be my primary language, musically speaking. My fingertips instinctively “play” flute notes when I think about specific pitches, in the way people tend to dream in their mother tongue. I’ve always played open-hole, so if I ever grab someone else’s closed-hole flute it feels super weird — like in the way it feels weird to walk after roller skating. I like recording it as a normal, nice sounding flute, but then sometimes I really like running it through distortion or psych-y effects.

Clarinet (King)

I’ve never actually taken a clarinet lesson, but that hasn’t stopped me from using it all the time in my recordings! Even though the range is similar to a flute, sometimes I really want the round and reedy timbre that only a clarinet can offer. Mine isn’t amazing (though it is at least made of grenadilla wood) and I think I’d be even more inspired to play if I upgraded myself to a better instrument.

Bass Clarinet (Selmer, low Eb)

Talk about a round and reedy timbre! The bass clarinet is my most recent woodwind acquisition and I love playing it so much. It’s soooo nice to get to play in that rich lower range! Mine goes down to an Eb and I frequently wish I had a model that goes down to a C. Three half steps may not seem significant, but trust me, it is.

Bassoon (Fox Renard)

I have an emotionally complex relationship with my bassoon. Truth: I immediately started crying just now, simply from typing that. Having started on flute, my musical world always revolved around lead melodies, so the bassoon taught me about bass lines, countermelodies, and harmonies, and of course gave me a reason to get fluent in reading bass clef (I still think in terms of bassoon when I read bass clef now, just like I think in terms of flute when reading treble clef). I just sighed. The bassoon. I love the way my face kind of rattles a little bit when I play a low Bb. The vibrations! So cool! And I love how my eyebrows instinctively go into a look of concern and care when playing in the falsetto range — it feels so incredibly intimate and vulnerable being up there. But that damn bassoon. It wrecked my hands. The demand on one’s thumbs and pinkies in particular is just ridiculous, especially if you don’t have massive hands (note: I don’t have massive hands). Bassoon was my primary instrument in college, and as soon as I graduated I had to quit playing music entirely, because my hands were in such extraordinary pain and had grown weak and tired. So I entered the music business and didn’t play music for about 8 years, starting again only about 4 years ago.

French Horn (Hans Hoyer - double horn)

I absolutely love the sound and feel of a french horn. So refined, but not showy. Smooth, but not cheesy. Sometimes I use it for melodic solos, but more often I record about 4 layers deep of sustained notes to give a song a rich, full, supported feeling. French horns are crazy expensive, so when I got one a couple years ago I got a used one, though I did insist on treating myself to a double horn in F/Bb. The thumb valve makes those upper and lower registers not only easier to play but also have a more focused tone and better intonation. Totally worth it.

Cornet (King)

Trumpet’s cool, but cornet’s cooler. I prefer the slightly richer, darker tone in comparison to the bright shine of a trumpet. I’ve got one of those Jo-Rai Tri-Tone Cup Mutes, which is helpful for when I want to play in the dead of night without my neighbors hearing me.

Classical Guitar (J.M. Forest)

To be honest, the action on this instrument is so obnoxiously high that I never play it for “fun”. Only when I feel insistent upon the sound of nylon strings. You may be wondering why I ever bought this instrument, so I will tell you: It’s a super cheap student model Spanish guitar that I got when I was living in France in 2001. I had a crush on this Argentinian girl, so, naturally, I wanted to learn flamenco guitar to impress her! (Note: that plan didn’t work.)

Acoustic Guitar (Taylor)

I LOVE this guitar. It’s a Baby Taylor. I love that it’s small. It fits my arms and my hands better, and it’s really lightweight. I highly recommend it! Also it smells SO good. Even after all these years. Sometimes I hold it up to my face and inhale deeply, just to enjoy it. It smells like it’s made from a magical chocolate tree. Regular sized acoustic guitars feel utterly giant to me and I don’t really like playing them.

Electric Guitar (Gibson)

I bought this from Rivington Guitars in the Lower East Side back when I still lived in NY. I will admit I am as attracted to the color as I am to the feel. That luxuriously sumptuous red. Mmmm. I use a strap that’s made out of seatbelt material and it’s the most comfortable strap I’ve ever used. I’m not an un-clumsy person, so I installed Dunlop Straploks on there so the guitar would stop straight up falling off my body.

Bass Guitar (Univox)

I had a black and white Danelectro for year and years that looked mega cool but was a very long reach for my arms. I recently got a Univox ¾ sized bass and frankly I still wish it was smaller, but it’s a big improvement! Plus the sound is really nice. Good low end resonance, very round tone. It’s also my first time playing flatwound strings. What was I thinking all those years?? I’ve become a flatwound convert.

Banjo (Fender)

This is a nothing-fancy-about-it banjo that I got simply because I wanted the timbre of a banjo available to me in my songwriting and recording. Rather than a standard Open G tuning, I typically have mine tuned to D (F#, D, F#, A, D). I love the key of D, generally speaking. I just feel like you can’t go wrong with it, or its relative minor, B-. D is bright without being shiny, and B- is emotive without being over-the-top. They sound simple and inviting.

Strumstick (Mcnally)

This instrument is like my secret weapon. I got it at a bluegrass festival in Virginia in the late 90s. It has a timbre similar to a banjo, it isn’t chromatically fretted, and it only has 3 strings. It’s so cool. It’s super fun to play, and isn’t that the point?? There’s a “soprano” one, so to speak, that’s in G. Unsurprisingly, I prefer playing the “alto” one in D. I tune mine D, F#, D, though often find myself up or down one half step when I want to paint with non D colors.

Tambourine

This is a tambourine worth mentioning. A friend gave it to me when I moved to LA. It has an open and dark tone to it and feels good in my hand. Not to mention the fact that someone had taken a knife and carved the name “Cub” into it. I love my tambourine named Cub. I don’t think I’d have ever sought out a tambourine and wanted to use it in my music, but thanks to Cub, I’ve got tambourine in a LOT of my songs.

Piano (Yamaha)

This was the first big purchase I made after my first post-college job working at Kill Rock Stars in 2005. My mother’s first grown-up purchase had also been a piano, though in her case it was a “real” one. I knew I wanted to follow her footsteps, though in my case it took the form of a portable 88-key electronic keyboard, with weighted keys, of course! At night I like to turn off the lights in my studio, sit at the piano with my curtains open, and just improv while staring out at the palm tree silhouettes in the sky.

V-Drums (Roland TD-11)

This thing rules. You get the physical satisfaction of playing drums, but without the sound restrictions. And you can record simultaneously as audio and midi. Usually I have everything just sound like normal drums. But sometimes for fun I’ll run it just as midi to sound like piano or some weird synthy instruments, just for the inspiration of how I’ll play differently based on what pitches and tones are available. It turns the drums into being an infinite number of instruments.

And what software?

I’m a Logic X person. It’s great for working with a combo of audio and midi, and it’s pretty to look at (if you use as colors on different tracks as I do). I love keyboard shortcuts and have gotten really efficient in recording, editing, and mixing. It makes such a difference, so I can capture my ideas faster!

My favorite plugins are Valhalla Shimmer and a bunch of the standard Waves ones.

I’ve been intrigued by Ableton lately, and want to explore using that cause I think it will inspire a completely different musical side of me.

What would be your dream setup?

A larger studio with taller ceilings, central air for greater climate control, legit sound proofing so I wouldn’t ever feel self consciousness about my neighbors hearing me, room for me to dance around more, and room for an actual drum kit. And that kit would be mic’d up at all times, ready to go. And I’d want a vibraphone and/or marimba cause they’re so cool. And I’d absolutely want a whole slew of various string, wind, and percussion instruments from other parts of the world, cause nothing inspires me more than new instruments. Ugh, I’m giddy at the thought! And by the way, let’s add a panoramic view of mountains while we’re at it, and have woodland animals grazing softly by the windows!

By Lauren Ross, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

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