Earlier this year my friends in Earth Moves came up to Manchester for a few days to track their debut album. I could write about the seemingly endless list of gear that broke during the session (particularly heartbreaking was the 1974 Marshall JMP that died during the song below), or our studio diet of Club Mate and fancy coffees, but instead you should just listen to the first track that they have released.
What do you do if you want to make music but there aren’t any instruments around? If you’re Crywank, you pick up the nearest thing to hand and you make noises with it. Then you play that thing over and over until you have a song.
In the process of recording their new album, I got to record the following DIY instruments:
-Squeaky Squirrel Toy
My approach to the record wasn’t any different from usual really, I just used my ears and put mics here and there. The most technical I got in the whole process was that the drums were recorded using either the Glynn Johns method or the usual close mics, spaced overheads and wild rooms mics. Then we’d just decide which approach was best for each track. That’s it. The rest was pretty much just a case of micing up home-made instruments or toys (apparently there aren’t any books or online guides on how to capture someone slapping their belly and their thighs) so it was total guesswork.
I’m not gonna lie, there were moments in the studio where I may have thought “why would Dan want that many tambourines attached to him” or ”how the hell should I mic up a dog bowl”, but it was amazing to have them trust me on this record, and I think it came out really well. Give it a listen below:
Anyway, at the tail end of last year I worked on a new record for Oh Man, The Mountain. Due to their lack of d-beats I felt I needed more preparation than usual and looked up a load of fancy new techniques used by actual professional studios. I won’t bore you with them here but some of them worked a treat. Some were bollocks though.
Experiments with micing drums in neighbouring rooms captured the studio door squeaking in the middle of THE take when we realised the bassist had been outside in freezing rain for half an hour and let him in. Whilst not quite ‘the cough’ from Memphis Will Be Laid To Waste by Norma Jean we decided to leave it in as it acted as a slight lift into the next section. Let me know if anyone can find it in the finished track, which you can hear below. Get the EP later this month, it is lovely.
As the end of the year rolls around and everyone starts chiming in with their favourite albums of the past twelve months I tend to find myself in an awkward position- the records I will have spent the most time listening to are the ones I’ve worked on myself. Don’t worry, my ego hasn’t yet reached the point where I only talk about all the amazing bands I’ve been lucky enough to work with (aside from the Old Skin album obviously), but as a recording engineer I have listened to more than a few records that have blown me away with their production. So in no particular order, here are five records from 2015 that I think sound amazing.
Heads – S/T
Recorded by Jona Nido, Mixed and Mastered by Magnus Lindburg
THAT BASS. I’m tempted to say this release features my favourite sounding rhythm section on any record, let alone just from this year. Recorded live in a medium-sized venue in Switzerland, Heads came out of nowhere and were everything I wanted to listen to. It takes a great band to record live like this, and a great engineer to capture that performance. The drums sound like he is absolutely smashing the kit, with enough depth that you feel like you are right there in La Chaux-de-Fonds next to them… and then there is that bass. That is the bass tone I hear in my head, and whether they have used an ambient mic in the room or a gentle reverb that gives it that little tail, Jona and Magnus have broken all the rules and that is absolutely fine. As the record is driven by filthy low-end and pounding percussion it means that the vocals and guitars act as textures to lift and move the album as it goes on, and that does everything that Heads intended.
Cult Leader – Lightless Walk
Recorded and Mixed by Kurt Ballou, Mastered by Brad Boatright
Cult Leader and Kurt Ballou is a perfect match. I wasn’t a massive fan of 2014′s ‘Nothing For Us Here’ EP, not for any particular reason, it just didn’t leap out and grab me by the balls. Luckily, the same cannot be said for ‘Lightless Walk’. From the moment it starts I had to stop what I was doing and listen. The songs are savage and the production is probably the most in-your-face punishing thing Kurt Ballou has done; even after repeated listens I am amazed that something so densely filled can hit that hard. The guitar sound on this record is exactly what a band like this need, with raging feedback at every pause and sitting in perfect balance with the distorted lead vocals. Cult Leader use a beautiful Hex guitar cab (made by the guys from Eagle Twin) which have an ‘absolute focus on volume and power’. I can’t argue with that. The cab was used with a Gibson Titan amp and some boutique Hovercraft (Dwarvenaut) and Sparrows Sons (no idea what model) guitar heads to give the record such an attractive snarl- to my ears at least. Not sure my mum would agree.
As this is probably my favourite album of the year I may be slightly biased, but I’m not changing my mind. GY!BE always create records that demand to be listened to properly, and the thunderous opening to this record is no different. A real ‘close my eyes and listen’ experience, everything sits so beautifully in the right place, and when the arrangement of a record is this well done it is a joy to listen to. Repeated listens revealed nuances in the production (the tremolo on the violins in particular) which sent me on a gear quest that brought home two Strymon pedals to join the arsenal at No Studio (El Capistan tape delay and Flint tremolo/reverb for those interested). I am a little lost for words on the sound of this album; suffice to say it inspires me constantly, and even after hundreds of listens I still find new layers to the recording. What else would you expect from an engineer working from Steve Albini’s legendary Electrical Audio studio.
Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss
Recorded and Mixed by John Congleton, Mastered by Alan Douches
Abyss is the first Chelsea Wolfe record to feature an outside producer, and John Congleton, known for his work with Swans, Explosions In The Sky and St Vincent was a pretty outstanding choice. I found myself paying most attention to the movement of the vocals throughout the record, from sections where they sound so delicate and close, building up to a distorted wail that adds an eerie layer to an already dominating sound. More than any other record on this list, I feel like the production was as important to the album as the instruments themselves, and when the concept of the record is something as dark as sleep paralysis and the deepest reaches of human minds, every sound must contribute to building a nightmarish environment. Be that with nasty industrial sounding bass, church bells, layers of feedback or the most delicate sounding voice, it feels to me like every sound was agonised over for maximum effect. Clearly, exploring the use of sound to reflect the dark and miserable side of life is something I’m super into, so if anyone wants to make a terrifying industrial record you know where I am.
This record is fantastic, and Scott Evans joins the likes of Kurt Ballou and Magnus Lindburg as someone who is able to wear the producer hat at the same time as being the artist, and create a magnificent piece of music. Recorded live, there is a steady growl from the bass throughout, dominating the low-mid range and allowing angular guitars to cut through beautifully. I love that I can hear the rattle of low notes hit really hard on some parts of the record; that sort of thing could be lost in a perfect clinical overdubbed record, but here it adds to the feeling that the band are right there in the room with you. Despite being crushingly heavy when it needs to be, this is an album that thrives off nuance and finesse. Themed around anxieties with the modern workplace, ‘Grievances’ creates an overarching feeling of maudlin unhappiness that needs room to brood and breathe. With most heavy albums featuring the usual themes of death and dying, engineers have to reflect that. EQ those guitars and think, “yeah, this sounds grim”, compress a kick drum and think “I’ve nailed the sound of morbid yearning in this one”. But on this record the subject is different, and so the guitars can’t be out-of-this-world distorted; instead, the listener deserves to hear each note ring out naturally, to hear the bass filling the room, and for every drum hit to drag you down with its weight. The sense of real emotion conveyed on this album is incredible.
It may seem strange to say, given the nature of what I do, but to me the most important aspect of being in a band is playing shows. Getting yourself on tour. For bands in the scene we are in this is rarely a glamorous or even profitable venture, but when the hours of stress and worry and knock-backs and disappointments are completely forgotten during 20 minutes of being a prat playing your songs it suddenly all seems worth it.
Old Skin recently toured the UK with a band I recorded in late 2014, Ithaca, who released the Trespassers EP we worked on just prior to the shows. Touring with those guys and seeing the response to the record and people singing along *almost* every night was pretty rewarding, maybe I didn’t do a shitty job on it after all. I guess I spent most nights like a proud yet distant parent standing on the sidelines watching their kids kick people’s heads in. That was some nights at least, others are a little hazy and but I do remember grabbing a mic to do my vocal parts in Ithaca‘s set in Brighton running through a kitchen/hallway/living room and generally being a pain at one point, so maybe I was a very drunk aggro parent…
My highlights of the tour include:
- a broken hand from crowd-surfing in Portsmouth for Djamila of Ithaca
- internal bleeding from kitchen mosh in Brighton for myself
- Rice and Three in Manchester
- picnics in the Peak District
- Mexican Shot Wave in Portsmouth
- Long Drive Ice Teas
- Veg Bar in Brixton
- Employed To Serve blowing minds in Andover, Manchester and Leeds
- the wooden floor of our van
- not quite crashing
Like most hobbies, being in a band is lame, takes up all of your time and money and makes you fall out with almost everyone you know, but playing a show to two crusties in a dead end town is worth it, be fucking proud of yourself that someone engaged in your music. It is impossibly rewarding for me, and in meeting similarly minded people around the country it is comforting to find so many that understand the “horrible bands” that I work with.
Thanks to anyone who helped us out with a show, gave us a place to stay, watched us, bought merch, fed us or partied with us. It was great.
I believe that the performance of an artist or band is way more important than what mic or preamp it is recorded through. As the first part of the signal chain, if it’s not right then it becomes a fight to create the record everyone wants. Here are seven tips for getting the performance you want from musicians.
1. Where are they? Bands need to be comfortable, and look cool in any studio footage or photos. This is especially important for singers. Make sure you create an environment and a mood that puts them at ease, even if it means recording screaming in your flat, just be considerate and leave a note for your neighbours.
2. Only human. Remember, as much as you need to get the record done, the human body has its limits. If your artist has blown their voice, shredded their fingers or burst an eardrum leave them the fuck alone, get them some tea and/or plasters and go back the next day. Unless they are trying to be GG Allin, in which case put down some newspaper for the mess and let them create self destructive carnage everywhere.
3. Leave it running. There are some bands who will create absolute magic between takes – I will never forgive myself for not recording Dan Crywank‘s “Bread” song because I was too busy laughing. If you find a band like this, record every second and whittle it down later, sometimes even artistic arguments can get turned into album tracks.
4. Don’t tell the bride. Every band has one member who has practiced their stage moves and can bust a jump perfectly before a breakdown but has forgotten that they need to play anything other than open notes. Here you have two options, let another member of the band take over and record their parts for the good of the record, or let them carry on tracking, pat themselves on the back, and then as soon as they leave record it again yourself.
5. Party hard. Some people give their best performance when they are REAL loose. Careful with this though, keep an eye out for when your artist gets a slightly wild look in their eyes as it means your guitar recording session could dissolve into riding fixies down a corridor trying to knock each other off the bikes with a broom or a mop.
6. Fight for your right. I record a lot of hardcore bands whose music is supposed to sound angry and passionate, and some people feed off conflict. If you need to throw a steel chair at someone to get them to perform I advise you do it, then sample the sound and put it in the song.
7. Live and let live. Sometimes you just need to let the band wear sunglasses and do their thing because they are right.