No Studio

Pijn

Recording your own band doesn’t have to be a nightmare.

Since I first tried my hand at recording five years ago I have engineered all of my own bands, from grimey Knife Crimes to moody Bleaklow, noisy Old Skin, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Won. These sessions often allow me to experiment with weird stuff I wouldn’t risk doing to anyone else’s music, and always teach me some serious lessons (let’s not talk about my first ever attempt to record drums). In early April 2016 myself and Nic decided to take advantage of a last minute cancellation at the studio and start recording a few tracks for Pijn, which would eventually become the ‘Floodlit’ EP.

Just a heads up – this is a bit longer than the normal posts here, as what started as a quick session for some demos soon grew into a maxed out Pro Tools session with ten musicians involved.

Recording Nic’s drums was much like any other session, although I had just watched the Berklee College Of Music video about the making of Converge’s Jane Doe so I tried out the ‘COK’ mic that Matthew Ellard employed in that session as a little experiment. The ‘COK’ (centre of kit- which became our ‘crotch’ mic due to where it was pointed) was a large diaphragm condenser set to omni that picked up a wonderful full sound of the kit. When blended in with the room mics and a bit of the close mics it had a very ‘real’ sound to it – reinforcing the sound of the drums in a way familiar to the person actually playing them, and was one of many small decisions I made to ensure a very different production style to the last time I had worked on my own record. I am on the lookout for a small omni mic for the same purpose now, as the novelty of an expensive mic pointed at your groin wears off after the first few times of it toppling over or getting hit with a rogue drumstick.

crotch mic

Guitars, bass and most of the vocals were all done over the same weekend and were nothing of particular note. Just smacked a few loud amps through some chunky preamps. With the basic tracks down we brought in wider members of the group to add their own particular styles to the tracks. Starting with saxophone during a session in Spirit Studio, I witnessed some mad circular breathing to create drones, and by splitting the signal from the mic into a delay and valve distortion pedal we could create wild feedback, a lot of which unfortunately didn’t make the final mix (sorry James) but they were incredible textures. Saving them for the difficult second record.

Next up was lapsteel back at HQ. Known more for country, bluegrass and hawaiian music, but in this case capable of adding a gorgeous piano-like chime when put into a Fender combo for the clean melodies, and equally capable of searing lead tones through the Marshall JMP (when it worked). There were no fancy techniques going on for this, just a performance that lifted the songs in a way I wish I had been able to write. Nice one Paddy.

The strings. My favourite part of the whole record. In preparing for these sessions I knew that the arrangement would be key in making the strings have the sort of effect that we were after. Myself and Nic had written various ‘call and response’ sections for strings, and from the first practice we kept it in mind that more space should be left for them, or that guitar parts should be simplified for the benefit of what the violin and cello could add. Once the parts were *mostly* written (after I had brushed up on reading/writing music too, very proud of that) we travelled to a few locations to fit in with our string players busy schedules. For Claire’s violins in Bristol, I brought my brand spanking new AEA N22. Although the room was not ideal (small practice space, low ceiling) with the mic just under a foot away from the instrument we achieved a well balanced and natural sound, with the typical ribbon HF-roll off doing me some favours removing any nasty top end, but the extended response of the N22 making sure it didn’t sound like it was underwater. Again, performances were more important than the signal chain, and Claire’s wonderful playing simply blew me away. After a quick ice cream and walk around Clifton Suspension Bridge we packed up and headed north.

cellooooo

As the portable setup had worked so well for violin, I used the same for Maggie’s cello, with the N22 positioned just under a foot from the body and recorded in various lounges in Rusholme. A very classy affair, relaxed and fuelled with a lot of cups of tea. Whilst I would have loved to use a Coles 4038 for it, (everyone I asked said I should, but unfortunately I’m not made of money to just grab one on their whim) we still created a full-bodied sound with the AEA for my favourite, and the saddest, sound on the record. My highlight for the entire EP is Maggie following the drifting chords at the end of ‘Lacquer’, when going through multiple takes and comping to create the most complimentary parts, this simple pattern was more gut wrenching than other melodies we tried out, and sticks out as something I was particularly proud that we had made.

One of the final parts added to the record was piano, and I finally got to use a 4038. I could have used a spaced pair of condensers but at this point in the recording, track count was really starting to matter, plus I just wanted to. The piano up in Spirit Studio wasn’t particularly well tuned at the time of the session, and also suffered from a few keys which didn’t work. This cool set of problems resulted in us recording ‘Hazel’ a semitone higher and pitch-shifting the track down to be in the right key afterwards. Technology is mad isn’t it.

What did I learn over the course of making ‘Floodlit’?
- Maxing out the track count in Pro Tools isn’t fun. I should print stems more often.
- The arrangement was more important than any of the recording techniques I used.
- I would like a Coles 4038.
- Ice cream makes sessions better.
- I can’t listen to my own bands
*but*
- Recording your own band doesn’t have to be a nightmare.

Floodlit’ was released by Holy Roar Records on 27th January, with the first track ‘Dumbstruck & Floodlit’ premiering on BBC Radio One, and the EP streaming exclusively on The Independent prior to release. It is available on Spotify, iTunes and Bandcamp, and I am extremely grateful to anyone who has listened to it so far.

House Of Flowers

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.

Pre-order the record here.

Don’t Piss On Me, I’m Already Dead

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:

-Spring Machine
-Egg
-Jack-in-the-box
-Tambourine Man
-Hambone
-Squeaky Squirrel Toy
-Dog Bowl
-Mouth Pop
-Screwdrivers
-Toy Phone

Processed with VSCO with b1 preset

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:

Oh Man, The Website

I have been very slack with this.

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.

The Best Sounding Records Of 2015

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.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
Recorded and Mixed by Greg Norman, Mastered by Harris Newman

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.

Kowloon Walled City – Grievances
Recorded and Mixed by Scott Evans, Mastered by Carl Saff

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.

Tourdöd

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…

RAFD
 

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
- GRUBBS
- 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.

ETS/I/OS
 

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.