No Studio

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.

7 Ways To Get A Performance From Musicians

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.

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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.

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Gust

Getting to work with bands like Gust from Sweden is incredible. During their UK tour with Old Skin a show fell through, so I brought them into the studio to record and film a live session. GREAT bands make GREAT records and these guys absolutely killed it during their set. Their album is amazing, so make sure you check out their self-titled LP on Southern Lord Records.

Amp Worship

When I started getting into music more seriously, I would watch footage of bands with guitarists playing through multiple full stacks I would think “gah, this fuckin’ guy” every few seconds, whilst secretly wishing it was me. Over a few years of working on recording sessions I began to get to grips with the nuances of layering guitar tones in the studio and it started to dawn on me that in order to achieve the kind of sound I was after at shows, I might have become ‘that guy’ that needs multiple amps. Finally.

Having seen Manchester’s (now defunct)  Hammers a few times over the years I was really excited to work with guitarist Sacha Zucconi on his new project Glarus. Sacha has a really distinctive playing style, and I was really looking forward to seeing how he used his two Marshall heads to produce his very particular guitar tone. Initially his multi-amp setup was to cover up the fact that Hammers had become a single-guitar band (play loud enough and no one will ask questions), but inspired by Kylesa he adapted his setup to create a sound that allowed his riffs the clarity he wanted whilst still being heavy enough to make me grin from ear to ear. With a Marshall JCM2000 TSL100 partnered with a Marshall 1960 cab he uses the amp’s gain to dial in a crunchy tone, dominated by frequencies in the presence range and not particularly ‘bottom-heavy’. This tone is more akin to a classic Marshall lead sound, and remains clear even throughout some of Sacha’s faster and more technical sections of songs. The TSL is accompanied for most sections of Glarus tracks by a Marshall JCM2000 DSL100, paired with another (darker sounding despite being the same model) Marshall 1960 cab. With the DSL set up for a heavier, yet still mid-range dominant sound, the weight that was missing from the TSL is filled out, and often at stunning volume.

glarus amp
 

I am a big fan of using pedals to boost guitar signals, but Sacha prefers the distortion that comes from pushing the Marshalls themselves, so when we were tracking the Glarus EP I had him set up the amps just as he normally would before I went tweaking slightly to get them to complement each other. It sounded great. The two driven Marshall sounds had very slightly different voicings and overtones and they just worked so well together. If something sounds good in the studio, that’s half the battle won, so I chucked up a couple of mics before settling on a few old favourites and we tracked, double tracked and occasionally triple tracked the guitar parts for the EP.

We were all really happy with how the record came out, and I feel like guitar tone on record reflected the sound when I caught them live with Full of Hell back in July and more recently with Geranium. Check out ‘Fire’ above from their 2014 EP and make sure you see these guys live if you get the chance. Guitar signal chain was:

Gibson SG > ABY pedal

> A > Marshall JCM2000 TSL 100 > Marshall 1960 cab > Shure SM57

> B > Marshall JCM2000 DSL 100 > Marshall 1960 cab > Heil PR30 & Cascade Fathead