The Mars Volta – “La Realidad De Los Sueños”

April 23, 2021 marks the release of La Realidad De Los Sueños, a deluxe, vinyl-only 18-disk box-set collecting together the discography of The Mars Volta, including all six of their studio albums, their debut EP Tremulant, and Landscape Tantrums, a never-before-released first draft of their debut album De-Loused In The Comatorium. These albums have all been out-of-print on vinyl since their initial release, save for haphazard and unauthorised reissues distributed by the band’s former label, Universal, in the last decade, which featured poorly reproduced artwork and sound sourced from compact disc, and were essentially illegal bootlegs. These vinyl editions – pressed from vinyl lacquers freshly remastered by Clouds Hill’s in-house engineer Chris von Rautenkranz– represent the best way to hear this music as the artists intended. The release marks the first fruit of Clouds Hill’s acquisition of the Rodríguez-Lopéz Productions catalogue, with future releases from the label’s archive to follow. To celebrate the impending arrival of La Realidad De Los Sueños, I spoke with The Mars Volta’s leader/producer/composer Omar Rodríguez-López and singer/lyricist Cedric Bixler Zavala to discuss the conception and production of the box-set, their struggles to protect their creative legacy from corporate exploitation, their relationship with Clouds Hill, and the discography of challenging, ambitious, emotionally powerful music the box-set encompasses.

How did your relationship with Clouds Hill begin?

Omar Rodríguez-López: Johann Scheerer [Clouds Hill founder and owner] and me met in 2005, through mutual friends in Hamburg, which was kind of my second home at the time, and an outpost for DeFacto [the dub project of Rodríguez-López, Bixler-Zavala and future The Mars Volta bandmate Jeremy Michael Ward] in the early 2000s. Everyone insisted we needed to meet. We hit it off right away, over his attention to detail and aesthetics… His studio is top-rate and the vibe is undeniable. We got along great on a personal level, and we’ve since done a variety of projects. I immediately began spending a lot of time there, recording parts of [The Mars Volta’s 2006 album] Amputechture there, and laying out parts for future records. We did two movies together and several short films, and recorded a slew of solo stuff there, sometimes living there just to write and feel inspired. It was a very natural evolution – we’ve been collaborating since the moment we met, creating together, and talking about history, art, new technology and new ways to preserve analogue recordings… That’s always been our point of reference.

What was the genesis of the box-set?

Omar: For the last 20 years I’d been running my label (RLP) in its different forms with different partners, but had reached a point where it made more sense to relieve myself of that responsibility, in order to take on other projects. So after 15 years of intimate friendship with Johann, spending summers at Clouds Hill working on unique ideas, it had become like a second home. It became obvious to me that Clouds Hill was the perfect place to entrust the whole catalogue. And the most exciting of it was, of course, the Mars Volta material. We were hanging out, and started having this conversation. It was a debate, really – a critique of what things he thought needed to improve in my own workflow, and that’s when it all started to become obvious to us both. Finally, I said, ‘I’m planning to remaster and reissue my entire RLP catalogue… it’s gonna be a huge undertaking, but the Mars Volta albums are obviously what people care about most, and I need it to be in the perfect hands. Would you be into taking over Volta vinyl, so it’s done at the highest level?’ Then he said, ‘Let’s do it – the whole catalogue.’ And it just took off from there. Straight away he began proposing ideas and putting things into motion. We had that energy between us that we could bounce ideas back and forth very quickly. Johann has a passion that you’ll never get at a corporation. He focuses on the creative first and foremost. For example, he has a graphic designer he works with called CD, and I said, ‘His work is cool, could you get him to take the characters from our world and our iconography on those records, and make a collage work, so there’s new art for the box-set?’ The very next day, I received samples from him. And when I told him I had hired Danielle Van Ark, a close friend and mentor, to photograph everything back then, and that I wanted to include these pictures in the box set as a booklet, the next thing I know, Johann’s tracked down Danielle’s pictures and he has set it all up. We talk once a week and wild out on a lot of ideas. I’m talking to the main guy who runs the whole thing, and he’s passionate about the art that we make, and taking action in its defence.

What did the making of this box-set entail?

Omar: It’s been a year in the making. First was personally delivering the artwork and the original vinyl masters that had been made back in the day to Clouds Hill. He and I sat and listened to everything, doing test-runs with Chris von Rautenkranz, the mastering engineer at Clouds Hill, who’s a technical genius and does an amazing job. We went track-by-track, said, ‘This is what it was, and this is what it could be…’ and ended up following that process. So we did a whole new vinyl master for every record.

Cedric: It’s so cool that we’re dealing with a company that is all in-house. They have everything minus a fucking nursery, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they developed that, to be artist-friendly. They show what people can do if you put your mind to it, up against these corporations.

Omar: Not only is Clouds Hill all in-house, it’s run by an artist/engineer/producer, and has in-house quality control with his mastering engineer, Chris. You couldn’t be in better hands.

Was it a simple process?

Omar: Yes and no. Everything was in my vaults, all the original artwork and masters. But as with any project of this size, it’s all about the people you work with and the communication within the team. So it’s important to mention Stu Gili-Ross and Matt Ash at our management, who co-ordinated everything daily with the amazing Clouds Hill team: Stine Mühle, Eun-Hae Kim, Marie Stave, Daniel Ritzmann, Juliane Darr and Angela Frantz, who have all worked tirelessly under Johann’s direction to realise this project. But it took time to deal with bureaucracy and to correct things like making the ‘jellyfish man’ the actual front cover to De-Loused In The Comatorium, as was intended, and not the ‘egg-man’ on the Universal version [laughs]. Johann did a lot of going back and forth with the original sound and artwork files and original pressings. We’d talked about doing them as they were originally: interesting colours, picture disks and stuff like that. But we decided that to make it sound the best,  just to make sure we undo haphazard damage Universal did with these bootlegs. I’m not online or involved in any way with social media, so if it wasn’t for Cedric’s online digital presence and interaction and connection with the fans, I would never have known about these bootlegs.

Cedric: People don’t know the hoops Omar had to go through to get the initial deal with Universal put into place, the fact that he had to go into this mob-like meeting room and be belittled for being the artist and fighting for these things they thought weren’t important. And you can tell they’re not important to them, because they’re just a corporation. To them, it’s like, ‘Oh, the McRib is back… Who cares if it’s not real meat, or real bread – there it is, we need to make some fuckin’ money.’ He fought hard for it. I hope people reading this understand that you’ve gotta fight hard to make your art be what it’s supposed to be, otherwise people walk away with some shitty fucking product. When The Mars Volta first signed to Universal, the rights to press your music on vinyl on your own label was a key point in your contract, right?

Omar: It was always my plan to keep all those rights, to honour our roots and culture as artists (printing our own T-shirts, pressing up our own vinyl, booking our own tours) and continue that into The Mars Volta. So a major element of achieving that vision was becoming co-owner of GSL (which eventually became RLP). We started with the second DeFacto record, Megaton Shotblast. As I got The Mars Volta up and running, I didn’t want us to be on a major label yet, so Tremulant was self-released. And then we went and toured the whole world, independently, no technicians, printing up our own t-shirts, so that when we came back and started talking to the major labels, I’d have a strong bargaining position. All of this was under the guidance and mentorship of Kristen Welsh, who I worked alongside every day at the Grand Royal label offices, and who became our manager.

But Universal were slow to agree…

Omar: Universal did not want to let the vinyl rights go. It turned into a big ordeal – we had a meeting with Jimmy Iovine, Gary Gersh, Jon Silva and the main bigwig at Universal, whose name I can’t remember. Kristen called me up and said, ‘Be at the Beverly Hills Hotel penthouse suite within an hour.’ I got there and our lawyer at the time whisked me into a private room and told me, ‘These are very serious people, so be very direct in what you want – and don’t back down’. So I told them, ‘I have to keep the rights to our vinyl. Something out of this has to remain mine – it’s my baby. It’s part of our tradition – we’ve done it since we were kids, and you basically have all our other rights into eternity.’ Jimmy Iovine said, ‘There’s no way that’s ever gonna happen’. I debated them for a while, going on about roots and community, when finally the main bigwig stops the meeting and says, ‘I get it, I get it – you wanna bring the neighbourhood along. We can do that for him, can’t we, Jimmy?’ And that was the last thing. Jon Silva did the secret handshake with them, and then we signed the deal. It came down to the owner of all Universal, to give his blessing personally, that we could keep it. Which is why it hurt so much a decade later, when Universal illegally repressed our records.

Cedric: They did a shitty job – it was very basic, beige and bland, they didn’t have any love for it. It was just product. They weren’t nerds about it. And that’s what fighting for the aesthetic was about: ‘I’m not gonna trust you to put something out’. When DeLoused came out on CD, someone on their own at Universal decided to make the ‘Egghead’ the front cover, when Storm Thorgerson had designed ‘Jellyfish man’ as the actual front cover, putting no text or logo on the back cover, to make it be interchangeable. So that if you put it down the ‘wrong’ way at the record store, someone would see the other side, and it would be this conversation – what most nerds today call ‘Easter eggs’, something cool to find out about. Big corporations didn’t think like that. We came from a different world – cool shapes, cool colours, cool shit you could do with it – shit that’s just not fuckin’ ‘normieville’. They were pulling the artwork from scans, not the real thing, and the vinyl was pulled from a 2003 CD… You remember back when El Topo or Holy Mountain were officially unavailable, but you could find high-end bootlegs, but it’s still a fuckin’ bootleg? That’s what it looked like – like someone’s idea of The Mars Volta, rather than The Mars Volta’s idea of The Mars Volta.

Omar: They literally are not using the master that came from me, the one used for the original analogue pressing. They have the digital master, from which they made the CD and the digital releases. But you have to then make a completely different master to cut the lacquers. So their attitude was basically, ‘Eh, good enough.’ But it wasn’t how it was supposed to sound. And De-Loused took us a year and a half to make, so talk about attention to detail – we recorded it twice! And it was a pain in the ass to mix – and I was still making changes in the mastering. So if you’ve got one of these other versions, it’s not anywhere near close… Frances The Mute is another great example: Rich Costey and me mixed that record three different times to get it right. We had to schedule it in between our touring, so technically it took eight months to mix that record. And now you’re just gonna go and say, ‘The CD master will be good enough to print from’? Nope – completely different dynamic, completely different nuances to worry about, completely different process which requires attention-to-detail and taking those things into account. But none of these holistic factors mattered to these bootleggers at Universal. So all the hard work done by the teams I’d put together over the years – Rich Costey, Howie Weinberg, Vlado Meller – was thrown out the window in favour of, ‘Eh, that’s pretty much what they did’. It’s just shitty.

Cedric: It’s really shitty. I have great pride in the fact that we have fans who are super-nerdy about our shit, because the music is designed that way. There was so much effort on Omar’s part to make that a reality. The Mars Volta – and especially this box set – can be summed up best by the phrase, “the devil is in the details”. If you miss that, you are going to miss a fuckload of shit.

Universal had no rights to release any TMV vinyl ever, am I right?

Omar: Exactly. What Universal did was illegal, and a blatant and egregious breach of contract. If power structures were in any way held accountable, they would have had to pay us damages, because they went into multiple pressings of the first four records, and then kept pressing Bedlam In Goliath after the first cease-and-desist, so we had to get really aggressive about it. I told our lawyers, I want to sue them, because they’re in breach of contract. And the advice was, ‘That’s not really gonna happen… You can try and sue them, it will just eat up tonnes of your money and tonnes of your life, and in the end you’ll get no result.’

The box-set contains Landscape Tantrums: The Unfinished Original Recordings Of De-Loused In The Comatorium, your early version of The Mars Volta’s debut album, which has never been released before.

Omar: Some asshole bootlegged the two-track references for this session, but the actual mixes we did back then were luckily preserved and stored in my vault for the past twenty years. So it’s super-exciting for my engineer Jon DeBaun and me that it’s seeing a release. This was the very first thing we worked on together, and it holds a lot of great memories. And if it’s this exciting for us, we imagine it’s going to be exciting for the fans.

What are your memories of those early recordings?

Omar: That’s a loaded question, because there’s a whole intimate saga behind those sessions. We did weeks of interviews on the subject, and there’s a detailed account of the process in the box-set liner notes – we don’t want to spoil it for anyone receiving the box-set.

Tell me about the title of the box-set, La Realidad De Los Sueños.

Omar: I took it from one of Cedric’s lyrics – from Concertina, off Tremulant. I’d asked Cedric to sing more in Spanish, and this particular lyric was a potent and moving one about Julio. It always stuck out to me. So I changed it a little (from “The Reality Of Your Dreams” to “The Reality Of Dreams”) to give it a new intention, being that much like having children, the dreams you produce go on to have their own life, their own reality, which you as the creator can’t possibly control. So there’s the process of letting go and understanding that you own nothing. The other side of it is, everything you do, there’s a price to be paid – there’s a reality to accomplishing the things that were once just an image or thought floating in your head. We lost Jeremy along the way, we lost Ikey along the way. We lost friendships, relationships – we missed funerals. There is a price to be paid, when you’re accomplishing the very things you were postulating for. Just like a listener who experiences personal, private memories associated with this music, there’s a whole other personal level that’s represented when we take in this box-set. It’s a reminder that when you receive, something has to be given. So there’s always an unseen price to be paid. There’s a sad and beautiful irony in this. It’s like when Rupert Pupkin says to Jerry Lewis in King Of Comedy: ‘A person can have anything they want in life, as long as they are willing to pay the price.’

What is it like, to listen to these albums together like this? The box-set collects together this amazing, crazy creative journey, which yielded some of the most astounding music of that era… How does it feel to look back on it?

Cedric: When I look back at it, all those releases, I get super-emotional. These are our high school yearbooks, year after year – these are our sonic family photos. Because, god, we were never fucking home. It’s super-emotional for me to see this. There’s the geek part of me, and then there’s the human part of me, who sees what Omar talks about, all the sacrifice, and all the moments when we’d choose to not go home for the holidays – instead, we’d be out there, trying to get this shit out, having some pretty dark and lonely moments, knowing full well that this fucking thing we’re creating is like Frankenstein. And now, to look back at the creature… It’s bittersweet, but I’m super-proud of it, and I get teary-eyed when I think about it. There’s humanity in there, there’s people that made this. And it existing eases my idea of being criminally misunderstood, because a lot of the times I can rest easy knowing the music will speak for itself, the density and the quality of it.

Omar: Amen. We often chose the work over our own health and family life – not that that’s right, but the deepest lessons can only be learned the hard way, so that you acquire actual knowledge and not just information. Having the perspective of being able to look at it now, I’m grateful. I feel super-grateful for what we were allowed to do, and for the work that we did, because usually I don’t ever look back. When doing the remasters with Clouds Hill, that was the first time I’d heard any of those records since the day they came out. And we recorded these albums all over the world – setting up my studio in hotels, in backstages, on the bus, abandoned buildings and fields – so when we hear this music, it takes us back to a place and time, and produces images and olfactory senses that recreate everything we’d forgotten about. It’s a snapshot, the only proof that I have that that person, now unrecognisable to me, once existed and did these things, had these experiences. It’s like finding a beautiful surprise package that becomes sentient and awakens us. ‘No, no – remember? You did this, you were there, and there were these people involved…’ And I’m reminded of the bittersweet taste of how it all unfolded. We lost track of time, through singular focus. And to me, that’s what brought the success. That passion, that commitment brought us here. We were having so much fun that time escaped us. It collected our lives’ memories into a jar cast out into the endless ocean of shared consciousness. We could have never imagined that we’d be sitting here, doing this, as a result of those losses, that moment in time that are these records.

Cedric: We were building a time machine. I don’t think we even realised it.

Omar: Exactly. That’s a great way to put it. Interview by Stevie Chick Vinyl & Merch: Clouds Hill Shop
	

Recording and producing “The Clouds Hill Tapes Part I,II & III” with Omar Rodríguez-López

The unforeseeable

Unpredictability is something that a music producer rarely delights in, but it‘s something which often has to be dealt with. Usually, the wise producer among us fear technical unpredictability most of all. The unforeseeable. Some buzzing or other noise that isn’t supposed to be there, that got missed in the heat of the moment, recorded by accident in the background, that can be heard in the final mix. Or a broken microphone, a dodgy cable, something that messes up the flow, unsettles the artist, and, in the worst-case scenario, completely destroys the mood. Experience, technical know-how and/or a skilled technician can usually get these situations under control or create a workaround for the new situation. Or even make it work, with a “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature!” vibe. In the dying notes of Peter Doherty’s “She is Far” on his Hamburg Demonstrations album, you can hear a motorcycle driving past. We had recorded a piano in the hallway of the Clouds Hill Studio, and opened the window to get a bit of atmosphere around the mic… That “mistake” immediately became a very cool feature. Riding her motorcycle into the setting sun …she was definitely far. But solving a situation like that shows the difference between a person who is only looking at the tech aspects, and a music producer. To put it simply, in a situation like this, the engineer takes care of repairing cables and de-noising signals and the producer takes care of fixing the mood or integrating the mistakes into the creative picture. Don‘t get me wrong: both jobs are important.

But no matter how good your technical expertise might be, how good you are at fixing things technically or emotionally it doesn’t help much when the musician themselves is unreliable or unpredictable. This is where you see a producer’s true quality, indeed, I would go so far as to say, whether or not someone is suited to being a music producer at all. This is where you see if it’s just a job, or if it is a calling. I don’t know why, but as a music producer, I work with a lot of musicians who are usually described as being “strong-minded”, a sweet little euphemism for ‘difficult to deal with’. But in my opinion, that is not fair to most artists. The description is too easy, too one-dimensional. A characterisation taken from the music press, which is usually only looking for the next biting headline.

Making music is not an easy thing

Now, making music is not an easy thing, if you are being serious about it. By ‘being serious’ I mean when it is about more than just having fun on stage, when it is about having a mission, a message, a critical take on the music business, and/or if you think further than the next promotional tour for the current album. Then, the focus is not so much on whether the second chorus should really “bang” or maybe not. Then, it is about the message. And the question, what this message means for the whole project, the other songs on the album, the next album, the content of the songs themselves, or the approach to music in general. That may all sound very intellectual or overly complicated, and maybe it is. But, in my opinion, it is a fact that great art can only be created this one way, and no other – we’re far from the shallow now. Great art can only rise through pain. By the way: we released an entire book about the topic, which you can get here: CHART Magazine I still remember an album production with Gallon Drunk many years ago. I had met James Johnston, the band’s singer and guitarist some years earlier, during the production of “Something Dirty”, an album by German kraut-rock legends Faust. We sat in Control Room 1 at Clouds Hill Studios, and listened to a mix of the song “The Perfect Dancer”, whose atmospheric guitar sound was created using a Ludwig Phase II synthesizer, which James played through two amplifiers which I had set up in the opposite corners of Live Room 1. The two room microphones I was using, two Royer 122v in Bluemlein setting created a truly surreal, crazy, atmospheric sound. James smiled as he heard the mix, and began talking to himself: “Oh that sounds weird!” “Yes, it does. But why? “… because we’re cool…” It’s that inner monologue that you have during the entire time of the production, when you have nothing to show to anyone yet, and even if you did, you couldn’t, because nobody would understand it yet anyway. That spirit of “Imagine a mellotron coming in here …” there’s only a very few people that get that … This process can be full of conflict and it’s the job of a producer to encourage the artist on his way. Shortly after the last tour for At The Drive-In, I rang Omar and asked if he wanted to play at the Clouds Hill Festival in December 2018. Just for fun. He said yes straight away, and we decided on the telephone that he would stay on for a couple of days after the festival to record an album. Quickly Omar put a new band together, right after our phone call. And, right there, we had the line-up for the festival, and for the recording. Audrey Paris Johnson on the drums, Virginia Garvia Alvez for vocals, and his brother, Marcel Rodríguez-Lopez on synth, bass, and programming. Omar had brought eight demos with him, which we listened to two days after the festival, at the beginning of December 2018. There were songs that had already been released on the Ipecac label a couple of years prior, but for a range of reasons, he wanted to produce them differently. I got the feeling that a lot had to do with the death of his mother a few years earlier. It wasn’t only Omar’s family life that had changed significantly, but also his view of his creative process from that time. Maybe he felt like he needed to shed the right light on a few things. On a few sounds. He explained that he had seen the drummer, Audrey, at one of her band’s gigs in LA. He liked her “kraut-y” style and really wanted to keep its roughness and the repetition of patterns. Against that, he wanted a clear focus on Virginia’s vocals. She had just got a job as the main vocalist with Circ de Solei and Omar wanted to really focus attention on her impressive voice. “Vocal-up mix” was the general strategy.

“Guitars down”

It sounded as if it could be a mesmerising, surprising mix. On top of that, he also made it very clear that he was not very keen on making a guitar record. As I was not just a music producer, but also a fan, you can imagine how hard it was for me to deliver that particular wish. I think Omar is one of, if not the most remarkable guitarist of his generation. I was initially reluctant to go with “Guitars down”, but I had to admit, it gradually made more and more sense to me, and I ultimately really liked it. For Omar though, it was anything but going for the perfect solo. His goal was to create a mood, as Zack de la Rocha put it in his speech announcing The Mars Volta at the MTV Music Awards: “A band that is more interested in creating moments than creating hits”.

With Omar’s briefing in mind to let it all sound like a Krautrock-jam with non-Krautrock musicians, or something like that, Audrey and I set up the drums in the middle of Clouds Hill’s Live Room 1. The sound in Live Room 1 is a bit more “live” than in room 2. The higher ceilings and much less dampened acoustics make it feel brighter and bigger than Live Room 2 — just about right for a shimmying, echo-y drum sound. I wanted to keep it as simple as possible. Eight mics max for the drums. A raw sound. As Audrey had decided to play on our Mapex M-Series (+ Ludwig Supraphonic) I knew that those drums would be able to produce a direct and punchy sound quite naturally. So, I chose an AKG D20 for the Bassdrum and placed it about two inches away from the resonator head, and a Josephson e22 for the snare. A pair of Coles 4038 as overheads, two vintage Neumann U67s in ORTF Stereo two metres in front of the kit and the magic mic: a mono Beyerdynamic m88 approximately one metre away from the kit pointing right at the rim of the bass drum. In addition to that I used a mono highly-compressed Sennheiser MD21 mic with a weird cardioid /omni characteristic in the middle of the set between the bass drum, low tom and snare. The drum mics went straight into the Neve 8068 MKII preamps and then into the Studer A820 tape recorder. I added slight EQ from the console, mostly just adding some highs (even if you can’t really hear it on the record…ha ha), and some 60 and 100 Hz for the bass drum and set mics. For the overheads I used a pair of Pultec PEQ 1As (pushed some 100Hz and 10k) and the U67s ran through the Fairchild 670 just very subtly moving the needle. Marcel set up right in front of the drums, playing keys and bass and Omar would be in the control room, adding a scratch guitar to the recordings. When we were tracking, I turned the Beyerdynamic up very loud. It produced such a nice aggressive sound just on its own — like someone hitting a very tight cardboard box … we all liked that very much. When we wanted to hear more lows from the toms, we just slightly added in some overhead mic or the pair of U67s which also added a nice low end to the kick drum. I recorded Marcel’s synth setup straight to tape. We didn’t use an amp in the live room to avoid any spill onto the drums. In a condensed setup like this I had to be aware of that as I didn’t have any close mics to even out the spill onto room mics during mixing. After each take was complete, we re-amped Marcel’s bass, synth, and programming tracks through an Ampeg SVT and Vox AC30. We mixed the Ampeg with a Shure SM7B and the Vox with a Royer and Sennheiser 421 mostly keeping one track DI and re-amp only on one side of the stereo signal. When he played a mono synth, I mic‘d the re-amped signal from further away, to create a room sound during recording. Sometimes we put a mic in the entrance hall but left the amp in the live room with the doors open. But not enough .. after the second day Omar let me know that he was about to fly in his friend Leo from Argentina, a piano player he met during his production for Mon Laferte in South America, because he wanted him to play the piano on 6 other tracks he wanted to record. A second part of the record if you like.

Every helping hand

Soon I realized that, only having 5 days for the recordings, I needed to integrate the entire Clouds Hill staff – Linda and Muxi – to keep up with the workload. While Linda was recording Virgina’s vocals for Part I in Live Room 1, getting more and more finished tracks from Muxi and I for Part II, Omar came up with another surprise. He and his brother Marcel played me another six very cool, already pre-produced songs. Mainstream stuff, but undoubtedly from the Omar universe. Eight songs became 14 became 20. The next day Leo arrived, we set up the Steinway in live room 2 and Omar started teaching him the songs while the rest of us was still recording band tracks for Part I and drums for part III. While Leo was playing Mellotron and Juno-6 on a couple of tracks, Virgina was still singing, Audrey had to start rehearsing the new songs and I needed to learn them as well. That’s the Clouds Hill vibe I love so much. Creatives using every single corner of the space to work on a project. Literally the entire 4th floor of the building was filled with sound. For days and days… During the recording process, when it turned out that Omar wanted to record not eight band tracks but 20, we came up with a concept for the record. We decided to divide the record into three parts. The Clouds Hill Tapes Pt. I, II, & III. On Part I we decided not to have any artificial reverb. All rooms should be Clouds Hill studio live rooms. Drums, bass, guitar. All the sounds of Liveroom 1 and the entrance hall. Vocals re-amped through the entrance hall and bathroom. That’s the concept. The only artificial “reverb” that I used is a very short stereo space echo and an EMT plate. Because you can’t make a record without those two in my opinion. We loved the rawness. I love the squashed energy that produced all sorts of artefacts. We only made radical moves: vocals up, guitars down, keys up. In mixing later, I remembered how much we liked the unique sound of the Beyerdynamic mic in front of the drums. So, I decided to mostly use that single mono mic for the drums. I sent it into an AMS 1580S delay with a very short delay time to add some aggressive early reflections and make it more “stereo”. That fake stereo mic combined with the U67s and some very matt Coles 4038 for the cymbals made the drum sound for this record. Super basic and raw, very punky and almost lo-fi but somehow interesting and unique. I knew this sound was going to be divisive. But we enjoyed it. And we are still enjoying it. Most of Omar’s guitars we added a bit later. We set up two or three different amps like I always do. I remember using a Vox AC30 on the left side and a Fender Super Amp on the right — just mic‘d with a vintage Neumann UM69. Nothing fancy. This record wasn’t supposed to be about guitar sounds. It was about creating moments — and those moments, I thought needed a unique space. The Neumann stereo microphone is perfect for room stereo recordings. In a live situation with more musicians in the room it can sonically focus on the sound source you point it on. I once used it to record a Glockenspiel in the same room with drums — and it worked! It’s the hottest mix I ever made in my life. The Lavry Gold 122-96MX pretty much peaked all the time. People will hate us and love us for this. When we cut the vinyl, I talked to the cutter and asked him to add some smooth highs because I didn’t want the vinyl to sound duller than the digital version. He did a great job! I think the vinyl of this album sounds so much better than the digital version.

The studio was entirely filled with sound

We set up the Steinway D and mic‘d it only with a matched pair of two Soyuz 013 small diaphragm condenser mics. 1-1.5 metres above the strings with the lid off. Omar sat right next to Leo, teaching him the songs while playing his guitar very quietly through one of our modified vintage Sharp boom boxes, or a Vox AC30, which I recorded with a Sennheiser MD409 or 421. Those three mics were the sound of that record. Sometimes Virginia would come over to control room 2, listening to the new arrangements, taking notes and disappear into live room 2 to continue recording with Linda or myself. Audrey was sitting in the kitchen with her headphones on learning the beats with sticks silently tapping on her thighs. In the meantime an old-school jazzy session was evolving in live room 2 and API room. Recorded straight into 2” 8 track Part II of The Clouds Hill Tapes slowly came to life.Like a spontaneous open mic session in a dark underground club. Plus some effects. I reactivated my old Lexicon 200 and used it for all the long “shitty” sounding reverb on Part II. As a contrast to the time-less jazzy approach. Turns out it was all about the unexpected, even sonically. After a couple of days of working side-by-side in both studios we decided to start the production of Part III. Audrey learned the beats. Virgina learned the vocals and I finally got a feel for the sounds and production. We recorded drums, guitars and some more synths and did some arrangement work on the tracks. To add drums and instruments to the pre-production we synched the Studer tape machine to our Pro Tools system. And it actually worked! Anyone who has ever done this will know that it is not always a given that a Studer tape recorder works with Pro Tools with no issues. But the tracks I received from Marcel were so diverse and cool that I wanted to preserve their original sound quality and not have them touch tape. After recording the overdubs on tape I re-recorded the new tracks back into our Pro Tools system. Part III of The Clouds Hill Tapes was ready to mix. The mixes of Part III were done by my friend Peter Schmidt in his studio in Berlin. I wanted the songs to sound as mainstream and transparent as possible. Soft, transparent, but still naked and touching. I love what he did. And I admire his craft. Peter is one of the greatest mixing engineers I know and also one of the friendliest and most enjoyable to hang out with. I know that Omar fans are probably not too excited about “mainstream” arrangements but I’m sure most of them get the idea. Omar is a great songwriter and arranger and I wanted people to actually hear that. Hear the diversity he is able to create. Omar is not captured in a certain genre and that‘s super exciting. From At the Drive-In to The Mars Volta to Noise to Punk to Jazz to Ambient to Rock to Caribbean Music and Salsa. Sure, any record from Omar has the potential to piss some fans off isn’t that what making music is all about? I‘m telling you: knowing that you can‘t be everybody’s darling, knowing that you won‘t be everybody‘s darling let‘s you relax during a recording session. It‘s the most inspiring process of them all. Be prepared that people don‘t like what you did. Embrace the unpredictable.

See the videos to the session here:

 

Konni Kass Live at Clouds Hill

Perfection is never perfect

Konni Kass came in to visit Clouds Hill Recordings, but there was no big plan. Ok, we had an e-piano, there were microphones set up, the mixing desk was ready, and a small audience… you know, we could just record the five songs that this singer-songwriter from the Faroe Islands had prepared. Although this is not usually the way for Johann Scheerer to proceed in his Hamburg studio, that normally prides itself on its careful and intricate preparation, but it was decided to “just see what happens”. But if Konni Kass is playing her songs, then even the most careful coordination can come awry.

Konni Kass started with her song “Surrender”, and straight up, it was only about the music — this mix between a melodious Nordic sound, modern pop and intense soul — sung in a voice that was searingly beautiful and sweetly nostalgic from the northern parts of Europe. You had to think and Tina Dico, but also of Nina Simone, a mind-blowing mix. Once the five pieces were in the can, the producer Johann Scheerer thought it would be a crying shame not to do something more with the recording. Which brings us to this Live EP by Konni Kass at Clouds Hill — a personal, almost intimate audio document, an unexpected gift, a delightful surprise. “The producer was unable to make it sound any better”, reported Scheerer. But maybe, this recording sounds so wonderful, because nothing in this world can be completely perfect.

Konni Kass comes from Tórshavn, the capital city of the Faroe Islands. It is home to 13 000 people, with the whole country boasting about 50 000. The islands are green, the weather usually pretty miserable, the fog impenetrable — what else can you do but make music? The number of acts that come from Faroe Islands is astounding, with some, like Teitur or Eivør gaining fame internationally — and Konni Kass is set to be the next in line. Taking a break from her medical degree, this singer-songwriter is concentrating entirely on her music. Her first, much celebrated album came out in 2016 on the Tutl label from Torshavn. This live EP is the start of a whole new phase in her career, the world is waiting for Konni Kass — and next time she drops by Clouds Hill Recordings, Johann Scheerer is promising absolute perfection in recording. Just listen to “Surrender”, and already, the anticipation is overwhelming!

Recording and producing Tom Allan and The Strangest “Little Did They Know”

The essence of playing live

I knew that the band was unbeatable in their live performance

The last time I wrote something about Tom Allan and The Strangest a couple of months ago, I was explaining my motivation to record the band live, straight to 8-track. I thought the band would profit from a sound that is stripped down to the core of performance. Although the “Tom Allan and The Strangest live at Clouds Hill” sounds extremely rough I still like it and was very happy when Tom called me and said that he loved the recordings even though he needed some time to get used to it. When it came to their second album we tried a different approach. But then again, did we really? After his first album, Tom tried to work with the same producer again which put me in the position of being the Clouds Hill label’s A&R. So, I called a meeting and told the band that I wanted a super rough record. I wanted them to sound courageous, unexpected and cool. Of course, we all knew that this could only be achieved with the right songs, arrangements and an unneglectable portion of self-esteem. When the band came back to me with rough mixes of the first studio session neither Tom and Evan nor myself were satisfied with the results. It sounded boring and uninspired.

What happened?

To cut a long story short: Many things got in their way. A lack of communication maybe. Misunderstandings about what we meant by “rough”. Finally, we came to the conclusion that the only practicable way to record this album was … live. When I said “live” during the phone call with the band I heard that they thought that this wasn’t the most groundbreaking idea of all times. Then I started to explain:

I knew that the band was unbeatable in their live performance. Even though it’s still old-school rock music, and I am personally not a huge fan of (ordinary) rock music, I realized that I enjoy watching the band live a lot. So, I started to ask myself why. I am still impressed of what a simple setup consisting of guitar, bass and drums can do to an audience when played right. It can be magical. I explained that I wanted the band all in one room. I wanted them to already rehearse in the recording room for a week before the recordings to really adjust to the room’s atmosphere and sound. I knew that the foundation of their performance was that they feel as comfortable in that studio room as they do in their rehearsal room. So, we would invest at least 2 days in sound check and one of those days in monitoring. They should try everything. Headphones, no headphones, speakers in height of their heads, classic concert monitoring on the floor, anything to make them feel as comfortable as possible.

The core of the setup was an array of three room mics put up as a Decca-Tree. I want to mention that I came up with the mics and the setup but the entire sound check was done by Sebastian “MUXI” Muxfeldt, Clouds Hill Engineer, when I was on a business trip to LA. So Muxi set up three Soyuz 013 FET mics with omni characteristics. The middle one facing the drums. Tom and his Vox AC30 was placed on the left side of the setup and Evan with his Vox amp on the right side. So, the guitars already had their place in the stereo picture. He recorded some bits and sent me the rough mixes of the different mics. I listened to them in the early morning as I was jet lagged anyway and immediately gave Muxi a GO.

But before we dig deeper into the tech side of the recordings … After telling the band about the extensive sound check, monitoring and acclimation ideas, I came up with another idea to wring out the best of the band’s performance. I wanted them to play three concerts with an audience. All on one day at 4pm, 6pm and 8pm. I thought the presence of fans could give their performance an extra push. If not during the first concert, maybe during the second or third. I would then cut together the best of the three shows and ideally have the record finished a day or two after the shows.

At first the band had many questions

What about applause? What about all other human noises? What about mistakes? Tuning problems, spill, wrong harmonies, speeding up or slowing down … all these common “mistakes” that happen during a live show. I was confident that Muxi and I would be able to deal with all this stuff if we add two days of postproduction. We agreed that we would do harmonies and vocal effects as overdubs. Everything else should be done live.

Both guitar amps got a Sony c37a and an additional ribbon mic. Royer 121 for Tom’s and a Beyerdynamic M130 for Evan’s guitar. Muxi miced Robin’s Bass amp, the best amp for live recording in my opinion, the vintage Ampeg B15N, with a Sennheiser 421 and an additional DI for the low end.

We had Tim Schierenbeck, our fantastic drum tech, coming in on the first day of rehearsal to explain how to tune the drums to Nico, the drummer of the band. On the day of the recordings he stayed the entire day to retune the drums after each show.

All the drums we used were from Clouds Hill’s vintage collection. The bass drum was a 24“x14“ Sonor Phonic with an Aquarian Super Kick II batter head and no resonator head. The Super Kick has lots of low end and, other than the name might suggest, very little kick. We put in a blanket and a pillow and still had enough life left to work with.

We used a 16“x 17“ Sonor Lite Floortom with an Aquarian Performance II Batterhead and also took off the resonator head. There was a lot of duct tape involved to get rid of the overtones. We tuned it a little higher than usual to get a nice musical tone rather than just bass mumble. The main snare was a Sonor Phonic 14“x8“ with an Aquarian Response II clear batter head with a power dot. We tuned the batter head very high on one side and very low on the other. Some might say that they wouldn´t do that to a hoop but it sure sounds great! Very aggressive and drum machine like.

We also used a Ludwig Supraphonic 14“x6.5“ with a Texture Coated single ply head with an ultra low tuning and a plastic muffle ring on some songs and a 14“x6.5“ Yamaha Mike Bordin Copper Snare, also with a Texture Coated single ply head and an open, mid range tuning on some others. The Cymbals were: Bosphorus Black Pearl 20“ Crash, Bosphorus Traditional 20“ Crash, Bosphorus Traditional 14“ Hi Hats and a Meinl Big Apple 22“ Ride.

Muxi set up a Neumann UM57, an AKD D20 and a Yamaha Lofi Speaker in front of the bass drum and summed it together on track 1 of the Studer A820 24 track. The Snare got a SM57 in which we removed the transformer. Next to it we put up a Josephson e22 to give the Snare sound some extra shimmer. But as we listened to both mics we were surprised how similar they sounded. Removing the transformer from the Shure SM57 really made a huge difference. We decided to keep both mics none the less and even added a Sennheiser 421 for the bottom to make up for the slight loss of punchy pressure which came from the customized SM57. The Floor Tom got a Sennheiser 421 on the top head and a vintage Neumann U87 on the bottom. Classic Led Zeppelin setup. Especially with the removed resonator head… We loved the sound! All summed together to track 2 of the tape machine.

The core of the drum sound was a Beyerdynamic M88 one meter in front of the drums, preamped with a distorted Roland Space Echo. A sound I found when I recorded drums for Omar Rodriguez-Lopez solo record which I will tell you more about in a couple of weeks. Overhead microphones were Coles Ribbons combined with Soyuz 011 tube mics.

Additional to the Decca Tree array in the middle of the room we set up a vintage AKG C24 stereo tube mic in the top corner of the room above the bass amp because Muxi and I knew that we could capture some low end room sound at that particular position.

Tom got a Shure SM7 and Evan a Sennheiser 441 for vocals. Everything, except the M88 was preamped through the vintage API preamps of the desk and, after adding some compression and EQ, went straight to tape. The Decca Tree was summed down to stereo through the fantastic Vacuvox U23m. The Overheads got some compression with the Vertigo VSC-2 and Urei La-3a. The low Tom and Evan’s vocals were compressed by the Urei 1178. Tom’s vocals got some La2a compression.

Now it was up to the band

What can I say? The shows went great!! I got Muxi to rough mix all three shows and send them to me the night after the concerts. I downloaded the rough mixes and gave them a listen during an extensive walk through the park in the early morning while making notes on my phone. Then Muxi and the band cut the best bits together and I added some crazy delay with my favorite Fradan Amp. (Read more about the Fradan in “Recording and producing Okta Logue”). Evan, Tom, Robin and Nico sang some harmonies, we Melodyned some detuned guitar bits and that was about it.

Then the files got sent to Norman Nietzsche and Greg Friedman who already mixed Tom Allan & The Strangest debut album. I must admit that I was a bit jealous to not being able to mix the record myself. (I had another project coming up but the Clouds Hill label wanted a single ready in November when the band started touring with Mando Diao). So, my inner A&R and music producer were having a conversation in my head about my personal priorities.

During mastering, Chris von Rautenkranz and I added some crazy noises I found in the various sessions to make the record sound even more unique. We added tape noise, little hisses and swirls, sudden applause and funny atmospheres. I wanted to make the record sound artificial and special even though it was recorded in the simplest way possible. One band in a room performing the hell out of it.

 

Recording and mixing Le Butcherettes Live at Clouds Hill

It‘s been a while….

Last time I recorded with Teri Gender Bender was six years ago. When Omar Rodríguez-López asked me if I would be up for producing their new band Bosnian Rainbows, it did not take me long to agree. I heard them rehears in our studio 2 for their upcoming tour as Omar Rodríguez-López but somehow the band evolved into something that was more than just a solo project. Something that needed an own name. Part of that was Teri‘s unbelievable vocal and stage performance. It was unique. So when Teri said yes to a „… live at Clouds Hill“ session I was obviously stoked. Even though Le Butcherettes are not signed to our Clouds Hill label I thought it would be great for everyone involved to release a live studio record. Great for their record label RISE RECORDS because Clouds Hill might be able to give the band an extra push in Europe, great for the band because they can sell some exclusive vinyl on their upcoming concerts and last but not least: great for all of us because making a live record is FUN. Or … it’s supposed to be. But more about that a little later … 

Teri checked with their management and they rescheduled the band’s flights that were already booked for their European run of shows so that the band could arrive at Clouds Hill almost a week before their first show in Copenhagen. That would give them time to settle in our artist apartment, rehearse and then be fresh and prepared for the upcoming recording. Talking about preparation… Sometime before the Le Butcherettes live at Clouds Hill session end of March 2019 I had another live recording scheduled with a different band. I was also looking forward to that recording but after Muxi (Clouds Hill Engineer Sebastian Muxfeldt) set up the mics for that session and I started doing my thing in the control room I wasn’t happy with the sound. It sounded lame. Somehow limp and not like I knew the band from their records which I loved. I was playing around with EQ and compression in our API room. Added reverb and parallel compression to stabilise the sound but nothing worked. I began doubting my skills. Then I headed over to the live room and asked the drummer to play. There it was! The drum set sounded like a cardboard box. Phew! It wasn’t me.

As this article is not about a messed up live recording – more the opposite – I will keep this digression short: I had to call our drum tech and even he needed a couple of hours to get the sound straight. Soundcheck all together took 8.5 hours. After that, the band had not much more than 30 minutes until showtime. I felt sorry for them as much as I was annoyed by the situation. And – yes – the recording did not go well. 

Not this time

Still remembering this situation, I called our drum tech Tim Schierenbeck as a preventive measure. „Tim, can you come? I wonna be prepared this time!“ Unfortunately he had to play for a live TV show in Berlin that night. (You can check him out in a German Late Night show called „Late Night Berlin“ where he plays -guess what- the drums.) So, I was on my own. A day before the session I came to Clouds Hill with my family. We brought some cake and sat down with the band. I met Riko and Marfred before but I had never met Alejandra, except for one handshake in an anonymous backstage area when they played with At the Drive In and Death From Above at Sporthalle Hamburg. I thought it would be nice to get to know each other a bit better before the recording. After the cake I asked Alejandra, the drummer, which drums she chose for the recording and asked her to play for minute, in the live room where we were about to record. Remembering the previous session, I wanted to be prepared… She chose our 70s Ludwig Rockers Maple Set that was once played by Carmine Appice. (Check out „Drummer Man“ by Nancy Sinatra. That’s him!) combined with our Ludwig Suprapohnic snare. All shells with coated heads and three Istanbul Cymbals and my favorite Paiste Giant Beat 14“ HiHat. She started to play and I was immediately overwhelmed. Her style combined with those drums was just the perfect match. It was warm, punchy and thick. She had perfectly tuned them to match her way of playing. It was pure joy. From that, until the end of the session I did not touch the drums even once! I sent Muxi a list of mics I wanted to use; like always in those live sessions, super basic but with a drum sound like this and a drummer like her I could even use ribbon and omnidirectional mics, provoke some spill and really use it to take the drum sound to the next level. Or at least record it as good as it already sounded in the room which is sometimes hard enough to accomplish. For the Bass drum I chose an Electro Voice RE20. I hadn’t used that mic in a while and to be honest, I just wanted to be reminded of how it sounded. Additional to the RE20 which I put inside the hole of the front head to get the sound of the beater, I let Muxi place an AGK c12VR to the side of the Bass drum. I very rarely use that microphone. For vocals or overheads, I prefer the vintage AKG c12 due to its smoother and more balanced sound. If you put up two vintage AKG c12s above a drum set, you get THE cymbal sound you never knew how to get. At least that’s how I felt when I used them as overheads for the first time. But for this Bass drum I was curious on how the c12VR would sound like. I was looking for a thick, vintage but fresh sound. We used 2 Josephson e22 on the Snare. The only thing that those mics cannot do to drums is make them sound -what people these days call- vintage (less top end). For me this microphone is the perfect fusion of a classic punchy and uncomplicated dynamic drum mic (like a shure sm57 or an Audix i-5) and a condenser. As I was confident that Alejandra knew how to perform on her drums, I chose Neumann U87s for the Toms. Those can be complicated sometimes, especially when the drummer doesn’t know how to play the shells and cymbals well balanced. Then the spill of the -too loudly played- cymbals can be a pain in the ass and you will have to start gating the Toms and during that point at the latest you wish you had just chosen Sennheiser 421s. Anyway: Neumann U87s have a great attack, body and resolution. But you need a drummer that can handle them! I used an omnidirectional Grundig GDSM200 and put it between Bass drum, Snare and Low Tom to compress it afterwards. For overheads, Muxi and I put up two Coles 4038 and, additional to those, two Sozuy 013FET condenser mics and aligned their capsules with the position of the ribbons. You all know Coles. I thought their warm and lush sound would suit Alejandra’s drum sound perfectly, but I didn’t want to lose the transients and the crispness of the cymbals and the special attack of the shells. That’s why I chose to add the Soyuz. Let me say just a few words about Soyuz Microphones: David Arthur Brown, one of the owners of Soyuz, contacted me some years ago to showcase the first mic they built. The SU-017. A tube mic. I don’t want to advertise them too much, but ALL of their mics are absolutely fantastic. They are literally the only new microphones I ever bought in my life because they sound amazing. Period. Sorry that I talked so much about the drums but when recording a record like this – especially live to tape – the drums have to be on spot because they are the core of the entire recording. Teri played a keyboard and a guitar through one of our Selmer Amps. To be precise the 1964 Selmer Thunderbird Twin 30. She performed on a Casio keyboard that was built for kids. That’s why the keys light up red when you touch them! Her guitar was a Telecaster. As both instruments were plugged into the same amp, I chose a Sennheiser 421 and a RCA bk5. Both mics are well tempered when it comes to unexpected sounds. The RCA tends to tame unpleasant, harsh sounds and the 421 lets them cut through. Marfred‘s bass setup was a classic one. His Fender Precision was plugged into one of our Ampeg SVTs. But his pedals made the difference. I didn’t dig into his pedal board that much, neither did I with Riko‘s board but his bass sound really made a huge difference in the room. It had a great and impressive low end without burying the drums. I don’t know how he did that, but it was undoubtedly impressive. Riko played guitar and an Electron Analog Keys keyboard through one of his brother‘s amps that he left at Clouds Hill some years ago. A modern Orange combo amp which I rarely use but it was nice to see that he somehow naturally chose Omar’s amp. I miced his amp with a vintage Neumann U67 for the crispness and a vintage Sennheiser U609 for the solid body. On the Ampeg I used a Radial DI and a vintage AKG D20. For the room I used a Neumann USM69. 

The control room

In the control room I preamped everything through our API 3232 and summed it to 8 tracks for our modified Studer A820 2“ 8 Track 

Drums to 1/2 Bass to 3 Teri‘s amp to 4 Riko‘s amp to 5 Vocals to 6 Room to 7/8 

The 8 stems came back on the last 8 channels of the API. The master bus went into our Vacuvox U23M compressor limiter and then to 1“ tape. Telefunken M15a + additional Aria Discrete Class A electronics by Dave Hill. On the drums I only used a very subtle compression, more a saturation with the Vertigo Compressor with the ratio set to „soft“. The attack was dialled in to some mid setting and the release to fastest. No compression on bass drum or snare or toms because I wanted to keep as much transients as possible. Then I inserted a Valley People 440 into the channel of the omnidirectional Grundig and compressed the hell out of it, Low Cut, High Cut, carefully adding it to the 1/2 drums stem. Bass drum got a little 60Hz and 3K boost with a Pultec EQH-2. Guitar got some more presence around 5K with the second Pultec EQH-2. Teri sang into her own custom made Telefunken M80 which I EQd a little bit (just with a low cut and adding some 4K and 10K) and then ran the signal through a LA-2A and a Lang PEQ-1 boosting her midrange around 240Hz, cutting at 100Hz and boosting 10K again because a bit of the previous boost I did with the API EQ had been eaten up by the LA-2A. For the bass I used the second LA-2A but only very subtly as Marfred‘s performance was already very solid. I tried my good old EMT 240 gold foil reverb for Teri’s vocals with a little pre-delay from the Eventide Harmonizer but it did not sound too good in this case. The reverb was too slow and mighty for her raging performance. I hadn’t used the Ensoniq DP4 for a while, but I switched it on and chose a preset I called “Drum Verb” a while ago. That was the perfect match for the drums AND for the vocals. Lucky me. Just because I love how the EMT 240 makes this unique golden reverberation tail I chose an even longer pre-delay and added a tiny bit of the gold foil to Teri‘s vocals just to make them shine a bit more.  Rico‘s sounds went almost unprocessed (with just a little EQ) straight to tape. He also got a bit of the EMT 240 panned to the other side. His dry signal panned right, the reverb left. I didn’t hit the tape as loud as I sometimes do when I want to make an aggressive sounding record. Again: I wanted to keep all the transients of Alejandra’s performance. (You should check out „Wargirl live at Clouds Hill“ – that record was so loud we even skipped mastering because I clipped the stems and the mix. But in that case, it worked!) All those signals then went into the Vacuvox U23M, a unique and very cool limiter/compressor that my friend Berry builds. Ratio 3:1, release 0,2sec, attack app 20ms. The entire soundcheck took us 45 minutes! The rest was literally just their performance. I didn’t touch any fader or knob during their performance. Le Butcherettes are an incredible live band. You should definitely check them out. You can get the „Le Butcherettes live at Clouds Hill“ vinyl on their upcoming concerts or purchase it  here as well as a digital single we released via Clouds Hill. There is also a video version of that song.

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Producing and recording Okta Logue – Runway Markings

Some thoughts about producing and recording Okta Logue’s “Runway Markings”

The thing with vintage recording equipment is that, in all its glory, it is still one big problem. It takes time to set up, make it sound right, and you need experience to know if the sounds is as it should be. Sometimes people come to me and show me a “great sounding” piece of vintage gear — but all it does is produce some kind of extreme sound. Extremely bassy and dull, or extremely sizzling with no bass but lots of hiss. Or — the classic result —it just sounds distorted. These are the people who think “vintage” simply means “old sounding” and the “old” means weak, nasty, unpleasant or simply strange.

Speaking of “strange”

There is an element of working with vintage gear that is strange to most ears. Many pieces of vintage equipment sound unfamiliar to today’s listening habits. They sound unique. And uniqueness is something that seems to be outdated amongst music consumers.

Vintage gear also needs experience to service it — exchanging the tubes when they have to be replaced, choose the right tubes for the right sound, checking if the speakers are still operational, and the other usual servicing you will have to do every now and then — or the experience to know if your service technician has done a good job… all of which brings us back to the beginning: Knowing when it sounds right. Modern gear often has many features the provide a range of effects and finishes, but back in the day, most of the gear was invented to add that one missing effect that was needed, making incremental piecemeal improvements to an older version, that was somehow lacking. For example: The new amp had an added tremolo. Or the new mic was able to handle more SPL or was able to record more or fewer frequencies. It was rarely about combining many features in one unit like today. The EMT 140 was a great sounding plate reverb. But you needed 4 people to carry it and there was no pre-delay or any other possibility to change the sound without adding other effect units to the circuit. Then came the EMT 240 with was much smaller. But it sounded different. The plate became a gold-foil and the 300 kg became 80kg. After that there was the EMT 250, the “Weltraumheizung” (space heater), which was light and extremely versatile but produced a huge level of noise due to its ventilation.

But as these improvements were the result of engineers spending years in development to achieve them, the added features of these unique amps, reverbs, guitars, compressors, equalisers or microphones often sounded extremely well-blended and well thought out. Back then, you had to get that one piece of gear to get the sound you wanted or find a creative way to imitate it. Sometimes the newer model lacked features of the older one which made people improvise to get the sound they wanted.

You had to move the mic further away from the sound source as it wasn’t able to stand the SPL of the snare. This however resulted in more echo or ‘room noise’ through the mic than you planned, which meant you had to install dampers in the room which then affected the sound of the cymbals. Or the EMT 250 could not give you that nice brassy sound, but the 140 had no pre-delay which you needed for the vocals … You see where this is going.

Today every single sound of history is available for a few bucks and is just a click away.

But the magic that was filling the air in the old days, the inventive spirit that made people think beyond borders stimulated other people’s creativity. Sometimes you can still feel it. Because when you work with old gear some of that soul is still there. I often say to musicians that our old Neve 8068 MKII does not compose great music, that a Telefunken ELA-M 251 does not make a great performance, and that the magic has to happen BEFORE entering the studio. But this is not 100% true. Sometimes the souls inside vintage equipment enable the musicians to give unexpected performances. As if the equipment is encouraging the artist. When I take pictures of my kids with an analogue Hasselblad camera the pictures usually are better than the pictures I take with a mobile phone. I am not talking about the general quality of the picture. I am talking about the person’s expression. I really think that is because the subject is aware of the seriousness of the situation and thereby behaves differently.

When I was talking to Okta Logue about producing their new album I knew that we shared a passion for vintage gear. They had made some interesting records in the past, but I was missing something to really define the band’s core. I felt that the previous records didn’t show the musicians as clearly as I would love to see them in a rock band setup. I wanted, not only want to make a great record with them, I wanted to show them as the great musicians they are. Alone, and as a band. I also felt that the band’s songwriting should be catchier and the arrangements reduced to the bare bones. In other words, I wanted to make a pure and simple rock record. Clear arrangements, interesting sounds and touching performances. That was the aim.

Having said that, I told the boys that I would like to spend some time with them in the studio before the actual recording. I wanted to strip the songs down to a version with only one instrument to find the core of each song and then build it back to what is needed. We did that twice for five days each and, back in Frankfurt, the band also worked on the songs alone. Sometimes they would send over demos which I commented on. That was a very productive and encouraging process for all of us. After some weeks we knew that we are ready to record. Songs, lyrics, arrangements and some sounds — everything was done before the first note was being recorded.

As all the songs were very different from each other, I decided that we would not use only one setup for the recordings but change it completely for each song. That meant sound-wise we would start from scratch with every new song. What sounds time-consuming is in fact a very fresh way to work. I love to work like this. It keeps everyone awake and makes you try new things and come up with fresh ideas. You really have to question every mic you set up again and again — Do I really need this for the sound of this song? Do we really need 2 overhead mics? Do we really need a DI signal? Changing the stuff you would usually just record in one song because you kept using the setup from the previous one. Some songs were recorded completely live. Drums, bass, uitar, keys and vocals. All live in one room. “Out Of Gas” is one of them. Only the backing vocals on this one we overdubbed by having two of our interns sing in the stairway and recording them from 2 stories above. So even that “aaahhhh- hhaaaa” backing vocal reverb is 100% analog/natural. To record the loud guitar hook on “Runway Markings” we put Philip, the guitarist, in studio 1 while the rest of the band was recording in studio 2. We opened the doors and put a mic between both studios and cranked the volume of Philip’s Hiwatt Custom 100 through a Hiwatt 4×12 cabinet and recorded with an U67 in the hallway. On “Julie”, my favourite track of the record, we only used two Coles 4038 on the drums and some dynamic mics to zoom in. In preproduction, we had stripped the arrangement down to only keys and drums. The band had the idea that Philips guitar solo would come in totally unexpected. We recorded with Philip’s Stratocaster through two vintage Vox AC30s. It took a couple of takes to get it right but just listen to the results. Maybe one of the most thrilling guitar solos I have ever recorded. When we started to sing the song, the band had the idea to let Max, the keyboarder, sing the song. I loved that version as Max’s vocals sound so fragile and made the entire song even more touching. The first take Max sang is the one you hear on the record. No edits no nothing. Just Max.

Singing was — as it always is — a difficult matter.

Benno was a bit worried that he wasn’t the best singer out there. We spend some time to talk this through and I ensured him that I thought he and Max were definitely the best people to sing these songs on this particular record. That gave him some confidence and after a couple of days he got to the point where he sang the entire record in one day. We were able to keep most of it and just added some harmonies to it. But let’s go one step back… There was one night Benno got really excited after he sang “Out Of Gas” live in the room with all the other band members and realised that the song was now almost ready to mix. Right after the performance. Everything was there! Listening back, I thought Benno needed a very special setup to make his vocals stand out even more. I liked the sound of the live recording but for the vocal overdubs of the other songs I wanted something else. Because we changed the sound every time we started to record a new song, I wanted some consistency on that record. And I wanted that consistency to come from the vocals. We tried several mics and preamp combinations. U47, SM421, SM57 M49 combined with API, Neve and Telefunken Preamps. We recorded all of them in a track, rough mixed and then I listened back while I was walking through the park. Sometime this is best to judge sounds. Change the environment and listen with fresh ears. The combination that I liked most for Benno’s vocals on this record was a RCA BK5 in combination with a Maihak V41 tube preamp. It made his vocals sound special. Not too fresh, not too old. Just a nice bit of edge but still with warm sound. Looking at that vintage RCA mic must have felt special to Benno. Ask him when you see him on one of their concerts. I bet he has something to say about it. To add some atmosphere to it, I setup my favourite amp of all time. A Fradan Echomatic. I used it years ago when I recorded James Johnston’s vocals for the Gallon Drunk record “The Soul Of The Hour” and I loved it. It’s an amp with a tape echo, meaning you hear every vocal echo on this record. Long or short. Even the super short one that sound like a spring reverb — all Fradan! We recorded it with an SM57 right in front of the cone of the speaker. If you want to know how it sounds for a guitar, check out their song “The Wheel” — the second you hear a massive guitar chords in the first, second and third line, starting 1:56min: That’s a Stratocaster through a Fradan Echomatic. A lovely sound, isn’t it?

That leads me back to the soul of vintage equipment I was talking about in the beginning of this text.

The Fradan joined the band with its unique and unpredictable performance. Its good old analogue soul added some unexpected and uncontrollable flavour to the vocals that no other piece of gear could have produced. Just like a new member of the band you don’t want to not have after the first rehearsal. It brought soul and flavour to the performance, but it was also unpredictable. Just like a human being.

For drums we mostly used Robert’s own 1966 Black Oyster Ludwig set. With a small 22“ Bass drum and two 13“ and 16“ toms. Coated heads. Most of the time we stuck an A4 format paper on the toms.

For those songs which needed a more bassy bass drum sound like “Out Of Gas” or “The Wheel” we used our Slingerland Radio King bass drum and tuned that one to the root note of the composition.

We changed the snare once in a while but mostly we used our Supraphonic or a custom made wooden snare Robert had with him.

Those old sets are not very versatile, but as I pointed out in the beginning of this article they are the best in doing one particular thing you would never get using a modern piece of gear. Even if it’s just 5% you’re talking about. That 5% can make a huge difference. Bass was mostly recorded with a Neumann km84 + RCA BX44, but sometimes with a Neumann USM69 stereo-mic like in “In Every Stream Home A Heartache”. Max played our Clouds Hill Wurlitzer through a Fender Twin and Vox AC30 and our Rhodes through the same amps. Sometimes we added a Selmer Thunderbird. Sometimes it was just a DI signal out of his Korg CX3 Organ or his MS2000 Korg Synthesiser. I really cannot recall all the different setups we used during the sessions. Too many changes…

On “Yesterday’s Ghost”, where Max is singing (BK5 + V41 + Fradan Amp) live to a dampened upright piano, which was recorded from the back with two Gefell mics with UM70 capsules, I used Vary-Speed on the tape machine a lot during the recording process. We recorded it twice and cut together the best parts of his and my performance. Listen to the result. I like it a lot. Detuning things is my favourite!

As we changed the entire setup for each song we also spend a lot of time putting Philip and his guitar in different places at Clouds Hill. For the quiet songs, he joined the band in the room facing Benno’s bass set up. Benno played his own 1969 Fender Jazz Bass. On some songs he switched to our Rickenbacker or Gibson EB-0 which is my absolute favourite bass of all time. (Sorry Fender Precision!) Benno brought his Hiwatt 200 and a Fender dual showman cabinet which we often used in combination with our vintage Ampeg B15N.

But back to guitar …

For the loud songs Philip was put into studio 1 while the band was in studio 2. We connected them through headphones, and sometimes opened the doors to make the sound even bigger. But the room mics, 2 Royer 122V in Bluemlein, made the guitars sound huge already.

My favourite setup was the Hiwatt Philip brought with him combined with our Fender Deluxe Brown Face combo. The Deluxe got a vintage Gefell with um70 capsule that was modified for me to function with +48 by Andreas Grosser combined with a Beyerdynamic M130 ribbon mic. The Hiwatt got a SM57 and another Gefell.

To keep the sound versatile, I sometimes used only one amp, sometimes both, or just the room or only the mic in the entrance hall. I constantly changed the levels of the mics in combination to each other and got at least 6 different guitars sounds out of that setup.

As you can see, I am jumping back and forth constantly trying to remember what we did and how. It’s difficult to do as I wasn’t taking any notes. But believe me, all this tech stuff isn’t as important as the preproduction we did before the actual recording. Vintage gear with a soul can add a unique flavour to a record and a good engineer can lift a recording to higher spheres but it is all nothing but boring tech without the right songs and the right performance.

Hear yourself

Or watch the music video Devil’s Dance.

Recording and mixing Bela B. & Danube’s Banks during Clouds Hill Festival 2018

Producing a live recording is a difficult matter. Especially, during a festival where the conditions are even harder. Why can’t it be just as exciting as attending a concert, you ask? Well… if you produce a record in a studio you try to make the conditions as perfect as possible. The room, the acoustics, the mics, the placement, the backline… everything must be chosen to perfectly match the circumstances.

During a concert, this is much more difficult. And now image the concert taking place in a mid-sized room full of people. And imagine it’s not one band you’re about to record. It’s two. Or three. Or – like during Clouds Hill Festival – six! With just a 15-minute break in between.

So here is what we do: Before the festival starts, we get the tech riders and stage plans of all artists and we look at their setups. The bands with a similar setup share the same room.

For example: A band with drums, guitar, bass and vocals matches the setup of a band with drums, bass, keyboards and two singers. While an artist’s setup with just an acoustic guitar and vocals might be similar to a band with piano and double bass. But if the headliner’s setup is similar to the artists, we think should open the festival … That’s when it starts to get tricky.

That’s when we have to come up with a map that shows the inputs of our consoles (The Neve 8068 MKII or the API 3232) and compare it with the different setups of the stage plans and decide on which mics to use.

During Clouds Hill Festival 2018 we had 5 bands performing:

1. BBXO, a spoken word artist with a DJ and a guest singer 2. Jeannel, a singer who plays guitar and keys with a second guitarist/keyboarder 3. Kolars, a duo which consists of a guy singing and playing guitar and a female drummer who tap-dances on her bass drum, which is laid flat on the ground whilst whacking the rest of her kit (no kidding – you should check them out!) 4. Bela B. & Danube’s Banks… More about them in this article. 5. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez with a new band consisting of drums, keyboards, singer and guitar.

So, as you can see, it was very difficult to come up with the plan of who plays when and where. We put Jeannel in our live room 1 followed by Bela B. Kolars and Omar played in live room 2. BBXO performed in our entrance hall.

In a setup like this – as you have to improvise a lot to make it sound great – you immediately hear which band knows how to get a great sound and which artists struggle. You open some channels and listen to the overall sound of the room. Sometimes I listen to the room mics first, other times to the overhead mics. Some bands need hours to accommodate to the special conditions. Some just start playing and get their sound right immediately.

The first time I experienced a band that sounded absolutely perfect after they had just set up their stuff was Gallon Drunk. James Johnston, Ian White and Terry Edwards set up in Live Room 1, the same room that Bela B. & Danube’s Banks had performed in 2018. They had a massive sound as soon as they started to play! I honestly did not realise that the PA wasn’t turned on until James asked me to switch it on so that he could hear himself sing. I still get goosebumps thinking of that moment.

There is a Gallon Drunk live at Clouds Hill album online. You should check it out! We had a break after 30 minutes to change the tapes. In that break we had a beer with Jean-Hervé Perón, the founder of the Krautrock legends FAUST, as he was part of the audience. That part is also in the video.

Back to Bela B. & Danube’s Banks: I started off listening to the drum overhead mics of Bela B & Danube’s Banks and I immediately knew that they would be an easy band to record. The band was super tight and really enjoyed playing. Bela B. is normally the (stand up) drummer of Die Ärzte, one of Germany’s biggest bands. Legends, so to speak. He has been in the music business for more than 30 years and he is a fabulous entertainer, especially on stage. The band he performed with at Clouds Hill Festival is a gypsy swing project he does for fun. Danube’s Banks are a band that also existed before the collaboration with Bela B. The combination of these artists sharing a stage during that night was really special.

The only problem we had was the great variety of volume we had coming from the different instruments: Drums vs. acoustic guitars played through amps vs. clarinets vs. saxophone vs. double bass. A lot of open mics to deal with means a lot of spill.

There was no real problem recording the guitars because they were equipped with pickups. The only challenge was the woodwind section that was standing right in front of the drums. Bela was standing center stage.

For drums we used Neumann U67’s as overheads which (spoiler ahead!) formed 70% of the entire sound on the record.

I honestly forgot all the other microphones we used because of the festival turmoil. But you know what: it doesn’t matter! Why? Because in this case it wasn’t about the sonic experience of the record. It was all about the atmosphere!

We set up three or four condenser and ribbon mics in front of the stage, facing the different instruments; clarinet, saxophone, guitars and double bass. Bela sang through a Shure sm58. A Classic! You could literally give him any mic and he would perform the hell out of it and sound great. Then we recorded all signals straight to our Studer A820 2” 24 track with barely any EQ or compression. With the risk of repeating myself: They are a great sounding band!

We used the preamps of our Neve 8068 MKII, slightly adding some high frequencies and low cuts but nothing more. The band played some songs they wrote together and three songs that Bela B. had written for Die Ärzte a while ago. As a fan of Die Ärzte I loved listening to „Geld“, „Perfekt“ and „Ignorama“ in that new gypsy swing style. Great songs, great musicians – what could possibly go wrong?

That leads us back to the first question: Why can’t producing a live record be just as exciting as attending a concert. Or can it?

During the show I wasn’t able to mix the record simultaneously. Being the host and engineer of the acts I have a lot on my plate during these nights. I rather save some energy for the after show party.

I had the best time during Bela B. & Danube’s Banks show! Bela B. was joking around and introduced the band during a 15 minute long improv. His interaction with the audience was unique and entertaining. Even though, I guess this gypsy music they played wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I felt that 100% of the audience was delighted by their show.

When Bela B. introduced a song called Krupa, he asked the audience if anyone knew who Gene Krupa was. On the record you can hear a woman screaming „Yeeaaaahhh“ – that was Lauren Brown, the tap-dancing drummer of Kolars who had obviously heard the name before. „She doesn’t count. She’s a specialist“, Bela replied laughing…

Two days after the show I listened to what we recorded and it still sounded good. Without the white wine in my hand, without the audience next to the console, it was far from being perfect though. But it had something you could never add to a record in post-production. That is the reason why we decided to release the recording.

It carries the spectacular flair of that one night that will never reoccur. You were there? Lucky you! But if you listen to the full record you still feel the rawness of the moment, the magic of the moment and the band’s certainty that it will never come back.

So, during post-production, I only added a bit of compression in the master bus using the Vacuvox U23m and a GLM 8200 EQ. I heavily EQed the open woodwind mics and automated the hell out of the faders.

The automation alone took more than a complete day’s work. I used the room mics only for the audience participation, applause and answers to Bela’s questions. All to make you feel like you are right in the middle of it all.

From a tech point of view: attending a live show is certainly much more fun as you tend to disregard all little mistakes. And trying to even out those tiny mistakes is just a lot of meticulous work.

From an artistic point of view: Keeping all those tiny mistakes is what makes the music unique and exciting.

Because life is all about making mistakes, even though people tend to forget that. It’s a shame that these days, most of the records sound dead, because all flaws have been eliminated or evened out. Here is our contribution to the reanimation of music.

Of course, that’s just my point of view. Listen / watch for yourself:

Recording Tom Allan & The Strangest live to 8 Track

Sometimes you have to distill it down to the essence. Eight tracks. Eight microphones.

Before I pushed one button, before I set up one microphone I had to know what I wanted and discuss it with the band. Tom Allan & The Strangest play rock music. Nothing fancy. Nothing new. But they wrote some amazing tunes that deserve a special treat. I found it boring to record their tunes like I would probably have recorded them in a regular club: A couple of mics on the drums, sm58 for vocals, DI for bass, a pair of room mics…

But I wanted to make a super radical sounding record, though because the feel of the band is radical as well. This is why I came up with the idea of going back to the core of the performance:

No PA. Just Amps. No summing of microphones to different tracks of the tape machine. 8 mics – 8 tracks.

As if we had no mixing board in a (admittedly well sounding) rehearsal room, just playing for friends and recording it straight to tape. I had to choose the mics extremely carefully because those would literally make all the sound.

Let‘s start with a classic:

RCA bx44 for Overheads. Mono. What else. A ribbon that would make the cymbals sound not too loud and bright and give the shells a great warm and thick tone. Some might say it‘s cheating to use a microphone that does the job just by doing what it does but I think there is much more to it. An old ribbon mic from the 1940‘s brings so much more to the table than only a special frequency range. It looks super serious hanging on top of the drums, right above the drummer’s head or looking over his or her shoulder. Like it would say: “I’m watching you! I‘ve seen many of you come and go. I’m still here. Show me what you got!”

The unique tone of that mic was combined with a Pultec EQ to add some 10k highs and 100Hz mids and a Teletronix LA-2A. The Teletronix had to compress a lot, I must admit. It did not only squeeze the drums but also the massive spill from Robin‘s bass that was set up right next to the drums. But as both were mono it gave the record a solid foundation.

For Bass we used a DI only and let the amp go through the drum overheads. The DI signal gave me the option to cut out the lows of the bass and compress it without any unwanted artefacts.

Bassdrum: Beyerdynamic m88 Snare: Shure sm57 Adding just a bit of EQ – both signals went straight to tape. But very hot.

4 channels were used for the rhythm section. We had 4 left.

Let‘s start with the vocals:

I chose Sennheiser 441s for all 3 vocals. As there were two guitars playing, I could only use 2 vocal mics. Tom, the lead singer and Evan, the second lead singer had to share the main microphone. And Nico, the drummer, got his own 441 for backings. In a regular live setting a 441 would probably create more feedback than a 421 or sm58 as its polar pattern is different but in this setting – without a loud PA – I just wanted to feature the unique old-school sound of this – also very beautiful looking – microphone.

We plugged both mics into two Selmer amps (No PA – remember?) and mic’d them with Shure sm57s. I only cut out a lot of bass, did some small band noise removal and added some presence. All with a parametric analogue HSE EQ that was built by a Swiss tech who worked for Studer as a development engineer. Great tool! No compression was needed as the amp was cranked and the speakers naturally compressed the sound. Both guitars were also mic’d with Shure sm57 (probably the only session I ever did using more than 2 sm57s… I normally cannot stand them but that‘s a different story) – panned L/R. (Only panning on the record.)

I then used a pair of Pultec EQs and the Vertigo VSC-2 set to “soft” ratio in the main-bus.

Reverb on the vocals came from the internal spring reverb in the amps. All the reverb you hear was just spill coming through the vocal and drum mics.

But why did I force everyone to make a “lo-fi” sounding record?

I think that recording Tom ‘s and Evan ‘s songs so rudimentarily really reflects on their most important strength: The composition.

We should always remember our priorities: 1st: The composition 2nd: The performance 3rd: The quality of the recording

And besides that, I really love how the record sounds. I like the rawness. I love the performance that doesn‘t care about any technical obstacle. I like how the song carves its way through the sound like it was screaming at you with every single note: You won ‘t get me down!

 

“Wargirl live at Clouds Hill” – behind the scenes

Of making a live record at Clouds Hill Studio.

What does it take to make a great record? Being a huge fan of Matt Wignall‘s productions (especially the ones he did for Cold War Kids and WARGIRL) it was very exciting for me to engineer, record and produce Clouds Hill‘s release

Wargirl live at Clouds Hill

The general idea behind the “… live at Clouds Hill” series is that the performance, recording and mixing is being done at the same time so everyone – including the engineer – has to perform. No fix it in the mix, no editing, no autotune.

I knew that the band sounded great and that it would be hard to compete with the magic of the studio record they did with Matt, who is also member of the band, in a studio in Costa Rica. So I decided to strip the setup down to the basics and only use components with a very specific and unique sound. I wanted to make a timeless, analog sounding live record with a unique vibe.

Jeff, the drummer, used a vintage Slingerland Radio King drum set. As overheads I used two Coles 4038, Sennheiser 421 on drums, Neumann UM57 on Bassdrum, Josephson and SM57 on Snare. I also added an omnidirectional Grundig mic between Snare and Bassdrum. Again: Super basic.

Tamara Raye, the bass player, used a vintage Gibson EB0 plugged into a silver face Fender Bassman and a small custom-made 12″ electro voice speaker. I used DI and an AKG D12 to capture the sound. Matt played his Telecaster through a small Selmer combo amp with a 10″ speaker miced with a Sennheiser MD409. Enya Preston played her keys through a vintage Fender Super amp. I put a Neumann U67 in front of it because I was using no DI for the keys but still wanted to capture all the beautiful highs of her sound. Erick Diego Nieto, the percussionist, was using his own Congas, Bongos and cowbell. For percussion overheads I set up a Neumann USM 69. That mic has a great focus and didn’t produce too much spill coming from the drum kit which was set up right next to the percussion … it remained critical though … I had to make that spill part of the sound. The Conga got an extra close mic. The Cowbell was on every other mic anyway Samantha Parks sang through a SM58 but she used a lot of pedals, mostly adding distortion and delay when needed. On the studio side: I was tracking in Clouds Hill Studio B with a vintage API 3232 straight into a modified Studer A820 2″ 8-track (yes – 2 inch/8 track!) and then mixed it to a 1″ 2-track Telefunken M15 with class-A electronic by Dave Hill. Studio 2 at Clouds Hill Studio sounds very warm and thick, especially with people in there. We had around 50 guests for the session that gave the room some extra deadness.

To wring out some room sound out of the rather dead room and add it to the drums, I was using a Valley People 440 comp/limiter for the omnidirectional Grundig mic and some slight compression on the Overheads coming from a Vertigo VSC-2 Compressor with “soft” ratio which rather adds saturation than compression. Some API highs at approximately 10K and some 100 Hz lows were also added. The Overheads made 80% of the drum sound. A Pultec PEQ-1 and a Teletronix La-2a were used on Bassdrum. For snare it was an Urei La-3. No compression on the Toms. Bassdrum and Snare went on channel 1/2 of the Studer, the rest to 3/4.

For bass I used a Teletronix La-2a and a Pultec PEQ-1, which went straight to tape on channel 5. DI and Mic were summed together before they hit the comp/EQ.

The guitar got no extra compression, just a bit of equalizing with the API and some EMT 250 Goldfoil Reverb. -> Tape Channel 6. The keys that only went through the amp, got no compression, just a little API EQ and some EMT 140 Plate reverb with added predelay, which was panned to the other side of the stereo picture to make it sound bigger… During the session I totally fell in love with Enya‘s keyboard playing – That‘s why it is so super loud on the record I didn‘t use any compression for Samatha‘s vocals as they already sounded great. Just a little low-cut and EQ and a bit of EMT 250 Goldfoil reverb. After soundcheck the band started to play.

It was magic the second they started their performance. I had to get it right!

During the concert I was moving some faders but not adjusting any compression or EQ. Everything was just right. The levels on tape got super hot as the band played louder than during soundcheck (classic!) but it sounded awesome! I gave Tamara‘s bass a little push, Enya‘s keys as well … The 1″ tape got hotter and hotter but as I was listening to the repro head of the 1″ tape I was able to judge the sound perfectly.

It was all great and magic fun! So what does it take to make a great record? Not much. Just a band with great songs, a magic performance and an engineer/producer with a working pair of ears. They all have to love the music they do. That might be the most important.

When the show was done I gave the stereo tape to mastering. The mastering engineer Flo Siller of Soundgarden Tonstudio GmbH (Soundgarden Mastering) listened to it and told me that there is not much he can do. It’s all way way too loud! haha…

The tape was clipping massively. But I loved it. We decided to keep it as it was. Florian did some tiny moves (mostly a slight overall subtraction of the bass to be able to make the record louder) but basically the Vinyl you can listen to today is what we heard in the control room coming from that squashed 1″ stereo tape. God – it was sooo red.

After the show the band entered the control room and we all listened back surrounded by some guests. It was very cute how excited the band was about their performance and the overall sound. I think that was the moment when they all realized that they have something very special. You can see it in the pictures how happy we all were. I am still in love with the sound of the record. Of all recordings I did it became one of my favourites.

You can get it here 

Enjoy.

Recording At The Drive In Diamanté – EP

Some people asked me to tell a little more about how I created the (drum) sound for the current At The Drive In EP “Diamanté”.

First and most importantly, I discussed with Omar how to make the record sound. We were longing for a lush and extreme sounding EP. We didn’t want to make a modern sounding record. We were eager to create a statement. In my opinion that is what ATDI was always about. So I proposed to aim for a very special drum sound and put them in Clouds Hill Studio‘s very small but reflective booth. I wanted the drums to sound like a croaking animal. In the song “Amid Ethics” I added some delay to the drums to make them sound even weirder. We just copied that idea from Omar‘s original demo. I used our self-designed delay pedal “ECHO – Clouds Hill fx Floppy Disc Delay” for that.

Then I talked to Clouds Hill Studio drum tech Tim Schierenbeck, told him about the ideas and then agreed to buy a new drum set for the production. We found this Sonor Lite and put Remo Black Suede heads on all shells including Snare. In most songs Tony Hajjar played our Sonor Phonic 14×8 Snare with either Black Suede or Emperor heads. I think we also used the Yamaha “Mike Bordin” signature Snare on one song as well. Cymbals – if I remember rightly: HiHat: Meinl Cymbals extra dry 15″, Crash2: SABIAN HHX 18″, Crash 1: Paiste Cymbals 2002 (not 100% sure) Ride: Paiste 602 Modern Essentials 22″. Hearing those drums in the chamber I (together with engineer and production assistant Linda Gerdes) decided to capture the sound with almost no close mics but a combination of various room and set mics. First, we set up two vintage AKG c12s using the “Glyn Johns” technique but a bit further away than usual because the drum sound in that chamber was already very dense.

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For additional -very roomy- overheads we set up a pair of Sony C37a in xy stereo right above the snare under the ceiling. Due to the reflections, that made a super weird sound. We loved it! To give the snare a bit more impact, we added a Coles ribbon looking over Tony’s shoulder. For Bassdrum we chose a vintage Neumann UM57 (my favorite for BD!) and added a rare but fantastic B&O ribbon mic 1-2 feet away from the bassdrum pointing at the rim to also capture a bit of snaredrum and lots of bass from the bassdrum.

Then we added an AKG C451 between bassdrum and snaredrum, pointing towards the Snare and distorted it with a micpre and the 1176 blue stripe. That mic has a super aggressive attack when used distorted on drums. I just tried it a session before and used it the second time on this record. Then we had two RCA BX44 in two corners of the room, one pointing towards the HiHat and one towards the low tom. Both were positioned in the same distance to the Snare. Just for safety reasons we had a Josephson e22 on Snare, that also fed the Floppy Disc Delay in one song.

The idea behind the setup is to use extreme sounding drums with a fast and hard attack in an aggressive sounding room and combine it with rather slow responding mics.

Again: We didn’t want to make a record that could compete with the (boring) sound of modern rock records.

We wanted to create a special sounding, weird and raw diamond. We recorded all signals to our Studer A820 24 track. Very hot as usual. In the control room I had to be careful with compression as there were so many reflections on the mics already that by compressing the signals the sound became even more roomy and weird. So I chose to use a combination of peak limiters and … whoops … aggressive parallel compression with slow attack and fast release and the limiters fast attack and moderate release depending on the tempo of the song. Haha …[/block_img]For the Bass I used a simple setup. Paul Hinojos‘ style is very consistent. I just used some parallel compression/limiting with an RCA BA6A which gave the bass a bit more stability without ruining the nice attacks from his bass running through a vintage Ampeg SVT. The BA6A was also fed with some of the Moog bass which glued both signals together nicely.

The setup for guitars was quite special. Omar and I worked together on so many projects and especially for the Bosnian Rainbows album I had a crazy setup with 3 guitar amps through a splitter being able to create 5/6 totally different guitar sounds (left only, right only, stereo, wide stereo with additional mid and mono mid only and room) in only one setup combining the amps in different ways. So this time he said: “I have used all amps in this studio, let‘s try to find something completely different.”

I remembered a very special amp I used to record James Johnston/James Johnston‘s voice on one of the Gallon Drunk records. It‘s a Fradan Echomatic Tubeamp which is a weird little monster that can produce a unique sounding distortion with its tubes and tape delay. I found it by accident in a garage. Never seen it anywhere again. Hope it never dies. It‘s a diamond itself. That amp ran through a custom-made cabinet equipped with a vintage Electro Voice 12” speaker mic’d with a Sennheiser 609 and a RCA BX44.

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Keeley Davis played through a Vox AC30 with an U67 and a Royer Labs R-122. I set them up in a 90 degree angle to each other in our live room 1 and put a room mic in x/y stereo in the spot where their signals sounded equally loud. That way, I could let Omar play through Keeley‘s amp as well and use “his” room mic and the other way around. Playing around with different levels and combinations of the close and room mics and levels of the amps, could produce weird sounding reflections, which I used to spread the sound in the stereo picture. As always ORL Projects and Keeley did their overdubs sitting in the control room and the amps in our very live sounding recording room 1. When it came to Cedric Bixler Zavala‘s vocals, Linda and I put up three mics in a row. Two vintage Neumann U47s and an M49. More baout Royer Labs

ORL Projects

I wanted Cedric‘s vocals to sound unique, shimmery and reflective to match the rest of the sonically weird appearances. I panned the second and third mic left and right and the closest one in the middle, added some reverb, compression with a LA-2A and two Empirical Labs, Inc. Distressors and some EQ with a pair of vintage Pultecs. P EQ-1.

The rest: it‘s just levels.

I mixed it to our 1″ Telefunken M15 with Dave Hill Class A electronic. It was mastered by Chris von Rautenkranz at Soundgarden Mastering door to door with Clouds Hill Studio. Thanks to At The Drive In for their trust and making me part of the journey. Thanks to Linda and Chris von Rautenkranz for her fantastic work. And to Tim for the drums. And … Elke Toben for the excellent catering which gave us the energy to finish that record in 3 days!

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