The Heartbreaks

Holly Johnson

NYPC

Locean

DENA

Mountain Song

Altar Flowers

Lana Del Rey

English Heretic

Saint Etienne

East India Youth

The Yossarians

MiSTOA POLTSA

Charlotte OC

Erasure

Bombay Bicycle Club

John Foxx

Goldblade

ILL

The Lone Taxidermist

Ten Mouth Electron

The Happy Soul

Corvids

Corvids album ‘Itch’ on Bandcamp

All killer, no filler. Turn it up:

Really enjoyed working on this. Nine songs in 29 minutes. Short, sharp, and vicious. I listen to it a lot, which is unusual for things I’ve spent a lot of time working on. Usually takes me a few months after finishing before I can properly enjoy things as a listener.

The whole thing was recorded in a single day, apart from three of the vocals. A couple of the songs are first take, even.

We recorded where the band usually rehearse at Brunswick Mill in Manchester. We had the whole band in the same room as the drums, with headphones on and guitar and bass amps out in the corridor for separation. Worked out amazingly well. Lots of interaction and eye contact for the players, but really good separation of the instruments.

There’s nothing special about the rooms at the Mill, acoustically, and there was a ridiculously loud sludge metal band grinding away in the room opposite, too, but it’s amazing what you can achieve when you point the microphones the right way and spend a bit of time getting your sounds lined up right. And the band were so well-rehearsed and clear about what they were doing, it was almost perversely easy.

 

Recording LVLS and Corvids

(Session notes and musings)

BrunswickMillJust had a fantastic, exhausting, incredibly gratifying weekend recording two bands back-to-back at Brunswick Mill in Manchester using The Box; LVLS on Saturday, and Corvids on Sunday.

You couldn’t get two more different bands. LVLS make glorious stadium-sized epic pop music. Drums, Bass, three guitars, three vocalists, sequenced parts, drum pads… it’s a fairly astounding production when they’re just playing in the room, even before you get to recording.

Corvids, on the other hand, are a more stripped-down guitar / bass / drums / vocals act; abrasive, wiry, intense and a bit unhinged, frankly. So fairly different approaches were required.

The thing the two bands did have in common was this: they really had their shit together. Songs and arrangements were complete, well-rehearsed, and performed with authority and commitment. Which is really where a good 85% of making good records resides.

Bands take note: In the year 2013, we have amazing tools and tech for manipulating sound. Tone, timing, tuning, no problem, we can fix anything. And good engineers really can polish turds and make silk purses out of sows’ ears. So you really can turn up and half-ass it, and someone like me will grumble and complain, but in the end, they’ll take what you did and turn it into something that sounds like a record.

The thing is, though, for band music (as opposed to electronica, which is a whole ‘nother thing) that’s not how you make magic, and making magic is the business we’re in. Great ideas made into great songs, performed brilliantly with the microphones pointing the right way and the recording light on is how you make magic. And I think we made some this weekend.

A quick note to say thanks to both bands for their patience; I was fairly ill recovering from a gum infection, and was on such strong painkillers I couldn’t feel the ends of my fingers. So I spent the first couple of hours of each day a babbling, sweating, incoherent mess.

Also thanks to the lovely helpful people at EXR and Brunswick Mill, Manchester’s premier rehearsal rooms / haunted castle.

Anyway, here are some specifics, for the recording geeks out there.

 

LVLS Session Notes
(LVLS on Facebook)

LVLSgroupshot

The LVLS aesthetic, it seemed to me, required two things. On the one hand, this is a band that can really play, with a lot of feel and power. So I really wanted to get basic tracks down with the full band, rather than multi-tracking all the fire out of it.

Playing to a click was a given, since there are pre-sequenced synth parts, but I’d heard how they played at a rehearsal earlier in the week, and I knew they were good enough to play in and out of the click and not play robotically. I felt that if they played separately, we’d end up with a sort of dry perfect-ness, rather than the sheer ass-kickery I’d heard them achieve together.

This turned out to be the right call; there was no weeding out bad takes, it was more a question of picking out the stunning take from the merely excellent ones. We did quite a lot of takes of the first song, but only because the band decided to make a small arrangement change after a couple of attempts. The second song I think we did three takes of, and agreed that the second take nailed it.

We only had access to one room and no dividers, so we put the bass amp out in the corridor, to at least control the low end bleed. We positioned the guitar amps in the room to get the least amount of bleed into the drum mics.

LVLS-drums

Not a dream acoustic, but no guts, no glory

This worked out fine for all the close mics, in which you can barely hear the guitars. There’s a fair bit of spill into the drum overheads, but as I’m sat tinkering with it, I’m confident this will just help the mix to gel together, rather than cause any particular issues. I don’t fear bleed. I mean, if it helps the record, I’ll bleed.

As with any intelligent and capable band, a lot of the parts kind of mix themselves, or at least, tell you how they should be mixed. Jay plays kind of heavy grungy rhythm parts, Emily plays shimmery chimey stuff on a lovely Gretsch hollow-body guitar, and Paul does the effects-laden stuntman parts. And the whole band have incredibly tight timing. It all weaves together fairly magically before you even touch the EQ.

However, I also thought a bit of studio spectacle was going to really enhance things. And since everyone could be relied on to play accurately, once we had basic tracks, we layered on doubles of all the guitar parts. I also took split direct signals from every guitar, which may or may not get re-amped during the mixing phase; will have to see how dense we want to get with it.

Guitars were recorded using single SM57s per amp, apart from Paul’s. I wanted to make sure we could get some extra depth and presence for the lead parts, so when it came to his lead overdubs, I employed the time-honoured method of simply recording it as loud as possible. We had two SM57s close, one on each cone of his Vox amp, and an SE R1 ribbon mic picking up a more distant signal with more room sound. One-mic purists can bite me, it sounds amazing.

We’ve got another session to follow to record vocals, but listening back to the raw tracks, I’m extremely excited. It’s always best when, as a mix engineer, your job is just to not mess up what are already great sounds and performances. More to follow as this progresses.

 

Corvids Session Notes
(Corvids on Facebook)

CorvidsOnStage

I got a bit luckier on the Corvids session, as the room next door was also free. So we could put the guitar and bass amps in there, enabling us to get a drum recording with no bleed at all.

However, I still wanted the band to all play together with lots of eye contact, so I had everyone playing in the same room as the drum kit, with headphones on. This gave us the additional benefit of being able to turn the amps up ear-bleedingly loud without everyone getting massive listening fatigue straight away.

I opted not to use a click on this session. Some bands play with a kind of clipped timing that suits working to a click. Other bands play with a kind of loose swing that doesn’t. Corvids play like one of those cartoon dust-cloud fights:

cartoon-fight-dust-cloud

… so there was no way a click track was going to do anything other than kill the bad-assery, which would have been very much the wrong move.

Bassist Sam plays through a guitar amp, which is a key part of the band’s jaggedey sound. But I felt there was a risk of a low end hole in the overall sound, so we took a split DI from the bass too. Even just raw coming back over the headphones, this added a satisfying weight to the bass sound, so I think this is going to be a great thing to have to play with at the mix stage.

CorvidsInStudio02

We had originally intended to record four tracks, but we had killer takes of those within about an hour and a half of starting recording. Unlike LVLS, where we were aiming for more of a grand production, the desired approach here was a Steve Albini-style vérité recording. So with a couple of hours left before Joe (the drummer) had to leave, and a couple more hours after that for vocals and overdubs, we just kept going.

Interestingly, as the day wore on, each song took fewer and fewer takes, and the best take came earlier and earlier. One song, we didn’t even bother to do a second take of, as everyone agreed the odds of it getting any better were vanishingly small. It’s great when you get a flow going like that.

In the end, we put down ten tracks, only one of which everyone felt wasn’t working. So yeah, we essentially tracked an LP in a day, suckers. See note above about having one’s shit together.

We had also planned to lay on guitar doubles, but listening back, we decided that it wasn’t really required; Alex is a bit of genius with his pedal-board, and the array of tones he gets out of a single guitar in a single take is pretty astonishing. And I took DI splits of the guitar anyway, so if we need any extra tones at mix time, we can re-amp that.

At which point, it came to Bob’s vocals. I often worry about making things comfortable for vocalists, as standing on your own in a room singing with a bunch of people watching can be a bit of a self-conscious experience. But what transpired was extraordinary. As soon as the recording light went on, this softly-spoken friendly chap, who’d been giving slaps on the back and ego-bolstering encouragement to his bandmates all day became a screaming, snarling, howling ball of fury. Then at the end of the take, he’d change back and ask “How was that, ok?”. More than once, myself and the rest of the band were sat with our jaws hanging open; I don’t think even they were expecting it. Suffice to say, I’ve rarely seen a more immediately committed performance in a studio in my life.

Of course, the day at this point was wearing on, and about six songs in, Bob was pretty much ready for an ambulance. So we called it a day, and we’re going to finish up vocal tracking at my home. Neighbours are going to love it, I’m sure.

CorvidsInStudio01

 

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