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Mogwai: the 'Rave Tapes' Sessions

June 30, 2014
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Horror flicks and modular synths influence the increasingly electronic, melodically complex Rave Tapes

Speak to any member of Scottish post-rock quintet Mogwai, or the band’s producer, Paul Savage, and they will admit that there were periods that were total horror shows while developing the band’s eighth studio album, Rave Tapes (Sub Pop).

It wasn’t preproduction, tracking, mixing, or even mastering that caused feelings of anxiety or dissonance. Rather, a shared appreciation for the works of John Carpenter, Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg, and Dario Argento, among others, as well as the exploration of methodical, roiling buzz from modular synth patterns, bled naturally into eerie, unsettled tonality of the recordings.

Crafted during a period of unflagging activity for the band—in 2012, Mogwai scored the Canal+ French zombie TV series Les Revenants and toured performing the soundtrack to the documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait—Rave Tapes offered its challenges, but nothing that had the band screaming bloody murder.

The band, commonly known for guitar-led dynamics, approached the 10-track, 50-minute Rave Tapes with an increased penchant for both minimalism and melody. Demoing separately, then getting together for two months to flesh out the templates, the members of Mogwai allowed a love of detuning, wonky pitch fluctuations, some B-movie nights, and years of mutual trust to introduce new qualities hard not to describe as “filmic,” especially in light of the band’s acknowledged proclivity for niche film scores.

“I wouldn’t say the entire album is influenced by horror film soundtracks, but Death Waltz [Recording Company, a boutique UK-based label] has been releasing the John Carpenter scores on vinyl and most of the band has them,” explains Mogwai keyboardist Barry Burns by phone from his home in Berlin.

“We didn’t set out to recall anyone’s signatures; we’re just all fans of the sound of wavy synthesizer tones from those types of movies, the kind of sounds that can make you think they’re coming from a VHS tape with bad tracking. And I live only one mile away from where everyone in Berlin buys their Doepfer [Musikelektronik GmbH Eurorack analog synth components] modules, so when I bought a bunch of modules a few weeks before writing songs for this album, it all came together simultaneously.”

“A bunch” may be putting it lightly. Burns’ matrix included almost two dozen oscillators, envelopes, phasers, waveshapers, reverbs, and interface components from Doepfer, Cwejman, Intellijel Designs, KOMA Elektronik, Kenton, Malekko, XAOC Devices, and Make Noise. “Initially it was like one of those old telephone exchanges, where you unplug cables and plug them back in everywhere and just go at it trial and error,” muses Burns. “I came up with a lot of songs just by working really hard to not make it sound like a celestial fart.”

Often just selecting a BPM, syncing a delay to that tempo, and experimenting, Burns built up the mono synths into chord structures while tracking live through the RME Fireface UC 36-Channel USB Audio Interface into Logic Pro (though he’s recently switched to Pro Tools to make file transfer easier between Berlin and the Castle of Doom, a facility custom-built and maintained by producer Tony Doogan that acts as the band’s primary studio in the heart of Glasgow). Sometimes he’d use a rotary sequencer, while other times he’d record MIDI into the computer and then play it back into the system to free up his hands for patching cables and twisting filter knobs, etc.

Additional hardware included the Analogue Solutions Telemark SEM modular MKI, Roland Juno-60, Roland VP-330 Vocoder Plus, Philips Philicorda organ, Muse Research Receptor 2, and an Edirol PCR-800 MIDI Keyboard, while in-the-box synths and processing included the AAS Ultra Analog VA-2, Native Instruments Kontakt 5 and Guitar Rig 5, all the OhmForce plugins, plus iZotope Ozone and Trash. Sketches compiled, Burns sent the demos to the other band members.

“I grew up with a lot of music made with modular synths,” reflects Mogwai guitarist/vocalist Stuart Braithwaite a few days later by phone from the band’s ancestral home of Glasgow. “To be honest, one of my first-ever ‘psychedelic’ experiences was hearing [Delia Derbyshire’s] ‘Doctor Who’ theme tune when I was anesthetized as a child when I had my adenoids out, so that kind of sound must have been something I liked, as I remember getting the gas then seeing fractals and hearing that throbbing soundtrack.

“And as I got older, a lot of the music and soundtracks I like reflect that, so I was very happy when Barry got a modular synthesizer setup,” Braithwaite continues. “It looks too complicated for me to play with, so I let him get on with it and I experimented along with it.”

The band—which includes bassist Dominic Aitchison, drummer Martin Bulloch, and guitarist John Cummings alongside Braithwaite and Burns—has always followed a pattern of writing separately, then bringing together ideas and relearning how to play around one another’s motifs. The injection of modular synths into the mix, however, really pushed each member to reconfigure his approach to writing and recording.

For example, Aitchison put aside his bass on several songs for his first set of keys: a Novation Bass Station II (noticeably burbling and growling on the songs “Remurdered” and “Repelish”). To avoid frequency competition, he played up on the neck, swathed in reverb, for a sound more akin to a baritone guitar (particularly apparent on “Heard About You Last Night”). In addition, synth arrangements informed pulling back on certain elements, including guitars and less-crashy cymbals.

Burns’ demos established parameters for the rest of the band, as several of his home recordings made it in the final mix due to the difficulty of recreating the exact conditions of all the analog settings. Braithwaite, meanwhile, made rough sketches both with a loop pedal and plugged directly into his personal Apple Logic workstation, often using a Fender Telecaster with Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig to simulate a Fender Twin. For the most part, Braithwaite used these sessions merely for rough ideas, as he prefers tone sculpting with hardware to tweaking endlessly with plugins. While a fan of oscillating rains over whitenoise drizzles, he finds Rave Tapes to be less of a sound design-driven recording in general and that’s a good thing.

“I think it’s a pretty strong record, melodically . . . I think every song has a musical focus,” says Braithwaite. “Maybe at some points we’ve concentrated more on dynamics and sound and epicness, and the melody, you had to listen very hard to appreciate. But melody was really brought to the forefront on the past two records. I know that there is quite a lot of minimalism on this record, and I’m happy about that. In the past there was a feeling that everyone had to be playing, but over the years we’ve realized we don’t all need to be going at once, and it’s a good thing.”

First drafts “complete,” the band assembled in August 2013 and spent two months, five days a week from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., at the Castle of Doom with producer Paul Savage (who previously worked with Mogwai on 1997’s Young Team and 2011’s Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will). “Unlike the last album, the demos I received at first seemed very loose, which meant there needed to be a lot more creation in the studio,” says Savage. “At moments you had to hold your nerve and hope it would all come together, but I had utter faith in them because they are all incredibly inventive and sympathetic with each other in the way they approach things. The new instrumentation definitely required some head scratching as to how everyone would fit in, but it also gave the album a bit of an edge, not in a sonically abrasive sense but meaning the creativity is very fresh.”

Mogwai (from left to right)—John Cummings, Barry Burns, Stuart Braithwaite, Dominic Aitchison, and Martin Bulloch.
The Mogwai constituents inevitably come together into a collective vision, a series of twisted and “correct” patterns linked like a story, whether by timecode or click track. However, the process was far from linear. Coaxing alternate approaches and balancing that minimalism-to-melody ratio came in waves as various members cycled through the Castle’s gates.

There would be periods where Burns augmented some of his modular parts, recording through Universal Audio 610 tube preamps and 1176LN limiting amplifiers, as well as an Avalon VT-737sp tube preamp and/or Chandler Ltd. Germanium Preamp/DI. “He’d give me one channel at a time of incredible synth and I’d capture it as best I could, though often we’d use the original stereo file when we couldn’t replicate all the physical and digital manipulation he’d done,” says Savage. “If an arrangement went through tempo changes, though, he’d use MIDI and soft synths to make fluid changes.”

Following the top-tier converters, the synths routed through a Lexicon PCM 42 rackmount digital delay. “When there’s something in mono and I want a little width, I just send it to that while tracking with a little bit of modulation delay, panning it to the other side, and it widens it out,” reveals Savage. “And it saturates in a nice way, while almost acting as a compressor as well.”

Guitars would most often be tracked with a Shure SM57 dynamic, a Coles ribbon mic, or a combination of the two, running through an API Lunchbox with 512c mic/line preamps in it, as well as either an Empirical Labs Distressor or FATSO (Full Analog Tape Simulator and Optimizer) to take a couple dB off peaks to maintain a healthy, uniform level and catch problematic frequencies. While the tone of the songs dictated that fundamental parts wouldn’t be massive explosions of noise, there was still plenty of amp/EFX experimentation and compensation.

The FATSO was also used to soften up percussion. “Sometimes, trying to get the drums just right, I’m a victim of my own style of working,” says Savage. “I want the drums to sound as powerful as they can be, but you can end up with rogue frequencies if you really squash something, so pings of cymbals and hi-hats being caught by the FATSO was quite handy.”

On the flip side, Savage also worked to create additional response. “The [Castle of Doom] live room is quite different from my room [where Mogwai tracked the Hardcore album]; it’s pretty dead as far as the space,” he explains. “So to get a sense of space that isn’t too processed, I had to spend time trying stuff out to get the room more atmospheric. To get a little more life in it, we brought in things like sheets of glass, trying to get the opposite of what a lot of people do and get more reflections. I’d also put mics in places like under the piano, distorting them a bit, and I used a lot of that PCM 42 on a crunched room mic plus some Thermionic Culture Vulture [valve enhancer] for kick and snare.”

While the songwriting period saw a definite influx of horror film influences, production at times felt like it took prompts from legendary German producer Conny Plank (Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Neu!, Eurythmics), name-checked by Braithwaite and Savage as a favorite. “I think those records have a really timeless sound, because the production is very unfussy and doesn’t get in the way of the music,” says Braithwaite.

Savage agrees, adding that he appreciates the way drums in those recordings would be tracked with spring reverbs or tape delays, using contrasting spatial elements to allow them to evolve with their own sense of controlled chaos. Committing to sculping tones in the hardware realm remains of paramount importance to Mogwai, as each processing decision informs how the next part is played.

“Over the past few years, I’ve stopped doing that thing they tell you at engineering school where you should be neutral and safe and don’t put stuff on things because you might want options in the mixing stage,” reinforces Savage. “I don’t want a completely blank, characterless recording, and it makes it easier for mixing because I’ll try to set up immediately after a tracking situation when the sound coming out of the speakers is quite a fair representation of the direction of the song. So when anyone puts something else down, it’s all good; the bass is tight, the guitars sound like they re-recorded with noise and effects, etc. These things all begin to almost mix themselves before the mix, as people have a reaction to the sound of the record before it’s mixed. You don’t have to explain that something is a guide but it won’t sound the same later; people just know the sound and frequencies they have to work with from the beginning.”

The band’s admiration of Plank was strengthened through their love of the music of German experimental rock band Can, which led to them auditioning a Sennheiser MD441 for brief vocals (as used at one point by Can’s Damo Suzuki). Additional mics included an AKG C28 with a C12 capsule and an AKG 414. Their appreciation for analog techniques is also deeply seated.

“I would keep every track as much an analog tune as possible while using a digital workstation,” says Savage. “I’d sum it in the desk and mix it on the console as much as possible. But some things make sense in Pro Tools, as you have an abundance of plug-ins when you, say, run out of outboard compression. I just prefer mixing in a classic way where you’re at the board dealing with what’s in front of you instead of sitting in front of a screen making things sound different ways, when you’re supposed to be mixing.”

The board in question was the Euphonix CS2000, a digitally controlled analog console, with powerful recall capabilities. Whenever possible Savage would rely on board EQs, while using a Crane Song ibis analog equalizer and API 2500 stereo compressor on the master bus to finalize the mix. Not relying on Pro Tools meant factoring in a bit more time if a few dB needed to be shaved away before a reprint, but the end result maintained nervy impact.

One hard-learned lesson for Savage during the mixdown came when one song just failed to sound dynamic until he pushed down a fader of Burns’ low-mid synths. “It had so much content outside what we could hear, it was kicking off the compressor on the master bus and throwing it into the red and taking it back too much,” says Savage. “The modular didn’t have the boundaries other keyboards do so there was this incredible low end that wasn’t registering, but that caused these problems, so I had to throw on a filter surprisingly high to compensate. You couldn’t even hear the difference, but it helped curb the extremities that were making the compressor absolutely crazy. After that, I had to make sure I based all my gain reduction on what I was hearing and what I wasn’t, so I’d bring down the synths halfway to test for radical differences.”

Embodying the slowly compounding, simple-yet-powerful refrains of a fine horror flick, Rave Tapes shows Mogwai to be ferocious from new angles.

Tony Ware is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, editor, and big fan of John Carpenter’s They Live. When not writing about studio sessions, he puts on his special sunglasses and combats frequency interference.

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