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Sleeper Agent: The 'About Last Night' Studio Sessions

June 30, 2014
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For About Last Night, producer Jay Joyce and engineer Jason Hall go back to basics, capturing the moment in the glorious open spaces of St. Charles, Joyce’s church-turned-studio

Sleeper Agent (L-R)—Justin Wilson, Josh Martin, Alex Kandel, Tony Smith, Lee Williams, and Scott Gardner.
VETERAN PRODUCER Jay Joyce has pushed the faders for The Wallflowers, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, and Little Big Town. And he’s played guitar with John Hiatt, Iggy Pop, Brendan Benson, and Radney Foster. Recently opening St. Charles Studio in Nashville, his first productions included Cage the Elephant’s Melophobia, Eric Church, and baby-band Sleeper Agent’s third album, About Last Night (RCA/Mom+Pop). Joyce doesn’t pull punches as he shares insights on his production philosophy, and later, digs into the Sleeper Agent sessions.

“How can I put this without putting people down?” Joyce muses. “I never think about sales, marketing, what people are listening to or not, whether something works or not. I never have. If the music’s good and you’re having fun and you are passionately moved by it, generally the musicians know more than the business people about what’s working and what isn’t.”

“The communication and the feelings are way more important than the sonics,” Joyce adds, denying 50 years of recording technology advances in a single sentence. “I don’t think somebody is going to say, ‘I don’t really believe that vocal, it’s not very good. But man, it’s really well recorded.’ Who cares?”

About Last Night was recorded by Joyce and engineer Jason Hall, assisted by Matt Wheeler, and mixed by Mark Needham at the Ballroom Studio in Los Angeles. Additional tracks were produced and engineered and mixed by Shinedown bassist Eric Bass at his Ocean Industries studio in Charleston, SC, and by Jeremy Ferguson at Battle Tapes Recording in Nashville. The album was mixed by Joyce at St. Charles and mastered by Chris Athens at Chris Athens Masters, Austin, TX.

Sleeper Agent strode into Jay Joyce’s new lair this past summer, hot off their reasonably successful sophomore record, Celebrasion. “[Celebrasion] was recorded innocently, just the band and me making music for ourselves,” Joyce says. “This time it involved more people in the mix: managers, record companies— people with opinions. The band’s music had a girl/guy thing; it was unique and really clever. This time, the process was different. Everything began with a live take, cut to click, then entire sections were moved around, like a collage process. I don’t do that often anymore; I am generally a live producer.”

Producer Jay Joyce at St. Charles in Nashville.
Joyce’s subtle skills and shrewd approach pays dividends on Sleeper Agent’s About Last Night. Twenty-something vocalists Alex Kandel and Tony Smith maintain their defiant edge; Sleeper Agent’s performance is remarkably glossy, yet still in the pocket. It’s light years away from Celabrasion’s darker, alternative approach. About Last Night raises an insolent fist at the pop fodder marketplace, offering an album of stomping anthems in the infectious, Dr. Luke-worthy “Take It Off,” the Gary Glitter-infected shuffle of “Bad News,” Spanish romp “Sweetheart,” potential sleeper hit “Shut,” and cheerleading punch-out “Me On You.”

“You play whatever is getting you off at the time,” lead guitarist Josh Martin insists. “This was definitely an evolution. It’s more focused on our lead singer Alex and her voice and writing to her.”

For Joyce and Hall, it meant starting each song anew, creating fresh sonic treatments, from adding samples to live drums to minutely adjusting in-studio configurations to starting songs from scratch. Joyce and Hall don’t set up mics and leave it at that—every song gets a fresh interpretation. “It’s a lot more work, and you have no idea if it will work until you’ve put 12 hours into the song,” Joyce says. “There were songs where I told the band, ‘You don’t want to hear this, but this song sucks. We have to do it again.’ It would have been easier to do one take. But in saying that, sonically and instrumentation wise, I didn’t feel that every song demanded a new palette. Our keyboard sound repertoire was fairly small. But this record was definitely a new sound for the band.”

The band worked out song details in pre-St. Charles demos recorded at keyboard player Scott Gardener’s Bowling Green home. “We used Scott’s Logic system to record 30 to 40 songs while waiting to get into the bigger studio,” Martin explains. “We experimented a lot. On ‘Impressed,’ there’s a delay that sweeps through the song. It disrupts the texture of the tune but adds an emotional build before the chorus. We used two delays at once; the Line 6 DL4 and a Digitech Expression pedal. And ‘Be Brave’ has these almost robotic effects. It’s a couple synths and guitars running through a box that chops up sound like a distorted vocoder. We used some plug-in and an Electro Harmonix Voice Box.”

“I used Logic and a PreSonus FireStudio with FireWire,” Gardener says, “just enough inputs to mic vocals, bass, guitars, and drums, then direct with keyboards. I used SM57s on amps, just trying to capture that first impression of us playing together to decide whether we needed to try a different style. And mostly entry-level CAD microphones and some cheaper Beringer condenser mics. Blue Microphones sent us a Yeti, which we used on vocals. It’s real hot, but we liked it a lot.”

Working at a brand-new studio built within the skeleton of 1920s-era Baptist church, Hall saw About Last Night—St. Charles’ first record out of the gate—as a chance to experiment. “For the first week, Sleeper Agent came in and played a couple songs a day while we tuned everything in,” he recalls. “The church is a big, wide-open, single-room facility, including the control room and the tracking space. We experimented with drum placement and allowing certain elements to bleed into the room mics and the drum mics, trying to capture the spirit of the building. There’s something about that bleed; it makes the guitars sound better and the drums sound cooler. Getting that energy of the band playing together in the same room as opposed to everything being perfectly isolated or recording each instrument individually was important.”

St. Charles’ secret weapon is an extremely rare, late 1970s-era Sphere Eclipse C console. While Joyce and Hall selectively used Neve outboard mic pres, the bulk of the album went through the Sphere Eclipse console and internal mic preamps.

“We tracked everything we could through the Sphere to give that particular color to as many elements of the record as we could,” Hall says, “to help create a vibe and a sound that was unique. That’s the way records were done forever; it’s only a more recent trend that everybody uses these boutique preamps. But the Eclipse console sounds so beautiful.

“There were only 50 Eclipse C Series made; it was part of the Electrodyne/Quad-Eight lineage,” Hall continues. “These consoles are the end of that history. It’s got a similar sound to a Quad-Eight console but with these really amazing 900 Series EQs, which are graphic EQs on each channel. A lot of mastering engineers use them. We had 20 of those available for all the different instruments; they make beautiful-sounding EQs.

Hall and Joyce created their own echo chambers in the church’s large basement, filling its various small rooms with microphones and amps, “trying to capture acoustic spaces that were in different locations,” says Hall. In the main live room, they placed drums in the former vestibule and the control room—where else?—on the altar. But they said no to isolation booths, even for vocals.

“We don’t isolate every person in the band,” Hall continues. “We want the members to have an open dialog. So they’re playing together, and we’re right next to them. We motion at them and we are all part of a group dynamic and dialog.”

St. Charles has the sonic benefit of the church’s vaulted ceilings and the beauty of its stained glass amber windows. “It’s a very beautiful, musical-sounding room,” says Hall. “Very natural, not reverberant, all wood floors. Everything is on wheels, so we can move gear around at will, make it configurable depending on the client’s sonic goals. We move drums around, move guitar amps around, move baffles around, it’s completely configurable depending on the band’s instrumentation. Sleeper Agent was our first baby out of the new studio and we did a lot of experimenting to figure out this new space. I feel like the spirit of exploration is prevalent on that record.”

For drummer Justin Wilson, Hall ran everything through the Sphere console, using LA2As and 1176s for compression for drums and vocals, and other instruments as well. Drums were recorded both minimally and maximally, again, depending on the song. “For drums, we relied on SM57s and Royer 121 as overheads and maybe a Neumann SM69 as a stereo room mic,” he says. “You have to use close mics to get all the impact drum stuff, but generally we try to get a really cool room sound, and blend that in with the close mics. We also discovered you can’t always just place the drums anywhere in a wide-open room. You have to create barriers for the sound to stop at in order to really get a tight, energetic drum sound. We used band shell barriers like you might see at an auditorium for an orchestra. They have a slanted top; using those in the room really helped us define certain spaces where it was necessary.

“On some songs, we might do four mics or even fewer on the drums and blend them down to one track on an Altec mixer, all the way up to 12 mics on a drum kit in the main room, says Hall. “It changed depending on the song. Also, we don’t get drum sounds for a whole record, then move on to the next element. For each song, we discuss certain treatments then approach each element from that directive. Sometimes we’ll track drums very minimalist then build them up later, or we might get a huge drum sound while cutting the band live together.”

So Hall and Joyce followed the “studio as instrument” approach as practiced by everyone from Brian Wilson and Phil Spector to Amon Duul II and Teo Macero-era Miles Davis? “Absolutely! That is one of Jay’s staples,” says Hall. “And we are not just cutting a bunch of tracks then fixing them in the mix. We are going for things from the beginning. We want it to sound like the finished record while we are tracking it. We will add effects to drums while recording, or treat vocals while recording to try and impart some kind of vibe while we are cutting it.”

Hall and Joyce used UAD plug-ins, Waves compressors and SoundToys bundles. Keyboards and bass were recorded direct and also fed to amplifiers, using basement chambers to isolate amps. “Sometimes you can have an amp that will be too loud for the room, so we put it in a room downstairs,” Hall says. “We even ran vocals through a separate P.A. upstairs to excite the room mics.”

EMT plates and Fender and AKG spring reverbs were used on everything; guitars also received the vintage treatment. The biggest recording challenge, beyond tracking a new band in a new studio, was chasing electrical circuits and signals: Where’s the damn hum coming from?

“Going to a new room where you don’t know what you’ll get, you have to think on your feet and make adjustments on the fly, says Hall. “And there’s the typical electronic explorations, sorting out hums and noises in the line, working with the power scheme of this old church.”

Another challenge for Joyce was tracking the dual lead vocals of Kandel and Smith. Where on their second album Sleeper Agent sounded like a typical male-fronted alt rock band, Alex’s sharp female attack added a new element to the band’s sound. Retaining the freshness of the male/female contrast while letting Kandel fully come into her own as a singer was key.

“Alex and Tony have been singing together a while, so they have a thing,” says Joyce. “Tony writes the lyrics with all these really clever layers. His vocal cadence and the rhythms of his vocals are pretty complex if you break them down. This is the only band Alex has ever sung with, straight out of high school. She learned how to sing by hearing Tony’s songs. Tony writes for her, but she doesn’t sing like him. His singing is sly and weird. I had to get clarity from them, particularly with the mandate to make it more commercial. So we wanted to make the vocals very big and in your face and important. We recorded them live together to make sure the parts were working. The songs are heavier on this record than the last. So we got Alex on her own a few times and separated them occasionally.”

Smith sang through an EV RE15, (“the old Beatles mic,” says Joyce) while Kandel tracked through a Shure SM7. “We wanted control over the best take,” Joyce explains. “If they are both singing, I might have to settle because they are bleeding into each other’s mics. I want them close together to get that energy. But separating them gave me more control over the vocals. If I can use take two from Alex and take three from Tony, you won’t hear the bleed.”

“I like the sound of a vocal in a live room,” Joyce says. “If I am going for a super dry vocal, I will isolate a singer, but I don’t do that as a given. That should be a desired effect, but that’s not how people sound. If they are singing and they’re comfortable, I put a mic in front of them and they sing it right where they are so they’re not rethinking it. The less they are thinking about singing the better—then they’re just singing the song. The best way to get somebody doing what they do best is just doing it and not having them thinking about it. And that works better in an open space.”

Ken Micallef is based in New York City.

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