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Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla Juggles Creative Anarchy and Old-School Techniques to Record 'Narrow Stairs'

July 1, 2008
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“I DON'T LIKE TO LOOK AT MY MUSIC," Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and indie-rock producer extraordinaire Chris Walla declares. “Was Glyn Johns sitting in the studio with The Rolling Stones and The Who thinking, ‘God, I can’t wait to look at waveforms?’ What are producers doing these days? I’ll walk into a studio, and I’ll see that the computer screens are placed more strategically than the monitors. It drives me f**king crazy.”

As one can easily deduce after listening to any of the incredibly moody Death Cab for Cutie releases readily available at your local hipster watering hole, Walla is a passionate fellow. And there are few things that rile him up more than the current state of recording technology. Though he’ll admit to being too easily moved by the topic at hand—and he doesn’t pretend to be anything but an old-school recording junkie—even the most ardent tech-fiend has to admit the man is clearly on to something. That is, unless heading up a platinum-selling rock band, crafting a critically-acclaimed solo effort [Field Manual], owning two studios, and recording The Decemberists, Nada Surf, Tegan and Sara, and Hot Hot Heat no longer qualifies as a sufficient musical résumé.

“There is no Pro Tools, no Logic, no DAWs at all used on this album,” Walla says when asked about Death Cab for Cutie’s second major label effort, Narrow Stairs [Atlantic]. “I never use that stuff. All our records since Transatlanticism have been tracked straight to tape. There is no automation—it’s me cutting the half-inch masters together. I have never done it any other way, and I never will. Clearly people are making great records in digital platforms, but I am not one of those people. I’ve screwed around with it a little bit, and I am just not good at it. I am really good at keeping things together with performers in real time. I am not so good at deferring decisions until they are too many.”

Thankfully, Walla has a group of musicians like Ben Gibbard (guitar/vocals), Jason McGerr (drums), and Nick Harmer (bass) that can step up to the plate and lay down solid tracks. Together, the group has been referred to as everything from “the new R.E.M.” to the poetic heirs to Leonard Cohen’s throne. But while Death Cab for Cutie have furthered the college-rock agenda with its previous recordings, Narrow Stairs sees the group taking an abrupt left turn, and exploring the dark underbelly of rock. Embracing dissonant and abrasive soundscapes, Narrow Stairs is Death Cab for Cutie BREAKing all the rules the band had imposed on themselves over the course of their past seven studio albums. All the rules except for one, that is. With Narrow Stairs, Death Cab for Cutie was intent on creating a great rock album the way their ancestors did—one splice at a time. Here, Walla reveals his studio approach for EQ readers.

Both you and Ben Gibbard have forecasted Narrow Stairs to be a radical stylistic shift for Death Cab for Cutie. I’ve heard that punk and synth-based music was an influence on you when writing and recording this album. Is that true?
That made the public record? I love it! I was doing an interview with a German magazine, and they asked me what the new record sounded like. I said, “It’s half-way between GG Allin and Fleetwood Mac.” I’m a huge fan of [’90s synth-punk band] Brainiac, and Nick is a huge metal fan, so that description is not totally untrue, but it’s not really the story. There wasn’t really any specific set of reasons why Narrow Stairs sounds the way that it does. It has more to do with our process than any specific sonic goal. We knew we really wanted to track a record together in a room. The linear four-guys-in-a-room-playing-a-song factor is really the biggest reason for the sound.

Had the band not recorded that way before?
We’d never tracked live before. We would record everything instrument by instrument. That is how I learned to record. I actually bought my first 8-track before I bought a guitar. If I wanted to record music with a friend, someone had to engineer, and someone had to play. That is how I recorded everything I ever did in high school, and that is how Ben and I recorded our first music together. When Ben got the idea to record something where he played everything himself, I was totally into it, but that meant that everything got laid down one instrument at a time. My solo record [Field Manual] was recorded the same way. It’s all overdubs—all little building blocks of music—because I played everything, except most of the drums. With Death Cab, I wanted to get everyone in the same place at the same time and just record it all together for once.

I assume that, for you, tracking to tape is about making decisions in the moment?
From 2004 to this year, a lot of my work has been in analog. It’s not a departure for me. On the Decemberists’ The Crane Wife that I did with [producer] Tucker Martine a couple of years back, nothing ever left the tape machine. It was done at 15 ips with Dolby SR. That was such a great experience. It makes you zoom out on everything. You can’t get immersed in whether or not one snare hit was totally perfect. I mean, you can obsess, and you can try to fix it, but if you goof it up, you’ve wrecked it. There’s no non-destructive editing when you’re cutting and splicing analog tape, so you end up re-evaluating what your version of perfect is. I think that’s a healthy thing to do.

As the members have to concentrate on getting a good group performance, how much does recording live to tape make a band work harder?
It does make the band work a little bit harder. But, more than that, it makes the band think differently. It’s funny to have a conversation like this in the digital age, because if we were trying to make a perfect record the tape machine is not how we would go about doing it. The concept of “good” and “sellable” in regards to this album, is closer to the version of what somebody 30 years ago would have accepted in terms of sound quality. It’s a funny context. People ask us if we “fixed” anything on this album. The answer is “yes,” but we fixed things that humans can fix in a human way.

Still, you used RADAR on Narrow Stairs to record safety and alternative mixes, as well as using it to assemble two songs. Tell me more about that.
The whole idea was to keep everything on tape. But there was one song we recorded at Robert Lang Studios that kept doing really weird sh*t. It seems we’re in the age of aging tape machines. “Pity and Fear” is like seven performances that were all assembled together. I was dealing with 14 takes of the tail end of that song. Typically, when I am doing two-inch cuts, I will mock them up in RADAR or on a half-inch deck. For that song, I had them mocked up in RADAR, and all the performances were cut up between two reels. When I started cutting them together, I got half way into it, and I realized that, somewhere between tracking Reel One and Reel Two, the tape machine had changed levels from +6 to zero. Everything on Reel Two was coming back 6dB hotter than everything on Reel One. This is in the tracking side, and there’s nothing you can do about that with tape. It didn’t seem worth sacrificing that set of takes, so I cut the whole thing together on tape, and then went into RADAR and matched it all up level-wise. It’s a weird effect, because 6dB on a piece of tape is pretty substantial. You end up with places where the song is really saturated and dense, and then it totally empties out, and then it’s really saturated and dense again. The levels are the same, but all the transient information is different.

So that was something I had to do in RADAR, as well as the first song, “Bixby Canyon Bridge.” The first minute-and-a-half—before the big change—was actually done in RADAR. That was the only part that was not a tape recording. “Pity and Fear” was the hardest to track, just because of the whole assembly thing. Because I had to mix it out of RADAR, it ran to 29 tracks.

You’ve said “people are obviously making great records in the digital format.” But don’t you prefer the sound of tape?
I prefer the sound of tape in particular circumstances. I don’t prefer the sound of tape just because it is tape. I grew up in the age where having a Fostex 8-track and a Mackie board made you lucky. As people got careless towards the end of that time, tape started to be viewed as something we had to get away from. But I really loved the Tchad Blake records [Phish, Peter Gabriel, Los Lobos, Tom Waits, Crowded House], so I stuck with it. He was using tape—often with two machines locked together. That is where I got into running reels at 15 ips with Dolby SR.

But you ultimately mixed Narrow Stairs in digital, right?
No. It’s half-inch Ampex ATR-102 all the way. There is one conversion at the very end—to CD. And the vinyl we are doing for this record is cut straight from the tape.

Did you do many edits or punch-ins?
There is very little punching-in on this record. For the most part, if there are edits, they are tape edits. On “I Will Possess Your Heart,” the drums, bass, guitar, one of the keyboards, and half the vocal all went down live. Then, we went back and re-tracked piano, and did a couple of bass guitar punches and drum punches.

Can you be a producer in the classic Phil Ramone/Phil Spector sense with your own band?
I am more of a producer than a band member these days [laughs]. More often than not, it’s about helping your bandmates build a sound from the ground up. Everybody has an idea of what kind of sound they want. They might say, “I am feeling that this part is cloudy and blue.” Then, we move on from that concept. There’s creative input. Take the guitar sound for the first song, “Bixby Canyon Bridge.” Ben had dialed his sound in, but it wasn’t quite right, so I brought out this old Maestro Rhythm ’N Sound—a trigger box from the late ’60s/early ’70s. We set it up so that every time he played a string, it triggered the sound of an electronic clave. And we used its fuzz settings for the “straight” guitar sound—which sounds really beautiful. I think it’s what Spacemen 3 used on their recordings. Anyhow, that’s a gear decision, but it’s also a creative decision. I think that’s being a producer as much as it is an engineer.

Is there a general rule of thumb you abide by for getting Nick’s bass sounds?
The bass sound is typically a mix of a direct signal from the Summit Audio TD-100 direct box and a signal from an old Fender Tremolux head, or an Ashdown ABM EVO II. We’ll sometimes record bass cabinets, as well, using either a Sennheiser MD 421 or a Beyerdynamic M 88, positioned right on the cone. All of the signals are then summed to tape.

What about mic placement for your guitar amps?
With guitars, I tend to like the mic right in the middle of the cone, pushed into the grill.

What does dead-center mic placement give you?
It gives you the impression the guitar is going to eat your brain [laughs]. I really enjoy that sound. And then I try versions of that placement, angled off axis—particularly with ribbons. I’ll angle them at 30 or 45 degrees. For this album, the ribbon was an AEA R84.

Did you use your Dr. Z or Matchless guitar amps on Narrow Stairs?
I did use my Dr. Z 2x10 cabinet on the album, but with the Tremolux head. We lean on that Tremolux really hard. Also, our guitar tech builds amps—he calls them Acme amplifiers—and we use them quite a bit. They’ve got a push/pull on/off switch so you can turn it off without losing your volume setup. They are really cool. They’ve got a ’66 Marshall circuit design—Dave Grohl used one on The Colour and The Shape. We couple that head with one of Ben’s cabs that he picked up for $35 at a pawnshop. It looks like someone tried, and failed, to make a Fender cabinet [laughs].

And you used something called The Magnasync—what is that?
The Magnasync is one of the cornerstones of Narrow Stairs. That also belongs to our guitar tech. Ampex had the MX-10, Altec had a few tube mixers, and then there was the Magnasync. It’s like an old P.A. amp. It’s all tube, with three tube mic preamps and one line-level master output. We used it for the drums. Each drum was individually miked and run through a ’76 Neve 5316 console. However, we started taping a second set of mics to the kit, so they were phase-coherent, and we sent those signals to the Magnasync. Kick on channel one, snare on channel two, and then the toms Y-adapted together to get into the third input. We would run out of the Magnasync into the Chandler TG-1 limiter, where we would just crush those secondary mics to death. Then, of course, the signal would hit the tape. That is the drum sound on this album.

How did you mic the drums?
Oftentimes, I’ll put seven Shure SM57s on the kit and that’s it [laughs]. “I Will Possess Your Heart” is all 57s and Sennheiser MD 421s—except for an extra microphone taped inside of the hi-hat. It’s this old plastic Panasonic tape recorder mic I’ve used at different points on a lot of records I’ve worked on. I just love the sound of it. It turns the hi-hat sound into this little burst of white noise. You have to gaffer’s tape the mic to the cymbals to get the effect—you want to lose any kind of resonance.

You didn’t really mic an entire kit with 57s and 421s, did you? Even your kick drum?
On “I Will Possess Your Heart”—yes! On other songs, I approached the kick the same way Dave Mattacks [drummer for George Harrison, Fairport Convention, XTC, Jethro Tull] did. He stuffed a pillow inside his kick drum, and laid a Shure SM91 on top of it. The SM91 doesn’t always work alone, though. On some kicks, it just doesn’t sound right by itself. In those cases, my technique is to place a Neumann U47 FET or a Beyerdynamic M 88 outside the kick, in conjunction with the SM91. One in, one out.

What about toms?
If it’s not a 57 or a 421, it’s a Schoeps CMCs positioned either right on top, or, if I want a boomier sound, stuck inside the toms with no heads on the bottom of the shells.

You used the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 and the 8-voice Oberheim OB-X on Narrow Stairs. Do you find recording vintage synths more challenging than newer instruments?
The challenges have more to do with the format than the instrument. If you are on tape, it’s all about commitment. If you don’t like it, you just do it over. That was very much the deal with recording analog synths. You have to settle on your sounds right off the bat, instead of just programming everything in MIDI, and then assigning sounds later on down the road. But doing takes that way is so much more emotionally stimulating. I really think it’s better for your music if you build everything from the ground up.

Narrow Stairs has lots of nods towards the Kraut rock scene—it’s very experimental. Do you anticipate that these elements will throw your core fans for a loop?
I think so. But I also think that the album is all held together by Ben’s voice and his writing style. It’s not completely removed from anything we’ve ever done. We are such lovers of pop songs, and you can still hear that.

Sure, the hooks are there. But there also seems to be a William Burroughs “random thought” approach to the sounds and arrangements.
Random events are something I am usually going for, though. For example, Ben will throw together loops on the fly in his delay pedal, and I always have a half-inch deck up when tracking so I can grab anything at any point. I would grab his loops on tape, and then cut up the reel, throw it in a shoebox, shake it up, and then tape it all back together [laughs].

There are a lot of strange sounds on Narrow Stairs. On “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” what sounds like human humming morphs into a fuzz-guitar line. What is that?
The humming turning into the guitar is exactly what it sounds like. It’s an AKG BX20 spring reverb gradually washing out Ben’s singing. The BX20 is one of three different reverbs I default to. It’s a four-foot tall cherry wood box—it’s the largest spring reverb ever manufactured! The vocal follows the fuzz guitar line. Then, it’s just a matter of crossfading the two tracks in the mix.

“I Will Possess Your Heart” is reminiscent of Pink Floyd in spots. There’s an ambient bed of sound underneath the entire track. Is that a synth?
That is a loop that Ben did with a delay pedal and a couple of the organs at Jason’s studio in Seattle. Then, there are actual organs later in the song, and a lot of delays on guitars, but it’s essentially a single guitar performance.

“Pity and Fear” opens with tablas and an Ennio Morricone-esque guitar. Are those tablas sampled into a loop?
No. That’s just some drum machine Ben got from India. I have no idea what it is. It’s strange. I guess they have these little drum machines over there with speakers built into them that are loaded with tabla patterns and onboard sitar drones. You can adjust the pitch of the tabla independently from the tempo—which is cool. It sounds really good.

“You Can Do Better” sounds like a Pet Sounds homage with tons of reverb.
There are no artificial reverbs on anything except the vocal—which is from the BX20—and the Hammond A-100 organ’s onboard reverb. Everything else is from the room. We did a lot of that song at Robert Lang Studios in Seattle. He has this huge concrete basketball court—a 40' x 40' x 40' room that’s perfect for enormous echo. We recorded the snare drum in there with a couple of room mics positioned ten feet away. That’s it. We did the bass guitar and sleigh bells in that room, as well.

How many vocal stacks are we hearing there?
There’s only one vocal for the entire song—except for when Ben sings, “holding on to.” That’s a multitracked four-part harmony.

Is the lushness of the reverb on “You Can Do Better” something you think you could achieve with a plug-in, or do you absolutely need a real BX20 or a large room?
When I did my solo album with Warne Livesey [Midnight Oil, Julian Cope], he used a BX20 impulse in Audio Ease Altiverb. It sounded really good, but it didn’t sound like my BX20. Some plates and springs are just [sighs]—well, there is nothing quite like them. It’s one of the few effects the digital world still hasn’t perfected. I’m sure there will be 90 developers filling my inbox with angry emails after reading this, but there is something about a hardware reverb that allows it to not get in the way of what’s happening in the song. When reverbs—especially springs and plates—move into the digital world, they become larger and more present than their natural counterparts seem to be. It’s a really weird thing, and I don’t know why it’s that way, but every time I use a digital reverb, it’s because I want it to fill up a lot of space in the mix. That’s not necessarily why I’ll use my BX20.

And to think CDs were initially marketed as “Perfect Sound Forever.”
It’s really funny because, 30 years ago, when everyone started using digital, it actually sounded pretty good. All the classical stuff that Philips Records and London Records were doing in the late ’70s and early ’80s sounds amazing. Steely Dan’s Aja was a digital record—Gaucho, too. They sound great because the technology was research-driven, not market-driven. All that gear was designed because there was such a drive at that point to make records sound great. It was way more complicated than recording on tape, but it sounded awesome. Then, around 1984, everything went to sh*t. The first time I recorded onto the Sony 3324, I thought, “Now this is why the ’80s sounds like it does.” With all that cheap sh*t, you could record one track and be okay, and you could record a second track and be okay, but, by the time you got to the third track, where stereo imaging becomes an issue, it all fell apart. Things have gotten a lot better, though. So much of what is made today sounds really good—even though I may not use it. RADAR sounds absolutely fantastic. It doesn’t really compromise transients. But you have to use tape with it.

What about tape emulators?
There are all sorts of emulators, and some sound good, but the thing about tape is the control you have over the amount of compression is all level. If I said to you, “I invented this compressor that has zero attack and zero release time, and it sounds awesome, and you can never tell it’s working,” you would probably ask, “Where do I buy it?” I would say, “It’s a tape machine!” That’s what it does! When I do a record solely in RADAR, I use everything in my outboard rack to get it to sound like tape. When I do a record on tape, I use maybe one or two compressors in the mix. I recompress the vocals and the bass, and that’s it. I don’t need to do anything else, because the tape has already done so much work for me.

Ultimately, when you record Death Cab for Cutie—or any other band—what is your main goal as a producer?
More and more, it’s just to get good performances. I am not the sort of producer who is going to throw my dinner at the band if I want them to sound angrier. I am not going to bring a gun to the studio if I want the song to be panicky. That is not my style. But I do want to capitalize on the mood that is happening in the room at any point. I do that by being flexible, and being able to adapt to whatever the situation might be. That’s not super easy to do when the tape is running, but I try to settle on a workable setup pretty quick in the event that I hit Record, and something amazing happens. It’s about capitalizing on what the band is feeling—getting all those calories from BREAKfast when they kick in, and getting their blood sugar when it’s at its optimum point [laughs]. Recording is all about being reactive to your band the entire time.

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