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Time Machine: She & Him Stay True to the Girl Group Recordings of Yesteryear, with a Twist

May 1, 2010

SheHimSam-JonesSinger/songwriter and film starlet duos go way back. Case in point: Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot. Last year, Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson stepped up to the plate, but beating them to the punch were Matt Ward (a.k.a. M. Ward) and Zooey Deschanel, who dropped their debut as She & Him, Volume One, in 2008.

Between acting in movies such as (500) Days of Summer and Yes Man, Deschanel wrote songs for Volume Two [Merge], She & Him’s follow-up album inspired by artists such as Cole Porter, Carole King, and Roy Orbison. She then brought her piano-and-vocal-based GarageBand demos to Ward, who developed each song by honing in on Deschanel’s initial creative spark.

“I listen closely and find out where the demo wants to go,” he says. “You try your best to fill in the blanks using your imagination to where the song is coming from, and then you try to stay out of its way as it matures.”

Deschanel’s vocal harmonies maintain an old-school girl-group feel, but Ward likes to add modern touches to the songs. “We intentionally leave spaces where there could be a calland- response,” Ward says, “But as a producer, I always love playing with some of those girl-group archetypes and then adding an element that you would not expect, like a distorted guitar. I love combining different sounds from different eras into the same production and seeing if they fit. Sometimes you feel like a mad scientist combining a guitar sound from an Elmore James record with a vocal sound that you’ve just discovered, while doing a cover song that was written in the ’80s.”

Engineer Mike Coykendall recorded the album at his own Blue Rooms studio, as well as at Jackpot! (both in Portland, where Ward lives) and The Village in L.A. (where Deschanel lives). They aimed for a live-recording approach, in keeping the old ensemble- performance vibe of the older records they love. They sometimes used isolation booths and sometimes didn’t. “We tried to perform as many instruments together at the same time as was feasible while encouraging some bleed between the mics in hopes for a more three-dimensional sound,” Coykendall says.

Volume Two was mostly recorded to a Studer 2-inch tape machine (and a 1-inch machine at Blue Rooms), and tracks were later transferred to Pro Tools. For tracking, Ward and Coykendall depended on Hamptone, API, Neve, Daking, and Great River preamps, and Chandler and Urei compressors. Deschanel sang through Neumann U 47, Soundelux ELUX 251, and Neumann Gefell CMV 563 mics, and Ward played his Gibson J-45 guitar through Fender Twin and Vibrolux amps.

To keep the process rolling, Coykendall kept an array of mics plugged in and ready to go: “usually a large diaphragm condenser, a pencil condenser or two, a ribbon, a dynamic, and a lo-fi,” he says. “Then I grab the one that seems most promising for the job. If that one doesn’t excite me, I try one of the others, but I try not to spend more than 10 minutes getting a sound.”

On the cheerful, bouncy “Home,” they used an old Johnny Cash acousticguitar trick on the mandolin, cutting out a small strip of paper and intertwining it through the strings near the bridge. “It gives the instrument more of a muted yet buzzy percussive sound that really cuts,” Coykendall says.

The shuffling “Gonna Get Along Without You Now” was recorded in one night at Blue Rooms. Drummer Scott McPherson, Ward, and Deschanel recorded together in one room, with upright bass and backing vocals overdubbed later. And instead of a kick drum, they used a suitcase.

“I go around to thrift stores thumping suitcases and have yet to find one that sounds as good as this one,” Coykendall says. “It’s an old Samsonite made out of pressed cardboard, so it’s very dead but thud-y. I have a wooden contraption that anchors it in place with Velcro strips, and then I hook up a kick-drum pedal to it. I have a piece of leather taped to the suitcase where the beater hits, so it doesn’t break through the cardboard. I put a [Sennheiser] MD 421 pointing at the beater about two inches away. I then have to really pump up the lows with an API EQ.”

For Ward, the suitcase is just right for their vintage vibe. “It’s the happy medium between having a kick drum and having no kick at all,” he says. “The intent is not to get your booty on the dancefloor; I wanted a kick drum that propounds the rhythm, and the suitcase is pretty much perfect for that.”

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