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Ty Segall: Outside The Box

March 6, 2017

Ty Segall has had a prolific career as a rock-oriented singer/songwriter and performer.

When Ty Segall decided to make a studio album that captured the energy and interaction of his stage shows, he jumped at the chance to work with engineer Steve Albini. The resulting album, Ty Segall, features the artist’s eclectic blend of rock styles, which includes elements of psychedelic, punk, jam music, and pop. Engineered entirely by Albini and produced by Segall, it was released in January on Drag City records.

CHANGE OF PACE

Segall was familiar with Albini’s Chicago studio, Electrical Audio, having visited a couple of years prior and taken a tour of the facility. “I really loved the environment,” recalls Segall. “It’s like every room has been immaculately designed from scratch to capture specific sounds. It’s crazy.”

For Segall, who has his own analog-tape-based home studio, going to an outside facility was a departure. “He’s used to recording mostly in his own home setup,” notes Albini, “which is obviously significantly less of an investment than going to an outside studio, traveling, and having to put people up and all that sort of stuff. So, it’s a significant commitment of resources, if you’re used to doing it that way, to sign on to doing it someplace else.”

Segall chose to record the album with his touring band—guitarist Emmett Kelly, bassist Mikal Cronin, drummer Charles Moothart, and keyboardist Ben Boye. “That version of the band was well-rehearsed,” Albini says. In a commercial studio situation where time is money, having a tight band is a huge advantage.

Recording to tape, the exclusive format at Electrical Audio, was entirely comfortable for Segall. “I’ve only done tape,” he says, “All my records are various [multitrack] formats, whether it’s cassette, 8-track [reel-to-reel], or 1/4-inch, 1/2-inch. I have a 1-inch machine at my house that I use. I’m definitely with Steve on that.”

The project was recorded on Albini’s Studer 820 multitrack, which has swappable headblocks, allowing it to be configured for either 16 or 24 tracks. Segall chose 16 for this project, which is Albini’s preferred configuration if the artist can get by with the limited track count.

“Sixteen-track sounds significantly better than 24-track,” Albini explains. “There’s much less background noise, both because the individual channels are less noisy and because there are fewer channels, you end up with less aggregate noise. The frequency response and the headroom on each individual track is also better. You get better bass response, and you get less saturation, so you have less high-frequency distortion, and the sort of extended high end on a per-channel basis. And because there are only 16 of them, you also get the benefit of clarity from not having as many signals competing. So, the stereo image tends to be a lot more solid. You tend to have a much heftier low end and clearer high end.”

However, the 16-track format can be problematic if a band isn’t well-prepared. “You can’t always do it,” Albini explains, “but if you do your homework and figure out how many tracks you’re going to need before making the record, then often you can find a way to condense things to the point where you can fit a whole arrangement in 16 tracks.”

IS IT LIVE?

Drums set up and miked in Electrical Audio’s live room.
Courtesy Electrical Audio

Electrical Audio’s facilities were well-suited for the live nature of the album. “The way that studio is laid out,” says Albini, “there is an isolation room on either side. There’s a large central live room [called Center Field], and that’s where Ty and Emmett were. And then there’s a smaller live room in the center of the studio and the drum kit was in there. And then the bass amplifier was in an isolation room off to the side of that. So, everyone could see everyone, and there were lines of sight, so Ty could sing along if he wanted. But there was some practical isolation between the instruments.”

Thus, they were able to cut the basic tracks with most of the band playing together. The only instrument parts recorded exclusively as overdubs were Boye’s piano tracks.

The drums on the album have a very natural sound to them. Moothart’s bass drum was on the large side, and that can sometimes be problematic when recording. “Over the years I’ve developed some techniques that help with a big boomy bass drum to keep it under control, such as a particular choice of mics,” Albini says. “In this case it was a Beyer M380, which was on the resonant side of the bass drum, and another small-diaphragm condenser microphone was used on the batter side to pick up the attack of the bass drum beater.”

The M380, which is out of production, is a dynamic mic with a figure-8 pattern. Albini used that pattern to his advantage on the kick. “It tends to reject the sound being reflected back into the mic from the ceiling, and the ambient environment on the side. So, it tends to pick up mostly the front to back movement of the resonant head. And it has a very strong proximity effect, so you can control and sort of tune the depth of the low-frequency response of the bass drum by moving the microphone in or out.”

DOUBLE FREEDOM

Center Field at Electrical Audio is where Segall and Kelly were placed during the recording.

Electric guitars play a major role in Segall’s music, and he and the other guitarist, Emmett Kelly, recorded a number of double lead parts on the album. For the most part these were mixed with Segall’s guitar panned hard left and Kelly’s panned hard right. What made them unusual is that Segall and Kelly weren’t playing synchronized, harmonized parts, they were playing independent lead parts simultaneously. While you might think that would create sonic chaos, it has a feel and flow to it that works well.

Segall calls them “double freedom leads,” and he’s been using the technique on albums and onstage for a while. However, he says they only work with the right combination of players. “A lot of times you play with guitarists and you feel like they’re trying to one-up you in a negative way,” Segall points out. “There isn’t a harmonious situation happening. You’re not playing together. With Emmett and I it’s the complete opposite. It’s so much fun, we’re always trying to lift each other up to a different level. It’s really cool.”

According to Segall, the parts also work because of their different playing approaches. “I think Emmett and I have very different guitar styles. I think that was one of the main reasons it works. I have like one thing I can do, and Emmett is arguably the most talented guitar player I know. So, it’s like he’s always switching in and out between different styles, and I have my one kind of thing. We also have very different guitar setups, so tonally, it’s very complementary.”

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