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Ultimate Union: Groove Armada Mixes the Old Rules of Rock Recording With Dance-Music Means

March 1, 2010
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For the last 12 years, Groove Armada’s Andy Cato and Tom Findlay have inhabited the upper echelon of dance music’s ruling class, pumping out anthems such as “I See You Baby” and “Superstylin’” while maintaining a solid presence on the global club circuit. But like fellow UK visionaries Basement Jaxx, Groove Armada has always been able to outshine the competition and transcend the DJ booth with the help of an accomplished live band. For their latest album, Black Light [Cooking Vinyl], the band convened early on at Cato’s personal studio in France, and unlike 2007’s Soundboy Rock—largely the product of scattered sessions and file swapping—the two producers tracked most of this album together.

“There are some great tunes on Soundboy Rock, but as a process we weren’t happy with it,” Cato admits. “We decided to do a more rock ’n’ roll record, and that was something we felt we needed to be in the same place to do.”

From the opening fill of “Look Me in the Eye Sister,” it’s clear this isn’t your typical Groove Armada collection of floor bangers and chill-out lullabies. Heavily influenced by Gary Numan and Low-era David Bowie, Black Light is a departure from their 2 Tone and house music styles, and getting the drums right was paramount for Cato.

0.0000DSC8352Groove Armada recording at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove Studios in London.

RHYTHM FUSION

“Getting a good drum sound is the Holy Grail, isn’t it?” he jokes. “In the ’60s and ’70s, any psychedelic or disco band could go into any studio and come out with a great drum sound, and now you can’t find one for love nor money.”

Cato started out using the drum tracks from the band’s jam sessions in France, but when he began pulling apart and reassembling them to create patterns, they weren’t holding up. Frustrated, he returned to programmed percussion. In the midst of recording, the band debuted a chunk of new material during the closing set of their Lovebox Weekender festival. The live energy convinced Cato that he had to make the performance-based drums work, albeit with a different formula.

“We had a system where we would record the kick and the snare as it was played, just to keep everything fluid and vibe-y with the recording session, but afterwards we’d merge the kick and the snare to MIDI triggers and assign them to electronic noises,” Cato explains. “There’s an audio-to- MIDI groove feature within [Apple] Logic that converts waveforms into MIDI triggers every time you hit the kick or the snare. Then I took the actual live kick and snare sounds out, [but I left in] the overheads, giving it all the energy.”

The kick and snare were close-miked with an AKG D 12 and a Shure SM57, respectively, but Cato used a pair of old BBC-designed Cole ribbon mics for the overheads— run through a Universal Audio 1176 with the ratio set to 8 for a slow attack and quick release—and little clipon Beyerdynamic M 88s for the toms.

0.0000andy-bass-2“Though I converted the waveforms into MIDI files, I didn’t touch where they were in the mix because I wanted the whole thing to sit with the overheads,” says Cato, who used the treatment on the entire record as well as for live performances. “You get the electronic noises, but because it’s not quantized, you also get the human feel. I ended up using a lot of the same noises across the album to give the heartbeat of the drums some consistency.”

TALE OF THE TAPE

To complement Black Light’s hybrid rock sound, Cato decided to forego the digital route and record the album onto his 1969 Studer A80 MKI 2-inch tape machine, a first for Groove Armada.

“Some of the mellow stuff we did in the past would have benefited from it, but it just wasn’t on our radar at the time,” Cato says. “If you’re going to play things at enormous volume on a Saturday night, you don’t want loads of harmonics being created in the bottom end.”

Working with tape meant changing up familiar treatments on three of his favorite outboard compressors: a Chandler TG1, a Universal Audio LA-4, and a Fairman TSC. Since the mix was already being hammered to tape and the overheads were being compressed by the 1176, Cato used the light touch of the Fairman on the drums. When it came to guitars, the Chandler was the go-to unit, giving it “that real limited ‘Taxman’ vibe,” he says. The guitar in “Look Me in the Eye Sister” and “Not Forgotten” were recorded at max volume through a vintage Vox AC30 with the Top Boost switch turned on and using the same Coles overhead mics. Using a high-pass filter at 500Hz and setting the Chandler to limit with a recovery setting of 1, Cato was able to harness a bright, crunchy distortion.

When it came to synths, the subtleties of the LA-4 proved the perfect match for Groove Armada’s collection of vintage (and sometimes temperamental) gear like the Roland Juno-106 and an Oberheim Matrix-12.

“I leave the LA-4 on the same setting the whole time and just adjust the input level to determine how much the sound is squashed,” Cato says. “I’ll have the ratio on 4 and I just put a 0dB test tone through it so it’s balanced left and right. Mine isn’t a stereo unit, so you’ve got to keep an eye on things going out of phase. I check it now and again with a sine wave to make sure that when it’s 0db coming in, it’s reduced 10dB, which gives you plenty of leeway for a light touch on something like ‘Not Forgotten.’”

To produce the lush synth strings on “Just For Tonight,” Cato ran two different Matrix-12 patches through an AMS DMX delay unit with the settings very close to 0, effectively turning it into a double-track device. For bottom-end synth, he used a Roland Jupiter-8, often in conjunction with Cato’s own bass guitar. Sliding off the Jupiter-8 bass line at about 800Hz and using a low-pass filter on the guitar provided ample warmth to the tone.

Even virtual synths such as the Arturia Minimoog V got the analog treatment. “We would play it into a live room through the Vox AC30 and mic it up again with a Neumann U 47,” Cato says. “I found if you do it like that, it gives it a bit of character.”

0.0000Groove-Armada-Press-001Andy Cato (left) and Tom Findlay.

CAPTURING THE MOMENT

A darker sound bed only accounts for part of Black Light’s peregrine feel. Six different vocalists contribute to the album’s 11 tracks, including the firstever guest vocal from Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry on the stunning “Shameless.” Other singers include Jessica Larabee from She Keeps Bees, Nick Littlemore of Empire of the Sun, Ben Duffy from Fenech-Soler, and former Pop Idol winner Will Young. New Groove Armada frontwoman SaintSaviour, the band’s most dynamic addition, is also featured on the first two singles, “I Won’t Kneel” and “Paper Romance.”

 

“The vocals were recorded all over the place,” Cato remembers, “but when we set up on our own turf we had a Neumann U 87 going through a Telefunken V72 preamp. I usually put it through the Fairman on the way in, which allows you to record a good level without any compression that you can really hear. It’s just keeping things healthy on the input.”

Larabee collaborated with Groove Armada online, sending vocal tracks for “Look Me in the Eye Sister,” “Just For Tonight,” and “Time & Space” via e-mail and FTP. Meanwhile, half of Littlemore’s vocal for “Warsaw”— a raucous breakbeat track with pulsating, buzz-saw synths— was recorded in France, but the other half was recorded at Littlemore’s studio in Australia with a Shure SM57 and a four-track. On “Fall Silent,” what sounds like a crackling plug-in effect is the sound of a Neumann capsule on its last legs. For Cato, a good performance with the right vibe trumps the need for immaculate tracking, even if the vocal is from multiple sources.

0.0000tom-desk“The devil is in the details,” Cato says. “Sometimes it’s a question of going through manually and turning up or down ‘S’ and ‘T’ sounds if one vocal take was recorded on a brighter mic than the other. I also occasionally use a Waves Doubler plug-in to give thinly recorded vocals more body. Once I’ve done the editing, I assign the vocals from different sources to different sides of the Fairman so I can have the same compression sound but adjust the two sides to match with a bit of EQ.”

After a grueling, 14-month recording period, Cato once again took the road less traveled, opting to bounce down all VSTs to audio during the mixing process. He found that the difference in sound quality between a straight audio-only file and an arrangement that contained even a small number of plug-ins and virtual instruments was massive. So much so that once he noticed the difference, he went back and re-did all the previous mixes.

 

“There’s been a lot of heartache in making this record,” Cato admits. “But I think there’s a correlation between it being difficult and the fact that it’s the best music we’ve made. If either of us had to leave one CD behind for the grandchildren, it would be this one by a mile. There’s no question about that.”

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