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electronic MUSICIAN

Editors and Producer Flood Bring Synths to the Forefront, Record to Tape, and Make Mistakes Great

By John Payne | February 1, 2010

0.00edd_sprdWhether you’re rocker or folkie, a jazzbo or DJ, the ultra-competitive world of popular music demands creative evolution to ensure your best shot at longevity. This is the realization that Editors came to as they prepared for the release of their latest album, In This Light and on This Evening [Fader], a darkly atmosphere-laden experience that largely foregoes the band’s more high-sailing guitar dramatics in favor of a synth-laden world, framing singer Tom Smith’s portentous tales of life in the gray-orange glow of London at dusk.

The follow-up to 2007’s platinum-selling An End Has a Start, the new album was produced by the Grammy-winning Mark “Flood” Ellis, hailed for his work with U2, Sigur Rós, and Depeche Mode. The recording took place at Flood and partner Alan Moulder’s Assault & Battery studio in North London, and the intention was to create a space that would propel the band deeper into the industrial, mechanical landscapes that previous albums had hinted at, but to leave no doubt that Editors are still a fullblooded, fire-breathing band.

“Before we started off,” Flood says, “Tom played me the demos, and I just thought as a body of work it had a character to it. And Tom was very adamant that he wanted to try a synthetic factor to the album, which was music to my ears, to hear those songs in a very sort of synth-driven way.”

Bassist/keyboardist Russell Leetch was keenly aware of the need to advance the group’s sound beyond its earlier parameters. “With our previous records, we’d stretched the guitars a little bit too much—they were used a bit too frequently to add a force,” he says. “This time we got the grit and the playing from the synths. And since it was recorded live, mostly played in one take, it’s still the band playing. That’s what we wanted to capture.”

DIRTY SYNTHS

The band came to the sessions fully loaded with mountains of electronic gear, fully cognizant of the sonic clichés that can swiftly dominate with the superficial use of E-Z-touse effects.

“One of the things that I don’t like when synths are badly used is when they sound overly sterile,” Flood says, “because they just haven’t been worked in an organic way. So what we decided to do was to set up the band in the studio and have them play the basic tracks live. We had three different drum kits [played by Ed Lay], and then Russell was playing bass and keyboards, Chris [Urbanowicz] was playing guitar and keyboards, and Tom was playing guitar, piano, and keyboards.”

Flood installed a house PA for the band, with everyone on monitors, so it was as if they were playing in the rehearsal room as he and his engineers recorded it. “We really tried to make an effort to get this feel of human machines and to try and make it as graceful and emotional as possible—in a really stark kind of manner.”

“We did the demos before we’d even met Flood,” Urbanowicz says, “and we’d had a kind of industrial sound already and done seven or eight songs with that kind of sound. But Flood guided us in the right direction. We have a pretty good ‘shit’ filter, but Flood has an even better one. Anything that got a little bit too sweet, the alarm bells would go off and we’d try and make it a little bit dirty.”

The band’s slew of synths, sequencers, and drum machines were often strung together to get a sonically ambiguous mashup that would add to the burnished, otherworldly ambience.

Leetch made extensive use of the ARP Odyssey for bass-synth propulsion, Urbanowicz tapped into his Moog Minimoog, Smith played a Roland Jupiter-8, and the band relied heavily on Roland Juno-106s to get a Terminator effect. Leetch also favors the Korg MicroKorg for the presets that model the Moog Voyager effects, and for In This Light’s big sheen of string sprays, he got a lot out of his circa ’76 Oberheim keyboard.

0.00Editors4

Editors (left to right)—Edward Lay, Russell Leetch,
Tom Smith, and Chris Urbanowicz

EPIC SPACES

Flood and Moulder’s spaces at the Assault & Battery studios complex include a couple of rooms upstairs with varied dimensions; the main recording was done in the big room, which is almost double-story high. The sound contained in that room, as well the smaller spaces, was critical to In This Light’s grandly epic aura.

“We did experiment,” Flood reveals. “Chris set up in one of the medium rooms with all his amps, and then we would try putting keyboards or guitars through four or five amps. We tended to mic him fairly close, but if we wanted the sound of him in the room, I would send that out back through the monitors or PA stack to give that sense of ambience.”

Flood combined the miked sounds with a little direct inject into the studio’s Neve analog console.

“We tended to take all the keyboards DI and through amps so that we could have the option,” he says. “And then I also was running about three or four different room mics, so I would be doing the monitors out in the main recording room, and you’d be bleeding things out through the main PA, which would be picked up by the room mics, and then you have the DI and un-amped sound from these keyboards.”

The Battery studio’s classic Neve 52 analog board, a mid-’80s model which Moulder had picked up at New York’s Soundworks studio, acted almost as a fifth Editors member. Flood is unstinting in his praise of this old machine, with a couple of qualifications.

“It’s got all the classic Neve—good top and bottom, a bit scooped in the midrange, so I tend to I push them quite hard,” he says. “For me there’s a very small window where everything’s just sort of cooking nicely, where everything is just on the point of harmonic distortion— and then you go one step over that and it all starts to break down.

“In the end, it was almost as if the board had become the sound of the record. With tracking and overdubbing in that room, then trying to mix it in a couple of places, that didn’t work. We decided to go back and mix it in the same room.”

MICS AND MISTAKES

Getting the right combination of intimacy and a mechanized alienation suitable for Smith’s vocals required Flood’s trusty battery of cheap staples and supervintage mics.

“In the last 20 years, 95 percent of the people that I’ve worked with used the Shure Beta 58 for vocals,” he says. “And 50 percent of them would be in the control room next to me. In this particular instance, we tried to do the vocals mostly on the floor, with the music coming out of the PA, no headphones. And then there were a couple of times when we tried a Shure SM57, which also sounded good on his voice.”

For a close, “human” vocal sound, Flood also relies on three or four relatively ancient Neumann Gefell microphones, including a CMV563 with an M7 capsule.

“Often I will go to the Shure 58 because the voice will always come to the front and will work and push with the music and can help to solidify the whole sound, act as sonic glue,” Flood says. “Of course, if you’re the singer listening to a 58-recorded track in solo mode, you’ll probably hang your head in shame the way it might sound, but in fact that is how 99.9 percent of the population is gonna hear it.”

The relationship between band and producer is always critical in the success of the resulting creation. It seems producer Flood was just what Editors needed at a crucial time. It didn’t hurt that they shared a vision about the band’s ideal future-sound—and that they got along like good old mates.

“Flood was so down to earth, it was ridiculous,” Leetch says. “I was like, ‘Do you want me to make you a sandwich?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll have one bacon sandwich and one sausage sandwich and a cuppa tea, please, no sugar—no, two sugars.’”

And Flood was no perfectionist taskmaster, either. “There’s quite a few errors on the album,” Leetch admits, “but the takes on the whole worked, so we kept them. And that was something that Flood drove through to us: that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be great. We think it’s by far our best record.”

TAPE TO DIGITAL

Flood recorded Editors’ basic foundation of tracks for each song live to tape and kept going until they nailed the right takes. “If you’ve got to edit it, do it on tape. And then when you’ve got your final version, then I would stripe the tape and then run Pro Tools as a slave at 96kHz, and then just dump the 24 tracks straight into Pro Tools,” Flood says. “I’ve found that if you record on tape first, then transfer it all straight into Pro Tools at 96, then you’re getting the best of both worlds. You end up with everything in Pro Tools, but you have all the benefits psychologically and sonically of working on tape.”

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