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electronic MUSICIAN

Balancing Act: Fischerspooner on Hybridizing Arty and Mainstream Dance Music

By Kylee Swenson | May 1, 2009

LAST TIME, THERE WAS PAIN... and verbal abuse. The pressures of delivering a big second record on a major label almost did in Casey Spooner and Warren Fischer. But while they weren’t having the best time working with each other, the duo weathered the storm and released Odyssey. From conflict comes creativity, right?

But Fischerspooner’s troubled time in the studio paled in comparison to the problems their label, Capitol, would face after Odyssey came out in 2005. First, the iconic Capitol Records Tower was sold. Then, Capitol reorganized (letting go of president Andrew Slater and many others), and Capitol and Virgin merged to create Capitol Music Group.

“So now the Capitol building, rather than being a physical embodiment to the success of the music business, is a monument to the demise of the music business,” Fischer laments. “We live in crazy music-industry times.”

But huge major-label changes didn’t deter Fischerspooner from marching on. The duo met up with producer Jeff Saltzman (The Killers, The Sounds) and built a Pro Tools HD studio in Brooklyn at their drummer Ian Pai’s studio. Leaving Capitol, Fischerspooner’s own label FS Studios partnered with World’s Fair (in North America) to release the band’s latest, Entertainment.

BUILDING BLOCKS

Saltzman comes from the rock world, which gave Fischer the space to be the electronic “programming guru.” But Saltzman was a big help in the songwriting department.

“I would say, ‘The song is great, and it’s working, but it’s just a little bit too there,’” Fischer admits.

Fortunately, Saltzman knew just what Fischer meant.

“Warren would write pretty lengthy pieces that didn’t necessarily come back to particular parts, and so a lot of what I was initially doing was looking for the hook and making sure that got repeated because there would be some really amazing melody, and then you would never hear it again,” Saltzman says. “The idea was to give it some song structure, but then having defined that, we would want to throw in some surprises because it keeps people listening. So the listener is expecting the chorus, and then you don’t give it to them for an extra few seconds—you throw some little loop in there. Or maybe the second prechorus is a lot shorter than the prior one, so you weren’t quite ready for that chorus to hit you in the face quite yet, and it does.”

Fortunately, Fischer didn’t let his ego interfere. “He earned my trust and my appreciation enough that I would really take that advice and not say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s my record. Back off,’” Fischer says with a laugh. “I would say, ‘Oh, sh*t!’ Because I’d want everything to be done. But he would push, ‘No, no, five more minutes on this.’ And it’s a tedious process. It’s not the head trip the last one was, but it’s still a total pain in the ass. It’s not smoking pot in Jamaica with your friends playing live instruments—which is what album production always seemed like it should be to me. This is—I call it knitting.”

There’s always the danger of being swept away with minutiae in the studio.

“It’s easy to build up a string section, or some freakish digital sound that you’re all the sudden attracted to, and lose sight of the overall picture,” Fischer says. “You can spend a day or two or three on it, and then realize it’s not helping at all. It’s a lot about persistence of perspective to me.”

Therefore, the guys would often step back to hear the music with fresh ears. (For Fischer, it’s “first thing in the morning when I’ve kind of forgotten that I’m a musician.”) And they also kept some raw moments in the tracks (less polished vocals, for example) to avoid getting sucked into a production vortex.

WE GOT THE BEAT

On Fischerspooner’s first album, #1, the production was “100 percent synthetic,” Fischer says. For Odyssey, Fischer wanted to pay homage to the classic-rock bands in Capitol’s history, including Pink Floyd and the Beatles. This time around, he wanted to work with acoustic sounds, but with a twist.

“I wanted to deconstruct them a little bit more, and turn them into more elements,” Fischer says. “So we did things like record whole drum-kit passes and turn them into microsamples by Strip Silencing them [in Logic, or by using Beat Detective in Pro Tools], and creating a more jagged, gateddrum approach. You can hear that on ‘Infidels of the World Unite.’ So it would be a real drummer, and then we would turn all the pieces into little sliver samples, reorient them, snap everything to a grid, and do programming on top of it.”

Another rhythm experiment was with the panning on “We Are Electric.”

“It’s two drum machines going, and they’re both panned hard left/hard right,” Fischer says. “You can hear the combination of them at the beginning. One of them has a bigger kick drum, so the whole mix is a little bit askew, but it never bothered me.”

“I don’t know if this came out of that, but I was always interested in how Phil Spector tracked drums,” Saltzman adds. “He would have his main track, and then he would have the drummer play the whole song again. It’s like when you double guitars, you have to actually play it again. Drummers had to be really good to pull that off without getting flams.”

THERE’S A REASON

There are “real” instruments on Entertainment, including guitar, a pocket trumpet, alto sax, and live drums, which supplemented Fischer’s programming. And the guys also used a Moog Prodigy synth, a Farfisa organ, an upright piano, and a Hammond organ. But the star role on the album was played by Propellerhead’s Reason 4 soft synth. The Thor synth is one of Fischer’s favorites.

“I like that the bass sounds are really full,” he says. “It generates complicated sounds that can be really satisfying. And it has a step sequencer built into it, too, which can be useful at times. I find it really deep. In fact, I would say I am only 30 percent of the way through understanding how to fully manipulate it.”

In Reason, Fischer will tweak the hell out of the parameters on each sound he likes, and then he also layers a lot of sounds.

“I find sounds I react positively to and then find other sounds that feel good to me, and then I combine them,” Fischer says. “‘Dance en France,’ for example, that ploddy bass sound that’s going through the verses, that’s a combination of about four or five synths.”

To make the sounds even more unique, Saltzman runs them through EQ and outboard compression. And then he’ll re-amp them through an old Fender Bandmaster head into a Marshall cab and then mic the room.

“You get things more of a spatial quality, so the end results are definitely not Reason presets,” he says.

VOCAL ARRAY

Although a Neumann U87 and a Sennheiser MD 441 played bit parts on the album, a Microtech Gefell UMT70S was the main mic for Spooner’s vocals. Stepping into the vocal booth, Spooner didn’t know his parts verbatim, and that was a good thing.

“It often would be the first or the third take that we would use, when he hadn’t really practiced the song,” Saltzman says. “His initial reactions are really good and interesting. And, to me, what defines him as a singer— other than the sound of his voice—is his very unique phrasing.”

After comping three takes into what Saltzman calls their “hero” take, Spooner would then do a double of that. But given Spooner’s unusual phrasing, it would take some work to get it right. Next up, Spooner would sing different dynamic versions of the vocal to balance the lead.

“We would often do what we would call a hard one—two of those— and then we’d do two that we called soft, so it was just him singing more aggressively and then more breathily,” Saltzman says.

Lead vocals would go through Saltzman’s favorite Neve Melbourn 3119 or 33114 EQ modules and a UREI 1176 compressor. But he wouldn’t stop there.

“Once the lead vocal got into Pro Tools, I would compress a lot more,” Saltzman says. “I usually have two 1176 plug-ins on top of each other. The first one is set for light compression, and the second one for really heavy compression. That’s so the signal is already limited when it hits the second compressor. And it just sounds better to me that way.”

On top of that, he’d generally use a Line 6 Echo Farm delay plug-in (the model based on the Maestro EP-1 Tube Echoplex), set to the BPM of the song and set to a long delay.

When it comes to secondary vocals, Saltzman holds back on processing.

“The main double would be kind of close, but less compressed, and all the other ones would be maybe even no compression and more of a washy reverb rather than a delay,” he says. “I would use a reverb so the lead vocal would stand out in terms of its compression and the specificness of the delay.”

WHAT THE HELL IS “WARMER”?

After a year and a half of writing, tracking, and tweaking, Fischerspooner and crew brought in mixing engineer Dave Way (Shakira, Sheryl Crow). Although some mixers would prefer to work alone, according to Saltzman, Way enjoys the back-and-forth with the artist. The only problem is that sometimes it takes a while for Way and the artist to get on the same wavelength—a situation Saltzman knows all too well.

“When two musicians start working together, they have a hard time communicating, because somebody will say, ‘I want it warmer,’ and they’re not really using the same adjectives, so it takes a while,” Saltzman says.

And what does “warmer” mean in audio terms?

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Saltzman says, “So you just start twisting knobs. I’ll just play with some of the most obvious things like EQ or compression, and once they say, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about,’ then you’re getting closer to knowing what they mean when they use a particular term.”

Once everyone is on the same page communication-wise, there’s compromise.

“There were constant discussions and some heavy-duty arguments, as well,” Saltzman admits.

Case in point, Fischerspooner is not your standard four-on-the-floor dance music—especially if Fischer has anything to say about it.

“I would often go nuts on the bottom end of everything and just trying to beef it up as much as possible, and making the bass and the kick a lot louder, or changing the sound of the kick so it wasn’t as clicky,” Saltzman says. “And then Warren would often come in and roll some of the bass off everything.”

Even far down the road of the mixing process, Fischer and Saltzman discovered a few unhappy surprises.

“It’s interesting, because by the time you’ve heard the song the 30 zillionth time—and especially in the mixing room when you’ve heard it over and over—it occurs to me that, ‘You know what, that part is just boring!’” Saltzman says. “We’ve been sitting in the mixing room trying to make it sparkle and come to life—whether it’s a little prechorus or an instrumental break—and after a while you go, ‘You know what? It’s just not an interesting part.’”

WHAT’S WOOSTER?

While still in the studio working on Entertainment, the band got together with The Wooster Group theater ensemble to put together an arty live show that would complement Fischerspooner’s love of both the experimental and the mainstream.

Meeting with Wooster, Fischerspooner brought diverse influences to the table, including Japanese dance and the ’60s space program.

“I brought in a Nova documentary called To the Moon, and they instantly transcribed it, turned it into dialog for us, and had it [as well as Fischerspooner’s music] played back on actor monitors that would go into the in-ears of their theater company and our performers onstage,” Fischer says. “They have this really crazy techheavy process where they have video monitors facing the performers that are portraying things like Japanese dance, and so nobody in the audience can tell, but the performers are mimicking these monitors so everything’s really synchronized and perfect.”

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