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electronic MUSICIAN

Death Cab for Cutie Pro/File

By Ken Micallef | July 1, 2011

In the July 2008 issue of EQ magazine, Death Cab For Cutie producer/guitarist/songwriter Chris Walla proclaimed, “I don''t like to look at my music,” referring to the ubiquitous computer screen found in any modern recording studio. “Was Glyn Johns sitting in the studio with the Rolling Stones thinking, ‘God, I can''t wait to look at waveforms?''” Walla harangued. “Computer screens are placed more strategically than the monitors in some studios. It drives me f**king crazy.”

Fast-forward three years later and Walla has warmed to his audio enemy. Where once he and Death Cab For Cutie relied entirely on analog consoles and Studer tape decks, DCFC''s latest effort, Codes and Keys, embraces the digital world. Though Walla once bellowed, “There is no automation [on our records]—it''s me cutting the half-inch masters together. I have never done it any other way, and I never will. People are making great records in digital platforms but I am not one of those people,” Codes and Keys is a digital production (aided by multiple hardware effects) that documents the group''s ongoing evolution and refinement. All praise to Pro Tools?

“I still prefer to work with tape when I can,” Walla asserts. “But that presupposes making a certain kind of record. Narrow Stairs [DCFC''s 2008 release] was definitely that record, and the Telekinesis record I did [12 Desperate Straight Lines] never left the tape machine. I''ve made a few records in Logic over the past three years, and it''s an experience we had not yet had as a band. We knew we didn''t want to record live in the room together. We haven''t changed enough as musicians or writers to have it feel like a very different experience without really changing the toolset. That seemed to be the thing to do, and we did it in grand fashion.”

DCFC—Walla, Ben Gibbard (guitar/vocals), Jason McGerr (drums), and Nick Harmer (bass)—recorded Codes and Keys at Sound City in Van Nuys, Wherehouse in Vancouver, Two Sticks Audio, Avast! in Seattle, and Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. The group used a plethora of retro (and retro-styled) hardware, including effects (Publison DHM 89, Lexicon Varispeech 26/27, Lexicon PCM 41), synths (EML ElectroComp, Cyclodon Technosaurus, Mobius FutureRetro), and drum machines (Roland TR-606). But how did digital actually change the process?

“It''s still a really linear process for us,” Walla says. “We have a rule: If there is a part that repeats elsewhere in the song, that always gets performed. We don''t cut-and-paste and move it into place. So there''s still a performance element to it. There are no full band takes on this record, and only one song where two people play together at the same time.”

Though Codes and Keys may follow Walla''s “linear” approach, much of the album sounds heavily processed. Perhaps that''s down to instrumental and hardware choices, but sequencers, layering, and vocal irregularities dominate a song like “St. Peter''s Cathedral,” a veritable textbook on the wonders of reverb.

“You''re hearing mostly physical reverbs, either the AKG BX20, EMT 140, AMS RMX 16; it''s all old outboard reverb junk,” Walla laughs. “The reverb on the drums is the house Lexicon 480L at London Bridge in Seattle, tracked live. That is something we made decisions around. The snare top was patched through an envelope filter on the Korg MS20. A pair of PCM41s were inserted on the drum overheads. For the Moog and the chattery MS20 sequencer reverb, we used Avast!s EMT 240 gold-foil plate. A lot of that is inherently noisy, so it all went through a Roland SN550 on the way in—that''s a ''90s Roland frequency-dependent expander; it''s really good for stuff that has tails or that you don''t want to lose the top frequency of. It''s good at building an envelope around the actual core of whatever your signal is. I found it in Michigan for 150 bucks!

“The SN550 is really only a couple of knobs,” he adds, “like an old-style dbx box where there''s only ‘more'' or ‘less''. The threshold is really slow and soft; it rolls the top off and on as the signal gets louder. You can set the threshold and how much you are pulling out of it. If you put it on the tail, you get that sense of space and spit and sparkle that you get from a reverb only while it is engaged. If the singer sings with sibilance, you get that character of the reverb, but then it''s like you''re rolling in a lowpass filter as the signal tails out. So that sense of space on the tail end closes in and disappears.”

“A lot of it involved pre-treatment,” adds engineer Beau Sorenson. “Like, one signal hit a PCM41 and another signal hit a DHM 89 then we decided which one to keep. We usually record everything, then un-mute it and listen and either use it or not.”

Codes and Keys reverb process owes much to mix engineer Alan Moulder, who worked at his (and Flood''s) own Assault & Battery 2 in London.

“Alan used a lot of Ekdahl Moisturizer,” Walla recalls. “It''s a tabletop, hybridized modular synth/spring reverb. Totally old-world /new-world execution device. The record is built on boxes like that, not the computer. Even the Flower Electronics Little Boy Blue, that''s a modular synthesizer in a Radio Shack project box. Two oscillators and a couple filters and a little mix knob and if you cram a snare drum through it, it''s killer.”

Ultimately, Walla cites his brain change not as a love affair with anything new, but as a discovery of something old.

“The last couple of years, I''ve been really into the linear process of old electronic music. Especially the second side of David Bowie''s Low, and records by Ash Ra Tempel and Manuel Göttsching; New Order''s Power, Corruption & Lies. With all those old machines [they used], if you set them up and it sucks, you''re not going to work on the track for 15 hours. [Using old analog gear] is like having a car without a steering wheel: If you want go left, you have to actually pick it up and turn it and set it back down. But if you get something that''s awesome, you can work on it for 15 hours. And you can continue to build it and layer on top of it. It really inspires you.”

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