Austra in the Studio: Electro-Goth Goes Analog

On Olympia, the Toronto sextet and producer

Austra (clockwise from top left)—Sari Lightman, Maya Postepski, Romy Lightman, Ryan Wonsiak, Katie Stelmanis, and Dorian Wolf.

PRIOR TO generating a huge buzz at the recent SXSW festival, electro-Goth pop sextet Austra wanted to shake things up and break the rules when recording their latest album, Olympia (Domino). The Toronto-based band didn’t realize their pursuit would involve wheezing analog synths, a ’60s R&B icon, blatant criminality, and Steve Albini.

Moving into engineer Bill Skibbe’s Keyclub Recording Company outside Chicago with co-producer Mike Haliechuk, Austra was surprised to learn they would be tracking on a custom-built 32-channel Dan Flickinger MOD-N-32 matrix console (circa 1970). This is the very console Sly Stone used to record his classic Fresh and Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On albums. Skibbe also revealed his collection of analog synthesizers, including an ARP 2600, Korg Prophet 5, OSCar, Elka String Synth, and Moog Minimoog. Working entirely in the box on their previous release, Feel It Break, Austra’s Katie Stelmanis (keyboards, vocals), Maya Postepski (drums), Dorian Wolf (bass), Ryan Wonsiak (keys), and Sari and Romy Lightman (backing vocals) got their own riot goin’ on for Olympia.

“For us, it was about all the gear in the studio,” Stelmanis says. “Bill had an old Linn Drum and all these old synthesizers, which really allowed us to be creative. Working on a computer makes me think more about the structure and the end result of the song, rather than being in the moment. I’ve always had a problem with recordings sounding icy and I realized it was because we were using soft synths. There’s so much more warmth in the analog synths, and it’s immediate on the new record.”

“Working on all those old synths ruined my approach to making MIDI music,” Postepski added. “Working on a computer can be very limiting in terms of creativity. With a hardware synth you get an immediate reaction, but with a computer you have to upload a sample to the synth after choosing from 15,000 samples. An old synth has maybe 15 or 20 sounds, and then you scroll through them, choose one, and just play. The real synths are just easier to work with.”

Tracking live in Pro Tools through the Flickinger console, layering Simmons SDS 8 pads and Linn Drum with acoustic drums, Rickenbacker bass through an Ampeg SVT chased with Roland TR-808, and vocals produced by Damian Taylor, Austra created a unique so

“Katie demoed at home, then we tracked live in the studio,” Skibbe explains. “Some drum tracks were done in the computer, some in the Roland 808 and Linn LM1 drum machines. But we tracked everything live. We had a MIDI-to-CV converter, which allowed us to run MIDI sounds through the Prophet 5, Minimoog, Moog Little Phatty, and we also used an EMS Putney VCS3 and EMS Synthi. We experimented with MIDI for different synths to see which worked best and tweaked the sounds.”

Skibbe, who helped build Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio, took Austra to his former employee’s studio where they recorded his Mellotron’s flute sounds for Olympia. They also tracked at John McEntire’s SOMA. But the most fantastical story behind the Olympia sessions lies with the Flickinger console, which was once left for dead at Paragon Recording in Chicago.

“Flickinger made consoles for Ike and Tina Turner, Funkadelic, Johnny Cash, Muscle Shoals, and Sly Stone,” Skibbe explains. “Each one was custom made; they’re funky, thick-sounding consoles. They have bottom end, which is why they are used on so many funk records; it’s that sound. There were only 22 of them made.

“In the late ’60s, Sly wanted to build a studio in his house, so he hired Westlake Audio,” Skibbe continues. “Sly held the guy who installed the console hostage at gunpoint for two weeks when they began recording There’s a Riot Goin’ On. When they decommissioned the console in the late ’70s, it was so crazy with Sly, by that point [his crew] just cut all the cabling from the console to the patch bay, and sent it back to Marty Feldman at Paragon Recording in Chicago, where they couldn’t reassemble it. There were hundreds of wires, none labeled, all cut, all identical. Marty put it in storage until I found it. It didn’t work when I got it; [partner] Jessica Ruffins and I had to rewire the entire thing.”

Luckily, the now fully operable Flickinger console and Keyclub’s other gear allowed Austra to create a uniquely future-retro epic. The band experimented on practically every tune, mixing and matching synths, layering acoustic drums and drum machines, some effected by the tape delay from Skibbe’s Ampex 440B 1/2" four-track, others by Maestro Echoplex and Skibbe Electronics 736-5 preamp and Red Stripe limiter. The band kicked it into gear from the opening track, which recalls the soundtrack to Jerry Goldsmith’s Poltergeist by way of a white-noise tsunami.

“We tried to make the beginning of the album sound kind of ambient and bizarre to open up the record slowly,” Postepski recalls. “We all pressed a bunch of knobs on the ARP 2600 [vintage analog synth] for about an hour. The 2600 comes with a bunch of presets, these paper diagrams that show you how to plug the cables into the patch bays. Some presets have up to 15 cables; it was like a game. If you messed up one cable it would sound completely different. We spent hours patching in the ARP according to the diagrams. We got some cool sounds. We hooked up the ARP up to a sequencer as well; it played this pattern that we were able to adjust while it was going though the ARP.”

Several songs on Olympia begin with one drum pattern, which is then replaced or layered with another drum source. How did the group manage the layering process?

“I went crazy with drums and percussion,” Postepski says. “I recorded as much as I could, and at the end we edited it all down for each song. The percussion is pretty heavy on Olympia; we were going for a blended sound. We didn’t want bare electronic drums so we paired them with real drums on every track. We were inspired by a lot of old-school house records, like the first Marshall Jefferson records that have a live drum set and piano. And the Grace Jones albums and Portishead’s Third.”

Austra used MIDI marimba, Rickenbacker and synth bass, all manner of percussion, and even library books to create unique sounds.

“On ‘Fire,’ you’re hearing me slamming and knocking some books with my knuckles,” Stelmanis says. “We recorded a bunch of noise samples of boxes and books and made a bunch of banging sounds.”

The recording process became slightly more standardized when Skibbe tracked keyboard, bass, and drums. Keyclub has two rooms for recording drums, the main live room, and a smaller booth. Keyboards and bass were cut in the live room.

“We ran MIDI via an Elka Synthex much of the time,” he says. “We ran a couple of Ampeg SVT amps for keyboards, a direct input for the Synthex. Beyerdynamic M88s to the SVT or Ampeg Reverberocket or Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus for a little rumble. And I always use ambient mics, a Neumann U87 in the room in omni mode.”

Skibbe tracked the Rickenbacker/SVT combo with an Electro-Voice RE20 through his custom 736 preamp into his Red Stripe Limiter, which he says resembles an LA2A. DI was also used, and an Ampeg SB-12 Portaflex amplifier. These signals were layered with the Roland TR-808 for electronic/Goth pizzazz. Layering acoustic drums with Simmons pads and Linn Drum presented Skibbe with his biggest challenge, and a chance to exploit his two-room drum recording approach.

“We recorded some drums in the live room, and some in the smaller booth, which is good for layering with drum machines because you get a tighter, focused sound,” Skibbe explains. “I used a Sennheiser 421 for the rack and floor toms. No bottom mics; that’s excessive drum miking to me. I don’t want that hyperactive tom and bottom sound; that’s like an era that’s strange to me. Recording bands with drum machines, you don’t need a full-blown drum sound, and I record with real distortion, just through compression to add some aggression to it. And no front head on the bass drum, either. I used a Neumann FET 47 inside the bass drum and off to the side of beater, and a Yamaha NS10 sub to capture low frequencies. A Shure SM57 on top of the snare to capture the rim, then a really boring Neumann KM-56 on bottom. I put a mic between the hi-hat and rack tom to capture some snare half an inch back from the rim—that gives you a little more ping and less top head.

“Overheads were Neumann SM 69 FETs in an X/Y configuration,” Skibbe continues, “about three feet over the drummer, placed between the bass drum and snare drum position. And a room mic—the ‘crazy mic,’ I call it—which was a Neumann U87 or Sony C-500 on the floor, five inches high and six feet out, running that through the Spectra Sonics 610 [analog compressor/limiter] for a little bit of dirt and aggression. Sometimes I put the drums through a Minimoog filter to give it some dirt. And I run everything through the Flickinger—I like the tone of it.”

Skibbe used a similar setup in the larger live room: RØDE SM2s as overheads in X/Y as well, a Neumann U87 for his “crazy mic,” two Altec 150 “Coke bottle” mics placed 20 feet apart and 15 feet back as room mics, the latter pair processed with what Skibbe calls “the Albini method,” using a 22-millisecond delay on the room mics to “draw them back a little further.”

Damian Taylor (Bjork, Killers, Arcade Fire) produced the vocals for and mixed Austra’s Feel It Break album, so the band traveled from Toronto to his Golden Ratio studio in Montreal for a repeat production visit. Katie Stelmanis is a classically trained pianist and former opera singer; Taylor knew exactly how to capture her icy yet emotional vocal quality which imbues Austra with its unique Goth identity.

“Katie comes out of a fully trained background so she really understands what she is doing and doesn’t really need any coaching, and she likes a loose approach,” Taylor explains. “I used this weird Russian mic on her vocals. I got it from Moscow; it’s an old Soviet version of a Neumann bottle mic. As to why I like it, it’s more that it doesn’t sound like crap. Often when I am recording, a mic might sound beautiful in one way but annoy me in another way. But this mic isn’t grainy or sibilant; it works. I have that mic going through a Seventh Circle Audio N72 preamp, which is like a kit-built Neve circuit, then through a Tube Tech LCA/2B, which has got a Fairchild-esque time constant. I hit that very gently. I am into riding gains as I am recording, so I tend to use compression at a threshold almost below where your soft limit would be on your converters. Then I try to keep my gain below that, so I will use a preamp to massage levels. If suddenly there’s a mad peak, the compressor might do a little work, but overall it’s hardly doing anything. The Tube Tech is good because it has a nice tone without being overbearing.”

Fully electronic and fully analog, darting and looping like a Juan Atkins track one minute, melodiously thumping like Human League the next, Austra’s Olympia is unique for its sonics and its songwriting approach. “Sleep,” “You Changed My Life,” and “Hurt Me Now” sound like German club favorites circa 1977. Austra embraces the past while remaining present. The future is the question.

“It will be hard to go back to using purely soft synths and computers,” Stelmanis admits.

“Once your ears become accustomed to the sound of analog, it’s really hard to listen to anything else. If musicians haven’t heard these analog sounds, they are happy with MP3 and sh*tty Apple earbuds. But when you get good headphones, you can never go back to those earbuds. And when you actually record with real instruments and these beautiful analog keyboards that have real personality, it’s hard to go back to digital.”