ALEC OUNSWORTH’S Clap Your Hands Say Yeah occupies a weird sonic landscape. After jettisoning three band members, Ounsworth recorded all of the instruments except for drums himself. He creates post-punk/post-dance/post-rock with the kind of eccentric vocal performances that have been the stylistic domain of Brian Ferry or David Bowie. In an era when many bands seem afraid to truly commit to a vocal performance, Ounsworth glories in his ululations and self-production on Only Run.
“I am used to working alone,” Ounsworth says. “I know well enough what I want to get out of a vocal performance. I try all of the tricks, different microphones, and microphone placement, and I take a lot of care in the vocal. I am used to doing this after 15 years of making records. I don’t have a problem with proper studios; I just like the innocence and the DIY quality. It’s like being a painter: You couldn’t paint something with people standing around while you’re painting. It’s a pretty isolated experience for me; it’s always been.”
After 2005’s Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, 2007’s Some Loud Thunder, and 2011’s Hysterical, Ounsworth and drummer Sean Greenhalgh joined engineer Dave Fridmann to create a minimalist production palette in which simple chord structures layered on multiple synthesizers and guitars form a subtle backdrop to Ounsworth’s splayed, soaring vocals. His DIY esthetic pervades the record.
“On the first record there was more time to consider everything,” Ounsworth recalls. “I kept tagging things on. This time I did a number of versions of all the songs. Prince, Sly and the Family Stone, and Stevie Wonder were guideposts. I tried to capture my ideas with the bare essentials. I realized this was exactly what I wanted. Dave Fridmann understands that; not everybody else does.”
Working in his 20x20 basement studio after closing a semi-pro studio in the barn behind his house (The Walkmen and Dr. Dog were recent clients), Ounsworth recorded the bulk of vocals and instruments in Pro Tools to an API 1608 console with a variety of microphones through Brent Averill and Neve 1073LB and 88RLB mic pres; he used API 550A and 550B plug-ins for EQ. Drums were recorded later at Fridmann’s Tarbox Studios with the engineer’s son Michael assisting.
Oddly enough given his penchant for eerie synth sounds, Ounsworth’s go-to Desert Island Disc is Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, a folk-rock gem of close-miked perfection produced by Rick Rubin.
“Tom Petty’s Wildflowers sounds incredible,” he says. “I don’t how Rick Rubin recorded the acoustic guitar, but it’s all so clean. I love it. Sometimes, if a record is too clean, it’s sort of frightening. Wildflowers works on whatever system you hear it on and whether it’s CD or MP3. It works everywhere and that amazes me.”
When tracking vocals for Only Run, Ounsworth stuck to his DIY guns, comping as little as possible and preferring lower-cost mics to mega-buck pro studio Holy Grails.
“I try not to comp vocals too much, and get at least half the song right,” Ounsworth explains. “I don’t comp words. I like Nick Cave because he’s not always on point, but he gets the emotion behind each word. You miss that if you start cobbling too much and putting it together piecemeal. On our first record I’d do one vocal take or choose from three takes. Very little comping. Same on Some Loud Thunder, with Fridmann producing.
“We did mic shootouts between a Shure SM7 and a $7K microphone,” he continues. “More often than not, we went with the cheaper mic, for whatever reason. It depends on the record you want to make. I tried to make everything sound as good as I could intuitively and make sure I had Dave onboard to clean it up in post. Even for Some Loud Thunder Dave had great gear in his studio, but we would often throw up an SM57 to track piano or something like that.”
Tracking vocals through an SM7 on Only Run, Ounsworth joined a Neve 1073 to a Retro Instruments Doublewide Compressor.
“I love the SM7 for most of the vocals and it sounded really good,” he explains. “That’s the main thing Dave gave a true vote of confidence to. We manipulated everything else to a fair extent but the vocals sounded pretty great from the jump before we went into Tarbox.”
Ounsworth created demos using, among other things, the same model Korg SR 120 Univox drum machine used by Sly Stone for Fresh and There’s a Riot Goin’ On. “Every time I used it, I would end up trying to make a Sly and the Family Stone song,” he laughs. “And I have an Akai XR 20 [Beat Production Center], which can sound corny if you’re not careful. I often did demos using a crappy Roland drum machine, then used the Akai. It sounded alright if I laid live drums over the drum machine to drive the track a little further.”
Ounsworth stacked keyboards throughout the album, filling in holes with Native Instruments and Arturia soft synths. An Arturia ARP 2600 was layered with Korg MicroKORG, Juno 106, Yamaha DX7, and Korg Mono/Poly to create “bizarre sounds.” Fridmann’s Taurus and Teenage Engineering OP1 pedals also figured into the overall keyboard sound. When not running direct, keyboards were miked through a guitar amp using a Shure KSM44 in figure 8, close-miked, with API preamps and Brent Averill 312s.
“The Neve 1073 has more a defined sound so I leaned on that for vocals,” Ounsworth explains. “But the Brent Averill has a certain darker quality that would push the instruments to the background a bit, which is what I wanted out of it. It was me in a project studio trying every trick in the book in a very intuitive fashion; that’s how I function. I tried different amps, too; whatever bass amp that people may have left from a session.”
The Fender Telecaster played on Only Run was effected via Electro-Harmonix Memory Man or Memory Toy pedals and amplified through a Fender Vibrolux Reverb or a Vox AC 30. After Shure sent Ounsworth a care package of microphones, he experimented, trying a KSM141 at a distance from the guitar amp, or placing two mics on an amp. Bass was recorded direct to the API console and miked, and often reamped at Tarbox.
“Depending on the song, I stacked a lot of guitars, four or five in some places, including my DiPinto guitar that I bash around on stage,” he says. “For ‘Coming Down,’ ‘Impossible Request,’ and ‘Beyond Illusion,’ I stacked at least two guitars per song.”
Playing a CMC drum kit in Tarbox Studios’ new B room, Sean Greenhalgh practically ran his own sessions after Fridmann set up microphones including an EV 858 on kick drum, Neumann 105 on top snare head, a pair of DPA 4006s as overheads, and a single Telefunken U47 for room tones. The record’s generally humongous drum sound owes to the B room’s 30x30-foot dimensions with drums placed in the corner and a center room mic compressed via Fridmann’s Otari Concept Elite board.
As Sean Lennon noted in Electronic Musician’s recent feature on The GOASTT’s Midnight Sun sessions (June 2014), Dave Fridmann has “incredible techniques for saving bad drum sounds. Instead of using the compressor as an insert, Dave sends a submix of the drums to the compressor so when you push up the fader you are changing the input level to the compressor. That lets you play with the distortion of the compressor, basically. And you can also have that same drum sound as an insert on another compressor for a more normal sound. Then you can blend those together on another submix to have a submix of three or four different compressors, some of them being pushed, some on insert and they can blend into one subgroup of drums.”
Explaining that most bands are “weird before they get to me and I help them achieve their maximum potential in that category,” Fridmann further details his compressor secrets:
“You can use the compressor or a series of compressors in different subgroups so you’re driving into them as a blend. You’re creating the sound dynamically throughout the course of the song. As you are moving the faders you’re changing how it’s moving into the compressor and that keeps everything more dynamic and more alive and also gives you different results as opposed to a single compressor on a single sound or mic channel. Even on close-miked instruments there’s always some room in there so you can always push that to the fore if you choose to.”
Sticking to Ounsworth’s DIY policy on Only Run, Fridmann saw minimal tracks before proceeding with his mix. “Alec had really sorted out a lot of the sounds beforehand,” Fridmann says. “He was insistent that there were a limited number of tracks, a very focused production, so only whatever was necessary to make the song function was on there. If it wasn’t necessary it got axed before it got to me.”
“I don’t want to self-produce every time,” Ounsworth allows. “As much as I appreciate the romance of doing it all by myself, when you’re in this bubble it helps to have a little outside perspective, which is what is so great about having Dave Fridmann onboard. This band started with just me with my rinky-dink gear, 15 years ago. I’d write the script and tell the musicians what I wanted to hear. Often the first songs were lifted off the demo, and we attached real drums. But it takes me a lot longer now than if I was a real engineer. In a real studio, I would have brought in a new version of a song every day and I would have hemorrhaged money, and made enemies burning through studios. And face it—a proper engineer would have strangled me.”
When not writing for Electronic Musician, DownBeat, eMusic.com, and Modern Drummer, Ken Micallef supports his vinyl habit by breeding rare African frogs in the nearby Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York.