FORMED IN 2007, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros is an 11-person troupe named in part after a messiah-like superhero dreamt up by the band’s creative hub and lead vocalist, Alex Ebert. And you might think it would take some sort of superhuman power to capture the lively dynamic of such a mercurial ensemble, which includes multiple guitarists, male and female vocalists, pianists and keyboardists, a drummer and percussionists, an accordion player, a trumpet player, and a bassist. All it took, however, was a willingness to leave the window open to moments of inspiration.
Tracking initial concepts at the band’s own studio, nicknamed the Ed Shed, in Ojai, CA, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros started the 12-track self-titled follow-up to 2012’s Here, an album of lysergic folk-rock and revivalism gospelpop. With the band’s third album (released on Community Music/Rough Trade Records), Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros has captured an even warmer, naturally enriched sprawl of psychedelic roots-rock hymns. It’s an album where “all the bells and whistles” refers to actual instruments, not the over-application of high-end mixing and mastering components. We talked to Ebert and the band’s recording engineer, Matt “Linny” Linesch, about the ongoing augmentation of the band’s sonic palette.
So, Alex, Beatles or Rolling Stones?
Ebert: Definitely Beatles.
I figured . . . I hear a definite late-Beatles-meets- early-1970s Laurel Canyon influence on the new record, and I’m also getting a little Four Seasons and some Joe Cocker, among other sonic touchstones.
Ebert: Yeah, I’m in. I don’t know what’s been going on for the last 30 years, but I do think there’s been a decline in the greatness [of recordings], and I think it’s a combination of the production, the performance, and the songwriting getting buried in mechanization.
Are we putting too much in the signal chain?
Ebert: I came up with a quote that I like, and it’s: ‘Music is too important to be left to professionals.’ I think there’s been a professionalization of the process that’s made it stale and where you actually can hear the process before the song. It’s as loud as the mix . . . everything from [Antares] Auto-Tune and [Celemony] Melodyne to the amount of compression to just the amount of gadgetry in between the song and the playing and the speakers. I’m a huge fan and love gear, especially good gear, physical gear, so certainly this album has plenty of gear going in and out, but the science has been distilled too far and the creative side of learning equipment and experimenting with equipment and getting sounds that aren’t ‘clean’ and ‘professional’ isn’t heard as much; it’s usually just when artists are recording and mixing it themselves.
So when did you reduce the separation between yourself and the recording?
Ebert: I think it actually began with the first Edward Sharpe album [2009’s Up From Below]. We were ready to start recording and we bought our own gear, starting with a Trident 70 Series console. Nico [Aglietti] our [then] guitar player led the initial charge; he was reading Tape Op and forums and I’d follow his lead, so together we shucked and jived the album together, blindfoldedly charging through along with Aaron [Older], our [then] bass player. It was then I got into mics, gear in general, and my personality with recording started coming through.
My style is a fast approach . . . I’m generally anti-establishment naturally, so anytime anyone tells me where to put the mic, I instantly don’t want to. Telling me to not push the board, not to make it too hot . . . as long as it’s sounding good and I’m having fun and the moment of inspiration is not being pushed aside to get the right miking technique or right setting on the preamp, that’s when I’m happy. So we started recording relatively fast, mixing a bit wildly, and we did it all on tape as part of a huge learning process, because we didn’t have automation on the board.
Knowing the limitations, what drew you to the Trident and the tape machine . . . were you looking for a specific coloration?
Ebert: Oh, we’re all about color, color, color, color, color. We went with an Ampex MM-1200 because of the saturation on the low end and all that sort of beefy stuff down there. The Trident . . . I personally like the idea that Bowie used the A Range, and T. Rex used one. Also, a friend had it, was selling it, so it was an easy thing, close and relatively cheap . . . we just picked it up and rolled with it. We rented a bunch of mics—a Neumann U 47 and TLM 67—we had the Recording The Beatles book [by Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew] and we’d flip through it to mock some stuff up, then we’d forge our own way.
What did you find those mics lent to your desired result?
Ebert: My favorite mic on my voice for almost anything, except if I want it to be hi-fi, is the RCA 44B . . . that mic is a little wizard with male vocals; females, it pinches, but male vocals sung in the lower register, you basically don’t even need to compress. For me that’s the perfect amount of color . . . antiquation . . . parallel-universe stuff on it. I love every version of that mic that I’ve heard. And then I love the idea of 47s, and if you get a good one, you got a great one; but there’s so much variation from mic to mic. A good one, though, has warmth on the low end and it’s a hi-def mic . . . no wonder it was George Martin’s favorite . . . so that I used as much as I could. But we used an AKG C 12 and a 47 when recording [female lead singer] Jade [Castrinos]. And also a mic with a C 12 capsule in it, a Telefunken ELA M 251, which is my favorite if I’m singing in a higher register. But a lot of my parts are on that 44B; I think ribbons are intentionally underused, but they have an amazing EQ bump in the midrange that I love.
Are you running everything through the same board into the Ampex?
Ebert: No, we moved up to a Trident 80B. The main mic pres throughout this entire album were four channels of [Telefunken] V76s for separate parts, and then if we were recording everyone at once, we’d use some pres from the Trident.
Linny: About two years ago, we started putting together this studio, based on experience in various studios, recommendations from respected producers and engineers and auditioning various equipment from Vintage King, etc. We needed gear that had its own vibe but wouldn’t get in the way of the creative flow.
Recording Edward Sharpe is all about continually moving forward, so we’re pretty minimal in our microphone treatment, which forces us to get creative with getting sounds. It’s a 50/50 shot whether or not we track with compression, but we’ve got a stereo pair of Urei LA-4 compressors, one [Empirical Labs Inc.] Distressor, two Pulse Techniques Pultecs, the V76s, the [Shadow Hills Industries] Equinox analog summing mixer, a [Thermionic] Culture Vulture, an EMT 140 Stereo Plate, and some other outboard gear for getting positive distortion and reverbs, etc. We premix as we go, and I monitor on the Event 20/20 BAS, plus a pair of Hot House PRM 165 MK IIs.
Ebert: We finished mixing the album at Ocean Way Recording [in Hollywood, CA]. We had recorded to Pro Tools HD 10, but I really wanted to mix on a Neve and they have a custom expanded 8068 [in Studio B], so we took the whole thing over there and recorded some more overdubs while we mixed for a month.
This album sounds like there was a concentrated effort at tonal depth. . . . Was it a goal to arrange as much front to back as left and right?
Ebert: Yeah, I’m not a huge fan of close-miking everything. I love using the room, so for instance we weren’t EQing beforehand, but we did use mic placement for getting things spatially to sound the way we wanted pre-mix. That’s a key to me, because you can re-create space with reverb and slap, but it’s just more fun to make the drums sound distant and big because you miked them from far away. Be legitimate.
Linny: In ‘Country Calling,’ there’s the moment in the song where the music drops out and Alex says, ‘I’m in the country again.’ There’s actually two voices taking place, and one of them is him saying it through a megaphone, and to make it sound that way we got a megaphone. Why wait to do in the computer what you can do in the live room?
How far do you take physical experiments?
Ebert: I’ve definitely done tricks, miking the air vents or whatever, but for me the joy isn’t in spending an hour-and-a-half taping a mic to a metal duct, because by then the inspiration gets clouded. We’d use mics in omni or figure-8 to get the other side of the sound, mike kicks from the front with the RCA 77BX over the snare in the tom area . . . and we’d put this Coles ribbon mic [the 4038] just off-center from the kick to pick up the bottom of the snare; incidentally, I found out The Beatles used it in the exact same place. But for the most part, it’s just about room miking and keeping it relatively simple. As soon as something sounds right to me, that’s it, because the songs aren’t necessarily complete when we go to record; they are ideas that are relatively complete and then we start recording and the process has to be contiguous to the inspiration to record; it has to be this thoroughfare that’s created.
For instance, when we recorded the song ‘Life Is Hard,’ I was already mixing the album and taking a break to play the grand piano, and Linny calls from the other room, ‘That’s cool,’ and I just yell back, ‘Get the mics!’ And this is in the middle of mixing; we’re supposed to be turning an album in, but still we just start recording. And I didn’t have the lyrics, I didn’t have the whole song, but I had enough and I was excited enough so we went for it. And because I was excited and we were going for it, we didn’t have a drummer around, but I had a basketball and I started bouncing it around and we got three knocks of it and looped it to create the first beat that’s going through the whole song.
Linny: I quickly set up the [Neumann] KM88 and AEA R44 pretty close-miked on the hammers of the piano to get the chord progression. Then I spun the KM88 around to record the basketball, and we tracked over that using the same mics. And the electric guitar on the chorus is a Strat going into a Vox AC30 recorded with an SM57 pumped into the V76 which has a chassis that allows us to attenuate the output. So we just drove the input of the preamp and essentially drove the tubes of the V76 and pulled the output back, that’s why it has that wild sound that no pedal could get.
If you’re embracing the bleed, but you’re working with nearly a dozen players, how do you compensate for the congestion?
Ebert: It’s all about making those bold choices, going ahead and deleting or muting something, and it’s tough, man. We recorded a beautiful piano solo in ‘If I Were Free’ that battled the guitar solo there, and I had to pick someone and I had to go with the guitar solo, because it was such an outrageous choice. For all the instruments you hear, there’s probably at least double you’re not hearing that had to be muted or toned down. I’m here with a band of 10 people and I want everyone to be heard at some point, so I can’t just keep everyone subtle and just have one thing turned up, because that doesn’t represent who we are, especially live. So a large part for me is just EQing things and riding them in and out of the salient sound.
Walk me through the workflow for mixing a track.
Ebert: Basically, we had over a year of parts, which essentially just went through a mic pre. Then quite often we’d mock up EQs and compressors using Universal Audio plug-ins or some Waves stuff. And then we’d get the Pro Tools session into Ocean Way, where we brought our Pultecs and a couple compressors . . . our Retro [Instruments] Sta-Level [tube compressor].
Linny: One of the most recent acquisitions was the Dramastic Audio Obsidian Compressor. We were at Ocean Way and we needed something more transparent as a stereo bus compressor. It has a built-in sidechain and it’s an extremely useful compressor, since most of the other ones we have are so colored.
Ebert: And then they have their [Urei] 1176LNs and, of course, there are the EQs on the board. So for the most part we set up the session and we’d break it all out on the board, and in the cases where we used a digital EQ, we thought would translate into the real world we’d keep that mock-up, but for the most part we’d end up muting all the plug-ins we had and just start from scratch. We’d send our drums through a parallel compressor already built in the board . . . and once in a while sum them all through a stereo compressor and an EQ . . . basically we’d put everything through a compressor and an EQ, and see where we were at. Some stuff, like the bass, we would end up going with these dbx [160 and 165] boxes a lot, and there were API [550a] EQs we’d use.
Linny: Having a Fairchild racked up anytime we wanted to use it was great. And they have a whole rack of API EQs that go in line with the EQ on the console by the flip of a button, so it wasn’t hard to put the songs back into an analog environment and to let them go through transformations as Alex would jump into the live room and play with the current melodies.
Ebert: I just love making giant changes on the EQs . . . with instruments, not vocals . . . just really brash choices to get the song sounding good. The longest the mix took was six days, and it would be really frustrating to be working that long on a single song, especially if it was just for a single part, like Jade’s vocal on ‘Two,’ but I would feel like a great failure for not having it translate. When she goes up into the upper register loudly, she’s got this tremendous voice that’s beautifully overwhelming, and I was just trying to get the grandeur and the loudness without it taking your head off. It was a difficult balance to figure out, and eventually I had to put a multiband compressor on it, and anytime she hit anything between 1kHz and 3kHz really loudly, it would dip so that it would lop that off and allow it to smile at you. Then when she dropped back down, it would come back. That was one of the rare instances when a plug-in came in handy. It was a UAD one; we have a quad-core UAD-2 DSP accelerator that’s in the PCIe slot in Ojai.
Linny: It’s always about bringing out an emotion, never about fitting into a grid. We’ll leave something a little fluid in the song, even if it strays a little wide or bends a little wildly. Music is naturally not perfect, and we have to get everything going before we can hone it or else we’d stifle what’s so great about the process, which is the fact that it can fluctuate.