Foxygen

For their third record, indie duo Sam France and Jonathan Rado aim for a vintage vibe, tracking and mixing to 2-inch tape in one of L.A.'s oldest studio spaces
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Foxygen, the L.A.-based duo of vocalist Sam France and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Rado, create the musical equivalent of a Hollywood glam ball circa 1937 on their sophomore effort, Hang (Jagjaguwar). Foxygen’s guests for the gala include the spirits of Warren Zevon, Scott Walker, Roxy Music, and The Kinks. Grandstanding it over intricate arrangements cut live to a 3M M79 reel-to-reel, including a 40-piece orchestra, Hang is a sprawling epic—think The Day of the Locust meets The Big Sleep, gowns by Edith Head.

Sam FranceHang’s eight songs are built around France’s tremulous vocals and Rado’s Wurlitzer in extended arrangements fueled by Gretsch hollow-bodied and Fender Jaguar guitars, Memory Moog, Hal Blaine’s roto-toms, Mellotron, Arp Solina String Ensemble, Ferrari Roxy Chord organ, the big beats of Flaming Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd and drummer Michael D’Addario, as well as the guitar of Brian D’Addario (the latter two of Long Island band the Lemon Twigs).

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Hang was recorded at Woody Jackson’s Vox Studios in L.A., which opened as Electro Vox in 1936 and is said to be the oldest studio in the world. It’s home to an array of vintage instruments and recording gear, including Wally Heider’s 16x4 Universal Audio/API Custom Console built by Frank Demideo in 1967, which features UA 1108s, UA 508 EQs, and API 560, 554, 550, and 550A EQs. No computers were used in the recording process of making Hang; it was recorded and mixed entirely on 2-inch tape.

Jonathan Rado “Technically, we were trying to re-create L.A. in the ’70s,” 26-year-old Rado explains. “The goal was to make a record that didn’t rely on any modern technology. It’s more than possible to do that. I do a lot of outside production with people who are very afraid of committing to ideas. But we embrace that. Our aesthetic is live takes and committing to ideas, mistakes, or whatever.

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“We were listening to classic Hollywood soundtracks,” he adds. “It’s a sound that is hard to pin down. I’m not sure what makes those records special. We were trying to re-create late-’30s big band music with ’70s-style songwriting: Cole Porter meets Warren Zevon.”

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Hang’s sessions began at Electro Vox, then, with tapes transported to Richmond, Trey Pollard arranged and conducted the orchestral parts, with additional arranging from Matthew E. White, and Adrian Olsen at Montrose Recording handling recording duties.

Michael and Brian D'Addario “We didn’t use a computer for any of the record,” Rado says. “And no grid. We literally tracked to 24-track with summing, flew to Richmond with the tapes, recorded the orchestra on a separate 16-track, mixed it off two synced master tapes connected to machines with SMPTE, then mixed by Sian Riordan to half-inch, then cut the vinyl from the tape.”

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Band tracks were cut live at Vox, including double drumming takes. Three weeks of live tracking were followed by vocals and overdubs before moving the party to Richmond. Throughout, France and Rado maintained their ’70s-aligned focus.

Working at Vox gave the band access to a swimming pool’s worth of vintage gear, including the Steinway grand piano used to record Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” RMI electric piano, Roland Jupiter, Clavinet, Celeste, and Moog Polymoog, as well as orchestral instruments, all of which forge unique personalities on Hang.

Hang was recorded entirely analog, no plugins, all the way down the line,” Vox engineer Michael Harris explains. “Recording occurred via the Heider console to a baby blue 3M M79 24-track machine from the ‘70s. We did an enormous amount of summing down to individual tracks on the tape machine in the typical old way—not a million tracks wide. That was the initial chain, from the live room to the board to the M79. We lived on tape for a good three weeks.”

Trey Pollard Harris agrees that Hang is a grandiose epic, following a literal album approach in an era of plastic stunted singles. “They wanted to build a real record,” he explains, “something you can listen to front to back and feel emotionally rather than one song being fantastic and the rest lacking continuity.”

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And with multiple recording locations, many tape reels, and traveling musicians involved, the process was anything but straightforward. “We had the 24-track machine not running SMPTE but with a track left open,” Harris says. “We sent the 24-track and did stereo bounces onto a 16-track, printed SMPTE on both and synced machines together. They took that 16-track tape with the two-track bounce with SMPTE to Richmond for orchestral overdubs, then it went to Sian to mix with two tape decks running simultaneously with SMPTE.”

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A Neumann U67 microphone through the board’s UA 1108s and API 500 Series preamplifiers handled vocals, followed by the UREI 1176/Lang EPQ2 combo into the M79 tape machine.

Steven Drozd

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Describing the keyboard chains as “totally circumstantial,” Harris followed multiple approaches, running a Leslie cabinet direct through a UA LA-3A “to stop volume swell to the tape machine,” covering the Steinway grand piano with a stereo pair of Neumann KM 54s, and “more often than not running the keyboards to tape and bouncing and running the signal hot, so you don’t need compression.”

Harris applied heavy EQ and compression to guitars, a semi-hollow-body Gretsch into a Fender Deluxe amplifier miked with an RCA 77 DX, then to 1950s-era Ampex 8-track tape machine as preamp, followed by a Lang PEQ2 to “shoehorn ringing frequencies. I’m doing EQ usually after compression using 1176s.”

Bass was recorded using both DI and an amplifier, DI going straight into the 3M tape machine after the Heider on-board preamplifier. Also in the bass chain was an original Gates Sta-level compressor.

For drums, Harris miked Hal Blaine’s roto-toms with a pair of Coles 4038s, Shure SM 56 on the snare drum, Neumann KM84 on the hi-hat, RCA 44DX covering the floor tom, Neumann FET 47 in the open bass drum, floating U47s to pick up ambient room sounds, and Coles 4038s as overheads, with the board’s UA 1108s handling preamplification.

“The first day Michael Harris had everything miked up, there were a lot of microphones on the drum kit and coming into the tape machine, but we wanted only four tracks for drums, so we summed the mics to four tracks,” says Rado. “It was nerve-wracking, but the sound of the record is committing to those sounds, and that’s all you’ve got. Left and right of the drum set miked, kick and snare, and that’s it.”

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Recording all analog is a dream for most, but does the final product, including Hang, reflect the vision? Harris thinks so. “All-analog recording is more engaging, it’s more interactive, it requires more of everyone’s efforts, and failure is not an option,” he says. “You can’t go back.”

So what does make that sonic difference? Why do the classic recordings of the ’70s sound so good? “The process of summing things down is truly why old records have such a specifically unique sound,” Harris explains. “When you start amassing a bunch of tracks onto one track, and then you degenerate it by bouncing it down to a separate track and maybe doing a third generation of bounce to even another separate track, you end up with a massive amount of that tape machine’s energy and whatever flavor it’s imparting to that signal. I think that really gave those records a girth that was never matched into today’s purely digital domain.”