Whoever coined the idiom, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” didn’t like a challenge.
After six albums and just as many EPs—with 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga debuting at number 10 on the Billboard 200—Spoon has had their share of success and could have easily stuck to the same recording routine. But that isn’t their style.
The band had worked with producer/engineer Mike McCarthy (Trail of the Dead, Patty Griffin, White Rabbits) for their previous four albums, but they decided to produce their latest, Transference [Merge], on their own.
“I wanted to try to make a differentsounding kind of record and approach it in a way we hadn’t approached it before,” singer/guitarist Britt Daniel says. “Whenever you work with a producer, it’s the combining of two aesthetics, and you’re trying to please both aesthetics at the same time. That means compromising, and that can be a great way to make a record. But I thought this time it would be cool to make a record where there’s no compromises, and if we’re going to screw it up, we’re going to screw up grandly, and all of the mistakes will be 100 percent ours.”
The other big change was the studio. The last few albums were recorded at drummer Jim Eno’s Public Hi-Fi studio (public-hifi.com) in Austin, Texas, but this time, they opted to record at Rare Book Room (rbr-studio.com) in Brooklyn, New York, with engineer Nicolas Vernhes.
Before that, Daniel recorded demos for Transference in his Portland, Oregon- based home studio running Pro Tools. He had dozens of ideas, but many of them died on the vine. And not all of the ones that he picked to play for his bandmates made it to the album. “Some of them I do bring to the band, and then we can’t figure out a way to make them work,” Daniel admits. “It’s not like we came up with 30 songs that worked and whittled it down. It was just kind of along the way feeling like, ‘Okay, we have one that works. . . . Okay, we’ve got two. . . .’ And eventually we had 11 that we thought could work.”
CASSETTE TAPE TAKES
The 11 songs that made it to Transference went through a workout to get there. In the past, the band wouldn’t rehearse the songs a ton before recording them. This time, the guys decided to test some of the songs in front of a live audience.
“A lot of times you’ll record a song in the studio, and then you’ll play it for a year on the road, and your parts will be so much better and more worked out and make so much more sense,” Eno says. “So we did a tour up to New York, and we played a couple of new songs—like ‘Mystery Zone’ and ‘Written in Reverse’—a lot of times on the road and then ended up knocking them out live [at Rare Book Room] with Nicolas. I feel really good because we did that this time. I think those two songs have a feel that’s really natural.”
But while Spoon took the time to rehearse and work out parts, they also left room for spontaneity. For starters, because Daniel has some great gear at his studio (including a Neumann U 67 mic, Telefunken V76 preamp, and Urei 1176 compressor), the band often intertwined his preproduction demo takes with takes recorded at Rare Book Room.
Sometimes even takes recorded on Daniel’s TASCAM Portastudio 424 4-track in rehearsals made it to the album, as well. That was the case on the intermittently lo-fi and hi-fi track, “Trouble Comes Running.”
“We recorded the basic tracks on cassette, not with the intention of it being on the album but just because we were rehearsing the song and learning how we were going to arrange it,” Daniel says. “We took a couple shots at actually recording [the tracks] at a real studio, but I then went back and listened to that rehearsal, and the drum and bass performances and the way the guitar works with them didn’t even come close on what we did afterward.”
“We felt the performance far outweighed the lack of hi-fi sonic quality,” Eno agrees. But because the bass and drums were recorded on the same track (along with some guitar bleed), the guys decided to hard-pan the drums and bass to one side. “You couldn’t put the bass and drums up the middle and make it sound interesting because it was basically one track,” Eno says.
The band isn’t afraid to try some extreme things in the studio, for example, using two mixes in one song. Spoon first employed the technique on “Chicago at Night” from Girls Can Tell (2001). They had two different mixes of the song and didn’t know which one they liked better, so they just went with both, panning each mix to opposite sides of the stereo field. On Transference, they did something similar with “I Saw the Light.” Only this time, they took two mixes, one done at Rare Book Room in August 2009 and one done in L.A. at Hillside Manor in September, and they spliced them together so that one plays until about 2-1/2 minutes, and then the other takes over when the guitar drops out and the beat changes from 6/8 to 4/4, continuing through the end of the track.
“I remember when we were working on our early records, the producer—I think it might have been John Croslin—told us that classic rock bands would do that for songs that were kind of intricate, where there’d be different sections,” Daniel says. “You could hear the levels jump around or hear everything go into a different space. And I’ve always liked that idea. It would just be something interesting to try if it brings you to a place that you never would have gotten to any other way.”
On a smaller scale, Daniel got that effect in the album opener, “Before Destruction,” by using one take from his demo sessions and one from Rare Book Room. He recorded himself singing and playing acoustic guitar on the first verse with a Shure SM58 over a simple beat from an Alesis HR-16 drum machine. Then the second verse lifts up with a more upfront vocal and a dry guitar sound recorded at Rare Book Room.
“What you are hearing for that first verse is me singing into a little digital voice recorder that you can take notes on,” Daniel says. “And that vocal performance was never beat. Even though it’s kind of hard to discern what I’m saying, I still just liked the quality of that, and we were very aware that that gives you a totally different perspective between the first verse and second verse.”
GETTING INTO GEAR
In his studio, Daniel recorded his vocals through his U 67 into the V76 preamp and 1176 compressor, but for “Who Makes Your Money,” he sang into an Electro-Voice 666 mic. And sometimes they’d double up on compression at Rare Book Room. “Sometimes we would use the 1176 twice or use a dbx 160 as well as the 1176,” Daniel says. If we compress a vocal twice, it’s usually because we want some kind of super-power to the vocal or because the vocal just doesn’t seem great enough.
After singing some swooping “oohs” and “aahs” for “Before Destruction,” Daniel did some editing experiments. “I would just grab those little sections and reverse them and then cut them up and place them in places where they hadn’t been before,” he says. “People always cite that Beatles song, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!’ where they cut up the tape of the organ and then put it back together. It’s sort of like that.”
Spoon used E-mu Vintage Keys (specifically a setting called “Yamonica” on “Before Destruction”) and an ARP Solina String Ensemble on songs such as “The Mystery Zone.” On the stripped-down ballad, “Goodnight Laura,” Daniel recorded himself playing his baby grand piano in Portland. He got some nice reflections from the piano sitting in a big tiled room miked from far away with an SM58. He also close-miked the piano with an SM57 and sandwiched two separate takes together for a fuller sound.
Meanwhile, Daniel’s main guitars are a Gibson ES-335, Fender Telecaster, and Gibson J-45 acoustic. His standard amp is a Vox AC30, but he sometimes records with a Vox Pathfinder (as with the distorted guitar on “I Saw the Light”). As for bass, they used Vernhes’ ’70s Epiphone short-scale bass for some songs, which was DI’d with the Telefunken V72, miked through an Ampeg B-15N, or using a combination of both signals.
For drums, it was Vernhes’ ’70s Ludwig kit and a C&C kit brought in by Eno. “We tried to get the kit to really sing in the room,” Vernhes says, “so we moved it around a bunch, depending on whether we wanted dry and tight (gobo’d), natural (room center), or room loaded (placed in a corner). The kick is always a challenge because I don’t like click-y kicks, but I do want definition, so I mostly miked the outside of the head with an Audio-Technica AT4047. Snare is usually a 57 or an AKG C 451, and the toms are balanced by combining the overhead and room with a close mic like a Sennheiser MD 421 or an Equitek e100. For overheads, we often started with a rented stereo Telefunken ELA M 251, or for mono, my Lomo 19A19 or Soundelux U99.”
Spoon (left to right)—Eric Harvey, Rob Pope, Britt Daniel, and Jim Eno.
“IS LOVE FOREVER?”
The song “Is Love Forever?” is barely over two minutes long, but there’s a lot going on in that short time. Daniel, bassist Rob Pope, and keyboardist/guitarist Eric Harvey each play rhythm guitar. “We came up with three parts that complemented each other and recorded them live,” Daniel says. “Jim had the idea of also setting up room mics so that we could get the wall-of-sound treatment if we wanted to, which we did bring in very briefly in the mix. You can hear it come in twice towards the end of the song, once at the very end and once right before the verse that goes, ‘Are you quite certain, love?’ We just brought it up in volume so that it felt roomy and Christmas-y.”
Vernhes combined a Neumann U 67 and Shure SM57 for close miking on the amps. “For the room,” he says, “I used a Soundelux E47 to a Telefunken V72 slammed into an 1176 for one side, and probably a Coles 4038 for the other side.”
Also of note on “Is Love Forever?” is the feedback delay on Daniel’s voice. Vernhes layered several plug-in delays, along with a Roland Space Echo. “We put that track on its own fader on the console to ride at will during the mix,” he says. “It’s more organic than programming fader moves because they end up staying static as the mix develops, and sometimes I want to go with the energy of that very instant in the mix and decide to do something with it that wasn’t planned, like peg it, then mute it on a downbeat, as on ‘Is Love Forever.’”
But the most radical sound on the song (and maybe the record) is the floor tom sent through an Eventide H910 Harmonizer. “We were experimenting with throwing the floor tom through it for that weird, off-kilter pahtchooooo! sound,” Eno says.
“The H910 is great overall, but it’s really interesting when you combine its internal delay, turn up the feedback, and then play the pitch wheel so it takes the pitched sound and pitches that down, too,” Vernhes says.
One thing Spoon didn’t want to do was overload the album with too much of any one thing. “Transference was a raw project—just a few ingredients with the right sounds,” Vernhes says.
With sonic economy in mind, Spoon knew what not to do. “Avoid using things like distorted rhythm guitar,” Daniel suggests. “That takes up a ton of space. And if you’re not using, say, a piano that’s going the whole time or a rhythm acoustic guitar that’s way up front in the mix, and if you’re relying more on instruments with space in them, then you’ll have your work cut down for you.”
Another bit of advice is to avoid duplicating a part (even if you absolutely love it) ad nauseam throughout a song. “If it happens too much, then it’s not special anymore,” Eno says. “You don’t want to ruin a hook or keep doing something that ends up becoming old.”
They took special care not to overplay the hooks in “The Mystery Zone.” At key points, the ARP Solina String Ensemble comes in and out. And about three-quarters of the way through, there’s a fantastic cameo from a delayed, chorused guitar part, played through a Space Echo and a ’70s Boss CE-1 chorus pedal. “I thought it was like one of those Dylan arrangements from the ’60s where you would just do the same thing over and over again,” Daniel says. “And I liked it that way. But then the band was like, ‘You know you’re just doing verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, that is . . . what I’m doing.’ But they thought maybe we should put in a break, and it worked, just this brief little thing to give it some breathing room.”
All of that economy gave Vernhes (and Dave Sardy, who also mixed some of the album) more space for mixdown. Vernhes worked on a 1979 MCI JH-536 console and used Telefunken V72 and Vintech X73i preamps; Urei 1176, Manley ELOP, and Drawmer 1960 compressors; and API 5500 and GML 8200 EQs. He also employed a Neve 33609C for parallel compression on drums and an API 2500 bus compressor over the entire mix.
“In many ways, I don’t like very even, balanced mixes,” Vernhes says. “I like things that stick out, that break through the ‘everything’s just perfect’ sheen that so many mixes tend to have. Placing a solo way out there can be jarring, and jarring is very good, like Captain Beefheart or The Stooges. The loudness of certain elements masks aspects of the music, and that’s good because then you have to work as a listener to notice how all the instruments work together by focusing ‘into’ the song.”
And if a mix confuses the listener a little, Vernhes doesn’t think it’s such a bad thing. “What interests me is the mystery a good mix produces,” he says. “And much like how hearing a song from another room draws you in to figure out what’s going on, a good mix reveals and hides specific aspects of structure and melody to simultaneously baffle and seduce the listener.”
Daniel records his demos on Pro Tools, Vernhes uses Apple Logic Pro, and for Transference, Spoon recorded to a 1973 3M M79 2-inch tape machine (later mixing down to a 1981 Studer A80 VU 1/2-inch). The combination caused some frustration.
“A lot of times we would use Britt’s demos as a guide track, so we would have to convert Britt’s Pro Tools audio, consolidate end-to-zero, and then bring the tracks into Logic,” Eno says. “But it was a very difficult process because sometimes we’d forget something on the Pro Tools side. We’d have to re-consolidate and bring it back into Logic, and that whole mechanism was really difficult, so we ended up talking Nicolas into making it a Pro Tools session because Logic didn’t have a very good syncing mechanism to the way we usually work.” (Fortunately, assistant engineer Tom Gloady, Daniel, and Eno helped Vernhes get up to speed with Pro Tools.)
“In my studio and Mike McCarthy’s studio,” Eno says, “you can pretty easily fly things back and forth from tape to Pro Tools. We’re slaving Pro Tools to tape, and a lot of EQ readers will say that that’s not the best lock. The best lock is to have Pro Tools be the master, but in my studio and Mike’s, we don’t have what’s called a Lynx [converter] box, which is this thing that resolves clocks between two different sources.
“The way we do it is just stripe track 24 with SMPTE and then run that into the Pro Tools|HD Sync I/O, and then you put Pro Tools online and say basically, ‘Wait for LTC Sync,’ and it will wait for your tape machine to start, wait for the SMPTE to be seen by the Sync I/O, and then Pro Tools will start playing.”
THE TRUTH ABOUT BRIDGES
Sometimes the bridge of a song comes off as an afterthought, or even worse, it ruins the vibe entirely. “It’s so easy to make a bad bridge,” Daniel says. “I just feel like so much of the time somebody’s throwing in a bridge because they feel like they need to. It’s very often not something that adds to your enjoyment of the song. In fact, a lot of the time it takes you out of the headspace that you were in before. It’s hard to come up with a new section that feels the same but goes to a different place.”
If he can’t make a bridge make sense, Daniel will skip it or just create a break in the song to give it a sense of relief. “If I feel like I need some space between the chorus and the next verse, then maybe I’ll try to do something that just stays on the first chord of the verse and make some kind of riff there,” he says. “It really bothers me when a song produces a mood and a feeling in you, and then all of a sudden it just switches gears and goes to a new thing just for the sake of going to a new thing.”