Holy Ghost Perfect Recording Techniques on 'Dynamics'

The synthpop duo talk about crafting their second album, Dynamics, in which songs were tied intrinsically to sounds at each step of the production process

Holy Ghost!—Alex Frankel (left) and Nick Millhiser.

NICK MILLHISER and Alex Frankel are looking in the rear-view mirror at the recording of their second album, Dynamics, the follow-up to their well-received self-titled debut. The recording of Dynamics was a very different experience for the duo, who toured extensively in support of Holy Ghost! and became a lot better versed in the studio since their first dabbles under the tutelage of their DFA label heads LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy.

It was the Murphy/Goldsworthy combo who plucked Millhiser and Frankel out of high school and produced their previous incarnation, a live hip-hop group called Automato. After disbanding Automato and playing as session musicians for various members of their DFA family, Millhiser and Frankel made a name for themselves as remixers (Moby, MGMT, Cut Copy, N.E.R.D., Unkle) under the name Holy Ghost!. Murphy and Goldsworthy’s impact on the two continued in the form of helping them understand gear, steering them towards good equipment deals, exposing them to eclectic music via DJ sets, and answering questions.

Having spent many months working out how to get the sounds they wanted on Holy Ghost!, once they knew what they were doing, Millhiser and Frankel became self-reliant on Dynamics, recording the majority of the album in their home studios. But the start was still at DFA’s studio, with the recording of drums. Millhiser plays drums at different tempos, creating a selection for the two to draw from when songwriting. On occasion, there will be some chords or hooks that Millhiser will track drums to as well.

“We want drums to sound mechanical, stiff, and drum machine-like,” says Millhiser. “The drums we use are smaller, jazz-sized kits recorded in a small, dead room, close-miked traditionally. We always use the same microphone we use to record vocals: Neuman TLM 193. Using a condenser on the snare drum gives a cracking sound, which is what we’re after, as opposed to a Shure SM57, which people use on rock records and get more lulls and thud-y sounds. It’s a really good, honest, nondescript, all-purpose microphone.”

Millhiser and Frankel both have synthesizer-riddled home studios, with Millhiser’s functioning as the studio where most of the songs are finished and Frankel’s serving more as a demo and vocal studio. “Although it is DFA’s studio, it still costs money, so we only go in there when we really have something that we have to do like mix a song or record drums,” says Millhiser. “It’s kind of scary to go into a studio you’re paying for, and saying, ‘Hey, you got any ideas?’ We’ll do that stuff at home.”

For Frankel, the main pieces at home are Yamaha CS-60, Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, and the Neuman TLM 193 microphone going into a Universal Audio LA-610 and compressed through a vintage DBX 162. “There’s really no need for this vintage stuff, especially since I’m not keeping the sounds. Except, the way we write songs and get inspired is from ideas coming directly from sounds we are using,” says Frankel. “If I’m using soft synths and playing chords, I don’t hear anything, I don’t feel anything, I don’t have any ideas for lyrics. But if I’m working on a really cool vintage synthesizer [the CS-60 more often than not], I can go from there.

He continues, “I love playing the piano. When I was a little kid and we were on vacation, after four or five days I would get mopey because I didn’t have a piano. I’m not that good. I just love the physical aspect, that’s where the kernel of songs comes from, just playing and finding a cool chord progression. My voice is okay, but I’m not an opera singer so being able to play helps me vocally too. Often, I write the vocal line on the piano. I like how quickly I can work because I know my way around a piano. But I don’t think it’s necessary. Some of my favorite artists don’t know how to play.”

Millhiser’s three-bedroom apartment houses two rooms of all synthesizers—including a much-coveted Yamaha CS-80 that the two have been searching for since they were 20 and that is featured prominently on Dynamics. “We don’t skimp on buying gear,” Frankel states. “We’ve been collecting gear since we were 17 years old. I don’t feel bad about spending money on gear. I feel bad about spending money on dinner. A great meal once in a while, but these things last forever. They are as much a part of the album as we are. The synthesizers and specific custom stuff [Millhiser] builds really dictate the sound and are like another person in the operation, almost obscuring us.”

In contrast to Frankel, Millhiser’s song ideas will start from a single sound, one that could come from any number of sources. He attributes this characteristic to his drumming background. “In terms of my personality, I think of myself, first and foremost, as a drummer,” he says. “I was never the drummer who wanted to be the singer or the guitar player. Either what I do comes specifically from being a drummer, or I’m a drummer so I am predisposed to thinking about music that way. I’m not sure which comes first.”

The duo often sends files to each another, and when an idea is interesting to both sides, they move to the next stage, trying to shape it into a song. The first single, “Dumb Disco Ideas” came from the title of an email Millhiser sent to Frankel with those words in the subject line. Frankel took the ideas, added a clavinet sound he made on the CS- 60, and the two moved it to the next level. Roughly 90 percent of the instrumentation is recorded live and edited and quantized in Pro Tools. At Millhiser’s studio, Focusrite analog/ digital converters are used in tandem with the Universal Audio preamps and API 512CS and 1073 to increase the sound quality.

There are instances where you can’t tell the drum machine apart from the live drumming, such as on “Don’t Look Down.” Here, Millhiser muted the drum machine hi-hats, instead setting up physical hi-hats in his apartment and playing them along the drum machine as he would a full kit. Elsewhere, on “It Must Be The Weather,” the digital and analog drums are purposefully separated. This song is a Holy Ghost! exception in other ways as well, with the drums recorded last, in a big live room, for a deeper sound. An E-mu Emulator sampler and Moog Taurus bass synth round out its instrumentation. The track was one that took months to complete in various stages, a situation that doesn’t sit easily with Holy Ghost!

“A lot of people will track something and if it doesn’t sound right, they fix it when mixing,” says Millhiser. “For us, the sounds are so intrinsically tied to the songs themselves, so if it doesn’t sound right, we have a hard time moving on.“

Unlike that track, “Bridge And Tunnel” came together quickly, starting with the idea to make it specifically disco, with lighter-hearted lyrics, and fun, alleviating the pressure from the song as one of the last ones recorded for Dynamics. Additionally, the two reached out to Kelley Polar (Metro Area) for input on string arrangements for the song.

All Holy Ghost! material ended up back at the DFA studio for mixing—where challenges included removing bodega noises from the establishment under Millhiser’s apartment. Chris Zane was at the helm of the mixing process; a friend as well as a colleague, Zane has been alongside the duo since 2009 as they’ve grown as producers and songwriters, and was the recipient of middle-of-the-night idea emails throughout the recording process. Zane’s “super-fine ear,” according to Frankel, is central to balancing and voice removing, and his creative input was integral to producing Dynamics. “He’d say, ‘Do the chords really need to double here? It would have more impact if it only goes once.’ We‘ll edit out a section and it does work better. Or he’ll say, ‘I feel like we can do the vocal again right now and better; let’s try it.’” says Frankel. “There are certain things we’d be at a loss for, like a vocal tracking rubbing against the guitar in a weird way, driving us nuts, but we wouldn’t know how we can fix it other than re-recording the vocal. [Zane] will put on a chorus or try one of his tricks, and that’s it. It sounds amazing.

He continues, “[Zane] understands the differences between us, our strengths, our weaknesses. He knows how to enhance those and take the best parts of what we both do. We are cooking, baking this meal for a year and a half, and he is putting on the garnish.”

Lily Moayeri is a freelance writer and teacher librarian living in Los Angeles; track her work at www.pictures-of-lily.com.



We used a lot of gear on this record, so narrowing it down to a few pieces is tough, but here are the things we used most often. . . .

Alex Frankel’s home studio includes a Yamaha CS-60, Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, and a host of other synths. MICS
Neumann TLM193: All of Alex’s vocals, as well as all backup vocals, were recorded with them. Likewise, they work great for shakers, tambourines, cowbells, and as a pair for timbales, toms, roto toms, etc., and when miking a kit, we always use these for the kick and top of the snare. Also great as a stereo pair on a Rhodes Suitcase cabinet. Honorable mentions include Sennheiser 441, our go-to mic for hi-hats, and RCA BK5s. All of the piano on the record was recorded with a pair of these.

dbx 160, 165, and 162 VU compressors: We record all of Alex’s vocals through a 165 and we generally mix bass guitar through it as well. We always bus drums through a 162 and often have another 162 on the mix bus as well, and/ or wired to an aux send on the desk for parallel compression. Obviously great on a variety of single instruments (kick, snare, guitar) but also great for gluing multiple elements together and toughening them up at the same time.

The Modular Synthesizer was used mainly for bass. Ursa Major Stargate and Space. MODULAR SYNTHESIZER
Used in various ways on every song—too much to explain in painful nerdy detail—but we couldn’t imagine making music without it. It has lots of custom stuff and modules by Moon, STG, and COTK.

Yamaha CS80: The greatest polyphonic synthesizer ever made; it was literally used for every song on the album, and on most songs, there are actually multiple tracks of it. Some examples would be the eighth-note chords and brass melody on “Okay,” octave bass in the outro of “Dumb Disco Ideas,” and all of the pads in “I Wanna Be Your Hand.”

Roland Jupiter 8: We borrowed it “for a few days” from Alan [Palomo] from Neon Indian, and kept it for closer to four months and subsequently used it all over the record. A great, all-purpose, easy-to-use and stable poly synth that’s good at just about everything. We used it mainly for bass and its super-fun arpeggiator.

Yamaha DX7: Used for the melody on “Okay,” the bells on “Dance a Little Closer,” the weird industrial-sounding strikes at the end of “Don’t Look Down,” and the bridge melody on “It Must Be the Weather.”

E-mu Emulator II: Used throughout for random stuff like weird vocal pads, drum samples, percussion, noise bits, and the like. Likewise used to sample some of Alex’s vocals to make them sound “like a sample.”

Ludwig Vistalite snare drum: We changed the drum kit subtly for different songs, but if it’s not an 808 (“Okay,” “In The Red”) or a Linn LM-1 (“Don’t Look Down”), we used this snare drum on everything else. A pretty weird-sounding drum on its own, but it records very well.

Gibson Les Paul Standard: We’ve always been a Stratocaster band, but we purchased this while struggling to get some Robert Fripp-style fuzz out of a Strat and failing miserably. Lo and behold, everything they say about the Les Paul’s sustain is totally true and pretty crucial. This, plugged into a Big Muff with all of the knobs at 12 o’clock is the sh*tty guitar player’s answer to Frippertronics. Used on “Changing of the Guard,” “Don’t Look Down,” and “Always in The Red.”

Ibanez CS9 Chorus Pedal: It’s the best chorus pedal money can buy. Every “clean” guitar on the record was played through one of these.

Stacks of synths. HONORABLE MENTIONS
Universal Audio 610 preamps: We use API 512cs and 1073 clones here and there, but the UA is probably used for 75 percent of all tracking. When run cold, it is a great, transparent pre for virtually any application—not super interesting or sexy sounding at all, but another great, all purpose piece of gear. It was used on all of Alex’s vocals, and because James [Murphy] has eight (!!!) of them at DFA, we generally record an entire drum kit through them as well.

AKG BX10 Reverb: The best spring reverb ever made. Capable of very nice, subtle, natural space and totally bananas-huge stuff, dub throws on claps, bass, etc. Couldn’t mix without it.

Like the BX10, used on almost every mix, but generally for weirder tapped delays or artificial gated-reverb-sounding stuff as an alternative to BX10.