In the Studio: Austra with Alice Wilder

'The making of Future Politics
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I thought my vocals sounded better than they’ve ever sounded on a recording before,” says Katie Stelmanis, the singer and musician/recordist behind Austra. On Austra’s new album Future Politics, Stelmanis’ voice is certainly captured in all its dynamic glory: As serves the song or the moment, she will sound close and intimate, soft and ethereal, or powerful in a Björk-esque way.

Stelmanis had long felt that she sounded better in a concert setting than she did on record. And now it seems she has found the key to capturing that live vocal sound: She recorded and produced the album herself (with additional production from bandmember/electronic artist Maya Postepski on a few tracks), and then enlisted her live engineer, Alice Wilder, to mix.

Stelmanis created almost all of the instrument parts in the box. “I used to do everything with [Native Instruments] Massive,” the artist says. “I remember I was staying in England with some musicians once, and they were shocked, because Massive is such an EDM synth, and I was making different music from that. Later, I got into Arturia softsynths—their vintage [emulations].

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“We did a lot with vintage synth sounds on my second record [Olympia], and I’m partial to the Prophet-5—those beautiful pad sounds—but I also am also into Native Instruments. I’ve gone back to those [NI] digital sounds on this one; I got really into Rounds.”

Stelmanis used a lot of rhythmic sounds: repeated, pulsing tones and keyboard notes with her voice soaring above them. With the exception of very few instrument parts performed by Dorian Wolf (bass on two tracks), Jennifer Mecija (violin, track 1) and Wilder (guitar, track 3), Stelmanis’ voice is the only element that saw a microphone.

“This was a very mobile record,” she says. “I wrote it in four different cities; I also was writing a lot on tour, and the way it was produced reflects that. It was mostly in-the-box, MIDI stuff—mostly samples—and I was traveling around with a preamp and a mic I bought off eBay in Russia. It’s like a LOMO ripoff. The LOMO I wanted cost around $3,000, but I found a guy who makes ‘Frankenstein’ mics, and it was $700. It ended up being amazing.”

She created the songs in Ableton Live, and Wilder mixed in the same format. “I really like the flow of Live, and I had used it before,” says Wilder, who has been Austra’s live sound mixer since 2011. The engineer—who has also mixed concert sound for MIA, Third Eye Blind, and others—had previously recorded and mixed friends’ tracks, but this was actually her first time mixing a commercial release.

“In the beginning, I was learning; I was trying to reverse everything I knew about live sound because it’s completely different,” Wilder says. “I was just getting to know plug-ins and working on my laptop when we were [on tour] in Mexico last year. Katie wasn’t completely done with the songs at that point, so I tease her that I was basically making really nice demos for her.”

“It was a learning process for both of us,” Stelmanis says. “I would give her songs, she would mix, and then we would find holes. So, I’d reproduce them and she’d mix them again, and we’d find holes, and we’d do that until we got it right.”

Stelmanis and Wilder created the final mixes in Union Sound Company, Toronto, and Transmitter Park Studios, New York City. Most of the heavy lifting in terms of processing happened in Toronto, with Wilder making extensive use of Audio Ease Altiverb and Waves H Delay on Stelmanis’ voice.

“Compressor-wise, I used Fabfilter Pro C a lot, but I put very light compression on her vocals.”

Wilder recalls using Thermionic Culture Vulture on “basically everything,” as well as some Strymon pedals: “Those were for texture,” she says. “SoundToys’ Crystallizer snuck in at moments, too. I had a good time experimenting with that. If there was a gap somewhere, we would fill in with a weird sound.”