“Often, I’ll get something from Tommy [Grace, keyboardist] that sounds like John Carpenter and something from Vinny [Neff, guitarist] that sounds like Link Wray or The Cramps, and I have to imagine how to build a song using those ideas together, without it sounding nuts,” says Dave MacLean, the drummer/percussionist/ co-producer in British electronic group Django Django. “But it’s funny to realize—there is a history of putting mad things together. Georgio Moroder’s production for Blondie touched on that. He had surf twang on top of synth bass lines.”
MacLean’s observation opens a window into Django Django’s influences, which also include ’90s hip hop, acid house, and the Beach Boys. And somehow, these disparate elements coexist within the synthdriven, psychedelic world of MacLean’s productions.
Django Django’s latest, Born Under Saturn, began in Angelic Studios, an upscale residential facility in the English countryside close to Oxford. The group and their co-producer/engineer, Neil Comber, spent two months there, taking full advantage of the studio’s large live room and rich complement of high-quality equipment and instruments.
“It’s a beautiful studio, with an SSL G Series desk and lots of channels of Neve [mic pre’s/EQ] for recording,” Comber observes. “They also have loads of old, wonderful analog synths—I think actually all the synths on this album are analog. There’s a really nice Memory Moog, a Solina, a Jupiter; and Tommy owns a Juno 60, which is also a big part of Django Django’s sound.”
“That Juno is the backbone of everything,” MacLean agrees. “Tommy does all the arpeggiated, John Carpenter-sounding stuff on that.”
Comber describes the band’s tracking method as an "ever-changing process" that often started with 20-minute jams that could be dissected and reimagined later. “Then Dave would do a take of drums by himself,” Comber says. “We’d play around with just the drums awhile, and then do another run-through with the drums going through effects boxes—lots of springs and old delay units. Then we’d put down some bass and guitars, and then add synthesizers.
“But then we’d get to the end and decide to try to flip the drum beat, so we’d go back to the beginning and do the drums differently,” Comber continues. “Or we’d change all the guitars. Maybe Tommy would put on a synth part that everybody loved, but it didn’t fit with the guitar, so we’d change the guitar arrangement to fit that synth.”
Comber’s MO in the studio is that the creative flow is paramount, so he put up dozens of microphones, to capture all possibilities without ever having to stop a take. “Every piece of equipment was plugged in all the time,” Comber says. “We were using all 72 channels of the desk. Want to bring up a new guitar sound? Just bring up the drum room mic and use that for the guitar room mic. We try to keep things moving.”
Comber’s drum-miking scheme included an AKG D112 on kick, Shure SM57 on snare top and bottom, and Sennheiser MD41s on toms, top and bottom. “That’s so you get lots of ring out of the bottom of the toms, because they’re a very tom-heavy band,” he says. “They use more toms than cymbals. We also had a Neumann SM69 room mic—a nice old valve stereo mic—that was a big part of the room sound. There is a balcony in the live room, and we had two U47s up there to get another really big room sound.”
Comber’s methods might seem ideal to capture massive drum hits, but MacLean uses his sounds judiciously, creating airy percussive elements—more rhythm, less rock.
“I want to keep it dynamic sounding, but the records I am influenced by percussion-wise are dub records and early rock ‘n’ roll where there’s not so much a wall of cymbals or drum kit—there’s more space with shakers and groove,” MacLean explains. “In dance music you need that space in the mix.”
“On guitars, we had sounds from a few different amps,” Comber says. “The studio has a nice Vox AC30 and a Fender Twin with a lovely spring reverb. There was also a small Ampeg with a spring reverb. And Vinny’s got a Fender Deluxe, which is his go-to amp and got used a lot, because the sound was familiar from the first album. Micwise, we usually used a 57 and a Neumann U87 through the SSL, and I’d blend the mics to tape so there was just one track of guitar.
“We’d work with ambience as well, because some of the sounds are quite surfy; we’d put the amp in the middle of the big room and set up a close mic and an ambient mic at the far end.”
Bass and synths were also miked up and/or DI’d, and the group spent a good amount of time manipulating those sounds. “We used that little Ampeg amp with the reverb quite a lot for recording synths,” Comber says. “And then we might build effects with the studio’s Eventide H3000, for example.”
Django Django in their studio/rehearsal space in London. From left: Jim Dixon (bassist), Vinny Neff (guitarist), Tommy Grace (keyboardist), Dave MacLean (drummer/co-producer). The band came away from their recording retreat with solid tracks, but they still had a lot of work to do back in London. “We were getting a bit behind, so we booked Urchin studios, which is down the road from Django Django’s rehearsal studio space. Mainly, it would be me and Jim and Vinny [at Urchin], so we did a lot of vocals and guitar overdubs there. It was fixing and adding things rather than whole takes.
“While we were working in Urchin, Dave would usually be with Tommy in the Django Django studio, doing keyboards and editing and drum programming. We did a bit of drum recording there as well, but we had tried to do the drum recording in the big room because both Urchin and the band studio are quite small. Then we'd send the new parts across to each other so we had fresh ideas to bounce off all the time.”
Most of the vocals were recorded during this phase, in a fairly elaborate process of processing and layering: “We did a lot of the vocals through a Tonelux U47, which is a copy of the Neumann U47,” Comber says. “It’s a large-diaphragm mic, so the vocals sound big. Then we’d process everything; most of the vocals are made up of at least four layers: a dry vocal, one through a guitar pedal, one through a spring reverb, and one through a weird flanger pedal or something else interesting sounding.”
The resulting psychedelic harmonies have a retro ’60s feel. And blended with the band’s wonderfully strange brew of vintage and processed sounds, the voices become almost spooky. “There’s a song on the album called ‘Shot Down,’ which started off as a big monophonic synth line with almost a hip-hop drum groove,” MacLean says. “Then Jim played some blues rock-y guitar over the top—a bit Rolling Stones—and that kicked it up another level. Then the harmonies came in and they were a bit Beach Boys… It’s almost like that game where one person whispers something and everyone passes it on; each person’s personality gets added, and you end up with this bizarre combination.”