The Beths in the Studio - EMusician
Rock Harmonies from New Zealand

Future Me Hates Me is the amusing title of a new record from New Zealand-based alt-rock band The Beths. If you haven’t heard them yet, check out the title track from this rocking, charming, inventive group:

Lead singer/guitarist Elizabeth Stokes is also the band’s principle songwriter; she creates fairly formed song demos on her own in Reaper, via her Apogee Duet, and then calls on the other bandmembers—guitarist/engineer/producer Jonathan Pearce, bass player Benjamin Sinclair, and drummer Ivan Luketina-Johnson—to flesh out the arrangements.

“We recently re-released an EP that has one song by our drummer, but usually it’s me writing the songs,” says Stokes. “I would bring demos into the studio and we arrange each song as a group.”

Bass player Benjamin Sinclair, frontwoman Elizabeth Stokes, and drummer Ivan Luketina-Johnson

Bass player Benjamin Sinclair, frontwoman Elizabeth Stokes, and drummer Ivan Luketina-Johnson

Full arrangements and recordings are developed in Pearce’s project studio in Auckland. “The street where my studio is has six or seven music venues on it,” says Pearce. “It’s a cool, inspiring place to be, and it’s where we rehearse as well. “

At about 390 square feet, Pearce’s space is small for live tracking, so sessions begin with bass and drums, while Stokes provides a guide guitar track and vocal. “There were so many different decisions for every instrument,” Pearce says. “In a way, the beauty of the space where we work is, it’s reasonably affordable. I have some nice equipment, but I don’t have tens of thousands of dollars invested to where I need to make a whole lot of money to make it work. We can chip away slowly. Each song, foolishly or not, tended to have a completely different microphone setup on drums.”

Jonathan Pearce says, "Ivan can be trusted not to hit the microphone with his sticks, he's a studio pro."

Jonathan Pearce says, "Ivan can be trusted not to hit the microphone with his sticks, he's a studio pro."

The setup that Pearce often starts with includes a Sennheiser e906 on snare bottom, an AKG D112 inside the kick drum, and a Studio Projects C3 in omni pattern, “floating around” outside the kick, that Pearce could position different ways. “Ivan only ever plays with one low tom,” Pearce explains. “That would be a Sennheiser 421 probably.

“On some sessions I borrowed a Neumann U67 and, kind of for my own entertainment, I miked the floor tom with that. But the overhead design changed every time. In an effort to get a nicely centered snare drum but still quite wide cymbals, I tried a lot of different things, like coincident or nearly coincident figure-8 ribbon mics. I also had two or three songs where I was trying a “Recorder Man” setup. That was pretty good; it puts the snare and kick nicely in phase.”

Pearce also sought creative ways to wrangle Sinclair’s powerful bass sound. “Ben has an Ibanez bass he loves, and he plays with a really heavy right hand,” Pearce says. “He also plays jazz saxophone, so that may be one reason that his playing is a lot like a walking bass line on an upright bass; it’s very percussive, and there’s a big, low-frequency boom on the front of every note. I could not seem to find a DI box that would record a nice, clean bass sound that would sit in the mix.

Ben Sinclair

Ben Sinclair

“We tried three or four DIs, and in the end the magic thing turned out to be my made-in-New Zealand ’60s valve amp,” Pearce continues. “It’s got an output tap off of the preamp stage—a weird screw-in mic connector. I took it to the guy who services my amps and I asked, ‘Is this a viable studio-level output?’ He worked on it and looked up the schematic, and then he inserted a ground-lifted quarter-inch output on the back, and it was amazing. It’s a totally unique valve DI with all the controls of a valve amp. I can have it running quietly and get a nice clean signal, or turn it up a lot and have it really distorted and cool.

“I really didn’t want to ask Ben to modify his playing style. I have a lot of trust and respect for him as a musician, and it would have been the wrong thing to turn to him and say, ‘Dude, you’re playing too loud.”

Once drum and bass sounds were nailed down, Pearce and Stokes would spend “the wee hours in the studio,” working on guitar sounds.

“Because the studio is sometimes used as a rehearsal space, and other people come in and record there, there are always different amps floating around,” Stokes says. “Jonathan and I each have a Jansen, a 6twenty and Bassman 15, which are New Zealand vintage valve amps from the ’60s, but we tried a lot of different amps.”

Jonathan Pearce playing through Jansen amps and Grundig mics.

Jonathan Pearce playing through Jansen amps and Grundig mics.

“This might warrant a diversion,” says Pearce. “New Zealand had import restrictions on electronics in the ’60s and into the ‘70s. Any box with two speakers in it was considered a ‘high-fi system’ and could only be imported under certain regulations: For example, some parts had to be assembled in New Zealand. There are some ’60s and ’70s Fender Twins in New Zealand that were two-speaker boxes, so they had to go to Christchurch to be assembled, which meant that some components are different. They don’t really sound and feel like American Fenders.

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“One-speaker amps were in a totally different classification, but they were expensive to bring into New Zealand, so there are very few vintage American Fenders or Champs or other small amps from the ’60s in New Zealand. This created a short-lived situation where we had a few different local valve amp manufacturers.”

As for guitars, Pearce mainly plays a vintage Les Paul Deluxe, while Stokes plays a new G&L Tribute Fallout. “It’s a nice contrast,” Pearce says. “I also have another guitar that’s a bit of a parts guitar, with a Stratocaster pickup and another weird single-coil pickup and a third weird single-coil pickup; you can just pick up this guitar and you’ve got three more options.

More guitar recording—this time, a Jansen 620 on ground with Beyer 610 mic, Univox on top of large cab with RM5 mic, Rat pedal used extensively.

More guitar recording—this time, a Jansen 620 on ground with Beyer 610 mic, Univox on top of large cab with RM5 mic, Rat pedal used extensively.

“And with a typical complete lack of consistency, we applied every tool in the studio to record these guitars. A lot of them were recorded with a pair of little Grundig microphones from the ’70s. They have the same capsule as a Sennheiser 409. They’re these tiny spherical microphones and they look like toys.” Other mic choices include Octava 012s, Bumblebee Audio RM5s, and of course the SM57.

Sinclair sings backing vocals. Here, Pearce says he uses a "very filtered and soft-sounding Grundig (Lustraphone) mic with Ben singing loudly."

Sinclair sings backing vocals. Here, Pearce says he uses a "very filtered and soft-sounding Grundig (Lustraphone) mic with Ben singing loudly."

Guitar tracks were then followed by The Beths’ beautiful vocal harmonies, led by Stokes; she sings every one of her parts, though Pearce double-tracks her a fair amount. Sinclair, Pearce and Luketina-Johnson also sing backup.

“With the BV sessions, it’s like, ‘Come and sing your part four or five times loudly and then leave me to pick up the pieces,’” says Pearce with a laugh. “And throughout, there’s this light, acrimonious discontent. Everybody is trying to match everybody else’s phrasing, but it seems to be in kind of an angry way: ‘Why didn’t you sing like me?’ ‘Why didn’t you sing aagh and not oogh? ‘Am I sharp or is Ben flat?’ In some cases it’s fun, but it’s a real task.

“We try to be careful, too, because we don’t want to do too much. We want the vocals to have a little of that studio sugar—but we never want the sound to get too far away from being a live band.”