The Stereolab cofounder and producer/drummer Emma Mario combined a simple recording approach with eclectic gear choices to record Something Shines, her third solo release, in three studios in three countries.
AS CO-LEADER of the highly influential London-based group Stereolab, Laetitia Sadier forged a unique style driven by a Krautrock-informed “Motorik” beat, Esquivel/Burt Bacharach-inspired arrangements, and lounge-scented melodies that captivated the senses while her (occasionaly Marxist) lyrics intrigued the mind.
Sadier’s third solo album, Something Shines (Drag City), was recorded in three studios across as many countries, and finds the 44-year-old as immersed in politics and social critique as ever, while her music retains its playful edge.
“I use guitar and my musical imagination to capture something not too conventional and something people won’t expect in terms of chord sequences,” Sadier explains, from Paris. “I work only with my ears because I was not trained in an institution; I play by ear. Sometimes I work from lyrics but mostly it’s chord-based music that can sound good or melancholic or a bit twisted or makes me think, ‘Oh! I don’t hear that too often.’”
Recording vocals, bass pedals, and guitars in her Oyster Concrete studio in Paris, Sadier traveled to Switzerland to track vintage organs, slide guitar, and electronics (including a $55 Gakken SX 150 DIY analog synth) with multi-instrumentalist David Thayer at his Little Tornado studio. Producer Emma Mario added drums and percussion in London. Chorus vocals, percussion, brass, and strings were cut by Stefano Manca at Sudestudio in Lecce, Italy.
The control room at Sudestudio “In Stereolab, my voice was used very much as an instrument,” Sadier says. “It wasn’t your classic vocal-forward configuration. I don’t necessarily record my voice super loud now, unless I am working on a radio single. In my records [which include The Trip and Silencio], the vocal tends to be a little louder than with Stereolab.”
Sadier’s home studio is built on a simple platform of Mac/Logic Audio, Audio Technica 4050 microphone, ADAM Audio monitors, and RME Fireface Audio Interface. “I do have a Neve preamp,” she says, “but the FireFace soundcard is really good for my vocals. I usually practice before tracking vocals, then three or four takes, then comp a little bit. There is usually one better take and if something is messing up, we just catch it from another take. What sounds good and what sits well in the track are what matters.”
Opening track “Quantum Soup” is Something Shines’ production centerpiece, a dreamy mélange of plucked bass, humming keyboards, off-kilter guitar, flute, ambient sounds, and spoken-word French vocals. “That was quite a chunk,” Sadier exclaims. “It took a long time to string together and to find its way. It came out beautifully in the end. We thought this one could fall flat on its face, but in the end it did come along and we were all very happy with it. It’s an ambitious piece of work.”
“Then I Will Love You Again” has the classic, forward-motion Stereolab sound, the song chugging along in a blissful Motorik groove. “Oscuridad” was inspired by French theorist Guy Debord’s Situationist International, which criticized the overreaching power of the ultra-rich 50 years before today’s various Occupy factions denounced the “1 percent.”
Gakken SX 150 Working in Cubase SX on a PC with various plug-ins, RME Fireface Audio Interface, and a Tascam M30, producer/drummer Emma Mario approached tracking with a minimalist approach that suited Sadier’s individual-centric ethos.
“I recorded on an old Rogers drum kit that belonged to Stereolab,” Mario says. “It’s old and fragile. Usually, I’m only using three microphones to record the drum kit: an Audio Technica 4050 (omni position) for the single overhead mic, an old East German RFT/RDA Funkberater MD 30-2 dynamic mic for the snare, and a Russian Oktava Mk-012 for the kick (omni position, 50 centimeters from the kick drum). It’s all direct to the soundcard, or sometimes, for the snare or overhead mic, I record via Laetitia’s Empirical Labs Distressor or my Tascam M30.”
Sadier and Thayer work in Logic, but Mario remains loyal to Cubase. “I’m using Cubase SX for 15 years now,” he says. “You can do everything with this editor. I’m really familiar with it. So that’s why I prefer Cubase. I don’t want to spend hours on technical points; I want to make music. An editor is just a tool you have to know by heart.
“I don’t like to talk about plug-ins,” he adds, reluctant to divulge his secrets. “It’s intimate, really personal. Sometimes I work in Nomad Factory, Native Instruments, a Waves bundle, a lot of free plug-ins, too. I’ve created my own presets for years, but I don’t like to use the same preset and the same process for recording for every song on the same album. I need to change from one track to another. I never put the mics exactly at the same places, and never use the same plug-ins. Sometimes I have old, cheap mics everywhere. I love external noises and anything that can create accidents. Most importantly, I trust my ears and my ADAM Audio A7 monitors.”
Mario, who also drums with Astrobal, Holden, Arnaud Fleurent-Didier, Nina Savary, Orion Rigel Domisse, and Swann, sometimes describes recording techniques as “magic.” “I like to create magic,” he says, “which means all the sound or mixing treatments, all the hours I spend traveling on every sound, remodeling, equalizing, compressing, adding some noises, sounds. I love to cook, and my kitchen is Cubase. I think mixing is also part of composing. I don’t have much hardware, except the little Tascam M30 8-track mixer, and Laetitia’s Distressor.”
In addition to recording solo albums since Stereolab went on hiatus in 2009, Sadier joined with Pram’s Rosie Cuckston in Monade; they’ve released Socialisme ou Barbarie (2003), A Few Steps More (2005), and Monstre Cosmic (2008). “Two years ago we hired Jim McIntire’s SOMA studio to record drums,” Sadier reflects. “We couldn’t record drums in my small attic. So that was a worthy expense, and it pays to get a skilled mixer for a beautiful result. It’s good to know where to spend your money when you don’t have a huge budget.
“But nowadays, the technology totally enables you,” Sadier concludes. “What you need are three good microphones, a good sound card, good monitors, and you’re set. Then you need to play well, and sing in tune. I recorded at my friend Stefano Manca’s Sudestudio in southern Italy a while ago. I can’t compare my little home studio to his brilliant state-of-the-art studio. But I self-finance everything, so you can only do so much, especially when you want to pay everyone well. Recording at home confers you a lot of freedom. And paying a lot of money for studio time is too much pressure. I want to take it easy!”
Ken Micallef is freelance writer and photographer based in New York City. His work has appeared in many publications, including DownBeat, eMusic, and Modern Drummer.