Miike Snow: The 'iii' Recording Sessions

Inside iii, the third full-length from international production trio Andrew Wyatt, Christian Karlsson, and Pontus Winnberg
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An animal, a sad robot, a jealous tyrant: Miike Snow is all of these things, and none of them.

An ambiguous character, nay characters, Miike Snow is the alias, the aggregate, that has allowed Andrew Wyatt, Christian Karlsson, and Pontus Winnberg to operate in a fictitious universe for nearly 10 years, combining past experiences and retrofuturistic studio techniques into sci-fi fantasies and emotional but never manipulative indie-pop songs.

As songwriters, the three have had successes delivering club bangers and pop chart-friendly R&B—Karlsson and Winnberg (as Bloodshy & Avant) writing for Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Kylie Minogue, to name a few; and Wyatt working with Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson, among others.

The group’s 2009 self-titled debut introduced the Miike Snow combination of electronic ensembles, live drums, and filtered vocals, while 2012’s Happy to You featured a less pumping, more resonant focus on treated pianos and synthesis. Now two plus one definitely equals iii, as Miike Snow’s latest full-length showcases both the pensive and pitch-bent sides of the group’s personality, augmented by sample-led earthy funk, live instrumentation, and copious hooks.

“For album one, we combined the sum total of our musical experiences until that moment—what we’d done and had forged us,” reflects Wyatt. “Between albums one and two we toured as an actual band, operating in that backstage social universe where we’d have to think about where we fit in and what expectations people might have for another album. Then, after album two, we no longer felt obligated to even be a band, so when we came back together it was fully by choice. We weren’t desperate to make a new Miike Snow record, but it seemed like the fun thing to do so we started.”

Between Happy to You and iii Wyatt, based between New York and Los Angeles, had kept busy releasing a solo album (Descender) and collaborating with artists including Flume and Lykke Li, among other activities. Karlsson, splitting his time between Bangkok and LA, scored several dance/electronic chart hits as half of duo Galantis (with Linus “Style of Eye” Eklöw). And Winnberg, located in Stockholm, spent time producing and managing the artist collective/record label INGRID. Getting back together could have resulted in a clash of egos, aesthetics, or just plain logistics, but “everything came together really early,” explains Karlsson. “Like the first demo and the final mix aren’t that far from each other. It used to be very far apart.”

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“Our time together in Miike Snow has become very rare; everyone lives in different parts of the world,” says Wyatt, “so we knew when we came together we had to nail it, have the shit be good and inspired in a short period. We weren’t going to have a month to work on the beat. So this record was similar to the first in that instinctually we knew what to do and it was working fresh enough to be relevant. The thing you want to have is a song you can play on the piano that would keep your interest and feel satisfying, and then you have the talent to lay out a much richer production.”

Reuniting in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood for a few days in late 2014, then continuing sessions in New York and Stockholm over the next year, Wyatt, Karlsson, and Winnberg overcame initial tensions by committing to keep things uncomplicated. A template soon emerged: Mix the cathartic sing-a-long heartbreak pop of ’60s and ’70s singer-songwriters, a love of sampler-borne ’90s hip-hop, and modern studio treatments.

Influences from garage rock to brooding prog, blue-eyed soul to choppy J. Dilla and Just Blaze drums crop up, shown in the dusty breaks of “My Trigger” and vintage Marlena Shaw loop in “Heart Is Full.” A variety of tender, swaggering, uneasy qualities are given to the album’s stories of breakups and come-ons by Wyatt’s vocals, which are “not always necessarily from a soulful place but coming from a soul tradition.”

“My initial instincts in music come from jazz, hip-hop, soul … my first records, people compared to Stevie Wonder and Todd Rundgren back in 1993, and it’s something that’s always been with me and you can’t rewrite,” says Wyatt. Karlsson adds that his approach on iii involved “a lot of going back into the mind of me as a 16-year-old with a [Akai] MPC60 or something.”

On the first two albums a hybrid production approach pulled in everything from analog voltage-controlled synths to Camel Audio plugins and SSL channel strip emulations, while the totem of Happy to You was “The Blob,” a modular performance synth assembled by guys from Teenage Engineering and EMS, and based around a 6-channel mixer, Corgasmatron filters, EH Cathedral and Doepfer reverbs, Intellijel VCAs, and custom 12V lamp drivers to visualize the audio signal.

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While The Blob has been retired, what it represents remains integral to iii: embracing positive distortion and perfect imperfections.

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“All gear has a sound, has character in my mind, and that can be as much a part of the song as the melody,” says Winnberg. “I don’t do classical music or anything where neutrality is a factor. When we were writing ‘I Feel the Weight’ I came up with this very slow vibrato guitar tone, and I recorded the part with my [Fender] Jaguar through an Ace Tone pedal and probably a Sennheiser MD 421 11, layering notes for a spacey, seasick vibe that was noisy, but that didn’t bother me. And I’ve been workshopping getting as much punchy drum sound out of one microphone as possible. I’m never looking for the perfect formula, just the perfect sound for the immediate song.”

Perfect sound may seem difficult to achieve on an album where sessions were split so extensively both geographically and chronologically, but in recent years the Miike Snow trio has consolidated platforms to some extent. Wyatt and Karlsson work with Pro Tools rigs in L.A., though Karlsson says more and more of his time is spent producing mobile, exploring whatever gear is at hand, and the only constants are his choice of monitors: Genelec, ADAM Audio, and Yamaha NS10s. As long as plug-in versions were reconciled, swapping sessions isn’t a challenge.

Winnberg now also records in Pro Tools, with gear including “one Neve BCM10 with a 1078 or 1081 or 1084s—the short ones, not the taller ones—and then there’s an API 1608 we used. I used to use Logic a lot, but I don’t trust it fully. When you bring it up the third or the fourth time might be slightly different even though you might not have done anything, but when it’s an audio file it’s a file and it’s less likely to change. I’d rather have as little plug-ins as possible and have the computer do as little work as possible once it’s in the main session.”

Winnberg is not alone in his desire to get a take exactly where he wants it with effects and then just alter level and pan later.

“I hate having too many options or channels or whatever,” says Karlsson. “I like to just print stuff early and be like, ‘This is how this sounds.’ When I’m done with something, even effects—reverbs, delays, etc.—a lot of times I’ve already printed those. I think it’s good with some limitations. It helps you move forward. It keeps me more creative. If I have too many options, it suffers. It’s like, ‘There’s a reason I like this right now. Let’s just print it.’”

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For example, Wyatt and Karlsson had a very clear vision during tracking for the vocals on certain tracks. “I feel like I learned a lot about how I want to sing, and how the softer you sing the bigger it sounds,” says Wyatt. “And there are some songs where it’s obvious a dynamic mic will work better. Like,‘I Feel the Weight’—the first instinct I had was vocals should be formant-shifted down, autotuned and on a [Shure] SM57, and we did that and we thought it was cool with this computerized sound, like Air or something. Still, it was such a good song we thought we’d try singing it naturally, but nothing worked sonically as well so we left the computerized vocal.”

“I guess I like robots more than humans, I don’t know,” laughs Karlsson. “I never like any vocal when it just sounds like a normal vocal. Ever. Sometimes I feel like I spend 50 percent of my time on the treatment of the vocals and 50 percent of the time I spend on the rest of the song.”

This philosophy has the potential to cause severe challenges in the mix stages, but the clear vision and experience of the producers minimized any issues, according to engineer Niklas Flyckt: “Yeah, and a lot of the stuff was really good so we’d use it but I’d add more ambiance, more dimension to it by blending in some old Fairchild 658 spring verb or EMT 240 gold plate or something. Maybe I’d try to give it analog richness with some Klark Teknik DN780 or AKG BX 15, but sometimes the things they had done—especially the vocals—were very established in Pro Tools so it had to be the stuff they did. Software reverbs sound a little bit all the same all the time to me, and stacking older reverbs make the overtones sound more live, less cut and paste, so there is definitely a lot of old nice-sounding equipment on that record.”

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Reinforcing Flyckt’s ability to visualize and optimize each sketch’s full potential is a relationship stretching back nearly two decades. “I’ve been working with Niklas for almost 20 years,” says Karlsson. “I know this because I was just nominated for a Grammy again with Niklas for a Galantis song and we were sitting down and counting when we started to work together. He’s been there through so many different periods in my life as a musician, producer, mixer, songwriter. He’s had different roles, but there’s something so cool about working with someone who knows the way you think and can understand things you can’t always clearly put into words.”

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Flyckt—working out of Khabang Studio, his room in Stockholm—said the hardest part of the process was “having the guys decide which demo to use as a reference. I just had to make sure I had all the files, because they recorded while we were mixing and the guys were all over the world in different time zones. So we’d mix several songs at one time so I could always work on something while the guys listened to different arrangements, versions. The demos the guys did were really good so my job was more getting the songs a more organic sound.”

Having started his career 30 years ago in all-analog studios, Flyckt views his Pro Tools HDX MADI system (with DirectOut Technologies 64-channel Andiamo.XT convertors) more like a multitrack recorder, with sessions spread across his SSL AWS 948 Dual Path Channel console and routed through “a lot of tube EQs, tube compressors, old RCA STALEVEL gates, and old reverbs like EMT plates.”

Compressors included the Chandler Limited LTD-2, ADL 1500 stereo tube, RCA Ba25, Teletronix LA-2A leveling amplifier, Unity Audio Ltd. Lisson Grove AR-1 tube, and R-124 single-channel tube. The AWS 948 is Flyckt’s board of choice because its EQ (sonically identical SuperAnalogue mono Channel EQ of the XL9000K series) reminds him of a “moodish” 9000J he had in a previous studio.

“The thing with working with an analog EQ is that it has more depth; it doesn’t smooth things out as much,” he explains. “The mids are in a way more aggressive and warm and when you work between 1.5k and 4k it doesn’t start to sound harsh. It also pops out a little bit better in the mix. And another thing I like with the 948 is this stereo width function that helps you put things more out on the side, and it makes it easier to get room for things while having the details placed clearly in the middle or on the sides.”

Along with the AWS EQ, Flyckt used Roland Dimension D, MXR Flanger/Doubler, and the analog reverbs to enhance presence on vocals and drums, but it was a final combination of the iZotope Trash 2 plug-in, a Thermionic Culture Vulture, Urei 1176LN limiting amplifier, and Purple Audio Inc. MC76 peak limiter that allowed him to sculpt dynamics without exerting excess pressure.

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“On a track like ‘Genghis Khan,’ I’d add 1176 on a fader to see how much I could use to bring out the ghost notes that were very important for the groove,” says Flyckt. “That together with the Culture Vulture works really well because you get distortion without peaks, so it sounds louder without causing a problem in the digital domain. In the song there is a loop that plays all the time with a lot of automation on the drum part, and that combination was important to keep the kick and this older sound of the drums and make sure less loud tones didn’t get lost in more modern low end.”

After dialing tones in, Flyck pulled back as he mixed down through the two-channel Digital Audio Denmark ADDA 2402 converter to Nagra Audio LB 2-channel universal digital audio recorder. “I work quite hot when sending around the mixes, but when I go to mastering I usually go down 6 or 7 dB so they can come to reference levels that are where my old levels were when I was mixing down analog on half-inch. So that’s around 0 dB VU on the console. It’s important to give headroom for the mastering process and tape is my reference.”

For Wyatt, Karlsson, and Winnberg, Miike Snow is a synonym for adaptability. “Producing is architecture, so you have to have balance and the ability to build the structure that works for the environment you want a song to exist in,” says Wyatt.

“One thing trap music has is its sparsity, so it allows for perfect sonic balance between 808, hi-hat, snare—sub bass, mids, and highs—and it’s easy and clear to know what’s what, while in a lot of bands all those frequencies are mixing together. And I’m not saying that music isn’t perfect for what it is, but if you’re hearing your song on the radio and in playlists with trap kinds of songs, it has to have sonic integrity that stacks up … so that’s what I’m most proud of in terms of our songs is that shit is sonically murdering.”