Metronomy: Recording 'Summer 08'

Joseph Mount abandoned restraint and embraced a hybrid analog/digital approach in the studio for his new album.
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Joseph Mount abandoned restraint and embraced a hybrid analog/digital approach in the studio for his new album.
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To hear Joseph Mount tell it, embracing questionable techniques and lateral thinking has been key to his past decade recording as Metronomy, and to his new album, Summer 08.

“Deciding not to do things is as important as deciding to do things,” says the UK-based musician/producer. “It sounds a bit like one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, but I think my strength to this point has been knowing I needed to learn a lot. So for the last album I decided to record to 8-track tape to experience what was good about it compared to my earlier experiences, embracing the sound of the room and knowing what was done in the studio would translate well live. While for this new album I wrote it and recorded without a concern over being overtly digital or the thought of playing it live crossing my mind, and it was a liberating thing.”

The narrative for Metronomy’s 2014 LP, Love Letters, was clear-cut: Record an all-analog album, a set of Motown-influenced psycherock soul confessions that would be performed as a quintet. To accomplish that, Mount and company’s sessions were committed to a 1-inch Studer A80 recorder in East London.

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For his self-recorded/produced follow-up, however, Mount saw no reason to keep the Mac towers, or anything else for that matter, out of the equation. His experiments in the recent past had helped him appreciate what’s good about the now.

“I wanted the perspective, because I think a lot of producers are born into this world where you can get a copy of Logic for not much money and it fills the void of all these tools and instruments that you’ll never see as physical things,” says Mount. “But after you’ve made a record with such a restrictive amount of tracks you can use you realize how lucky you are to have infinite tracks. And after the last record I realized the practical implications of MIDI and how it’s f*cking brilliant. For this album I wanted things to be more crisp, obviously recorded today.”

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Mount’s path to this point is littered with both surmounted and self-imposed limitations, as well as nowquaint technologies. He started in music as a drummer, first exploring samplers and digital editing while a DJ in 2002. His earliest indietronica recordings, arranged in Apple Logic and Macromedia SoundEdit and collected in 2005 as Pip Paine (Pay the £5,000 You Owe), were recorded directly into a Power Macintosh G3’s mini-jack, establishing his love of dry DIed signatures. By 2008’s Nights Out he upgraded to a laptop equipped with an Edirol FireWire soundcard, “which I thought was an impressive secret weapon,” he says. “The way I was working was quite messy but quite good, in a way. I’d do lots of little things, make samples and bits of songs and revisit them months later to find what I thought was still cool.”

Since his third album, 2011’s The English Riviera, Mount has utilized professional facilities, working with engineer/coproducer Ash Workman to merge live tracking and sample manipulation. Now, following Love Letters’ pointedly purist aesthetic, Summer 08 returns to the “rummaging” mentality of earlier nu-disco records, as Mount “did a lot more working in the box on my own before taking it to the studio and adding real stuff, [whereas] before I would have just left it a messy recording.”

The title of Summer 08 isn’t to be taken literally, however. While some songs on the album began as sketches stretching back to Nights Out, Mount’s intention was to recapture an attitude, rather than a vintage atmosphere. One track, “16 Beat,” is a robofunk workout, while “Old Skool” boasts a scratch break from Mount’s early inspiration, Mix Master Mike. “Hang Me out to Dry” features dilating synths underneath a relaxed vocal from Robyn. The concept of Summer 08 is sounds that are adventurous, inspired by Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Devo, hip-hop production, New Order; the unhinged, studio-centric albums of The Beatles, Zombies, Wings and Talking Heads; as well as Mount’s own earlier years—while the sonic feel is 10 hook-rich tracks of modern dance-rock grooves.

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“In 2008 I had a little room in East London above a Greek restaurant, and I was doing a lot of remixing at the time and trying to be incredibly prolific and proactive and just trying to make sure I was doing better than everyone else, which didn’t necessarily happen, but the mindset was of a young, competitive musician in London,” he says. “And I was looking forward to everything I hoped would be around the corner. I wanted this record to reflect a similar embrace of first instincts and accidental features.”

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While sessions for Summer 08 would stretch over a year and across multiple studios around Noyant-la-Gravoyère, London, Stockport, and Ramsgate, demoing began in an appropriately throwback manner, with Mount locked in a small room.

“When I moved into my current apartment with my girlfriend we had a spare room that was going to be my studio and I had all these drum machines, like this old Ace Tone Rhythm Ace that is quite inspiring; then we had a baby, so all my stuff’s in storage,” says Mount. “The demos I do don’t have anything physical being recorded because I’m now surrounded by two children and the kids will just ruin it. I run Logic and an Apogee Duet, sketching on the matrix editor with one of the more retrosounding drum machines if I’m doing something from scratch; that’s my playground. Or I’ll find something I recorded years ago with a good beat.

“I’ve always started songs with a rhythm section; that’s a drummer thing. If you work alone when you’re writing you can only do one thing at a time and you often have to work with loops, so I work from the drums up. The rhythm section of the song for me is where the balls are in a song. Lyrics are the last thing I think about, and everything else is just feel before that. What I like about starting with older drum machine sounds is what they give you is incredibly bare. They don’t sound like massive club snares, so you can take them in any direction. Or we’ll record a drum kit so that it sounds as normal as possible, because you know later you’re going to put it through tons of shit. It’s about layers, taking a simple snare you previously recorded and making it into what you wanted. I kind of hate working just in the box at home, monitoring with headphones, but the one positive thing is that it really builds up my excitement when I finally get into a proper studio.”

For Summer 08 that first proper studio was Black Box, a residential facility located in the countryside of northwest France. Mount and Workman decamped to the converted barn based on its reputation for being quite vibey, thanks in part to its 24-channel, eight-bus Flickinger N24 console from 1969. While the final product is very much a Pro Tools album featuring lots of editing and modulation, Summer 08 began using Mount’s demos as a framework onto which parts could be added, replaced, etc. And that process began with several days of drum tracking by both Mount and Victor le Masne of French indie-pop duo Housse de Racket.

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“The desk at Black Box is incredible; they have an amazing sounding room and this amazing microphone collection, and everything is ridiculously well-maintained,” says Workman. “I love tickling tracks with compression through all stages from the beginning so that parts hold their place and you can get them where you want them throughout the process, and they have more than enough good compressors. Overcompressing at the end is how you lose all the weight, the depth.”

Drum microphones for the sessions include an AKG D12 (with Drefahl capsule), Yamaha SKRM-100 SubKick, beyerdynamic M201 on top of the snare with an AKG 451 beneath, Neumann U67s overhead, and an RCA 44bx ribbon as a smash effect quite close between the kick and snare; plus Schoeps M221s for the room. The kick and snare went through a dbx 160x compressor; overheads went through a Chandler TG1 limiter; while room microphones were routed through a Quad Eight Auto Mix 3-B. Different spaces in the stone-walled room were used, with microphones at varying distances, as ambient space effects. To reinforce cohesion Workman put everything through the board mic pre’s.

Following drums, bass plays a major part in the tonality of Metronomy. “I started playing drums in a band, and I played with a fabulous bass player,” says Mount. “Gabriel [Stebbing], who played in Metronomy at the beginning, was totally obsessed with Paul McCartney, and he would play very melodic basslines, so I picked up on that from him. So I’ll just start whacking chorus on these melodic lines, because an era where I find a lot of emotion is all the ’80s fretless stuff, which sounds like it’s crying or something. As for percussive bass reinforcement, we’d just work to keep it clean and punchy.”

To capture the bass Workman turned to a split setup, recording both DI and with a Neumann U47 Fet through LA-2 tube compressor clones. Both Mount and Workman mention that integral to Metronomy bass is the Eventide H300 Ultra Harmonizer setting called “Deep Chorus,” which Mount stumbled across after he noticed just how standard that box was in all the studios he explored. Guitars, meanwhile, were DIed and played through an AMPEG Gemini combo, miked with both a Royer 121 ribbon and a beyer M201 so Workman could balance between options on the desk. “We loved the distortion of the desk,” says Workman. “I don’t know if it’s germanium or not, but you could hit it really hard and get this very satisfying tone.”

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Mount still struggles with live rooms. “Once you’ve recorded long enough with guitars DIed, completely clean, it’s hard to get your head around the sound of an amplifier. Because even if you put some reverb on it you still can’t get rid of the sound of the amp and the noise in the room, and I hate it sometimes that you can’t take it away. There’s something about having a somewhat brittle guitar sound—something you can add stuff to and not have to worry about taking things away.”

Vocals were all on a Shure SM-7 in the control room and were probably the only tracks that didn’t go through the desk. Workman used a Neve channel amplifier with EQ into a UREI 1176 blackface. And all synths, played by both Mount and Oscar Cash, were DIed through the desk, as well as various compressors. “It was a running joke that whenever the owner would come in we would just be DIing something, just sitting in this huge room together with a MIDI rig despite there being this huge library of gear,” laughs Workman.

Moving from the technical facets to the more creative side of recording, Mount and Workman stayed open to shifting arrangements and frequencies. Reaching into the Black Box arsenal of effects, the two recorded with processing running, which played a part on what followed. For example, using a Lexicon PCM 41 delay to put a really loud slap on the drum kit of opening cut “Back Together” would affect how all other parts—from synth builds to jagged verses to a rototom solo— were prepared for a track with a Disco Not Disco/ 99 Records/Lower East Side-in-the-’80s strut.

“It’s a good example, that song,” says Mount, “because most of the tracks on the record were made in a similar way, taking bits of in-the-box stuff and mixing them with new recordings or replacing everything with new equipment found in studios and trying to finish the song. Some of the songs, like ‘Miami Nights’ and ‘Hang Me out to Dry,’ I’ve tried a version with every album, waiting to find an arrangement that sequences naturally. And all of the versions are completely different with different lyrics, but it’s an idea I held on to because I like it. So finally I can put it to rest.”

On the track “Mick Slow,” what began as a simple orphan sample became a song of Bowie-like voices and smeared analog parts. The portamento of a Roland Alpha Juno synthesizer—the album’s primary keyboard, alongside an Alesis Andromeda A6—glides until a falsetto chorus unfurls over twinkling sweeps. Initial vocal reverbs were from an EMT 140 stereo plate with tube electronics.

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Engineer Neal Pogue For all these printed treatments, care was taken to leave room for the mix engineers. Workman did rough mixes, working briefly in the box with EQ and compression, but mostly sitting at his SSL with the monitor off, using his preferred Yamaha NS10s running off a Bryston amp, as well as Barefoot MicroMain27s for monitoring bass response, before turning the sessions over to Bob Clearmountain, Neal Pogue, and Erol Alkan.

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“I left plenty of parts dry and cracky so the different engineers could take it into their rooms and do their things,” says Mount. “When we got back ‘Mick Slow,’ one of three tracks Neal did, wasn’t drastically different, but I could tell from all these tiny delays on the snares, from these reverbs and spot effects on the vocals, that he got really into it, and it was nice hearing that someone sat with it and enjoyed doing that.”

Operating on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Summer 08 studio sessions, Pogue mixed completely in the box. “I’ve got a Mac tower with Avid HD I/O and more than enough plug-ins to paint the picture,” says Pogue from Los Angeles, where he recently relocated after several years in Atlanta. Known for his work mixing for OutKast and TLC, among many others, Pogue started his engineering career behind SSL boards in the early 1990s, and went to Pro Tools in 2003 with Out-Kast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below album.

“I’ve got all the Universal Audio and Waves options; there’s no outboard, but I come from the SSL world, so the first things I go for are something like the G-Channel plug-ins on snares because I’m so used to the color,” he explains. “I used Neve 1073 and API 550B processing on the kick when I needed that warmth, to get a different curve in the midrange, but I’ve always loved the attack of SSL.” Monitoring on Hafler TransNova and Yamaha NS10 monitors, Pogue used Waves L2 and iZotope Ozone 7 Vintage EQ/Imager on the master bus.

Pogue, like Mount, considers perspective to be as important as any specific module or technique. “I’m always looking for an old-school-meets-newschool feel, working with things I came up using or heard in the music I listened to as a kid,” he says. “New producers like to filter a lot, but I’ll incorporate a flanger, which used to be on all the Zeppelin records I heard. You can hear a DeEsser going into a MetaFlanger into a Soundtoys Filter-Freak on the background vocals of ‘Mick Slow.’ And I’ll use Valhalla Vintage Verb for additional EMT-type plate effect.

“I approach every mix differently, but a lot of what I reach for is influenced by all the outboard gear I used since starting in studios in the late ’80s. Not many new engineers would reach for the Roland Dimension D [stereo chorus/spatializer], because it’s not what they’re familiar with, but I put an instance of that on Joe’s lead vocals to give them more spread. Using my experience I’ll also know when I want a Roland RE-201 Space Echo on vocals or a Pultec on drums, which I used on ‘Old Skool,’ because I used the real thing back in the day. At the same time, I might reach for a Soundtoys Decapitator for a driving, saturated sound or Avid’s D-Verb, which some people think is generic but it’s all about how to use it right. You don’t need to use everything, but you should know everything about what you use.”

From the use of the Alpha Juno to the faith placed in hybrid tracking/mixing, Summer 08 shows Mount’s embrace of the analog/digital cusp and a renewed level of comfort for entertaining impulses and reclaiming “mistakes.” It’s a witty, elastic album reflecting Metronomy’s most potent, unrestrained tendencies.