On The 2nd Law, the British rockers craft an apocalyptic rock opera of surreal textures, orchestral soundscapes, and organic dubstep elements
Muse (left to right)— Dominic Howard, Matthew Bellamy,
and Christopher Wolstenholme.Is Matthew Bellamy the Orson Welles of rock? Striding into Muse’s Q Prime management office in New York, Bellamy appears intense, talkative, and extremely focused. As Bellamy explains the songwriting and production processes behind Muse’s sixth studio album, The 2nd Law, it’s as if he’s giving tutorials in thermodynamics; self-production; solo vocal, guitar, and keyboard tracking; and innovative miking techniques; bookended by paranoia-inducing Doomsday scenarios.
“The second law of thermodynamics states that ‘energy in any isolated system is always going to be in a state of entropy,’ basically losing energy,” Bellamy explains. “Everything in the universe is spreading out and cooling down, all the stars are doing that, and time is the actual result of this. Also, we’re all going to die.”
An apocalyptic rock opera that expresses thermodynamic theories through mock spoken-word newscasts, The 2nd Law is also a queasily perfect production piece comprised of full orchestra, an operatic choir, Bellamy’s Freddie Mercury/Thom Yorke-styled vocals, ARP 2600 and Buchla Series 200e modular synths, Muse’s surging stadium rock approach, and surprising variations on the dance trend of the moment: dubstep. The fight for survival is The 2nd Law’s scary mission statement.
“We have these instincts to grow and to be free,” Bellamy states. “But we’re living in a world where that is becoming increasingly impossible. It’s the conflict between that desire to expand versus doing what is right for an enormous population on one limited ecosystem. Everything that has driven us through thousands of years of evolution is being questioned for the first time.”
Recorded in AIR London’s Studio One, East West Recording Studios (Los Angeles), and Shangri-la (Malibu), The 2nd Law is Muse’s second self-produced album following 2009’s The Resistance. Engineered by Adrian Bushby and Tomasso Colliva, mixed by Chris Lord-Alge, Spike Stent, and Rich Costey, and mastered by Ted Jensen, the record was tracked on AIR’s custom vintage 72-channel Neve/Focusrite console with original “AIR Montserrat” 1081 mic preamps and GML automation. From soaring opener “Supremacy” to hope-inspiring pounder “Follow Me” to the dubstep-drenched title track and the epic final track (which closes with the sound of the earth slowly dying), The 2nd Law is a stunner, a downer, and just perhaps, a masterpiece.
“This production was very collaborative between the three of us.” Muse includes Christopher Wolstenholme (bass, vocals, keyboards) and Dominic Howard (drums, synthesizers, sampling). “We were all more present in terms of production than on The Resistance. I’ve always been influenced by film music, growing up I was drawn to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and [Ridley Scott’s] Alien. Hans Zimmer is another great film composer I’ve enjoyed. All that worked its way into this album.”
Audio-Visualizing for Fun and Profit Like the late Frank Zappa, Matthew Bellamy likes nothing better than to spend his days in the studio, and if possible, going it alone. Extremely studio savvy, as are Wolstenholme and Howard, Bellamy tracks his own vocals, guitars and keyboards; he also scored Muse’s dense orchestral accompaniment using Pro Tools MIDI functions and VSL and East West symphonic libraries before handing off to conductor/arranger David Campbell.
“I sort of audio-visualized the music on the album,” he says. “On the more orchestral songs, I could hear them, visualize them, or audio-visualize them. I tried to remember the original feeling or sound I heard in my head and refocused on that. But ultimately, even though there are hundreds of overdubs we always manage to keep what we do as a three-piece as the primary thing.”
Two dissimilar tracks from The 2nd Law reveal Muse’s amazing competency at production and performance. “We deliberately set ourselves a production challenge to produce [two tracks] in a way to create almost opposite results,” Bellamy says. “‘Follow Me’ was originally a regular-sounding rock track with normal instrumentation, then once we recorded it we replaced each instrument with electronic samples. We found sounds that mimicked the acoustic instruments electronically. It sounds like a rock band but it’s all synths and samples. We used Native Instruments Battery as a drum machine, and we also created our own samples and processed them.”
“Follow Me” thumps like Giger’s Alien seeking human blood, while “The 2nd Law Part One: Unsustainable” spews coiled subterranean bass rhythms and screaming synth tones—the currency of contemporary dubstep. “On ‘The 2nd Law Part One: Unsustainable,’ we created something using synths and drum samples that evoked Nero or Skrillex,” Bellamy explains. “That kind of build-up, then a drop down to a heavy bass line and electronic drums, then we replaced it all with real instruments; it’s the direct opposite of ‘Follow Me.’ That was a challenge as well, because heavy dubstep—which some people call ‘brostep’—that genre is actually closer to rock music, it’s more interesting than what is coming from guitars in general. It was a real challenge; can real instruments even compete any more with that kind of genre?”
How did Bellamy and Wolstenholme recreate the stomach-shredding electronic dynamics of dubstep on puny bass and guitar? “We saturated the guitar and bass in heavy distortion and used DI distortion as well to give it some fizzy distortion,” he explains. “Then we added some phasers and some ‘whirring’ samples to make the guitar and bass become one sound. Some of the crazy bass lines in dubstep go right up to the ceiling then plunge down to the sub-bass. We used guitar for the top end, then bass for the middle to the bottom, and we made them merge into one part. It’s a combination of extreme pitch-shifting using a whammy pedal which I was using to go two octaves up, then down, then dive-bombing. As I was dive-bombing, Chris’ bass would take over with a ‘whirring’ sound. It’s kind of what dubstep is all about, done with guitar and bass.”
Guitar-Synth Monsters Bellamy played custom Manson guitars on the album, including a seven-string model with its bottom E string drop-tuned. On album opener “Supremacy,” Bellamy’s passionate vocal cry morphs into a screaming guitar solo. One of his custom Manson guitars has a built-in Kaoss Pad, but this effect was something entirely different.
“That’s two [Tech 21] SansAmps with the lead vocal down the middle,” Bellamy explains. “The SansAmp on the left had a 45-millisecond delay, the one on the right had a 65-second millisecond delay. The distortion is in stereo, but the main vocal was dry and right down the middle. You get this big-sounding vocal, but it evokes guitar as well because it’s going through a SansAmp guitar simulator. It creates this strangely large, chorus distorted sound.”
Bellamy loves arpeggiated synths, which adorn The 2nd Law like Rick Wakeman and Steve Reich dueling to the death. “We used a lot of modular synths on the album,” Bellamy recalls. “An ARP 2600 and a Macbeth Studio Systems M5. But the most insane-sounding and annoying one was the Buchla Series 200e. We’ve never been able to get that on a record before because it has such a glassy, brittle, bright, full range sound. It’s so bright, when you put it in with rock it makes everything else sound dark and brown. The arpeggiated parts in ‘Follow Me,’ the synth in the beginning of ‘Madness’ going ‘wow wow wow,’ and a couple other songs, ‘The 2nd Law Part Two: Unsustainable,’ that’s the Buchla. We’d use [Native Instruments] Massive and [Rob Papen] Predator soft synths as guides, then replace them with modular synths. We also used an Analogue Systems’ French Connection, which is like an Ondes Martenot; it’s basically a CV controller that gives you the exact same controls as a Martenot, but you can hook it up to modular synths to get crazier sounds. That was part of the complex overdubs in ‘Follow Me.’ When I sing ‘[When darkness] surrounds you,’ there’s 18 French Connections all going ‘mmmmmmmm’ and sliding in opposite directions. That created this very contrapuntal spreading-out sound.”
As well as typical close-miking of the drums (Neumann U47 for room mic, AKG 190 as close room mic, PZM floor mics, Shure SM91 inside the kick, FET 47 outside the kick, Shure Beta 7 on snare, Cducer boundary mic taped to snare, Sennheiser 421 on toms, U47 underneath rack tom, FET 47 underneath floor toms, AKG 451s on overheads), Dominic Howard and engineer Adrian Bushby practically re-amped his set, adding to the record’s streamlined punch and serious lowend wallop. “Even though a lot of the songs have acoustic drums,” Bellamy explains, “we’ll add additional samples of the same drums to get a bigger sound. Dave Bottrill (Tool) did that, I believe. And we placed a P.A. system behind the drums, and routed the bass drum and snare drum though the P.A. Then when we recorded the room sound—the bass drum and snare drum sounded massive. Rather than it being too cymbal heavy, you’re getting the boom from the bass and snare drums. That was the original intent on ‘Supremacy,’ then as a variation we ran Dom’s electronic samples through the P.A., instead of acoustic drums. So Dom was playing the close-miked drums in the room, but as his foot struck the bass drum it triggered a sampled electronic bass drum coming through the P.A. system. We got the dry acoustic sound but also this crazy, large room sound, which you think is organic, but room sound, which you think is organic, but it’s a combination of acoustic and electronic samples.”
Bellamy in Your Face Is Matt Bellamy a control freak? A man on a mission? A genius? It’s hard to tell. Like many geniuses, he seems to be at his best when he’s alone, working at his own pace, “the hobgoblins of little minds” not obstructing his view. One of the greatest vocalists in rock, Bellamy is also perhaps one of the most shy.
“The engineers help me with setup and sounds, to where I have a few mic options,” Bellamy explains. “Then I ask everyone to leave. Working with other people, sometimes I get impatient. Working alone I can go at my own speed; sometimes I am very perfectionist and will do things ludicrous amounts of times, but usually I will do three or four takes, then comp them together. I know all the plugins I may or may not need. Sometimes I try different mics, different approaches, different levels from singing to shouting. And I do like to be dramatic in my performance; I like to sing barefooted, it’s silly things. But it also lets me be more brutal with myself.”
Bellamy’s vocal signal chain is a Neumann U67/Neve 1073 mic pre/Urei 1176. He runs an EL Distressor on the return to get some “extreme compression” and a Bomb Factory LA-3A for a little additional compression in Pro Tools.
“One trick I do is to use a mastering finalizer on the lead vocal. It’s a limiter that gives a much more full-on compression. I like SoundToys plugins for vocal delays as well. I also used the RCA 44 ribbon mic into a mic pre made by the Mercury [Recording Equipment] Company. It gives you the ability to really overdrive the input whilst trimming it back to the point where you can get an okay input level on the Pro Tools inputs. That enabled me to do songs like ‘Madness’ where I am singing very quietly, but I wanted to have a big sound. I am almost whispering there. It’s overdriven, so I can really get it in your face.”
In the surreal soundscape of “The 2nd Law Part Two: Isolated System,” newscasters read dire reports over “Tubular Bells” styled piano patterns; it’s the sound of the world running on empty. The track glitches and misfires as if the global power grid is suddenly going black.
“I did all that manually in Pro Tools using a combination of time-stretch, timecompress, and pitch-shift and literally, straight-up editing,” Bellamy elucidates. “It was very improvised. We recorded the lady from Channel 4 reading the script. Then I enlarged the waveform and just chopped little milliseconds out of it. Other times, I cut and pasted a little bit to create a stutter effect. Then I’d take one word and time-stretch it slightly, or pitch-shift it. It’s just applying randomness to create the sound of things falling apart.”
A Matter of Science The 2nd Law is a seamless, tactile, present, extremely polished production. Muse are master studio boffins, and their team is equally proficient. But there’s an indefinable quality to the album. It glistens. “We made a conscious effort not to overuse brickwall compression,” Bellamy says, by way of possible explanation. “That works really well in electronic music like Daft Punk or Justice. But that’s leaves nothing for the mastering engineer to do. With more organic sounds, especially sounds where there’s a differential between the dry transients and the room reverb, if you brickwall that it can make it all brown and mushy. It’s harder to take that approach with rock music. We steer clear of mastering our own tracks. It’s dangerous territory.”
Dangerous territory for most bands would be entering a recording studio without a record producer. From Radiohead to Beyoncé to Snoop Dogg (or is that Snoop Lion?), no artist leaves home without their producer. So who do Muse think they are?
“Whenever you allow someone else’s input into anything you do, you are instantly admitting to a certain lack of either a desire to control or a lack of confidence,” Bellamy insists. “Perhaps it’s my knowledge of production and orchestration and arranging, but I [understand] producers and I’ve caught producers saying something because they feel that is what they’re there to do. It’s like bringing in the A&R guy from the label, which we’ve never done, but if you ask him what he thinks he has to say something and it might be critical. The more people you involve, the more people who will try to justify their existence. We will work with producers again, but I am definitely able to decipher genuine constructive input versus someone trying to justify their presence in the room.
“And Dom, Chris, and I are naturally drawn to production work,” Bellamy concludes. “We’re all good at Pro Tools and we all know our way around plug-ins and modular synths and miking. Production is a science, but it’s not rocket science.”
Ken Micallef has covered music for all the usual joints, including DownBeat, The GRAMMYs, Rolling Stone, and Emusic.com. His first book, Classic Rock Drummers (Hal Leonard), is currently in reprint status while he manages his family’s cabbage patch down south and ponders the future of the vinyl LP and tube amplification.
Engineer Adrian Bushby shares some details from the 2nd Law guitar- and basstracking sessions.
“Matt [Bellamy] runs multiple amps at once when tracking guitars: Diezel, Marshall, Vox, also a Fender sometimes. We would get the sounds up and then manipulate a certain part of an amp for a certain section. We might re-amp through a delay, and we had a Fractal Audio Systems amp modeler, too.
(Left to right)—Engineers Tommaso Colliva and Adrian
Bushby, Matthew Bellamy, Dominic Howard, and Christopher Wolstenholme.A Shure SM57 always works for guitars. Matt likes to have a Royer 122, and because we have so many different amps I will have a FET 47 on the 4x12 cab, and if we have another 4x12, use a 57, and a Royer or the FET 47, and AKG 414, a couple AEA ribbons, and a few Sennheiser MD441s. It’s about what suits the amps. I tried to use an array without going too crazy on everything; going for different flavors. I will place the mic right on the grill, dead center, back it up with the Royer so it doesn’t crap out and distort. Everything went through the AIR Montserrat 1081 preamps.
Matt does a lot by himself; he’s a genius, man! He also records all of the piano by himself, and guitars. We’d be down in another studio tracking drums and bass, and he’d be in the other room doing all the guitars by himself. Done.”
“We used a clean DI, a Reddi DI, and a clean bass sound using a Markbass head, with 4x10 and 1x15 cabs. And an old Marshall 80s bass head, panned left to right—one side has an Animato pedal, on the other side, a Big Muff. That is Chris [Wolstenholme]’s sound. Between songs, we’d change pedals out, and send another pedal thru DI, or a digital-sounding amp with a close and bright sound.
We used an E-V RE20 for the clean sound on the two heads; for the distortion, we had a Shure SM7 on one, and RE20 on the other, mic pres from Neve, and an 1176 for the distortion, and then use whatever stereo compressor I have in the room.
We did a lot of re-amping, which was interesting. We’d almost recreate a sound, after the part had been played — sending the DI through filters, then that DI back to the amp, and automating things.”