Panda Bear: The 'Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper' Sessions

Personal Growth Meets Attention to Detail in the Studio
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NOAH LENNOX IS DYING FOR SOME REBIRTH.

“I feel the way I work now is just an extension of how I recorded in the first place, which was with a Tascam 488 [Portastudio] cassette recorder … I’m still trying to track another one down,” reflects Lennox, speaking via phone from his home in Lisbon, Portugal.

Lennox is discussing Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, his fifth solo album recorded as Panda Bear (a name he also uses as one-fourth of the critically acclaimed psychedelic pop quartet Animal Collective). Despite the title, however, PBVSGR (as it was previewed online) is not an overtly harrowing or morbid album.

PBVSGR is a record that examines the sometimes rough, but rewarding transition between endings and beginnings, embodied by self-made breakbeats and constantly changing beds of sound. While it doesn’t directly feature any of Lennox’s old-school outboard gear, PBVSGR is invigorated by its composer’s long-time love of sample-based hip-hop and his well-established ability to direct controlled chaos into a dense, melodic chorale.

“The techniques I learned with that Tascam have fed into my software process,” explains Lennox. “Whether I’m using Ableton Live or Pro Tools … I feel I use the software as a glorified 4- or 8-track recorder. I’m not reaping all the benefits of the software, in that I don’t do much automatic syncing, etc. I like to automate parameters, but a lot of the time I’ll work caveman-style, dragging clips around and stuff like that. I like the results when there’s a human touch, when things aren’t exact.”

Indeed, humanity sits at the heart of PBVSGR. Topically, Lennox says he “made a concerted effort to expand the scope of the songs to be more global. Everyone is struggling on different wavelengths, so even though the songs were inspired by things I experienced, I worked really hard this time to craft the words and messages to where it didn’t seem like a microscope look at what I’m going through.”

Sonically, PBVSGR approaches production like a game of Battleship, with a series of calculated choices laced with random chance. Supplementing Lennox’s work is input from English musician Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember, the co-founder of Spacemen 3 who is also known for his production work with MGMT, as well as on 2011’s more minimal Panda Bear album Tomboy. While previously Lennox worked in isolation, recording somewhat nomadically then sending the results to be mixed, he opted to make PBVSGR in a proper studio (Namouche in Lisbon) with Kember present for the whole process, an intentional departure from his last full-length.

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“Noah and I both share the philosophy that there’s no point making the same record twice … and Tomboy is a really special collection,” says Kember from his Rugby, Warwickshire-based studio, New Atlantis. “It’s got that sort of Pet Sounds deal, where it takes a little whirl to get to know and feel the flow, but ultimately once you’re arrived ‘with it,’ it’s a stunning collection of songs.

“We knew we were going into a proper studio to do the meat of the work,” he continues. “Noah had made pretty high-quality demos, and we went with those as the initial cores and built up, but creating every part and layer.”

For those preliminary drafts Lennox worked on his laptop in Ableton Live 9 and Pro Tools 10 and various plug-ins including Waves, u-he’s uhbik efx, and Universal Audio suites. In addition, some early tracking was done in his personal studio, Miosotis Garage, through the Studiomaster 162BPX compact rack mixer and Universal Audio Apollo interface.

Instruments and other gear used on PBVSGR include the Jomox Xbase 999 drum synthesizer, Yamaha TX81Z rackmount FM synth, Minimoog Voyager analog performance synth, Elektron Octatrack performance sampler, Teenage Engineering OP-1 portable workstation, Roland SP-555 sampler, Mode Machines x0xb0x bassline synthesizer, and EarthQuaker Devices Disaster Transport Sr. dual delay/reverb/modulation pedal.

“The previous three Panda Bear records are often just two elements— drums and guitar—plus his vocals,” says Kember. “On this we wanted to take each song around the block a couple of times and try more things like bass parts, which didn’t exist until we hit Namouche. We tried whenever we could see the space and Noah had ideas for parts.”

The genesis of most of the tracks is a creatively chopped drum section, the kind of pattern that would inspire Lennox to put a synth part and vocal melody as a foundation, as opposed to past albums’ guitar-generated structures. Then, rough edges established, Lennox would accentuate the fringes. “There’s one plug-in, the Little Labs Voice of God, that’s part of the Universal Audio stuff; and on pretty much every kick and bass, I used it,” says Lennox, who cites Madlib’s alter-ego Quasimoto as getting him into sampling rhythmic phrases. Parts were then patched together by Lennox from a combination of Internet-sourced hits and personally generated percussion.

“Noah’s got pretty golden ears for a break or a sample,” says Kember. “Noah’s vibe was for the extra time it would take to re-record those parts for the small fidelity increase, he’d prefer to jam the OG, so I accepted that and did work backing out the breaks with ‘trick’ sounds and electro ‘shadows’ to keep the low-end bass-drum zone tight and clear— mostly by inserting a bird-chirp syrinx-y thing [found in several drum machine soundsets], sort of split in parallel with any blurry beats. It’s one of those things you only notice when it’s gone.”

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Miosotis Garage As for the light and shadows, so to speak, those were generated by the wealth of analog equipment and “attendant mood dialers” found at Namouche, including Neve 1073 and 1078 preamps for tracking EQ and boost; Neve 2254-A, UREI 1178, and dbx 165a limiters for changing sound perspectives, and three sets of ears open to experimentation.

“I set up a working protocol with the engineer, Joaquim Monte, and Noah, and we tweaked or built the system according to what we wanted to achieve,” says Kember. “Both Noah and ’Quim are at the top of their game, so it was kinda just one of those sick situations where everyone was totally buzzed and dialed in the whole time, on an equal mission to reach the Goldilocks zone.”

It may sound obtuse, but the “Goldilocks zone”—the quest to try anything till it’s “just right”—was integral to the production of PBVSGR. For example, while tracking vocals, the setup for several songs included Neumann U47, U67, and U87 mics, in an effort to capture Lennox at full tilt and more upfront than on previous records. Eventually the U67 got the majority of the spotlight, followed by some U87, but too many tracks were being eaten up using all three during overdub runs.

“I have trouble getting into the sound of my voice with just a single take, while on the other hand I like a pretty exact double so things don’t sound flappy and sloppy,” says Lennox, who has been doubling vocals since his friend suggested it around the first Animal Collective release, 2000’s Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished. “And I don’t copy and paste a take; I redo them, but tightly. There’s no plug-in or effect that really sounds as good as just doing a second vocal. There’s a specific type of imperfection to that method that produces a result better than any exact process.” Kember does admit, however, that having as many as 15 stacked voices did create some “horning” that required careful shifts in the mix.

Once past the basics, much of the work—with both hardware and in-the-box processing—was dedicated to finding the frequency spot where everything would sing. “Noah and I both really wanted to use an almost surreal palette to try to do something pop in an un-pop way,” says Kember.

“Coloring in the outlines” would come from many sources, including running material through modular synths (the EMS Synthi AKS and the Fenix II), vocoders (a Digitech S100 and an Electrix Warp Factory red face), and guitar effects, including the previously mentioned EarthQuaker module, an Organizer polyphonic octave shifter and Arpanoid arpeggiator, a Behringer Chorus Space-C, and a Boss RRV-10 micro-rack digital delay, in addition to uhbik and SoundToys plug-ins. Tweaking controls in real time added a further, ever-prevalent human element, and the result was a “sound like they’re flipping whipped cream out in their wake,” according to Kember.

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“Noah wanted to get away from traditional vocal ambiances, so we tried to use as many stealth-type reverbs as possible,” says Kember, who admits to a love of using things out of context. “I believe no use of equipment is bad if it doesn’t break it. I like to test & torture stuff to see what it can bring, where its weaknesses & strengths lie.”

The ultimate goal was to establish “subtle airbrushing underneath,” he says. “Faked out—but believable— false-light-point sources to chrome sounds out. Tears in the fabric to let other sounds come through. Literally ‘echoes’ of a sound made of anything but reverb or echo. Shadows of sound. Ghosts. Outlines. Pre-sounds. Post-sounds. Attendant sounds—like both transparent and chrome, looking at the same time to create further dimensions of sound from the basic elements.”

For example, Electrix Warp Factory was used both to “make sounds speak” and to cross-modulate non-vocal sources. “It lets you reduce the filter order from 24 filters down to one … lets you shift the formant widely … and has a built-in saw oscillator and a white-noise generator,” says Kember. “Plus, it does the ‘pause stuffing’ deal, where it inserts the fricatives and sibilance from the original signal. We used it a lot, often not with a vocal input.”

Lennox liked the “thicker, fatter energy” that was possible with the shifting signal chains, and how the combination of electric and direct sounds had their own “natural” spaces” as well as physically impossible interactions.

Feeding this interaction, molded through several months of mixing, were “carriages” of abstract sounds Kember describes as “swimming” in parallel with the vocals, but that weren’t created from the vocals. A judicious use of ducking coupled with the saturation control of limiting allowed maximum vocals and maximum music without clash, ensuring clarity for quieter parts throughout “the soup,” as Lennox describes it.

“Noah sees music in color(s),” says Kember. “He makes it look easy, but we sweated blood to get this firmly into a zone where we felt it could breathe.

Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper stands as 52 blissful, insistent minutes of creamy washes that complement overdriven swirls, oscillating around unsettled and firmly anchored elements, resulting in a richly resonant presence. It’s an album about personal growth, and it showcases technical development. “What really went into this album was an intense attention to detail, and not in a clinical, ugly way,” says Lennox. “I’ve just worked with so many people that put so much care into everything and it’s rubbed off on me.”