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Panic! At the Disco - EMusician

Panic! At the Disco

Death of a Bachelor,' birth of a star
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Panic! At The Disco’s fifth album, Death of a Bachelor, is a hyper-extreme sonic circus that will either make you a believer or make you scream—but resistance is futile. Essentially the one-man-band of songwriter-vocalist-instrumentalist Brendon Urie, Panic! At The Disco’s Death of a Bachelor is a riotous production playground where Frank Sinatra meets Freddie Mercury, where samples of Chicago’s “Questions 67 and 68” and The B-52’s “Rock Lobster” smack up against Urie’s dynamic drumming, synthesizer layer-cake, and soaring vocal profundity. Death of a Bachelor (DCD2/Fueled By Ramen) packs more excitement into its eleven songs than many bands express in their entire careers.

“I wanted each song to feel like a special event,” Urie says. “I wrote songs on piano or guitar, moved them into Logic Pro 10, then I used a lot of UAD and Fabfilter plug-ins, even a lot of demo plug-ins. I treated background vocals with all kinds of little fun tricks. I used the Universal Audio Apollo 8 [Thunderbolt 2 interface] for vocals, and the UnderToneAudio [UTA MPDI-4 Mic-Pre/DI] unit, which is awesome; it has extra gain and filters and controls everything really well. I love using the UAD stuff, they have a lot of tape machine and compressor emulations that are really fun to use.”

Extremes, extremes, extremes! Every song on Death of a Bachelor seems treated for maximum impact, the album leaving no tech trick unplayed. And in a world where hard pop candy doesn’t always register on radio formats, Death of a Bachelor has already racked up considerable chart success.

“I had a concept to take Brendon in a future Sinatra route,” explains producer Jake Sinclair (Taylor Swift, Fallout Boy). “We put that element in every song. We layered Arturia synth lines with a big band horn section [recorded at Avatar in New York City]. That added depth so the songs take on a different life. And it really helps that Brendon is the best on every instrument of anyone I’ve recorded. As a singer you can use his last take and it sounds perfect.”

Producer Jake Sinclair with engineer Suzy Shinn Upending the sonic blitzkrieg of such Death of a Bachelor songs as “Emperor’s New Clothes,” “Victorious,” and “Hallelujah,” Sinclair, engineer Suzy Shinn, and Brendon Urie didn’t treat every instrument and grid every beat. Theirs was a minimalist production model. With Urie’s Urielectric Studios built to mirror Jake Sinclair’s studio at the Infrasonic Studio/Vintage King complex in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood, Death of a Bachelor showcases Urie’s extraordinary energy, mind-blowing musicianship, and inventive songwriting.

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“I used a lot less plug-ins than you might think,” Sinclair says. “I’m EQing and compressing on the way in and only using UAD plug-ins and Soundtoys. A lot of the impact comes from the writing and arranging. If you design the songs to have quiet moments before loud moments the dynamics will be more extreme. And we were creative in the production, layering our own samples with live instrumentation. It’s a huge juxtaposition of different types of sounds. It sounds like there is a lot going on, but I try to keep the arrangements simple so that certain things pop out.”

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Sinclair and Urie made their own recording rules: lead vocals first, drums last, everything else in between. Urie is an inspired vocalist, recalling Sinatra and even Scott Walker (look him up, kids) on the title track and the theatrical closer “Impossible Year”; Freddie Mercury in the transitions of “Victorious”; and when stacking vocals, an alien choir from an epic space odyssey. (White Seas/M83’s Morgan Kibby and engineer Suzy Shinn also stacked BG vocals.)

“A song usually begins with me and an acoustic guitar,” Urie notes. “I run through the song with a click track and a room mic so I can work on the arrangement if need be. I lay down acoustic guitar or piano and a vocal, then go into Logic just having fun with moments in the song. If a lyric is special I might suck out the drums or add a two-bar break at that moment. It’s a playground.”

Jake Sinclair engineered two prior Panic! At The Disco albums: Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die and Vices & Virtues. Sinclair and Urie’s working relationship was more personal than business, and it shows in dynamic songs and seamless, larger-than-life production.

“We didn’t begin production until we had the songs nailed down,” Sinclair says. “Brendon would also make demos then stay up all night tweaking. The soft synths and weird samples are all Brendan. I dropped songs into Pro Tools and rearranged things. Then Brendon tracked drums, bass, and guitar at my studio. We tracked vocals at both studios.”

Sinclair’s Infrasonic Sound rig includes Macbook Pro SSD 15" 768GB, Apogee Symphony I/O Audio Interface, Sonnet Thunderbolt Chassis w/ UAD Octo card, Pro Tools HD Native, two G-Tech G-Drive PRO external hard drives (4TB), two G-Tech G-Drive Mobile external hard drives (1TB), and Barefoot MicroMain27 and Auratone 5C monitors.

“We used lots of UAD plug-ins,” Shinn says, “and Soundtoys Decapitator and Little MicroShift for doubling vocals. We bused everything out to an overall mix bus then to the PSP Vintage Warmer. The PSP gives more warmth to the compression, a light but warm sound that glues all the tracks together. We used [Spectrasonics] Omnisphere for soft synths, and [Native Instruments] Kontakt too. But it’s minimal. Brendan did up to 20 tracks of vocal layering. He plays live drums in every song and some samples are triggered by the drums underneath the kick and snare. There’s a little Roland TR-808 hi-hat to give it that digital aspect. And live shaker and tambourine. Brendon plays everything!”

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TRACKING VOCALS

After song structures were nailed, the Urie-Sinclair- Shinn team tracked vocals. Urie typically requires two passes to warm up—the third time is the charm. In an album chock-full of extreme, explosive, and powerfully emotional vocals, that Urie braves those waters first is something special.

“We build everything around the vocal rather than the vocal being built around the track,” Sinclair says. “That gives us a starting place production- wise that is different than if you cut vocals at the end. You could say we use the scratch track, but with Brendon the scratch track is the final vocal. I don’t want to miss anything the first time he sings it. I might as well have him singing into a good chain.”

Urie’s vocal chain: Wunder Audio CM7 FET into a BAE 1073 mic preamp, to a Purple Audio MC77 compressor and a Universal Teletronix Audio LA-2A Leveling Amplifier.

“I’m trying to mirror what Sinatra did at Capitol with the mic just hanging there in front of him,” Urie explains. “I wanted to hear every little pop. I put the ratio at 4 to 1. I compressed it so you hear every breath, every pop, every tongue movement, every syllable. Then I tried to match the vibe on the piano. The Wunder CM7 FET holds a lot of good frequency for me. My voice either gets really shrill or a little too bassy. The CM7 picks up the mids where my voice carries different frequencies. It holds that crispness and tone, and it’s easier to filter than some microphones. We also put the Wunder CM7 mic on upright piano. For the money and what I need, the Wunder is amazing. I try to not EQ. I just use a filter to take out any pinch in the frequency.”

And as for the exceptional vocal peaks Urie hits in “LA Devotee,” “Hallelujah,” and the stunning “Golden Days,” where he glides from Carl Wilson sweet to Freddie Mercury/Robert Plant intense, “Jake and Suzy pushed me!” Urie exclaims. “It was trial and error to see if I could reach the note. The only insert I used is the UAD [Fairchild 670] Legacy Compressor plug-in, which is great. My voice has a weird natural compression. It sounds strange when I double vocals sometimes. It sounds like Auto-Tune. But I try to get the best take and not use Auto-Tune, ’cause for my voice it removes the feel. If there is a flubbed note, we’ll use [Celemony] Melodyne to pitch one note.”

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Shinn describes tracking specifics: “For additional production, like vocal transitions and weird pads, I used samples from my own sample base, drum programming in Ableton, and [Spectrasonics] Omnisphere. I also sampled and layered my voice shouting ‘hey kid!’ to make chords or other ambient effects. I processed the vocals through Waves H-Delay, Soundtoys Echoboy and Decapitator or [Waves/Abbey Road Studios] The King’s Microphone plug-in, which models the 1920s and 1930s microphones used for the British Monarchy’s radio broadcasts. For the kids’ choir in ‘Victorious,’ I used the “1970s tape trick”: Varispeed. I changed the bpm of the instrumental to 10 to 20 percent faster or slower than the original BPM, tracked the vocals at the new tempo, then used Varispeed to put the music and newly tracked vocals back to the original BPM. This creates morphed or child-like vocals!”

“I LOVE PLAYING ALL THE INSTRUMENTS”

Brendon Urie sings his ass off and writes songs that may be considered classics in some future where song-craft is valued over beats. He’s a good bassist, guitarist, and keyboardist. But he’s a phenomenal drummer. Urie’s drumming sparks every song on the album, from the driving eighth-note rock of “LA Devotee” and the Gene Krupa tub-thumbing of “Crazy=Genius” to the galvanic swing triplets of “Hallelujah.” The song kicks off with a sample of Chicago’s “Questions 67 and 68,” prefaced by Urie executing, note-for-note, the triplet rolls of Chicago’s rhythm machine Danny Seraphine.

“It’s so weird,” Urie muses. “Sometimes I will chop up a sample and then insert it differently. I did that with the opening tom fills of ‘Hallelujah,’ then I played the same fills on the drums as well. I chopped up the triplet form; that made it more fun to figure out how I was going to play it. I love taking an idea and pushing it into a different sound. I love playing all the instruments.

“I love Chicago, I grew up listening to their LPs from my parents’ record collection,” Urie adds. “‘25 or 6 to 4’ was the coolest sounding thing ever. From that moment, I was in love with classic rock. That song is so great, but it’s so different. We sampled that, then built the song around the sample. That song was such an inspiration.”

As well as playing live drums, Urie used his sample library and Native Instruments Maschine. “With Maschine,” he explains, “it’s easy to preview a sound to find out what I want. I can either play it in Maschine or play it on a keyboard. I bounce between the two. I was looking for sounds that I loved at the time like the Kendrick Lamar album to Dylan Francis. I was all over different genres looking for sounds.”

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Shinn describes the microphone complement used to track the vintage Ludwig four-piece drum kit: using the BAE 1073 as universal mic preamp, an AKG D12 was used on kick drum, a Josephson e22S on snare drum, and an AKG D190E/dbx 165A for the snare shell.

“That’s an idea from the Tame Impala’s Currents,” Shinn says. “That gives this Beatles-esque compressed sound, due to the dbx 165. Those two together sound great.”

Sennheiser MD421s miked both rack and floor toms; AEA R88 for L/R overhead miking into a Chandler TG2 and another AEA R88 as room mic into a Chandler TG1. “Room mics were to the right of the drums nine feet out into the room,” Shinn explains.

Brendon played a Guild Starfire hollow-body bass with flatwound strings into an Ampeg B-15 Portaflex amp miked by a Wunder CM7 FET into BAE 1066 preamp into a Purple Audio MC77 compressor. “The Guild bass with flatwounds gives you that Paul McCartney sound, like you’re plugged directly into the board at Abbey Road,” says Urie. “The Guild bass has a really good thump. We also sampled Roland TR-808s for sub-bass; that along with the live bass gives it a different feel.”

Urie played a Duesenberg guitar through three different guitar heads: a 1972 Mesa Boogie Mark I A713, a 50-watt 1979 Marshall JMP, and a Vox AC-30, electrifying a Mesa Boogie Road King 4X12 cabinet. Josephson e22s and Royer 121 offaxis, “side by side where cone meets paper,” were summed to one track via a Chandler TG2 preamp.

Urie leaned heavily on soft synths to create the maximal colors of Death of a Bachelor, but the production is so seamless they function as glue, grit, and sonic paste.

“I used a lot of plug-ins and a friend brought in an old Oberheim,” Urie says. “On ‘LA Devotee’ I used the Analog Lab for Arturia plug-ins. It has everything I need: the Prophet V, the Korg CS-80 V, which has great arpeggiators, and the Arturia Jupiter8 V has some good, hard synth sounds. Arturia has so many synths, including the Solina V, which is great, and the Vox Continental V for that Doors sound. I used a lot of the Oberheim SEM 5 too.”

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Claudius Mittendorfer mixed Death of a Bachelor, transmogrifying the final note of closing epic “Impossible Year” into a burned-out fade-to-black.

“I wanted the end to resonate but I didn’t know how long it should sustain,” Urie says. “Claudius came up with this rambunctious idea of filtering and oscillating the frequency at the end of the track while phasing an echoed delay of the vocal and the piano and the horns, everything compiled into that one chord. He let it delay forever then sucked out the sound with the oscillator. It’s automating frequency and filter.”

Though Jake Sinclair posits Death of a Bachelor as a “Sinatra in the year 2525” concept album, such hyper song-blasts as “Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Good, The Bad, and The Dirty” would have Old Blue Eyes plugging his ears. But as the ultimate song and dance man who popularized the American Songbook, there’s little doubt that Sinatra would recognize a kindred spirit in Brendon Urie. The 28-year-old plays everything, sings in any guise or voice that moves him, and with “Death of a Bachelor,” “Golden Days,” and “Impossible Year,” contributes his own standards to an as yet unrecognized American Songbook.

The total rock star

“Brendan can sing higher than any girl!” laughs engineer Suzy Shinn. “He can turn on the energy and the charisma at any second. And he’s so modest. But he’s a total rock star.”

Brendon Urie is undoubtedly a rock star, a triple-threat performer, a monster talent. But how does he do it? How does one man sing like a tortured baritone angel, play all the instruments, and write great songs?

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“It’s key to have a second opinion,” Urie replies, deferring compliments. “I usually get a few minutes of a song recorded, then get a second point of view so I can hear the song differently. After a while, you’re hearing the song the same way over and over. You need to step back. When recording everything yourself, if you get tired of an idea don’t spend more than ten minutes stressing about it. If I’m working on a keyboard line, if I get stressed for more than ten minutes—and I set a timer—I will move on. Don’t let yourself get too bummed if an idea isn’t working. Don’t lose that initial excitement of the song.”