It’s never easy to go back to the drawing board, especially when you’re in the middle of what might be your most anticipated album yet. But in the spring of 2009, New York’s glam rock champions Scissor Sisters did just that, scrapping 18 months of work to seek out a producer who could give them a new perspective.
Scissor Sisters (left to right)— Babydaddy, Jake Shears, Ana Matronic, and Del Marquis.
“I think you could probably collect all of our unused tracks and put together a triple-disc set,” quips multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Scott Hoffman, a.k.a Babydaddy, about the band’s nearrelentless level of output. “We experiment a lot, and we’re—I hate to say—perfectionists, and I don’t mean we’ve achieved perfection, but this album had to sound like a progression for the band. To do that, we needed someone to create an atmosphere where we could push ourselves harder and get the best out of each other.”
Eventually, the band reconnected with producer Stuart Price. “It all felt a little bit like family,” Babydaddy recalls. “Stuart was one of the first people we met in the British music scene; his band, Zoot Woman, took us out on our first tour of the UK. I gave him a call and was very honest about wanting to be challenged—I wanted Stuart’s mind, not necessarily his sound. He completely understood, and probably wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
Known for the lush, synth-washed and beatdriven headspaces he’s created for Madonna, Seal, The Killers, and countless others, Price consciously mixed up the sonic palette for Scissor Sisters’ third album, Night Work (Polyvinyl), mind-melding with the band to build textures more akin to Eliminator-era ZZ Top or the gritty dance-rock explorations of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Liverpool. “Scott and I are kids of the digital age,” Price explains, “and the sound that we wanted dictated that we work in an analog sense, even though we’re both using Logic. Fortunately, between us, we’ve got enough elaborate gear now that we can recreate the circumstances that led to those older records.”
The album’s leadoff single “Fire With Fire” encapsulates the story. Not only is it a dynamic torch song for lead singer Jake Shears, building and throbbing with ARP 2600 sweeps and Moog Polymoog pads, but it crackles with a sheen of compression reminiscent of ’70s FM radio—a subtle effect that cycles through the entirety of Night Work, lending a nostalgic feel to disco anthems like “Any Which Way” and the retro-new wave pop ditty “Skin This Cat” (featuring the band’s other lead singer, Ana Matronic). As Price points out, it’s one of the perks of having access to a 48-input SSL G Series console in his London-based studio.
Jake and Ana.
“I just let the channel compressor in the SSL do all the work,” he says. “For example, the ARP synthesizer always responds well to aggressive compression because it has such a big noise floor. I like to bring that raspy sound out so I have a chain that’s always boosting a lot at 6K on a high shelf. I’m only going to end up riding it more in the mix anyway, so I figure let’s just do it from the get-go.” Similarly, the Polymoog was set up with its own chain, running into a pair of guitar pedals—the Boss CS-1 Compression Sustainer and DD-7 Digital Delay—and an Avalon U5 DI/preamp, which has a tone shaper that allows for liberal knob twiddling. “If you want to disengage your brain for a second and just search for a sound,” Price jokes, “it’s a brilliant all-around box.”
Initially tracked with the full band—filled out by guitarist Del Marquis and drummer Randy Real—“Fire With Fire” is notable for its compact mix, which owes as much to the original performance as it does to any compression applied later. Shears used a beat-up Shure Beta 58 microphone for his vocal, singing in the control room, as he did for most of the album, to a live monitor mix with no headphones. From there, he went into a Neve 1084 Mic Pre, purely for gain (dry with no EQ) and into the SSL for further compression. Babydaddy played a Fender Musicmaster Bass into a Vox AC30 guitar for extra grit, while Marquis played an overdriven Gibson Les Paul guitar on the chorus. In the mix, Price was very light with Logic plug-ins, relying on a combination of Space Designer and an outboard Yamaha SPX90 for adding reverb trails to Shears’ vocal.
“We’ve always sort of mixed as we went,” Babydaddy adds. “We spend the final mix really getting things right, and possibly even reinventing things. On this one, Stuart did less work than I did in trying to perfect sounds as we went. I think he realized he was going to spend time with it later, so we used creative time for the creative process. In the end, he planned for a week to mix the album, and we just thought, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ But he was adamant about making it work, and he actually did it in a week with us looking over his shoulder.”
Again, Price took full advantage of the SSL desk at his disposal. “The console is always in mix mode,” he says. “That’s a good way of having everything ready to go, but at the same time you’ve got 24 tape returns so you’re not putting anything off to the mix.” Price kept the first 24 channels on the left side of the board open as “record ins” for all the synths and mics in his studio’s live room, while he used the remaining 24 channels on the right side as “tape outs” into Logic.
This tight organizational approach was key to the success of “Invisible Light”—at six minutes plus, the album’s epic, runaway closer. Once Price heard the song’s basic tracks, laid down by the band in New York, he knew instinctively what the song needed. “They’d cut some very Pink Floyd-sounding electric guitars,” he recalls, “but the vocal melody and the hook were really the guiding points.” The song suggested layered textures from some unusual sources, including a Yamaha DX7s for the main riff, a rackmount TX7 for the bass groove, and both a Nord Lead 3 and an Access Virus TI Polar for the dub-style breakdown section (which features a guest invocation by none other than Sir Ian McKellen, recorded backstage after a theatrical performance in London).
Price programmed a LinnDrum LM-2, synced to a Roland SBX-10 sync box, to run throughout the song, manually riding the faders and pan pots on the SSL before going into Logic. The LM-2 turned out to be one of two vintage drum machines that added significantly to Night Work’s overall percussive grittiness; the other was an Oberheim DMX, something the band and Price came across while tracking live for a week at the legendary Compass Point Studios in Nassau.
“There’s so much history there,” Babydaddy marvels, “with Robert Palmer, Grace Jones, AC/DC, ZZ Top, and all these strangely disparate sounds and bands. We felt it would be magical to go there and really play live as a band. One day we were talking to [engineer] Terry Manning about what he used for that ZZ Top sound, and Stuart found an old DMX gathering dust in a closet—that turned out to be the secret,” he laughs. “I think the sound of the future has more to do with the past than the present; that’s why we love vintage gear, why we love to compress, distort, and really destroy sounds in interesting ways. That’s where the magic is for me.”