Recording music is often about working with limitations. Unless you’re a Platinum-selling artist, you’re probably cutting tracks in a home studio, with an assortment of cost-effective plug-ins, instruments, and laptop as the barebones tools of your trade. But on their latest crash-and-burn soundfest, Kveikur, Icelandic atmosphere merchants Sigur Rós also embrace limitations.
Prior to tracking Kveikur, Sigur Rós underwent changes that forced them to recognize barriers and work past them. With the departure of keyboardist Kjartan “Kjarri” Sveinsson, the core of Sigur Rós was down to the trio of Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson (vocals, guitars, bowed guitar, keyboards), Georg “Goggi” Hólm (bass guitar, samples), and Orri Páll Dýrason (drums, samples). Though Sundlaugin, the band’s famed “swimming pool” studio in Álafoss, was at their disposal, the band recorded elements of songs in rehearsal spaces on tour using a Shure Beta 58, Apogee Duet, and a laptop. They tracked drums and bass to an Otari MTR 90 at Sundlaugin, but also made extensive use of a 1980s-era Yamaha PortaSound VSS-30, an 8-bit sampling keyboard that is the origin of the apocalyptic sounds that fill Kveikur with equal parts cryptic joy and doom-laden dread (Jónsi: “Something not comfortable”).
Kveikur’s production is the result of massive overdubbing (in Logic), Native Instruments Kontakt, and tools and toys from esoteric sound design company Folktek, but also guerilla tactics and lo-fi methods (such as recording drums to tape at a faster speed then normalizing them)— limitations to be exploited and embraced.
Sigur Rós (left to right)— Orri Páll Dýrason, Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson, and Georg “Goggi” Hólm. “I like that philosophy,” Jónsi explains from Reykjavik. “We’ve been touring a lot. Having cheap gear to record on the road is great; it’s pretty solid and it sounds good. You can achieve really, really good results with cheap gear. For example, we recorded a bunch of stuff backstage using a laptop and Logic Audio, Apogee Duet and a Shure 58—simple stuff. We know what we want, and how gear and plug-ins and computers work. Ultimately, it’s all about how you use it.”
“If you are really limited to a laptop and Logic, I would get a nice tube preamp and a good mic,” Goggi adds. “That’s key to what we did on this album. We recorded at rehearsal spaces here and there with a good mic and laptop with Logic. And that’s on the record; a lot of guitars were recorded just like that. It’s all guerilla for guitars and overdubbing; put a mic there and see what happens. Taking chances is key to enjoying what you’re doing. If you think too much, it becomes boring.”
And that ancient Yamaha sampler, which has graced Sigur Rós’ albums as far back as 2005’s Takk… and perhaps even further?
“The Yamaha is like a toy,” Jónsi replies. “It’s like the Casio SK1. We like it because it has an 8-bit sample rate, it’s really sh*tty quality, but it’s really gritty and cool. It marries well with a more expensive recording approach when you record bass and drums to tape.”
And though recording to tape is de rigueur for those who can afford vintage machines and setup and maintenance costs, Jónsi views tracking to tape as a healthy limitation that reaps benefits, both musically and emotionally.
“It’s good when you have to record drums and bass and guitar on tape,” he confides. “When you record to tape, it’s just there and you have to move on. You have to decide, ‘This is final take and I am happy with it,’ and you have to let it go. Instead of when you have Pro Tools and you can just record forever. You can record 100 takes on Pro Tools then spend two weeks finding out which take is the best.”
Creating Soundscapes Like a teenage heroine in some gory action thriller rescuing her unlucky girl gang from undead zombies and psycho vampire killers, Kveikur’s hypnotic melodies squirm to the surface through a din of stacked vocals, clattering drums, and the ghostly crunch of sonic fatalism. But what sounds like skyscrapers collapsing, planes crashing into happy suburban homes, and the Red Sea parting is anything but. It’s actually the Yamaha VSS-30 sampling everything from Celeste, glockenspiel, strings, and Wurlitzer to tuned gongs and found sounds, the VSS-30’s squeaky 8-bit trails then treated and inserted in the mix.
“We’ve always wanted to create a soundscape in music,” Jónsi explains. “We like the idea of marrying drums and bass and guitar with different soundscapes and sculpting the sound more so it’s not only drums, bass, and guitar. We marry that to more unusual sounds, something that you can’t put your finger on. Something that is kind of eerie and not comfortable.”
Recorded at Sundlaugin by longtime band engineer Birgir Jón Birgisson (a.k.a. “Biggi”), Sigur Rós compatriot Alex Somers, and Sigur Rós, and mixed by Rich Costey (at Eldorado in Burbank) and Somers, Kveikur is a mammoth production, with all the aggression of modern warfare and the ethereal beauty of a midnight mass.
“The band wanted this record to be really in-your-face and aggressive and not polite,” Somers explains, “as rude as possible, and Jónsi’s vocals as dreamy as possible. The drums and bass are really intense and aggressive. I made them as loud as possible when mixing. Orri often puts cymbals on his drums and records drums separately, and layers and treats the drum sounds. And the bass is really distorted and overdriven. And there is a lot of bowed guitar. It’s really reverbed out, and Goggi and Jónsi both play the bass and guitar with a volume pedal to make a super-slow attack.”
From Kveikur’s first shudder, the aggressive/beauty thing is on, as in the stomping drums and Terminator death strings of “Hrafntinna,” the near-yodeling vocals and shimmering guitars of “Isjaki,” the ghostly backward vocals of “Yfirboro,” and the throbbing pummel, falsetto cries, and unsettling stillness of “Rafstraumur.”
“We started writing the songs for this record by creating sounds or loops,” Goggi explains. “Maybe 10-second loops of a soundscape we all liked. Almost like we were working on a song, but we were just working on a loop. We played the loop back from the computer through the P.A. and jammed on top of it. Often the loops dictated what the song felt like. It was just a lot of experimenting and sampling our own instruments. We sampled Jónsi’s bow on a ukulele. Then we treated it and made it sound completely different. So a lot of experimenting with the computer and pressing a lot of buttons to see what happens.”
As always, Sigur Rós tracked bass and drums to Sundlaugin’s Otari MTR 90 tape machine, ran the signals through the internal preamps of their Neve VR console, then dumped to Logic. Guitar overdubs recorded on the fly in the studio were added to the mix, as were the myriad distorted samples that warp the songs like an alien blessing.
“For one song, we had a channel on the Neve that was bussed and it distorted like hell,” Biggi recalls, shedding light on Sigur Rós’ process. “We were thinking, ‘We have to fix this.’ But Jónsi said, ‘No, we have to record through it and capture that distortion.’ It made perfect sense within the song.”
“I Like the Sound of a Choir” Jónsi’s layered vocals are a Sigur Rós trademark, and they’re not arrived at easily. He typically sings through a Neumann U47 into either a Chandler TG1 or Preservation Sound pre, and at Somers’ studio, Retro Sta-Level vocal compressor and Chandler Curve Bender EQ.
“It’s almost like a lead solo vocal,” Jónsi says. “When I do backing vocals, I layer them a lot. I like to layer maybe one voice into four layers, then when I do harmonies, another four voices; and if I harmonize, then I do another four voices. So 12 voices total. I like the sound of a choir. It doesn’t sound like so many layers, even though I sing a lot of voices. When you sing four pieces on the same voice, it becomes kind of unified and has a stronger sound. It doesn’t sound like so many voices; it maybe becomes more solid.
“It’s the most fun and creative part of being in the studio for me,” he adds. “Because when you write a song, it often takes two years to finish everything. But when I’m doing backing vocals, it’s the most spontaneous part of being in the studio because it just happens. I don’t plan anything. I really like that process.”
He makes it sound simple, but Somers describes Jónsi’s vocal process as one of consistency, creativity, and hard work. (Costey mixed vocals using among other things, Kyma granular reverb—“some insane voice processer not meant for music,” says Somers.)
“Jónsi is really invested in backing vocals,” Somers says. “Usually he improvises on the spot. We always record four of each backing vocal and pan them hard left and hard right, sometimes for 20 minutes, sometimes for three hours while he comes up with sh*tloads more backing vocals. Sometimes we don’t work with them the way they were recorded. We reverse them, f**k with them, and move them around in a different spot in the song. Then he might come back and do the final lead vocal after all the backing vocals are there or sometimes it’s done first.
“He wanted the vocals to be quite dreary on this record,” Somers continues. “On ‘Brenninsteinn,’ Jónsi sang that through a handheld mic through my guitar with the spring reverb really far up. He wanted all the vocals to sound sh*tty and f**ked up.”
Getting’ Biggi With It Sundlaugin, built within an old concrete swimming pool, is popular among artists other than Sigur Rós. Bands come for the sound, which can range from mad and booming for drums, to thoroughly contained, depending on adjustments that Biggi makes.
“It’s a big room sound when it’s completely open,” he explains. “For some bands, we have to control it, using theater drapes to adjust the sound, but for drums we keep it a bit open. The ceiling is wooden, and the main room is around 20 x 20 feet with four iso booths where we place amps. But surprisingly, the reverb is not huge in the studio. With loads of instruments in there, it breaks up the waves.”
Biggi walks through the recording process, starting with guitar: “On the guitar amps, I used AKG C12A and Pacific Pro Audio (PPA) ribbon mics; they’re about 100 bucks and they are really great. And Thermionic Culture Rooster mic pres. The PPAs can handle a lot of SPL, and usually the amps are really loud. For most of the ribbons, they start to break up on sustained sounds like that, but the PPAs can handle a lot and they just sound nice. It’s quite rough sounding, too, but with loads of low end. Usually I combined the PPA with another condenser for brightness. Jónsi uses the 1960s 412 Marshall and JCM 2000 head, so I placed one mic on the lower cones, and another one on the higher cones.”
Dýrason plays a Gretsch kit with two kicks on some of the songs. “I put a Sennheiser e602 in the bass-drum hole and an AKG D25 out front, close below the middle of the head,” he explains. “Snare top is a Sennheiser MD441; a Shure SM57 under the snare. I used two Coles 4038s as overheads, six feet off floor, facing down in figure-8, with three feet between them and similar distance from the snare middle to each mic. The one on the drummer’s right is usually a bit lower than the other one. I do that mainly because that is where the ride cymbal is, and it’s lower so I try to place it closer to those than the crash and hi-hats to pick up the cymbals. And I like Lomo Russian valve mics for room mics. They are bright and have loads of detail, and for this room, they are really good. I have two of them on each side of the room with a meter-and-a-half between them, and facing the drums, two meters away and two meters high.”
Biggi ran bass through an Avalon DI, and miked a ’60s-era Ampeg B15 Portaflex with a Neumann U47 a foot away from the center of the cone, sent through an LA610 pre into a Thermionic Culture Vulture. Goggi played Fender Jazz, Precision, and Jaguar basses with a host of distortion pedals including EBS MultiDrive [Universal] Overdrive Pedal and EBS ValveDrive [Pro Dual Mode Tube Overdrive] Effects Pedal, and a Boss Multi- Effects pedal. “That has 20 different effects built in, which are usually not that great,” says Goggi, “but if I just turned everything on, and all up to 11, it sounded great.”
With the resulting sonic stew from the Yamaha VSS-30, guitars recorded on the road, and enough vocal layers to bury Phil Spector, the role of the mixer was especially important to the success of Kveikur. Somers and Costey shared duties and headaches.
“We wanted the drums to be really overdriven,” Somers recalls. “I used the Thermionic Culture Rooster; that drives the drums really hard. I tried to get them really loud and aggressive and often overcompressed. That imprints the drums with this sense of urgency. Usually I have to bring the bass back in ’cause the distortion and compression tend to take it away. I have an EQ after that, and find the kick drum spot and bring that back in. It was really about really loud drums and good, clear vocals.”
EQing individual tracks via Neve outboard and the SSL EQ, and UAD plug-ins in the Logic sessions, Costey ran bass through a combination of UAD plug-ins, Distressors, and Neve 1073 EQs. On the drums, for outboard gear, he mostly used a vintage Decca limiter as a parallel compression unit. Jónsi’s guitar, keys, and strings were left untouched. The lead vocal chain involved splitting the vocal out into several channels, with different EQ and compression on each channel. The intense reverbs heard throughout the album are a combination of Costey’s UAD EMT 250, Valhalla reverb, and stock Logic plug-in reverbs, as well as his outboard Bricasti, Lexicon, and AMS units, and Kyma granular reverbs.
“Jónsi was very involved in the mixing process, typically taking a mad scientist approach, grabbing faders and really digging in,” Costey explained. “My job was to keep it from going too far in any one direction. For example, he was always pushing the reverse reverb higher and higher on the lead vocals, and I would keep his rides but then try to bring their overall level back to some semblance of sanity. There were quite a few instruments hitting in the same range—treated falsetto vocals, bowed guitar, and strings battling throughout the album on a number of songs. The trick there was to have the guitar under the vocal with the strings on top, EQ-wise. I generally did not use much compression on individual instruments—partly to preserve dynamics and partly because it just makes things sound worse sometimes by changing the envelope and release of a performance.”
When asked about the job of the mixer in the era of the home studio, Costey replied, “The first job of a mixer is to not ruin whatever is being given to him or her. That’s not as easy as it sounds—the temptation is always there to add more and more processing to a recording, but in most cases these days, the recording is probably fairly processed already. And I would say that the second job is to think about the intent of the material and try to take it further down whichever road it’s heading. One thing that’s important to bear in mind when mixing is that to make something sound extreme outside of the studio, it has to sound very extreme inside of the studio. There are parallels between mixing and editing a film, cooking dinner for family and friends, conducting a group of musicians, and running air traffic control.”
Accidental Music After the departure of Sigur Rós’ longtime keyboardist, the remaining trio felt the need to experiment and to use those limitations to their benefit. Did taking chances pay off? “It was more extreme experimentation this time,” Goggi says. “We felt we should be completely free to do whatever we want. We should open our minds and do whatever; it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t sound great in the beginning. We’ll work on it and see what comes out of it. We do like accidental music. When you might accidentally hit a button or you forgot to turn something off. Or you didn’t hit the right note. You keep it on the record. You take that chance.”
Ken Micallef has covered music for Downbeat and Rolling Stone among others.