Four Studios, quirky synths, Pink Floyd, The Mamas and Papas, a renegade producer, and a psy-adventure, epic approach make MGMT's Congratulations one of the weirder wonders of 2010
It’s the summer of 2009 at a rented house in Malibu, CA, and producer Pete Kember (a.k.a. Sonic Boom) and engineer Billy Bennett are twisting knobs, pulling sticks, and generally kicking the crap out of a very valuable EMT 250 reverb unit. The result of the boys’ banging and experimentation will become one bizarre element in an album of general weirdness by Brooklyn duo MGMT.
MGMT principals Ben Goldwasser (vocals, keyboards, synthesizers) and Andrew VanWyngarden (vocals, guitar, keyboards, bass, drums) scored big with their first major label effort, Oracular Spectacular, which was recorded and mixed in 20 days by Dave Fridmann at his upstate New York Tarbox Studios (with some tracking at MGMT’s own Blanker Unsinn in Brooklyn, New York).
Accorded great freedom from Columbia after the critical adoration and popular success of Oracular Spectacular, MGMT’s Congratulations is by contrast an Alice in Wonderland audio-adventure epic. It’s far stranger, more experimental, yet retains the sense of glee that pervades MGMT. Recorded over five months in multiple studios accompanied by a full band, producer and ex-Spaceman 3 member Pete Kember (who still “takes drugs to make music to take drugs by”), and a fresh songwriting direction, MGMT expands beyond OS tracks such as “Kids” and “Time To Pretend,” stretching out the songs while hanging onto the gooey good hooks.
“After touring Oracular Spectacular, we had to learn how to write songs again,” VanWyngarden says from Brooklyn. “It just came out differently this time. We were thinking more about how the songs were going to be performed live [Oracular Spectacular was Goldwasser and VanWyngarden solo]. In general, when writing songs, we won’t like a chord progression unless we like it on its own. We inevitably make it go somewhere unexpected. We also wanted more space on this record—then we got carried away again.”
“We usually start out with an idea that one of us has brought in, then work on it together,” Goldwasser adds from Manhattan. “For every song, we do the music and the arrangement and figure out an overall sound before we have a vocal melody to accompany it. The vocals and lyrics are inspired by what the music sounds like. We’ve never really done strippeddown demos. It’s always in the demo process; we end up fleshing the song out and its direction as we go. It’s a weird way of working.”
Left to right—Matt Asti, James Richardson, Andrew VanWyngarden, Ben Goldwasser, and Will Berman.
MGMT increased the weirdness factor by renting a house in Malibu and analog gear from Ocean Way, and hiring Kember, who brought his analog synths—EMS Synthi A, Gakken SX-150, Synton Fenix, Suzuki Omnichord—and a mindset that nothing was sacred. Kember also played Goldwasser and VanWyngarden his idea of weirdness: The Electric Prunes, 13th Floor Elevators, and early Roxy Music. Once he arrived in Malibu, with recording already under way, Kember set up a second live room in the garage to further the band’s creative fancies. Later, MGMT recorded additional tracks at Vacation Island (New York) and Blanker Unsinn.
“Setting up the second studio meant there weren’t extra people strumming guitars and working out parts in the control room,” Kember explains from Rugby, England. “We had a space where they could record ideas, and at the end of the day we’d pass stuff between studios. Then they could judge what to add from the other room. One of my philosophies is that there are very few spaces that you can’t record in, particularly given a half decent microphone and preamp.”
Kember reports that the band cut core rhythm tracks for “Song for Dan Treacy,” “Flash Delirium,” and “Siberian Breaks” in Malibu, with everyone trading off on instruments. Tracking was done via Pro Tools 8 LE on Mac G5 through a Toft ATB32 analog console for monitoring. Bennett rented scads of classic gear from Neve, Neumann, Teletronix, and AKG, as well as a 1962 Fender Jazz Bass, 1976 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe, 1978 Guild F-412 12-string, 1966 Fender Electric XII, and a Rickenbacker 4001 Bass.
“The band recorded basic tracks live, with some overdubbing and replacing,” Kember adds. “Andrew played drums on some tracks, or parts of tracks, and guitar. It was all laid down to click but played live. If the feel overtook the grid, they would actually have different sections in different tempos. There was some beat-matching, too. Everyone in the band can play the drums; it’s down to taste, which is the best take from the five. They all play three or four instruments.”
The Toft ATB32 was used for monitoring and rough mixes, and its mic pres were engaged when recording synths or bass direct. Kember found the group’s analog fixation amusing.
“They liked putting their hands on the thing,” he says with a laugh. “If you want to record something with a Roland Space Station, which we did [for “Siberian Breaks”], you’d much rather have those knobs than doing something with a mouse. While there is something great about editing a performance through digital parameters, there is something instant about controlling a Space Station feeding back. I suppose it is the element of human interaction. But I don’t think it was any better for it. It’s the romance of it.”
Billy Bennett disagrees, at least in regard to the Toft console. “Malcolm Toft made the Trident Series 80 range boards back in the day,” he says. “The same EQs are in the Toft console. So we had good EQs on every channel. We did mostly rough mixes on the Toft, and mixing out of the box sounds infinitely better than in Pro Tools. The rough mixes just sound so open, the high end is so detailed, way more than the Pro Tools mixes we did at Blanker Unsinn or at Vacation Island.”
MGMT’s rented-house studio in Malibu, CA.
One particular software program did make its way onto Congratulations, producing the sequenced modular sounds heard at the end of the album’s longest track, “Siberian Breaks.” Five12 Numerology is Goldwasser’s latest plaything.
“I haven’t even started tapping into its possibilities,” Goldwasser says, “but it’s basically an analog step sequencer program like you’d have on a modular synth. It’s not like Logic or Ableton, where it’s pretty rigid as far as thinking of everything on a grid that is all related on that grid. With Numerology, you can have lots of different grids that are all related in different ways. You can have a sequence affecting another sequence, for instance. You can also hook up Numerology with a modular synth like Five12’s Volta. It’s more useful for people who are making strictly electronic music or generative music.”
Referencing the vocal glory of The Mamas & The Papas, Roy Halee’s reverb-filled productions for Simon & Garfunkel, and the fuzzy rock of The Kinks, “Siberian Breaks” moves through endless sections, finally resolving in waves of looped synth tomfoolery.
“The first sequence at the end of the song was played manually on the EMS Synthi A running through a Roland Space Echo,” Goldwasser explains. “Then all the little fast sequences on top of it are Numerology. There are two sequences running in Numerology with another sequence modifying them, getting them to step through different miniature sequences. If you were trying to manually program each individual note, you’d drive yourself crazy, but it takes five minutes to set up with Numerology. There are endless uses for it.”
Another constant on Congratulations, at least on “It’s Working,” “Siberian Breaks,” and “Lady Dada’s Nightmare,” is a washy reverb approach that sounds like the tracks were recorded in a hot air balloon, then cut loose to float through the ether.
“The whole time we imagined that kind of a sound, especially on ‘It’s Working,’” Goldwasser explains. “We just like the trippy sound, thinking of records like Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, or The Electric Prunes. One of Pete’s big things is that when you listen to an old ’60s psychedelic record, it sounds like it’s washed out in reverb, but actually there’s only a real long reverb on the drums, and that makes the record sound washed out without actually reducing the intelligibility of the track. Dave Fridmann used tons of EMT plate reverb on the record; he is a specialist as far as that is concerned.”
“Fridmann added a lot of the reverb in the mix stage, mostly to give things some space and make it sound out of this world,” Bennett says. “But we did the really cool thing with the EMT 250. It’s the original EMT 250 big box with sticks and real buttons on it. When Pete would hit the buttons to change programs (say from Phaser to Delay) and whip the sticks back and forth, it would make the ‘glitch-y’ sound heard on ‘Siberian Breaks’ in the transition along with the delayed/reversed snare between the end of the Spector/bigreverb- snare section right before the flute/synth section begins with lyrics, ‘I hope I die before I get sold.’ Pete really taught us to see the possibilities of what a piece of gear can do. He would grab a knob, and jack it all the way to the left or right to find its capabilities.”
NUTS, BOLTS, GAKKEN, AND ELKA
Congratulations, like Oracular Spectacular, gains part of its cosmic, comic allure from mad synths, including the EMS Synthi A, Gakken SX-150, Synton Fenix, Casio DG-20 guitar synth, Suzuki Omnichord, and an Elka Panther 100 Combo Organ.
“The Panther is a Vox-type organ; you hit a key and it makes a metal contact that triggers the sound,” Bennett says. “When you release the key, you can hear that telltale metallic thump. That’s on ‘I Found a Whistle.’ The Gakken is a new Japanese synth that came free with a magazine that Pete bought. It’s got a little stylus and a conductive strip, and when you run the stylus up and down the strip, it makes a winding, whirring sound. Pete played it on a couple tracks after he put it together. The Suzuki is a student-type keyboard; you run your finger across its metal conductive strips and hold down the particular labeled chord button, and it will play that chord. It sounds like an arpeggiated harp. Pete also brought the EMS Synthi; that has a patch bay that lends itself to experimenting. It’s most prominent in ‘Lady Dada’s Nightmare,’ that squealing, crying awful sound.
To make it do a voice, they tweaked the knobs and played it live as the song was being recorded.”
The various synths, played by Goldwasser and Kember, were mostly recorded direct, whether at the Malibu house, Blanker Unsinn, or Vacation Island. “I recorded the synths direct to a Neve 1272 module, the Toft’s stereo mic pres, or a Chandler Limited TG-2 [Abbey Road Special Edition Mic Preamp] to give them more of an analog sound and fatten them up,” Bennett says. “Sometimes we would overdrive the pres to get some harmonic distortion. The Neve has a fatter low end; the Chandler is a creamier, oldersounding pre. The Neve is the classic rock ’n’ roll sound; the Chandler is more vintage-sounding to me.
Although everyone in MGMT plays drums, the bulk of final drum tracks were either from proper drummer Will Berman or the ever-busy Andrew Van- Wyngarden. To get the band’s desired, more natural drum sound, Bennett eschewed close miking individual drums for an overhead-oriented approach achieved by using triedand- true miking methods.
“Instead of that hard-panned, left to right sound, the band likes a more natural sound,” Bennett says. “I went with the Glyn Johns or Andy Johns setup. Distance-wise, you place the overhead mic about two-and-a-half sticks above the snare, then the other overhead, two-and-a-half sticks again, at almost a 90-degree angle to the drummer’s right. As long as they are both equidistant from the snare, the snare will be in the middle when you pan the two mics out. Then you’ll have rack toms closer to the snare overhead mic, and the floor tom will be closer to the overhead mic to the right—you’ll get some real presence out of the floor tom. That gives you the stereo image. You’re hearing what the drummer hears: the entire kit.
“We had Shure SM57s as spot mics on the snare for good crack,” he continues. “For the overheads, I used two AKG C 12s for a while; they sounded smoother, and more rounded on the top end. But we changed them for Neumann U 67s; that really brought the full-on cracking sound the band wanted. Those went through a Neve 1081 or an API 312; the API is the cleanest, brightest mic pre I’ve used for drums. The Neve is sometimes too dark and fuzzy on the drums, but I use it for kick drums to get that rock ’n’ roll low end. I used an Audio-Technica AT4047/SV for the bass drum through the 1081, sometimes with a high-pass filter to cut the bass; the band doesn’t like a super-sub low end. They like it more bright. I’d put the mic at beater height, just inside the front head side, front head removed. We had the drums baffled in Malibu; but it was really about controlling the volume levels to control the leakage.”
GUITARS, BASS, AND FILTERS
Producer Dave Fridmann.
The multiple vintage guitars were captured with a combination of modern and classic equipment. “I used a Coles 4038 into a Neve 1081 or a Beyerdynamic M 160 ribbon into the Neve 1081, miking a ZT Lunchbox Amp, a 1950s Galanti Amp, a Marshall JMP, a Fender Super Reverb or Fender Champ,” Bennett recalls. “Ribbon mics capture the fullness of the guitars without treble harshness. They put the guitar where they need to go in the mix. A ribbon mic limits the frequency range of what you’re picking up; it doesn’t capture so much high end like a condenser mic would. They pick up guitars in a natural-sounding way.”
And in keeping with MGMT’s somewhat old-school pursuit, Bennett recorded bass live through an Ampeg Portaflex Fliptop Bass Amp.
“We had a Neumann U 47 fet and an AT4047/SV as well,” he says. “The U 47 sounded a little more classic and old school. The 4047 is a more modern sound. Usually the mic pre on bass was the Neve 1081 for a tight low end. I usually put the mic close on the Portaflex, not more than a foot away from the speaker, angled right at the center cone. When Goldwasser and VanWyngarden preferred the bass direct, we’d run it straight into the DI input of the 1081 then into a UA 1176 or a Teletronix LA-2A.”
Though Congratulations’ heavy reverb fix was mostly added at Fridmann’s Tarbox Studio, Bennett used Sonnox Oxford as the main EQ at Blanker Unsinn and Vacation Island.
“Ben liked those a lot,” Bennett says. “The filters are nice ’cause you can change the octaves. We used it on everything, they’re really flexible and high quality. But in the final mixes you’re hearing Dave Fridmann’s Otari Concept Elite console. Watching him work, he’s got all this gear, but everything has a specific use. He’d patch something in, and if it wasn’t working he’d pull it right out. He didn’t try to tweak it; he’d move onto the next piece of gear.”
Bennett has worked closely with MGMT for nearly three years, and like Fridmann and Kember, praises MGMT’s recording knowledge, talent, and musical vision.
“Ben and Andrew know what they want,” he says. “A lot of people downplay MGMT; they see Dave Fridmann’s name and they figure he must have done all the stuff to make the records sound cool. I am not taking anything away from Dave Fridmann, but these guys are super-talented. They are hearing these songs fully realized. It’s not like someone waved a wand and made it so. Ben and Andrew saw it through from beginning to end from song ideas to the mastering process. They’re the real deal. And it’s all their vision.”
FRIDMANN’S REVERB HALLUCINATIONS
MGMT recorded final vocals at Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studios, taking full advantage of his reverb mastery and unique recording ethos.
“We cut the bulk of the vocals with a Neumann M 147 going through a Neve 8801 channel strip [from a Neve 88R series console],” Fridmann says. “Usually, I am adverse to high-quality gear; it’s boring and clinical. But we used the Neumann ’cause MGMT had a specific idea of what they wanted. They were unhappy with their own mics at Blanker Unsinn, so we realized that it was a quality issue. They were looking for a more pristine sound, and they liked the Neumann/Neve combo right away. One of the great things about the 8801 is that I can keep recalling sessions. It has different settings for different mics and a USB output so you can save your settings right to the computer. Then I can pull up settings right away and be ready for what they are doing.
“Regarding the reverb, I don’t do much with plug-ins. It’s a combination of the EMT 140 plate and an EMT 240 plate, the mono and stereo versions of those, as well as a lot of Lexicon Model 200 and the AKG BX 20 spring reverb. One of my favorites is the Alesis MidiVerb 2, setting 27-28, 17-18. The EMT is giving you more of the Simon & Garfunkel bathed-in-reverb effect, while the MidiVerb is the late ’80s, grainier sound. The vocals were processed with the EMTs, the other instruments via the MidiVerb. The [overall] sound was their vision. Goldwasser and VanWyngarden associate different types of reverb with different time periods and different musical styles. They are very astute listeners; they have a specific reference list for reverb sounds in mind. They have a unique ability to combine reverbs constructively to create this other sonic palette. They know their shit.”