The Art Of Science: Tortoise’s John McEntire on the Joys of Triggers, Miking, and Phase Relations

It’s easy for an experimental, instrumental jazz-dub-electronic-rock band like Tortoise to be mistaken for lovers of the late-night jam. But Chicago-based producer/ engineer/drummer John McEntire has been at it with Tortoise for 20 years now, and he can say with conviction that it does not work for them.

“Jamming doesn’t really yield great results,” he admits. “I think some of the improv stuff we’ve done has turned out okay, but, ultimately, we don’t really feel like it has a place in an album context.”

So band members toil away at the demo process, each bringing in ideas and hammering them out in various stages. Meanwhile, McEntire squeezes in time to work with dozens of other artists, including The Sea and Cake, Spoon, and Stereolab. But Tortoise slowly and steadily keeps up the pace, releasing a new album every few years.

On Beacons of Ancestorship [Thrill Jockey], the band’s sixth fulllength, intertwining melodies and cycling rhythms are still in full effect, but two key elements are missing. . . .

“We wanted to get away from the vibes and marimba,” McEntire says. “It was becoming a bit of a cliché, so to fill in that gap, there ended up being a lot more keyboards.”

Tortoise’s writing process is deliberate and meticulous, but with no vocals to guide an obvious structure, song lengths vary wildly. For example, “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In” is 8:14 minutes, while “Penumbra” is 1:08. Although the band doesn’t adhere to a stringent three-and-a-half-minute pop format, tracks were extended and cut down until they felt right. Originally, the pulsing and ever-evolving “Monument Six One Thousand” was only a minute long, but the band stumbled upon an interesting idea to build on it.

“We came up with this thing where the drums were triggering modular synth sounds that gave it a whole new dimension,” McEntire says.

To do that, they routed the audio output from the acoustic drums in Pro Tools|HD 2 to the comparator modules in a C.M.S. modular system to trigger a gate.

“You can set a threshold in these modules, and then it will send out a +10-volt gate signal to whatever you want that’s on the trigger,” McEntire explains.

Modules from The Harvestman, quirky synths (including the EDP Wasp), and ideas molded in Ableton Live were responsible for other experiments throughout the album, but sound-shaping creativity aside, McEntire is a stickler for getting the fundamentals down right. He spends hours tuning drums, finding the right spot for the kit in the room, and placing mics. To deal with mic bleed, he starts with baffles and steps up to samples where needed.

“Hi-hats can be a bit of a problem if they really overpower the snare,” he says. “So we sometimes try to make a physical baffle between the hat and the snare. But I’m also not opposed to using SoundReplacer when it seems helpful, although I use it more as an add-on than a fullon replacement.”

McEntire is a fan of wide stereo imaging, but he is careful with phase relationships when positioning mics.

“If you have two channels completely out-of-phase, you’re going to get this crazy, hurts-your-head stereo thing happening,” he says.

He appreciates near-coincident mic pairs for their wide, stereo-imaging effect, but using mid-side pairs is his favorite overhead drum-miking technique.

“That works really well, because you can control the stereo field in post-production,” McEntire says. “And you can adjust the side level relative to the mid in your mix, as opposed to having a coincident pair, where you’re stuck with the left and right channels as they are.”

For both the mid and side positions, McEntire uses small-diaphragm Schoeps condensers that are easy to position, although he’ll sometimes use a ribbon mic as the side element to capture a different tone. He also uses spectral panning to achieve a wide stereo image.

“I’ve got a couple of multiband band-pass equalizers from SND and C.M.S., and you can take the output of each channel and pan those around so you get the spectrum dispersed throughout the stereo field.”

Other outboard gear includes a Massenburg DesignWorks MDW EQ and 8900 compressor, an Empirical Labs Distressor, and an EAR 660 limiter/ compressor—all routed to a Trident A Range console.

For guitar, McEntire often mics lowwattage amps from a distance of three inches, blending signals from ribbon and dynamic mics. The band also uses Bassman 4x10 and Music Man 2x12 amps, and favor ’60s Fender Jazzmaster and ’80s Gibson ES-335 guitars.

But gear and techniques aside, there’s always time for recording tomfoolery. On “The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One,” percussion sounds like bags of chains hitting the ground. McEntire mixed spring-drum and thunder-sheet samples from the Vienna Symphonic Library with real drums, and, yes, chains.

“We took this pile of chains and dropped them on a bass drum,” McEntire says.

After all, all work and no play makes studio time a dull chore.


Mid-side miking gives you control over the stereo image and ambient information. It’s typically achieved using a mic with a cardioid pattern for the mid (capturing the direct sound), and a mic set to a figure-8 pattern for the side (capturing the ambient sound). The mid mic faces the source directly, and the side mic’s diaphragm is placed perpendicular to the diaphragm of the mid mic.