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The Decemberists in the Studio - EMusician

The Decemberists in the Studio

Inside the 'What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World' Sessios
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An album of fantastical mini-epics framed in an elegant production esthetic, The Decemberists’ seventh album, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, would be easy to love if it wasn’t so damn hard to peg down. Lead singer and primary songwriter Colin Meloy sings like an inspired spokesman/everyman who’s found the perfect soapbox, while Tucker Martine’s beautiful production frames the band’s songs in sonic ecstasies that range from the baroque strings and psy-rock scrawl of opener “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” to the R.E.M.-does-“Penny Lane” grandiosity of “Cavalry Captain,” and the surrealist Phil Ochs folk tableau of “Lake Song,” to the spectral beauty of “Till The Water Is All Long Gone.”

Tucker Martine in Flora Recording & Playback

Four years on since The King Is Dead, The Decemberists took their time polishing What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World to a high sheen, crafting high-res portraits in immaculately detailed settings. And like many smart songwriters have done before, in their pursuit of artistic greatness, Colin Meloy looked grandfatherly songwriting legend Leonard Cohen for inspiration.

“We had all these songs,” Meloy says from his home just south of Portland, Ore. “Over the course of four years we recorded a handful of songs and let the songs dictate the direction, but we needed a through-line. Every record should have a through-line; it’s like a set of short stories made up of disparate parts that create some connective tissue. At the time I was listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen, particularly Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977, produced by Phil Spector). I’ve always loved that album for its production and songwriting. It felt like some of our songs lent themselves to that kind of production.”

An album that Cohen detests, one where Spector didn’t bother to inform Cohen that he was using his scratch vocals; it’s the oddball among the grand old man’s oeuvre of riches. And that’s exactly why Meloy loves it. “It was a strange time for both Phil and Leonard,” Meloy muses. “Leonard hates it. He never plays the songs live. And Spector is difficult to work with. I hear tell that he used his rough vocal takes. Cohen thought he was singing scratch tracks, but that’s what Spector used. It’s hilarious. It’s not just the production I like but the songs and how they work with the production. The songs are kind of lurid and adolescent. It’s where the lowbrow and the highbrow meet.”

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An album where “the lowbrow and the highbrow meet” is one way to describe What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, with its grandly nostalgic songs swirling amid iconic production that encompasses ’50s guitar rock (“Easy Come, Easy Go”), ’70sera British folk rock (“Mistral”), Nashville Skyline loveliness (“12-17-12”), and Neil Young-distortionmeets- Paul Buckmaster splendor (“The Singer Addresses His Audience”).

“That high- and lowbrow thing was something I’ve always aspired to,” Meloy says. “You can gloss an album with strings and vocal arrangements which we’ve done in the past, arranging the shit out of our records where there’s a million things happening at once. It sets a tone; it’s a statement of intent.”

Meloy wrote the bulk of What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World in his Portland home studio using a small setup of Logic, Apogee interface, various software and microphones. “My demos do sound like the final arrangements,” Meloy admits, “but some changed drastically as the band improves on my ideas.”

Recorded, as with the four previous Decemberists’ albums, at Grammy-nominated Tucker Martine’s Flora Recording & Playback in Portland, it would’ve been impossible to create What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World without the guiding hand of Martine, who is as much musical collaborator as producer and engineer.

A child of Nashville, Martine’s father wrote hit songs for Elvis Presley, Reba McIntire, The Pointer Sisters, and Ray Stevens, among many others. Tucker grew up by his dad’s side visiting the many small demo studios that dotted Music City’s rich recording landscape. Flora Recording & Playback mirrors that homey history, built from salvaged fir floors and reclaimed barn siding with lots of natural light. The control room boasts an automated API Legacy console (formerly at AVAST) and an incredible collection of outboard gear, including a Studer 820 24-track 2"machine for laying live tracks; ProAc, ATC, B&W, and Westlake monitors; and seemingly every mic pre/compressor/reverb/delay/EQ and microphone known to man. In his 20 years of recording music, Martine has worked with R.E.M., My Morning Jacket, Modest Mouse, Sufjan Stevens, Neko Case, Death Cab for Cutie, and many others.

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“Tucker is a ball breaker!” Meloy confides. “He does well at creating sound textures without overdoing it. But he works me hard on the vocals. And he’s known for his arrangements, but this time we pushed him over the top. We helped him explore more grandiose production, and he helped us define the more intimate moments.

“Tucker never lets me slide,” Meloy continues. “As a singer you’re under the microscope trying to get a vocal take. And you want to bust it out and have it be amazing and be done with it. Some producers might be too intimidated to tell a singer, ‘you didn’t do that right.’ But Tucker will tell me if it’s pitchy or I flubbed the tempo. He is brutally honest. I do appreciate that about him, although I do frequently curse his name. We’ve come to fisticuffs.

“Normally I will do scratch vocals, then when I do the final one I will blaze through it a bunch of times and Tucker will comp it together,” he continues. “If it sounds relaxed it’s a testament to his great comping abilities. Tucker is second to none. When I was still getting used to his persnicketyness I would get frustrated and tighten up. But now I know he will take me to task on everything so I’m prepared for that. The vocals he gets out of me are so much better than anyone I have worked with.”

Meloy used his own Neumann U87 and U47 microphones for demo vocals, using an SM 57 on his 1966 Martin D28, which he also played on the What a Terrible World . . . sessions, along with Martine’s new Gibson J45.

“We did all the basic tracks to tape,” Martine says, “and aside from the sonics that tape imparts to the drums, for example, it encourages a mindset of ‘if it’s not quite working let’s figure it out at the source and not make it work in the computer.’ We’d always get a drum basic track where everyone played well then we would fix some things if needed. On a couple songs we kept the live vocals, but we mostly overdubbed vocals. We didn’t spend forever getting basic tracks. You want to get the excitement of an early take but you want the band to sound like they know the song too.”

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Martine’s epic assortment of effects and instruments (including 1939 Ludwig Grand Apollo Vibes, dozens of vintage and contemporary microphones, 1960s-era Rogers Holiday drum kit and various Ludwig, Leedy, and Gretsch snare drums, and tons of keyboards and pedals) all wired into various console buses allows him to mix and match at will, throwing up whatever suited his fancy as the songs were being tracked; keeping some decisions of the moment and making other choices later.

“I am always experimenting with the treatments,” Martine explains, “starting immediately with the basic tracking. I might want to try slapback on the vocal for a song. So during playback or even while the takes are happening I might pull up a delay that will work. If it works I will usually make a note and pull that up every time we are on that song. I tend to use more analog outboard because my studio is set up that way. Everything is coming back on its own channel on the console, and I have a lot of my go-to reverbs and delays on aux sends ready to go so I can try them as we go and make a note of what is working. The EMT 140 Plate is always a quick go-to if I want to hear reverb on the voice right away, if even as just a placeholder to start with, and often it forms the track around the way things are sounding on playback. I might go to a Memory Man first, using it as a pre-delay, sending that to the reverb so that the plate is coming back a fraction of a second later which allows the transients of the vocals to come through better. I include Memory Man Delay on the voice, which often makes it to the finish line. When I use a plug in effect it’s because I have to automate something to come on for a moment or an unusual effect.”

Did Martine follow a similar in-the-moment process for compressing and limiting? “I have a handful of compressors set up on the bus returns of the console so while I am tracking or printing a rough mix I can—by sending the drum mics to bus one and two—hear what it sounds like to have parallel drum compression with the Chandler TG1, or on bus three the Neve 33609, that kind of stuff. It allows me to experiment quickly. Then when we mix I’ve discovered things that are already working.”

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Martine has worked so closely with The Decemberists that his role has long ago expanded beyond producer/engineer to become a collaborator. “At times the most valuable thing I can contribute is to be invisible and facilitate what’s going on in the room,” Martine explains. “When things get stuck I have to get the train back on track. Often it’s just waiting then and going to another song. They’re not a band to over-think things. If things are not feeling good fast, it’s a good idea to move on to something else and come back to it after digesting a few ideas.

Martine used his U87 on Meloy’s vocals, which, after years of musical theater training, can be as loud as a firetruck. “That mic and mics of that variety pair well with Colin’s voice,” Martine explains. “He has this real brashness to his voice; he sings really loud. A lot of mics will accentuate the brash part of his voice, which doesn’t need any help. The 47 really rounds that out nicely and has a huge low end. Even when Colin is singing loud and off-mic there is still a lot of body to his voice through the 47. The vocal went into a Neve 1066 mic pre into an 1176 compressor ’cause Colin is a really dynamic singer and even if he didn’t sing loud in a dry run-through, usually he will at some point in the take. I love the way 1176s handle loud singing. It will rein it in dynamically but add excitement when doing so.”

Martine’s 2014 Gibson J-45 True Vintage and Meloy’s D28 provide the acoustic bedrock of much of What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, adding a friendly roundness to the band’s sometimes showy songs.

“Sometimes Colin will play acoustic guitar really hard and most condenser mics will sound too harsh on it, similar to his voice,” Martine says. “So I used the Royer ribbons a lot, the RCA44 a bunch, and on the quieter songs, a U87 modified by Klaus Heyne, and in stereo on a couple songs using an old AKG 451. I love that on acoustic guitars.”

For guitarist Chris Funk, Martine miked his Carr Mercury, 1965 Fender Super Reverb blackface, and 1965 Fender Deluxe Reverb blackface amps using a combo of Royer 121 and Shure SM 57, both on-amp in-phase.

“The Royer captures the body and really smooth midrange and the 57 is there if you need the extra cutting midrange,” Martine remarks. “I’d monitor the Royer first then if the track got more aggressive and I needed the guitars to cut, I would push up the 57. Colin used my Carr Mercury amp on a number of songs. It’s not an old amp, but it honors that old amp sound. And you can get great distortion at low levels from it if you want. You can crank it loud and clean. It’s a versatile studio amp.”

Decemberists keyboard player Jenny Conlee played Martine’s Crown 4-pedal, upright piano, which includes an additional pedal that operates additional mechanisms called “Orchestral Attachment and “Practice Clavier,” features that produce tones like the harpsichord, mandolin, and zither. Conlee also played Martine’s Baldwin Spinet piano and the band added digital Mellotron on “Lakesong” and “Til The Water’s All Long Gone.” Martine miked the pianos with a Neumann SM2 stereo mic “which has these nickel capsules that can’t be replaced,” he says. “The SM2 is pretty bright, but pleasing.”

Martine also has an old Farfisa, which Conlee played in “Philomena” via a Fender Blues Junior amp, “which makes the most glorious distortion ever.” Bassist Nate Query used Martine’s Éclair Evil Twin DI, his Aguilar bass amp or Martine’s B15.

When recording drums, Martine prefers a less-ismore approach, but he does practice some oddities particular to his studio and his highly developed ear.

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“I find that the fewer mics I use on the drums, the easier it is to get things feeling punchy and present, he says. “It allows you to move quicker, and I love the idea of finding a spot that captures the whole picture. Thinking of the drums as all part of one sound. I like to get the Coles 4038 mono overhead to where it’s sounding like if that’s all I had I would have a good drum sound to work with. I have gone through periods of mono and stereo overheads and I just like the mono overheads. If you’re not getting enough of the ride cymbal then raise the cymbal or change the cymbal. I am not too particular about pre’s for the drum mic except for the ribbon mics. I am fortunate to have enough good mic pre’s (Neve, Telefunken, Tab Funkenwerk among them) that I don’t mind mixing and matching.”

But when push comes to shove, “I also close-mike to keep the bases covered,” Martine adds. “On the bass drum, my default was an AKG D12 for a nice, round sound with a lot of punch and not too much bleed. Then often a Lawson FET 47 a foot in front of the bass drum, more for low end bloom, a little subbier sounding. I’d often lowpass that around 3 or 4 k to try to reduce the cymbals in that microphone. My main bass drum mic and snare drum mics go into an EL Labs Distressor, and the snare mic was always an SM57 unless he played quietly, then I used a KM84. The 57 will always work—it’s part of the tricky dance we do.

“You don’t want to keep the drummer playing while you futz around getting a drum sound,” Martine advises. “For the toms I have recently discovered the Josephson E22S; I just love them on toms. They’re small condensers, which don’t always work on toms, but if you position the angle right you can really minimize the bleed from the other drums and cymbals. They have plenty of attack and low end and are more open-sounding than the dynamic mics I used for toms. I also add a bottom mic, a Beyer M 88 on the floor tom, it hits you in the chest so much more. I used to make fun of people who did that! I don’t want the floor tom to get overlooked. I sum the top and bottom mics to one track, usually. The Coles overhead picks up so much of the high tom it sounds really full and loud. For room mics, the AEA R88 stereo ribbon mic in the room, and the AEA mic pre for that. And I add a lot of high end to it, a beautifully dark-sounding mic into a compressor, often the UREI 1178. The AEA moves around, but there’s a sweet spot 12 feet away from the drums, halfway to the far wall. I will add another room mic further back if I want a bigger sound.”

Martine is the perfect foil for the Decemberists’ brand of exceedingly populist and popular pop. He knows his job is part psychologist, part technician, equal parts bad cop and good cop. “You want to keep things moving and morale high,” Martine says. “I’m a sounding board as well. At the same time they know I want the band to sound like the band. My job really changes from song to song. Typically with The Decemberists there is a theme and some kind of artistic limitations put into place. But on this record we purposely said, ‘Let’s just record over time and record more material than we need and let the album reveal itself to us.’”