The holy grail of vintage sounds—found in a laptop
The danish duo of Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo—neither of whom live in Denmark—turned another corner with their sixth album, Observator. Since their debut some 10 years ago, it has been the soda-shop fuzz, crackling surf guitar, and dueling shoegaze-y vocals that have characterized The Raveonettes. But on Observator—which was recorded in one week at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles—it is the piano that takes center stage. Wagner has been using the piano to write the last three albums, but only this time did he decide to keep the piano during the recording process.
I thought, why not keep it as it is? It might add some intensity and gloominess to our sound that wasn’t there before.”
“For the last year and a half I’ve been looking for a guitar pedal that sounds like a piano. It’s non-existent—unless you want to sound like a synthesizer,” says Wagner, speaking from a choice housesitting gig in upstate New York while his place of residence, New York City, sizzles in the stifling summer heat. “You can translate the piano to the guitar, but it has a very different vibe to it. It was really difficult to play the last two albums live because there were such weird chords and fingering. I love guitars but they have their limitations. I find it easier to write melodies and interesting motifs on the piano.
It has proved to be a good call on Wagner’s part. There is a depth to Observator that was previously missing from the band’s sound. Simple music is still at the heart of what The Raveonettes do, but the subtle accents (of which there are many), are more defined on the new album. On “Curse the Night,” for instance, it is Wagner who sings the high-pitched verse. On the chorus, he added an extra kick drum to beef up the bottom end and put guitar parts through Eventide’s Space pedal to open up to a big, stereo sound. The stompbox was a new find for the reverb-mad Wagner, who thought he had every possible reverb-making toy already.
The Ravonettes—Sharin Foo (left) and Sune Rose Wagner.
“The Eventide has this modulation chord and so many parameters you can change to make different sounds,” he says enthusiastically. “I only use one setting and touched two parameters, and it was the sound I was looking for. All of a sudden the mood of the songs changed to how I wanted it to be to begin with and didn’t know how to get.”
Wagner uses pedals and outboard gear—including the Yamaha SPX90, Eventide H3000 Harmonizer, and Empirical Labs Distressor—but he often relies more on plug-ins, such as Logic’s Space Designer reverb. However, it’s taken him hours of tweaking until he felt satisfied with plug-ins effects. “Going back to our first album, it took months and months of trying out everything to learn how to use plug-ins to create what I thought was an authentic vintage sound without using any vintage gear at all,” Wagner says. “You can create all these sounds that sound like they were created in the 1960s on your laptop.”
And for as much as Wagner loves vintage sounds, it’s surprising that he doesn’t like to use guitar amps. “We use them onstage because sometimes it sounds better than just coming out of the monitors, but our front-of-house guy never uses them,” Wagner says. “It just goes DI into the board through the pedals. And at home I run the guitar through the Shadow Hills Mono Gama mic pre and Dual Vandergraph comp.”
It’s interesting insight into the inner workings of The Raveonettes, particularly because the band was lumped in with The Strokes/White Stripes garage-rock movement upon releasing their first album. And in addition to largely avoiding guitar amps, The Raveonettes don’t use live drums, either. Wagner, who considers himself a drummer before anything else, can create a good fill or any other drum sound on electronic pads. But he spends countless hours finding the right sampled drum sound that fits each song. He has a large sample library of both sounds he has sampled himself and library sounds. Wagner will go through 400 different snare samples to find 40–50 usable ones.
“I’ll take an electro sample, but then I’ll put on an old jazz snare drum, give it a little bit of that vinyl punch—a layer, maybe two or three sometimes, to make sure the song is right,” he says. “When we were at Sunset Sound, we had a full drum kit. Every time we would record a new song, I would have a shot at the live drums, and every time we would say, ‘Let’s hear the sampled drums again.’ Even when we use real drums, they always play along to sample drums. I’ve always thought guitar amps and drums were more for a punk band.”
Meanwhile, for vocals, Wagner and Foo sang through a trio of mics simultaneously: a Neumann U47, Neumann U87, and Shure SM57. They would mute and solo each one and choose the mic based on which sounded best for each song. Although Wagner does the majority of the production himself, producer Richard Gottehrer (Blondie, The Go-Go’s) stepped in during the vocal-recording stage. “[Gottehrer] was a songwriter in the Brill Building and produced a lot of great albums,” Wagner says. “Vocals are all he cares about. A good vocal performance that speaks to people is where he’s coming from. So I know when he says that was a great take, he’s probably right.”
Lily Moayeri is a Los Angeles-based freelance music journalist. She dislikes it when people post/tweet/text/email pictures of cats. You can find her writing aggregated in her feline-free blog at pictures-of-lily.com.