For their fourth album, London-based band Tunng decided to flip the script a bit. The “folktronica” act had always experimented with unusual instrumental pairings, including dulcimer, harp, trumpet, and even seashells. But for ...And Then We Saw Land [Thrill Jockey], the group didn’t go hunting for weirder noisemakers. Instead, harmony vocalist Becky Jacobs was promoted to lead vocalist, alongside Mike Lindsay, and band friend Ben Bickerton contributed lyrics. And in the midst of the writing process, just as the band started spinning their wheels and finding it difficult to finish songs, they mixed it up even more by collaborating Malian desert blues troupe Tinariwen.
But trying new things didn’t change the band’s sound drastically. They still mix electronic and acoustic sounds—such as synth loops and banjo strums—and lush layers of soft vocals. Here, Lindsay talks about the process of recording “Don’t Look Down or Back,” playing with Tinariwen, recording and treating vocals, favorite gear, and mixing.
Could you pick a song from ...And Then We Saw Land and explain the step-by-step process of creating it, from writing to recording to mixing? ?
Lindsay: So, my favorite song on the album is “Don’t Look Down or Back.” It was written in two halves and started with the guitar line as most of the tunes did. We demoed the first version in my flat on the laptop. I just laid down a click with some finger snaps and percussion and then played over the top to get a feel, then worked on vocal melodies by singing any lyrics that came to mind. The chorus came really quickly. Then Becky and Ben [Bickerton] wrote the verse lyrics.
At that point it was time to take it to the studio in east London. I have a bit of a habit of throwing everything you can think of onto a track and then stripping it back again until it’s almost like the original demo, so then you’ve tried a few feels and find directions. For example, it had drums all through it, synths instead of electric guitars for the chorus, and the vocals were in unison, not call and response like they ended up, and there was no mega choir until the last moment.I only really use two mics, a Røde condenser NTK, and a Røde NT4 stereo mic. The condenser is a copy of the U 87 and seems to work really well for most things, depending on position and which preamp is being used. I have a TL Audio valve preamp that really warms up acoustic guitars and muffled snares and toms, which were the only type of drums I like recording.
All the synth sounds on this tune were done on the Korg Mono/Poly, which I love! It has a great arpeggiator and a really dirty bass tone that I backed up with a Höfner bass through a Fender Twin. And the electric guitar is through a Fender Hod Rod Deluxe and recorded with the both mics at the same time, one up close and one ambient room mic. I wanted it to have a wonky Neil Young feel…. The same mic method was used for the alto horn and cornet parts but with some plate reverb. We have Mike Oldfield’s plate reverb upstairs, the one he used on “Tubular Bells.” It’s huge!
All of this was recorded through the Soundtracs Virtua desk (one of the first digital desks ever made) and into Digital Performer through MOTU 2408.So once we got it sounding big, I wanted to wonk it up a bit with some sounds that I recorded on the Edirol sound recorder when I went to India. There are some temple sounds that Phil and I chopped and put through an EQ on Digital Performer, taking out all the bottom and top and then boosting the middles. There’s also a sound of a whisky bottle being opened, which was cut and pasted with the shakers. I like having a few sounds in the mix that just subtly twist the tune.
All the vocals were redone with Ben Edwards in the studio next door. We used a Blue Bottle mic and the Røde mic and a ’50s Reslo lo-fi mic going through this early ’80s German outside broadcast desk made by Studer with three orange telephones attached to it! It looks amazing. It was great to redo the vocals once we had lived with the song and its final arrangements. I love soft vocals double-tracked and panned hard left and right. They really whisper loudly and create a subtle wall of vocals.
Then we went to an abandoned school in east London that my friend Steven from The Memory Band has been living in. It has an amazing school hall. I rounded up about 15 friends who I knew could sing and got them to sing the chorus into two sets of stereo mics (the stereo Røde and two U 87s) running straight into the laptop. Ashley was conducting, and we both wore headphones. It was hard, but red wine helped. The room had a great, harsh, natural reverb, so I didn’t really mess with it. I just dragged the files into DP and lined them up. It sounds super ’70s.
Finally, the song got mastered by Guy Davie on a console that used to belong to EMI Nigeria! Nice.
What’s your signal chain for vocals, and how do you record and treat leads versus background vocals?
Lindsay: I start with the Røde condenser mic in a vocal booth into the TL Audio valve preamp into the Virtua desk with no EQ. Then after I run it into a new channel on the desk, I put it through a MW compressor in DP and add some top on the compressor. Then I repeat the process with another take, pan them hard left and right, and mix them loud. I really like vocals in the foreground and layers of them. Backing vocals can be really dry or maybe with a little tape delay from the Line 6. I have a [Watkins] Copy Cat, but I don’t always get what I want from it. Maybe I should try harder.
?I read that you recorded with the Malian desert blues troupe, Tinariwen. How did that help renew your writing and recording process?
Lindsay: It was a ten day UK tour, not really a recording session. We had four days to rehearse a full-on collaboration where we played each other hours of music. It was an incredible experience, and they make incredible stripped back desert blues with twisted rhythms. I think it was a very subtle influence on the album, but really it was an influence on playing live and how to break down music to simple forms. We were never going to try and make a desert blues record. It’s not our world, but I love the unison vocals and one-chord guitar lines, both of which Tunng have used to full effect.
What are five pieces of gear or software you couldn’t live without?
Digital Performer MW compressors
Native Instruments Reaktor GoBox groove box
Line 6 DL4 delay (it’s great as an aux unit)
Korg Mono/Poly synth
Then there’s this really bad DJ mixer that I can’t remember the name of, but it has a great lo-fi sampler on it, so you can snatch straight from the record, and it already sounds twisted.
What’s your philosophy about the mixing process?
Lindsay: I try to mix as I go. The Virtua has total recall, so you can work on the whole album at the same time, but I have recently swapped it for a Soundcraft analog desk from 1976. It sounds amazing, but it’s strictly one tune at a time. I like to do outboard effects moves in real time and then record that as audio and stick them out of another channel, then mix that. I’ve never had anyone else mix our stuff because I take care with it. But I would like to hear someone else’s take on it. Maybe I could learn something. Hmmm….
Listen to Tunng here: http://www.myspace.com/thisistunng
[Photo by Paul Heartfield]