WHEN WE last spoke with TV on the Radio’s mastermind, Dave Sitek, in 2008, his Brooklyn, New York, Stay Gold studio was literally going up in flames. The band eventually recorded and released their third album, Dear Science, which was greeted by international raves. But as restless as they are wildly creative, change must be in TVOTR’s DNA.
TVOTR followed Dear Science with 2011’s Nine Types of Light. That year, the band suffered a catastrophic loss when 36-year-old bassist, organ and piano player, sampler, programmer, and Rhodes guru Gerard Smith succumbed to lung cancer.
Vocalist Tunde Adebimpe and guitarist/keyboardist Sitek moved to L.A., while guitarist/keyboardist Kyp Malone and vocalist/bassist Jaleel Bunton remained in New York City. “For me personally I felt like I had reached a plateau in New York,” Sitek explains. “I wanted to try something different. There was no energy left in the street anymore for me. My back was against the wall just to stay in New York and I wondered what I do could with my time if my back wasn’t against the wall.”
Now ensconced at his Federal Prism studios in Glendale, California, Sitek and TVOTR tracked their fifth album, Seeds, like late-night shift-workers. No more than two members were in the studio at a time, working on each other’s tracks and possibly trading ideas telepathically as engineer Zeph Sowers pulled single, double, and triple-duty.
Working late-night hours can have its benefits and its dangers. “When you’re high as sh*t at night in L.A., it’s going to make it into the music,” Sitek laughs. “There’s something really enchanting about this city. I am perpetually expecting our alien overlords to return and take power. L.A. seems like the kind of city were you would see their approach. ‘Look, here they come!’ And the Santa Ana winds carry some kind of crazy magic in those unexpected blasts of warm air.”
Performed and produced by Sitek and TVOTR, tracked by Sowers, and mixed by Matty Green (Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen), Seeds is pure TVOTR, an album that operates perpetually at 4am, ably blending electronic and acoustic drums, taking advantage of vintage analog synthesizers, exploring unusual instrumentation and tried-and-tested recording processes, and sounding like 22nd century club music driven by 20th century soul.
Seeds’ opener, “Quartz,” buzzes over trampling drums and joyous vocal hollers. “Careful You” fuses burning blue-eyed-soul vocals and dead-eyed robotic rhythms. The raging “Winter” as well as the buzzing “Could You” reveal some classic Roger Mc- Guinn-style Epiphone guitar. Interstellar space is explored in “Test Pilot,” jangled guitar twisting into serenely orbiting synths. “Oh, here comes trouble/Put your helmet on/We’ll be heading for a fall,” Adebimpe sings in “Trouble,” and you feel TVOTR crossing some divide in the lyrics, as sound effects fly through the mix like sleeping cosmonauts: “The devil’s got my number/It’s long overdue/He’ll come looking soon.”
Seeds is an album so translucent it practically melts in your ears, its soothing synths, happy floppydog beats, and occasionally raging guitars tempered by Adebimpe’s introspective, warm vocals, the rich sweet spot amid TVOTR’s funnel-swirling melodies and beats. Tunde recorded his vocals into a U47 and either a Shadow Hills Industries pre or Wunder Audio PEQ2 Module—but no console. Though Sitek employed a Malcolm Toft 980 at Stay Gold, that’s another thing left in the past.
“I’ve used a console my whole life,” he explains, “but I found the sound I was getting most attracted to was the stuff I was doing direct. All my other work outside of TVOTR, (including Beady Eye, Oh Land, Yeah Yeah Yeahs), I do direct, and that’s what excites me. A console is just a money pit. It would crowd the studio as it is now, and I’ve embraced the idea of not using a console. It’s exciting. Limitations? Let me at ’em!”
When we last featured TVOTR, in Brooklyn, they employed a pirate’s booty of studio gear of every shape, purpose and size. Any day at Stay Gold, you were likely to see a diverse cast taking advantage of Sitek’s toys—anyone from Grizzly Bear, Blonde Redhead, Massive Attack, and The Knife, to Architecture in Helsinki and David Bowie. Sitek brought the memories and the gear to Federal Prism.
From Left: Kyp Malone, Tunde Adebimpe, Jaleel Bunton, Dave Sitek “I brought all my outboard gear out here,” he exclaims, “and a f*cking truckload of synths and microphones and drum machines. I have it all but the console. I don’t even use the hardware effects, most everything on the record is going through a pair of Neve 1073s (or the Wunder Audio Modules) or the Shadow Hills pre’s with nothing else on them. We try to make the sound right before it gets to Pro Tools. Using those pres right before it gets to Pro Tools we try to use the least amount of color as possible.
“And while we love SoundToys, we don’t really use a lot of plug-ins,” Sitek adds. “Zeph is masterful with EQ and that’s really a lot of what you’re hearing. There’s not a lot of other things going on. When Zeph compresses he does it subtly. We try to give it to him real crisp and clear before he works with it. Spike Stent makes fun of me cause I love that RCA sound, but almost everything goes through a Pioneer DJM 900 mixer. I love the EQs and the filter on that thing. All the guitars are played through that, which sounds bananas, but it’s just really easy to dial in something so that has its own space with the 900.”
Seeds’ keyboards were recorded direct, taking maximum advantage of Sitek’s Dave Smith Prophet 12, Elektron Analog Keys synth, among other synths—“mostly a Yamaha CS10 on everything; that’s a lot of the bass, even it doesn’t sound like bass, Sitek says. “Also, an Arp Solina. And we used the sh*t out of the M400D Digital Mellotron, too, as well as a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and 12. Oh lord!”
“A lot of times when people think a sound is a synth, it’s actually a guitar,” Sitek says. “I use a lot of treated guitars in layers. It’s funny because when you think ‘synth,’ it’s often that absolutely terrible rave synth everyone uses all the time, and though that is an effective sound, it’s been completely overused. If I lay down a synth line with the Prophet 12, I will try to mimic that with the guitar, and if I do that successfully, then I take out the Prophet. We do a lot of that. We run synthesizers through a ton of guitar pedals, too. The Eventide Space Reverb Pedal is the greatest pedal of the past 30 years. Everything goes through that at some point; it’s just phenomenal.”
While Sitek likes his toys as much as the next person, TVOTR remain a band of musicians, who kick it in the studio and play live as opposed to sequencing parts. They love their layered drum sounds and synths that turn into guitar scrawls and vice versa, but rather than program a tambourine, they play a tambourine. How unique is that?
“We are keen on making the live drums sound like electronic drums and vice versa,” Sitek says. “Most of the record is a hybrid. We use a lot of live kicks and live snares or just a live hi-hat. Usually we will lay down a beat on an MPC 2000 or a Roland TR-8 and make the deadest possible drum sound we can, then Jaleel or myself will play drums along with that. We’ll gauge if there is too much activity from the live or programmed drums, then we start cutting. A cut is worth a thousand drums for us, so we might take out a fill or a cymbal or some other thing. Sometimes with a drum machine, we want to change the swing, but we don’t want to change the beat if we like it so we’ll just change the swing of the hi-hat. Sometimes that’s easier to do with a live snare or a live hi-hat. We’re idiots: We play it live over the track to get the human feel. To program that takes too much time.”
“It seems like everything in life is turning out to be to a grid,” Sitek says when asked about TVOTR’s trademark electronic/acoustic drum blend. “Everyone wants to lay it out according to the grid. Sometimes with our electronic drum tracks, we tab the transient then line that up on the 1, then we’ll realize that within that transient maybe there’s a little bit of slip that makes it sound more like a spazz, so we will slide it even further to mix it up more. If you rush electronic drums it has this other, psychological effect. It’s more than an audible effect. ‘Let’s cheat a little bit and slide the 808 so it starts a little before the one.’ That gives it this weird skip or energy.”
TVOTR’s drum machine palette also includes Akai MPC-2500, the new Roland TR-8 Aira Rhythm Performer Drum Machine, Dave Smith Instruments Tempest, Elektron Analog Rytm, Korg Electribe, and Sequential Circuits DrumTraks.
Though Sitek doesn’t care for plug-ins, engineer Zeph Sowers does; his favorite SSL plugs saw heavy usage on Seeds. “On the drums,” Sowers says, “I use the SoundToys Decapitator to make it more crunchy and messed-up sounding. And SoundToys Devil Lock. That’s a compressor and a distortion box; it makes things more crunchy and f*cked-up sounding.”
Sowers uses Waves and SoundToys plug-ins, but he really loves “the SSL plug-ins, that is my goto cause I know it well and I like the way it sounds. It has the compressor, the EQ, the gate, whatever I need quickly, I can dial it in and keep things moving. Dave likes to work fast so I use things I know well. That keeps the energy moving and no one is waiting while I mess around with equipment.”
Employing a Mac Tower with a Digidesign 192, Sowers also speaks to TVOTR’s love of the Eventide Space Reverb Pedal and the ubiquitous Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler Pedal. “Dave told me that when they started the band, the Line 6 Delay was their main piece,” says Sowers. “And they run everything— drums, guitar, and even bass—through the Eventide. Tunde will sometimes do vocals through those pedals to create a loop.”
Sowers’ go-tos at Federal Prism include a Shadow Hills preamp and the Wunder Audio modules.
“They’re like 1073s,” he says. “Wunder is made in Austin. They sound similar to the Neves: They’re punchy, the EQs are smooth, they open up and make things bigger and wider and punchier. The Wunders are between $2,000 and $2,500. They’re not cheap, but they’re not as much as an original pair of Neves. The Wunders are well-built and Dave likes them. There’s always something to fix on the old Neves.”
Vocalist Tunde Adebimpe would lay down a scratch then add or change lyrics as necessary as he tracked. He doesn’t punch in much, Sowers explains, and Adebimpe will sometimes loop sections to get lost in the mood of a certain part (as in the gorgeously omninous “Trouble”). He might track section by section, or record an entire song multiple times then create a comp from the tracks.
Sowers recorded Jaleel Bunton’s 1972 Fender Precision Bass direct, but ’80s Fender Telecasters, Gibson SGs, and Epiphone electric hollow-bodies both live and direct, depending on Sitek’s direction. Guitars received multiple treatments, from various pedals and the Wunder Audio PEQ2 Module to a 1966 Fender Deluxe close-miked, off-axis, two inches from the grille with a Shure SM 57.
Sitek layers drums like a meteorologist toying with storm clouds, but overall prefers a minimal miking approach. Six mics cover the drum set, including kick, snare, overhead, hi-hat and a single room microphone. A Heil PR40 goes in the bass drum, Shure SM 57s on snare drum top and bottom and the hi-hat, a Coles 4038 two-and-a-half feet above rack tom, and a U47 room mic eight feet away from the drum kit.
“That’s to deal with layering the electronic drums,” Sowers says. “Dave likes a tight, intense drum sound. So the fewer mics and the smaller the room, it’s easier to get that tighter, dead sound. It’s easier to make a tight dead sound sound blown up—if we wanted to run it through other effects or plug-ins to make it sound more bombastic and big—than track something that sounds bombastic and then try to make it tight.”
Sitek and TVOTR mesh and morph and transmogrify sounds so as to become unrecognizable, reinventing their music in some instances, clinging to old paradigms in others. “You’re talking to a guy who is still in Pro Tools 9.4,” Sitek laughs. “We’re more about stability than technology. Ableton is fantastic and it’s changed a lot of things, but we don’t touch it. We’re really about the song more than the technology to record the song. It’s very rare that we get excited about new technology. It’s more about the inner world than the electronic world for us.”
Engineer Zeph Sowers on layering electronic and acoustic drum sounds
“If the predominant drums are electronic, then you don’t want your live kick drum to sound too fat on the bottom, so you may want to cut out some of those frequencies. Just so it’s more felt rather than being the main thing heard. And you don’t always need cymbals in an electronic drum set sound. TVOTR don’t use cymbals. They take up too much space in the mix. As soon as you add cymbals they cloud and color everything and take a lot of space. You want to leave space in that frequency range for other things. Cymbals fight too much for us. If we do cymbals beyond the hi-hat, we might overdub a ride or add a slowed down crash cymbal sample. When blending electronic and acoustic drums, you have to make sure all the drums are hitting together, if not, you will get flamming and lose the impact of both sets.”