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Ty Segall: Outside The Box - EMusician

Ty Segall: Outside The Box

'TY SEGALL makes his record the old-fashioned way with STEVE ALBINI
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Ty Segall has had a prolific career as a rock-oriented singer/songwriter and performer.

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When Ty Segall decided to make a studio album that captured the energy and interaction of his stage shows, he jumped at the chance to work with engineer Steve Albini. The resulting album, Ty Segall, features the artist’s eclectic blend of rock styles, which includes elements of psychedelic, punk, jam music, and pop. Engineered entirely by Albini and produced by Segall, it was released in January on Drag City records.

CHANGE OF PACE

Segall was familiar with Albini’s Chicago studio, Electrical Audio, having visited a couple of years prior and taken a tour of the facility. “I really loved the environment,” recalls Segall. “It’s like every room has been immaculately designed from scratch to capture specific sounds. It’s crazy.”

For Segall, who has his own analog-tape-based home studio, going to an outside facility was a departure. “He’s used to recording mostly in his own home setup,” notes Albini, “which is obviously significantly less of an investment than going to an outside studio, traveling, and having to put people up and all that sort of stuff. So, it’s a significant commitment of resources, if you’re used to doing it that way, to sign on to doing it someplace else.”

Segall chose to record the album with his touring band—guitarist Emmett Kelly, bassist Mikal Cronin, drummer Charles Moothart, and keyboardist Ben Boye. “That version of the band was well-rehearsed,” Albini says. In a commercial studio situation where time is money, having a tight band is a huge advantage.

Recording to tape, the exclusive format at Electrical Audio, was entirely comfortable for Segall. “I’ve only done tape,” he says, “All my records are various [multitrack] formats, whether it’s cassette, 8-track [reel-to-reel], or 1/4-inch, 1/2-inch. I have a 1-inch machine at my house that I use. I’m definitely with Steve on that.”

The project was recorded on Albini’s Studer 820 multitrack, which has swappable headblocks, allowing it to be configured for either 16 or 24 tracks. Segall chose 16 for this project, which is Albini’s preferred configuration if the artist can get by with the limited track count.

“Sixteen-track sounds significantly better than 24-track,” Albini explains. “There’s much less background noise, both because the individual channels are less noisy and because there are fewer channels, you end up with less aggregate noise. The frequency response and the headroom on each individual track is also better. You get better bass response, and you get less saturation, so you have less high-frequency distortion, and the sort of extended high end on a per-channel basis. And because there are only 16 of them, you also get the benefit of clarity from not having as many signals competing. So, the stereo image tends to be a lot more solid. You tend to have a much heftier low end and clearer high end.”

However, the 16-track format can be problematic if a band isn’t well-prepared. “You can’t always do it,” Albini explains, “but if you do your homework and figure out how many tracks you’re going to need before making the record, then often you can find a way to condense things to the point where you can fit a whole arrangement in 16 tracks.”

IS IT LIVE?

Drums set up and miked in Electrical Audio’s live room.
Courtesy Electrical Audio

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Electrical Audio’s facilities were well-suited for the live nature of the album. “The way that studio is laid out,” says Albini, “there is an isolation room on either side. There’s a large central live room [called Center Field], and that’s where Ty and Emmett were. And then there’s a smaller live room in the center of the studio and the drum kit was in there. And then the bass amplifier was in an isolation room off to the side of that. So, everyone could see everyone, and there were lines of sight, so Ty could sing along if he wanted. But there was some practical isolation between the instruments.”

Thus, they were able to cut the basic tracks with most of the band playing together. The only instrument parts recorded exclusively as overdubs were Boye’s piano tracks.

The drums on the album have a very natural sound to them. Moothart’s bass drum was on the large side, and that can sometimes be problematic when recording. “Over the years I’ve developed some techniques that help with a big boomy bass drum to keep it under control, such as a particular choice of mics,” Albini says. “In this case it was a Beyer M380, which was on the resonant side of the bass drum, and another small-diaphragm condenser microphone was used on the batter side to pick up the attack of the bass drum beater.”

The M380, which is out of production, is a dynamic mic with a figure-8 pattern. Albini used that pattern to his advantage on the kick. “It tends to reject the sound being reflected back into the mic from the ceiling, and the ambient environment on the side. So, it tends to pick up mostly the front to back movement of the resonant head. And it has a very strong proximity effect, so you can control and sort of tune the depth of the low-frequency response of the bass drum by moving the microphone in or out.”

DOUBLE FREEDOM

Center Field at Electrical Audio is where Segall and Kelly were placed during the recording.

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Electric guitars play a major role in Segall’s music, and he and the other guitarist, Emmett Kelly, recorded a number of double lead parts on the album. For the most part these were mixed with Segall’s guitar panned hard left and Kelly’s panned hard right. What made them unusual is that Segall and Kelly weren’t playing synchronized, harmonized parts, they were playing independent lead parts simultaneously. While you might think that would create sonic chaos, it has a feel and flow to it that works well.

Segall calls them “double freedom leads,” and he’s been using the technique on albums and onstage for a while. However, he says they only work with the right combination of players. “A lot of times you play with guitarists and you feel like they’re trying to one-up you in a negative way,” Segall points out. “There isn’t a harmonious situation happening. You’re not playing together. With Emmett and I it’s the complete opposite. It’s so much fun, we’re always trying to lift each other up to a different level. It’s really cool.”

According to Segall, the parts also work because of their different playing approaches. “I think Emmett and I have very different guitar styles. I think that was one of the main reasons it works. I have like one thing I can do, and Emmett is arguably the most talented guitar player I know. So, it’s like he’s always switching in and out between different styles, and I have my one kind of thing. We also have very different guitar setups, so tonally, it’s very complementary.”

Albini would use two microphones on the amps. “Typically, a ribbon microphone and a condenser microphone, or a fairly bright dynamic microphone. And then I would balance those two against each other, or, if there’s space available, keep them separate for bouncing later in the mix. But normally, on a 16-track session, I would balance those two together.”

Albini recalls that his choice of ribbon mics for the guitar amps would have been either an STC 4038, an RCA 74-B, or an AEA N8. “It’s a ribbon microphone,” he says of the N8, “but it has an active head amplifier in it, so it’s phantom-powered. That gives it more gain, but it also controls the impedance the ribbon element sees. So, no matter what you plug it into, it has the same basic sound quality. Ribbon microphones are notorious for sounding different depending on the impedance matching.”

SUMMING TRACKS

“Where there’s interplay between the instruments, you want to exaggerate that, or make it as apparent as possible.”
—STEVE ALBINI

Courtesy Electrical Audio

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In the age of in-the-box mixing, it’s easy to forget just how much work is required when mixing on a console. For Segall, console-based mixing is what he’s used to. “That’s the only way I know how to mix. I know how to use Pro Tools. I can do some editing,” Segall says. “But there’s a wild-style live mix when mixing off the board. Every mix is a performance.”

Because Electrical Audio is strictly analog, they’re all console-based mixes. The console used on the Segall album is from a company called Neotek. “It’s a customized console, but it’s based on the Neotek Elite,” Albini explains.

At the time Albini bought the console, Neotek was in the process of being purchased by Martinsound, the company that invented Flying Faders for Neve. As a result, Albini was able to get Electrical Audio’s Neotek console equipped with Flying Faders. “They’re a tremendous help in mixing,” he says, “not necessarily for the sake of automation, but because you can group a bunch of faders together and control them from a single fader. The grouping, and muting, and manipulating aspect of that is really helpful.”

On the mix of the album, you’ll notice that Segall and Albini weren’t hesitant to push elements out to the edges of the stereo spectrum, especially the lead guitars. Segall who describes himself as a “total headphone freak,” has historically done some pretty radical panning.

“If you listen to a lot of my old records,” he says, “it’s like the drums are in the left, the whole record. This [the new album] is actually more of a tame, live-band-style mix. I love having kick in the left, snare in the right, vocals in the right.”

When asked about his own panning preferences, Albini says, “It really does depend on the character of the music. Some bands that I record are quite noisy and quite chattery. Where there’s interplay between the instruments, which is a feature of the sound of the band, then you want to exaggerate that, or make it as apparent as possible. Having the stereo between the instruments quite wide is one way to do that. So that when the playing is moving from instrument to instrument, it’s also physically moving in space in the room you’re listening to.

“Another way to do it is to make it so that those aspects that you’re trying to focus attention on are eccentric from the middle of the mix in some way. For example, you could have the bulk of the band sound in either center channel or very modest stereo, and then if you want to draw attention to an overdub or a backing vocal or a particular moment, have that one element stuck off in one speaker, so that it seems to be breaking the pattern of your listening.”

Another noticeable aspect of the mix on the Segall album is the lack of effects used, particularly on the vocals. “I think vocals are always the biggest challenge for me,” Segall says, “because that’s the thing I’ve had to work the hardest on. If you listen to my first couple of records, I’m singing through guitar amps, and it’s all kind of shrouded in sketchy recording techniques. I used to get frustrated, which I don’t anymore, but vocals are always the hardest. For this album we said, ‘No effects. Super-loud vocals. Dry. Hear all the words and stand behind it.’”

Because the vocals would be reverb free, Albini used room mics to add space. “There was an ambient microphone out in the big room on at least some of the songs,” he says, “that provided a kind of a natural ambient quality to the vocals.”

A GOOD MIX

“I think we generally have the same idea of making records,” Segall says. “Feel is the most important. He’s obviously more than an engineer. I went into the session thinking, ‘I’m going to ask for your opinion and bounce things off you.’ And then it was really great. He seemed excited and had ideas, and he wasn’t just sitting there hitting record. He was very much a part of the process.”

Albini seemed pleased with the way the project turned out. “I recall it being pretty smooth sailing,” he says. “The band was in really good shape, they had been playing a lot, so the takes were effortless. Ty is a really terrific guitar player, so when he’d do leads and stuff, we didn’t have to build them up out of micro takes in order to have a tolerable lead. He’s got an idiomatic singing style, but he has a very clear idea of what he wants each song to do, so the singing persona on a per-song basis is mapped out in his head. It wasn’t like he was trying random stuff and trying to figure it out on-the-fly; he had a pretty clear plan for each song. I recall it going very, very smoothly.”