Vampire Weekend: The Quirky, Orchestral 'Modern Vampires of the City' Studio Sessions

An exhilarating collision of innovative recording techniques

AN EXHILARATING collision of innovative recording techniques and classic equipment, Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City (XL Recordings) is an extreme hit to the sonic head. Its recording sessions involved liberal use of Universal Audio plug-ins and the console used to track Exile on Main Street, Smile, Abraxas, and Tupelo Honey; lightning-fast solid-state drive laptops and an Ampex MM1200 tape machine; and Ableton Live and doomed drummer Jim Gordon’s Rogers bass drum, reportedly used on the Incredible Bongo Band’s 1973 track “Apache,” one of the most sampled breaks in all of hip-hop.

Co-produced by Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij and producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Justin Bieber, Haim, Kylee Minogue) and recorded at Batmanglij’s Brooklyn loft (DUMBO), Slow Death Studios (Burbank), Downtown Studios (NYC), Echo Park “Back House” (LA), and Vox Recording Studios (Hollywood), Modern Vampires of the City is a warm-sounding record of cooing vocals, madly treated drums and arrangements so cut up and affected it sounds at times like DJ Kool Herc battling Pet Sounds.

Modern Vampires of the City was engineered by 14 hands, including those of Batmanglij and Rechtshaid, Dave Schiffman, Michael Harris, Nick Rowe, and Juan Pieczanski. The album was mixed by Batmanglij and Rechtshaid, with additional mixing by Scott Jacoby and Emily Lazar (Eusonia Studios, NYC), and Rich Costey (Eldorado Recording Studios, L.A.). But while many fingers partook in creating this unique Vampiric pie, Batmanglij credits the unique facilities at Vox Recording Studios— said to be the oldest private recording studio in the world—as the album’s game changer.

“Much of the overall sound and approach to the album was being able to record the drums to tape on an old Ampex machine at Vox Recording Studios,” Batmanglij says from his large loft in Brooklyn, NY. “That put us in a different world. There’s a quality that happens with tape; it lets you really crunch and compress the drums and they don’t get harsh or painful. It has to do with the transients hitting the tape; something changes. Once the drums have been passed through tape to Pro Tools, you can really mangle them and go crazy with them.”

While Vampire Weekend (Chris Baio, Rostam Batmanglij, Ezra Koenig, and Chris Tomson) recorded and refined vocal and instrumental passages at various studios, the earliest recording passes (after songwriting stints in New York City, L.A., and Martha’s Vineyard) happened at Vox, now owned and operated by Woody Jackson. Vox is no ordinary ancient analog studio. Barely unchanged since its inception in 1936, “Electro-Vox Recording Studios,” as it was then known, features original linoleum floors, a ’50s-era Gretsch drum kit, various EMT plates, and a Fairchild Reverbertron, four Ampex tape machines, Binson/Echoplex/Space Echo delays, and the 1967 Universal Audio/API custom console built by Frank Demideo for Wally Heider, which he used to track the aforementioned rock classics and many more. Of course, it’s what Vampire Weekend did with this invaluable gear that made Modern Vampires of the City special.

“This was a quest to make an album that sounded like nothing we’d ever heard or worked on before,” Rechtshaid explains. “It was a conscious effort to not repeat ourselves. We pushed it as far as we could. Everything is based around live performance but we manipulated sounds. Whenever we came up with something familiar sounding, it was rejected. They wanted it to sound new and different.”

That choice to make everything “sound new and different” resulted in vocals, guitars, Steinway piano, strings, modular synths, bass, and drums being treated to a “kitchen sink” approach from plug-ins to Varispeed to ’60s-era mic pres.

“For the sessions at Vox, we ran everything to tape using the studio’s Ampex MM1200 16-track, and we used the mic pres from the Ampex 351 1" 8-track, as well,” Schiffman (Tom Petty, RATM, Johnny Cash) explains. “The first thing I did every time with each instrument was run it through the Ampex mic pres, and 90 percent of the time it would sound great and we didn’t touch it afterwards for most of what we were tracking. Those mic pres were enormous sounding, punchy, and clear; a ‘less is more’ thing.”

Drums and bass (along with some piano and guitar) were tracked to tape at Vox before treatments from various plug-ins and Ableton Live. “It’s a pretty non-conventional drummiking setup,” Schiffman explains. “We wanted a vibe. It’s a classic sounding room in that it’s not super ambient but it has tall ceilings. It’s intimate although it’s big. We focused on overhead mics to capture everything. I put up a pair of Neumann U47s but we wanted more dirt, more substance, so we added a pair of RCA 77dx ribbon mics, same lineage as the RCA 44bx. We lined up the RCAs with the U47s over the kit and blended them together. It gave us a really nice full sound of the whole kit. On the kick drum, we used a Neumann FET U47 on the outside and a Shure SM57 on the beater side to capture some click and attack. For the snare, a SM57 on top; that was it. We had Coles 4038s up for ambience, with all the mics running through the Ampex mic pres. We didn’t close-mike, we got a nice picture without it. They wanted to take these classic elements and use them to get a unique sound.”

After drums were tracked, Batmanglij and Rechtshaid skewed the natural sound with SPL Transient Designer and Varispeed, messing with the noise floor and messing with drummer Chris Tomson’s mind. “We discovered that SPL Transient Designer would make the drums sound bigger,” Batmanglij says. “We used it to accentuate and pump the tape hiss with the song. But at some point the tail of decay only goes so far. When you’re hitting a drum in a room, it’s not echoing forever, so when you max out the SPL Transient Designer there’s nothing left for it bring out; it starts to grab the noise floor, the hiss, and pull it up. You can hear that happening on the drums in ‘Finger Back.’ There’s certain moments where the decay knob is all the way up on the SPL and the hiss is pumping in reaction to the drums. It’s a pretty modern sound, but we came about it using a lot of old stuff. Just tape. The tape is what’s doing it. The hiss of the tape.”

In some songs such as “Everlasting Arms,” and later “Hudson,” the drum tones dip like water pygmies playing ping pong, or alternately, shatter and spread like drum corps masters clubbing hundreds of marching snare drums.

“On ‘Everlasting Arms,’ we used the Varispeed on the Ampex,” Batmanglij continues. “We were recording congas and at the same time using Varispeed so the tape speed was changing. On ‘Step,’ we recorded parts of the drums, then bounced the scratch tracks to a stereo track our drummer could play along to. We could make everything faster and higher pitched with Varispeed, record his live drumming, then slow it back down. The drums took on this underwater, otherworldly quality.

“The marching drums were recorded at Vox using Varispeed too,” he says. “It gives them that weird quality. We layered samples around a lot of the drums. The samples are just reinforcing sounds, just adding a tiny bit of a sample behind the drums to stand them up. We’d throw them in at moments just to punch up a part. Like on ‘Don’t Lie,’ there are moments where the kick drum needed to get bigger or more defined. There we’d layer in a sample of many we’ve collected for years.”

Not surprisingly for an album where nothing is quite what it seems, Batmanglij ran his 1980 Les Paul direct for much of the album. At least that’s his side of the story. “I used a SansAmp running direct with the guitar,” Batmanglij explains.” I like the control the SansAmp gives you with a DI signal for guitar, but my Les Paul was also going through a Neve pre and an 1176. The most beautiful sound was adding or using the wow and flutter of the Universal Audio [Ampex] ATR-102 [Mastering Tape Recorder] plug-in on the guitars and the keyboards. We got addicted to that UA tape plug-in and put it on everything. It’s one of the defining sounds of the record. You hear it at the end of ‘Don’t Lie’; those guitars have this beautiful wobble.”

Running guitars direct is an old trick Jimmy Page often used, Schiffman explains. “Jimmy Page would run guitars direct through the channels of a Helios console for this overdriven, creamy sound. For certain parts, we ran the guitar right into the UA console. But we focused on keyboards and drums and bass at Vox. We used a Steinway piano there; for the close mics, a pair of Neumann KM84s worked well, and the Coles 4038s for some ambience and texture. We placed the KM84s towards the hammers to get more attack, and the Coles were just out in the room. We also tracked the bass direct running a Retrospec Juice Box DI but we didn’t use it. We used an Ampex mid-’60s B18 with a Neumann U47 instead. The B18 sounded great and we went for a fairly ambient miking approach where the mic was three feet away from the cabinet.”

The band didn’t stop at pitch-shifting instruments. Batmanglij and Rechtshaid used the UA ATR-102 plug-in and Ableton to dismantle, disfigure, and reassemble most everything in earshot.

“We used Ableton Live’s pitch-shifting function in ‘Ya Hey,’ that let us pitch-shift things easily,” Batmanglij reports. “By accident, the ‘ya hehs’ weren’t pitch-shifted with everything else while we were looking for the best key for the song. But we liked the way the vocal sounded, even though it was weird. We recorded one version in Pro Tools going for this Tropicalia vibe. I love the Os Mutantes’ records; they used a chamber reverb and I am always chasing after that sound. For this record and every record I’ve made, we used a beautiful Cello Studios reverb in Audio Ease Altiverb. On ‘Ya Heh,’ there’s also saturation happening after the reverb in the chain, and then a little wow and flutter from the UA ATR-102 plug-in, too. That whole song, you can bathe in it, it’s warm.”

“Everything was mostly recorded in the moment as they wrote, then we manipulated it,” Rechtshaid elaborates. “Like in ‘Diane Young’ and ‘Ya Hey,’ we recorded a vocal, then realized the key was too low in the chorus. So we pitch-shifted the whole song up and re-recorded it. Then the guys liked the song, but not the vocal. So we pitched the vocal up a half-step. We used the formant tool in Ableton, but it’s less to do with the tuning than with the timbre of the vocal. So if you pitch-shift something up and it turns into baby vocals, you tweak the formant down and it makes the vocal go from baby to deep old man, without changing the pitch. I also used my old Eventide H949 and 910 harmonizers to play with the pitch-shifting in ‘Ya Hey.’”

In “Step,” which sounds like Simon & Garfunkel dropping acid on a merry-go-round, Vampire Weekend use inspiration from tenor saxophonist Grover Washington and ’70s soft rockers Bread, then screw it all up. The inspiration began with a lyric from ’90s New Jersey rapper YZ, which was sampled by Bay Area hip-hop crew Souls of Mischief for their song “Step to My Girl” (from their 93 ’til Infinity album). Their song sampled a Grover Washington Jr. cover of Bread’s “Aubrey.” But VW’s “Step” has no master sample. The vocal melody of the chorus interprets the melody of “Aubrey,” and it’s close enough that the band had to clear it as a sample. The chorus vocals were recorded in Ableton using the onboard microphone in Batmanglij’s laptop, a super-fast solid-state-drive MacBook Pro.

“It just clicked, so we used it,” Batmanglij says. “You can hear the train going by out my window while we recorded. We became attached to it. The song was in G then, now it’s in Bb. I used the formant function in Ableton to maintain the quality of the vocal. The vocal sounds like Ezra is singing in Bb but he was actually singing in G. It has a unique quality.

“The newer solid-state-drive laptops are running Pro Tools faster than any computer we’ve used,” Batmanglij adds. “The solid-state drive is incredible. The MacBook Pro with Retina Display has the high-def screen and two Thunderbolt cables. Samples load instantly. There’s almost no wait time. But it maxes out at 750GB, and I have 20GB left, which is not a good place to be! I have all my samples in the computer as well. You want to use a collection of samples whenever you are working on music, you want them all in the computer.”

With all this talk of fast drives, digital dalliances, and ancient recording studios, what matters most to Vampire Weekend is warmth. Like Petula Clark said, “what the world needs now is love, sweet love.” But Batmanglij thinks today’s world of digital recordings are in urgent need of warmth. Whether through love or headphone fixations, the man wants warmth, and he wants it now.

“Very few new recordings are warm,” Batmanglij believes. “I don’t mind erring on the side of warmth, but people are scared sh*tless to do that. Have you listened to the new records coming out? There’s insane brightness happening. We worked our asses off to not let any single moment sound harsh. You have to be able to enjoy the recording with the volume cranked or it’s not a good mix. We used a spectrum analyzer to really see when frequencies are harsh, they build up. There’s extreme moments on the record where we were severely limiting drums or vocals, or using a SansAmp on the vocal. To avoid buildup, you have to go in there and perform surgery and automate EQs if you really want to make a mix that never hurts your ears. The [Sonnox] Oxford SuprEsser plug-in was useful for non-vocal things. That would tame anything that was slightly painful. That plugin lets you actually see which frequencies are being activated at any given moment.”

All the vampires were enlisted, headphones on, pencils down, to check the relative warmth levels of Modern Vampires of the City. These guys aren’t necessarily into vinyl, though they obviously espouse analog recording. They know the fishy smell of a bad digital recording. So they listened until they heard it so they could destroy it.

“Some speakers make your record sound warmer, some make it sound harsher,” Batmanglij says. “It is possible to make a mix that is clear and bright but never harsh. I think that is a successful recording. But if you’re not careful, it is easy to make something that will straight-up hurt your ears. It won’t hurt your ears on every system, but at some point, like with iPod headphones, it won’t be fun to listen to. So we listened on everything. We used the iPod, and Sony 7509 and 7506 headphones. They’re good at letting you know what is going on. Then you can deal with it.”

Ultimately, an intimate if quirkily orchestral and technically brilliant recording, Modern Vampires of the City may not provide juicy ear candy for everyone. It’s adventurous, it’s beautiful, and it’s downright daring. The band’s previous recordings, Vampire Weekend (2008) and Contra (2010), topped year-end lists and tackled hipster highbrow problems from Williamsburg to Bangalore. But the next offering from Vampire Weekend will be something totally different. Serge Gainsbourg meets Reign in Blood? Channel Orange mashed with Ennio Morricone’s A Fistful of Dollars? Batmanglij ain’t saying. But don’t forget your laptop.

“We thought these three albums should look like they belong together on a bookshelf,” he laughs, pointing at his bare walls devoid of bookshelves. “We realized that there are things connecting the songs across all three albums, like an invisible hand was guiding us. It does feel like we’ve been able to create three distinct worlds for each album, and yet have them be interconnected.”

In addition to contributing regularly to Electronic Musician, Ken Micallef has written for Modern Drummer, Grammy magazine, and other publications.