American Majesty: The Killers Forge A Fresher Sound for Day and Age in Their New Personal Studio

When Las Vegas-based quartet The Killers released the chart-scaling Hot Fuss in 2004, they laid the groundwork for other soon-to-be superstar Sin City bands (read: Panic at the Disco) to raid the airwaves and secure the Strip a place in the short list of hot musical centers that aren’t within a hop, skip, and a jump from a shoreline. Expressing a love of dance pop, ’90s rock, and old fashioned sing-along songcraft, Hot Fuss (and follow-up release Sam’s Town) introduced a thrilling young band as likely to channel the epic qualities of Bruce Springsteen (“When You Were Young,” “Sam’s Town”) as the intimate emotions of early Billy Joel (“All These Things That I’ve Done”), the hip-shaking energy of INXS (“Andy, You’re A Star”), and the cold glamor of Joy Division (“Somebody Told Me”) and the Smiths (“Change Your Mind”).

When Las Vegas-based quartet The Killers released the chart-scaling Hot Fuss in 2004, they laid the groundwork for other soon-to-be superstar Sin City bands (read: Panic at the Disco) to raid the airwaves and secure the Strip a place in the short list of hot musical centers that aren’t within a hop, skip, and a jump from a shoreline. Expressing a love of dance pop, ’90s rock, and old fashioned sing-along songcraft, Hot Fuss (and follow-up release Sam’s Town) introduced a thrilling young band as likely to channel the epic qualities of Bruce Springsteen (“When You Were Young,” “Sam’s Town”) as the intimate emotions of early Billy Joel (“All These Things That I’ve Done”), the hip-shaking energy of INXS (“Andy, You’re A Star”), and the cold glamor of Joy Division (“Somebody Told Me”) and the Smiths (“Change Your Mind”).

In a few short years vocalist Brandon Flowers, drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr., bassist Mark Stoermer, and guitarist Dave Kuening had solidified a small legacy not bereft of controversy, but chock full of innovation. Never content with standing still for too long, the foursome sought out prolific dance producer Stuart Price to collaborate on a handful of new tracks. After crafting extensive demos recorded at their practice space and in Vannucci Jr.’s home studio, The Killers decided to tempt fate and its tendency to favor the bold by spending their royalties on a building a new studio, Battle Born. With Price and engineer Robert Root on hand (and a casino’s amount of new gear), the band set out to record their most adventurous album to date, the recently-released Day & Age.

What does Day & Age sound like? For sure, Stuart Price’s years producing everyone from Madonna to Missy Elliot has informed The Killers’ worldview. That’s not to say that Day & Age rides over simple house grooves or poppy synth lines—far from it. Vannucci Jr.’s drums still pound the solar plexus like nothing else this side of Hal Blaine/Levon Helm, and Flowers’ grandiose vocals still inspire throngs of teens and young adults stadiumwide. But there’s a sense of experimentation in Day & Age’s sonic supplication. Opener “Losing Touch” confirms this year’s best INXS impersonation, first single “Human” apes New Order plying dark, emotional melodies against a robotic rhythm as does “Spaceman,” a synthetic track which is impossible to resist as pure pop music confetti. But it’s the doleful and heroic “The World We Live In” that confirms Day & Age as a modern classic and The Killers as one of the era’s enduring rock bands. With Vannucci’s mighty drumming cresting like climbers mounting Everest, the song’s whirring synths and layered vocals rise and rotate like some Mahler song cycle. Overall, Day & Age is heady stuff from Las Vegas’ newly-crowned masters of melody.

When not recording under the aliases Les Rythmes Digitales, Thin White Duke, or Jacques Lu Cont, British producer/ performer Stuart Price lends his heavyweight production talents to such superstars as Madonna, Missy Elliott, Gwen Stefani and Keane. Here, we learn how Price brought his demanding techniques and unusual attitudes to The Killers’ homespun recordings, effectively stretching everyone’s boundaries in the process.

Did you enjoy working with the band’s setup at Battle Born?
Yes. We built a really good setup based on Logic Pro, an Apogee Symphony system, and the API desk. They already had a huge mic locker. Every piece of equipment used was purchased for this project. But we had limitations as well: The console was originally 16 channels and we had to expand it to 32.

The only plug-ins we had were from the Logic Pro bundle, but that wasn’t a big deal. Before the newest version, I always felt that an Apple Logic setup was good only for solo artists. Up until now, Pro Tools, in my mind, was the only thing that reliably provided the power you needed to track a real band, but Apple has really stepped it up.

Does that mean that you generally prefer Pro Tools?
I have been working with Logic on my own for eight years now, but I love Pro Tools as well. Coming from a background of using Cubase and doing a lot of MIDI sequencing, obviously I gravitated towards that integration within Logic. But there is a cliché that Pro Tools is solely an engineer’s system and Logic is more creative, and I don’t believe that.

How much of Day & Age was cut live as opposed to recording each musicians’ part independently?
You have to look back to the demos; the band constructed demos and the original ideas often came from one member at a time. When we got in the studio, most of the songs were pretty well formulated, so we would cut stuff in sections in confidence. There were a few songs done entirely live, like “Losing Touch,” whereas other songs like “Human” were constructed from the ground up.

Where does “The World We Live In” fall in that regard?
That is a good example of a song that came from a demo that Ronnie had originally programmed at home, then they got in the studio and cut new sections. It really took on a life of its own once he handed it off to the other guys.

Did they re-record it completely or integrate new sounds with the demo tracks?
The drums were from the original demo, but re-recorded, then in the end we went with the demo drums. Sometimes you can record something with cheap microphones and a cheap mixer at home and it sounds better than what you get with an expensive setup in the studio. . . .

How did you push the band to bring their best game each day?
My approach is to hang a clock on the wall and tell everyone that they have until midnight to finish the song, and the next day we’re moving on. At first I thought that would be met with resistance, but they got really excited about that challenge. To them it inspired an urgency which I think you need to hear on a record. When there is a slight sense of urgency, a slight rough edge, that can make an album exciting. So many musicians think that they can just fix everything later or make all their decisions in the mix, but I think it is good to take a more oldfashioned approach. They may have their own studio now, but we still got this album done in six weeks. We’d start midday and, every night, we’d have another song done.

Can you pull that stuff with, say, Madonna?
In general, I am a big fan of working quickly. When you work quickly you are more honest with yourself. Sometimes when you have a great idea the best way to get it done is to take the shortest route. That goes for all bands. You keep whatever was good about it in the moment and make that moment what ends up on the record, not an overworked version of it. Don’t let the production overtake the music.

There are some very interesting guitar sounds on this album. What techniques did you introduce to the party that the band ended up adopting?
We’d start with what I call a principal mic—a Sennheiser 421 or a Shure SM57—on Dave’s Hiwatt, Fender De-Ville, or Marshall JCM. This mic would go directly on the grill. My approach is to settle on a principal sound and the use room mics to build the image around it. Everyone says that you can get a great guitar sound with a 57—and that’s true—but you can’t get a great stereo image with a single 57. So sometimes we would point a second 57, from the same position, towards the back of the room, so that both mics were out of phase. Then we’d pan each mic hard left and right. That makes for an interesting effect. Or, instead of a second 57, we would use the Crowley and Tripp ribbons for their figure-8 patterns, with a bit of stereo decoding.

I think it is important to get the right guitar effects going in. You can process other instruments—vocals, synths, drums—after the fact and get a good result, but with guitars any posthumous processing just makes them sound cheap to my ears.

How do you think having a personal studio helped the band grow, beyond the obvious business side of things?
Having their own studio was an important part of giving the record a unique sound as it kept them comfortable. Since they are all in Vegas, they have grown accustomed to being a little more detached from the rest of the music business, and they are fond of that. They really embrace the whole mentality of a homegrown product. Personally, my studio has always been at home, whether in a bedroom, or a spare room. I wouldn’t think of having it otherwise. For The Killers, it was important not to be in the center of things. It kept the excitement level of when they did their first record, before they hit it big.

Robert Root worked at The Killers’ Battle Born studio long before the band owned it, and well before they had even recorded their first demo. Back in the mid-’90s (when the studio was called Studio Vegas), Root recorded everyone from B.B. King and Motley Crue to Vegas icons Engelbert Humperdinck and Wayne Newton. Currently dividing his time between Battle Born and Digital Insight Studios, Root maintains a busy schedule in a decidedly nonmusical town, but he managed a free moment to chat about getting The Killers sound right at the source.

Tell me about a typical day in the studio with The Killers.
We’re talking late morning to late night—10 to 14 hour days. The process for this album actually started way before we walked into Battle Born. I got involved with Ronnie recording demos on his MacBook while they were rehearsing. It was meant to show Stuart Price the direction they were heading in. All the songs had that foundation, that was the framework. Ninety percent of it was we had a structure then we would replace a drum part with the same tempo or pattern, but the sonic differences are what changed when they began re-recording the songs. A lot of the times the demos were irreplaceable. Where there was a feel or sound that just worked for the song then you didn’t want to try to recreate it.

Rumor has is that Ronnie Vannucci Jr. is adept at recording, and is quite adventurous as well.
He actually did a lot of recording before I was involved. He knows his way around Apple Logic Pro and he gets a good sound. His drums are by far the best-sounding drums in person, they just sound like drums should sound. Putting up mics that wouldn’t take away from the sound of the instrument was the approach. Ronnie is a very controlled drummer, which is obviously important for getting a good recorded sound. He is a dynamic player and when he needs to be quiet he can keep the tone—it’s all in his technique.

How do you handle recording his huge hi-hats? I hear they are 18-inches.
He uses no hi-hat mic at all which at first I found odd. He uses those giant hats, which I love. It makes sense not to directly mic them. Hi-hats are almost annoying at certain frequencies— you want to get rid of them rather then add them in most cases. When they are sizzling or open they cut your head off. But with Ronnie’s hats, they never got in the way of anything, yet they were there and present. He’s great at manipulating them. The general setup of the overhead mics captured the hi-hats well.

How did you record Brandon Flowers’ vocals?
He used a Shure SM58 for a lot of the album, either in the control room or in the live room, Brandon typically cups the mic when he performs. We did put up a [Neumann] M149 on a couple tunes. The mics ran right into the API 1608 console, which has the same preamp design as a 3124. The 1608 is a brand new board—the band got the third or fourth model. It’s modeled after an old console, the 1604. The new one has more routing options, they also purchased the Expander. Stuart used either the 560 or 550A EQ for Brandon’s vocals. Other than that the vocals were generally very dry while tracking. Stuart would add a little reverb with a pre-delay for listening back, but all of those final decisions were left for the mix.

Did the vocal sections require much punching in?
Less than average. Brandon likes to go through the songs straight through then make a simple comp afterwards. Once he was in the right mood, he might do two takes, but rarely more.

Battle Born has a huge mic cache. If not on Brandon, where do the Crowley and Tripp Studio Vocalist Ribbons get used?
Guitar cabs and saxophone. Brandon plays great sax, and that ribbon gives it a great rounded top end. Bill Thomas at Mercenary recommended those for guitar cabs, so that’s why we picked them up. We also used the Crowley Naked Eye Ribbon for the cabs as well, along with a Shure SM57.

How did you mic their cabs?
Generally, for guitar cabs, I place the mic slightly off-center, off-axis. Trying to get the diaphragms nice and tight on the two mics so there are no phase issues, close up on the cone.

Did you find yourself having to keep the volume down when working with those ribbons? Depending on what you are working with, some makes can be too delicate for a cranked Marshall.
They take the high SPL really well. The guitar amps were screaming. We had them in an Iso booth with 80dBrated soundproofed glass and it was still loud. Of course a 57 can handle it, but those ribbons are really durable. They never broke up. Not once.

Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. is what producer Stuart Price calls “a fantastic player. He realizes that the biggest secret to his drum sound isn’t how he records it, it’s the sound he makes as a performer. He is one of those people I could record with a video camera’s mic and he would still sound awesome.” Beyond that, the skinsman is The Killers’ resident recording geek. Here, Vannucci, Jr. details his approach to performing and producing the godly drum sounds of Day & Age.

What kind of sound were you going for on Day & Age?
There wasn’t any concerted effort to sit down and decidedly pick a direction or sound for the record. There are two reasons for that: I don’t think we are good enough to do that just yet, and it’s a good thing not to do that because it would put a muzzle on us. The most important thing about the songs we write are the songs themselves.

If you didn’t have a clear idea of how you wanted the album to sound, why did you seek out Stuart Price? What did you anticipate he would be able to bring to the party?
Before starting Day & Age, we went to Stuart’s home and started working in his basement studio. Five minutes in we realized this guy was speaking our language. Nothing was lost in translation. It was an easy deal so we decided to do a few songs on Sawdust, a collection of B-sides and cutting room floor material. It was effortless and so fast that we ended up re-recording some old songs because we were ahead of schedule. From then on we knew Stuart was the guy, not just because he is fast, but he is a musician also. Most producers act as mediators, but he has a musical background to make what you are trying to say a reality. There is a part on “The World We Live In,” a chromatic run, a couple of whole steps making a line into the last chorus. It was easy for me to name a couple references as to how I thought the run should sound—very big and decorated and orchestral. I wanted the line to really sing with flutes and horns. He got it immediately, all I had to say was “A Day in the Life” meets Rufus Wainwright and Phantom of the Opera.

You recorded a lot of the drum tracks on the album yourself. I hear you are a minimalist in terms of gear. . . .
That’s true. Take “The World We Live In” for example: I actually recorded the drum tracks in our rehearsal studio by [McCarran] airport. If you solo the track you can hear the planes flying overhead. And, yes, that was a bare bones setup, but it sounded great. Two [Shure] Beta 58s as overheads, Audix i5s as tom mics, an Audix d6 on the kick drum, and then two Shure SM57s for the snare, top and bottom. Everything went straight into a MOTU 8pre. I put a lot of heavy compression on the overhead mics to get a nice “smack” effect. I was going for the sound Ringo got on the early Beatles’ recordings.

How did your approach change when you hooked up with Stuart?
Stuart liked the fact that I was only using eight mics tops for the drums. So we generally kept things the same, though we started using the Earthworks System DrumKit package, which is two TC25 omni condensers for overheads, one SR25 cardioid condenser for the snare, and the KickPad for the bass drum. We would experiment with locations and rooms—most of the album was recorded in an iso booth or a live room—and every once in a while we’d add in a Neumann U87 over my shoulder, but that’s it. The days of me using 23 tracks for drums are over.

Why is that?
I feel like I don’t have to change my playing as much to accommodate the gear. In turn I don’t have to ride faders to get my point across. I feel like if you put two overheads and a kick drum mic on me, you will get more of an honest sound—both from the drums and from the player—than you would giving every drum two mics.

But what about all the snare tracks on “This Is Your Life?” That song is overdub city!
But that’s because we were going for a marching band sound. It began as a second line feel, but with more of a 3/4 feel than a strict 4/4. I wanted to take the march idea further so I used a couple Johnny Craviatto 26- inch bass drums and a bunch of different snare drums, doubling up everything. We used two snares all the way through, and we didn’t try to make it sound too slick. As the song needed it, we brought those other snare drums in layers. So as a part is building, the amount of snare drums increase in layers. It was a staggered process, bar by bar.

Besides “The World We Live In,” did any other demo drum tracks make their way onto the album?
For “Neon Tiger” we couldn’t decide on the demo drum track or a new one I recorded in Battle Born’s iso booth on a smaller bop kit. Both of them had essences that needed to be in there. So Stuart put both snares in the middle, and panned the rest of both kits hard left and right. There was a bit of a problem with the tracks not lining up and creating a few inappropriate flams, so we had to time-align a few sections, but for the most part it worked.

You play 18-inch hi-hats. Tell us why, and how you go about getting a good sound out of them.
I have been using larger hi-hats for a while; back when I used smaller hats I was always getting a glassy sound which I never really liked. They have more body and lower tones, which I really like. You hear that sound on old Creedence Clearwater Revival records. Matt Chamberlain and Charlie Drayton also use big hi-hats.

I always had to treat the mic somehow by either squishing it with compression or running it through a guitar amp or synth to get the sound I wanted. On Sam’s Town I overdubbed the hi-hat sounds with my mouth just to get that ‘chick’ that I wanted, that rusty sound. Then it came time for the first show back after recording Sam’s Town and I brought an 18-inch Zildjian ride from the ’40s, and put an 18-inch Constantinople crash on top of it. [It was] a beautiful sound. Those are my hats now. Though they are not as loud as you may think, we only directly miked them for one track. The rest of the hi-hats on the album are from the Earthworks overheads.

While Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. may be The Killers’ most outspoken gear head, bassist Mark Stoermer is a close second. “[Mark] was in there getting hands on, switching out instruments, moving knobs—he got into it,” says engineer Robert Root. Stoermer concurs: “I am 100 percent involved in the signal coming out of my amp, and work directly with the producer/mixer to achieve the final sound of the bass in mixing.” One hot Vegas afternoon, Stoermer took some time to sit down with us and talk specifics about how he, Root, and producer Stuart Price got Day & Age’s smooth bottom end.

Tell me about the rig you used on this album.
On this record I mostly used my old Hiwatt 200 head and matching 4x10/1x15 cab. However, on a few tracks at Olympic Studios, Stuart Price re-amped my signals using a small 15- watt Fender guitar amp. As far as basses, I used a 2001 Fender Jazz Geddy Lee Signature model, which I have used since the beginning of the band. On four tracks I used a 1967 Hofner Beatle bass; I used a 2005 Rickenbacker on “Neon Tiger,” and a 2008 fretless Fender Jazz on “Goodnight Travel Well.”

Did you record your parts live with Ronnie?
Sometimes the tracks were recorded “live” with the drums and scratch tracks, but others were punched in. It depended on the song.

Did you run direct for most of the session or record an amp out in the room? Both?
Most of the time the bass was a combination of a mic and a direct signal. However, each direct signal was processed using Logic’s amp simulator. We never used a clean direct signal.

What mic did you use for your cabinet? Straight on or off-axis? Did you close-mic the 10-inch speakers or the 15?
The mic was always placed straight on, in front of one of the 10-inch speakers. The mic was usually a Sennheiser e609 though we tried the 421 on a few tunes, and a generic direct box going through my pedals then back to the API console.

It sounds like you and Stuart switched up the variables a lot on this album.
Most definitely—we experimented on every song. We never stuck to one tone; we were always trying to get exactly what each individual song needed.