Recording the follow-up album the band unexpectedly hit a creative wall, but no one was ready to give. The success of their new album, Futures, has come at the end of a long year that saw the band track the album, scrap the results, change producers, and then try again. “Everything on Futures we must’ve demoed and re-demoed at least nine, 10, or 11 times,” explains songwriter Jim Adkins.
For the first time in their career they would start recording with an unfamiliar producer, Gil Norton (Foo Fighters, Dashboard Confessional, Pixies). Gil recognized, “the band is really close, and they’ve been through hell and high water together, so they’re all looking after each others’ backs. They’re like brothers. It’s nice when you get invited into that sort of family community.”
Wanting a heavier rock sound, their A&R man, Luke Wood, suggested engineer Dave Schiffman (System of a Down, Mars Volta, Audioslave), who encountered a band prepared to do whatever it took to get the record made. “They needed to pull back and regroup, but they’d written about nine new songs and were really excited about what they had,” Dave adds. Drummer Zach Lind admits the band was a little nervous at first. “It was our first time working with Dave, but within the first few days we had a lot of confidence in him.” Rich Costey (Franz Ferdinand, Muse, Mars Volta) was later tapped for mixing duties.
Pro Tools engineer Jake Davies (Madonna, U2, Bjork) explains the technical approach; “Jim and I had this discussion about enhancing studio performances, and I was arguing that the objective of record making is to use every piece of technology available to make your record better. That’s what the Beatles were doing. We came to the conclusion that’s what we should be doing!”
Gil Norton: They’d already tried to do the album once, so I just tried to give them a fresh perspective. I was helping Jim with arrangements and parts and things on his songs, and I think to a certain extent he needed his creativity stimulated . . . and I hope I stimulated him! Ha Ha!
Jim Adkins: One thing Gil brought to the table was great ideas about the English versus American kind of songwriting . . . in America a lot of self-taught songwriters refer to that thing after the second chorus, where it goes away a little bit and comes back, as the “bridge.” With a lot of UK people, they call that part the “middle 8” and their “bridge” is what we call a “pre-chorus.” For us, the “middle 8” has always been where you make your most concise statement, where you start to sum up what the song is trying to do, mood-wise. But Gil was really good about making us focus on those transitional “bridge” parts. In the past, if there hadn’t been an obvious transition from the verse to the chorus we just wouldn’t have one!
Gil Norton: Even if I make a bad suggestion, it hopefully gives them the impetus to come up with something better . . . my idea’s crap, here’s yours! One of the things I wanted to do going in was try to get (guitarist) Tom (Linton) to write a couple more things for this album, because I think he’s a very talented musician and a great writer, but I didn’t really get him to do that for some reason!
Dave Schiffman: We tracked drums first in the big room at Cello, in studio one with the big Neve 8078. [Cello closed in January 2005, its return is not looking imminent. —Editors]
Jim: I like that Cello was an L.A. place, but it was really laid back. George Drakoulias and Jim Scott were down the hall recording at the time. Jim loaned us a ton of gear, and George had this margarita machine set up. The first day the margaritas started about 7:30 p.m., next day it was 5 p.m., then 3 p.m. By the end of it, as soon was we showed up margaritas were distributed! It got pretty ugly, but it was a lot of fun.
Jake Davies: My God! Margaritas would just keep appearing! It really was a massive party atmosphere going on at Cello. It was the happiest editing time I’ve ever had in my life! Everyone’s door was open and you could hear all this great music coming out.
We did a shootout with analog, but Pro Tools, 24-bit/96kHz won hands down. Gil’s a stickler for always making the most of every minute of every day, so we had two rigs going to maximize what we could accomplish. Cello was actually quite close to my house, and I’d just upgraded to a G5 w/ dual 3 gig, so often I’d take work home on a drive.
Zach Lind: Dave got a big, open drum sound for all the tracks, but you could take the room mics out and turn the overheads down, and it sounded like you were playing in a small room. I thought that was really cool.
Dave: Zach has a signature sound, which is 90 percent of a good drum track. It’s less about the mics and more about the “stick on the skin.“ It’s crucial the kit be in tune with itself. One of the biggest challenges is getting every mic to agree in phase from the room mics in. That takes more than a little positioning. You have to make sure that everything adds rather than subtracts.
At Cello I was afforded some luxurious mic options. I had phenomenal old AKG C-12s for overheads, a Shure SM57 on the snare top and a Sennheiser 441 under, mixed together, and a SM57 on the hi-hat. I used AKG C12As and 57s on the toms, and a KM54 to fill in the ride. We had a press conference going on the kick drum! Gil turned me on to this Shure SM91, it looks low and flat like a PZM mic. We put that inside, kind of in the center, for picking up the “click” without any EQ. I mixed that with a Neumann Fet47 outside and a Sennheiser 421 in the hole. With three mics you have options. Sometimes we used a resonator. It’s like a kick drum but you put it two or three feet in front. We covered the whole thing with a blanket to make a long tube. We used it on some of the slow songs, like “Night Drive,” where you can get away with a fuller, boomier kick drum. On a faster song that turns into mush.
For room mics I went for a pair of Neumann M-50s up pretty high, six feet away, and combined them with U-67s that were about three feet back and level with the kick drum. I had a couple mono mics as well, one on the opposite side of the hi-hat, real close to kick drum level, which I’d just pulverize with a compressor to mix in and make the drums feel more live. Usually the hat is the first thing to take over when you do a super amount of compression, so you use the kick drum as kind of a baffle. Otherwise I like to compress as little as possible. You don’t want to restrain the overall dynamic range or tone of the drums. I think I went through a Neve 33609 with the room to hype it up a bit.
I’d rather try to move or switch the mics before I go to the EQ. The more you EQ, the more everything kind of smears together — especially when you have 14 mics. My job is to look about four or five moves down the road and think, “how is this drum sound going to work with a super heavy guitar over it?” You have to visualize sonically what the band is all about.
Jake: Jimmy Eat World are a great live band, and Zach’s really got it down. I’d spend a good period of time just listening to what he was doing and really getting my head into what his space was: where he was sitting against the grid. If we had a great fill that totally worked, but wanted to tighten it just a little bit, I’d tighten it to Zach’s own feel.
Gil: He’s a great drummer, Zach. In a way it was nice to push him a little bit and make him think about parts and fills and stuff he hadn’t really tried before.
Zach: For the verses on “Pain” we overdubbed me hitting the wooden rims on the Ayotte drums, then the hi-hat stands, the hardware stands, and the metal snare rim, trying to get different sounds. In the second verse we overdubbed these Def Leppard sounding backing vocals. I think it was Jim whispering. . . .
Jim: . . . Like “TNT” . . . I was going “HAI!, HAI, HAI!!” It’s one of those things where you were laughing ‘cause it’s so stupid, but it works and picks up the verse in this weird way.
The way we’ve always done stuff in the past is we’ve used the expensive big studio with a lot of inputs for drums, then we moved to the less expensive place to spend our time. Our friend Harvey owns a store in Tucson called Rainbow Guitar. Since the ’70s he’s been collecting and selling rare instruments. Over time he’s built up a real studio in his house. He loves gear and recording, and he gets excited about having it used for something rather than just looked at.
Zach: Harvey was really generous and basically put into our hands lots of various items worth very much money. . . .
Dave: The studio definitely had its pluses and minuses. You really couldn’t have asked for better equipment. He had a beautiful old Neve 8028, Telefunken pres and EQs, a bunch of great compressors, RCA BA-6As, UREI 1176s, LA-2As, some really great microphones, and one of the best guitar/amp collections in the country. We’d ask if he had any Supros and he’d say “which one?” and come back the next day with four of them.
Gil: The only problem by the end was that we couldn’t work very late because it was his house. We’d have to stop ‘round about half past 11 because his family was there. Dave’s a fantastic engineer, and he’s such a professional studio guy that I think some of the funkiness of a home studio was eventually getting to him. I just didn’t want it to rub off on the band. The great thing about the band is they’re all really equal, and they each make unique contributions. Rick (Burch) is a really solid, melodic bass player.
Zach: Dave had the idea of using a Marshall guitar head for the bass and running that through a guitar cabinet.
Jim: He mixed that in with the SVT and the DI . . . just to get the gritty midrange attack without mucking it up, especially for a rocking song like, say, “Futures.”
Dave: I had a Neumann Fet 47 on the 8x10 bass cab — we listened for the best speaker — and Rick brought this DI called a “Gas Cooker” that sounded really good. Probably compressed the DI with an LA-2A, and something faster on the amp like a UREI 1176. On the Marshall cabinet I had a pair of 57s, then a Distressor. It has a nice personality for aggressive stuff like that.
Jim: For basic rhythm guitar tones, there is a sonic area Tom and I like to hit. I don’t think either really makes sense on its own. Tom’s tone is a little more saturated, a bit more scooped and wider, not like a Triple Rectifier scoop, but more vintage. I’m doing a narrower, just-enough-gain Hiwatt sound — so you can hear all the notes, and it’s crunchy but not super-saturated. For a while there we were on a kick that we weren’t going to use any 57s for guitar. We’d use Royer 122s and Fet 47s on the 4x12s. For a lot of leads we’d use really small Fender Tweeds with 8-inch speakers.
Dave: The 122s kind of did what the SM57 did, but fuller and wider with less capsule distortion. They sounded so great we used them on most of the combo amps too. The drop tuning made a huge difference to the tones, the voicing makes all the guitars sound deeper and warmer.
Jim: We used to play most of the songs in a regular ‘drop-D’ tuning. For “Futures”, we had everything a half step down from there. So it would be C#-G#-C#-F#-A#-D#. Sometimes we’d use an open E tuning. There’s so many different ways to make it heavy, if you’re just laying down multiple guitar overdubs, it’s not exactly the right approach. If it becomes small . . . like “Kill” is a good example. Everything is mono until the chorus, then it seems like it gets bigger, but you can’t tell how. I like doing stuff like that . . . ”Polaris” does that too.
Gil: To sit there with Jim and watch him plug his delay pedal in and capture a piece of music, then just layer these things up into this landscape, is just fantastic. There are lots of moments like that.
Jim: We used Echoplexes and Space Echoes a lot. Sometimes it would be easier to go to the Line 6. If you want to get a good sound quickly, turn the dial and you’ve got a whole new delay pedal.
Jake: On this record everybody was so Pro Tools proficient. You’re brought in as the Pro Tools guy and you’re like “I’ve got to get my stuff together here!” One of the best bits was this thing on “Pain” Jim put together in Pro Tools with this little delay on it. When you took the delay off, the part sounds so odd . . . he obviously played into it with great effect.
Gil: Once Jim gets things going he’s a bit of a genius really. I love the way he thinks of melodies and hooks, and once he starts, lots of them happen. We’d have to sift through them and place them so they weren’t all stamping on each other.
Dave: For vocals we found this great Neumann U47 of Harvey’s. Jim felt comfortable behind it, and he really has great mic technique. No EQ, just running through a Neve 1073 flat, and a bit of compression off an 1176. We moved to a U67 for Tom for a little tonal difference.
Jake: Jim was really on top of his game for that whole record. He really knew what he wanted to hear and how he wanted to hear it. We’d do about four takes then Gil and Jim would sit down on either side of me. They’re great vocal comp-ers, it made my job easy. For tuning, Melodyne was a great weapon as you can slide a slightly off vocal into place, whereas Auto-Tune wants to take every section perfectly onto the note. We used it sparingly, but it keeps the whole delivery, vibrato, and emotion as Jim gave it. I’ve discovered since then that it worked so well because Jim was such a good singer. I’ve done some other projects with less experienced singers, and Melodyne was a disaster.
Jim: Things didn’t really take shape until close to the end. We spent two weeks at our own space in Phoenix — tweaking away, and getting things ready to mix. We’d gone overtime so bad that Gil was already a week and a half into missing the project he was supposed to start after us . . . he was fried.
Gil: The end of any album is pretty tiring anyway. . . .
Jake: It was really at their place that it went from being a great record for me — there was another level added there. It wasn’t just “let’s check everything.” Jim got out his keyboard and he was adding a different layer of personality.
Jim: There’s more keyboard on this record than on anything we’ve done in the past, but it’s all an old Roland VK-7. The synth strings and the organ stuff. There’s a real Fender Rhodes too, in the bridge of the song “Futures.” We maxed out the track count on every song. It was ridiculous.
Jake: At that point, the objective becomes getting it to the mixer. You want to make his life as easy as possible, give him a really good rough mix to reference. You don’t want him looking for files, or plug-ins. The only way to do that is to have one consolidated audio file, and one region that starts at the beginning and ends at the same time on every track. No automation data, no plug-ins. You want to split the audio across two drives so there are no playback issues. For a 64-track session, that means 32 clean audio files per drive, copied fresh so the fragmentation is absolutely minimal. We’d put drums and bass on one, then guitars and vocals on the other. We had a really cool naming system, any drum had the initial “D” in the front, vocals had a “V”, and guitars had a “G.” If you look on the drive for the drums, they’re all in a line with a “D.”
Jim: By the end of the record we were back at Cello mixing with Rich Costey.
Rich Costey: We mixed from Pro Tools HD, at 24-bit/96kHz, clocking from a Rosendahl Nanosync. I always mix to half-inch tape, in this case to an Ampex ATR 102. Cello had a mix room in the back (it was supposedly the room where Bill Putnam assembled the 1176LN), with a slightly modified SSL 9000J and quite an array of outboard equipment, including 10 API 550a EQs, 10 Neve 1081 modules, a pair of UREI passive EQs, a fantastic sounding Fairchild 670, and a very rare stereo EQ made by Cello. I also had an assortment of misfit gear of my own: Echoplexes, ATC active speakers, and my Metasonix Hellfire Modulator.
I feel that the mixer’s first responsibility to a song is to respect what is on tape and not step all over it. The tracks came in sounding very good, as both Dave Schiffman and Gil know quite well how to get what they’re after. As the SSL 9000J is a very clear, yet fairly flaccid-sounding board, I would run nearly all of the rhythm guitars through API 550a EQs, simply because the op amps in them tend to add a bit of punch. I would then only adjust the EQ if the track needed it. I’m pretty sure the entire mix was sent through a pair of them as well. For Jim’s vocal I mostly used the Chandler/EMI TG1, sometimes with an 1176, sometimes a Fairchild, sometimes nothing else but Neve EQ. I mixed with a pair of EAR 660 limiters across the mix bus.
Quite often there were heavily overdubbed guitar melodies competing for attention along with multi-layered background vocals, lead vocals, rhythm guitars, percussion, and so on. In cases such as this, there are two choices: Turn things off or turn things up. While some arrangements became reduced during mixing, by far the choice was to turn up selected events when they’re occurring. Radical EQ was frequently deployed to aid in this. I almost never compress guitars when mixing. This makes things a whole lot easier when dealing with complex material. Compressing distorted guitars can frequently dull out their attack and make the whole track sound mushy. I am pretty ruthless when it comes to using high-pass filters, they are absolutely critical in clearing out the muck of a dense mix.
Jim: Meanwhile we were also re-cutting a bunch of stuff in Studio 3, the “Pet Sounds” room.
Rich: Re-cutting things during mixing isn’t unusual to me, as mixing shouldn’t feel like a completely separate process to recording, because it actually isn’t.
Jim: I was redoing main vocals and harmonies on songs. By that point we were doing, like, 16-hour days, not leaving ‘til between 3:00 and 7:00 in the morning.
Rich: Jim is a workaholic to the extreme. That guy needs a vacation. Here’s something funny: They nearly killed themselves working non-stop on a song that was dropped from the album. Hilarious!
Jim: Whoever was in Studio 3 took their API console with them, so there was no desk . . . they cut us a great deal on the room though. We used Jim Scott’s BCM-10 to track on. There was, like, a card table set up, an 8-channel Mackie mixer, and a pair of Jim’s flaming red KRK-8s. Later, I was on my own and we had a 47 set up in the live room. So I was setting a super-long pre-roll, hitting record, then running out into the room, re-cutting main vocals . . . Rich Costey came in at 3 a.m. and was like, “What are you doing, man???” I was doing the song he was going to mix next! He just lost it and he was laughing saying, “I can’t believe you’re doing this right now, this is what state we’re at!”
Zach: There’s a lot of stuff that we decided not to include on the record just for “album feel” reasons rather than being not good.
Gil: The name of the game for me is for all the musicians to come out feeling like they really tried their best and achieved, and maybe got to do something they didn’t know they could do.