Cut to the Quick: How Travis Wrote, Tracked,and Mixed Ode To J. Smith in Just a Few Weeks

“There’s a lot of pressure when you’re on a label, because the record you’re making has to work—it has to sell— and that’s not always the best situation for pure creativity,” says Travis vocalist and rhythm guitarist Fran Healy. “But after 12 years together, we’re now an unsigned band again— totally masters of our own destiny.”
Author:
Publish date:

Fresh out of its contract with Independiente Records, Travis drew up an ambitious plan for its first recording as newly free men, Ode To J. Smith [Red Telephone Box/Fontana]. Desiring to keep the songs and studio performances as fresh and energetic as possible, the members decided to write the album’s songs in just a few weeks, and then test out the material at some small shows. The kicker was a self-imposed deadline of two weeks to record the entire album, and two weeks to mix it.

When EQ caught up with Healy at Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan, the album was nearly mixed. Emery Dobyns had signed on to record, mix, and produce Ode To J. Smith—a project that began with tracking sessions at RAK Studios in London—but Healy had already nailed a lot of the preproduction work.

“Before we even went into the studio, the album was written and sequenced,” says Dobyns. “Fran is a fairly accomplished engineer, and his demos had a great vibe to them.”

Ode To J. Smith does not mine Travis’ flair for sentimental Brit-pop, as demonstrated by hits such as “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” Nor do any of the tunes truly recall the jangly folk-rock of favorites such as “Flowers In The Window” and “Coming Around.” On the new album, wailing guitars predominate, bonding with rock-steady rhythms to create a sound that’s closer in attitude to Travis’ first single, “All I Want To Do Is Rock.”

“Get your air guitars ready, people,” Travis advises fans in an online studio journal.

Inspired by recording the Beatles’ “Lovely Rita” with Fab Four engineer Geoff Emerick for a BBC broadcast last year, Travis wanted to capture big rock sounds the old-fashioned way. They considered recording live to 4-track, but settled on analog 16- track when producer Mike Hedges’ machine became available.

“We’ve always recorded as a band playing live to tape,” says Healy. “Tape makes you focus, because, in this case, we had only 16 tracks, and we had to make every track count.”

Prior to loading in at RAK, where at least a portion of every Travis album has been recorded, Healy and Dobyns worked on selecting the best mics for the project.

“Nigel Godrich [producer for Paul McCartney, Travis, U2, Beck, and others] leant us a pair of AKG C12 As, a Neumann M57, a really pristine old AKG C12, an AKG C28, and a Sony C-37A,” says Dobyns. “I knew a good pair of C12As would be great on drums, and we used the C12 on most of Fran’s vocals. The Sony C-37A turned out to be the most useful and amazing room mic.”

Travis’ production plans for Ode To J. Smith were straightforward: Set up the right microphones and play. These were totally live sessions, with Healy doing his lead vocals out in the tracking room—either on the C12 while enclosed in gobos, or running around with a Shure SM57 in hand.

The band set up in Studio 1 at RAK, where the large live room was divided by a glass wall to isolate three drum kits placed on one side from the bass, guitar, vocal, and piano stations on the other. Travis drummer Neil Primrose switched between the three kits—his regular touring kit; a tiny Ludwig kit consisting of a floor tom, kick, snare, and hi-hat; and a massive “marching band kit” with a 28" kick drum and drastically detuned toms.

“Because of our track limitations, I went with very minimal drum miking,” notes Dobyns. “On almost every song—and no matter which drums we used—I had four mics or less on the kit. Having the three kits helped us move quickly. If one drum sound wasn’t working for a particular song, Neil would just move to a different set.

“For miking rack toms, I sometimes like to put an AKG C414 in hypercardioid mode to get a nice close sound that will help them pop out a bit. You really get the tone of the drum—especially if the drummer is bashing away all around it. On the touring kit, I placed an AKG D12 about six inches outside of the front kick-drum head, and positioned a Sony C-37A about three feet back from the kick at a height of about six feet. By raising the C-37A up and down from song to song, I was able to get different blends of cymbals and low end.”

Dobyns miked the Ludwig kit with a Neumann U47 FET on the kick, and a Coles 4038 placed about two-anda- half feet above the snare. Newspaper taped to the heads gave the snare an extra dead sound. Two U47 FETs were used to mic the marching band kit—one on the kick, and the other positioned below the right-hand cymbal about six inches from the toms. A C-37A served as the overhead on that kit, as well.

“For one song, I put a Sennheiser MD421 right inside the marching kit’s kick drum, and blended it with a U47 FET positioned outside the front head,” says Dobyns. “It sounded just great. It had this incredible attack, and then this really long and sustained low end.”

On the other side of the glass wall, bassist Dougie Payne’s Ampeg SVT was close-miked with a Sennheiser MD421, lead guitarist Andy Dunlop’s Orange amp was close-miked with U47 FETs, and Healy’s Vox AC30 was miked with a Royer R-121.

“The amps weren’t particularly boxed in—they were just separated from each other,” says Dobyns. “We weren’t going for complete isolation. In fact, the open sound of two guitar amps and a bass amp playing in the same room added a nice texture to everything.”

Although he took home a Best Engineering Grammy for Suzanne Vega’s Beauty & Crime—and has a résumé thick with sessions for artists such as Patti Smith, Antony and the Johnsons, Sia, and Battles—for Ode, Dobyns drew from the reserve of hip-hop techniques he picked up early on as an assistant at P. Diddy’s Daddy’s House.

“The demo for the song, ‘Get Up’ had this hypnotic groove that could have been psychedelic folk or hip-hop, and I definitely steered it toward hiphop,” says Dobyns. “We used the Ludwig kit for ‘Get Up,’ and I made sure the kick and snare were really slamming. The API console at RAK can really take a beating, so I ran the signal levels very hot to tape, and this was one of the few songs where I also added a bit of compression—via a dbx 160 VU—to tape. In hip-hop productions, acoustic guitars are often heavily compressed and get treated like a synth sound, so we layered a whole bunch of acoustic tracks on ‘Get Up’ to emulate that effect. I also overdubbed this breathy thing, which I lifted from watching Puffy do ad libs over songs. It’s this breathy ‘huh’ sound that I dropped into a verse and a pre-chorus to add a nice accent to the rhythm section.”

For “Long Way Down,” Dobyns threw a bunch of plastic knives and forks on top of a piano’s strings.

“It’s this crazy piano solo that sounds like a horn section,” he says, “but it’s actually an extremely distorted piano recorded with all that plastic cutlery in there.”

A more conventional approach was taken on the piano part for “Chinese Blues,” played by touring keyboardist Claes Bjorklund on a nine-foot Steinway, but it paid big dividends. Dobyns set up a matched pair of Neumann U87s about three feet from the open top of the piano—which was placed in the same room as the guitar amps. The signal leakage from the blasting amps into the piano mics expanded the sound so much that a planned string session for the song was cancelled.

The moody “Broken Mirror” swells with atmospheric room tones. “I knew this was a really dark song, so I planned to use room mics that could impart darker timbres to the overall sound. I also wanted to bring out this haunting snare tone, because Neil had released the snares from the head, so the snare sounded like a tom. I put a Chandler TG1 limiter on the Coles ribbon mic that I used to capture the room sound, and that gave the cymbals this great decay and a really nice presence—which also allowed the snare to be more hypnotic. I included more room sound on Andy’s guitar, as well.”

A double-tracked, 40-piece choir— one of the final parts recorded at RAK—is the centerpiece of the title track, which begins with Healy’s Telecaster- and-AC30-driven guitar riff.

“We had the Crouch End Choir come in and do this massive part, like something out of The Omen,’” says Healy. “It’s totally over the top.”

The song “Friends” boasts a particularly wacky recording technique, as it utilizes two complete double-tracked performances.

“The demo of ‘Friends’ was so good that we had a hard time getting as good a performance in the studio,” says Healy. “We settled on editing a couple of the best takes together. But when we listened back, both takes sounded so good that it was hard to pick one as the final take. Just to be daft, I suggested that Emery put one take on the left speaker, and the other take on the right. We listened back to that, and it didn’t flam. Emery put the only overdubbed part—the vocal—up the middle, and made one of Andy’s guitars slightly louder to become the lead part, and we went with the two-performance, stereo mix. When you’re in the studio and that kind of magic happens—well, that’s what it’s all about.”