Dual Imaging

Once upon a time, Tim Gane was a fresh-faced youth whose musical aspirations included a collaboration with peers in the basements of uppity music stores.

Once upon a time, Tim Gane was a fresh-faced youth whose musical aspirations included a collaboration with peers in the basements of uppity music stores. Rather than drag an unwilling girlfriend with him into the bowels of the local guitar emporium to impress her with amateurish tinkering on various high-end guitars, Gane would assemble a group of friends for impromptu jam sessions, much to the horror of those in attendance. “What we would do was turn up randomly at music stores and start playing the guitar, whatever Led Zeppelin riffs,” Gane says. “Someone would pick up a bass, and someone would start tapping away on the drums, and all of a sudden, at a set signal, we'd all burst into a song. It sounded good on paper, but it never amounted to anything.”

Some might say that's a good thing, as Gane eventually directed his renegade approach toward bigger and better things: Stereolab, his musical baby of the past 13 years, is the revered Channel-crossing indie troupe whose laid-back pop, retro attitude and electronic noodling has sent scores of imitators to the studio to churn out pallid versions of the band's distinctively cool, disarmingly unpretentious and innovative take on modern music. Combining warm, dreamy vocals with rolling rhythms and a smattering of analog-synth effects, Stereolab's latest full-length effort, Margerine Eclipse (Elektra, 2003), captures the band's easy charm and spreads it easily across 50-odd minutes of straightforward pop tunes laced with space-age, minimal disco interludes; retro garage-rock riffs; downbeat cocktail-lounge ambience; and stutter-stepped tempos.


Produced and mixed with Fulton Dingley, who worked with Stereolab on Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night (Elektra, 1999), Margerine Eclipse is an album of firsts. Recorded this past spring in the band's brand-new studio in France, Eclipse sees the group adjusting to surroundings that are markedly different from the environs of John McEntire (of Tortoise) and Jim O'Rourke, the Chicago-based producers who've collaborated with the group since its career-defining album, Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Elektra, 1996). Stereolab's studio, dubbed Instant O, took 10 months to build but now comfortably houses a good deal of equipment and, according to Gane, an inordinate amount of speakers that he's collected throughout the years.

“It was incredibly stressful to put the studio together in time for the recording,” says Laetitia Sadier, the group's vocalist. “And, of course, it was late. It's completely luxurious to have your own studio. But at the same time, a lot of things break down, so you have to find someone to fix it. I don't know anything about how to maintain the studio. It's the job of experts. There are few people who really know, and I know nothing, so it's a bit uncomfortable in that sense. [But ] it's really an incredible feeling to just walk 10 meters and be able to record music or rehearse or play loud. It's really great.”

This album is also the first that the group has released since the death of keyboardist/vocalist Mary Hansen in December 2002. “The writing process is quite lonely and quite detached — it's always a challenge,” Sadier says, speaking in her characteristically subdued manner from her home in France. Sadier, who with Gane forms the creative core of the group, pauses for a second as words catch in her throat: “What I really feel is, when I'm onstage and she's not there, that's where I think she will be extremely missed.

“It's dramatic when it comes to writing lyrics,” Sadier continues after another pause. “It still feels like a miracle when we have written something. It's not something I work at all year round and learn to master. It's still really spontaneous. It's not something that's controlled and mastered.”

Spontaneity is, after all, Stereolab's calling card during studio sessions. The band does not rehearse beforehand, choosing to build a loose musical structure around Gane's initial sketches and then add Sadier's lyrics and vocals. Gane prefers to cart his ideas to the studio on a basic cassette tape. Often, he simply records a few bits and pieces strummed on his trusty Rickenbacker 330 guitar before letting the other band members spin off on them in a sort of happy free-for-all. “It's difficult to know who thought of what, actually, because it's all happening at a hectic pace at that certain moment of creativity when you're trying to think of a creative way around a problem,” concedes drummer Andy Ramsay. “It goes really quickly, and at the end of it, you're not sure who actually said what, because it can be, at times, quite heated as you're all discussing what you're doing. Sometimes, something will be purely Fully's idea or purely Tim's idea or purely mine, but at the end of it, I can't remember who did what and where, really.”


Given the ease with which the band works in a somewhat frenzied environment, Gane took the Margerine Eclipse sessions one step further by laying down an unusual rule: The band had to record everything twice. “On this particular record, about a week before we actually started recording it, I just had a thought,” Gane reveals. “I thought, ‘Why don't you do two totally separate mixes of the songs, two separate arrangements of the songs, and put one on one speaker and the other arrangement on the other speaker? And then you just put them together and see what they sound like.’ In my mind, I imagined it to sound a bit like an early Van Dyke Parks record. It's got that sort of chaotic sound.”

Gane suspected that the other band members might be a tad skeptical about the technical difficulties of the idea, not to mention the additional work. But he persisted. “You just get gripped by an idea that you think is quite interesting or quite exciting,” Gane says. “I know that I can write songs, to a certain level, that are interesting enough, but that is only the first stage. Then, it's like trying to explore every possibility of what that can expand to. Sometimes, it's fatiguing to always have some sort of concept or some kind of game or trick. The very process of recording [Margerine Eclipse] dictated how it was going to sound. It was probably more work, certainly not quicker than what we've done before, but I quite liked that.”

Ramsay, though, was hesitant at first. “When initially we heard Tim's idea that we were going to do a separate take on either side, I was slightly horrified,” he says with a chuckle. “I was like, ‘Oh, my god, what's my drumming going to sound like here?’” For a drummer with a penchant for experimenting with beats and patterns, the pressure to uphold strict, rigid timing might infringe on the creative aspect of the recording process. Fortunately for Stereolab, Digidesign Pro Tools' Beat Detective ended up saving the group a great deal of headache. “For Tim's idea to work, I had to be really tight on the two kits, which is nearly impossible to do,” Ramsay says. “Because we had two bass drums playing on each side, they'd have to sound just slightly skewed to really cloud the low end of the mix up. The beauty of Beat Detective is, you can kind of go for it for a bit, and it doesn't matter about your timing so much. So you can play a bit wildly and use Beat Detective to bring you back in time.”

With Beat Detective on its side, Stereolab was able to keep a firm grip on the live instrumentation present in the album; indeed, most of the drumming is Ramsay's, with just a Roland TR-77 to fill in the gaps. “We used two drum kits and recorded them in mono: We used one kit on one side and the other kit on the other side,” Ramsay says. “I think it's pretty consistent throughout the record. They're similar kits, but I thought about how to make them sound really different. We did the old tricks, like hanging blankets over snares and stuff, and I think we worked through quite a few of Laetitia's tea towels, playing drums on them. All the stuff that sounds like it could be programmed out of an 808 or with a sequencer is all live drums!

“A lot of the credit with that goes to Fulton Dingley. He used mics where I never use them or where I'd never thought to use them before. For instance, he'd use ribbon microphones in the bass drum, and that worked really well. People are normally used to hearing a sort of dynamic microphone, maybe with a condenser outside of it, on a bass drum, but putting a ribbon in it brings a different world of sounds to the table. The sounds tend to have more air in them; they seem to breathe better. You could just have a ribbon mic in front of the drums, and if you compressed it, it would sound almost as good as a whole drum kit.”

Ramsay, Gane and Dingley were constantly thinking of ways to alter their existing equipment's function. “One of the things we would do is record the drums while using the varispeed on the tape machine,” Ramsay says. “Or on Pro Tools, it's got a varispeed just like a 2-inch tape machine. So the track would be speeding up and slowing down as I was drumming, which is actually impossible to do, but you can vaguely stay in time with it, even as they're quite big movements in speed. And then you use Beat Detective to put it back into town. But then you have this natural pitch shifting going on in the drums.”


Beyond the drum work that the band put in, organs and synths also posed new challenges. Take, for instance, “Need to Be,” a track with a dense mixture of keyboard lines weaving in and out. “It opens with a Roland C-80 digital harpsichord playing three sets of chord inversions and a Vox Continental playing chord pads,” Gane says. “The Moog Opus 3 plays the lead line. Into the song proper, a Farfisa Compact Duo Organ is added to the Vox Continental on the left, which is now put through a slap delay. Added to this is a Roland Celeste on the right and a Fender Rhodes on the left.”

The various burbles and bleeps punctuating the tune are created by the Studio Electronics ATC-1. “It's a great MIDI-based digital synth,” Gane says rapturously. “We wanted to obtain a brasslike timbre with this sound. We knew that we wouldn't have brass or strings, and we didn't want them, either. We could have gone out of our way and did it, but I had the idea of keeping everything limited and using what we had of our own gear — no hired gear, no hired players or anything like that. But I still loved the idea of what brass does, the kind of counterpoints it can do rhythmically in notes and chords; it's their ability to transform the music and have that really beautiful sound. We wanted to explore what it could do and perhaps use a similar timbre and sound but using other things. And what do you know, it just kind of came out of a synthesizer!”

Another instance in which layering instruments created unexpected, unusual results is the bouncy dance tune “Margerine Melodie.” “The bass drum is mixed with backwards reverb effect, then filtered and blended together to give the finished sound,” Gane says of the warm, spongy kick underpinning the song. “The organ on the right side is a Vox Continental put through an EMS vocoder and vocoded with some triggered drum delays. A second phased and vocoded organ appears a little later. The choirlike reverbed organ that comes in and out is the Moog Opus 3 fed through a delay pedal. All bleeps and bloops are again from the ATC-1 trying to create brass parts.”


Taking full advantage of the resources available to the band is really what made this Stereolab album a bit different from the others. “Often, we'd just try something, not knowing what we're going for,” Gane says. “It's more a question of knowing what you don't like.”

Working outside of a commercial studio, the band members had to make do with what they had. “With Laetitia, we used two microphones all the time: a Brauner VM1 valve mic and a Sony C48 condenser mic,” Dingley says. “We had two microphones going, and we blended the two. One microphone basically had a lack of middle. It had a nice soft top, but because it was weak on the bottom end, it had no real presence. And one microphone had the full range, but the top end wasn't quite as nice, and the bottom wasn't quite as nice, but the middle had a presence. So I rolled the top off of one, the bottom off the other, and it became cohesive, like one microphone.”

In the end, integrating the separate takes to sound cohesive, without one overpowering the other, was left primarily to Dingley. In the process of mixing and engineering the album, he had to rely on musical instinct and gut feeling rather than stick to any hard and fast rules. “The main places where we had problems were with bottom end,” he explains. “It took a lot of patience to work it down until they complemented each other. Often, one drum kit would be brighter, but the other would have more substance to it, so it was a matter of making them sound like one drum.

“For me, generally, it's a sonic sensation,” he adds. “When you're blending sounds, you've got to know exactly the sound you want or the sensation you want to feel. And you blend and you tinker until you get that sensation. I listened to the tracks a lot in mono — I know they're very stereo — but I did it to make sure they worked in mono. It's a good way to balance tracks properly. Mono has a great direction, and it softens sounds, as well. What I was trying to do when listening to the tracks in mono was make sure the sounds meshed with each other. I found it easier to listen to them properly in mono separately.”


After 13 years in the biz, what characterizes Gane and his cohorts is their penchant for unusual combinations, not to mention their tireless devotion to achieving them. In a way, it's slightly difficult to explain exactly what their appeal is, and it's even harder to pin down their recording and production formula. It could just be that it's all in the name: Margerine Eclipse is a title that Gane first started to play with while on holiday in Italy, and as one might suspect from Stereolab, it doesn't really mean anything. Still, the genesis of the name is particularly relevant to the group's recording strategy. “I saw a name that said ‘Marguerite’ or something like that, but I thought it said ‘Margerine,’” Gane remembers with a laugh. “I thought it was quite an interesting word, and it made me look at it kind of new. Gradually, weeks went by, and we started thinking about combinations of words that sound interesting; somehow, the word eclipse popped into my head. It just conjures up a sort of imagery in my mind that connects itself to the music in a way.

“The music seems to stick itself to the name, and you can never get it apart,” Gane continues. “I just like juxtapositions. I like words that are flung together. I used to have this game that I liked playing, which was to make up a sentence that no one has ever said in the history of words before. I always thought that was a great moment — there were just so many disjointed words that you could not possibly put together, and I just find that really interesting.”

That is an apt correlation, then, to the way that Stereolab's music is constructed. “I think the most interesting things are when you put the wrong mic onto something,” Gane says. “Often, real character and things occur when you just sort of move things around to get things right. On that move from points A and B, there's this point where you say, ‘Stop that — that's great.’ I think it's important to follow those things that happen. It's not just chance; it's your ear or something in your unconscious that will pick up something that's the right thing to do. Because we don't rehearse as a band, we don't rehearse the songs; we're freer to try anything, really. It's a cross between sort of messing about in the studio and opening up new doorways or pathways where we can enter into and mix the ideas we have in a slightly more known territory.”


Boss SYB-3 Bass Synthesizer pedal
Boss TR-2 Tremolo pedal
Clavia Nord Lead 3 keyboards (2)
Electro-Harmonix analog sequencer
Farfisa Duo Compact Organ
Farfisa Mini Compact Organ
Fender Bassman 135 amplifier head
Fender Jazz Bass guitar
Fender Mustang guitar
Fender Showman amp head
Fender Twin Reverb guitar amp
Hohner Clavinet/Pianet Duo
Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer guitar pedal
Lovetone Meatball guitar pedal
Moog Moogerfooger effects pedal
Moog Opus 3 keyboard
Moog Rogue 342a synth
MXR Phase 90 guitar pedal
ProCo Rat distortion pedal
Rickenbacker 4001 bass guitar
Roland KC300 keyboard amp (2)
Sherman Filterbank
Vox Continental keyboard
Wurlitzer EP200 electric piano
Yamaha YSL354 trombone


Adaptec PowerDomain 39160 PCI accelerator
Akai S3000XL sampler
AKG BX20E spring reverb
AKG C 414, C 451E mics
Amek 9098 dual EQ/mic preamp
Apple Mac G3/300MHz
ATC SCM100ASL active monitor speakers (2)
Audient ASP8024 24-channel console
Audio-Technica AT4033a, AT4050 mics
Beyerdynamic M 160, M 260 mics
Brauner VM1 mic
Coles 4038 mics (2)
Digidesign 888|24 I/Os (3)
Digidesign Mix Farm DSP Card
Digidesign Universal Slave Driver
Doepfer Vocoder
Drawmer 1960 mic pre/tube compressor
Dynacord S-62 Echocord Super Tape Delay
Electro-Harmonix Memory Man effects pedal
Electro-Voice RE20 mic
Emagic MT4 MIDI interface
EMS Vocoder 2000
EMT 240 Gold Foil Plate Reverb
Esoteric Audio Research 519 Monoblock power amps (2)
Esoteric Audio Research 660 compressor/limiters (2)
Esoteric Audio Research 822Q tube mono EQ
Esoteric Audio Research 825Q tube stereo EQ
Evans Echopet EP-100 delay
Fairman Tube Master Compressor
The Great British Spring Reverb
Gretsch 7670 Country Gentleman electric guitar
Line 6 DL-4 Delay Modeler effects pedal
Lovetone Wobulator effects pedal
Manley Massive Passive stereo EQ
Metric Halo Mobile I/O 2882 FireWire audio interface
MOTU MIDI interface
Rane HC 6 headphone amplifier
Rickenbacker 330 guitar
Rogers AB1 subwoofers (2)
Roger Linn Design AdrenaLinn effects pedal
Roland SRE-555 Chorus Echo effects pedal
Roland TR-77 drum machine
Royer Labs R-121 mic
Sony C48 condenser mic
Stirling Broadcast LS3/5a reference monitors (2)
Studer A80 MKIV 24-track recorder
Studio Electronics ATC-1 sound module
Sytek MPX-4A 4-channel mic preamp
Telefunken V77 mic preamp (2)>