Have you ever had your confidence broken? Have you ever been so stressed out about making an album that you cracked open your knuckles on the vocal-booth wall after trying to sing just four words? A lot of angst goes on behind the scenes of making an album, especially major-label albums. Although you might like to believe that making a big-budget record would entail a fleet of producers, engineers and assistants working at your beck and call — and that after a couple of quick takes, you get to run off to the hot tub — you might be mistaken.
Fortunately for those of you toiling away in your bedrooms, the reality of big-budget albums is very different from what it seems, and, thankfully, Fischerspooner's Casey Spooner and Warren Fischer are willing to break apart the romantic myth about recording a major-label album. “It was really, really, really hard,” singer Spooner admits. “I can't even begin to tell you how painful it was. I'm serious. I really didn't think I was going to make it.”
This isn't to say that the guys haven't had their rock-star moments, and even life on their previous smaller label, Ministry of Sound, spoiled the two a bit. “Warren and I just had a fucking amazing, blissful five-year run, never any conflict,” Spooner says. “We could always divide and conquer any problem: creatively, business, whatever.”
Before the five whirlwind years of making their debut album, #1 (Ministry of Sound, 2002), and spreading its good electro gospel in the form of kitschy, theatrical performance art — costumes, dancing and lip synching to boot — Fischer and Spooner were two quirky students at the Art Institute of Chicago. Spooner studied visual art and performance, and Fischer studied music and film. “The thing that's cool is that the school is very interdisciplinary,” Spooner says. “It's kind of a good and a bad thing, because if you're not focused and you don't know exactly what you want to do, you can kind of wallow around, and what it teaches you is, you really have to have an idea, conceptualize it and then pursue it.”
Years later, Fischer and Spooner met up again in New York. While collaborating on a TV pilot together, the two worked on a soundtrack that included the song that later became a hit from #1, “Emerge.” When #1 itself finally emerged, it was a dancey exercise in pure electronics. “There was one instrument on the entire album, which was one cymbal in reverse on ‘The 15th,’” Spooner admits. To change up their creative senses for their second album and debut on Capitol, Odyssey (2005), Fischer and Spooner studied the warmth of classic-rock production in the hopes of meshing it with their own electro style.
STRESS AND PANIC
“When we started this record, it was devastating, 'cause all of a sudden, it's like the landscape changed,” Spooner says. “It shocked me. I couldn't believe how much everything sort of fell apart, and I had to start over.” Before, Fischer would write music on his iBook, and Spooner would join the process and riff ideas on the mic until the parts solidified. This time, Fischer wrote some songs again on his iBook, but it wasn't the same. “I made a bunch of shitty stuff that I couldn't stand,” Fischer reveals. “And then [the label] said, ‘When's the record done?’ I was like, ‘Okaaaay, right.’” Time was already a pressure. Then, Fischer decided to go into a professional studio and start clocking hours, so money became a pressure, too.
“It completely arrived at stressful,” he says. “It's impossible and unfair, really. Nobody should be put in that position.” But in hindsight, Fischer realizes that it could have been worse: “You know who I feel worse about, though, is a writer/director/producer on a feature film with a $50 million budget where the studio is really risking a lot. To me, being Ron Howard would be a nightmare at times. To have 70 people standing around going, ‘What are we going to do today, Ron?’ would be the worst!”
Spooner, however, can't imagine it being worse. Going to the studio for the first time, he was excited with anticipation: “I was a bit naïve because I walked into it like, ‘Yaaay! Party! I love you! Make cool stuff. Let's have fun!’” But he had no idea what he was getting himself into. “[Warren] was so panicked before I even started!” Spooner says. “It was like the minute I walked in the door, he was mad at me.”
STRESS AND COLLABORATION
A perk of Fischerspooner's Capitol deal was getting money for working with collaborators. But at first, Fischer was hesitant about working with other people. “I was wrestling with, ‘I don't need … colla … who? Collaborators! Noooo. That's a sign of weakness!’” he says with a laugh. “So I had to get over that.”
After an early peak of frustration writing by himself, Fischer met up with Nicholas Vernhes, the owner of Rare Book Room Studios, and booked time for 100 days. “When we were there, he became a therapist/cheerleader/collaborator/co-songwriter,” Fischer says. After conferring with Spooner, Fischer decided to aim for making an “expressive album based on songwriting,” he says. But they also wanted to hark back to classic-rock groups such as The Beatles, Steve Miller Band, Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac and newer classics such as My Bloody Valentine and The Pixies.
Consequently, Fischer left Brooklyn and went to Sunset Sound Studio 3 in Los Angeles to meet with producer Tony Hoffer (Air, Beck). “I wanted to work with those old analog studios because I wanted the warmth,” Fischer says. “[Tony] has a lot of technical expertise to capture a lot of really great drum sounds, but he's very musical as a person. So I went out there and worked, and he took some of my song ideas and said, ‘Okay, why don't you try this chord here?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, cool,’ or ‘I hate that. Why would you suggest that? Get out of here!’ And slowly but surely, things got developed, and a lot of things got dropped.'” Meanwhile, Capitol was supportive yet ever reminding Fischer of the ticking clock.
Spooner was doing his share of collaborating, as well. The singer met up with two polar-opposite writers, Susan Sontag (who since passed away in December 2004) and Linda Perry. “I love the two extremes of intense avant-garde intellectual and intense superstar superpop,” Spooner says. On the avant-garde side, Spooner met up with Sontag for “We Need a War,” a serious take on politics backed with a beat that sounds like a game of ping-pong. Spooner thought he would learn something about writing while collaborating with Sontag, but it didn't exactly work that way. “Basically, we had a conversation; she went into her office; she wrote the song; she came back, and I was like, ‘Uh, Susan, I'm kind of like this arty disco freak-out, and I think there's a political idea to what I'm doing, but I don't know if I can say the word war.’ And she was like, ‘You know what? Your president just approved $80 billion for a war. You really need to be able to say that word.’ I guess I got my intellectual smackdown I was asking for.”
STRESS AND INSANITY
At 140 days into the project, engineer Kyle Johnson entered the picture back in Brooklyn (and Madonna producer Mirwais stepped in to help months after that). But it wasn't smooth sailing from there. “I almost quit at Christmas,” Spooner says. “[Warren] was a real fucker. I mean, let me tell you. Every day, it was just awful and abusive and shitty. Basically, he was saying, ‘You need to do more. You need to be more invested. You need to come in with more material. You need to carry your own weight.’ But at the same time, he would say, ‘You suck. I don't think you can do it. You're not really a musician. You suck, you're a piece of shit, but you need to do more. Why don't you do more, you piece of shit?’” [Laughs.]
In Fischer's defense, he had the pretty big burden finishing the music. “I know Casey's tricks,” Fischer says with a laugh. “There are a couple tricks to frame me as the asshole. I know what he's doing!” The two can look back and joke about it now, but they did endure some dark days.
“We tracked ‘All We Are,’ and he was obsessed with the first line of the song: ‘The breaking light,’” Spooner says. “Literally, he made me sing that line for probably about three days. He kicked everyone out of the studio, turned all the lights off, and I was in a tiny little booth just like a glass box. I can't tell you how many hours I spent in a tiny glass box by myself — a hot, tiny, weird, little glass box. It was just like I was caged. It was literally like, ‘The breaking light.’ ‘No, the ‘breeeak’ needs to turn on the beat.’ ‘Okay, the breaking light.’ ‘No, that's not it; it needs to be a little bit more crackly.’ ‘The bre-ee-eeaking light.’ ‘No, too shaky.’ ‘The breeeeaking light.’ ‘Too long!’ ‘Thebreakinglight.’ ‘Too fast.’ ‘The breaking light.’ ‘Too — no, a little pitchy.’ ‘The breaking —’ I mean, on and on and looping and looping and looping. Finally, he just gave up. He was like, ‘Well, I guess that's the best you can do.’ And then, I went out to get some stuff for a Christmas party, and I came back, and he had muted all of my takes, and he was changing the entire song. And I was just like, ‘What am I doing here? This sucks.’”
Fortunately, “All We Are” ended up being a lovely song with eerie delayed piano; a bass line reminiscent of early Cure; cameos of spacey headphone sounds; and Spooner's soft, airy vocals. After the “All We Are” debacle, the two confessed their resentments, got it all out, and then — they were on a roll.
On Odyssey, you will certainly hear some straight-up pop structures, but by the time you get to “Circle (Vision Creation New Sun)” at the end, you'll feel like you're on psychedelics: rewinding bleebs, superwild delays, speaking-in-tongues vocals. Fischer brought in some session guys to have them play whatever they wanted. Although most of the jamming didn't end up on the album, Fischer did treat the parts that made it to fit in the context of a mainly electronic song.
“In order to bridge the gap between our digital aesthetic and these acoustic sounds, they had to kind of meet in the middle, so the acoustic sounds had to be stylized a bit,” Fischer says. “I try to find idiosyncratic combinations of effects and play around until it sounds special. The songs already have a traditional feel, so it meant that you had to make the sonics seem a little bit more extreme to keep the totality interesting.”
In listening back to his old albums, Fischer remembered the panning wackiness in albums like The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour (Capitol, 1967) and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol, 1967). “It'll be guitar in the middle, voice in the middle, drums on one side panned all the way over and then bass panned on the other side, so much so that it's amazing when you play it,” Fischer says with a laugh. “It's almost like they're panning for panning's sake.” Fischer was more conservative with panning, but he had his moments. “In ‘All We Are,’ I intentionally tried to pan strings all to one side to try to simulate that.”
“Kick in the Teeth” had its experiments, too. At certain points, with rapid real-time changes in delay settings, drums run into each other like a 10-car pileup. Meanwhile, Fischer aimed to make Spooner's vocals in the vein of “Fly Like an Eagle” by Steve Miller Band. “We did seven or eight takes of Casey, lined them all up and panned them all incrementally 10 percent away all the way around the stereo picture,” Fischer says. “So it becomes one big mass of a single person. It's a way to be quiet and massive.”
Another fun trick that Fischer likes is to put an effect through the entire mix with a master bus. “That happens on a song called ‘Wednesday,’” Fischer says. “I animated it with a Logic distortion. And I also put a stereo phaser on the entire mix of ‘Happy.’ It's really weird to be listening to a song and have the whole mix have a freak-out.”
KISS THE STUDIO GOODBYE
Next time you see Fischerspooner, don't expect a theatrical miming of the album. This time, the shows will feature a full live band onstage — bass, guitar, keyboards and drums. “I want the show to be like a journey and very fluid,” Spooner says. “So it's not going to be like we do a song, and then I do a comedy routine. I'm imagining more of these cool musical transitions.”
Fischer and Spooner are happy to be out of the studio and over the recording drama. “When I'd wake up in the morning and have my cup of coffee, it was like, ‘Ahhh, the day's all potential,’” Fischer says. “By 5 in the afternoon, it's like, ‘Oh, shit, we're never going to get anywhere. The world sucks!’”
Meanwhile, Spooner admits that the roller coaster did help unearth the emotional, expressive music that the duo had aimed for in the first place. But was it worth it? “Right up until the mastering of the record, we had full-on blowouts,” Spooner says. “[But] I was like, ‘No matter fucking what, I'm going to finish this fucking record to fucking spite you, asshole.’ So not to romanticize it at all — I cannot go through that experience again.”
But who has ever made a great album without experiencing a huge amount of emotional push and pull? Without a certain level of fear and loathing, would the reward be nearly as great? Well, whoever knows the secret to making a classic album in absolute peaceful collaboration might want to let Fischerspooner in on it before the guys brave the studio again.
SAMPLE THIS DELAY
To get a bigger stereo sound, Warren Fischer relies on the following studio tip: “One thing I love on any instrument that isn't anchoring the rhythm section is a sample delay. Basically, in Logic, you're delaying one channel 200 ms. So it creates this instant huge, wide stereo picture. A lot of the stereo sounds on this record are done that way and a lot on the last, too. It can be one vocal, it can be any channel, or it can be all channels. If I did multiple channels, I set the delay time to be a little bit different. But all it does is, it takes what would be a mono signal — and it's a little bit what stereo enhancer plug-ins probably do, but this is the cheap, poor man's way to do it — all it does is, you can pick the left or the right channel and delay either the left or the right a tiny bit, ever so slightly. And you put the vocals through it or hand claps. It's an incredibly fast slapback that's completely dry and has no repeats.”
ODYSSEY OF GEAR
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware:
Apple Mac G5 computer, Logic Pro 7 software MOTU 828mkII, 896HD audio interfaces Digidesign Mbox interface, Pro Tools|24 Mixplus system
Consoles, mixers, interfaces:
API-DeMedio/Sunset Sound 3252458 custom console w/API 550A EQ
Adam Audio S3As: “The high end in them is incredible,” Kyle Johnson says. “They have ribbon tweeters in them, which compress the air instead of moving it back and forth. So it can move, like, four times as fast as a regular tweeter can, so you can get frequencies that are up that high. The human ear can't hear them, but there's some sort of feeling and some sort of accuracy that goes along with that that makes it sound more real.”
Genelec 1031As Mackie HR824s Yamaha NS10s
Software, plug-ins, effects units:
Antares Auto-Tune plug-in Cycling '74 Pluggo plug-ins: “We used the Rye and Wheat [granulation plug-ins] quite a bit,” says Fischerspooner engineer and guitarist Kyle Johnson. “They kind of do this remodulation, but they totally warp the sound.”
Destroy FX Buffer Override plug-in: “It just overrides the timing and the clock in the buffer, so it plays [the audio] back not at the right time and in a really digitally, blippy sort of way,” Johnson says.
EMT 150 plate reverb Eventide Model H910 Harmonizer effects unit FXpansion VST to Audio Unit Adapter plug-in wrapper IK Multimedia AmpliTube plug-in Korg Kaoss effects pad Native Instruments B4, FM7, Pro-53 soft synths Propellerhead Reason software reFX PlastiCZ VST plug-in, Vanguard soft synth: “It's a trance synth, and I don't like trance,” Warren Fischer says. “But if you take all the trance gates and delays off of it, it just sounds really crisp and fat.”
Serato Pitch 'n Time plug-in Spectrasonics Stylux RMX, Trilogy soft synths TC Electronic PowerCore FireWire DSP unit w/optional VoiceModeler plug-in TC-Helicon VoiceWorks rackmount module: “We used this for the background vocal effect in ‘Ritz,’” Johnson says. “Lizzie [Yoder], the singer in the group, named it Robetta. It does pitch correction and intelligent pitch shifting, so you can tell it what key the song's in, and it'll give you harmonizing in the right key.”
Guitars, basses, amps, keyboards:
Aguilar tube DI box Ampeg B15 bass amp, Jet amp Baldwin Fun Machine organ Fender Vibro King amp Gibson ES-330 hollowbody guitar Music Man Bass Orange 815 combo amp
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors:
AKG D 12 drum mic Grace 201 preamp: “We used it a lot with a ribbon microphone because it has a transimpedance thing,” Johnson says. “So it'll sense the impedance of the microphone and adjust the preamp to work for that microphone.”
Lomo 19A18 mic: “For Casey's stuff, we used mostly a Lomo Russian tube microphone from the '60s,” Johnson says. “It's similar to a Neumann U 67. If you can find them, they're not as expensive most of the time, and I think they kind of sound better. We use them for drum overheads and acoustic guitars but mostly for Casey's vocals. And we ran that through a 1073 preamp/EQ to a Tube-Tech CL-1B into a Daking compressor. We were taking out maybe 3 to 5 dB at the most [with the Tube-Tech]. Then, from that, we were going into the Daking compressor, and if it went over what we wanted it to with the first compressor, the second would just take off the peaks of it. So it wasn't actually double compressing unless it got really loud.”
AMS Neve 1073, 1081 preamps Lucid AD9624 A/D converter Microtech Gefell M300 mic: “For hi-hats,” Johnson says. “That's the one where Warren was like, ‘It sounds like it's right in the room.’ It's a super-natural-sounding microphone.”
Daking Audio 52270 preamp/EQ: “A copy of the Trident A Range,” Johnson says.
Royer Labs R-121 ribbon mic Sennheiser MD 421 drum mic Shure Beta 52 kick-drum mic, SM7 mic, SM57 mic: “The SM7 is a broadcast microphone,” Johnson says. “They use them a lot in radio stations. It's like a 57 on crack. It sounds much better than a 57, but it pops much more.”
Soundelux E47 mic
Telefunken V76 preamps
Tube-Tech CL-1B compressor