THE GOAL WAS TO CAPTURE ORGANIC SOUNDS, and what better environment to surround yourself in natural ambiance than in an old school acoustic space—a theater?
For Franz Ferdinand’s third album, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand [Domino], the band sequestered itself into its Victorian-era, rehearsal-space-turned-recordingstudio in Glasgow, Scotland, with producer Dan Carey to alchemize its live-concert energy and finely tuned rehearsals with some studio wizardry. Comfortable in their own “home,” and blessed with a bunch of sonically compelling spaces within the theater’s architecture, the band members spent a lot of time seeking out the perfect tones, capturing the most exciting performances, and bathing everything in the sweetest ambient vibes. So, grab a drink before curtain call, find your seat, and thrill to the words of Carey and Franz Ferdinand guitarist/ keyboardist Nick McCarthy as they detail the preparation and recording techniques that went into the making of Tonight.
Tell us a little bit about your new rehearsal/recording space.
McCarthy:We found this old town hall near the shipyards that was converted to a theater. It’s kind of a rough place, but it’s local, and it feels good to walk in there. It has a lot of character—like an old guitar. We started rehearsing there because it’s incredibly cheap to rent, and, most of all, it has some amazing-sounding spaces: the stage, a small room underneath the stage, the hall, the corridors, and the dome. All are perfect for recording in.
Did recording in your own studio make Tonight: Franz Ferdinand a different experience from the previous albums?
McCarthy:Our last album was put together fairly quickly, so, this time, we spent a while writing, rehearsing, and fine-tuning everything. We knew we wanted to step away from the angular, jagged guitar riffs. We wanted to slow it down and smooth it out a bit in places, in order to allow the bass ample space to move around. It’s definitely more of a rock album, but it’s still danceable.
Carey:One of the main themes of the album was really committing to sounds. We spent ages and ages getting a sound, but once we got it, that was it. We wouldn’t go back and record the song again. Also, we didn’t want to get bogged down in recording five different takes of everything with loads of different miking techniques. We had to make sure that everything was just right the first time.
McCarthy:We spent about three months rehearsing the songs in the hall, getting to know the sound of the different spaces. Then, it came down to figuring out which songs— or which parts of songs—should be recorded in which space.
How did you end up utilizing the different spaces in the building?
McCarthy:Our favorite spot is underneath the stage, because it produces a dry, but warm R&B kind of sound to the drums. We did a lot of the basic tracks in there. Most of the overdubs were either amped or re-amped on the stage or in the hall— which acts as an enormous reverb chamber. The synths on “Dream Again” were re-amped in the hall. We used the massive dome for some stuff like the hand claps on “Send Him Away.” We’d set up a mic in the center at ear-level, and get some really heavily concentrated reflections. The acoustics in there were phenomenal.
Carey: We didn’t want to use any artificial reverb, so most of the ambiance that ended up on the album was purely from the spaces we tracked in.
What console and recording system were you using?
McCarthy:We picked up an old Flickinger console a while back. It’s an amazing old American desk. There were only a few of them built—one was made for Sly Stone, and one for Ike Turner. It’s a really simple desk with big faders and big buttons. We like it because it has a really warm sound, and it’s very easy to use.
Carey: The tracking was done on an iZ Technology Radar V Nyquist. Later, we brought the Radar system back home to my place, and we did a transfer of all the drums, bass, and guitars to a two-inch analog 16-track deck. Most of the overdubs were done on Radar and Logic, so we really moved among the three systems. Some of the tracks ended up with analog tape, Radar, and Logic all running together.
How did you lay down the basics?
McCarthy:As far as the playing goes, we’d often record the songs in sections. We’d start with the verse, and play it over and over like a loop until we got that groove. When you do rhythm-based things, it just suddenly locks after about five or six minutes, so we’d take the best takes from each section, then move on to playing the chorus, and so on.
Carey:When you stand in the room as the band rehearses, it sounds amazing. They’re super-energetic players, and very cohesive, as well. I found that when we separated everything and gave everyone headphones, there wasn’t as much of a connection between the four of them. So we really tried to find ways to capture that kind of “rehearsal” feeling on the recording.
Did you track with everyone in the same room, then?
Carey: We didn’t want to record each song the same way, so we took several approaches. The most extreme route we took was to put the drum kit in the middle of the room, the bass amp behind the drums, Nick’s amp next to the floor tom, and Alex’s amp [co-guitarist Alex Kapranos] next to the hi-hat. Then, we’d find the best position for one mic—usually a Lomo 19A series—and place it about a yard away from the kit. As long as all the levels were right with the amps, we picked up a really great sound in mono. We used that on a few songs, or for parts of songs.
The whole band on one track?
Carey: By the time we transferred the audio to the 16-track machine, it would have the mono Lomo track, a kick drum overlay to support it, and maybe a ribbon mic on one of the guitars. So we’d bring that kind of “three track” recording into analog, and then overdub more guitars and synths using either Radar or Logic. Usually, however, we were miking things a bit more thoroughly. Some of the other songs we did with the whole band in one room had perhaps three mics on the drum kit, one mic on each of the amps, and the bass was sent to an amp in the next room. Of course, a monitor was set up so the band could hear the bass. Also, we did some tracks with the band in one room, and the amps set up down a corridor.
How did you typically mic up Paul Thomson’s kit?
McCarthy: We wanted to mic the kit like you would hear it from the audience’s perspective, so everything was miked from the front and underneath. Sometimes, we’d have an Electro-Voice RE20 on the kick, and we’d add a Yamaha SKRM-100 Subkick if we needed the extra punch. Then, there was either a Shure SM7 or a RE20 positioned beneath the snare, and a Neumann KM184 on the hi-hat. If we wanted a stereo sound, we’d put some Lomo mics out in front.
Carey: That method was used mostly when we recorded underneath the stage. On one or two tracks, we put the drums in the hall, and used large baffles to completely encircle the kit. We placed some baffles overhead, as well. The baffling wasn’t enough to make it seem as if the drums were recorded in a small space, but it did knock back the natural reverb a bit. You see, we weren’t going for much of a “big” drum sound, as much as we were trying to capture a different reverb for the snare drum. A snare doesn’t sound like that in a normal-sized room, and we ended up getting a much better “low-level” reverb sound that way. We also did a lot of overdubbing of the drum kit. If you listen carefully, about half the songs have double-tracked drums.
How did you incorporate the drum machines?
Carey: Some of the songs had the drum machine playing through a bass amp situated in quite a big echo-y conservatory space. We’d mic the bass amp with the same three mics we used for the drum kit, and we’d set them at different points to capture different frequencies coming out of the speaker. Then, we’d filter each of the mic signals completely differently, so what you’d get back wouldn’t be a typical drum sound—more like a phantom kick, for instance—that would fill-in the entire frequency spectrum a little more. Another thing we’d do would be to connect the machine’s kick drum output to one amp, the snare out to another amp, and the hi-hat to another amp. We’d position those amps like a drum kit would be positioned, and then we’d mic the amps. We basically built this kind of “guitar amp drum kit” that sounded really cool and unusual.
The bass is a prominent force throughout the album. It sounds as though it was amped, but did you use a direct box, as well?
McCarthy: We actually used a Kalamazoo Model 1 guitar amp for a lot of the bass.
Carey: We tried not to record the bass with a DI, just to reamp it later. Bob [Hardy, bassist] gets great low end with his Les Paul bass or Rickenbacker running through an Ampeg amp, so we were just looking for a thin sound with some bite to add on top of the lows. For that tone, the little Model 1 was miked with a Royer R-121, and routed to a Shadow Hills GAMA 8 mic preamp and a Universal Audio LA- 2A. That combination—a small amp facing a small mic—often made a much bigger sound than the Ampeg alone, and we frequently ended up using just the Model 1 track.
What about guitars?
McCarthy: They were recorded very loudly.
Carey: The guitars were pretty consistent. Alex would usually play his custom Tele through either a Carr or a Selmer amp, and Nick’s Les Paul Jr. would be going through a Carr, as well. We’d have either a Royer R-121 or a Coles 4040 positioned tight on each of the amps, and then routed through either the Shadow Hills or the Flickinger preamps if we wanted to get a more grainy type of sound.
The synths are bouncing around all over the place—how did you track those?
Carey: The band has some amazing keyboards, and they are always the start of the sound. On “Ulysses,” the big synth riff that comes in at the beginning is a Russian Polivoks—a Soviet-era copy of a Minimoog that’s really mad sounding. The Polivoks was used quite a bit. We started off by amping most of the synths, but they sounded too organic, and too much like a guitar. I wanted them to sound as electronic as possible—a little out of place, even. So, in general, the synths were taken direct through a Culture Vulture to get that kind of distortion. We also did some very extreme parametric EQing with the UREI 545 to give the synths an intense midrange sound. Some parts have a boost around 6kHz with a really tight Q to accentuate the electronic-ness. After that, we’d either re-amp the sound in the hall for a big reverb, or fatten up the synth parts with delays such as the Blue Coconut Echoverb Tape Echo.
McCarthy: Sometimes, we would connect the output of the synths to a filter, and someone would manually tweak the filter in real time as we were tracking. Or, we’d trigger a sample of the keyboard, and feed it back into the filters to add the desired tonal effect. These techniques turned out to be so much cooler than just using any generic synth preset. The whole idea was to get the right sound at the beginning of the signal chain.
What about the acoustic piano parts?
McCarthy: The piano recordings— like at the beginning of “Bite Hard”— were done with the piano in one room, miked from the back, and then we fed the signal to some guitar amps set up in another room. The recording would only have the amps—not any original signal at all—and that gave the piano sound a dirty kind of warmth.
How did you track Alex’s vocals?
Carey: Most of the vocals were done in a fairly tight space. My studio has a fairly big room with one corner that has quite a dead sound, and we’d normally track the vocals from there. Alex used two mics—a Wunder Audio CM7 and a Sennheiser MD441. We started off doing a lot with the CM7, but we ended up using the MD441 more, because it’s a handheld, and it was just more fun to record that way. We put a makeshift pop screen on it, and routed it through the Shadow Hills with the output transformer set to Iron. On some stuff, I’d get quite mad with echoes and effects—like on “Can’t Stop Feeling”— and have him sing off them. Overdubs and doubling would always be done on the CM7.
There are a lot of backup vocals. Were those done together or separately?
Carey: Backup vocals were a mixture of things. Paul sounded good on the Electro-Voice RE20, and Nick used a SM7 or a SM58, depending upon the part. On some of the gang vocals where everyone sang at the same time—like on “What She Came For”— we either used the 441, or maybe a Neumann M149, or perhaps the CM7 set to Omni with everyone standing around the mic.
What’s your view on using outboard gear during the tracking phase?
Carey: If I knew that something was going to need a little top-end boost, I’d add that on the way in, but I’d never do anything super extreme. As far as compression, I find that compressing stuff such as drums or guitars only makes them sound softer, so I try to leave that until the mix. On drums, we’d sometimes use kind of a parallel compression, where you have your direct signal, but also a fairly compressed signal that blended in slightly with the direct tracks. Most of the stuff was compressed at tape transfer, and we’d sometimes put it back into Radar again with additional EQ or compression. I’d compress the bass a little with either a RCA or Shadow Hills Master Compressor, set to a fairly slow attack time, and never more than 3dB of gain reduction. Maybe there’d be one or two places with heavily compressed guitars for effect. I’d rather compress things lots of times very gently, than once really heavily. By the time a track is mixed, it might have gone through three or four compressors.
The album is no stranger to phasing effects. What was your technique?
Carey: Sometimes, we’d take sections of the basic tracks, and feed the signal back into a guitar amp. Then, we’d take two mics—one fixed about a yard away from the speaker, and we’d manually move the other one slowly from about six feet away, just past the mixed mic, and right up to the speaker. When you mix those two signals together in mono, you get this amazing phasing effect. When the mics come together you get nothing, but there’s a really pronounced swooshing sound as the moving mic approaches the speaker.
We also did a pretty weird thing on one or two songs where we used one of those Little Labs IBP analog phase alignment tools to process three different mics—one mic positioned to capture the bass amp and the back of the drum kit, one mic placed near the guitars, and the last one positioned as a room mic. We’d play with the phase relations in the IBP to get more bass or more midrange. It was just sort of this strange filtering effect.
What were the most memorable recording techniques you used during the sessions?
McCarthy: I think the coolest one was the time I climbed up into the rafters, and dropped a mic and cable down a few yards so that we could swing the mic around a guitar amp. It took several hours to get it right, but we got this really cool Doppler effect as the mic moved around the amp. It appears on the chorus of “What She Came For.”
Carey: We used a fair amount of spring reverbs—like on “Send Him Away” to get a kind of King Tubby sound—and our main spring reverb was a toy Slinky. We took one of those, attached a drive speaker to one end, and put two “pickup” speakers on the other. Then, we fed the Slinky signal to a Fender amp, and miked the amp’s speaker. That technique was pretty amazing.