Great Lake Swimmers Pro/File: Sweet Reflections

Great Lake Swimmers venture out of the studio in search of great acoustics.

Great Lake Swimmers

Photo: Courtesy Ilia Horsburgh

Home base: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Primary software: Digidesign Pro Tools

Field mics: Peluso P12, Apex 460 (modified), Neumann KM 184

Recording musicians often use convolution reverb plug-ins to infuse the ambience of classic halls, churches and other spaces into their recordings. Canadian folk-rockers Great Lake Swimmers took a different approach, choosing to actually record many of the tracks on their fourth album, Lost Channels (Nettwerk, 2009), in some unusual-sounding venues and spaces to capture their natural acoustics.

The band worked with local Ontario historian Ian Coristine, who helped them locate a number of acoustically unique locations in the Thousand Islands region. The result was an album of ghostly atmospheres, inspired vocals and amazing natural reverb. “It truly is a thing of beauty; there's a certain magic to that region,” GLS' Tony Dekker says. Drums were tracked beforehand at Andy Magoffin's House of Miracles studio in London, Ontario, and bass at Halla's Music Studio in Toronto. These tracks provided a solid foundation for the band's field-recorded overdubs.

Portable gear was then trekked by car — and boat — to various Thousand Islands historical sites, where the band overdubbed vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, and banjo into a laptop-based Digidesign Pro Tools setup.

“The portable rig was basically a Digi 002 rack with a Mac laptop, with vintage mic preamps from the 1960s,” Dekker says. “We used an array of mics: Peluso P12s for the vocals [with Digidesign and Chandler preamps], modified Apex 460 tube condensers set back for an immediate sound and two Neumann KM 184s further back in the room to capture ambient sound. It was really about collecting as many different vantage points as possible and then figuring it out in the mix.”

After the remote recording, the Pro Tools work continued back at Magoffin's studio, but it was the locations themselves that proved to be the highlight. “We recorded parts in a series of different locations and tied them together,” Dekker explains. “The Brockville Arts Center is one of the oldest film theaters in Canada; with its sloped seating, the sound is huge. St. Brendan's Church was my favorite place to record vocals — the acoustics were warm and pleasant because of the wooden floors and rafter beams. It seems to me that some rooms are like old guitars: After 100 years of music being played in them, they become seasoned, more conducive to certain tones.”

Dark Island's Singer Castle was perhaps the most unusual place where GLS recorded. “Recording ‘Concrete Heart’ [see Web Clip 1 href=""] there was particularly appropriate because we were in the cavernous concrete-and-brick Great Hall,” Dekker says. “We used three of the domes in the large, arched ceilings for microphone placements. The performances were done in the center, toward the back; the two arches on either side were outfitted with a left and right stereo [mic] pair. We also set a stereo pair just in front of the performer, and close mics up front. What impressed me were the thick stone walls — the reverb effect there was almost like an echo or slap-back.

“While we were recording there, the bells in the castle's bell tower were chiming on the hour,” he continues, “so we got a unique opportunity to record the bells and all of the associated gears and pulley systems. I liked the feeling that we were documenting the sounds of a place, as well as the songs.”