Massive Attack | Tripping Into 'Heligoland'


Massive Attack's Robert "3D" Del Naja (left) and Grand "Daddy G" Marshall Photo: Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton James

For Massive Attack, the process of producing an album is often an evolutionary one, with the final result deviating significantly from what was originally envisioned. A case in point is the band''s last release, 100th Window (Virgin, 2003). Massive Attack''s primary composers—vocalist Robert Del Naja (aka “3D”) and producer Neil Davidge (who has been part of the band since Mezzanine [Virgin, 1998])—began the writing process for that one by spinning hard drives and letting tape roll while their core musicians improvised for what turned out to be 80 hours'' worth of loose ideas and song threads. Not satisfied with the results, the group eventually scrapped the entire project and started fresh.

Similarly, on their current effort, Heligoland (Virgin, 2010; see Fig. 1), Massive Attack (now joined again by former member, vocalist Grant “Daddy G” Marshall) recorded with dozens of singers in their Bristol, U.K., studio, as well as studios in London and New York, before ultimately trashing many of the tracks and completely rewriting others.

Beginning with their landmark 1991 debut, Blue Lines (Virgin), which originated the style branded as trip-hop, Massive Attack has created a brooding, intensely beautiful, deep-soul-meets-dark-technology sound that is as thrilling as it is foreboding. Massive Attack standards such as “Unfinished Sympathy,” “Teardrop,” and “Futureproof” rely on the group''s experimental and highly influential application of sample editing and layering, as well as their use of orchestral dynamics, advanced DJ techniques, inventive dance rhythms, and multiple vocalists.

Of late, Del Naja and Davidge have been prolific soundtrack composers. The recent films Unleashed, Gomorra, and In Prison My Whole Life, and the upcoming Trouble the Water and 44 Inch Chest feature the pair''s dark musical vision. Working in their studio, The Industrial Unit (based around a Solid State Logic G+ console and Digidesign Pro Tools)—or as Del Naja refers to it, “the last place on Earth we ever wanted to set up shop”—Massive Attack followed a new trajectory for Heligoland. Eschewing the heavy processing and textural effects of 100th Window, the group stripped the music to its barest elements, largely preferring natural drums to treated machine rhythms, and an intimate sonic ID to EQ-warped, reverb-soaked arrangements.

Massive Attack continued their practice of working with numerous vocalists on Heligoland, including longtime favorite Horace Andy, as well as Hope Sandoval, Blur''s Damon Albarn, TV on the Radio''s Tunde Adebimpe, Martina Topley-Bird, and Elbow''s Guy Garvey. The most acoustic and natural-sounding album the band has done to date, Heligoland retains the feeling of dread and dislocation that marks Massive Attack''s best work.

The opener, “Pray for Rain,” begins with doleful organ tones, followed by plaintive floor-tom rolls and funereal piano chords that are eventually consumed by a swelling vocal choir worthy of Brian Wilson, circa Surf''s Up. “Flat of the Blade” contains odd vocal humming and squirming sounds. “Girl I Love You” works a mad punk bass riff and ominous string and brass samples into a post-apocalyptic travelogue. Closer “Atlas Air” sounds like a tiki bar soundtrack created by space invaders, complete with Farfisa organ, gloomy strings, and a trashy disco beat.

Massive Attack''s trademark urban-dread atmospherics, their torrid-soundtrack-to-a-bleak-future vision, is more apropos than ever before. Refining their style to its core elements, stripping away nonessential effects to reveal their dark heart, Massive Attack forget their past, reinvent their present, and continue to set the standard. I explored the recording and production of Heligoland in separate interviews with Del Naja and Davidge. I also spoke with engineer Euan Dickinson (see sidebar “Massive Tracking”).


The 100th Window sessions started with instrumental tracking and ended with a sample-layering approach. What was the process for Heligoland?
We created samples and constructed things in a very electronic way, building the arrangements very gradually instead of using loops and samples as the basis of the writing process. I wanted the sound to be very direct, very acoustic, and very electronic, but everything to be very exposed. 100th Window was the album where machines took over. It was an exercise in altering things so much that a 20-piece string section sounded like a keyboard. I became disillusioned with that process. Heligoland was about only using Pro Tools as an editing or recording tool, using plug-ins and EQ and compression, but stripping away reverbs and dynamic effects. So when you''re listening to the drums or the bass, you''re hearing actual drums and bass.

Is the opening track, “Pray for Rain,” largely a live performance?
Live and edited. “Saturday Come Slow” has the most ultra-acoustic drum sound on the record. Because we were working with many different people during a relatively short period of time, to get an approach that joined everything together was important. So I was continually anti-reverb, for example. Anti-anything that didn''t belong in the melodic structure of the song.

How did the songs on Heligoland originate?
Traditionally, our tracks start with a drum beat and bass. We''d do giant sessions with hours'' worth of material and then go through it all to find parts to loop. On this record, we were keen not to do that; we wanted to capture it all immediately. We''d record drums, bass, and keys; loop it; and it became the part as opposed to having 50 different possibilities.

How did you create the many drum textures on the record? From “Pray for Rain” to “Atlas Air,” the drum-set production is diverse.
A lot of it was captured in the recording process in the different studios. How we miked the kit in Bristol was very different to how we did it in New York at Stickydisc with Tim Goldsworthy. There are subtle differences. But compared to 100th Window, we tried to keep it as straight as possible. In some tracks, what you are hearing is completely raw and acoustic. Then the contrast with an electronic track becomes really noticeable. “Rush Minute” has a very electronic drum-machine sound, but it was played live on pads, then edited. We also recorded acoustic drums for that track. One side of the track is electronic, the other is acoustic. I wanted your brain to recognize and understand the sounds on the record, whether electronic or analog. If there is a change from a digital sample to real brass, like in “Girl I Love You,” your brain will be confused at first, then you''ll get it.

How do you typically record your vocals?
I go in the live room with my own Pro Tools rig and record myself. You can get a less self-conscious vocal that way. I record and listen back and when I know it''s good, I mark down the playlist number for Neil to select. I''d rather do six takes and let him punch between the best parts. I might be there all night, but as things go along I will change the meter, the words, the flow. When I find the version I like, I will refine the words and do a couple more takes to really capture it.

What''s your microphone and mic pre of choice?
The Blue Bottle mic suits me—even with a pop shield so I can stay close to it, stay right in its face and it doesn''t distort. As long as I am recording with the Avalon [VT] 737 [SP] compressor, which gives me the right level, then I get a nice intimate sound. But everything always sounds so different in headphones than in speakers in the control room. It can be a semitone out for the whole track. I''ve had to learn to listen back switching between headphones and speakers.

Was there a favorite synth for Heligoland?
The ARP Solina String Ensemble. You can manipulate the sound like a synth as well as play it like a really beautiful organ. I spent ages with that and a Roland VP-330 Vocoder Plus and the Yamaha CS70, trying to get these cool Vangelis-type sounds. But nothing came close to the Solina; it''s like sunlight coming through a window. If you remove the tremolos, you can also get some sharp analog-nasty sounds, as well.

In “Saturday Come Slow,” there is a massive distorted keyboard sound in one channel.
That might be Adrian Utley from Portishead playing his guitar with tools [such as] a file and a screwdriver to get different sounds. We were building up layers of guitar and going through his pedals (Hot Cake Distortion, American Real McCoy wah, Line 6 Echo Park, Boss RE-20 Space Echo), as well.

Massive Attack music is more relevant to the state of the world than ever before. There is extreme beauty in Massive Attack, but also darkness.
We''ve always managed to comment on what''s around us. The nature of where we''re coming from, our multicultural makeup, our environment growing up in Britain, it''s defined the way we work and how we think. Our music is part of our education and upbringing.


Was Heligoland designed as more of an acoustic record?
We didn''t want to process everything like we had before. I wanted certain things quite beautifully raw and simple. So some of the instrumentation we kept minimalist: acoustic and organic.

Did the acoustic drum track in “Pray for Rain” involve heavy editing in Pro Tools?
It''s not heavily edited but it is looped in places. Damon Reece played the drums with mallets, then it was tightened up in Pro Tools. The drums carry the bulk of “Pray for Rain,” but most of that is just heavy compression from the Bomb Factory BF76 plug-in with a bit of EQ to stop certain frequencies from ringing through. The BF76 gave the drums this very gritty but still soft sound.

How did you come upon that vocal chorus part in that song, which totally alters the track?
For some reason, there I broke into a piano melody part. We did a rough edit and flew to New York to work with Dave Sitek and Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio in Williamsburg. Tunde came in, and we fired up “Pray for Rain,” and straight away he got it. He''s singing all those harmonies, all 14 tracks. I rode each track pretty closely for volume and dynamics. I edited them a little and didn''t use much compression. Whenever I added reverb Robert would want it off, every time.

When you did use reverb, what did you use?
For this album, we used mainly plug-in reverbs such as the Waves RVerb.

Do you and Robert discuss music in visual metaphors?
Yes, we''re both visual artists as well as musicians. We might describe where the musicians are in the studio. That might affect the mix. We talk in terms of textures. “This should sound dark or rough as sandpaper,” for example. If we can only achieve the sound in our head, we''re quite disappointed. We want to break through to another dimension where we''re channeling an experience we''re part of but not always in control of.

You''ve created some amazing vocal productions with Massive Attack, such as Elizabeth Fraser''s “Teardrop” performance on Mezzanine. How do you typically work with the vocalists?
I like them to sit down. When a singer stands, they feel like they have to project like an old stage singer. I like vocals to be intimate. I like singers to sing with their heads pointing down, almost singing to their feet so that you really get a sense of being inside that person''s head rather than watching them onstage. I try to make vocalists feel very comfortable when they''re singing. If a singer is contriving their performance, I will actually talk right up to the point where they are to begin singing and get them to respond to me so they don''t have a chance to get in character before they sing. They''re distracted. So when they come in it''s very natural. Or I might have them record before the track is totally finished, to capture the vocal as soon as an idea is formed. I often get the musicians to play to the track before they''ve even heard it.

You want telepathy.
Magic happens. Or not. You have to try to capture that spontaneous moment, you have to play from your unconscious. If you''ve lost that moment, it''s gone forever. I will often screw around with someone''s sound—add reverb, delay, compression. The first time they hear themselves back is in record mode while they''re playing the track. You can get something really fresh like that.

Generally, are you relying more on plug-ins or hardware for processing?
This album was entirely mixed in the box. With the ease of working in the computer, it''s questionable whether you need outboard gear. At the end of the day, it''s about ideas, and if the interface of a computer enables you to achieve everything you hear in your head, I don''t see why that is a problem.

What are your favorite plug-ins?
I use Tascam GigaSampler as my sample source. For the most part we didn''t use soft synths; I used Access Virus Indigo on a couple tracks. Most of it was sounds generated from GigaSampler and maybe processed. 3D [Del Naja] used a Solina String Ensemble, Korg PolySix, ARP 2600, and Yamaha CS70, but not a lot.

Can you explain those analog phone tones, then what sounds like an old typewriter clattering on “Flat of the Blade”?
That''s Damon Albarn from Blur playing a Roland SH-101. What you call typewriter sounds were taken from an art installation called Volume from the Victoria and Albert Museum. I''d made a 46-track drum session using iZotope iDrum software put through tons of delays. I pulled that out and Robert literally sang over the drum track.

What created the distorted drum rhythm in “Babel”?
That''s the iDrum plug-in again. I only use its simplest function to create one-bar loops. And we used a lot of compression. I had two channels of compression, one extremely compressed. Then I EQed the compressed channel to bring out certain textures and did various volume rides between the two to get the texture dynamics.

What creates the sliding, swerving drum effects later in “Babel”?
I did volume rides on the compressed drums and towards the end of the track I really pushed them up. It''s mostly about the programming and the EQ of the compression. Those swerving sounds are just volume changes in the track and really extreme compression. All the tone was rolled out, most of the percussive element was completely flattened by the compression in Pro Tools and the Bomb Factory BF76.

No matter the technical changes or vocalists used, Massive Attack has a signature sound, one of foreboding and darkness.
We have tried to make a happy track! There are certain tracks which we thought were uplifting and positive. But there''s always an underlying darkness no matter what we do. It''s always sad or dark or slightly menacing. It''s an instinct I guess; the process that we go through, looking for sounds that collide, textures that collide. 

Engineer Euan Dickinson

Photo: Courtesy Euan Dickinson

Massive Tracking

Neil Davidge and Robert Del Naja are the conceptual masterminds behind Massive Attack, but engineer Euan Dickinson handled the nitty-gritty details of the recording process for Heligoland.

“Working with Neil can be a challenge,” Dickinson says. “We have to be set up and ready to roll all the time. We have a few different setups, but between the Avalon 737 and the Blue mics, we know what works. We often leave EQ and compression fairly flat on the Avalon 737 and deal with it afterward. We used a Neumann KMS-105 handheld for vocals on one track. Sometimes the Blue Bottle is too high-fidelity. That''s when we go for the Neumann on a stand, it''s softer. But we used the Blue Bottle for the bulk of the vocals.”

Massive Attack used Pro Tools with an SSL G+ console and a variety of vintage and modern mics with contemporary software and older hardware for production effects. Stompboxes were often used for sound warping.

“Some of the stranger pedals were Adrian Utley''s [of Portishead],” Dickinson says. “He brought his DigiTech Space Station, which is all over ‘Saturday Come Slow.'' Neil has a collection of Lovetone pedals: the Ring Stinger, the Meatball, they''re not made anymore. We put the ARP Solina String Ensemble and Yamaha CS70 through different pedals on ‘Atlas Air.'' We used a lot of plug-ins too; like [Line 6] Amp Farm and Echo Farm. For some of the tracks we were triggering sounds from Native Instruments synths.”

Miked drum kits figured largely in Heligoland''s rich percussion textures. Drums were recorded in Bristol and London as well in as in New York with DFA producer Tim Goldsworthy.

“Massive Attack''s last engineer recorded some of the drums with his own mics, including an AKG D12 on the kick, an Electro-Voice RE-20 on the snare, AKG 414s as overheads, AKG C 451 Bs on hi-hats, and a pair of Coles 4038s as room mics,” Dickinson says. “Generally we place room mics related to what else is happening in the live room. If it was just a drum session we''d place the Coles near the ceiling depending on how roomy we wanted the sound to be. Sometimes we would keep it minimal: a Blue Kiwi behind the floor tom, a Neumann U87 just off the front of the kick, an RE20 on the snare. Mic pres were the Neve 33135, the Avalon 737, a Focusrite ISA 215, and ISA 428. And Neil has a nice rack of old Calrec pres and EQs. We''d try to get a live feel with the bass and keys as well.

“Keyboards went straight through the SSL line amps to give them a little boost. For bass we used an EV RE20 and an Earthworks mic, which looks like a little probe. That combination gave us real definition. We''d take splits of the bass going direct with the amp sound.”

Sam Pryor is a music journalist based in New York City.