“If you asked us, ‘What chord is that?’ we would never be able to tell you,” says Lee Ranaldo. “When we first got Sonic Youth together, we’d just put our fingers down on the guitar strings, and it sounded cool. We’re not trained musicians, so if Thurston [Moore] comes up with a new tuning, I just tweak around until I find something that sounds good against it, rather than tuning to the same thing as he does. Then, we build weird chord shapes. On one level, we don’t know what the hell we’re doing.”
Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore’s approach to guitar wizardry and songwriting is among the most successfully radical in rock—deconstructing and expanding traditional song forms long before the era of DAW wizardry. Such landmark albums as 1986’s EVOL (“The aural equivalent of a toxic waste dump,” wrote People magazine), 1988’s Daydream Nation, and 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star established Sonic Youth as the noisiest band to ever crack the Billboard charts.
Playing guitars with drumsticks and screwdrivers, and applying alternate tunings, Moore and Ranaldo meld experimentation to increasingly accessible songwriting. With former bassist Kim Gordon now playing guitar, and joined by ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold and longtime drummer Steve Shelley, Sonic Youth is 16 albums into their career, but remain youthful, inventive, and adventurous on the aptly titled, The Eternal [Matador].
“We’ve proven ourselves to be very interested in experimenting with rock music,” Moore says from Northampton, Massachusetts. “That’s still there, but, on the last two records, we’ve really focused on the power of the song. We came out of a milieu in New York where everyone was doing weirdo experimental things. If you were doing something more traditional, you were being different. We started doing experimental music in a traditional setup with two guitars, bass, and drums. That was our way of being radical. It was like Hendrix taking drugs to be normal.”
While Sonic Youth’s recording methods are fairly traditional, the band’s music continues to evolve. Tracking The Eternal at the band’s Echo Canyon West studio in Hoboken, New Jersey, with producer John Agnello and longtime engineer Aaron Mullan, Sonic Youth recorded on a custom Neve 5106 mixing console to a Studer A800 2-inch with 16-track heads, busing snare and bass drum to tape for compression and warmth. Their Pro Tools HD system with 192 I/O was locked to the Studer via SMPTE. No plug-ins were allowed. The band still splices tape when comping takes, and guitar solos were cut live during basic tracking. Meanwhile, Gordon’s vocals were recorded at J Mascis’ Bisquiteen studio in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Agnello mixed at Hoboken’s Water Music Recorders with a Neve 8108 console, Pro Tools HD system, Ampex ATR-102 1/2-inch setup.
“We sort of know what not to do,” Moore jokes. “We like to be modest and not spend that much money. We’re great enthusiasts of records that are produced for next to nothing—like basement recordings that have as much value to us as anything that millions of dollars were spent on. So we’re conscious of not spending a lot on recording.”
ECHO CANYON WEST
The Eternal is the first Sonic Youth album to be recorded at Echo Canyon West. (Agnello recorded 2006’s Rather Ripped at the band’s Murray Street studio in Manhattan.) Located in a funky industrial-era building, Echo Canyon West’s control room is parallel to a 18x30-foot live room. Two ’60s/’70s era Altec Lansing 1202 PA cabinets hang from a wall, and a clutch of amps—including Mark Ibold’s Ampeg SVT and B-15 Portaflex, and Thurston Moore’s Fender Super Reverb (“It’s modified in ways that we don’t understand, except that it has two 12-inch speakers instead of four tens,” Mullan says)—join grand piano, marimba, vibraphones, and a 1960s Gretsch drum kit. While Sonic Youth eschews plug-ins, there’s plenty of hardware to choose from at Echo Canyon, including a Roland RE-201 Space Echo, B&W 805s, Urei 1176LN and LA-4 Compressor/Limiters, and a Neve 33609 Stereo Compressor.
For tracking, the band took a fairly conservative approach.
“The basics were all cut to analog,” Mullan explains. “The Neve console has no mic preamps in it, so most of the tracks went from mic to preamp to outboard to tape. The Neve was not in the signal path for the majority of tracks on their way to tape. A few things were summed to buses on the Neve, so they went from mic to preamp to outboard to Neve channel in to Neve output bus to tape. Pro Tools was locked via SMPTE, and used for overdubs. At mix time, the Studer was the master and Pro Tools was SMPTElocked. So most tracks stayed analog right up to mastering.”
“Generally, I don’t like hearing effects on records,” Moore says. “I like hearing the band and the music. Processing is okay with electronic music where it’s about the processing. But for bands like us, I want to hear the ideas and the songs. I don’t want it to be complemented by too much pedal lust.”
Given Sonic Youth’s years of studio experience, Agnello didn’t reinvent the wheel for The Eternal.
“Sonic Youth doesn’t need me to help them with arrangements or writing,” Agnello says. “It’s more about making the environment creative so they can be focused. For example, the band wanted to sit together in the live room, but they didn’t want the amps bleeding. So we put the amps out on the loading dock— and divided by baffles—so they were well isolated. Then, the band could hear themselves really well in their headphone mix, and play together for a live feel. The amp separation helped us record the drums in the live room with more room sound, as well. Often, it’s that first playback the band hears that is the most important part of a tracking session. If they come in the control room, and it sounds really good, everybody returns to the live room to track with a ‘let’s rock’ fervor.”
BRIT-POP TO MEMORY MAN VOCALS
Agnello used a combination of Neumann U 48, Neumann KMS 104, and Shure SM7 mics with Daking and API preamps for Thurston, Lee, and Kim’s vocals.
“Thurston has a couple of different approaches to singing songs,” Agnello explains, “like the style on ‘Antenna,’ which is more Brit-pop, or the growl-y, Lou Reed thing in ‘Poison Arrow.’ I try to give a singer specific advice, whether that means suggesting they change the length of a phrase, adding a harmony, or changing a rhythm in a vocal line. I usually have a lyric sheet, and I will highlight troublesome words or lines. When they realize I am interacting with them, it makes it easier for them to let go and do it.”
Moore and Ranaldo sang through Neumann KMS 104 and U 48 mics routed to a Daking Mic Pre One.
“The Daking One is a monster of a mic preamp and EQ,” Agnello says. “Once you patch through it, your signal is larger- and louder-sounding. You don’t even have to add EQ. And it’s not just volume—it’s more soundscape stuff that the Daking creates. I also use it religiously when mixing and recording guitars. And I used an Empirical Labs Distressor on vocals to add a gritty quality. I might have used my LA-2A on Lee. We never even did a mic shootout, because when we first put up the U 48, it sounded really great.”
Agnello recorded Kim Gordon’s vocals at Bisquiteen, choosing mic and preamp combinations based on convenience and sound. A Shure SM7/API 512B pre was the perfect complement.
“The fairer sex can be a little more sibilant, and I found the SM7 to be an excellent choice to deal with that,” Agnello explains. “It has a nice top end—not that sharp, searing top end that can get away from you. I used the API 512Bs on Kim’s vocals, and because we were doing remote stuff at Mascis’ Bisquiteen studio, I wanted to keep her vocal chain consistent. I knew we would do a fix somewhere, and I wanted the vocal chain to be totally repeatable no matter where I was.”
When Sonic Youth entered Echo Canyon, Gordon processed her vocals in real time with an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man.
“Kim would twist the knobs as she was going,” Mullan recalls. “She would sing with or against the effect—it wasn’t added later. When you hear crazy delays on her voice, that’s it. She has been singing into a Memory Man and her Fender Twin Reverb in improvised sets for years now.”
Agnello also used an API 560B as pre-compressor for Gordon’s vocals, helping to brighten the darker characteristics of the SM7.
“The 560 is so versatile that you can pretty much do anything with it,” Agnello says. “And that’s good, because the SM7 isn’t the most topend-y mic in the world. I could give a little sweep on top and make Kim sound brighter. Since Lee and Thurston are so comfortable with their U 48s, I didn’t have to EQ anything. Generally, I don’t remove frequencies, because it sounds hollow and too sculpted. Apart from rolling off 500Hz or 250Hz on a bass drum because they can get woof-y, with other instruments I don’t roll off low end, and I don’t remove top end. I go natural.”
JAZZBLASTERS, SCREWDRIVERS, AND THEFT
Moore and Ranaldo are renowned for their alternate tunings and guitar treatments, such as inserting screwdrivers into strings, or dragging the instruments against anything within body range. But for The Eternal, pedals replaced implements. And unlike prior Sonic Youth albums where a different, specifically tuned Fender Jazzmaster (chosen for its long neck, body shape, and ample bridge space) was used for each song, Moore and Ranaldo only played two or three “Jazzblasters” through a variety of pedals this time. Both used heavily modified Fender Super Reverb amps, with Moore depending on Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Octave Fuzz, MXR Phase 90, MXR M103 Blue Box, Mu-tron Vol-Wah, ProCo Turbo RAT, and Electro- Harmonix Big Muff pedals, as he has for years. By contrast, Ranaldo’s rig is ever evolving.
“My main pedal—the Ibanez AD-80 Analog Delay—has this creamy delay sound,” Ranaldo says. “I crank its Repeat control all the way up for that whoosh-y, spaceship stuff you hear on ‘Antenna.’ I get a super feedback effect by twisting the delay knob to get it to go higher and lower. I also used an MXR Carbon Copy Analog Delay, a Moog Moogerfooger, an Electro-Harmonix #1 Echo, and a BJF Electronics Honey Bee Overdrive, which emulates the old Supro that Jimmy Page used to love. I also used a Hughes & Kettner Tube Factor—I use its two-second delay for sample-and-hold so I can lock in a loop and play over the top of it.”
“Antenna” is a perfect example of Ranaldo’s effects ID, his Jazzblaster hissing like a collapsing mushroom cloud one moment, spewing hot geyser gas the next, and clanging intermittently like some dying star.
“That’s the Ibanez AD-80 Analog Delay pedal with the repeat all the way up, just twisting the delay,” he explains. “I usually keep it on the longest setting. You hit a note, and its feedback sounds like helicopter blades spinning. The delay time starts to rise up and get more trippy—it’s using the pedal as an instrument. There might be a second delay behind that with the Honey Bee pedal overdriving it. In the lead section, I am hitting the Honey Bee, and letting the repeat control do that swoop-y echo sound, and then playing some lead with a more standard tone.”
Agnello used multiple mics and preamps to capture the duo’s trademark guitar interplay, with Gordon’s guitar adding a new element to the mix. (The Eternal guitar balance is Ranaldo in the left channel, Gordon in the center, and Moore in the right channel.)
“I position two mics on the same speaker,” Agnello says, “just trying to make one big bad-ass mic sound. For the Super Reverbs, I used the Neumann U 47 as my hi-fi mic. The other mic was a Shure SM57 or a Sennheiser MD 421—I used a Shure SM81 for Ranaldo—for my grit or rock mic sound. I’ll bring up the hi-fi mic to make the guitars sound nice, and then add the other mic for depth or hardness. The whole concept is to get the guitars to jump out of the speakers. I place the mics as close as I can get, dead center on the driver, because as I pull them back, I notice a reduction in size of the sound. I used my API 3124M rack for guitars because I was blending two mics at a time, and I didn’t have faders on the console to do audio blends. So I had to blend at the API.”
Most assume that Sonic Youth are indebted to their vintage Jazzmaster/ Jazzblaster collection, which amounts to dozens of guitars. But a 1999 tour changed the band’s attitude.
“We didn’t have any vintage gear when we began,” Ranaldo recalls. “I had a Fender Tele Deluxe, but we had mostly crappy guitars. Then, we had the big gear theft in ’99. All our amps— everything we had tweaked over ten years—were stolen out from under us.
That lead us to the discovery that it isn’t about the gear, it’s really about the players. We had to work with weirdo guitars and pedals we’d never used before, and it still came out sounding like us. It was more about our intention while doing it than it was the gear itself.”
DON’T FORGET BASS AND DRUMS
The newest member of Sonic Youth, bassist Ibold, plays a Fender Precision through Ampeg SVT and B15 Portaflex amps. Agnello recorded his cabinets with Shure SM7 mics through a Neve 33609 Stereo Compressor and a Neve 1073 preamp, or recorded his P Bass direct via a Music Valve Electronics DI.
“We specifically used the 33609, because I wanted that Neve warmth on the bass,” he explains. “Essentially, Mark’s sound is his fingers and his Fender Precision bass coming through the SVT or the Portaflex. It’s a very solid sound that you can never make low enough—it’s loud or punchy as you make it lower in the mix. Most of Mark’s bass parts were live takes. For a couple of songs, he decided to redo his parts, so we moved him into the control room and ran the bass line to the amp in the studio. For that, we used the Radial Studio Guitar Interface, which we also used to run all the guitar lines to amps.”
Shelley is a thumping drummer who retains the raw energy of a 12- year-old bashing his first kit. Though his current recorded drum sound is miles beyond the flat, tuneless pitches of say, Evol, he retains, as does the band, a raw naiveté. When it comes to recording Shelley’s drums, Agnello is casually methodical.
“I listen to the drums, place the mics where I know they sound good, and maybe move them around a little bit,” he says. “I put a Sennheiser MD 421 in the hole of the front bass drum head for attack, and a U 47 on the outer area of the front head— placed as close as I can get it—for tone. For cymbals, I love the B&K 4011 because it is very bright and directional. If you put one of those on a cymbal, you won’t get much else. And they are good for acoustic guitar and piano.
“The snare is usually miked with a SM57 and a Neumann KM 84 blended, with the same concept as the guitar—tie-wrapped together. The snare mic is usually facing the middle of the head, and instead of pointing it down, I face it across. You get more tone that way. The 57 gives me a lot of grit, and helps give the KM 84 more attitude. Toms are always 421s. They’re pretty directional, and I know what I can get out of them. I use Royer ribbons for overheads to give cymbals a little more length and the snare more decay. And I use API mic preamps— the 512B and 3124—to enhance the attack of the drums. They help the snare to have impact. They really work well on transients and hardhitting sounds. They are the rockand- roll mic preamp.”
EXPERIMENTAL JET SET
Twenty-seven years on from their Neutral Records debut, Sonic Youth, Moore, Ranaldo, Gordon, and Shelley continue to reinvent themselves by staying true to their original muse. Is it age or evolution that makes The Eternal one of their most listenable albums in recent memory? The noise is there, but so are the songs.
“When we first started making records, there wasn’t a lot of stuff like that out there,” Ranaldo asserts. “We were putting long, noisy things on records, and it was pretty unique. Come the middle 2000s, and there are lots of bands doing that. It has become a very legitimate form. Maybe there’s enough of it out there now that we want to concentrate on song forms. We’re in a period where the songwriting is the most fun thing to work on.”
“We’re old-fashioned, all right,” Moore adds. “We’re an oldfashioned experimental band! That’s the fun thing about this band. We’re extremely outside the tenets of traditionalism, but, at the same time, we have a traditional setup. We have always been somewhat of a conservative band, too. We’ve never been a wild band on the road. We’re the straight normal people who make weird music! It’s all the weird people who make all the straight music.”
A LITTLE SOMETHING ABOUT SMPTE
Recording mostly to tape for The Eternal, engineer Aaron Mullan slaved Pro Tools to a Studer tape machine for overdubs, locking in via SMPTE timecode. In case you’re a little fuzzy on the terminology, SMPTE timecode originated with NASA for telemetry applications, and was later adapted by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers to enable engineers to reference specific times in audio—or film or video, as the case may be—to help with editing, synchronization, and auto-location.
There are three main types of SMPTE timecode. VITC (Vertical Internal Time Code) is favored for video work, while audio applications generally use LTC (Longitudinal Time20Code) because unlike VITC, it's a standard audio signal that’s easily read at high speeds (e.g., fast forward and rewind). The time-stamped LTC signal is traditionally recorded to an “outside” tape track, like track 24 of a 24-track, to minimize crosstalk/bleedthrough to other tracks.
A third SMPTE type, MTC (MIDI Time Code), allows SMPTE timing information to be carried over MIDI with 1/4 frame accuracy. This is the preferred type of Time Code for synchronizing most modern DAWs.