Retro In Malmo

Producer/engineer Tore Johansson tears it up with the Cardigans, A-ha, and Franz Ferdinand
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By Dan Daley
Sweden sometimes seems like the Cleveland of rock 'n roll. Despite a hefty contribution to the art form, from ABBA in the '70s to tracks for the Back Street Boys in the '90s, as well as Malmo, Sweden's alt-music equivalent of Seattle, the Scandanavian country tends to get tagged more for Volvos than for volume.

Tore Johansson is one of the people who make sure that this Scandanavian country gets its due. Producing and engineering records for the Cardigans, A-ha, Tom Jones, and most recently guitar-band sensation Franz Ferdinand, Johansson seems to have the same magic touch that a few Swedes have shown over the years. But Sweden is by definition an alternate spot on the world, and Johansson's discography includes some tastier bits of critics' choices, including Suede, Melanie C, Atlas, Sinead Quinn, and Celena Cherry, formerly of the Honeyz. He's currently producing the first effort for the new UK act Spitfire.

EQ caught up with Johansson after a recent stint in Real World Studios in the UK enroute back to his home in Malmo.


A question about his early years in the business prompts Johansson to think back to his days as a musician, a skill he never gave up and still brings to sessions he engineers and produces. "The moment that changed me was actually me buying an electric guitar just because I wanted to dismantle it to see how it worked," he recalls. "My hero back then was Jimi Hendrix, and I went into the local shop and asked for the same guitar Jimi had, and the bastard sold me some crap Strat look-alike with two pickups."

"I decided that I had the guitar so I might as well try to learn a couple of Jimi songs. But I didn't even understand how he played 'Wild Thing,' so I started to write my own songs instead. And that's the way it's been since - going my own way and refusing to learn how something's properly done. At that time I had a Bang &Olafson 2-track tape machine with ping-pong tracking, and I did my first recordings on that, overdriving the input with my guitar, trying to sound like Jimi."

The transition from musician to producer was similarly autodidactic, and Johansson used the various bands he played with as his first recording subjects. "When I was playing in bands in the early '80s and recording in low- and mid-budget studios, I soon realized that I got better results - in my opinion, anyway - by recording the bands myself in the rehearsal studios," he recalls. "I have a brother-in-law who built a mixer for me and if there weren't enough microphones I used small speakers as mics. We had a TEAC 4-track 1/4" deck and did weird ping-pong recordings with that. There was a huge staircase that we used as reverb. I really learned by using the materials at hand."

Johansson is an analog groupie, and says that the format's gritiness is critical to his records. "Analog definitely sounds better, and for me that means distortion," he explains. "Someone said that you can make any sound better with some sort of distortion and I agree with that. The combination of that, the editing, and the total recall ability of digital is perfect for me. If I don't have the time or budget to go to tape I feel it's important to use mic pres and compressors to achieve that warmth that tape provides, and use plug-ins like Amp Farm to overdrive the sound digitally. I prefer '70s discrete stuff over just tube gear.

Sometimes it's nice to use tube mics but I prefer the edge I feel I can get especially from vintage Neve mic pres. A common procedure for me is to record the basic tracks on a 16-track 2" machine and then transfer to Pro Tools and do overdubs there. The 16-track is superior to 24-track when it comes to tape compression on drums. It has a wider range of distortion levels, while a 24-track hits the roof and then flattens out more suddenly."

Johansson founded Tambourine Studios in the early 1990s. Like his engineering, it went from hobby to passion quickly. "We didn't really know much about equipment but were lucky to happen to buy those Neve consoles and compressors from the mid-1970s that everybody now uses for tracking," he says. "We wanted to use the studio for our own music and actually had a cover band playing '70s disco instead of renting the studio out, but after the success with the Cardigans it was hard to say no to all the work that was suddenly coming in. I thought I could take a break from my own music for a while and then get back. Well, that's ten years ago and I'm still waiting for a break." [Tambourine is still in business, though Johansson sold his share of the studio.]

Johansson discovered the Cardigans in 1994 and brought them back to Tambourine, where he recorded their seminal early recordings Life and First Band on the Moon. "We managed to develop a new sound for the albums thanks to the fact that the band came to the studio with their songs written but in a very unrehearsed and raw state. We were able to start out very fresh. When we did First Band on the Moon we really tried hard to make it big and fat sounding, but it turned out to be almost easy listening - that dry retro sound that I've become known for by some people. Sometimes you want to make it heavier and fatter but it's just not in the music."

Cardigans vocalist Nina Persson has a remarkable voice, and the band's vocals in general are shimmering. Johansson credits Persson with much of the group's vocal sound. "She is a great singer and created most of her sound herself. She has that 'x-factor' in her voice that just records really well. The first four albums were recorded singing close to a Sennheiser 421 with the high pass filter on full S - lots of bass cut - into a '70s BBC Neve EQ also with a 270Hz bass cut, then into a BBC '70s Neve compressor set to a 5:1 ratio. I like to cut bass before compressing. It makes the compressor work harder on the high notes and also gives you automatic de-essing. I replace some of that bass when mixing, adding in a little around 200 Hz."

The Cardigans led to some interesting new projects, but none more so than an encounter with the legendary Tom Jones. "Tom wanted to do a duet with Nina and I came up with the idea of doing 'Burning Down the House,'" says Johansson. "It's one of my favorite tracks of all time. The Cardigans could only spend half-a-day in the studio at that time, which actually gave me a chance to fool around with horn sections and other overdubs that the Cardigans normally don't use. Tom is the loudest singer I've ever recorded. He was very professional and did the song in two takes."

Johansson is old-school when it comes to tracking. "It's so much better if you can do it in the old-fashioned way, having everybody playing at the same time," he says. "But practical things like the need for isolation and the cost of having session musicians hanging around while decisions get made means that you end up overdubbing a lot anyway. Sometimes when I do a remix I sit with my own setup and play and program everything myself. Sometimes that's fine, but it's better if you have someone else to bounce ideas off of."

Franz Ferdinand came out of the gate with a lot of critical hype and strong sales. Johansson applied classic recording techniques to this guitar-based combo. "I'm always looking for big recording rooms," he says. "Not so much to get a big sound but more to get away from the 'boomy' sound of small rooms. I think my perfect room is big but dead. I'd rather create space with compression and distortion. Live sounds are good but I'd rather hear the actual drums than the room sound, if you know what I mean. I often want to compress or distort to get the instrument sound to flatten out and be less dynamic. I like heavily compressed drums but when the room is lively you get the room sound as a side effect that I don't always want. It's hard to find rooms that just amplify the instrument sound without adding a room identity. Actually, I'm not that interested in spaces because I think each instrument is a space in itself. Even in a dead room a piano has spatial qualities and ambience of its own."

Johansson is increasingly using his portable studio set up, an interesting mix of old and new that he brings to the project, as long as it's relatively local. "It's a Pro Tools Mix+ system with an Apple G4 and an Apogee Rosetta," he explains. "I have two Neve mic pres and one Neve compressor. With my Sennheiser 421 and a Neumann M147 microphone, I can do all the overdubs I need to. I only move it around to studios in Scandinavia, so I don't fly with it. I did that in the beginning but found that it's too messy."

Johansson has definite opinions about commercial studios. "I like studios that don't look like studios," he says. "Natural light, fresh air, and a good vibe are much more important than the equipment to me. And I find it terrible when you arrive at a studio and there are no instruments there. Studios are for music and I think it's part of the studio's job to inspire creativity by having interesting instruments laying around. I also find it's awkward when the house engineer is not really musical.

"Overall, I think it's important to remember that we're actually trying to capture music, not simply sounds. I understand that studios must be versatile to be able to get as many bookings as they can, but in the end it will make a much bigger impact on the recording if you came up with the idea of doing a cool vibraphone intro on the song than if they had a U 67 for the acoustic guitar.

"I'm not really a fan of large, complex consoles; I believe in simple setups with good mic pres and Pro Tools as a monitor mixer. I also don't believe in letting musicians make their own mix in their headphones. The best you can have in your cans is a good mix of the whole band. Give everybody in the band the same well balanced mix in the cans and it will groove. If someone has a problem playing with that, he has a general problem with playing, and it won't help to have the hi-hat louder."

"What's good for the song is good for the mix. Too often we go for impressive soundscapes instead of musicality. And it's really sad about the pressure to make super-loud mixes these days. It's stressful and can cause you to compromise the mix. Listen to the fantastic mix of 'All Along the Watchtower' by Jimi Hendrix where the acoustic guitar is ridiculously loud, with tons of reverb, and the drums are tiny! It's magic. It would be terrible if the drums and bass were up front on that song."

That simplicity of approach doesn't necessarily extend to Johansson's use of dynamics. "I use compression a lot," he says. "Not necessarily as an effect but actually to make sounds more natural. A recorded drum kit will never sound as impressive and loud as if you are standing in front of the real thing. The room and your ears and your brain create their own compression and distortion. When mixing in Pro Tools, I tend to replace compressors with de-essors quite often. It gives a smooth compression effect with less pumping."

Scandanavia isn't as remote from the mainstream music industry as it once seemed to be. But while digital has made the world smaller and made the process of music making and its business more consistent globally, it's also making its issues more pervasive. Johansson comments: "I think it's great what's happening with the music industry. Sure, I make less money and recording budgets are smaller, but I think that Internet distribution and downloading will be good for the indie music business as well as live music. All technology will be good for music in the long run."