“We didn't deal with success very well,” Sam Hardaker says, reflecting on the global attention he and Zero 7 co-leader Henry Binns received upon release of their debut album, Simple Things (Palm Pictures, 2001). “We just bumbled things together for Simple Things, and it fortuitously turned into a really good record. We are getting more into the swing of it now.”
Zero 7 exemplifies the best of the analog-meets-digital equation. When musicians realize that digital is not the last word in performance or reproduction, their studio sessions really start to get interesting. There is positive delight in mixing to tape, introducing a primeval tube-mic pre to vocals or even firing up an old Mellotron or Moog to add a bit of crackly decay to an otherwise pristine digital production. The Garden benefits from those methods, and more.
“Fears and hang-ups that we took into the second album [After It Falls (Elektra, 2004)] weren't present this time,” Binns says as the duo relaxes in a pretentious Manhattan meat-market hotel. “We wanted to experiment more, and we are pleased that there is more light on The Garden [Atlantic, 2006]. We had the best time making this record of any of the three.”
A decidedly laidback pair, Binns and Hardaker barely move during the interview. Binns rises occasionally to adjust the music flowing out of his iPod docking station, while Hardaker absentmindedly flips through Charles Shaar Murray's Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Post-War Rock'n'Roll Revolution. Wilco, Arctic Monkeys, Radiohead, Albert King, Augustus Pablo, the Average White Band, Bill Evans, Bob Dylan and Boards of Canada play while these mellow men recall The Garden's process.
Zero 7 has pursued the analog genie in two albums of often blissed-out beats and soft, soulful vocals. The chill-out kings' third album, The Garden, features a live band, nine-piece brass section and vocalists Sia Furler and José González, as well the duo's secret weapon, a GEM Model F30 organ.
“We found this Italian GEM organ in a second-hand shop and used its drum machine for much of the record,” Hardaker says. “In England, a guy would sit in a pub and select a rhythm — bossa nova, swing, rock — and play the bass notes with his feet. I had never heard of it before.”
“It's from the late '70s,” Binns continues. “It has two tiers like a Hammond B3 and pedals to play chords with your feet. There are speaker cabinets on the back, with two 10-inch drivers. We used its bossa setting for some beats and also the swing preset for the single B-side, ‘Dreaming.’ There is no line out, so we just miked it up, and you hear the beat coming through its speaker cab. It gives the music this slightly deranged sound, which I really like. It's got a lot of soul, despite it being quite cheesy.”
A 1970s Audiotronix mixing console (refurbished by Ocean Way Studios) and vinyl mastering add further analog sincerity to The Garden, which finds Zero 7 altering its trademark frothy chill and swinging-beats message. The album proves that the duo's recent escape to the country has freed the songwriting process. There is greater bounce, texture and earthiness, from the Brit folk/prog opener “Futures” and the frenetic instrumental “Seeing Things” to the Bach-inspired piano of “The Pageant of the Bizarre,” the Nick Drake — worthy “Left Behind” and the album's emotional centerpiece, the GEM-infused “Today.”
OUR HOUSE, IN THE MIDDLE OF THE…
Though additional sessions occurred at RAK and Nigel Godrich's The Hospital studios in London, the genesis of The Garden was cut at Henry Binns' recently purchased home in Glastonbury.
“My house is called the Roundhouse,” Binns says. “It is a round, oak-frame house that resembles Shakespeare's Globe Theatre; it's the same Tudor design with exposed beams and a wood frame. We recorded the drums in my daughter's bedroom. The main studio is close to the house and is a similar style of building. Wood always sounds good. The studio is all pine with exposed beams and a wood floor. And loads of rugs. You can definitely hear the room.”
Unlike the Mercury Prize — nominated Simple Things and its follow-up After It Falls, which were both recorded amid the hubbub of London in small and large facilities with friends in attendance, The Garden was practically a private affair. Binns and Hardaker jammed on ideas for the genesis of the songs, invited musicians and vocalists to the Roundhouse to realize and record music, then returned to London with hard drive in hand for overdubs and mixing (with famed mixer Phil Brown on a Neve VR60 console).
“For a lot of these tracks,” Hardaker says, “there will be a burst of activity that usually takes place in one night, and a large chunk gets done. The actual song can be worked on over months and then put aside, then put back. Perhaps we don't know who is singing, or we haven't got a part, whatever. But a lot of it happens in bursts, which is not very organized, but it works.”
Where After It Falls was more of one accord, with songs expressing a similar feel and lush aesthetic, The Garden shows greater stylistic and sonic diversity, barmier beats and most importantly, better songs. Voices are often cut up and looped (“Futures”), intimate group tracks merge mid-song with large-scale brass (“Your Place”), or vocal-choir sections and varied keyboard tones run throughout the mix (“This Fine Social Scene”).
“The Garden is a reaction to the sounds on After It Falls,” Binns says. “After enjoying that experience and really running wild, this time we wanted to approach the music differently. We started with just the two of us messing around with no one else in the room rather than aiming for a single drum sound or a bass sound.”
In terms of the signal chain, vocals ran almost flat through one of two Urei 1176s or a dbx 160 into an API Lunchbox. Synths also ran through the dbx and bass guitar through the Ureis. But Binns and Hardaker are generally casual about how they treat sounds; the album sounds polished, but on the contrary, they admit to being occasionally hasty with their methods.
“We are pretty disrespectful to the process,” Hardaker says. “The same EQ will stay on different instruments and we won't even notice. Obviously, if it sounds shit, we will change it, but as we all know, there are no real rules. We don't think about it too much.”
“Futures,” with José González on vocals, opens the album in a mellow tone, with acoustic guitar and a yawning Jupiter-8 establishing a plush stillness within a droopy groove. After a verse, a humming vocal loop that recalls a Gregorian chant appears, like the sound of humming bees on a lazy Saturday afternoon. The vocal loop abruptly turns into what sounds like a Jew's harp riffing over banging trashcan lids.
“Sam messed about with the vocal,” Binns explains. “That is his voice made into a loop. We did it very quickly on the laptop and left all the clicks and noise in there. It is not done to a grid. We started building the track, tapping and banging stuff — glasses and tin cans, a half-full bottle of Servisol [Super 10 Switch Cleaning Lubricant] — and tapping on dustbin lids with the Jupiter-8 winding through all of it. It was half an hour of just hitting a bunch of shit. Then suddenly it turned into this monster.”
The GEM F30 figured prominently in “Today,” from inception to finish. “I came in, and Henry was lying on the floor playing the bass notes, the foot pedals, with his hands,” Hardaker recalls. “He thought he had a vision; he wanted to hear that really subby bass sound that came out of the organ speakers with its bossa beat. We made a loop out of it; a friend was in the room humming along, and you can hear him in the loop. The mic is six feet away from the cabinet. Most of that track is the GEM organ.”
A soothing vocal loop breaks through González's lead, wrapping around the song until trumpet, cymbal and guitar guide a breakdown of simple Wurlitzer chords and kinky-sounding treble bubbles.
“It is all the GEM again,” Hardaker says, “one of its funny presets. That buzzing sound is a big panoramic thing to take you to the end of the track — it's just us pushing faders 15 and 16 up until you hear all that noise — and me messing around with the Kaoss Pad delay until it distorts.”
“Your Place” is the album's most ambitious track, recorded initially in Glastonbury and then transferred to London. After a harp glissando, Binns' vocal enters, augmented by Wurtlizer, electric guitar, oceanic bass, a slapping beat and Binns' four children, whose voices were picked up by the mic recording the GEM's speaker cabs. A brass section (four trumpets, three saxophones and two trombones) blasts into the mix, the drums become more assertive and the temperature rises, sounding like a swinging Bob Mintzer big-band chart by the time the track resolves.
“We had the sample drums,” Hardaker recalls, “which we took to London and which were replaced by Tom Skinner. Henry wrote the horn parts, which went on top of that. One day for drums, the next for horns. We also replaced the bass. It wasn't hard; we booked the session at RAK, got the tracks up and the guys to play them and then we removed the original tracks from the Roundhouse. The musicians had to listen to the feel and adopt it. Drums and bass went down together. And a lot of it was done to tape. It was all time-coded; we plugged in the hard drive and hit record. That's what made it feasible, the ability to take the hard drive to London.”
The Garden is a brighter-sounding record, even with its analog toys and tricks. Zero 7 used the Audiotronix 24-channel board as a proper mixer into Pro Tools at Roundhouse before driving to London. But an unusual analog aspect of The Garden was Binns' insistence that they master to vinyl.
“It gave us that slightly degraded sound, which I like,” he says. “It made the CD sound more exciting and sticky, like a really cool version of a compressor. There are probably better ways to do it, but I liked the cheap table we used even better than the more expensive Linn Sondek LP12 turntable. That goes some way to explain the bass end, because vinyl mastering brings up the bottom a bit. It is almost like putting in another piece of analog gear. In many ways, it does narrow the bandwidth slightly, but I like that.”
Binns confesses to a bit of paranoia in the mastering process, initially getting a sound that was too muddy and murky. He ended up rolling off a smidgen of lower frequencies before mixer Phil Brown took over. The scales then tilted slightly in favor of the high end.
“We took our ½-inch masters and plugged the ½-inch machine through a bit of level control and added a bit of top, but it is virtually flat,” Hardaker explains. “Then we cut the lacquer on a Neumann vinyl lathe [at Loud Mastering, Taunton, UK] and played the lacquer on a nice Linn turntable plugged straight into the computer at Miloco Studios. We played it in and then sequenced the record. So it was ½-inch, vinyl, computer, CD. That was the chain, using Sonic Solutions to master.”
PLOTTING THE CAREER LANDSCAPE
“Moving to the country made us feel a lot freer,” Binns admits. “After It Falls didn't do as well as Simple Things, so no one was looking at us anymore. If things weren't going right, we just left it and came back later. That was an important lesson; in the past we would have obsessed. You can't beat yourself up, or it just gets worse and worse.”
Massive success has doomed lesser artists, but Zero 7 has survived and found its true groove. The Garden is easily the guys' best album, and they are excited about the future. But a sense of insecurity remains.
“We've created our most accomplished work,” Binns says, “but whether that translates to people, I don't know. It is often the case that an artist feels he has done his best album, and nobody gets it. You can never feel confident. It is a funny thing, creativity; the next moment, you can look around, and it is not there, and you wonder, ‘Why?’ It is just the way the wind is blowing, probably.”
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware
Apple Mac G4
Digidesign Pro Tools|24 Mixplus system with Universal Slave Driver
Audiotronix 24-channel console
Synths, software, drum machine, drums
Ableton Live software
GEM Model F30 organ (bossa nova, rumba, swing percussion presets)
Ludwig '70s-era drum kit
Moog Prodigy synth
Roland Jupiter-8, Juno-106 synths
Wurlitzer electric piano
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
AKG C 414, C 12 mics
API Lunchbox with 500-series EQs and mic preamps
dbx 160 compressor/limiter
Korg Kaoss Pad
Neumann U 47 mic
Shure SM57, SM58 mics
Urei 1176 (2) compressor
Acoustic Energy AE1s
Phil Brown has mixed the records of Robert Palmer, Roxy Music, Talk Talk and John Martyn, to name a few; his skill at capturing analog sounds is legendary. Speaking from Biynduraan Studios in northern Wales, Brown explained his mixdown methods on The Garden.
“This music was quite quirky,” Brown says. “I wanted to capture the texture and the quirkiness of what Zero 7 put down. It was a matter of setting up the tracks in that mood first and then putting the vocals into their space on top of those tracks. Reverbs were Lexicon 480 with the top end rolled off, but most vocals ran through an EMT echo plate. The album was mixed at Miloco Studios in London on a Neve VR60 Flying Faders console and put to an Ampex ATR102 ½-inch, mastering from tape to vinyl and vinyl to CD.
“We pushed the stereo to the extreme,” he continues, “like '60s and '70s records. A lot of stereo today is really wide mono 'cause everyone is mixing fake stereo for radio. We put things much harder left and right, drums and bass in the middle. That left a lot of space for instruments and vocals. From the first mix, we liked the effect. Also, we put drums and bass to tape first on a Studer A800, then into Pro Tools, then mixed to ½-inch. So it has been to tape a couple of times.”