Umphrey's McGee | Band on a Mission

HOW UMPHREY'S MCGEE RECORDED MANTIS, THEIR TIGHTLY ARRANGED PROG-ROCK OPUS
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From left: Brendan Bayliss, Ryan Stasik, Joel Cummins, Andy Farag, Jake Cinninger and Kris Myers

Photo: Rich Markese

The multicolored lights swirl on the stage at the Nokia Theater in Manhattan as prog-rock jammers Umphrey's McGee glide through riff after riff, solo after solo, song after song — seemingly without effort. Fluid guitar and keyboard phrases roll off their fingers; drum and percussion fills punctuate; lyrics and harmonies layer on top: The 6-piece ensemble is in its element — playing live and improvising heavily.

But flash-back to Chicago a few months earlier, and you would have found the guys hard at work at I.V. Lab Studios, which is owned by a friend of the band, Manny Sanchez. There, they were carefully crafting their latest CD, Mantis (SCI Fidelity, 2009), a tightly structured, prog-rock-meets-pop album for which the precise arrangements were, in some ways, the antithesis of the band's heavily improvised live show (see Web Clip 1).

Mantis is also a tour de force of the band's musicianship and songwriting, and, considering the source, has relatively few solos. Musically, it runs the gamut from melodic vocal passages (Beatles-influenced at times) to thrashing industrial riffs to tightly crafted compositions with multiple sections, clever segues, terse yet intense lead breaks and impeccable sound. After previous studio recordings that were sometimes, by necessity, hurried through, the band decided to really take their time with this one. In fact, the production of the CD took almost two years, albeit interrupted by many tour dates.

Master Plan

“We really wanted to walk in and know that we had time in the studio to create and that it wasn't like a rushed thing,” says lead guitarist Jake Cinninger. “And it wasn't songs that were played live previously. It was like, ‘Let's make up this whole entity of songs that sound like they should be on one disc together and almost kind of tell a story and feel kind of like one of those great prog-rock albums that we love.'”

“We didn't want there to be any filler,” adds Kevin Browning, the band's studio and live engineer, as well as the producer, along with the band, for Mantis. (Manny Sanchez is the co-producer.) Browning has been an integral part of the band since their founding at Notre Dame University in 1997. “We wanted it to be very well-thought-out from start to finish,” Browning says, “so we were very meticulous with the writing process and the editing.”

Cinninger adds that the idea for Mantis was for the band to take the next step as recording musicians — to leverage their experience. “We have more studio prowess than we had before, and studio confidence as a whole. All the way down to producing our vocals and getting more of a vocal performance rather than just, ‘Let's go in and lay the vocals down for the song.' No, let's see if we can go past the bar a bit and get an actual performance, using more of a producer-type mentality to get better results. It's more about being older and researching more and understanding the tools of the studio. When you twist that knob, what is it doing? You know and apply.”

Of course, having to sandwich their production schedule around 115 to 120 live shows a year was part of what made the recording of Mantis such a drawn-out affair. Still, the amount of hours actually spent in the studio was prodigious, especially when compared to some of the band's earlier recording experiences. “For our first real studio thing, we were in a barn for two weeks and slept there in sleeping bags under the console,” recalls keyboardist Joel Cummins. “We had two weeks to get the whole thing recorded, and then it was like, ‘Okay, now we mix it.' To be able to take that process out over the course of a couple of years, and say, ‘I really like the tone of how the kick drum sounds in this room, so why don't we go record some drum tracks over here?' ‘What kind of piano sound do you want for this?' A bunch of different options. So being able to really cater to exactly the vibe of a song or a section of music really helps develop those ideas.”

Adds Cinninger, “That's what we had time to do on Mantis — to really make sure every second counted and that there was no stone left unturned.”

Write on Target

Writing the songs for the CD was a fairly involved process. It was also unconventional in that the music was written and the tracks recorded for many of the songs before lead vocalist/guitarist Brendan Bayliss wrote any lyrics, much less put down his vocals. But the main impression I got from talking to a number of the bandmembers — including Cinninger, Cummins, Browning, percussionist Andy Farag and drummer Kris Myers — was that this project was one in which time was not a factor. The band was committed to taking as long as they needed to realize their artistic vision.

“It kind of starts with that brainstorming book idea,” says Cinninger of their songwriting process on Mantis, “and you've got rough draft 1, rough draft 2 and rough draft 3. And you know, over a year or two years of making just the musical bed — even before the lyrics are done — we went through like five or six different phases. It's kind of like taking away or trimming the fat to get at the core idea of the song. What's really popping out of this 10-minute segment. Let's whittle it down to what really counts. And that's what we had time to do on Mantis.”

The band also felt that, given the lack of deadlines, it was incumbent upon them to produce a really memorable result. “We felt like we had something that was going to be really important for our catalog, for our own history, for our own songwriting together,” Cummins says of the title track, which features a complex song construction and close to 100 tracks of audio. “We didn't want to make that mistake, where it was like, ‘Ah, I wish we would have done that.'”

Getting Ready

Preproduction for the album took months, and much of it consisted of the guys fleshing out ideas in their own home studio setups. “Mine is really basic and kind of funny at this point,” says Cummins. “I still have a Tascam 4-track [PortaStudio]. I've got an upright piano that I put most of my ideas down with at home. I put that through a little tube preamp, and it actually sounds pretty good.”

Cinninger, meanwhile, has a very different home rig. “I harvested the old P.A. console that Umphrey's used to tour with from way back in the day,” he says, “because I like to do a lot of live mixing. I'm not into the digital world of recording as much. Amid all the outboard effects and preamps, I've got the new Alesis HD24 [hard disk recorder]. I run everything through this old Mackie VLS board, which I just leave on for years and years, and it seems to sound better the longer it's left on. I've also got a full studio rig and a bunch of vintage amps.”

Playing With Legos

Eventually, the bandmembers brought in their ideas to I.V. Lab Studios and embarked on three solid weeks of arranging and composing to get the songs for the album into shape to record.

“We had discs of ideas, we had discs of previous improvs that we listened to, trying to piece together some things,” Farag recalls. “We had a dry-erase board, just trying to figure out the structure of everything, and we went in and tried to piece it all together.”

“We call them legos,” Browning says, referring to the discs of material. “Jake would bring a disc of 25 tracks. Some of them were just A sections, some of them were As and Bs. You might have two great sections that he butted up together: Maybe the B section of this worked better with a chorus that somebody else has. So everybody sort of brings different melodies, different ideas; this could be a verse, this could be a chorus. It's really building blocks. You put one next to the other and try. If it works, you work on further developing that idea. If it doesn't, you try something else and just keep repeating.”

At the end of three weeks, they had arrangements together and rough demos recorded, and it was time to start tracking for keeps.

Analog and Digital

They began recording in earnest at I.V. Lab, cutting basics on the studio's Ampex MM1200 2-inch/16-track machine. Their first priority was to get complete drum takes of all the material (recorded to a click), and if they got good tracks of the other instruments, great, but those could always be overdubbed later. “Everyone was playing live to every song in both studios while we were tracking drums,” says Browning.

After a couple of weeks of tracking at I.V. Lab, their quest for drum sound options took them to Steve Albini's legendary studio, Electrical Audio, also in Chicago (see the EM story on Albini's studio in the October 2008 issue, available at emusician.com). There, they recorded (also to 2-inch, 16-track) several additional versions of each song in different rooms in Albini's complex, taking advantage of the wide range of acoustical spaces available to get more variety in the drum sounds.

“Certain rooms have specific wood inlays,” says drummer Myers, “and specific floors; there's adobe brick in another room. And a room that's super-tight for more of that older, classic-rock drum sound. Then you have a plated concrete stairwell room that's ridiculous. And you can get overdubs and crazy edited drums in there.”

“For the most part, we started with bass and drums, and we just kept the drum tracks to start,” says percussionist Farag.

“It was very meticulously done from take to take with the drum set parts,” Myers says. “I had to use literally 10 to 12 different snare drums. I did over 10 to 15 different takes per song — swapping out cymbals.”

After they were satisfied with the drum tracks, they eventually recut most of the other instruments. Still, they considered those early tracking sessions to be a success. “The live feel was key for capturing the energy of the drum kit,” explains Browning. The band also recorded a couple of entirely live songs while at Albini's studio. One of the two, “Made to Measure,” ended up on the CD.

Time to Transfer

As the band went along in the tracking process, they began transferring the analog tracks into Pro Tools. They got the sonic flavor they wanted from the 2-inch machine, but they were definitely going to need the track counts and editing capabilities of digital for the next phase of the project.

Because they recorded so many versions of each song and always used a click, they were able to mix and match tracks to put together what were essentially giant comps that comprised the final versions of the material. “That left us with options and the ability to edit or cut and paste quickly if we liked one section from one take and one section from another,” Browning says.

For the most part, they listened to the various drum takes and chose which sound fit a particular song. However, there were some occasions, like in the title cut and in the song “Spires,” where, if you listen closely, the drum sounds actually change during the song. They also often layered the drum tracks, manually adding samples that they made during the drum-tracking sessions on top of the originals in Pro Tools.

On several songs, electronic samples were also added, some from Native Instruments' Battery, which Myers triggered from a Roland SPD-S drum pad. “On ‘1348,' in more of those industrial sections,” says Browning, “there are sections that have eight different snare drums combined into one. One of them has five acoustic snares and three electronic snares, all layered into one gigantic snare drum sound.”

Stringing It Out

Of all the songs on the CD, “Mantis” was the most involved to produce. Nearly 12 minutes long (“It was about two or three minutes longer at one point,” Cummins says), the song is a prog-rock excursion that comprised countless different musical sections, several guitar solos and 40 tracks of strings. “It's our little masterpiece,” says Cinninger. “It's kind of what we feel is our crème de la crème of what we're doing right now.”

Although there were enough string parts on “Mantis” to have been played by a small orchestra, the band opted to have one string player, Nathan Swanson, layer all the parts individually. When it came time to mix, making them sound like an organic section fell to Browning and Sanchez. “We experimented a lot with imaging and stereo placement,” Browning says. “[Swanson] was really good because by actually doubling, tripling and quadrupling everything, there's a humanizing element. We weren't manually delaying them 10 to 20 ms to get them to sound [distinct]. We had a natural chorus effect just by him doing it. So we didn't tend to overly add effects to it. We tried variations of spreading things out to see — some of those tracks are so dense — what really works.”

In a typical album project, the mixing phase begins after the tracking ends, but on Mantis it wasn't quite so linear. “There was never really a set date that we stopped tracking and started mixing,” Browning says. “If we were mixing and heard something that wasn't there, we'd pick up the phone, call a guy, and say, ‘Get in here, we've got an idea.'”

But those incidental overdubs aside, the last group of tracks to be recorded were the vocals. Interestingly, because the lyrics were written so late in the process, Bayliss was making changes even at the final vocal sessions.

There was tons of work to do beyond tracking before the mixing could be completed. The biggest hurdle was the editing. With all of those different instrument takes from the tracking session, there was a lot of culling, copying and pasting to do. “I had to spend maybe just as much or maybe more time [than spent tracking] editing the tracks at home and deciding which fill in which section fit the best, or what groove and what pattern,” Myers recalls.

Mixing and Matching

With so many tracks and so much going on, mixing was a big task. “The greatest challenge was simultaneously trying to realize everybody's individual vision, yet make it cohesive,” says Browning. “Everything having its space, everything fitting together well. Sometimes when you do layer after layer after layer, it starts to muddle it; you can overdo it easily. Doing all those channels of strings on ‘Mantis,' it was like, ‘Okay, how do we make sure everybody's got their hole?'”

When the editing and mixing was finally finished, the band shipped the mixes to Bob Ludwig for mastering. Having Ludwig master it was “really a dream come true for me being an audiophile,” says Cinninger. “And to actually pop on our vinyl version and listen to it and hear those characteristics of some of the great mastering jobs that he's put out, it was really cool to hear on our material.”

A Lot of Hot Air

So now that the enormously complex and time-consuming Mantis project has been completed, what kind of album is next for Umphrey's McGee? “We talked about each individually having our own hot-air balloon,” Cummins says, tongue firmly in cheek. “Everybody's wireless, like my guitar rig is in the basket,” pipes in Cinninger. “I know we're not in the age of major-label advances,” Cummins deadpans, “but that's a big one. We need someone to help us out with this one.”

On a slightly more serious note, Cinninger says, “I think that we want to do something that is the opposite of Mantis because we want to extend our palette for recording techniques. It's like, okay, we did this really elaborate, layered, progressive-rock thing, now it's almost, ‘Let's go to a deserted island with no songs and start writing some really simple, feel-good fun.'”

What about a home studio-recorded project? “Recording at the I.V. Labs for us was like recording in our basement,” explains Browning. “It's a very low-key relaxed place, and it's owned by a great friend. It's never been the $150-an-hour pressure. We've always insisted on avoiding that kind of environment because we don't believe that it's conducive to being creative. Somebody has an idea, and maybe it needs a few hours to grow, to fester. It deserves it. If at the end of the day you don't use it, you don't want to feel like, ‘Oh, we just blew $1,000.' That's not how the creative process should work from our perspective.”

(Eds. note: Check out video interviews with Umphreys' McGee atemusician.com/videos.)

Mike Levine is EM's executive editor and senior media producer.

Tracking Mantis

Umphrey's McGee producer/engineer Kevin Browning talks about the recording techniques and gear used onMantis.

Did you have a standard drum miking setup that you used in the various rooms or did it vary room to room?

Kevin Browning is the band''s live and studio engineer, and co-produced Mantis.

Photo: Rich Markese

There were no hard-and-fast rules that we did on everything, but as a general setup, we used an AKG D-112 inside the kick in the hole. And we used an old Gefell UMC-800 on the outside.

How far was it placed from the head?

It varied, but typically really close.

What did each mic give you?

A little more of the attack from the D-112 and a little more of the body from the Gefell. We had both of those going through TG Channels, which are the Chandler Limited/EMI sort of Abbey Road reissue EQs. And then we bused both of those together. We did the same thing with snare top and bottom. We bused those. Although we typically used a 57, we used an Audix i5 on some tracks. Sometimes we actually used both and bused the two together.

When you used the 57, was it usually on top of the snare?

We used 57s on top and bottom. There were instances where we put an i5 both on top, right next to each other. We used Josephsons on the rack toms, the e22s. And we used Sennheiser 421s on the floor toms. The biggest thing that we did, drum sound-wise, to leave ourselves options after the fact was the various selections of room mics that we used. We used Coles ribbon mics for overheads, as well as Schoeps NK4s. So we had two sets of overheads as choices, but we used quite a smattering of room mics. And we used some more Coles ribbons for the room there. We had a Neumann binaural head that we sometimes used. Albini's got a pretty deep mic locker at his place, and we used some old Altec stuff.

What was the typical setup for recording Ryan Stasik's bass?

Typically, we were running the bass direct into the Chandler Germanium [preamp] — that was our direct signal — and then we had it amped through an Ampeg B-15 live in a closet.

Did you compress it a lot?

Not a ton. A lot of [Empirical Labs] Distressors made their way on the record. We did use a Distressor/1176 combo.

How about the guitars. Jake said he used a lot of ribbon and 57 close together, that kind of configuration.

We used a Royer 121 on his cabinet quite a bit. That and a 57. We used a fair amount of cabinets. We used his Fuchs head a decent amount. At the studio (I.V. Lab), Manny's got a handful of classic amps like AC30s, various Fender Twins, Bassmans, Tweeds. We tried out a lot of different stuff, and often we'd use one amp for clean stuff and then we'd use a Marshall for dirtier tones.

Did Jake have a particular guitar that he used a lot in the studio or was he using tons of them?

He used a fair amount. His G&L Strat is probably his main axe.

What about the vocals?

We used a lot of ribbon mics on the last record, and I kind of avoided that.

Why was that?

Ribbons can tend to darken. They've got a warm characteristic, but they're not always big. So we tended to go more the condenser route this time.

What were some of the mics at I.V. Lab that you used on the vocals?

We used a [Neumann] U87. We used a Korby Audio [Kat] U67.

Was there a go-to mic pre that you used for the vocals or did that vary a lot, too?

I can't give you all my secrets, bro.

How about Joel's synths?

A lot of the synth stuff was the Moog Voyager. We did different things with it, depending on the sound. That was one where we did a lot of in-the-box effects.

What plug-ins did you use on the album?

We did a lot with [SoundToys] EchoBoy. We also used some Line 6 Echo Farm. We used actually some of the Moog plug-ins, some of the pedal plug-ins there. But with the synths we were fairly comfortable using a lot of inside-the-box processing.