Up in Smoke - EMusician

Up in Smoke

Production guru and TV on the Radio conspirator, David Andrew Sitek, lives in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, well known for its budding arts community
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Production guru and TV on the Radio conspirator, David Andrew Sitek, lives in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, well known for its budding arts community and warehouse loft living. The band's Stay Gold studio inhabits a dusty Williamsburg industrial block, book-ended by a gentrified diner and a biker bar. Sitek lives around the corner from Stay Gold, ever so close to TVOTR's collection of '70s analog synths, '60s rhythm boxes, '40s Telefunken mics and a Studer A880 tape machine. Sitek can usually be found at Stay Gold conjuring magical sounds, but today he is nowhere to be found. The smell of smoke and racing fire engines reveals why: Sitek's house is burning to the ground.

“This was actually the second fire I have had in my life, which is probably why I am a pro,” Sitek says a few hours later. “When I was 21, my house burned down to the ground, and I lost everything, including 70 2-inch reels and 3,300 pieces of vinyl. I lived above a restaurant in Baltimore, and some kid threw a cigarette into a trash can and burned down the whole place.”

Oddly deadpan, Sitek has the dazed look of someone who has been up all night. And he seems awfully calm considering the glowing embers that were once his home. One week later, ugly reality sets in.

“I am in London for this press tour, and it is a pain in the ass,” Sitek barks. “My house burned down, I haven't had any sleep since then. I lost everything. I am in a shitty mood. I just need to decompress.”

In an eerie case of art imitating life, Sitek admits that TVOTR's latest album, Return to Cookie Mountain (Interscope, 2006), is all about apocalyptic events, the end of the world and post 9/11 dread.

“I didn't want to make an apocalyptic album,” he says. “It was just hard to shut out everything else that was going on. All the evidence is there that the world could be ending, so while we were making the record, we were constantly reminded of that by what was happening around us.”

APOCALYPSE WOW

Return to Cookie Mountain is beautiful and dreadful — gorgeous vocal melodies massaging epic tribal-funk rhythms; clanging percussion drizzled over humongous bass riffs; and, above it all, distorted, thunderous, end-of-days guitar noise that sounds like bombs dropping over Baghdad.

“I watched Apocalypse Now seven times while we were making the album,” Sitek remembers. “That opening scene where the helicopters come up with the sunrise, that is one of my favorite pieces of film ever. That image wasn't a conscious thing for the record, but I just kept watching that movie over and over for weeks.”

Futuristic yet nostalgic, with a pop purity that belies its avant-garde atmosphere, Return to Cookie Mountain is the result of bong hits, ancient analog gear and Sitek's stubborn resistance to plug-ins and software synths. TVOTR's acclaimed LP debut, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (Touch and Go, 2004), paired MPC drum programming with the gorgeously stacked vocals of Tunde Adebimpe and the itchy guitar scrabble of Kyp Malone, but with Cookie Mountain, Sitek's provocative intention to create “music you will be listening to when the whole world burns up” rings with an awful irony. Following the success of his last production, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Fever To Tell (Interscope, 2003), Sitek is sure of his own vision.

“I wanted things to be more classic than our first album in the sense of the drums [played by Jaleel Bunton] being recorded traditionally and the vocals being recorded up front,” Sitek says. “I tried to stick with old and new technology — the most pure versions of those ideas — like using mic positioning for the drums and the vocals and running everything else pretty much direct. That is either modern or sick.”

SONGWRITING HAZE

TVOTR is first of all a live band; therefore, it often approaches recording from a performance — not a studio — construct. Generally, Sitek will write with his Rhythm Ace or Rhythm Master drum machines; the band will play their parts; and he will damage, or rather, affect the results with all manner of outboard tricks and guitar shrapnel.

“I usually lay down a click track with the Rhythm Ace first,” he details, “then a rough guitar part and an elaborate MPC part and then a more elaborate guitar part and then a scratch vocal. The drums go down midway through the song. We record the bass (played by Gerard Smith) at the very end; that is the sound I am most exacting about. If you record the bass up front, you will rerecord it anyway because you want it to sit evenly with the rest of the song, and considering how many layers there are in each song, I just have to find the hole for it.

“I am a big adder and subtractor,” he continues. “I often put sounds onto ¼-inch tape and back into Pro Tools and onto ½-inch tape and back into Pro Tools and on 2-inch tape then to Pro Tools. It goes through a million different lives.”

A look around Stay Gold studio is like traveling back in time — everything from the Studer A880 to WWII-era Neumann mics and some vintage EMI channel strips — recalling the golden age of studio production. That sense of hardware history informs every move that Sitek makes.

“That is everything to me,” he says. “I don't even really look at the equipment when I am changing the settings. I won't care if I am fucking with the attack or the decay; I will just start turning knobs until it sounds right. Even stuff like proximity of microphone and having the singer use different spots to sing for different dynamics, or sing into a corner — that shit is fascinating to me. Rather than automating volumes, that approach produces different results, especially when you have wooden floors and reflective surfaces.”

Another big motivator for Sitek is a copious intake of mother's little helper. Like Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, The Beatles' Revolver and Squarepusher's Feed Me Weird Things, Return to Cookie Mountain was born out of a dope haze.

“I smoke about ¾ of a pound of weed a month, and I exceeded that for this record,” Sitek says with a laugh. “There were moments, like on ‘Tonight,’ when I was just lying on the floor, stoned with headphones on, tampering with the Pioneer ¼-inch reel-to-reel. I took sounds from the Pioneer that we use for slapback and put them back to the mix. I come off the record head, and it is hardwired so the play head goes right to a ¼-inch jack so we can run it into Pro Tools. Most of the music that I like was made on dope. There is no way I could play a song back to myself 3,000 times unless I was stoned. I don't ever want to repeat myself, so I try to be not too conscious of the process.”

PLUG-INS, SHMUG-INS

One part of the process that Sitek is deadly conscious of is plug-ins. Sitek hates the little software buggers with a passion, preferring reamping and knob twiddling to mass-market sound manipulation.

“Plug-ins just gum up the CPU,” he proclaims. “I will use the Fairchild plug-in for a kick hit. I will run it through the plug-in and bounce it to disc and put it on my MPC and then replay it. It is not the smartest or easiest way, but I am more concerned with getting the result based on intuition rather than dicking around with a plug-in for six years. When you are using five plug-ins in Pro Tools, they all have a signature way of sculpting the sound. Whereas, if you send [the signal] through 12 different transformers that were made in 12 different time periods, you will never get that sound through a plug-in.

“Instead of using plug-ins, we use reamps,” Sitek continues. “Reamping allows you to send stuff out of Pro Tools into an amp or a pedal then back in; it changes the line level. Reamps are like direct boxes with a dial so you can change the input or output level. I can't even remember what brand we use, but say I record a guitar, and I don't like the sound: I will record the guitar direct, and then I will reamp it. I will send the direct signal out of Pro Tools as if it is someone playing it into a bunch of different amps or pedals to figure out which one is the best. Then I will mic that and record it to another channel.”

Another major element on Return to Cookie Mountain is a distorted guitar wash that bathes many songs with wide strokes. This guitar shrapnel enters in the most unlikely places to upend convention. From the opening “I Was a Lover” and the grand “Province” (with David Bowie on vocals) to the backward swirls of “Tonight” and the spooky bombast of “Let the Devil In,” it's a noise fest for lovers of a more epic approach to sound.

“Most of Kyp's guitar lines are exactly how he plays them,” Sitek says, “but the huge, crazy-ass, wall-of-guitar shit is me playing a '91 Fender Teleplus through an Interstellar Overdriver pedal into the Roland Groove Sampler, running COSM effects, into Pro Tools. For the guitar tracks, I record two different sounds and then combine those two layers to a track and then erase the two originals. Once it goes out of the Groove Sampler, it goes to the Studer A880, where I might slow it down to half-speed or speed it up to twice the speed, and I will play along with that.”

TRACKING HOURS

“Hours” represents Cookie Mountain's zeitgeist to a T. Stuttering drums introduce a whirring Hammond B3 organ, oozing lavalike bass flows, and a tinkling upright piano outlining a skeletal frame. At one point, the drums drop out, and what sounds like a flock of seagulls (not the band) screams through the speakers, followed by the brass flow of the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra horns, vocal “oohs” and “ahhs,” and a ghostly choir.

“We did a click track first,” Sitek explains. “The drums and bass were live, and I used the Korg CX-3 for the Hammond sound. Then we recorded the vocals; all the other instruments were added later. The looping seagulls sound is a Fender Rhodes Seventy-Three going through the octave function of a DigiTech Whammy pedal.

“[As for beats,] It is one continuous drum performance,” he continues. “I always record the drums with large-diaphragm condensers, except on the snare, where I use a Sony C37 mic from the '50s. I am not a big fan of room sound; that makes the drums sound separate from the music. We will bang on trash outside the studio, too, using the Earthworks Omni QTC1 microphone. The drums get bigger at one point in the track: There are two room mics that happened to be on; we didn't adjust them. Those tracks just come up at that point to give the song more dynamics. I record cymbals separately. Most of the cymbal tracks I slow down. I initially record them fast, so when I play them back, they are this big splooshy sound. It is easier to conceal that sploosh when the cymbals are on a separate track. I record two master tracks of the song with everything but the cymbals onto 2-inch tape and then record the cymbals to 2-inch tape and then fly them back in so they line up, using the Varispeed on the Studer.”

FIRE AND RAIN

If we are nearing the end of the world, Return to Cookie Mountain is the perfect soundtrack to the final flameout. Gorgeous vocals, funky beats and ominous guitars may be the last sound we all hear as trumpets blare and a heavenly host descends. But Sitek is ultimately hopeful regarding music's role in this life and the next one.

“I am not a pessimist,” Sitek says, “I just don't believe we are the last species in the food chain. Dr. Emoto [in his book, The Hidden Messages in Water] was the first to document changes in water crystals. He put the word ‘hate’ and the word ‘love’ on two bottles of water, and he took pictures of the molecules. The ones in the hate bottle were deformed. You listen to a song that makes you feel exhilarated; it changes your physical being. [Henryk] Górecki's Symphony No. 3 will change your physical being. We have exhausted all intellectual ways to connect, so it is time to reduce it to something that isn't restricted to the English language. Lack of subtlety is the first sign of a civilization in decline.”

Gold Stay Studios

Computer, DAW, recording hardware

Apple Mac G5 computer
Apogee 16-bit I/O
Digidesign 888|24 I/O (4), Pro Tools TDM system
Pioneer RT-707 reel-to-reel
Studer A880 24-track 2-inch machine (with Varispeed mod)

Console

1993 Malcolm Toft MTA 980 33 × 24

Samplers, drum machines

'70s Ace Tone Rhythm Ace, Rhythm Master drum machines
Akai MPC1000, MPC2000XL, S3000 samplers
Boss DR-202 Dr. Groove drum machine
Korg Electribe ER-1 drum machine
Oberheim DMX drum machine
Roland SP-808EX Groove Sampler, Rhythm Composer TR-707 and TR-808

Mic preamps, compressors/limiters, EQ

Anthony DeMaria Labs S/C/L 1500 compressor
API 7600 Channel Strip (2)
Avalon Design VT-737SP preamp/compressor/EQ
Chandler Limited TG1 Limiter
dbx 160A (2) compressor/limiter
EMI Channel Strip
Empirical Labs EL8 Distressors (3)
Federal AM-864/U Tube compressor/limiter
Joemeek VC1 Studio Channel preamp/compressor
Manley VoxBox preamp/compressor/EQ
Telefunken V72 (4) preamps
Urei 1176 compressor

Effects

Alesis Quadraverb
Death by Audio Interstellar Overdrive pedal
DeltaLab ADM 1020 Effectron I
DigiTech Studio 400 effects processor, Whammy pedal
Ensoniq DP/4 effects processor
Lexicon 300L Digital Effects System
Line 6 Pod amp modeler
TC Electronic M3000 effects processor

Mics

Audix SCX25 Studio
Coles 4040 Studio Ribbon
Earthworks QTC1 Omni
Neumann CMV 3, TLM 103, U 47 and U 87
Shure SM57
Sony C37

Synths, modules, plug-ins, instruments

1991 Fender Teleplus guitar
1968 Hohner Pianette
Korg MS-20, CX-3
Rhodes Seventy-Three electric piano
Roland Juno-6, Juno-60 synths
Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, Prophet-600 synths
Universal Audio Fairchild Model 670 plug-in
Yamaha CS-5 (2), CS-10 synths

Monitors

Dynaudio BM5As
ProAc Tablette Reference 8s

MIXING THE MOUNTAIN

“Sitting in my underwear doing bong hits is how I get a mix to gel,” David Andrew Sitek says, regarding his mixdown ethos. “I try to make things sound the way I want when I track them. The mix is guided during the process. Then we just negotiate balance and dynamics. I do vocals right down the center, through the Federal Limiter. I lean more on EQ than balance. I know that if you add 250 kHz somewhere, you better subtract it somewhere else. I am into extreme panning, but I have to get more clout before I can say, ‘This is the way it should be done.’ Putting a sound in one speaker but not the other is a lost recording art. Everyone wants to make it sound good through an Aurotone speaker. It is all dumbed down. I don't make music for those people.”