“There’s this snobbery where people think that someone who is involved in technical work has to look a certain way,” says Patrick Wolf, sipping a gin and tonic backstage at L.A.’s Roxy Theatre. “I’m one of the biggest geeks in the world, but because I choose to do quite glamorous things in all of my press shots, people immediately think, ‘What would happen if he got in front of a mixing desk?’ People don’t understand how I can do both.”
Wolf maintains a polite disposition, but it’s clear he’s been battling this pretense for quite awhile. Though he’s produced each of his four albums, engineered two, and co-mixed his latest, he fields more questions about his fashion sense than his recording techniques. An exemplary violinist well versed in the art of composition, Wolf combines his appreciation for the classical with a lust for electronica, blending ukuleles, mountain dulcimers, and reed organs with white-noise washes and IDMstyled percussion. The Bachelor [Bloody Chamber Music] furthers these eclectic pairings, albeit on a much more expansive (and expensive) scale.
“I wanted everything as hi-fi as possible,” he says. “I hired a 12-piece string section and a gospel choir. For pianos, I wanted to be playing Bösendorfers, not Yamahas. I did a lot of work with the Cristal Baschet, glass harmonica, and Ondes Martenot, and I hired the best engineer in Paris for that.”
While Wolf programmed his beats in Logic using a cache of samples left over from his Atari days, tracking was done at some of the finest studios in the U.K. Drums were recorded through the vintage EMI TG console at Olympic Studios, and the choir and strings were done on an early ’90s Neve VR60 at Assault & Battery. Looking to dole out a bit more responsibility in an effort to focus on the songwriting, Wolf enlisted the help of Jonathan Shakhovskoy (U2, Crowded House) as a co-producer and co-mixer.
On previous albums, Wolf consistently tracked his vocals with the Shure SM57, mostly because valve mics muddied up his already bass-heavy voice. For The Bachelor, Wolf’s chain was a Soundelux 251 into a Great River ME-1NV preamp with just a tiny bit of compression.
“The 251 has the top brightness and the detail in the middle, but it also has great bottom end that serves his voice really well and stood up great in the record,” Shakhovskoy says.
Rather than use big plate or hall reverbs, Shakhovskoy used a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo unit, not as a long delay, but more as a slap echo to add a bit of depth. Another of Shakhovskoy’s standard vocal practices is to use a UA 1176 or a 2-LA-2 to grab the slower and more dynamic vocal sounds, then follow that up with a bit of SSL channel compression.
For the string section, Shakhovskoy used a mixture of spot and room mics to obtain a tasteful presence that fit with The Bachelor’s pastoral vibe. Violins, violas, and cellos were miked with Schoeps CMC 5s, Neumann U 67s and U 47s, and AKG C 414s, respectively, with the cello mics placed at the lower end of the body and about a foot off the bridge to accentuate the bowing.
“Ultimately your choices for bottom end in strings depend on what’s going on in the arrangement of the song,” Shakhovskoy says. “In more commercial music, you’ve always got a bass guitar in there that’s going to take up some of the real estate that a cello would occupy. With Patrick’s music, there’s a lot more space.”
In cases where a song did have lots of synthesized bass, the cellos were played up an octave, rather than EQing out 100Hz of low end on the strings.
“On The Magic Position, I got a string quartet from the Royal Philharmonic and got really punk by just putting some horrible condenser mic on the entire group,” Wolf says with a laugh. “This one was different. I think this is the most expensive album I’ve ever done. I had this list of things that might sound psychotic to other people, but was so right in creating the sound I wanted.”