Fields - EMusician

Fields

It would be a tad unrealistic to assume that Fields could have delivered a more impressive debut album than the recently released Everything Last Winter — an offering packed full of sounds that defy the band’s relative youth, instead giving the impression that the UK-based quintet has been tirelessly writing, performing, and recording for years. And while the impeccable songwriting is what immediately strikes most listeners as awe-inspiring — with Fields’ Arcadian acoustic guitars and flutes, tasteful synth pads, swirling electric guitars and layers of harmony vocals all coalescing into a collection of cohesive, well-executed compositions — for those of us who are just as discerning about our productions as we are our songs, the sonic elements, as manipulated by mega-producer Michael Beinhorn, are what is most immediately arresting and affecting.
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The rise has been, to use tired clichés, meteoric for the band; having not only developed a musical landscape all their own in no less than 12 months since their inception, but also aurally evangelizing the electro-indie brand far and wide — supporting bands such as Wolfmother and Bloc Party in recent months, to widespread critical acclaim. All of this has transpired shortly after lead singer and principal songwriter Nick Peill put the group together in early 2006, released a couple of demo EPs, and played a handful of local shows. Before long, bidding wars erupted among labels in the UK, with Fields ducking out and into the arms of Atlantic, who eventually paired the group with their ace-up-the-sleeve: Michael Beinhorn.

For the uninitiated: Beinhorn’s experienced hand has set the tone for the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Herbie Hancock, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Korn, Soundgarden, Mew, Soul Asylum, and many others throughout the years; projects that allowed him to finely hone and tune his craft, projects that made Beinhorn a perfect choice for Fields’ first major outing into a studio. “When we came to record with Michael, we almost disregarded those old demos and started from scratch doing full studio recordings,” recalls Peill. “He was very open to experimentation with lots of different textures — that was one of the main draws of working with him in the first place.”

THE IN SOUNDS FROM WAY OUT

To hear the players involved tell it, the sessions for Everything Last Winter were frenetic and fast-paced, mostly due to the extreme timing and budget constraints the band faced. Beinhorn chose Dublin’s Sun Studios as the setting for the album, as he was comfortable working with the room after having just finished an album with Ireland’s The Blizzard there and, most importantly, because the price was right. When asked why Beinhorn likes working there, the veteran producer describes the studio as “teeny” yet capable of emanating an attractive, if reflective, sound character.

Located in a damp basement of one of Dublin’s landmark buildings, many of Sun’s walls face purely in brick. Therefore, in preparing the room for the sessions, Beinhorn had to deal with some relatively significant acoustic challenges. “We had to pad the room — there was a lot of exposed brick and some of it had been painted. Over the listening position at the console there were several bits of concave brickwork, so we had some funny imaging issues to put it mildly. There were some reflections and a hollow ringing going on. The ceilings were also extremely low, which was somewhat of a problem.” Nonetheless, once these idiosyncrasies were dealt with, Beinhorn says the room ultimately made sense and sounded very good.

All in all, the sessions were to take about 6-1/2 weeks to complete and, by all accounts, were intense (and somewhat cramped). And if the time and budget constraints weren’t enough, there was the age-old proverbial salt in the wound: the obvious pressure associated with delivering an exceptional master recording for their major label debut. But all of this did little more in the end except add to the atmosphere of the recording — as bandleader Peill contends, the tension and claustrophobic conditions ended up contributing positively to the overall mood of the album; an album that, if music journalists are to be believed, is one of the most charged, emotive releases of the year.

FINDING THE SOUND

Perhaps the greatest challenge was in finding the group’s uniquely ensign sound. To date, much of Fields’ existing work was done by Nick Peill, working alone on his rig (centered around Cubase) at home. So while each of the songs was in a relatively complete state in terms of composition (he had laid down all the acoustic guitars, vocals, and programmed sections himself), nobody quite knew what the songs would sound like when they were performed by a band, and if it would come across in a way that appeased Peill’s vision when the tape (figuratively, at least) began to roll. “Prior to going in, the band really didn’t have a sound,” Beinhorn says. “There were barely any recordings of them performing together in existence. I had the burden of trying to provide a limited window of time to record and to help formulate a sound for these guys . . . to interpret them in a way I imagined them to be. I had never seen them play live, except in a rehearsal space.”

The group spent barely a week in preproduction before the vibe appeared and all fell neatly into place. When they began actually tracking the album, Beinhorn recalls that the sound was certainly a departure from Peill’s softer-sounding, more subdued demos: “I knew they wanted to make a record that was harder-sounding versus what Nick had done before, which sounded more pastoral. I had to juxtapose what was really pretty about Nick’s compositions with this tougher edge they had. When I finally heard the drums coming back through the speakers, I knew this could turn into something really special.”

When the band began tracking through Sun’s SSL G-Series 4040 40-input console, Beinhorn elected to keep things simple yet flexible, assigning Pro Tools as the final destination medium. “We went through the tape machine electronics before going into Pro Tools,” Beinhorn tells. “I’d tried recording previously to tape and then dumping it across to Pro Tools, but I really didn’t like the result of that. Going through the electronics of the tape machine while it was in record seemed to be the best of all possible worlds. There was a nice, healthy amount of harmonic distortion and at the same time, we got the flexibility we wanted with the tracks.”

Beinhorn holds that this approach severely, and positively, impacted the overall sonic character: “The tape electronics seemed to make it more focused and a lot more present.” He relied heavily on his Lavry converters to keep the integrity of the signal, as he found “They are punchy and have really broad range. They really clear up the imaging and deliver more focus.”

The performances on Everything Last Winter sound extremely tight indeed — drummer Henry Spenner was spot on, according to Beinhorn, rarely relying on a click track. With such tight performances, it may or may not surprise listeners to learn that the entireties of the tracks were actually built up in layers. “In the end, due to the flexibility of the way we were working, we ended up cutting everything separately,” explains Beinhorn. “Everything just seemed to work with them playing separately — though it better not sound like that!”

GETTING GUITARS AND THE TIMING PARADOX

The secret to capturing Peill’s outlandish acoustic guitar parts, Beinhorn tells us, laid in miking the instrument with a Neumann U67, powered by an API 312 pre. But the approach to the electric guitars varied considerably from the relatively straightforward path employed for the acoustic tracks — a literal hodgepodge of amps (including a Fender Twin Reverb, Marshall JCM800, and Vox AC30) were used, with Beinhorn relying on a Shure SM57 and a Royer 122, placed right against the cabinet’s grilles, for the majority of the tones captured.

For Spenner’s drum tracks, Beinhorn had the skinsman play to one of Nick’s guide tracks rather than regimenting the tracks to a click track grid, an approach Beinhorn identifies as allowing for a more “human” feel to the recording. “Everyone wanted it to feel as organic as possible, even to the point where there might be little timing issues here and there,” Beinhorn recalls. “It enhances a type of mood and, after all, you’re trying to replicate the expression of human beings. I find it a paradox when drums are carved too precisely and everything is made to sound like a drum machine.” While miking the drums, Peill calls Beinhorn “quite thorough” with a chuckle, recalling that the majority of the cymbals were overdubbed and re-cut seperately: “He put 28 mics on the drums — there were mics on just about every inch of the kit. There were six or seven mics on the room as well. You could hardly move in the room without tripping over a mic.”

WRAPPING UP A MAIDEN VOYAGE

After a month and a half spent in Sun Studios — with the core of the tracks in the bag (they went elsewhere to record vocals due to lack of time) — Peill tells us that he and his bandmates were ready to move on. “It’s such a small studio that you can’t help but run into the same people over and over and over again — plus it was raining outside nearly the whole time.” In retrospect, Beinhorn modestly points out that his old school rearing made it so that he couldn’t have finished this project without a younger, more technologically adept assistant engineer: “I had a great guy in there that was engineering with me and operating Pro Tools,” Beinhorn says. “I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing with that stuff!” [Laughs.]

But to hear him tell it, his role isn’t one of engineering as much as it is making bands comfortable enough to perform well . . . and let somebody else worry about the edits. Recording Fields, Beinhorn says he was perhaps just a little more conscious of where the band was in their career — a place he had seen with many bands before, a position he was confident in when it came to getting the best out of Fields. “Everyone was aware that this was the band’s maiden voyage in the recording studio doing something for a major label — I knew we had to make it the best possible experience for them. In the end, they worked hard and put their back into it. And it was great for me. Each experience in the recording studio is different, whether people are new or long-time veterans.”