Hard-Fi’s Richard Archer Records Two Number One Albums in a Converted Coffee Shop

It’s hard not to tap your foot to Once Upon a Time in the West [Necessary/Atlantic], the newest release from a hot group of British rockers known as Hard-Fi. With a pocketful of hook-laden songs rife with rich, atmospheric textures and a dance party’s sense of rhythm, the quartet has enjoyed significant success overseas (the band’s debut, Stars of CCTV, took the Number One spot on the U.K. charts and was awarded “Album of the Year” by NME, and Once Upon a Time in the West debuted at number one, as well), and is currently garnering widespread media attention stateside.

“Most people think we track in these million-dollar studios, but we record in an abandoned coffee shop near Heathrow Airport,” says frontman Richard Archer. “Cherry Lips is our own studio.”

Though Archer says there are limitations to running Cherry Lips (they went months without running water, and Stars of CCTV has a few 747s hidden in its tracks), Hard-Fi is happy with having a small space and a nice analog console—a Toft ATB 24-channel board supplied by Malcolm Toft himself.

“Having an analog desk made it feel—and sound—like we had a real studio on our hands,” enthuses Archer. “It was all uphill from the moment we got that.”

Of course, having a world-renowned engineer to help show the band the recording ropes helped in making Once Upon a Time in the West a sonic success. Paul “P-Dub” Walton (Bjork, New Order) was brought in to help the members settle on a monitoring system, and he stayed long enough to usher in the album’s mix.

“Paul saw what we were working with, and he gave us a lot of good ideas,” says Archer. “For instance, we have a concrete lobby with a staircase that leads directly to a corridor on the second floor. He heard this amazing echo from people talking down there when he was hanging in the hallway, and the next thing you know, we’re moving the drums down there.”

Placing a single AKG C451B in the upstairs hall, Walton captured a huge ambient drum sound, but found that after he applied heavy compression, the sound washed out the articulation and punch of drummer Steve Kemp’s playing. [Bitchy editor’s note: You’ll think Walton could have anticipated that outcome before he pressed the Record button—proof positive that even pro engineers can make silly mistakes.] Re-tracking Kemp’s kit, Walton added in a combination of close mics, including an AKG D112 on the inside of the kick drum, an Electro-Voice RE-20 on the outside, a Shure SM57 on the snare, and an AKG C419 on each of the toms. Bringing up the close mics resulted in a big, roomy sounding kit that still cut through the mix.

Walton also helped bassist Kai Stephens achieve the round, thumping bass sounds that, along with Kemp’s drums, make a solid rhythm foundation for guitarist Ross Phillips and Archer to build upon.

“At first, we built an amp box to help isolate the bass,” Archer says. “But we found that it added some rattle to the bass sounds. So, as we’re into old soul-music records, we decided that a little bleed on the rhythm tracks would be fine, and we cut the drums and bass together. Kai’s amp was miked with an AKG D112, and we also ran a direct line through a Universal Audio 610. This approach gave us a combination of a really clean direct sound and a punchy amp sound with a bit of natural compression from the speaker cabinet.”

The boys of Hard-Fi also learned a valuable lesson from Walton: Sometimes less is more.

“We were trying to record our guitars with a Shure SM57, a direct line, and a Neumann M47,” says Archer. “We were having all kinds of phasing problems, and the sound was muddy. Paul pushed us to strip down to the SM57, and, sure enough, there was the sound we were looking for.”

Although Cherry Lips is outfitted with an analog console, Archer says the band discovered that analog technology doesn’t always sound better.

“We went so far as to buy an old two-inch tape machine just to track drums,” he says. “Everybody always says tape really brings out the transients on a drum track. Maybe that’s true, but we were having problems with the machine, so we just went straight to Logic. The compressor that comes with Logic is great, and when we set the Output Clip to ‘Soft,’ it made the drums sound perfect. Also, we’re a spontaneous band, and using a DAW lets us put tracks down quickly. You don’t realize how much of an advantage that is until you find yourself aligning every channel on a 24-track tape deck before you can play one note of music.”