John Congleton on Recording Explosions In The Sky

When the end of the world finally comes, don’t be surprised if Explosions In The Sky provides the soundtrack. With their new record All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone, EITS expand on what they’ve already become known for in the live realm — heartbreaking instrumental post-rock that builds slowly, and crescendos with the sonic size and severity of a small natural disaster. Once again aiding in this audile apocalypse is John Congleton — the Texas-based producer who is steadily building a résumé with bands as varied as The Roots and The Polyphonic Spree — and EQ had a chance to talk with Mr. Congleton about getting a huge sound by just tracking live in a truly great room.

EQ: As this is your second record with Explosions in the Sky, what major changes did you make while tracking this album as opposed to what was done on The Return?

John Congleton: On the last record we only had three days to do it, so we were a little rushed. But even though we had more time, we approached it pretty similarly in that the band played in the same room together all at once. There were a couple longer songs that we would break in half over two sessions, but almost everything was recorded completely live. The biggest difference I suppose is that this time we cut to tape.

EQ: You probably preferred using tape this time around, right?

JC: I honestly don’t care. I think people have their own superstitions as to which they’d rather use; digital technology has pretty much rectified all the major problems I initially had with it sonically. But tape has a charming quality that I like. I like the mindset it forces one into, where you have to pay more attention to a take. But I don’t scoff at people who want to work digitally, and I have no problem with incorporating digital into anything I’m working on.

EQ: Do you track bands live often? As you said about the mindset tracking to tape puts you in, do you prefer tracking live because it gives a similar “do or die” vibe to the session?

JC: Sometimes you just can’t, but I really enjoy tracking live because it really captures the chemistry of a band. Too often people isolate everything to make it cleaner, but rock and roll especially isn’t about perfection.

EQ: The album has a roomy sound quality for the drum tracks, which really works for these huge, dramatic, soundtrack-esque sounding bands like EITS that are so popular right now. What was the mic setup like?

JC: I used two room blends for the drums that are mostly what you hear from the mix. I did a close room blend that was DPA 4006 omni, and a more vague blend with a Neumann CMV563 — the model with the lollipop capsule. I put ribbons on all the cymbals, from the hats to the ride to the overheads, Coles 4038s to be exact. There were two old Altec 175s on the top of the snare — one that sounds just a bit dark and one that sounds bright. We didn’t have to EQ too much. . . .

EQ: The album definitely doesn’t sound overtly compressed either.

JC: I’m not an audio purist in any sense, and I think using compression as an artistic tool is fine, but I think that records are starting to sound dated because of over-compression. I compress only to fix problems.

You’re always going to get a much more clever and pure sound with proper miking and tracking in the right environment. Who cares about chicanery? I’m rarely excited about how a reverb unit sounds, because I’ve heard it all before. Some of them are so identifiable it’s just boring. But if you truly get a good room sound, you’re recording something that may be impossible to replicate.

EQ: So I take it you love the room at Pachyderm, and that’s why you chose to record this there?

JC: I think that a good acoustical environment is the most important aspect of a record, because every single other thing can be overcome. I’ve done several records at Pachyderm, and the room is smaller than you would think, but it really sounds great. You know, if you have a bad room to record in, the house of cards falls immediately — you’re going to be EQing and compressing everything. I’d rather just get all the faders up and go for it.