Louis XIV’s Jason Hill on Abiding by an Analog Ethos

Louis XIV may not be royalty yet, but with their new album, Slick Dogs & Ponies, the San Diego-based quartet is well on their way. While notorious for their penchant for double entendres and wickedly wild shows, the band has also gained the respect of the rock world for their indisputably rich melodies and bombastic garage rock energy. Wielding a veritable mountain of equipment and ear for retro sounds, singer/guitarist Jason Hill has taken the Renaissance man approach and crafted the sound of his band’s newest release in his private studio. Prying Hill away from his console proved itself to be no easy task but we managed to conduct a quick chat about how Louis XIV produces their signature sound at home. Here’s what he had to say.

My first question is about how you recorded Mark Maigaard’s drums. You’ve managed a really tight sound, which is a surprising choice given how many modern rock bands strive for huge drum sounds.
That sound drives me nuts; I much prefer a dry drum sound. It’s like every song on the radio has the same open sound. It’s quite boring. We wanted a tighter sound, something where you could really discern the tuning of the drums. We had a very live room with 20-foot ceilings, so we built a teepee around the drums with blankets to mitigate that damage. It protected our overheads—which are ribbons, and therefore pick things up in a figure-eight pattern—from any unwanted ambience.

The bass sounds as if you recorded a cabinet instead of taking the DI route.
That’s right. I put a [Neumann] U 47 FET in front of a [Fender] Bassman 100 that had two speakers taken out of it to make the remaining two push harder. That’s the sound.

What about your guitar cabinets?
For guitars I’d use either a [Neumann] U 67 alone or in conjunction with a TLM-103, which can handle serious SPL. I’ll put the TLM 103 on the cone and the U 67 on the back of the cabinet. For other projects, I’m a fan of adding a GefelI into the mix as a room mic but I didn’t do that on this album.

Which Gefell mic?
The old Neumann tube ones from ’62. They’re a bit larger than a U 67. You can really push them; you can put them right on the grille if you want. They seem to have a much different frequency response than, say, an AKG 414 or a U 67 or any of the other condensers I like to use for guitars, so adding them in can definitely add a different dimension to your sound.

Slick Dogs and Ponies has a lot of strings in the mix. What made you decide to integrate that element into your repertoire?
Electric Light Orchestra influenced some of the production as far as string arrangements went. We worked with David Campbell, and we’d play him ELO and how they recorded strings. We wanted to make them an integral part of the record, almost like a fifth member of the band. In many ways the strings create the dominant melodies of the songs.

How did you capture them?
We had a few girls from a high school band play the violins, and we just set up two [Neumann] U 47s in X/Y. The cello is a single U 47 pointed right at where the musician’s bow hit the strings. Compressing that particular track really brought out the attack, but it also added a real richness to the sound.

Do you abuse your compressor often?
[Laughs] I love compression. I absolutely adore it. It just depends on how you use it. The technique is definitely overused, even by me sometimes—I’m guilty of crushing things too much. I have heard so many drums that sound like crap because of over-compression. In my opinion, a lot of the problem nowadays is due to the way digital compressors react with the high frequencies of cymbals and guitars. It doesn’t sound the same as tape compression or an old [Urei] 1176.

So we’re back to the old analog vs. digital debate already?
Don’t get me wrong; I bounce between my Studer and Pro Tools. The latter is convenient especially for experimentation. And it doesn’t present the same kind of workflow challenges as a tape machine. My 16-track has turned into a 12-track more times than I can count [laughs]. I’m a firm believer that you can make great sounds in the digital world, but it’s so much harder to get warm sounds. Digital sounds a lot more flat and cold. It’s an old argument, but there’s a reason why people still record to tape.

So you track to tape, bounce to Pro Tools, edit, and then send back to tape?
Exactly. Though a lot of times I’ll use this old Revere tube tape machine I have that just sounds incredible. For this album, all of the piano tracks were recorded onto that, bounced to a Studer, and then shot over to Pro Tools to add layers. It was a master stereo, so I’d go through the channel and out the master compressor, which sounds amazing, especially for drums. It’s got a unique sound. But to access it I’d have to go through the headphone jack and into the tape machine. It was totally rigged, and people would say I was out of my mind, but it sounded the best.

How do you approach a Louis XIV mix?
I’ll try to throw everything up on the faders and go from there. I don’t just start with the drums like some people do. For this album, I actually enlisted the help of Mark Needham for mixing because I had just gotten sick of listening to it. Our last record [The Distances from Everyone to You] was an easy mix; I’d just subgroup all the drums into one or two tracks and often just a single mono signal. Then I’d throw the rest of the instruments on, basically making mono channels out of whatever I had. But for this record we did so much when tracking. Every song has five or six sessions of drums all comped together, where this one snare drum will pop in for two beats on the chorus, and a cello would pop in on the verse. There was so much going on, I had a breakdown. It was like trying to wrangle cats back in the house [laughs].

There are some interesting pans on this album. Were those done at your order?
I love hard panning almost as much as I love compression [laughs]. I’m a real big fan of taking mono tracks and just sending them all over to one side. Hell, I’ll do the same with stereo [laughs]. You can’t get any better sound than what you’ll find on a Beatles record. By today’s standards, those drums supposedly don’t kick hard enough or whatever, but I fell in love with that sound.

When you are editing and mixing in Pro Tools, do you adhere to the old-school approach of using analog outboard or do you secretly use plug-ins when no one is watching?
I’m not opposed to using plug-ins, but I don’t really use them. I’ve fiddled around with [Audio Ease’s] Altiverb because I don’t have a real plate though. Still, I try to approach my projects when they are in the box as if I was still on tape. Editing out all the pops is a nice option to have, but I always have to remind myself to stop watching the screen and listen instead. It’s not got much to do with the sonic quality; it’s about the process. I don’t need every cut to be clean, every fade to be perfectly measured. I don’t want to stop being musical and start being mathematical. Also, I think I just respond to the sound of the metal of an actual unit [laughs]. Is there a sound to that? I don’t know, except I think an 1176 sounds great, and the plug-in version, while decent, doesn’t sound the same.