Mark Howard on Tracking the Serene Harmonies of Chris and Thomas

Alt-folk artists Chris and Thomas knew their voices had to be scrupulous recorded in order to realize their creative vision for Land of Sea [Defend/Boar]. So they put their trust in engineer/producer Mark Howard — the man behind Tom Waits’ Real Gone, Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, Willie Nelson’s Teatro, and many other vocal-oriented albums — to capture their haunting vocal harmonies. Here, Howard details how he devised a signature vocal sound for the duo.

"I do installations where I find interesting environments to record in,” says Howard, “so I rented an old sound stage in North Hollywood — a three-story open space with a 40-foot high ceiling where the walls were padded like an old insane asylum. In a space that big, the sound dissipates. If you were talking to somebody face-to-face in there, and they turned around, you wouldn’t be able to hear them anymore. That’s amazing for isolation — especially when everything is being tracked in the same room.

“To record Chris’ voice, I used an RCA-44 — Frank Sinatra’s old ribbon mic — because he has a real low voice, and I’ve found that a ribbon mic will sometimes get a smoother, silkier sound from a vocalist with a lot of bottom end. Thomas, however, has a higher-midrange voice, so a Neumann U-47 worked better for him.

“I ran both mics through Neve 1066 preamps into IZ’s RADAR 24 Digital. It’s more like an analog tape machine, but in a digital format. It’s great — real warm — and it never crashes. With Pro Tools, you’re often stuck staring at a screen.

“As everyone is squashing the crap out of everything nowadays, I decided to go a more natural route — just light compression with a Teletronix LA-2A. You can always compress the vocals during the mix if you want more, but if you squish them too hard when you’re recording, you’re committed to the heavy compression. People tend to use compression to make up for bad sounds. They compress every track — as well as the stereo mix — and then the mastering engineer typically compresses everything again. You don’t want to lose all your dynamic range, so focus on getting good sounds — and a good performance — and you won’t feel the need to compress everything so heavily.

“However, I am a pretty big effects head. I use everything from the AMS DMX 15-80S delay harmony synthesizer to the Eventide 3500 to the TC Electronic Fireworx on vocals. For Chris and Thomas, I also used a Lexicon Prime Time delay — which was Brian Eno’s secret unit for Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. You run your signal in, drop it a couple of octaves, and add however much delay you like, and you’ll get a sound unlike any other.

“For Land of Sea, I used another Eno trick for the mix. I’d take a vocal track, send it through a bit of reverb, and then through a bit of delay to get a sound that’s extremely wet, ambient, and huge. Then, I’ll assign this sound to a separate fader from the dry vocal track, and add in just a little bit of the mammoth wash. It’s a very subtle effect, but it helps set the mood for the track, and it becomes a very musical nuance that makes for a signature vocal sound.”