No Place Like Space: Grizzly Bear on the Virtues of Natural Reverb

At this year’s SXSW festival, Grizzly Bear brought a new kind of gospel to the Central Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas. Badge and wristband holders who managed to get in were treated to the angelic voice of Ed Droste, complemented by lofty ceiling acoustics and the well-balanced vocals of his three singing bandmates.

For Grizzly Bear’s second album, Veckatimest [Warp], sky-high studio spaces were just what the band needed to achieve its otherworldly chamber-pop sound. Bassist and producer/engineer Chris Taylor started recording the band in upstate New York at the Glen Tonche estate, which features a live room with 50- foot-high wood ceilings. The guys also recorded at Droste’s grandmother’s house in Cape Cod and at a church in Brooklyn. But access to a church didn’t automatically result in perfect natural reverb—Taylor was careful with mic placement.

“If you have a huge space, if you put the mic really far away, you’re going to have a really diffused sound,” Taylor says. “The closer you move it towards the source I find the more noticeable the reverb is going to be, the more signal-to-noise ratio is hot on the signal end.”

In the church, Taylor found a sweet spot for the drums at a pew 10 feet away. “I like to point mics straight at wooden surfaces,” Taylor says. “With the church, I’ll put a mic 10 feet away right at that wooden surface and it still sounds huge because there’s so much diffusion happening in that space. If you face it out at the church, it’s just going to be really cavernous, and you won’t really hear it.”

In more conventional studio spaces, Taylor still plays with wood reflections. “A [Shure] SM57 is an awesome room mic if you point it at a nice-looking old piece of wood, like a wall or an old door. I think that’s an awesome guitar-room sound that sometimes gets the drums really slappy, sort of like Nirvana.”

For a couple tracks on the album, the band recorded a girls’ choir. Taylor set up a stereo pair of Microtech Gefell M 930 mics in an X/Y pattern, 10 to 15 feet back and about three feet above the girls’ heads.

“To decide where to get that reverb, stand in the spot where you hear the reverb sounding most appropriate to the track,” Taylor says. “Think about distance—you know, if someone’s telling you something from across the room or they’re telling you right in your ear or they’re telling you at a normal volume or they’re telling you something at a bar where you’re yelling. Just think of things like that ’cause that’s all it is. The more realistic you can make it for yourself, then the more realistic it’s going to come across to other people.”

The album’s most immediate song, “Two Weeks”—with its “Chopsticks”- esque piano and gorgeous call-andresponse chorus vocals—begs to be heard on repeat. “I’m always listening to a song to make sure there’s an event that’s maintaining focus, so things don’t get nebulous,” Taylor says. “[We did that by] changing around the main part, which is a sort of quarter-note piano-ish part, and then adding in a Wurlitzer and a guitar doing the same thing.” In addition to changing up the instrument, he also changed the texture. “We’d do things like take room mics in and out to draw things in and then open them up,” Taylor says. A large-diaphragm condenser made by Curtis Technology often did the trick.

But it’s not always about the room; Taylor uses synthetic effects, too. On “Fine For Now,” which plays with dynamics both quiet and— thanks to some overdriven guitars and crash cymbals—more epic, Taylor used reverb from a guitar pedal for some backup vocals. “I ran both the dry and then the wet, distorted signal, pretty heavily distorted, and then mixed in enough of the dry that it sounds clear,” he says.

Some of Taylor’s favorite effects are the Electro-Harmonix POG octave pedal, Univox Echo Chamber tape delay, and MXR M-190 Digital Delay and M-126 Flanger/Doubler rack units. Meanwhile, his prized outboard gear includes a Neve eight-channel BCM sidecar (often driving its preamps to add distortion), and Chandler TG Channel MKII and LTD-1 preamp/EQs.

“Messing with actual outboard gear is really important to understanding the way that shit works. I’m personally not a big fan of what plug-ins do,” Taylor says. “I know a lot of people use them these days, so I’m totally not talking trash about that. But if you’re at the novice level, I feel like it’s important to mess with the actual outboard stuff and see what happens when you turn a knob or push a switch in and pull it out.”

By doing his own experimentation, Taylor started doing what he felt was best for a song rather than following engineering trends. “In audio-engineering school [at NYU], they always used to talk about 60Hz being really hot on the kick drum, and I find that kickdrum sound is always changing trendwise,” he says. “I’m a little bit more into the way a hip-hop kick sounds, and I find that boosting 32Hz quite a bit and then running the kick drum through a distressor makes it sound more like I want a kick drum to sound, a little bit more current. I like the hype-y thing, like the low-lows and the high-highs. But then there’s something so amazing about the way a kick drum sounds on a Neil Young record. That’s a whole other thing of totally different equipment and a beautiful board and running it all into a nice Studer tape machine.”

Taylor’s Neil Young obsession is no shock, considering Veckatimest’s Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young harmony vibe. With all four band members singing, Taylor could default to set signal chains and parameters for efficiency’s sake, but he doesn’t. “It’s just boring to me: ‘Yeah, this is my lead vocal chain. This is my background vocal approach,’” he says. “It should be more specific to the song and the part itself, and what it’s supposed to be serving to the track.”

But unlike his drum treatments, which optimize the full frequency spectrum, Taylor always shelves vocals. The exact recipe per vocal depends on whether it’s a lead versus background part, has lyrics or not, and is soaked in reverb or is on the drier side.

He often uses a battery-powered ’80s Neumann U 87 for vocals. “I use that mic a lot, and the different polar patterns give it even more flexibility,” Taylor says. “For a background, maybe I’ll use that same mic, but I’ll put it in omni or I’ll put it in figure-of-eight, depending on how much proximity effect I want on the vocal.”

In the studio, Taylor doesn’t overthink his choices or give himself an out in the mix. “I like to make decisions on the way the sounds sound while I’m recording because that’s more fun and honest, and it’s a little more in the moment,” he says. “[I don’t like] that whole idea where you’re like, ‘This effect on the guitar sounds awesome, but we should DI it just in case we don’t want that effect later.’ If it sounds awesome, then go with it. What’s the worst that can happen? The stock market is not going to crash if your guitar tone has the wrong delay on it. There are more serious things to worry about than that.”