Zero 7

Henry Binns, one half of Zero 7, packed up and moved his family to the hippie capital of Glastonbury in the Somerset countryside of England because, “London was doing my nut in.” But when it came time for Binns and his musical partner, Sam Hardaker, to start creating the third Zero 7 album, The Garden, Binns essentially kicked his family out in order to be able to work.
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“I ended up building a makeshift studio,” says Binns, shuffling around in said facility, which looks more like an outhouse than anything else. “It wasn’t intended to be for always. It is a bit ‘shambolic’ in here.”

And “here” is where all Zero 7’s musical decisions are made, in the studio, albeit a bit of a messy one. “Sam and I are always trying to get some dirt in there,” Binns admits. “Otherwise it feels too clean and a bit uncomfortable.”

If by dirt Binns means natural, organic, real, live, then The Garden is an absolutely filthy yet obviously comfortable place for the duo. A soothing combination of lush grooves and seductive croons, digital soul is the blueprint Zero 7 works off of, characterized by the at times clear but hollow tones of tracks like “Futures” and “Left Behind,” and the sultry atmosphere that permeates songs such as “Throw It All Away” and “Your Place.”

When it comes to capturing/creating Zero 7’s patented mellow down-tempo/alt-electronica amalgamations, the band relies on old favorite mics such as the U47, outboard compressors such as the Urei 1176, and a handful of analog synths — as well as a refurbished Audiotronix console to mix into Pro Tools before mastering to vinyl, a process credited as contributing to the album’s retro, analog character. The central piece of the album, however, is the GEM F30 organ, an ancient machine that Binns found in a junk shop and later utilized for its preset drum machine canned beats. Throwing the U47 up to the GEM F30, which has no line out, resulted in a ton of hum and buzz, something attributable to the GEM’s construction (a wooden body which resonates from the two cabinets built into the back of the unit) — sounds that the group credits for adding a certain quality, a certain soul to The Garden.

The occasional sample signal is oftentimes manipulated by being put through the Tech21 SansAmp, the Electro Harmonix Memoryman, or Hardaker’s malfunctioning, glitchy EH Small Clone Chorus. Guitars were recorded primarily through a small Pignose practice amp for its “buzzy” personality, a sound akin to the Isley Brothers’ distorted guitar moments. Furthermore, an API Lunchbox loaded with 512C Pres and 550B EQs, the band confesses, is the “secret weapon” part of the chain nearly every time, except in the case of the drum tracks where only the kick and snare are treated with the box — mostly for the benefit of the 512C sound with only minimal EQing.

“More than not, with the drums, it’s as simple as rolling off the top end,” says Binns. “I find most things are too bright and too annoying to listen to. We all rely these days on Pro Tools, and it’s really hard to get away from that ‘style’ of recording. The good thing is that you can edit easily, but you can edit things so much that you refine things too much, where it actually loses character: You just hit ‘tab-apple-A’ for half an hour, have a cup of tea, and your whole drum track is spliced into bits. We were trying not to do that as much as possible.”

To further aid in moving away from too refined of a sound, Binns demanded that The Garden be mastering onto vinyl. “I find a lot of digitally mastered records, when you turn them up really loud they fall apart,” he says. “If you ever listened to Steely Dan, that band were the first people to spend two weeks in the studio just working on the perfect hi-hat sound. They made all those records on analog equipment and they sounded so much better than the records made now relying on Pro Tools. We’re trying to recreate that, to end up with something not too squeaky clean.”