Depending on whom you ask, Goldfrapp is a person, place, or thing. And all answers are correct.
Goldfrapp is Alison Goldfrapp, a chanteuse-songwriter working dark allure into a Day-Glo pop medium. Goldfrapp is also the creative space in which the UK-based duo of Alison Goldfrapp and vintage-synth enthusiast Will Gregory collaborate. And Goldfrapp is a decade-long conglomeration of analog cabaret, throbbing synth-pop come-ons, squelching romantics, and icy “sado-pop” (as described by the band), which has coalesced into a fifth full-length album, the self-produced Head First [Mute].
Goldfrapp the diva has been perfecting her theatrical persona through varying periods and performance spaces, emerging from the glitter massacres of the art college circuit in the mid-’90s with cinematic appearances among the bleary noir of Tricky’s Maxinquaye and Orbital’s Snivilization and Middle of Nowhere, among other albums. Goldfrapp the musical partnership, meanwhile, has been around since 1999, when Goldfrapp and session musician/soundtrack composer Gregory were introduced, resulting in their modern classic 2000 debut, Felt Mountain, a collection of eerie resonance.
The results of that meeting have been an ongoing series of synthborne vignettes, peppered with the influences of John Barry film scores to psychedelic pastoral folk to Italo disco, and praised by everyone from journalists to Madonna. In varying degrees on alternating albums, the duo has built up, then torn down dancefloor burners and comedown epics. It’s this ability to balance freeform with a sound foundation that even attracted Christina Aguilera to commission a week of sessions with the duo in February of 2009.
Speaking of range, on 2008’s Seventh Tree, Goldfrapp looked to the countryside to provide a new contrast, incorporating wafts of acoustic guitar, chirping found sounds, orchestral strings, and striking Celtic harps. But with the nine concisely edited tracks of Head First, Goldfrapp has settled into the opening cusp of the ’80s for inspiration.
Will Gregory steps back from the mix and takes notes.
If there’s any track that’s crystallized the thrall in which Goldfrapp can hold a dancefloor, it’s “Ooh La La.” Released in 2005 on the album Supernature, this vamping track followed in a lineage directly traceable to the golden era of stomping glam and Giorgio Moroder.
Goldfrapp first codified this approach on 2003’s Black Cherry, using it to best effect on the tracks “Strict Machine” and “Train.” The group then bypassed that thick, robotic, radio-commandeering sound on Seventh Tree, before returning to the electro-pop realm with Head First. But this time around only recalls the repetitious minimalism in tone, as one of the main goals of Head First was to focus more on arrangements.
“A song like ‘Ooh La La’ hammers on one note and gets bigger and smaller, staying in one key as it drills its way at you, and we liked that and make a virtue of it,” Gregory reflects. “But for Head First we wanted to try on a new set of clothes, change key into the chorus in some way that didn’t sound like a cliché, make it direct, and not hide behind sounds.”
This time, they were more attentive to structure changes in their songs. “I think in the past we got off on the rawness of the electronics, how that set the atmosphere, but often we were content to let that run with the voice. Of course, we still love Moroder and Vangelis. Moroder is very good at having a pulse at one tempo and then there’s something going against it, underneath it, maybe a half-time thing with a different harmonic logic, but we realized there are so many different ways to go. So, listening to Hall & Oates, Billy Joel, and various people who we thought had a handle on getting drama out of a song structure, we saw how you can have twists and turns and arrive at a chorus that makes it feel good, not just catches attention because you have a huge drum fill and explosive white noise. We wanted to use space musically, not just sonically.”
Alison sees Head First as less clinical than previous efforts. “It’s warmer in sound, warmer in its sentiment, than Supernature,” she says. “We worked to keep things both simple and far from boring, and to bring out the best performance without polishing it until it’s too shiny.”
As it turns out, directness is far from a completely new concept to Goldfrapp. Head First was recorded between March and December 2009, primarily in Gregory’s home-based studio in a town near Bath, England, where Gregory surrounds himself with a collection of analog synths he surveys from a Yamaha 02R mixing board with 16-channel bussing. While he also has a restored Audix desk, he says he’s yet to integrate it; he finds using his 02R may be primitive, but it is instinctive and “when writing you can sacrifice a bit of sound to tease an idea out.”
This put-the-song-first approach prevails over equipment upgrades (including a move from Logic Pro 7 to Logic Pro 8 that was postponed in favor of immediacy). Gregory professes to recording every take as it’s happening, as he’d rather work to snip up and stitch things back together later than “end up down an extended technical alleyway while Alison is left to look out the window,” Gregory says.
And recording impulsively yields better musical results than if they were to over-think every move. “The English language doesn’t contain too many words to describe music past ‘faster,’ ‘slower,’ ‘louder,’ ‘softer,’ ‘higher,’ ‘lower,’ so we prefer to indulge the spontaneous and speak in example.”
“I can’t read music,” Goldfrapp admits. “So instead of saying, ‘Just go to B flat,’ it’s more likely we’d say something like, ‘Take what you just played and make it fizzy, make it feel like it’s squeezing out of your chest and off the edge of a cliff.’”
For several albums now, Goldfrapp has recorded vocals through a large diaphragm Percy Bear mic (with an AKG 12 C capsule) into a 1976-era Audix preamp, which Gregory says is equivalent in character to a Neve strip. He feels the combination picks up the dimensionality of Goldfrapp’s higher register, although sometimes Goldfrapp just sings through a Shure SM58 direct into the board when the duo needs to work through a vibe together in the control room.
Gregory often splits the vocal signal from a DI to record in stereo—one channel dry and the other a combination of Bel Digital Delay, Roland SE- 301 Space Echo, Boss CE-1 Chorus Ensemble and/or Electro-Harmonix Small Stone Phase Shifter. The idea is to capture the most musical response and create long, subtly degenerating lines without losing an entire take because one note might need pitch correcting (which is difficult once draped in effects).
For pitch correction, Gregory takes the dry vocal into Celemony Melodyne for minor tweaks, or quite often to create a separate harmony as a suggestion for Goldfrapp to follow. “Maybe in one or two songs [such as ‘Believer’], we retained some of the parts I created, but I really only use Melodyne to get a sound I can’t get myself; mostly it just moves the process along and explores possibilities when Alison’s not there. Normally I’d prefer to have her to cycle around and build tracks up.”
There are times, however, when a little unnatural layering is a good thing. For example, the Bel delay was particularly favored on tracks such as “Voicething,” as it can deliver threesecond- plus long repeats, or you can halve the bit-rate and double it, switch things in and out to suddenly go half or double speed, and control the regeneration to get a much longer deterioration than a tape echo. “You can use it for a lovely Terry Riley-style fast slapback or to build up great long loops of yourself, almost like a [DigiTech] JamMan,” Gregory says.
Other vocal experiments include Gregory using some of Goldfrapp’s melodies as the basis for synth lines. Or he’ll patch them through pedals and filters to create hybrid instrumentals. Or he reverses tracks, has Goldfrapp sing another take, and transposes that, creating a psychedelic whoosh. And certain vocal inflections are used as musical punctuation, such as the use of a repeated “Ha” cut-and-pasted throughout “Hunt” and “Voicething.”
“Since Laurie Anderson [and her syllable-enriched single ‘O Superman’], it’s been in the vocab, and it’s a powerful thing to play a sampled vocal to get a bit of robotic-ness,” Gregory reflects. “You have to remember, however, that a ‘Ha’ is a bit like a guitar strum; if you put the front of the audio on the downbeat, it sounds late, and if you put the loudest part there it doesn’t work either, so you end up having to play with it a bit by ear.”
Gregory’s home studio near Bath, England.
Gregory often likes to capture synths analog-style as opposed to acquiescing to the convenience of plug-ins. “I like the idea of Max/MSP, how to create your own bespoke effects; it’s power to the people, isn’t it? But I prefer when you really move air in a room to programming the comb-filter-frequency- range-response-degenerationmultiple- delay thing,” Gregory says. “The day I first put a [Roland] SH-101 through a Space Echo was much more powerful for me in terms of realizing how far I could take sounds if I just plugged in and go.”
A noticeable shift has happened over the years, as the Goldfrapp synth collection has transitioned from mono to polyphonic. And it shows in the chords that swell across Head First with a jubilance that sounds genuine. “Writing songs is a process of Gregory and I in a room doing a lot of jamming,” Goldfrapp says. “Writing, producing, and recording are all parts of the same world, and for this album we kept pushing [the synths/buttons] until we found the appropriately ‘up’ flavor that we felt helped define the identity of the song.”
More than one track began with a simple pulse rather than complex MIDI sequencing. For example, “Shiny and Warm” evolved as a single-finger bass line jumping off from the template of “Cheree” by Suicide. “I think some of their stuff is very beautiful and soft in the minimal-ness it has,” Goldfrapp says. “And I love on ‘Shiny and Warm’ how the synths are quite stark, working the atmosphere on that tune, working in the hardness and space against the vocal—it’s really quite lyrical.”
Goldfrapp’s weapon-of-choice, the one that also made “Ooh La La” such a signature, is often the Oberheim Four-Voice, which offers a warm Synthesizer Expander Module (SEM) quartet, mixer, and 49-note keyboard for blending. Undeniably suited for monster riffs (only two years removed from the Oberheim OB-X that provided Van Halen with the arena-worthy “Jump”), the Four-Voice is found on “Rocket,” which opens Head First. Gregory finds this synth versatile enough to be set in mono for bass lines and just as quickly switched into formants for harmony. A similar voice can be found in multi-oscillator synths through a detuned sawtooth wave and adjusted envelopes, but Gregory really loves the Oberheim’s filters, which he finds so “sizzly and lovely once you shove the resonance up and use it at the top to drive quite hot,” he says.
An equally inspirational, frothy DX7 soft synth was added to “Rocket” and became the backbone of “Alive.” Some of Gregory’s favorite synth work, however, is when he intentionally warps “slightly dead-end synths” to apply distinctive detailing. For instance, a pulse at the bottom of “Voicething” is an Elka Synthex played into the Audix preamp until it overloaded but before it became “clicky.”
There are also instances on the album of a Siel Orchestra 2 internally EQ’d to add creatively muted, while still animated strings. Equally, units such as the Moog 15 were placed in the tree to be used as filters, finding peaks in the resonance of another synth and using it creatively to add drama to the swooshing high pads in “Believer.”
However, unlike on previous albums, which have seen a copious use of pedals such as the Univox Super-Fuzz, the synths on Head First were not excessively overdriven. “I did put a little [Line 6] Amp Farm on some things, added a little spring reverb, or fuzzed them up a little,” Gregory says. “But it wasn’t like my use of the Univox [on Supernature], because listening to how revved up everything was can tire me out now.”
DRUMS AND THE FINAL LAP
Helping Gregory navigate the forest of patch leads is sonicstate.com, offering an online archive full of historical specs plus user tips and tricks on discontinued electronics. But the association doesn’t end there, as the editor of Sonic State, Nick Batt, has been a long-term collaborator with Goldfrapp. For Head First, he contributed by coordinating a first for Goldfrapp: the recording of live drums that were integrated into “Rocket,” “Alive,” and “I Wanna Life.”
“We had some grooves tracked at Real World Studios,” Gregory says, “where [engineer Greg Freeman] set up some [Neumann] U 47s as medium range, then a couple back in the room to get a slooshy sound. And he added a Cole 4038, as well as some close mics, and I think there was an NS10 speaker in front of the bass drum for some sub. Nick would break out the kicks and snares and overheads to allow some flexibility, but then he mixed it all down to stereo and put some delay and reverb and EQ on them to get different character—like stadium or dry and disco—and then turned them into Apple Loops for me to drop in. From there I’d add my own kicks and snares and do things like take all the bottom out to make them just a topkit sound.”
And Batt was not the only contributor on Head First. “We’ve become more catholic about letting [acoustic] sounds in that weren’t ‘traditional’ for us in the beginning,” Gregory admits. Two guitarists (Alex Lee and Chris Goulston), a bassist (Charlie Jones), a violinist (Davide Rossi) and drummer (Jed Lynch) all contributed sessions.
Additionally, Tim Goldsworthy (DFA/UNKLE) assisted percussion and arrangements for four tracks and provided Gregory with a new toy. Goldsworthy had commissioned a device about the size of a matchbox that offered MIDI in/pulse clock out, with a single knob where you could subdivide the clock to 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and 64. This allowed Gregory to lock a vintage synth’s arpeggiator to the computer session, creating instant “spiky fireworks” off of a few chord shapes. Previously, Gregory had tried holding his SH-101’s arpeggiator at a fast setting while toggling the octave switch to shoot it up and down very fast, but Goldsworthy’s box offered an easier realtime option, which made its way to a lead synth on “Dreaming” and “Alive” without the need for a clunky CV-to- MIDI converter.
Then, engineer Bruno Ellingham came onboard to assist Gregory in the studio. “He tidied up takes, ordered things, did comping and editing, and contributed some arrangements,” Gregory says. Also, while finalizing Head First with mixing engineer Mark “Spike” Stent, Gregory brought in engineer Pascal Gabriel (see sidebar) to help out. Gregory says Gabriel, who he met during remix work done on Goldfrapp’s 2006 single “Ride a White Horse,” provided in-the-box “polish, sparkle, and shine,” plus some arrangement advice for several tracks. “He was great for the last 100-meter dash, came in quickly and efficiently when it was hands-tothe- pump time.”
The tracks went through Logic in the final preparations before mixing. “I sometimes put a compressor over the mix when making guides,” Gregory says. “But I don’t rely on compression or EQ to glue it all together before the mixing stage. I think you’re sonically limiting yourself and creatively cheating yourself if you start early on compression like it’s on the radio just to make yourself feel excited about it. I think it’s better to work on the balance, keep things open, focus on countermelodies, all the octave doubling, all the rhythm emphasis, and put all the energy into that. That’s my puritanical streak, I suppose. Maybe I’m going MOR,” he says with a laugh.
“It all comes down to the arrangements, keeping the song on a journey that ebbs and flows but ends up feeling good,” Goldfrapp says. “We’ve always been good at getting things as they are happening, knowing when to step back, and working together to avoid eluding the plot.”
With a positive outlook that echoes Head First’s euphoric sonic attitude, the Goldfrapp partnership sounds like it’s in a good place and is a good place to be.
SECURING A SOLID BASS
Producing a modern electronic album built up from varying synths can feel like a game of limbo, like trying to answer the question, “How low can you go?” When it comes to bass, sometimes the result is not low enough, as Will Gregory found out during the finishing stages of Goldfrapp’s Head First sessions. Luckily, Gregory called some auxiliary reinforcement in the form of sound engineer Pascal Gabriel, who worked diligently on a handful of cuts to take the original Logic Pro 7 sessions up to Logic Pro 8 for structural and arrangement suggestions, while being especially attentive that the bottom end on synths and kick drums was “locked and tight, without any unnecessary wobble,” he says.
On “Rocket,” for example, Gabriel suggested a “two-bar edit of the prechorus section to tidy up the arrangement, after helping them complete a new middle-8 break,” he says. Then he used his “first port-of-call” sub-bass generator GForce Minimonsta (a “Minimoog emulation on steroids”) to unify synths into something “lovely and warm, and very distinct,” he says.
Universal Audio 1176LN and LA-2A plug-ins were applied to help dial in this composite tonality, as some rhythm lines were from original tracking, some were soft-synth replacements, and then an additional smattering were Korg MiniKorg 700 and Moog Voyager overdubs. However, overriding compression/EQ was left to engineer Bruno Ellingham and mixing engineer Mark “Spike” Stent, who were given a band-approved pre-mix monitor featuring Gabriel’s contributions that was then imported into Pro Tools.