The music of Denton, Texas, band Midlake sounds labored over in the best possible way, an artful, sepiatoned style of folk rock exuding the craftsmanship of a handwritten manuscript. But the band’s airy, languid delivery masks the precise arrangements and extensive effort expended during composition and recording. Making The Courage of Others [Bella Union], the follow-up to the band’s 2006 breakthrough The Trials of Van Occupanther, took more than a year and a half, including a side trip to the Sand Hill Farm in Buffalo, Texas, to shake up recording sessions after frustration had metastasized.
“The studio was getting quite dark, and there were bad vibes in there from so many failures every day,” admits frontman Tim Smith. “It felt like we needed to get away.”
The work done on that farm set the stage for final recording at the group’s small hometown studio in Denton. British folk music like Pentangle and Fairport Convention and the guitar tones on American singer-songwriter Jimmie Spheeris’ debut album Isle of View, seeped into the new songs, according to Smith. The bulk of the album was tracked as the band played together—as opposed to overdubheavy Van Occupanther—with the drummer in the main room and other members performing in the control and storage rooms. On “Rulers, Ruling All Things,” a subtle bass thump, winsome drums, and guitar and flute melodies are as intertwined as a Celtic knot. But it wasn’t recorded with the kind of acoustic and vintage equipment one might expect.
“You probably would think we use a lot of analog gear, but we don’t,” Smith says. “We used a RADAR V [digital recording system] and an old Soundcraft board from the ’90s.” RADAR’s simple interface and distraction-free technology impressed Smith, who went so far as to tape the cover of a Peter and the Wolf record over the monitor screen when they were tracking Van Occupanther. “I really hate looking at a screen of colored waves of sound,” he says. “You’re expecting to hear something because you see the wave coming up and it’s very distracting.”
The band’s digital gear (they use Logic and Cubase for mixing) and the slightly gothic tinge on many of the album’s tracks doesn’t mean the music sounds cold. Midlake utilizes an Empirical Labs EL7 Fatso, a compressor that adds high-end harmonics to recreate tape-like warmth. They’d often run the overhead drum mics and Smith’s vocals through the Fatso to slightly amp up the bass during mixing.
The band normally used a Martin D-16 GT acoustic guitar and found the Neumann U 87 sounded better for recording picking instead of strumming, so they pinned the mic to the 12th fret. “We didn’t really use a lot of compression,” Smith says. “With the acoustic guitars, we just went direct to the board, and those preamps sounded fine.”
Meanwhile, the Fender Jazz bass was altered with a little foam or denim placed by the back bridge to muffle the sound (as heard in the rich thump of “Acts of Man”). “It gets more of a plucky sound,” Smith says. “We were really inspired by that early ’70s bass sound. I always like that Höfner hollow bass sound, really woody-sounding bass.”
Smith also fretted a lot over his vocals, settling on an AKG C 414 and usually standing back about seven inches while singing. Smith feels the 414 flattens out his voice and accentuates the mid-range. He swapped in a U 87 occasionally to get a more canny sound.
“I’ve never been a big fan of my voice,” he says. “It always takes me a long time. I always record alone and there are punch-ins all over the place. It may take me a day for a song. Finding the right mic is tough. People blame it on the mic, but man, it’s my voice.”
The band was its own harshest critic, constantly re-recording and evaluating because they believed they needed to get the right sound during tracking. And their recording techniques evolved as they went. They only used three mics for the drums on “Acts of Man,” the first song recorded on Courage of Others, but by the end of the sessions, they were using up to seven, including an AKG for the snare, a Beyerdynamic Opus for the bass, and a Soundelux U99 room mic.
“If it’s lacking energy, you can’t wait for mixing,” Smith says. “It’s going to sound stale. In the future, I want to do more of the live type of recording with less overdubs, more like the old-school bands. Go back and listen to records like Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun. Music like that sounds so good, so different from today.”