David Castell: Behind the board with Blue October

Currently, Blue October’s Foiled is making a big splash on a national level, becoming a certified gold record in recent months and affording the band extensive touring opportunities with the likes of the Rolling Stones — successes that landed producer and longtime collaborator David Castell, who produced most of the album’s tracks including such hits as “Into the Ocean” and “Hate Me,” into a great deal with Worlds End and worldwide recognition for his production prowess.
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An interesting production from top to bottom, Foiled is full of unexpected sonic textures, brilliantly layered vocals, and rock solid drums ’n’ bass. On listening to the diverse palette of sounds and effect treatments throughout the record, it’s no surprise that Castell cites Brian Eno as a primary influence.

But perhaps what’s most interesting, given the lush quality of many of Castell’s tracks with Blue October is the ubiquitous embracing, from performer to producer, of modern technology. In fact, word on the street is that Castell handled tracking, mixing and mastering 100% “in the box” . . . an urban legend he’s not quick to dispel: “I was an early adopter, one of those guys who paid $10,000 for two 650MB SCSI drives when they first came out,” he says. “I’ve been “in the box” now for about four years, working mostly in Nuendo for this album.”

Castell, a huge plug-in advocate, points towards the Universal Audio plugs — namely UAD’s LA2A compressor, the 1176 limiter and the Fairchild — as his treatments of choice all the way through the mastering process. But it’s his shameless guitar modeling proclivities that are probably the most surprising, in terms of applications: About 90% of Foiled didn’t even utilize physical guitar amps — a stunning achievement when you listen closely to tasty tracks like “You Make Me Smile” and “Drilled a Wire through My Cheek.” Castell notes, “C.B. [Hudson] and Justin [Furstenfeld] simply brought in their axes and a tuner for each session.”

Furstenfeld, who is also lead singer and chief songwriter in addition to his duties as a guitarist, is one of those vocalists who is always “on;” he makes the tracking of multiple vocal melodies and harmonies seem almost effortless. “Justin is one of the best vocalists I’ve ever worked with,” Castell exclaims. “He’s just a machine and can get into character in about five seconds, delivering every time. I’m basically just there to document him and bring out ‘less of this guy’ or ‘more of that guy.’ All I have to do is say one word, and he’ll give me an entirely new character and an entirely new take.”

Working alongside such an “overachiever” in this sense presented an interesting production challenge for Castell: “In contrast to the last album, Justin was doing a lot of layering and doubling up on his vocals, while putting other harmonies on top. He did lots of preproduction and kind of fell in love with that multi-layered sound. I found that one of my jobs as a producer was to pull this back a bit.” Still, these layers leave an indelible mark on the album’s sound, “Into the Ocean” being a prime example of this.

It’s Furstenfeld’s dynamic singing that is a signature of Blue October’s dramatic live performances — any single vocal take can move from a light whisper to a raspy screech in a matter of seconds. But when trying to harness this beast in the studio, Castell says he typically captures Furstenfeld’s vocals point blank through a Neumann U47, an API 512 B lunchbox, then into his Manley Vari-Mu tube compressor. He applies light compression, being careful not to have too fast of an attack or release. But it’s while mixing Justin’s vocals that Castell stirs up the pot a bit: “I’m a big fan of nuking the vocals on the 1176 at the mix stage, then going back and meticulously editing all the breaths. I am pushing some pretty severe compression ratios to make sure it’s all right up there in your face, whether he’s yelling or whispering.”

“Into the Ocean” is perhaps the most powerful showcasing of Furstenfeld’s vocal delivery, with a strong harmonizing track that stands with equal prominence to the lead vocal in the mix. Castell describes the challenges of panning in such a case: “In this song, it was hard to discern where the melody would sit, because the harmony is such an integral part,” Castell notes. “I decided that these would be stacked up on top of one another in the center of the stereo field, because the combination of these vocals should really be perceived as one thing.” General effects, Castell notes, were used rather sparingly, and limited to subtle “radioed out” delays of about 20ms, which he hard-panned left and right to sit in the far corners of the stereo image.

One of the more captivating aspects of Foiled is the drums — which vary from sounding cold and quite machine-like on some tracks to bright, live, and in-your-face on others. Castell explains that the drums (plus the bass tracks and some violin parts) were the only elements tracked in a ‘proper’ studio: Music Lane Studios in Austin, Texas. Working alongside his ‘drum team’ (engineers Mark DuFour and Andy Sharp), Castell recorded sample hits of varying velocities before capturing the actual performances of drummer Jeremy Furstenfeld. Castell would then proceed to time align in Nuendo while replacing select segments with more “pristine takes” from the sampled session. “I do a lot of drum replacement with Drumagog, of which I am a big fan,” Castell tells. “I do the replacements with the sampled drums from the session so I can get the isolation I’m looking for. ‘Into the Ocean’ is an extreme example of this, where I was trying to emulate a Linn drum machine with ‘Hotel California’-type toms.”

Before Castell goes into electronic manipulation mode, he is careful to record the exact sound he’s looking for, both within the samples and the actual performance: “We wanted to get a really nasty, rattled snare on the first and third verse of [‘Into the Ocean’]. Mark Dufour suggested that we put a splash cymbal between the snare wires and the bottom head, so we shoved one in there. That’s what makes that snare sound so distinctive.”

Castell is quick to further emphasize the benefits of drum replacement following tracking. “When you’re recording a rock section, for example, every time you’re rolling off a tom fill, what is the next thing? A crash cymbal. Unless you make a replacement, you’re never going to get the isolation and sustain off of that tom roll off without a big crash cymbal interfering. By sampling that tom either prior to or after the session, you can grab that sampled tom, stick it over itself and voilà! You have a pristine, sustained drum with no cymbal bleed.”

Furthermore, while tracking drums, Castell tells us that a typical technique he uses to achieve his sound is to apply substantial compression to the room mics: “I know in advance if it’s going to be a crunchy thing or an airy thing, and on rock stuff, I won’t hesitate to put a stereo Distressor on my room mics, which I hit pretty hard.”

Even though Castell is quite adept at handling the engineering duties when working with Blue October, he knows exactly where he is in the big picture of the production. He describes how he helped influence the mood on “Into the Ocean”: “In that song, the first thing I noticed was the pentatonic scale, which used of all the black keys. It’s hard to play all the black keys on the piano and not think of wind chimes, water, and Asia, so I just kind of took it all the way there and made the whole song sound very Asian.” And the ‘whale’ bass sound that brings up mental images of a rolling sea? This was also Castell’s idea, and a simple one to execute at that. Castell ran bass player Matt Noveskey plus a chain of old Boss pedals direct: a CE-1 chorus through a bit of reverb from an RV-5, then a small amount of delay in the DD-3.

While Foiled is mostly a rock record, there are many classical elements; for example, the track “Everlasting Friend” has contributions from violinist Ryan Delahoussaye and cellist Sarah Donaldson. As Castell says, “I did some of the violins in Austin at Music Lane Studios, but other parts I overdubbed in my living room, which doesn’t have particularly high ceilings. However, as I was basically miking these extremely close, the ceiling height wasn’t a problem. I was going for more of an intimate sound rather than an orchestral sound.”

When it came time to mix Foiled, Castell started by bringing up the drums and bass, then the vocals prior to bringing in any other sonic elements: “I think it’s crucial to get the drum balanced with the vocals, unless it’s modern rock, which is all about the guitars.” While in the mix phase, he pre-mastered by applying EQ and compression on the stereo bus. “I’ve got quite a chain of stuff on there because I want to know how the final master is going to sound. I’m never really far from a fully mastered state of mind.”