Proceed With Caution-Built to Spill Frontman Doug Martsch Lets a Little Digital Into His Life

When it comes to toothsome guitar tone, Boise, Idaho–founded quintet Built to Spill’s cup runneth over.
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When it comes to toothsome guitar tone, Boise, Idaho–founded quintet Built to Spill’s cup runneth over.

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The songwriting and performance vehicle for guitarist/vocalist Doug Martsch since 1993, Built to Spill has long been associated with an analogsaturated, effects-punctuated tradition passing from The Beatles and Neil Young’s harmonies, detouring philosophically through the reverb in Lee “Scratch” Perry’s wake, and settling in the overdriven SST Records/Sub Pop/Up Records indie scenes of the 1980s and early 1990s. In the mid-’90s Martsch signed the group to Warner Bros. with an understanding that he’d keep creative control of recording, and in 1997 Built to Spill released Perfect From Now On, a showcase of melodically pinched warbles and pitched leads.

Appropriately, that album was also the last time Built to Spill searched for “perfect tone,” Martsch reveals: “We tried spending hours trying to get these tones on guitar, drums, bass—to capture this feeling I’d get off the Beatles records I was listening to a lot, and we were getting discouraged and didn’t get much real work done. In a way I don’t mind that we never did get it, though. I think when you can capture someone else’s ‘sound’ like that, it takes away the magic.”

Instead, Built to Spill established its own signatures by honing chiming, charming guitar tussles and midrangedevouring solos. In the first decade following that major label debut, Built to Spill released three full-lengths (not counting a live album), which saw various members come and go in the initial years, solidified around Martsch, guitarists Brett Netson and Jim Roth, bassist Brett Nelson, and drummer Scott Plouf. And it’s this lineup that produced There Is No Enemy, the first Built to Spill album since 2006’s You In Reverse and a record more open to incorporating other people’s systems while concentrating on that Build to Spill sound.

A LITTLE DIGITAL EASE

Featuring 11 tracks alternating between introspective brevity and triple-guitar brawn, Enemy is a showcase of protracted jangle, the framework of which was brought for the most part by Martsch to be fleshed out by the band (whereas the last album was jammed out collectively). On the surface, Enemy reveals a more polished riffage with sparkling accompaniment (check out the sweetly trotting “Hindsight”).

Although a supposed analog purist, Martsch admits that Enemy is actually the band’s seventh album as a platform agnostic. However, it’s the first Built to Spill album using Pro Tools for tracking/ compiling. Several years ago, while Built to Spill was demoing in studios around the country, Enemy producer Dave Trumfio first introduced Martsch to the Digi 002 interface/control surface now in his home studio (replacing a 16-channel TASCAM MSR-16 reel-toreel and ADAT, among other boxes).

Trumfio also helped settle on an API 7600 Channel Strip and replaced an AKG C 414 with a Shure SM7A to tame the upper-mid brightness of Martsch’s reedy tenor. In addition, to help get the best from Martsch’s voice, Trumfio would turn the API 550A EQ up a click on the high and low frequencies, and back one on the mids. For compression, he used a 2:1 ratio with a 3dB reduction at the peaks.

While Trumfio admits that Pro Tools’ unlimited options can be an enemy of sorts to some recordists, he says Built to Spill experienced no such adversary in the restricted way he and Martsch incorporated the DAW.

“[Doug] made it clear he wanted a more classic-sounding recording, so in the end we used Pro Tools like a tape machine and manually mixed the record to tape running everything through a 1975 Neve 8068 [originally from Wally Heider Studios] or a Trident 80C, as well as a Toft ATB24 sidecar for additional channels,” reveals Trumfio, who helmed Built to Spill’s sessions off-and-on since 2006 at his Kingsize Soundlabs in Los Angeles. “I was also running stuff through different transformers, hitting Class A gear all along the way. It adds those analog anomalies people are used to hearing.”

PREPRODUCTION TRIALS

But the almost two-year production of Enemy went through different distinct conceptual stages before it finally gelled the final process. One plan was to capture and incorporate live energy, so a week was booked in the old vaudevillian theater at RadioStar Studios in Weed, California, where the full band performed for audiences while simultaneously tracking a version at 96kHz without bleed thanks to isolation nooks under the stage.

In the end, however, only small swatches ended up trimmed into the arrangements. Following that, sessions went back to Kingsize, where the band most often set up in Studio A—an octagonal drum room surrounded by iso booths. An array of microphones— including the Shure Beta 57A, Royer R- 121, Sennheiser MD 409 U3, Soundelux U195 FET, AKG C 414 B-ULS and C 451 B/ST, and Neumann M 149—were set up as trios and X/Y figure-8s against amps such as the Fender Deluxe Reverb, Tweed Deluxe, and Bassman (pulled from Roth’s arsenal of 40-plus amps).

Along with those mic and amp combos, the band tapped custombuilt tremolos, an Ursa Major Space Station, Maestro Echoplex, plate and spring reverbs, Lexicon racks, and Marshall Guv’nor and Danelectro Daddy O. overdrives.

Strategies such as setting up an ambient mic in the drum room and opening the door to the iso booth to varying degrees for adjusting delay were used to capture the legato, sustained bleed of certain proprietary sounds for Netson’s overdubs. Other “freebanger” sessions yielded collaborative jams.

DON’T FORGET YOUR KEYS

Keyboardist Roger Manning contributed Hammond B3 parts (as on the slow-building last track, “Tomorrow”), and the Leslie cabinet was recorded in stereo alongside an LFE channel. “Watching [Roger] bail out parts I thought didn’t even move very well was kind of like what I think a regular person imagines being in the studio is like,” says Martsch, describing with awe what he considered a magical session.

The keys were bussed in mono, and using API 512C and 312 preamps, 550A and 550B EQs, and the Neve 8068 allowed Trumfio to tilt the overall aura where needed. “I would say the Neve imparts 20 to 30 percent of the overall tone, so we would take all those mic sources and bus them to one track,” he says.

Trumfio at one point auditioned a hybrid system of plug-in and analog EQ carving, but Martsch thought it sounded “too modern”—too separated and clean. “I still have a feeling that something with digital affects your nervous system in a different way, that there’s audio outside the range of hearing messing with sound,” Martsch reflects.

He says he has wanted to experiment more with digital collage since purchasing an Ensoniq EPS-16+ sampling keyboard many years ago, but the actual DAW sound still only offers a tenuous mesh with his aesthetic. Guest solos by Scott Schmaljohn of Treepeople and Paul Leary of Butthole Surfers, among others, were recorded remotely, and Pro Tools allowed the selective use of Amp Farm to help settle the raw submissions in the track. But mostly Pro Tools merely allowed Martsch editing luxuries, such as adding and subtracting different tonal runs to assemble the most cohesive aggregate—whether at home, on the road, or at Kingsize.

STAYING THE COURSE

Despite Martsch’s expanding possibilities for manipulation, Enemy is not an overly effected album. “These specific songs to me seemed sort of conventional, straightforward, and they needed to be treated conservatively to maintain a dignity,” Martsch says. “I thought about doing bizarre guitars, but on this stuff it would be distracting, so if anything I learned ways that things could be more dynamic, more f**ked around with in the future.”

Whatever the future may hold, the Enemy sessions ended where all Built to Spill albums have before: with all hands on deck. Trumfio, co-engineer Rob Dennler, and Martsch spread playback across the board and worked from a static balance until everything was carved in just right to respectfully balance a bright ’70sstyle mix and not alienate the lower frequencies that used to come through the synergy of vinyl, needle, and big wooden hi-fi’s. When it was time to commit the final mix to tape, light tightening with an Alan Smart C2 Compressor in discrete mode and a GML 8200 Parametric EQ with a little curve were the final tickle on the twobus chain. The only plug-ins used at any point were a Waves Renaissance DeEsser and a little EQ to work between the API/Neve notches.

Both Martsch and Trumfio proudly agree that there were definite moments when There Is No Enemy didn’t just feel like recording, it felt like making a record.