Oliver Ackermann’s mixing advice— “It’s all about listening and figuring out what sounds good”—might sound funny coming from a vocalist/guitarist known for working at such a punishing volume. That’s not just hyperbole. When Ackermann and his A Place to Bury Strangers bandmates Jay Space (drums) and Jono Mofo (bass) went to get the single “To Fix the Gash in Your Head”/”Ocean” pressed at a mastering plant last year, the red noise levels on the tape caused the plant’s equipment to malfunction.
The group’s sophomore album Exploding Head [Mute] doesn’t ease off the accelerator, rampaging through 10 speaker-shattering songs that experiment with guitar tones and distortion like Pollock playing with paint. Recording with engineer Andy Smith (David Bowie, Paul Simon) at the band’s Death by Audio studio space in Brooklyn—a former warehouse, which doubles as a venue and base for Ackermann’s custom effects pedal business— allowed them to work without the fear of what could have been numerous noise complaints.
“We actually built the whole second floor,” Ackermann says. “It was rough for morale to live in sawdust for two months, but it worked. I like being in a space where you don’t have to be afraid to saw a table in half if you want to turn it into something else.”
Playing through a bank of custom Death by Audio guitar pedals with names like Full Range Sonic Assault and Total Sonic Annihilation, Ackermann is the unlikeliest candidate to strum a graceful, quiet chord. But while it appears he’s aiming for overdrive, he actually seeks a tight interplay between the instruments and effects. “When you go for that loud guitar sound, it’s all about how it fits in with other instruments,” he says.
Working in a warehouse filled with equipment, Ackermann indulged his experimental side and played with different setups. “We tried recording this as an actual album and spent time getting it right,” he says. “There was a lot more setup. We also experimented and recorded ourselves playing in the hallways and swinging mics over our heads. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.”
Ackermann played Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars because of the possibilities afforded by the whammy bar and the guitars’ thin tones and lack of sustain, which let him get much more dynamic with effects. On opener “It Is Nothing,” he created “alien space-landing sounds” by running circuits on a breadboard through a delay circuit, literally wiring effects on the fly.
To create the metal-on-metal chime on “In Your Heart,” he first fed the guitar through the Death by Audio Tone Fuzz Octave pedal, a wah filter, and the Boss DS-1 with the density turned down to get a brittle tone. He then split the sound and ran it through two amps and increased the separation with spring reverb, a cone filter, and delay, which spread out the signal.
Ampwise, Ackermann usually used a Fender Twin Reverb or Vibrolux, but he also recorded directly to Logic to get a colder digital sound. And he also played into a small Roland batterypowered amp to generate feedback for the bigger amps. “Even though it doesn’t sound that awesome, it sounds good for what it is,” he says. “For six AA batteries, it’s pretty frickin’ loud.”
It can be a struggle to get bass and drum sounds to cut through knotty, dense layers of guitar tracks. To add more punch to the bass, either a Gibson Thunderbird or Hagstrom 8-String, tracks were tweaked with a slight bit of distortion in the mix.
Meanwhile, Ackermann’s affection for Factory Records and early ’80s industrial beats informed the band’s approach to percussion. A hybrid of standard and electronic drums and a variety of tricks and tactics created a rumble to match the highflying guitars.
The drum kit was miked with Shure SM57s, SM58s, and CAD E100s. For a crisp sound, mics were sometimes placed in the center of the kit with a spoon taped below the snare, which created separation and slight delay. As many songs progressed, they added an electronic trigger on the kit, connected to the Roland SPD-20 drum machine. “We added that trigger for the choruses because sometimes the guitars got so crazy, you’d lose the drums,” Ackermann says.
For extra depth, vocals were recorded on a Neumann U 87, split into two preamps, and blended with numerous effects such as the Death by Audio Echo Master, which created the haunting echo on “Keep Slipping Away.”
Mixing was done in Pro Tools, and iZotope Ozone 4 played a key role in mastering. “It helped us get a lot of the over-the-top sound,” Ackermann says. “It has an awesome suite of mastering plug-ins, which sound good on any tracks that needed to jump out of the mix; there are a lot of things you can do with compression to make things pop.”
The end result, a searing blend of crisp rhythms amidst a thicket of elemental tones and frequencies, is bracing. The band’s truly DIY approach to generating a unique sound hasn’t been painless, but it’s allowed A Place to Bury Strangers to transcend their noisy progenitors.
“I’ve done stupid things before like picking up a soldering iron with my bare hands and getting grilled by the iron,” Ackermann says. “It actually smelled kind of good, like hamburger, but it was very painful. I’ve also shocked myself a bunch of times. I used to build all these light controllers and would mess around with mains powers. But we live in the U.S., so it’s not too dangerous.”