Having originally served as both engineer and producer for Waltz’s debut album Devastation Celebration, Rottler built a relationship with the band from the console up, deciding to fill the newly vacant slot as bass player just prior to the writing of Finally, The Beginnings End — an album defined as much by its production as its performance. As the band cites the production as a crucial aspect of the end product, Rottler specifically credits the convergence of what is commonly held in the rock production circle as two vastly different geographically characteristic approaches to making an album: The polished and heavily effected “West Coast sound” (i.e. heavily reverbed-out kicks, stacks upon stacks of vocal tracks) being married with the raw power, and affinity for all things tube and tape, of the more edgy “East Coast style.”
“Being from the Midwest, we wanted to stand out by crossbreeding the two sounds,” Rottler continues. “Since my approach to production is more in the West Coast vein, we were lucky in finding Mark Owen — a New York-based mixing engineer who is known for achieving that stereotypical ‘New York Sound.’ He got that in-your-face Tom Lord-Alge sound, but with enough space, depth, distortion, and rawness to sound like it came off the streets of NYC.”
Recorded at Lafayette, IN-based Sound Logic LLC, Waltz approached the project in a manner best described as “calculated,” if not overtly cautious. “We wanted to make sure that everything sounded right from the source. You can’t really fix in the mix, so we would do no more than one song a day, starting with just drums and a click, spending hours just getting the right tones.”
After miking up drummer Derek Llama’s kit (kick inside: AKG D112; kick outside: Neumann U47 FET; snare top: Shure SM57; snare bottom: AKG 414; toms: Sennheiser 421s; hi-hat and ride: Shure SM81s at 45 degrees angled out from bell; overheads: Neumann U87s space paired and time-aligned; room: Shure SM57 in far corner, 20 ft. from source), Rottler says the band captured raw takes and then filled the drum performance up with a few choice overdubbing tactics. “For example, in ‘War Without Faces,’ Dave is doing a lot of tom action that you would have to be an octopus to pull it off. I read about Dave Grohl doing this: overdubbing drums with complete isolation so you can apply effects to specific tracks. It also allowed us to pan so our stereo image was wider than a house.”
“The bass was recorded in a fairly straightforward way,” Rottler continues, “mostly a Fender Jazz bass through Ampeg SVT Pros and 410s. For the first DI track, I went through a SansAmp pedal into a Universal Audio 1176, set at a 4:1 ratio. For the second DI, I went into the Universal Audio 610, later re-amped into the live room, miked with a Neumann U47 and then ran into an Empirical Labs Distressor set at 3:1 — putting both the dry and effected signals to tape.
“Once we got to guitars, the process started flying by. We were recording song-by-song with both Bartek Michael [guitarist] and Jay Brooks [guitarist /vocalist]. After the rhythm and lead parts were recorded (electric guitars: Neumann U47 to Universal Audio Solo 610 and Neumann U87i to Empirical Labs Distressor with HPF and Mid-Boost activated; acoustic guitars: Shure SM81s in XY position, straight into Neve 8108 console), we added in a lot of off the wall sounds — handclaps, stomps, CB radios, guitar-driven pads, and a lot of single note guitar overdubs. Bart has a custom Gretsch that has ridiculous sustain; I would use the Distressor with the HPF and the Mid-Boost, hit at 3:1 to where there’s just a bit of harmonic distortion. It helps to hold the sustain thoughout the track. So, if the song was in A, we would hold an A throughout the entirety of the song to help fill out the sound.”
MIXMASTER, COMP FASTER
The mixing of Finally, The Beginnings End was housed at Cleveland, Ohio’s, CloserLook Recording Studios — a facility chosen for its incredible 72-channel SSL 5000M — with Mark Owen presiding. Having been sent the rawest tracks available, sans even the most rudimentary editing, Owen got to work on the SSL, averaging the completion of one song per day. As Owen tells it, “I had the SSL set up so that everything comes up on my earmarked channels. I’ll start by pushing up the faders and learning the mix, with automation coming into play almost instantly. I can usually have the mix up in around 40 minutes of so, spending the remaining time fine-tuning. We had 40–60 tracks per song to work with, but I condensed them all to only 32; there’s really no need to have 40,000 background vocal tracks coming up on separate faders.
“The 19-foot long SSL was originally built for Disney. We had to modify it to be used for music; it has direct outputs, but no multi-track busing system. It’s closer to a 4000 series, but has a bigger bottom end. Everything is balanced; the desk runs insanely quiet. The output section had been replaced by a Dangerous Music system, which gives it a ton more headroom. Changing the output section opened up the desk more, I think that’s why I feel it has more bottom end.”
Owen claims that there was absolutely no compression or EQ used on the guitar tracks; simply a lot of filters were employed, set at around 5kHz. Bass tracks were given the treatment of the dbx 165a, which Owen attributes to the massive low-end presence on the album. For vocals, Owen ran the signals into a Valley People Audio compressor and, finally, into his trusty Teletronix LA-2A.
“For the drums, I compressed and EQed each element individually (kick: SSL channel compressor; snare: UREI 1178, gated with the Drawmer DS 201; toms: SSL channel compressor, expanded by a modified Drawmer DS 201; overheads: SSL channel compressor; stereo drum compression: Studio Electronics C2). I made a sub mix that is uncompressed to group A, then a compressed group to bus group B. Afterwards, I combine them both to the grand master. It makes the drums sound larger than life.
“I use a Dangerous Music 2-Bus for all of our sub groups. I’ve started working in a hybrid way now that I’ve been turned onto the Dangerous gear; it’s so much easier than having to eat up faders. No matter where I get the mastering done — Sterling or Sony or wherever — all of the gear that my mixes get run through is Chris Muth designed, so this way I really I know what my mixes are going to sound like in the mastering house.”
According to Owen, Finally, The Beginnings End was mixed down to 1/2" on a Studer A80 deck, as well as back into the box. “Of course, hands down, the 1/2" sounded better, and that’s what was ultimately sent to be mastered.”
. . . AND IN THE END
Sony Music Studios’ Dave Kutch handled the mastering duties for Finally, The Beginnings End, claiming to have spent most of his time in the mastering house working on the gain staging of the project. “I think the trend of smashing records for gain is finally going away,” Kutch says. “We spent a lot of time really focusing on the dynamics.” Kutch passed the signal through his API 2500 to soften the highs, then EQed with a Sony Oxford GML. “I then put the signal through the TC Electronic System 6000 and, finally, through the Dangerous Music master section.”
It’s undoubtedly a very exciting time for Waltz for Venus. Fresh from the mastering house, Finally, The Beginnings End was turned out to a major label bidding war of epic proportions, the end result of near constant self promotion and licensing deals that have found the band’s music playing backdrop to a few choice MTV moments, and a few million ringtones. And it only continues to look up as the band approaches the next step with as die-hard of an attitude as ever, as Rottler summarizes the band’s overall approach to both the performance and the production of their music: “From the start, we all agreed on the same basic principles, and we all agreed that we weren’t going to settle on any aspect of this band, especially in the studio. And we didn’t.”