Science and rock'n'roll make for awkward bedfellows. In fact if Science tried to hop into bed with Rock'n'roll it'd probably find itself kneed in the groin and sent to sleep on the couch. Sure, inside the studio it's easy to baffle the unitiated with science - 'Gee there's so many dials and buttons' - but in the recording of rock'n'roll you're not going to call on the men in lab coats, no, you're far more likely to call Nick Launay.
For Nick Launay making a rock'n'roll record is about attitude.
I was very lucky when I started out as an engineer, in that the first couple of records that I ever made were very successful, not that they enjoyed huge record sales but they got a lot of attention in England at the time. Notably, Public Image Ltd's Flowers of Romance, and The Killing Joke's What's This For Records, they were both popular and got great reviews. But I didn't have a clue what I was doing, I mean I had no idea. I liked the bands and I was just going in there and having fun. Then Midnight Oil's 10, 9, 8 was the first Album that had my name on the contract as producer, and still from a technical point of view it was arguable that I knew what I was doing. But as far as I'm concerned those records are the best I've made. And it's because I had that attitude of improvisation.
Later on, when I had actually "learnt my craft" there was a period where I think my records weren't as interesting. So I went back and listen to the earlier stuff, and remember the attitude I had recording those albums.
The two previous Silverchair album's were done very quickly. (Frog Stomp was made in about seven days, while Freakshow was recorded in a comparatively leisurely three weeks.) This time Daniel [Johns, Silverchair frontman and songwriter], had something else in mind. Before we went into the studio Daniel had shut himself away for three months, watched a lot of movies, and wrote, wrote and wrote, and had all these great songs and great ideas. When I first talked to him about it he was very unsure that these ideas could be translated into music for a CD or whether Silverchair was the right vehicle to realize those ideas.
I bought him various CDs demonstrating that an ambitious studio album was possible. One record that really blew him away; was Kate Bush's Dreaming, which I had engineered a long time ago, and had been very creative in the recording of.
It wasn't like he said, "This is what I want to do", it was more a case of, "it can be done", and the fact that I had engineered that record, and was siting there in front of him, made him realize that, it really can be done, and yes, it can be a Silverchair record.
With new confidence he played the songs to Chris [bass]and Ben [drums]. They actually only heard the songs two weeks before we went into the studio.
Which meant essentially it had to be more of a studio album than their previous offerings?
Yeah, we went into the studio very much with the idea that it was going to be a studio album and there were going to be a lot of things that we couldn't give a damn about whether they could be done live - which to be honest, is the way I like to approach making records - doing something original with no rules.
You went back to Festival Studios for this album?
There just aren't that many recording studios in Sydney and they didn't want to do it in America. The thing about Festival is that the they feel really at home there. Both the other albums were very pleasant to make and the staff there are really nice - you're left alone and you've got you're own space. We did also record quite a bit of the album at Gary Beers Mangrove Studios, which is his own home studio up in the hills. Daniel really wanted to try and do the vocals somewhere different, to just be somewhere different to experiment. Gary has also got loads of guitars and Basses, and lots of amps, so we spent about two weeks there doing most of the guitar overdubs.
How did you approach the recording of Neon Ballroom?
The way we had things set up was exactly like a band playing live together, so they could all see each other. Festival has one large room and then has a room at the back which is pretty useless because it's too live for recording, but dampened down it sounds great with a big bass cab in there.
When it comes to recording, every song is done with the three of them playing like they would do live, and everything they played was kept. The way I work with bands like Silverchair who are good musicians, is to do lots of takes, pick the best take, and edit the special bits from other takes into it. Like if there's a really good middle section, in say, take six, but we're going mainly with take four, then I'll just chop the middle section from six into four doing two-inch edits. I'll do some drum fill edits as well. Sometimes Ben will do a spectacular drum fill and it might be in a take where the rest of it is crap, so I'll just stick that drum fill in, splicing with sticky tape. Probably each song has at least 15 edits on average, sometime more, sometimes less. Some song have none, forinstance;"Do You Feel The Same" was all one take.
How did you record the guitars?
Usually, one of my main ways of miking up guitar amps is to use very different sounding mics, put them at odd angles to each other and use the phase difference to choose whatever sound I like. So what I tend to use is a Beyer M88, usually placed at 45 to one of the speakers in the cab, and I use an AKG C12B that I usually point directly at the speaker. So I bring those two mics up two channels of the desk, and when you hit the phase button on either channel the different sounds you can get is amazing. So it goes from Owrrr to Eihhhh, and you can just decide what kind of sound you want and change the fader levels between them to fine tune it - it's just an incredibly good way of having a lot of control and variation in the sound. Then I'll add a ribbon mic to that for ambiance. Ribbon mics are just amazing. They vary enormously, so to say that this brand or this model is the best one, is ludicrous because you can get two RCA 44s and they'll sound completely different . I mostly use an RCA for guitars, I usually put it at quite a distance because they can't handle the volume of Daniel's Soldano amp, which is one of the loudest things every created by man. Because the ribbon mic can be a really hollow, honky kind of sound and sometimes not very bright, it needs the sound of the other mics. Sometimes I'll place the M88 and the C12 panned left and the ribbon panned right. If you listen to the left channel of the recording independently from the right of certain songs, you'll hear that it's one guitar being played, but the sounds on eadh speaker are very different - I mean very, very different, like a completely different guitar sound. So when you're sitting in front of the two speakers and the guitar comes in, and you go Whoowh, dude! Awsome gitar sound!, that's how I do that.
You find that to be a better method of fattening up the sound than double tracking?
If the guitarist is really good, then definitely, because every little nuance of what they do needs to come out, especially when Daniel does those scratchy rhythm bits, which he plays really accurately. As soon as you double track, suddenly it's not as tight, and it ends up sounding like all those other musicians out there who double track to fatten their sound.
How about the bass guitar?
It's a similar thing when I'm recording bass. I usually set up three mics that are all different in their qualities. With guitar I try and get the best sound possible with the amp and mic it up in an interesting way, while with basses I tend to get the main low end bass sound from the DI, usually through a tube compressor like the Drawmer 1960. The 1960 is perfect because it has EQ on it and you can use it as a high quality DI box. I don't know what frequencies they've set the EQ to, it just says treble and bass, but whatever they are, it works amazingly well. So once I've got the DI'ed sound I give the bass its character by getting as much unusual distortion out of things. I'll do that by winding the amp up itself or sometimes I send the bass to a Tech 21 Sansamp or to one of those miniature Marshall amps that cost $30 - the bass sounds great through those, they're the best bass amps! As a close mic I'll mostly use a Sennheiser 421. As a distant mic I'll sometimes use a Neumann U47 or a U87, something that's got top end, and usually roll the bottom end off it, otherwise it just gets too boomy. Sometimes I'll use a really cheap Tandy mic, or I'll even use a Sony Dictaphone type recorder and come out of that.
The bass on Neon Ballroom certainly has a personality of its own.
Yeah, because the guitar is big, fat and friendly and seems to take up all the room in the mix, you need the bass to cover the low end but also cut through the wall of guitar - so it needs a lot of front end and clang to do that. So I'll EQ the bass and decide how much room mic and how much close mic to use versus the DI. Usually I'll put the DI on one track, usually track two of the multitrack, and I'll put the amp onto track one, so when it comes time to mix I can adjust that. But if you solo the bass DI it's basically a very pure low end dubby, almost reggae sound, while the amp is this really fucked up, distorted, nasally, clanging sound. It sounds more like a guitar, and it's not until you put the two elements together that it all makes sense. There's also a lot of rattle on the bass sound. It's funny because on certain types of music, like funk music, the last thing you want is your strings to rattle, you want it very tight and precise. With silverchair's kind of music its all about long held notes and the more rattle, with the strings going brrrrhnnnn, the better it sounds. Although you can get a big hum or rattle on the wrong string and you have to change the bass but more often than not it's the eccentricities that are great. I'll find myself thinking, "oh, there's a rattle on that string, let's EQ it so the rattle comes out more, rather that less!.
What was the drum setup?
Provided you've got a good drummer, getting the right drum sound for me is all about the room. Festival hasn't got what you'd call a conventionally great drum room but I found that depending on where you put the mics you can actually get an amazing drum sound in there. As far as close miking goes I don't use anything special: a Beyer M88 on the kick, a Shure SM57 on the snare, the usual suspects, but basically the big drum sound is all about the ambient mics. Certainly the close mics are always very important - take them away and the whole thing sounds a mess - but they're there to capture the front end. So with the snare, the first click will be from the 57. If you solo it on the tape it will sound pretty decent - it will have low end and be an acceptable snare sound - but once you bring the guitars and bass up, that one mic on its own would sound like a rim shot. So the body of the snare comes from the ambient room mics which will give you the decay that you want. My first choice ambient mic is always a Neumann U87 which I know works on drum ambiance. So I put two U87s up to get a good sound, but I've often found that the best sounding ambient mic could just as easily be the guide vocal mic that was pointing in the opposite direction to the drum kit at some piece of glass along the wall. Or another time I spent a good period EQing and compressing what I thought was the ambient mic coming up a channel of the console. Then suddenly it disappeared. So I called out to Festivals LOVELY assistant engineer Matt Lovell, "Matt, Matt!!" what happened to that great sounding drum mic! He'd say, "That's not the drum mic, It's the one was using earlierto test some of the mic lines, So then He'd set it up again exactly as he found it, which turned out to be on the floor, pointing at some cymbal that's propped up against the wall! But I'm not exaggerating, there's quite a few tracks on Neon Ballroom where the drums sound really roomy, and that's actually from Daniel's talkback mic, or some other mic that was lying around on the floor. To me this is the essence of what recording is all about, there are no rules and you've just got to do everything by ear. Another trick I do, which is a big part of silverchair's drum sound is TO send the close miked kick and snare to a gate each, up two more channels THEN EQ again and send to a Sansamp.
(YOU CAN HEAR THIS SOUND VERY CLEARY ON A REMIX I DID FOR FREAKSHOW CALLED 'THE SLAB')
Usually when the guys hear yhis sound they'll say, "Awesome, can we use just that as the drum sound?", although it does sound exciting, it's one of those things that doesn't really work on its own once you put the guitars in. It's a sound that adds low end and low mid to everything else, to cut through the wall of guitar sounds - It's a really appealing fucked up sound, a bit like ducks quacking. So in the end the kick and snare sounds are made up of the direct mics, the distorted Sansamp version of the same thing, plus the room sound, which is usually two mics placed in very odd parts of the room. The ambient mics aren't a true stereo pair but I sometimes pan them hard left and right. I compress the drum ambiance to tape. Drum ambiance is something that you really need to know that the sound is there. So I tend to go very drastic and use Urei 1176s and they're just bleeding, the meters as soon as you start playing are hitting the endstop and they don't relax until the band are finished.
How do you record Daniel's vocals?
I'll use one mic always, just because it works with him, a Neumann M49, which is the old very fat tube mic. Daniel has a good natural sounding voice, you can hear it when he talks, so to me with people like that it's a simple task of finding the best possible mic and putting it in front of them. I usually compress vocals quite a lot, using a Urei 1176, and go through a Neve EQ. I don't EQ the vocal much at all to tape, it's not necessary. Also if I don't EQ I know that when it comes down to repairing a couple of lines later its not a matter of finding what EQ I used to match it up.
I suppose, going along with the studio album concept, its understandable that there's a lot of overdubs on Neon Ballroom.
A lot of the songs have strings on them, while David Helfgott got involved playing piano on Emotion Sickness. That was John Watson idea (Silverchair's manager), and I think it was a stroke of genius.
David Helfgott is the most enthusiastic person you're likely to meet and he was well into the process. There was also plenty more incidental weird overdubs on this album as well. I asked Jim Moginie, Midnight Oil's guitarist, to come in. Jim and I have a long history of spending hours and hours just recording nutty stuff in the studio. Daniel was new to that sort of experimentation so I wanted them to meet, because I felt they'd get on well. At times we'd have a situation where Daniel would be playing the guitar with some kind of weird effect pedal on it, and I'd have the tape machine running backwards varispeeding it up and down, and then Jim would have it going through some tape loop effect, and he'd be varying the speed of that as well. So all three of us would be doing nutty stuff simultaneously, and we'd end up with all these noises. For instance the weird keyboard-like sputnik noise you hear on the Year 2000, that's all guitars played backwards and so on. Jim and I have been doing this sort of experimentation for years and it takes quite a bit to excite us, so it was great having the band going, ahhh that's so good, I can't believe that sound!, so we'd think, "oh alright, we'll keep that then". There's a couple of deliberately weird things like on Steam Will Rise. There's a Hari Krishna-type chiming bell which was hit with a lot of reverb on it, but as it's played I wound the varispeed up on the tape machine quickly, so it gets slower or lower in pitch when played back. Daniel would be going, "what the hell is this, what are we doing launay?", and very patiently go out there, hold the bell and on a certain beat hit it, but he'd come in and we'd go, "wow that sounds great". Another interesting thing we did was this weird backwards sound in the middle section of Point of View. That's a tape loop of a Mexican band. It was something that Jim had which was spun backwards and played through a Sansamp with me pushing more and more level into the Sansamp so it got more and more distorted as it progressed. It would go from clean to distortion, and cut off at a certain beat in the song, going into the guitar riff.
You took care of the mixing for this album. Was it an easy album to mix?
Mixing was quite difficult because the album had a lot on it, and I felt that I'd liked to have had more time to mix. I mixed it in L.A. at Larrabee North Studios in one of the two SSL J Series rooms. Generally I have a particular procedure that I go through when mixing. My methods now are very similar to Andy Wallace's who mixed Freakshow. Andy Wallace has been mixing a long time, and he's done a lot of great dance records as well as rock'n'roll records. With dance records I think you realize that the most important thing you need is clarity, especially when your mix is played on big speakers. So the way to do that is to gate certain things really tightly. The kick and the snare are very abrupt, very hard, and you compress and gate them so that they are super punchy. I always used to gate and compress snares and the kick, but never to extent that he does. The other thing was I never used to compress the overall mix as much as he does. Also he does a lot of rolling off of the low end to ensure clarity - he doesn't allow the low end of guitars and vocals to get in the way of the low end of the kick and bass. So it's about the very precise placement of instruments, where everything is very clear and in its own space. I used that approach combined with my own desire to experiment. There are certain tracks which probably do sound very Andy Wallace-ish, and others that sound more like the way you find I've done things on 10, 9, 8 etc. Any parting advice from a man who's seen most things to the next generation of engineers and producers? I don't think they need too much advice. Some of the best records around are coming from young producers and engineers. If there's one thing that needs reinforcing it's this: use your ears. For instance, never ever look at what frequency you're changing on the console, because it doesn't mean anything. Even technically it doesn't mean anything. A 2k marking on a Neve desk has little to do with 2k on an SSL desk. I find myself laughing when I see people working with spectrum analyzers in the studio. What are you doing? What's the thought process there? Are you trying to get everything in a line, what does that sound like? Sound is for your ears, it doesn't matter if a meter is going into red or not, it's not about that, it's about sounds. And that's why you find some of the most interesting records are made by these up and coming sound engineers who really don't know what they're doing technically. What they do know is how to get really cool sounds, and they do it because to them it sounds cool, end of story. There's been a lot of debate over the effect of compression in the mastering stage on rock records like Neon Ballroom, not least in the pages of this magazine in recent issues, what's your view? To me the story goes back to when CDs first came out. Originally the idea was that because the medium was digital, it didn't matter what volume went to CD. The English approach was to make sure that there was an enormous amount of headroom. In other words, they put the recordings onto CD at what they called +4dB, and there would be absolutely no compression involved in the process of going from analogue to digital. That way your final CD would sound as near as damn it to the masters.The Americans, being Americans, wanting everything bigger and louder just went, fuck audio clarity and keeping everything nice and proper like the British do, we want level! So they devised a way to squash the hell out of the songs and get as much level as possible onto a CD - and basically it's possible to put an enormous amount of level onto a CD. So all your transients get squashed, all your dynamics get squashed, everything ends up evening out, which is horrible. If you've spent a lot of time making a song really dynamic and almost having the approach of classical music, it's horrible to then find that a mastering room has squashed the hell out of it and you end up with no dynamics. But it comes down to a reality check. Most kids out there are listening to music on smaller speakers, and very often Walkman's that don't actually go that loud. So if you put on an English CD - going back 10 years now - you'll find that the English version of, say, Midnight Oil's 10 9 8 will sound fine, not very loud, but fine. Put the American MIDNIGHT OIL CD on, and to say it's twice as loud is an understatement, it's way louder, and, somehow on a small system, it sounds better. Why? Because all the problems with cheap electronics in Walkman's goes out the window. All the signal to noise ratio problems don't exist anymore because the CD is so bloody loud before it's even picked up by the laser. In effect, for the average punter, the louder CDs simply sound better. They sound better in their car, better on their boom box, and better on their Walkman. If you listened to the same CD on a decent pair of speakers it wouldn't sound as good, no doubt about that. Because, apart from the reduction in dynamics, the problem with this A/D compression is that it brings your stereo image in by quite a lot. If you AB a record pre and post mastering through the A/D compressors, the imaging is quite different. Everything comes in a little bit certain things that were on the left and right, even though they just come in a little bit, become louder; and everything in the centre, like the kick and snare and everything that has high transients, get squashed, so they appear quieter. So it ends up that your whole mix becomes pushed up on the outsides, brought in a little bit, and the middle pushed down. It's very interesting, it doesn't necessarily sound wrong, just different.
So you're content that this final stage compression doesn't detrimentally effect your mixes?
Yeah I am, if it's done correctly. When you're making a rock record, to use the only expression I know that sums it up, it's got to "rock" when you put it on your CD player. That's what it's all about. When you're making a rock album with a rock band where the kids want rock out, what's more important; that they put the CD on, and it sounds extremely loud and it makes their parents complain, or that it sounds technically pristine? There's no contest, you've got to go with what it's about, otherwise you are undermining the original vision of what you set out to do. In a way it would be nice to do two versions of all albums - do the technically correct one and the one that rocks - unfortunately I can't see the record company coming to the party on that one.