A glimpse into where and how I record…
Photos of my beloved music studio in San Sebastián, Spain, 2014
Starting work on my sixth album, December 2015
Recording my fifth album Captain of None (photos taken between March and July 2014)
For all songs the viola was recorded straight into my Scarlett Focusrite soundcard via a DPA mic and a Schertler pickup going through an ART preamp, but for some songs which required live delay treatment and speeding up of certain sections I then reinjected the audio into the pedals I usually use for live shows, and then recorded the whole thing in one live take doing all the delay treatment in real time. On Holding Horses, the star is the Moogerfooger MF-104M (the black one on the left) which is an AMAZING analog delay pedal – you’ll see more pics of this pedal as it is very important for three of the tracks on this album.
Apart from the pickup and mic used to record the viola, everything else on Captain of None was recorded using just one mic, a Beyerdynamic MC834: it is such a great mic, I love it for vocals, and it’s also served me well for the melodica, percussion and floor tom. The floor tom which I also used on “Captain of None” is a Gretsch 18’’, it’s so beautiful I feel a bit ashamed that I haven’t gotten round yet to using it more, though you can also hear it, along with the snare drum next to it, on “Humming Fields” and “Breaking Up the Earth”, two of my favourite songs on my 2013 album The Weighing of the Heart.
THIS HAMMER BREAKS.
In the album’s reviews, a lot of things have been written about this track, some of them inaccurate, so I’ll set the record straight with this post. This tracks only contains the sound of a frame drum, my voice and heavy tape delay played in real time (though it’s an emulation of a tape delay and not the real thing) – nothing else. I played a Nubian rhythm on a frame drum (I play it on my lap – it’s on a wooden board for the photo only), speeded it up, then applied delay in the most extreme ways I could, ending with what sounds like morse code/nuclear catastrophe alarm/choose your metaphor. But it’s all done with one delay pedal and a rhythm as the original sound source, there is no additional electronic signal or anything else involved.
“Salina Stars” was the 7th song on which I worked: by that stage I had understood how incredible the Moogerfooger delay pedal was, and I also had a bassline that had been ready for months but on which I couldn’t seem to find anything that fit. Among the inspiring Jamaican music I had listened to was some of Augustus Pablo’s music, but I was worried that if I used the melodica, it would immediately sound like a pale copy, and I was a bit wary of the instrument itself, which can easily turn into something cheesy. However, I did use the instrument on “The melodica song” on my Mort aux Vaches session back in 2004 and I remember LOVING playing that song. So I thought I should at least give it a try, and from the first second of playing the melodica with the Moogerfooger delay, I knew I’d made the right choice, and in two short afternoons the song was finished. The title is a reference to the mind-blowing night sky you can see on the Aeolian island of Salina, full of thousands of stars – hopefully the way I played the melodica on this song is reminiscent of this incredible nature-given beauty.
With each new album I make, I seem to be spending more and more time mixing and making production choices – to the point of obsession. One of the characteristics of this album is that it mostly uses only one instrument, the treble viola da gamba. While you may initially think this makes for easier mixing and producing, in some ways that’s not the case: if I have several layers of viola, I do want to make sure it doesn’t become one indistinct mass, which means I have to find various ways of making the parts distinct from each other (this was a particular challenge for the song “Captain of None” – it was easier for tracks that featured bass lines as at least there was some low frequency contents to introduce more variety), and if it’s just one viola part, as the middle section of “Lighthouse”, then the risk is that it can sound really flat, so I have to find subtle ways of “enhancing its simplicity”, as it were.
Captain of None is the first album (with the exception of Les Ondes Silencieuses) which I’ve mixed using nearfield monitors (Blue Sky Pro Desk 2.1 MKII) and subwoofer (Blue Sky Sub 8 MKIII) and mixing-appropriate headphones (Beyerdynamic DT880 Pro), which was really necessary given the bass contents and made sense now that my studio is decently soundproofed. My reaction was “How on earth did I mix my previous albums on hi-fi speakers and shitty headphones???” Well, I guess it just goes to show that you can do things on a budget, but that upgrading can be really beneficial! ;-)
PS: Subtly lurking in the background, two of my gods, King Tubby and Lee Perry…
This song is probably the happiest-sounding thing I’ve done in my whole life, and it is inspired by all the great African and Jamaican string instrument playing I’ve heard over the years. All the bass lines on this album were played on the treble viola da gamba using an EBS Octabass octaver pedal. On this picture you can see the basic setup I had for recording those bass parts, with the Octabass and an Art tube preamp (both of which I use live), going straight into the Focusrite (I also used the preamp for all the viola parts and not just the basslines). Although the Moogerfooger delay pedal is in the photo, the delays on this song are not from physical pedals but from the awesome delay plugins made by The Interruptor. I highly recommend the whole website he runs (with useful forums on dub production techniques), his plugins AND donating if you do decide to use them – they’re honestly the best delay plugins I’ve ever used!
This was the last song I worked on for the album, with a desire to pay a kind of homage to the practice of dub. Once again the Moogerfooger delay was crucial in creating the mood through generating those “trails” on the voice, and for the percussion assault I wanted, I assembled objects lying around in the studio: my beloved antique Indonesian printing block (originally bought purely for aesthetic reasons, not musical ones ;-)), the rusty 50-year-old bell that used to hang on the door of the studio before it was renovated last year (the place used to be a brinery for olives and guindilla peppers), an Indian ankle bracelet, and chopsticks used against a classic big Ikea glass to generate the tingling sound that starts when I start singing the word “eclipse”, and then against each other. The Burmese bell on the left was not used in the end but you can hear it on “Humming Fields” on my album The Weighing of the Heart.
CAPTAIN OF NONE.
The title track definitely means a lot to me both musically and personally because of its lyrical content. It was the second song I composed for the album (back in the summer of 2013) and the first song I recorded and mixed, from late March to late April 2014– yes, it took me about a month to get it about right (and I kept tweaking it right until the end of mixing the whole album), possibly because it was the first song I was recording and therefore I was troubleshooting a number of recording issues (phasing was a major one, as the viola was recorded with a pickup AND a mike, with some parts ever-so-slightly out of phase but not *totally* out of phase…), but also because it’s one of the densest in terms of sound, and getting the viola parts to sound different from each other proved to be a real challenge since the frequencies are so similar.
Which of course brings me to the incredible instrument that’s made this whole album possible: my beloved treble viola da gamba made by French luthier François Danger at Atelier des 7 cordes. François made my first viola, a bass viola, back in 2006, which you can hear extensively on my third album Les Ondes Silencieuses and on The Weighing of the Heart, the album on which the treble viola makes its appearance on the songs “Ursa Major Find”, Geometría del Universo”, “Raven” and “The Weighing of the Heart”. I sometimes wonder how my music would have evolved if I hadn’t discovered how great the treble viola could sound fingerpicked with an alternative tuning!
I also want to thank Antony Ryan at RedRedPaw Mastering for his valuable advice in the final stage of mixing, and of course for his great mastering!