Analog Recording in Digital Times

While the revolution in recording technology centers on affordable digital audio workstations, the affection for the old analog traditions and sounds is more than just nostalgia. To that end, Britain’s six-piece Band of Bees is working hard to reclaim and recapture some of the vintage sounds of legendary artists from the ‘60s and ‘70s like The Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, and the Young Rascals in their recordings.

To create the celebrated sounds from past eras takes more than modern simulators – it requires an esoteric mix of current and vintage gear, and the Bees’ arsenal is mostly made up of co-founder Paul Butler’s collection. Butler, a self-declared student of vintage production technique and technology, emerged from the band’s newly-constructed studio, The Steamrooms, for this interview.

Octopus is the first album to be recorded at The Steamrooms, and is the band’s third release. It’s another entirely original mélange of hot grooves, solid vocal lines, and funky horns, with echoes of many classic pop productions simmering in the mix.

Butler has spent a lot of time studying old recordings, carefully analyzing how certain sounds were created. Here he describes the mics, console, reverbs, and echo used on Octopus, as well as the techniques used by the band to record the album.

You’ve recorded each of your three albums in a completely different environments, from a garden shed, to Abbey Road, and now your own studio. Could you talk about the recording journey you’ve made over the last four years?
I’ve always admired the sound of older productions, not only do they capture the energy better, but they have a certain chunky sound I love.

For the first album (2002’s Sunsine Hit Me), it was very hard work to get the mix to sound right, to get a vintage sound, so we had to rely on a lot of outboard gear. To add to that, while recording the album our monitor speakers broke, so we had to wait while they were repaired. As we struggled with the mixes for the album, I complained that we ‘should have just gone on to Abbey Road Studio 2.’

As it goes, the album was nominated for a Mercury Prize [Ed Note: the UK’s most prestigious annual music award] and before I knew it, we were signed to EMI. It wasn’t long after that my wishful thinking became reality and we were booked into Abbey Road Studio 2 for six weeks to record our follow up album, 2004’s Free the Bees.

During the making of the second album, I discovered that the speakers we had repaired during the mixing of Sunshine were wired out of phase. The repair firm had botched the job, which explained why we struggled so much with our mixing!

We are very content now to have a dedicated studio here where we live. (The Steamrooms is located in the basement of Butler and co-founder Aaron Fletcher’s home in the small Isle of Wight town of Ventnor.)

Was working at Abbey Road as good as you imagined?
Yes. We certainly used the opportunity to use all the old kit that was available. For instance, we always admired the sound of the big old Fairchild 660 limiters, and had the chance to use them. We also used the TG 12413 stereo limiter, sort of an answer to the tube Fairchild, a solid state version developed by EMI labs. The sound of these is really magic, though a bit violent in how they respond.

We were also using the actual TG console, [Ed Note: The EMI TG consoles were designed by the engineers at Abbey Road and built by EMI’s own laboratory in Hayes. The Beatles recorded the Abbey Road album using a TG. See story links below for more info.]

Equally as fascinating as the gear were some of the old boffins (studio techs) who had designed and used the gear back in the day. One in particular, “Lester the Microphone Tester,” was simply amazing, someone we loved speaking with about recording. We learned about the famous Beatles REDD 51 desk, which was so massive it took 10 men to move it about. Lester showed me the pots used to adjust levels on it. The size of these pots was incredible, you used two hands to adjust each one. For the boffin-minded, like myself, it helped me to understand how sound got through such pots much more easily.

Let’s jump back to The Steamrooms. What are the rooms like?
There’s a lot of wood, which we like the sound of. The floors are solid oak, and the walls are pretty much pine everywhere — it looks a bit like a sauna, hence the name. There are three rooms, all small, but it’s plenty of room for us. The lads all mucked out the basement, as we had to go out beyond the original size of the basement to get a bit more room by extending the basement into the garden.

We wanted it to have a club house vibe, a place where anyone in the band could just drop in and start making music. So far it’s working nicely that way. We’re also looking forward to having local bands in to record. It’s a three-minute walk to the beach and just a few steps to the local pub. The location couldn’t be better.

Let’s talk about some of the sounds on Octopus. One that struck me right away was the sound of the drums on “Got To Let Go,” it sounds like you are tracking the drums in a pretty big room. How did you record that?
Well, that was actually a mistake, of sorts. We tried to do a double drum track with Michael Clevett and I each playing the beat on a different drum kit at the same time. It really didn’t work, so we went back and recorded one kit and one player, but mistakenly used the three mics that were on the other kit, all the way across the room! That resulted in that extra roomy sound. We liked it and it worked, having a wall in the way of the open mics gave us a lot more reflections.

Before we started the interview, you mentioned that you have been avidly shopping on eBay to continue adding to the Steamrooms’ complement of vintage gear.
Yeah, it’s a bit of a habit. I’m continuously checking what old kit is available online and adding bits and pieces as we go.

Is that how you acquired your console?
No, we actually got it through our friends that run a vintage equipment firm in London called Funky Junk. Our console is an SBC (Swedish Broadcast Company) desk designed for Swedish radio with no EQ and just a bass roll-off control, and a cut or boost switch at 60 Hz and 10K for each module. There was a midrange control on only one channel. It also came with a brick wall frequency limiter that’s quite useful for certain vocal effects or on drums. Anyway, the Neve restoration engineer, a fellow named Blake Devitt, vouched that the console had very good preamps, with lots of headroom and lovely distortion, so that with a couple of external compressors, we would be set to record the way we envisioned here at the Steamrooms.

Blake did a total restoration that took nearly eight months, as it had been built with internal DC wiring for the Swedish studio. Removing all that DC wiring from the console resulted in two dustbin loads of parts removed. He also added direct outs on every channel. Since the original design was for radio, there were many more inputs than outputs. One more point about the console is that all the controls are labeled in Swedish!

It seems that Octopus really has a very human, organic live feel to it, just a bit more than the previous albums. How do you go about building your tracks?
On our debut album, it was pretty much me just laying up all the parts in my shed, and adding in other parts as needed. For Free the Bees, the songs were ready to go, so we just went in and started playing through them at Abbey Road. For the new album, we set out to record as many parts simultaneously live as possible. For many of the songs, we’d lay down bass, drums, rhythm guitar and Hammond in one pass and then move on to some vocal overdubs.

We tend to start working from grooves, not complete songs. For instance, on “Got To Let Go,” we had that groove for awhile and the song came a bit later. “Listening Man” came together on our third try to write something over the groove we had for it. “Left Foot Stepdown” started the same way, not as a song per se, but as a groove we loved to play. We all share a real love of dance music, so once we get a groove that works well, we find a way to build up from there. We got most of our grooves out of our system on this last album, so now we’re working on some ideas for the next record that will be a bit more folksy.

It seems the reverb sounds you use, on guitars and on some vocals, really calls up the sound of the great ‘60s productions. For instance, the short guitar solo on “Love In The Harbour,” what do you use to get that sound? Was it a spring reverb?
Yeah, I like the sound of spring reverbs. I’ll use an AKG BX-15 on vocals and distant percussion. It’s a bit clean for my liking, but it has a natural sound and a minimum of circuitry. We also have an EMT 262 Gold Foil Plate that was used on vocals. I’m really into carefully analyzing the old tunes and the reverb sounds they used. In those days the reverb really got out of the way of the track, so I now have two separate racks of older reverbs. I prefer units with smaller trays (for the springs).

For guitars, I’ll use a Roland Space Echo (SE-201 or 301), Roland 555 (Chorus Echo) and I have a 1959 Fender stand-alone reverb unit that I’ll use in the studio to get that old surf sound. I also picked up a Fairchild Reverbertron II about a year ago on eBay.

The bass sound on Octopus is full and deep, was that done with a DI?
That’s interesting, because I often struggle to get a good bass sound. I feel like bass frequencies often swamp everything in the mix. My favorite bass sounds are on soundtrack albums by Lalo Schifrin and anything that came out of Studio 1 in Jamaica, that bass sounds beautiful.

I decided to take the bass and go straight into the Swedish desk, and push up the input and keep phase testing it as we recorded.

The horns on Octopus have a sort of funky Jamaican sound to them. How did you get that sound?
That’s mostly Tim Parkin and myself. We would do two, three, or four takes, starting with trumpet and sax. Then I’d often add two tenor parts, bouncing them down as we go. I like the Neumann-Gefell UM-57 for the horns, it’s really magic on brass. I had gotten a Coles 4038 for brass, but it took too much edge out for my ear. I like to have some edge on the horns. Where you place the mic in the room makes a big difference in the sound, so we experiment a bit with that. For brass, I try to get a sound like some of the Nigerian brass bands. You hear some inconsistencies and some weird resonance, which I like.

Your vocal sound has its own signature, how much of that is your arrangements and how much is studio technique?
Some songs feature all of us singing together and some are all me. Aaron is featured on “Hot One,” whereas the “Ocularist” and “Better Days” feature the whole band singing. My favorite vocal mic is the UM-57, but I also use the Rode 2, which gives a classic, clean sound. We have a Neumann-Gefell CMV 563 valve mic, with the M-8 head, but I want to get the M-7 head on that one. I listen a lot to J.J. Cale’s album Troubadour as a reference for vocal sounds.

Actually we got one of my favorite mics in a roundabout way. We were doing a live appearance at a radio station in London, and as all of us squeezed into the booth the call went out to “go and find some more microphones.” After a few minutes someone came in with an RCA DX 77 ribbon mic in absolutely mint condition and he was chastised with the remark, “Is that all you could find?”

After our performance, I made an offer of 100 quid for the old mic and the guy said, “Yeah, sure.” This is a mic that was used on so many classic recordings, its sound is an influence on great music we all know. For instance, if you want to get the authentic James Brown squeal, the 77 is the mic you must shout into to get that sound.

A newer ribbon mic won’t do?
No. I’ll stick to the down and dirty. A new ribbon mic won’t produce that recognizable sound when you shout into it.

What about “Stand,” which has a very nice echo effect on the vocal?
We learned so much at Abbey Road about delay and flanging. It was a bit like going to school. That was an echo created by feeding the vocal into an Otari MX-5050 two track and using Vari-pitch to adjust the echo timing. We also have a late 50’s WEM Copycat, which has one head with a split right down the middle. So it gives a little “click” every time the signal passes over it. It also can produce amazing psychedelic feedback like Joe Meek used to get. We master to a Studer B-67 analog reel to reel and also use it as a main delay. Using a feed to a tape machine gives you so much control at the desk, as you feed the echo return back in. Of course, the master of delay is King Tubby, the Jamaican artist.

Do you also cut basic tracks to analog tape?
Yes, our main machine has been an Ampex MM-1200 2”, but I feel like I’ve lost 10-15 years off my life trying to keep it working. It could be that the transport goes, some transistors popping shut down the motors, or there was too much power applied. Finding replacement heads isn’t easy. Fortunately, I found a 27-year old boffin, who was able to make the Ampex work. I’ve just gone back to the Fostex D 2424, as tape is pretty expensive for certain projects. Still, there’s nothing quite like splicing a 2” master successfully, if you do it right.

“The Ocularist” has some nice stereo imaging, featuring the guiro, sitar, and Jew’s harp.
We had to have the desk retrofit to offer stereo outputs. It was totally mono when we got it. But mono is very important, I now check all our mixes in mono very carefully. There’s loads of guts in a good mono mix, and you can really see how your mix holds up coming back out of one speaker.

The final cut, “End of the Street,” radiates energy and humor, it sounds as if you all had fun with all the sound effects replacing the last line of the verses.
Aaron came up with that little riff it’s based on, and we all jumped into the spirit. Three or four hours later the track was done. Aaron, Clev (drummer Michael Clevett), and I just ran around the house recording every little sound we could and dubbed them all in various places.

For “Hot One,” we also nipped over to our local pub, The Crab and Lobster, and recorded the old bell you hear. It’s the same one used to signal the time to stop drinking.

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2 thoughts on “Analog Recording in Digital Times

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