Chart–topping indie–rockers Athlete could have had their pick of the world’s producers and engineers to work on their third album. Instead, they chose to build a studio and do things their own way.
Without the steadying hand of an experienced producer or the support of a commercial studio, the recording of Athlete’s third studio album, Beyond The Neighbourhood, could easily have gone horribly wrong — a possibility that must have troubled the band’s label, Parlophone, as they stood back and let one of their biggest signings in recent years build their own studio in an empty industrial unit. But the members of Athlete are used to doing things their own way, having been together a long time before they first piqued label interest. As we wait for the rest of the band to arrive for the interview, Athlete spokesman and bassist Carey Willets characteristically suggests we head to the supermarket to stock the studio’s kitchen with food for everyone, along the way explaining how the band members have always recorded their own demos and managed their own affairs, even to the extent of hiring friends to drive them to gigs instead of relying on managers or label support.
Within the band the roles of each musician overlap as individual interests flourish. Of the four, who have played together since their school days, keyboardist Tim Wanstall appears to have the greatest interest in synthesizers and, at the time of our interview, is amid an Internet shopping spree for quirky second–hand instruments. Steve Roberts, the drummer, is the primary rhythm and beat programmer, using his home Cubase setup to rough out ideas. In the studio he is actively involved in establishing drum-miking setups, and, together with Carey, seems to have a handle on the recording process, offering details on the general use of microphones, preamps and processors. Carey in particular is knowledgeable about the acoustic measures the band took to turn the industrial unit into a suitable recording space, but it is vocalist Joel Pott who appears to pay the closest attention to the acoustic qualities of the recording, showing great interest in the tones and balance of each track.
Athlete have demonstrated that much can be achieved with teamwork, but Beyond The Neighbourhood has a lot to live up to. Produced by Victor Van Vugt, the band’s 2003 debut album, Vehicles And Animals was extremely well received, earning them a Mercury Music Prize nomination. Tourist, the 2005 follow–up — with Van Vugt in the producer’s chair again, this time aided by John Cornfield — fared even better, topping the UK charts, spawning the huge radio hit ‘Wires’ and landing the band support slots for the likes of U2. No doubt Parlophone hoped to repeat the formula but, as Joel explains, the band felt it was time for a change. “From song to song we’re always trying something different because we don’t want to repeat what we’ve done before, and from album to album that’s definitely the case. So when we approached this one, we wanted it to sound different both sonically and lyrically.”
“We’re pushing ourselves,” adds Steve, “because it keeps things interesting for us and the people who buy our music. We’ve really enjoyed trying new ideas and taking things we’ve done before in different directions.”
When the band first began writing Beyond The Neighbourhood they had little idea that they would end up producing, let alone doing so in their own bespoke studio; they only knew that they wanted a studio in which they could make demos that might contribute towards the end product. “We’ve always found that about 25 percent of our demo material ends up as final sounds on the record,” says Joel. “We all have the desire to record, so we set this place up for that purpose. We’ve always had a place of our own, but not like this — our last studio was a dingy little basement.”
Intending to capture their song ideas in demo form, the band created a large live area at the centre of their industrial unit and, through a combination of microphones and DI feeds, established a rough mix of the whole band, so that they were ready to record a jam session at any time using their Pro Tools system.
Fortuitously, Athlete’s recording method captured a more live sound than they had achieved on previous demos, and that affected the direction of the whole production. “When we’ve made demos before,” Tim recalls, “we pushed the song production further to get the finished sound we wanted for the album and then we’d often keep the guitars, keyboards and electronic stuff, take them with us to the studio, and then try to replicate the live band thing again. This time we didn’t need to do that, so we’d check that the live band thing was working and then immediately start recording without worrying about the production. This allowed us to capture that first fresh excitement that you get when you haven’t done it before.”
“It’s that classic thing where the demos sound better than the record,” laughs Steve.
Joel notes that the new recording practice was partly a result of a revised songwriting process. “When I look at the first album, I can see that a lot of the songs sprung from just a chorus idea. This time Tim, Carey and I went off for a few weeks to compose, while Steve played around with beats, so when we got back together we were playing over some pretty solid ideas and, like Tim said, we were still fresh at the point we were recording whole songs.”
“At first we though we’d go to a posh studio to lay the basic drums, bass and piano tracks and then use this place to do overdubs,” continues Steve, “but when we began making the demos we quickly realised that we could get the drum sounds we were after.”
“That’s the vibe we wanted anyway,” insists Joel. “We wanted something that would sound different from a really posh studio. We tried out five songs and they sounded really good so we thought ‘We can do this — we don’t need a posh studio, we don’t need a posh producer!’”
“Those first five without a producer were quite nerve wracking,” admits Carey, “because we didn’t know if we’d be good enough. It turns out we are, although we’re really lucky that the room sounds as good as it does. What’s great is that we are the only people who’ve recorded here, so the sound is unique to us and this record.”
Having the studio on tap also made it feasible for the band to continue recording songs in small, manageable batches, which helped maintain enthusiasm. “That kept it really fresh, particularly for Steve, because we weren’t going into a studio and saying ‘Right, now you’ve got to work on three weeks worth of drums!’,” says Joel.
“It’s exciting to get a song finished quickly,” confirms Steve, “rather than doing the drums and not getting to the vocals until three months later.”
In general, the band recorded to a click track so that programmed elements could be synchronised later on, and usually began by laying down drums and bass together with guide piano, guitar and vocals. Throughout the album recording the band experimented by using different microphones and recording setups for each song. For drums, they usually had a pair of overheads capturing the sound of the whole kit, plus a high mono room mic recording the ambience. On the kit itself, Sennheiser E609 and E602 mics were used, as was the old trick of using a Yamaha NS10 driver as a kick-drum microphone. Carey explains: “When we worked with John Caulfield he was using an NS10 driver on the bass and we’d never done that before. For anything that’s low it sounds great. If ever you want a bit of sub without artificially adding it through EQ, you just dial in a bit of that. Generally we use EQ to cut frequencies rather than boost them, as it seems to work better that way.”
“The NS10 driver gives you a massive thud,” adds Steve, “so you have to gate it or it swamps the whole track, and it’s not useful in all tracks.”
The band also experimented with a number of different products and settings when processing the drum recordings on the way in to Pro Tools. At first they were keen to use their newly purchased Helios rack units with the Sennheiser E602 kick drum mic.
“On the last album we recorded at Helioscentric, which has a really nice old desk,” says Joel enthusiastically. “That inspired Paul Weller to name an album Heliocentric and both Keane and Supergrass use it. We loved that desk so we got a couple of channels.”
Another favourite is the Focusrite Producer Pack channel strip, called into action to process the top snare mic. “We tried the Helios on top snare but after a little while we started to realise that the Producer Pack was a better choice,” says Carey. “Our Empirical Labs Distressor was usually used for the main kick and sometimes snare, and then we used two Focusrite Liquid Channels on the overheads or on the bass, depending on what we were doing at the time.”
Despite finding a drum sound they liked at the start of the project, the band still hankered after another very particular sound they had heard on record, but it took them until the end of the album sessions to find it. “We were after the classic sound everyone tries to get which is like a dirty break from an old record,” explains Steve. “It’s that mono drum sound that’s compressed so heavily that you get all the off beats from between the kicks and snares.”
“Previously we’ve always positioned a Shure SM57 in front of the kit, feeding through a Tech 21 Comptortion guitar pedal,” continues Carey, “which has a really great crunchy sound but is very distorted. This time we put an AKG 414 right in front of the kit, another mono mic behind it and then had one room mic further away so there were three in a line.”
Instead of using the Comptortion, the band fed the 414 into their Empirical Labs EL8X Distressor in British Mode, designed to emulate the response of the Urei 1176 with all four ratio buttons pressed in at once, to create a really over–the–top compression sound. Athlete then set the Distressor’s ratio to the brick–wall limiting ‘Nuke’ position, and ensured both attack and release times were fast. “Straight away it sounds great,” says Carey, “and we wondered why we hadn’t found that sound before!”
During the recording of the first batch of five songs, the band decided they would need more separation than they could achieve when recording together in the same room, and began placing the bass and guitar amps in their live equipment store below the mezzanine floor of the control room. Although the setup reduced spill, the band soon concluded that there were too many rattles in the room and the sound wasn’t particularly pleasant, so those parts were later re–recorded. From then onwards, the general method was to capture the bass performance using a DI, later re–amping it in the room and recording the result. Steve notes that having the room sound of the bass amp helped it sit with the rest of the live parts.
To record Joel’s electric guitars, a Royer R122 and Neumann U87 were used together, with one microphone positioned a little distance away to capture the ambience of the room. Joel describes the method as “trial and error”, even occasionally enlisting a stereo miking formation when looking for something really atmospheric. “It can sound completely different in the control room so, rather than using EQ, we just move or change the mic, or even pick another guitar.”
“We found that the Royer gave a slightly darker mid sound, whereas the U87 is a lot brighter and cutting,” explains Carey. “Depending on what we wanted the guitar to do we’d lean towards one or the other. But, rather than using processing, we’d always try to make sure we got the sound from the guitar and amp, unless we decided there was too much bottom and then we might use a filter to take that away.”
At the time of the interview, the band have two mics set up side by side in the vocal booth as part of an experiment on one song, but everyone agrees as to the standard mic of choice. “We hired five mics and did a blind test,” recalls Carey. “Joel sang the same thing into all the microphones and then we all sat in the control room while a friend played us each one. We all liked the Neumann 149. It suits Joel’s voice, and was actually used on the last album.”
The only other mic sometimes used for vocals is the unusual Placid Audio Copperphone, designed and distributed by Polyphonic Spree bassist Mark Pirro, who Athlete met when supporting the Spree on their first tour. “Occasionally we have used that at alongside the Neumann and then balanced the two,” says Joel. “The vocals on so much poppy stuff are just so cutting and present, but we always want to get a balance so that the vocal can still sit on top of the track without being too harsh.”
“We’ve been going through the Helios,” continues Carey, “generally just using the preamp with no EQ, and then applying the compressor from the Focusrite Producer Pack. It sounds really transparent, and not like it’s changing the sound at all.
“During the whole recording process we’ve found that it makes a big difference if you start by recording a decent guide vocal, because then you can tell what the song needs and what’s working. Otherwise you end up putting stuff in that conflicts with the vocal and obviously the vocal is the most important thing to get across.”
Steve concurs: “Getting a decent guide — not just a muffled guide turned down very quietly — means that the song’s emotion is always very apparent, so you can focus on what it is actually about.”
Athlete’s albums have all made use of quirky synthesizer sounds, frequently generated by the use of children’s toys and cheap home keyboards. The new album prominently features a Casio CZ101, which has apparently been on Tim’s wish list for a while. “The organ sounds are amazing,” enthuses Tim, “I put the string sound through our Electro–Harmonix Micro Synthesizer and sometimes run its organ sound through a Sansamp or out through a guitar amp. That’s probably sat under about four tracks.
“The Analogue Systems modular in geek corner is Tim’s project,” laughs Carey. “You can process anything through it, so that’s been used a lot, and Tim also has an AS step sequencer at home, which is great for creating lead sounds.”
“You get sounds out of it you won’t get from anything else,” adds Tim. “GMedia make some classic Mellotron sounds which I’ve used and there’s a brilliant harmonium sound in Sculpture, which we got with Logic 7.”
“The [Suzuki] Omnichord has been great for little touches here and there,” continues Carey, “and we’ve messed about with it a lot in Pro Tools, doing things like reversing its sound.”
“We’ve also finally got ourselves a Moog, although we’ve always used one on our records,” says Steve.
Beyond The Neighbourhood’s predecessor, Tourist, was notable for its prominent 24–piece string arrangements, recorded at Abbey Road Studios. Although Joel describes the sessions as “an amazing experience” the band chose not to do the same thing again, stripping everything down so the only sting parts were played singly by a friend. “We decided to keep it really close and intimate, so we’d get the scratch on the strings and woodiness of the instrument,” explains Steve.
“They’re not multitracked either,” adds Tim, “there’s literally one viola and one violin playing together on one song, and a cello.”
“We used the two Royers for the string parts — one close and one further away — because they have a really nice, dark sound,” recalls Carey. “Like Steve said, we wanted all those little articulations. We didn’t want it to be too lush and beautiful — we wanted it to sound a bit dirty.”
When it came to the mix, Athlete decided that it was time to hand the project over to someone with a fresh perspective. A song called ‘The Outsiders’ was selected and sent out to several likely candidates who took part in what Carey describes as a “mix off” to see who’d come up with the most exciting results. Although his mixes weren’t exactly what the band had in mind, Atlanta crunk expert Ben Allen [interviewed by SOS in December 2006] was favourite.
“One of the main reasons we went with Ben was that, although the album has more guitars than before, it also has a lot more beats and programming and we wanted someone who would understand that we’re a live guitar band but could also accommodate the programming — and he did that really well.
“On a couple of bits on ‘The Outsiders’ we used an old break with a stop–start feel as the backbone to the track. We’d kept the loop in because we thought it sounded great but, to our surprise, he took it out, put some effect on the snare and used the bass to keep that stop–start feel.
“We thought ‘OK, we wouldn’t have done that but it’s actually better.’ So it was a case of bringing in someone who made us look at our music differently. We didn’t want to get so close to that we didn’t dare touch it. There were a few things we wanted to change back but, at the same time, there were a few little stops here and there that we wouldn’t have done and it’s better for it.”
During March 2007 the whole band flew out to New York to attend the mixing session at Chung King studios, renowned for its output of hip–hop records. The studio offered Athlete the chance to get their hands on a desk during the mix, which was not an option in Allen’s Atlanta studio. “We wanted a proper desk,” insists Carey, “and they had an SSL and a bunch of outboard gear. A lot of people say Pro Tools sounds as good, but I like to see a desk and outboard and know that it’s gone through some valves. And most of our albums have been mixed on SSLs — they have got a certain sound so we knew what we were getting.”
One of Allen’s pet hates is song arrangement that have too many elements competing with vocals in the verses, his preference being to take more or less everything out apart from kick, snare and bass, so that impact can be made when guitars and keyboards are brought back during choruses. For Athlete, who built many of their tracks using guitars, pianos and synthesizers, this caused some debate.
“Ben comes partly from a hip–hop mixing point of view, where you strip it back to the minimum, get your drums, bass and hook line in and make sure the guitars are right there in your face, and that makes sense for hip–hop and R&B. That’s not the way we produced it but we wanted elements of that. But the album has lots of subtleties that are there for a reason, so we ended up having a long discussion about the philosophy of mixing and music, and whether you separate everything out so it can be heard or whether there are four or five melodies that occupy a similar sonic region and compete for space. There’s a nice energy in that, but on a couple of the songs it made sense to pull things back so that the choruses kicked more. We were arguing for things to go in because we’d already spent a long time making sure it all worked together.
“Some of the vocal sounds Ben went for were great. A lot were wet on our rough mixes but he’s gone for some very dry sounds with some slap–back reverb which pushes the vocal forward in a nice way. Then, on some stuff, where we’d pushed the main melody of the programmed material forward, he’s brought out some subtleties which we hadn’t been brave enough to do.”
By the time Ben’s mixes were complete, the album release date had been delayed until the end of the festival season, providing the band with time to mull over the results. Still wanting a touch more from a few tracks, they then asked Cenzo Townshend to have a go at four of the songs. Carey: “We kept seven tracks from Ben’s session, which were generally the more electronic songs, but then had Cenzo remix ‘Hurricane’, ‘Tokyo’, ‘Airport Disco’ and ‘Secondhand Stores’, as these feel more live and needed a slightly different approach.”
The album was finally mastered by John Davis at London’s Alchemy Soho in Spring 2007. With it all finished, and the live festival season ahead of them Carey reflects on the process. “Normally as soon as you have finished something, someone is already trying to master it before you’ve had chance to evaluate the mixes, but we’ve had time to live with the tunes for a while and check we’re totally happy with everything. It’s been such an enjoyable record to make!”
Tim Wanstall’s piano guide parts were usually played on the studio’s Yamaha electric via a DI, to be replaced at a later date using a Knight upright piano. “For a while I thought we could go to Helioscentric to do the piano,” remembers Tim, “but we began to like the idea of doing everything here. I wanted a piano that had a bit of story worn into it — I wasn’t looking for something brand new — so we went to a shop that has a decent stock of old pianos. The Knight we eventually bought looks like one of the really crap–sounding ones we had in the practice rooms at school, so I didn’t try it, but when the guy in the shop heard me play a couple of things he said he thought it would really suit me. It’s probably only about 30 years old but our tuner says Knights are well–made British pianos. It looks awful but sounds great!”
Having acquired their great–sounding piano, the band then had to decide how to record it so that it would cut through the mix without the instrument’s huge range interfering with bass, guitar and vocals. “What we did depended on what track it was in.” says Joel Pott. “On a few tracks we had to re–record it because a great piano sound can start seeming a bit woolly once you start adding other things.”
Tim: “It has a beautiful resonance, so we tend to mic quite closely to capture that. If you don’t mic it close enough it can become really hard to get it to sit in the track, because it has quite a fluffy sound.”
“We tried a few ways to mic it up,” remembers Carey Willets. “First off we had a stereo pair of Royer R122 ribbon mics fed through the Helios and Distressor processors, but one mic broke and the other got reclaimed by the guy who lent it to us, so we started using AKG 414s and they sounded great too. As far as room mics go it has varied.”
“We’ve always got a room mic up to use for anything,” Steve Roberts explains. “Quite often we recorded it anyway and decided whether we needed it later.” When recording the piano, the band found that they could make use of the various creaks and mechanical sounds generated by the hammer and pedal movements, as well as the background noises picked up by the ambient mics. “The more noise and squeaks from the piano chair, the better,” laughs Joel. “If you solo some tracks, every now and then you’ll get a noise from the mechanics outside working on a car.
“On one track we had a huge clanking sound from a guy hammering a car,” adds Carey, “but we decided to keep it.”
“If something is a distraction then we’ll want it out,” says Tim, “but we are conscious that we are a band set up in a room and playing together and it’s possible nowadays, even with a little setup like this, to record things so perfectly that you take away that feeling that you are musicians playing together.”
“We are happy to sacrifice some of the finer points of recording to get a vibe or performance, and that’s one of the biggest changes in the way we’ve recorded this time.” Carey concludes.
“We’re trying to make sure everything’s a performance, rather than just being correctly done. We’ve never done it too perfectly, but this one’s even more so. We just tried to do one guitar or piano take and not too many drop–ins.”