Aided by its memorable video and starring role in an iPod ad, Feist's '1234' has been a refreshingly different worldwide hit. Renaud Letang was behind the (vintage) desk during the recording and mixing sessions.
"What is cool," muses Renaud Letang cheerfully, "is that I'm considered a bit of a dinosaur here in France, but that I'm new and fresh for the British and Americans. I'm not old, but I've worked in the French studio industry for 18 years and I'm established here as a big-name producer. But outside of France people are just getting to know my name, so it's a really different experience for me. It's funny."
Renaud Letang was speaking from Studio Ferber in Paris, where he works "seven to eight months per year". Born in 1970 in Iran, of French parents, Letang began his studio career working as a tape-op in a small studio in Paris at the age of 18. After six months, in 1989, he moved over to France's leading studio at the time, Guillaume Tell. He worked there for three years, and the seeds for his international outlook were sown during that time when Paris, and particularly Guillaume Tell, became a fashionable place to record for Anglo–Saxon stars. A presumably wide-eyed Letang found himself in the same room as the likes of Phil Ramone, Prince, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, and others. "It was crazy, crazy, crazy," he says, recalling the unrelenting influx of foreign stars.
In 1990, concurrently with his apprenticeship at Guillaume Tell, Letang began working as Jean Michel Jarre's engineer, both live and in the studio. He remained with the electronic musician until 1999. After leaving Guillaume Tell in 1992, Letang quickly spread his wings as an independent engineer and also increasingly as a mixer and a producer. His name can today be found on whole swathes of French hit recordings in all kinds of different genres, ranging from French chansons to world music, electronica and hip-hop. He's also built up a considerable overseas pedigree, with artists such as Peaches, Beck, Jamie Lidell, Mocky, Gonzales and Feist.
Gonzales, née Jason Beck, hails from Canada, but moved to Europe and currently lives in Paris, where he set up a production duo with Letang called VV. It was through Gonzales that Letang met Canadians Peaches, Mocky and Feist. "Gonzales and I co-produced Feist's Let It Die album and also got her signed to a record company," recalls the Frenchman.
Gonzales and Letang went on to co–produce the follow-up The Reminder, which featured the hit '1234'. Helped by its appearance in an Apple iPod Nano commercial, the song, and subsequently the album, has been a hit in many countries, and resulted in four Grammy Award nominations for Feist.
Letang relates how he applied his talents on the recording and mix of '1234'. Most of the backing tracks for The Reminder were recorded at Studio La Frette, just outside Paris, after which the project moved to Letang's own recording and editing room at Ferber Studio D for 'clean-up'. The company then travelled to Canada, where overdubs took place and a few more songs were recorded at the Woodshed Studio in Toronto. Following this, everyone returned to Letang's room in Ferber for 'post-production' editing and further clean-up, as well as the recording of the song 'I Feel It All'. Finally, Letang mixed the album at Ferber Studio B, his favourite mix room.
One of the common denominators in all these studios is Neve desks: a 1972 36-channel Neve A646 in La Frette, a 1978 32-channel Neve 8108 in Renaud's own studio, a Neve 8014 desk and Neve 1073 sidecars at the Woodshed, and a 48-channel Neve V series at Ferber Studio B. It turns out that Letang is quite a fan of vintage equipment in general, and only very occasionally uses plug-ins. "I use a combination of analogue and digital," he explains. "I use Pro Tools for what it's good for, recording and editing. I'm not going to use a Focusrite plug-in if I have a real one standing next to me. In fact, I used no plug–ins at all for the recording and mix of The Reminder.
"I've never wanted to use the old Pro Tools thing, the 888, because it didn't sound good enough to my ears. If I got a project to mix in on Pro Tools, I always transferred it to 24-track analogue. But since Pro Tools has gone HD, I like it. HD sounds really transparent, there's no colour. You get back what you put in. And I prefer the Pro Tools A-D converters to the Apogee ones, because I find that the Apogees do weird things to the mid-range. It's cool for a stereo mix, but when you record with them and use it on many tracks the middle gets too rich.
"I like using Pro Tools HD because I record with old desks and old microphones, so everything already sounds fat and warm. I get people coming in who have mixed in Pro Tools, and they say 'I don't know, but there's something strange about the sound, but we don't know what.' It's always the same thing. And when I then mix their project on a real desk, with analogue EQ and everything, the difference is crazy."
Studios La Frette was set up in the late '60s by French production icon Eddie Barclay, also known as the founder of Barclay Records. Located in the Parisian suburbs in a classical–looking 100-year-old house with high ceilings and wooden floors, it continues to be a haven for lovers of vintage equipment and natural acoustics. Feist apparently chose to record there because of the natural ambience, and to further this feeling the team recorded in the parlour and living rooms. "Feist's band had already played '1234' live," explained Letang, "so they had the beginnings of an arrangement. We recorded the bass, drums, piano, guitar, and a guide vocal live at La Frette, using a click track, and added the brass there as well."
In the process of recording The Reminder, Letang used everything at his disposal at La Frette in terms of vintage gear and acoustics. "I had many ambient microphones, and I used many of the vintage microphones at La Frette. There were a Neumann M49 and U67 for the drums, a Coles ribbon for overheads and guitar cabinets, a U47 FET and an [Electro-Voice] RE20 on the bass. I also added a lot of dynamic mics to double things up; for example, I also used SM57s on the guitar cabinets. I could then later choose which sound I liked best, or mix the two sounds together to change the colour of the instruments. In general I used a lot of ambient microphones, and just did really simple EQ on the Neve desk, just low cut, things like that. I used the Neve desk preamps, and a Millennia preamp if I wanted a cleaner sound. I also had four Fairchild 670 compressors in the signal chains.
"Many people have asked me how I did Feist's vocal tracks on the album. We had two setups for the whole album. I had a Neumann U67 and an SM57 both going into a Vox guitar amp, on which we EQ'ed and added reverb. The Vox was miked up by an SM57 and a U87 and then went into the old Neve A646. This gave us what we called the 'dirty' vocal. The other setup was just one U67 going into the Neve preamp in Canada, which was similar to the Neve A646. In the end we used the 'dirty' vocal on all tracks, apart from '1234', which was done with the 'clean' signal chain. The reason was that the banjo on '1234' had the same mid-range frequencies as the 'dirty' vocal, so they got in each other's way. We then went to Canada, where we overdubbed strings, banjo, a new guitar track, and the vocal to '1234'. After that we added some keyboards and small things, and edited and cleaned up the track in my studio D at Ferber."
Written by Sally Seltmann, Leslie Feist Produced by Gonzales, Renaud Letang and Feist, with Ben Mink
"One important aspect of the mix was to take out many things," says Renaud Letang. "There were a lot of things playing — for example, a whole brass section — and it had a lot of energy, but it made the track too full. There was too much cream on the cake. It needed to be much lighter. It's a cool song, with a positive and happy feel. Related to this was the fact that I wanted to create space around the acoustic music and give the track a modern shape. I'm not sure how to say this in English. I wanted the vocals and drums to be really large, like hip-hop size, but I couldn't make the whole song fat-sounding, because it would be too much. The song had to be lég re — light — and I achieved this by using the acoustic of the room microphones a lot. So I was trying to give the instruments a normal size, ie. big vocal and big drums, and the whole track a normal, acoustic and light sound.
"The Neve V-series desk I mix on at Ferber has only 48 channels, and I like to come out of Pro Tools with a maximum of 32 tracks, so I also have channels on the desk for automation and effect returns. Pro Tools Sessions usually consist of many more than 32 tracks, so part of my mix preparation involves pre-mixing. I never pre-mix the drums, I always like to have them separate. The only exception is the bass drum: if it's recorded with more than one microphone I'll submix to one track. The same with bass and the main guitars. If they are recorded with more than one microphone, I'll often pre-mix these as well.
"I find that if you apply EQ or compression to individual string or horn tracks, you lose the impression of the horns or the strings as a unified section, and it becomes really easy to lose the overall balance. But when you pre-mix and then EQ and compress the whole section, the sound remains much more natural. The ability to do pre-mixes is one of the reasons why I love working with Pro Tools. For '1234' I pre-mixed the backing vocals, the horns, the strings, and the banjo, which was recorded with two or three microphones.
"When I start with the proper mix on the desk, my method is very traditional. I begin with the drums, and then I add the bass, and then the other main instruments — the piano and banjo on '1234' — and then I add other supporting instruments, like the electric guitar in the chorus. After that I add in the vocals, to see what's going on, and to see whether the vocals work with the backing tracks. If not I will change the balance. Sometimes when you mix, a snare will sound cool in the backing track, but with the vocals it may need a different dynamic, so you need to start doing rides. After that, when I have the main instruments and vocals in place, I'll add things like the horns and the strings and the backing vocals. One important aspect of this way of working is that I add all the tracks in, rather than work on them in isolation. If you work on things in isolation, they make no sense. A bass drum alone is nothing. A vocal alone is nothing."
"As I said, I start my mix working on the drums — but I won't spend four hours just on the bass drum! On '1234' I used an API 550 EQ on the bass drum, pushing 100Hz and 5kHz. I used another 550a on the snare, pushing 1.5k and 5k. That's it for inserts. The rest was just using EQ and compression on the Neve V-series board. When you compress the ambient microphones and add EQ to them, you can make the whole drum section sound really compact and alive and together. So I added quite a bit of compression to the ambient microphones, but unless I have problems I don't like to apply much compression on the drums themselves. I prefer to do the main compression on the drums during final mixdown. It's the same as what I told you earlier about EQ'ing individual microphones in a horn or a string section: sometimes you get a weird sound. I prefer to apply EQ and/or compression to the whole track during mixdown — not heavily, just enough to tighten the dynamics of the drums."
"'1234' is really acoustic, so I'm using normal stuff, like reverb, EQ, compression, to get a really natural sound. For the acoustic guitar I used a blackface Urei 1176 and the desk, just a little compression and EQ. I also added a very minimal amount of chorus from a TC M5000, to spread it out a little bit in stereo, because the guitar was in mono. For the banjo I used two API 550 EQs and a Manley Variable Mu tube stereo compressor. After that I put a short delay and reverb on the banjo, the latter from an EMT 140 plate, with a short decay time. The banjo was recorded with natural acoustics, so I mixed these in as well.
"Do I like the API EQ? Yes, I do, though I have more Pultec equipment than API. I have six API 550a EQs, but don't use them for everything. I find that each equaliser has certain frequencies at which it works best. For example, a Neve sounds crazy at 500Hz and also really crazy at 300Hz, really musical and really warm. But if you push these frequencies with an SSL EQ it sounds bad, horrible. On the other hand, if you push 80Hz and 100Hz on an SSL it sounds really clear and dynamic and nice. With the API you can push 400Hz, 1.5kHz, 7kHz, and it sounds great. What I like is that the steps are discrete. The API makes a statement, because you push +2dB, or +4dB, or +6dB. When you work on a stereo channel, for example on a submix of the horns or the backing vocals, you can boost left and right exactly the same and this means that everything is still in phase. With non-discrete EQs you never know exactly what you're doing."
"I used compression and EQ on the desk, nothing special. The piano is playing really hard, it's creating a lot of energy, so I EQ'ed the piano to make it really bright and really pushing the track, really honky-tonk. There's also a Mellotron, which is going through a Yamaha D1500 delay, to give it some more space. The D1500 was one of the first delays, and it still sounds really good. The delay was compressed and filtered, taking out high and low end, to give the delay a different space and make it less normal."
"My lead vocal chain during the mix was a Urei blackface 1176 going into two Pultec EQs, one EQH2 for low and high end, ie. 100-330Hz and 5k to 12k, the other Pultec MEQ5 for the mids, 200Hz-2kHz and 200Hz-8kHz. With these two Pultecs I had everything: I could cut or boost high, middle, or low end. After the Pultecs the vocals went through a Dbx 902 de-esser, and then back into the Neve insert. I also had a small delay on the vocals, using an old Korg SDD3000, and for reverb I used an old AKG reverb. It has no high end, but it sounds warm and really musical and hyper-chic."
"I just had desk compression and EQ on the brass, and then the same EMT 140 as I had on the banjo, with a short reverb, though I changed it to a long reverb for the parts of the song where it's really alive and it sounds like a lot of people playing. There was no insert on the brass. As for the strings, I wanted to give the impression of a film soundtrack, with the strings coming from nowhere and with super high-quality effects. So I used a Lexicon 480 reverb. The 480 makes everything sound produced, but in a cheesy way. For this kind of effect it's really good. The backing vocals were treated with an Avalon stereo EQ and I compressed them on the desk.
"Finally, I put a George Massenburg 8200 EQ and a George Massenburg 8900 compressor over the stereo mix. I finalise the colour of the mix with the EQ and the compressor. I don't use the compressor for the dynamics of the track, but more to finalise the groove of the track. When you compress you change the groove a little bit. By adjusting the attack and the release times you can make a track more or less bouncy. So I finalise the colour and the texture with the EQ and the groove with the compressor.
"I mixed down to two formats: an old Ampex half-inch analogue two-track and the other mix went through an Universal A-D converter back into Pro Tools. So we had really good quality digital and analogue. During mastering we choose which one is the best. For '1234' we used the digital version. I already use so much vintage equipment, and everything is already so warm and the high frequencies are so smooth, that it is sometimes better to use the digital mix, to make things more dynamic.".