Tortoise have spent the last 20 years defying the conventions of rock music — and forging a unique approach to studio recording.
If you want proof that challenging and experimental music can still find a place in today's X‑Factor world, you could cite the success of Chicago band Tortoise. While the rest of the American rock world embraced the primitivism of Nirvana and Green Day, this instrumental quintet wielded influences as diverse as Krautrock, jazz, classical minimalism and Afrobeat. Tortoise continue to explore new musical territory, most of which sees the guitar discarded in favour of synths, basses and pitched percussion, all underpinned by furious twin‑drum‑kit polyrhythms.
Tortoise's albums have always been self‑produced, and demonstrate in no uncertain terms how a band in command of technology can make the studio work as an instrument. Recording has always been handled collectively to an extent, but over the years, drummer (well, one of the band's drummers!) John McEntire has evolved into the band's main engineer. It was he who, some 11 years ago, took the plunge and established a fully fledged studio in the group's home city, and since then, Soma Studios has served as a base for numerous other production projects.
John McEntire was a keen student of audio engineering before ever joining Tortoise: "I had always being interested in recording, for as long as I can remember. Eventually I went to undergraduate school and got into a programme where that was part of the curriculum. It was called Technology in Music and Related Arts, so it was a lot of different things: it was synthesis, composition and recording. That was where I first got introduced to more than just bedroom four-track recording. And after I left school I started working at studios and learning more and more on my own.”
Asked if he sees a link between audio engineering and his original training as a percussionist, McEntire ventures an unequivocal 'yes': "Being a percussionist, you're dealing with timbre all the time — you're not always thinking about harmony and melody — so I think there's a pretty easy parallel to be made with engineering, where you're always thinking about timbre and how to shape sounds and how to get what you want out of whatever it is you're working on. My early training was in the orchestral percussion world, so I had always been thinking in terms of a very wide palette of sounds.”
Soma Studios these days is a most impressive facility, but it's a far cry from the circumstances in which the earliest Tortoise material was recorded. "A lot of the guys in Tortoise and I used to live together in a loft space, so the "studio” was really just a small pile of gear in the corner of a loft at the beginning. Extremely modest. It was a very gradual transformation over the first five or so years, and it got a bit nicer in that space. We had a room that we built inside of the space that was somewhat soundproofed, and then eventually I had a control room that was round on the other side that was a separate room, but not very well soundproofed. Finally, I signed a lease on the space Soma is in now. At that time there was a major upgrade — new console, new tape machine, everything. And since then... we got another new console in 2004 and have been upgrading things like the Pro Tools system throughout the years.”
The "new console” in question is actually one of the most desirable vintage desks that remains in one piece anywhere. "It's a Trident A-Range. For those who don't know, the A-Range was the first desk designed in-house at Trident Studios [in London] for their own use. They maybe had two or three in their studios, and then they built another eight for sale to the public. There were several that went to Cherokee Studios in LA, three eventually, and the rest of them went around the world. They're one of the most highly regarded consoles ever, easily up there with Helios and 80-series Neves, and I was just insanely lucky to come by this one. It was owned by a friend of a friend, who had a studio out in LA for a while. He'd moved to Japan, so he had the desk in storage. This was about eight or nine years ago, and I started talking to him. It was in really terrible condition. No work had been done on it, no repairs at all since it was built, it was just wrecked. So I got it for really cheap, but we had to spend two years refurbishing it. I'm lucky enough to work with an absolutely outstanding technician, Shea Ako, and he led the charge on getting it back up and running. It turned out to be so much more amazing than I could ever have expected. It's 32 channels, with a monitor section of 24. It used to have a military patchbay on one side, so it was insanely wide. We did have to remove that and make the connections to our existing patchbay with newly wired ELCOs.”
Whether faced with a small pile of gear in a loft or the faders of a classic console, one challenge remains the same for any drummer who wants to record his or her own playing: how do you fine-tune your drum-mic setup when you need to be behind the kit to make any sound? "It's just a lot of trial and error, running back and forth [to the control room to audition the results]. It's a bit of a pain, but eventually you get what you were looking for.”
One of the impressive things about Tortoise's music is the sheer variety of drum sounds. Experimentation at the mix is a big part of this ("Most of the different sounds we get are done in post with outboard, or synths, or whatever we can think of”), but McEntire also pays due care to getting the sound right at source. "We try to get a really good sound off the floor to begin with, for whatever we think is going to happen later on. It's really important to get the tunings right, and have the kit balanced well internally. I don't really have any preferences, I like the entire spectrum of what you can do with drums, depending on what the situation calls for. I love super‑dead drums and I love super-live drums. It all depends on what is going to work best for the song.”
As far as recording goes: "There are two basic kinds of setup that I gravitate towards. I'll either do the minimalist setup, which will be maybe two or three mics around on top and then one on the kick, variations on that, or the full-on, close mic on everything and then a few ambient mics.”
"I like M/S now a lot for a general stereo pair, either overhead or in front of the kit. Just having the control over the width after the fact is really, really handy. I like the imaging of that technique better than a lot of the others. Another thing I also like about M/S is experimenting with drastically different kinds of mics, like a ribbon mic for the side and maybe some kind of large‑diaphragm tube mic for the mid. If I'm not using M/S, I'll throw up a stereo mic like an AKG C422 or Neumann SM2, or perhaps a spaced pair of condensers.
"I'll usually do some kind of dynamic on the beater side of the kick drum, like a [Beyer] M88 or something like that, because I usually play kick drum with a full resonant head. Then I'll put a large‑diaphragm condenser on the resonant side, pretty close, and another one maybe three feet back and a little bit higher, just to get more of the 'boom' and the room sound too. Then snare is usually about 50/50 condenser/dynamic. If I do use a dynamic, it'll be a [Sennheiser] 441 or something like that. And then for snare and toms, for condensers, Blue make a capsule that you can screw onto an [AKG] 451 body — it's supposed to be like an [AKG] C12 capsule — and that sounds really great. That's good on toms and snare. Sometimes I'll use [AKG] 414s on toms, usually in cardioid, sometimes hypercardioid. I've got some Sony C37a's, those are good on toms. I guess that's the basic starting point, most of the time. I really only like dynamics on toms if the person is a total basher or if they're tuned really low. For me, they're a little bit too mid‑rangey for most of the stuff that I do, and that little bit of extra sparkle from the condenser seems to work better for me.”
Soma Studios has some high‑class outboard to go with the Trident desk, and both see preamp action on drum kits. "I'd say about 50‑50 with outboard and console [preamps]. I've got to say [the difference is] pretty subtle. I'm not the kind of guy who sits there and A/Bs things, or has all these different setups and says 'OK this is the one for this.' I just want to get on with it, and I know that if it sounds good enough, it'll be OK later on.”
One challenge that most engineers don't have to deal with is that of recording two drum kits, as featured on many Tortoise tracks. Sometimes Tortoise overdub the second kit, but more often both are recorded together; sometimes both are on the floor of the Soma live room, but "a majority of the time we would have one kit in the iso booth and the other in the live room. To a certain degree it would depend on whether the parts were more of a unison‑type approach, or rather complementary parts that create interest through interplay. Having one in the booth and the other in the live room is a great way to create contrast. Similarly as would different tunings and mic techniques. I would guess in most circumstances there would be a tendency to try and make them sound at least a little dissimilar, unless perhaps we would be going for some massively overdubbed sound, reminiscent of a samba school, for instance. I'm thinking of the track 'Northern Something' [from the band's most recent album, Beacons Of Ancestorship] specifically in that regard.”
Whatever approach is taken to the initial recording, chances are the drums won't escape the mix stage without a serious mangling. "There are a couple of outboard boxes I like. There's the Thermionic Culture Culture Vulture, of course, and I have this strange box that was custom-built by an Austrian gentleman, which is called the Masterverzerrer, literally 'Distortion Master'. Incredible sounds. I have a couple of old quarter-inch two-track machines from the '60s, which are great for tape saturation and driving the front-end electronics. And then there's always the synth approach, for instance I have a couple of Comparator modules in my CMS [modular] that basically turn any input into a square wave, which is really handy sometimes! There's a module by The Harvestman called the Malgorithm, a voltage-controlled bit-crusher, which as you can imagine, is pure insanity.
"I'm a big fan of circuit-bent items, too. We've got a few pieces by these artists who call themselves Folktek, and the thing of theirs I really like is a [Suzuki] Omnichord that they've bent so it takes the whole strum-plate interface and breaks it out into different layers. In addition, there are a lot of different pressure points where you can access amp and filter settings, distortions and things. So it's basically this big touchplate, and you can get all these crazy chords and distortions and washy tones. It's still Omnichord-sounding, but taken to another world.”
Most bands' approach to recording changes over time, especially during a career as long as Tortoise's. However, where many bands gradually move away from recording live as a band, Tortoise have gone in the other direction. "On our last record, we tried to do as many live band takes as we could, to begin with, which is a little bit different to how we've done things in the past. For instance, on a record like TNT  I don't think we played anything simultaneously: every single element was overdubbed. Somebody would put down an idea, loop it, or whatever, somebody would come in and lay something else down and then go back and work on the arrangement some more, and then somebody else would come in... it was this sort of piecemeal, forward-then-back-a-little approach. These days we're more in the mindset of trying to play together as a band, rather than overdubbing everything. We're also trying to think ahead now: 'OK, we've got these songs we're going to record for the album. How are we going to play them live?' We've had major headaches in the past having an album finished and not knowing how to play any of the songs, or how to arrange them to be played.”
Tortoise's instrumentation has also evolved. Their early sound was built around mallet percussion instruments, especially the vibraphone (which can be a challenge to record: "They have a tendency to be very noisy mechanically, with the pedal and the damper and everything. I'll just do a spaced pair over the top, that usually seems to work well”). Nowadays, synths are to the fore, while the vibes have taken a back seat.
"In the beginning we were much more primitive, you know — just two drummers and two bass players. And then it was actually Johnny [Herndon] who had the vibes, and he started bringing them to rehearsals. And we thought, 'This is great, it fills that space that a guitar or some kind of keyboard would in that register, but it still totally works with everything else we're doing.' So that was the beginning of it, and then as the instrumentation grew up around it, it always still fit in with everything else.
"On the new record, we decided we wanted to get away from using the mallet percussion completely, because it seems like it's become a little bit of a cliche for us. The obvious thing to fill the gap that was created was synths. That's the main reason why they're so prominent, but I think we'd been moving in that direction anyway. It's something we're excited about, having that aspect of the band more prominent.”
A glance at the photos of Soma illustrates that it is very well furnished with synths. "All Johnny's stuff is done on a [Moog] Voyager, and he uses that live too. Everything else on the last LP is a mish-mash of things I have at the studio. I'm sure there's some [Korg] MS20, some [Oxford] OSCar, some [Synton] Syrinx; the [EDP] Wasp's on there. Just loads of different stuff. Back around TNT era, we were doing more with MIDI, but we kind of drifted away from that, and on the last record they're all played live. We may have done a little bit of re-amping on certain parts, but I'd say mostly DI'd. We're just trying to complement and/or contrast with the guitar textures.”
The Soma collection includes some quite unusual instruments, notably the very rare Synton Syrinx. "I got it from a guy over here [in England], actually. It's the filter section that is unique. You've got two band‑pass and a low‑pass filters, and you can route them in different ways — series, parallel. I believe they're SEMs — it's just incredible the sounds you can get out of it. Kind of like the OSCar, in that you get really peaky, vocal‑ly resonant sounds.”
A more modern novelty is the Elektron SIDstation, based around the famous synth chip from the Commodore 64 home computer. "There's certain things I find it does really well. Like on The Brave And The Bold, at the beginning of 'Thunder Road', that really really high, cutting lead sound? That's the SIDstation.”
Said album surprised many fans on its release in 2006, and perhaps marks the transition to Tortoise's newer, more band‑oriented approach in the studio. In a radical move away from their usual original, wholly instrumental compositions, they recorded a collection of cover versions, featuring Will Oldham (aka Bonny 'Prince' Billy) interpreting the likes of Elton John's 'Daniel' and Richard Thompson's 'The Calvary Cross'.
"My friend Howard Greynolds, who runs the label that came out on — at some point many, many years ago he wanted Will to do a cover of that Springsteen tune ['Thunder Road'], and Will said 'Well, I'll do it, but only if I can get Tortoise to be my band.' I think he was possibly joking at the time, but I suppose Howard took him at face value, so that started a conversation.”
Asked if it was difficult for an instrumental band to work with a singer, McEntire insists that the opposite was true. "It was amazing how easy it was. It was like 'We don't have to come up with all this crazy shit to try to fill up all this space? We can just play, and he'll take care of everything else? Perfect.' We actually did almost all of that entire record live. Will would just nail everything first take. It went so fast, I think we did those first four songs — rehearse, record and mix — in three days. Unheard-of, for us!”
A mark of Tortoise's originality is that they can claim to have spawned a musical genre. It was writer Simon Reynolds who first applied the label 'post-rock' to their particular brand of thoughtful, instrumental music. The same label has since been pressed into service by any number of aspiring guitar bands unable to recruit a decent singer, and for Tortoise themselves, it's become something of a millstone.
Nevertheless, John McEntire readily admits that being identified as the leaders of a movement has its benefits. "In the long run I think it's helped us, as much as we hate it. People love to be able to categorise things, to put things in little boxes, and because what we do is antithetical to that, maybe it's helped us in that people can say 'This is what they are' — even though it doesn't mean anything.”
The fact that Tortoise's music is rather good probably helps, too...
John McEntire's most recent high-profile production job saw him record, produce and mix Broken Social Scene's 2010 album Forgiveness Rock Record. The Canadian band's sprawling line-up can include up to 19 musicians: "It was actually easier than I would've expected, because everybody came in shifts. We got all of the rhythm-section tracks done really quickly — I think we did 35 or 40 songs in 10 days. Not all of those were finished songs, though, some of those were just fragments or ideas, and then the process of finishing up all the rest took a while longer, partially because we didn't know what we wanted to do with certain things, and because there were some scheduling issues.
"What was interesting is that even before we had started, they had rehearsed a lot of the more completed songs, and I think history had taught them that they needed to write in a way that left space for everybody. And on this record in particular they did a stellar job of self-orchestrating everything to make sure that it never felt overwhelming, or that parts were superfluous. Everything has its place and it all locks together so well.”
As a producer, McEntire is not necessarily one to impose his own creative vision on a project. "I'm more of a 'Let the band do their own thing' kind of person, unless they really want me to be actively involved. My philosophy is: it's their project, it's their creativity driving it. I want to be there to facilitate whatever, whenever I can, but unless they feel like they really need another voice in the mix, I'd rather focus on the engineering and leave the majority of the creative decisions to the artists.”
Audio files to accompany the article.
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