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Hot Chip

Alexis Taylor, Joe Goddard & Mark Ralph: Recording Why Make Sense? By Tom Doyle
Published June 2015

Hot Chip: from left, Alexis Taylor, Joe Goddard, Felix Martin, Al Doyle and Owen Clarke.Hot Chip: from left, Alexis Taylor, Joe Goddard, Felix Martin, Al Doyle and Owen Clarke.Photo: Richard Ecclestone

Their six-album career has taken Hot Chip out of the bedroom and into some of the most intriguing studios in Britain...

Down in Hot Chip’s bunker-like basement studio HQ in Hoxton, the five members of the London band are coaxing strange sounds from an array of analogue synths. This space is one of three which are generally used in the creation of their characterful brand of electronic dance-pop; singer Alexis Taylor has a Logic-based setup at home, while multi-instrumentalists Al Doyle and Felix Martin, along with Owen Clarke, use Ableton Live in their facility around the corner. This Cubase-centred studio belongs to Joe Goddard, who founded the group in 2000 along with Taylor.

Alexis Taylor takes Joe Goddard’s CS80 for a  spin...Alexis Taylor takes Joe Goddard’s CS80 for a spin...

Among Goddard’s prized synth possessions here are his most recent purchase, a Doepfer A100 Analog Modular System, and his Yamaha CS80, which he almost bashfully admits cost him £11,000. “My little modular is really, really fun because it’s quite new and we’re all just discovering how to make it do things,” he says. “The CS80 was an expensive thing for me to buy. Maybe too expensive!

“Honestly, I don’t know how much longer I’m going to keep collecting all these classic synths,” he admits, with the almost weary air of the habitual gear hoarder. “I can quite easily see myself selling off some of them and looking at a different area of modern synthesizers. But for me I just wanted, after having used the Arturia emulation of the CS80, to experience the real thing. Just purely for the pleasure of that.”

Explore What’s New

Goddard can probably afford not to worry too much about his expensive tastes in technology since, over their 15-year history, Hot Chip have gone from strength to strength both creatively and commercially. The making of their sixth album, Why Make Sense?, found them stepping out of this studio environment, after pre-production, to work with co-producer Mark Ralph (Franz Ferdinand, Clean Bandit) in Angelic Studios in Northamptonshire, in an effort to bring more of the improvisational qualities of their expanded live-band setup into their recording.

Goddard’s studio is based around a  Malcolm Toft desk.Goddard’s studio is based around a Malcolm Toft desk.

Having begun as a bedroom studio project in 2000, Hot Chip are now very much interested in the old-school craft of record-making, which this time involved them bringing in Ralph and outside mixers David Wrench (Caribou, FKA Twigs) and Jimmy Douglass (Kanye West, Roxy Music). “I think people can do incredible stuff where the entire process is done in a laptop,” Goddard points out. “But the kind of people that we are, and with our interest in music in the last 50 years, we like the idea of records being a collaborative process. So that means working with engineers who really know what they’re doing in terms of getting sounds from instruments and microphones.

“Partially from reading Sound On Sound and things, I’ve been learning about the art of these different roles. We wanted this record to involve all these people. It’s kind of anachronistic in a way. As everyone is moving towards making records in quite a cheap way on a laptop, we’re interested in spending the money that we have in getting all these people involved.”

“I think when you’re making music in a band together for a number of years,” says Taylor, “you do try to explore what’s new to yourselves. That inspires us to think how we can make something different, away from those slightly lo-fi parameters that we started out with. But that’s been a gradual process over 15 years.”

Child’s Play

Joe Goddard was only 13 and living in Fulham with his parents when he first began experimenting with chopping up samples and looping them on his PC. “Even before Cubase I was using very basic bits of software like Cool Edit,” says Goddard. “I’d just try to cut up an Isley Brothers drum break or something and get someone to rap on it.”

At 16, Goddard and his schoolmate Alexis Taylor first began experimenting with Cubase, making field recordings on a Sony Professional Walkman cassette machine and working on tracks together. In time, as Hot Chip gathered members and settled on their current five-piece line-up, the fruits of their labours were to make up the band’s first two EPs, Mexico (2001) and Sanfrandisco (2002) and the idiosyncratic electro-soul of their 2004 debut album Coming On Strong.

“That album was all Cubase,” Goddard remembers. “We just had a [Shure] SM58 mic and a bunch of synthesizers and keyboards that we got from synth shops or charity shops. We didn’t have much equipment at all. There was a lot of kind of children’s stuff, like you might get from the Early Learning Centre.”

“It was that kind of world,” says Taylor, “where that stuff meets a Farfisa organ meets a Fender Rhodes and then a Teisco [60F] synthesizer. Lots of handheld percussion. Goats’ toenails, things like that [laughs]. It was quite a mixture.”

Among the vintage synths populating Goddard’s studio is this ARP 2600.Among the vintage synths populating Goddard’s studio is this ARP 2600.

Messing With Modulars

By the time of their second album, The Warning in 2006, Goddard was sharing a flat with Felix Martin in Camden, which was the scene of much of its recording. While it was still home-made on a very limited budget, using Cubase on a Dell desktop computer, by this point the group had more synths at their disposal, including a Roland SH101 and a Casiotone MT70.

“The SH101 has just got a fantastic tone,” says Goddard. “It’s a classic. A nice solid, simple synth. The Casiotone was very, very popular with us. It’s those kind of pure sine waves. It has a very gentle, warm sound to it. Alexis got one first and it was generally one or two presets that we used.”

“There was a point where Al had a Korg MS2000,” Taylor recalls. “That’s quite different from those Casio things where there’s just a preset with an alternate version of it. We were still just using whatever was taking our interest or whatever we could afford around that time.”

Although they preferred working with hardware synths, Goddard singles out the Arturia emulations as the only soft synths which were used on The Warning, including the singles ‘Over And Over’ and ‘Boy From School’. “Those synths were really important to me when I started to use them,” he says. “The Minimoog and the Prophet and the Jupiter 8 to a lesser degree. The Moog Modular was very important because it gave me a way of understanding how synths work. I could look at the patching that other people had done and start to understand the basics.

“In terms of electronics and circuits and things, I’m an absolute idiot,” he laughs. “I still don’t really understand what’s going on. It doesn’t stop me loving messing with synths. In the Moog Modular, the patches made by the guy from Yellow Magic Orchestra [Hideki Matsutake] are all over a lot of those Hot Chip songs. I just thought they were wonderful sounds and they’re very versatile. There’s examples even on the new album where we’re using the [Arturia] Moog Modular along with very expensive hardware synths. Sometimes I find that the plug-in just does the job and you don’t want to spend days trying to recreate that with a hardware synth when you’ve already got what you’re looking for. So I’m really indebted to that Arturia stuff in a way, ’cause that’s where I got the thirst for synthesis really.”

One of the more unusual synths in Goddard’s collection is this Maplin 5600S with EMS-style pin-matrix modulation section, sold originally as a  kit in the early ’80s.One of the more unusual synths in Goddard’s collection is this Maplin 5600S with EMS-style pin-matrix modulation section, sold originally as a kit in the early ’80s.

Bridging The Gap

The Warning saw Hot Chip sign to LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy’s DFA Records, distributed by EMI, which resulted in a bigger budget for third album Made In The Dark. The band did some recording at the Strongroom in London with their live engineer Jonathan Digby in an effort to capture some of the more intuitive grooves they’d developed together through their extensive touring.

“We recorded a lot of stuff live,” says Goddard, “tracking with all the stuff that we used for our tour setup. Several of the songs are from that, with certain overdubs and redoing the vocals afterwards. But they’re essentially recordings of the band as it was live at the time.”

“It was interesting, but I think we were finding our feet a bit,” Taylor admits. “Trying to work out, ‘How do we get away from what we know how to do?’ We were trying to bridge the gap between the method of going to Joe’s place, with two people at a time recording, to doing something like our live sound. They were so different from each other. Recording live in the studio, it kind of sounded like a band doing a radio session and we had to ask ourselves, ‘How do we bring in all of the elements of interest and things that happen in the production when Joe is recording it at his place? How do we kind of marry these things together?’

“That’s not saying that documenting it live is better, but it’s certainly interesting to see what you can come up with just in that way. With Hot Chip, I think it’s not just an interest in synthesizers and synthesis in that sense, but synthesis of the different approaches to recording combined together — the kind of MIDI programming mixed with the live playing a live drummer, a handheld shaker. The kind of low-quality stuff with the high-end stuff. That’s been mixed together over the years in our band.”

A rare example of a  complete Roland System 100 semi-modular synth.A rare example of a complete Roland System 100 semi-modular synth.

“It’s taken us a long time to feel like we know our way around a studio,” says Goddard. “Because it’s very daunting when you walk in there and you’re just used to a bedroom setup.”

One Big Space

By the time of their fourth album One Life Stand in 2010, Hot Chip had signed to Parlophone, and decided to use Felix Martin and Al Doyle’s studio as an area to further explore meshing together the live and programmed elements of their sound. “But we didn’t have everything set up exactly how you might in a professional studio,” Taylor points out. “The drums were all in the same room. It was just one big space.”

For One Life Stand, Hot Chip experimented by bringing in different drummers for different tracks, including Charles Hayward from ’70s/’80s experimental rock band This Heat and Leo Taylor from lo-fi disco outfit Gramme. “That was the first time we were recording a full drum kit on top of what we’d done,” says Taylor. “It was kind of a little more like looking out to other people and not just saying Hot Chip has to be us five doing everything. Kind of trying to bring different colours to the records.”

“There was more of an effort to have a bit more live performance, slightly less editing,” says Goddard. “I think for me that was because The Warning and the records earlier on were very much about playing some percussion or guitar or whatever, and then I would go through and find a couple of bars that were good and loop those. It was very edit-heavy. And I guess on One Life Stand there was maybe a desire to listen to the track and feel like there was a human playing from start to finish. I don’t think that’s inherently better. But it’s nice to kind of feel the humanity.”

The sessions for One Life Stand were long and intensive, however, and Hot Chip now feel that they perhaps spent too long in the studio making that particular album. “We maybe took a bit longer working on the tracks and trying to figure out, ‘Are these songs good enough?’” Taylor states. “Sort of hammering away at them.”

“It was because it was just the band, and nominally, I’m sitting in the chair trying to steer the process a little bit, so everyone’s opinion gets heard,” Goddard reckons. “I found it kind of difficult for there not to be someone else who helps you to move the process along.”

The External Person

Enter Mark Ralph, who had worked with Taylor and Goddard on their respective side projects, About Group and The 2 Bears. He was drafted in to oversee the recording of Hot Chip’s fifth album, In Our Heads, as they returned to an indie label, Domino Records.

“It did speed things up,” says Ralph. “I think if you’re self-producing you don’t have that person who’s constantly just pushing the whole time to get things completed. You haven’t got that external person who’s saying, ‘No, that is good enough let’s get that down and finished.’ You might pontificate a little bit more.”

Among the most recent additions to the Hot Chip family is this Doepfer modular.Among the most recent additions to the Hot Chip family is this Doepfer modular.

The majority of the sessions for In Our Heads took place in Mark Ralph’s studio, Club Ralph, which has since relocated to Queen’s Park in north-west London but was at the time based in nearby Kilburn. “We’d obviously had some experience in professional studios before,” says Goddard. “But Mark’s place just sounded much better than anything I’d experienced.”

In addition, Hot Chip found it refreshing in Club Ralph to be looking at a mixing desk rather than a computer screen. “You could be mixing the music based on what you’re hearing, ’cause the computer’s off to the side,” says Taylor. “You stop making decisions that are so habitual from just moving the mouse around and thinking about the shape of the EQ.”

“It was good for me,” Goddard goes on, “‘cause I’m so used to making decisions based on like, ‘All right, 16 bars later, this is when something should happen.’ Those kind of things that you get from looking at a screen. I mean, you can’t forget about those kind of tropes because we’re involved in essentially poppy, dancey music. As we’re all DJs, we do think about those kind of signifiers that people need when they’re on a dance floor: drums drop out, this is where the hi-hat should come in. So you have that in the back of your mind, but it can’t be too prevalent.”

Since its relocation to Queen’s Park, Mark Ralph’s Club Ralph Studio has been based around an SSL mixer rather than the unique Conny Plank-designed console that took pride of place in its previous environment.Since its relocation to Queen’s Park, Mark Ralph’s Club Ralph Studio has been based around an SSL mixer rather than the unique Conny Plank-designed console that took pride of place in its previous environment.

Double Drums

For Hot Chip’s latest, Why Make Sense?, the team took an entirely different approach, decamping to the residential environment of Angelic Studios, owned by former Jamiroquai songwriter and keyboard player Toby Smith. “It was a new experience for them,” says Ralph. “They’re on their sixth album, but they’d never gone out and recorded in a residential studio before. And we got some great stuff out of it. I think this record has got a really nice character and has captured the live element of what they do.”

Hot Chip travelled to Angelic with their seven-piece touring outfit, which includes drummer Sarah Jones and keyboard-player/percussionist Rob Smoughton. “Just to able to record things simultaneously if we wanted to,” Taylor points out. “And to experiment with a bit more room around us, rather than being cramped into Club Ralph in its old guise, which was a pretty small but great studio. We’d kind of reached the point where maybe we couldn’t do much more in there.”

At Angelic, there was plenty of space for the band to spread out, and they were even able to have two different drum kits permanently set up. “They have a huge drum room, so we set up a big kit in there,” says Ralph. “Then the other kit was set up in the vocal booth. Just a kick, snare and hat for a dry ’70s disco sound. Four mics and a room mic: the [AKG] D12 on the kick halfway in, a couple of dynamics on the top and bottom of the snare and a [Neumann] KM84 on the hi-hat. Then there was a [Neumann] U67 in the room being used for vocals, so I just put that in the back of the vocal booth and recorded a tight room mic.

“In the big room, I was quite sparse with miking because I’m always conscious of phase cancellation with multiple mics on one source.I like ribbons for the overheads and they had Coles 4038s. Also there were some nice Sennheiser MD421s, the old grey ones, and they recorded the toms really well. Again I’d have the D12 inside the kick and then I would use an NS10 [woofer] on the outside for the sub. The stereo room mic was the AKG C24 at the back of the room. I just tried to keep it to as few mics as I could get away with.”

Elsewhere, Al Doyle’s bass was DI’ed and then sent through an Ampeg Portaflex B15 amp, or a Vox AC30 if a more overdriven sound was needed. Guitar-wise, the amps used were a Fender Super 60 and Twin Reverb, and a Marshall Lead And Bass 50. “But it was mainly AC30s,” says Ralph. “I think they’ve just got loads of balls to them and they’re great for clean sounds, ’cause they’ve got a nice bottom end to them.”

Mark Ralph is a  fan of relatively simple drum-miking setups, preferring to avoid possible phase problems.Mark Ralph is a fan of relatively simple drum-miking setups, preferring to avoid possible phase problems.

Some of Alexis Taylor’s and Joe Goddard’s vocals were recorded at Angelic during these sessions, using a U67. The rest were completed back at the new Club Ralph in Queen’s Park, using Ralph’s vintage U87 through the SSL desk that came with the rented space (forcing the Conny Plank desk to be put into storage for the time being).“The U67 is a very similar sort of sound to the U87,” reckons Ralph. “So it meant that when we came and did vocals back at mine, it wasn’t too dissimilar to the sound we’d recorded in Angelic. It was quite nice to use the valve version, but I think sometimes, you can record with a valve mic and have loads of wonderful bottom end and then when you try to mix it into a track with loads of music, you end up having to get rid of a lot of that just to accommodate the vocal in the track. I don’t sit there doing 50 billion takes of the same line over and over again. I try to just capture a moment then do a bit of comping to get it right.”

“I feel like Mark is good at getting takes from me or Joe,” states Taylor. “You’ve got to feel comfortable with the people recording you, rather than just being on edge in the room on your own with the pressure of doing the take. I feel like Mark is good at making the right interjection at the right moment to say, ‘Look, we need another.’

“I just have my phone with lyric ideas typed into the memo pad. I put it into airplane mode so it doesn’t affect the recording, and then just try and do vocal takes. Sometimes I’ve written a song before I’ve got to the studio. But it wasn’t so much like that on this album. It was a bit more piecemeal.”

Club Friendly

Come mix time, five of the 10 tracks were completed at Club Ralph, in cases where Joe Goddard already had a specific idea for the sonic direction of the song. “If I’ve been working on a demo for a track,” he says, “I usually have a plan for the mix. Mark’s amazing, so I let him EQ and compress stuff and I balance it with him and pan and put effects on various things.”

Mark Ralph.Mark Ralph.

The remainder were farmed out, with David Wrench tackling ‘Huarache Lights’, ‘Need You Now’, ‘Why Make Sense?’ and parts of ‘Started Right’, while in the States, Jimmy Douglass handled ‘Love Is The Future’. “David Wrench is someone we’ve known for a long time,” says Goddard. “I just thought that particular Caribou tracks he did, like ‘Can’t Do Without You’, were sonically amazing.

“The reason for getting Jimmy Douglass involved was because on ‘Love Is The Future’ we were trying to reference the kind of stuff that he’s worked on for years, like the band Slave in the ‘70s and all the Timbaland stuff. Those tracks are mixed so perfectly, so they sound amazing in a club, amazing on the radio. They’re never harsh and aggressive and the bass is always there. I spoke to him on the phone and he was saying, ‘There’s no sonic big problems with this mix, it is what it needs to be.’ But he described it as like sprinkling some sugar on it, that kind of classic thing.”

Douglass’s mix of ‘Love Is The Future’ arrived very late in the album’s schedule, however, by which time Taylor, Goddard and Doyle had all been airing the mix they’d done of the track with Ralph during their DJ sets. “You’d be so used to that,” says Taylor, “that after a while you’re like, ‘Well are we gonna get this noticeably better?’ But we still really wanted to find that out. And it did work because you’re getting a mix from someone who’s actually worked on the records that Joe’s talking about, rather than us always keeping within our own sonic world.”

To Joe Goddard’s DJ’ing ears, a lot of modern club records can sound harsh and aggressive on club systems, which was something Hot Chip were careful to avoid on ‘Why Make Sense?’ “Modern pop music sounds so sonically bad to me on those kind of systems,” he says. “It’s just painful. So a big part of the sound of our records now is trying to make this club music that’s pleasant at those kind of volumes and in those kind of situations.”

Ultimately, the science of combining club sounds and live performances is what Hot Chip plan to explore in future records. “Yeah it’s like, What’s the perfect balance?” Taylor ponders. “And I think we’re still figuring that out, six albums into our career.”

One Of A Kind

When Hot Chip first decided to work with Mark Ralph, one of the big attractions was the desk then installed in the original Club Ralph studio. It was custom-built in the ’70s by Kraftwerk and Neu! producer Conny Plank, and Ralph co-owns it with Cure/Depeche Mode producer David M Allen.

“Conny built two of them,” Ralph explains. “One was built for Holger Czukay, the bass player of Can, and he built the other one for himself, which is the one that I’ve got. It’s a big 60-channel thing made out of cherry wood. I’ve spent an awful lot of money on it, probably £40,000 over the years. He was a bit of a German boffin and he scribbled down the manual himself, so you’re kind of in a precarious situation when it comes to maintaining it and keeping it going. I had to have all the capacitors redone and that was about £10,000 alone. But it’s worth it. I love the sound of it.”

Angelic Sounds

One of the major attractions of Angelic Studios for Hot Chip was owner Toby Smith’s extensive collection of vintage synths, including the ARP 2600 and Odyssey, Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and T8, a Roland Jupiter 8 and a Moog Memorymoog. For the title track of Why Make Sense?, the team experimented with these by taking Joe Goddard’s MIDI parts and sending them to various keyboards so that the members of Hot Chip could change parameters in real time and record the results live.

“The way it worked,” Mark Ralph explains, “the MIDI tracks were all on a very strange cycle. They come back around on an odd number of bars, so it never really sounds like it’s fully resolving musically. He’d mocked it all up on plug-ins and it sounded really good, but we thought, ‘We’ve got all these synths here!’ So we just went for as many synths as we could possibly have all playing at the same time. I had probably 12 or 13 MIDI parts to send to each individual synth, so it was a bit of an experiment as much as anything to see if we could actually make it work.”

“We needed to be able to modulate those sounds with eye contact,” says Alexis Taylor. “Or even with people conducting the shape of the modulation.”

“We did the drums live with the synths,” says Ralph, “and basically every single person in the room was on a synth and was fiddling around with the sound live as it was going along. It was a triumph of ’70s and ’80s technology really. We were just as pleased with the fact that it actually worked, as what happened musically.”