Mercury Prize winners the xx were a band whose mimimalism tempted producers to do too much. By remaining faithful to the band's own sound, Rodaidh McDonald succeeded where others had failed.
South London indie trio the xx won the prestigious Mercury Prize towards the end of last year, with a highly distinctive debut album. Whispering, intimate dual male and female vocals, reverb‑drenched guitars and punchy bass are set to a backbeat of intricate dubstep‑esque electronic beats, all crafted within a delicate, skeletal song structure, where the sense of space and silence is just as important as any musical sound. The album was recorded by Rodaidh McDonald, who was taken on to manage their record label XL Recordings' in‑house studio in September 2008.
The xx had originally come to the attention of XL imprint Young Turks after impressing Katie O'Neill, who works for the label, with the demos they'd posted on their MySpace page. Katie subsequently lent the band a guitar for a London gig, they popped a stack of demos round to the XL HQ in Ladbroke Grove and it wasn't long before they were signed up and raring to go. However, capturing the band's minimalist, fragile sound was a challenge that had already defeated several producers.
"I thought they were amazing. I'd already heard a couple of songs and I was already interested in the band anyway,” explains Rodaidh. "Their manager Caius [Pawson, who also works for XL] gave me three CDs. One of them was called 'Early Demos', one of them was called 'Recorded In Rehearsal Space', which was like a live thing… and another one was called 'What Producers Did Wrong'. They'd worked with about four other producers before then that had — and no discredit to them — I guess they'd seen a lot of space to add a kind of stamp on. There was a lot of empty space in the xx's music, even then, in the 'Early Demos'. But we just found that the best stuff was the most sparse. The intimacy of the early demos was the important thing.”
"It was minimalist, and I love that,” says XL owner Richard Russell. "I grew up listening to a lot of hip‑hop, which was very minimalist, not through design, but because people didn't have much and that's what they were using. A lot of my favourite records when I was young had a lot of vocals and drums and samples and not that much else. People pick up on different things in the xx and different references, but to me, it was the simplicity of early hip‑hop that I heard in it.”
"I could hear the strong R&B influence,” adds Rodaidh McDonald. "The first track I heard was 'Hot Like Fire' [a cover of a track by R&B singer Aaliyah] and I thought it sounded amazing. And the guitar parts, I fell in love with… and there were all these street noises and things that'd just been picked up by accident in the background. It was a recording that really took you somewhere, so it was really important for me to recreate that somehow. There's loads of imperfections on the record that are left in on purpose, just because I wanted it to sound like people in a room, rather than this polished kind of perfect crystalline thing. It was all the small details that we really liked.”
In the early part of 2008, Richard Russell had decided to convert a garage at the back of XL's Ladbroke Grove building into a small studio for his own productions and as a resource for his label's diverse artist roster. One of the main reasons Rodaidh McDonald was taken on later in the year was to "step up” the XL studio to the next level. This small, non‑commercial studio is now put to constant use by Rodaidh and XL, whether they're mixing, recording and producing existing XL artists, remixing outside bands, making radio edits, or even working with unsigned acts they've taken a shine to.
"Before Richard brought me in to be Studio Manager, it was just a bit of a free‑for‑all,” explains Rodaidh. "Artists could come in and rehearse, demo or write here and things like that, but it wasn't equipped in any way. If people wanted to use the room, they just had to get on with it… but it was a good idea and we decided we should be stepping it up and making records here. It's a good space, and it's a good location, and it's a soundproof room, and it was kind of isolated from the rest of the office, so it wasn't like you were working in the record company's presence.”
Richard Russell had decided at an early point that the xx should make their debut album there. "I had a very strong feeling that they shouldn't use a producer,” says Russell. "You could go and see them live and they had a sound. Their sound is part of what they do and they needed someone sympathetic to help capture it. That's one thing you could have really spoilt by trying to make it something it wasn't with a producer. It needed to be a self‑produced record, and I suppose the culture of self‑produced records was always part of the culture here, initially because obviously all that rave stuff is very DIY. The producer was the artist, the artist was the producer. And the xx just needed to be in the right sort of comfortable environment, working with someone who was going to be sensitive to what they were doing, and able to help them do what they do.”
As the xx were to be the first band to make a record at XL, Rodaidh McDonald actually equipped the studio with the gear he felt would best capture their characteristic sound. While Rodaidh would be engineering, xx would be produced by the band's own Jamie Smith.
"Their manager Caius and I spent quite a long time — a couple of months — just kind of going over demos and speaking to the band about how we were going to go about it,” explains McDonald. "We had to get a budget together to give to the people who were going to be paying for it, and [the xx] kind of formed the basis for the first stage of the studio setup. We figured out what we needed for them and spent quite a long time shopping round and getting a bit of an itinerary together. We weren't going to be recording a big band here, so we didn't need a huge desk. We got this 12‑channel Amek BC2 broadcast desk, which is amazing and we've still got it next door. [The XL studio is now equipped with a Neotek Élan II custom 24‑channel console.] I knew we needed a good desk and we needed really nice preamps, and those preamps were pretty amazing. It was so cheap — about £2000 or something — but, for what it was, it was just so good. We also had one of those Neve Portico 5012 preamps that we used occasionally. A lot of the really expensive mics for the record we borrowed. I didn't really want my first thing to be handing over this huge invoice for tons of stuff that we might use every so often, so a lot of the stuff for the record was borrowed.”
Monitor‑wise, the studio was fitted with a pair of Yamaha NS10s and a pair of Genelec 8050As, and everything was recorded using Logic 8 on a Mac Pro.
Rodaidh McDonald and the xx commenced recordings at Ladbroke Grove in December 2008 and had everything pretty much completed by the end of February the following year. The majority of the sessions took place whenever the XL Recordings staff were absent from the building.
"Most of my memories of recording it were over the Christmas holidays when there was no one else here, so I basically stayed here for Christmas that year,” says Rodaidh. "A lot of the time they'd tend to start quite late, as well, but they seemed to work really well at night, whereas in the morning it would just take them ages to get going. We also recorded every weekend here and, in the week, we'd start working, then people would tend to leave here about seven and then we just went on through. There were two stages of recording. The first was finished probably by the end of January, then some mixing started and we mixed the first single, 'Crystallised', then after that there was a period where we did another three songs that they'd recently written — 'Shelter', 'Infinity' and 'Fantasy'. I think that was some time towards the end of February.”
The first step in the xx sessions at XL was to match some of the sounds that were on the 'Early Demos' and then to experiment with where best to record the guitars, bass, keyboards and vocals. In addition to the main studio space, Rodaidh also recorded the group in an adjacent corridor leading to the office's main reception area. This corridor has now been sealed off from the rest of the building and currently serves as the live room.
"I got each of the band a notebook where they could write down their settings,” explains McDonald. "Because everything changed from song to song even when we were on the same amps. We had pretty much worked it all out before we started recording, so that when we did go in, we could just do it. And I also had a chart on the wall with every track on it. We had boxes for 'bass done' and 'guitar done' and vocals… so we could visually see how far we were getting.”
When the album was recorded, the group was a four‑piece consisting of Romy Madley Croft on guitar and vocals, Oliver Sim on bass and vocals, Baria Qureshi (who left the band towards the end of 2009) on guitars and keys, and Jamie Smith, who was responsible for creating the beats using an Akai MPC sampler. Smith, who also produced the album and mixed it with Rodaidh McDonald, always provided the band with some initial beats to use as a click track while they were recording their various parts. The bass would always be tracked first, followed by guitars or keyboard, while vocals would always be the final thing to be laid down.
"Jamie was there for most of the time but when we'd be recording, he'd stay overnight and work on the beats and things like that,” says Rodaidh. "While we might be doing vocals, he'd be in the meeting room with his laptop, Logic and his MPC, sometimes going through a Boss DD3, a Boss overdrive pedal and a Roland Space Echo RE301, which he used quite a lot. He also used a lot of Logic plug‑ins. We'd use a rough version of the beat for the track but, throughout the recordings and afterwards, he'd take that away and he'd work really hard on making it all sound good and making it work together.”
Oliver Sim, meanwhile, played a '70s Fender Precision bass, through one of two amps. "We did a lot of bass out there [in the corridor],” explains McDonald. "We started off with a Fender Bassman reissue, a tweed one, which was quite good and it was probably on about half of the record. But then there was a whole lot of rattling and other problems with that. I was really keen to have a good bass sound because it's so exposed, so we spent a lot of time trying to get it right. I used a Neumann U87 and a Sennheiser MD421 pretty much the whole time. We decided to get rid of [the Bassman] about halfway through, and got an Ampeg B15N Fliptop. When we were recording 'outside', we had leads running through and things like that. We didn't have a nice patchbay, so we'd be going behind the desk and pulling things in and out, so there were cables everywhere and it was absolute chaos!”
The brilliant, echo‑laden guitar sounds on xx were a result of Rodaidh trying to reproduce and build upon what had "already been there” on the band's 'Early Demos' CD.
"The guitar sound was there on the demos,” says Rodaidh. "It's not something we arrived at in the studio, although there were elements of the detail that we spent a long time working on. A lot of people ask about the reverbs, but a lot of the reverb on the lead guitar is from a Roland Microcube, which I think they still use and is like a £100 amp. It needed to sound super‑clear and icy, and we did try a bunch of different amps just to see if there was something else that worked out, but that was the lead guitar sound that ended up on the record really — a Boss DD3 delay pedal and the digital reverb setting on the Microcube. I've got a ton of amps and I brought some things in that we did end up using for the rhythm guitar parts. The [Fender] Blues Deluxe is pretty much on every track on the album as well. Romy used an Epiphone Les Paul and a Gibson 335, just for a couple of tracks, and Baria used a Gibson SG for the whole record, going most of the time into the Blues Deluxe or into a [Fender] Hot Rod Deluxe.”
Approximately 60 percent of the guitars and amps were recorded in the main studio room, while the rest were laid down in the corridor. McDonald miked the amps with a Shure SM57 and a Sennheiser MD421 close to the grille, while he sometimes also placed a U87 a foot or so back. "I don't think that really ended up getting used that much,” he explains. "It was mostly the other two, just getting a nice blend between them.”
One "desirable imperfection” that Rodaidh and the xx chose to keep on the track 'Shelter' was the result of a rattling guitar amp.
"A screw or a valve came loose or something,” says Rodaidh. "And there was this real rattling sound on there. It sounds like a shaker or something like that, but we played it back and we were like, 'Wow, that sounds amazing!' It was just like this missing piece of percussion that the track needed!”
One of the many striking aspects of xx is the way Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim's dual lead vocals seem to portray an almost intimate late‑night conversation that you feel your ears shouldn't be privy to. Rodaidh McDonald reveals a few of his trade secrets in nailing the vocal recordings.
"The vocals were always done together, and that was one of the most important things,” he explains. "Romy and Oliver are quite inseparable anyway. They'd always be quite in sync, so it was really important to get it so that when they were singing to each other, it wasn't like one of them sounded like they'd just woke up and one of them sounded weary. And on some of the tracks, it really worked when they were quite tired and emotional, you know. It was important to get them together for timing as well, rather than one of them just listening to the other in headphones and singing back. There was no punching in for choruses or verses. It was always just done from start to finish, so we spent a long time on vocals and on getting it right. If there was any comping, it was pretty minimal and it was at the mixing stage with Jamie but, yeah, it was really important to get that sort of dialogue.
"I instinctively wanted the vocals to sound really kind of intimate and crisp and right at the front of the thing. So I tried a few different mics out, but we ended up going with Neumann M149s, which we borrowed, for the whole record pretty much, which I think worked really well and, a lot of the time, they'd go straight into the Amek BC2.”
However, by the time the band came to record the last three songs in stage two of the sessions, the "expensive microphones” had already been returned, so Olly and Romy's dual vocals were captured using Shure KSM44s. The track 'Infinity' threw up another nice little imperfection that Rodaidh and the band decided to keep.
"Somehow the mic had got turned around on 'Infinity',” recalls McDonald. "Olly was singing into it the wrong way round in the room! We'd just turn the monitors down and record and then turn them up and listen to what we had, and we did that… and it felt like Romy was up front singing and he was at the other end of the room singing back to her. It felt like you could really hear that, so that was a quite nice accident.”
After all the tracking for the album was complete, it was time for Jamie Smith and Rodaidh McDonald to get properly stuck into mixing.
"After we'd finished, I'd leave Jamie with the parts and he'd have a period of probably about a month or three weeks of staying overnight in the studio working on the beats and putting them together with the recordings that we had,” says Rodaidh. "By that time we'd already roughly comped everything, and everything was sounding really together. He spent a lot of time making the beats sound amazing, and then he'd export the whole session of just the rhythm track on two channels, and we'd put it into my Logic here, and then we mixed it for a couple of weeks, solidly going through every track.
"We'd only have about two tracks for any instrument. I don't think we mixed more than 16 tracks but it was really important to get these things sounding really good, as we were putting them into the computer, rather than spending ages trying to get things to sound great later on. We mixed entirely in Logic 8. We didn't use the desk at all, really. For the vocal sound, we used a plate sound in Waves' IR1, and for EQs we pretty much exclusively used the Waves API suite, which I still use a lot. I really like it for mixing. And Jamie's a big fan of a lot of the Logic plug‑ins, but they were used very sparingly on the stuff that we had down from our recording sessions. People have said to me before, 'Oh, it must've been a really easy thing to mix, right?' but actually there was a lot of attention to the details to make everything feel right, and it took a long time. It was quite a unique record to work on really, in that sense. It was all about keeping it intimate and not going overboard. I think that's really important and what people really enjoy about it.”
When the album was released on 17th August 2009, anticipation was high at XL Recordings, but no‑one expected the record to do quite as well as it has done. Rodaidh McDonald, for one, is more than thankful that media expectations were not higher at the time xx was being recorded.
"I think if we'd known it was going to have this impact and if those expectations were put on us when we were recording, it would've ended up sounding completely different, and then it might not have been the album that everyone likes,” he explains. "The evolution of it has been the important thing. If we'd known it was going to be received like this and there was going to be this much industry goodwill and time for them, it would've just completely changed everything about the dynamic of the recording.”
XL Recordings, co‑founded by Richard Russell back in 1989, was initially the dance and rave offshoot of Beggar's Banquet records. As well as pumping out a slew of cult white label 12‑inches, it began achieving chart success in the early '90s with releases such as SL2's 'On A Ragga Tip', T99's 'Anasthasia', and 'The Bouncer' by Russell's own collective Kicks Like A Mule, not to mention early singles by the Prodigy. Since the mid‑'90s, the label has signed up a diverse roster of artists, all on tellingly favourable deals, and the combined success their releases have enjoyed is surely unparalleled for any UK independent record label in the modern era. Adele, Badly Drawn Boy, Basement Jaxx, Dizzee Rascal, Gil Scott Heron, the Horrors, Jack Penate, MIA, the Prodigy, Radiohead, Thom Yorke, Vampire Weekend, the White Stripes and the xx — to name but a few — are testament to that.
Richard Russell, whose most recent production was Gil Scott Heron's critically acclaimed I'm New Here in 2010, shares some of his views on recording.
"I've got two sort of conflicting ways of looking at recording, but nonetheless I think they do fit together. One is that the process is incredibly important. You've got to honour it and you've got to enjoy it. That's the one thread between someone for whom music is just an out and out occasional hobby and the greatest recording artists in the world: the doing of it. Everyone who plays music or makes music does it. That's the thread and it is the fundamental thing. But while the process is important, the other way I look at it is that you should never get too bogged down in the process. Ultimately, you want to express an idea, and the studio is just the brushes and the paint; the important thing is you get to the realisation of the idea. The idea of pure expression is very dear to me and you don't want studios to get in the way. I think big studios can get in the way and, as an artist, you've got to be very, very ready for that.
"There's an electronic producer called Leila, who's a friend of mine, and she has wonderful insights into a lot of this stuff. She was talking about equipment and she was saying, 'You should never have too much equipment!', because any piece of gear you've got in your studio that you don't use is going to be putting you on a guilt trip, making you feel bad when you need to feel good when you're recording! You can end up thinking about the gear when you should be thinking about the music, when the gear's only really there to express it.
"Also, I'm a big believer in rough‑and‑ready DIY recording and I'm a big believer in samples. But I'm also a big believer in people that can play brilliantly. Like all of this stuff, everything's got its place. I think people can often get bogged down into a single way of seeing things. But, I think — for us as a label and hopefully for us as a studio as well — it's about giving people the platform but, within that, everyone's got different ways of looking at it and different ways of doing things.”
Russell does believe that 2011 is a very exciting time to be both a producer and a musician. "We are at an interesting point in time, aren't we?” he enthuses. "I had an experience this week where I bought two things. I bought an old rare analogue Russian synth, an Aelita, and it's wonderful, great but relatively expensive as well. But I also bought a synth app for my iPad and it's fucking great! Those things are both brilliant and they both have their place, and neither of them cancels the other out.”