Many bands record their own albums these days, but few achieve as much with as little gear as Stornoway.
"We have been into a few studios,” admits Jonathan Ouin of Stornoway. "It's not like we shun them, or something! But there's this feeling when you're in a studio where time is slipping away and time is money, and it's not very conducive to working out exactly how you want something to sound. I know there's also something to be said for just going for it in the studio, and then that's it. But we prefer to be able to go through that process ourselves, and not feel like there's any external pressure.”
"In the studio, if you come up with a great idea with five minutes to go, you can't explore that idea to its ultimate pure emotional form,” continues bassist Oli Steadman. "The songs are true stories from [singer and guitarist Brian Briggs's] life, so he wants to reflect the real emotions behind it in the melody, but also in all the other stuff, the little hooks on the other instruments. So if we have hours and hours to check out this combination and that combination of melodies, eventually we do find the ones that reflect the sentiments properly and directly. Because they're often very deep, heartfelt songs, so the melodies we're looking for are these ultimate reflections of emotions musically.”
Stornoway's painstaking pursuit of these musical reflections has meant accepting drastic limitations in terms of equipment and space, in return for the near-unlimited freedom and recording time available to a band producing themselves. "We enjoy the process of trying stuff out for ourselves,” explains keyboard player Jon. "We did our first album on a Zoom MRS802 eight-track, and we've barely upgraded.”
The main upgrade that did take place for the sessions for the band's second album, Tales From Terra Firma, the follow-up to their UK top 20 album Beachcomber's Windowsill, was from the MRS802 to the newer Zoom R16. Although this is technically a 16-track, it too can record only eight inputs at once; its big advantage as far as the band were concerned was its ability to act as an audio interface for their Mac laptop.
"Some of the earlier tracks we did purely with the Zoom eight-track, and that meant that it was very difficult to get everyone at once, because you need all eight for the drums,” explains Oli. "You do have another eight tracks, but we never really went into that bank. You can hook it up to Logic and use it as an interface, which is what we were doing, but it doesn't have motorised faders, so every time you move around, or Logic decides to move for you, you completely forget where things were, so you'll suddenly touch one and your muted track becomes a hugely loud snare or whatever. But I think it's good to have restrictions like that, it makes you focus on the music.”
These weren't the only restrictions under which Stornoway were working. For one thing, their makeshift studio had no monitor speakers at all. "It was really difficult because we were monitoring just on closed-back headphones, and all on different sets!” explains Oli. "I had these Allen & Heath X1s, and they're more like DJ monitoring headphones, they really boost the bass...”
"...and I had absolutely no bass, and Rob would monitor on his on-stage in-ear monitors, which have lots of hiss because of the triple drivers,” continues Jon. "We'd always have to go 'Well, I think that sounds OK, but just a slight disclaimer here, I've got absolutely zero middle!'”
"As long as we approached every day with a rough idea of what we wanted to hear in our headphones — like mine really suit listening to a Foals album, or psy-trance — then I can compare the Stornoway PG58 kick drum to what I might like hearing in those headphones,” concludes Oli. "As long as you embrace your subjectivity and you know that it's impossible to get a real mix, you just go for what you think is approaching good. We did take it home and play it back on our respective hi-fis, and in the car.”
As their employment of the humble Shure PG58 as a kick-drum mic suggests, the band were also very limited in their mic choices. The only capacitor mics they had access to were an ancient Pure XIX large-diaphragm model and an Audio-Technica 4040A, plus the ubiquitous AKG C1000s. Overcoming these limitations was, above all, a matter of experimentation.
"When we did the drum kit, we sometimes did a top snare and a bottom snare [mic], and I don't think we ever found a way of switching phase on the hardware, so until we started using Logic we probably had this completely backwards way of deciding about our snare,” laughs Oli.
"There's a lot of extreme guesswork, in some cases, but it's just an instinctive thing, not necessarily very educated,” admits Jon. "There were one or two songs where we did try Flaming Lips-style overloading everything, but by and large, because of the type of music we make, we were going for a naturalistic sound. We just did lots of versions until we got it sounding like we wanted. It was slightly feeling in the dark, but that was part of the fun of it, really. Otherwise you don't really learn anything for yourself.
"I find it quite funny when you try out these 'tried and tested' things that are supposed to be the best way of doing it, and it doesn't do anything like what it's supposed to — and then you try something you're not supposed to, and it sounds better, to your ears.”
It's not surprising that Tales From Terra Firma, released on 4AD, took a year to record, especially when you consider that hooking their R16 up to a computer allowed the band to indulge both in numerous overdubs — some songs feature close to 200 tracks — and meticulous comping of takes. "We do a lot of comping,” says Oli, "and that's one reason why we went away from a multitrack recorder where you were comping completely by ear. We really do enough comping to justify going to Logic, and being able to swipe it real quick probably took six months off the recording time.”
"On our first album we did everything blind, effectively, just using digits,” agrees Jon. "And sometimes we completely screwed up. There's no undo on the MRS802!”
The band's collective attention to detail in the matter of take management meant that once they'd laid down the central performances of each song as a band, it was often left up to indvidual members to labour over the finer details of their own performances. "Just that right take can take hours, or days,” says Oli. "So if it's just one person on their own, they can be happy to do hundreds of takes until they eventually get the right one that reflects the sentiment of the song.”
The bulk of the album was tracked in a converted shed in Steadman's garden, but Stornoway also made a virtue of their limited and hence portable setup by recording a number of tracks on location. "Part of the thing about having a portable recorder is that it's nice to try out different spaces,” says Jon. "As well as having a neutral space, if you really want a particular environment, you can go out and get it in the flesh rather than use a plug-in.”
"We did probably two-thirds of it in one room at my place in Oxford,” says Oli. "That was like an old empty shed, just bricks, for a number of years. Then we decided we needed a space, so we built a drum riser in one corner and put B&Q offcuts on the walls. No foam, or anything, but massive boxes strategically placed to deaden it. We wanted it to be as atmosphere-less as possible! But then for a few tracks we went to the oldest church in Oxford, St Michael's, and we recorded in a room just to the side of the very long chapel building.”
"The church was much more interesting in terms of acoustics,” says Jon. "We had paired mics, quite far down the end. That was quite a difficult call, knowing how far away to put them and what the best position would be. We were wandering around the church trying to find even the best position to put the drums in the first place. That kind of stuff takes ages.
"It's right next to a fairly main street, so you can hear all this background noise if you listen carefully, but we did try to choose a point where the binman wasn't going past. At some point, there was a busker with a portable piano on wheels. That was quite annoying.”
"I found the performance space affected my performance, especially on vocals,” continues Oli. "If you've got some reverb there, it helps your vocal, and in that small shed, those were songs that I would always play in a more tight rocky kind of way, and Rob probably the same on the drums.”
Another location session was recorded at East Oxford Community Centre, and tracked not by the band but by George Shilling. Chosen as a mix engineer because the band loved his work with Teenage Fanclub, Primal Scream and Bernard Butler, Shilling soon found himself contributing to the recording process.
"My involvement started in January last year and went on to the end of October,” he explains. "I was mixing it as they were recording it. The first track they sent me was 'The Bigger Picture', which was a mandolin-y, folky-sounding kind of song. I mixed it, and to be honest, without wanting to criticise what they're doing, because they obviously have their priorities right, it was fairly appallingly recorded, so I was doing some fairly radical notching EQs, and lots of SPL Transient Designer to try and make the drums sound like something, some crazy-looking EQ shapes, and so on. We got to the point where they were happy with the mix, and I cheekily rang them up and said 'Look, is there any chance I could come over and see how you're recording this stuff, and see if there are any suggestions I might be able to make to improve what you're doing?'
"So I spent half a day sitting in their garage in Oxford going through how they did things. To be honest, there wasn't a lot that I could suggest, because they've got their own way of doing things, but I pointed out a few things about mic placement and gain structure on their Zoom recorder. And we pulled several layers of gaffer tape off the drums and tuned them! And I lent them a cheapish mic preamp that was slightly better than the ones in the Zoom. They don't actually own a compressor. Which was great, because it gave me more scope to get radical with what I was doing with the mix. I was doing a lot of compression and EQ and getting really stuck in with all my plug-ins.
"I went and recorded one of the songs, called 'The Great Procrastinator', in the East Oxford Community Centre. We spent a very long day tracking it — this is symptomatic of the way they work — and ended up with 35 entire takes of the backing track. They went away for a week and edited all those takes into something they were happy with, and the following week we went back into the Community Centre for another very long day and spent half a day recording four clarinet players and the other half day recording vocals. Then I took it home and mixed it.”
Some of the more important or challenging overdubs were also tracked at Shilling's studio, including piano, Hammond organ and brass sections. "We felt like we had enough working knowledge of recording drums, but we didn't feel the same with saxophones or clarinets,” explains Jon. "There were certain instruments where we felt it would be nice to record them as well as possible and not waste session musicians' time.”
Stornoway's meticulous approach to getting the right take was an eye-opener even to the experienced Shilling. "We spent hours and hours comping takes and tuning odd notes that weren't quite in. They were really aiming for perfection in a lot of ways, and they were always right. I've been doing this for 25 years, and it was certainly an education. Also, there were loads of instruments I've never come across before! I like obscure instruments, but even so...”
Mixing and overdubbing took place in piecemeal fashion, as and when the band finished each song and Shilling had time available in his schedule. "The first time we turned up at his studio out in the countryside, we'd spent days placing each mic, with our horrible collection of microphones,” says Oli. "We'd got what we thought was the best we could, in terms of placement, but we were monitoring everything on headphones, we never plugged into any speakers. So going in, the best feeling was suddenly hearing this massive kick drum coming out of his monitors. We were like 'We're on vaguely the right track here!' And then it was really satisfying, because we've got this tiny place with no equipment and no budget, and he was playing it through his stuff without any effects or anything, and it was good.”
George Shilling takes up the story: "The procedure would be that they'd arrive with laptops and copious unhealthy snacks, and they'd dictate notes to me, and we'd go through their ideas as to what the mix was going to be about. They'd leave me with half a bag of crisps and some leftover biscuits and I'd get on with it. And then a lot of it went online after that. I'd send them a mix via WeTransfer, and they'd send me an email saying 'We think it's absolutely amazingly brilliant. But...' and then a great long list of things. I was fairly compliant with their requests: I'd usually just work through the list and do whatever it was they suggested, and we'd hone it until we were all happy.
"I completely work 'in the box' these days, mainly because of the fact that people want to tweak ideas and mixes and things. It made it much easier when they'd write long emails saying 'Can we pan this the other way and dial the second violin up half a dB...' I grew up in the days of SSL total recalls. You'd spend hours writing things down and it'd never quite come back the same anyway. But I have no problem with the sound of 'in the box'. And all Stornoway's recordings are 16-bit, 44.1kHz anyway, so you don't want to go through too many conversion stages. I've got Pro Tools HD and two UAD cards, so I'm completely spoiled for choice when it comes to plug-ins. I stick a few things across the mix bus, like the UA Ampex tape machine. At the start of the record, I was using a Fairchild limiter across the mix, the UAD one, and by the end of it I was either using nothing at all, or the SSL G-series.
"They were very complicated tracks to mix sometimes. It was a matter of painstakingly going through stuff. Every song was different — it's not like most albums where the drums will be done in one session and you can import your settings from one song to the next. There were a couple of songs recorded in a church where each overdub had four tracks: close, middle and stereo distant. I immediately threw away the middle tracks for phase coherence. There were crisps being chomped, paper being scrunched, keys being jangled — it was like the BBC special effects department in a church!”
Despite the limitations of their equipment, it's clear that the band are overjoyed with how Tales From Terra Firma turned out. It's also clear that in the long run, the involvement of an experienced outsider helped rather than hindered their pursuit of a very particular musical vision. In fact, Jon hints that they might involve a producer from the start next time around. "We all like the production side, and it's really enjoyable. I wouldn't want to redo what we did, because I'm really happy with it, but I'd be quite interested to have a producer that would steer it one way or another, and a really limited amount of time, because I think that's creatively really interesting.
"We like records which have different shades and are not just one thing. I feel like we're satisfied with how we did it, but I can't help but be curious about what it would be like to have someone colour the process a bit more and maybe push it in a certain direction — as a total contrast to what we've just done, really.”
One thing that's immediately obvious on listening to Tales From Terra Firma is the adventurous instrumentation. Although most of the songs have acoustic guitar, drum kit and bass as their core, they are embellished with a huge range of overdubs, from obscure non-Western instruments to samples and software synths. "There's a lot of Kontakt Player stuff on there.” says Jon Ouin. "In fact I quite often read Sound On Sound reviews before I buy. There's a synth-heavy song called 'Hook Line Sinker' where I used a lot of plug-ins, to the point where Logic was a bit overloaded: there was Neo Soul Keys, NI Retro Machines Mk II, IK Multimedia Sampletron and Soniccouture Novachord. I also used a tiny sample of a record by FC (Fred) Judd, an early electronic music pioneer, and a sample of the Doppler effect! In the songs 'Knock me on the Head' , 'The Bigger Picture' and 'You Take Me As I Am', I used organ patches on NI Vintage Organs. In each of these songs, the organ sound was fed through George Shilling's Leslie cabinet at his studio. There's also an instrument called the Persephone, which is a ribbon-controlled synthesizer that you can hear on the first track.”
Oli Steadman's double bass, meanwhile, served as a testbed for the Presonus Blue Tube two-channel preamp, which was lent by George Shilling to augment their Zoom R16. "It did make a difference, we did a direct comparison. The old Pure XIX, which is what we've always used for years on just about everything, was down on the bridge picking up the warm low stuff. We wanted to get some of that fingerboard clicking detail, and for that we used an Audio-Technica AT4040A, which is a really old, mangled mic donated by a friend from down the road. It was the only mic we had which had a cradle of its own!”
Elsewhere, as Jon recalls, the band recorded practically anything with strings on it. "There's one song with one violinist overdubbed eight times, because we wanted a string section. We forced our friend Rahul to play eight different lines. I think he missed his flight back to America as a result! There's a dulcimer as well. That was quite an interesting one, because it was recorded in a church, and it was a matter of getting the right amount of zing and not capturing only the attack of the mallet against the string. There's a bit of sawing [wood!] as well, there's mandolin, and there's an instrument called the qanun [pronounced 'canoon'], which is a Turkish zither-type thing.”
Finally, as George Shilling points out, "On 'Knock Me On The Head' there's a spoons overdub. The secret of mixing spoons is to compress them a lot. As with most things...”