For their latest album, You Me At Six threw out the rulebook and spent six weeks at a residential studio in Thailand. Producer Dan Austin was at the helm.
Hailing from Surrey, England, five‑piece outfit You Me At Six have spent the past decade and more pushing boundaries both musically and sonically. Never a band to rest on their laurels, their ambitious sonic experimentation has seen them successfully fuse a cocktail of dance, R&B and hip‑hop elements to a pop‑rock template. And they’re not afraid to employ whatever means at their disposal to achieve their forward‑thinking musical vision. With six albums already under their belt, their seventh and newest album Suckapunch saw the band up the ante in all departments, in the process creating one of the most original and fresh‑sounding albums of recent times.
“Trying to not repeat ourselves and trying to use different sounds across the songs was a big challenge,” explains producer Dan Austin, who helmed the production desk for the album. “If we’d already done something like use a particular drum sound or a particular drum technique then it would be, ‘OK what can we do differently on the next song that we’re going to record?’ while at the same time keeping everything sounding as consistent as possible as an album, as a whole. And there was a lot of programming going on with this album. One of the things we did was to make our own drum samples to program with. And I used a lot of resampling of sounds to make textures and synth beds and things like that. It was time‑consuming but it made things sound different between songs and made it sound individual to the record as well.”
“It’s a bit of a creative freedom on this record, where we can be experimental and showcase what we can do,” adds You Me At Six guitarist Max Helyer. “Since we’ve now been together for quite a while as a band, we felt we had established something for ourselves on the previous records that we’re really proud off. But how do we keep it interesting and exciting moving forward? For example, on ‘Beautiful Way’, some of the inspiration from that song was very much from drum & bass music and electronic music, inspired by bands from Pendulum to the Prodigy and even some old‑school rock music such as the angst of Marilyn Manson’s ‘The Fight Song’.”
Dan Austin: I always had the idea that if I was with a band, I always wanted to be in a residential studio. I like everyone being in the same place at the same time and without distraction.
Both producer and band chose to record the album at Karma Sound, a residential recording studio in Bang Saray, Thailand, during the course of a six‑week period in October and November of 2019. “We looked at various options around the world,” says Austin. “I always had the idea that if I was with a band, I always wanted to be in a residential studio. I like everyone being in the same place at the same time and without distraction, where you’d be able to work as late as you want and be able to roll out of bed in the morning and get into the studio. And not have people coming in or anyone going off to go get food at different times and stuff, which can become really distracting for the sessions.”
As well as fulfilling the role of producer and directing the sessions with his hands‑on work ethic, Austin was and is very much the sixth member of the band. “I had worked on the band’s previous album VI , but with this album they really wanted to tear up what they were doing and try different approaches to recording,” he tells SOS. “So I became more than just the producer of the band. I got really involved in every stage of the songs. We are always trying to push things outside of what we would have traditionally done before. Trying to not repeat ourselves has become a big thing. And we all get along really well together as people; that’s been a big part of why we’ve been able to achieve what we’ve been able to achieve on this album.”
The band took a radical approach with the recording sessions, creating unique drum loops which lay the foundations for their songwriting. “I have a studio in my house and because I’m really into dance music, techno and house and stuff like that, I will build a lot of tracks from like keyboards, chopped up loops and things like that,” explains drummer Dan Flint. “A lot of things we demo start off that way. So what we then do is create our own loops, where I don’t play any instruments or any sort of drum tracks from start to finish. I’ll only play kick drums, or snare drums, or kick and snare drums together, or just do hi‑hats, and create all these loops from just messing around on the top of the tracks. Then I’ll cut bits out and Dan Austin and I will sit there for hours, just going through it all to find really cool parts and then piece them all together. It gets really creative and is so much fun, it is my favourite thing about being in a band, and being in the studio with Dan.
“Once we have the loops, I will also need to figure out how to replicate it in order to do it live, as well as build a lot of tracks for the live show. I have to perform them the best way possible, so that they come across the same live as they do on the studio loops. But doing it this way makes it so creative and so unique. If we can build from the ground up, something that is already interesting from just a drum beat, then anything else that comes after it will be also interesting and different.”
In the hands of You Me At Six, the digital realm presents options that the band use primarily as creative and inventive tools rather than enhancements. Their approach is evident on the album’s opening track, the riff‑driven, groove‑oriented, ‘Nice To Me’, which sets the mood for the rest of the album and showcases what technology can bring to the recording process. “On ‘Nice To Me’, I was conscious of trying to push the sound of how guitars are ‘meant’ to sound,” explains Helyer, “and from that track on, I think we’ve delivered certain things on this record. Surprisingly this song was actually one of the last songs written for the album before we went to Thailand, and I did it from my home studio. Having gone more into music production over the past five years of my life, it’s allowed me the ability to sit there on my computer and mess about with things. You get so used to having an amplifier and pedalboard set up in front of you, where you can twist and turn knobs easily and dial in sounds straight away. But I’ve really enjoyed sitting in front of a computer, loading in different plug‑ins and trying stuff that you wouldn’t normally try in order to be a bit more adventurous.
“For example, I’ve got a really cool DI sound, and this involved me jumping in and trying lots of different plug‑ins. I tried to find different sounds that I don’t have access to from my pedalboard. So for textures and layers and creating a mood, it was really great to have this setup in front of me where there was no time constraint. When I write a song I will look at it as soundscaping, where I am trying to create a vibe. When I was playing the opening riff on that song, I was thinking in cinematic terms and how I could create a mood. I looked at some of my favourite artists and how they created sounds. I went back and watched films and studied how they created a mood and atmosphere with how they played and the sounds and effects they were using.”
Another element in the You Me At Six toolbox was the use of the varispeed. “I used a lot of varispeed on this record, which I really enjoyed as I hadn’t been able to do it for a while,” affirms Austin. “The studio was running Digidesign 192 A‑D/D‑A converters with a Digidesign Sync I/O. A lot of people don’t have the Sync I/O anymore, and it enabled me to change the speed of the work clock. A lot of the drum takes we recorded were about two tones down. Dan [Flint] would play the drums and we’d record them slower and then take them back up to speed. This made the drum tracks sound as if they were sampled. We also did that with some of the guitar tracks as well.”
“We recorded some tracks at variable speed, you know that old‑school thing that they used to have in all the studios and which nowadays you don’t find anymore there” concurs Flint. “That was challenging in the way that you have to work out how to get a unique sound out of it. But with any of these challenges we have, they’re always creative. It is not something we stress out about, we just go with it. A lot of the challenges happen naturally, like spit‑balling in the studio. We don’t really come across many challenges in terms of difficulty, as we have such a good relationship with Dan that it feels like we’re the same person or like he’s the sixth member of our band. And it flows so well that it is non‑stop creativity.”
Tracking for the album was done using an SSL 4056 E Series desk, which the studio had recapped just before band and producer arrived to begin the sessions. “The guy who recapped it used non‑standard capacitors which gave the desk sound a real chunk to it,” explains Austin. “It was a very unique‑sounding SSL, so essentially it was modified, but it sounded incredible.
"In terms of outboard gear, there were [Empirical Labs] Distressors, UREI 1176s... standard fare really. A lot of stuff was done digitally with plug‑ins. I normally record fairly flat and then manipulate stuff. I sort of mix as I go along too and the band kind of play into mixed sounds as we go along, so that everyone knows where they’re going to end up. Obviously it affects your performance playing or singing into a sound that reacts in different ways. There’s a huge amount of distortion on the record too, and a lot of that is the Soundtoys Devil‑Loc and Digidesign Lo‑Fi. There was a Manley Pultec clone too which had come from George Michael’s personal studio, which we nicknamed, ‘The George’. I used it as an insert on a mono room mic and I blew it up on the desk. I had the mic pre on full blast and because of the capacitors, it distorted in a particularly pleasant way. Also there was lots of desk EQ added to this signal and then ‘The George’ on the insert enabled me to sculpt the distortion in a really lovely way. I used this distorted mic on loads of sounds and even on some vocals as well. So there was this big fat distorted room mic that I could blend into or against my other microphones on any given source.”
For Austin, having a selection of mics on offer was integral to capturing the tones he was seeking. “We rented a Telefunken U47 which I took with me because that was the only thing they didn’t have at the studio and I needed it,” says Austin. “I’ve always used one on Josh [Franceschi]’s voice since we started working together. His vocal chain was a U47, through a Neve 1073 and a Distressor and then into whatever plug‑ins I am using in the computer that I’m recording him through. Other stuff was fairly standard, the band has some Telefunken M81’s which I absolutely love and use in places where I would have normally use an SM57 historically, like for top and bottom snare and on guitar cabs. I love them and they sound fantastic. The studio had AKG C414s, Neumann KM 84s, Neumann U87s for, like, pianos and overheads and room mics. For the guitar cabs, we used a Telefunken M81, a Neumann U87 and a AKG 414. Also on the record quite a lot of the guitars were just DI’ed straight into mic preamps with a Distressor over it. And though that makes the sounds quite cold and digital, we were aiming specifically on some sounds to be digital‑sounding.”
Helyer also brought along his amp of choice to the studio with him. “I’ve been using The Little Chopper from a company called Audio Kitchen, which is a boutique amp company in the UK,” explains Helyer. “And because the amp is so small that I can fly anywhere around the world with it, I took it with me to play through in Thailand. The studio had a Fender Twin Reverb which is also my main other amp that I use in my live setup. So my main setup for the recording was the Audio Kitchen and Fender Twin. I’d normally run them both at the same time. The Little Chopper gave me the low end, the body and warmth and bassiness of the sound and the Twin Reverb gave me the high‑end treble cut‑through. So the combination of both amps gave me what I wanted. And then how I stack my pedalboard up by arrangement of pedals on the floor, also gave me a different clarity from it too.”
Mixing As You Go
Never a band to follow any kind of traditional route, they also employed a ‘mix as you go’ approach, with the tracks all very much close to mixed by the time the band left the studio. “Either for myself or for any other guys that do the final mix, the method is more about tidying up frequencies and getting it so that it’s consistent,” Austin tells SOS. “In terms of creative decisions, they would’ve all been made by then. With mixing as I go, there are no surprises, or they’re shouldn’t be when you get a mix back, especially with You Me At Six stuff, because those decisions have already been made. And all the processing is printed as well. I give the mixers the options of stuff without it, but 99 percent of the time they’d be using the processed version of what I send them.
“And that comes from the fact that, for us, it’s not like, ‘let’s throw down some guitars or some vocals and then down the line we will fix stuff. Because it is a creative process while we’re in the studio, it has to be semi‑mixed whilst going along. We’re creating sounds. We’re creating vibes that have to be looked at in detail whilst doing it. It’s never an afterthought. Everything has its specific place and if it has to be there, it has to have a real reason for being there.”
This approach is integral to the band’s ethos of always evolving. “We’ve been guilty in the past of making records where we’ve kept the same guitar sound for each song, kept the same drum sound and the drum kit didn’t really change,” says Flint. “With this way of recording and how we do it with Dan Austin, everything is set up ahead of time, everything’s ready to go whenever we want. We might be halfway through some guitar track and we’ll be like, ‘Well actually, what about this sort of thing here?’ We will jump from one thing to another in order to try and enhance the song. It’s never, ‘OK the guitars are ready to go, let’s do the guitars.’ Sometimes you will end up repeating yourself so much when you do that. Whereas we really go into details. ‘What are we trying to create here? What is the vibe of this song? If this song is alive, what does it want to say and how does it want to say it?’ We like to look at each song as unique and give it the best moment in the sun it can have to be as great as it can be.”
You Me At Six’s seventh studio album, Suckapunch, is released on January 15th via Underdog Records / AWAL.