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How I Got That Sound: Luke Smith

Foals ‘Spanish Sahara’ By Joe Matera
Published November 2023

How I Got That Sound

As a record producer, mixing engineer and musician, Luke Smith has worked with Charlotte Hatherley, Keaton Henson, Depeche Mode, Chartreuse, Slow Club and Foals, to name but a few. Here he details how he got his favourite sound, on ‘Spanish Sahara’ from Foals’ 2010 album Total Life Forever.

“The song was recorded to tape and was off click. We started off with a kick drum made on the ARP 2600, just a resonant filter with a quick release. The signature sound on this track is what sounds like the ocean or some kind of filtered noise on the left. I had this idea to literally represent Yannis’ lyrics where he references ‘dirty waves’ in the first verse. Clearly a sign for any sound nerd. Noise features throughout the recording in various ways.

How I Got That Sound“I try to make this connection between sonics and lyrics a lot in my work, though I don’t necessarily want anyone to notice. It’s something fun for the session and I feel it imparts a meaningful, musical reinforcement to the song.

“We got Jimmy [Smith] the guitarist to sit in the live room and play through the ARP, because the preamp on it is really great. We then got an old snare skin, suspended it on a stand and put a contact mic on it, in an effort to turn it into some kind of primitive microphone diaphragm. We then cranked the volume on the ‘snare skin mic’ as loud as we could until it was making this incredible noise, turned all the lights off and panned it. As Jimmy plays the chords, that ducks the signal of the snare skin mic creating this magical interplay. The snare skin mic is just basically picking up the noise in the room.

“And that’s how we got the noise on the record. It kind of does sound like waves crashing and has some life to it. It’s literally the amplified ambience of Jimmy playing those beautifully phrased chords in the dark with a microphone made from a snare skin and a contact mic.”

Noise Colours

“We continued to use noise as a theme throughout the track. There is a performance using a white noise generated from a synth over the hi‑hats in the second verse. You can’t really hear it, but it just adds to this sort of cool groove. We also used noise for crashes in transitions throughout the song, which again, you’d have to be really listening to hear, but it’s there and it does add something special to the sound and reinforces continuity.

Luke Smith: You can make cool sounds all day but what you really need is a great vehicle for them to be propelled along with. No point in eating salt on its own!

“Everyone who was involved made that sound work. It only really sounds good because of Jimmy’s guitar playing and Yannis’ lyrics, etc. You can make cool sounds all day but what you really need is a great vehicle for them to be propelled along with. No point in eating salt on its own!

“The noise itself is pretty straight up though we side‑chained it a little just to emphasise the effect. Dan Rejmer, the engineer, did a brilliant job and just got it immediately, then Alan Moulder, who mixed the track, did a perfect job of making the whole song shine by bringing out the energy of every part whilst further reinforcing the aesthetic and feel. A real master of mixing he is.

“You might think that the session was quite rigid with all the tempos arduously mapped out, but it wasn’t. Whilst the ARP drums at the start are sequenced whenever the live drums are in, they’re live. That’s why you get this progression in energy and tempo.

“The sounds are cool, but the recording is a sum of all its parts and one I am happy to have been a part of.”

Hear The Sound