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Inside Track: Arcade Fire's Reflektor

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Korey Richey & Mark Lawson
Published March 2014
By Paul Tingen

Korey Davey at Dockside Studios in Louisiana.Korey Davey at Dockside Studios in Louisiana.

Despite recording mainly live, Arcade Fire spent more than a year recording Reflektor. It was up to Korey Richey and Mark Lawson to get the results to tape.

“I had worked on many different styles of music and recording projects, and I thought I knew Pro Tools inside out and that I was familiar with all the ins and outs of analogue recording,” admits Korey Richey. “Then I worked with Arcade Fire, and that really was an education! One moment we were recording to analogue tape, the next we’d hit Pro Tools, we’d then work with old synths, then we were connecting MIDI, next we engaged Battery and made loops, and so on. When everybody showed up, just the logistics of dealing with that many people in one room, with many of them being multi-instrumentalists who regularly switch instruments, meant that Mark and I were constantly stretched to stay on top of things. Every day I’d wake up and I’d have no idea what was going to happen. I’d drink my coffee and wait for the storm!”

The Mark in question is Mark Lawson, who has been the band’s main engineer since 2007, and with whom Richey recorded Reflektor, the Canadian band’s fourth album and second UK and US number one. Richey’s own association with Arcade Fire dates back to 2008, when he recorded some demos for previous album The Suburbs with band leaders Win Butler and Régine Chassagne. These sessions took place at Dockside Studios, near Lafayette, Louisiana, which is, says Richey, “a weird, magical, vortex of a place, set on 14 acres of land, in a plantation-style home, next to a bayou. It’s just this crazy world-class studio in the middle of nowhere.”

Dockside is one of Louisiana’s leading studios, and its unusual location provided Richey with an equally unusual stepping stone into the pro audio world. “I grew up not far from Dockside. I was always into music and recording music and I needed a job. Because I grew up on a farm I knew how to operate farm machinery like tractors, so I applied for a job as groundskeeper at Dockside. They took me on, and I started cutting grass, and then gradually worked my way into the studio and got in on some sessions. After that I began meeting people from all over the world and got to work on many really cool records.”

Mark Lawson has been Arcade Fire’s engineer for most of the last decade. Mark Lawson has been Arcade Fire’s engineer for most of the last decade. Photo: Jeff Davey

Haitian Hello

Richey’s second Arcade Fire-related session came when he was Dockside’s main engineer and studio manager: “Win and Régine came with William Butler, the band’s keyboard player and Win’s brother, and together we spent four days recording these Haitian drummers, because they wanted to use traditional Haitian beats. They jammed with the drummers, and we made loops of the drums, and did things like send the signal from one of the drums to Will’s Korg MS20 synthesizer to trigger sounds,cool stuff like that. There was one guy on a drum kit, and the other two were hand percussionists. I recorded them very minimalist, because in general I really try to record things with the least amount of microphones possible. It’s been a while, but I probably had an Audix D6 on the kick, a Shure SM57 on the snare, standard-issue Sennheiser 421s on the toms, the overheads most likely would have been a Cascade Fathead ribbon, and the room mic an AKG C24. I would have had [Neumann] U87s on the hand drums, and everything went through the studio’s Neve 8058 console and then to 24-track tape using a Studer A820. Once we had filled up the tape, I’d transfer everything to Pro Tools, and Win and I would sit at the console and select the best bits, and made loops of them. I then put a speaker in the live room and played these loops via it, and the three of them were improvising guitar, piano and singing. This was an inspiring and creative way of writing, and we took these recordings with us to Jamaica, where they were developed further.”

Three songs on Reflektor, ‘Awful Sound’, ‘It’s Never Over’ and ‘Afterlife’, ended up featuring loops and other material from these early Louisiana sessions. As indicated by Richey, Jamaica was the next stop (see box), after which Korey Richey left his home on the bayou and his job at Dockside, and moved to Montréal, where he remained for more than a year, working at Arcade Fire’s brand-new Sonovox studio with Mark Lawson. Lawson is originally from northern Ontario, began his musical career by playing bass and moved to Montréal in 2003, when a chance meeting via a roommate and a mutual friend led to him encountering Arcade Fire’s bassist Richard Reed Parry.Arcade Fire insist on recording live to 24-track tape where possible. This is the track sheet for the basic session from ‘Flashbulb Eyes’. Arcade Fire insist on recording live to 24-track tape where possible. This is the track sheet for the basic session from ‘Flashbulb Eyes’. “The rest is history!” Lawson adds.

Atrocious Levels

The Reflektor sessions at Sonovox were epic in length, by modern standards. They lasted 14 months of full-time intense work, during which the band worked on several dozen songs, and Lawson and Richey filled “30 to 35” reels of 24-track tape. Producers Markus Dravs and James Murphy (formerly of LCD Soundsystem) came and went as required and as schedules allowed, while Lawson and Korey were present all the time, holding the recording ship steady. Complicating matters were the facts that Arcade Fire like to play live as an entire band in the studio and insist on having everything that’s played recorded. “The way we work is that the band always plays together in the main room, and we record all the bed tracks for each song to 24-track tape,” explains Lawson. “We used ATR Mastertape for Reflektor, run at 15ips, and I applied an over-biasing trick that’s specific to the Otari to reduce noise. But with up to 10 musicians playing live in one room at the same time, hiss is not an issue. Once the tape was full, I’d immediately transfer things to Pro Tools running at 24/96, using the band’s Lynx Aurora A-D converters. We have Apogee D-A converters on the way out of Pro Tools.”

Complicating matters further was the small matter of there being no separate control room: the main studio at Sonovox consists of only one room, housing the desk and all studio gear as well as the instruments and all the musicians. As a result, the six-piece band, Lawson, Richey, and producers and additional musicians were all in the same room during the recordings. Add the band’s penchant for unexpectedly going off on tangents, changing tracks or instruments in a split second, and one understands why the two engineers felt every day before the session began that they were “waiting for the storm”.

“The logistics of managing the gear and everyone in the room was a real challenge,” elaborates Richey. “The fact that we were recording initial sessions with everyone present to tape was our saving grace, because it meant that we had to worry less about levels. When people switch instruments so often, and some of these instruments are very loud and others very soft, and you’re dealing with lots of bleed, your levels often will be atrocious. Mark and I try to master the art of being invisible anyway, and the band isn’t going to wait for us to say: ‘Hey, we’re ready!’ It’s just going to happen that someone will walk over to another instrument and start to play and it will be too hot before we’ve had time to adjust the level. If you’re going straight to Pro Tools, you’re more likely to get some digital clipping coming out of nowhere. But when you hit tape too hard, you just get a pleasant distortion. Overloading tape sounds cool for most of the time. If someone suddenly switched to a conga, and the signal was too hot, it might still sound awesome. The congas in ‘Reflektor’, for example, sound almost like a synth popping out at you, because they were recorded too hot. There were times when we were messing up, but because we were hitting tape it still sounded good!”

Lawson offers more details of the recording sessions at Sonovox. “While recordingSonovox is home to several desirable analogue consoles. This panoramic photo shows, from left to right, the studio’s Neve sidecar, UA solid-state mixer and API 1608 with expander, playing host to the Fulltone and Roland echo units that were heavily used on Mark Lawson’s mix of ‘Flashbulb Eyes’.Sonovox is home to several desirable analogue consoles. This panoramic photo shows, from left to right, the studio’s Neve sidecar, UA solid-state mixer and API 1608 with expander, playing host to the Fulltone and Roland echo units that were heavily used on Mark Lawson’s mix of ‘Flashbulb Eyes’.Photo: Jeff Davey I’m winging it most of the time: because we’re all in the same room I can’t hear what’s going down. The tape machine saves the day when you’re recording like that, because a little bit in the red is fine, and a lot in the red is also fine! We recorded a version of ‘Reflektor’, the album’s title song, before any producer showed up, just finding our feet in the new studio with the new equipment and feeling the room. For that we had all six band members playing live to tape, and the result was a good demo. Then when James came in the band did another version, which was played a little faster and for which some of the parts were changed. After that we did a third version, for which we brought in two saxophone players and two percussion players, so there were 10 musicians, plus the producer and two engineers, meaning 13 people in the room. That third version is the one you hear on the record. We later added some more synthesizers and guitars and some bells and whistles, and replaced the guide vocals, but what hit the tape by the end of that evening sounded like ‘Reflektor’. The first six takes consisted of everybody learning parts and the next six versions were actual takes, with everybody knowing what they were doing. The version you hear on the album was made up of an edit of the last two or three takes joined together. We do these edits in Pro Tools — I haven’t spliced tape in eight years!”

Gritty & Raw

Expressed thus, the making of said title track sounds deceptively simple, but it turns out that there was quite a bit of skill involved in getting 10 musicians in one room down to tape, and sounding good. Richey explains: “With Arcade Fire liking to track together as a band — Win in particular doesn’t mind things gritty and raw — we had to master the art of recording a band in a room and minimising bleed. They have several big, custom-made iso boxes in Sonovox that were put in various places in the building and that contained bass and guitar cabinets. The band would be jamming with all amps blaring at the drums, and then it’s like ‘OK, we are ready to go to using headphones and into record mode,’ and in that case Mark and I would literally unplug a couple of speaker cables and switch them to the cabs in the boxes, and we’d be ready to record, because we already had microphones on these cabs. This means that the band can go from practice mode to record mode in two minutes. It means that we have virtually zero bleed on the drums, other than a bit from the guide vocals, which sound through the PA speakers. It’s pretty remarkable how isolated we could get things, given that we were all in one room.”

Sonovox’s collection of vintage desks is completed by this McCurdy valve console.Sonovox’s collection of vintage desks is completed by this McCurdy valve console.Photo: Jeff Davey

Lawson adds: “It’s an old Victorian house, and the main studioroom has a bit of a barn feel, with 70-year old planks on the walls and virtually no acoustic treatment. We have a couple of baffles, and a vocal booth, but that’s it. The room has a very homey vibe, and a very bright and open sound. The degree of isolation we got depended on the track. We never had exactly the same approach and we got quite a bit of the room sound on many of the recordings. I tried to manage the room sound and the bleed with my mic selection, avoiding using many bright condenser microphones, for example. But the mics that were used often simply depended on whatever microphone was free and nearby, particularly when the players were switching instruments.

“In the case of ‘Reflektor’ we ended up with quite a bit of the room sound. For the recording of the bed tracks with all 10 musicians in the room I had an [Electro-voice] RE20 on the bass drum, a Beyer M201 on the snare, Neumann SM2 stereo tube mic on the overheads, and Sennheiser 421s on the toms, all going into the Neve BCM10. I also recorded the conga players with the 421s, but these went into the McCurdy for a bit of grit. The saxophone players were in the vocal booth and recorded with Coles ribbon mics going into the Universal Audio sidecar, and the synths were DI’d and amplified, also going via the UA console. There was a loud-ass Clavinet that was semi-baffled and placed in the bathroom and recorded with the Neumann KM56 there. The guitars would have a Beyer M160 dynamic mic, an RCA directional ribbon mic or a Neumann U87, the bass cabinet was recorded live in the room with a Neumann FET47 or an AKG D12. Tim Kingsbury actually played his guitar through a Leslie speaker from an old organ, and was recorded using Peluso P28 mics going into the API desk. During overdubbing later on, Win’s voice was recorded with a Neumann U67 going through a Neve 1073 preamp going into the Tube Equipment Corporation SR71, which is a Fairchild clone. On Régine we had a Lomo 19A9 mic, the one that looks like the James Bond gun, going into the Neve and SR71 as well. After that there was more overdubbing, editing, yet more overdubbing and more editing, re-tooling, again overdubbing and experimenting, but the core of the track was in essence the band playing in a room.”

Flash Company

In addition to acoustic instruments common in rock, like guitars, piano, double bass and strings, Arcade Fire have, over the years, used instruments like strings, xylophone, glockenspiel, French horn, accordion, harp, mandolin and hurdy-gurdy. Not all of them feature on Reflektor, but there were strings, arranged by Owen Pallett and recorded in Prague, and added during the final mix in New York. Other acoustic instruments used on Reflektor were a small Cuban guitar called a charanga, which was recorded with a Neumann U47 and a U87, a vibraphone tracked using a U87, and an upright piano miked with a Neumann U64. Régine Chassange also played an unusual vintage drum synth called the Star Instruments Synare on ‘Flashbulb Eyes’, making shooting sounds that could have been lifted from an ’80s video game. Richey recorded shutter and flashlight sounds from his Leica M2 and Canon cameras, and loaded these into an Akai MPC1000, from which they were triggered to form 16th-note hi-hat patterns — they can be heard at the beginning of the choruses. (“I’m pretty proud of that!”) The engineer also recorded many of the synth and guitar overdubs in Lawson’s studio, while the accidental and incidental sounds that occur between many of the songs came mostly from field recordings made by band members while on trips. (The much-discussed tape rewind at the end of the album consists of all songs in sequence edited down in length so the whole album fit on one two-inch tape.)

Lawson elaborates: “The voices between ‘Flashbulb Eyes’ and ‘Here Comes The Night Time’ were recorded by Win and Régine during one of their trips to Haiti. The distorted sounds that open ‘Flashbulb Eyes’ are the result of a happy accident. Jeremy [Gara] had a Roland SPDSX sampling drum pad and Régine was playing it one day into a tube amplifier, and she hit 10 pads together and it made this huge sound. It was so loud that some of the amplifier tubes blew, and there was smoke and the smell of burning. Korey happened to be recording and it made this fantastic, crazy sound. It really was the sound of an amplifier exploding! ’Flashbulb Eyes’ was recorded with similar signal chains to ‘Reflektor’. The main difference was that I added an additional mic to the snare, which I sent to the Roland RE201 Space Echo, fine-tuned the repeat delay to make sure it was in the pocket, and sent this into everybody’s headphones. Without that the beat would have been straighter. There also was a metronome track from an Ace Tone Rhythm Ace, on which they found a beat that they liked, and everybody played along to that and the snare sound with the repeat delay. There were four or five people playing during the basic tracking, and we used take eight, no edits, though therewere overdubs, like we replaced the vocals, and added that synth line that sounds like a trumpet. Régine had played the Synare and vibraphone at the same time and redid her vibraphone line, just to get a bigger sound. During recording the API 1608 is mainly used for monitoring, though I do use the preamps as well sometimes. We use everything!”

Dub Mix

Reflektor was released last October, with Tom Elmhirst mixing six of the double album’s 13 tracks, Craig Silvey four, James Murphy two, and Mark Lawson and Arcade Fire the remaining two songs: ‘Flashbulb Eyes’ and ‘Here Comes The Night Time II’. ‘Flashbulb Eyes’ is a striking, ramshackle, reggae dub track, with a spaghetti Western guitar line, and full of distortion, delays, echo and weird sounds, one of the most prominent being Chassange’s Synare.

Lawson takes up the story: “As I mentioned before, once the 24-track tape is full, we immediately transfer everything to Pro Tools, because I don’t want to risk losing anything. I’ll then do any edits between takes in Pro Tools, and will lay the session out over the API board for a quick rough mix, so people have something to take home with them, which will be on memory sticks with WAV files or as MP3s. The rough mixes are just levels and a bit of EQ, and I’ll add some delays and reverb. I have quite a bit of choice in the studio, with an EMT 140 plate and AKG BX20 spring reverb, and on this album I used a lot of tape echo from the Fulltone Tube Tape Echo and the Roland RE101 and RE201 Space Echoes.

The Pro Tools Edit window from the ‘Flashbulb Eyes’ session. The Pro Tools Edit window from the ‘Flashbulb Eyes’ session.

“I then prepared the sessions so they can be sent to the mixer, making sure everything is correctly labelled and makes sense, listening out for glitches and things that are not supposed to be there, and adding remarks where necessary. It may not be obvious that the piano, vibraphone and synth are all supposed to be one part, for example. I then FedEx a hard drive to the mixer. In the case of ‘Flashbulb Eyes’ we had a pretty good rough mix going, and ideas were being thrown around by the band, and they then left for a few hours, during which time I banged out this mix, building on the existing rough mix and incorporating their ideas. I changed the routing and gain structure and went for it. It was similar with ‘Here Comes The Night Time II’. We had a pretty good rough mix and we pushed it a little further, and at that point everybody was happy.”

Homing in on the mix of ‘Flashbulb Eyes’, the Pro Tools Edit window screen shot of the final mix session displays many details that reveal the analogue origins of the session. Of the 55 audio tracks, 20 are in fact printed effects tracks — and correspondingly, there’s only one plug-in, an instance of Avid’s Lo-fi, on the entire session. The stereo mix right at the top is edited together from different passes, showing that the mixes were done in the analogue domain and without automation. Another striking feature are the numbers marked in the audio clips, ranging from ‘07’ to ‘81’, in some cases with added letters as well. The numbering, explains Lawson, is part of his system of organising the mountains of material that is recorded.

“I insert these numbers because there are many ideas, many people, many songs, many instruments and many takes, and it is a way of keeping track of what went down on what day, and who did what and on what track. The numbers 1-24 signify tracks that were originally recorded to tape, and everything else is numbered sequentially as to when it was recorded. I have a notebook in which I keep track everything that’s recorded and what these numbers refer to. This makes it easier to go back in time and find things. I also save every two minutes, often doing a Save As, so I end up with hundreds of different versions of each session.”

Richey adds, “If we were not recording, we were not doing our job, and the band never seem to forget what they have recorded. One of them may go: ‘Do you remember that take we did two months ago when Régine was playing the Solina organ and we did that two-minute jam?’ I’ll be like, ‘Errr, no, but I’m sure we can find it!’ With everything in Pro Tools being 96k, files sizes were enormous and were adding up, and with multiple files for each session, the amount of data we ended up with was enormous. Mark’s system for organising this was great, and a big awakening for me in terms of data management.”

Mark Lawson’s mix of ‘Flashbulb Eyes’ involved considerable creative input to create as strong a dub feeling as possible, and earned him an ‘additional production’ credit. “I think I earned this, because I did some delay-type effects in the bridge and used the 24-track as a big slap-back echo machine, where one track feeds into the next and that feeds into the next, and so on. I also sculpted some delay sounds on some of the vocal parts in the bridge. And I guess it also was because I managed to keep 10 musicians playing in one room happy!”

Drums and percussion: API desk EQ, Roland Space Echo, Altec mixer, Maestro Echoplex, Avid Lo-fi, AKG BX20.

Lawson: “At the top of the session is the track called ‘76-kick-FX track’, which is the kick, which I ran through the Space Echo, and then replaced the original kick track with. I also sent it through the Altec tube mixer for some more grit. There are five snare tracks in total: ‘75-sna-plexed’, ‘0707’, ‘78-sna2’, and ‘07a-sna-dly-print’ and ‘26-snare-space-echo’. ‘07’ was the original snare track that went through the Space Echo for the in-time repeat delay, and that I printed back into the session and to which the band played. The other tracks are variations of that trigger track, one sent through the Echoplex, another through the Altec for more distortion. Then there’s a hi-hat track, which also went through the Echoplex, a ‘bath’ track, which was a microphone I put in the bathroom which sounds like an echo chamber. It captures everyone playing and is like a room mic. The ‘38dr’ track with the Lo-fi contains some cymbal crashes that we put in there. Below the drums are six claps tracks. I’m pretty sure I crunched them all with the Space Echo. I was trying to get a blend of all these sounds mixed into one, and the ‘50 E-stixxx’ had the repeat echo that I also had on the snare. The ‘beatbox’ track is the Fulltone drum machine, processed through the AKG BX20, and below that is a track called ‘exploding prints’, which was certain hits processed again through the BX20 to make them sound bigger, like sending one bass drum hit to a huge reverb and so on. ‘Audio 1-12’ contains a couple more dub effects from the drum machine. Finally there are the four tracks with samples from Korey’s cameras.”

Bass, guitars and synths: API desk EQ, Dbx 120 subharmonic synthesizer, Roland Space Echo, Fulltone Tube Tape Echo, Universal Audio 610.

“There’s a ‘bass-amp’ track, which I’m sending to a Dbx subharmonic synthesizer, and the track underneath it is the return of that, nudged slightly forwards in time because there would have been a little delay. The bass would have been recorded at a very high level to tape, meaning that the tape did a lot of the compression work. Below the bass is the Synare track shooting video-game sound, which went through the Space Echo, and in some places also through the Fulltone Tube Tape Echo. There are a number of guitar tracks, but not all of them are different takes. There are four tracks of Win’s guitar, and I may have moved the audio clips around to different tracks so I could have them on different faders on the API and EQ them differently. The same thing with the four tracks of Tim’s guitar, on which I also used the Fulltone Tube Tape Echo. I can’t recall what the treatment was of the vibes track below that. It’s a concoction that someone would have cooked up, and it would have been some combination of distortion and tape echo. Will played piano and that would have had distortion again from the Universal Audio tube channel.Sonovox’s Universal Audio 610 tube preamps were used as distortion devices on the piano part for ‘Flashbulb Eyes’.Sonovox’s Universal Audio 610 tube preamps were used as distortion devices on the piano part for ‘Flashbulb Eyes’. Next are six tracks of [Korg] MS20, which is a layered synth part. I don’t think I recorded that, as these tracks don’t have my funny numbering system on them.”

Vocals: API desk EQ, Roland Space Echo, Fulltone Tube Tape Echo, AKG BX20, Altec 436, Lexicon PCM41, Maestro Echoplex.

“Finally there are two tracks of Win’s and seven tracks of Régine’s vocals. There’s some comping on Win’s vocals, and I had a Space Echo and Tube Tape Echo on his vocals and maybe a little bit of BX20. I also used an Altec compressor and some API EQ on his voice. Most of the EQ for the mix of this track was done on the API, done really fast. I also had a similar repeat echo as the snare on Win’s voice, which I would have fine-tuned a bit for his voice, and then printed, and I then blended the different effect tracks together on the ‘Win-FX’ track. We then added yet more effects to his vocals, which are on the ‘tube-echo-mix’ track below. The ‘RCV’ track was a VCA track of Régine’s vocals. There are many Régine vocal tracks, but several were muted, and in the end there were just two that I used. The effects on her voice came from a combination of the Lexicon PCM41 and a bit of Space Echo, and Echoplex, printed together. The Lexicon was set to a really fast delay with a lot of feedback, giving a kind of robotic effect, but very subtle.”

When it came to recording the mix to stereo, Lawson explains that “the API and Neve sidecar don’t have automation, so I did the mix automation in the box, and the feel rides on the API desk and the Neve sidecar. For this reason we did several passes of the mix and then mixed down into the session. You can see Forssell marked in the I/O for the mixdown track, meaning that we went via the Forssell MADC-2 converter. As you can see from the edits in the stereo mix at the top of the session, we mixed in sections, and the final mix is made up of edits of different mixes. We mixed the intro, then the verse, then the chorus, and so on, and changed the sounds each time. I didn’t treat the 2-mix, and simply sent Ted Jensen, the mastering engineer, the edited mixdown. During mixdown I hit the master bus on the desk pretty hard to get a bit more crunch, but that was it. It wasn’t designed to get the mix to sound extremely loud. In general, rather than focus on things sounding loud, I prefer to focus on things sounding good.”

For Korey Richey, meanwhile, his involvement in the Reflektor recording project ended on an unexpected high. He went to New York to assist James Murphy with mixing two of the album’s songs, ‘Awful Sound’ and ‘Porno’, at Murphy’s DFA studios. Electric Lady Studios, where Elmhirst was busy mixing other album tracks, including the title song, is just six blocks away, so Richey would also regularly go over to listen and where necessary explain aspects of the sessions. He recalls, “It was business as usual in Tom’s room, and one day I looked up and all of a sudden David Bowie was in the room! He’d come to listen to some things and I was then told that he’d return a few days later to sing on ‘Reflektor’. Tom’s assistant, Ben Baptie, and I set up for that, using a Neumann U47, and when Bowie came in he sang quite a bit giving us many options, even though his was not necessarily a featured part. I tried not to get in the way and happily observed Ben recording him. Recording a living legend was very cool. It was one of the highlights of the project for me!”

Jamaican Odyssey

In May 2012, Arcade Fire headed to Jamaica for a couple of weeks of distraction-free writing and brainstorming, hoping to be inspired by Caribbean weather and culture. They went with UK producer Markus Dravs (Coldplay, Mumford & Sons, Björk), and rented a strange building in an idyllic location on the North-East coast of the island called Trident Castle. Normally Mark Lawson would have accompanied them, but his partner was expecting their first baby, so he opted to stay in Montréal. Invited as a replacement, Korey Richey was hardly going to decline this opportunity. Although the Trident Castle sessions were intended as songwriting jams, some recorded material survived as far as the final album.Although the Trident Castle sessions were intended as songwriting jams, some recorded material survived as far as the final album.

“We were in this crazy place, which was a huge castle built in 1979, that had fallen into disrepair. In part because of the humidity due to it being on the seashore it actually felt and looked really old and authentic. It was a full-on castle with turrets and chequerboard floors, and an amazing place, but it was also kind of funky, with holes in the roof and so on and we had to put out buckets when it rained. We flew down there with a minimal amount of gear, just a couple of API Lunchbox mic pres, a Mackie Onyx board that connected via Firewire to a laptop with Pro Tools, two Mackie HR824 monitors and some of the lesser-quality microphones that they have floating around in their studio in Montréal. It never was the intention to use any of the recordings from Jamaica — the whole thing was about writing and the spirit of it all, while knowing that they had a new studio in Montréal waiting for them. Markus and I didn’t want to make them feel as if they were recording; we just tried to be a couple of ghosts in the room. We simply recorded everything they did and made some rough mixes, and played things back to the band as and when required.

“Markus is a proficient engineer in his own right, and he was driving Pro Tools and listening to the jams, while I dealt with the microphones and recordings and also photographed and videoed a lot of what was going on. The room in which they were jamming had French doors on three sides and they opened them all up, so there usually was a breeze blowing through, which meant that the mics we used were predominantly dynamics — condenser mics would have picked up much more of the wind noise — and I probably also had some Cascade Fathead and Coles ribbon mics. Plus I made some windscreens out of stockings and coat hangers and had those all around the mic stands. There still is a lot of noise on the Jamaica tracks, but that didn’t matter, because the recordings felt good. There was no quest for sonic greatness. All the Jamaican stuff was kind of lo-fi, and we liked the spirit of that. It was almost a matter of ‘How funky can we make this sound?’ A small percentage of the stuff that we recorded in Jamaica made it to the album, because we kept a few sounds that we could not beat. Also, the click track that we had programmed for ‘Here Comes The Night Time’ was manipulated in Jamaica by the drummer riding a MIDI fader that was controlling the tempo, so the speed ups and slowdowns in that track were done live. The basic structure of that song was done in Jamaica.”

Sonovox Studios

Reflektor is the first Arcade Fire album recorded at Sonovox, which is housed in a building in Montréal owned by the band, with the main studio on the top floor, and a smaller studio equipped with Lawson’s gear downstairs. The studio exemplifies Arcade Fire’s multi-faceted and voracious approach to music and recording, incorporating every instrument and every kind of gear to which they take a liking. On the latter front this means that the studio is fully up to date with regards to things digital and MIDI, but also stuffed full of vintage analogue gear. Prize pieces include a 32-channel API 1608 desk with expander, a Neve BCM10 sidecar, a 10-channel solid-state Universal Audio 2100 sidecar with built-in compressors and EQs, a 10-channel Quad mixer from Motown Studios in Los Angeles, a 12-channel McCurdy all-tube console from the 1950s or ’60s, an Otari MTR90 Mk2 tape recorder, and tons of outboard, plus Barefoot MicroMain 35 monitors, and Beyer DT770 headphones for everyone. Mark Lawson’s space downstairs, meanwhile, is based around a Toft 32-channel mixing desk, and was used for additional overdubbing during the Reflektor sessions.

Inside Track: Arcade Fire's Reflektor

Lawson himself is agnostic as regards to gear preferences, though he clearly enjoys working with all the analogue goodies at Sonovox. “I am easy,” he explains. “I will go with whatever is available in a studio at any time. I don’t put any gear on a pedestal at all. But if the band wants to use old tube mixers I’m all for it, because they sound and look cool, and they are fun to play with.I am definitely 100 times faster with peripherals that I can touch and feel than when working with a mouse and keyboard, and in general I prefer the workflow of analogue equipment. With the band and I the analogue bias is the result of listening to the records that we like, and hearing what they sound like and how they were made, and I guess this does tend to lend itself more to the analogue way of working, where you commit things to tape. But in the end, everyone is into whatever sounds the best, and old instruments/ amps/ mics/ gear make their way into the studio more often than newer things.”

Published March 2014