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Inside Track: Bon Iver '22, A Million'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Chris Messina & Zach Hanson By Paul Tingen
Published January 2017

Recording People: Chris Messina (left) and Zach Hanson at April Base Studios.Recording People: Chris Messina (left) and Zach Hanson at April Base Studios.

Electronic, heavily processed and sample-based, 22, A Million was a radical departure for Bon Iver — and from normal recording and mixing practice...

“22, A Million is a new way of telling a story. The best stories are always those that allow you to suspend disbelief as much as possible, and I felt that it was important to make it sound new. There used to be the G chord on the guitar, and it was like, ‘wow, listen to that!’ and then a song came. But the longer I have done that, the more interested I became in other sounds too. This time we just went looking for different sparks, and over the last few years we were putting these moments together to see how they coexist, and how they can make something new. And if they sounded new to me, then that made me excited.”

Thus spoke Justin Vernon during a press conference organised to promote 22, A Million, his third album under the Bon Iver moniker and one that inhabits an alien sonic world, featuring heavily processed massed vocals, saxophones and pianos, as well as tons of samples and other musical instruments, all treated with crunching distortion, sonic break-ups, drop-outs, and other bizarre and often random-sounding sonic artifacts.

The weirdness of 22, A Million extends to its song titles, which include numbers and cryptic symbols, while the credits are deliberately obtuse. Vernon is credited as Maker, which seems clear enough, but this is followed by credits for Chris Messina as Maker’s Maker, BJ Burton as Noble Black Eagle, Ryan Olson as Scream Defence, Brad Cook as Wings, and so on. The producer credit, meanwhile, goes to April Base, which is Vernon’s studio and not a person at all.

About Numbers

The publicity campaign for 22, A Million was suitably odd as well: Vernon gave no interviews and only one press conference at the Oxbow Hotel, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, his place of residence, an hour’s drive east of Minneapolis. (Vernon is one of four investors in the hotel, so the press conference presumably helped with the promotion of that too.) Vernon elaborated on the early origins of the album, which occurred during what his friend Trever Hagan called “a misguided solo trip to an island off the coast of Greece”.

“It was a very bad time,” Vernon confirmed. “I was trying to find myself, but did not! I was incredibly bored and panicking a lot, walking around this town for a week. One day I got back to my room and sang a little improvisation into this little sampler, the [Teenage Engineering] OP-1. When I chopped the sample, it sounded like ‘two’ ‘two’, and 22 is my favourite number, because it always reminds me of paradox, the two sides of a coin, duality in general. I had sung the phrase ‘It Might Be Over Soon’, which could both mean ‘Oh, no, I wanted it to last forever,’ and ‘Thank God, I really don’t want to feel like this any more.’ So that was the beginning. When I figured out that the album was going to be about numbers, with 22 being my thing, it grew from there.

“Many of the moments on the record came from using the OP-1, which samples a bit like the Casio SK-1. It’s like a miniature MPC beat maker. You can sit anywhere and sample the radio, your breathing, whatever, and make a song out of it. Once I had enough of that going on, it wasn’t really obvious any more to pick up an acoustic guitar as often. I just wanted to keep a new language going. It wasn’t as fun or as easy, and took a lot longer than I may have liked. Overall the process of creating the album involved using the OP-1 a lot, doing many improvisations with whomever I wanted to make music with, also sampling parts of these sessions in the OP-1, and hooking things up to other tools in the studio to mess them up.”

The New Zone

The experimental direction for 22, A Million apparently was set during work on one of the most iconic tracks of the album, ‘10 (Death Breast)’, an insane-sounding mash-up of distorted drums and bass, over which float Vernon’s massed and heavily treated vocals, strings and a pitched-up sample of a YouTube video of Stevie Nicks singing in her dressing room.

“BJ Burton and I had this drum loop for a long time, which sounded broken down, messed up,” explained Vernon. “What I was going through, and what I found other people were going through, was a lot of anxiety and things like that, which made me want to break things down and crush something, and do something aggressive-sounding. The song was kind of almost finished when we made it, but it became like a pivot that I wanted to build around: ‘OK, this sounds like breaking open a new fabric.’ That was the moment I knew where I needed to go.

The album’s predominantly electronic bent represented a major departure for Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver. The album’s predominantly electronic bent represented a major departure for Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver. Photo: Cameron Wittig

“In general, using tons of electronics on this album came from wanting to bash things apart and break through some stuff. It needed to sound radical for me to feel good about putting it into the world. For me, my old records have a kind of sad nature. I was healing myself through that stuff, and whispering was the thing, maybe. Being sad is OK, but wallowing in things and circling the same cycles emotionally just feels boring. There’s still some dark stuff on the new album, but making things that are bombastic and exciting and new and matching things together that are explosive — ie. shouting more — that was the zone.”

Base Camp

Most of the recordings for 22, A Million took place at Vernon’s April Base studio in Eau Claire, over a period of nearly three years. After Vernon, the central figure at April Base, and also in many ways in the making of 22, A Million, is the ‘Maker’s Maker’. Chris Messina is April Base’s manager, and also the man behind several of the most distinctive sounds on the album. Indeed, one of the main effects used is ‘the Messina’, designed by and named after him.

Messina first encountered Vernon as an employee of Cleveland live-sound company Eighth Day Sound, working with “pretty much any act you can think of, from Tom Jones to Lil Wayne to Madonna”. In 2011, Bon Iver was one of these acts. “Justin and I became friends during that tour, and part-way through the tour he said, ‘You should move to Wisconsin and run my studio.’ So in 2011 my now wife and I moved here from New York. The studio at the time was basically a Pro Tools rig, a couple of [Teletronix] LA-2As, some [Neve] 1073s and some microphones, and Justin said: ‘Let’s turn this place into a proper studio.’ We began with Studio A, which has gone through four incarnations now, and over the next couple of months we’re going to redesign the room again. We want a more electronic, in-the-box workflow, with lots of table space for people to put their laptops and gadgets on, and desktop patch panels everywhere so you can just plug in and go. The idea is for the space to encourage on-the-spot collaboration.

Many of the songs on 22, A  Million began life as jams in the large Studio A live room at April Base.Many of the songs on 22, A Million began life as jams in the large Studio A live room at April Base.Photo: Cameron Wittig

“Over the years we’ve had a lot of different gear coming in and out, and we probably quadrupled the amount of outboard. At one stage we also had a Studer A827 tape machine, and at the moment we still have a Trident 80C desk in Studio A. We definitely are gear nuts, not to the point that we think it’s going to fix the song, but in general we like to have the actual, physical versions of stuff, and then make these do things they’re not actually supposed to do. We also built Studio B in an unused space in the building that used to be a farm vet clinic. We gutted that space and rebuilt it with designer Jeff Hedbeck, and one and a half years ago we brought in the SSL Duality desk, specifically for this record. It’s an analogue/digital hybrid, and a lot of what we did was mixing those two worlds. It also was a huge change for us to have the recordings in front of us laid out over the console and really go to town on them.”

According to the Maker, “the bulk of the record was made at April Base”, though not before he had spent some time in London, and six weeks near Lisbon with Messina and BJ Burton “trying out things”. Messina adds that many of the ideas came about through jamming in the studio’s large live room, which is tied to both Studio A and B.

“In the early stages we recorded the jam sessions in Studio A through the Trident desk, and after that we used Studio B. In general what happened was that we set up a ton of stuff, and there would be a rotating cast of characters coming in to play — live band members, local people, and so on — and we would go hard for 10 or 12 hours per day for four or five days, and just make noise and see what happens. At the end of that process we had about 60 different things that might turn into songs, and from there we started a process of sorting and editing this material.”

Imaginary Mangled Cassettes

While many people were involved in the making of 22, A Million, at the core was the trio of Vernon, Messina and Noble Black Eagle, aka engineer BJ Burton. For the mix sessions in the first half of 2016 they were augmented by Ryan Olson and Zach Hanson. According to Messina, the roles everyone played overlapped, but in general, Burton was running Pro Tools most of the time during the recordings, and creating a lot of the drum tracks with Vernon, while the Maker’s Maker himself often was, well, making things.

“My main job was keeping April Base going, because I’m the one who knows how to use everything. So I’m mostly the studio guy, but in addition Justin places a lot of value on my creative input, which is pretty rad. So a lot of what I was dealing with was the question, ‘Oh, we need a cool new sound.’ This was a general question that everyone was involved in, and could involve using a reverb of some sort, guitar pedals, improper mic techniques, going through tape machines, like our Ampex ATR102 two-track, mangling tape, anything to find new sounds.

Studio A has been remodelled several times under Chris Messina’s supervision, and the control room now houses an impressive collection of outboard.Studio A has been remodelled several times under Chris Messina’s supervision, and the control room now houses an impressive collection of outboard.Photo: Cameron Wittig

“Many of the recordings were recorded on a compact cassette, and we’d rip it open and crumbled the tape, or wrote on the tape, and we’d then put it back in and played it. This is what caused the crackling and dropouts in ‘22 (Over Soon)’, for example. It’s the first track on the album, so definitely sets the tone. We ran with that in a lot of ways. Almost every song on the record ended up being mixed down to the ATR102, though that is not what we were using for distortion. But there definitely was tape all over the thing. There also are a couple of places where Pro Tools dropped out when it wasn’t happy about something, and for whatever reason it recorded that unhappiness, and we just left it. It’s the vibe of the record, it’s where we were at. ‘Just leave that!’ Yes, we’ve heard from many listeners that they think there’s something wrong with their playback equipment, and we’re OK with that.

“The thing is that this entire record is a huge departure from the previous album, which was gorgeous and pure and lush, and a beautiful record to live in. This time Justin wanted something else, and to use sounds that he was intrigued by, and it wouldn’t be a guitar or a violin. Many of these jam sessions began with a sound that came from the OP-1, which Justin had fallen in love with and which pushed things into a whole new territory. Because of the way the OP-1 pushes Justin to think about sound, we tended to build songs around cruddy-sounding samples. There was a lot of massaging to get weird samples to fit with a song. Mangling things to make them fit was something we felt strongly about. Justin said that he wanted the whole thing to feel and sound like a found compact cassette. You’re walking down the street and you find a cassette in the gutter that has been rained and stepped on, and you pop it in and listen to it. That was something we were constantly working towards.”

If this suggests a backward-looking attitude and musical aesthetic, however, nothing could be further from reality. The most striking thing about 22, A Million is how 2016 it sounds, with many of the treatments sounding rather digital in origin, and also having the extreme low end, high end, and general in-your-face nature that’s typical of music today. “We knew that it was sounding pretty wild and current,” says Messina, “and we did not take the found-cassette thing too literally. It was more an implied thing. Not that you actually would think, ‘Oh, this is a mangled-up cassette tape.’ We also wanted you to be out there and actually find that cassette! So it’s very much a 2016 record, but we did use a lot of old stuff. The majority of the reverb, for example, came from the AMS RMX16 — we have two of those — and an AKG BX20. We also used a lot of [Eventide] H3000, and we had a UREI Cooper Time Cube, which we used on many of the guitars. We were using old stuff to make these new, weird sounds, which was our way of bridging that gap.”

Messina explains that much of the mangling happened at source, for example with the heavy distortion on the drums and bass in ‘Death Breath’. “The drums is Justin playing drums in the live room at April Base, and BJ had quickly set up a couple of mics, and while Justin was playing, the kick slid closer and closer to one of the mics, and by the end it was touching the mic. That resulted in a lot of distortion. Then we sent that to a half-inch 16-track Tascam MSR16 tape recorder and just rammed the inputs, super-blew them out, and we recorded that back into Pro Tools, and that became our loop. The bass was created with a combination of the [Sequential Circuits] Prophet 600 and bass guitar, and there were many pedals involved. If I remember correctly, the heavy lifting for the distortion was done by a Metasonix F1.”

Another view of the Studio A  live room, which features a number of ‘stations’ set up and ready for musicians to come in and jam.Another view of the Studio A live room, which features a number of ‘stations’ set up and ready for musicians to come in and jam.Photo: Cameron Wittig

Varispeed In The Digital World

Other ways to bridge the analogue/digital divide involved sampling recorded music and the natural world in the OP-1, and the use of samplers and synths like the Yamaha VSS, Korg M1, Yamaha DX7 and CS50, Prophet 5, 6 and 600, Critter and Guitari’s Pocket Piano, and many others — most notably the Messina (see box). Another example of 22, A Million’s analogue/digital mashup was in the song ‘#29 Strafford Apts’, which is, says Messina, “a country song with these crazy sped-up, pitched-up vocals. We used varispeed on the Antelope Isochrone Trinity Master Clock for that, and also on a couple of other tunes, not only on the vocals, but in some cases on the entire track. We would slow down the session 20 cents or something using the Trinity, then print that to an Ampex ATR102 two-track tape machine, and record from the Ampex back into Pro Tools again, now running at the correct speed. Generally we did not overload the tape in this case, we tried to be pretty transparent with the sound. Plus that master clock is really clean.”

Defending The Faith

Pulling out all the stops in creating weird sonics surely must have been fun. However, after two years of working on the record almost non-stop, Vernon suffered an enormous crisis of confidence in early 2016. “I don’t think I ever felt like it was done,” he recalled, “and it was kind of scary until I finished it. In probably January of this year I kind of hung it up, because it had just become kind of convoluted. There’s a lot of stuff that is pretty dense, and I was tired of it, and tired of myself, thinking: ‘Why am I trying so hard?’ My friend Ryan Olson then came in and kind of slapped me, and he basically sat next to me and virtually held my hand throughout the entire process of finishing the album.”

Olson’s credit for Scream Defence becomes a little clearer here, as he, presumably, screamed in defence of the record. “Justin had kind of lost the plot a little bit,” added Messina, “and was questioning whether to release the record, or whether to start again. Ryan basically told Justin to finish this awesome record. Right around the same time Zach also came in. From there it was a whirlwind to when the album was done. Justin was super-motivated, and Ryan was making sure he was motivated and making decisions.”

So enter Zach Hanson. A graduate of McNally Smith College of Music in St Paul, Minnesota, Hanson works as both a drummer, playing for the likes of The Tallest Man On Earth and Sean Carey, and as a recording engineer. Carey is Bon Iver’s long-term drummer, and in 2012 Hanson became drum tech for both drummers — Carey and Matt McGaughan — during a Bon Iver tour. From there Hanson carried on working regularly for Vernon at April Base, mostly as an engineer and mixer, clocking up credits like the Staves, Blind Boys Of Alabama, and Sean Carey. Hanson is freelance and also works on many other projects, sometimes at his home facility, where he has Pro Tools with the UAD Apollo interface, Mackie HR824 MkI monitors, and a smattering of outboard, like the Manley Vari-Mu compressor, GML 8200 EQ, and an Overstayer NT 02A Saturator.

Hanson got the job of mixing 22, A Million because of his mixes of the Staves’ EP If I Was (2014) and album Sleeping In A Car (2015), which were both produced by Vernon. When final mixing started in earnest in May 2016, the songs had already taken shape, but Hanson was nonetheless given free rein to reinvent things.

“After more than two years there was so much stuff happening, it was daunting,” Messina recalled. “We were trying to find homes for the 60 song ideas that had come out of all the different jams. They were not fully formed, but were more sections that shared maybe a chorus feel, or a chord progression, or a lyric with other jams. We would take these elements and try to create one thing from them. But we definitely had things whittled down to 10 songs by the time Zach showed up. There were still changes to be made, but we knew what the song was. There were a couple of other song ideas that were close, but they got abandoned before the mixing started.”

Fresh Ears

As Messina indicates, although the songs had more or less taken shape, there still were a lot of loose ends to tie up and decisions to make. Hanson immediately noticed the challenges ahead. “By the time I got involved, the guys had maybe heard too many different versions of those songs, and been overthinking things and lost perspective. It was my job as somebody with fresh ears to find new perspectives and where the song was in all the mumbo jumbo.”

According to Hanson, the mix process started with an initial week during which Ryan Olsen and he created new shapes for the songs, and Vernon and Messina would come in regularly and give feedback. But even with his fresh ears, it wasn’t always plain sailing for Hanson. “It was overwhelming for me too to open a session and see 180 tracks, many of them vocals and saxophones! I definitely was given the liberty to pick and choose things, and that is very much how I started. If there was fat, I would tend to cut it. It was my job to not overthink things, and start with the elements that I thought made up the song and then bring everything else up around it. For me it was often a matter of starting from scratch. I began with ‘#29 Strafford Apts’, because it’s more of a regular song, harking back to the previous Bon Iver material, so it was easier to give that a shape. I called up the vocals and the guitar, and I then brought everything else in to support those core elements.”

There are a couple of other songs that hark back more strongly to Bon Iver’s past, most notably ‘Million’ which ends the album in a sign, perhaps, that there is redemption beyond all the digital distortion. But the rest of the songs were so bizarre, with few instruments sounding normal, that there were no blueprints for how to mix them. “The core of ‘10 (Death Breast)’ is that driving distorted drum beat,” says Hanson, “which I embraced right away. Justin also wanted the bass to be very alarming, in-your-face and aggressive. So those two elements and the vocals are the three main things, and the saxophones, guitar, and sample all played roles in the background or off to the side.”

Three Busses At Once

The mixes all took place at April Base Studio B, where the analogue/digital hybrid SSL Duality greatly helped Hanson in giving shape and structure to the wealth of material. “I tried to keep things pretty similar on the desk for all the songs, with the first four or eight channels on the left being drums, then bass, then rhythmic instruments, and vocals and effects were on the right-hand side. But it was often hard to decide what was what, and this is where the three mix busses of the SSL came in handy. We decided to send all chordal movement parts to Bus A, all vocal stuff to Bus B, and all the drums and percussion to Bus C — occasionally we also sent bass to that bus. That really helped in organising the songs.”

This view of the Studio B control room shows the Tascam tape machine that was abused to create the blown-out sounds on ‘Death Breast’.This view of the Studio B control room shows the Tascam tape machine that was abused to create the blown-out sounds on ‘Death Breast’.Photo: Cameron Wittig

The Duality’s digital dimension also helped with the endless recalls as Hanson and co moved between songs. “The nice thing about the Duality,” explains Hanson, “is that it takes digital snapshots of all the faders and knobs, so you don’t have to draw all the different settings. Also, a lot of the EQ and compression were done on the desk itself, so these were easy to recall. As for outboard, we kept all the patching the same for all songs, which meant that sends and returns were always in the same spots. We also tried to keep the outboard on similar settings, not for ease of use, but because we wanted to maintain cohesion between the songs and put them in similar sonic spaces. These sessions took place over nearly three years, so they did not necessarily sound the same, and having reverbs and outboard on similar settings was a good way of glueing the songs together.

“It was Chris and Justin’s decision to mix on a desk, because they have an appreciation of analogue equipment. In fact, we all like the idea of working on an analogue desk. It’s fun, it’s mechanical, it’s musical. As musicians we all have an appreciation for turning knobs, and this probably played a big role in Chris and Justin getting that desk. For me, I’m happy either way. McNally Smith started us on a Trident 80C, so we could understand the basic flow from mic to preamp, to patchbay, to channel path, channel fader, bus and tape machine. I’m very grateful for that, because it’s how millions of popular records were made. Plug-ins do their jobs really well now, but there’s a reason why people are spending a lot of time and effort modelling them on the real thing. The original outboard pieces were so musical. And again, they have physical buttons which musicians like to play with!”

The mixing process at April Base B was interrupted by Hanson going on tour with The Tallest Man On Earth, and therefore took place over the span of a couple of months. “During the first week I created a shape, a skeleton for the songs, a mannequin that they then could put clothes on, if you forgive me the analogy,” recalls Hanson. “While I was away, the team was in recall or tweak mode, and Justin re-tracked a number of things and was still writing lyrics. But most of my mix adjustments remained.”

Once final decisions had been made on what musical elements to include and what shape to give them in each song, the final stage of Hanson’s mix process consisted mainly of balancing and sonically massaging the ingredients, using the SSL desk, plug-ins, and outboard. The latter, said Hanson, consisted mainly of the Bricasti M7, set to ‘Dark Chamber’, and a couple of AMS RMX16 units, for most of the reverb, as well an AKG stereo spring reverb and a EMT 140 plate reverb.

The Pro Tools session for ‘Death Breast’, with its jumble of tracks, reflects Justin Vernon’s instinctive approach to recording.The Pro Tools session for ‘Death Breast’, with its jumble of tracks, reflects Justin Vernon’s instinctive approach to recording.“Justin also talked with me about the found-cassette analogy. You take the cassette home, and when you listen to it, it has all these weird bits of fragmented song and things coming in and out as if out of nowhere. It’s not entirely unfamiliar, but at the same time it’s a new way of listening to music. So during the writing and recording they had found these really weird, fucked-up, distorted, fragmented sounds, and my job during mixing was to make sure these sounds translated. After the initial sculpting what I did was more scientific.

In ‘Death Breast’, for example, there are these extremely distorted bass and drums sounds, and the bass goes very low, and I was using the studio’s wall-mounted Adam S5X-H speakers, which can reproduce frequencies so low the human ear can’t hear them, to gauge how the drums and bass translated and felt, while also making sure people listening on earbuds could experience that song in a similar way.”

Record In Haste...

A quick look at the Pro Tools Edit window for ‘Death Breast’ immediately reveals what Hanson was talking about regarding the complexity of the session. The track list on the left shows just over 50 tracks, and reveals fewer than a fifth of the tracks, suggesting a total of over 250. The main edit window shows over 80 tracks, but again, not all are visible. The order of the tracks is also slightly muddled, with the four heavily distorted ‘Drums Tape’ tracks at the top of the session, followed by an OP-1 sample track, two bass tracks, and five guitar tracks. No fewer than 36 vocal tracks are visible, and the session contains numerous automation tracks, usually containing the letters ‘AUT’. These are ‘ghost tracks’, with each having an SSL Duality control plug-in on the insert to connect the session to the SSL desk.

“These screenshots demonstrate Justin’s workflow”, explains Hanson. “When he is creative, he moves very quickly. It is easy for him to create a dozen tracks, or just duplicate tracks and record layer upon another layer. That plays a huge role in how he writes and arranges songs. He will sit down with an SM7 in front of him and sing one line in one section of the song, and then he will duplicate that track, and sing another line. He will do that throughout different sections of the song. In many of these songs there are 40 or more tracks of vocals, in blocks of six vocals in one section of the song and eight vocal tracks in another part of the song. In ’33 “God”’, he stacked pianos in a similar way, layer upon layer of layer. It’s how he develops the sound that he wants to hear.

22, A  Million was mixed on the SSL Duality in April Base Studio B.22, A Million was mixed on the SSL Duality in April Base Studio B.

“As a result, many of these songs had well over 100 tracks in the session, so it was super time-consuming figuring out what should be routed where and why, so everything would fit in the SSL’s 48 channels, which eventually became 24 stereo channels. We tried to leave three stereo pairs at the right of the desk, for effect returns, even though we also used the echo returns. But in general, if we used outboard, we printed the effect back into Pro Tools and sent that again out over its own channel.”

The Hum

The session is not heavily populated with plug-ins because, as Hanson explains, he primarily used desk EQ and compression, and also, given the heavily treated nature of the source material, there was no need to treat things a whole lot more in the mix. Those that were used include the Waves L2, which is on each of the four distorted drum tracks, “which may have added some distortion, but are mostly there to level them, so they become this brick wall of drums that is constantly in your face. The bass track also has the Duality board plug-in, but I don’t think we did any automation here. It was more to do with the Harmonic Drive knob on the desk that I used to add more harmonic distortion.

“There’s a Waves Vitamin plug-in on the other bass track, and this is the result of a bad habit of mine. When someone else is at the board, I sit in the back of the room humming the root notes of the song, which has a tendency to throw off whoever is at the board. So Justin had written this bass part, which is not the distorted part, and he said, ‘Can you make it sound like you humming in the background of the room?’ The Vitamin is a kind of multiband compressor, but rather than compressing it also expands, and in this instance it is adding probably 80Hz and below.

“There’s an Aux 3 track, with the Waves Puigtech EQ, Avid EQ1 and UAD LA-2A. I generally use aux tracks a lot when mixing in the box, but this aux track is a rarity in this session, because we did so much on the console. It’s an aux on the guitars just above it. The green guitar track next to it has the Waves Renaissance Axx and H-Delay and the D-Verb. Further down are three dark blue tracks, called ‘OP1’ and ‘SteveOud’, and they again have the Axx and also the Avid D-Verb, and tons of instances of the Avid EQ1. Usually the EQ1 is there as a high-pass or low-pass or to notch out one gnarly frequency. It’s such an easy plug-in to throw on, and I find that using two of those instead of one EQ with two bands gives me a more musical sound. I think you get less phase distortion like that. Often when you notch something out, you create another notch elsewhere. When I use multiple instances of the EQ1, I find that it does not happen, or if it does happen it is not as present.

“Again, you can see in the screenshot how Justin layers his vocals, with red and blue and green tracks. Every single one of those will be an individual take. The red tracks will all be the same voicing, and he layers them to create richness, and one big vocal sound. He may use different SM7s, or sit at different distances from the mic, for variations in tonal colour. Almost all these vocal tracks have Auto-Tune, which is part of his sound. We had a lot of discussions about this, because it doesn’t only tune his vocal, it also adds a kind of saturation that can be really musical and that you can’t get from a compressor.

“As I mentioned, all elements of the mix went to the A, B and C busses. On bus C, with the drums and percussion, I had a Slate Dragon Saturator and then a Neve 2254a compressor to give a warm hug to the saturation. A Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor also made an appearance here on a few songs. We didn’t do many treatments on busses A and B, but on one song I used the Tube-Tech SMC2B multiband compressor to tonally shape Justin’s voice as it builds up. On the stereo mix I had the SSL bus compressor, which was our biggest friend on every song, as it really impacted the sound and glued everything together. We’d then print the mix back into Pro Tools, going either via a Lavry 4496 or a Black Lion Sparrow A-D converter, which each coloured the songs slightly differently. For ‘Death Breast’ we used the Black Lion Audio. All sessions were at 88.2kHz.”

Making An End Of It

Perhaps unsurpisingly, given the complexity of the project, the mastering stage was an involved process, aimed at putting the final touch on the found-cassette concept. Hanson recalls: “We used four mastering engineers, all of whom we had worked with before, so we trusted them. We each sent them ‘Death Breast’, ‘22’ and ‘Million’, and asked them to master ‘Death Breast’ and one of the other two songs, so they worked on one loud and one gentle song. We then listened blind to what they did, because we wanted to work out who could help us realise our vision the most without us being influenced by the name. There were two that we ruled out immediately, because they sounded too open and too nice, almost too good, and this didn’t glue the record in the digital-but-messy way we wanted. The two other versions were the most musical, and in the end we went with Huntley Miller’s version, because of the way he managed the high end. It is bright, but the high end is clipped at a certain point, which we felt was the most tape-like.”

Chris Messina On The Messina

Of all the crazy effects on 22, A Million, perhaps the most prominent is a device created by and named after engineer Chris Messina. There have been reports that The Messina is based on the Prismizer, which is software designed by Francis Starlite (of Francis & The Lights). However, according to Justin Vernon and Messina, the Prismizer was only an inspiration and does not use the same technology.

“When Francis Starlite was staying at my house for a year,” recalled Vernon, “I saw him take a trumpet line and make it sound like a bunch of them. I was like: ‘That is amazing, that is really cool.’ So when I talked with Chris Messina, my confidant in this entire recording process, about setting up new toys and finding new zones and not trying to get stuck in any technological toilet bowl, I was like, ‘How can you do that live?’ One of the reasons why you can’t do that is because CPUs don’t really have that capacity to do it as it is happening. So Chris figured that out, and got all the gear to make that work, and I said: ‘We are calling this the Messina.’ We used it on a lot of stuff, and we actually use it a lot live as well now.”

Messina elaborates on how he devised the Messina. “Inspired by what Francis did, Justin and I got together and we tried every single vocoder that was listed, but they all sounded like a vocoder, which was not exactly what we wanted. Instead we wanted to be able to keep the character of whatever input signal we used, whether a voice or a saxophone. So instead we developed this thing which basically is a glorified vocoder. The input signal goes into Ableton Live where it is treated by two Auto-Tune plug-ins. The first just tunes the vocal, in the way Justin has always done it, and the second plug-in creates just a single note, the tonic of the key of the phrase that is sung or played, and that then is sent to an Eventide H8000, which is set to a MIDI harmony program.

“Justin can play the white keys of a MIDI keyboard at the same time, and the H8000 receives the Auto-Tune tonic input, sometimes a dry input, and the input of the MIDI keyboard, and the H8000 generates up to four notes based on what’s played. It involves a degree of randomisation, so you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get. We’d then use a combination of the dry signal, tuned signal, tonic signal and the harmony created by the H8000 to make the ‘Messina’ sound. A lot of the distortion on the album comes from this, because the H8000 program naturally creates a lot of artifacts. When you’re switching keys on the MIDI keyboard it automatically creates this kind of clicking noises as it’s changing whatever harmonies it’s creating. We removed some of those clicking noises, but as also left many in, because we liked them. But a lot of the distortion is Justin and the Messina, with the H8000 doing what it does to the signal. You can hear Justin on his own with the Messina in ‘715’. That song is mostly just one take, though we did do a few additional takes, hitting the 8000 differently each time, cranking up the output to hit it harder. The way the 8000 reacts to different input signals can be pretty cool.”

The Jannette

One of the most out-there contraptions featured on 22 is the Jannette, which was used to record the penultimate track, ‘1000000 (Million)’, and which, says Chris Messina, “was something that Justin [Vernon] and Francis of Francis & The Light came up with. It’s based on a small parlour-type piano that we have in the living room in the studio, which is fun because people can just start playing it. The Jannette is basically a combination of effects pedals, a piano pickup, some other mics, a TC-Helicon unit, and two small Avantone monitors sitting on the piano. For the song ‘Million’ on the record we used an Ibanez Phase Tone pedal on the piano, as well as the Helicon.”

Zach Hanson, who is familiar with the goings on at April Base and was present for some of the recording sessions, adds: “There’s a magnetic pickup strapped to the metal frame inside of the piano, and there also are microphones in the piano. Those signals run through guitar pedals, which I think include a phaser, and a reverb, perhaps a Memory Man. There’s also a vocal mic, something dynamic, normally a Beyer M88, which goes into the TC-Helicon processor, which adds harmonies. The piano and the vocals go through the Avantone monitors, and we then record these speakers, generally with Beyer M260s or Sony C38s, and the room, and this becomes the overall Janette sound, which is like a small workstation in the living room. I think on ‘Million’ there’s also an overdub from an additional piano, which is in the control room and called the Belarus. It’s a very warm-sounding piano, which was featured on the song ‘Wash’ on the second Bon Iver record.”