For the recording of their fourth album Only By The Night, Kings Of Leon and co–producer Jacquire King decided to aim high. The result: a worldwide smash and a long–awaited breakthrough in the band's native US.
Some time late last year, Kings Of Leon frontman Caleb Followill presented an incomplete song called 'Sex On Fire' to the band and their producers, Jacquire King and Angelo Petraglia. Embarrassed about the explicit sexual nature of the lyrics, he needed some coaxing to convince him that the song was worth doing, and even during the recording sessions the following Spring, more arm–twisting was required to get the singer to overdub his vocals. It has certainly paid off, because 'Sex On Fire' and its parent album Only By The Night have charged to the top of hit parades worldwide.
"We just hung out together last year," recalls King, "and of course you start talking about the record and about the songs. Caleb would get out an acoustic or electric guitar and would show us some ideas that he had, including 'Sex On Fire'. Everyone felt that it was a great melody and song, and the band already has a reputation for singing about sex, so we encouraged him as much as we could. In any case, rock & roll has always been fairly explicit.
Drums: "The microphones on the drums changed a lot from song to song. On the kick it could be a Beta 52, sometimes it was an RE20, or a [Sennheiser] 421, or a [Neumann]FET 47, or an NS10 [ie. the driver from a Yamaha NS10 monitor used as a mic], or a combination. It depends on what I was trying to achieve. The mics were usually in front of the kick, or just barely inside. On one song, 'Crawl', I did put a U87 on the batter side of the kick, next to the pedal, which gives a very attack–orientated sound, with a Led Zeppelin–ish quality. On 'Sex On Fire' I used the 52, FET 47 and NS10 on the kick. I had all the kick mics on a Neve BCM10 sidecar and I'd submix them and run them through a GML EQ and then to one track on the tape. I didn't want to keep them separate. It was a matter of get the sound, make the decision, and move on.
"The snare was recorded in similar fashion to the kick. I had the option of various mics that all went through a BCM10 and were submixed, through a GML 580 EQ, then a [Empirical Labs] Distressor, just to give it some control and make sure the snare hit the tape at the right level. On the track sheet a transformerless Shure SM57 is indicated. It was something I read about a couple of years ago, and it's a really good thing. It gives a nicer, more transparent, usable sound that requires less EQ. You lose a bit of level, but typically the things that you record with a 57 are so loud anyway that it doesn't matter. So I asked the people at Blackbird to take the transformer out of one of their 57s and they were gracious enough to do this. After recording I also ran the snare and kick through an Eventide DSP4000 on a Big Muff setting, and recorded that in Pro Tools during the transfer to the computer.
"I had half a dozen mics up for the room sound: a Neumann U67, M49, AKG C12, RCA 44, and/or a Royer SF12 in the echo chamber. I'd leave the door to the echo chamber open so the sound of the drums was happening in there as well, and I'd move the room mics around to get the sound that I wanted for a particular song. I would then bus different combinations to the two room tracks, depending on the song. In the case of 'Sex On Fire' I used a U67 and an RCA 44 for Room 1, and an RCA4 4 and an SF12 for Room 2. Some of these mics went through Neve preamps, some through an old RCA tube mic that Blackbird customised. The combination of room mics was bussed through a Fairchild 670.
Guitars and vocals: "We had five or six guitar amplifiers available for each guitar, and again, we picked the ones that were most appropriate for the song. Angelo and I would listen to the guitar parts and mix and match amplifiers. Sometimes we'd put reverb on one amp and a delay on another, or effect pedals on both. We had all kinds of combinations, although we kept it to two amplifiers per performance for each player. I'd put an SM57 in front of one amp and a U67 in front of the other. The guitars went through API mic pres, an API 550A EQ, and I also used some APSI parametric EQs. Occasionally I'd put an 1176 in the signal chain, but in general I don't use much compression on distorted electric guitars going to tape, because there's not a lot of dynamic range to them as it is. The synth–like reverb you can hear on the guitar was done at Blackbird on an Eventide DSP4000 and added during the transfer to Pro Tools. Caleb's vocals were recorded with a Shure SM57 going through a Chandler TG2 mic pre, a Neve 1073 EQ, an LA2A compressor, and I also had a Dbx 902 de–esser on them."
- Producers: Jacquire King & Angelo Petraglia
- Writers: Caleb, Nathan, Jared and Matthew Followill
Jacquire King: "After having completed the overdubs in Pro Tools at Blackbird, I took the files to my studio, The LBT [also in Nashville], where I mixed the entire album, and where I do almost all my mix work. These days my work is kind of half and half between mixing stuff that's given to me, and engineering, producing and mixing projects. With a few exceptions, I mix all the stuff I produce. When I'm given stuff to mix that I haven't produced, I spend a bit of time beforehand trying to get to know the artist and their vision. I want to respect what they did and enhance that. My approach is fairly simple in that regard. I'm fortunate in that a lot of the stuff I'm asked to mix already has a lot of character, and so it already has a strong vision built in, so I'm sort of just joining the party. But I will sometimes take drastic measures if I feel a song needs it.
"There is a method to my mix approach. When working on a song I haven't recorded, I will first push up all the faders to get a sense of the song and its the elements. With 'Sex On Fire' I did not have to do that, of course. After that I try to move very fast through the beginning stage and get the vocals in as early as possible. I typically start with the drums, because they have the most elements that need bringing together. I try to take only 15–20 minutes for them and then I start pushing other things up. I'll go to the bass next, and once I have the bass and drums roughed in, I'll push up the vocal, and only after that the other elements in the song. I've made the mistake of working hard on a track and getting all the elements in, and then finding that I didn't leave space for the vocals, which are the most important element of a song. For 'Sex On Fire' I worked like this, starting with drums, then bass, then bringing the vocals in, followed by guitars. Then I spent some time fine–tuning the drum loop. It wasn't finished, so I had to program it so it extended until the end of the song.
- Drums: Massenburg DesignWorks EQ, Bomb Factory BF76, Digidesign Lo–fi, Quad 8 EQ, Chandler TG1, Sontec EQ, Audio Ease Altiverb
"I cut the kick around 255Hz to get rid of some honkiness, and added some 11k on the snare, both with the Massenburg DesignWorks. I also cut a tiny bit around 263Hz on the overheads, and sent them through a Bomb Factory BF76, which is a plug–in version of the 1176, just to control the snare transients a little bit in the overhead picture. I also EQed the toms to roll back some of the tubbiness on them. There's a Lo–fi plug-in on Room 1, to take the cymbal wash down and dirty it up; when you reduce the sample rate and bit depth you also lose high frequencies. I cut everything below 206Hz with the Massenburg on the Simmons drums to clean up any unwanted frequencies. For the rest, there's nothing dramatic on the drums, just some specific shaping with digital EQs and opening up the top and bottom with outboard or the Quad 8 EQ. All the drums were bussed and sent to an outboard compressor, the Chandler TG1, for parallel bus compression. I also had a Sontec EQ on the drum bus. The Altiverb works primarily on the snare, kick and toms, just to give them a little bit more space. I set it to a room at Ocean Way Studios, so it's not a big splashy reverb."
- Bass: AMS delay, Sound Toys Echoboy, Empirical Labs Distressor, Chandler TG1, Dbx Disco Boombox
"On the Mix window screen you can see that there are bass DI, bass amp, bass AMS and bass delay tracks. The AMS is a delay that I applied at Blackbird and that I then printed to Pro Tools. The delay is the Echoboy delay, which I added during mixing. The idea was to get a different texture than I could with the AMS delay. Both delays had different delay times, different qualities of sound, and different feedback and modulation effects, and the idea was to spread them out and fatten up the sound, give it some space without putting a reverb or something poky–sounding on it. By spreading the bass out a bit you also make it sound bigger. In addition, there's some Distressor and TG1 compression and some EQ on the bass, as well as some more subharmonic synthesis, again using the DBX Disco Boombox. I have a slightly more modern version of the box."
- Vocals: Sound Toys Echoboy, Audio Ease Altiverb, Massenburg DesignWorks EQ, Neve 1099, Urei 1176, Dbx 902, Dolby A encoder, Teletronix LA3A
"I had a Sound Toys Echoboy delay and an Altiverb reverb, set to the EMT 140 plate, on the vocals. In fact, there are two or three delays and two or three reverbs in total, different amounts in different sections of the song. I had a Massenburg plug–in EQ on the vocal bus, and underneath it you can see my insert signal chain: Neve 1099 EQ/Urei Blue Stripe 1176/Dbx 902 de–esser. I pre-mix in my computer and things are coming out in stems, and going out into the desk and the Folcrom mixer for mixdown to stereo. The 1099/1176/902 were inserted in the analogue realm and daisy-chained. There's also a distant lead double in the chorus. I call that a performed effect. Instead of using a delay and modulation to get something in the background, you record a second performance in a different space and with a different microphone. You get something more deliberate and unique that way. Finally, once it came to summing, I also added some Dolby A to the vocals, which gives an excited high-frequency sound that I sent through an LA3A and blended back in."
- Guitars: Massenburg DesignWorks EQ, Sound Toys Echoboy, Cooper Time Cube, Digidesign delay, Audio Ease Altiverb
"Using a guitar amp, I added a short slap delay on Matt's guitars. I also used an Echoboy for delay on certain sections, like in the choruses. There was a little bit of bus compression on the guitars and a little bit of EQ, all very minor stuff, because I had already recorded what I wanted. The only radical EQ is on the Cooper Time Cube delay, which I described above, and which I applied to Caleb's guitar. I took out everything below 861Hz to get rid of the darker tone that was obscuring the source tone a bit. There's also a bit of Digirack delay on Caleb's guitar, to give it a bit more dimension by panning it to the other side than the track itself. The Altiverb on Matt's guitar is a very small room at Cello Studios, for a little bit more space."
"I mixed to another Pro Tools rig at 24/88.2, going in via an Apogee PSX100 A–D converter. I had a Sontec EQ and a Quad 8 EQ on the stereo mix, to boost the high frequencies, as well as a pair of Neve 2254 compressors. I used a separate Pro Tools rig, so I'm not tied into whatever sample rate I have in my first Pro Tools rig — 88.2 folds down more easily to 44.1, so is easier for the mastering engineer. I used 24/96 for the recording process because I wanted to keep my options open as to whether to mix from Pro Tools or two 16–tracks. We did a lot of A/B comparisons at Blackbird, and we found that 24/96 gave us the best result. But before mixing I took things down to 24/48 in the original computer, because I like that format best for digital multitrack playback. If you use 96k you have all these frequencies above our hearing range that just eat up headroom. In analogue these frequencies roll off gradually, but 96k remains flat until 40kHz. I mixed to 88.2k because I feel it gives a better stereo image. Many people complain that all this stuff doesn't matter because the delivery formats, like MP3, are shot. I don't feel that way. I definitely want to give the listener the best possible sonic experience."
Jacquire King recorded the main parts for each song live to 16–track analogue tape at Blackbird. Once he had the basic tracks down, they were transferred to a Pro Tools system at 24–bit, 96kHz, using Apogee A–D converters, for overdubbing and mixing. So why not simply record straight into Pro Tools, and enjoy unlimited track options from the first moment?
"The simple answer," replies King, "is that recording to analogue has two great benefits. The first is sonic, and centres on the transients and the tape compression that tape gives you. It gives me a wonderful sonic texture that I just can't get away from. Tracking to digital is good, but I don't get the same quality in the transients, particularly of the drums. The other advantage of tracking to analogue is that it puts the recording situation in a different frame of reference. I have found that when I'm recording to tape, the musicians' performances are more focused and inspired. Perhaps the recording process comes across as more permanent, so they pay more attention and are more involved. There's a certain romance to recording to tape. They're not looking at a screen, so it's all about using your ears. Making records with your eyes, as is a danger with Pro Tools, is a really poor approach. And when you are rolling back the tape, or changing a reel, it allows for a moment of conversation and reflection.
"After tracking, I loaded everything into Pro Tools, because a digital workstation is the best environment to mix from, with the massive amounts of tools that are available and the precision with which you can do things and the speed at which you can work. When you're doing overdubs you're dealing with one person at a time, and the speed that digital offers comes in very handy. Finally, loading things into Pro Tools allowed me to get away from that analogue treated sound. Doing the overdubs straight into the computer gave me a more modern texture, and I felt that the two textures combined and complemented each other well."