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Tom Syrowski: Recording Incubus' 'Adolescents'

Inside Track | Secrets Of The Mix Engineers By Paul Tingen
Published November 2011

A new Incubus album is always an event, especially when produced by the legendary Brendan O'Brien...

Tom SyrowskiTom Syrowski

Incubus are a rare example of the increasingly endangered species: the album band. Their last four studio albums, including the recent If Not Now, When?, all reached number one or two in the US album charts, though hit singles have been rare. Having announced themselves as a grunge-alt-metal band with Fungus Amongus (1995) and graduated to psychedelic funk-rock with their third album, Make Yourself (1999), Morning View (2001) saw the band continuing to mine the alt-rock vein, but their fifth album, A Crow Left To Murder (2004), their first with star producer Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen), incorporated jazz and prog-rock influences. O'Brien also produced the lighter Light Grenades (2006), as well as If Not Now, When?

With synth basses, Mellotrons and acoustic guitars replacing the band's hallmark full-on guitars, they are aware that the new album has stretched fans' loyalties. Guitarist Michael Einziger explains: "We've been together for 20 years, and if we made similar records every time, it'd get boring. We know that this album is very different. It's a lot more mellow, a lot more melodic, a lot slower. We're basically hoping that people who have been listening to our music like us now for different reasons than they have perhaps liked us before.”

Blackbird Singing

Tom Syrowski: Recording Incubus' 'Adolescents'

Sessions for the album began at Nashville's Blackbird Studio A in January of this year, with Tom Syrowski engineering. Originally from Ohio, Syrowski is a graduate of the Full Sail school in Florida, from which he graduated in 2000. Following this, he further cut his teeth at Henson Recording studios in Los Angeles, working his way up to fully fledged engineer. Freelance since the beginning of this year, Syrowski has spent all his professional time since 2009 as O'Brien's engineer, clocking up credits such as Bruce Springsteen, Anberlin, Pearl Jam and Brandon Flowers. His first experience with Incubus was as an assistant on Light Grenades.

Syrowski takes up the story: "One reason we went [to Blackbird] was because people wanted to be far away from the distractions that Los Angeles can provide. The studio is fabulous, with a big 72-input 8078 Neve desk, a great recording room, and loads of guitars hanging on the wall that you can just pull off and use, as well as many amplifiers. We did a couple of weeks at Blackbird in January, and then we went back later for another couple of weeks, and after that we took another couple of weeks at Henson to finish the record. The strings and many of the guitars were recorded at Casa Chica in Malibu, which is Mike [Einziger]'s place. He recorded them himself, which is why he has an assistant engineer credit.” Incubus, from left: keyboard player and DJ Chris Kilmore, singer Brandon Boyd, bassist Ben Kenney, drummer Jose Pasillas II and guitarist Michael Einziger.Incubus, from left: keyboard player and DJ Chris Kilmore, singer Brandon Boyd, bassist Ben Kenney, drummer Jose Pasillas II and guitarist Michael Einziger.

"The time in Nashville was spent laying out sketches,” recalls Einzinger, "doing a lot of groundwork for arranging the songs. The time in Henson was more for finishing things and doing overdubs, even though we also began some songs at Henson. We had written the basic parts for most of the songs before we came into the studio — the skeletons were there. But with this album, more than with any other album we've done, we left a lot of things up to the spontaneity of the moment, with many things still to be created in the studio. I don't know why that was, it just felt like the right thing to do at this particular time. We had rehearsed some of the songs as a band, but many were completely put together in the studio. We might have had the parts, but were not clear yet on the order. Because we had not figured out the basic structures of the songs yet, and also to get a feeling and basic colour scheme, we started with mapping the songs out with Brendan, in many cases with him playing the Tenori-on [Yamaha's innovative handheld performance sequencer]. It was a way of getting a pulse, rather than trying to play them live with the band.”

This photo shows the setup used at Blackbird, with Chris Kilmore's keyboards to the left, Michael Einziger's guitars to the right, and José Pasillas' drums in the background. This photo shows the setup used at Blackbird, with Chris Kilmore's keyboards to the left, Michael Einziger's guitars to the right, and José Pasillas' drums in the background. Syrowski: "The band would decide on a tempo and then Mike and Brendan and Brandon [Boyd, the band's singer] would go into the live room to put down a rough vocal and guitar track, with Brendan creating a loop on his Tenori-on. Brendan loves the Tenori-on. It's a very important piece of kit for him. He would usually come up with a bunch of different loop sounds, and we would layer them, and sometimes some of the loops would remain in the song, and sometimes we would later remove them. We usually ran the Tenori-on through some effects, like the Electrix Filter Factory and an API graphic EQ and perhaps an [Urei] 1176 and then into Pro Tools. Most of the synths on this album went through that rig.” (The pulsating bass line on the opening title track is the most immediately obvious remaining Tenori-on element on the album.)

"After the loop and guide vocal and guide guitar were recorded, José [Pasillas, Incubus' drummer] would come in and overdub real drums, and after that we typically recorded the bass, and then the basic guitars, if we wanted to replace them. Next, Brandon usually sang the vocals, because they would determine what other instruments we needed in the arrangement. You don't want the vocals to get in the way of the guitars, or vice versa. After that Mike added more guitars, Chris [Kilmore] would add his keyboards, usually Rhodes, Mellotron, Moog stuff, piano or synths, and so on.

"Some of the songs changed a lot as we were recording them, some didn't change at all. In some cases, we would start working on a song and carry on until we got to a point where it was nearly finished. This happened particularly during the initial Nashville sessions. The very first song we recorded was 'Friends And Lovers', which was done in three days, start to finish. Later on in the project, we'd be working on different songs at the same time, particularly because we were mostly working via an overdub process. By contrast, 'Adolescents' was recorded at Henson Studio B, with the whole band playing at the same time. We had them all in the same room, but with the amplifiers in other rooms. We recorded 'Adolescents', 'Switchblade', 'Tomorrow's Food' and the title song at Henson. Five songs were already done when we arrived at Henson, and when we arrived in LA, Brendan first mixed those. After that it was mostly a matter of finishing the rest of the songs. We'd ask, 'What do we need to finish this song?', we'd add it, and then Brendan would mix the song, and it would be done.”

No More Tape

If Not Now, When? was recorded to Pro Tools, though Brendan O'Brien was still using tape until not so long ago. Syrowski: "When I first started working with Brendan, which was the Wallflowers' record Rebel, Sweetheart in 2005 on which I assisted, he was recording the basic tracks to analogue tape, and then loaded them into Pro Tools and overdubbed in Pro Tools. But since I've been working with him full-time, we record everything in Pro Tools. Particularly with a project like this, when you're overdubbing all the time, it works much better to record to Pro Tools. If we'd used tape, it would have slowed down the process to the point where we would not have been able to capture what was going on. The other issue is that really good tape, like GP9 or 456, isn't made any more. Some companies are trying to make something similar, but for whatever reason the quality control is not quite there. Sometimes you hit a reel of tape that's a couple of dBs quieter than the one before that, and this can be a problem. And also, tape is expensive! We always record 44.1/24, because Pro Tools seems to work better. Using 96 or 192 sample rate is a waste of hard drive space. If you're working at 96 and everything is sounding great, and then suddenly Pro Tools isn't working properly any more, it's a real pain. Plus you're gonna end up at 16/44.1 anyway, so for me, the hassle of 96 or 192 isn't worth it.”

"I'm very happy to work with Pro Tools,” adds Einziger. "I have always operated under the assumption that if I like the way an instrument sounds, it doesn't matter how it is recorded. I have to admit that I've been working with Studer tape machines since I was 16, and when the first versions of Pro Tools came out, I was very opposed to that. I was thinking to myself, 'How can you record music on computers? That is going to sound horrible!' But over time the program became better. I actually started working with Pro Tools pretty early on, and I was always able to get the sounds I wanted. So I never had any issues regarding things being digital or analogue or whatever, and I have a Pro Tools system in my studio in Malibu. Music is the most important thing. If the song is great, and the arrangement is great, and the playing is great, I don't see any reason why you couldn't make that sound great with whatever recording system you're using. It's a way of storing an idea, and the really important thing is the idea itself.”

Get It Right At Source

With this philosophy in mind, the goal for If Not Now, When? was to record everything at source exactly the way the company wanted it to sound, and for the engineer to continually do rough mixes as they went along, so that O'Brien's final mixes would, to a large degree, be a matter of simply balancing what was already there. "During all the recording sessions we tried to get things to sound the way we wanted right from the beginning, at source,” says Syrowski. "This meant choosing the right amps, mics and signal chains, and also adding any effects we wanted to have while recording. We don't take the approach of fixing it later in the mix, we mix from the moment we are recording. When the band comes in after a take and wants to hear what we did, we want it to sound like a record. In order to do that we have to have all the effects rolling while recording. If things sound really good, and there's a delay or reverb or something else happening, the musicians will be playing their parts better. You'll get better performances, because they'll experience more of a vibe.

"Brendan and I were very fussy about the sounds that we wanted to hear, whether the bass was too thuddy or the guitars needed more high end. There were always discussions about how we were going to do things. At the same time, we have a microphone setup that we use regularly. I'd say that over the last two years I've, for the most part, been using more or less the same microphone setup, from which we don't deviate too much. Also, if the drums sound great in the room, it doesn't matter so much what microphone you use. So the first thing is always to make the instruments themselves sound great. Usually what happens with the sessions is that I come in early and set everything up and make it sound good, and then Brendan comes in and will make a comment if he thinks something doesn't sound quite right or needs to sound different. When we worked in Nashville, I recorded virtually everything through the Neve [8078], which is modified to be an inline console. It works like an SSL, and I love it because of that, and it sounds great.”

Drum Miking

"For recording the drums, Brendan has an AKG D30 microphone that we used on the kick drum. It's a Beatles-era microphone. In addition, I use a [Sennheiser] 421 on the inside of the kick drum, a Shure SM57 and an [AKG] 451 on the top of the snare, and for overheads I used [Neumann] KM86s. They're small-diaphragm condensers, and I had just bought some and love them on just about anything. I had a 421 on the top and an SM57 on the bottom of each of the toms, going into the console via a Y-cable, so the signals from the 421 and the 57 were blended in the cable and came up under one fader on the console. For some reason that works and sounds really good. We also had what we call a kicksnare mic, which is an AKG 414 in figure-8 placed just underneath the snare, pointing at the kick-drum beater and the bottom of the snare drum. We move it around until kick and snare have roughly the same volume level.

"Regarding drum ambient mics, I had [Neumann] U67s as more far-away room mics, and for close rooms, again SM57s, blown up with a nice compressor, like an 1176. The studios in Blackbird have airlocks between the rooms that allowed us to change the acoustics simply by opening doors, and when we put mics in there, usually the Neumann tube version of the KM54c, we got some crazy, amazing sounds. For a while we were using any kind of room mics and then putting some reverb on the snare and so on. After putting mics in those airlocks, the room sounds became a big part of the drum sound. I've been recording fairly dry drums for so long, it was nice to put some real reverb on the drums! We also had a mono room mic, though what mic we used changed every time. It didn't form an integral part of the drum sound, but if Brendan wanted to create a big, huge snare drum, he'd send the mono room sound to a reverb and automate it so it happens at certain times in the song.

"We had several things patched into the Neve desk while recording, like a graphic EQ, usually the API 560, on individual kick mics, while I had some console Neve EQ on the snare and then overall Neve 550a EQ on the snare bus. I had [Teletronix] LA2As on the overhead mics, but they didn't really compress; they were just there to make sure that if José suddenly blasted the snare, it wouldn't overload in Pro Tools. I also had the ADR Vocal Stressor F769XR on the kicksnare mic, which is a cheaply made compressor that has some kind of grounding issue, but it sounds great on that mic. There were times when the kick, snare and kicksnare mics were all I needed. Those three, as well as the room mics, are the only mics that we compressed to tape [Pro Tools]. We also used the hardware SPL Transient Designer to alter the attack and sustain of the snare and other parts of the drums.”

Tracking Everything Else

"The bass was recorded in Nashville with an Ampeg Micro-VR, which is a solid-state bass amp with two eight-inch speakers that looks like a midget SVT. But it sounds great, just like a real SVT; the difference is that you don't have to worry about the bass sound leaking through the walls, because it's so small. We also used a vintage Ampeg Fliptop B15, which belonged to Blackbird. And we used a Line 6 Bass Pod, dialled in a cool bass sound, and recorded that via a DI. I had [Neumann] FET 47s on each of the bass amps. Mike recorded the strings and all his main replacement guitars at his house [see box] but at the same time we kept all the initial guitar parts, and sometimes there were small overdub guitar parts that we did in the studio. Insofar as we recorded Mike's guitars at Blackbird and Henson, he used mostly combo amps, and the Blackbird studio has a whole room full of amps, so we just went in and grabbed what sounded great. He used a brown Fender Deluxe for most of the recordings at Blackbird, as well as a Fender Super Reverb.

"We mainly used SM57s on the cabinets, sometimes KM86s, and I usually have one mic pointed straight at the dust cap [of the speaker cone] and one at an angle. That's the main sound, and I'd also often stick a 57 at the back of the amp and EQ that really wacky. We call that the '3D sound'. If we want the guitar to poke out, we turned up that mic. When you overdub lots of guitars, you pretty soon start to lose clarity, and if we had an additional overdub that wouldn't sit, we'd simply crank up that back mic. At Henson, the guitars went through the Neve BCM10 sidecar, then into a Neve EQ, and an LA2A or Dbx 160. Not all the guitars were compressed, but sometimes you want that sound. Mike has his own pedal board, but sometimes we'd throw in some other pedals, and we also sometimes used a Leslie cabinet. As I said, we wanted things to sound right from the first moment.

"The keyboards Kil played included the Moog Voyager, a Fender Rhodes, a Wurlitzer, a B3, a piano, and the new digital MD4000D Mellotron synth made by the Mellotron company, which is a fabulous instrument, which we ran through a DI, sometimes with a few pedals before the DI to make it sound more interesting.A close-up of Chris Kilmore's keyboard setup at Blackbird. A close-up of Chris Kilmore's keyboard setup at Blackbird. Kil used to be mainly a turntablist, but he has taken keyboard lessons and he now has this huge rig that looks like a prog rock rig! He still scratches, but he now mainly plays keyboards. I recorded the B3 with the [Neumann] U87 on the top of the Leslie cabinet, and at the bottom there was a 421, going into the Neve desk. I'd also use a [Urei] 1178 as a compressor. The Yamaha C7 grand piano at Nashville was recorded with an AKG C24, the stereo version of the C12. The cool thing about that particular C24 is that it has serial number 001. It's the first one ever made! The mic pres were the Neve console, and I used a Fairchild 670 compressor.

"Finally, Brandon's vocals were recorded with a Neumann 269 — it looks exactly like the U67, but it has a different tube. We fell on that mic in a funny way. We normally use an SM57 or a [Telefunken] 251 or a [Neumann] U47, but the 251 that we were using was buzzing, and Brandon was ready to sing, so I quickly picked the first microphone I could lay my hand on, and it was the 269, and it sounded fabulous! So we used that from then on. On the song 'In The Company Of Wolves', he sang into a 269 in one room, and we ran the vocal signal from the console to a PA speaker in another room. We recorded that and blended that in with the sound from the 269. It made the vocal in that track sound spookier and cooler. I really enjoy when we do stuff that's out of the ordinary, like putting a 57 in a garbage can and putting that in front of an amplifier. For me that's the fun part of recording!”

Mixed By... No-one?

Unusually, If Not Now, When? does not have a mix credit. Brendan O'Brien is known for mixing most of the material that he produces, but the album production credits mention him only as producer, plus Syrowski as main engineer, and five assistant engineers, including Einziger. As Syrowski says, "the technical and sonic decisions had mostly been made while recording”; but many of the details of the arrangements were still in flux at the mix stage.

"A lot of the decisions were taken towards the end, during the mix,” explains Michael Einziger. "Up until the mix, we were still trying things out, seeing how they would work. Some of the songs had larger arrangements than others and required more time and energy. We also like to spend some time with the music alone and let it sit for a bit before we go into the mix. For us, a lot of detail work happened during the mixing stage. It's when we sifted through all the parts, and sometimes changed things, or even added things.

"There are so many things happening while making a record, it can be tough for me sometimes to see the whole process. The reason we bring in a producer and an engineer is that we can focus on the music and not be worried about all the small details that go with the recording process. The process is that we go in and record things, and then we work more on it and over time it is like making a sculpture. As time goes by, the sculpture is getting more and more finished, and then there's a point at which we address all the issues we didn't decide on earlier. But because we are so inundated with just trying to make music, we are not even aware of many of the things that Brendan and Tom are doing. They may have spent five hours working on something before we even walk into the studio.”

The screenshot for 'Adolescents', the first single from If Not Now, When?, is post-mix, and with only three plug-ins visible, it illustrates how little Brendan O'Brien and Syrowski work in the box. The session is well-organised and colour-coded, with four mixes at the top, then drum tracks, bass, guitars, keys, vocals, and some additional percussion tracks right at the bottom. Syrowski: "As I mentioned before, 'Adolescents' was recorded live by the band in Henson Studios in LA. The mics and signal paths I used were pretty much the same as I outlined before, but because we didn't have the Neve desk, I used the studio's eight Neve 1089 units for mic pres. This composite screenshot shows the Pro Tools Session from 'Adolescents'. The tracks are colour-coded: bounced mixes (top) in green, then drums (red), bass (blue), guitars (various shades of green), Wurlitzer piano (purple), lead and backing vocals (pink, blue and green) and finally tambourine and sandpapered ping-pong bats (purple). This composite screenshot shows the Pro Tools Session from 'Adolescents'. The tracks are colour-coded: bounced mixes (top) in green, then drums (red), bass (blue), guitars (various shades of green), Wurlitzer piano (purple), lead and backing vocals (pink, blue and green) and finally tambourine and sandpapered ping-pong bats (purple).

"On the screenshot, you see track '1C36', which is the kick mic, and underneath that are two sample kick tracks. Over the years, when we have a particularly good drum sound, we'll sample it, which is done by our Pro Tools guy, Billy Bowers. If we feel that the kick needs some support, Billy will put in a kick sample. 'BassMesa' refers to Ben Kenney's Mesa Boogie amp that we used in LA, and 'VRS' stands for verse and refers to the verse guitars. I use the Comments section [in Pro Tools] quite a lot, so I know what we did. At the bottom of the Session is a tambourine, and where it says 'sand' it refers to two sandpapered ping-pong paddles that are rubbed together. They sound a bit like a shaker. If you listen to the track, you'll hear them.

"Because we get everything to sound great while tracking, Brendan can mix pretty fast. As you see, he doesn't do much in the box. The 'R' plug-in in the tambourine is the [Waves Renaissance] Compressor and the 'S' on the bass is the Sansamp, and that's it. The drums are all going through the Transient Designer drum-sub compressor from the very first day we're recording, and it's also part of the final mix. As I mentioned, we have all the effects set up while tracking, ranging from compression on the vocals, so the singer can hear it in his headphones, which will make him sing better, to reverb, delays, and a tape slap on the sends of the console. For the tape slap, we use an ATR half-inch tape machine — we like to use real tape and it has a VSO [varispeed oscillator] so we can dial in the time and stuff like that. For digital delay, we use the PCM42 and for reverbs, we use the Lexicon 480L and the EMT250, which was the first digital reverb and which sounds amazing.

"I think that the record turned out fantastic. I've been a fan of the band since I was in high school, so working with them was definitely a big treat. The songs are great, it's a very open-sounding record, and several people have asked me if it was recorded to tape. I had to admit that it wasn't, but to me it sounds better than some of the records that I've worked on that were recorded to tape!”  

Michael Einziger: Home Recording

Tom Syrowski: Recording Incubus' 'Adolescents'

Michael Einziger recorded most of his guitars at his Casa Chico studio in Malibu. He has been studying music at Harvard University in recent years, and put some of the skills acquired to use in his string arrangements for the album, which he also recorded at his home. He elaborates: "We recorded my guitars at Nashville and Henson, but I then took the tracks home to redo them. I like to record my stuff at my place, because I like to spend a lot of time listening and trying different things out, and I don't like the feeling of working to a clock, with people waiting for me to finish. So I prefer to record by myself. I recorded acoustic guitars with a combination of the SM57 and the Neumann U87, both run through the bank of Neve preamps that I have — I can't recall the model number. As far as electrics are concerned, I like to use smaller guitar amps. I have a Fender Pro Reverb and Super Reverb and a Mesa Boogie Rectifier combo and I really enjoy their sound. I record them with an SM57 close up to the speaker and then I take a U87 and put it maybe 10 feet away. On the song 'Tomorrow's Food' I placed the amplifier in another part of my house. I have a very long hallway, maybe 30 feet long, and there's a bathroom off to the side of it that's all made of stone tiles. I put one microphone in the bathroom and the other at the other end of the hallway, 30 feet away from the combo, and I got this really cool stereo picture of all this space. That's what that really distant guitar sound in that song is. The fun thing about recording at home is to be able to try things like that.”

The only person credited with playing strings on If Not Now, When? is violinist Anne-Marie Simpson. Einziger explained how he created an orchestra at his home studio with just one player. "I had written out all the parts. I didn't do a sample mock-up, so it was this funny thing where you have all these things on a page, and you are hoping that by the time you have recorded everything and unmute all the channels and push up all the faders, that it will sound awesome! I think we got lucky, because the string arrangements did sound awesome. Anne-Marie and I recorded each part individually, one after another, and I layered them to make it sound like a large string arrangement. I got a lot of enjoyment out of doing this. I used a U87 on her violin for pretty much the whole time, again going through my Neve mic pres. My signal chains are really simple, and I do my best to get things to sound really good. Any compression or other effects would happen in the box. I have lots of plug-ins — I'm not opposed to them at all. I have a lot of guitar pedals and I love the fact that everything is right in front of you and that you don't have to work your way through menus and all that. But again, it comes down to who is making the music and who is running the equipment. Whether things sound good or not doesn't have to do with whether it's digital or analogue.”