Clouds HillClouds Hill

July 23, 2020Recording and producing “The Clouds Hill Tapes Part I,II & III” with Omar Rodríguez-López

The unforeseeable

Unpredictability is something that a music producer rarely delights in, but it‘s something which often has to be dealt with. Usually, the wise producer among us fear technical unpredictability most of all. The unforeseeable. Some buzzing or other noise that isn’t supposed to be there, that got missed in the heat of the moment, recorded by accident in the background, that can be heard in the final mix. Or a broken microphone, a dodgy cable, something that messes up the flow, unsettles the artist, and, in the worst-case scenario, completely destroys the mood. Experience, technical know-how and/or a skilled technician can usually get these situations under control or create a workaround for the new situation. Or even make it work, with a “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature!” vibe. In the dying notes of Peter Doherty’s “She is Far” on his Hamburg Demonstrations album, you can hear a motorcycle driving past. We had recorded a piano in the hallway of the Clouds Hill Studio, and opened the window to get a bit of atmosphere around the mic… That “mistake” immediately became a very cool feature. Riding her motorcycle into the setting sun …she was definitely far. But solving a situation like that shows the difference between a person who is only looking at the tech aspects, and a music producer. To put it simply, in a situation like this, the engineer takes care of repairing cables and de-noising signals and the producer takes care of fixing the mood or integrating the mistakes into the creative picture. Don‘t get me wrong: both jobs are important.

But no matter how good your technical expertise might be, how good you are at fixing things technically or emotionally it doesn’t help much when the musician themselves is unreliable or unpredictable. This is where you see a producer’s true quality, indeed, I would go so far as to say, whether or not someone is suited to being a music producer at all. This is where you see if it’s just a job, or if it is a calling. I don’t know why, but as a music producer, I work with a lot of musicians who are usually described as being “strong-minded”, a sweet little euphemism for ‘difficult to deal with’. But in my opinion, that is not fair to most artists. The description is too easy, too one-dimensional. A characterisation taken from the music press, which is usually only looking for the next biting headline.

Making music is not an easy thing

Now, making music is not an easy thing, if you are being serious about it. By ‘being serious’ I mean when it is about more than just having fun on stage, when it is about having a mission, a message, a critical take on the music business, and/or if you think further than the next promotional tour for the current album. Then, the focus is not so much on whether the second chorus should really “bang” or maybe not. Then, it is about the message. And the question, what this message means for the whole project, the other songs on the album, the next album, the content of the songs themselves, or the approach to music in general. That may all sound very intellectual or overly complicated, and maybe it is. But, in my opinion, it is a fact that great art can only be created this one way, and no other – we’re far from the shallow now. Great art can only rise through pain. By the way: we released an entire book about the topic, which you can get here: CHART Magazine I still remember an album production with Gallon Drunk many years ago. I had met James Johnston, the band’s singer and guitarist some years earlier, during the production of “Something Dirty”, an album by German kraut-rock legends Faust. We sat in Control Room 1 at Clouds Hill Studios, and listened to a mix of the song “The Perfect Dancer”, whose atmospheric guitar sound was created using a Ludwig Phase II synthesizer, which James played through two amplifiers which I had set up in the opposite corners of Live Room 1. The two room microphones I was using, two Royer 122v in Bluemlein setting created a truly surreal, crazy, atmospheric sound. James smiled as he heard the mix, and began talking to himself: “Oh that sounds weird!” “Yes, it does. But why? “… because we’re cool…” It’s that inner monologue that you have during the entire time of the production, when you have nothing to show to anyone yet, and even if you did, you couldn’t, because nobody would understand it yet anyway. That spirit of “Imagine a mellotron coming in here …” there’s only a very few people that get that … This process can be full of conflict and it’s the job of a producer to encourage the artist on his way. Shortly after the last tour for At The Drive-In, I rang Omar and asked if he wanted to play at the Clouds Hill Festival in December 2018. Just for fun. He said yes straight away, and we decided on the telephone that he would stay on for a couple of days after the festival to record an album. Quickly Omar put a new band together, right after our phone call. And, right there, we had the line-up for the festival, and for the recording. Audrey Paris Johnson on the drums, Virginia Garvia Alvez for vocals, and his brother, Marcel Rodríguez-Lopez on synth, bass, and programming. Omar had brought eight demos with him, which we listened to two days after the festival, at the beginning of December 2018. There were songs that had already been released on the Ipecac label a couple of years prior, but for a range of reasons, he wanted to produce them differently. I got the feeling that a lot had to do with the death of his mother a few years earlier. It wasn’t only Omar’s family life that had changed significantly, but also his view of his creative process from that time. Maybe he felt like he needed to shed the right light on a few things. On a few sounds. He explained that he had seen the drummer, Audrey, at one of her band’s gigs in LA. He liked her “kraut-y” style and really wanted to keep its roughness and the repetition of patterns. Against that, he wanted a clear focus on Virginia’s vocals. She had just got a job as the main vocalist with Circ de Solei and Omar wanted to really focus attention on her impressive voice. “Vocal-up mix” was the general strategy.

“Guitars down”

It sounded as if it could be a mesmerising, surprising mix. On top of that, he also made it very clear that he was not very keen on making a guitar record. As I was not just a music producer, but also a fan, you can imagine how hard it was for me to deliver that particular wish. I think Omar is one of, if not the most remarkable guitarist of his generation. I was initially reluctant to go with “Guitars down”, but I had to admit, it gradually made more and more sense to me, and I ultimately really liked it. For Omar though, it was anything but going for the perfect solo. His goal was to create a mood, as Zack de la Rocha put it in his speech announcing The Mars Volta at the MTV Music Awards: “A band that is more interested in creating moments than creating hits”.

With Omar’s briefing in mind to let it all sound like a Krautrock-jam with non-Krautrock musicians, or something like that, Audrey and I set up the drums in the middle of Clouds Hill’s Live Room 1. The sound in Live Room 1 is a bit more “live” than in room 2. The higher ceilings and much less dampened acoustics make it feel brighter and bigger than Live Room 2 — just about right for a shimmying, echo-y drum sound. I wanted to keep it as simple as possible. Eight mics max for the drums. A raw sound. As Audrey had decided to play on our Mapex M-Series (+ Ludwig Supraphonic) I knew that those drums would be able to produce a direct and punchy sound quite naturally. So, I chose an AKG D20 for the Bassdrum and placed it about two inches away from the resonator head, and a Josephson e22 for the snare. A pair of Coles 4038 as overheads, two vintage Neumann U67s in ORTF Stereo two metres in front of the kit and the magic mic: a mono Beyerdynamic m88 approximately one metre away from the kit pointing right at the rim of the bass drum. In addition to that I used a mono highly-compressed Sennheiser MD21 mic with a weird cardioid /omni characteristic in the middle of the set between the bass drum, low tom and snare. The drum mics went straight into the Neve 8068 MKII preamps and then into the Studer A820 tape recorder. I added slight EQ from the console, mostly just adding some highs (even if you can’t really hear it on the record…ha ha), and some 60 and 100 Hz for the bass drum and set mics. For the overheads I used a pair of Pultec PEQ 1As (pushed some 100Hz and 10k) and the U67s ran through the Fairchild 670 just very subtly moving the needle. Marcel set up right in front of the drums, playing keys and bass and Omar would be in the control room, adding a scratch guitar to the recordings. When we were tracking, I turned the Beyerdynamic up very loud. It produced such a nice aggressive sound just on its own — like someone hitting a very tight cardboard box … we all liked that very much. When we wanted to hear more lows from the toms, we just slightly added in some overhead mic or the pair of U67s which also added a nice low end to the kick drum. I recorded Marcel’s synth setup straight to tape. We didn’t use an amp in the live room to avoid any spill onto the drums. In a condensed setup like this I had to be aware of that as I didn’t have any close mics to even out the spill onto room mics during mixing. After each take was complete, we re-amped Marcel’s bass, synth, and programming tracks through an Ampeg SVT and Vox AC30. We mixed the Ampeg with a Shure SM7B and the Vox with a Royer and Sennheiser 421 mostly keeping one track DI and re-amp only on one side of the stereo signal. When he played a mono synth, I mic‘d the re-amped signal from further away, to create a room sound during recording. Sometimes we put a mic in the entrance hall but left the amp in the live room with the doors open. But not enough .. after the second day Omar let me know that he was about to fly in his friend Leo from Argentina, a piano player he met during his production for Mon Laferte in South America, because he wanted him to play the piano on 6 other tracks he wanted to record. A second part of the record if you like.

Every helping hand

Soon I realized that, only having 5 days for the recordings, I needed to integrate the entire Clouds Hill staff – Linda and Muxi – to keep up with the workload. While Linda was recording Virgina’s vocals for Part I in Live Room 1, getting more and more finished tracks from Muxi and I for Part II, Omar came up with another surprise. He and his brother Marcel played me another six very cool, already pre-produced songs. Mainstream stuff, but undoubtedly from the Omar universe. Eight songs became 14 became 20. The next day Leo arrived, we set up the Steinway in live room 2 and Omar started teaching him the songs while the rest of us was still recording band tracks for Part I and drums for part III. While Leo was playing Mellotron and Juno-6 on a couple of tracks, Virgina was still singing, Audrey had to start rehearsing the new songs and I needed to learn them as well. That’s the Clouds Hill vibe I love so much. Creatives using every single corner of the space to work on a project. Literally the entire 4th floor of the building was filled with sound. For days and days… During the recording process, when it turned out that Omar wanted to record not eight band tracks but 20, we came up with a concept for the record. We decided to divide the record into three parts. The Clouds Hill Tapes Pt. I, II, & III. On Part I we decided not to have any artificial reverb. All rooms should be Clouds Hill studio live rooms. Drums, bass, guitar. All the sounds of Liveroom 1 and the entrance hall. Vocals re-amped through the entrance hall and bathroom. That’s the concept. The only artificial “reverb” that I used is a very short stereo space echo and an EMT plate. Because you can’t make a record without those two in my opinion. We loved the rawness. I love the squashed energy that produced all sorts of artefacts. We only made radical moves: vocals up, guitars down, keys up. In mixing later, I remembered how much we liked the unique sound of the Beyerdynamic mic in front of the drums. So, I decided to mostly use that single mono mic for the drums. I sent it into an AMS 1580S delay with a very short delay time to add some aggressive early reflections and make it more “stereo”. That fake stereo mic combined with the U67s and some very matt Coles 4038 for the cymbals made the drum sound for this record. Super basic and raw, very punky and almost lo-fi but somehow interesting and unique. I knew this sound was going to be divisive. But we enjoyed it. And we are still enjoying it. Most of Omar’s guitars we added a bit later. We set up two or three different amps like I always do. I remember using a Vox AC30 on the left side and a Fender Super Amp on the right — just mic‘d with a vintage Neumann UM69. Nothing fancy. This record wasn’t supposed to be about guitar sounds. It was about creating moments — and those moments, I thought needed a unique space. The Neumann stereo microphone is perfect for room stereo recordings. In a live situation with more musicians in the room it can sonically focus on the sound source you point it on. I once used it to record a Glockenspiel in the same room with drums — and it worked! It’s the hottest mix I ever made in my life. The Lavry Gold 122-96MX pretty much peaked all the time. People will hate us and love us for this. When we cut the vinyl, I talked to the cutter and asked him to add some smooth highs because I didn’t want the vinyl to sound duller than the digital version. He did a great job! I think the vinyl of this album sounds so much better than the digital version.

The studio was entirely filled with sound

We set up the Steinway D and mic‘d it only with a matched pair of two Soyuz 013 small diaphragm condenser mics. 1-1.5 metres above the strings with the lid off. Omar sat right next to Leo, teaching him the songs while playing his guitar very quietly through one of our modified vintage Sharp boom boxes, or a Vox AC30, which I recorded with a Sennheiser MD409 or 421. Those three mics were the sound of that record. Sometimes Virginia would come over to control room 2, listening to the new arrangements, taking notes and disappear into live room 2 to continue recording with Linda or myself. Audrey was sitting in the kitchen with her headphones on learning the beats with sticks silently tapping on her thighs. In the meantime an old-school jazzy session was evolving in live room 2 and API room. Recorded straight into 2” 8 track Part II of The Clouds Hill Tapes slowly came to life.Like a spontaneous open mic session in a dark underground club. Plus some effects. I reactivated my old Lexicon 200 and used it for all the long “shitty” sounding reverb on Part II. As a contrast to the time-less jazzy approach. Turns out it was all about the unexpected, even sonically. After a couple of days of working side-by-side in both studios we decided to start the production of Part III. Audrey learned the beats. Virgina learned the vocals and I finally got a feel for the sounds and production. We recorded drums, guitars and some more synths and did some arrangement work on the tracks. To add drums and instruments to the pre-production we synched the Studer tape machine to our Pro Tools system. And it actually worked! Anyone who has ever done this will know that it is not always a given that a Studer tape recorder works with Pro Tools with no issues. But the tracks I received from Marcel were so diverse and cool that I wanted to preserve their original sound quality and not have them touch tape. After recording the overdubs on tape I re-recorded the new tracks back into our Pro Tools system. Part III of The Clouds Hill Tapes was ready to mix. The mixes of Part III were done by my friend Peter Schmidt in his studio in Berlin. I wanted the songs to sound as mainstream and transparent as possible. Soft, transparent, but still naked and touching. I love what he did. And I admire his craft. Peter is one of the greatest mixing engineers I know and also one of the friendliest and most enjoyable to hang out with. I know that Omar fans are probably not too excited about “mainstream” arrangements but I’m sure most of them get the idea. Omar is a great songwriter and arranger and I wanted people to actually hear that. Hear the diversity he is able to create. Omar is not captured in a certain genre and that‘s super exciting. From At the Drive-In to The Mars Volta to Noise to Punk to Jazz to Ambient to Rock to Caribbean Music and Salsa. Sure, any record from Omar has the potential to piss some fans off isn’t that what making music is all about? I‘m telling you: knowing that you can‘t be everybody’s darling, knowing that you won‘t be everybody‘s darling let‘s you relax during a recording session. It‘s the most inspiring process of them all. Be prepared that people don‘t like what you did. Embrace the unpredictable.

See the videos to the session here:

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