Some thoughts about producing and recording Okta Logue’s “Runway Markings”
The thing with vintage recording equipment is that, in all its glory, it is still one big problem. It takes time to set up, make it sound right, and you need experience to know if the sounds is as it should be. Sometimes people come to me and show me a “great sounding” piece of vintage gear — but all it does is produce some kind of extreme sound. Extremely bassy and dull, or extremely sizzling with no bass but lots of hiss. Or — the classic result —it just sounds distorted. These are the people who think “vintage” simply means “old sounding” and the “old” means weak, nasty, unpleasant or simply strange.
Speaking of “strange”
There is an element of working with vintage gear that is strange to most ears. Many pieces of vintage equipment sound unfamiliar to today’s listening habits. They sound unique. And uniqueness is something that seems to be outdated amongst music consumers.
Vintage gear also needs experience to service it — exchanging the tubes when they have to be replaced, choose the right tubes for the right sound, checking if the speakers are still operational, and the other usual servicing you will have to do every now and then — or the experience to know if your service technician has done a good job… all of which brings us back to the beginning: Knowing when it sounds right. Modern gear often has many features the provide a range of effects and finishes, but back in the day, most of the gear was invented to add that one missing effect that was needed, making incremental piecemeal improvements to an older version, that was somehow lacking. For example: The new amp had an added tremolo. Or the new mic was able to handle more SPL or was able to record more or fewer frequencies. It was rarely about combining many features in one unit like today. The EMT 140 was a great sounding plate reverb. But you needed 4 people to carry it and there was no pre-delay or any other possibility to change the sound without adding other effect units to the circuit. Then came the EMT 240 with was much smaller. But it sounded different. The plate became a gold-foil and the 300 kg became 80kg. After that there was the EMT 250, the “Weltraumheizung” (space heater), which was light and extremely versatile but produced a huge level of noise due to its ventilation.
But as these improvements were the result of engineers spending years in development to achieve them, the added features of these unique amps, reverbs, guitars, compressors, equalisers or microphones often sounded extremely well-blended and well thought out. Back then, you had to get that one piece of gear to get the sound you wanted or find a creative way to imitate it. Sometimes the newer model lacked features of the older one which made people improvise to get the sound they wanted.
You had to move the mic further away from the sound source as it wasn’t able to stand the SPL of the snare. This however resulted in more echo or ‘room noise’ through the mic than you planned, which meant you had to install dampers in the room which then affected the sound of the cymbals. Or the EMT 250 could not give you that nice brassy sound, but the 140 had no pre-delay which you needed for the vocals … You see where this is going.
Today every single sound of history is available for a few bucks and is just a click away.
But the magic that was filling the air in the old days, the inventive spirit that made people think beyond borders stimulated other people’s creativity. Sometimes you can still feel it. Because when you work with old gear some of that soul is still there. I often say to musicians that our old Neve 8068 MKII does not compose great music, that a Telefunken ELA-M 251 does not make a great performance, and that the magic has to happen BEFORE entering the studio. But this is not 100% true. Sometimes the souls inside vintage equipment enable the musicians to give unexpected performances. As if the equipment is encouraging the artist. When I take pictures of my kids with an analogue Hasselblad camera the pictures usually are better than the pictures I take with a mobile phone. I am not talking about the general quality of the picture. I am talking about the person’s expression. I really think that is because the subject is aware of the seriousness of the situation and thereby behaves differently.
When I was talking to Okta Logue about producing their new album I knew that we shared a passion for vintage gear. They had made some interesting records in the past, but I was missing something to really define the band’s core. I felt that the previous records didn’t show the musicians as clearly as I would love to see them in a rock band setup. I wanted, not only want to make a great record with them, I wanted to show them as the great musicians they are. Alone, and as a band. I also felt that the band’s songwriting should be catchier and the arrangements reduced to the bare bones. In other words, I wanted to make a pure and simple rock record. Clear arrangements, interesting sounds and touching performances. That was the aim.
Having said that, I told the boys that I would like to spend some time with them in the studio before the actual recording. I wanted to strip the songs down to a version with only one instrument to find the core of each song and then build it back to what is needed. We did that twice for five days each and, back in Frankfurt, the band also worked on the songs alone. Sometimes they would send over demos which I commented on. That was a very productive and encouraging process for all of us. After some weeks we knew that we are ready to record. Songs, lyrics, arrangements and some sounds — everything was done before the first note was being recorded.
As all the songs were very different from each other, I decided that we would not use only one setup for the recordings but change it completely for each song. That meant sound-wise we would start from scratch with every new song. What sounds time-consuming is in fact a very fresh way to work. I love to work like this. It keeps everyone awake and makes you try new things and come up with fresh ideas. You really have to question every mic you set up again and again — Do I really need this for the sound of this song? Do we really need 2 overhead mics? Do we really need a DI signal? Changing the stuff you would usually just record in one song because you kept using the setup from the previous one. Some songs were recorded completely live. Drums, bass, uitar, keys and vocals. All live in one room. “Out Of Gas” is one of them. Only the backing vocals on this one we overdubbed by having two of our interns sing in the stairway and recording them from 2 stories above. So even that “aaahhhh- hhaaaa” backing vocal reverb is 100% analog/natural. To record the loud guitar hook on “Runway Markings” we put Philip, the guitarist, in studio 1 while the rest of the band was recording in studio 2. We opened the doors and put a mic between both studios and cranked the volume of Philip’s Hiwatt Custom 100 through a Hiwatt 4×12 cabinet and recorded with an U67 in the hallway. On “Julie”, my favourite track of the record, we only used two Coles 4038 on the drums and some dynamic mics to zoom in. In preproduction, we had stripped the arrangement down to only keys and drums. The band had the idea that Philips guitar solo would come in totally unexpected. We recorded with Philip’s Stratocaster through two vintage Vox AC30s. It took a couple of takes to get it right but just listen to the results. Maybe one of the most thrilling guitar solos I have ever recorded. When we started to sing the song, the band had the idea to let Max, the keyboarder, sing the song. I loved that version as Max’s vocals sound so fragile and made the entire song even more touching. The first take Max sang is the one you hear on the record. No edits no nothing. Just Max.
Singing was — as it always is — a difficult matter.Benno was a bit worried that he wasn’t the best singer out there. We spend some time to talk this through and I ensured him that I thought he and Max were definitely the best people to sing these songs on this particular record. That gave him some confidence and after a couple of days he got to the point where he sang the entire record in one day. We were able to keep most of it and just added some harmonies to it. But let’s go one step back… There was one night Benno got really excited after he sang “Out Of Gas” live in the room with all the other band members and realised that the song was now almost ready to mix. Right after the performance. Everything was there! Listening back, I thought Benno needed a very special setup to make his vocals stand out even more. I liked the sound of the live recording but for the vocal overdubs of the other songs I wanted something else. Because we changed the sound every time we started to record a new song, I wanted some consistency on that record. And I wanted that consistency to come from the vocals. We tried several mics and preamp combinations. U47, SM421, SM57 M49 combined with API, Neve and Telefunken Preamps. We recorded all of them in a track, rough mixed and then I listened back while I was walking through the park. Sometime this is best to judge sounds. Change the environment and listen with fresh ears. The combination that I liked most for Benno’s vocals on this record was a RCA BK5 in combination with a Maihak V41 tube preamp. It made his vocals sound special. Not too fresh, not too old. Just a nice bit of edge but still with warm sound. Looking at that vintage RCA mic must have felt special to Benno. Ask him when you see him on one of their concerts. I bet he has something to say about it. To add some atmosphere to it, I setup my favourite amp of all time. A Fradan Echomatic. I used it years ago when I recorded James Johnston’s vocals for the Gallon Drunk record “The Soul Of The Hour” and I loved it. It’s an amp with a tape echo, meaning you hear every vocal echo on this record. Long or short. Even the super short one that sound like a spring reverb — all Fradan! We recorded it with an SM57 right in front of the cone of the speaker. If you want to know how it sounds for a guitar, check out their song “The Wheel” — the second you hear a massive guitar chords in the first, second and third line, starting 1:56min: That’s a Stratocaster through a Fradan Echomatic. A lovely sound, isn’t it?
That leads me back to the soul of vintage equipment I was talking about in the beginning of this text.
The Fradan joined the band with its unique and unpredictable performance. Its good old analogue soul added some unexpected and uncontrollable flavour to the vocals that no other piece of gear could have produced. Just like a new member of the band you don’t want to not have after the first rehearsal. It brought soul and flavour to the performance, but it was also unpredictable. Just like a human being.
For drums we mostly used Robert’s own 1966 Black Oyster Ludwig set. With a small 22“ Bass drum and two 13“ and 16“ toms. Coated heads. Most of the time we stuck an A4 format paper on the toms.
For those songs which needed a more bassy bass drum sound like “Out Of Gas” or “The Wheel” we used our Slingerland Radio King bass drum and tuned that one to the root note of the composition.
We changed the snare once in a while but mostly we used our Supraphonic or a custom made wooden snare Robert had with him.
Those old sets are not very versatile, but as I pointed out in the beginning of this article they are the best in doing one particular thing you would never get using a modern piece of gear. Even if it’s just 5% you’re talking about. That 5% can make a huge difference. Bass was mostly recorded with a Neumann km84 + RCA BX44, but sometimes with a Neumann USM69 stereo-mic like in “In Every Stream Home A Heartache”. Max played our Clouds Hill Wurlitzer through a Fender Twin and Vox AC30 and our Rhodes through the same amps. Sometimes we added a Selmer Thunderbird. Sometimes it was just a DI signal out of his Korg CX3 Organ or his MS2000 Korg Synthesiser. I really cannot recall all the different setups we used during the sessions. Too many changes…
On “Yesterday’s Ghost”, where Max is singing (BK5 + V41 + Fradan Amp) live to a dampened upright piano, which was recorded from the back with two Gefell mics with UM70 capsules, I used Vary-Speed on the tape machine a lot during the recording process. We recorded it twice and cut together the best parts of his and my performance. Listen to the result. I like it a lot. Detuning things is my favourite!
As we changed the entire setup for each song we also spend a lot of time putting Philip and his guitar in different places at Clouds Hill. For the quiet songs, he joined the band in the room facing Benno’s bass set up. Benno played his own 1969 Fender Jazz Bass. On some songs he switched to our Rickenbacker or Gibson EB-0 which is my absolute favourite bass of all time. (Sorry Fender Precision!) Benno brought his Hiwatt 200 and a Fender dual showman cabinet which we often used in combination with our vintage Ampeg B15N.
But back to guitar …
For the loud songs Philip was put into studio 1 while the band was in studio 2. We connected them through headphones, and sometimes opened the doors to make the sound even bigger. But the room mics, 2 Royer 122V in Bluemlein, made the guitars sound huge already.
My favourite setup was the Hiwatt Philip brought with him combined with our Fender Deluxe Brown Face combo. The Deluxe got a vintage Gefell with um70 capsule that was modified for me to function with +48 by Andreas Grosser combined with a Beyerdynamic M130 ribbon mic. The Hiwatt got a SM57 and another Gefell.
To keep the sound versatile, I sometimes used only one amp, sometimes both, or just the room or only the mic in the entrance hall. I constantly changed the levels of the mics in combination to each other and got at least 6 different guitars sounds out of that setup.
As you can see, I am jumping back and forth constantly trying to remember what we did and how. It’s difficult to do as I wasn’t taking any notes. But believe me, all this tech stuff isn’t as important as the preproduction we did before the actual recording. Vintage gear with a soul can add a unique flavour to a record and a good engineer can lift a recording to higher spheres but it is all nothing but boring tech without the right songs and the right performance.
Or watch the music video Devil’s Dance.