How to Run a "Freak Show"
By Gavin Hammond / Photos by Tony Mott (Sound Magazine, Issue No.4)
hurry! Step right up, see the one and only, the amazing, Nick Launay!
Watch him remove vocal 'pops' with a hole puncher! See him force
silverchair to do more than one take! He walks! He talks! He crawls on
his belly like a snake! Step inside the freak show...
Nick Launay's big break came the day Johnny Rotten got pissed at Virgin Records' Townhouse studios in London. As a 19-year-old tape op at Townhouse, Launay was in heaven. He was recording his favourite Virgin bands -- The Jam, XTC and Public Image Ltd. -- with engineering mentor Hugh Padgham and producer Steve Lilywhite. What more could you ask for! Well, Mr. Rotten -- of course -- asked for a lot more.
"I was a huge fan of the Sex Pistols and, for some strange reason, John and I got along," recalls Launay. "He's a funny and wonderful chap, but he hated the guy who was co-producing and engineering the session. As the tape op, I spent most of my time running around the back room, taking care of tape recorders and such. After a while, John said to me 'ere, Nick, for f***'s sake go sit up at the f***ing desk, you're going backwards and forwards like a f***ing yo-yo, you're making me dizzy'. So I got up and sat at the desk. When the engineer went to the toilet, John locked the door and told me to get on with it. The guy came back and was banging on the door, but John ignored him. When he phoned us, John told him to piss off and took the phone off the hook! So I finished the song that night."
The slightly shocked Launay was then asked to mix the track, something he'd never actually done before. The band were so impressed they asked him to record the album (The Flowers Of Romance), and it became a major hit. Before he knew it, he was producing the Gang Of Four, the Slits, Killing Joke and the Birthday Party evenings, and engineering Phil Collins, John Martyn and Kate Bush during the day!
The connection with Australia came about through Midnight Oil. They wanted to do something different for their fourth album, asked for Nick Launay, so he went to see them in concert in London. "They were awesome. These guys had harmonies and melodies and stuff. I'd been working with angular British bands and, in comparison, Midnight Oil sounded like the Eagles!" he laughs. "The album we did was 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 and I got loads of work from it. Now I live in Australia but still work in America and England."
Launay's recording credits are extensive and include some of Australia's biggest selling albums (see Discography). To get an 'in' on his recording and mixing methods, we talked to him about hi most recent project, silverchair's Freak Show.
HOW DID YOUR INVOLVEMENT WITH SILVERCHAIR COME ABOUT?
"I was kind of involved with them before they got signed, in that I helped arrange Tomorrow which I got as a demo, not knowing what age they were. I was amazed by this demo and went to see them live and was stunned. They really have it, and I felt it was important for this album to show just how much they really do have it. Because a lot of people, especially in America, weren't convinced that they were great musicians or that they wrote their own songs - even though they loved the first album and could see them play live."
HOW DID THE SONGS COME TO LIFE, IN TERMS OF PRE-PRODUCTION?
"I stayed at Daniel's house with his family to see what ideas they had. They have this great little rehearsal room above Ben's dad's garage, and we just went in and started talking about music and what they liked. The more we talked, the more the imagination flowed and the more uninhibited they became. It was suddenly like, 'oh, we really can go into a studio in Sydney and make records that are as good as those made in America'. In the end, some songs were drastically rearranged, while others remained untouched."
HOW DID YOU CHOOSE THE STUDIO?
"It had to be done in Sydney, but if there was an appropriate studio in Newcastle it would have been done there. Their schooling regime is very, very strict and rightly so -- it's part of keeping them sane, normal human beings. Even with the rehearsals, I would go and pick them up from school before we could start!"
"To me, there aren't that many studios in Sydney that are great for recording bands; Megaphon is definitely one of them, Charing Cross is another one (although it's limited because of the room space), and Festival is another. I said 'which studio do you want to work at?' and they answered, 'aw, Festival is heaps good'. I asked 'why do you think that?' and they said, 'it's got better Nintendo games.' I said 'but Megaphon has a live room, a dead room, a wood room, really good old mics, it's cheaper... it's got daylight! It would be really good to record there, don't you reckon?' And they said, 'aw yeah, but Festival is heaps good...' So that was it, we recorded at Festival! A decision made on the grounds that it had better Nintendo games and a corridor that's really good for putting each other in flight cases and wheeling them up and down."
HOW DID YOU SET UP IN THE STUDIO?
"First of all, you have to realize that their attention span is way, way shorter than any band I've ever worked with. But their enthusiasm is way more than any band I've ever worked with. For example, most bands turn up at the studio about midday, by about 2 o'clock they've woken up and by about 2:30 you're recording. With silverchair, I said let's start at 11 o'clock. I turned up at 10 o'clock and they'd been there since nine raring to go -- you know, on the kit, bashing the hell out of it -- and I'm going 'slow down, slow down'. It was like going in with a wild animal, trying to hold them back so we had enough time to put tape on the tape machine and push the red button! But at the other end of the day, around seven o'clock at night, they'd get tired and want to go home."
"Sound-wise, I decided to set them up like a live gig, because they're just so brilliant live. To not capture what they do naturally would be criminal even if the sound had to be compromised a little. Sometimes we did it with the headphones half off, and sometimes they fell off due to large, exciting jumps."
"We started off with the drums in one corner of the live room, pointing out cross-wise into the room. Daniel's amp was in a small dead room to the side of the control room, with the door open so he could hear it, and he was in the main room looking at Ben. Then we put the bass amp in the other corner."
"Two or three songs into the sessions we decided we really wanted a bigger drum sound, so I started looking around the studio -- there was a toilet down the hall, which we tried but it was crap. Then there was the mic cupboard, a tiny room about the size of your average toilet. You really wouldn't think you could get a drum kit in there, but we did. Most of the album was recorded like that."
LET'S TALK ABOUT YOUR MIC TECHNIQUES...
"Actually, I've found from working with inexperienced second engineers - who put mics upside down, back to front and in the wrong direction and still manage to come up with great sounds anyway - that there is so much bullshit about mic positioning. So I don't really have any set techniques. However, I've learned from experience that certain things do work..."
OK, WHAT MICS DID YOU USE FOR SILVERCHAIR'S DRUMS?
"On the kick I used a Beyer M88 dynamic. They're a very thick sounding mic and if you EQ a lot of bottom end into them they're very, very tight. I put that inside the drum but pointing at an angle. I sometimes use AKG D112s, which sound very similar in the same way. I only use them if I want a very punchy, clicky, in your face kick sound -- which is obviously what silverchair are all about."
"I keep going back to Shure SM57s on the snare. I'm really bored with them, but they just seem to work. For the album, it was positioned right on the edge on a slight angle. It got knocked a few times and the front plastic capsule flew off at one point, but it didn't seem to matter."
"The toms were close mic'd with Neumann U87s and the hi-hats had a Neumann KM83. Ben's hi-hats are so loud and they sound so good that I bought some for myself. The spill from them into the snare and tom mics sounded so great that we didn't use the direct mic in the mix."
"I use a lot of ambient mics on the drums. For me, the sound of the drums comes from the ambience. I've very much learned to get drum sounds from people who were influenced by that whole Led Zeppelin thing of putting up four mics. So we had four Neumann U67 tube mics around the room, two close and two further away. It took quite a while to position them properly."
"With the first few songs, the drums were set up in a pretty standard way. The ambient mics in this big, deadish room actually sounded amazing. It was like a cool slap delay - not the sort of sound you'd expect to get from the room. I ended up compressing them a lot and rolling off the top end. Because Ben plays a lot of ride and hits the crap out of it, I put an AKG 414 on it and EQ'd it heavily -- I EQ to tape a lot."
"The second set up, in the mic cupboard, was really unusual because of
the size of the room. There was hardly enough room to get the kit in.
Ben had to put all his toms at different angles to those he was used
to. I had a left and right ambience which you can hear on the record,
but they weren't left and right on the kit. One was in front of the
cupboard and the other was behind his head. As far as how the toms
appeared in the stereo image from these mics, it was like, 'who cares -
if it sounds good that's it.'"
HOW ABOUT RECORDING BASS GUITAR?
"With bass I used a Sennheiser 421 as a close mic, pointing at the second speaker down to the right, at a slight angle to get the right kind of tone. Then, as an ambience mic I used a Neumann U47 about four feet back with a lot of top wound into it. I also DI'd it with a Drawmer 1960 stereo tube compressor -- that's a trick I always use. The Drawmer's are wonderful because they also have a DI input on the front with a very primitive EQ. If you wind the top and the bottom up to about seven, plug your bass in the front and come out the line output at the back, with a minor amount of compression, it sounds huge. It's the best DI'd bass sound you'll ever get."
HOW ABOUT THE GUITARS?
"Daniel has a great guitar sound so it wasn't too tricky. Everything you hear on the album is the original takes, played by the band together. There are virtually no drop-ins at all on drums, bass or guitar. There is some double tracking on choruses, but most of what you hear is one guitar, it's just very big guitar sound. To get that I used a Beyer M88 really close pointing at one of the speakers in of the 4x12 cabinet at a slight angle. That was mixed with an AKG CI2B, a tube version of the AKG 414. Those two mics are completely opposites - one is quite warm and bright and the other has the middle. You get a very nice, fat sound without much of a phase problem."
HOW DID YOU DO THE VOCALS?
"Daniel has such an amazingly deep voice and I wanted to capture that depth, so I used a Neumann M49. They're those big, fat, lovely mics that look like U67s that have eaten too much. They have huge diaphragms, which is why they sound so good. They're also extremely expensive, as I told Daniel after he head butted it once... as you do."
WHAT OVERDUBS DID YOU DO?
"There was a lot of basic double-tracking, sometimes with another guitar, different mic placements, or different EQ on the amp to get a different tone. Apart from that kind of thing, we did some double tracking on vocals and some experimenting with backwards stuff on 'Abuse Me.' I thought it was about time Daniel learnt how to play a guitar solo backwards and, of course, he thought I was completely mad. When the tape started going backwards he said, 'bloody hell, it sounds like I'm singing in Arab'. But he nailed it in one take."
"We did massive, unusual overdubbing on a song called Petrol and Chlorine. I kept saying 'we need tablas on it'. I don't think they knew what the hell I was talking about. Then one day Daniel said, 'I reckon it needs drums like they have on those documentaries on SBS'. I went, 'great, let's do it'. I rang the Indian consul and Ethnic Affairs department in Canberra and they kept on coming up with the name 'Sumanji.' He's this old guy, around 65, with gray hair who lives out in Bankstown and looks like he belongs in a movie called 'The Return Of Sumanji'."
"I also wanted to put a deruba on it, which was the instrument used by George Harrison on the Beatles track, Within You and Without You. But it's quite a rare instrument, only used in certain parts on India, and we just couldn't find a player in Sydney. So we ended up using an Indian violin player and sitar combination. Sumanji organized them."
"I basically just used the tube mics, mostly the Neumann M49 because that's the biggest-sounding mic, and put it on everything. I moved mics around and tried this and that. I ended up putting the Beyer M88 on the small end of the tabla because it's so loud. With the violin I mic'd it up from quite a distance because it's quite an ambient thing. The sitar is very quiet so I ended up putting two AKG CI2Bs quite close. They played using speakers in the room and one headphone half off."
"There were a couple of songs with strings on them -- Petrol and Chlorine and Pop Song... We got in a six piece string section: violins, cello and viola. I mic'd them with as many tube mics as possible up close, and two ambient mics. The room actually turned out to be surprisingly good-sounding. It was a laugh as well -- the band were pulling their trousers down and mooning the string section while they were playing! If the string section noticed, they didn't react or say anything."
YOU ADDED SOME STRINGS IN NEW YORK TOO, DIDN'T YOU?
"Yes, we did the strings for Cemetery in New York. They were recorded at Electric Ladyland with an arranger called Jane Scarpantoni, who's a member of the Lounge Lizards. We were going to get John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin to do it -- which would have been great -- but he out-priced himself, stupidly. Those strings were probably the hardest thing to do on the album, but I think Jane did a great job and totally understood what we needed."
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE TO SAY ABOUT THE RECORDING PROCESS?
"There's one thing that I do and have always done, and that is to edit the multitrack tape. I don't like to do overdubs when it comes to basic tracks, I'd rather do another take with all the musicians playing and edit bits together. I'll get a band to do up to seven takes and make notes on where the good bits are as they're playing. The first take is usually the one with the best vibe, but if there's a little fill that's a problem or something like that, I'll just edit it from another take."
"People get really anxious about taking a razor blade to a piece of tape, but if you muck it up, you just stick it back together. Tape editing is probably more important to the way I work than mics or anything else. It's a big part of what I do, and was particularly important with the silverchair album because of the way they perform."
THE ALBUM WAS MIXED BY THE LEGENDARY ANDY WALLACE. HOW DID THIS COME ABOUT?
"Freak Show was the first album I've ever recorded that I didn't mix. Most of the mix engineers I like are really famous and really expensive, and therefore unaffordable. That's why it has never happened before. But with Andy Wallace, the band had met him backstage about a year before. In a very innocent way Ben went up to him and said, 'it would be heaps cool if you could mix our next album' and Andy said 'yes', so that was that."
"The only snag was that Andy was so busy we had to wait three months until he was available. We recorded the whole album in three weeks and a good half a week of that time was just me doing copies and compiles and stuff. Waiting three months for the mix to happen was really painful for everyone, but we finally got to Soundtrack studio in New York and had seven days with God (Andy Wallace)."
"I was really happy with Andy's finished mixes, although I wished he had more time. I ended up staying up all night mixing a couple of tracks that he couldn't do, because he ran out of time. But I must add that it was a good experience, because, coming off the back of what Andy had done, I realized I wasn't far wrong about mixing."
SO HOW DID YOU MASTER IT?
"Because we'd waited three months for Andy, the panicking from Sony U.S. was enormous by the time it was mixed. The mastering was done by Bob Ludwig without anyone else there. He mastered it, sent copies to the band in Australia, sent me a copy in Florida (where I was working on my next project), and we phoned each other and said, 'can you do this and redo that.' The rest is history."
ANY FINAL THOUGHTS?
"Looking back on it, the whole silverchair experience was amazing for me. I'm still recovering from it. It just became a completely different approach to making records. I tell you, I came out of it feeling 10 years younger!"