Recording The Darkness
Roy Thomas Baker is one of the world’s most renowned record producers and his recent super effort recording The Darkness’s One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back has his production signature all over it. Strap yourselves in for a rock ’n’ roll ride like no other.
On the phone from his Arizona studio, Roy Thomas Baker frequently roars with laughter. He’s relating the astonishing excesses that went into the creation of the new Darkness album, One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back. It’s a tale of endless studio lock-out sessions, 50-odd guitars in the control room (“don’t touch ’em, don’t even point at ’em!”), up to 160 guitar overdubs per song and a similar amount of vocal overdubs, and endless rows of guitar amplifiers, cabinets, microphones, preamps, and so on. There are also orchestras, bagpipes, a sitar, and a purpose-built pan flute, with everything ending up on 400 reels of two-inch tape. Some songs expanded to 1000 tracks when loaded into ProTools which were then whittled down to 72-tracks for final mixing, and… well, you get the picture.
Roy Thomas Baker’s story of the recording of One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back frequently conjures up images reminiscent of Spinal Tap. The band’s website plays on this, eulogising “the exhaustion and the fear, the pressure, paranoia, and pan pipes, the breakdowns and the break-ups, the sackings, sitar solos and endless studio sessions.” This kind of self-mockery would go down like a lead balloon if it wasn’t for one crucial detail: the fact that the album is, actually, astoundingly good. Its secret lies in the combination of its fantastic (in both senses of the word) over-the-top production, excellent songs, and the Darkness’s refusal to take itself too seriously.
The pairing of Roy Thomas Baker and The Darkness is a one-way ticket to heaven. Take a lead singer (dis-)graced with leotard suits and a balls-in-the-bench-vice falsetto, add music that takes its inspiration from 1970s hard rock, season with lots of operatic bombast, and you have a band that can lay claim to being a genuine 21st century heir to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Queen, AC/DC, Slade, and other rock bands from rock’s golden age – pomp, glam or otherwise. Meanwhile, Roy Thomas Baker is, of course, the man behind much of the most innovative and outrageous rock music from the ’70s and ’80s, including several Queen albums, one of them containing the perennial Bohemian Rhapsody.
Baker and The Darkness are kindred spirits, and unsurprisingly, when the two parties met at the beginning of 2004, it was love at first sight. Work on the new album began in earnest in the late summer of 2004 in a barn converted to a rehearsal room cum studio somewhere close to their native town of Lowestoft, Suffolk. Baker remembers arriving in October, and elaborates, “We had two stages to the writing process, one was referred to by the band as the ‘round table’, and this was literally done sitting at a round table in the control room where everyone would play acoustic instruments through Line 6 guitar and bass Pods and a Roland electronic drum kit, and put in their 10 cents. We recorded all that with a couple of mics.”
“The next stage was to go into the live room and play the songs with guitar amps and a real drum kit, which we also recorded into ProTools as a reference. Justin and Dan [Hawkins] are pretty unique songwriters and they can churn out a song a minute. We had what seemed like thousands of songs. The main task for me as a producer was to work out what the best parts were and help evolve them. We were working out arrangements as we went along, and ended up with very clear ideas of the kind of arrangements we wanted.”
That last statement turns out to be of much greater importance than one would initially suspect, but more about that later. First, Baker continues his story: “We decided to record at Rockfield studios, partly for nostalgic reasons – it was where I recorded Bohemian Rhapsody and a couple of Queen albums – and partly because of the way it’s set up. It’s a good studio with unique acoustics, with many different rooms and echo chambers, all with varying degrees of liveness. Even better was that Rockfield has two studios set in different cottages, and we ended up booking both. It meant that we could lock the door and keep ourselves to ourselves… and record in two studios at the same time! Other than a couple of times when we went out for dinner, we were there seven days a week,” remarks Baker.
Rockfield is located in the middle of nowhere and is one of Britain’s few surviving residential studio facilities. With the help of Rockfield engineer Nick Brine, recording took place during the first half of 2005 in the Quadrangle and the Coach House. And how. For several months Baker had the band over a barrel, recording the backing tracks – mostly drums, bass, and rhythm guitars – in endless configurations and locations, all to get the densely, subtly and richly-textured sound he was after.
“In the smaller studio, The Coach House,” explains the producer, “they have a [48-channel] Neve 8124 and Rosser mic pres, which came from the Rosser desk on which I recorded Bohemian Rhapsody. In the Quadrangle there’s an old [82-input] MCI 500, which was the same desk on which I mixed the Jazz album with Queen. Both studios also have several Neve 1060/1 mic pres and API 550 EQs, and each has two Studer 24-track recorders.”
“We spent maybe two weeks setting up, finding out what sounds best on what, and for the most part we used the Rossers for drums, while the Neve, API and MCI pres worked best on guitars. We laid down the drums and guitars first. One set of drums was set up in the Coach House live room, on top of the stage that the band uses on the road, so the bass drum was halfway between the floor and the ceiling, equidistant to all eight corners of the room. We had ambient microphones in each of the eight corners, plus close microphones and overhead mics. Typically we would use 36 microphones to record the drums, but we would have nearly double that amount set up. For a couple of tracks we put a drum kit outside in the Quadrangle parking lot, which resulted in an unusual ambience with a slap echo coming back off the brick stables.”
A MULTITUDE OF DIFFERENCES
It’s here that recording enthusiasts really prick up their ears, eager for more details. Yet frustratingly, time and time again during the interview Baker was evasive in providing them, quoting a desire to protect his “trade secrets,” but also stressing that there’s “no such thing as a favourite drum, vocal or guitar microphone. When you’re miking, you’re going for the sound that’s appropriate for the song, not necessarily what’s a good sound. And what’s appropriate can vary greatly. That’s why you need a multitude of mics, because different songs need different sounds. It’s why we had three drum kits and a multitude of different snare drums and toms, and each kit had different surroundings, different miking situations, and different mic placements. We had Shure condenser and dynamics mics, Telefunken overheads, and several other old microphones that we found in the closets, like Neumann M50, M49, U67, U87, AKG C12, or C24, and a whole bunch more modern-type microphones.”
Moving on to the subject of rhythm guitars, Baker seems puzzled by the occasional sound of incredulity in his interviewer’s voice. “Oh, of course there were at least 120 guitar parts in many of the songs!” exclaims the Briton breezily, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. “A lot of people play one guitar from the beginning to the end of track, but we didn’t do that. Dan has a lot of different guitars, and so we went, ‘OK, the first half of this verse sounds good on this guitar, but why don’t we change to a different guitar in the second half, and then go back to the first guitar for the chorus, but in a different tuning, or with different strings, or a different amplifier, or a different microphone, and so on. By the time we multi-tracked all those we ended up with up to 160 guitar parts on a good deal of the songs. In some places there may be a bunch of 100 guitars that comes in for just two seconds.
“The way I like to work,” continues Baker, “is to have all the guitars in the control room, so they’re all at the same temperature. That way you never spend half an hour waiting for a guitar to stabilise and remain in tune. I also want the guitarist with me in the control room, so we can have complete communication all the time. With the sound coming back from the monitors you instantly know whether you have the right sound or not.
“Dan had between 40 and 50 guitars in the control room during this stage of the recording, but we were not only surrounded by guitars but also by guitar amplifiers, because the amp heads were also all in the control room. It’s far better to push a signal than to pull it – running a short lead from the guitar to the guitar amp is better than running a long lead from control room to studio. We had the speaker cabinets outside the control room, wired in such a way that we could connect any amp head to any cabinet – each lead was marked. We also tested all the different speakers on all cabinets. They’re supposed to sound the same, but if you’re using a 4×12-inch cabinet, each of these four speakers may sound different. So we listened to them individually and put microphones in front of the best speakers.”
“We also had the cabinets in different rooms; identical cabinets placed in different surroundings, one in a live room and one in a dead room. The microphones could be everywhere: hung from the ceiling, lying on the floor, and so on; but we often had dynamic mics close up and antique tube mics for ambience. The microphones themselves were of every conceivable make and vintage and we had everything ready to record via a preamp of our choice. For a more American sound we used the MCI console or API EQs, and for a more British sound, the Neves. So every time we did a guitar part, we chose the most appropriate guitar, head, speakers, microphones, preamps, and so on.
“We did all this stuff,” Baker continues, “because we were making a massive-sounding type of record. We were going for a huge, huge production sound.” Justin Hawkins, when asked in an interview what he had learned from Baker, succinctly put the approach like this: “more is more.” Unsurprisingly, basses were recorded according to the same approach, with the bassist in the control room and playing different basses and amplifiers, recorded through different microphones for different parts of each song. The bass often ended up double-tracked in the final mix, panned left and right.
Typically we would use 36 microphones to record the drums, but we would have nearly double that amount set up
COW FIELDS & BAGPIPES
It was during the Rockfield period that tensions in the band came to a head, leading to the aforementioned “breakdowns, break-ups, and sackings.” There was, in fact, only one sacking, of bassist Frankie Poullain, who was replaced by the band’s guitar tech, Richie Edwards. According to interviews with the band there was a great amount of angst and paranoia going on, but all this drama didn’t register too highly on Baker’s radar, who presumably was too busy surfing the tidal wave of material that he was gathering.
“There was the bass player issue, yes,” he muses, “but from the recording perspective, it was relatively seamless moving from one bassist to another, since we had laid the drums and guitars down first. Luckily Richie is a really good bass player, and he became the band’s and my right-hand man coming up with ideas like: ‘let’s put this guitar amplifier in the middle of the cow field next door.’”
FROM COW FIELD TO WHITFIELD
Having resolved the bass player issue, and successfully laid down all the backing tracks at Rockfield, the company moved to Whitfield Street Studios in London, where Justin Hawkins recorded his vocals, lead guitars, sitar, and most of his keyboard parts, during a period of two months in the summer of 2005. “It was,” recalls Baker, “a welcome relief from being in the middle of nowhere. For the recording of Justin’s vocals, we sat down and worked out the parts at a grand piano. Even though everyone thinks of him as the guy with the falsetto, he’s actually very good across the board, on the low stuff as well as the high stuff.
“During the vocal recording, Justin was in the recording area, behind the glass. We used the full ambience of the studio itself, and I put a whole slew of microphones around him – he looked a little bit like the President at a press conference. All the microphones went to the Neve 88 mic pres, which have a great sound. Because I could have the preamps next to where Justin was singing, again the signals were ‘pushed’ into the control room. We might use one, or two, or six microphones, at all sorts of different levels, EQ settings, and so on, to get the right vocal sound for a part of a given song. Sometimes each line of each verse would have a different sound. I would also run his voice through a compressor, like a Fairchild or, something I particularly like, a Tubetech compressor going into a Tubetech EQ.”
“Some songs would have 10-part harmonies, and each one of these parts would be multi-tracked. And then we would do a whole bunch of those, spread them across the stereo on the left, and do the whole thing again, this time spreading across the right. Or we’d have the first line of a song coming out of one speaker, and the next line out of another speaker. This was not a matter of panning, but of recording it that way. On a track like Blind Man we could have 160 vocal overdubs, with me changing the sound of every part, especially the low ones. On a couple of songs we had a microphone in a champagne bucket, to get a slightly hollow sound – a bit of a waste of a champagne bucket, but he loved singing into it! Then whenever his voice got tired he would go on to playing keyboards or guitar.”
“let’s put this guitar amplifier in the middle of the cow field next door”
Lead guitar overdubs were done according to a similar process as laying down the rhythm guitars. In addition, Whitfield was the scene of a multitude of keyboard overdubs, with J. Hawkins playing some nifty piano, MiniMoog, Mellotron, and Hammond Organ, as well as some modern synthesizers. Hawkins also played the sitar there for the album’s title track, which is set in a “psychedelic dream sequence” for which Baker created phasing using four tape recorders (“It was trial and error and took a long time to get right”). The bagpipes, played by Stuart Cassalls, were also recorded at Whitfield.
Combined with a Mellotron and some backwards gong samples, pan flutes that were recorded at a radio station studio in Peru by legendary player, Fredy Gomez, made sure that The Darkness created one of the more exotic album beginnings in hard rock history. Add the album’s bagpipes, marching drums and banjo-like guitars in Hazel Eyes, the sitar in the title track, and the lush orchestral sections in various tracks (arranged by Paul Buckmaster), and some eyebrows will be raised, as opposed to heads banged. According to Baker, these things came out of an experimental try-anything mentality. They clearly were part of a desire by the band to stretch musically, and not just be a carbon copy of what went before.
Notwithstanding its innovations, Baker is adamant, however, that it was not the intention, “to make a retro record. We wanted to get the best of both worlds, old and new. I think we ended up succeeding, because it sounds like it was done last week, and yet there are aspects where you go, ‘wow, I recognise that from the ’70 or ’80s.’ There may be a John Bonham snare sound recorded in a huge room, but at the same time I wanted to make a modern record. I love the hybrid thing.”
THE HYBRID THING
Baker’s preferred method of mixing analogue and digital was the perfect foil for his ambitions. “Since the aim was to go for the big, hybrid sound, we used analogue 24-tracks to record on,” he explains, “and then transferred everything to ProTools HD, and did our editing in there. It’s hugely weird that people go, ‘do you prefer analogue or digital?’ It’s like saying, ‘do you prefer blondes over brunettes?’ It’s totally and utterly academic. At my home studio I have a 40-track Stevens tape machine – the best-sounding analogue machine ever made – and both ProTools and Nuendo systems.”
“Basically, people use digital because it’s cheap. Tape is certainly much more fun, but it’s so expensive. And it’s also hard to get hold of tape sometimes. When we first started the album, we were told that there wasn’t any! Tere (RTB’s wife, manager, and the album’s production co-ordinator as well as The Darkness’s US manager) managed to get a hold of 60 reels somewhere, and without that we would have had to do the whole thing in digital.
“Anyway, we recorded everything to analogue tape, because it gives you a nice, full texture that you cannot get any other way. I make sure the levels are at full tilt and the red lights are flashing. I press it exceptionally hard. For this reason I don’t need to use Dolby. We align the tapes so that everything is just on the verge of distorting, and the tape acts like a giant compressor. It’s why I don’t like to use outboard compressors during the recording stage, because you stop the sound of tape compression from happening.
“So after we recorded things on tape we transferred them to ProTools for editing. We were basically running ’Tools as a workstation and a backup. We worked at 96k resolution, and the good thing about it is that, unlike with 44.1, where you lose a bit of punch and resolution, you get an exact clone of the analogue, including all the textures.”
Baker’s insistence that everything was recorded on analogue, combined with the 100s of overdubs for each song, meant that he ended up filling about 400 reels of two-inch tape. “We must have used the world’s entire supply of tape!” grins Baker. “We were trying to get a hold of more tape because we were wiping tapes that we’d already used to make space for new overdubs. We had bunches of slaves. We might have a whole slew of guitars on one slave, and then submix those to two tracks on another slave, and carry on overdubbing onto that one. We were always submixing and bouncing backwards and forwards. It was very, very time-consuming.”
For the orchestra recordings and the final mix the whole company decamped to Los Angeles. “We decided to mix at The Village Studios because I know the studio inside out,” recalls Baker, “and I really like mixing on their Neve 88R. I felt it was good to mix on something that’s discrete – I’m a big fan of Neve. I’m sitting at one now: I have a 1073 board here in my studio. We also thought that it would be easier to use all the orchestral players that [Arranger] Paul Buckmaster uses anyway, so we shifted gears and jumped on a plane to Los Angeles. We recorded the orchestra at Capitol… when we could get into the studio – the security guys often wouldn’t let anyone in! It was ludicrous, one day they wouldn’t let me in, and another day we had to stop the session so we could go out and have a fight with these guys because they wouldn’t let half the band in!”
Again, the words ‘Spinal’ and ‘Tap’ come to mind. The orchestral recordings themselves don’t appear to have suffered, for they are truly sumptuous, courtesy of Buckmaster’s arrangements and the in-your-face way in which Baker captured the orchestra, with a lot of close miking resulting in 50-odd tracks. “Basically in the last stage before the mix we transferred everything to ProTools for ease of operation,” Baker continues. “We then did a lot of bouncing inside ProTools, otherwise some songs would have involved 1000 tracks of audio. That’s impossible to manage, so we got everything down to 72 tracks.”
“We then set ProTools up with the Neve 88R and started mixing. I don’t like mixing inside ProTools, because it feels a bit Mickey Mouse to me when you need a mouse to push up and down faders and so on. I don’t get a feel for it the same way as when I push a fader with a huge motor in it. When I drive a car I like to have the steering wheel and the gear stick under my hands. I don’t think I could do it from the back seat using a computer.
“I always record with effects, because it adds to the performance, and I tend to blend in the ambient tracks. This means that mixing is mainly balancing, and giving sounds final tweaks. Because I don’t add much compression during recording I may add compression. I’ll be using old and new stuff during mixing, like Fairchild, Summit, or Tubetech. Instead of sticking a Lexicon on the vocals I used natural echo: echo chambers, plates, or slap tape echo. And we mixed the album to half-inch analogue on an Ampex two-track and also back into ProTools, as a comparison. We listened to both, and found that the analogue had a nice, big, saturated bass sound, while the digital had a really nice crispy top end. We ended up using the analogue mix for mastering, adding some treble to make it sound as sparkling at the top end as the digital did.”
And so, after a year of intense work, Baker had managed to pare 37 songs, 400 reels of tape, containing almost 10,000 tracks, down to just 10 songs and one 35-minute stereo tape. Excess had made way for economy, and one wonders how Baker had managed to keep track of the whole process, choosing the best performances and sounds out of the 1000s of options at his fingertips.
“Oh yeah, you have to mentally organised,” says Baker, “and make very good notes of everything you do. There were recording engineers who made sure that it all got to tape and who did the transfers to ProTools, which was a task as well. But for me there’s no risk of not seeing the wood for the trees. It’s totally the opposite. You get focussed on what you think is appropriate for a song, and then you tune into different microphones and preamps and EQs and so on. As long as you stay focused on what’s appropriate, you’re never confused whether it’s this mic or that mic.
“But you have to know what your goal is. It’s not like, ‘let’s try this, let’s try that.’ That’s an indecisive way of doing it and you end up all over the place. In this instance the band and I had discussed beforehand what we planned to do, and we mapped it out before we went into the studio. Of course it changes – it always changes. In the studio you’re running 100 percent on instinct, and you sometimes end up with something that’s a lot better than you’d planned. But the structure of every song on the album is exactly the way it was planned out. Our vision of how the record was going to pan out was exceptionally clear, and we stuck to that vision, unless happy accidents occurred. And I think we pulled it off.”