Recording The Scissor Sisters
The Scissor Sisters’ first album was recorded and mixed in a home studio, and sold three million copies. The second album Ta-Dah combines that DIY ethic with some no-holds-barred vintage richness. AT talks to the Scissors’ technical geezer, Babydaddy, and engineer Dan Grech-Marguerat to learn more.
It’s Babydaddy’s 30th birthday. Normally this is a time to relax with friends and family, and take stock of existential questions to do with life, growing up, and everything, but all this is far from the American’s mind. Instead, he’s standing in a rehearsal room somewhere in London, speaking loudly into a mobile telephone, desperately trying to keep his head together while ignoring incessant interruptions from noisy trains and humans. The latter are mostly urging him to get off the phone and join the rest of the Scissor Sisters, who are eager to begin their rehearsal.
For 26 heroic minutes Babydaddy manages to ward off these powerful distractions, and sticks to the job at hand, which is to talk to AT. Under normal circumstances this is not too overwhelming a challenge, but these are not normal circumstances. Right at this moment the Scissor Sisters are arguably one of the hottest acts in the world, thanks to their new album, Ta-Dah, the follow-up to their eponymous debut, one of the best-selling albums of 2004.
But Babydaddy is clearly in his element when talking about writing and recording the band’s music. He’s quick off the mark, explaining his reasons for wanting to do the interview, despite the distractions. “I am interested in people knowing that this is possible for anyone,” he hollers down the telephone, trying to make himself heard above the din. “You don’t need expensive tools to make this happen!”
Babydaddy, aka Scott Hoffman, is expressing his pride in the fact that Scissor Sisters, the band’s first album, was recorded and mixed almost entirely from his studio flat in Manhattan, on a collection of Logic/G5-based gear that’s unlikely to particularly impress the average AT reader. Three and a half million album sales later, the band’s bassist, guitarist, main song writer and tech-head, gleefully announces that he has done it again: Ta-Dah is largely written, programmed, and recorded by him, using almost the same collection of budget kit.
However, this time ’round there are a few crucial differences. “Initially we continued where we’d left off with the first album, and began working in my apartment,” explains Babydaddy. “We wrote a couple of songs there, one of which, Might Tell You Tonight, ended up on the new album. But it was getting too much for me to wake up in the same place as where we were working. I was like, ‘Okay, we’ve been on the road for a year and a half, and I deserve to have my life back’. So we found a rental space nearby that was already sound-proofed and had two small live rooms, which is more than we ever had or needed. We moved everything from my apartment in there, so technically the setup wasn’t very different at all, it was just set in a quieter and more comfortable space.”
The Scissor Sisters christened their new studio Discoball Jazzfest, no less, hinting at the band’s utterly promiscuous (ab)use of zillions of different musical influences, ranging from disco to soul to music hall to prog rock and even, indeed, jazz (Pink Floyd, Meatloaf, David Bowie, The Beatles, Bee Gees, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Abba, eat your hearts out). The band is utterly and wilfully blind to notions of what’s musically cool, and delights in concocting musical collages verging on the pastiche.
The Scissor Sisters waded into the ‘difficult second album’ with the help of some of their heroes. “We did a session with Elton John in Las Vegas,” recalls Babydaddy, “and out of that came the track Intermission. A month later he came to our studio, and with him on piano and me on guitar we messed around and recorded the basis for I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’. It was amazingly quick to work with him – a very immediate process. Music is coming out of him all the time. And he’s clearly very used to performing and then having other people put the production together afterwards. I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’ was very important to us, because we really wanted to have a breakdance song on the album, and once we had it, we felt like, ‘now the ballads and the straight up rock tracks also have a reason to be there’.”
As far as the rock tracks are concerned, while not quite the same as working with David Bowie himself, The Scissor Sister’s core songwriting duo, Babydaddy and singer Jake Shears also enlisted the services of regular Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar. Together the trio wrote the songs Lights and Paul McCartney. “We’d been friends with Carlos for a while,” remarks Babydaddy, “and we like the idea of bringing people in to see what inspiration hits us.”
“Generally how we write,” adds Babydaddy, “is Jake and I messing around with drum beats, maybe a bass line or piano line. Very often we loop stuff to give us a template. We don’t use other people’s loops, although we do feel it’s okay to just use sounds, and sometimes that can add a gritty vibe that will inspire something. We usually build up a foundation, getting good grooves, or a good chord progression that we may loop without any drums at all. But it will give us an idea of where to go with the melodies and the structure of the song.
Babydaddy constructs his drum loops in Native Instruments’ Battery, from within Logic. Diving into a description of the tools of his trade he manages – while continuing to raise his voice – to come up with a fairly comprehensive list (see box item one). “I have no interest in ProTools,” he bellowed. “I like gear that’s ready to go and accessible. Logic is what I started on, and I’ve used it for a long time. When you use ProTools you’re kind of stuck in that world, but with Logic you have so many options. For instance, I can use the soundcard I want: we had the MOTU 828MkII in our studio, and we also used the MOTU 24 I/O during the recordings. We set Logic to 24-bit/44.1k – I’m not sure whether 24-bit gives me a better sound, but I thought that since we had the ability, we might as well do it.”
In addition to the presence of Logic, the most notable aspect of the Scissor Sisters’ setup is its plethora of plug-ins, including many soft synths, which they use for the most part in preference to real instruments. According to Babydaddy, this reflects the Scissor Sisters’ ethos of juxtaposing opposing musical styles and sounds, while the ‘plastic’ aspect of some soft-synths perfectly embodies the band’s tendency towards pastiche and kitsch. “Pastiche can mean thievery,” reckons the songwriter, “but I love it when the word is used to describe a particular combination of instruments, sounds, and inspirations. For instance, the idea of putting an acoustic guitar next to a Minimoog emulator is fascinating to me. A real Moog would probably sound amazing, but I’m not sure it would sound audibly worse than what I’m using right now.”
“I’m interested in the challenge of making imperfect recreations sound amazing,” Babydaddy elaborates. “I’m not convinced that spending more money makes things sound better. There are times when we feel it’s proper to spend money hiring string players and things like that, but even then we try to do it in a sensible way. We spent three months mixing our last album in Logic, but I do think we hit our technical limits with that album. So for the new album we really wanted some new ears, to see if we’d overlooked options and to try new things. We did all our rough mixes in Logic this time ’round, and then went out and had someone mix it for us. We were sort of driving from the passenger seat a little bit, giving our own feedback, but basically, for the most part, we wanted someone else to take care of the minutiae and all the details of setting up a mix, while we could continue with production.”
Enter the young British mixer/producer Dan Grech-Marguerat, who was trained at RAK studios in London, and spent the last two years working with the legendary producer Nigel Godrich on, among other things, building a studio in Covent Garden in London. Grech-Marguerat has, in his brief career, collected some impressive credits, among them Radiohead, Beck, Bryan Ferry, Suede, Paul McCartney, and the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy soundtrack. In the case of the Scissor Sisters, he’s credited with additional engineering, additional production, and mixing. “With the new record they wanted more live instruments, and they needed someone to record these,” explains Grech-Marguerat. “I knew them socially, and came in to lend them a hand, and my role just kind of grew from one thing into another, and I also ended up doing the mixing.”
The Scissor Sister’s first album sounds good enough on CD, albeit a little flat, but on the iTunes format the band appears to be playing in a cardboard box. While Grech, understandably, won’t criticise the sound of the first album – three million plus sales are hard to argue with – he agrees that the aim of Ta-Dah was to expand the band’s sound. “The first album is brilliant for what it is, with a very stripped down feel of a bunch of people making an electronic record. With the new record the idea was to maintain the electronic feel, but to take it a step further, and add depth and warmth by having more real instruments. That’s why I suggested that we record all the live stuff at Sear Sound, a really good studio with good rooms, a lot of vintage microphones, great analogue gear, and a Neve desk.”
While the analogue aspect of the recording at Sear Sound was relatively straightforward, a major problem resulted from the decision to keep the entire project in Logic. “My preferred way of working,” says Grech-Marguerat, “would have been to record all the programming in Logic as audio, and then create a master document in ProTools to work with, because I find ’Tools easier to deal with when it comes to mixing and audio editing. But they wanted to keep everything in Logic, because they were still writing and recording and wanted to be able to continue adding and changing things, even while I was still mixing.
“So we had to create a mirror G5/Logic machine for me to work with, which was a nightmare. The second machine needed to have the same plug-ins and virtual instruments, so everything had to be re-installed, and you have to have the correct licensing for each and every one of them. When you collect that stuff over a long period of time, it can be really difficult to suddenly have to re-create it all again. We managed in the end, and then it was great, because Scott could bring something over to me to work with, and it would open up and everything would run. Logic is a great tool for programming, and the more time I spent with it, the more I also enjoyed it as a mixing tool, particularly some of the automation and the plug-ins. We weren’t using a TDM system in Logic, but were simply running core audio, in which the plug-ins take a lot less space, so we managed to run a lot of them at the same time.”
The engineer/producer conducted two recordings sessions at Sear Sounds Studio A, going into his Logic system via two MOTU 24 I/O audio interfaces. “Having regularly worked with ProTools, I was surprised by how good the MOTU stuff sounded. Scott was using a MOTU 828 in his studio, which only has eight inputs and outputs, and we also recorded some horns there, for which it worked fine. When I moved over to Sear Sound we needed more inputs and they wanted to keep the MOTU software as well. Thinking forward to the mix we bought two MOTU 24 I/O units, so we had 48 inputs and outputs, and I could, for instance, have 12 inputs for the drums alone.”
I’m interested in the challenge of making imperfect recreations sound amazing… I’m not convinced that spending more money makes things sound better
Dan Grech-Marguerat is only 25, and while entirely comfortable working with a variety of digital formats, as is customary for someone of his generation, he’s probably confounding a few expectations by being a big fan of analogue, and regularly proclaims its sonic superiority over digital. He’s obviously influenced in this by his background at RAK studios, which is filled to the brim with vintage analogue stuff, as well as his work with Nigel Godrich, an avid analogue convert. “I love electronic music and think computers are a great tool,” comments Grech-Marguerat, “but when recording live instruments the more analogue equipment you use, the better the sound.”
Grech-Marguerat therefore used as much analogue and vintage equipment as he could at Sear Sound (see box). He adds that there was a continuous to-ing and fro-ing between sessions in Discoball Jazzfest and Sear Sound, as well as between the former and the mix room. “I also did a couple of weeks at the band’s studio, to help them with sounds and ideas and recording stuff. I actually started mixing before the project was finished, so they were still recording vocals and changing arrangements while I was working on songs that were ready to be mixed. We had two sets of studios to get things done more quickly.”
Dan chose an unusual venue to mix the album, which was entirely in keeping with the Scissor Sisters’ penchant for camp and kitsch. “I like working on Neve VR desks, and there are only a few of these left in Manhattan. It’s much harder to get great depth and variation in your sound when you mix purely inside of the box,” he says. “You can create great sounds in Logic, but if you have the ability to mix it on a desk, you can’t beat that. Just running it through a Neve or SSL will already make a big difference.”
LIFE AND DEPTH
By the time Grech-Marguerat had tracked strings, horns, and drums, some of the songs had expanded to as many as 120 tracks. With 48 I/O this meant that he had to do a significant amount of submixing within Logic, and with that had to be very conscious of balancing outboard gear and plug-in effects. “Logic was brilliant, actually. It handled what we were doing really well, even with all these tracks. For the mix I would group things in Logic, and use Logic automation and plug-ins. Scott (Babydaddy) used plug-ins in very creative ways, and we wanted to keep these, of course. I also mixed with some of the plug-in synths running live, so we could at any point go back and change stuff, right before I actually put the mix down. When you have a lot of tracks going on and you need to group a few things, it’s great to do that in a computer.”
“I think the plug-ins are a great and very creative tool, but some things sound better than others. Delay units within ProTools and Logic can sound brilliant, but digital guitar processors and digital distortion don’t sound very good to me. On the other hand, I love the [Urei] 1176, and I will always add a little bit of analogue distortion, because it can help stir up the programmed stuff, which can sound very clean. Distorting some of it can really help, and I find that you cannot beat the sound and distortion of a real amplifier. A cool thing to do is use a guitar amplifier as an effects unit: send your signal to it and hang a microphone over it. One important thing is that you can’t predict what an amplifier will do to the sound. By contrast, what you do with plug-ins is very controlled. Adding a bit of analogue signal to a chain adds life and depth to things, and that’s really important.
“In some cases I had added plug-ins during recording for listening purposes, like compression on drums, but I would take them off again for the mix. Even as I did a lot of automation in Logic during recording, programming, and arranging, wherever possible I would ride things with the Neve’s Flying Faders. It still is my preferred way of working. I can add various kinds of delays and distortions and reverbs and so on, and for me it’s fun doing that on a desk. I have the ability to split everything out over the desk, and can tweak each sound and each EQ, and add effects, like my favourite AMS delay unit, which has great delays, and the RMX16 gives great-sounding reverbs and sounds amazing on vocals.
“I actually mixed to ProTools at 96k, because it was the easiest thing to do, and I could do some edits in it. But adding live stuff over programmed stuff works really well, and mixing it on a Neve was a good way of gelling everything together. We were never scared of Ta-Dah being a full-scale electronic record with four-to-the-floor kick drums and programmed hi-hats. The Scissor Sisters are a band with a big electronic element. In the mix I treated it all the same, whether it was somebody playing a synthesizer or a violin. For me, the bottom line was to retain the band’s electronic essence, and add warmth and depth by recording live instruments and using analogue equipment. I think we achieved that mixture.”