ARIA Album of the Year: Boy & Bear: Moonfire

Aussie band Boy & Bear makes good and comes out with the big gong at the ARIAs. AT delves into the record with producer Joe Chiccarelli and guitarist Killian Gavin.


19 February 2012

Recorded at Blackbird Studios, Nashville, USA
Mixed on API Legacy Plus console

When you walk into an awards show joking that you should have brought bagels along as a symbolic gesture, you’re probably not too worried about the outcome. So when Boy & Bear walked away with five wins from seven nominations for their debut album Moonfire, it was a welcome surprise, for the band, Australia, and even a producer tucked up in bed all the way over in LA.

Not only did the band take out, bear with me here, Album of the Year (the big one), Best Group, Breakthrough Artist — Album, Best Adult Alternative Album, and Breakthrough Artist — Single (for Feeding Line), but producer, Joe Chiccarelli was also nominated for a Best Producer gong. Both the Best Engineer and Best Producer awards stayed on shore with Franc Tetaz for his work with Gotye. Which is probably for the best anyway, reckons Chiccarelli, “I was so flattered when that all came down. I didn’t expect any of that. Though not being an Australian citizen I don’t know how that works! Really, if you’re not a citizen and not part of the community, it’s kind of awkward to give it to a foreigner.”


For the boys in the band, it was a nice “cherry on top” of what has been a boom period for a band that started out with more front men than a boy band. Guitarist, and singer, Killian Gavin explains the Boy & Bear genesis, which also goes a long way to explaining their herculean grasp of vocal harmonies. “Dave [Hosking, actual lead man] was a solo artist. Tim [Hart] and I were both the singers of our own bands. Tim and his brother John [Hart] were in a band together, and Jake [Tarasenko] was also in another band. So there were four separate projects happening.
We all knew each other and had gigged with each other a fair few times. Eventually we just started helping Dave out because he was playing by himself.”

With only enough room for one leading man, Killian assumed the role of guitarist, and Tim took up an entirely new post as the drummer. “Tim said he’d only been playing drums for a year when they started recording, and was really hard on himself. But he was a really good drummer,” said Chiccarelli. “I would ask him to try a certain beat and he would look at me like I was a martian because it was beyond his musical vocabulary, as a drummer that is. Yet he really tried and he’d always come up with great parts. He really rose to the occasion in the studio. Based on the demos I was afraid that he might be light and not intense enough, but he really poured a lot of passion into the drums.”


Boy & Bear went through multiple demo stages before heading into Blackbird Studios in Nashville. Both Killian and Tim have small ProTools rigs for recording in bedrooms and living rooms to see how the songs are taking shape. Killian’s rig has been downsized somewhat to make way for new guitar gear. But the crux of it is a 002, monitors and a Macbook Pro, with a few mics between he and Tim, including a Neumann and Audio-Technica.

To step away from the engineering side of things and get a better idea of how the songs are sounding as a band, the five of them decamped to a small Sydney studio to lay down live tracks and all the layers.

In the end, parts of those demos ended up directly influencing the finished product. “In fact, the harmonies of Part Time Believer are really straight off their demo,” said Chiccarelli. “Most of the other demos were sort of stark, but that was one of the last ones they recorded and it was relatively fully formed. The A&R guy Mike Taylor was very much in love with the demo and actually a couple of times, he had me tweak the final master version to get closer to the demo.”

Killian: “When we recorded the chorus harmonies over in Nashville it just didn’t sound the same. We couldn’t figure out what we were doing wrong that we couldn’t recreate what we had on the demo. We ended up contacting the studio back in Sydney to get them to send us the ProTools session file and importing each of the harmonies into the recording on the album, placing them over what we’d already recorded in Nashville.

“We realised we weren’t doing the same harmonies and the timbre of the voices wasn’t being recorded the same. So we asked the guys back in Sydney what microphones we’d used, and re-recorded them all in Nashville with a Shure SM7 through a really average preamp because it sounded a bit more muffled.”


Killian Gavin, lead guitarist for Boy & Bear, brings a textural depth to the record along with inspired playing. While the sounds on the record aren’t outrageous, the careful arrangements and chord voicings are showcased by simple, elegant recording technique.

“I really like single coils. So on the recording I played a Telecaster… I think. See this is where it’s funny. I had about 10 guitars in a rack that were owned by the studio. Every song I would just change guitar until I found the right sound so I’ve ended up forgetting what I’ve actually used to record most of the songs.

But I remember in Feeding Line we recorded the chugging guitar part in the verses with this ‘60s Tele. And we recorded the two interlude lead hooks with a Rickenbacker 12-string into a Vox AC30 with nothing besides the guitar and amp. Whereas with the rhythm part through the verses we had a small overdrive on them and recorded using a Fender Deluxe Reverb.

Then on the interlude, John doubled the part with a synth sound we ran through a couple of overdrive pedals into an amplifier. It’s a bit cheesy at times but I like the sound.

When I’m playing a clean guitar tone I’ll often try and record it with the slightest amount of compression just because it helps keep the sound rounded, together and not lose its spot in the mix. It keeps that sparkle intact. But if I’m playing an overdriven sound I definitely won’t have any compression because whether I’m using the amp turned up pretty loud or using a pedal in front of it they just compress naturally.

Chiccarelli: “Most of the electric guitars were recorded with a blend of the Shure SM57 on the centre of the cone and the Royer 121 off the centre. Depending upon the sound, I balance them accordingly. Sometimes I blend in just a touch of the Neumann U67, which is a foot or two away from the amp in the centre of the speaker. The preamps were either Chandler TG or Neve 1073.”


‘Cinematic’ was the operative word for Moonfire. Naturally that implies music that will go through stages, from sparse arrangements to full-fledged dramatic tension. While it’s probably impractical to take a pop album to the sparser end of cinema, it certainly helps to have space. For Chiccarelli, creating space is not as simple as sticking a convolution reverb over a few buses and selecting ‘Mojave Desert’ or ‘Notre Dame’; like the while album production, it’s a process that’s more beginning than end.

Chiccarelli: “Gaining space in a record starts in the song arrangements. It’s important that parts leave room for each other and don’t compete. So it’s a matter of playing the parts in registers that are exciting but leave room for you to hear the other instruments. 

“Then in recording it applies to the choice of instruments, choice of mics and acoustic space, all the way down the line to how you pan instruments in the mix. I try hard to separate sounds as much as possible so frequencies don’t compete. It’s very important to not go too overboard with distortion on guitar amps because they easily lose their definition and the chords or lines become blurry. We spent a lot of time making sure we chose the right amp and right distortion stomp box for each sound.

“Great ambience is one that makes the instrument sound natural and adds some depth and character to it as well, a bad ambience is one that swallows the sound and becomes competitive with the source.

“We did use a fair amount of natural analogue reverb on Moonfire. The only digital reverb was some AMS RMX 16 on the snare drum. In terms of widening the bass, sometimes I use a short 12 and 20ms delay panned left centre and right centre, and will usually low pass them as well. Most of the delays on the guitar were an Empress delay pedal or Roland Space Echo.”

“I’ll often place six or seven mics through the studio and bus them to a stereo track. I may use one or two or all of them depending how ambient I want the track to sound. The far kick drum mic gets the low-end ‘air’ and width. It’s about 5-8 feet back from the kick drum. I mix it in with the other room mics when I record. I will usually low pass it to get rid of some snare leakage.

“The tracking room at Blackbird sounds amazing and they also have a couple of live echo chambers. One of them is connected to the main tracking room, so we used that a lot when we were tracking. Either it was to record instruments in the chamber or to just leave the chamber door open so that the drums got a little bit of the natural echo in them.

“We would face the drums towards the chamber, open the door and then some of that natural slap would feed back into the drum mics. Other times we would have the mandolin or the banjo right in the live echo chamber room and mic it there so the reverb you’re hearing on the banjo isn’t anything coming out of a box, it’s the room reverberating into that microphone. 

“In the case of the mandolin it might have been a Neumann KM86, or in some cases a Telefunken 251 — either omni or simply finding the right distance between the instrument and the room. A lot of the acoustics were done with an old Neumann Gefell UM70 — not the currently available one, the tube version of that mic.

“A lot of things like tambourine were done live in the chamber. The reverb is a naturally occurring thing, and the good thing about that is it sounds different on every hit, whereas a digital reverb doesn’t change that much depending on how hard you hit it or how soft you hit it.

“And in the mix room they have a smaller live chamber that I used a lot for vocals and background vocals. Having analogue reverb versus digital reverb gives a song a lot more depth and warmth at the same time. The digital reverbs can be a little one dimensional, whereas a great sounding live chamber or plate does a lot to fill in the lower mid-range of the track.”

Choosing between one great option or another makes life easy at Blackbird


Through a set of entirely fiscal events, it ended up cheaper to fly the band over to Nashville and record at Blackbird. Chiccarelli pitched a number of local studios he was comfortable working in. The Grove Studio on the central coast of NSW, and Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studios in Auckland were on the list, but Blackbird came out trumps. Now, before you go decrying the death of the studio in Australia, and yanks invading our turf, Chiccarelli and Killian gave us the reasons why Blackbird was the final choice [To restore your faith in the Aussie studio scene, check out another American, Jonathan Burnside’s article in this issue based entirely at The Grove. It goes both ways — Ed].

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Killian. “It was this weird coincidence where it was cheaper for us to go overseas than to record an hour north of Sydney. The dollar at the time was doing really well and also Joe could get really good rates on the studio because he’s really good friends of the owner.

Chiccarelli explains the main thrust a little more: “The one thing about Blackbird is they have a great complement of musical instruments, believe it or not they have about 20 drum kits, about 150 guitars, and about 50 guitar amps. If we had done the record, even in Los Angeles, Auckland or anywhere else for that matter, hiring instruments would have bumped the budget up substantially.”

Killian again: “It was so much more intensive than any other studio we’d looked at. And on a musician’s wage we’ve got our guitar that we’ve had since we were 15 years old — it was nice to go to a studio where they have over 100 guitars and however many pianos and amplifiers. It meant we could have a go at trying to achieve all the sounds that we’ve dreamt of trying to pull off.”

And that was the main point Chiccarelli stressed to the boys when he came on board as producer — to try new things. So while jumping in a Tarago with the same gear they’d been using since the EP may have actually been cheaper, it didn’t fit the vision for the album, which Chiccarelli describes as “more cinematic.”


“We definitely wanted the album to sound rockier than the EP,” said Killian. “More electric guitar driven and bigger drum beats — a bit more upbeat. Joe’s ear is pretty spectacular and he could hear the gaps in the songs and what kind of instruments would sit correctly in that part of the field of sound. He also had a lot to do with helping us tune the drums and selecting what kind of kit, guitar and amp to use while discussing how it makes sense in the song.”

What Chiccarelli envisioned was more of a layered sound, fleshing out the songs and pushing the boundaries of their arrangements in a way the demos hadn’t. “we used a lot of subtle parts that build the dynamics and flesh out the chords a bit — coming up with chord voicings that are just thick enough but not too thick. If you orchestrate it in ways where one part is playing the top line and one part is filling out the middle and the other part isn’t competing too much in the middle then you can make things pretty big,” explains Chiccarelli. “And you can do the same thing in terms of notching out frequencies in guitars that compete with other guitars, or trying different guitars and different amps. I always look towards the final mix while I’m recording. I choose all the compression, EQ and effects while I’m cutting the basic track. So my rough mixes are very close to my final mixes.”

we put the microphone in the bathroom and then Jake, John, Tim and I stood just around the corner in the hallway and yelled at the top of our voices


To give you a bit of an insight into the preparation for recording, this is what Joe sent to Seth Morton, the assistant at Blackbird before heading in for the session.

“I’m sure there will be some changes depending on the song but this will give you some kind of starting point. I want to try and keep a similar setup for all the tracks and also go a little more retro with things, so I’ll probably try a little different setup with the room mics. Please place the drummer on the back wall facing the control room.

The API console will be for some of the drums and room mics. The designated drum tracks can go through Neve modules or the BCM 10. Please make sure there are some original API 550a and 560 EQs as well. Please insert an original 560 on the D12 kick channel. I would think we would need 8-16 Neve modules depending upon what can be included in the BCM 10. I will probably want some mics to go through Neve 1081s or 1073s depending upon what is available.

Killian’s main electric and acoustic guitar should be in the large right side iso booth. The bass will just be an Ampeg B15 in a small far amp closet iso. The smaller right side iso can be used for Dave’s guitar amps when he is playing electric or if his acoustic needs to be amped.

All the acoustic keyboards can be in the large piano room. Any synths and electronic keys can be in the main room.

Please align ProTools to -18dB. The rate should be 24/96k. The band will purchase three 500GB drives for Master and two backups from the studio.”


“In mixing Feeding Line, the most that I’ve done is some parallel drum compression,” said Chiccarelli. “Sometimes I use a couple of different compressors — usually a Chandler Zener compressor as well as a Neve 33609 limiter. I never use very much stereo bus compression — not more than a dB or two. From there it is just making the bottom end as big as possible because when you have a song that’s really just built around that four-on-the-floor driving beat, you’ve got to make sure that it is driving and keeps your body moving for four and a half minutes.”

The low end is driven by the kick, which Chiccarelli says, didn’t use any samples, “But we did take some time finding the right vintage Gretsch bass drum and tuning and miking it properly.” The other half of that equation was the bass, which for three-quarters of the album ended up being Jake’s Epiphone Jack Cassidy bass. “It has a particularly interesting honk to the mid-range,” said Chicarelli. “That kind of cuts through the track, and the flat-wound strings are a bit more rubbery, which really helps with the bottom end.

“We used a Telefunken v78 as a direct box on the bass, and the Ampeg B15 seemed to be warm and rich, perfect for filling out the kick sound. I often use an Ampeg SVT or sometimes a Divided By 13 bass amp. However, nothing sounds like a great Ampeg B15 from the late sixties.”

The synths went through a lot of different treatments, depending on the song, many times they were put into distortion pedals like a Hot Cake, or into an old Master Room or Sansui spring reverb, and sent to a Fender Deluxe amp, blending a mix of the direct and amp sound together. Some of the string sounds were processed with delays or long reverbs from an Eventide H3000 or space pedal, while the real string arrangements, by Patrick Warren, were recorded in LA.


Dave’s lead vocals were mostly recorded through a Telefunken 251 with slight UREI 1176 compression, and a fair amount of parallel compression during the mixing, including a Purple Audio MC76 Limiter. The background vocals were recorded using either a Neumann U67 or M49 through a Neve 1073 and UREI LA3A.

With all the vocal prowess packed into the band, Chiccarelli set the boys up in a smaller studio at Blackbird to manage their own harmonies while he and Killian layered up guitar parts. Chiccarelli would just pop in every now and again, listen to the parts they’d come up with and suggest less voices on a part or different singers for different textures, to avoid wallpapering every song with harmonies.

A lot of it was trial and error says Killian, not only for the parts, but the recording of them too. “For Milk and Sticks they had this bathroom at Blackbird that sounded really cool,” he said. “So we put the microphone in the bathroom and then Jake, John, Tim and I stood just around the corner in the hallway and yelled at the top of our voices. It wasn’t always a gang mentality, there was plenty of individual takes. But nothing can beat standing around the mic together, it just doesn’t have the same energy otherwise. So whenever there was something that needed a group vocal we would always get in there together and do however many takes it took for all of us to get it right.”


Rekindling the love for some of the older material was a big part of the role Chiccarelli played in shaping the album. Like most artists who’ve played their old stuff too much, and reckon their new stuff is the bee’s knees, songs like Golden Jubilee, an important up-tempo lift on the album, had lost some of their appeal for the boys. So much of the deep re-arrangements also served to pique the boy’s interest in those songs they’d done before. Which shows that there’s never really any set formula for demo-ing, because while they did reference some of their demos for the album, the process almost knocked off a few of its highlights. Thankfully they persevered, because Moonfire really is a great album. Some might say album of the year.


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