Infusing Cold Synths With Guitar Fire
It makes absolute sense that Daniel Hunt's "favorite record ever" is My Bloody Valentine's 1991 album Loveless. Aside from the obvious fact that Hunt's band is also a quartet comprised of two men and two women, Ladytron is like MBV for the electronic set: dense layers of synths rather than a shoegaze-y wall of guitars.
"I grew up listening to music that I could not fully understand", Hunt says. "I like this kind of swell where you hear certain things and you're not sure what they are, and you're not sure what is connected to what".
That isn't to say that Ladytron is creating an amorphous sonic mess in the studio. Ten years after releasing their debut album, 604, Ladytron has learned a thing or two about maximizing space in the mix. With the band's fifth full-length record, Gravity the Seducer, Hunt says they're more cognizant of when to say when.
"I think we're instinctively preempting those problems in the mix by not throwing too many bass-y mono synths and layers down there", he says. "We're just a bit more aware of what's required than we used to be. With the first and second records, the mix engineer would be like, 'You know, you put seven basses on here.' And we'd go, 'Okay, well it's your job. You just make it work!' We're a bit more considerate now".
While Ladytron dove into recording their previous two albums immediately after months on the road—thus creating an album that would easily translate to the stage—the band took a different approach to Gravity the Seducer. "We probably had about a year off from the road in which to write and prepare and had a clearer idea of what we wanted", Hunt says. "It was refreshing to make a record without thinking about the accompanying tour. We didn't care about it, so I think the record sounds freer and more coherent as a result".
One of the group's sonic schemes was to create a cinematic feel by using signature sounds throughout the album, including Sequential Circuits Pro-One, Buchla, Mellotron/Chamberlin, Conn, and Crumar Stratus keyboards. "We consciously tried to restrict ourselves to a sonic palette for the record", Hunt says. "We got to a point with every track and then went, 'What's this missing? Okay, we haven't put the Conn organ on it yet.' That organ had this really beautiful harmonic setting on it. Once we started using that—I think we used it on 'White Elephant' initially—it ended up on almost every song, if not every song. But unfortunately, we couldn't take it away with us. It's still stuck there in the countryside".
Although Ladytron's synth palette was limited, there was still no shortage of layers. Fortunately, it wasn't too much for co-producer Barny Barnicott to handle. He carved out space and attended to detail without overdosing on EQ, all the while making the album sound great on hi-fi systems and crappy laptop speakers.
"I tend to balance very quietly on medium speakers and then switch to a small portable radio for finishing off [the mix]", Barnicott says. "If you get the balance right like that without reaching for your EQ too much, a mix tends to work well across all platforms".
While Barnicott's methods are sophisticated, Hunt suspects that other producers sometimes resort to gimmicks to get a mix to sound right through lo-fi sound systems. "I have a theory that the prevalence of square waves and Auto-Tune in pop music these days is because people are listening to their music through their laptop speakers", Hunt says. "I've got no scientific evidence to back this up, but that's my instinct".
Meanwhile, Ladytron avoids using über-artificial plug-in processing on vocals and synths. Hunt (like his favorite band, MBV) is a fan of using lots of guitar pedals. In fact, he used to play mostly guitar at gigs, but more recently has played and recorded synths—which range on the album from deep, round bass to high, plinking bells—through his guitar pedalboard. "On the records, it made sense for me to play guitar for a while, and where certain songs didn't have guitar before, I actually added it live, and it enhanced what we'd done on the record", he says.
"But this time, we actually went back and added this old Italian polysynth, a Crumar Stratus, which has quite a nice Farisa-y organ sound on it. So I was playing my guitar parts on the keyboard and putting it through my pedalboard, and it sounded surprisingly good. It's going through an overdrive, delay, tremolo, and also an Electro-Harmonix POG Polyphonic Octave Generator. We also used a lot of this Empress Superdelay, which is like an octave delay, and it has some really beautiful effects that I haven't been able to recreate with anything else. It's just instant magic".
One particularly catchy riff that begins midway through "White Gold" sounds like palm-muted guitar but was actually created with a set of chromatic plastic tubes called Boomwhackers. "I saw them being used at my daughter's nursery", Barnicott says. "I think Reuben [Wu] and I had a couple of them, each in the right key, and came up with a rhythm that worked with the tune. Then the engineer, Alex [Miller], processed it quite heavily through the desk".
"It kind of reminds me of Miami Vice or something", Hunt adds with a laugh. "We physically constructed a riff by arranging those tubes and hitting them with beaters. I don't even think we had a complete scale to work with. But we didn't have to do that much editing. We just had to make sure it was timed enough, and perhaps we might have had to pitch-shift one note in [Celemony] Melodyne to make it work properly".
For an album with no guitars, the members of Ladytron certainly have a lot of guitar-related tricks up their sleeves. To add depth to synths and vocals, the band also processed parts through a Holy Grail reverb pedal, into a guitar amp, and then miked up the room about 10 feet away from the amp. "We ended up taking existing parts, reprocessing them quite a few times, and then bringing them in and out of the mix, so the tunes have movement to them while still having a simple arrangement", Barnicott says. "So we put a lot of the synths and vocals through reverbs and amps and recorded the room to give everything more of a 3-D sound and some natural distortion and grit".
The Holy Grail/amp combo is one of Hunt's favorites. "It's a really kind of glacial reverb", Hunt says. "I'm a really big fan of [legendary British producer] Joe Meek, so often when I'm working on something, it's like, 'What would Joe Meek do?' I draw the line at shooting my landlady, though".