LAYERS: Mapping The Route Of The Broken Orchestra's "To A Place"
One of my favorite albums of 2012 was Dirty Art Club’s Hexes, and I was super excited to do a LAYERS piece with them before the year was out. I soon discovered the label Hexes came out on, Phonosaurus, has a roster of incredible artists with a similar vibe, and I quickly sought to bring some of their tracks here to the LAYERS lab, where we can pick them apart and have a listen inside. I’m delighted to start 2013 off with The Broken Orchestra’s “To A Place,” from their new album Shibui.
From The Broken Orchestra:
“To a Place” had been an idea of ours for a long time. The way we normally work is by sitting down together and writing very simple riffs or chord progressions. The ideas are very spontaneous and frequent and there are a lot of nice ideas that haven’t come to light yet because we haven’t given them the chance to develop. The idea for “To a Place” originated from a simple guitar idea that Carl had. We tracked the idea just so we didn’t forget it then we shelved it for the better part of a year before eventually deciding we wanted to try and develop it. The idea with this track was to make it really really simple and stripped back but to try and make it feel like it didn’t need anything else to carry it. The idea was eventually that Anna’s vocals and the feel of the other parts would be enough to hold the listener. We ran into quite a few problems with this track and it was a really fun process seeing it through and hearing it develop.
This is the original guitar that we tracked in order to just get the idea down. Our thoughts were to keep the acoustic guitar as the basis of the track, but once we sent it to Anna (who re-wrote it on piano because she felt it was easier to write to), it became a piano track which then made us think that we wanted to have something like an organ part to carry the main progression instead. For a long time we had a synth organ on there as we didn’t have access to a real hammond. This was until we took the plunge and purchased a Hammond M Series to use primarily on this track. The journey to acquire the organ is a story in itself as it took three of us a full 12-hour day to travel across the country in a van which then broke down mid-journey requiring us to rent a van to complete the rest of the trip. When we arrived it turned out the organ was the heaviest thing known to man and needed to be carried down a flight of stairs. Anyway, we made it and it’s sitting in our studio now.
So as already mentioned, the organ took the place of the acoustic guitar as the main focus for the chord progression of the track. The organ was really tricky to get right, both in feel and sound. It was played by the excellent Dan Foster who plays the majority of the keys in our work. We recorded for a long time on this session as the feel and the sound were really important to us. Our main problem was that we didn’t have a leslie speaker, which made attaining that leslie sound quite difficult, so we looked for alternative options. We placed a microphone on the front speaker grill and then removed the back of the organ and placed a microphone on the inside. We then blended these recordings together. The inside gave a nice dirty sound with the front adding some nicer clarity to the blend. The organ section itself is pieced together from about three or four different takes, but in essence we tried to keep it quite natural and keep the flow of the playing there as we wanted it to feel quite live and organic.
The drums on this track were recorded quite late on in the process and we had some very simple programmed drums in for ages to allow us track all the other instruments to. We wanted the drums to be really simple but just do enough to let the track flow and move. We had a couple of attempts at recording sessions on drums and eventually had a very productive session where we got the drum sound and feel we were after. The drummer on this track is Martin Hyde who is a local and good friends with a friend of ours. He is only featured on this track on the album but completely nailed the feel we wanted straight away. We wanted to keep the drums fairly open and live in both the recording and mix. We used a fairly standard drum recording set up placing microphones on kick, two on snare, hi-hats, over heads, and one ribbon room mic, we have some nice Universal Audio pre-amps which we use for most recording purposes. They are valve-based and can be driven to give a nice gritty sound if needed. With regard to mix, we kept it quite simple. We tried to keep a nice open feel so we used very little compression. The only real compression we used was some vintage tape emulation tools which tended to be used on the drum tracks and also used as a send similar to parallel compression. We used four different ones over the whole project. My favorite the UAD Ampex plugin, then the UAD Studer emulation, the PSP Vintage Warmer, and finally the Waves Kramer tape. All these helped to give us a certain sound.
Bass was also recorded twice on this track. Initially we had some double bass laid down, but we felt that this part was too busy for the track and in the end settled for a really nice and well played electric bass part. The player we worked with on this was a college friend and great musician called Paul Sargeson, and again this is the only track he’s featured on. The aim was to have the bass add a really nice warmth to the track, to be set back in the mix, but be present and full of character at the same time. I feel it does its job and really firms up the low end. The trick is always getting the balance between simple and interesting. I hope we’ve achieved it. We tracked a few bass options using different microphones and DI but in the end we settled for recording using a Neumann M147 which really gives a nice tone. Mix on the bass sees a similar pattern to the drums where compression is kept to a minimum with a fair amount of EQ and some tape emulation used.
Noise is as it says… It is something that we have on every one of our tracks where we either record, take samples, or edit in different noises, whether they be crackles, background noises, or just strange sounds. We always put these in as it gives a more realistic, life-like feel, and a less clinical feel to the music. I feel it helps the track settle and sit better as a piece of music. The noise track is very simple and kept very low with just some added crackles and pops and a bit of hiss added. It’s mixed very low but it’s interesting that when you take it away from the mix the track feels more hollow and other parts feel much more exposed.
The guitar was the last thing to go down on this track and was played by our guitar hero Jeff Parsons. The guitar was quite carefully worked out so not to interfere with the vocal melody. We had one decent practice recording before liaising with Anna about sections and guitar parts then we tracked the guitar. The idea was to keep the guitar quite old sounding and give it enough presence in the mix without interfering. I think that comes down to how Jeff played it in the end and he does understated really well when we need him to. The guitar was a really nice addition and keeps within the theme of simple but interesting. I think we used a Sennheiser MD421 on the cab and maybe even had another one or two options there which may have crept into the final mix also. Mix was kept very simple with basic effects and some light EQ. No compression was used on guitar.
Vocals were a big job on this track and we worked on vocals constantly throughout the process almost evaluating and doing test recordings after each instrument was laid down. Anna was really involved in the whole process of this track, which is different than how we’ve worked before. Anna put forward some really great and interesting ideas and constantly evaluated and improved the strength of the vocals and melody lines. The main vocal was recorded with a 70s Sennheiser MD421 dynamic microphone which we used a few times for vocals on this project. The difference here was that every time we recorded vocals we still felt that the vocal came across a little too clean, so we decided to use some spare material that we had used in the studio for covering and acoustically treating walls and wrapping the microphone. This gave a really interesting but subtle feel to the vocals and really achieved what we wanted. The final vocal was done in one small session with backing vocals done on the same day. The vocals were treated quite a lot in mix in order to get them to sit OK against the organ and guitar, but with some tweaking, I think we got there.
The backing vocals were great fun to record as we just kept on layering and layering one on top of the other. It gave a really nice full pad effect to the backing and with some editing in the mix sounded really nice and full, especially the ones at the end. The recording was done after the main vocals using the same technique.
Once all the parts were down and the mix was final, we had a test in trying to make it feel like and sit with the other tracks on the album. One way in which we tried to achieve this was to take stems of each part of the final mix and give it one final tweak. In this case it really helped settle the mix down and it allowed the mix to feel much more balanced as a whole. The original aim was simplicity, and we had no idea when we started that it would take so long and be so complicated to achieve.