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Anatomy of a Sound

Editors’ In This Light and on This Evening

That English man-machine called Editors have a new album out, In This Light and on This Evening, a darkly atmosphere-laden experience that largely foregoes the band’s more high-sailing guitar dramatics in favor of a synth- and sequencer-sheened world framing singer Tom Smith’s portentous tales of life in the gray-orange glow of London at dusk.

The follow-up to 2007's platinum-selling An End Has a Start, the new album was produced by Mark "Flood" Ellis, hailed for his work with U2, Sigur Rós and Depeche Mode. The recording took place at Flood and partner Alan Moulder’s Assault & Battery studio in North London, and was from the start an attempt to create a space that would propel the band ever deeper into the industrial-mechanical landscapes that previous albums had hinted at –– but which would leave no doubt above all that Editors are a full-blooded, fire-breathing band.

“Before we started off,” says Flood, “Tom played me the demos of the songs, and I just thought as a body of work it had a character to it. And Tom was very adamant that he wanted to try a synthetic factor to the album, which was music to my ears, to hear those songs in a very synth-driven way.”

The band had come to the sessions fully loaded with mountains of electronic gear to further colossalize their sound, and fully cognizant of the sonic clichés that can swiftly dominate with the superficial use of such E-Z-to-use effects. Fortunately, Flood had ideas about circumventing such a scenario.

“One of the things that I don’t like about when synths are badly used is when they sound overly sterile, because they just haven’t been worked in an organic way. So what we decided to do was to set up the band in the studio, and had them play the basic tracks live. We had three different drum kits [played by Ed Lay], and then Russell [Leetch] was playing bass and keyboards, Chris [Urbanowicz] was playing guitar and keyboards, and Tom was playing guitar, piano and keyboards.”

Flood installed a house PA for the band, with everyone on monitors, so it was as if they were playing in the rehearsal room as he and his engineers recorded it.

“We really tried to make an effort to get this feel of human machines, and to try and make it as graceful and emotional as possible, in a really stark kind of manner.”

“We did the demos before we’d even met Flood,” says guitarist/keyboardist Urbanowicz, “and we’d had a kind of industrial sound already, and done seven or eight songs with that kind of sound. But Flood guided us in the right direction. We have a pretty good shit filter, but Flood has an even better one. Anything that got a little bit too sweet, the alarm bells would go off and we’d try and make it a little bit dirty.”

Like his bandmates, Leetch had been keenly aware of the need to advance the group’s sound beyond its earlier parameters.

“With our previous records we’d stretched the guitars a little bit too much –– they were used a bit too frequently to add a force,” he says. “This time we got the grit and the playing from the synths. And since it was recorded live, mostly played in one take, it’s still the band playing. That’s what we wanted to capture.”

Flood and Moulder’s spaces at the Assault & Battery studios complex include a couple of rooms upstairs with varied dimensions; the main recording was done in the big room, which is almost double-story high. The sound contained in that room, as well the smaller spaces, was critical to In This Light.

Says Flood, “We did experiment: Chris set up in one of the medium rooms with all his amps, and then we would try putting keyboards or guitars through four or five amps. We tended to mike him fairly close, but if we wanted the sound of him in the room, I would send that out back through the monitors or PA stack to give that sense of ambience.”

Singer Tom Smith meanwhile would be in one of the other rooms, again close-miked; more room to feed it out through the PA was accommodated when Smith was in the room and wanted the sound of the guitar spinning over everything for a big, open type of feel.

Recording off miked amps and room ambience was combined with sparing use of direct-inject into the studio’s Neve analog console.

           “We tended to take all the keyboards direct-inject and through amps so that we could have the option,” says Flood. “And then I also was running about three or four different room mikes, so I would be doing the monitors out in the main recording room, and you’d be bleeding things out through the main PA, which would be picked up by the room mikes, and then you have the DI and unamped sound from these keyboards.”

Editors’ ever-expanding instrumentation is a quirkily favored hybrid of new and old stuff –– mostly old, interestingly. Bassist Leetch made extensive use of the Arp Odyssey for bass synth propulsion, and the band relied heavily on various Junos to get that Terminator effect to ominously intertwine most of the tracks. Leetch likes the Junos mostly for their ease of use.

“With the Junos,” he says, “it’s really simple to just plug in; you can get a lot with the Juno with the presets, and it’s not hard to change them by using the controls. We’ve had quite a few digital synths where merely to change an oscillator can be pretty complicated. We just want to change the sound very quickly and be able to play it.”

Leetch also favors the Micro Korg for the presets that model the Moog Voyager kind of effects, and for In This Light’s big, sheeny string sprays got a lot out of his Oberheim circa ’76. The band’s slew of synths, sequencers and drum machines were often strung together to get a sonically ambiguous mashup that would add to the burnished, otherworldly ambience; these included Chris Urbanowicz’s Minimoog and Juno 106, and Tom Smith’s Jupiter 8, which is eight Juno 106s joined together.

The Battery studio’s classic Neve 52 analog board, a mid-’80s model which Moulder had picked up at New York’s Soundworks studio, acted almost as a fifth Editors member, so much did it contribute to the personality of the album’s recording. Flood is unstinting in his praise of this old machine, with a couple of qualifications.

“It’s got all the classic Neve –– good top and bottom, a bit scooped in the midrange, so I tend to find I push them quite hard. For me there’s a very, very small window where everything’s just sort of cooking nicely, where everything is just on the point of harmonic distortion –– and then you go one step over that and it all starts to break down.”

“In the end,” he says, “it was almost as if the board had become the sound of the record; with tracking and overdubbing in that room, then trying to mix it in a couple of places, that didn’t work. We decided to go back and mix it in the same room.”

This sort of traditional record/mix-in-the-same-room idea spilled over into the editing stages of In This Light

“We would do the backing track on tape,” says Flood, “and so you just do it completely old-school, until you’ve got the right take. If you’ve got to edit it, do it on tape; and then when you’ve got your final version, then I would stripe the tape and then run Pro Tools as a slave at 96K, and then just dump the 24 tracks straight into Pro Tools.”

Thus most overdubs for the album were done in Pro Tools, with a minimum of actual cutting/rearranging or tweaking post- with digital signal-processing enhancements.

“I’ve found that if you record on tape, then transfer it all straight into Pro Tools at 96, then you’re getting the best of both worlds,” says Flood. “You end up with everything in Pro Tools, but you have all the benefits psychologically and sonically of working on tape.”

Getting the right combination of intimacy and a mechanized alienation suitable for Tom Smith’s vocals required Flood’s trusty battery of way-vintage microphones and not a lot more.

“In the last 20 years, 95 percent of the people that I’ve worked with used the Shure Beta 58 for vocals,” he says. “And 50 percent of them would be in the control room next to me. In this particular instance, we tried to do the vocals mostly on the floor, with the music coming out of the PA, no headphones. And then there were a couple of times when we tried Shure SM57, which also sounded good on his voice.”

For a close, “human” vocal sound, Flood also relies on three or four relatively ancient Gefell microphones, the CMV563 tube version and the M7 capsule. He’s picky about his condenser mikes.

“Often I will go to the Shure 58, because the voice will always come to the front and will work and push with the music and can help to solidify the whole sound, act as sonic glue. Of course, if you’re the singer listening to a 58-recorded track in solo mode, you’ll probably hang your head in shame the way it might sound, but in fact that is how 99.9 percent of the population is gonna hear it.”

The relationship between band and producer is always critical in the success of the resulting creation, of course. Seems producer Flood was just what Editors needed, at a crucial time. It didn’t hurt that they shared a vision about the band’s ideal future-sound –– and that they got along like good old mates.

“Flood was so down to earth it was ridiculous,” Leetch says. “I was like, `Do you want me to make you a sandwich?’ And he was like, `Yeah, I’ll have one bacon sandwich and one sausage sandwich and a cuppa tea, please, no sugar –– no, two sugars.’

“There’s quite a few errors on the album,” Leetch concludes, “but the takes on the whole worked, so we kept them. And that was something that Flood drove through to us: that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be great. We think it’s by far our best record.”