For Ships' Sound Check last week, Jacob James and Laurie Kearnie put me inside the womb of the Stylus Salon Space Shower and played me their album Compulsory Listening. There was steam, sweat, and sonical ingestion. I got dim summed. James is a gear expert-specialist-connoisseur. We followed up gearwise on the chain of keyboard effects for one of their songs:
Ships: "Wishing You Well"
Describe how you got keyboard sounds for "Wishing You Well." I need gear talk, and I need it right now.
James: I was really inspired reading stories about the Beatles and Pink Floyd, hunched around the console, tweaking knobs and messing with panning, phase, and eq in real time. I knew I wanted to try to re-create some aspect of that when making the tracks for this album. I should stress that all of the thinking, arranging, producing, and tracking was done, at least by me, under the influence of only the finest northwestern purple kush.
One of the most cerebral aspects of the tracking process is getting the vocal and keyboard effects just right. For this LP, the clarity and fidelity of the guitars and rhythm section was key, so we used a pretty straightforward approach to the vocals: as big of a reverb tail as we could get without any dissonance and no auto-tune. This meant that we could be really out there with the approach to the keyboard effects.
The setup went like this: Chase Forslund at the keyboards, Justin Cronk (engineer / producer from Toybox Studio) at the console, and me at a table with all of the pedals that Justin and I had put together over the years. We tracked the keys live and I tweaked the knobs of the pedals live as they went into the console.
At the back of the table were all of the standard distortion pedals: the Fulltone Full-Drive, the three-stage Bad Cat, the Boss metal zone and the Ibanez tube screamer, and a ton of others whose names escape me. I like multiple levels of distortion on keys, it takes normal sounding tones and adds a buzzsaw quality that really marries them to the guitars and bass in the mix. Especially in choruses. BZZZZZZZZZZZZ.
The distortion pedals didn't get too much use on this one. What we really focused on was getting the right phase effects and delay. We had my Boss DD-20 delay unit with the tap function, which I used this all over the record on keys and guitar, and this amazing echo drive analog tube delay. That's right. Analog. Tube. Delay. It's this little red pedal with almost no discernable markings that Justin bought custom from some dude in SoCal. So we set the DD-20 to the tempo of the song and then added another delay on top of that with the Tube Delay. Then as the song was playing I'd bring the effect time up and down in real time. That's what makes all the dips in the tone of the keyboard, the WAAAAAUAAAWWWWAH sounds on the delay time. From a physical standpoint, it's the time that it takes for the analog delay to catch back up with itself that makes that horn-in-a-hollow-cavern mindfuck.
Then, we had a MXR Phase 90 set up on its slowest setting for the whole take and a Moogerfooger 12-stage phaser in line after that. You hear it at the very beginning; the whooshing sounds on the organ. The Moogerfooger adds that Neo-getting-sucked-into-the-Matrix sound that you hear in transition. Basically I had both hands on the speed knobs for the Moogerfooger and the insane-o TubeDelay the whole time.
AND! We did both the delay and the phasing in real time and in delicious stereo, so that when you listen to it in headphones or a hi-fi, the phasing spins a whirlpool around inside your head, and the delay makes it seem like the whirlpool will never end. Pretty sweet.
It was fulfilling for both Chase and I; Chase got to play whatever notes he wanted, and nobody had to waste any time trying to describe what sound they wanted. I hate trying to describe a sound. A sound is a sound. If it can be sung, it should be sung. If not, it's for the pedals. So any of the three of us could just walk over to the table and tweak with stuff to make a sound. In the age of digital and plug ins, I forget how truly satisfying it is kinesthetically to turn a physical knob and hear a change of tone in the studio. It makes a difference. A very druggy difference.
Obviously, some of the subtleties of the keys got buried in the mix, but you can hear them in there, feel them pulsating with the guitar effects, and making some serious brain waves.