In our first time at bat on these Sonic Deconstruction articles, the song choice appears to be a swing and a miss on the recording techniques day. A calamitous choice for one simple reason: almost everything is a sample, loop, or synth! As a result, recording methods aren’t immediately intuitive in the way that King of Leon or Foo Fighters would be. It also doesn’t help that the one track that undoubtedly existed at one point in the real acoustic world (as opposed to tracks that could have been DI’ed or midi triggered) is the vocal track and frankly it doesn’t sound very good. But this is our dishwashing liquid and dammit, we’re going to soak in it.
Recorded at Dave Fridmann’s residential studio in upstate New York, MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular is probably the ideal album to record there. In his September 2000 article in Sound on Sound Magazine, Dave intimated that the design of Tarbox Road Studios is somewhat less than ideal:
The design work required to turn the house into a studio was taken on by Dave himself, who felt that the recommendations of a professional studio designer would in any case be beyond his means…
‘When people are normally doing acoustical design they’re worried about a lot of isolation, and worried about floating floors and cement structures to isolate you from each other. And I was worried about it, but I really couldn’t do anything about it, so I didn’t worry too much, just did what I could.’
Like many residential type facilities—professional, pro-sumer, or hobbyist—isolation is a concern. So when big bands come in wanting to track everything live you often get so much bleed that you lose flexibility in your tracks. Your guitars are in your drums, your drums are in your vocals, you can’t change one without leaving some ghostly artifact somewhere else. Well with a band like MGMT that consists exclusively of two musicians playing instruments that could very well exist entirely in the box, those issues are no longer a concern.
It is my belief that at least a few of the synthesizers were amped or re-amped for mixing. There is a lot of dirt and grit on the synthesizers, especially when compared with the infantile clarity of the sounds in the EP version, which makes me think that amp gain, color, and distortion are part of the sound. There is an audible grime on the melody synth that is evident when the keyboardist lands on that C# that holds for a measure. It almost sounds like that kind of battered old Leslie cabinet.
The vocals are an interesting beast—they are exceedingly sibilant to my ear, which could very well be a combination of mixing and mastering (provided by Greg Calbi). This assaulting high frequency presence might indicate that Fridmann used a hi-fi mic on a less-than-hi-fi singer. I know that his favorite mic is his tube U-47 (one of my personal favorites as well), so he might’ve used that old standby. On a singer with an unpolished and young voice like in MGMT, I likely would’ve opted for a dynamic microphone with a bigger, heavier diaphragm to compensate for the vocal character like the SM7. These mics have the effect of covering up the less audible imperfections that might otherwise be present when a tube mic is used. Either way, the vocals are heavily processed with filters, fuzz, compressors, and fx so the original character of the vocal as interpreted through the microphone is likely lost except on the multitrack file.
By and large, the greatest assets to the sounds on the record would be the mixing techniques. Check back on Friday for some in-depth speculation. Dave, if you’re reading, feel free to set us straight!