GETTING IN THE ZONE
Cloud Control decided to take the recording of Zone into their own hands. Entirely self-produced, it’s an outrageously successful ‘first effort’. We talk to frontman and producer Alister Wright and drummer Ulrich Lenffer.
Story: Christopher Holder
Artist: Cloud Control
“I feel like we discovered some really cheap ways of getting some pretty good sounds.”
I love the understatement of this. Alister Wright is best known as Cloud Control’s sinuous frontman but he’s also the architect of the band’s first self-produced album, Zone.
Some three years in the making, Zone, is a labour of love. It’s the trophy-bride at the conclusion of a story of can-do, how-hard-can-it-be?, Aussie optimism. It’s a tale of back-yourself, do-your-homework, single-minded prosecution of a vision. In fact, because it’s a story of ‘inspiration finding a way’, it could be your story or my story… if only we had the necessary reserves of talent and resolve to carry it off.
It all started with a realistic look at the recording budget.
“Recording an album in a commercial studio is expensive,” Cloud Controls’s Ulrich Lenffer reminds us as we chat about producing Zone back stage at The Croxton on the band’s Melbourne leg of its Australian tour. “If you’re in a studio and you’re stressed out and you’re not getting the sound you’re after and everyone is stressed about the clock ticking… that’s not good for anyone. Take that element out. Choose the gear you want to use and learn how to use it.”
More understatement, but so true.
“We wanted more control over the result,” elaborates Al. “To get closer to the way I always imagined a Cloud Control album should sound. Without the big budget, the only way to achieve that level of control was to self produce.”
Al: We started from a low base. Recording in a room full of hard lino and concrete floor. It was pretty gnarly. Then we started hanging up some sheets and it sounded slightly better. The next place we used to record we went all-in with doonas and sleeping bags.
From there, wherever we happened to be recording we were just trying to get the drum sounding as dead as possible. We bought some poles from Bunnings and built ourselves a little drum tent and then bought a whole bunch of doona covers and sheets from Dimmeys and hung that around the drum kit.
Ulrich: Previously, when studio people would talk about the ‘sound of the room’ I’d nod but be unconvinced — I’ve just never had that experience. This album has totally changed my perceptions. We were in six studios by the end of the album and I can instantly pick where we recorded a certain part by the sound of the room. The first one was literally a concrete box but there’s something about that reverb that… we didn’t use.
Al: Here’s another example, the sound of the Panopticon drums was this Airbnb we rented in Forster. That place was mad. It was a double-height space where we erected the drum tent and it was far from perfect but still super-tight. Everything else on that song was recorded in that one space. Like the backing vocals: all the falsetto stuff was shouted from the balcony with a mic on the ground floor.
Ulrich: That recording we had a little Behringer mixer and I think that was mixing the kick, snare and overhead, going into the dbx 165A compressor. That was the drum sound, which is pretty nuts. I don’t think I would have done that later in the recording process! We’re talking about a little Behringer $20 mixer we bought just to get a headphone mix.
**SELF PRODUCTION PRICE BUSTER**
SEBATRON VMP-4000E QUAD VALVE PREAMP
PURCHASE PRICE: $1850
Al: The Sebatron Quad Pre was our first significant gear purchase in preparation for this album. A mate of ours had one and it sounded cool. I didn’t know much about preamps at the time and couldn’t pick the sound of a preamp, but this proved to be a really wise choice. It sounds sick.
Ulrich: It’s got these simple EQ switches, which sounds limiting but it means you can’t overthink it and they sound good.
Al: We used it on just about everything. Pretty much all the drums, synths, bass, anytime we went to DI something. It may be crazy to put everything through it but it just sounded so warm and tape-like. We tried other preamps, we had an API for a while but it just wasn’t our flavour on drums. Too rock. The Sebatron you could get a bit drivey with it and keep it sounding cool.
[Editor’s note: Sebatron is a boutique gear manufacturer based in Melbourne. Google Sebatron and talk to Seb for more… full title: Sebastian.F.Sebatron CEO, chief designer, head of security, events organiser — Sebatron Audio.]
SELF PRODUCING? GO SHOPPING
Okay, so there wasn’t the six-figure recording budget but it’s still a cool, yet daunting, place to be: embarking on a self-produced album. Which way would you jump with gear? Would you put all your chips on a DSP-based, in-the-box solution like Pro Tools and/or a UA Apollo rig? What mics would you go for? How would you record drums?!
“I knew it was going to be a pretty tough journey,” continues Al. “But I also knew the production for this album was about capturing a vibe rather than needing a thousand tracks — the main thing was it had to feel good.
“It ended up sounding way better than we all thought it would.”
When I asked why, Al gave me the opening quote: “I feel like we discovered some really cheap ways of getting some pretty good sounds.”
Sounds almost easy… have a vision, then devote the time and dedication to lots of research and experimentation.
I asked Alister to run me through his vocal recording and mixing to give an idea of how he went about capturing ‘the vibe’.
VOCALS: SPIRIT OF THE DEMO
“My vocal was actually one of the easiest things to nail,” explains Al. “For starters, it’s mostly about the performance. Often we’ve wished we could capture the spirit of a demo vocal recording but it’s hard to recapture that feeling in a ‘proper’ studio vocal session. For this album I had the luxury of actually using the ‘rough recording’ that still sounded really cool, or to have the time to record endless takes and comp those together. It felt like I developed the instinct around whether a vocal performance connected or not.
“Naturally we did experiment with compressors and preamps, and I felt most comfortable with a Shure SM7 dynamic microphone, or a Beta 58, into a Sebatron VMP-4000e quad pre. From there, I’d mostly go into an Auditronics channel strip (racked up by Rob Squire). Those two things working together was the sound of my vocal.
“I like the gnarly touch of the Auditronics overdrive. Having that in my ears when tracking really helped me perform. Compression can stop you feeling like you have any power in your voice but some extra gain can help you hear what’s going on; hear the detail. The Auditronics EQ is really nice as well.”
**SELF PRODUCTION PRICE BUSTER**
ROLAND CHORUS ECHO EFFECTS
PURCHASE PRICE: ~$1500 (USED)
Al: Roland’s Chorus Echo was really cool for us on this album. It’s like a Space Echo but has a chorus on it as well. It’s a little more hi-fi sounding than the 201. We used it not just for a tape echo effect but for a driving drums sound and other elements we wanted to push harder.
The Chorus Echo has two outputs: one acts as a direct signal plus spring reverb and the other is just the tape delay. But here’s the secret sauce: the direct signal is not actually a true bypass, it has this sick, crunched-up, transistor thing that it does. It just sounds mad on drums and does like a weird, slight compression, overdrive-y thing. It makes the drum kit sounds really beatbox-y.
We’d use that as a parallel compression effect.
**SELF PRODUCTION PRICE BUSTER**
VALLEY AUDIO DYNA-MITE DYNAMICS PROCESSOR
PURCHASE PRICE: ~$1000 (USED)
Al: Sometimes we used a Valley Audio Dyna-mite (two-channel compressor/gate/compressor/expander). There are different versions; ours is an ’80s-era one. We used it across our drums quite a bit. The compression has a big VCA sound — in fact, it sounds a lot like a dbx — and then the gates are really awesome too. The way the gates open is super hard — you can hear the gate pop open — which can sound kinda cool. It’s almost like a hip hop sound, it makes acoustic drums sound like a drum machine which was a really cool effect at times. We did that on the title song Zone.
THE GEAR: CRUCIAL CHOICES
Alister, Ulrich and Heidi were no strangers to a recording studio but none of them had years of experience comparing preamps or EQs — they had no reason to. But they had attuned ears and plenty riding on the decisions they were making.
“A mate of ours in Sydney had a Sebatron quad preamp,” recalls Alister. “And it was the first occasion I’d taken the time to listen to the sonic characteristics of a preamp. I remember just running some synths through it, comparing it to whatever soundcard we had in the studio at the time. ‘Oh that actually sounds pretty nice. Sounds noticeably better. I don’t know how, but it does.’”
They didn’t regret the decision.
“I feel like the defining sound of this album’s production was that preamp [the Sebatron],” noted Alister. “We had an API quad pre for a while. We lived with it for quite a while before we realised it was ‘too rock’ for us. I know it’s a classic piece of gear but then maybe I’d grown so used to the sound of the Sebatron.
“The other pre we had was the UAD Twin-Finity quad,” recalls Ulrich. “It’s just so cool to have all the ins and outs and ADAT I/O. In a small studio all that stuff made a big difference.”
**SELF PRODUCTION PRICE BUSTER**
DBX 165A COMPRESSOR
PURCHASE PRICE: ~$1100 (USED)
Al: The next most important purchase after the Sebatron was a dbx 165A compressor. We knew nothing about it and had only ever used software compressors. But I’d heard it work in another studio on drums and I thought, ‘Okay I love that drum sound, and not just that drum sound, but I feel like the way that compression is working is really amazing’. It ended up being our go-to compressor on heaps of stuff.
Ulrich: I remember reading an article about Dave Fridmann’s production [Flaming lips, MGMT, Neil Finn and mixed Tame Impala’s Lonerism] and the gear he was using. Then you find out his go-to compressor is US$3000-plus. We had to confront the harsh reality of not having the freedom to buy our dream compressor. But the 165? We paid something like $1100 for it!
Al: Stuff just sounds sick through it. I don’t know what it is, but I haven’t heard any VST compressors that sound as good. Maybe that Kush Audio compressor [UBK1] would come close. But the 165, it just clamps so nicely. It’s good on so many things. Vocals as well — I was using it on my vocals.
We also bought a dbx 160 which is totally different.
Ulrich: The 165 is so gritty, but the 160 is super clean. The peak stop on the 160 is a little bit better than the 165, in my opinion. It’s a bit crispier, but then the 165 is a little bit gnarlier. They’re really different — the 160 doesn’t have as much character but it’s still sick.
3 YEARS OF WORKFLOW
With some key gear decisions locked in (which you can read all about elsewhere in this story), the band made the most of the self-produced album workflow — working wherever feels comfortable and taking their time.
“The approach was to track things so they sound good on the way in,” explains Al. “And that also meant committing to a sound without the luxury of recalling a bunch of settings when it came time to finish a mix.
“The Roland Juno 106 synth parts, for example: we didn’t even have the battery to save the presets, so we had to commit to the sounds on those sessions.
“Same with the drum machine sequences. That was a Roland TR-8. We’d plug it into one channel on the Sebatron, run it through the dbx 165A compressor and be done.”
Again, it’s the vibe.
“I think it’s about not overloading your brain,” reflects Ulrich. “You just look at a session and think: ‘there’s my mono drum machine track, there’s my three-mic drum recording…’ That’s not overwhelming.”
“It’s hard not to overthink something like recording your own album,” continues Al. “So minimise as much as you can.”
“Right. To try and maintain the sanity of the group?” I suggest.
“To mixed results!”
Al: Gates? I love gates. In Ableton I’m constantly gating. I’ll have a really loud, gnarly-sounding guitar, but then it’ll be all sidechain gated from the drums. Gates are the best.
Ulrich: You’re a big gate whore.
Al: You can flip the gate in Ableton so that it ducks. It’s like a super-accurate ducker. You can decide to duck something by precisely 4dB, and it hits it every time. I’ll often use that method instead of a compressor.
And if you do it on big pads with lots of treble you get that distinctive ‘Flume-y’ sound where you can hear it cutting. Not only that, you can develop something like a hierarchy of gates over the mix, with the vocals cutting the guitar level, for example, and then the drums gating most other things. It’s a handy technique for clearing space in your mix.
The Ableton gate is so good, right? It’s amazing how much you can get away with before it starts to sound weird. There’d be times where I’ve thought, “Oh you can’t be serious?!” But it still sounds cool.
If you don’t want the gate to just instantly clamp, then you have good control over the ramp time. But I think a clean cut is almost more effective because your brain gets taken in by the audio equivalent of a magician’s misdirection trick: the vocal comes in and the other thing’s gone quieter, but you can’t even remember how loud it was because it was instantaneously ducked.
The Izotope Alloy plug-in is another handy tool in this respect. It’s like an old version of Neutron that has a multi-track gate feature. Multi-track gating on a drum kit is really cool because you can get rid of all the low-level crap you really don’t want, and end up making the kick really, really tight and leave the parts you want to be a bit looser.
How many times have you been in the studio and thought, the drums are so cool, but what about all that rumble? Don’t worry about it, it’s gone.