TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT: IN THE STUDIO WITH QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE
Snares that sound like they’re saying, ‘cock!’; contact mics on drums; ‘dry, shallow and vacuous’ DI guitar sounds; and Mark Ronson bringing the Uptown Funk. We join in the weirdness that is a Queens of the Stone Age recording session.
Story: Mark Davie
Artist: Queens of the Stone Age
Backstage at Festival Hall in Melbourne, guitarist and dapper gent, Troy van Leeuwen, reckons the Queens of the Stone Age have exposed themselves enough. If you’ve seen old footage of ex-bass player Nick Oliveri onstage with his cock in a sock, you might agree. Their last record …Like Clockwork was a tough period. Bandleader Homme said the recording sessions were clouded by a depression that built up when he was bed-ridden after routine knee surgery. Van Leeuwen described the result as, “a little more introverted, a little darker and probably the first time we expressed any kind of vulnerability.”
He said the first move the band makes whenever they’re contemplating a new record is, “look back at the last record and say, What were we doing back then? Let’s not do that.’” They’d exposed themselves, box ticked, said van Leeuwen, “we can do that now.” Staring into the abyss of making a new record, they “wanted to do something that was more upbeat and not as dark.”
The first step away from the downer of …Like Clockwork was to partner up with producer Mark Ronson. Who better to transition from dark to upbeat than a guy who went from Rehab to Uptown Funk? He knows how to get people to dance, and that’s exactly what Queens felt they needed. The band also decamped from their own studio, Pink Duck — a comfortable place in Burbank, LA with a full SSL G-Series console and all of their accumulated equipment — and relocated to United, originally built by Bill Putnam. “We usually produce ourselves and are hands-on setting up mics, but we felt like being a band this time and have somebody else handle all that,” explained van Leeuwen. “We wanted to be outside of what we’re normally doing and utilise one of the greatest studios in Los Angeles — to be with Sammy, Frank and so many of the great ghosts in those walls. The microphone selection alone… they’d pull out an RCA 44 saying, ‘Elvis sang into this mic.’ Good luck! We wanted to use that gear, those walls and have the best-of-the-best help us be the band we wanted to be.”
Travelling with them was the band’s staple engineer, Mark Rankin, who’s been part of the crew since the band flew him over from the UK to record part of …Like Clockwork. That first three week trial turned into seven months, and he’s since gone on to work with Homme on the Iggy Pop record, Post Pop Depression, and Eagles of Death Metal’s Zipper Down. “We love working with Rankin, he’s our guy,” said van Leeuwen.
Songs for the Deaf was a landmark record for the band, back when Dave Grohl leant his two heavy hands to pound the drum skins. The ratcheted-up energy of his playing and the punchy, fuzz guitar tones made it an instant classic. Rankin said this new album, Villains, is a bit of a return to the dryness of Adam Kasper and Eric Valentine’s engineering on that early record. “Josh was talking about having really vacuous, small sounds,” explained Rankin. “Kind of like Songs for the Deaf where everything was tight but in a newer way. A bit raw but not a lot of air or space on the drums.”
It all starts with that signature Queens of the Stone Age snare sound, which Rankin said is hard to describe. “We did get somewhere on this record,” regarding the description. “We deduced that as soon as the snare says ‘cock!’, that’s a good starting place. We were messing about and it was like, ‘That’s it! You can basically make it say, ‘cock!’’” With that, they were back to rocking out.
DRUMS: FIRST CONTACT
Nobody Knows off Songs for the Deaf has to be one of the most air-drummed songs of all time. Something about the way Grohl pounds the toms gives off a clickety-clackety dryness that punches you in the face. It’s all power without relying on space to make it sound big.
Drums are a vital part of the Queens sound, along with Homme’s vocals and the fuzzed out interweaving guitars. During Rankin’s first session with the band for the last album he “was pushing the drum tech quite hard from the first song, which was Keep your Eyes Peeled. I was pushing him to keep tuning the drums lower and lower. He was saying it wouldn’t go any further, and I was asking him to go just a bit more. Then Josh said to the tech, ‘Just do what he says. Sounds good.’ That was a really good confidence boost.”
Rankin attempted to explain the Queens snare sound in more explicit terms: “It’s a sort of ’70s dry-ish sound, but it still has a bit of ping. It’s obviously not a really pingy rock snare; it has a little crack that’s quite Queens. When we get the snare to that point, we start tuning the rest of the drums from there.”
Homme holds the key to the Queens sound. Rankin says most of the songs are fully formed somewhere in Homme’s head, it’s just a matter of decoding them and making them a reality. It will often start as a string of references. “He was playing me Scottish marching band references for some of the drum sounds,” said Rankin. “I got hold of these contact mics from a British company called C-ducer. They became quite a big part of the sound on this record, by sticking those onto the kick and snare.
“On the kick I would put it on the front head but on the snare it would be on the shell round the side, facing towards the kick drum. It gave a really cool, interesting small, hard sound. There’s no ambience on it, and we would mess with that a bit and drive it.
“That would be the core starting point for the sound on this record. We’d gate it down to get a vacuous breakbeat-ish kick/snare pattern with no ambience. It would form the front portion of the sound, the detail, and then we would add other things in behind it like a bigger kick. The small, distorted nature of the drums on Head Like a Haunted House is the contact sound.”
Beyond the sound of contact mics, Rankin used an old RCA ribbon mic just over the drummer’s shoulder. “It’s as if someone is sitting with their chin on your shoulder while you play,” said Rankin about the mic placement. “It looks down toward the snare and the kick. Sometimes if there’s too much hi-hat I’ll move it over to the other side so there’s a bit more distance. With a bit of compression and a bit of drive, it’s a great hard 800Hz-area breakbeat sound. It gives you the character. We would start somewhere between that and the contact mics, then add things to fill the picture out.”
He’d have some standard overheads set up, but most of the times it was just the mono overhead with some room mics added for size. He put up a couple of Neumann M50 tube condensers to capture the great room sound at United, but most of the time that ambience was too big. “Sometimes I had a couple of condenser mics low to the floor, just outside the kit and facing out to get that close slap. Or if we had panels around them I’d have them facing out towards the panels to get quite a close ambient sound.”
Toms are a crucial part of the Queens drum sound, and the secret to that small, powerful sound is to use small toms. “We used tiny 12- or 13-inch toms on this record,” said Rankin. Samir from Masters of Maple drums was on hand to help with the drum selection and tuning. “We weren’t tuning them that low though, we were getting more weirdness out of the mics and chains.” He would usually stick an AKG C414 on each, then either gate them aggressively or trim them down in Pro Tools.
SECRET DISTORTION WEAPON
They also used a lot of distortion to shape the sounds. “I’m a big fan of distortion on the way in, it makes things come alive,” explained Rankin. “It adds a bit of aggression and pulls the harmonics out of it. Sometimes it means you can push the ambience lower but still get the feeling. The sound becomes a bit more hammered and the harmonics seem to spread it out a bit. It means the drums don’t have to be so banging, but they feel like they are.
“I used a lot of distortion from a great company in LA called Overstayer. We heavily used the Saturator. I usually put that on ambient and room mics to drive those a bit. Overstayer’s VCA compressor also has harmonics you can blend in. I used the JHS Colour Box pedal on the RCA mic. It has two stages so you can drive it into itself. And the Standard Audio Level-or is insanely good. Sometimes we’d also drive the board.
“The idea was we didn’t use any plug-ins and did as much as we could on the way in. There was a bit of distance for Alan [Moulder] to take it in the mix, but we made tonal choices on the way in.”
By the end of setup, Rankin might come out with 10-12 channels of drums. “Within that there should be a few good drum sounds,” he said. “Once we get to that stage, I can give the band something exciting to play to. Then we’ll start working out the song and refine the sound as we go along.”
During the session, the guys stacked up a seven foot high stage for drummer Jon Theodore to play on in the studio. “We were going to have Jon play on this little stage,” explained van Leeuwen. “We thought it would be funny to see someone his size up there. We didn’t end up using it, but it’s still a funny story.”
BACKWARDS DI GUITARS
While Homme has the songs written, a lot of the arrangement happens in the studio. Anything goes really, as long as it serves the song. Van Leeuwen doesn’t normally recommend having three guitar players in one band. “Too many flying egos,” he said. “But we make it work. We have a healthy understanding of each other’s voice when it comes to the parts. Sometimes it’s harmonising, sometimes it’s counter-melody or sometimes it’s doubling. Sometimes it’s not playing at all or picking up a synth rather than playing guitar. We’re always trying to find our own space and playing around each other. We have this joke about how we always finish each others’… sandwiches.”
In a similar way to the contact mic-based, direct approach to the drums, Rankin said most of the guitars were DI’d. “It was a bit backwards where we had the DI as the main sound, and then we would send that to an amp via a delay as an echo send or a reverb. It would give it a totally different character, so the delay is in a different world. Sometimes we would go back and refine that, and maybe even re-amp it.” The Colour Box often served as the front end for the DI signal, with pedal EQ to get that band-passed effect. Remember, said Rankin, “a lot of the dazzle we were going for on this was small, vacuous sounds that leave space for other things.”
“When you have three guitar players, everyone’s got to have their frequency zoned and it’s all got to fit together,” said van Leeuwen. “Sometimes DI is the easiest way to control where that frequency is going to be. It’s right there; you’re not searching for it in the mix. You’re actually turning it down because it’s so in your face.”
To help nail down his spot on the frequency spectrum, van Leeuwen went as far as designing his own guitar pedal with Dutch maestro Dr. No. It’s called the TVL Raven, one of two pedals the pair worked on, the other being the TVL Octavia. The Raven is a filter/booster pedal with a central, raven skull-shaped knob that switches between three different ranges. “We basically made a sweepable filter and boost,” explained van Leeuwen. “It’s almost like a wah pedal, but instead of a pedal you have a knob. You’re defining the frequency you want to boost and it’s pretty sharp. It’s easier to grab a knob and go, ‘there it is.’ It’s the benefit of having everyone in the band knowing how to record. You can do things like filter your sound well before the mix.”
On the fuzz side, other than the TVL Octavia, van Leeuwen said the Queens pedal collection is “obscene. Somebody needs to stop us. Between all of us players we’ve got hundreds of fuzz pedals. There were a couple of pedals I leaned on for this record. One was from a friend of mine who lives outside of Philly and has a pedal company called Fuzzrocious. He makes this pedal called the Oh See Demon that’s like an old school octave fuzz, but it gates so you’re not getting any feedback. You’ve got to know how to have enough signal to sustain it, but it clamps off really cool, so it’s a fun pedal to use rhythmically.”
On the modulation side, Rankin said they used the Electro-Harmonix Mellotron pedal for any string sounds. Towards the end of Feet Don’t Fail Me, “that was Josh playing one of those. It’s almost like a string sample straight off.”
“Dean and I use the Eventide H9 a shitload because it does everything, and it’s Eventide — their shit’s f**king rad,” said van Leeuwen. “A lot of guitar tracks were sent back through the amp in the room, because that room sounds incredible. We had the M50s up all the time. They were at certain spots in the room, you could just turn the far one on if you needed more size. The room is about thirty feet wide, the ceiling is high, and it’s all wood, which is why it never got harsh.”
Rankin said the difference between DI and amp tracks was yet another way to separate the different parts. “If we had one DI and went for another DI that was somewhat close to the first, then the third sound would be an amp. It was all about preserving whatever the main part was and keeping as much space in there as possible.”
On the amp side, van Leeuwen relied on a two amp system. He used his Peavey solid state head for anything that was quick with a lot of attack. The other amp he used was an EchoPark Vibramatic 4T5 made by Gabriel Currie. “It’s a perfect mix of a ’60s Bassman and a ’60s Super Reverb with a little Vox,” he explained. “It’s very open. The head itself is small and he makes these cabinets with one 12-inch and two 10-inches in them, so I had the option of either speaker. I just love those speakers and cabinet, so I was using them most of the time.”
KING OF DRUM AMBIENCE
Once the arrangements are nailed down, the band plays everything live. “We used a click track maybe once or twice on this record,” said Rankin. “That was only because we were unsure of the arrangement and it gave us room to edit and fly parts around if we needed to.”
During the takes, Homme would sing into a Shure SM58. Occasionally Rankin would put up two, because “of those times you put it up and go, ‘Shit the drums sound great on that but there’s a vocal over it!’ A lot of the time the guide vocal mic is the king of drum ambient mics. Partly because it’s facing away from the drums so it’s picking up more room, and the frequency response of those mics lends itself to that.”
When it came time to record Homme’s final vocals, Rankin said there were three different schools of thought: “One was the upfront, clean condenser — a Sanken CU51; a ribbon for a bit of character — an RCA 44; and sometimes an old dynamic like an Electro-Voice. The Sanken has two capsules. United had one and it was insanely good; I wanted to use it for everything. The RCA44 ribbon also sounded fantastic. United have copies that have been there since they bought them new, and they’re really well looked after. Sometimes we’d use an Electro-Voice dynamic, purposely trying to get a harder, harsh sound.”
He would put either an Eventide 910 or 949 Harmonizer in the chain. “It’s a favourite,” said Rankin. “A little bit of delay and a little bit of pitch gives that really good fake room sound.” That balance between dryness and space was pretty critical. “A lot of times we’re letting the low end of the drums or the bass be the big thing and keeping guitars small. We’d have a the 949 on the vocal a lot, and then the guitars will be out wide. If we got to the point where it felt like we needed some space, we would just send something out into the room at United and record the room. It’s like the Ocean Way plug-in on UAD. Because the rooms sounds so good, you’ll fire something out on the PA, record it back on the ambient mics and all of a sudden it works.”
RONSON’S MUSICAL DATABASE
Mark Ronson is apparently a huge fan of the band, even though his isn’t a typical rock producer’s discography. Van Leeuwen said Ronson did what a good producer should; helped keep the band moving forward: “Whatever we were going for sonically, he was right there to show us what to try. And when it came to the drum sounds we really wanted to make it sound like an old SP1200, like a f**king hip-hop drum kit.
“He really took it to the next level. Usually when we record, we intentionally do things wrong. We plug amp heads into other amp heads and then fry an amp in order to write the right song. He was there with all these technical tricks. He would take the Overstayer gear, chop up vocal syllables and make great underlying, creepy tracks — things we don’t normally do. He let the band be who we are, but if we ever ran into confusion he was our reminder of who we are.”
“Ronson has got such a vast knowledge of songs; it’s ridiculous,” said Rankin. “I’d be listening to something in the morning and the first thing he’d say when he came in was what album it was from and what year it came out… ‘and the B-side was this.’ I’m like, ‘Morning!’
“With such a vast database of music to draw from he’s a really good reference for sound, music, arrangements, and really good with songs. We had a system going where I would be tracking and he would be set up in the side room programming and processing some of the sounds. There was a lot of sharing and throwing stuff around.
Anything was up for grabs in Ronson’s little side lair. Whether it was mangling sounds or injecting little tasty tidbits. “For instance, in Head Like a Haunted House he recorded that crazy theremin-sounding keyboard,” explained Rankin. “Or we’d get to a point where we’d be working on guitars so Dean and Mark would be in there throwing keys down. Then Mark would go through and mess with it.
“There’s a few cheeky little harmonisers on vocals, which was Ronson. He would do loads of processing and give us the parts back and we’d select what fitted in or how they sat into the mix. There’s also a drum machine clap in Hideaway, but Jon played it live with a foot pedal. We liked the aspect that it was electronic sounds played live.”
The Overstayer gear once again played a key role. “It was kind of the secret weapon on that session,” said Rankin. “I started off with some piano mics going into the Mod Channel. It’s got really cool filters on it that self-oscillate. We had the piano tuner in, so while he was working I put the piano through it and started messing with the filters. It made him disappear into this world. Ronson commandeered it and I’d give him files and he’d process loads of things. Any extreme filtering was done on that thing. Everybody wanted one by the end of the session.”
Just like the recording sessions, everyone got hands-on with the mix too. Alan Moulder flew out from the UK to mix the record at United. This time Rankin was set up in another control room to help feed any overdubs or mix edits back to Moulder. Because the sounds were so baked in, after Moulder’s assistant Caesar Edmunds set up the console and session the way Moulder wanted, then Rankin and Homme would guide him on drums and guitars to a point. Once Moulder had a good crack at it, Ronson would then come in and do his final listening and finishing off. “Everybody was involved,” said Rankin. “It’s not always a good thing, but it worked. Alan has so much experience that he was able to deal with that.”