Thursday, February 24, 2011

Long way from Abbey Road

The studio where Noah and the Whale recorded their new album isn't your typical recording space. A converted Methodist chapel in Bethnal Green, its warm atmosphere and favourable acoustics have also led to its hosting Guillemots, Mystery Jets and Arctic Monkeys.

EMI tape recorder used at Abbey Road Studio (2)Image via Wikipedia
Bands are increasingly ditching the soulless environment of the professional studio in favour of unique, atmospheric venues that best suit the sound and mood they hope to create in their albums. Noah and the Whale's new single "L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N." is the first released track that's part-recorded at the Bethnal Green chapel, The Empire. But we'll be hearing a lot more in the coming months, as it's where Arctic Monkeys recorded their upcoming album, while Klaxons have just moved in for a month. Since the chapel opened as a recording studio, it has been booked solid and you can see why. The live room's size and 1.7 second reverb puts it on a par with Abbey Road's Studio 2, but the acoustics are not the only draw. Bands get the keys, have 24 hour access, and private use of the dining room, lounge and in-house record collection, creating a homely atmosphere more akin to a countryside residential studio than a commercial London studio.
Brian Eno
Noah and the Whale chose the chapel to record Last Night on Earth for its sonics and conduciveness to creativity, combining recording there with a commercial studio to harness the sound. "The high ceilings give the room an amazing natural reverb and that can often be quite forgiving and flattering to a performance, which is really useful while you're figuring out arrangements. It also makes the drums sound huge," enthuses singer Charlie Fink. "Brian Eno often insists that his bands record vocals in churches because of the natural reverb. It's impossible to replicate that sound in a small room – you can always tell. Also, working in a studio with big windows and natural light is a real joy compared to the usual dark caves. It stops the band getting lethargic as the session goes on."

My Morning Jacket recently moved all their equipment into a 1900s chapel never before used by a band, to record their upcoming album. Other albums recorded in a church include Arcade Fire's Neon Bible, Beach House's Teen Dream, Coldplay's Viva la Vida, and Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden back in 1988. 

Aside from churches, bands are choosing other unusual locations such as factories, barns and the outdoors to add atmosphere while saving the expense of a costlier commercial studio. Rising indie-folk trio Flashguns chose a derelict barn in Somerset to record their debut. Reviews of The Low Anthem's new album Smart Flesh all seem to agree that the choice of recording space was an excellent tool in shaping the album's eerie and otherworldly sound. The band, who made their name in 2008 with the folk-rock album Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, eschewed both the 10 by 12 foot basement of the house where they recorded that album and commercial studios, moving their skeletal equipment into a disused factory in Rhode Island. They had plenty of empty buildings to choose between, and settled for a former pasta sauce factory, where friends had been squatting, disguised as guerrilla guards. "We wanted to get away from the limitations of home recording," says singer Ben Knox Miller. "We did our previous record in a small room and all the reverb was created artificially. We were trying to get away from that and make our sound happen in real space. The sound forms naturally when it's resonating in a giant chamber. It's less plastic."

You can certainly hear the natural reverb throughout the album, thanks to the spacing of microphones across the floor, capturing the sound around the room. Some songs did not survive the acoustics afforded by the building though. "The busier the songs were, the less they translated," says Miller, "so it created a cohesion within the album. It's very lethargic. It's a pretty lonely sound. It sounds like you're out in a desert, a weird expanse that's not quite human. It's moody." Temperatures in the factory frequently falling to freezing as the band recorded into the night also contributed to the "lethargic" sound. 

Sometimes the recording venue becomes a part of the album's mythology. Bon Iver took himself to a secluded cabin in Wisconsin for three months and the location sparked For Emma, Forever Ago. It became the perfect framework for an album by a broken-hearted lover, shut away from the world, recorded with nothing more than a few microphones and old equipment. A peaceful rural location was also essential to Seattle duo Thousands, whose hushed guitar-picking was brought to Bella Union's attention by Fleet Foxes' guitarist Skye Skjelset. Unable to create the fragile sound they had in mind at home, Kristian Garrard and Luke Bergman travelled around in search of inspiring places to record. The Sound of Everything was recorded in a cabin on the Oregon coast, the banks of the Columbia River, abandoned barns and old farmhouses. "We want people to listen to this with headphones on and feel like they're immersed in these locations," Bergman explains. That you can hear the breeze and occasional birdsong complements the album's nature imagery, giving it a magical sense of place.

The Rolling Stones - Bridges to Babylon. Virgi...Image via Wikipedia
Some of rock's most cherished rock albums were recorded in obscure places. The Rolling Stones recorded Exile on Main St. on the Côte d'Azur in 1971. Nellcôte was the first place the band had recorded outside of a commercial studio. Sometimes a fresh venue provides essential inspiration. Before it was designated the UK's number one wedding venue, Clearwell Castle, in the picturesque village of Clearwell on the Welsh border, was used by Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Mott the Hoople as a rehearsal and recording studio. It was where Deep Purple recorded Burn in 1973. It was also the last port of call for Black Sabbath who had tried and failed to write their album in Californian studios. In an underground cavern in the castle, the band found their inspiration to write and record the acclaimed Sabbath Bloody Sabbath in 1973.

But recording in a church, factory or barn is made positively ordinary by Erland & the Carnival. In an attempt to "create a soundtrack to an imaginary horror film about the supernatural", they took their equipment to the bottom of a ship moored at Embankment, where they soaked up the atmosphere provided by perpetual damp and the constant sound of water. "You could hear sounds in the hull when we were mixing the record," says drummer David Nock. "We set up contact mics all around the ship to capture its unique sounds."

UK - London - St John's Wood: Abbey Road StudiosImage by wallyg via Flickr
So what does this mean for the commercial studio? Marlon Brown who runs The Empire, and is seeing a huge increase in business, believes the capital's commercial studios' time is running short. "A couple of people own most of the commercial studios in London and it's a stitch-up between them and the labels. Bands have now seen through the labels and are beginning to question the commercial studio set-up. Most will go out of business in the next couple of years," he asserts. "I'm dealing with the bands directly, explaining that The Empire is a creative space and not a commercial studio. They seem immediately relieved and creatively empowered."

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