From their beginnings as a band to stadium packing producers, Simian Mobile Disco's approach to studio techniques are as unique as their sounds. We called up James Shaw for the lowdown on the Simian not-so-mobile studio..
The way we work in the studio is quite organic. Virtually none of the programming is done on the computer - it's all done on hardware. We use Pro Tools pretty much as a tape machine, to be honest_ although obviously it's a tape machine that lets you edit a lot more easily! I think the way we work is a result of our background in bands. Neither of us has ever had any training, in terms of production, but we've always been self-produced from the word go, right back to when we were first in Simian. In those days, we had a house in Manchester we all lived in and we used to record in the basement. I remember drilling holes through the floor upstairs so we could drop down an overhead mic for the drums!
In retrospect, Simian was a classic example of a band that could really have used a strong producer. I think what we lacked was someone who really knew what they were doing technically and could have taken a more objective view, better managing the overall dynamic of the band. I don't regret those times, though, because that was when we really cut our teeth in terms of how to do production, and learned mic'ing techniques and stuff like that. It was totally trial-and-error - and believe me, we tried some really bad ideas along the way! Nowadays, both James and I produce bands, and it's important to us both to try and record them as a unit playing. If you record one by one, you definitely don't get that 'band' vibe, you do get a much more electronic aesthetic. With Simian, that definitely steered our sound in a more electronic direction, because we only had maybe one decent mic, so recording 'as a band' was never an option! But then that's what we were aiming for, anyway - we'd all been drawn together by a love of stuff like Autechre in the first place.
THE HARD STUFF
Coming back to the present day, then, our studio is basically a Mac running Pro Tools, and a whole load of outboard gear. Most of the time we'll be taking one-minute or two-minute sections that we like out of a 15-minute, slightly random jam. As I say, it's quite an old school, band-y approach. It works for us, though.
I think we also tend to work more quickly because we use hardware as well. For the new album, I bought a desk, and we've got a fair few bits of outboard, so we rigged it all up on a patch bay. If you want to change something, you're going to have to rebuild the mix from scratch, and you know it's gonna come up a bit different anyway, so unless it's so bad that it's really pissing you off, you just leave it. And if you couldn't be bothered rebuilding the mix, it probably wasn't that bad anyway, and you should just leave it and get on with writing something new.
I know outboard gear takes up a lot of space, and relatively speaking it's quite expensive and quite inconvenient_ but in terms of actaully getting stuff done, it's pretty good!
Between us we've got loads of old synths, but some of the key ones are the Moog, the Prodigy, a Sequential, an Arturia Arp 2600 semi-modular, and a Pro 1 and then there's the big modular synths. We've got three. Two are hybrid Analogue Systems/Analogue Solutions/Doepfer synths, of which one lives on the road and one lives in the studio_ usually in bits!
And then I've just got a new one, which isn't even on the record because I've just got it. It's a handmade, Moog-style, proper modular synth. Some of it's based on U-Synth, some of it's Music From Outer Space, some of it's custom modules where people have ripped circuits and put them on the net.
I'm getting more and more into building my own modules, just because there's so much stuff out there you can build. For _40 you can build yourself a really good filter or something. The next thing I want to build is a resonator_ like the resonator on the Korg 3100. The trouble is, a Korg 3100 is about ten grand, so the actual original is going to have to stay on the wishlist for now! I'll just try and cobble together the resonator part.
You could definitely say we're kit geeks, I guess. But for ages I remember using bits of software, and then you get hold of the hardware and it's like, oh right_ what the fuck was I doing? Nothing beats the original. A great example of that is, we borrowed a mate of ours' 303 to use on the record. Now, I'd used loads of different 303 simulators but the actual thing blew me away. Everything about it is good! Like the crazy interface, where whatever you try and program just comes out completely different_ and there's this, like, weird bounce to it, it has a character all of its own. As much as all those software companies always claim that they've nailed it, they just haven't come close.
What I would say, though, is you don't actually need tons of equipment to start making music. Just get one thing and really master it. Particularly with software: people get a cracked copy of every bit of software and end up trying everything. I've tried them all and in all honesty, it doesn't really matter which one you use. Grab one that your mate's using, so you can easily work with them, and just stick with it.
Mac G5: "It's nothing special. We don't really need it to be that special: not only do we barely use plug-ins at all, we don't even use that many tracks! Most of the movement in our music comes from the synth itself, not layers and layers of tracks with lots of instances of plug-ins."
Pro Tools 8 "We've just upgraded to the new one. For comp'ing vocals, it's ace. I think they've kind of stolen it from Logic but it's a welcome addition to the package!"
Alice Soundtech desk Series A
It's a broadcast desk rather than a tracking desk, which means it's super-clean and there's loads of headroom. There aren't that many options (it doesn't even have any busses!) but you can do whatever you need to do like that in Pro Tools. Basically, it straps all our outboard gear together and it was within our budget!"
TL Audio EQ-1 dual valve equaliser
SSL XLogic G Series compressor
Yamaha NS10 monitors "They don't tell you much about the bottom end, but in terms of vocals I haven't really found anything else that works as well. Plus they're useful if you're going to take the track anywhere else, because pretty much everywhere has NS10s, so room acoustics aside, you're going to be in the same ball park."
Quested VS2108 active monitors
"We used to use Event 20/20s, but then we heard these at The Premises when we recording the first album and had to get a pair. They're really even: the top end goes really high, the bottom end goes really low and they're just really flat, which is exactly what you want."
Moog, The Prodigy, Simian Mobile Disco, James Shaw