Production notes

Town of Cats - Dance Off the Deadbeat

1. Bastards

How to open a record? And especially, how to open a debut record? The draft running order changed many times during production, but Bastards always found its way to the front. Jake's opening tom assault made a strong argument, bringing to mind thrashing helicopter rotors, the horns a clarion call, the band ready to march.

While song itself is less combative, it presents its argument urgently, pleadingly, manically, seductively. Political persuasion in all its forms. In parody? Homage? In a year like 2016, the old adage has never been more relevant, more welcome.

Over the course of multiple takes we built an increasingly hoarse choir for the final chorus's shout section: At a time when global politics appears dangerously divided, the song's call to come together - to sing, to talk, to eat, to laugh - becomes its most powerfully subversive message.

Technical: Drums

60s Ludwig kit, various snare drums, Zildjan cymbals

Kick: AKG D112 (inside), Lewitt LCT640 (outside), cloth, brick
Snares: Shure SM57 (top & bottom), moongel
Toms: Beyerdynamic M88, moongel
Overheads: Beyerdynamic M160 (spaced pair)
Rooms: AKG 414 (very spaced pair, entirely unused on the record)
Dirty Room: SM58 (talkback mic, shoved in a hole in the wall, heavily compressed)

Kick outside & snare top through WA73 pres, everything else through Focusrite ISA pres, then straight to Pro Tools.

2. Climbing Trees

I first saw the band in May 2014, standing out in a whirlwind festival period where I did sound for over 150 shows in 30 days. Somehow, fighting sleep depravation, negligible turnaround and setup times, and a variously malfunctioning desk, they got good enough sound to want to bring me along to a recording later that summer. Trees, along with the next two songs on the album must have been in the set I saw. A few other recorded versions of all three exist, and those alongside the rest of the this record, which progresses roughly from older to newer material, trace the trajectory of the band.

The back third of Trees has the first overt 'production' moment; the fade down and up of the drums during Barney's solo. It was one I improvised during tracking and I am very pleased that there remained no resistance to this slightly autré idea. In addition to giving extra emphasis to the final section's huge build, it highlights some some really fantastic performances. The saxophone of course, but also Adam's slinky bassline, Henry's keys atmosphere, Toby's melancholy arpeggios. One of the hidden perks of mixing a record like this the ability to 'solo' instruments, hearing all the details hidden inside the song, and I hope I picked the right moment on the record to share that joy with the listener.

Technical: Percussion

Bongos, djembe, cow bell, wood blocks, agogo, shaker, vibraslap, cabasa, rainstick.

Close mic: AKG 414
Overhead: 414 (largely unused)
Focusrite ISA pres straight to Pro Tools.

3. King of the Jungle

Throughout the record, snares sounds were a particular focus for Jake and I. We were lucky enough to have access to Metway Studios' vintage Ludwig kit throughout, and the choice of a variety of snare drums. The pingy tightness of the snare on this tune brings out all the nuance of Jake's playing, particularly through the build to the song's final chorus. With the conversation on engineering so often about gear - mics, pres, consoles, processing - it's worth saying that we put a lot more time into drum selection, tuning and dampening than we did the rest of the drum engineering, and focussing on the front of the signal chain (material - performance - instrument) gave us more time for the fun stuff, and led to fewer headaches come mix time.

Representing their live sound on record - albeit immaculately played and recorded - was one of the primary goals of the production. This song comes closest to that aim, I think, with it's strong sectional dynamics and big sunny sound. The final chorus's horn playing in particular brings that wild, sweaty, big-band sound I was hoping to get. This is one of the few places on the record that something is double-tracked, with a 'correct' performance overlaid with a 'danger take'. One key benefit of modern recording technology is the opportunity to go for performatively dangerous takes safe in the knowledge that another great, if ordinary, take exists as a safety net. I wonder if it's possible to hear the safeties from the dangers.

Technical: Bass

Gallien-Kruger MB Fusion 500 line output
DIYRE Ferrite DI

Both signals through Focusrite ISA pres, straight to Pro Tools.

4. The Demon

First a shout out to Metway Studio's corridor, Barney's excellent foley and Joe's expert assistant engineering. We didn't have much time to spare for studio experimentation but this is a very cool moment.

And then it's largely over to Joe. Lovely warm harmonies in the chorus, two breathless, firey verses and a dreamy trumpet solo to boot. Suzie's centre-stage trombone fanfare, Adam and Jake's muscular groove, and Henry's montaño-shaped addition to the final chorus round out a set of strong performances.

Although the rhythm guitars for this tune and a couple of others were done at Metway, the majority of the record's guitars happened at Toby's House Studio in a single day, including all double-tracking, overdubs and his Mr. 100 solo. He even made me a cup of tea. I, meanwhile, managed to mislay that one important cable and had to make a dash across town to borrow a recording interface (big thanks to Cate for that). As the saying goes, "Proper Preproduction Prevents Piss-poor Production".

Technical: Guitar

Fender Telecaster through Fender Twin Reverb. One or two pedals.

Close mics: RM-5, Neumann M149 (Metway), Lewitt LCT640 (Toby's). DIYRE Ferrite DI.

Focusrite ISA pres into Pro Tools at Metway, Apogee Duet pres / converters at Toby's.

5. Dance Off the Deadbeat

A moment to gather ourselves and Deadbeat announces the start of a more complex, more dangerous back half of the record. If the first half is Town of Cats Classic®, Deadbeat introduces us to Town of Cats Gold®.

Nick's bongo line transport the song into prime Marvin country - the most overt of myriad subtle touches that his percussion work brings to the record. The second verse's agogo bell, bursting over with excitement, was found on one of Nick's warm up play-throughs, and is one of those moments that don't look special on paper but communicate the moment perfectly. Keep it in record, people!

It might sound funky and playful but Henry's Fender Rhodes solo was hard-earned. We had the thing pounding out of the Fender Twin we had set up for the guitars, but unbeknownst to us, rather a lot of the firey tone we were hearing was Henry digging in, absolutely hammering the keys. 10 or so takes later, a stoic Henry came back through to hear the take, hand slowly turning a worrying purple. No, we didn't need another take.

Shout out to mastering engineer Kelly Hibbert. We initially only had the budget for her to do this tune - the lead single. She did such a great job that we had to find a way to have her work on the rest. 👏👏👏

Technical: Keyboards

Nord Stage Piano, Nord Electro, Moog Sub 37, Fender Rhodes Mark I.

Nords / Moog: DI, Focusrite ISAs.
Rhodes: Fender Twin, RM-5, Neumann M149

6. Don't Listen

Cue questionable preproduction idea #142 - this one actually making it into the record - hey, why don't we make these intro chords hit on Joe's vocal lines! Easy to say when you don't have to actually play the syncopations, all while locking in those Destiny's Child harmonies. Sorry cats!

First time I heard "Crisps", I was convinced they were joking - 'yeah imagine if we did "crisps" the same way most songs do "baby" lol'. No, this was the band's songwriting in a nutshell: treat the funny stuff seriously, and the serious stuff with humour. My Oblique Strategies card for the day was 'Be Extravagant' so a wild feedback delay was the only thing for it.

For quite a while this was the record's final song, I think partly as a get out of jail free song for everything Joe was saying for the rest of the record. The lighter subject matter lets him stretch his lyrical legs into some of the most intricate verses on the record (although nothing quite can quite touch Time...).

This song has the final bit of recording on it, Joe's first loop through the "I should have sent myself home" refrain. Right up to the last moment we had a great take - in tune, in time, good dynamics - but listening to the mixes we realised that the song's final build ended great but didn't start right. We'd chosen a take that was "right" but, crucially, not right - it didn't communicate that moment of the song. So a few days before the mix was finished I managed to get hold of a very busy Joe to retake the line, and achieve the build the song deserved.

Technical: Horns

Trombone: DIY AC RM-5
Tenor Saxophone: Neumann M149
Alto Saxophone, Flute and Clarinet: Lewitt LCT640
Trumpet: t.bone RB 500

7. Mr 100

Communication between the performers and the studio control room is incredibly important, and for every studio there is a solution to the problem of holding a conversation between two soundproofed rooms. Like a lot of studios, Metway have an SM58 mic up in a hole in the live room wall, the signal from which is massively compressed and brought in to the desk. A few days in to tracking we realised that the mic was giving us this huge, boisterous, noisy drum sound, and you can hear a lot of that in this song.

You can also hear a band firing on all cylinders - by this point in the process, everyone was very comfortable with the space and raring for a go at this big song, and the majority of the performances here are 2nd or 3rd takes - even the odd hole-in-one. It's worth highlighting the importance of creating a fantastic headphone mix here, as it is one of the biggest prerequisites in getting a great take. Metway's engineer Jake was incredibly dedicated to this task, crafting beautiful headphone mixes often as chaos swirled around him. For the vocal sessions at mine, I sent stems out to a mixer for the vocalist, allowing them to adjust my starting point headphone mix to their taste.

This song for me is peak 2016 Town of Cats: sprawling, inventive, funny, melancholy, energetic and thoughtful. The intertwining countermelodies of the funereal final section are a personal highlight.

Technical: Vocals

Recorded at Metway Studios, Goblin Fortress Studios, King's, The Badman Estate, and My Place.
Lead and Backing Vocals: Lewitt LCT640, Shure SM58 and SM7b, DIY AC RM-5.
Group Vocals: LCT640, RM-5, M149, RB 500.

8. Badman's Lament

This was a very fun day, rushing along the south coast to capture Badman's delivery of his own text in his sunny front room. Like a radio drama, we got the room quiet, set up a ribbon mic, and made judicious use of the proximity effect.

I wasn't conscious of it at the time, but it is obvious that my own work on this interlude was strongly inspired by the opening of Jeff Wayne's seminal War of the Worlds, Badman our own Richard Burton. More consciously, I had also just been to see the RSC's new Groundhog Day adaptation and those who have had the opportunity to see it will recognise the dreamy whirling of clocks and alarms from its stellar sound design.

The execution of this interlude and the transition into Time happened very very late in the process, and along with Time have become my favourite part of the record. A proper season finale.

Technical: Tracking

Drums, bass, keyboards and horns tracked at Metway Studios, Brighton.
Guitars tracked at Toby's House, except Climbing Trees, The Demon and Bastards, tracked at Metway Studio.
Lead and backing vocals tracked at Goblin Fortress Studio, Joe's House, King's, The Badman Estate and My Place.
Gang vocals tracked at Metway Studio.

We tracked the rhythm section, horns and many of the overdubs in one 8-day chunk, with 2 further days of horns and overdubs, all at Metway Studios under the exceptional patience of house engineer Jake Rousham.

Mics and pres as above. I think we tracked only one or two parts through Metway's TLA VTC tube console (because we had run out of 1073/ISAs), so it was largely used for monitoring. Also heavily used throughout tracking was their TK BC1, an SSL G-Bus clone that we had strapped over the monitoring from day 1: Especially when you're doing 8 days straight, it makes a huge difference to have those tracked instruments sounding like the record from the moment you pull the faders up.

As you'll see below, I made pages and pages of notes during tracking, filling notebooks with routing plans, the order of events, scribbled opinions on every labelled take for every song. In theory I could go back to any bit of audio on the record and tell you whether it's a good take or not. I can recommend this for any session that lasts more than a day or two, and especially when you might be returning to mix months after tracking.

9. Time

How to finish an album? If you're Town of Cats, it's with the biggest, most complex, most ambitious song. The album in this running order forms a time-lapse of the band over the last 18 months, the image suddenly snapping back to real time as we hear the band as they are right now - and where they might go in the next 18 months. We have frantic, complex lyrics, polyrithmic grooves, fierce synths and smooth horns, three tempos, two immaculate solos, an epic final chorus, but the lingering sense that somehow, it may have all been a dream.

Technical: Mix

Mixed at My Place with Pro Tools, UAD Apollo and Genelec monitoring.

Lots of Slate Virtual Console Collection on tracks and buses wherever I wanted to add a particular saturation colour - API for forward mids, Neve for big bottom, Trident for silky top etc. EQ is almost exclusively Fabfilter Pro-Q (clean, ergonomic). I used 1176/LA-2A when I wanted colourful compression, and Waves R-Comp/C1 when I didn't. Reverb is almost exclusively Valhalla Room or UAD EMT 140 plate. Soundtoys Little Microshift was used any time I wanted something wide and chorused. Delays are largely Waves H-delay or UAD Precision Delay (depending on what UI I was in the mood for). Largely though, as you'll see below, good source material and finding the right balance was the majority of the sound.

As I might have mentioned, Jake's playing, and the drums at Metway sounded fantastic. So for many songs, there's very minimal treatment: Balance, minimal EQ (mostly HPF), sometimes a little reverb and often a small amount of drum bus compression (mainly UAD 1176). On the extreme end, Mr 100's drums have a fair bit of parallel processing from Soundtoy's Devil Loc, which provides distortion and compression, sculpted before and after with EQ.
In a couple of songs (Deadbeat, for example) the kick drum got a bit extra for the subwoofers from a triggered sample with a LPF on it. Many songs don't use all the mics we put up, e.g. Climbing Trees just using 5 mics: kick (outside), a small amount of rack and floor tom, and stereo overheads.

Mostly HPF, a few occasions of compression or limiting for transient shaping or transient control.

Again, sounded great from the amp head, so most of the time it was just a case of blending between that and the DI. Sometimes a little EQ, sometimes a little compression.

As with bass, we had two contrasting signals, here a dark (RM-5 ribbon) and bright (LCT640 condenser) microphone. This allowed me to get the sound from one or other or a blend of the two mics, with just a little EQ and compression. Most of the time with the guitar finding the perfect level was 95% of the work.

The only keys sound which required considerable processing was the Bastards piano, with the Nord sound needing a fair bit of EQ to bring to life. Lots of reverb automation helped there too. Otherwise it was more of the same HPF, bit of compression, a couple of instances of distortion, stereo widening or delay.

As might be expected the horns sometimes needed slightly firmer compression than guitar, bass or keys, although the majority of the EQ work was high-pass and (when even ribbon mics hadn't tamed the brassy top end) low-pass filtering. Being a concert hall instrument, the horns often also got their own supporting reverb, again from an EMT or Valhalla.

Backing Vocals:
Locking in the the lead is so important to backing vocals. Most of the time, once the timing was tight (through takes or edits) a high pass filter in the right place was all that was needed.

Lead Vocals:
Joe's dynamic, varied vocals often required separate processing on separate tracks, with sung, rapped, ad lib, harmony vocals all getting individual approaches. Lead vocals almost always had very little if any reverb, but plenty of timed delays, especially when I wanted them wider. The common vocal chain to all these and the BVs were LA-2A compression, Helios HE-69 EQ (for it's perfectly smooth top band) and VCC set to the Trident console. With all that extra top end, de-essing becomes essential, and one or twice I also compressed a band in the mids.

Town of Cats - Dance Off the Deadbeat is available on Bandcamp

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Handmade by Adam Staff 2016