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The secrets behind Tame Impala's distinctive sound

07 Feb 2017

Interview kind: text · Reading time: 14 minutes

“At certain times on this planet, there are certain places where there is a field of energy. At that time, and for a certain number of years, that place was Muscle Shoals” said Jimmy Cliff in a documentary about Fame Studios. Indeed, some of the most important records in the history of the american discography were made in that town in Alabama, between the 60s and the 70s.
 
Jimmy Cliff would have claimed that nowadays the same field of energy has moved to Perth, a small city on the Australian south coast. The Dee Dee Dums, Pond, Mink Mussel Creek, GUM, Allbrook/Avery, Rabbit Island, Gunns, Electric Toad, The Silents, Water Temple, Peter Bibby: these are some of the most interesting bands in the worldwide indie music scene, and they were all born in Perth.
 
I understood what was really going on in that corner of the Earth when I met Bahasa Malay at a concert we organized at B42 in Milan. She was touring Europe with her music and her stunning visual show, but she still lived in Perth: “The main feature of the music scene in Perth is that nobody cares about what the rest of the world is interested in”. 
 
“Tame Impala are just a fragment of the noise we make with our friends”, says Kevin Parker, the multi-instrumentalist leader and the mind behind this innovative project. He drew inspiration from Cream’s classic psychedelic sounds and from the Beatles’ White Album to combine them with strictly modern elements. The result of this equation is a 70’s style sound that has encores similar to a mantra, which, like Kevin says, have just one objective: to make people move.
 
Even if I feel emotionally touched by Jimmy Cliff’s astrological theories and I recognize that Kevin Parker is an absolute genius at composing, I can’t fully accept the story of how this sound was casually born in his bedroom in complete solitude. During an interview for Tape Op. in June 2013, Kevin remembers when he used to record his brother playing the drums onto his cassette deck; he would then overdub the rhythm guitar and the keyboard onto another deck, creating a massive amount of background noise. He also very casually speaks of when he recorded some of the vocals on Lonerism through a microphone patched to the unbalanced input of his laptop with a number of adaptors.
 
To fully understand the legends and the fables behind the birth of Tame Impala’s sound, let’s dig into the production details of the first two albums, Innerspeaker (2010) and Lonerism (2012).
 
Even though there is a two-year gap between the albums, they were produced in the same period of time with the same production methods. In fact, when Innerspeaker was mixed, Kevin Parker was already working on new songs for Lonerism and had planned to use them for his side project or sell them as an author. The main innovation was that Kevin got fed up with crazy guitar experimentations and started discovering the infinite world of synthesizers, through an 80s Sequential Circuits Pro-One.
 
Modular Recording label convinced Kevin to record Innerspeaker outside his house. Together with guitarist Dominic Simper and Tim Holmes, a young sound engineer from Death in Vegas, he rented a house on Injidup beach, at a two-hour drive from Perth, and they stayed there for about six months. The property is now on sale for nearly six million dollars and has a vast porch facing the beach which became the control room: they used a pair of Pioneer cs-703 monitors together with the Yamaha Hs8, a Boss Br-864 digital eight-track recorder and outboards like the Neve 1073 preamp and the Empirical Labs Distressor. The living room was packed with all sorts of instruments and it was used as the live room. That was the moment when the Tame Impala drum sound was brought to life, while Tim Holmes was happily fishing.
 
If you try typing “Tame Impala snare” on your Google search bar, you’ll find dozens of tutorials that explain step by step how to recreate that sound; but there’s no need to watch the whole video to understand there’s absolutely no chance of obtaining it. The “Tame Impala mania” has grown to a point where many enthusiasts are starting to name anything slightly close to this particular sound as “tame impalic”.
 
In many interviews and in the Innerspeaker documentary, Kevin explains how he recorded the drums (usually a Ludwig Sparkle Blue from ’66 with a Supraphonic 14x6 snare) using only three microphones. He didn’t refer to any particular techniques like the Glyn Johns, but simply placed a Rode K2 ribbon mic as mono overhead, an SM57 on the kick and another 57 on the snare (in a top secret position). The spot mic on the snare was extremely compressed through a Shure SE30 and saturated with an old Shure Level-Loc used for broadcast; the high end is recovered by blending in the mono overhead. The SM57 placed on the hole gives the kick drum a nice shape and a low-end definition, but with less attack. Like Kevin says, everything would sound like crap if the drum bus wasn’t compressed with the Dbx 165 with a slow attack and a fast release, to create the so-called “pumping effect” typical of the hip-hop beats but with less cymbal splashes.
 
 
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The feeling is that there’s some other secret beyond the snare mic positioning. Reddit’s Audio Engineer blog gave us a first evidence of this: a musician, that played in different side projects born around Tame Impala, claims that an AKG D190 was placed perpendicularly to the side of the snare at about 10 cm away. 
 
Mixing engineer Dave Fridmann, whose role will be explained later on, requested that some of the drum parts had to be overdubbed in a couple of Australian studios. We know for sure they spent some time in Blackbird Sound Studio; Dave Parking, the owner, wrote on Gearslutz that he personally set up his 70’s DW miked with a Peluso R14 as overhead, a Sennheiser 421 perpendicular to the side of the snare and an AKG D12 on the kick’s hole. “Kevin wanted to bypass the console and go straight into his 16-track recorder on the floor. He seemed pretty happy to sit on the floor”.
 
Parking also explains that up until then the Dbx 165, which creates most of the drum’s magic sound, hadn’t been inserted in Kevin’s processing chain yet. It was later added by Dave Fridmann during mixing and he said he precisely used the 165a and its internal peak limiter to give a nice crunchy sound to the kit.
 
Another of Tame Impala’s distinguishing features are the fuzzy and scratchy guitars, as a consequence of Kevin Parker’s bad relationship with guitar amplifiers. “I got really fed up with wasting time setting my amp”, he says in an interview for Tape Op. “only by routing my signal through a D.I box (a Seymour Duncan) I can get that mid-high-end presence an amp can’t give me”. Above that, some overdubs were made with classic tube amplifiers like the AC30. Digital distortion, which Kevin loves so much, is applied to many of his guitar parts by connecting the instrument directly to the Boss Br-864 recorder and making its internal limiter saturate. Every single take was recorded through the complex pedal and effect chain he personally designed. There’s an online list of all the gear he usually uses for live and studio performances.
 
The vocals of certain songs, for example the ones on Feels Like We Only Go Backwards, were recorded in just one take, while other times he had to do them over and over again for hundreds of times. In some cases he ended up recording takes on a plane to Paris, where his girlfriend Melody Prochet (from Melody’s Echo Chamber) lives. His usual method consists in doubling the main voice and then perfectly quantizing it with Vocalign, a very powerful plug-in that creates a natural doubler effect. Melodically and spatially, Kevin’s voice reminds us of John Lennon’s one during Revolver, with the addition of tons of various effects and pedals, above all the Boss VE-20 Vocal Performer.
 
Effects are essential for Kevin Parker. These tools are used starting from the first production steps, becoming a part of the arrangement. At half way through Mind Mischief, a flanger effect introduces the chord modulation and the following change of key and instrument parts. During Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything That We Could Control, he pushes the limit even further by applying a flanger to the whole song. Starting from Lonerism, Kevin uses Ableton Live more and more often during his production to emphasize the use of weird effects and hypnotic loops.
The real revolution is to draw inspiration from the 60s and 70s psychedelic sound and insert them into the current synthetic context.
 
Everything is then filtered through Kevin’s mind-blowing imagination and any inspiration he feels is captured with his dictaphone.
 
While he was hanging around in his hotel room, he heard a particular reverb coming from the people walking on the street opposite his window. What he recorded that afternoon became the intro of Be Above It. The last track of LonerismSun’s Coming Up, has a long background recording of wind noise and a girl talking; this was made while he was walking from the parking lot to a local beach in Perth. Kevin confesses: “When I’m holding a recording device, I get the feeling I’m capturing my being alone, even if I’m not”.
 
 
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Once the recordings were finished, the album didn’t have a clear sound yet. Modular Recordings once again pushed Kevin to rely on an expert engineer for the mixing, since he still had in mind (and in his ears) the 2008 sound from their debut EP, Tame Impala. That record, jealously mixed by Kevin himself, sounded extremely immature. A part from some slight shades of the typical drum sound we would have heard in the next two albums, the rest wasn’t “tame impalic” at all. The soundscape was very rough, the guitars were less catchy and the general approach to the production made it more live sounding, with less hooks and effects that became Tame Impala’s distinctive features. Listening to this first record you can understand Dave Fridmann’s contribution in mixing Innerspeaker and Lonerism.
 
Fridmann, who had already produced Flaming Lips and MGMT, can’t be defined as a "neutral" mixing engineer; in fact, during his 25 years of experience, he developed a unique sound. He’s used to heavily processing the original source and building his records on different layers of sounds one on top of the other. A clear example of this method can be seen on Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka, where he divided the production into 4 separate CDs, each one with a different soundscape layer, which had to be played at the same time. His mixes are constantly moving thanks to pan automations and ping-pong effects, both electronic and acoustic. But the most distinctive feature is certainly the sound texture that he builds through different steps: most important of all, the Otari 24 track tape recorder. When the stems go through tape, the mid and high-end get incredibly crispy, while the low end gets more round and punchy. In this case, the use of a Hofner Ignition bass gave a nice 60s sound to the overall mix.
 
This particular mixing process must be correlated with Tame Impala’s usual creative techniques, even though Kevin Parker has always proved his obsessive will on controlling every part of the song. On stage, the drums are sometimes live mixed by Kevin with a Motu UltraLite interface to avoid that someone else mixes his material.
 
 
After these considerations, it’s easily assumable that the story behind Tame Impala’s sound and how it was built in house on the beach (during Innerspeaker) and then in Kevin’s bedroom (during Lonerism) is quite strained. When speaking about Tame Impala, everything must be anachronistic, inspired and spontaneous. At the end of the day, a part from the truth behind the birth of this futuristic sound, what really matters is the message someone wants to send. Kevin Parker’s genius mind makes us realize that we can still hang around in our bedroom, in our holiday house with friends or just by ourselves and dream of headlining Glastonbury writing our own songs. 
 
The story of the secrets behind Tame Impala’s albums is an invitation to never stop dreaming.
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