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The art of making hit records: an Arctic Monkeys story

03 Feb 2017

Interview kind: text · Reading time: 18 minutes

Born in the suburbs of Sheffield (UK) in 2002, Arctic Monkeys are considered the last big rock band that has become a commercial phenomenon.
 
They were able to create their own sound in a very deep way and radically change it from one album to the other. They have worked with some of the top class producers and engineer: Jim Abbiss (Editors, Kasabian, Massive Attack), Josh Homme (frontman of Queens of The Stone Age) and Tchad Blake (Elvis Costello, Pearl Jam, Tom Waits), apart from their life long producer James Ford (Foals, Mumford & Sons, Klaxons). Every Arctic Monkeys' album is a unique universe.
 
Back in 2002 in Sheffield (UK), four young high-school students got together and formed Arctic Monkeys, just a few months after they had actually started playing their instruments. They started performing in local pubs and the band’s reputation started growing thanks to MySpace and the new file sharing applications that were spreading at the time.
 
In may 2005, after gaining a decent fan-base, they released Five Minutes With Arctic Monkeys, their first self-produced EP with two songs. This attracted the attention of some major record labels. The band wanted to stay part of the independent scene, so they signed with Domino Recording Company.
 
The hype for Arctic Monkey’s debut album was insane. After some pretty feeble studio sessions with Domino’s producers James Ford and Mike Crossey, they contacted Jim Abbiss, already known for his previous works with Massive Attack and Kasabian. Time was really ticking: the single I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor had to be printed just sixteen days from the beginning of the production.
 
The meeting between the band and the producer happened at one of their concerts, specially organized so that Abbiss could listen to the exact set list of the future LP. There was no pre-production because, like Abbiss said, the songs were already working the way they sounded. If we listen to Five Minutes With Arctic Monkeys, we can notice that those two songs are very similar to the versions in Whatever People Say I Am, That's I'm Not (from now on just Whatever)
 
Two days after that gig they stepped into Chapel Studio, just an-hour drive from Sheffield, Arctic Monkey’s home town. This logistic choice had a major role in the band’s mood: Turner’s main concern was that the band’s “indie” sound could get distorted by an excessive amount of production. The fact of recording in a “local” studio was very reassuring for the band.
 
Whatever was almost entirely recorded live with all of the musicians in the same room, a part from the vocals. Guitar and bass amps were placed in the booths. The Fender Precision bass, was amplified by an Ampeg Portaflex B15 and miked with an MD421 and a Sub Kick. But the heart of the sound of Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not are certainly the guitars: Alex Turner used his Fender Stratocaster Standard, amplified by an Orange AD30, going through two chained Pro Co Rat 2. Jamie Cooks used a Telecaster 62’ Reissue, amplified by a Hiwatt Custom 50 Watt combo which had a very a very particular spring reverb. In his pedalboard we can find two distortion pedals: a T.Rex Dr Swamp and an MXR M-104. No particular technique was used on the drums, a part for an AKG 451b placed on the side of the snare heavily compressed with an 1176.
 
The album was almost entirely recorded using the Amek 2500 in Chapel Studio and its preamps; Abbiss was very fond of its very simple signal flow and the not very colored sound. For practical reasons, everything was recorded on ProTools. Apart from some vocal parts, there were hardly no overdubs in Whatever.
 
Because of the pressure the label was putting on the album, there were some issues while tracking, especially for the vocal parts; eventually the work was finished in time and Simon Barnicott took over as mixing engineer. The album was mixed on a 16-track EMI TG-1 in a day. Only two effects were used: a mono Plate Reverb and an Echoplex tape delay. Every automation  was manually printed during the mix: Abbiss moved the faders of the left side of the desk while Barny moved the ones on the right. Whatever became the fastest-selling record in the UK: 364.000 copies were sold during the first week from its release, beating Oasis’ record.
 
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Less than a year after the release of Whatever, Arctic Monkeys returned to the studio to record Favourite Worst Nightmare. This time they choose Miloco Garden in London, together with Domino’s producers James Ford and Mike Crossey. The production methods didn’t change much from the previous album and it seems like Abbiss gave birth to a direction they were happy to follow. The band was once again recorded live and if you listen carefully there are some click spills during the fadeouts, at the end of every song. The sound becomes more artistically powerful and more technically refined.
 
Alex Turner mainly uses a Fender Bronco (a Mustang “student model”, built in the 60s with just one bridge pick-up), while Jamie Cook used a 335 vintage. The overall sound is quite similar to the previous album and the main innovation production-wise was Alex Turner’s voice. Even though this is the only album where it can be heard, the saturated voice has become one of the band’s distinguishing features, known as “Arctic Monkey’s voice”. It was gained neither through a tape recorder nor through a saturated preamp: the distortion comes from the Echo Farm, a plug-in developed by Avid and Line6. Favourite Worst Nightmare also topped the UK charts, but wasn’t able to overtake Whatever’s amazing success.
 
 
The Monkeys returned to the studio a year later, ready to radically change their sound. To guide  them through this phase they choose a completely different producer: Josh Homme.
 
“I’ll go down in history as the guy who made Arctic Monkey slow down”
 (Josh Homme, SOS February 2010, “Josh Homme, Producing Arctic Monkeys”)
 
Before starting the recording sessions of their new work, Humbug, the band already had a few demos, even though they still didn’t have a clear sound. Another interesting fact was that Alex Turner lost his lyric sketchbook before entering the studio, so all of the vocal parts had to be re-elaborated. 
The new influences for this work were Hendrix, Cream and The Beatles: there were no more acid and distorted guitars and no more fast and complex drum patterns played by Matt Helder, all things the fans were so use to hearing.
 
The band felt the urge to step out of its comfort-zone and start from scratch. Homme’s trademarks are easily recognizable at first hearing, also because the album was recorded in a very well known place to the leader of QOTSA: Rancho De La Luna. Right in the middle of the californian desert, this place was run by engineer and producer Alain Johannes, who had already worked on many of Homme’s projects. The studio was a house which didn’t have any particular acoustic treatment and it was where the live guitarist of Eagles Of Death Metal lived.
 
To add up to the rather unusual equipment (a Soundcraft mixer and a Fostex 16-track tape recorder), Josh Homme brought his own preamps and compressors, along with the Eventide 2016 and the H8000FW. The production method was similar to what the Beatles did with Stg. Pepper: after recording some live takes, to have a basic structure of the song, they then experimented and built different layers of instruments. The final step, highly supported by Homme, was to add some little random details in a very precise way.
 
They used a 1971 Ludwig drum kit, with a Ludwig 402 snare. Every song was completed before carrying on to the next one, so Johannes had enough time to shape the sound he liked in a proper way. He claims that the drum mics were changed for each song, except for the Rode NT4 stereo microphone, used for capturing the room sound. A big innovation from the past works was the use of new instruments: old synths (Optigans, Crumars), household organs (used by the methodist families to pray in their own houses back in the 50s), xylophones, glockenspiels and acoustic guitars. Even the bass and the electric guitars radically changed: Nick O’Malley switches to a Yamaha SA-70 Hollow Body. The most interesting source they recorded was a Webcor tape recorder which had a small built-in speaker that was used as an amplifier. Alex switches to the Jazzmaster, going through a Cornell First Fuzz (a clone of the Dunlop Fuzz Face), an Ibanez Tube Screamer 808, e a Boss DM-1 delay. Jamie Cook uses his 335 with the addition of a Roland Space Echo to his pedal chain.
 
The technique used to record the vocals is very interesting: Johannes usually switches between two or three microphones, to choose the right sound he’s looking for in a certain part of the song. Alex Turner’s voice was recorded with a Neumann TLM149, a Sontronics Sigma, an “old Sony microphone” (not identified) and an “old Fender microphone” for the more distorted parts.
 
In this album Turner changes the way he usually sings, switching from a nervous and sometimes hip-hop style to a more straightforward one; this change was at the time blamed on Morrisey, even if it was Josh Homme that strongly pushed for it. The Humbug sessions were completed at Homme’s Pink Duck studio in Los Angeles and at Mission Sound in New York. These last sessions were directed by James Ford as a producer, but Alain Johannes was always there as the head engineer, with the aim of keeping a more cohesive sound throughout the whole album.
 
Humbug was the mixed by Rich Costey (Foo Fighters, Muse, Franz Ferdinand), who preserved the direction the recordings had taken: everything had been recorded with its own effects, so the general tone and the mood were already well defined. The album was released on the 19th of August 2009, it topped the UK charts and it represented an important hinterland of the band’s future works, even though it wasn’t widely accepted by their fans. During 2010 they started working to some new songs that became part of Suck It And See.
 
 
 
The Monkeys decided to spend more time in their rehearsal room to minimize the production work and the overdubs in the studio. They went back to their usual and familiar workflow along with James Ford as their producer. Their main goal was to write an album that could be entirely played live, so the band and the producer closed themselves in the rehearsal room for a six-week-long pre-production phase. Before Christmas 2010 they had recorded the final versions of the songs with a Zoom microphone. The production took place at the legendary Sound City studio, mainly because of the unique vibes that building had.
 
Sound City, well known for its productions back in the 60s and 70s, hadn’t changed much of its setup since then, and didn’t rely on Pro Tools. Suck It And See was recorded through the Neve 8028 custom desk on a Studer A800 Mark II, a 24-track tape recorder. All the songs were recorded live, a part from the vocals. The workflow was planned to be “a song a day”.
 
The drum kit was a Ludwig with a very basic mic setup: a Glyn Jones with two Coles 4038, a U47 on the kick, an SM57 on the snare and Josephson E22 on the toms. Nick O’Malley went back to his Precision, amplified by an Ampeg SVT with no pedals. For the more aggressive parts they simply pushed the gain to get more saturation. Alex Turner went back to his Bronco (which was stollen a few months later), bi-amped by a Selmer Zodiac and a Magnatone from the 60s. Jamie Cook used two custom amps: an Audio Kitchen Big Chopper and a Rosewell Bluesman. The distinctive fuzz sounds on Suck It And See were achieved through a Coopersonic Valve Slapper.
 
As the producer said, the most difficult part was keeping a positive-minded environment while working day and night. They recorded three takes for each song and then choose the best one. No editing was done! Overdubs were used to double the guitar parts (sometimes placing the amps in the live room and moving the mics away from the cabinet) and to add some percussions.
 
It can be defined as a “custom” album, just like the microphone used for the vocals: a Bock 251. Another innovation on Suck It And See are the vocal harmonies, almost entirely sang by the drummer Matt Helders. Some vocal parts were recorded simultaneously with Mike and Alex singing in the same microphone.
 
 
Craig Silvery (already known for his works with Arcade Fire) was hired to mix the Sound City sessions. This part of the process was also entirely analog thanks to a Neve 8088 desk and it had the precise aim of underlining that spatial sensation the band and the producer were looking for.
 
The record was finished in five weeks. It was released in June 2011, it threw Lady Gaga off the top of the UK charts and it was well acclaimed by both fans and critics, besides for its cover art: the title was censured with a sticker on the front cover in the States (because of the Fishermann slogan “Suck’Em And See”). It was also mentioned by the NME as one of the worst album covers in history.
 
 
We’re now approaching the end of Arctic Monkey’s discographic adventure with their last album, AM. This album was born on a 4-track cassette deck. After they recorded a few ideas in Alex Turner’s flat, the band moved to Safe & Sound studios in Los Angeles, to arrange and experiment. This time Arctic Monkeys decided to approach a more hip-hop sound, with a particular vocal treatment similar to R’n’B. For this sake, they hired two producers very close to electronic music for the recording sessions: James Ford and Ross Orton. Most of the tracking sessions were held in Rancho De La Luna. The Monkeys felt comfortable in the studio environment, but at the same time they made clear that they didn’t want anything that couldn’t be played live on it.
 
 
 
For many reasons, the drum sound is completely different from the previous albums: some songs were recorded through layers, first just the kick groove, then the snare, then the hi-hat. In some parts the kick is played with drums sticks and some snare sounds are built through different layers of samples and organic sounds. Drum-machines are occasionally re-amped and miked from a distance with cheap microphones. The objective was to get a Dr. Dre-style of sound without making a rap-rock album. The layers of percussions pointed towards this direction, gaining a real drum sound with some electronic taste. This hip-hop-analogue sound was also given by the technique mixing engineer Tchad Black used: kick, snare and tom go through a parallel compression which is distorted by a Sans-Amp Classic. The bass (almost always live recorded along the drums) is a Precision, amplified by an Ampeg Portaflex. Turner and Cooks both changed to Gibson: the first used a Les Paul and the latter used an SG. A part from the Selmer and the Magnatone, the main responsible for the guitar sound on this album was a Rickembacker amplifier, which didn’t have any input volume control. This little black combo was about to give the name to the album, which should have been called, like the band said, The New Black. To achieve a kind of EBow-sounding effect they used a Donald Duck bobble-head bouncing on the strings . The voices were recorded with a Neumann U67 which went through a clone of the Neve 1073 BAE preamp and was then compressed with an UA 1176 or a Distressor. The production voice-wise was very detailed, to a point in which Helders says, in an interview, that if the same band that recorded Whatever had seen what was going on in AM, they would have probably stopped playing before reaching that point.
 
Turner was never ashamed to admit that a lot of comp was done to his vocal parts: they were looking for the perfect performance and they ended up selecting the individual syllables. All of the parts were doubled in falsetto by Turner himself while Matt Helders recorded the various harmonies. Nick O’Malley, and his baritone range already heard in Suck It And See, recorded the doubles in the lower octave. From a lyric point of view, this can be considered a break-up album: Turner split up from his girlfriend in 2010 and this is one of the main themes throughout the different songs. The production lasted 10 months, during which Arctic Monkeys reinvented themselves: a Beatles-style workflow on a 4-track cassette deck, a careful analysis of every idea, the search for solid hip-hop-sounding groove and Alex Turner’s amazing vocal abilities.
 
 
AM was the only record that was able to overtake Whatever’s enormous success and definitely launched the band across the USA, reaching number six of the Billbord Hot 100 chart. It sold 157’000 copies just in the first week in the UK, becoming the fastest selling record after Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.
 
At the end of the AM tour the band announced they were going to break up. Arctic Monkeys have a very particular history: not many bands have managed to change reinvent themselves from an album to another. The first two albums are certainly a consequence of the same garage-punk live sound: with Humbug they became a studio-band, composing and rehearsing songs in the same place where they recorded. They took a step back with Suck It And See and then combined all of their production experience on AM. The fact of evolving in a credible and never pretentious way was the key of their genius. Many bands have tried to change their sound with poor results while others have retained the same style to make sure their product fitted the standards. The Monkeys have always been driven by their musical influences, fully aware of the music range they were experimenting in.
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