NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS ENJOYED THEIR MOST SUCCESSFUL ALBUM TO DATE WITH PUSH THE SKY AWAY. PRODUCER, ENGINEER AND MIXER NICK LAUNAY LIFTS THE LID ON HOW IT WAS MADE
“It seems that this album is really touching people, more than any other album that I have ever worked on,” mused producer extraordinaire Nick Launay, talking from his home in Los Angeles. “People appear almost overwhelmed by it. I’m noticing that especially women love it, probably because it is quite laid back and full of mood and feeling. The whole idea was to make a very touching and a very beautiful album, and not only does it sound organic and warm, with many unusual sounds, like loops, squeaks, buzzes and hums that we deliberately kept in, it also contains many stories that are told in an unusual way and with an incredible sense of humour. Making this album was very entertaining. In fact, every album that I do with them is getting wilder and wilder and more unusual. It shines through on the record, and I think it’s one of the reasons why so many people really like it.”
Launay was talking about Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ recent album Push The Sky Away, and his statement is all the more remarkable for the fact that the producer, mixer and engineer has one of the most impressive credit lists in the industry, featuring the likes of Public Image Ltd, Yeah, Yeah Yeah’s, Killing Joke, Midnight Oil, Kate Bush, David Byrne, INXS, Eric Clapton, Lou Reed, Arcade Fire, Supergrass, Grinderman, and many more. For him to say that the response to Push The Sky Away has been stronger than that of any other album he’s been involved in may be interpreted as the usual being-enthusiastic-about-one’s-latest-project hyperbole, but a look at the critical and punter’s reactions to Push The Sky Away tells a different story. Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s fifteenth studio album is by far the band’s highest charting album to date, going number one in close to a dozen countries, including in Cave’s native Australia, and reaching the top five in countless other territories, amongst them Germany and the UK. Even the US has stopped resisting Cave & Co’s charms with a 29 Billboard chart position, substantially higher than anything they have hitherto achieved.
The critics, meanwhile, have been almost universally ecstatic, leading to a Metacritic rating of 8.2 (out of 10). Push The Sky Away was called “a majestic and desolate masterpiece,” “subtle, sprawling, and often achingly beautiful,” “a striking, challenging and ultimately gorgeous album that should greatly appeal to fans appreciative of Cave’s more reflective mood,” and “a record of stunningly subtle beauty, a work that is both breathtakingly delicate and almost overwhelmingly powerful.” These are no mean words, and the fact that, for once, public and critics agree means that there’s something exceptional going on. Outstanding albums don’t always have outstanding making-of stories, nor does an exceptionally inspired production process necessarily lead to great results, but as Launay related the story of the writing, recording, and mixing of the album, there were enough hints, details and anecdotes to go some way to explaining Push The Sky Away’s greatness.
The London-born Launay first worked with Nick Cave right at the beginning of his studio career, in 1981, on a single for the Australian’s post-punk band The Birthday party. The two re-united in 2002 when Launay recorded, mixed and produced Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ album Nocturama (2003). Since then the band lost a founder member with every album: Blixa Bargeld was no longer there for Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004) and Mick Harvey left before Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008), but each of these Launay-produced albums was well-received. Launay and Cave also worked together on two albums by Grinderman, Grinderman (2007) and Grinderman 2 (2010), featuring three other Bad Seeds members and music of a noisy, garage-rock variety. Push The Sky Away is by far the most introverted and atmospheric of the albums Cave and Launay have worked on together. It wasn’t exactly planned that way, but circumstances certainly appeared to conspire for Cave, Launay et al to come up with something far more filmic and expansive than they had previously done. These circumstances included recording the bulk of the album in idyllic French countryside, with the relaxing effects of gorgeous grounds, a pool, wine and good food apparently seeping through into the music.
“The environment definitely helped,” agreed Launay. “One thing that also played a part was that Nick and Warren [Ellis, multi-instrumentalist] have been doing quite a bit of film music in recent years, so they’ve been breaking down this whole rock approach of music needing to have a drumbeat with a snare on 2 and 4. I’ve been doing some film music as well, so we all recognised that the way music makes people feel is actually the most important thing. That really helped to expand the possibilities. My focus in making music has never been on what’s fashionable, or what’s being played on the radio. What matters is how it touches people and how it makes them feel, and for this project we all wanted to make a really special and beautiful record. Nick also had many fantastic words, poems and stories to tell and feelings to share, many of which were written before the music existed, so the process was a matter of everyone trying to find the right music for the lyrics. This contrasted with the way previous Bad Seeds albums were done, with the songs for the most part having been written by Nick before the recordings, and the band rehearsing them and then recording them very fast in the studio. The Grinderman records started with the band jamming, messing with sounds and loops, and Nick then writing lyrics to that, which is the exact opposite of the way Push The Sky Away came into being.”
“Nick has done many albums, and each one has a different feeling, and with this album there was a very deliberate idea in place before we made it. Other albums have been done very quickly, with Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! recorded in four days in Terry Brittan’s State of the Ark Studios in London, which is incredibly fast by anyone’s standards. Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus was recorded in Studio Ferber in Paris, which is a fantastic studio that absolutely affected the way that record sounds. Push The Sky Away is based on me being asked to look for a residential studio in the UK, so we could all stay there and really focus on the recordings and the feelings we were getting and not having to deal with staying in hotels and having to get cabs every morning. But I couldn’t find any residential studios in the UK that didn’t have an SSL. I prefer recording on a Neve or any other vintage desk, and it appears that every beautiful English desk made in the 1970s has been sold to the US, and that’s a real shame. I spent my first ten years recording on SSL’s, but once I encountered a Neve, I immediately thought: ‘my goodness, this sounds so much more natural, and the headroom is so much higher and the depth of sound so much better.’ And the bands that I work with benefit from the honest sound I get by using vintage desks.”
“I got really frustrated by not being able to find a suitable residential studio in the UK, and in the end I asked a friend, [producer] Nigel Godrich, if he know of any, and he suggested I check out this studio, La Fabrique, which is close to where he sometimes lives in the southeast of France. I visited the web site, and it looked great. It has a 72-channel Neve 88R desk in a huge control room, and is located in a large old house with an incredibly history—the dye for the uniforms of Napoleon’s army was made there, for example. Nick went to visit the place and immediately loved it. He called me while he was still there and said, “The studio has a great vibe, with no overhead lighting. I’ve booked it!” The studio, and the house as a whole, has lampshades, and contains thousands of classical vinyl records stored in wood-panelled shelving, giving it a very homely atmosphere. The Neve desk is quite new and doesn’t have a lot of character, but it’s clean and clear and has a lot of headroom, and it least doesn’t sound like shit!”
SING SING START
Although quite a lot has been made of Launay, Cave and The Bad Seeds recording Push The Sky Away at the picturesque La Fabrique studios—it’s strongly featured in the making-of-the-album video—the reality is that the record had its genesis elsewhere. Launay took the story from the beginning: “The album was done in three parts, and the first happened before Christmas 2011. Nick called me up and said that he wanted to try some recording ideas at Sing Sing Studios in Melbourne, which is one of my favourite studios in the world. I flew out to see a Grinderman gig at the Meredith Festival on December 11, and the day after we went to the Neve room at Sing Sing, where there’s a vintage Neve with 1073’s, with Nick, Warren, Thomas [Wydler, drums], and Marty [Casey, bass], and did four days of jamming. They were simply throwing ideas around to see what would happen, though the possibility that this could become an album was already in the back of our minds. We recorded absolutely everything, made notes of the good bits and also did rough mixes of them, and then we all went off to do other things. Later, in the spring of 2012, Nick and Warren got together twice in a small studio in Brighton [England; Cave lives in Brighton], just to play around with things and come up with some new ideas. They also did some recording with [bassist and Bad Seeds co-founder member] Barry Adamson, and at that point we all felt that we had the makings of an album. It was then that we looked at La Fabrique and booked it for three weeks, which is very extravagant amount of time for The Bad Seeds!” (laughs)
“We reviewed the stuff that was recorded at Sing Sing and in Brighton and found that parts of it were really good, with a great vibe, and some of it ended up on the album. The basic tracks for ‘Jubilee Street,’ ‘Finishing Jubilee Street’ and ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ were all recorded at Sing Sing. Although the Brighton recordings were intended to be demos, we also used the bass that was played by Barry on ‘Finishing Jubilee Street’ and ‘Push The Sky Away.’ Almost everything else was recorded at La Fabrique. All the music is based on loops that Warren would make up using various instruments and his sample pedals. He has two Boomerangs, which are very old and probably still 8-bit, a couple of Eventide pedals, a Digitech Jam Man Stereo Looper/Phraser pedal and a Boss RC30 Dual Track Looper pedal, plus many distortion and EQ and other pedals. He plays with them and his instruments [violin, viola, tenor guitar, mandolin, flute, synthesizer, electric piano] until he gets something that feels good, and the band then plays to these loops. The loops often have strange mistakes in them, are never consistent, aren’t necessarily in 4/4, and it can be debatable where they start and end. This always leads to interesting things! All our decisions about the music were about what felt good and not about whether something was correct or not, so we kept things like for example the tenor guitar in ‘Jubilee Street,’ which is out of tune, but we liked the vibe!”
Launay added that although he’s still a big fan of the sound of analogue tape, he recorded Push The Sky Away on Pro Tools at 96/24, because they wanted to be able to extensively edit the recordings. “Our aim was to capture all the performances and then distil and edit all the bits of magic that we had recorded. Especially Warren’s loops are a real mystery thing. He’s tinkering and tinkering, and suddenly it sounds great. They often are like some kind of magic fluke, and it would have been impossible to recreate or replace them. Sometimes we would record his loop and the band would play to that, but more often than not he’d trigger it live. We usually had three or four people playing to the loop at the same time, so the whole thing was very live, and we kept whole takes. Most songs were played for much longer than needed, and editing was part of the arrangement process. We’d chop things down to a length that would keep the listener’s attention and then edit further and swap things around, and do overdubs, and so on. The original jam at Sing Sing for ‘Jubilee Street,’ for example, was 20 minutes long, and we cut it down and then edited sections together, which meant that there are sudden changes in tempo. It were mainly Nick, Warren, the band and I taking these editing decisions. It was very much a collaboration.”
“In the past my job as a producer was to do preproduction with a band and help them arrange their songs as best as possible, and then go into the studio to record them performing these arrangements as best as they could. This is where analogue tape worked well, and I might do razor-blade edits between takes—in some cases up to 30 per song!—to get the best feeling. But this album wasn’t done that way. Instead it was a lot about cutting and editing things and moving them around in a track. We sometimes would move an entire vocal take slightly in time, again to get the best feeling. These are all things that Pro Tools is great for. We never abused Pro Tools to get technically perfect recordings, like fit the drums to a grid or tune things. Again, every decision was based on how things felt, and probably half of what’s on the album is technically wrong. But if it felt good, we would use it, or even exaggerate it. This is what my job as a producer is all about: capturing and recognising great bits of magic, and then editing and manipulating them, and Pro Tools is an incredible tool for that.”
FOLLOW THE MAGIC
In the case of Push the Sky Away, capturing the performances required every bit of the skill and know-how that Launey has amassed over his thirty years of working in studios, not least because he also was continuously editing and creating rough mixes. He explained, “I had to be really on the ball, with no space for distractions, no picking up of cell phones or anything. It was a matter of being on all the time. Warren may start playing one instrument, and then halfway decide to pick up another one, and the very first thing he plays on this second instrument may be the bit that we need. So I have to set things up in such a way that no matter what he plays and when he plays, it’s going to sound great. It was the same with everyone else. Also, the Bad Seeds are the band with the greatest dynamic range that I have ever worked with, going from a whisper to extremely loud, and this meant that I had compressors on all microphones, for most of the time just ticking over and not doing anything, but just to make sure that if they were playing really loud, things wouldn’t be overloading in an unusable.”
One aspect of Launay’s working methods that has remained the same over three decades is that he likes to get his sounds right at source. “Most of getting the character in the sound is done with real-world, analogue, equipment, and the problem-solving—ie editing, getting rid of annoying frequencies, noise gating, etc—I now do in Pro Tools. At La Fabrique most of what I did was about capturing things, and in Warren’s case, because I never know what he’s going to play, I took feeds from absolutely everything. I had DI’s from before and after the pedals, even though we rarely used the DI signals in the mix. They were more for backup, and if we did use them, I’d usually send them out through an amp again. I always had two mics on his amps, usually a BeyerDynamic M88 as a close mic, and a tube mic further away, like a Neumann CMV lollipop mic, both of which went through a Neve 1081 mic pre, two 1176’s, and then into Pro Tools. He plays violin and viola, and although these go through an amp, I also mic’ed these acoustically, with a Bock 507 going through a Urei 1176. The Bock microphones are handmade by David Bock from vintage microphones, and have the same capsules, and sound even better than the original. I recorded Warren’s flute with the same mic, or maybe a AKG C12.”
“I recorded Nick’s vocals with a Neumann M49, going into a Neve 1081 and then a Tube Tech CL1B, and then to Pro Tools. All the vocals on this album were original takes done with the band, and were not overdubs, apart from a couple of songs in which Nick overdubbed some parts of his vocal because he’d changed the lyrics. With the Bad Seeds many decisions about what take to use are based on the vocal performance. Because Nick usually plays piano while he sings, I had to find ways to isolate the two. For this I use a microphone that fits into the piano with the lid down, the AKG C12B, which looks a bit like a 414. I have two C12B’s and, with permission of the piano owner, I use two layers of gaffer tape to construct a suspension bridge over the metal piano frame, and tape the mics to that, so they are suspended over the strings. The lid stays down, and I very often seal the underside of the piano as well. The sound that I get in this way is very dead and close-sounding, but actually works surprisingly well. The piano mics go into the 1081’s, if I have enough of them, or API’s 550’s, and then to tape. With electric pianos, like the Wurlitzer or the Fender Rhodes, I’d have a DI and also a mic on the amp. Another keyboard that was often used during the sessions was the MicroKorg, which is almost like a toy keyboard, but it has some really cool sounds in it. We tended to put it through guitar pedals so the sounds aren’t so obvious. Wherever you hear a synthesizer on the album, it was a bastardized MicroKorg.”
“The bass went into an old 8×10 Ampeg SVT cabinet and then a DI going into a Drawmer 1960 compressor, and it was mic’ed up with a Sennheiser 412 as a close mic and a Shure SM57 as a more distant mic, which went through an 1176. The latter gives me a lot of grit for songs that need it. For the drums I usually had a BeyerDynamic M88 on the kick, and I EQ lots of low end into that. The snare had a Shure SM57 or a Unidyne 57, toms I recorded with AKG 414’s, overheads were Neumann KM84’s, hi-hats the Schoeps 402 pencil mic, all of them going into 1081’s, if I have enough. If not, I’ll always use 1081’s on the kick, snare and hi-hats, and will use whatever desk is available for the other mics, so in this case the Neve. I always had room mics at La Fabrique because everything is happening so quickly and they often started recording before I had even managed to set levels, so I had two Neumann U87’s as room mics, going into two API 550’s and then two 1176’s with minimal compression and a tube mic like a Bock or a C12 with lots of compression. With everything I recorded I always tried to catch things with two different mics, so I can later choose one or the other, or have a combination of the two, and then use the differences between the mics to play them off against each other, using phase reversal or in Pro Tools time shift. You can create many different sounds like that.”
The La Fabrique sessions began on June 24, 2012. While Cave & Co had booked three weeks, Launay related that the company essentially had finished their work after two weeks, and spent another week trying different things, only to realise that this deep down was for the most part an excuse to spend a few more days in the studio’s paradisiacal surroundings! On July 15th they packed up the gear that they had rented in the UK, loaded it in the truck and drove back north. According to Launay, everyone took a break for one and a half months, after which the Briton began to mix the record at Seedy Underbelly Studios in Los Angeles, a place that he rents from a friend for up to eight months a year. Seedy Underbelly is a tiny studio filled to the brim with Launay’s favourite gear, including a late 80s 32-channel API Legacy desk and Adam P22 monitors.
“I’ve mixed almost every album I’ve done in the last 12 years at Seedy Underbelly,” explained Launay. “The desk is pretty much identical to the 70s API desks, though the latter may sound a little rounder and warmer, but not by much. API’s are relatively simple desks and the electronics are very similar. They sound great. I like them because they don’t give me a mushy low end. When I record an album on a Neve and also mix it on a Neve, it ends up so fat-sounding that it gets too big and flabby and you end up EQ-ing things during mastering. So I prefer to mix on an API. The one at Seedy Underbelly has Uptown automation that runs on a Windows 98 computer. It’s very basic mix automation, but I like it. It does what it needs to do: move the faders and up and down and cuts, and you can store your mix. What more do you need? I love my P22 monitors, and have a pair in Seedy Underbelly and in the UK, and I took the latter to France for the recordings at La Fabrique. I used to work on NS10’s, but I found that they sound just too harsh when working with Pro Tools, and this prompted me to look for speakers that you can listen to at high volume all day long without getting fatigue. The P22’s have ribbon tweeters, and this helps a lot.”
“Warren and Nick came over to LA and we spent a hilarious time mixing the album at Seedy. The way we worked was that I’d go in one or two hours before them, and I’d set up a basic mix, and they’d then come in with fresh ears and gave their comments. I then took it from there. Most of the mixes at Seedy Underbelly were very quick, usually taking between 5-6 hours for each song, after which I’d spent time laying down the various mix takes, and also the stems. My mix process is that I first get a basic balance of the entire song, and I then EQ and compress things to make them work together, while doing minimal fader movements and only very rarely solo-ing. I find that when you mixes flow better and sound more natural that way. It’s different from the days when I mixed on SSL’s, when I would solo certain sounds, like the kick or snare, and then would put the whole thing together, hoping everything would fit together. But sometimes it didn’t!”
“What I do very often, and with this album in particular, is that once I get the mix to a place where I feel that it is pretty good, I will listen to the rough mix again. Many of the rough mixes that I did in France were really vibey. They were very simple, but really worked, so I didn’t want to stray too far from them. Instead I’d just try to improve on the rough mixes a little bit. In fact, there are two songs on this album that are the rough mixes I did at La Fabrique: ‘We No Who U R’ and ‘Push The Sky Away.’ These rough mixes had a magic that I can only describe as: they were distorted in a really good way!’ At Seedy Underbelly I added new backing vocals to the rough mix of ‘We No Who U R,’ and also mixed in a bit of a loop by Warren that sounds a bit like a space ship. I obviously couldn’t recall the La Fabrique mixes, because they had been done on a completely different desk, but I will very often take photos of the desk for reference of a rough mix and refer to these.”
“My main gear at Seedy Underbelly consists of eight Neve 1081’s and eight Neve 1073’s and compressors like the Distressor, and Drawmer noise gates, an EMT 140 plate, a Furman spring reverb, which is pretty cheap, $300, and mono, and sounds like a guitar amp reverb, and a Roland RE301, the latter is a major part of the sound of this album. I have all the outboard that I use for mixing more or less permanently wired into the board, and lay the mix out so that the kick is always on the same channel, and the snare, and so on. I didn’t actually use many effects for the mixes on Push The Sky Away. It’s quite a natural-sounding album. There are a couple of tricks that I always use, like a gated Sansamp PSA-1 on the kick drum and I like to compress the snare a lot with a Distressor. I usually have the snare uncompressed on one channel and I’ll compress it on another channel that I will dull down so the hi-hat spill doesn’t pump unnaturally, and I’ll mix that in with the uncompressed snare. So I use the compressed snare sound for low midrange and low end and the non-compressed snare for the top end.”
“Regarding Warren’s sounds, most of the effects are already in the sounds, because he used loads of pedals, so all I did was add a little Furman spring reverb or EMT vintage plate or a slap back echo from the Roland RE301. I used the same effects on the vocals, as well as the dual Tube Tech LCA 2B compressor. I’ll also compress the room mics a lot, and the Urei 1176 is really good for that, because it adds quite a lot around 2-3KHz and they also distort in that area, which makes the effect very exciting. But because you can lose a bit of low end and get these exaggerated high-mids they’re not as good for vocals, because they tend to bring out the esses. Instead I’ll often use the Tube Tech CL1A on vocals, which is modelled on the 1176 but it doesn’t have the mid-range boost. It sounds very warm and works great on Nick’s vocals.”
Launay quite proudly declared that the way he works is a hybrid of analogue and digital, and so plugins also play a role in his mix approach. “I use analogue and digital absolutely 50-50, and I am very happy with that. There are things I can do in Pro Tools that I could never do in the analogue domain, particularly very detailed things and problem-solving. I basically do all the broad strokes in analogue, on the desk using the faders and with outboard, and detailed adjustments in Pro Tools before it goes out to the desk. But on this album I also used several plugins for controlled digital distortion, like the SoundToys Decapitator on bass, and sometimes on the vocal, as well as on Warren’s stuff. In the past I’d use compressors like the Gates on the kick drum, but I found that the Decapitator pretty much captures all these things. It has five buttons that allow you to change the tone and to find the best harmonic distortion for the sound.”
“In addition I also used EchoFarm plugin a lot, which emulates the vintage echo machines. I’m a bit worried that Pro Tools 10 doesn’t support TDM anymore, and EchoFarm is TDM only. I also use the Waves DeEsser, which is amazing. De-essers compress a certain frequency in a very narrow bandwidth, so you can also use them to get rid of low booms and other sounds, and I therefore use de-essers to get rid of all kinds of sounds that I don’t like. I also often use the Pro Tools EQ3, as a notch filter. It doesn’t do much sonically, ie it doesn’t make the sound warmer or colder, but it’s a great tool to boost or cut very specific frequencies. The SoundToys Chrystallizer is another favourite plugin, as well as the Devil-Loc, which is great. I do a lot of controlled distortion! And I use the Waves Expander/Gate a lot.”
“The stereo mixes went through two EAR compressors, and then two 1081’s, with which I added a bit of top and bottom and sometimes a bit of 2K, just brightening up the mix and making it thicker. The mixes went back into Pro Tools via Lavrey AD 122-96 converters. I also use a Lavry digital clock, because the main problem with Pro Tools is that the clocking is bad. So all the above is how I make up for not using analogue tape! The other reason for no longer mixing to ½-inch tape is that mixing stems back into Pro Tools allows me to adjust my mixes afterwards. For example, we’ve chosen mix 4, but I may then decide that there’s one section where I want the snare a bit louder. So I just get the snare stem and feed that in, or if I want the snare less loud, I’ll put the snare stem slightly out of phase so it substracts. You could never do that before. Using Pro Tools allows me to have my cake and eat it!”
“I’m still not 100% happy with the sound of Pro Tools, even though 24/96 is a big improvement over 44.1 or 48. I recorded Push The Sky Away on 24/96, but the reality is that 80% of people will end up listening to the album on MP3. That may be sad and frustrating, but it’s the truth. So as long as I am happy with the warmth and the feeling of my mixes, in part because I use a lot of analogue gear while recording and mixing, then I am OK with recording to Pro Tools and mixing back into Pro Tools. I could have mixed to 1/2–inch and then back into Pro Tools, but it’s arguably whether that would have made any noticeable difference to the sound. More often than not, all it ends up doing is cutting off the transients, and you end up trying to get them back during mastering, using EQ. You can easily go round in circles, and in the end it’s better to simply accept that people listen on MP3 or, at best, at 16/44.1. So I use Pro Tools, and every trick in the book that I have learnt over many years to make my recordings and mixes sound as good as possible. I think I managed to make Push The Sky Away sound pretty analogue, despite the fact that no analogue tape was used. I am really satisfied with the way it came out. It’s interesting that the album has struck a chord with so many people. It’s nicely surprising, and it also gives us hope!”
© 2013 Paul Tingen. Posted August 13, 2013.
Previously published in Audio Technology magazine, issue 95.
More images, including several screen shots, will be posted soon…