John Congleton produces St Vincent

Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, and John Congleton at work

PRODUCER AND ENGINEER JOHN CONGLETON EXPLAINS HOW HE HELPED ST VINCENT WITH HER GRAMMY-WINNING FOURTH ALBUM, FOCUSING ON  OLD-SCHOOL AND LEFT-FIELD APPROACHES

“When you make a record with me, it’s all about instinct and vibe, and capturing something special and unique. It’s definitely not about perfection or endlessly pontificating. That’s just not what I am into. We live in a world where people are constantly layering things and trying to get everything to sound perfect, and are never going for bold performances any more. To me that is really depressing. Perfection has nothing to do with making good music. What matters to me is character and things sounding confident and assured.”

Thus speaks John Congleton, who clearly is doing his best to hold out against the digital siren call of unlimited options, endless second guessing, perfect pitch and perfect timing, and enormous track counts. To counterbalance the tide of perfectly manufactured but soulless music, the producer has contributed to a genuine avalanche of weird and wonderful, left-field, alternative music. Allmusic.com lists nearly 400 credits, most of them unknowns, but also more well-known names like his own band The Paper Chase, Modest Mouse, David Byrne, Erykah Badu, The Roots, Marilyn Manson, Bono, The New Pornographers, Explosions In The Sky, Amanda Palmer, Murder By Death, Antony and the Johnsons, Ana Calvi, and St Vincent.

St Vincent, aka Annie Clark, is an artist with whom Congleton has built up a particularly strong musical relationship, as he has engineered, mixed, and produced three of her four solo albums to date: Actor (2009), Strange Mercy (2011), and most recently the eponymously-titled St Vincent (2014) In addition, Clarke also collaborated with David Byrne on the album Love This Giant (2012), which was co-produced by Congleton, Byrne, Clark and mixer Patrick Dillett.

St Vincent is Clark’s most critically, commercially and artistically successful album to date. It has been widely acclaimed as “a straightforward triumph” (The Guardian), “her most satisfying, artful, and accessible album yet (Allmusic.com), and “more succinct and confident than ever before” (Slant), and received a Grammy Award in February 2015 for Best Alternative Music Album. St Vincent expresses a singular artistic vision full of distortion and abrasiveness—though it also contains some gorgeously lush ballads—propelled by in-your-face drums, a Mini Moog bass and Clark’s crunching guitar and expressive, often distorted vocals. Clark herself has amusingly, and aptly, described her album as “a party record you could play at a funeral.”

St Vincent album cover

Aside from the music of the now defunct The Paper Chase, the collaboration with St Vincent arguably most directly reflects Congleton’s aesthetic and working methods. In interviews Clark has regularly sang Congleton’s praises (“I hope this whole interview just reads as a love letter to John. He is just one of my favorite people.”), and the producer also seems to regard her as his musical-soul-mate-in-chief, regularly referring to “Annie and I” and  describing the duo’s corresponding visions.

Their most recent joint effort, St Vincent, was recorded and mixed by Congleton at his home base, Elmwood Recording in Dallas, Texas. The studios sports a 36-input Neve 53-series, custom built for the BBC, Otari MTR90 24-track and Ampex 102 2-track tape recorders, and an extraordinary collection of outboard including 40-odd compressors and limiters, plus 70-odd microphones, and all manner of musical instruments. Somewhere in this wealth of hardware there’s also a Pro Tools HD3 rig with, as it says on Congleton’s web site, a “bunch of boring plug-ins, UAD, Waves, Soundtoys.”

“I used and use digital all the time,” comments Congleton, “because it’s impossible not to if you want to work as an engineer, but I was never particularly sold on it before HD came round. I’m fine using digital HD, but for me mixing in the box still does not sound interesting. I am aware that there are people that do amazing things with it, but it prevents me from doing a job that’s satisfactory to me. Discussions today about the sound of tape versus digital are not interesting to me any more. I don’t care. But what does matter to me is that there’s a certain way of working that comes with tape. I think everybody knows deep when something is good, or not, and I feel that there are many records today that don’t sound confident and big. They are theoretically big-sounding, but not particularly impressive in reality.”

“By contrast, one of the reasons why The Beatles sound so great and confident is that they worked on 4-track and had to commit to the ideas they recorded. It’s far easier to make four, or eight tracks of instruments sound huge than 80 tracks of instruments. That is why people still talk about The Beatles, or Led Zeppelin, because what they did was undeniably good, and recorded on just a few tracks. You end up not fixing things unnecessarily when working on tape, and because you don’t have so many tracks, you need to make decisions early. This is why I still like working with it, and also stick to hardware and real gear as much as possible. It just gives me better results.”

Congleton with his Elmwood Studios control room behind him

Congleton clearly isn’t afraid of nailing his colours to the mast, and this also is the case when he discusses his work on the St Vincent album. In line with his stated preferences, the album mostly came into being using hardware, with very few plugins used, and without much “pontification.” Congleton explains, “We tried very hard to cultivate the sound as much as possible while we were recording, so we had a committed approach. Annie really likes to establish the sounds as we go, and I am a big believer in that as well. Most of the sounds on the album, including the more radical ones, were recorded to 24-track tape exactly as you hear them on the CD.” The striking thing about Congleton’s well-developed sense of esthetic and strong gear preferences is that he is, in fact, a reluctant producer.

As a teenager growing up in Dallas he developed, he says, “a strong interested in becoming an engineer. Becoming a producer was not my goal. I was fascinated by the way records sound, and by the art of capturing sounds and playing them back. So I made it a goal to learn to record, and to see whether I could make a living for myself recording people. All I wanted was to have what I considered good engineering chops, so I would be able to record things properly.”

Congleton did, however, have a parallel ambition, which was to become a good musician, and spent two years at the University Of North Texas studying jazz composition. Soon afterwards, around 1997, he moved to Chicago. “I was 21 and spent some time there with Steve Albini, who is a brilliant engineer. He was very helpful to me. After my time in Chicago I returned to Dallas and became a staff engineer at Dallas Soundlab, the biggest studio in Texas at the time, and worked there for 2-3 years. It was around the time that studios were closing, and that studio also did eventually, so I went freelance. For several years I struggled, recording anything that I could, and worked my way up. I bought Elmwood Recording seven years ago.”

“The way I got into producing was that I started pushing the boundaries and experimenting with sound, and it also gradually became clear that people were not satisfied when I just recorded them. Every time I suggested an idea there was a positive response to it, so little by little I thought: ‘maybe I should get more involved.’ Then people began explicitly asking me to produce them and tell them what to do and give them feedback. From my end, this gave me a satisfaction that I didn’t get from just engineering. When I started producing as well as engineering, my career really caught fire.”

Congleton’s great leap forward into producing, in addition to engineering and mixing, took place in 2002, the year The Paper Chase released Hide The Kitchen Knives, their second album and still widely regarded as their magnum opus. Congleton wrote all the material, and also had credits for engineering and mixing, as well as guitar, keyboards, sampling, sequencing and vocals. The combination of noise and chaos, great rhythms and a pop sensibility (and some King Crimson references thrown in for good measure) earned The Paper Chase and Congleton widespread acclaim. His experiences in writing and arranging his own music naturally informed and inform his production efforts, though the man himself holds, “I produced The Paper Chase myself because I could not afford a real producer!”

Congleton recording an unspecified band

Annie Clark obviously can afford a producer, and when she and Congleton started work on St Vincent they were aware that, this being their fourth album together, there was a risk of them falling into a routine. Both she and her kindred spirit producer, with their penchants for experimenting and try new things, are totally averse to this. Congleton has the lowdown on how the duo managed to build on their past achievements and reinvent themselves at the same time…

“For the previous album, Strange Mercy, she came in with raw ideas, like riffs and melodies, which we then put together in my studio. For the new record we thought it would be best if we didn’t do that, and for her to come into the studio with more complete songs. She wrote a lot of the material while she was on tour with David Byrne, and during a writing vacation in Austin. For this reason did a lot of pre-production over the phone and the Internet, discussing her song ideas and what songs we wanted to work on and what songs we didn’t want to work on, and how the songs we decided to work on could be improved. She recorded the songs very simply, with her singing just with an acoustic guitar or a keyboard, and occasionally there was a drum machine, and sent them to me like that. It was very basic, which is the way I wanted it. It was a more traditional pre-production approach.”

“Once we felt that we had a good batch of songs to work on, Annie came to the studio in two chunks of time, first for three weeks in the spring of 2013, and then she had to leave for another tour with David Byrne, after which she came back for another three weeks. We also mixed the album during that last period. The way we worked was for her to record some very basic guitar/vocal demos, and we then had a rhythm section jam over them. It was not a matter of us working the songs out with a band, as we did with Strange Mercy, it was more a matter of practicing the songs with the rhythm section, until we figured out how we wanted each song to sound.”

“The rhythm section, which consisted of one of two drummers, Homer Steinweiss or McKenzie Smith, and Bobby Sparks, who played all the bass parts on a Mini Moog, would play around with the songs, and Annie and I commented on the things we liked and disliked. We always recorded the drums and bass together, so in effect the rhythm section was recorded live. I recorded a bunch of takes to analogue 24-track tape at 15ips, and I then transferred everything to Pro Tools, because I wanted to be able to easily comp things together, until Annie and I had results that we were satisfied with. After that Bobby, and the other musicians, keyboardists Daniel Mintseris and Adam Pickrell, and horn player Ralph Carney, overdubbed their parts. Finally Annie would replace her guitar and her vocals, and after that we mixed everything.”

Congleton with some of his microphones

Almost all the musicians that played on St Vincent have a distinguished pedigree. Homer Steinweiss is the drummer of The Dap Kings, McKenzie Smith the drummer of the band Midlake, Bobby Sparks a Grammy Award-winning jazz keyboardist and producer, Ralph Carney has a long-standing working relationship with Tom Waits, Daniel Mintseris, who is now the nucleus of Clark’s live band, has played with Marianne Faithfull, Peter Cincotti, and Martha Wainwright, and only Adam Pickrell is a relative unknown. Congleton went into more detail on what each of them contributed, and how he recorded them…

“The drum recordings were kind of disparate, meaning that we didn’t record all the drums at once. There never was the same drum kit and never the same recording set-up. But in general I recorded all the drums very minimally, with as few microphones as possible, because we wanted the drums to sound kind of old, and yet modern at the same time. The main drums for the song Huey Newton,’ played by Homer, were recorded with just one microphone, an RCA 44, placed in front of the drums, not in a special place, just pointed at the drums. Towards the end another completely different drum performance comes in. I wanted that song to sound like a Can song, so I recorded it the way I imagined Can would have recorded it. To me it sounds like Can, I really like it!”

“In other cases I would have had three or four mics on the drums. I like using an Electrovoice 868 on the bass drum, which has a lot of low end, and the Beyer 380 was another bass drum mic that I remember using for this record. I would have had an Altec 195 (150?) on the snare or a Shure KSM 141, while I had an Electrovoice RE 20 on the snare for the song ‘Birth In Reverse.’ For the toms I sometimes used an AKG 414—I like large diaphragm mics on the toms. You’re going to get a lot of cymbal bleed through a mic like that, but I think that actually improves the sound. Beyond that I would occasionally have had one mic for the rest of the drums.”

“I would have used the desk mic pres for the drums, and a lot of times I’ll push them to get it to sound dirty, or I run the drums through some insane effect. It could be anything, but it usually was distortion, as you can hear. A lot of the stuff on the album is just one microphone that was heavily effected, which always leads to cool results in my opinion. We always printed it like that and didn’t keep the effected and clean sounds separate. As I said, I believe in making decisions. If it sounds good now, it will sound good tomorrow, and if it doesn’t sound good now, then start over.”

Congleton’s late 1970s BBC desk

The mic pres of Congleton’s Neve desk were used on many occasions. The Texan is very content with it, saying, “the desk was built for the BBC, and there’s only one other one like it. I know it was never used by the BBC, instead it ended up in New York, where it was used for the Saturday Night Live show during the Belushi era [late 70s]. I’m not clear on where it went before it got to me, but it’s definitely one of my favourite consoles. I don’t like it quite as much as the 80-series, but there’s a price tag for that! My Neve has 33114 preamps, and some 31102’s and 31154’s. The preamps are very smooth-sounding and have great distortion. The desk sounds really great on guitars. It is also really easy to use, even though there are many things you can’t do with it, for example it has no automation and the bussing is extremely minimal. But none of these things matter because I love the way it sounds.”

Continuing his description of how he recorded the various instruments on St Vincent, Congleton elaborated on the bass, aka Bobby Spark’s Minimoog. “Sometimes it was DI-ed, going directly into the desk, sometimes we ran it through an Ampeg B15, in front of which I put a Neumann U47. These old Minimoogs are incredible and the synth sounds that Bobby came up with usually sounded amazing rightaway. They are like the Rolls Royces of the Moogs. I have one, and Bobby owns five. Sometimes he’d play it through a pedal to spice up the sound, but for a lot of the time it simply was the Moog. There wasn’t a lot we needed to do to make it sound great.”

“Daniel [Mintseris] came in for a few days, and laid down quite a few ideas. He’s more of a soft synth guy, and he had zillions of sounds and made suggestions and Annie and I picked the sounds we liked, and after that I would manipulated them quite a bit. The soft synth sounds were often kind of cold and sterile, so I’d warm them up as much as I could, usually by putting them through a Culture Vulture, which is one of my favourite pieces of gear. I also often ran Daniel’s sounds through an old Electro-Harmonix Memory Man. There is a lot of Memory Man on the St Vincent record! Adam [Pickrell] came in towards the end of the recording process and played a number of keyboard parts that we treated in similar ways as Daniel’s parts.”

Some of Congleton’s extensive collection of outboard gear

The final part of the recording process involved tracking Clark’s vocals and guitars. Clark’s uncle is Tuck Andress, one of the world’s premier finger-style guitarists, who performs with his wife Patti Cathcart, an extraordinarily accomplished singer. Clark has gone on tour with the duo, eventually opening for them, and strangely, according to Congleton, it weren’t Andress’s chops that were intimidating for Clark, but instead she developed a degree of self-consciousness and insecurity around her voice.

“When we first met her I told her that I thought her first record, Marry Me (2007), was really cool, but that she sounded really wound up about her vocals. She said that she was petrified of doing vocals. She was so concerned about singing perfectly in pitch that she would lose a lot of other things. I think she has a great voice and from the beginning of working with her I tried to bring out something more soulful and looser in the way she sang. With each record that we have done together you can hear that progression to a point now where she is sounding great and is really connecting.”

“Doing vocals for this album was a matter of being spontaneous and moving very quickly. We didn’t do any mic shootouts or things like that. It wasn’t a matter of let’s try this mic and mic pre and compressor. She hates that; it would drive her crazy. So for most of the songs I simply put a Lomo 19A13 mic in front of her, which is a mic she likes a lot. For the more rocking songs we used a Shure SM7, which is one of my favourite mics. It’s not fussy. You put it in front of someone and they sound great. I usually used the Neve board mic pres. The distorted vocal sound in ‘Rattlesnake’ is a special story, because she didn’t really know how to sing that song. She was maybe a bit insecure about it, so I just gave her an SM57, and she sang right into it, holding the mic very close to her mouth. The distortion is from her cupping the microphone and stressing the capsule. It sounds really shitty and was perfect for the song.”

“For her guitars we used mostly small cabinets, and I would throw whatever mic I had at hand in front of that, and that then went through the Ampex 351 Tube mic pre, or my Stromberg Stromberg-Carlson Tube pre/EQ, which was modified by Skip Simmons and has great distortion. Sometimes she’d plug her guitar into a distortion box and that would go straight into the desk, Jimmy Page or Hüsker Dü style. The song ‘Birth in Reverse’ is almost all DI-ed guitar. In general tracking the guitar was a lot of fun, because we were trying to find great guitar tones all the time. She’s an excellent guitar player, and she has so many great ideas that all you have to do is pay attention and look for the stuff that’s great. Again, when we hit on a sound we liked we would believe in it immediately and just recorded it.”

And yet more outboard!

  Unsurprisingly, given Congleton and Clarke’s predilection for instant commitment and creating final sounds during recording, mixdown of the St Vincent album was for the most part a balancing act. “None of the songs took a left turn during the mix. We were already committed to what they were. The only real exception was ‘Digital Witness,’ which went through a few different versions. We had a more synth-driven version, but we ultimately went with the horn-driven version. It was a very easy record to mix. We knocked all the songs out in just over a week, mixing two songs a day—there actually are quite a few songs that did not appear on the record.”

“I don’t really have a process when I mix. I don’t start with the bass drum, and then the snare drum, and so on. I can’t do that. Instead I just push all the faders up on the Neve and I work on everything at the same time. I’ll solve problems that I hear, and I’ll make sure the vocals are sounding right and I’ll work everything around them. But I immediately try to make sense of the whole picture. Most of the outboard I used for the St Vincent mixes were simple nuts and bolts things, nothing particularly tricky or fancy. I don’t have compressors on my desk, so I plugged in the GML 8900 on the drum bus, and the RCA BA6 on the Minimoog bass, and my old Collins 26U-1 limiter on Annie’s vocals. I didn’t do much to the guitars. We already had this totally distorted sound, and if I was to EQ or compress that it would have started to sound too harsh. I did use a few plugins during the mix, mostly for delays, like the Echofarm. But that was more or less it.”

“I’ll mix listening to my Focal Twin6 BE monitors almost exclusively, pretty much around 80-85dB, keeping it low and bringing the mix up now and then to check the low end. While mixing I try not to get too excited by turning things up! Before I used my B&W Matrix 805 speakers, which I still really like, but the Focals are more versatile. I also have some KRK speakers in the lobby next to my studio, and what I do quite a lot is play the mix back via them and listen from my studio. It’s the way many people listen to music, more or less in mono. If it sounds impressive coming from the other room, it gives you a good perception of how somebody else might be hearing it. I’m not a big believer in listening to things on a zillion different stereo systems, though, because it will sound different each time, and I’ll just get more insecure and the mix will get worse. Making the mixes consistent between stereo systems is the job for the mastering engineer.”

St Vincent was mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound in New York, and strangely and unusually, for Congleton, he asked for it to be mastered louder. “In general, records are too fucking loud. It’s ridiculous, and it’s stupid. There’s no integrity to bottom end on a lot of today’s records. A lot of hip-hop records are completely distorted. I don’t understand why people feel so insecure about their material that they feel that being loud is all that matters. I think the overly loud records of today are like gated reverb in the 1980s. It doesn’t bode well for things standing the test of time. It will sound ridiculous later on and we’re doing music a great disservice by dating these records like that. I’m not working on top 40 records, so luckily I don’t get into these loudness arguments very much, but having said all that, we felt that the first mastering of St Vincent was actually too quiet. It was at the same level as Strange Mercy, and we all agreed that for the tone of the record and what it is trying to accomplish it could be a little brighter and louder. This was one rare instance of louder being better!”

© 2015 Paul Tingen.

This article was previously published in issue 102 of Audio Technology (June 2014) magazine in Australia and the September 2014 issue of Sound & Recording magazine in Japan.

Audio Technology 102 front cover and first page of John Congleton article

First two pages of John Congleton article in Sound & Recording magazine

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