Wargirl is a six-person garage rock band co-founded by Matt Wignall in 2016. The band combines an eclectic range of influences including current events, world music grooves, dub-centered rhythms, and lyrics of substance. Wargirl makes music that matters, but also makes you want to get down — the soundtrack of our times.
The band recently recorded their new record, Dancing Gold, at Matt’s garage-based Tackyland Studio in Long Beach, California. In addition to producing and recording Wargirl’s albums, Matt has also worked with indie-rock icons like Cold War Kids and Mando Diao.
Dancing Gold was mixed by Mark Neill, a legendary mix engineer, and producer, best known for his work on Brothers by The Black Keys. Mark mixed Dancing Gold at his home studio, Soil of the South in Valdosta, Georgia. For the release of this new record, the band linked up with Clouds Hill Recordings, a beautiful studio in Hamburg, Germany.
"Johann Scheerer from Clouds Hill has been a long time client of mine and he's bought some incredible gear from us over the years, including a vintage API 3232, a vintage pair of Telefunken ELA-M 250 microphones, and a handful of other Vintage Gear serviced by the Vintage King Tech Shop," says Vintage King Audio Consultant Jeff Leibovich. "Since first opening the studio, they've also expanded to having a record label that shares the same name."
We recently sat down with Matt and Mark to go behind the scenes and talk about the making of Dancing Gold. Read on to learn about how the album was recorded and mixed, including how Matt captured a raw, vintage sound for the band, and how Mark helped dial in the perfect mix.
Tell me a little bit about Tackyland Studio. How is the recording rig set up?
MW: It’s a very customized analog DIY setup. I’ve got an old 1980 TAC Matchless console, which I do a lot of mixing and tracking on. That console was converted by Ken Rains, who was a well-known LA audio tech. He modified it heavily, he actually switched my stereo bus to a Class-A stereo bus and built me a sidecar. We rebuilt the whole thing and did a lot of customizations on it.
I have a pretty small room, it’s kind of like the Mark Neill approach, but by accident. I moved into this house in Long Beach 20 years ago, and whoever lived here before me had the backroom set up with a four-track tape machine for recording demos. It has a raised wood floor and acoustic tiles on the ceiling. It just sounds really great in there.
I know Mark always loves smaller rooms. He’s always using fewer microphones and really making the drummer play the kit to the feel of the mic, and demanding that everybody be a bit more musical. He likes everyone to play a little quieter so you don’t have to close-mic everything. Over the years, I embraced that. And because my room sounds good, I’m able to capture music in that way.
Most of the gear I used, I’ve built or modified over the years. When I first started, all of my records sounded like garbage. My mastering engineer told me to get a couple of Neve 1272 preamps. So I got a stereo pair of BAE 1272 modules and my records started to sound a little better.
I just kept gathering gear over the years until eventually, I got an Otari MX70 16-track tape machine for recording drums and rhythm instruments.
I always wanted a Telefunken V72 or V76 preamp, but I always felt like I couldn’t afford any of that stuff. So I found these guys over in Europe that sold really interesting, esoteric gear. A lot of my preamps are weird Frankenstein designs.
I have a set of LOMO tube preamps that I got from this guy in Moscow. He was stripping LOMO consoles from the Russian Ballet so I bought some of the modules. It turns out, they’re basically a Russian clone of the V72 design.
What was your approach to recording this album? How did you set the band up in the space?
MW: I try to record as live as possible. That’s one of the things that I learned from working with Mark over the years. On the drums, I typically use a kick mic, a snare mic, and a single overhead mic. I’ve got a great drummer and he can adjust his playing for that kind of approach.
We set up a bass amp and a guitar amp in the room and miked them both. We also have a percussionist who plays congas and bongos, we set him up in the room, too. All four of us are in a circle looking at each other. We’ll play all of the basic tracks like that.
We just do them over and over again until we get the vibe right. We get in there and start playing and I record a sample. Then I hear what everything sounds like and start adding more compression to this or more reverb to that.
What kind of sounds were you going for on this record and how did you capture them?
MW: I’m always sort of divided between sounds like Scott Walker’s Scott 2 and early Bob Marley records like Catch a Fire. I don’t have a chamber, but I have an AKG BX 20, which I use a lot.
I do the best I can to capture that live sound and give it some depth. That’s where Mark comes in to take it to the next level. Having said that, there’s something I always liked about a kind of lo-fi / hi-fi sound that you would hear on like Beastie Boys' Ill Communication or Iggy Pop's Lust for Life.
Or even some of the Bowie records that came out of Hansa in Berlin, like Lodger, Low, and Heroes. Those are all great-sounding records, but I don’t think of them as super hi-fi records. I just think of them as cool, unique-sounding records. I really love those sounds and we tried to pursue that. That’s the goal, to capture that sort of energy that you would hear on any track from Lust for Life.
What did you use for the lead vocal chain on this record?
MW: For the vocal chain, I used the LOMO preamp I mentioned earlier, which has a nice little inductor EQ with low and high controls. It sounds so silky and beautiful that I don’t need to use any other EQ or anything. I also used a Sebatron Thorax channel, which has a tube compressor that sounds really good.
The mic is one of those Apex420 large-diaphragm condensers, but I spend a couple of weeks replacing the capsule and upgrading a bunch of stuff. I got a bunch of capacitors from Brazil and France and stuff because I was looking for some of the oil-filled caps that they used in vintage gear.
At the time, I was actually working at Sound City with Mark. They had an AKG C12 there that I loved, so I used a C12 capsule on the Apex, too. I took a C12 home from Sound City one day, it was like serial number 002 or something, and I set it up next to my Apex and did an A/B test. I was pretty darn close…
How did Mark get involved with the project?
MW: Mark has been my mentor for the last 15 years. I use so many techniques that I’ve learned from Mark over the years. I’m always trying to capture that kind of sound. When it came time to mix this record I started thinking, "I wish I could get Mark Neil to mix my record." I’ve been friends with him for almost two decades now, so I just called him up and we had a long conversation like we always do. He agreed to mix it, and it sounds huge.
What was the mixing rig like for this record?
MN: I don’t mix outside records very often, but when I do, I always have to recruit a friend of mine to bring his computer over to my place and transfer the files to my system because my studio is an antique, and it’s not set up to mix Matt Wignall’s Dropbox files. Lee engineers and is my right-hand man for these kinds of projects.
I’ve got acoustic spaces for reverb and a mono tube EMT, which we hook up to the system. We’ve also done some really high-resolution convolution reverbs with some spaces here and my Ampex tape machine. Lee helped me download all of the files and we mixed the whole record in Steinberg.
Some of the plug-ins that I used on this mix were soothe2 EQ and FabFilter Pro-C 2 for basic compression, usually around 8:1. I’m either old-school using antique equipment, or all in-the-box. Steinberg has some great plug-ins too. The Melodyne native to Steinberg is better than other pitch correction, I’ll use that sparingly.
How did the record turn out?
MN: It was really a pleasure working with Matt on this record. It all came together really easy.
MW: When I got these masters back from Mark, I was completely floored, as were the mastering engineers at our label. They said they had a crowd at Clouds Hill with all of the mastering engineers standing around, listening to the record, blown away with the low-end.