Over the last decade, Detroit-based band Protomartyr has been pushing the boundaries of post-punk and how it's defined. The group's earlier work reminds one of Mark E. Smith's The Fall, but they've transitioned into something much broader and more experimental with the release of their fifth record, Ultimate Success Today.
When preparing to record the album, the band's record label linked the members of Protomartyr with engineer and producer David Tolomei. David has built a robust resume since getting his start in 2008 with credits on releases from Dirty Projectors, Beach House, !!!, and John Cale.
We recently sat down with David for our new Making Of series to talk about the creation of Ultimate Success Today. Continue below to find out about the gear used to record the band, some of the challenges of making the record, and David's vocal chain for vocalist Joe Casey.
Tell us a little about the recording rig used for Ultimate Success Today. You recorded it at Dreamland Recording Studios, right?
Yeah, Dreamland is a pretty crazy place to record. I’ve worked there a couple of times as a producer and many times as a recording engineer, so I’m familiar with the room and its strengths and its weaknesses.
They have a 48-channel API desk with 550s on every channel, which is an amazing luxury. There’s also a rack of vintage Neve 1073s, vintage Pultecs, two UA 175s, four 1176s, four LA-3As, [Tube Tech] CL-1As, so outboard wise, there’s nothing more I could really need.
The part that makes recording there interesting though is working with the space. The main tracking area is a 120-year-old church. It’s a giant room with no treatment, just old wood and stained glass everywhere [Laughs].
What did your approach look like for this album? Did you have a specific plan on how you intended to capture the sounds?
The main hurdle for the record was always going to be time. The band had some very ambitious ideas, so I knew we would need to leave a large margin for experimentation. Rather than having a schedule, we blasted through basics in two days. Then when we transitioned to overdubs, I set up each instrument in a way that it could stay for the rest of the session without changeovers. That way people wouldn’t feel pressure to conform to any kind of schedule.
For example, once we were set-up for bass, rather than trying to push the bassist to get through his parts so we could move on, I’d set up for guitar on a break and leave the bass up. Then when it was time for bass clarinet, I set up a station for that. Flute? Throw a mic in the booth. Cello? Find that man a booth!
We’d keep moving forward, but always building on the initial set-up without taking anything down. At one point we had nine stations up and were using every channel on the console as well as almost every piece of gear. If someone felt like playing, all I had to do was unmute the tracks on the console and go into record.
When I’m producing a band, I want to be as transparent as possible. It’s important for them to feel like they can just do their thing, have a party, and play when they feel like it. It’s my job to work around that and pull everything together in a way that’s on schedule and mix-ready. I don’t ever want a band to feel like they're working around me or looking at the clock.
What did the vocal chain for Ultimate Success Today look like?
It’s always a challenge to get vocals to sit in a mix with heavy guitars and distortion, so all the decisions made on vocals were with that in mind. The chain was a vintage [Shure] SM7 through a 1073, right into a large console fader, then into a CL-1A. The CL-1A was sent out to a Mult, and one signal went straight to Pro Tools, and the other went through an original Blue Stripe 1176.
Joe is a really dynamic vocalist – every take he does is spontaneous and unique, so I definitely wanted a fader pre-compression that I could reach from the listening position. My finger didn’t leave that fader when Joe was in the booth. Every moment he was singing, I was riding the fader. Riding live to tape feels relatively high stress, but I believe the effort to be worth the result.
The purpose of the Blue Stripe 1176 was to have an analog distortion to blend in the mix to help the vocals cut. Those transformers have a very specific sound when they’re saturated, and it’s a sound that I honestly don’t think can be replicated digitally.
Were there any particular gear pieces you found yourself constantly reaching for on this record? What about plug-ins?
The vintage Neve preamps were a big part of the sound of the record. The 550s in the desk got used extensively. There’s a ton of bass clarinet on the record and quite a bit of flute as well, the [Telefunken] ELA-M 251 and the vintage [Neumann] M49 ended up being great for those sounds.
I knew that in the mix stage plug-ins weren’t going to play a big part, just because of the aesthetic of the band. Since I had the luxury of being in a giant studio, my goal was to get all the sounds there in the room, rather than going into it thinking “I know what plug-ins I can put on this to make it work.”
So everything got heavily processed with outboard pieces going in. I took room mics on everything. That way I had everything I needed in the sessions, and I wouldn’t have to depend on digital reverb in the mix. I could just ride the room mics for ambience.
Were there any sounds that were a particular challenge to capture?
Yes! Part of the band’s vision for the record was to feature classical instruments and have them double the guitars and replace synths that were in the demos. It was clear these parts were going to be a major part of the record. So having these songs with loud drums, distorted bass, and a bunch of guitar layers, recording a bass clarinet or a flute in a way that felt natural was a challenge.
There were quite a few moments where we reamped cello or bass clarinet through the guitar player or bass player’s set-up as another avenue to explore different sounds. Amps like an AC-30 or an SVT probably have never had a bass clarinet put through them, so it didn’t sound great immediately. It definitely needed some attention. Getting all the guest instrumentation to sit with the guitars was probably the hardest part of the session, but it was clear it was important to the artist. Being challenged in that way is one of my favorite parts of recording.
Let’s talk about your mixing process a little more. Was there a certain vibe that Protomartyr were looking for sonically?
Yes, turn everything up [Laughs]! They’re a very loud band so they definitely wanted everything to be pushed, but we did discuss the importance of maintaining as much clarity as possible. They also really wanted to highlight the guest musicians and the unique textures they brought to the table without the album sounding overproduced. It was really important to them that the record had the authenticity of a live show, but sounded deliberate like an album.
Often times with mixing, I feel like it’s my job to hype up every last aspect of the song, especially when I work with more electronic artists. In this case, I was really just attempting to be true to the sounds we captured in the studio, and bring enough clarity to the listener that they could either hear or feel every element we put down.
The record has been out a few months now. How are you feeling about the end results?
I love the record. The band’s vision to have all of these unique instruments and textures left a lot of room to explore new territory. There are moments where there are six flutes weaving in and out, parts with multiple cellos, bass clarinet, all kinds of things like that. To me, those sounds became a theme, and they sit well with the writing. I really like that about the record, and I have to credit the band with that. They came to the table with that, and I’m happy with the way it all came together.
Listen below to hear David Tolomei's work with Protomartyr on Ultimate Success Today.