The Making Of Future Islands' As Long As You Are With Steve Wright
Once there, Future Islands set to work with studio owner, producer, and audio engineer Steve Wright. In addition to handling both recording engineer and mix engineer duties on As Long As You Are, Steve has built an incredible resume over the past three decades working with artists like Mos Def, U.N.K.L.E, Slipknot, and Dying Fetus.
We recently caught up with Steve to talk about the new Future Islands record and the recording and mixing process. Continue reading below to find out what gear he used and learn a little more about the set-up over at Wright Way.
Tell me a little bit about the recording space at Wright Way.
The facility is a 5,000-square-foot space with four studios in Baltimore. Over 30 years we’ve built up the studio to be as accommodating as possible to all artists and genres, as well as a gear playground for engineers and producers. Working on classical, death metal, go-go, R&B, and indie records all in one day is not uncommon around here.
We mostly used Studio A for this record. It’s a moderate-sized studio equipped with a modified SSL 4000 G+ console and an emphasis on vintage outboard gear.
What kind of equipment did you use on this record?
Personally, I like working in the analog realm. That's where I get my textures. I’m not a huge fan of the distortion or harmonics of plug-ins so I do a lot of outboard processing. I used mostly vintage gear; a lot of 1960s and 70s flavors from API, RCA, Altec, Gately, Neve, Calrec, and Spectra Sonics. I have a few preamps dating back to the 1950s from Berlant and Ampex that we used as well. My assistant engineer and tech Paul Mercer builds a lot of our guitar pedals and makes our DIs from NOS UTC and Triad transformers.
What was your approach to recording this album? How did you set the band up in the space?
In the beginning, Gerrit, the keyboard player, came in with the first batch of songs as templates on his computer. The songs were written by the whole band, but he had all of the files. Each day we would bring up a song and ask: "What can we keep? What can we enhance? What can we redo? What can we throw away?” We’d tear down each song and build it back up again, working on arrangements and tones at the same time. For the first couple of weeks, we just had the studio set up as a playground for the guys to jump around in more of an overdub situation.
As the record progressed, we moved into more of a live setup for the band to play together, with everyone in one room feeding off each other. Drum and bass overdubs were done together for interaction and inspiration. If we felt we could re-do a song with a better feel, we’d scrap the first version and have the band perform it live.
A few of the songs on the record were written from the band just playing together. One song in particular, "Hit the Coast," was sparked in the middle of a three-hour jam and ended up on the record almost exactly as what the band wrote live in the studio. It was just a collective moment of inspiration, vocal melodies and all... One of those undeniable magic moments you hope to have in every recording.
What kind of sounds were you going for on this record and how did you capture them?
We wanted to use an approach that paid respect to the band’s beginnings. Even though a live drummer is an integral part of their sound now, there were years in the beginning that the band played just to a drum machine. They are a rock band, but there’s always been an electronic element to their sound.
On this record, our goal was to use real drums as much as we could. For example, if a drum machine sample was more appropriate to the song, we’d figure out some way to make it ourselves starting with an actual acoustic drum sound. Drummer Mike Lowry and I have actually been working together for more than 20 years. I was his live engineer for another band in the mid to late 90s. It wasn’t really as common back then as it is now, but we found ourselves headlining rave dance festivals as the only band alongside 12 DJs. It was a great education on pushing the limits of acoustic drums to fit in the electronic realm. So I think a dance kick sample maybe made it on the record somewhere, but for the most part, it’s all us constructing sounds from acoustic drums.
For the synths, Gerrit sculpts most of his sounds outside the studio on softsynths and then brings them in. He’s the silent guy at the back of the room that always has his homework done and usually done right, so the basics of all his sounds were great. We had two or three re-amping stations set up, so at any point during the record, we could run his softsynths through analog amps or pedals as an overdub or he could perform live with the band. A few parts we re-tracked with a Minimoog or an original Arp String Ensemble.
With the bass, William is very hands-on and loves to experiment, and he’s very particular about his tone. He called me up ahead of the recording and told me he wanted to try every DI in the building. So I think at one point we had 10 or 12 DIs out just to play around with. After a lot of experimentation, we ended up with one of our UTC transformer DIs run through an Ampex 350 preamp into a Western Electric 111c transformer. For his amp rig, we stuck with his live setup which sounded great. It’s a dual amp rig consisting of a Roland JC50 for the mids and G&K for the low end. The bass in this band is the raw texture in the music, so it takes the place of a guitar player essentially. So to capture that raw midrange, we used a combination of a Shure SM57, Unidyne 546, and an EV 408.
What did you use for the lead vocal chain on this record?
Sam is very unique and dynamic singer. I consider him a crooner in a rock band. For a vocal mic, after a shootout, we settled on a FLEA 47. I've had original U47s (along with a multitude of higher-end clones) come through the studio over the years, but when a friend brought over his FLEA 47 for us to try, it felt like I found the Holy Grail. I’m not sure if it has to do with this one being serial number 7, but it’s just a phenomenal-sounding mic. It gives you everything the U47 does, but with a pinch of “modern.” I rented it for the first session then quickly realized I had to buy it for the rest of the record.
The mic pre I used is actually a highly-modified Drawmer 1960. I upgraded all the capacitors substantially, swapped out op-amps, put vintage Telefunken tubes in it, and now I'll put that thing up against any other mic pre. It’s incredibly smooth and detailed compared to my stock one. It’s amazing on almost all vocals, drum overheads, and bass, or even across the mix bus. That runs through a Urei 1178. I'm a huge fan of the 1178 over the 1176. I just feel that they're a little more transparent. They don't lock you into a specific sound when you're mixing like the 1176s do. The 1178s are a little cleaner and give me a little more flexibility later on when mixing.
While mixing vocals I used an analog LA-3A or LA-2A for compression, as well as some multi-band compression in the digital world. I don’t think there’s a ton of vocal effects on the record, actually. I used a Lexicon Prime Time for slaps and Lexicon 480L for longer verbs. If I needed a little harmonic distortion, I’d push the vocal into the Peerless transformer of an Altec 9470 or an Ampex MX10 preamp. Besides that, I used some random plug-in delays, mainly for automation purposes.
It was kind of a two-stage process, and it was definitely a “hybrid” mix. Again, we did a large portion of our re-amping as a group, with the band all here together… Mainly giving life to anything that was born in a computer. But after they left the studio, I went a little bit further in the mix and started to get a specific harmonic texture for everything through the outboard gear. I ran tracks through our Spectra Sonics 101s, RCA BA72s, Ampex 350s, Altec 9470s, Neve 1272s, Gately line amps, and put some things to tape that might have needed it. For me, the pieces of the puzzle definitely fit together easier when they have different sonic signatures, especially on a record like this that has electronic elements. And at this point, the live drums were mixed on the SSL 4k and printed into the computer as stems.
Then, I presented that to the band as a first-round mix, just to make sure they liked the story I was trying to achieve. The band always made it known they wanted to be involved in the mix process, so from there, I mixed hybrid using the SSL as a summing mixer. That way, the band could have more interaction with the mix without me having to recall a whole bunch of outboard gear with every suggestion. Automation and more detailed EQ-ing happened in the box. Across the mix bus of the console I might have had a Neve 1272s or RCA BA72s, Dangerous BAX or Neumann Mastering EQ, and Telefunken or Western Electric transformers.
The last part of the puzzle is this: We’ve modified our SSL master section with three different outputs for different flavors while mixing. There's the “Classic” 4k SSL output that is rich in the mids and glues the mix together. Then a “Modern” output that also has the glue, but it’s a bit brighter and has more low-end punch for more modern-sounding records. Finally, there's the “Hi-fi” output that I usually use or Dance, R&B and Classical, which has no glue. It’s very wide and has a more open low-end. While I was printing mixes, I’d choose which feel was appropriate for the specific song.
Which pieces of gear did you use most on this record and why?
Here’s a Vintage King story for you. Years ago, after I moved into this building, I was looking for a Neve-style preamp that was a little softer in the mids. This was back in the late 90s. One of my buddies told me, "You gotta call this guy Mike, he runs this store called Vintage King." So I called up Mike and told him what I was looking for. He told me, "You need to get a Calrec 1161."
I had never used anything Calrec before, but he swore that I would love it. I said “Ok, sure!” I used that preamp on the snare for every track on this record. I also use it for all of my acoustic guitar recordings, as well as a lot of my overheads. The EQ was used at some point on every mix. He nailed it with that recommendation and I still use it every day. It was one of the first “big-boy” mic pres I ever bought and it’s with me till the end!
As for other gear, my Urei 1178 was used somewhere on every drum, bass, and vocal recording. They’re very transparent and just do what you expect them to do.
Every mix went through a Dangerous Music BAX EQ, which helped shape the sound of the record. I’m not a fan of digital EQ on the mix bus… I feel like mixes fall apart when you start to reach a point with digital EQs. I find that with analog EQs, you can be more abusive with shaping before anything gets harsh or brittle.
All of the tracks went through the SSL, of course. Working on a console, as opposed to entirely in the box, is more inspiring to me. Whenever I’m forced to mix everything in the box, the mix can tend to feel a little “cold." I’ve found I have a much quicker and easier time getting where I need to go when I’m mixing on the console because I’m actually enjoying the process that much more. For that reason, I find it odd when I see a lot of the die-hards getting rid of their analog gear.
I've been in this studio seven days a week for almost 20 years straight now, so I need to be continuously inspired by my surroundings, and gear is one of the things that inspires me. I love tweaking a knob until it's just right, or finding out what some transformer might do to a sound. That's what keeps me coming back every day.