For IDLES' followup to 2018's Joy As An Act Of Resistance, the British rock band went to France to work with producers Adam "Atom" Greenspan and Nick Launay. The resulting record, Ultra Mono, quickly became a huge success, hitting #1 on the UK charts and making appearances on many 2020 year-end lists.
This isn't the first time Atom and Nick have worked together on a record. Their partnership dates back to a chance meeting which led to Nick becoming a mentor to Atom. While both have done incredible work on their own, together they've made albums with the likes of Arcade Fire, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Refused.
We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Atom about his experience working on Ultra Mono. Read on to learn about recording drums in a stone wine cellar, his go-to vocal chain for vocalist Joe Talbot and what it's like making a record with his friend Nick.
How were you involved with the making of Ultra Mono?
Nick and I produced, recorded and mixed the album. I mixed most of their previous album as well, with Nick, contributing three mixes to that project. We were engaged to do this record a pretty long time ago. It was just a matter of the band finishing writing the songs. They had such an extensive touring schedule that we really only had a two-week period to get into a studio to make the record.
We went to France with them. We recorded it at La Frette Studios outside of Paris, which is a really lovely manor house. Nick had previously worked there with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds for Skeleton Tree, so he was already familiar with the spot. We had suggested a few different places and the band really liked the idea of being near Paris.
This record was completely a team effort from the beginning. 100%. We worked as co-producers for the whole album and it was actually the first project that we've done that way.
I've worked with Nick for 20 years now, maybe a little longer. I started as his Pro Tools operator, and then we liked working together so much that when he no longer needed programming, I became his recording engineer. My career progressed over the years alongside Nick, then I started doing a lot of producing on my own.
This was actually the first time we worked together on something in a while. It was such a different dynamic than any project that we had done together in the past, because we were on an equal level without me being subordinate to him. There were some really funny moments.
At one point, we had just finished tracking saxophone, and I turned to Nick and said, "You recall those channels and I'll go put these mics back." We looked at each other and instantly laughed because I just snapped an order at him. It was just such a funny dynamic. We'd never really been in that position before.
Tell me a little bit more about the recording space.
La Frette is a manor house and the studio itself is in the basement. The control room is fairly small and there are some fairly small, low-ceiling rooms. Oh, and in the room where we were recording the amps, there's the original house wine cellar, which is an all-brick room with an arched ceiling. It's an amazing-sounding drum room. It's just so incredibly explosive-sounding. We recorded the drums in the wine cellar, with both guitar players in the same room. It was an absolutely lovely experience recording in a place like that.
They have a custom Neve console that was originally built for the BBC. It's loaded with 1081 modules, which are my go-to for tracking as opposed to the 1073s. They're better for EQ shaping, in my opinion. I like having the ability to manipulate tracks at the source and get things to sound right rather than waiting until after the fact. They had some cool outboard gear too, nothing out of the ordinary.
Did you record everything live or multi-track the session?
Well, there were definitely some overdubs, but, for the most part, it's very live. In fact, I don't even know if any of the songs have edits. I think every song on the record is a full take, top to bottom, and occasionally, maybe even a first take. There's probably like one first or second take on there somewhere. The band is really focused, especially John, the drummer.
I think the energy of the record really speaks to that. Pretty much nothing is played to click. We would usually count the band in with a click, just so they had a reference to start the song, and then we'd kill it after a couple of bars and just let them go.
We did everything live, including the vocals, but we wound up overdubbing the vocals later. There were some songs they hadn't even written lyrics for yet. Joe was still writing in the studio. I think that made for a very immediate type of vocal approach, which was really interesting.
What kind of sounds were you going for on this record and how did you capture them?
For the drums, we wanted that massive, explosive room sound that Nick was really well known for, and that I've worked into my repertoire over the years. All cymbals were overdubbed. Obviously, high-hats were played with the main kit as they're part of the groove. The idea was to overdub cymbals so that we could have the drums sound as explosive as possible.
Mark Bowen, one of the guitar players, had acquired a Sunn Model T Amp with a crazy amount of gain. We used multiple bass amps, including a 200-watt Hiwatt rig and a Fender rig, which we ended up switching that out for an Ampeg. We actually blew up the Hiwatt, they were really cool about it. Within an hour they told Dev where he could find replacement tubes in Paris.
For vocals, we used an Aston Stealth. That was my first time using that mic. I was so curious about it because so many new condenser microphone designs have come out recently, but no one had really done a dynamic microphone in years. Plus, there were moments when Joe wanted to be able to go handheld. That mic is big, but it's still comfortable to hold in your hand. It had a great low-end and a very percussive sound, which is great because his vocal is so percussive. I felt like a dynamic was the way to go with him as opposed to some fancy tube mic, which we would normally use on a more traditional recording. Of course, the mic signal went through a Neve 1081. I think we had a Tube-Tech CL 1B, which is my go-to vocal compressor.
What was the mixing set up like for the record?
Here's where Nick and I diverged a little bit. We each picked half the songs. We then retreated to our own studios and each mixed half the record on our own with input from the band.
Our setups are fairly similar, we're both mixing in Pro Tools. I'm currently on a Universal Audio interface system, but I'm actually talking with Focusrite right now about making the switch over to their new interface that just came out with the R1 controller. There's a studio that I've been working at on and off for the past couple of years that has a Focusrite system and it sounds really great. I think the Universal Audio stuff is absolutely fantastic, it's gotten me this far and it's a really great value with the DSP built-in and the Unison mic preamps. Ultra Mono was done on the UAD and I'm super happy with how it came out.
Nick is using an HDX system with an Omni. After we finished the initial mixes, Nick came over to my studio and we went through all 12 songs together. We made some little modifications to make the mixes sound more uniform. The mixes were actually printed at Sunset Sound in Studio Three, summed in stereo subgroups through the desk and EAR 660 compressors, which we've always loved.
What are some of the plug-ins that you used while mixing?
Lots of UAD stuff. Both of us use the API 2500 compressor on the stereo bus followed by Kush Audio Clariphonic, which is indispensable. I've found the API 2500 plug-in to be my favorite bus compressor. Then when we went to print the mixes, we acquired the hardware to match our signal chain in the box.
I also used the API Vision channel strip, mostly because the 550B is my preferred EQ. I also used the Helios EQ quite a bit, especially on guitars. I've never been a big fan of the SSL sound. I like the warmth of a Neve or API, but I've found that the channel dynamics on the SSL G channel strip are perfect for that punchy drum transient. Typically, I'm just using the dynamics on that, maybe a little bit of EQ. I try to utilize plug-ins for what I feel they really excel at.
Which pieces of gear were the most helpful in achieving the sound you wanted?
I think the Aston Stealth really helped make the vocal sound. That and Waves Renaissance Bass. It did something to boost the low-end punch that no EQ could do. It was actually the first time I'd ever used that on a vocal. I think we used it on pretty much every song. Another plug-in I used a lot was the Soundtoys Little AlterBoy.
Instrument-wise, one of the things that really made the sound of the record was a baritone guitar. We really wanted to fill out the full frequency range. That was kind of the theme of Ultra Mono, we wanted to make a wall of sound. All the band members played the same part in a different frequency range. The baritone guitar was really key. To take it to the next level, I created a preset on Little AlterBoy that gave an octave down shift with a little bit of formant shift and some drive, creating a totally unidentifiable layer.
We also used lots of pedals. I flew over with a Pelican case full of pedals, and those guys are already pedal nerds, so they had mountains of pedals too. Lots of stuff from Earthquaker and Death by Audio. On the song "Model Village" there's a pedal that I brought called the Atomic Cock. I have a running search for any piece of gear with Atom in the name. It's basically a cocked wah to give you that nasally filter sound.
Listen below to hear Atom Greenspan and Nick Launay's work with IDLES on Ultra Mono.