Tracking Arcade Fire with the Iconic UA 610 Console & Apollo
No one would characterize Arcade Fire’s danceable indie-pop as “retro,” so it’s perhaps surprising to learn that their latest Billboard #1 album, Everything Now, was engineered largely with the help of a very rare, vintage Universal Audio 610 console, much the same machine as the legendary Wally Heider “green board” made famous by Neil Young on albums like 1972’s Harvest.
At the helm was British producer and composer Steve Mackey — best known Stateside for being the bassist of Pulp, and for producing the likes of M.I.A. and Florence and the Machine. Mackey, in league with co-producers like Marcus Dravs, Eric Heigle, Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk, and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, was tasked with focusing Arcade Fire’s famously full-blown live session approach (as many as 12 multi-instrumentalists stuffed into a tiny room), through as entirely analog a signal path as possible. Somehow, it worked. Here’s how.
How did tracking Arcade Fire with a rare Universal Audio 610 “green” console happen?
Until I went to meet with Arcade Fire’s Win Butler in New Orleans, I’d never worked with a Universal Audio 610 console. It’s a pretty rare thing — and certainly rare in England. Basically, Win had a collection of 610 channel strips — he’s really into vintage UA gear—and he had a 610 frame loaded with a whole collection of more 610 channel strips that he’d picked up. We started recording with that — I think we had 12 channels — but as the record progressed, about halfway through, he was able to find one of the original 610 consoles complete and in really good condition.
How did the 610 perform, and what were the audio benefits to working with such a rare piece of equipment?
The 610 has various tube inputs and outputs on it that are pretty unique to the 610, and much different than other desks. Win had pretty firm ideas about making this an analog record. He just loves the sounds of analog, and records that were made on the UA 610, like Neil Young’s Harvest. So he built the room around that, with a tape machine in the corner, and a Neve BCM-10/2 channel sidecar.
During tracking, we used the 610 primarily for the rhythm section, including drum machines and percussion, but down the line toward mixdown it also became really useful. For instance, we’d go away and mix a track at a different studio in New Orleans called The Parlor, but afterwards we’d take the stems and do the final mix adjustments entirely through the 610, which had quite an amazing effect. We’d be hitting the 610 quite hard with the stems, and it really imparted an incredible quality and tone. That would go down as the master.
“The 610 console is going to give you a great sound, but if it doesn’t do it straight away, that speaks to your mic technique, not the desk.” — Steve Mackey
The 610 is a simple board, in many respects with very limited EQ, and not a lot of bells and whistles.
I would say that the appeal of those channel strips is in the limitations. You can either drive it hard, or you can EQ around 10k or 100hz, but it’s just fixed-frequency high and low shelving, some cut or boost, but beyond that, you’re getting into mic technique, just as you would have decades ago. Yes, the desk is going to give you a great sound, but if it doesn’t do it straight away, that speaks to your mic technique, not the desk. Personally, I really enjoy that way of working. If it’s not happening on the 610, it’s very easy just to swap out a mic. Keeping it simple like that is especially good for Arcade Fire, for whom recording is a fairly manic situation.
Their studio, Boombox, is very small, and there’s a minimum of six, and as many as 12, musicians in that room, frequently swapping instruments, sometimes right in the middle of a take! The 610 really came into its own in that place, because you’re just wanting to simply adjust gains and keep straightforward control of the recording environment, without a lot of distracting bells-and-whistles.
The space limitations also forced me to focus completely on the band and on the take, and with up to 18 people — if you include producers and engineers—in the room at the same time, keeping the momentum became very important. Arcade Fire are the kind of band where, once they hit form and get their momentum, they really explode as a band. Anyone who’s seen them live knows that.
It does sound like there were a lot of inputs, perhaps too many for the 610 to accommodate by itself?
At Boombox there is a Neve BCM10/2 Sidecar Recording Console that everything was also coming back on for monitoring. So the 610 and the BCM10/2 were hitting tape, and coming back through the BCM10 for monitoring. Generally, the 610 was on the rhythm section, sometimes synths would go in, but things would change because the amount of musicians playing in the room would constantly change. The 610 was generally 12 channels of preamp/EQ on nearly everything.
Win is not really interested in using the computer beyond dumping into the computer, and then monitoring off the Neve. He wants the tactile experience of recording, to be on the desk riding channels with you while mixing. That’s why that studio is so exciting, and why it was built that way. It’s fairly simple, so it’s about getting your hands on the desk together and try to bring the mix to life on the desk.
The 610 is well known for being perhaps the first console to feature effects sends. Did those get some use as well?
Yes, there were a good set of analog sends, and we had three or four different vintage Binson Echorecs, which were being used a lot for distortion as well as echo, along with an EMT 140 Plate Reverberator and an AKG BX 20 Spring Reverb. The Binsons were great: you’d never hear a clean drum machine, for example. A Roland TR-808 would always be distorted and smashed through a Binson Echorec.
In addition to the 610 console, there were numerous Apollos playing a role in the recording process, right?
Yes. Boombox is such a small space, and the energy is so intense when you’re in it, that we created a second room in a garage adjacent to it with a small setup consisting of an Apollo 16, and a small Quad Eight outboard console, which we used for preamps.
A lot of the time we’d break off into groups in the two different areas, and the Apollo would get used for synths, double-bass, percussion, and guitars. Daniel Lanois, who has a studio and a long history in New Orleans, came in with his pedal steel. He had a listen, and the two songs he really felt a vibe from were “Put Your Money on Me,” and “We Don’t Deserve Love.”
He came into the garage with his instrument, and we recorded him with the Apollo 16. He’s pretty amazing; a beautiful player, he’s a Canadian, very comfortable in New Orleans, of course, and his own setup includes a couple of Korg SDD-3000 delays, of which UA has recently made a plug-in version. He’s got a very progressive approach to the instrument, and he’s very easy to record.
Also, Arcade Fire collaborator Owen Pallett did the string arrangements for the record, and he had a separate setup with an Apollo Twin, and he would pretty much disappear into a side room for a while and come back with amazing parts.
When you’re at home in London, you co-own a studio that boasts quite a bit of Universal Audio gear, as well? What plug-ins tend to get a lot of use for Unison tracking or mixing?
The main room has a Neve 8068 desk in it, and then we have four rooms we all use for recording. I’ve got a couple of different generations of Apollo 8’s in there, an OCTO PCI card, a UAD Satellite, and lots of other UA hardware. And if I’m working with bands in another studio in London, it’s pretty typical that I’ll bring an Apollo rig, and set up a second room there as well.
On the recording front, I keep it fairly simple: I use the 610 Tube Preamp & EQ plug-in or an API 550A on the Unison channels generally, possibly an 1176LN, and I’ll typically load a spring or plate reverb in the Apollo Console app somewhere.
As a bass player, I’m also really liking the Ampeg SVT-VR bass plug-in. It’s the first plug-in I’ve ever really liked on bass. Now, I own three actual Ampeg rigs, including an original VR, and I think the UAD version is fantastic. I can always get somewhere with the bass using it. That’s getting a lot of use at the moment.
“Thanks to UAD plug-ins, I have begun to get over my analog bias and re-examine digital reverbs and delays like the AMS RMX16, and Eventide H910 Harmonizer.” — Steve Mackey
What are your favorite UAD plug-ins for mixing, or for developing the overall palette of sounds?
I always have four or five UAD plug-ins on the mix bus that will get moved around in order depending on the project: the Pultec MEQ-5, Neve 33609 Compressor, Chandler Limited Curve Bender Mastering EQ, the Ampex ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder, and the Vertigo Sound VSM-3 Mix Satellite for some distortion and smudging stuff a little. I’ll move those around as needed. As for reverbs, for a very long time I generally would always gravitate to the EMT 140 Plate Reverberator or the AKG BX 20 Spring Reverb, but I’ve started using the AMS RMX16 Expanded Digital Reverb recently and it’s getting a lot of use, especially on vocals.
In the past I always preferred delays for creating space, but the AMS has an invisible quality for creating subtle spaces around things.
Only in the last few years, thanks to UAD plug-ins, have I begun to get over my analog bias and re-examine digital reverbs like the AMS, and the Eventide H910 Harmonizer as well, which I never really explored during the bygone hardware days. But since UA brought them back as plug-ins, I’ve discovered that I really like them.
I also love the Cooper Time Cube Delay — it’s dirty and different from the other kinds of delays, with a rougher sound that’s great for rock and roll records.
From being a proper pop star with Pulp, you carved out such a fine career as a producer and composer — who inspired you to take the next step in your musical career?
I suppose I was very lucky. There were three producers I’d met over about a ten-year period with Pulp who had quite a big impact on me. I really learned what a producer was from Chris Thomas, who’d worked with The Beatles, Roxy Music, Sex Pistols, and John Cale, and who produced Pulp’s Different Class in 1995. Later, on our last album We Love Life in 2001, we’d work with Scott Walker, who was a very different kind of producer. He gave Pulp so much confidence at a time when we really needed it. He’s totally off the map, a very elusive and private person, but just a joy to make a record with.
A few years later, in 2008, Jarvis Cocker and I got to make the record Further Complications with Steve Albini in Chicago at Electrical Studios. I love working with Albini, and again, this was a completely different scenario for me from working with Chris or Scott or any of the other producers. Basically, after things slowed down with Pulp in 2002, I realized that I just wanted to keep working with musicians and creating records. So, I began looking for collaborators, which is really what a producer does: you look at Arcade Fire; they’ve all made solo records, they know their way around a studio, so what they’re looking for when they hire a producer is an artistic collaborator, really.
“I love the UAD Cooper Time Cube Delay — it’s dirty and different from the other kinds of delays, with a rougher sound that’s great for rock and roll records.” — Steve Mackey
What one essential lesson about producing would you be inclined to share with those looking to break into that world?
When I’m working with a band, the thing I care most about is trying to keep momentum in the sessions. The reason you’re in the studio with a band in the first place is because you love what they do. And if you help them to keep moving and keep trusting their instincts, then they’ll generally make good work.
If you allow things to slow down, and the band get into their heads too much, often fear and doubt can set in. Keeping the creative momentum going forward is often the key to a successful session.
I also believe that there should be consistent musical “stations” throughout the studio where a musician knows and trusts that they can go and play their instrument and it’ll always be recorded easily.
From being in a band all those years, I know it can be a killer when things slow down too much — so many things can get in the way — and as a producer, if you take making the album seriously enough to navigate those things, and you can find ways to make those obstacles seem invisible, you can have a really positive effect. There are very small windows where musicians are really, truly in the sweet spot, so my job is make those moments as easy as possible to take advantage of.