Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

Champagne and Plastic: Phoenix Mixes Experimentation, Perfectionism, and Distractions to Produce Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

EQ Magazine
June 2009


Somber French poets and friendly prostitutes sound like fitting inspirations for a raucous, balls-out rock album. While these characters were part of the neighborhood color near the studio where chic French foursome Phoenix—comprised of Thomas Mars, Laurent “Branco” Brancowitz, Christian Mazzalai, and Deck D’Arcy—recorded the bulk of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix [Loyaute/Glassnote], their album wasn’t the by-product of wicked indulgence, especially on the inflated rock-and-roll scale of indecent behavior.

A glittering slab of well-crafted electronic pop, the band’s follow-up to 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That is a result of the group’s perfectionist tendencies (they recorded over 14 hours of music in total), a long recording process, and an attempt to be more abstract. According to guitarist Brancowitz, the group even listened to a soundtrack of modern classical and ambient music to cleanse their auditory palette, and they used Eno’s famous Oblique Strategies cards to get through creative roadblocks.

“As a creator, you’re always frustrated by your limits,” he says. “You want to find strategies to go further. I actually learned Morse code at one point, and I tried to type words rhythmically to see what kind of patterns they would create.”

After a search for inspiration that took them to New York and back, the group asked friend Philippe Zdar to co-produce Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, camping out in his studio in Paris’ Montmartre district for nearly a year and a half. Designed in the early ’80s by audio guru Tom Hidley—a famed engineer and studio designer— Zdar’s studio was an ideal place for the band to challenge its creative process. Half of French house duo Cassius, the producer owns a cache of vintage gear, giving the group plenty of equipment to work with, and his helpful approach kept them focused.

“I think Phoenix has very good taste,” Zdar says. “The band members are great producers, and they just needed someone to guide them and keep them on track. It’s like directing Marlon Brando. I don’t think Brando needed help—he just needed a little guidance.”

Zdar felt strongly that the album should sound modern, diverse, and informed by contemporary music and production. His whole approach was to respect the group, give them the time and space to compose and record, and occasionally “make a tackle” in the studio, providing momentary distractions to keep them from getting too caught up in their work.

“He would sometimes come for five minutes a day, and arrive six hours late with a bottle of champagne,” Brancowitz says. “He’d say, ‘This is great’ or ‘boring.’ He brought the energy. We knew if a song pleased us and pleased him, it was a solid song.”

During sessions, the band normally recorded straight to Pro Tools|HD, preferring minimal equipment and a very dry sound. Many songs went through multiple versions, so they often needed to add and subtract layers. Plus, Zdar wanted guitars recorded as straight as possible so he wouldn’t be hamstrung during the mixing process.

“We wanted to record fast and capture the performance, instead of obsessing about the sound,” Zdar says.

Much of the charm of Phoenix’s tightly constructed songs comes from the clipped, artificial guitar lines. Guitarists Brancowitz and Mazzalai both used Fender Bullet Stratocasters— cheaper and less-popular models of a guitar chosen for its unique sound.

“It’s very dry and really plays only one specific style,” Mazzalai says. “But they fit perfectly with our style of playing. The sound that comes out is almost plastic.”

For “Rome,” which opens with a part that Brancowitz compares to the sound of a kid playing alone in his bedroom, the guys recorded their guitar lines through a Telefunken V76 preamp, a Telefunken U73 compressor, and a direct box—standard practice for most of the album. Later, when the tracks were mixed, they were sent through a Helios preamp to add more character, a UREI 1176 compressor, and an AKG BX20 spring reverb.

As befitting a band that has backed up Air, Phoenix deployed an army of analog synthesizers during the recording process, including a Roland JX-3P, a Korg Trident, a Yamaha CS-80, and a Jen Carousel organ. On “1901,” weird, wispy notes from a Yamaha Tenori- On—a step-sequencing synth that was fed through an AMS S-DMX delay— float in the background as big, fuzzy chords from the Korg Trident streak across the song. The group also used a few toy synthesizers, often cranking up the preamp in the recording chain to capture the buzz and hum. It fit the band’s philosophy of combining very cheap and very expensive instruments.

“What’s good about these instruments is that their beauty lies in their limits,” Brancowitz says. “Their utility comes from the mistakes their engineers made.”

Zdar normally utilizes a Neve 1073 EQ and a Telefunken V76 preamp to record synths. When mixing, he often sends tracks through a UREI LA-4 compressor—which he feels is especially good for making synths sound tight—and a Massenburg GML 8200 EQ, which helps emphasize bass.

To achieve the modern feel of R&B or techno-style beats, the percussion on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix required the hybrid approach of blending live and electronic drums. Mars used an Akai MPC sampler to trigger his favorite percussion samples, which were often mixed with live percussion, as well as software samplers such as Native Instruments Battery 3. Signal-chain strategies included feeding the toms, hi-hats, and crash cymbals through an SSL compressor; running sidechains for the snare (a Neve EQ, UREI 1176 compressor, and an AMS reverb) and kick drums (Neve 1073 preamp, Massenburg EQ, and Neve 33609 compressor); and dumping toms into an SPL Transient Designer.

Meanwhile, in the realm of bass, Zdar sometimes aimed for a blend of organic and electronic sounds, as on “Fences.” For that song, a Fender Mustang Bass part played through an Ampeg SVT Amp was fused with the synth bass of a Yamaha DX100 synth, and then heavily compressed.

“I wanted to blur the real and the synthetic, and make a big, bubbling thing—a real magma of sound,” Zdar says.

One of the few sounds on the album that remained relatively straightforward were the vocals, which were recorded with Neumann U 67 and AKG C 12 microphones, and sent through a UREI 1176 compressor, and an EMT 252 for slight reverb. During mixing, Zdar also applied a Lexicon PCM42 Digital Delay and an EAR 660 compressor.

“We love dry sounds,” says Mazzalai. Consequently, Zdar used vocal effects sparingly to heighten their impact. On “Rome,” he placed reverb on the verse and first chorus, and then cut it out after the break. He believes this approach made the music more poetic, evoking the feel of walking out of a dark restaurant into the bright sun of the Italian capital.

Ultimately, Zdar took the Pro Tools tracks and mixed them on one of his two SSL 4000 E mixing consoles (he has a spare in case he needs to get one repaired), because he favors the unit’s analog sound. He also zeros in on the highs and lows when doing EQ adjustments in order to craft crystal clear, deep bass, and a very tight sound.

“I’ll boost highs on a Helios EQ, and, at the same time, I use the filters on the console to take out highs,” says Zdar. “This gives you the feeling that you have lots of treble, while simultaneously giving you high frequencies that are more rounded and less tiring to listen to. After all, if you want girls to love an album all their life, it’s important to mix it well.”

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