Recording Instant Life: A conversation with Joe Orton & Alex O’Gorman

Let’s chat about this new song of ours ‘Instant Life’ shall we?

David: Hey Joe and Al, thanks so much for the chat, I wanted to include you guys in something surrounding the release of ‘Instant Life’. You both were monumental in bringing this song together and shaping how it sounds.

So far with the work we’ve done together many people have asked me about our recording process. I think we have a sound we can call our own. I never really know what to tell these people as I take it pretty easy personally in the studio, I guess I see us as soundscapers and rule breakers. My first question to you both is this;

I think we recorded this on the first day in the studio where we smashed out maybe six or seven songs. It was huge. What do you remember about recording Instant Life? I remember you both being really excited by this song and I never would have guessed it was going to be the leading single off my debut album, you both got so many ideas and so quickly. Tell me friends, what the hell was going on in your heads?

Joe Orton(producer): Yeah, was really excited by this one. This was also one of the first songs we worked on when we put the band together years ago too. The thing that was so exciting about Instant Life, and similarly with Gallery [an earlier release of David’s], was that each section of the song has its own mood that needs to be communicated. So rather than going for a cohesive, singular-feeling style of production, we all really leaned into this expansive world the song was living in, and tried to create a room for each part of the song to live in. Kind of like getting a tour of a house of horrors.

Dave: We got the foundations done for the song really quickly. I feel like we only did like two takes? It sounded really good early on. And then we left everything for a while. I think it was at the beginning of lockdown and no one knew what was really going to happen. It feels like it was a few months later we decided it was time to get working again, and Joe you came back with some serious gold in the production that you did from home and Gorm you were mixing in a whole new way. You both came back into this song re-injecting what I think is respectively the best work that you’ve individually done. Can you go into some detail about that period when we revisited the song?

Joe: Well we had basic tracking done with the beds and most of the guitars done around January? But with things being what they were, covid wise, it actually allowed for more time to be a hermit and explore some more ideas – Like piano stuff, some ebow stuff and the fretless tele , etc.

Alex O’Gorman (engineer): For ‘Instant Life’ I remember paying particular attention to the drums. We opted to use big, dark cymbals and tight, bright, high toms off an 80s Premier set of some description. I’d been watching a lot of Gene Krupa videos and his toms are ridiculously high but sound so good.

We tracked the Rhythm section live with Dave playing along in isolation in case we wanted to keep the take.

All the electric guitars were done by Joe! He uses weird Frankenstein guitars with flats and gold foil pickups and gets an amazing sound.

 

In the studioDave: Do you guys wanna chat gear briefly?

Gorm: Most of the drum sound on the recording is a couple of Beyer m160s going through modded Neve 1272s. I had a Shure Unidyne III on the top and bottom of the snare, a Sennheiser 441 inside the kick and a cheap MXL ribbon a foot off the front of the kick. The rest of the drum mics went through API 312s or a Sebatron.

The Bass is Joe’s trusty Russian thing?? going into a 1272. It’s got nylon tape wounds and that’s THE sound.

Dave: That bass does things to me. It’s sound in that little instrumental section blew the song wide-fuckin-open

Joe: Yeah east-european, possibly Bulgarian. God those premier toms are so good. Well there is a bit of the gold foils on this one. So the guitar towards the start is a Tele with a teisco style gold foil made by Mojo in the neck position. Then I had recently got a lap steel bridge pickup which I put into a fretless thinline tele I was working on at the time. That’s the mean sounding guitar at the end, going through an ibanez fuzz wah and a few other bits and bobs.  In the studio

Dave: We started using a  different vocal mic which was huge for me too. It was just slightly different but I felt like I could perform with it. Anything else felt like ‘Hey! Here’s the mic Sinatra used.’ and the inner rebel within me immediately came back with ‘well that’s not me.. Give me something MUCH cheaper and pathetic.’

What sounds were most crucial to this song sounding the way it did?

Gorm: We ended up redoing the vocal and main acoustic guitars because we wanted the vocal to be more vulnerable and close and not rushed or shouty. We decided to try an old Sennheiser 421 because Daniel Romano famously (to me) recorded his second LP Sleep Beneath the Willow exclusively with two mics – one of which was a 421 for the vocal – and we wanted to try it. I thought a ‘less hyped / condenser’’ representation of David’s voice would suit what we were trying to do. 421s are commonly used on saxophones, guitar amps and drums and other inherently harsh, loud and bright things. But they’re also very at home in radio stations as voiceover mics, so I figured it might be a cool choice for David’s voice.

Sometimes the combination of a big tube mic, a heavy stand and a dangly mesh pop filter can be intimidating when you’re trying to sing, so more and more I’m trying to shed some of the contraptions. I decided to just put a foam filter on the 421 and let Dave hold the mic (I think Dave?)

Dave: Sounds like me. A real performer on and off the stage. A real crooner. My memory of it is being curled up in a ball on a creaky drum stool trying to pretend that I was on MTV Unplugged or something. I hate recording vocals alone knowing you’re just in there hearing my naked and untrained voice is coming through the speakers all isolated and hot.

Joe: Yeah using the 421 for your voice has been a revelation. It gave your vocal a little bump in the low-mids, providing a warmth that helps with translating some more intimacy. I think after using a SM7b for some earlier tracking, the use of that sort of dynamic was way closer to a sound that represented you versus something like a high end condenser. I think this time around, using some different acoustics for some of your songs has been great too. Small differing gear choices are great because it can give you access to emotional information without having to be too literal or overt about it. But, most importantly, the song sounds the way it does because you write so goddam well. There is the raw material that is so compelling, which is then interpreted/argued about by Gormie and myself, which is then at some point finished and mastered. For me, there is a sound to the way we work together and that’s why it sounds the way it does. It’s more the relationship that we have than any one bit of gear.

Gorm: I’d been looking at photos from Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour – all those live vocals sound so good and all the mics have foam on them. I’m also a big fan of the Radiohead Basement videos, where they’re all playing live in the same room. They have foam filters on all the old u47s, which still sound amazing. I feel like getting rid of a visual contraption can make for a more relaxed, natural performance.

Instant Life artwork
Instant Life’ Single Artwork by Joe Nigel Coleman

Dave: What I love most about you guys is you really understand songwriting. You always find a way to harness the intimacy of my songs. What did you do to find the feeling in this song and bring it to life and how did you approach the song in your work?

Joe: Well the intimacy was there in the writing so we really just put a hat on it. The approach gets simpler, more objective and more emotional for me as we keep working together. It’s just about the choices that need to be made and the intention behind those choices. Is what’s happening enhancing or taking away from the song.

Gormie: To further echo what Joey is saying, I think the song always tells you how it wants to be heard – the trick is listening to it!

Some songs call for lots of ‘stuff’ in the recording/mixing process, but I feel like Instant Life was not one of them, for me there were two things that kinda made this song make sense sonically.

The first was re-recording the lead vocal and the acoustic guitar. So often, using the live take is over-romanticised, I think there are situations (on this record too) where it’s gotta be the live take – but for Instant Life, being able to separate the acoustic guitar and the vocal was paramount to later on creating space in the mix.

The other thing was the addition of Joe’s acoustic piano in the solo section, I was already halfway through the mix when Joe sent them across, as soon as I put them in the track the whole mix made sense. It was one of those moments where the song was telling me what to do.

Joe has this massive converted shed in the country which sounds really beautiful. The big roomy recording of this piano juxtaposed against the super close drums and vocals that I recorded in my small deadened booth was a perfect match. It really took the production somewhere else.

Dave: Thanks for this. You guys are fantastic and I love you both very much. We still got like 3 more of these damn things to release then the album. I think we’re doing good things. Finally, what’s your favourite part of the track? Mines that hectic rumble before the final hits at the very end. What is that?

Joe: Yeah I’m a fan of the rumble – it’s just a combo of fretless guitar and piano.

Gormie: My favourite part is when the vocal enters again after the instrumental section. The whole picture comes together for me here.

Joe Orton is a producer/guitarist working with artists WVR BVBY, Hannah Blackburn, Mimi Gilbert, Bec Goring and Mcrobin

Alex O’Gorman is an engineer, producer and mixer who has worked with artists such as Angie McMahon, Tracy McNeil, Big Smoke, Blake Scott and Rachel Baiman.

FOOT NOTE: David M Western’s new single ‘Instant Life’ can be heard below: