Recording

The Mars Volta

Perched high above Laurel Canyon is the supposedly haunted mansion chosen by the Mars Volta to record their much-anticipated debut album, De-Loused in the Comatorium. 9/01/2003 8:00 AM Eastern

Perched high above Laurel Canyon is the supposedly haunted mansion chosen by the Mars Volta to record their much-anticipated debut album, De-Loused in the Comatorium. In 1991, it was the home of the Red Hot Chili Peppers while they made their classic Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Both albums were produced by Rick Rubin, and for the Mars Volta album, he chose engineer Dave Schiffman, who has manned the board for Audioslave, System of a Down, the Juliana Theory and the Peppers' Californication. Rubin also brought in Flea of the Peppers to take care of bass duties.

The Mars Volta are singer Cedric Bixler, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, drummer Jon Theodore, bassist Juan Alderete and keyboardist Isaiah Owens. After the band's triumphant European tour this spring opening for the Chili Peppers, rave reviews at the Coachella Festival and more U.S. dates with the Peppers, their electronics wiz, Jeremy Ward, died on May 25 at his home in L.A. But the band is carrying on and has been gaining momentum with each passing month.

Bixler and Rodriguez were known previously for their work in the El Paso post-punk band At the Drive-In, aggressive art rockers famous for their energetic live shows and seen by some as “the next big thing.” Following the dissolution of that band, the Mars Volta released Tremulant in 2002, a three-song EP that critics and fans compared to Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Yes and even Led Zeppelin. It was big music: long songs with broad strokes and cinematic detail.

However, Rodriguez cites salsa music as his main influence, along with such unlikely sources as Gang of Four, Miles Davis, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Genesis and dub reggae. On the spiral staircase leading up to the dark rooms of the mansion, Rodriguez tells me he started out playing the bass at age 12, but at 15 switched to guitar because he “needed more strings.”

When I asked Rodriguez about the difference between his previous work and the debut of the Mars Volta, he replied, “This one is fun! Just kidding. This is a lot looser, a lot more interesting for us, and there are a lot of different areas we are going into now.”

Bixler says that Björk is his main inspiration as a singer; both have an affinity for dramatic and dynamic stage acrobatics. When quizzed about the mysteries of the old mansion, Bixler explains, “We really don't go up to that certain room at the top where the bell tower is. There are doors leading to the attic. I keep closing them, and they are always open when I go back. Weird.”

In the secluded mansion, engineer Schiffman set up a control room complete with a vintage Neve console, priceless outboard gear and rare microphones from the renowned Ocean Way collection, along with his own stash of outboard engines. Drums were on risers in the grand ballroom, while guitars and stomp boxes festooned the adjoining chambers. A makeshift vocal booth was assembled from goboes and packing blankets. Smaller rooms and walk-in closets housed banks of amplifiers, while more recording gear filled an adjacent spa. Schiffman tells us about the complex process of recording the Mars Volta.

You've worked with producer Rick Rubin on a number of albums. Why do you think he picked you for this daunting project?

I think it's because we have a real good relationship; he likes things to sound a certain way. I know how he likes things to sound, and I can achieve that relatively quickly.

What is the difference between recording here and in a traditional haunted recording studio?

Basically, we had to build the recording studio from scratch, which meant treating the live room to dampen it down because it was like an echo chamber. Ocean Way's Classic Equipment Rentals, which we refer to as “Ocean Way to Go,” provided the majority of the gear and technical assistance. We had to set up the control room and run all of the mic lines and bring everything up here, as opposed to a studio where it's all in place.

Do you get a distinctively different sound?

No, I would say this setup sounds as good as a good recording studio. It definitely has its own signature, but I would put it on par with the best rooms I've tracked in.

Could you tell me about the monitoring in your control room?

Rick really loves ProAc monitors powered by Yamaha 2002 amps. Sounds great. It seems that with the ProAcs, the more wattage you send to each side the better; I think we're sending 250 watts per side. We also have a pair of Yamaha NS-10s, because I just know them so well and feel comfortable with them. I'm running a pair of BGW amps on those, 150 watts a side.

What do you have in the way of consoles?

The main console is a beautiful old Neve 8058 alongside a small Neve BCM-10 with 1066 mic pre's. I put all of the drums, guitars and keyboards through the 8058 faders, and the bass and vocals through the rack of outboard mic pre's. We have a big Pro Tools rig, running 96k straight to two FireWire drives simultaneously; close to a Terabyte of space. On the front end, we use Benchmark Media Systems AD2408-96 converters, running at 96k, 24-bit, 24 channels.

How did you record Omar's guitars?

We tracked using an old Marshall cabinet with Celestion drivers, with a Neumann U67. Then we got into some serious guitar science. We were on a quest for clarity. Omar's vision was of a very dense soundscape with a lot of complex parts. The challenge was to make it all come out clearly and still maintain the excitement and power. The first thing we did was address the amp issue. Omar had been playing live through an old SVT bass head into an old Marshall cabinet. For live playing, this setup works really well, but under the microscope, the tone was not punching through enough: not enough focus. We turned to combo amps.

A major portion of the guitar sounds came from an amazing Supro amp, a Fender Princeton and a very small Fender Tweed. We also used a Fender Super Reverb and a Vox AC30 for some songs, as well. The beauty of these small amps is that they cut through the track but don't overpower it. Also, because they don't push as much air as a cabinet, I can use tube mics and not be afraid that they will blow up. I used Neumann U67s with the -14dB pads in on all of the combos and stuck to a single mic per amp. Sometimes, I would put an SM57 in the back, but found the sound to be clearer and punchier usually without the back mic.

Because we were recording 96k/24-bit, I ran through a bunch of tube gear: a Fairchild 670, Pultec EQP-1 and sometimes a Distressor or 1176, or an LA-2A. With the higher sampling rate, the tube equipment sounded even better to me, because nothing gets lost in the murk of low-level analog tape or lower sampling rates. It was an awesome feeling to get a sound exactly how you liked it and have it sound identical on playback time after time. 96k, I am sold!

Omar's guitar pedal collection is massive, and we dove into it wholeheartedly. I own a couple of Roland Space Echos that worked great as tape delay and reverb for special effects, as well as slap. In keeping with our clarity mission, a lot of times we would record a part drier, less effected, and then double it with a heavily effected track playing the same or slightly simpler part, sometimes editing the part to work with the effect. A really nice result from this was being able to pan to two guitars hard left and right, and we would get this really lush, but clear, sound. Of course, Omar's arrangements really created the dynamic, but I think we outdid ourselves in creating some of these tones. The guitar soundscape of this record is very dense and complex, but I think we got everything to fit, and in listening back, it all makes sense. I learned so much about creating unique guitar tones; it was truly a gratifying experience.

For Cedric's vocals, I see you have a vocal booth made with goboes and blankets set up in the sunroom, with sightlines into the main hall. What mics did you use for vocals?

I used a Shure SM-7 for the main vocal track with a 57 taped to it, which sent a feed to Jeremy, the vocal voodoo dude, which went into his mixer, through his toys and then back to me. Once we got into overdubbing vocals, we used a Neumann U67 for quieter sections and the SM-7 for louder parts. Also, I used a Neve 1073 for preamp and EQ, and an 1176 for compression. For Jeremy's effects tracks, we ran the comped vocal back to his pedals through a Little Labs distribution box, so he got the vocal at -10 and it came back to me at +4.

How did you record drums?

For the kick drum, I had a Sennheiser 421 inside and a Neumann FET 47 in front; for the snare, a Shure 57 on top, a Sennheiser 441 under; hi-hat was AKG 451; overheads were a pair of AKG C 12s; for the toms, a pair of AKG C 12As; the close mic is a Neumann P-47, a cool old omni mic that sounds great; and we had a pair of Neumann M-49s for the room. All the mics came from Ocean Way's mic locker.

Can you give me the details on recording Flea for this album?

For the bass, we had Flea play a beautiful '64 Fender Precision P bass through an SVT bass head and 8×10 cabinet. I used a Neumann FET 47 on the cabinet and a Demeter DI. I compressed with LA-2As on both channels. It was a slightly different sound for Flea, but he is such a talented musician that he fit in perfectly. The bass needed to be full and present, because, essentially, the bass was the foundation of every track.

What percentage of the entire project was done here at the house?

Just about everything, including vocals, with mixing taking place at Cello with mixer Rich Costey, just to get a different perspective…and automation, of course.

Did you spend much time with the band before recording?

No, I didn't. I usually like to go to one or two rehearsals to get the vibe of what it's all about. But for this project, I picked up the Mars Volta EP to suss from that, and I had conversations with Rick about what he was looking to get out of this situation. Then the band told me what they were looking for, we did a bit of searching and listened to a bunch of different drum kits tuned in various ways. All of the songs have very involved arrangements, very involved parts, and we wanted to hear it all together, so it was very important that the drums sound clear and precise.