Figure 1c: The Donnas, more precious than gold (L-R): Torry Castellano, Maya Ford, Allison Robertson and Brett Anderson
When The Donnas got set to record their sixth release, Gold Medal, the follow-up to their breakout Atlantic Records debut, Spend the Night, it seemed like all of the dominoes were falling in place. There was a collection of songs that would push the quartet beyond their Ramones-meet-AC/DC soundscape, and time was booked at a high-end Los Angeles studio, with the renowned Scott Litt producing the sessions. But that’s when things got a little tricky.
“We took meetings with a bunch of people, picked one producer [Litt] and started pre-production with him and moved down to L.A. [from the Bay Area],” explains bassist Maya Ford, formerly known as Donna F. “But it didn’t work out, so we ended up not working with him. We had a lot of meetings and he was really cool. We love R.E.M., and so everything he said, he sounded like he would be really great to work with, but then when it came down to it, our ideas didn’t match. He was going for a different sound than we were going for and he didn’t get our references. We didn’t understand each other.”
The clock was ticking and the band had to find a producer quickly. Fortunately, Butch Walker, fresh from successful sessions with Avril Lavigne, was available to meet the band. “We had four or five people to pick from and we had meetings. We just liked Butch the best. He was just really nice and easy to talk to,” Ford recalls. “We were really looking for someone who we’d be comfortable with who would be like our friend — who wouldn’t be mean to us if we didn’t understand them and wouldn’t get their feelings hurt if we didn’t like their idea. And he’s young and cute and funny. We weren’t looking for for some crazy producer who was a visionary.”
For Walker, who cops to being a lifer with the band, it was a good match. “I don’t know much about [what happened with Litt]. I never really got into it too much with the girls, but, obviously, there was some sort of falling out and it just didn’t work out. They had to kind of go into make-a-record mode real quick with somebody and they didn’t want to go in blind. I think after I met with them, we all vibed on the kind of record they wanted. I knew what kind of growth record they wanted to make and I knew they were at that stage of their career where they needed to do it. We all liked the same records growing up and so we sat there and mainly just talked about songs and bands that we like and what we wanted to achieve from some of those influences. I think that’s what locked us in.”
Once the match was set, singer Brett Anderson (Donna A.), guitarist Allison Robertson (Donna R.), drummer Torry Castellano (Donna C.), Ford and Walker got busy in pre-production. “We pretty much did it the way I like to do it, which is listening to the arrangements, changing a few of those things around and maybe discussing drum patterns and things like that,” Walker says. “The things that are the core of the song so that we don’t have to sit there and focus on the things that happen later in the session, like vocals. I tend to be pickier than most people about the melodies and harmonies and stuff like that; generally, most people would be about getting a kick drum sound. At the end of the day a kick drum sound is not going to affect sales. Let’s hope not. There seems to be a lot of engineer/producers out there that would disagree with you on that. But I don’t come from that school.”
To get the sessions started, Walker, the band and engineer Paul David Hager went into Black in Back, a studio owned by American Hi-Fi bandmates Stacy Jones and Jamie Arentzen. (The same studio was once owned by former Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson, and it’s where R.E.M. recorded “Man on the Moon.”) “It’s a small studio with a great drum room, a pile of mic pre’s and a Pro Tools|HD rig,” Hager says. The team then moved to Conway Recording Studios, but kept all the sessions in Pro Tools to make sure things went quickly. “We were trying to do 14 songs in four weeks,” Hager explains.
Like so many contemporary projects, this one employed a number of plug-ins and an assortment of outboard gear. Hager explains, for instance, that Anderson’s vocal chain went from a Shure SM7 into a Chandler EMI 2-channel preamp into a GML EQ and then a vintage 1176. (When they moved to Conway, the chain changed with a 1081 mic preamp.) Hager notes that very little pitch correction was used. “Maybe for a note here or there, but she sang really well. We tried to get enough takes of her singing that if she sang something a little flat, we could find something someplace else,” he reports. “A note really has to be bad for you to want to fix it. If you tune the vocals perfectly, especially with guitar bands, then your guitars sound out-of-tune. Guitars will resonate in a certain way, especially electric guitars with distortion, and they aren’t going to be in perfect pitch. A lot of records nowadays sound like someone tuned the vocals pitch perfect and then everything else kind of sounds a little out-of-tune. There is no such thing as Auto-Tune for guitars.”
Background vocals were recorded through a Telefunken 251 with the rest of the chain the same as Anderson’s. The mic choice was crucial. “It kept the character of the voice different from the lead vocal,” Hager explains. “If you start using the same mic, sometimes you get a lot of the same frequencies poking out.”
Robertson’s guitars — an assortment of ’60s-era Gibson Les Pauls and SGs — were run through a couple of Marshall cabinets. One of the cabinets was miked with a Royer 121, a Shure SM57 and a Neumann U87, and the second was miked with the 121, a 251 and an SM57. “I would blend them,” Hager says. “Sometimes it would just be the Royer, sometimes it would be all of them, and we always tracked a room mic [an 87]. It just added some ambience, especially if there was a place where the drums stopped and it was just a guitar riff for a second. Then you could bring that up. Whether Chris [Lord-Alge, who mixed the album] used it or not, I don’t know. You never know with Chris.” Robertson used a pair of different amp heads — a vintage Marshall and a rare White model. At times, Hager adds, Robertson’s guitars went through a Fender Vibrolux: “We would run that through a Marshall cabinet. An amp running 4 ohms going into 16 ohms crunched it up a little more.”
The bass tracks provided by Ford were run through an Evil Twin DI into a Lang EQ and an 1176. “Once I got her takes down and everything was where it should be, then I’d re-amp it later through an Ampeg SVT, just to give it something different from the DI. It was just another option,” he says. The SVT was miked either with a FET 47 or a Sennheiser 421.
One factor that the team had to take into consideration when they went in to record the album was an injury that drummer Castellano suffered over the summer of 2003. She underwent surgery in the fall of that year and her recovery ran into the sessions, so the band tracked all of their parts before she laid down anything other than a temp track. Hager’s miking technique for the drums included a pair of AKG C-12s overhead; a D-12 inside the kick drum, an NS-10 on the outside and a FET 47 further out from the kick; a 57 and 451 on top of the snare and a Sennheiser 441 underneath; and Neumann KM54s on the toms. Hager put an SM7 on the hi-hat and used a pair of 251s and a C-24 behind Castellano’s head for room tones.
Hager also sings the praises of some other “toys” he used on The Donnas’ sessions, such as a Shure Level Lock compressor that he purchased three years ago on eBay. “I could never get the damn thing to work and it became a pet project [for the engineers at Conway]. By the time we got to the last song, ‘Gold Medal,’ they got it to work,” he says. He also used Crane Song’s TDM Phoenix plug-in liberally throughout the recording. “It kind of does this tape emulation thing that’s hard to explain. It definitely adds apparent loudness to things that tape would normally do, but it gives you control. On each channel, you can dial in the amount of it you want instead of using analog tape where you get that sound on all 24 tracks or whatever,” he says. “This made the overhead mics a little clearer and gave the kick and snare a little more saturation. Basically, I would put all the guitars, drums and vocals through that before it got to Pro Tools.”
For Walker, this was a fairly straight-ahead affair and he knew from the start that the bandmembers were not interested in remaking any of their previous albums. “Those were classic Donnas [records], and anybody that comes to this album saying, ‘Man, Butch really destroyed and screwed up that band,’ they’re going to have to answer to the band on that one. It was all their decision to go into this, evolve musically the way they have with this record, which is slower tempos, big grooves, more interesting progressions and, God forbid, minor key songs,” he says with a laugh. “There are a couple of ballads, but nothing Bon Jovi-ish. It’s all pretty cool, almost Beatles-like stuff. Like ‘Revolver’ [The Donnas’ song, not The Beatles’ album] and ‘Is That All You’ve Got for Me’ are songs that have a new sound. ‘Gold Medal’ sounds like Revolver-era Beatles, which is great. You know what else is great? These girls are smart, and if that’s their influence, they’ll call it out in a minute. They don’t just look at The Ramones and AC/DC. They know what they are doing.”