Whether listeners were excited, annoyed, intrigued or bored by The Strokes when they arrived in 2001, they had to admit at least one thing: The New York City group's debut CD, Is This It?, sounded completely different than any other major-label release that year. Exacting in their low fidelity, the unapologetically raw production values were the ideal vehicle for The Strokes' futuristic spin on classic rock and pop arrangements.
Besides the group themselves, the main person to credit or blame is producer/engineer Gordon Raphael, who was behind the board for Is This It? — hailed as one of the year's best by Billboard, CMJ, NME, Time and Entertainment Weekly — as well as the group's new release, Room on Fire. A musical nomad who crossed back and forth for years between the industrial sounds of Seattle and the basements of New York City looking for great bands to play with and new sounds to record, Raphael has discovered the rewards of a hit album.
“People really appreciate my work where I go. I can work less and charge more,” says Raphael, whose easygoing nature comes drifting over the phone from his latest home base, London. “Also, if I do like a band, labels will take me seriously, listen and maybe sign them.”
All of which is good for assuring Raphael's happiness as a producer and engineer, as well as an indie label owner (www.shoplifterrecords.co.uk). One thing his success with Is This It? didn't guarantee him, however, was a gig producing The Strokes' second record. That job was initially slated for Nigel Godrich of Radiohead fame. “I wondered why, but I didn't want to ask,” Raphael recalls of being informed of the decision in late 2002 by Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas. “Whether it was the record company or because Radiohead had gotten so much great publicity, I really thought that when they got into the studio with Nigel Godrich, The Strokes would have a revelation on how drums can sound and how big guitars can sound. I thought that they'd liked me and now my time with them was over, even though Julian looked me in the eye and said, ‘I have a feeling we'll be back. This is just a test.’”
After two attempts to record a three-song set with Godrich, the test was over. The Strokes split amicably with Godrich and reunited joyously with Raphael, who can only speculate on what made him uniquely qualified to do the project. “Generally speaking, there's a palette of tones that The Strokes have come to associate with their band, and they're not the standard of professional recording: They're a little dirty and a little slurred,” he says. “This time, they felt like I was the one that could grab that. The next time, they may do the same routine. I take it moment by moment, and I'm happy to be a part of the story right now.”
The first order of business was getting into a studio, and because Raphael's Lower East Side basement facility, Transporterraum, was no longer in existence, the winner was the extremely relaxed confines of TMF Studios near New York City's Union Square. “They'd always complained that most of the studios in New York City just have a totally professional, mercenary feeling that doesn't make them want to play their rock,” Raphael says. “I noticed that when I had recorded [Shoplifter artist] Regina Spektor there that TMF was intelligently put together, and I was able to get an amazing sound between their live room and preamp selection.”
Of all the factors, the size of the live room was the most critical in selecting the studio and shaping the sound for Room on Fire. “Julian equates roominess with reverb, and it's something he likes to avoid in any of his recordings,” comments Raphael. “The live room at TMF was slightly larger — with a higher ceiling and further-apart walls — than my original studio. The dimensions at TMF are perfect for most bands, but this did work slightly against us because I couldn't use as much room miking on this album.”
To set the mood for the sessions, Raphael oversaw extensive decorations in the studio, which included psychedelic lighting, purple velvet drapes and a massive ceiling-mounted disco ball. Raphael knew from the first time around that, contrary to their image as nonchalant East Village slackers, The Strokes would be extremely exacting about the sound and placement of every note, beat and slice of space on the record. What he and TMF engineer Toshi Yoshioka didn't know was that the band would be even more driven for perfection this time, turning the project into a three-month-plus marathon with extremely late nights and very few days off.
“Every sound has to sound like it comes from the same palette, like it's dancing together in the same room,” Raphael says. “If one thing sounds like it comes from a different mood, they immediately identify it and say, ‘This one thing is not dancing in the same room as its friends!’ I was mostly relying on preamps like Neve for drums, API for guitar, and for the voice, Avalon, to make The Strokes' sound. There's a big SSL board at TMF, but I'm very suspicious of SSL boards; I've just instinctively never noticed them adding. In fact, Julian invented a sound in the mixing process. He would say, ‘Can we please de-SSL-ify the sound?’ One thing we used to do that was the Millennia tube EQ, since it added a lot of dirt and burning distortion on the high end.”
The recording medium was also decidedly digital, not analog, as the band's retro colorings might suggest. “Just like the first album, we used Logic software tied into Pro Tools Mix Plus hardware,” says Raphael. “The main plug-ins were the McDSP FilterBank and the Bomb Factory plug-in in the LA-2A, which we used almost exclusively and all over the place.
“All of the bands I worked with up until The Strokes were overjoyed to hear their music on tape, and I tried up until the first day to convince The Strokes to use tape. We spent an afternoon getting the tones of the instruments the way we wanted using tubes, mic pre's and compressors, and when all was perfect, we ran the first song to tape. After one playback, Julian exclaimed, ‘Why did we spend all day getting all these great tones just to get this machine to change them all and ruin them?’ Which was the last we heard of tape.”
For vocals, Casablancas shunned the studio's Neumann collection for the same Audio-Technica 4033A he used on Is This It? “He's very open, and we tried several mics and preamps, then went back to the A-T for the voice channel after trying everything else in the studio,” Raphael reports. “This time, we had it going into the Avalon, and also used a real LA-2A compressor, as well as a series of plug-ins that were on every single vocal channel and the same on every song: three times the FilterBank — three EQs in a row, on top of each other — one fake LA-2A and one real LA-2A.”
Drummer Fabrizio Moretti slightly evolved the setup for his kit. “This time, I miked the drums a little more closely and a little more carefully,” Raphael says. “I rely on really nice-sounding preamps that add old character and rock 'n' roll warmth, which are Neves and Avalons. I put room mics up, with one of my main condenser mics three feet in front of the kick drum, low enough to not pick up the cymbals but the rumbly part of the drum kit, and add compression so it's a really dirty, nasty supplement to the sound that the rest of the mics pick up.”
With The Strokes' musicianship and studio prowess noticeably improved, Raphael had a new challenge recording Room on Fire: “The big lesson for me was that one can go slowly and carefully and spend endless hours working on music without it getting meticulous or dry, which was something I was always afraid of in the past. I always thought that capturing the spontaneous magic that music creates meant going very quickly, but now I know I have more patience and that great results can be found by taking extra time.”
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