Tips and Tricks: Dan Swift

Brighton Electric’s producer talks us through his recent work on the British Sea Power LP, Machineries of Joy.

First off, tell me how you got involved in the project.

James Stringfellow [manager , Brighton Electric] has a long relationship with BSP and had just appointed me as senior engineer. I have a long history of working with slightly off-centre bands so in a sense it was long overdue. We had a meeting on James’ recommendation and managed not to annoy each other out of a good situation.

What were some of the technical considerations when recording them?

The intention was to record as much as possible live. BSP have a fairly involved set up with multiple amps, concert bass drums, and of course a stuffed bear. The viola had to be separated so we put Abi Fry [viola /keyboards] into Live Room 2 using my laptop as a Skype link as there is no sight line from the control room to Live Room 2. Surprisingly, all the tracks are recorded to clicks. I think sometimes clicks cause things to sound a little too stationary but on this occasion it worked very well.

One has to be in ‘ready for anything’ mode with a band like BSP, because they work a very varied palette. Some tracks were live smash outs while others began life on laptops. The fun thing with a project of this kind is that once you have the whole studio plugged in you can plonk people down in the live room to record say, an acoustic overdub, and listen out for mics that are being accidently interesting. The gorgeous Third Man-sounding acoustic guitar on When a Warm Wind Blows Through the Grass is a combination of some such microphones. The dutifully placed KM 84 and the SM7 are absent. Random routing from the live set up gave me something special, and I can at least claim to have noticed it and run with it. 

The guitar sounds are mostly generated by a Twin/AC30 combination with combinations of Royer Ribbons and SM57s. Martin Noble [guitar /keyboards] uses his fair share of FX pedals live but we were able to shed most of them and get the amps to do the work of delivering great guitar tones in the studio, much to the delight of Geoff Travis [Rough Trade joint MD]. 

What was the vocal chain set-up? Did it vary from member to member?

The vocal chain for Scott Wilkinson [vocals /guitar] was U47/Neve 33115/LA-2A. It suits his rich tone well. I used the same chain without compression for Phil Sumner [keyboards /cornet/guitar] but pushed the console channel close to overdrive, not to achieve distortion, but because his voice seemed to explode into life with the added turbo drive. This is most noticeable on Hail Holy Queen.

Brighton Electric producer Dan Swift

Were there any challenges or special technical skills you had to rely on during the sessions?

The main challenge however was getting a decent live sound for the straight ahead tracks like K-Hole, judiciously angling the amps so as the mics point away from the kit and each other, although I think it’s important to make spill your friend. I’m happy if I can hear a microphone is mostly picking up what it’s pointed at, because some of the sound will be hiding elsewhere and I can make it all work together. You have to capture the reality of the racket, the room shaking! I like to put all the amps back to back like the members of ABBA in the original Mamma Mia video. That way they block each other off very effectively (and give me a chance to tell my ABBA joke).

With a band like BSP you have to be careful not to assume they’re having a run through, so get set up fast and record it all.

What was the atmosphere like during the sessions?

The atmosphere was extremely cordial. BSP have been going for 10 years so are used to the studio. They recorded their previous LP themselves and discovered the true horror of trying to be engineers, producers, and writer/performers all at once. Having said that they are very microphone literate, especially Matthew Wood [drums], so it was fun for me to be shown new things, like the Josephson e22S, which sounds enormous and was used on the concert bass drum. You can hear it on When a Warm Wind Blows Through the Grass. I used a Shure SM58 on the bear.