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When I was in college I only had a guitar, a Kurzweil keyboard, an ATARI 1040ST, headphones and Cubase. I wrote most of my first Bang Gang album on that setup. I did scratch vocals by singing in the headphones as they could somehow sense noise as a microphone. I then went to a studio and synced the computer with tape, and recorded everything from the sequencer on the tape and did vocals on top of all that.
Now 20 years later, I have my own studio with a lot of more stuff in it. During my first record deal I got screwed by an Icelandic record company so I set my goal that in my late 30s I could record what I wanted, when I wanted, in the best quality available and would not have to rely on anyone. I have always been into experimenting with sounds and liked working with all kinds of instruments and sources. I recorded sounds in nature and tweaked them, made beats with my feet, hands and mouth and made them unrecognizable with an effects chain.▼ Article continues below ▼
Now my studio is built around instruments and gear that are essential for me. I have little by little been cutting out things I don’t use. Also, I have been using fewer and fewer plug-ins. It is so nice to have a clean track with all EQ and fx recorded – making decisions before, rather then trying to figure out afterwards in a plug-in mess. I have Pro Tools HD X that is the core of my recordings. Two sets of speakers, ADAM S3XH and Mackie HR 824. When I write music, produce and start mixing I use the ADAM as they have a soft and fat sound. Then I end in the Mackies. Basically what you hear in the Mackie speakers, you will hear anywhere else. I think I would choose them if I could only have one pair of speakers. Maybe with a sub added.
I can record everything except live drum kit and strings (if they are more then one at a time). Normally I use my Neumann M149 plugged in an Avalon vacuum tube, so it goes through two amps. In an addition, I have a Shure SM57 through an EMI pre-amp. My guitar pedals are combined with a chain of distortion and effects. Normally I just use two distortion pedals and the reverb of the amp when I play guitar. Sometimes the Boss Slow Gear pedal gets on there and some others, as well. It is when it comes to keyboard recordings when I start to put the whole effect chain together. Recording keyboards through guitar pedals in a guitar amp is a lot of fun and weird things start to happen, sonically. I did a lot of that on the new Bang Gang album The Wolves are Whispering. Also most of the drum machine in the track “The Sin is Near” is recorded through a guitar amp.
The songwriting process varies for me. Sometimes the song’s base is written on a guitar or piano with vocals, and sometimes I start making a sound universe and then work on vocals afterwards. Recently, I started using only outboard echoes when mixing and producing. I plug each instrument either through the Chorus Echo or a Korg Sampling Delay. I think 75% of the delays on the new Bang Gang album are the Chorus Echo.
When I record guitars, I always try a few different guitars and sounds for each part. Then afterwards I do freestyle sessions where I play around with noise. After that I choose which sounds fit best and go through all the freestyle sessions to pick out weird sounds or clusters that can bring the right ambience to the song. Most of the time I record more than less; sometimes I record an instrument even if I am 90% sure it won’t work, but since there is the 10% chance it might work, I have to try it so I won’t have any regrets. It is better to regret what you have done rather than what you haven’t done.
My guitars are mostly Fender, but then I have a Les Paul for sustain reasons. Also an old Rickenbacker that I use for most of the solos. The synths are a combination of essential synths, SH 101, Yamaha SK-50D that I have used as a organ sound on the last three albums. My song “Inside” from the album Something Wrong is mostly an SK-50D and a Fender Rhodes. Then I have two Roland vocoders that I mostly use for high range string sounds and sound effects. Then I make strange sounds with my mouth through the vocoder and it brings something special.
I also have a POG2 that I used on some of the guitars in the song “Sabazios O.” It makes the guitar sound synthesized and strange. In the guitar solo on “My Special One” you can hear distorted guitars double-layered in two octaves, with double layered harmonies. On top of that I put the guitars through a vocoder and there is one layer of that also.
For bass recordings I usually plug directly into a Focusrite Trakmaster Platinum. I have three different basses that cover all spectrums. A Hofner if I want a retro sound where the bass stands out, a Rickenbacker for fat low frequencies and a Fender Jazz Bass for melodic lines. Sometimes I add a delay on the bass to get a more ambient feeling, if that fits.
I feel like today’s engineers are often in a hurry and think that they can fix the sound afterwards. Little-by-little, I was going in this direction too, but then I noticed that most often it takes more time and effort to fix something that doesn’t sound right, than to actually re-record it properly with the right sound. Now I try to get good takes with all the effects from the beginning. Also, I have been fortunate to have drummers that sound good on takes, so I don’t have to treat the sound so much to make it large and fat. It seems like some musicians think that if you play loud in a studio, it will sound loud on a record. But that is not always the case. The softer you play drums, the larger they sound on a record.
In the past I have used a lot of reversing and pitch-shifting afterwards. For example, in the song “A Lonely Bird” I am using both normal and reversed guitars in the beginning. Sometimes I also use a trick I learned in my film work, and that is to pitch-shift a sound and play it with the original to make it more fat.
I always keep my studio quite dark, so it always feels like evening. In the winter we actually have 16 hours of darkness here, but in the summer it is reversed. If I don’t feel the difference between day and night, time becomes abstract and therefore it is easier to get lost in a timeless space. Also it gets more moody when it is dark and it fits my music very well. If I am recording more ambient tracks, I like to play on them late evenings or night as my mind gets more “floating” at that time and I feel that the space in music becomes more [pronounced].
Then I have three guardian angels in my studio. It is a whip I got from my friends for my 30th birthday, a Kiss doll that sings “Crazy Nights” and an ABBA jacket I got when I was young.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bardi Johannsson is an Icelandic musician, composer, writer, TV show host (of the surrealist Icelandic TV show Konfekt), clothing designer and film director. He is mostly known for his work with the groups Bang Gang, Lady & Bird (a side project with Keren Ann) and Starwalker, a collaboration with Jean-Benoît Dunckel. For more, follow him on Twitter @banggangband.