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Sleep Token

 

Jaws

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Engineering, Mixing & Mastering catered to by George ‘G1’ Lever

Prelude

Sleep Tokens second record ‘Two’ entertained more than maybe we had initially anticipated.

The result is that for the new single ‘Jaws’ – we had to double down, refocus and decide how to encourage more from the material, setting a higher standard not just for the music but also from myself as an engineer / producer.

Reinventing yourself and your approach every time you come to create is exhausting. But when it works the payout is unbelievable.

From start to finish this song took 4 days to complete. Read on to see how this was achieved.

Tracking

Preparation & Tracking

When working with Sleep Token, the approach is closer to that of a Pop record; focus on structure/vocals and melody first. Then, dig in and fill in the spaces around these important elements. However we still have a full band to consider after that, not to mention the electronic elements that are interweaved into each song.

i. Programming
With the new session, we start by looking at what’s been laid out already beforehand. The MIDI instrumentation is chopped and arranged, slotted broadly into a shape that I feel represents the song’s initial direction.

Paramount importance is directed toward the song’s centre image, with much internal monologue encircling thoughts such as: Do not get in the way of where the vocal will be. Do not make this difficult to mix. 

Be open. Have space. Utilise the dynamic as much as possible.

ii. Texture
Typically, the next stage when tracking a band, would be to address the setting of tones and then the tracking of guitars and bass. The first full band section is in drop E (essentially standard bass tuning, but on a guitar), then the following heavier section is in drop A. To ask a guitar and bass to go between these in one day is a lot, and spending time setting up the instruments for one section, only to need to change them for the following called for a different approach. So instead, we tackled sound design: generate a sound that ‘works’, EQ and distort to taste, then move on.

The first band section is all bass; no guitars. The main bass DI was tracked standardly, and then a lighter string on the bass was dropped to the same pitch as the low E and tracked again.

This provided a higher amount of fluctuation and ‘movement’ to the action of the playing. I tone matched this ‘floppy’ DI to the guitar DI and fed that out to guitar, approaching it as if it were guitar. Job done, everything melding together as desired, it was time to move on to the next heavy section.

For this I grabbed the Strandberg and Ibanez 7 strings, tracked the ‘beat down’ 4 times and blended two different tones together to get the vibe that was requested. This maybe took an hour or so. Again, job done: move on.

iii. Synths
Looking through the session – it appears we ended up with around 32 synth tracks to make up the body of the song. This ranges from stock Logic Pro X Drum machine sounds (intro sidestick) all the way through to the heavier distorted bass sounds brought to the table by Output’s Substance (I am in love with this Kontakt library).

A few of the pads (including the one in the lead up to the breakdown) is provided via the OG Omnisphere, the remainder of sounds and textures were provided either by Output’s Substance and Logic’s own Alchemy, or through ‘Found Sound’ that was then manipulated in the box to create unique sounds for each section of the song.

iv. Vocals
As previously mentioned, I approached this material with a ‘Pop’ song mind-set concerning vocals. Delicate tuning (however with this project tuning is a rarity) and creative compression/artistic EQ choices help to keep the vocal lines centre stage without annihilating any of the tender dynamics.

By complete chance, I stumbled across a creative technique when routing the vocals out and automating different reverb sends during the first verse.

There is a moment where the lead vocal moves from being very upfront in the mix to (for the first time) feeling like it dips back and out of focus during a held ‘oh’. This entrancing movement effect was achieved by over-compressing the vocal as it hit the Aux send, meaning that only the quieter parts of the performance would ‘bloom’ into the reverb. One happy accident I will certainly (intentionally) use in future.

v. Drums
This was not the first time I tracked the drums last for a session. There’s not a lot to mention here regarding new discoveries or unconventional processes, aside from using an AKG C414 in hyper cardioid on the snare top becoming new favourite combination. It’s very dark, but the tone and sense of self-compression within the mic itself are fantastic.

A lot of the resulting drum sound is largely from the drummer’s own performance and dynamic control, and thus I got to try a few things that maybe I couldn’t with a less-experienced musician.

Slate VMS condensers were used for the overheads using the C12 emulation. It’s made me think long and hard about whether I ever want to use anything else during future sessions.

I did call up a snare room sample taken from a session at Middle Farm Studios, mainly because the space we got to track in wasn’t very ‘woody’ (and the Middle Farm live room sound is a rewarding tone I’ve become accustomed to hearing during mixing). Aside from that, there’s no close mic sampling or tricks, the musician’s performance was spot on, giving me a lot of quality material to make shine.

Gear Used

Guitars

Ibanez 7 – Bareknuckle Juggernaughts
Strandberg Boden 7 – EMG 707x

Vocals

Slate VMS – Song C37 Model > Neve 1073 > Distressor

Drums

Kit – DW Master
Kick – Audio Technica Dual Element
Snare – 57 & C414
Toms – Beyerdynamic M201s
Overheads – Slate VMS x2
HH – Aston Starlight
Ride – Aston Starlight
Room – Fathead Ribbons in Blumlein

Bass

Fender Jazz Custom Shop ’64
Dingwall Combustion

Mixing

The track Jaws was built and completed in a reasonably short and efficient time frame (which is thankfully becoming something of a trend for me) working for around 4 days from start to finish. It was a quick process which required me to build the mix whilst tracking simultaneously.

Thus, to help encourage forward momentum and consistency, I built myself a few rules or ‘anchors’ to work by:

Rule 1The sub bass line (808) stays at either -24db or -30db. This was to ensure that the low end was always fixed and solid. Every other element would orientate around this foundation rule.

Rule 2Vocals are god. 

After setting the 808 level, the vocals came next. I balanced them, delicately applying EQ and compression to taste whilst being mindful to not over-tame the dynamics of the performance. With the vocals in place, the rest of the mix aligned in one sonic space with little effort. 

I knew that, for example, if the vocals felt too quiet, something must be masking them either in volume or tone. Or if the mix felt too dark, the lighter energetic elements needed to be accentuated etc.

This isn’t the first time I’ve used guidelines to maintain the initial vision, but it is the first time I’ve actioned them in a song that combines so many genres within one track. Because the drums were tracked last, they were also last to be implemented into the mix.

A lot of Jaws’ elements are synth-based/synthetically created, and quite far from sounding ‘organic’. I was sure that, to balance this out and keep the track rooted, I didn’t want to present the drums in the hyper-explosive, over-the-top processing style a lot of drums are subject to of late.

To achieve this, I spent more time setting the compression correctly and, rather than using compression to manoeuvre the performance in place, I utilised the natural tone and vibe that the overheads captured of live room to dictate the majority of the kit picture. If you were to hear the drums solo’d, this would be very apparent.

To keep what little bleed that existed in the close mics down to a minimum and still get the most from their impact, I staged a few different instances of Fabfilter’s Multiband Compressor plugin, keyed to only kick in and expand on the hit of the close mic in question. It’s set to attack quickly, to only let through a short 30ms spike, and then clamp back down.

Additional cool stuff;

– During the first instrumental chorus, most of the guitars playing the low E line are interestingly a Fender Jazz Bass performing on a single .090 string. This was a creative choice as well as a workaround in response to the bass octave region of the ‘guitar’ parts (and the lack of a guitar in the studio that would happily handle drop octave E standard tuning). It was a reasonably linear process to get the bass DI sounding guitar-like utilising a simple tone-matching process to a guitar DI, and when finally blended into a second set of drop E guitars, achieved the desired sound.

– The vocal hook in the second verse, before the ‘festival sing-along’ style chorus, are the same the hook from the chorus but played in reverse.

– When editing drums, I couldn’t decide how I wanted the drums to feel in the end section. I therefore didn’t quantise the performance at all; that whole section is just the pure drum performance.

Testimonial

Sleep Token

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Lastly…

Sleep Token have two records out currently called One and Two. They’re both 3 track EPs, however One has recently (as of writing this blog) been re uploaded with piano instrumental versions of each song.

We tracked these piano versions a pleasant studio called Monnow Valley, Wales. They are all improvised performances with no edits or cuts, and are well worth a listen.

Jaws acts as a stylistic keystone for Two, rounding off the creative exploration and the journey of what has been, whilst also potentially indicating at what is yet to come.

Until next time.

G1.