This album is one of my favorite records of 2018 and, I gotta be honest, I’ve been a bit bored by a lot of guitar, bass, and drums bands lately. While the band may not be reinventing the wheel, they’re driving down the road of guitar-based rock with a lot more energy and songcraft than most bands I’ve heard lately. Based out of Melbourne, Australia, RBCF is a five-piece band with three guitarists; all three of whom sing and write the songs. This would strike me as a recipe for a messy, un-cohesive album, but this record is anything but that, with every track flowing nicely into the next. If this record had been released in the ’80s, it would have sat nicely next to albums by bands like Television, Translator, and the poppier moments of Sonic Youth. At least three or four songs on the album feel like they would have been college radio hits back then, and there’s not a weak track in the bunch. Because I ended up loving this record so much, I wanted to find out more about how it was recorded. I tracked down Liam Judson, who produced and recorded the album, to find out more.
Mr. Judson has had an interesting and unique career recording bands in Australia. He got his start with his own band, Belles Will Ring, where as he puts it, “I took control of how we sounded and did all of our recordings. That’s how I learned to record.” Other bands in Australia, such as Cloud Control, heard the Belles Will Ring recordings, and started asking him to record them, and Liam ended up recording their breakthrough LP, Bliss Release. Unlike most busy, working engineers, Mr. Judson rarely works in a traditional studio. Instead he specializes in remote recording, and takes his mobile rig to wherever the band wants to set up and record. “I’ve worked in the odd studio here and there,” he says, “but it’s not my thing, and most bands seem to really enjoy being in a place where the hours are kind of loose and everyone’s cooking food. It’s often in beautiful, remote countryside locations, and people can go for walks. If it’s close to the beach, they can go for a surf in the morning before we start recording. I like my own gear, I like my mics, and I know exactly what they do. With the way I record in different locations or different country houses, you never quite know what you’re going to get until you’re there. It’s always the luck of the draw, but you always just make it work and that’s part of the fun of it.”
In the case of Hope Downs, the band had a very nice friend with a beautiful house in the forested hinterlands of Bellingen in northern New South Wales. After two days of preproduction in the band’s Melbourne rehearsal space, they all headed north. Liam had listened to the band’s previous EPs and was excited to work on the record, especially after he heard the new demos. “The EPs had a great vibe and atmosphere that had grown on me, but when I heard the new songs I thought this was going to be a fun project; capturing the vibe and atmosphere of those first EPs and adding in these really catchy pop songs.”
Liam describes the setting as an elevated wooden room; somewhere between a cabin and a treehouse. I asked him for more details on his recording rig: “My mobile rig varies in size depending on the project, but in the case of the RBCF album, I knew that lots of mic preamps were required as I knew we'd be tracking live. I ended up bringing along pretty much every mic pre I've got. On top of that, are some 500-series boxes filled with compressors and EQs and a few pieces of rack gear. I use a PC with an RME Fireface 802, and record to Reaper as my main DAW. I really like Reaper because it’s really stable, solid and efficient. It just runs well. On drums, I used a five-mic setup, which is my go-to. A Beez Neez James (in an Arabella body) tube large diaphragm condenser mic is a mono overhead. An Audix OM7 on snare top, Blue/EV Cardinal on snare bottom, Heil PR30 on floor tom, and a Heil PR40 is on kick. All these went through my old Spectra Sonics 110A preamps, except the overhead which was an Electrodyne 501 500-series pre.
I purchased the 110s mainly due to my fascination of the album 3rd/Sister Lovers by Big Star, which was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis in 1974. The sound of this album, along with the other Big Star records, has intrigued and maybe haunted me for nearly 20 years, the bass amp was mic’d with a Beyer M160 into an EMI preamp and compressed through an IGS Audio TUBECORE, and taken direct through a Universal Audio SOLO 610.”
Liam’s EMI preamps have some back story: “It’s an interesting one. It's a portable 4-channel microphone mixer from the late ’60s / early ’70s called an EMI OBA-1. It was made in Homebush here in Sydney – actually, I know the building it was made in, as I drive past it all the time. It was a four mic input unit that summed to a mono output, made for outside broadcast tasks for the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation]. When I got it, it was all original and in very good condition. I used it for a short while as a mono preamp (or sometimes actually did some blending of several mics to it's mono output). The issue is that it lacked headroom on loud sources – like electric guitar – as it had no input pad. It crunched real bad in a nasty way. I used it a bit on vocals and acoustic guitar, though I also wasn't completely mad about the signal-to-noise on the output, and, truth be told, it had a bit of an odd tone. But hey, it looked cool! I decided to get it looked at by Rob Squire in Adelaide, a wonderful technician who runs Pro Harmonic https://www.proharmonic.com. He modified it for direct outs for all four channels, whilst adding switches for pad, phase reversal, and 48v phantom on all channels. By bypassing the original summing transformer and coming out of Rob's output cards, all my issues had gone away. The unit changed from being a curio into the most-used and dependable piece of gear in my collection. It's clean, big sounding and works on everything. On RBCF, I used it for all electric guitars as well as drums at the Melbourne sessions where we cut ‘Bellerine’.”
Electric guitar amps were mic'd with either an AEA R92 ribbon mic, a Shure SM57, or sometimes a cheap Chinese ribbon mic that I love. All went through the EMI preamp and compressed with a bunch of different things depending on the tune, but often a Buzz Audio DBC-20. The vocal mic varied depending on the tune and who was singing, but more often than not I used the Beez Neez mic. The preamp was usually the Electrodyne, but sometimes the Spectra Sonics. I always compress vocals whilst tracking – sometimes lightly, sometimes really hard if I think the effect of it is going to pull something cool out of the performer. I often use a Pete's Place Audio BAC-500 compressor, which is my favorite vocal compressor, though I do change it up from time to time.”
Liam tracked the band live, including the bass amp, and that is pretty much what you hear on the album, including some bass bleed into the overheads. “It’s such a joy to track a band that can play well,” he remarked. "The only band member that we re-cut all his parts for is guitarist Fran Keaney, who plays acoustic guitar while the other two guitarists play electric." Fran had previously always just pulled a direct for the acoustic and Liam did this as well, remarking that, “It sounded okay; not great but it worked.” Then they decided to overdub the acoustic with the Bees Knees mic and there was no turning back. “It just sounded so glorious. It made me really appreciate what he brought to the band, which is a real glue between the two electrics – this rock-solid acoustic down the middle. The beautiful close mic with all the zing and none of the plastic-y DI sound. It was still good to track him live with the DI, because the other guys feed off his energy, but then we’d replace it and there was no more shitty DI sound anymore.”
The band tracked without headphones except for the drummer, Marcel Tussie, and Fran on the acoustic. Liam has a six-channel ART Head Amp 6 headphone amp he relies on for cue mixes that allows for “more me” or even individual mixes fed from his RME interface. Monitoring was done on Focal CMS6s and KRK VHT 6s, with Liam set up on a large table in the same room as the band. The owners of the tree house were out of town for two weeks, and nice enough to let the band stay there for that time, but unfortunately, as Liam explains: “We didn't quite finish the record in that time, so I ended up driving down to Melbourne (I'm from Sydney) and completing the album in their office / rehearsal space above a shop on one of the busiest streets in Melbourne. It was nowhere near as acoustically sweet as the treehouse, but nevertheless we re-cut an entire song and finished all the others and it ended up sounding great.”
Mixing with Doug Boehm
After the tracking sessions, the files were sent to Doug Boehm, who had mixed previous RBCF records and was already slated to mix this new album as well. Besides RBCF, Mr. Boehm has worked with a wide variety of artists, including The Vines, The Pharcyde, Miley Cyrus, kd lang, Rickie Lee Jones, Katy Perry, Ezra Furman,, Elliott Smith, Battleme, Girls, Booker T Jones and even Devo! Doug works as an engineer, mixer and producer, although these days he says 80% of his work is mixing, which he does from his home studio, Rehab. “Send your songs to Rehab,” Doug deadpans when I ask about the name. When Doug mixes at Rehab, he uses a Universal Audio Apollo Twin Duo, a UA Satellite, and a pair of Mackie HR824 monitors. They sit in an acoustically-treated and converted den in his house in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.
I did a lot of listening tests before I bought the Mackies,” says Doug, “and they’re the best sounding monitors I found at any price. The bottom end is really good, and I always say that bottom end is what separates the men from the boys. When I go to other studios where friends are working, I realize that I have a full octave more bottom end than their monitors do [at the other studios]”
After hearing about this setup, I asked Doug if he did any analog summing or if he was fully in the box:
I went down the rabbit hole of analog summing for a while. I went to different studios with Neves, APIs, and SSLs, and really listened to my mixes summed or not, and on lower track counts like under eight or so, I couldn’t really tell the difference, but on higher track counts, when it got above 16 tracks or so, it sounded better summed on the analog consoles. I was getting ready to look into – and buy – some analog summing box, but after a surf session with my buddy Dave Cooley (an amazing mastering engineer), he suggested I check out the Slate Virtual Console plug-in. [not to be confused with the Slate Raven virtual console -editor] I installed that and never looked back. Virtual Console emulates analog summing and sounds great while allowing me to use a Neve on drums, API on vocals, or whatever I want.”
Seeing as Doug is working 100 percent in the box, I picked his brain on his go-to plug-ins: “My go to vocal compressors are PSP’s Vintage Warmer 2, UA/Empirical Labs’ Distressor, and Soundtoys’ Devil-Loc Deluxe. For other instruments, most of the heavy lifting goes to the Kramer PIE and UA Fairchild 660. My main EQ is the UA API 550A but I also use their BX Digital V3 and sub filter. For HP and LP filtration the Waves REQ2 and Elysia’s Niveau get the call. My go-to delay is Soundtoys’ Echoboy for sure. I utilize many different reverbs with various decay times. I really like the Valhalla reverbs, Soundtoys’ Little Plate, PSP’s Pianoverb, and the UA AMS 16 and EMT 140. I use a lot of saturation plugs as well, like Soundtoys’ Decapitator, UA ATR 102, NI Driver, Lo Fi, and CamelCrusher.”
Doug said that Hope Downs was mostly recorded live, which made the mixing easier, but the challenge was in the three different guitarists.
A lot of choices have to be made in terms of what people are listening to. Because the band is pretty much a democracy, I’d get a lot of different notes back from them and have to tell them, ‘Look, I’ll read the notes, take them each into consideration, and then decide what’s best for the song.’ That’s ultimately what they wanted.” The other challenge for Doug in the mixing was the mono overhead mic. “I have a love/hate relationship with mono drums. I don’t like the energy of the cymbals in the center, because it competes with the vocals. What I did on Hope Downs, and what I often do these days, is manufacture a stereo field for the drums where there isn’t one. I don’t recall exactly which mic I used, but I’ll usually pull a room mic or even a floor tom mic that’s catching the ride nicely and use that as one side of the stereo field. The transient designer plug-ins that have come out have changed everything for this kind of application, and I rely heavily on Waves Smack Attack to mold the extra mic into part of the stereo field.”
To wrap it all up, the album was mastered by Nao Anzai, back home in Melbourne.
So that was the path of Hope Downs; from a cabin in rural Austraiia to a den in suburban Los Angeles.
Definitely one of my top five albums of 2018!