In a political climate where everything even remotely unwholesome is considered blasphemous and un-American, it does one’s rock-and-roll heart good that a blatant song about sex can generate massive airplay and reap critical and popular raves. And even if you can’t make out the steamy lyrics, the T. Rex-meets-Slade-while-pub-hopping-with-Sparks majesty of Louis XIV’s “Finding Out True Love Is Blind” is full of raw, minimalist guitar riffs. Even better, the band’s guitarist, Jason Hill, is also the engineer/producer of Louis XIV’s Illegal Tender EP [Pineapple Recording Group] and its major-label debut, The Best Little Secrets Are Kept [Atlantic]. So, any controversy aside, it’s nice to have loud guitars on the radio, and it’s cool to have a guitarist controlling a record’s soundscape.
“Finding Out True Love Is Blind” actually began its ascent up the charts as a “runaway.” It wasn’t mixed, it wasn’t mastered, and it wasn’t meant to be heard. But Hill’s bandmate, co-guitarist, and creative partner, Brian Karscig, has a habit of sharing music with people, and a rough mp3 mix of the song ended up being played on Radio 91X in San Diego, the band’s hometown. When more stations picked up the cut, Hill was “forced” to do a proper mix.
“It was cool the song broke that way,” says Hill. “I mean, it could have been mixed by someone famous like [mix engineer/ producer] Tom Lord-Alge, but it wasn’t. It was just an mp3 mix done in a hurry as a reference. But I think people reacted to the song because it was different—it didn’t sound like a big-time, radio-friendly mix that sounds like everything else.”
The tune’s unique impact was informed by a stew of seemingly disparate approaches: conventional engineering chops, home-studio derring-do, vintage-audio applications, and McGuyver-like kludge fests. Basic tracks were recorded in a tiny, sonically dead office without even a makeshift control room. And while Hill is a gear freak with lots of vintage microphones, tape decks, and preamps in his arsenal, he doesn’t get precious about signal chains.
“I always go for whatever sound is in my head, but getting that sound has little to do with microphones, mic placement, or preamps,” explains Hill. “I can get the same guitar sound whether I use a Telefunken or an API preamp. Preamps are important, but they’re not nearly as important as some other elements. For me, the room and the player determine how a guitar sounds. What really makes a recording is the sound of your amp, the sound of your guitar, and the sound of your fingers. You have to smack that guitar and shake it and make it howl—that’s how you get the magic to happen.”
Instrument whuppin’ aside, Hill tracked his Epiphone Casino and ’50s Silvertone Twin-12 with a Shure SM57 positioned right on the amp, and a Neumann TLM 103 placed a couple of feet back. The Neumann was routed to a Urei 1176 compressor/limiter, and then to an early-’70s Studer broadcast console. Each mic channel was submixed to a mono track with Hill using the console’s q" headphone output to route signals to a Studer A80 analog 16-track with just 12 tracks actually working. For percussion parts and vocal overdubs—which included not only harmonies, but also vocalized “drum” parts such as hi-hat ticks—the tracks were transferred to Pro Tools. No plug-ins or digital-editing gymnastics were employed, as the DAW was simply utilized as a big multitrack deck. At the final mixdown, there were only about eight actual tracks to manipulate, because Hill submixed individual tracks into monaural washes.
“I love to group five, six, or seven things onto one track, because then they all live and breathe together,” he says. “They become a solid entity. To do this, you have to be bold with all the ingredients, though, which some people find difficult to do. But I always commit early. I don’t like leaving a bunch of tracks to sort through at the mixdown. I don’t over-think things, and I’m not afraid to be bold. Many people play it too safe—it’s like they’re afraid to take one raw guitar track and make it LOUD. I can’t stress this enough—every decision you make should be bold. In audio production, if you’re not doing something bold, you’re not doing anything.”
One of the marvelous lessons of Louis XIV’s indie success is that personal taste can still win the day. The twisted, old-school glam posturing of “Finding Out True Love Is Blind” proves that you don’t have to follow whatever is generically popular to reach an audience.
“I can’t stand most stuff on the radio today,” admits Karscig, “which is why we looked to the ’70s glam music that we were fans of, and added our own thing to it. That music was all about great beats, super-simple songs, having fun, and being cool. And we felt it was way hipper than most current music, where there’s no passion or experimentation with sound. It’s sad. Everyone seems to be regurgitating the ’90s, because that was the last thing that really worked in rock.”