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The GOASTT: Sean Lennon Records 'Midnight Sun'

May 28, 2014
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Midnight Sun, the fourth album from Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl, aka The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (GOASTT), is a psychedelic fun house of Magical Mystery Tour proportions. Like that 1967 psychedelic master class, Midnight Sun is the product of both classic technology and experimental recording techniques. And if you ever wondered what happened to John Lennon’s guitars, amplifiers, and effects, you need listen no further than Midnight Sun.

Though Sean Lennon and engineer Andris Balins wouldn’t confirm details, the gear John Lennon used to record Imagine went up for auction in 2013, the Craigslist ad including two Studer B62 stereo tape recorders with 706 varispeed units, an EMT 140S stereo transistor reverberation plate, and Neumann U87, KM84i, and U47FET microphones. Balins did verify that John Lennon’s former gear was indeed at Sean’s studio, The Farm, deep in the wilderness of upstate New York, while Lennon, Kemp Muhl, and a handful of musicians recorded Midnight Sun.

Beyond his father’s fabled gear, as far as microphones, the far-from-flamboyant Lennon took a thrifty approach when outfitting The Farm.

“We used cheaper mics for the record,” Sean explains. “I would love to have an E-LAM 251, but you have to weigh your priorities. I would rather have ten synths than one fancy tube mic. We have basic stuff: an imitation U47 and an AKG 414, many SM 57s, but my favorite is the RCA 77 DX; we use that for drums a lot.”

Explaining his process for tracking vocals, Sean says, “When I finally figured out that I didn’t want to sing through a U47 anymore, and an SM57 instead, the engineer I was working with looked up the microphone my dad used. We found a story about how he didn’t like the way his voice sounded on the U47 at Abbey Road and he wound up using a dynamic mic. It took me until I was 35 to realize that. So if I find a vintage dynamic mic or ribbon from the ’60s or ’70s for under $150, I buy it. It has to do with [creating sounds] that aren’t clichés.”

In their goal to avoid clichés, Lennon, Kemp Muhl, and Balins pursued mad experiments with instruments and effects including a Chamberlin Mk4, ARP 2600, Moog Minimoog, Binson Echorec, Hammond B3, Baldwin Electric Harpsichord, an 1800s calliope, marimba, Rhodes, Ampex 440-AG tape machine, and various Fender Jazz Master, Fender Jazz Bass, and Martin acoustic guitars. Tracked both digitally and to tape, without a console, the sessions were largely the result of Lennon recording vocals, guitars, keyboards, bass, and drums solo, with Kemp Muhl editing up to [their shared] 40 vocal tracks and even more instrumental tracks in Pro Tools, before handing off to producer Dave Fridmann at Tarbox Studios for final polishing/mixing. “We recorded all our ideas at once and then edited everything together like Frankenstein,” Kemp Muhl explains. “Sean would layer 20 million ideas then storm out of the room, then I’d sit there and edit for eight hours.”

Lennon and Kemp Muhl were on a serious Pink Floyd/Beatles binge when they decided their latest songs (following an acoustic EP, La Carotte Bleue) deserved a full-blown “Flying” meets The Madcap Laughs production esthetic.

“The more we got into electrifying the songs, the more we felt they deserved an elaborate psychedelic landscape,” Lennon explains. “That seemed to fit the music, especially as our songs are very surreal and the chords are really unpredictable. We feel like the production reflects the songs.”

“Our shared love for The Beatles and Pink Floyd expanded exponentially,” Kemp Muhl adds. “We’d make weirder and weirder sounds and write weirder and weirder chord changes. Many tracks started with me on guitar and Sean on drums. Then we’d layer things from there. We kept trying things until it became this weird psychedelic onion.”

Asking Lennon and Kemp Muhl to describe their favorite sonic experiments is like opening a cookie jar in a kindergarten class. They go mad for it.

Lennon: “I actually taped open-chord-tuned acoustic guitars to my drum kit. The pickups on the acoustics ran into amplifiers and each guitar had a different effects path. One would have a delay pedal running through a phase and another would have a harmonizer and each guitar played a different chord. Every time I would hit a drum it would resonate that guitar in an open chord. We’d blend that into different songs.”

Kemp Muhl: “For backward guitar, we used the 1960s Ampex tape machine that sounds f*cking awesome. We’d play a track backward and Sean would track the guitar to the tape machine, then we would flip the tape forward. We recorded all the drums and bass to tape first, ’cause those are the instruments where you’d notice tape distortion. We love that warm ’60s tape distortion sound.”

Lennon: “At one point we tried to strap the guitar amp to the grand piano and record the strings resonating as a reverb. If you put a brick on the piano’s sustain pedal, then all the strings are open; then if you scream into the strings you’ll hear that reverb. But that didn’t work at all. You could hear the strings reverberating but the source signal was so much louder than the reverb.”

Kemp Muhl: “I love our Binson Echorec; it has this metallic-y, bright delay quality. And we like tape echo a lot. I like getting my fingers in there and f*cking with the actual tape while we’re recording through it. It’s all about irregularities. That’s the only thing that separates real music from quantized modern music. Moving the tape around adds skips and hiccups to guitar and vocal tracks that sound cool.”

Lennon: “We recorded drums on an old Panasonic boom box. We’d use that as an effects track for a really dirty sound. And Charlotte would put drums through the ARP 2600. If you do a manual filter sweep and play with the ring modulator on the ARP, it does amazing stuff to the drums. If anything sounds boring, we run it through the ARP.”

Kemp Muhl: “Our EMT 140 plate sounds better than any reverb. The plate is under the stairwell, so sometimes we will sing directly into the plate and record the signal from the plate. Or we will drop stuff down the stairs which makes a weird sound off the plate. We’ll put that sound into the track to add a weird, creepy effect. And we spy on people. When the other musicians take a break near the stairwell, which is close to the door, we can hear every word they’re saying because the plate will pick them up.”

Lennon played two drum sets from the ’50s and ’60s, respectively. Often one song will contain two different sets from three different sessions. Kemp Muhl re-amped drums, and most everything else, to achieve consistency.

“We discovered this amazing trick where you could send the drum track through a speaker pointed at an actual snare drum and it will excite the snare drum,” she exclaims. “It’s like a ghost is hitting it. We recorded the sound of the snare being triggered and that would double the actual snare in the drum tracks. We’d also re-amped the shit out of guitars to make them sound cohesive, maybe re-amp them together coming out of one amp. We embraced the Frankenstein quality of it.”

Kemp Muhl also embraced her inner Frankenstein when editing the gargantuan number of tracks involved on Midnight Sun. “During editing I was trying to carve negative space,” she recalls. “Kind of mute sh*t and move things around to avoid having any sonic redundancy. We’ve developed this philosophy of not having any redundancy in the frequency range or in the melodic notes. Each song only has about 50 percent of the ideas we recorded originally. Sean and I are definitely of the ‘more is more’ mentality. And Sean doesn’t know it, but I sometimes I edited his scratch vocal track into the finished tracks, they sound more natural and unforced.”

Engineer Andris Balins confirmed Lennon's fondness for inexpensive mics, starting with the Shure SM57.

“The 57 complements the quality of his voice,” Balins says. “We also used an AEA 440 ribbon, and the [Placid Audio] Copperphone on his vocals. Charlotte used an AEA 440, AKG4 14, and [Neumann]‘Blue' U47, and our mic pre’s included vintage Neve 1073s and Mercury V72s; compression was a UA LA2A and Retro Instruments Sta-Level, and we used pedals for everything, including re-amping.”

In addition to the vintage guitars (owned by the senior Lennon, Balins says), Sean Lennon used vintage Fender Deville and Fender Hot Rod Deluxe amps, and a vintage ’60s Fender Bassman. Balins typically miked guitar amps with a Beyerdynamic M160 or Shure SM57, and he multimiked guitar amps using drum mics. “I generally mic on the cabinet, center of the cone and a couple inches from grill,” he explains. “Room mics for guitars would be 15 to 20 feet away at ear height.”

That layout also applied when miking Charlotte’s Hofner, Rickenbacker, and Fender Jazz basses, as well as when re-amping using an SM 57 or AKG 414 on an Ampeg B15 Portaflex.

“The ARP and the Chamberlin ran direct,” Balins says. “The Chamberlin works off these belts inside the unit, so we had to get the noise floor to an acceptable level. It has such a magical sound as the tape slides past the heads. We ran the Chamberlin through the guitar amp as well, and DI’d the ARP to get all its frequencies.”

Drum miking schemes varied from two mics to ten. Balins used a pair of Coles 4038s as overheads, which also doubled as tom mics. Or he would close-mike toms using Sennheiser 441s or 421s. A Blue U47 worked as the room mic, in omni pattern, with an AKG 414 placed six feet from the kit three to four feet high to capture kick drum energy. Alternately, he placed the AKG 414 on the other side of the room 20 feet away and ten feet high for a bigger drum sound. An SM57 covered both heads of the snare drum, with an AKG D12 or 112 inside the bass drum.

Balins confirms Kemp Muhl’s re-amping approach to achieve a uniform sound, often through the ARP 2600. “We re-amped a lot to make it feel like a live project,” Balins confirms. “When Sean tracked a lot of instruments, we didn’t have that bleed between the mics that you’d get with a band in a room. We used different effects chains and amps and pedals and miking at different distances, then blended that with the original signal to get more of a sense of a band live performance.”

“On the last track, ‘Moth to a Flame,’ the drums ran through the ARP, and you can clearly hear it for the last half of the song,” he adds. “It’s usually the lowpass filter and the ring modulator that are being used from the ARP. And we used a number of signal chains for re-amping, including an Ibanez Flanger FL 301 pedal running while tracking so they can hear the effect. I also used the Flanger on Sean’s vocals on ‘Xanadu’; it has a percussive, rubber-band sound; he’s basically responding to the effect in real time.

Finally, after the writing and experimentation and tracking and editing, The GOASTT handed off the mix to Dave Fridmann. “We’d already mixed the record; it was warm and professional, but it was boring,” Kemp Muhl says. “It missed that spark. It didn’t sound half as pop as it became with Fridmann. At first we thought his mix was too much, but it’s perfect. It’s like when you get into a really hot Jacuzzi and you think it’s too hot, but after a minute you realize it’s perfect. We were experimental with sounds and writing, but we didn’t know how to mix experimentally. Fridmann brought the balls to it. He’s a genius.”

Boisterous, foul-mouthed, and smart, Charlotte Kemp Muhl would seem to be the John Lennon to Sean Lennon’s Yoko Ono. At the very least, Lennon has a great collaborator for future The GOASTT projects and experiments in sound. “We wrote all the songs together,” Sean says. “But Charlotte is faster with lyrics. We both write music really quickly. But she’s a poet; she’s won a bunch of poetry awards. Charlotte has taught me to sit and work on lyrics. She’s taught me to be a better lyricist. But I don’t work slowly with anything else. Musically I can write 12 songs a day. I am really fast on the music side.”

Contributor Ken Micallef is based in New York City. 

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