Illustration: Jeremy Leung
For better or worse, nostalgia is the goal for many modern rock bands.
Indie rock groups want to capture the lo-fi scrappiness of Pavement, garage-rock bands pine for the analog hiss of the ’60s, and hardcore acts want to replicate the primitive rawness of their ’80s and ’90s forebears. The same can be said for many contemporary shoegaze bands, whether they’re chasing the vintage chorus effects of Slowdive and Lush or the otherworldly fuzz warbles of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless.
However, there’s also a cluster of younger shoegaze bands that are doing the exact opposite – they’re fully embracing the incredible production quality that modern technology allows for. Their goal? To create the biggest, fullest, and most crisp-sounding shoegaze records in the genre’s history.
Although shoegaze never actually went away after its commercial peak in the early ‘90s, there’s still a great deal of reverence for its early years and its most formative albums – records like Ride’s brisk Nowhere, Chapterhouse’s groovy Whirlpool, Swervedriver’s roaring Mezcal Head, and Hum’s grunge-infected You’d Prefer An Astronaut.
All of those albums and the many others that Creation Records, 4AD, and Slumberland Records put out in the genre’s first wave are undeniably great, but from a production standpoint, all of them sound dated in 2020. The songwriting may be timeless, and there’s no questioning the unmatched brilliance of Loveless from a compositional standpoint. But for a genre built on waves of guitar noise, dense layers of reverb, and thunderous drums, even the biggest and most crushing shoegaze classics only sound crushing by 1996 standards.
For some contemporary bands, capturing the tape-recorded sound quality of Swervedriver’s Raise and Catherine Wheel’s Chrome — or even more lo-fi albums like Swirlies’ Blonder Tongue Audio Baton and Loveliescrushing’s bloweyelashwish — is the intention. But for groups like Nothing, Cloakroom, Greet Death, DIIV, Holy Fawn, Slow Crush, and Tennis System, to name just a handful, rejecting the nostalgic fidelity of shoegaze’s childhood years has allowed them to make some of the most stunningly grandiose, shimmering, and full-bodied shoegaze music to date.
Beyond applying their obvious songwriting talents, the way these bands have propelled the genre to new heights is by using recent software, hardware, and production techniques that largely weren’t available even ten years ago – let alone 30.
Songwriting > gear hoarding
Before diving deep into all of the audio advancements and technical wizardry that made Cloakroom’s 2017 doom-gaze opus Time Well so expansive and Nothing’s 2020 skyscraper The Great Dismal so wondrously huge, it’s important to highlight the aspects of their process that aren’t new at all.
Nothing, Cloakroom, and the slightly younger band Greet Death all use amps and effect pedals that are either older or considered entry-level. Anyone who has spent five minutes shopping for pedals in recent years knows how deep the boutique stompbox rabbit hole goes, but the members of those aforementioned bands don’t consider themselves gear snobs. In fact, they prefer much more commonplace pieces of equipment.
“Seriously, you can go to Guitar Center’s used site and accumulate all of my gear for, like, $400,” says Cloakroom singer and guitarist Doyle Martin, who also played on the latest Nothing album. “I’ll never spend $1,000 dollars on a guitar and I’ll never spend $300 on a pedal – no way.”
“You’re better off focusing on your playing or writing a good song because at the end of the day, no one’s listening to your song because they know you play a Slipknot guitar,” says Greet Death guitarist Logan Gaval, who does play a Jim Root Jazzmaster (but only because it looks cool). “No one’s going to the show because they know that you have a Boss vintage chorus pedal. You’re better off buying a big-ass TV with all the money you could save not buying pedals.”
As Gaval said, what takes precedence above the actual sound of the gear — which can often be replicated pretty closely with modern digital effects, anyway (more on that later) — is writing a big-sounding song and getting a solid take in the studio. “The backbone of every Cloakroom recording is a really good live take,” says Cloakroom bassist Bobby Markos while his producer, Zac Montez, nods in agreement.
Sonny Dipperi, who produced DIIV’s massive 2019 return album Deceiver and served as an engineer for some unreleased My Bloody Valentine material, also believes that the performance of the song is integral to achieving an enormous sound. “That, to me, is what makes these records really special,” he says. “You practice what you’re going to record, and then you record it. You learn where the drums swing, you learn where the bass swings, and you really melt into the song.”
Digital vs. tape
To understand what makes these records unique to the modern era, you have to understand the critical differences between recording directly into a computer versus recording to two-inch tape. The reason someone would want to record to tape in 2020 is to achieve that classic, saturated, and distinctive sound – a warm, natural quality appealing to many people’s ears because that’s how almost all rock songs were captured during the genre’s first decades.
Historically, recording guitars and drums to tape was the most effective way to reproduce the electricity of rock and roll in a recorded setting. However, the advancements in digital recording technology over the last ten years have come so far from the primitive days of GarageBand recordings (immortalized in early records from artists like Wavves and Alex G) that it’s closing in on eclipsing tape altogether.
“I think we’re at a point now with digital audio where it’s really good,” Diperri says. “The converters are really good now. They sound different from when I got into recording, and I’m young so I can’t believe I can hear the difference.”
Zac Montez, who digitally recorded Cloakroom’s Time Well and their upcoming third LP, is also floored at how far technology has come in the time since he started producing just over a decade back. “I think if you get your signal chain right and you just dial it in by ear and find the right components, you can get the same feeling that you get from some of these straight analog recordings,” he says. “I remember when I started [producing music] in college in 2007, everything was very harsh and in the digital realm you had to roll off so much top end to get it to sound smooth and pleasant to the ear and not fatiguing.”
Bands who choose to record to two-inch tape in 2020 are either chasing that perceived vintage sound for artistic reasons, or they’re intentionally choosing to limit themselves to 24 tracks of recorded sounds per song for an exercise in minimalism. But even a few years back, tape seemed like the most effective way to make a shoegaze record. Nothing recorded their entire 2014 debut Guilty of Everything and then half of their 2018 record Dance on the Blacktop to tape, and Cloakroom traveled to Earth Analog, the studio of Hum frontman Matt Talbott, to cut their 2015 debut Further Out to tape. While they were there, Markos and his bandmates were taught a hard lesson about that 24-track limitation.
“I remember a moment I’ll never forget where Doyle [Martin] wanted to add this reverse guitar thing and then Talbott handed him the sheet and was like, ‘OK, what do you want to delete? You want to delete the snare drum? The bass drum? We’re out of space buddy. You only have so many spaces on the tape,’” Markos recalls. “We quickly learned that for a band like us that wants to make the biggest sound possible, in order to use analog methods, there really needs to be a hybrid [of digital and analog].”
For Time Well, Montez ended up using a tape console to record their takes, but all of the mixing was done on Pro Tools, which allowed them to have unlimited tracks and reap all of the benefits of digital post-production.
“The possibilities are limitless,” Martin says. “If I hear a fifth harmony or a third harmony that I could sing on a Cloakroom record, usually I’ll just let the things go and delete the ones that sounded bad and keep the ones that sounded good and just keep layering.”
For Cloakroom and Nothing — two bands that add a lot of ambient textures and harmonies behind their crushing riffs — having limitless layering possibilities is essential.
Founding member Domenic Palermo describes Nothing’s approach to songwriting as alternating between being as quiet and heavy as possible – a bigger version of those records by Swervedriver and Catherine Wheel, and even larger than The Smashing Pumpkins’ shoegaze-esque Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, which many consider to be one of the best-sounding rock albums of all time.
After inching toward accomplishing maximum grandness on his last three records, he decided that The Great Dismal was going to be the one that took Nothing’s sound to the next level. “I was like, ‘These songs need to be as big as they possibly can be.’ They should sound as crystal clear as some of the classic records that I love and take inspiration from.”
To his disbelief, after listening to masters of songs like “Famine Asylum” in the studio and comparing them to songs on the iconically massive Mellon Collie, his songs genuinely sounded bigger. “I was blown away when we were playing those two records side-by-side,” Palermo says. “It kind of f****d me up a little bit to be honest. It’s just technology at that point. It’s technology and it’s the people producing it who understand the technology.”
That’s where the record’s producer, Will Yip comes in. The Conshohocken, Pennsylvania-based producer is well known in the modern shoegaze community for his work with bands like Nothing, Title Fight, and Pity Sex, but he’s an all-around rock wiz who’s produced huge-sounding records for hardcore bands (Code Orange, Turnstile), punk mainstays (The Menzingers, The Bouncing Souls), and emo-adjacent acts like Turnover, Tigers Jaw, and La Dispute. He’s also worked with rap artists ranging from Ms. Lauryn Hill to Wicca Phase Springs Eternal. He used his background in hip hop to elevate The Great Dismal to places no shoegaze record has gone before.
”I grew up on hip hop, so my goal is to get rock records to smack like hip hop records,” Yip says. “My goal is to get it to not just knock like that, but to have the same impact. Because that’s what my ears want. So I always go into any record looking for the frequencies for it to knock and get it in your face and to get it to compete with your loudest Travis Scott record.”
Anyone who’s worked with Yip will tell you he’s a drum mastermind – if there’s one common trait among all of his records, it’s that the drums sound huge. While working on The Great Dismal, he went above and beyond to make them sound ginormous, evident on a song like “Say Less.”
“I even treated the drums like hip hop drums,” he says. “We tracked the shells and the cymbals separately so I could make the kit — just the kick drums and the snare — knock hard. And you can’t do that as much when you’re tracking with cymbals because the more you blow out the drums, the more the cymbals blow out, and people don’t like that.”
Given that the washes of guitar noise are the most essential feature of shoegaze, one might think that heaping layers of guitars on top of one another would be the best way to get that huge sound. Yip says the opposite is actually true. “It’s kind of like a room. If you put all this shit in the room, when you open the door it’s going to look smaller. But if you have an interior designer take that shit out and just put in a bed and a cool nightstand, you have minimal pieces but they all work together; you feel the space more. It feels bigger with less.”
“It’s all about finding pockets,” he adds. “That’s basic mixing 101, but it’s hard to execute because you want to fill it up with fuzz; you want to fill it up with whatever. But restraint allows for space, and when you have space, it feels bigger.”
Similarly, Diperri revealed that DIIV’s Deceiver, which rivals the grandiosity of The Great Dismal at its heaviest points, doesn’t have as many layers as you might think. ”The heaviest, most dense moments are on maybe four tracks [of guitar],” he says. Diperri’s method was to record one guitar track with a more mellow overdrive tone and then stack that with another track of blistering fuzz guitar, so the sounds complement one another and fill in the gaps without competing.
For Yip, achieving the physical impact of Nothing’s biggest moments doesn’t come from smothering the mix with eight layers of fuzz guitars. Counterintuitively, fewer guitars actually allow for bigger and better guitar tones. “Impact makes things big and it allows for you to hear guitars,” he says. “I think that’s the reason why a lot of these records, other shoegaze records, sound cool or they sound vibey, but they don’t have that impact and they’re not as wide.”
Mixing modern shoegaze records
Blending clean and dirty guitar tones and refraining from clogging the pipeways are crucial techniques, but they’re not particularly sophisticated or cutting-edge. In order for DIIV to achieve the heaviness of explosive songs like “Horesehead” and “Taker,” and to ensure they sound great at loud volumes (the way shoegaze was meant to be enjoyed), Diperri reached for modern equipment and mixing techniques.
“I listened for frequency build-up or frequency masking, some people call it. And it creates a sort of whistle that once you learn how to hear it, you can go in using very modern EQs that really only a few hardware units can do. You can go in and remove these very specific whistles and buildups.”
”Once we got a balance, the band was very happy with it,” Diperri says, “We spent a lot of time in the mixing stage, riding the volume and panning all the time to turn things up and down. So it sounds even and thick, but it doesn’t sound compressed and squashed.”
Another modern technique Diperri used for Deceiver was EQ-ing the breathy vocals in a way that normalized their volume and made them sound incredibly clear and audible, despite the raging guitars and crashing drums beneath them.
“Using the ability to turn EQs off, turn EQs on, switch the curves, and switch the equalization points is something that I was able to do in an afternoon,” Diperri says. “If we were working in the late ‘80s – early ‘90s, it would’ve been all hands on deck and people punching stuff.”
That effect really comes through on a song like “Blankenship,” a rollicking jam with vocals that are practically ASMR levels of closeness. “You’re able to get the clarity and the diction and sit the vocal in the mix to a spot where it sounds cohesive and gelled into the music, almost on a word-by-word basis,” Diperri says. “It’s not like you listen to some of these older records and the vocal sort of pops out or goes away.”
For Yip, the biggest benefit of Pro Tools and digital editing, in general, isn’t the unlimited track counts, but the digital plugins he can integrate into the software. “You can dissect a snare, guitar, or vocal tone endlessly,” Yip says. “That’s what separates a more hi-fi, big shoegaze record versus a lo-fi shoegaze record. Lo-fi records are cool, but you get hi-fi not just because it’s hi-fi or perceived as hi-fi. How it gets hi-fi is that in the mix, you dissect what’s wrong and what’s good with every tone.”
Then, there are the plugins for replicating specific synth and processor effects, which are particularly useful for a genre like shoegaze that gets all of its signature qualities from blending various instrumental effects. At this point, the digital plugins have reached a level of quality that rivals the analog pedals themselves. Palermo shared an anecdote about his collaborator Nick Bassett (formerly of Deafheaven, Whirr, and Nothing) buying up thousands of dollars of vintage equipment in order to get hyper-specific tones, and then selling it all two years later because the plugins sounded better.
“There are some people who get caught up in what they’re using a little bit too much just to try to stay true to the gearhead stuff,” Palermo says. “And then there are people who just do things the smart way and get things sounding as best as they possibly can, and you gotta pick and choose your battles. If you’re going to use a plugin or if you’re going to use the actual thing, and these days there’s not much of a difference.”
The future of shoegaze
Bobby Markos from Cloakroom firmly believes that even though many fans and bands consider the early ‘90s era to be shoegaze’s apex, all of those bands were essentially scrambling to bring what they had in their heads to life with the tools they had. Today, there’s much less of a discrepancy between what’s creatively imaginable and technologically possible.
“Digital recording caught up to shoegaze,” Markos says. “Shoegaze was just beyond what was feasible and they had to figure it out and invent things to capture it. And now, with digital capabilities and how readily available it is, anybody can go and get a startup recording setup and go for it now. It’s not like, ‘Well, I have to save up ten grand and buy a board and a console, like it’s this huge thing.”
The pricing is a whole other part of the equation. Bands just don’t make as much money as they did when record sales were booming before the internet, which has influenced drop-in studio rates. But even so, legend has it that Loveless cost half-a-million dollars to make and almost bankrupted My Bloody Valentine’s label, Creation Records. That’s obviously the most extreme example, but it’s not unlikely that bands like Slowdive, Ride, and Lush were given six-figure recording budgets to make those quintessential albums. Martin revealed that Time Well cost Cloakroom just $8,000.
“The digital age has really made it to a point where shoegaze can definitely exist on a fraction of the dollar and it can become so much more,” Markos says. “To try and do everything that we did on [Time Well], it would’ve been impossible. We would’ve had to be on Geffen with a Geffen-sized budget to try and pull that off.”
Markos theorizes that such a financial and logistical hindrance to bands like his could’ve been a death knell for the genre altogether. “If recording wouldn’t have gone down this digital walkway and led to where we are, the genre might have very well fizzled,” he says. “Especially with My Bloody Valentine breaking up and a lot of bigger bands going by the wayside, I don’t know if you would’ve seen a resurgence of it. It would’ve been like, ‘This is too difficult and it’s really not working.’”
Although the uniquely diligent Yip believes that he could’ve gotten Nothing’s The Great Dismal to sound similarly big in the ‘90s (“I would’ve sold an arm to do it,” he jokes), Palermo doesn’t think that the record would have been possible in years past without a titanic budget. He doesn’t even think he could top it going forward. ”I honestly don’t think I could ever make a record that sounds better than The Great Dismal,” he says.
“When I stepped away from the studio after we finished tracking, I was embarrassed to leave Will with the amount of work that I left him with. Like, hundreds of guitar tracks. I never put this much into a record – I’ve never put this much work into anything in my life… Production-wise, I feel like it’ll be a while before anyone can do anything that sounds like this.”
Considering that Palermo said that the Logic demos he made for The Great Dismal genuinely sounded better than 2014’s Guilty of Everything, the bar might be raised another level sooner than he thinks. In fact, Markos suspects that as technology continues to advance, we’ll probably hear the next Loveless sometime within the next decade.
“There are a lot of really smart musicians out there in the genre, or at least working in the periphery of the genre, and I think that in the next ten years you’ll probably see a record that’s really gonna change even this conversation.”
Do you make shoegaze music? If so, what gear do you use? Let us know in the comments below.
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December 17, 2020