Vampire Weekend Production Goes Mobile with Apollo and UAD Powered Plug-Ins
Few bands in the last decade have risen from the underground with the unstoppable momentum of Vampire Weekend, a group wryly described by its songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij as “one of the last New York bands still standing.”
“Still standing” is quite an understatement, in fact. Vampire Weekend’s joyful melding of indie rock, Afro pop, and beyond has lifted the band to international A-level status, keeping them touring constantly and landing chart-topping accolades. Their newest album, Modern Vampires of the City, debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart with rave reviews — four stars from The Guardian, while the Los Angeles Times describes it as “a captivating record worthy of both repetition and obsession.”
Batmanglij shares co-production and co-mixing credits on the album with Ariel Rechstaid, whose production resume includes the likes of Usher, Major Lazer, and Charli XCX. Rather than setting up residence for six months in a posh studio to hash out the album, the Vampire Weekend team adopted a more spontaneous approach — recording, producing, and mixing in vintage recording studios and Brooklyn apartments, lounges and backyards — a mobile strategy largely made possible by their adoption of the Universal Audio Apollo and UAD Powered Plug-Ins.
Here’s what the duo had to say about summoning the melodies of urban vampires, and the cutting-edge UA technology they used to do it.
How did the co-production and co-mixing go down?
Rostam Batmanglij: Ariel and I put together identical UAD, Pro Tools, and other plug-in setups on both of our individual computers and that let us open each other’s sessions. We had hard drives that we were syncing every few days and that led us to maximize our workflow and our ability to do work, both when we were together and when he was in Los Angeles and I was in New York.
When we were together, there’d be times when I would set up in one room with my laptop and UAD-2 Satellite FireWire card and he would be in another room with the Apollo. If we were in Los Angeles at Ariel's studio, he would have his computer with UAD cards in his tower, and I'd have my laptop with the Satellite.
About halfway through, I got a new computer with a solid state drive that makes everything so much faster. Even though it’s a laptop, it runs Pro Tools with more stability and more quickly than any other computer I’ve used. Ariel started using a laptop with solid state as well, we began exchanging hard drives and synchronizing them so we could open each other’s sessions.
When did Apollo enter the recording and mixing process?
Ariel Rechtshaid: I had a UAD-2 QUAD PCIe DSP Accelerator Card inside my tower at my studio in Los Angeles, and there was always at least a Satellite involved in this project. There was a lot of back and forth between Los Angeles and New York on this album and I started traveling with the Apollo. It became my rig away from home. I spent so much time working with it in New York that I got very comfortable with it and realized how useful it was.
What about it resonated?
AR: Obviously, the portability. It powers the UAD Powered Plug-Ins, which are essential to my process. Also, the headroom is great, direct recording is great, and the preamp is transparent and works well with the color of the plug-ins. Once I got the Thunderbolt option, it was even better. It took my laptop recording to the next level. Midway through recording this album, I actually moved to strictly laptop recording, rather than desktop. That became possible with the Apollo, and also with Thunderbolt technology.
How did you use the Apollo on the album?
AR: A lot of times, we’d use guitars direct with some plug-ins, or sometimes just dry.
RB: One of the last things that we recorded on the album was a guitar outro that I wrote and played for “Don’t Lie.” We just plugged a Les Paul guitar into the DI of the Apollo. I got really used to using a combination of Avid SansAmp and the ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder Plug-in — just those two with some AltiVerb Reverb. That gave us a scrappy sound that I’m very fond of.
AR: For vocals, if we had a nice Neve mic pre around, I’d use it, but if not, I’d plug straight into the Apollo and dial up the Neve® 1073 / Classic Console EQ Plug-In, which mirrors the 1073 hardware at my studio. Then we’d put the 1176 Classic Limiter plug-in on.
What was the vocal chain?
RB: We used Soundelux U99 microphones. I have one and Ariel has two, and at the time, I was renting an 1176 from the ’70s, so that was the signal path. When I was recording at my apartment in Brooklyn, I also liked to just move the vocal mic over and record piano with it as well. I have an upright piano that’s in the key of B, so if you listen to the record, you’ll hear a lot of songs in B, and that’s why. [Laughs.]
What about the computers you used?
AR: One of the essential parts of the process for me and Rostam was that upgrade to solid state hard drives in our laptops. It made the whole thing possible. We were able to have full high-definition, large track count sessions with tons of virtual instruments without any problems. A lot of times, if I ran out of Thunderbolt ports, I would use a USB hard drive, and that wasn’t even a limitation because the whole session got loaded into the cache. Pretty incredible. The liberation of being able to travel and work so freely and not be bogged down by a desktop computer is priceless.
"The ATR-102 Mastering Tape Plug-In was one of the last things that I needed to really help me achieve the vintage sounds that I heard in my head." — Rostam Batmanglij
How exactly did you have the Apollo set up?
AR: I had the laptop plugged into my Thunderbolt monitor display. Then out of the display, it went into one of the Thunderbolt ports of the Apollo. The second Thunderbolt port on the Apollo would go into a rugged, portable LaCie hard drive that’s bus powered — and there you go. The Apollo and monitor are the only two things I have plugged into the wall, and I have plenty of hubs to do everything I needed.
How many times did you swap hard drives back and forth?
AR: A lot. Thousands of times. We’re both pretty enthusiastic and full of ideas, and none of us were in a rush to finish. We wanted the album to be as good as possible so there was a lot of revising. As much as I’m all for recording a record in a week, I’m also for trying everything until you feel like you’ve tried it every different way and are comfortable with how you’re presenting it.
How did you know when a song was done?
RB: We didn’t, oftentimes. We had to sit with them a little bit. Several songs we opened back up and revised quite a bit — the end of “Ya Hey,” “Finger Back,” and “Don’t Lie” were all revised after our initial two-month period of working in Los Angeles. It’s just important to sit with something for a while, and then you know.
Did the two of you ever really disagree on something?
AR: That aspect of it was never tumultuous. There would be moments when something wasn’t quite right and we had to go back and change it, but between me and Rostam, it just felt like we were elevating ideas back and forth. Every time, it got a little better.
Since we had the laptops mirrored and traded songs back and forth, we liked to make bounces every time we finished an idea so that we could always reference where we were three versions ago. If we missed something or went in a wrong direction, it was usually easy to reference an older bounce, date it accordingly, and go back to that session to see what was going on.
When it came to the sound of the record, what were some of your goals?
AR: Even though we recorded a lot to tape at Vox Studios, a great old studio from the 1920s in Los Angeles, our goal wasn’t to make an old-sounding record. Rather, we wanted to draw from references that we loved and the technology we have today to make a futuristic record, something that didn’t sound like anything you’ve heard before. That’s my objective in general with production, and I think that Vampire Weekend felt the same way.
That’s one of the things that brought us together — the quest for something new and different. The band liked that I wasn’t super familiar with their older material and that I wasn’t interested in trying to recreate anything from their past. I was just into trying to make the freshest sounding recording possible, so it was a matter of experimenting. If we stumbled on something bizarre and new-sounding, and if it made us feel a little uncomfortable, that was probably a good thing.
"I really liked the 1176 Classic Limiter Plug-In Collection — I used it on vocals all over the record. We were basically mixing as we went along, and those compressors sounded fantastic." — Ariel Rechtshaid
What’s a good example?
RB: On “Finger Back,” one of the things we did was record a lot of the drum parts separate from each other at Vox Studios. We had our drummer, Chris Tomson, play each kick pattern, then play each high-hat pattern, and then we overdubbed crashes. That gave us the flexibility to change the arrangement later on when we were back in New York.
How did you change it?
RB: There was an earlier version of the song that was just relentless, with the drums at full blast the whole time. For the middle section, I decided to try to take the kick track and run it through the SPL Transient Designer and maximize the decay. What happens is that the natural hiss from the tape is being sucked upwards by the SPL and it creates a very modern, sort of French house effect, but it’s doing it using pretty old-school techniques — recording drums to tape and using the SPL Transient Designer. But we were pushing it to an extreme that I don’t think most people would be ready to do. We were somehow able to make it work, and were lucky that we recorded the parts separate for that song.
What I love about that kick is that it makes the whole track bounce. That’s something that I learned on this record — when people talk about big or bouncy bass, so much of it is perceptual. In fact, it’s when you have high frequencies that are getting pushed down by bass elements that you start to feel the suction, pumping, and bouncing of the track that you want.
What are some of the other UAD plug-ins you used?
RB: On the song “Don’t Lie,” I put the Fairchild® 670 Compressor Plug-In on all the vocals, and on “Obvious Bicycle,” we had the Fairchild on lead vocals. I don’t know how else to describe it, but it just makes them sound buttery.
AR: I really liked the 1176 Classic Limiter Plug-In Collection — I used it on vocals all over the record. We were basically mixing as we went along, and those compressors sounded fantastic. We also used the EMT 140 Plate Reverb Plug-In a lot, sometimes with very short settings to give sounds some depth. I haven’t encountered anything like it in other plug-ins.
RB: There are also certain sounds that came about from the ATR-102 — especially the wow and flutter — that we used quite a lot. I’ve actually sought out some guitar pedals to emulate how that wow and flutter work for live performances. It’s a pretty special thing.
For me as a producer, and I think Ariel would agree, I want to feel like we cover every era of recording as far as the sound we are able to achieve. Previously, I had always had plug-ins that had been able to let me achieve certain sounds I’d heard in my head, but the one thing that was missing was wow and flutter of tape. On this record, we recorded pretty much all of the drums, and a lot of bass, to real analog tape. There were other elements that we wanted to record digitally and blend into that world and, to be honest, to have an almost cartoon-y tape quality — just like a caricature of something that was recorded to tape.
How do you mean?
RB: Things that were recorded to tape in the old days weren’t just recorded one time. They were getting bounced over and over again, and that contributed to the quality that we love when we listen to a Kinks record, for example. The way that acoustic guitar sounds is due not just to one compressor pass going to tape, but multiple passes with multiple levels of compression and multiple room mics picking up the acoustic guitar, not just the mic that was originally intended for the it. Then there’s the hiss, which was another important element of that sound. The ATR-102 plug-in was one of the last things that I needed to really help me achieve the vintage sounds that I heard in my head.
"[Apollo] powers UAD Powered Plug-Ins, which are essential to my process. Also, the headroom is great, direct recording is great, and the preamp is transparent and works well with the color of the plug-ins. Once I got the Thunderbolt Option Card, it was even better. It took my laptop recording to the next level." — Ariel Rechtshaid
How specifically did you use it on the album?
RB: Ariel and I like to do things a little differently each time, so we’d just open up a plug-in and start adjusting parameters as we saw fit. A lot of times, the ATR-102 plug-in started at a default setting and then we’d adjust the wow and flutter. In other cases, we started with the Sunbaked Cassette preset, which is totally extreme. It would be very hard to put that preset on any sort of recording, but since we used it as a starting point and dialed things back down from it, we got to a nice middle ground.
AR: We were mixing as we went along, building the tracks, and I used a ton of the ATR-102 plug-in for coloration everywhere and, at times, to create sounds. We would experiment with an old keyboard, guitar, or even just a plain sine wave, putting the ATR plug on there and playing with the wow and flutter and different gain stages, and the EQ using the bias feature. That helped make things that might have sounded a little anemic really come to life.
Above that, we created sounds that were new altogether by recklessly using features on the plug-ins. The organ sound on “Everlasting Arms” modulates all over the place, and that’s a key characteristic of the plug-in.
Do you have any advice for people who want to follow in your footsteps?
RB: When you’re a producer, sometimes you’re treated like a king and sometimes like a servant, but what I love about producing is that it’s nebulous, and I’m okay with that. It’s been widely said that Rick Rubin doesn’t touch knobs, but I don’t think that makes him any less of a producer whatsoever. If, at the end of the day, all you do is have strong ideas about which songs are good, which are bad, what a song needs, if a song is finished or not — those are the things that are essential to production. At the end of the day, production is about getting something across the finish line.
Photography by Ana Gibert.
— Michael Gallant