Mark Lawson
Engineer Mark Lawson with a Vintage UA 2100

One of the most anticipated albums of the year, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs was released to critical acclaim, spent time on the top of the charts, and recently won 2010's "Album of the Year" GRAMMY®. Mark Lawson is one of the talented engineers to work with this indie rock band with its multitude of members and ever changing instrumentation. Based in Montreal, Canada, Arcade Fire is fronted by the husband and wife duo of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne.

In addition to managing the chaotic amount of musicians in their sessions for the album, Lawson also had to deal with the technical end of recording a vast array of continually changing instrumentation in varying — some rather dubious — locations. Lawson and the band alike are hardcore analog enthusiasts, utilizing both vintage and modern, gear and techniques.

Lets start with your background. Are you from Montreal?

No. I was born in northern Ontario, but I moved around a bunch. I ended up in Vancouver where I was working in a studio, learning the ropes, doing film scores and TV music and stuff like that. Then in 2003 I moved to Montreal, and it's been rock and roll ever since.

Do you have a musical background?

When I was sixteen or seventeen, I played bass in some punk bands. We played some shows around town and a couple of other little towns. I've been doing it ever since.

How did you become an engineer?

I went to school. Most importantly it allowed me to meet a bunch of like-minded people that eventually got me into studios, and helped me get jobs. I went to audio school but it really didn't prepare me for the real thing — they didn't even have a tape machine there! That was like Step One: How to Use a Tape Machine.

"I can't really say anything about the 1176 that hasn't already been said. It's just the workhorse of any studio, and I love it every time."

Do you have experience with using Universal Audio gear?

Oh yeah, tons. I've been using it since I knew about it. I've been using 1176s since day one in the studio. I've used the 2-610 in combination with an 1176 to record all kinds — since the beginning of time. Did you know we used an old UA board for tracking?

Wow, no I didn’t. Which console?

It’s a UA 2100 sidecar. I believe it came from Western or United Recorders in LA. I used the sidecar to record a variety of things. Each channel has a 1108 preamp, a limited EQ — broad stroke treble and bass — section, a very slow optical limiter and a large square metal fader. Every time the lights would flash on the limiters, I would smile and hope for the best. It was tricky to monitor sometimes in the makeshift DYI spaces. The title track, “The Suburbs”, with the dueling drum kits, was recorded with that sidecar.

Do you own the 2100 sidecar? Was it someone else's you got to use?

It just showed up in a random basement, now it belongs to the band.

Do you know its history?

I'm pretty sure it was one of the main consoles at Western/United in LA. It got parted-out to Indigo Ranch and I think the other half might have gone to Van Halen. I remember a piece of tape on the side of the sidecar that said, ‘Van Halen sidecar’ on it. But it's unknown if they actually used it, or how long it was there.

Do you use the on-board preamps?

Everything. It didn't have any summing capabilities, so I had a tech build me a custom summing amp. So let's say I had a few mics on something, instead of using up multiple tracks on tape, I could just take those from the UA console, balance and sum them together, and then go to tape using only one or two tracks. I did that with a lot of things, I just didn't want to use up seven tracks for a guitar.

The albums definitely have a lot of warmth to them, more of a vintage sound. Do you record on tape?

Every single song started its life on tape. We would fill the tape and then transfer to digital. Every mix, once finalized was mastered to a 12-inch lacquer and then re-digitized from there. So what you're hearing in the end is each song being played from a turntable.

Arcade Fire The Suburbs
Arcade Fire The Suburbs
You did most of the recording on The Suburbs. Didn’t you guys track in multiple locations?

The credits on the album list off a few different places: “Random basements, people's houses, a studio in New York, as well as a studio in Montreal called Frisson.” I believe there were four regular studios, and then all kinds of basements and random places.

Why, so many different places? Was it a creative ‘plan’ or a matter of necessity?

I think that's just where they were at the time, we just recorded wherever we could: someone's basement, someone's side room, or someone's back shack. A couple of the songs were recorded in their private studio out in the country. But I would say the bulk of it was just done wherever. We did use one studio in New York, called The Magic Shop. That’s where Eagle Eye Cherry’s "Save Tonight" was also recorded.

Magic Shop's a cool studio.

It is. It was fun place to work.

It must be challenging to record a band with so many players using so many different kinds of instruments, then players switching instruments. And they were all recorded in a multitude of acoustic spaces — some of which don’t sound like they were ideal situations.

Oh yeah, One day this person's playing drums, and the next day that person's going to play violin, or some crazy flute, or an accordion plugged into an amp with ten pedals. It's always totally different, but that’s what makes it really fun. They're all super nice, very creative people — lots of ideas floating around.

Are they doing some of the creative work and songwriting in the studio, or are they coming in completely prepared?

No, they're always still working on stuff in the studio. To the last vocal take, they’re still developing it.

Do you record different parts, tracking different parts at different times, or everybody at once?

The M.O. [Modus Operandi - method of operation] is mostly everyone playing at the same time on a track as much as possible, without having it too complicated. We tried to get as much of the live feel as possible. Later on we overdub things individually, and change things up. But for the most part, I would say, it’s live off the floor.

"I find that with the 2-610, it just does what it does instantly. You don't have to futz about with it. It sounds really clean and clear. It sort of has a warm overtone kind of thing that can be enjoyable sometimes. It just sort of works every time. I don't have to second-guess. I just plug in the mic, and I know it's going to be a nice, full sound that's going to be totally useable."

Do you have any favorite mics that you like to use?

I'm usually of the mindset that whatever's available is going to be great. But on this record, I used a lot of tube condenser mics, of the old variety. We also used these Lomo tube mics from Russia. I really like those. They sort of look like a James Bond kind of weapon, and they sound really great.

When you're using the 2-610 / 1176 combo, are you tracking through them direct to tape?

Yeah. We went in the countryside to record some of the vocals, and I brought the 2-610 as well as an 1176, and that was what I used to record the vocals for three or four songs.

Can you describe what you like about those units? What it does for your sound.

Much like the 2100, I find that with the 2-610, it just does what it does instantly. You don't have to futz about with it. It sounds really clean and clear. It sort of has a warm overtone kind of thing that can be enjoyable sometimes. It just sort of works every time. I don't have to second-guess. I just plug in the mic, and I know it's going to be a nice, full sound that's going to be totally useable. I can't really say anything about the 1176 that hasn't already been said. It's just the workhorse of any studio, and I love it every time.

Where did you mix the record? Or were you mixing each song as you were doing it?

Craig Sylvie, from the UK, came and mixed the record at Studio Frisson, in Outremont, Montreal. I was sort of there assisting the mix most of the time. And I did some stem remixing as well. We didn't mix as it went along; there were far too many ideas on the table.

When you're recording the whole band, is everyone individually mic’d, or are you going for more of a live sound?

I'd say a bit of both. Like, that part of the room is the sort of guitar, bass, so there'd be a room mic on them. But yeah, definitely spot mics on everything. Just for added control and tonal variety.

You do such a good job of keeping it from sounding muddy. You can really distinguish the different instruments, their placement and imaging in the mix. What's your secret on that?

Don't use instruments that make it sound muddy? [Laughs] I don't know. That's a great question. I guess I’ll have to pay more attention to what I’m doing right. [Laughs]

Well, you are doing something right! You must really enjoy it.

Yeah. It's probably one of the funnest gigs I've ever had. I've known them for seven years now. Super fun. Extremely challenging. Every button in the studio is turned on, every knob is being turned. All the tracks are full, everyone's playing. It's so in the moment, super hot. Yeah, it's great.

You have to be really on it, so if something really fabulous happens, you make sure to catch the moment.

Yeah. I'm sweating, running and recording at the same time. You just can’t get those moments back.

Was it a surprise that they became so successful?

Yeah, it was nice surprise. I'm happy that people are still into real music, that's played by real musicians, and not just computer generated. I'm extremely happy with its success. I'm also happy with a lot of the post-production things, like videos that came out, and of course, their fun live performances.

I just tried out their new video, “We Used To Wait”, where it incorporates shots of the viewer’s own neighborhood from Google Earth.

Yeah, that's amazing. I was totally impressed. Really cool. They're just doing everything on their own terms, and it's awesome. Love 'em!

Mark Lawson Tangles with a UA 2100
Mark gets tangled-up with the UA 2100
Is there a track from The Suburbs that we can break down a little and talk about specifically?

Sure. The title track, “The Suburbs”, was recorded with two drummers, Jeremy and Régine, facing each other. Régine sort of plays the fills and cymbals, while Jeremy holds down the groove. They were about six feet away from each other, face to face. I think we initially tried it with two bass drums, but it got a little messy so we put a pillow down for Régine to stomp on. I fit both kits on the 2100 sidecar for a total of about 8-9 tracks. Packed in a small back room, about eight feet away from the drummers, Win played the upright piano and sang into a PA. The piano was mic’d from the back. If you solo the piano tracks, you can hear almost everyone in the room.

Were you in the same room as well?

I was in the same room as them for this recording, wearing heavy-duty headphones, trying to hear stuff. Next to me, Tim played bass. I used one of those egg shaped bass drum mics into the 2-610 and compressed him going to tape with an 1176. His amp was baffled off in another room, although you can hear it in the room mics a little. So there were four players for that one–all live. All that stuff got kept. That was using the Universal Audio 2100 sidecar. I filled up the tape with that one, about 18 tracks, mainly because I had two drum kits going at the same time.

What kind of tape machine?

For that one, I had an Otari MTR-90-2. The one that's still kind of tricky to punch in on. It's better, but still tricky. Like I said, there was a P.A. on in the room, and if you sort of listen with a microscope, maybe you could hear one of those ghost vocals in the background. Right after we got the take for that tune, we recorded some sort of better scratch vocals to tape, and those are the ones that ended up on the record. It was very quick.

It’s such a great track.

Yeah. It was a really small room. Tim and I were literally back-to-back

And you're using those Russian mics?

Yeah, the Lomos. I used them on the piano, or as a room mic. Yeah, a lot of different mics were used. For the track “Sprawl II” — the sort of disco-y one, near the end of the album — I recorded Régine's vocals with an RCA 77 through the 2-610 and the 1176. That's the main vocal sound that you hear throughout that entire song. Win's background vocals were also recorded with the 2-610 and 1176 combo.

Are you using a computer at all?

Oh yeah — best of both worlds. After the tape was full, then we transferred it digitally, and continued to work in Logic or Pro Tools.

How are you using Logic and Pro Tools?

Sometimes like a glorified tape-machine. It's just a punch in here, punch out there kind of stuff. I could do it with my eyes closed. Other times as an instrument, like when we recorded and edited some saxophone bits into a mellotron type thing and then played it on a keyboard. We also used MPC's for some of the fancy programming.

What kind of other projects are you working on?

I just finished recording with Timber Timbre. It’s like the timber of an instrument and the timbre of an instrument. [Laughs.] Nothing to do with wood, or lumber. Next week I'm going into the Laurentians, which is a mountain range near Montreal, to do a French recording. One of my first. The singer's singing all in French.

How is your French?

Oh, tres bien. My mom’s from Quebec.

Bonne Chance!