John Siket in the Studio with Ex Cops: Producing Future Rock

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Ex Cops’ debut, produced/engineered/mixed by John Siket, has just arrived.

MURRAY HILL: Ex Cops got their name from the frequent cover titles from the New York Post, but something tells us they’ll be making headlines of their own soon.

True Hallucinations, the band’s debut album, was released last month under Fat Possum’s label Other Music Recording Company. An imaginative and fascinatingly diverse rock album, the record was engineered, produced and mixed by John Siket, whose influential discography includes Sonic Youth, Phish, Yo La Tengo, Soul Asylum and the Dave Matthews Band just to name a few.

Siket’s skill and experience, combined with his innovative and intuitive approach to production continuously allows him to make impressive records. He’s a perfect foil for Brooklyn’s Ex Cops, who formed around the core of vocalists Brian Harding and Amalie Bruun, with solid support from drummer Sam Bair, bassist Leif Huckman and lead guitarist Kai Kennedy.

Tasked with putting together their first album, the band was thankful that Other Music Recording Company allowed them to have full creative control of the material. So why John Siket behind the board? As it turns out, NYC can be a small town — when Harding told Ex Cops manager Guy Benny that Siket had produced some of his favorite albums by Blonde Redhead, Sonic Youth, and Phish, Benny just needed to dip into his speed dial to get his friend Siket on the phone. Band and producer connected, and the results sing for themselves.

Ex Cops just kicked off their nationwide tour and will play at SXSW in March. Look for them to team up with Bleached for the West coast leg of their tour. Until then spin the record True Hallucinations – the hypnotic blend of indie rock and soothing enigmatic lyrics gives you the illusion that you just left the beach driving into the sunset Bonnie-and-Clyde style in a convertible Ford V8.

SonicScoop got to go inside Siket’s Murray Hill studio, MonkeyTooth Media, to talk to him and the Ex-Cops about teaming up to create the album. Siket gave us the inside on how MonkeyTooth’s cozy organic vibe and trusted gear helps him to bring out the best in the artists’ recording performance.

How did you meet Ex-Cops, and understand how to take them to the next level?

I really liked the songs in rehearsal form, and a week later we were in the studio recording, they pulled it together really well. I didn’t have to color anything in, the songs sounded very much full and ready.

As a producer, I have to feel like I can bring something to the table that I can add and we can both grow. When I came to the rehearsal, I saw that they were truly quality musicians and I felt, “I can contribute to this. I can make this a little bit better.”

From there, how did you engineer for Ex Cops knowing that you were also going to record, mix and produce them?

(l-r) John Siket and Ex Cops, Amalie Bruun and Brian Harding. (all photos by Jacqueline Smiley)

We recorded drums and guitars at The Space Studio (on the Lower East Side). It was the middle of February and it was very cold — you could literally see your breath.

I later recorded vocals and overdubs here at MonkeyTooth. It is easier for me to achieve the best performance this way because there isn’t a glass wall blocking me from the artist. We aren’t conversing through a talk back button or through headphones. What is most important is that you want the artist to feel comfortable, so they can sing their best.

You want them to let go, so that they are not really aware that you are recording. The feeling should be very casual — as casual as us talking and then going down the hall and recording, like you’re at a friend’s house hanging out making music.

To records vocals I measure an equilateral triangle between the speakers and dynamic mic. The M-Audio Studiopro 3’s are wired out of phase so it sounds hollow at the apex of the triangle. The mic is perfectly placed so it is rejecting from the back and only picking up from the front — this prevents leakage. This allows the artist to hear themselves sing acoustically.

Can you discuss some of the gear that was used?

For Brian and Amalie’s vocals I used a dynamic mic, tight pattern, special hand-picked version of the Shure SM57. I put vocals through the API 3124 (mic pre) which is the oldest piece of gear I have to date — it’s the first pro gear I bought in 1994, it has served me so well.

I  take one channel out from the dynamic mic into  the UREI LA3, then from Pro Tools right into the converter with no EQ going in. I add a liberal amount of compression on their voices anywhere from 5 to 10 db depending on the song and then depending on the sound re-compress with an additional plugin.

Behold the outboard — a rackfull of Siket’s trade tools. (click to enlarge)

Are there other tips you would like to share?

Stems are essential for a good back-up. The first time I created stems was a session in 2009 with Peter Murphy and the producer, David Baron, was like, “I want you to make stems,” and I thought, “That’s a drag, I don’t really want to.” Because after you’re done mixing you have to stop and mute everything and record just the drums, guitars, etc…It can feel tedious at times.

You have to run each stem down in real time and I thought, “This is a big waste of expensive studio time…Time for the dreaded bass stem!” I chuckled about it. But when it came time to master the record I felt, “Wow, I think the mix is good but the guitars are a little too loud,” and the producer was like, “OK, well we have the stems”.

He then FTP’d the stems to me. I set them up on a digital console, rebalanced them, and it saved us a re-mix and made the record better!

What was it like to mix with the Ex-Cops?

Brian’s a great songwriter and Amelie is a terrific singer as well. She is very good at editing her singing on-the-fly and trying new things. Brian would sit there behind me and tell me his thoughts about how the mix sounded. “I want a kind of vocoder sound here. Can you add a bit more reverb to that specific tambourine hit? I’ve got a quick guitar idea.”

We have a good working relationship. Some mixers like to work by themselves, but I like to mix with the artist because it makes me feel like I’m doing something for them–like I’m performing for them. It’s part of the collaboration. My philosophy is: “Let’s build your vision together.”

— Jacqueline Smiley

Get another taste of Real Hallucinations right away with “Ken.”


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