Saturday Morning 5am by UK band The Sighs of Monsters perfectly captures that sensation when the party is over and in your mind it’s not quite the right time to go home yet. The piano sound and driving bassline give the track an air of urgency whilst the vocals of Dean Sobers bring a wistful and oddly euphoric feel to the track. This is such a perfect song!
Music journalist and DJ Joe Muggs agrees. He tweeted:
I love this so much. It is a bit Electronic, a bit Soft Cell, a bit Hercules & Love Affair, and much more besides. Q emosh.
1. Hello! Who are you, where are you from and all that good stuff. We’re The Sighs of Monsters from London, though like most Londoners, none of us are actually “from London”. Individually we are Dean Sobers, Brett Lock, Chris Houston & David Toube. 2. Tell us a bit about […]
We were thrilled to receive a really positive review of our new album, Lie, by the Dutch music website, Your Music Blog.
Here’s an extract:
Listening to the album I was hooked from the first bars of I Hear Drums. Call it infectious, call it catchy, call it what you like, it is a damn clever way to start. From a bit of distance it is quite remarkable how 4 guys can deliver music so diverse and still sound spot on in every second of it. Whether it is a more elaborate track like Superman In The Silence, the almost Johnny Cash sounding Fight or the almost New Wave sounding song like Hello. And if you now think this is a patchy work, forget it. Don’t know how they do it, but nothing seems out of place here.
The eternal question any band gets asked is “what sort of music do you play”. Genres, these days, are so non-specific and broad that it is hard to give a snappy answer. We think we’re from the sort of Art-Pop / Art-Rock tradition and to illustrate this point, we’ve made a giant playlist on Spotify featuring many of the artists who have either inspired us or we feel a sort of creative kinship with…
It features the likes of Bowie, Beck and Bjork… and that’s just the b’s. There’s Sparks, and Shriekback, Radiohead and REM, vintage stuff like the Velvet Underground, and contemporary tracks from Alt-J, and some real curve balls too. You’ll be entertained for hours!
It’s been 2 years since your first album, Ground. What have you been up to?
We started recording the follow up to Ground, “Lie” in May 2015 but we had a lot of distractions. We put a lot of time into rehearsing our live show, made three music videos and also recorded two non-album tracks for different projects.
Two of the music videos were for tracks from Ground. For ‘The Engagement’ we recut footage from an old ‘swords-and-sandals’ gladiator movie now in the public domain which was a lot of fun. For ‘Sea Stories’ we were more ambitious and filmed original footage – in typically freezing and wet English weather – which was less fun. But we’re very proud of the outcome. It’s also the first video to feature the band. We filmed it in some woods on the outskirts of London and around the Kent coast.
We were invited to play at a small arts festival in Kent too, hosted in a medieval church, so we took the opportunity to record a live performance of the track ‘Drawing’ with that stunning backdrop. ‘Drawing’ is a song based on a poem by the late South African writer Ingrid Jonker who committed suicide in the mid 60s. We were invited to submit a track based on her work along with 30 or so other artists for an album called Die Kind Is Nog Jonger (“The Child Is Even Younger”). We couldn’t pass up this opportunity, so took some time out to write and record this song, which we love.
We recorded a song ‘After Charlie’ as a response to the attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket, which targeted Jewish people. We donated the proceeds to a UK charity which fights anti-semitism.
How did the live shows go?
We don’t play live as much as we’d like to. It’s a combination of the shrinking live music scene and the fact that we focus more on recording. But as a band you have to put yourself out there, so we’ve played a few special shows. Just after Ground came out we were involved in a show to raise money for Medicins Sans Frontiers. Brett and David were in the house band dubbed “The Half Decents” and Chris was doing the sound engineering, so it made sense to twist Dean’s arm into coming along to play the first set as The Sighs of Monsters. It was a great show with The Half Decents and raised several thousand Pounds for MSF.
It’s the sort of show we like doing too, so we pitched in to play two shows for Oxjam, which raises money for Oxfam’s relief programme.
We also did a live on-air acoustic set for Croydon Radio which was a lot of fun. Dean and Brett played acoustic guitars, Chris brought his congas and tambourine and David swapped his keyboards for an accordion and concertina. The result was very ‘different’ versions of some album tracks. I think we put it up on our Facebook page.
Another highlight for us was supporting a very eccentric German folk/roots artist who calls himself the “Dad Horse Experience” at The Bird’s nest in Deptford. We’re now fans of DHE. Check out his mad music on Soundcloud!
How did you approach making Lie?
Well, we decided to take our time about it. We approached it with the same structural ethos we used with Ground, that is that it would be a ‘classic’ album format – around 45 minutes long, and split into two (virtual) halves, and that it would have, not so much a theme, but an emotional arc. We recorded more songs than we needed but then agonised over which ones fitted together to form a satisfying listening experience. The selection changed at least once, and we tweaked the running order several times.
During the recording process, we scrapped a few versions of songs and started again. Most songs start with a rough demo by the writer, but they don’t become TSOM songs until we’ve put our collective heads together. Dean is meticulous about vocals and will never let anything slide. We’ll do take after take until he’s happy, and on occasion we’ll go back to it months later because he’s lived with it and feels he can do better or that he’d like to try a different approach.
Is there such a thing as “over-production”?
Of course there is, but we’re very careful. Our mission is not to get everything ‘perfect’, but to make everything ‘deliberate’. We don’t let mistakes through if we can help it, but we do let accidents happen. If an accident happens and an unplanned part or mistake sounds great or adds to the artistic effect we want, we leave it. In fact, we may even deliberately repeat it when we arrange the song for playing live. A good part of the recording process is having the creative space to be fearless.
What do you mean by that?
Well, we’re all introverts and I guess because of that we have no real egos or desire for competition. Artistically this is a real advantage, because we don’t mind trying things without fear of failure. In recording we don’t have the same assigned roles we have when we perform, for example, and this can sometimes have unpredictable results, some of which are magical. On ‘Superman In The Silence’, for instance, we wanted to create a feeling in the vocals of a drunk holding forth about his sorrows to a barman. Dean decided the best way to achieve this was to sing it drunk, so the normally very sober Mr Sobers had a few shots of neat scotch and sang his heart out. A heroic sacrifice of sobriety for art, but the result was both subtle and astounding.
The same applies to our lyrics. Many of our songs are deeply personal and deal with some raw issues quite honestly, but we feel safe enough with each other to really give everything to bringing these songs to life. With TSOM, it’s the real deal or nothing. No compromises.
So what’s next?
We’re now doing our best to promote the album. Obviously times have changed and where you once might have been putting out flyers and posters, you’re now organising digital distribution and working social media. It’s harder than you think, so give us a hand and share our posts and tell your friends about the album.
We also are about to start rehearsals to work out live arrangements of these songs. When we’re in the studio, we’re very focused on making the best record possible, but that often leaves us with several challenges when creating a version we can play in front of an audience. We are very much looking forward to playing these songs for people.
In this instance we built on our experience of our previous album, Ground, which was made with Reason 7. We think we did a pretty good job of mastering that album, but there is always more to learn and each album is different so we went back to the drawing board. The main thing we wanted to achieve was making it slightly ‘louder’ without sacrificing dynamics. We feel the “loudness wars” have been very destructive to both the quality of sound and to the enjoyment of music so we were clear that we weren’t going to go down that path. But at the same time we wanted the sound to be punchy and still sound competitive next to other tracks. This was no mean feat and to be honest, it took a lot of work. We spent more than a month on the mastering process – learning, experimenting, listening, retrying – before we got it right. Now a month or more seems like an eternity when you really want to get your work ‘out there’ but patience pays off. We spent more than a year working on the material so it would have been silly to spoil it by rushing the final process.
We have to gratefully acknowledge the help of one person – who is unaware of how much he has helped us and probably countless other people: a YouTuber by the name of Ras Cricket whose instructive video on mastering gave us a great deal of very useful advice. It is well worth checking it out:
We took a great deal of his advice and suggestions for rack extensions on board and together with other material we’d read and our own experimenting arrived at the mastering rack illustrated below. But before we show that, an observation: a lot of the time mastering is presented as this magical dark art which mere mortals cannot, to be glib, ‘master’. This is nonsense. To this end, some companies provide either budget mastering ‘solutions’ or worse, supposedly ‘automated’ mastering. One company in particular is guilty of providing a “service” whereby you upload your files and some algorithm runs and they’re magically ‘mastered’. We tried this early on and to be quite frank, the results were horrible. Similarly the “Mastering for only $99” services aren’t going to spend the time on your tracks that they need and really, only resort to this if you absolutely have no clue what you’re doing and don’t have the time or inclination to learn. The fact of the matter is that there is a wealth of information online and this isn’t magic. Mastering is a skill that can in fact be mastered.
We must say at this point that we aren’t providing a tutorial here ourselves, only talking about our own experience. We also only master for CD and Digital, since we’re not planing a vinyl release at this stage. If we do, that will be a whole different ballgame. As far as tutorials go, there are so many people online who do it better and there is no point in reinventing the wheel.
The best non-technical advice is that in mastering you should attempt to do as little as possible. Mastering isn’t a way of ‘fixing’ mistakes made in the mixing process (mixing is a whole different discussion) any more than mixing is the place to fix mistakes made in the performances. It is always best to fix mistakes at the source. In the same way that it is always better to just play the part again, better, than trying to fix bad notes or out of tune instruments during mixing, it is always better to go back to the mixing to deal with clashing frequencies, sibilances, distortions, etc. Mastering is only about adding a bit of gloss and polish to an otherwise immaculate product and making sure it complies with technical specifications of the medium.
So, what’s going on in our rack? Firstly, we deleted all effects going to the desk. These just got in the way. We did however use the SSL’s in-built EQ to make some minor adjustments to some of the tracks in order to harmonise the tone of the album throughout. Because the adjustments required were only minor and subtle, we didn’t need to install a sophisticated rack extension EQ, however for some projects might be a good idea. It is important that the tracks on an album feel tonally unified.
Once we imported the tracks (exported from the final mix as stereo .wav files at 24-bit/96kHz, making sure there was no clipping at all) we put each one in track order on a separate stereo track. On some channels we used a Selig Leveler to adjust the gain curve and then the main channel slider to adjust the relative volume. There are two things to balance here, in conjunction with the mixing process: (1) the volume of the vocals should be consistent throughout, allowing for dynamics like shouting or whispering, so that the vocalist sounds like they’re singing in the same venue and with the same microphone; and (b) the overall volume of the tracks should be similarly consistent. “Consistent” in this sense doesn’t mean the same. For example, the transition between track 5 and 6 (Superman in the Silence and Fight) required Fight to be considerably softer because it was a transition between a full orchestral backing and a simple acoustic guitar and so would have sounded odd if they’ve both been ‘maximised’.
This is what our sequencer timeline looked like:
As you can see, each track follows the next so that the relative volumes can be set. It is also here that we set the gaps between the tracks ranging from none to a few seconds. You will also note that apart from the curve and the relative volume, we’re not making any other adjustments on a track level. If the mixing has been done right, all the tracks should be able to be mastered through the single ‘master’ mastering rack.
A final word on track sequencing: it is important to make sure the tone is consistent throughout so that all the tracks sound like they’re from the same album. What can be quite useful in this regard is using a reference track from a commercial CD you admire and which is similar in tone to your project.
Finally, we then exported the entire 45 minutes track at CD resolution (16-bit/44.1kHz) as a single .wav file. We created our CD Master with Sony’s CD Architect (which they have now sold to Magix) which allows you to set these gaps, add CD-text, and the ISRC numbers. It is pointless exporting the audio at higher resolution than CD because it won’t add any value when the CD is created.
Mastering takes a lot of A/B switching between both one’s own track and the reference track(s) as well as between the track ‘mastered’ and on bypass to check if one is really improving the sound. This is where the patience aspect is important. As often as not, on sober reflection, once concludes that an series of adjustments have not improved matters and as loathe as one is to throw out the work, it is important to do so. What is important is now how much time was spent, but what the ears hear. That is all that counts. It is worth saying that it is as important to listen to your ears as much as listening with your ears! If you start feeling fatigued too early, this may be a sign that your master lack dynamics and ‘air’.
Lastly, another thing we learned through experience. Headphones are great for listening closely for details, concentrating on the stereo image and getting the sound into the ballpark, but it is best to mix on flat-response monitors. A the moment we have some M-Audio AV-40s – which are fairly entry level, but get the job done. But that’s just a start. We then play the draft mix on a nice HiFi, on the car stereo, on an iPod through in-ear headphones, on friends’ systems, on a laptop, off CD, as an MP3, or a digital stream, and anywhere and anyway else we can think of to see how it acquits itself – because it is impossible to predict how an audience will hear it once it has left the studio. Also shuffle it with other commercial songs to see how it fits in or stands out (in either a good or a bad way).
We hope this account of our experience has been of some help or value and we hope you have an opportunity to listen to our album, which is on Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes or Amazon. We’re always happy to answer any questions about our production process.