Tom Hickox, whose new album Monsters in the Deep is the Society of Sound release for April, gives us an insight into the making of the record. His blog not only explores the writing and recording process, but also his artistic motivations and some of the equipment used to make the record.
I didn’t want to repeat myself sonically with this record, and I wanted the recording and arrangement approach to be as searching as possible. And I knew that in Chris Hill, who I have done many bits of writing and recording with over the years, would be a producer who would help me push those boundaries.
We began with me playing Chris the body of work I had written (about 40 songs) on piano alone, and we whittled them down to 15 or so that we both loved. We did this in the studio that Chris has at home, a tardis of a shed at the bottom of his garden, and so began the process of working out each song’s arrangement, looking to add as much creativity as possible and to avoid just falling into the ‘obvious’ solutions. Some songs came together quickly, others we demoed in 3 or 4 different ways until we were happy.
One of the reasons Chris was the right fit for this record is that he shares my passion for and belief in recording to tape. In fact he owns an extremely rare 3M tape machine, which sounds so good in comparison to any kind of direct digital recording that it needs to be heard to be believed. So although at this stage we were just demoing all the songs, we were still trying to record everything as beautifully as possible. And so it ended up that some of this tracking we felt couldn’t be surpassed and ended up making the record. A notable example of this is The Plough, a live recording in Chris’s studio with him on acoustic guitar and me singing, in which in the background is the unmistakable and hypnotic sound of the 3M tape machine in record mode that provides an atmosphere just as important as a third instrument.
Once we were happy with the demos and 100% clear about the direction of each track, we booked into State of the Ark Studios in Richmond to undertake most of the tracking. State of the Ark has a treasure trove of beautifully maintained analog gear, a collection of which can probably only be surpassed by Abbey Road and British Grove. We recorded onto their Studer 24 track tape machine, using their rare and stunningly warm-sounding EMI console. We mostly used classic Neve 1073 and Telefunken V72 mic-pre’s, and made full use of their outrageous collection of vintage microphones – U47’s, U67’s, M49’s, RCA Ribbons etc. They have two EMT 140 plate reverbs, which we plundered. Really they have so much there it’s too much to list – you know you’re in a luxurious recording environment when there are two original Fairchild limiters to make use of.
The other thing that makes it such a special studio is that it’s flooded with natural light, which amongst London studios is quite unusual. Personally I find working in an environment where you get no sense of the passing of the day to be creatively stifling and tiring. But at the end of each (very long) day here my energy and creativity levels remained really strong. They also have a wide and inspiring collection of instruments, including Tony Britten’s personal collection of rare and vintage guitars and amps, as well as a Steinway Model B Grand Piano. There is everything you need.
Instrumentally and musically, I wanted the record to have a boldness about it, and to look for new sounds. So although we used old recording techniques (because that’s what sounds best), we were aiming to create something really very modern by doing that. Radiohead are the undisputed masters of this blend of old and new, and we referenced their recordings frequently. An example of this is the programmed drum beat on Collect all the Empties, which was transformed by being heavily compressed onto a Revox 2-track. Also the opening chords of the record on Man of Anatomy – played by me on my wurlitzer, filtered through Chris’s original 70’s Moog synthesiser and then through my modern Moog Ring Modulator – a completely original sound, stark and utterly arresting – just the statement of intent I wanted to open the record.
We mixed the record back in Chris’s studio using analog outboard, but editing in Pro-Tools. It was mastered by the mighty Alex Wharton at Abbey Road, leaning heavily on his Shadow Hills Mastering Limiter, which is a seriously powerful piece of kit with the colour and warmth it brings. In short, from start to finish, we aimed to bring an attention to detail to every element of the production and recording process in the hope that we would make a record that sounded as good as it possibly could.