There are a variety of software approaches for stacking vocal harmonies, but they were not an option for The New Pornographers’ Together [Matador].
“Vocals are our strength,” exclaims A.C. Newman, the band’s primary songwriter.
To capture a highly textured vocal sound, producer Phil Palazzolo used a Neumann U 87, an Electro-Voice 636 Slimair, a Telefunken Ela M 251, and a Shure SM57—along with an API 512C preamp and 525 compressor—to record Newman and singers Neko Case, Kathryn Calder, and Kurt Dahle doing multiple tracks.
“In ‘Silver Jenny Dollar,’ there are three instances where a big vocal swell that lasts just a couple of seconds occurs,” Palazzolo says. “Carl [A.C.] and Kathryn overdubbed the part 25 times. The whistling in ‘Crash Years’ is Carl and I doing 15 tracks of whistles. Effects do work for layering vocals, but when you have voices that can consistently hit parts over and over, nothing substitutes for that.”
To further enhance the naturally sung blends, Palazzolo employed some subtle sweetening effects. “For ‘Your Hands (Together),’ I got a very intimate-sounding ambience by choosing a reverb with a short decay, and then putting two Lexicon PCM42 delays in front of it. The delay time was set to zero, and I turned up the modulation on one of the PCM42s to create this gently moving 3D effect. On ‘Moves,’ I intensified a monosyllablic, tremoloed vocal by adding a SoundToys Tremolator plug-in to the performance, and then stacking it 15 times. When you really pile it on like that, it takes on an otherworldly sound.”
While the vocal walls of sound on Together were inspired by Queen and Sparks, Newman believes that finding a unique sound involves failure. “I’ve always thought a band’s style comes from trying to sound like its influences and just failing,” he says. “Hopefully, through your failures, you end up creating something original. It’s like the early Beatles and their warped take on Little Richard—they ended up sounding exactly like the Beatles. We’re not mind-blowingly original, but our style has come from my weaknesses.”