DFA Records Has More Gear In Their Studio Than You

Tour James Murphy's recording studio, with Juan Maclean and Nick Millhiser from Holy Ghost!

STUDIO: Plantain
LOCATION: Manhattan, New York
ARTISTS WHO WORK THERE: James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, The Juan Maclean, Holy Ghost!, Gavin Russom and many others from the DFA Records roster.

Tucked away on a quiet street in Manhattan's posh West Village is a basement studio that's birthed some of the most quintessentially New York records in recent history. Originally based in Brooklyn, LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy moved Plantain to Manhattan with the help of UK ex-pat Tim Goldsworthy, to provide recording facilities for the now-legendary DFA label. On a brisk afternoon in January, Juan Maclean was working on a track for his upcoming record with vocalist and frequent collaborator Nancy Whang, as well as Nick Millhiser of fellow DFA band Holy Ghost!

The studio is an almost overwhelming treasure trove for anyone with even the slightest inkling of gear lust, so the two of them highlighted a few of the pieces that have helped define the DFA sound.


Juan Maclean: The 101 is definitely my most often used synth. When we go on tour with my live band, we have three of them on stage. It's obviously a monophonic synth. I use it for bass and lead sounds, and it also has it's own sequencer that I use quite a bit. You can sync it with other gear using the CV, gate, and clock inputs. LCD has used these live as well. James had three in each rig. The 101 is my instrument more than any other synth. I just know it front to back. It's the only synth that I know in a very nuanced way. 

THUMP: Did you get it based off of a recommendation? Did you know the synth at all before getting it?
Juan: I got my first one in 1999, because a lot of my favourite music was made with one. The Human League used it a lot, and just in general, a lot of early house and techno guys used it. I bought one and started using it all the time.

Do you sequence it often or do you usually play it?
Juan: More often than not, I play it, though the song I'm working on now has a sequence from the 101 that is running throughout, and I do have another song on my last album with a three note sequence. But mostly just I just play it.


Juan: This is one of the first ones that were made. When James bought it it wasn't so expensive, as this was around 1998 and there wasn't so much of a frenzy for these things. I'm guessing now they are worth around $8,000. This is the one piece of gear in the studio that is magic. Anything that goes through the LA-2A seems to get this harmonic distortion. A lot of times I don't even use it as a compressor, I use it as an $8,000 distortion pedal. It's also always in the vocal chain. 

DBX 165 COMPRESSOR (pictured above with the Teletronix)

How did you guys arrive at the 165? Usually you see people talking about the 160.
Juan: There's never been a 160 down here, but I think it started with the 162. Tim Goldsworthy told James that it's what Daft Punk uses and then I went and investigated. Turns out they didn't use it but it's one of those things that's been perpetuated down here for a long time. I don't know how the 165 came around. It is slightly different—I don't know if its the detection circuit or if it's the makeup gain or what. I actually have a 165a at home, which has a peak limiter at the end of the circuit.

Nick Millhiser: There's always been a 162 on the master bus. The only time we used a 160 was in Woodstock when we did tracking there. They had a pair of 160's. The 162's are really good for drums and bass. The 165's are really practical and good for vocals because you have control over the attack and release time, even though 90% of the time we leave it on the auto over-easy setting, but there are times with certain things, particularly vocals, when the 160 is the way to go. We've all just gotten used to them, which is half the battle. 75% of the time I compress something, I want it to do what this does. If I'm working in another studio, it's not necessarily that I can't do it with another compressor but its easier and quicker to do it with the 162. Most of the time you turn it on and it's already in the ballpark of what you want. 


Juan: These Purple 1176s sound amazing but have more variation between units. They have a tone to them too—whatever amp is inside affects the tone. I know in the 70s, people would just run drums through them to get that mid-range tone bump. All I ever use it for is percussion and toms. But I think since the very beginning of the studio, these have been here. Each of these things have been here since day one.

Nick: Most of the stuff that I use the 1176 for—I actually don't use it for bass—is percussion where I'd be rolling off a lot of the low end anyway. And the way James uses bass is as a percussion instrument. It's not actually the low end in the mix. It's certainly not the sustained low end bass notes.


Juan: I've used it for every vocal I've ever done and it's been used for almost every vocal recorded in this studio for DFA releases. This mic usually goes into a Universal Audio preamp, into the DBX 165, into the LA-2A. We also typically use it on drums—mostly kick and snare. People don't usually mic all those drums with condenser mics. I'd guess that all of James' vocals have been sung through this as well. It's very dark, unlike new condenser mics which are really bright. You have to boost the high end in mixing, but I always find it much more pleasing to have to add a little high end to a recorded vocal track than to make it less bright. As much as a lot of things in here, this is a defining sound of DFA.


Juan: This is another thing that makes everything sound good. And again, these definitely have a mid-range tone to them. When you're doing a lot of stuff with electronics especially, it definitely adds this dirty, mid-range-y sound that can be missing a lot of the time.

Nick: We did a lot of stuff on the first Holy Ghost! record and the Automato record where Tim Goldsworthy from Unkle used these as a tape recorder. You set the repeats to zero and kill the dry signal so all you're getting is one recording, and even if its a relatively new tape, it's been through the spool 100 times. If something sounds too clean or too modern, this is an instant way to make something sound like a sample. It's actually a Portishead trick.

Juan: I'll go on record again and say there's no way any plug-in can emulate this. The plug-ins sound good on their own but they're not comparable to the real thing. There are just too many variables. 


Juan Maclean with the Space Echo

Juan: This is just an old Nakamichi Cassette Deck that was once state of the art! I'm guessing it's from the 90s or late 80s. I was just working on something last week with 909 drums and one by one, I resampled them into the Nakamichi and again, it adds a bunch of harmonic distortion and really brings out the tone of a 909 kick. All of a sudden the note that comes out of is very present. And then the hi-hats get grittier and the claps become more compressed.

Nick: It's also one of those things where any serious recording engineer would say, "I never thought I'd live to see the day when people are nostalgic for the sound of cassettes." A lot of the sound of old house records comes from the fact that they were using really low-fidelity gear. For a long time I had a really crappy Soundcraft console, which was pretty useless for a lot of things, but a 909 kick drum running hot into one of those preamps is the sound of a house record. 


Juan: It's a great noisemaker. Any time I've said, "Oh, let's use the EMS to do this thing in the song," its been a waste of like four hours. James has figured it out though and used it on some songs. In "All I Want," that bubbly thing that Gavin played—I think he used this. Mainly we're using it to make crazy, sci-fi synth noises. I've mainly used it on my recordings to process bass tracks.

Nick: James would mix bass through this thing all the time, just using the low pass filter ever so slightly. And I've used the ring mod on it. It's really good for making weird noises. 


Juan: This is the only thing Star Instruments made, as far as I know, and it's just an electronic drum but it actually has two oscillators in it. Really nothing sounds like this. It has an LFO in it too so you can modulate the oscillators pretty heavily. They're from the 80s and if you heard it, it would sound very familiar. Again, it has a sound that just can't be duplicated and it's on a lot of DFA stuff. We'll put this through the tape delay and reverb and it just makes this huge, dubby sound. Another staple. 


Juan: This is yet another thing that, from day one of DFA, has been on everything recorded here. It's pretty much the only reverb that ever gets used here.

Can you change the parameters on it easily?
Juan: There are a bunch of settings on it but this thing always just sits in this closet. You can set the decay time, you can flip the phase, and then there are bass and treble settings. On this track we're working on now, the vocals and guitars are going through it, and I know James puts big snare drums through it a lot of the time. Usually spring reverbs are trashy and thick and can muddy up a mix, but this one I think is very cavernous and clean sounding because the springs are so big. This is another thing that I'll stand by that absolutely cannot be duplicated by software. Nothing comes close to it.

Don't miss our last Setup/Breakdown with Populette and Kim Ann Foxman at Throne of Blood Studios in Brooklyn.

Leo Maymind is obsessed with electronic music, gear, and ramen. He has too much free time. -@leomaymind