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Future Music -  november 2005





sigur ros's latest opus, takk, unites creativity and production know-how to deliver a powerful work of sublime beauty.

since the release of their first album in 1997, sigur rós have built a reputation for being no-nonsense musicians who most definitely do it their own way. their last album, for example, had no song titles. entitled simply (), the intention was to encourage people to listen to it without preconceptions. unsurprisingly then, sigur rós demand artistic control over everything, and set their standards very high. artistic integrity is all-important to jónsi birgisson (guitar/vocals/ keyboards), kjartan sveinsson (keyboards/ guitar), georg hölm (bass/keyboards) and orri pall dyrason (drums).

we're driving through iceland's volcanic landscape to sigur ros's studio, a thirty-minute drive from reykjavik. and it's probably not the most convenient time for jónsi and co. they need to record 'b-sides' to accompany a single that's to coincide with their latest album, takk, (icelandic for 'thanks'). but there's a snag. jónsi has broken a rib in a trampoline accident and therefore can't sing.

additionally, a couple of key items of gear have already been shipped for the american tour, which incidentally, they still need to rehearse for. and then there's the artwork, which needs to get their thumbs up too.

in this situation, many bands would commission a remix and put their feet up. not sigur. they'd rather spend a week crafting an exclusive track. but that's not possible, so something has to give. it later transpires that the single will have to be put on hold. emi won't be happy about this, but then they probably always knew that this would be part of the deal when they recently signed sigur from fatcat. but emi also know that takk can potentially shift a million plus. takk is a graceful, ascending, unfolding work of beauty, innocence and power. we could muse at length about how it's inspired by the dramatic nature of the volcanic, glacial landscape, but in truth, it's simpler than that. sigur ros just know how to use guitars, strings, technology and jonsi's tender falsetto, to achieve a shared sense of beauty. if g6recki made rock music, it could well sound like this.

when we get to their studio - a converted indoor swimming pool in the scenic community of mosfellsbser - it's clear that the band are feeling the crunch, though they're perfectly amiable. there are old-man smoking pipes in the mixing room, which producer ken thomas points out, is a pleasure they all indulge in. fm can all too easily imagine them chipping away a track, taking a break to puff away and take stock, whilst gazing at the pine trees outside. in the kitchen area meanwhile, pictures of sigur with celebrity admirers like tom cruise and courtney love - who no doubt accosted them after a show - are pinned to the wall. there's also a letter from metallica, simply thanking them for being inspiring. they probably find it all mildly amusing, because sigur know that celebrity admirers are not the point. they'd rather talk about the music itself. which is why the three of them (bassist georg is temporarily absent on child minding duties), insist on being interviewed separately. rather than competing for attention, they prefer to give the interview process the calm, deliberate reflection they feel their music deserves. fair enough. for ease of reading, however, their answers were collated...


album number four. did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to achieve when you started out?

orri: when we make music we're not trying to achieve anything other than just making a good album. we never talk about which direction to take the album or track; we just start making music and may stumble across a concept or something.

there is a certain purity to takk. are you trying to reach elevated states that are normally buried in everyday life?

jónsi: we don't try to make it that way. maybe unconsciously we're looking for something that's pure, honest and not fake, and which, ultimately, works for us. i'm so critical about music. i hardly listen to any. if i hear one chord that's wrong then the whole thing is ruined. it has to be organic and honest.

orri: i think all of us just have a similar sense of beauty. even though we're really different people, we know what makes us feel good musically. it just comes. and what makes us feel good seems to make other people feel good.

kjartan has described takk as being more 'rock and roll'. i'm guessing he wasn't too serious when he said that?

kjartan: obviously we're always getting better at writing songs and structuring songs, but our view of rock and roll is not the rolling stones. when we say rock and roll we mean more upbeat a nd lighter ~ we're not very good at putting things in categories.

jónsi: takk is more mid-frequency, and i think that makes it more intense. the songs are more constructed too.

orri: it's more accessible i think. it's more colourful and has more life in it than the previous album. and that's because we're having so much fun in the studio. we were playing around a lot trying crazy things, and we were feeling good about ourselves.

the album would be described by many as being a 'serious' work, but, as you've touched on, was the process of making it a serious affair?

orri: definitely not. we're serious about being pure in what we're doing, and being as natural as we can, but it doesn't mean that it's not fun. it can even be silly.

kjartan: we could never be serious doing i this music. you have to be open all the time and detach yourself from the music. if you're serious about something it can be hard to change it. when something is so precious you don't have the guts to do something with it, so we try to be a bit brutal, have fun, experiment and always try stuff out.

would i be right in thinking that you have more respect for electronic acts, like boards of canada, than you do guitar bands

kjartan: we all like boards of canada, actually. i don't listen to music that much, though, especially when we're doing music. but we have been drawn to electronic music more than guitars, except when the guitar music is worked on. it's all about interesting sounds.

location, location, creation

your studio cum rehearsal space - being a converted swimming pool based in the countryside - is quite unique. what made you choose it, and why have you chosen not to acoustically treat it?

jónsi: it's a nice atmosphere. no one comes to visit because people think it's so far away from town, and so we get privacy. it's nice to have your own space to do everything. this is a recording studio, but it's a rehearsal space too. we can spend as much time as we want here, but it can make you lazy. on the last album it took too long. you know, 'oh we can do it tomorrow and have a coffee today'. for this album we wanted to work hard, and in a concentrated way.

orri: it's a very nice location, and was very easy to change it into a recording studio. we just had to build a couple of walls and leave a big open space. we haven't treated it acoustically, but we think it sounds good. and nicer than realworld. we were in a small studio there mixing the last album, and it was so hot.

kjartan previously stated that there's nothing clever about what you do, and that it's just mucking about. is that true? how do tracks get started?

kjartan: we just get together and play. a phrase or a loop is going on, then we just stop and add to that. there's no rules about it. there's never any particular thought behind it, and that's what 1 mean about it not being clever. there's no intention.

jonsi: it's four guys playing in a room and not talking. if something is happening we can all feel it. then we play it more, try new parts and get it focused. when something isn't happening we simply stop playing it. i think we all have a similar sense of beauty, though. we never decide anything- it just happens.

kjartan: however, there were two songs on this album that were done in the control room, that started out from cutting loops. on hoppipolla we used a loop from a track from agietis byrjun, which we reversed and slowed down. we're always doing that, recycling our own stuff. this is mostly done within soundscape, though sometimes we use other sequencers. generally we just jam. some of the recordings were the first take.

is the first step to record a live performance? how much of that original performance is kept intact?

orri: yeah. there's one song - milanó - that's almost like a whole performance, like one run, but the majority of songs aren't like that. even in the mixing we were taking away parts and adding new parts in the final stages. it's very loose until then. this album was very much written in the studio. we came in the studio with three old songs, and two of those ended up on the album. so all the other songs were written while recording and making this album.

what do you feel that producer ken thomas brings to the end result?

orri: he's almost like a fifth member. he's taught us a lot technically. he lets us know when we've gone totally over the top. then sometimes he takes it over the top. he's one of us. we're all working together really. there aren't many disagreements at all.

kjartan: ken looks after us. and he has loads of opinions about the sound. we work a lot ourselves on the mixing, but it's good to have someone you can trust to do it with.


what makes you choose soundscape over pro tools?

kjartan: the working environment of soundscape is just much better. it's really easy to use. also, with mac osx, there was always a problem with pro tools, but with soundscape, it's really solid. i think it sounds better too. it's a bit softer.

jonsi: pro tools uses those pastel colours, which are so annoying. the colours in soundscape are strong - more like life colours. soundscape is a standalone system. it's not like pro tools where it's based on how good your computer is. soundscape is standalone in a box, and if your computer crashes it doesn't matter at all. it's unbelievably stable. it's such a professional workhorse, and it's so simple to work with. everything is easy to move around. on the last album we recorded everything on soundscape, but on this one we decided to sync it with the twenty-four track and tape machine.

to what extent do you use soundscape as a creative tool?

kjartan: we'll sometimes get rid of a whole section of a song if we think it's a bit boring. it's important to be brutal about those things. we use it to create effects \ too. we'll turn around vocals and loads of other things, or we'll slow a sound right down.

jónsi: there's one thing we do a lot - in soundcape you can scroll back, and if you're on the time-line you can take the cursor down and slow it, and stay on that speed. a lot of how sigur ros works is kind of like when accidents happen that are actually a really nice surprise -like when you do something and it sounds weird but it works.

orri: we cut up sample parts within soundscape. we do that a little bit, but we mainly just sample ourselves. we're very good at recycling ourselves.

in with the new

in terms of the technology used and methods deployed, how different was the recording of this album to the last?

orri: we used tape. we didn't have that on the i last album. we only used soundscape for that. now we have tape and we used it together with soundscape. we'd record onto tape, then some parts we'd take from the tape into soundscape, \ and then back onto tape. we also had automation in the mixers, on the faders, which we didn't have before. that meant we could do the whole album here- all the mixing. we could therefore do cuts and moves that we couldn't do before. on the last album we had to go to england to mix. we also had some new utboard toys. a compressor – i can't remember ! what it's called - also a neve compressor on the j desk, some mics and some toys, like the culture i vulture and mutator.

kjartan: the piano is more essential now, like ! my yamaha cp80 piano, and the yamaha sk20. i i think sometimes people mistake it for a guitar. ; on glósóli it is actually a piano. 1 always put a mic inside the piano just to record the strings. it's very percussive. this album was much fresher to do too. with the other one we'd been touring the songs for a long time, and it was hard working on the production. on this it was fresh all the way through, so it was fun to work on.

jónsi: we also used a celeste and bells and stuff. there was much more freedom because the songs weren't already written. it was much more open, and we could experiment.

kjartan: we also used a music-box that uses a paper ribbon, and there are chimes and a glockenspiel. most of the time we'd put them to tape, but sometimes we might take a iglockenspiel sequence into a vss30 sampler and beat it. we also have an avocado shaped shaker that we recorded into a vss30.

you mentioned that you recorded to tape this time around. what were the advantages of that method?

jónsi: it was fun to record onto tape. we recorded the basics like drums, guitars, piano and so on to tape, and then transferred some buff to computer. when you just record on computer, though, you can record thirty tracks of guitar or something, and then it can take days to go through it all. so it was a good thing to have tape, because then you have to get a good take with feeling in it. that helped. it quickens ace because you have to make decisions. then you have to continue because you've already made decisions that you can't change.

did the use of tape make for a better sound as well?

jónsi: there's always this classic discussion about digital or tape. the last album was a lot more bassy and distorted, where this is more mid-frequency. obviously digital is getting better, with bigger sample rates and stuff, but it was nice for us to do the tape. it's definitely better sound-wise.

kjartan: big sounds are better on tape i think. it compresses a little bit as well on tape. maybe if we'd recorded it digitally it would sound more like how it was supposed to sound, but when you have tape it adds a kind of juice to it. i think it's really important for guitars and drums and bass.

did the neve desk add to that quality of sound that you were after too?

jonsi: yeah, it's a big old broadcasting desk from a friend's tv station. we got it quite cheap because everybody's changing to digital. it's quite old and needs lots of attention, and there's lots of crackling. but sometimes that's nice, when channels crack up. sometimes we'd want to capture that.

kjartan: we put the automation in it, which has a hum, so it was hard working around that, but the neve is juicy and pumping, but kind of soft guitars

the guitar is obviously a crucial part of the brew. what do you use?

kjartan: well, i use a yamaha sg1300.1 had an sg2000, but it was stolen from me. it sounds really big and it's good to play. those guitars made in the 70s are really good. and they're completely comparable to the gibsons and all those. i run my guitars through a vox ac30 and an ac15aswell.

jonsi: on agaetis byrjun i recorded with an ibanez pf200, a cheap les paul fake that sounded great. but then it got stolen and broke into pieces, and i couldn't find another ibanez like that, so i got a gibson. but it's never been the same. for this album i actually bought the same ibanez off e-bay. it's in your face and raw.

to what extent is the reverb on the guitar the natural reverb of this space, and to what extent is it processed?

kjartan: we don't really use the reverb in the space. well, we do use it, but it's not that essential, and it's so small.

jónsi: it's just a concrete space. there was more reverb before we built the control room. we're going to put curtains on the walls so we can control it a little bit more too. i just use an old boss rs-1000, a cheap, old rack multi effect-
not digital. it has eq on it too, so you can control it a little bit. it's really simple.

the guitars reverberate, evolve and ascend. in terms of effects and recording, what's the secret?

kjartan: mine is really easy actually. i just use a small boss pedal, an rv3. i'll always spend two or three days to find the right sounds in terms of miking, and placing the mic in different parts of the room. the mics that usually sounded the best were shure sm57's.

jonsi: i just put everything to eleven, reverb wise. plus i use a bow. you have to play for many years to get the feel for the bow and the movements. it took a long time. it's a six-string guitar so i'm playing chords with it, or just the deeper of higher strings. you can do so much, and you can get overtones. it's like an untamed horse that you're trying to control. the bow has to be right. i use a cello bow because it's wider and longer, and i also use resin on the bow, which helps it to work properly. this all goes through a marshall (cm 2000. it's a set-up i've used for ages, and one that just seems to work. i think it's more about how you play anyway. it's a little bit hard to record, and you have to try different mics quite a lot. i'll be in the control room with the amp and effect, so i can tweak it, and we'll record the speaker downstairs.


the synth and piano sounds merge with the guitars to create an overall soundscape. what are the essential workhorses that you use?

kjartan: the yamaha cp80 piano, the yamaha sk20 and the hammond are my essential keyboards now. but we're always adding stuff, with samplers too. the sk20 used to be my main keyboard, just using the organ on that, not the synth. my grandmother bought it for my brother around 1983/84, and that used to be the only keyboard i had. but it wasn't used at all on the new album, for the first time, because i was trying to develop the piano. the yamaha cp80 piano was made in
the 70s for touring, but now people don't like to tour with it.

as you mentioned, the piano figures more on this release. but it's not always a straight piano sound is it?

kjartan: the cp's are great because you can put so much stuff through them, and it's still a piano. i put it through huge reverb, of course. i put it through an ampeg m15 bass amp, so i get a very middle-ish sound. and i also make it distorted. it's a great instrument. i also use the compressor a lot too, especially on this album, and delays and reverbs. i'll mic the amp and record the keyboard that way, because it sounds crap if you just put it straight through the desk.the amp is really important. i had a fender amp before, but it's kind of worn out now.

are there other effects you like to apply to the keyboards?

kjartan: an old boss/roland digital multi echo re-1000 rack. you can buy it on ebay for a hundred quid or something. but we shouldn't say that because then we won't find anymore. it's the same reverb we use on the guitar as well. it has loads of hiss on it, but it's a nice reverb.

does your keyboard set-up change when you're on tour?
kjartan: on tour instead of using the hammond i have an old korg, and i just put it through a preamp and a lesley to get an
aggressive hammond sound, but it never sounds the same.


aside from anything you might do in soundscape, to what extent do you use sampling technology?

kjartan: we always use our own samples. we have a great sampler called a yamaha portasound vss30. it's eight-bit digital sampling, with a small speaker on it. we might put voices or lots of different things into the speaker, or we might take it out of the monitors, then we can process it in this sampler. you can loop and reverse and do all of this stuff in the keyboard itself, and because it's only eight bit it sounds really special, especially if you put distortion on it.

jónsi: the yamaha portasound vss30 is a key instrument. it's like a small toy, but we're getting so clever with it because we've had it for years. it only has a small sample rate, eight bit. it's poor quality, but it's the most creative tool in the studio. if you listen to glósóli it's full of that stuff. we used it to sample bells and then play loops. it sounds grainy. and that's a big part of us. i find that really good recording quality mixed with bad sampling rates actually works really well. it keeps it warm. i also use the akai s6000. it's big and old, and has a small memory. then i'll use a midismart controller keyboard. i then of course we'll swap and i'll play j piano, celeste and vibraphones etc.

strings and things

the strings bring a whole new dimension too. did you use the amina quartet for takk?

jonsi: yes. on the last album we recorded the strings just here in the swimming pool, and just with the four girls (amina). there were no scores or anything, they just improvised. but for this album we also had twelve people, and we recorded them in a church in reykjavik. we just took our soundscape system out, and some mics, and did it in one day. we went at eight in the morning and finished at about midnight. we had to do it that way because we only had one day in the church. everybody had to work really hard, but everything was pre-written for that so it was easier. and then we used the string quartet too. the girls came here and recorded some songs with us in the studio. we did all the brass here, and used a choir.

how important is outboard gear?

kjartan: mixing is of course about making things fit, so eqs are important. the neve eq is really good. we use the manley eq a lot. it's amazing what it can do. it can make the sound. we use the urei limiter and avalon compressor a lot. we used the avalon on the bass, for example. the empirical labs el-8 distressor is good too, to get a crunch to the sounds. we 'out' the drums through it, or sometimes the vocals.

you use the culture vulture, which is the same unit that the prodigy use. how do you like to deploy that?

kjartan: we use it on drums and sometimes guitars or vocals. it's a really nice distortion. it sounds really organic.

jónsi: sometimes before we'd mix we'd kind of pre mix some of the songs. we'd take
the drums off the tape, put them through a compression unit, then the culture vulture to dirty it up, then back to tape. so, when we came to mix, everything was clearer and easier to mix.

is it true that you'll never use plug-ins to tweak the sound?

jonsi: we find that for eq, it's thin. with reverb and stuff, we find the outboard stuff realer.

final stages

what you hear in the studio can sound very different when played on a home stereo. how do you get around that?

jónsi: well, we always use yamaha ns10's, with big tannoy dmt speakers and dynaudio speakers, and just an ordinary stereo too. the tannoy speakers are good for blasting and checking out bass drums and the bottom end but the dynaudio are the main speakers. the stereo is good for just checking to see what it sounds like on an ordinary system.

once all the recording and mixing was out the way, you went overseas to do the mastering. is it important for you all to be involved in every process to the end?

kjartan: it's very important that we're all involved right to the end, especially when it comes to the mastering. with the : mastering, we wanted the album to have an aggressive sound, so we took tapes to i various mastering engineers, and ted jenson came out strong. he isn't afraid. and that's important for us. you know, just do it, and be brutal about things. that's how we work, especially on the computers - just chopping things to pieces and throwing things away. we're not very delicate in the studio. the same approach applies to eq and effects - sometimes they're exaggerated.

underneath the technology and the expansive sound, is there a deceptive simplicity to sigur rós?

jónsi: the guitar, bass and drums are really basic, and we like to keep it organic and warm. no bullshit. we like to keep the song and spirit in the recordings, and not clean it up or polish it. we like to keep it raw and honest.

kjartan: if you take all the effects away from sigur ros, it's just a very typical pop song. i actually did a concert like that on my own, with orri on drums and me on an acoustic. it's easy. everything we do is very simple.

vox box

jonsi, is there a particular way that you like to record your voice?

jónsi: for me it has a lot to do with self-confidence, and how i'm feeling at the time. i used to go round in circles, and i tried a variety of different mics. on agaetis byrjun i just ended up singing with a shure beta-58, and i'd record that through a little compressor - the tc electronic one. it was heavily compressed. on this album we had a really beautiful neumann u47 - an old tube mic.and i recorded all the vocals on that. i'd record some here in the studio, and sometimes i'd go into the countryside to a small house, and have the u47 going through a pre amp, and then a urei compressor as well.

to what extent do you like to process your voice?

jónsi: i used to like to have lots of reverb to get me in the mood, but i learnt that it's far better to record it as plainly as possible, just through a mic. with a little compression. i used a focusrite voicemaster to get harmonics once. it
sounded really juicy and exciting at the time, but when i listened back to it after a few days i thought it sounded crap. it was too processed and fake. then we were into mixing and i wasn't in the mood to sing again, so ken thomas (producer) played it through another mixer downstairs in the basement, through a speaker and into an old electrovoice. it took all the fakeness off, and it sounded old.

orri's drum recording school

orri, how do you get your drum sound?

orri: most of the drums are recorded in the big room, which is just a big concrete cube. there's a special ambience to it. i use a premier sigma dw, and an old 70s ludwig kit. i like big bass drums, so i use 24-inch bass drums. on the track glósóli. i actually used three bass drums - a 24-inch, a 20-inch and a marching bass drum. i played two with my feet and one with my hand. then i had contact mics on the bass drum pedals-glued contact mics - so that you get the (clicks lingers) kind of sound. that is a very special sound, and it's not samples. i also took the chain off the bass pedal and set it to make sure it wasn't lying on the wheel, so it's crackling.

are the drums supplemented with any electronic beats?

orri: yeah, we use analogue machines. we'll put extra bass behind the normal drum, or we'll use a synthesised snare sound. but with the electronic stuff, it's not sequenced.

do you record the drums live, or sample and loop?

orri: there's one song that's put together in samples and loops-hoppipolla - but most of the drums are just layered. i'll play only the drums, then do the cymbals on top separately sometimes, so that you can control it a lot more. and sometimes i'll have just one microphone, like a neumann u47 - the big old one - and play twice. exactly the same beat, two times, with one microphone. it comes out a lot thicker somehow. i've never done it like that before, but we actually use the u47 on everything.

are there any effects mat you like to use once the drums are recorded?

orri: sometimes the drums will go through a mutronics mutator, and sometimes a thermionic culture culture vulture distortion, but there's not too much processing involved
sigur ros' kit list
ampeg m15
fafner ebs bass amp
marshall jcm20oo (with jcm9o0 lead cab)

premier signia dw

dan electro
gibson les paul
gibson les paul personal
ibanez pf200
yamaha sg1300

fender rhodes
hammond organ
roland juno 106

steingraber + sohne grande piano
yamaha cp80 piano
yamaha sk20

akai s6000
yamaha portasound vss30

neve console, in-line 72 channels/4 busses with a 32 channel uptown system 2000 automation system (flying faders) tascam us-2400, 25 fader control surface 3x behringer euroracks mx8024 8-channel mixers, used for separate foldback mixes behringer eurorack mx 2442a

avocado shaped shaker
midismart controller

dynaudio bm10 passive
dynaudio bm15a. active
tannoy dmt
yamaha ns-10m

recording/playback devices
denon dnt 620 cd/ cassette combo player
otarimtr90mkll24- track analogue tape machine
sony usb cd writer
soundscape r.ed digital
audio workstation: 24 in/28 out, 'unlimited' virtual tracks, fully automated
tascam da-40 dat machine
tascam cd-rw 4 u re-writeable cd burner

ams s-dmx delay
amsrmx16 reverberation system
boss/roland digilal dulti echo re-1000
boss dd-20 digital delay
boss rs-1000
boss rv-3 pedal dbxl20 sub-harmonic synth lexicon 960l, 8 analogue i/o + 8 aes/ebu mutronics mutator tc electronics m5o0o digital audio mainframe/ effects processor thermionic culture culture vulture distortion

avalon vt747 vacuum tube stereo compressor empirical labs el-8 distressor
joe meek vc2 tube
joe meek sc2 stereo compressor
manley massive passive stereo eq
neve 33609 stereo compressor
symetrix 425 dual mono/ stereo compressor/limiter/ expander
urei 1178 stereo limiter

other equipment
antaresatr-1 intonation processor (auto-tune)
2x avalon v5 active dl boxes
4 beyer dynamics dt
150 headphones
dl-boxes; v5, whirlwind power amps; chord spa 612, audio centron rma 1600
sennheiser hd250 headphones
4 mtr hpa2 headphone amps
rosenthal wif timecode converter

microphones (condenser)
2 x neumann u87
2 x neumann km 184
neumann km56 valve
neumann u47 valve
4x oktava mk219
rode nt-3 back-electret condenser
2 x schoeps cmc6 microphone amps
2 x schoeps mk6 capsules, switchable polar patterns
sennheiser 'blackfire' 5032p
sennheiser mkh-80 multipattern condenser
2 x sennheiser k6 power modules with capsules shure beta 87 condensers
shure sm91 boundary mic

microphones (dynamic)
akgd-112 assortment of shure dynamic microphones; sm57, sm58, beta 57. beta 58
3 x sennheiser md421 dynamic
sennheiser 'blackfire' 504
assortment of other mics, such as coles, tesla, telefunken etc.

microphones [ribbons)
2 x beyerdynamics ml60
ribbon mics
2 x coles studio 4038
ribbon microphones

Sigur Ros Newspapers and Magazines Main Page


Sigur Rós:
Jón Ţór Birgisson (vocals, guitar), Georg Holm (bass),
Kjartan Sveinsson (keyboards/piano), Orri Páll Dýrason (drums)





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