Engineering The Sound: Mac DeMarco’s ‘Salad Days’

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  • June 9, 2017
the making of salad days

After the release of his 2013 breakout album 2, Mac DeMarco’s fanbase began spreading around the globe almost as widely as his front teeth. In a 2014 interview with Evan Minsker of Pitchfork, Mac described feeling “weathered and beat down and grown up all of a sudden” after almost two years of touring and press.

As a result, his second full-length album Salad Days not only progressed technically but also developed in its maturity and themes. “It’s weird because I did it all in about a month. Maybe it was the mood I was in, I didn’t really feel like writing a ‘rock’ song,” Mac explained in a 2014 interview with Under the Radar.

In saying this, it wasn’t like DeMarco suddenly had some epiphany about modern social issues after watching a late night Oxfam commercial. Salad Days is still smeared with his signature cheek and charm, but when listening to his previous albums comparatively, you can hear his lo-fi indie-rock speaking on a deeper level.

It’s time to grow up and eat our greens, so here are 5 steps that went into making Salad Days, the perfect side dish to everyone’s favourite cheesy Mac.

the making of salad days

From broken tape machines to analog synths to shitty guitars, we take a look at the what went into making Salad Days, the perfectly imperfect third album from Mac DeMarco.

Step 1: 30ml of 100% Undiluted Mac

Mac’s demeanor isn’t some façade conveniently reflective of his music used to sell records to young rebellious teens. His music is directly a result of his character, not the other way around. This aspect of his creative process really shines on Salad Days, an album that was performed, recorded and mixed entirely by DeMarco himself at Jizz Jazz Studios – his small Brooklyn apartment.

In 2014, when American Songwriter asked Mac why he didn’t involve his band in the recording of Salad Days, he responded by saying “I feel like I’m most satisfied when I can do it myself… Guitar and bass: I’m okay at. Drums: I can scratch my way by. Keyboard: I’m not super good at, but that’s fun for me because I don’t really know what I’m doing, and maybe something weird will happen, y’know?”

Whether it was his prowess on the fret board, his no-frills style of drumming or his uncertainty with keys, Mac’s unassisted writing, performing and engineering on the album spawned a truly unfiltered product of who he is. And without added opinions from musicians, cowriters, producers or engineers, Salad Days emerged from the womb as a very authentic creature, a reflection of DeMarco himself.

Step 2: Equal parts Analogue, Tape and Cigarettes

A large portion of the warm, wobbly vibes on Salad Days came about through the use of analog gear, including a Focusrite ISA One Analog Preamp, his vintage Roland Juno-60, and most notably, his Fostex A-8 Tape machine.

In the 2014 Pitchfork documentary Pepperoni Playboy, DeMarco reveals that the trick to his signature sound is “[…] all pitch control you dumbasses, get yourself a tape machine” as he jokingly bends the song Let Her Go into a beautiful sluggish mess using the pitch knob on his Fostex.

Recording to tape requires both expertise and care – in particular, guarding the precious magnetic tape from volatile elements – but towards the end of the recording process, the eight-channel tape machine was down to six channels, and thanks to his close-proximity chain smoking, the tape had slightly warped.

Problematic as these hiccups may seem, they were imperative to the character of the album, and in conversation with Minsker, Mac reacts to the damaged tape by saying, “The guitars sound so fucked up […] It’s amazing.”

Step 3: Add Cheese and Mix Well

The sound most people associate with Mac DeMarco is his metallic guitar tones, of which there is no shortage of on Salad Days. And it all begins with Mac’s beloved 60s Sears guitar that looks like a prop from a Frankenstien sequel due to years of touring abuse.

Purchased for a measly $30, the Japanese-built guitar sports a single coil neck pickup, generating his recognisably clean, jangly tones. Additionally, the irregular combination of recording a cheap guitar through a not-so-cheap tape machine further defined the distinctive sound of the guitar.

DeMarco’s go-to effects unit for guitar is the modest Alesis Microverb 4, from which he uses a variety of choruses, flangers and delays, creating rich wavering chords, cheesy chorus lead tones and an overall lo-fi quality that translates well to tape.

When asked by American Songwriter about the guitar tones on Salad Days, Mac explained by saying “[I’m] finding things that I used to think were really cheesy or really lame, like classic rock guitar sounds weird, the effects, I hated it before. But now I think like flanger? I love it; it’s great.”

Step 4: Divide (un)Evenly

Another distinctive Salad Days trait is the panning and stereo image. Due to the limited channels on the Fostex, the drums on the album are grouped closely together and sit fairly narrow in the mix.

In some songs, like Brother, Passing Out Pieces, Go Easy and Jonny’s Odyssey, the drums are panned to one side with the bass mirrored on the other. While this kind of effect was sometimes used on old jazz recordings to create a ‘live on stage’ stereo image, it’s fairly uncommon these days and is an abnormal choice for a modern indie record; further proof that Salad Days is not at all typical.

Step 5: Set Budget from Low to High and Bake

Although Mac Demarco was independent in almost every aspect in creating Salad Days, mastering was one skill that was outsourced. Best left to the professionals who spend years studying the process, Salad Days was mastered by Josh Bonati of Bonati Mastering in Brooklyn, NYC – a seasoned engineer with a long list of clients, including DIIV, Lust For Youth and Beach Fossils.

While it’s unknown just how much work Bonati had on his plate when presented with Salad Days, the result was an album that sounded smooth and balanced as a whole, despite DeMarco’s homespun recording style. And although it’s not technically flawless, the perfectly imperfect nuances that are present on the album are part of the Salad Days appeal – a genuine representation of the man behind the microphone.

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