The Gear Behind Coma Culture's Glitchy, Tape-y Debut

Coma Culture. Photo by Kelly Victoria. Used with permission from the artist.

Propping up the monitor on his mixing desk, Jon O'Brien keeps a close companion in the form of a Roland RE-301 Chorus Echo. It's been a fixture of the producer's The Music Box Studios even as the space moved locations from Fullerton, California to O'Brien's new (and still under-construction) home studio in Idyllwild.

"It sits directly in front of me on my desk, underneath my computer screen, and it's always plugged into a reamp," O'Brien says. "If I play an instrument on anyone's record that I produce, it's probably the Space Echo. The person can be performing and then I usually have it bussed out to the Space Echo on a separate track, and I can ride the oscillation and create some cool textures. I've had this for 10 years now—I just know when the tape's getting old or finding a sweet spot where it's warbling just enough."

The uneven tones, the strain of old tape, the careful attention to texture and variability—such sonic tricks help create a certain haze around Camouflage, the debut album from Coma Culture, O'Brien's new project alongside Young the Giant's Eric Cannata and Francois Comtois.

With songs written by all three members individually, there are common lyrical themes—uncertainty, fragmentation, dissonance—all highlighted by the album's production choices.

"Inspired by tape machines and the feeling of uneasiness," Cannata says the group found a sonic throughline across the trio's songs thanks to "inconsistent gear, like old cassette machines and reverbs." On the record's lead song, which also gave the group its name, you can hear jittery guitar licks getting lost in delays and synth lines bubbling up to blend into eerie harmonies.

O'Brien, Cannata, and Comtois began what would become Camouflage from collections of demos, fleshing out tracks in December 2019 and January 2020 at The Music Box Studio's previous Fullerton location. "It's a collection of songs that had been written over the past—the oldest song I wrote on there is five years old," Comtois says. "So it's kind of these songs that we'd all written in our own lives and projects that had never found a home, and then we brought them together right before the pandemic hit." O'Brien and Yuuki Matthews, the producer and engineer known for his work with The Shins, mixed the record throughout the pandemic.

It's interesting to hear the record with that timing in mind: songs written years ago about past relationships or feelings, given new life as the group came together, only to be sent back into isolation. The result is an album with so many carefully mixed moments, where ribbons of sound weave through and envelop the songs, that it communicates as much bliss, confusion, or mysteries as the lyrics.

An in-studio performance of Camouflage's "100 Years" and "Martha"

"There was an echo chamber there [at Fullerton] that was just an empty portion of the basement that no one rented, and my landlord let me set up a speaker and a mic in there," O'Brien says. "We did that a lot with drum machines, synths, I think we might have done it with some backup vocals—just kind of taking a sound that was previously recorded and find a way to make it inconsistent."

On "Martha," just the rhythm track alone has many moving parts: O'Brien's quickly recorded demo drums, Comtois' Dave Smith Tempest drum machine, and separate channels of the Tempest's kick, snare, and hats all sent into the echo chamber. "The cool thing I love about that is you can have the same part throughout the song, but you can push backward or forward, depending on the energy that needs to happen in that moment," O'Brien says.

"I think Yuuki was really helpful in particular with that one, because we did send him a session with so much stuff, and it could get a little overwhelming. I think he was able to take that perspective that fresh ears have," Comtois says. "When we threw everything in at first, it was definitely unwieldy."

The guitars on the album were at times played through an impressive collection of modern pedals, including an all-Chase Bliss mini-pedalboard with a Mood, Dark World, Blooper, and Tonal Recall.

"I just consider pedals as my new Pokémon card obsession—gotta collect 'em all type of thing," Cannata says. The Mood pedal in particular was used heavily. "[Since] we were really into throwing tracks into the tape machine, it was like, can we make weird, glitchy, tape-y sounding loops through the Mood pedal?" Not only did it work, but it convinced O'Brien to buy his own Mood as well.

O'Brien detailed the recording process of "In Love" on the band's Instagram, and the caption offers a great example of how the group approached other guitar tracks:

Eric’s demo for “In Love” could have been sent off to mix on day 1. The guitar parts and tones were exactly as you hear them on the record. Eric has been playing the same ash @fender Stratocaster since the day I met him. The song probably has 10+ guitar tracks but he was able to coax unique tones for each layer all with his trusty strat.

The drum machine on the demo was recreated by Francois, played on the same 1968 Ludwig Kit that’s on the rest of the album.

In the studio, we added an acoustic guitar throughout the song. Eric stuck a piece of paper in the bridge of the acoustic so it sounds very rattley and excited. The acoustic was recorded with an AEA r88 stereo @ribbonmics

Francois and I added some very fast arpeggiated Juno on the second verse that really amped up the energy and helped the story along. Francois would play the chords while I modulated the synths filter and lfo pitch. The Juno arp always reminds me Return of Saturn by No Doubt

I have an old casette recorder that I bought for $7 at goodwill and we decided to hook that up to Eric’s pedal board. We were recording sounds using the recorder’s on board mic and the sounds that came out were a mixture of feedback and dreamy pitchy sounds we had never heard. I chopped up what we gathered and placed them through the song as percussion, intro noise, and backup vocals saying “in love”.

We recut the vocals on my vintage Neumann u87 and recorded some group vocals on the chorus surrounding the aea r88.

Mixing the song involved a ton of saturation from plugins and my TEAC a-4300 tape machine. @goodhertz Megaverb and @soundtoys Echoboy and Devil-loc Deluxe were we’re used a lot. @klevgrand LUXE, Degrader were used very often to create the excitement the song deserved!

That said, O'Brien also credits much of the record's electric guitar sounds to his '62 Gibson Falcon and '67 Fender Vibro Champ amps, along with a Zvex Instant Lo-Fi Junky. But one of the most impressive guitar tones came not from a complicated signal chain but a cheap guitar, captured quickly.

"Coma Culture," live in the studio

"I think the peak-pinnacle guitar tone I've ever gotten was a Cordoba nylon-string," Comtois laughs. "I recorded it through an Apogee Duet in a hotel room, and I thought, 'This is definitely gonna get replaced. It sounds like garbage.' And Yuuki said, 'How did you get that guitar?' I was like, 'Oh, it was very expensive, took a lot of time to dial in...'"

Whether expertly recorded and turned strange for effect or cheap snapshots cloaked in mysterious riches, the tones of Camouflage are the kind that luxuriate and seep deeper the more you listen.

Head to Coma Culture's website to hear, order, or learn more about Camouflage now.

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