Video: Mac DeMarco on the Origins and Evolution of His Warbly Tone

If there's one thing that immediately comes to mind when thinking of Mac DeMarco, it's that woozy warble that undulates throughout the majority of his work—like he recorded a good take, then left the tape out in the sun for a while.

Many people and publications (Reverb included) have attributed DeMarco's modulation to a love for chorus. But that's not quite the story. In our video above, Mac walks us through the origins of his sound and shows off his current touring rig.

How the Jiggle Began

When he first started playing, DeMarco says, he shunned effects, outside of the built-in spring reverb of his Silverface Fender Twin. His used his first delay, an Akai Headrush, to get the John Lennon-style slapback effect of his voice.

It wasn't until he became obsessed with Connan Mockasin's Forever Dolphin Love that Mac began his love affair with effects. Connan's heavy chorus and flanger vibes soon inspired Mac's own. "That was the record—because I listened to that record over and over and over long before I ever met him," he says.

In his early days, DeMarco had a Fostex VF80 recorder, but, by using its built-in effects and running it into his guitar amp, the Fostex recorder doubled as an effects unit.

"That was kind of my first guitar pedal, but it was a giant, primitive digital recorder," Mac says. "It had a chorus on it, I think it had a flanger on it..." Like Connan, he'd begin putting these effects all over his tracks.

To Chorus or Not to Chorus

So what about his obsession with chorus? Well, as Mac explains, it's a bit hazy—and often, it's not even chorus.

Looking back on those early days of recording, DeMarco says, "I remember at the time reading the effect 'chorus'—because I used to use it on my vocals—and I thought it meant [that] you put this on your vocal when it's the chorus of the song. Which, you could do, but that's not what it means."

Soon, though he was running his guitar through a legit chorus unit, the rack-mounted Alesis Microverb. "I think the thing that really got me was that there was a mix knob on it, so you could either have the dry effect or just the effect signal."

"Chorus is: You got your thing here," he demonstrates, holding up a straight hand. "And then chorus is just over here"—he shows with a moving hand—"little bit later, jiggling. But if could just get the jiggle. Oh, I like that a lot."

When playing through the Microverb with the mix knob at 100%, it brought about a bit of a delay between his actual playing and the effected sound. "It was like I was introducing latency on purpose," he says. "So it was a bit weird, but I liked it. And I always thought it was chorus, but it turns out if you take out the dry signal then that's just vibrato. So everybody thinks that I love chorus—wrong. I love vibrato."

DeMarco's Other Effects

Another aspect of DeMarco's particular blend of wooziness lies in his neglect of dialing in the correct delay times. Instead of making sure his modulation is in sync with the rhythm of the song, he plays at one tempo while the delay "is doing whatever it's doing—different time, different modulation, I don't know. It makes it sound more screwed up I think."

"The guitar's a very human instrument," DeMarco says. "So throwing it out even a little more makes it feel more human to me."


Mac DeMarco's Pedalboard

On his current pedalboard—which he showed off during his ongoing tour—he employs a small amount of numerous effects, all with the intent to screw up his signal just a little bit more: the TC Electronic Shaker Vibrato, Hall of Fame Mini Reverb, HyperGravity Mini Compressor, the MXR M169 Carbon Copy and Carbon Copy Mini, and the JHS Colour Box.

Utility pedals include the Boss TU-3 Tuner and Radial BigShot ABY splitter. As you can see, there's not a chorus pedal in the bunch. There is, however, one more "effect" he learned from Connan—a wad of toilet paper shoved under the strings at the bridge to add some muffling.

Guitars, Synths, and Mics

DeMarco's electric guitar of choice is the Fender Stratocaster. His favorite—which he said he recently destroyed in Montreal, for unspecified reasons—was a 1970 in a natural finish. As Fender fans will know, this isn't a particularly prized vintage. Mac doesn't care.

"People get really, 'Eww, what year is your blah, blah, blah.' And apparently it's got the three-bolt thing, it's got the weird truss rod. Everyone's always like, 'Eww, stinky, weird year for Fender,'" DeMarco mocks. (The Strokes' Albert Hammond Jr. also favored this supposedly poorly constructed Strat—and even used his 1985 '72 Reissue Strat as the basis of his 2018 signature model.)

Mac's also been using a Roland Juno-60 for years as his go-to synth, though he's also used Yamaha DX7s or "DX-whatevers" wherever he can.

"I love those keyboards," he says. "Sometimes it's hard to blend in the really wacky sounds though, but I think they're amazing." Add to this list a Prophet-5—though it hasn't found its way on to many records—and a CS-60, which is on his latest. His new favorite, as you can hear him explain, is a secret.

Asked about his microphones, Mac starts with the obvious for his home-recordist origins: the Shure SM57, and its sibling the 57 Beta—"that's the one I'll take around if we have a little studio while we're traveling... sounds like a 57, but maybe fancier, more chunk in the butt or whatever."

But he's gone a bit more extravagant with some recent purchases, which he blames on Reverb.

"I bought some pretty nice mics this year, and it's your guys' fault. So now I have a tube U 47. Sounds good on everything. Whoops. Oh, I also have a tube U 67. Turns out this one sounds good on absolutely everything too," he sighs. "OK. 47 FET—like it on the kick drum, like it on the bass cab, sometimes."

"I don't know, things have changed a lot for me recently. For most of the records that people know me by, I honestly only used to have one—I think it was a Roland condenser mic that they sold at Guitar Center or something, and I put it on everything," he says. "Then I started learning more, reading more, making more money, and now? Now things have changed."

That said, even though he might spend more time than ever finding the perfect mic or perfect mic placement, he says, "As little as you can get away with, that's good enough for me."

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