Technostalgia in New Recording Projects by the 1980s ‘Dunedin Sound’ Band The Chills


This article seeks to provide new insights into the ways that producers of recorded popular music are influenced by, and engage with the broader social and cultural discourses that envelope the music and artists they record. It correlates ideas expressed through fan-discussions, the mainstream music media, and inter-band dialogue, with specific recording techniques and technologies applied in recent recordings by the New Zealand band The Chills, who are regarded as being a seminal proponent of the 1980s ‘Dunedin Sound’.

The Chills were most active through the 1980s and 1990s. The band released several albums through the influential New Zealand label Flying Nun, and grew a small, but passionate, international following. In September 2013, after 18 years of relative inaction, The Chills recorded a single called ‘Molten Gold’ which was released digitally and on 7-inch vinyl (The Chills: 2014a). In 2014, The Chills recorded a full-length album called Silver Bullets. At the time of writing, the 7-inch single had been released, and the album – which is being touted by the band as a ‘comeback’ – had been completed. The album is scheduled for release in late 2015. The band also toured the United Kingdom and Europea in mid 2014, and has increasingly gained international music-media attention, most of which emphasises its historical importance in relation to the indie-rock cannon:[1] New Musical Express (NME), for example, ranked the band as number 55 on their ‘100 Most Influential Artists’ list (NME: 2014). The focus of this article is the recording practices surrounding the Silver Bullets album and the 7-inch recording, especially its’ B-side,, a re-recording of a popular ‘cult classic’ song ‘Pink Frost’, (referred to throughout as ‘Pink Frost 13’), which was originally released in 1984. We show how specific production methods, locations, as well as the use of vintage and analogue technologies, are entangled within the broader ideologies and values that underpin recording projects. We demonstrate this by placing them within both contemporary and historical discourses of various forms, including online, media and scholarly discussions, particularly those that that address the band and the ‘Dunedin Sound’.

These projects demonstrate how the production team (which collectively refers to the producer and sound engineers, the latter of which included both of this article’s authors) negotiated the tensions between historical production precedents and the contemporary recording context, through a series of creative and technical compromises. These compromises were made in an attempt to negotiate the imperatives of both stakeholders, and participants in the recording process, to embrace sonic elements of past recordings. Such compromises also included the artist’s desire to update their sound, firm limits on studio time, a limited budget, as well as the studio performance experience of the band.[2] Other pressures revolved around the need to be efficient and financially expedient, while creating a product that will appeal to record labels, the music media, and both existing and potential fans of the group. It should also be noted that the seemingly complementary goals of appealing to existing and new fans of the group are in fact antecedent, and this article explores how discourses concerning the group’s historically grounded identity – as expressed through production aesthetics – constituted a major pressure on the production of these recordings. In order to negotiate these pressures, vintage technologies and recording strategies were deliberately and carefully incorporated into rationalised digital production methods in innovative ways that evoke the notion of technostalgia. This notion is explained by Pinch and Reincke[3]:

Technonostalgia for vintage gear, in this case, does not necessarily mean getting back to a particular past, no matter how ideally constructed, imagined, or heard. Instead… technonostalgia is a movement toward both new sounds and new interactions, whether aural, social, or physical, made concrete through combinations of the past and present (2009, p.166, see also Taylor: 2001).

This article explores popular music production in practice, and applies a practice-led participant-observation approach grounded in the field of ethnomusicology. Other studies that have applied similar approaches have theorised recording processes as forms of social action embedded in various interpreted meanings and contexts. These studies (notably Diamond: 2005; Moehn: 2005; Porcello: 2005) have emphasised that the ultimate significance of popular music lies, not within the recorded text, but in the individual musical encounters that take place throughout its production and reception.[4] In terms of production, recording studios are understood to be central sites for these encounters. However, some researchers, namely Gibson (2005) and Zagorski-Thomas (2008) assert that most of the creative energy that propels the production process comes from outside of the recording studio. They consequently suggest that the study of popular music production should encompass a broad scope that transcends the confines of the recording-studio space (Gibson: 2005, p.193; Zagorski-Thomas: 2008, p.191; see also Samuels et. al.: 2010). This article nuances this assertion by incorporating the broader, non-studio specific discourses, referring to the various vocalised and published threads of ideas and values that influence and interact with the actual studio-recording processes. These discourses contribute an additional consideration to what Howlett (2012) refers to as the ‘nexus’ within which music production activities are situated. In addition to the central production influences Howlett identifies – namely; “the creative inspiration of the artist, the technology of the recording studio, and the commercial aspirations of the record company” (Howlett: 2012) – we emphasise that commercial popular music productions are also grounded in highly specific, ideologically oriented discourses, and that these have a definitive impact on recordings’ sonic characteristics. The article therefore suggests that recording and production practice constitutes a kind of ‘balancing act’, which is achieved through a series of compromises that relate technical aspects and limitations to the project’s wider ideological underpinnings. In seeking to reconstruct the markers of vintage aesthetics appropriate to the historically grounded artist, a hybrid method was applied. This method somewhat ironically involved the use of large-scale commercial studios, which is in stark contrast to the setting of some of band’s most famous and definitive recordings, which were produced using a ‘Do It Yourself’ (DIY) methodology. This hybrid method combined both digital and analogue technologies, which highlighted certain historically and geographically grounded sonic-signatures. This was also achieved while deploying the technical manipulations – such as digital audio editing – necessary for such productions to satisfy contemporary standards.

Due to its practice-led approach, this article draws on the authors’ own interpretations as insiders to the production process, and therefore presents perspectives which are valued in auto-ethnographic research. Other studies, notably by Meintjes (2003), Porcello (1998) and Bates (2010) have recognised ethnographic methods as logistically and epistemologically crucial in recording and production research. Our roles in this production are central to the interpretation and subsequent theorisation of the discourses and how they manifest in the recording process, and therefore require further disclosure. Oli Wilson has toured regularly with the band since 2009 as their keyboard player, and performed keyboards on the Somewhere Beautiful live album (The Chills: 2013). Michael Holland has been employed by the band as their ‘front of house’ live sound engineer since 2011. Holland is also credited as recording the A-side of the aforementioned ‘Molten Gold’ single (The Chills: 2014a). Both authors were heavily involved in the production of the Silver Bullets album. Wilson tracked and performed most of the keyboard parts, and also arranged and tracked the string parts. Holland was employed to engineer and assist producer Brendan Davies, who was brought in from London to work on the album. Holland’s roles also included assisting with session setup, ‘comp’ing’ (derived ‘compositing’) and editing, as well as the tracking of additional overdubs.[5] This positionality naturally affects the article’s scope and content, which has limited focus on the mix phase, as this took place in Thailand and London respectively, and involved only Davies and the songwriter Martin Phillipps. We instead focus attention on the tracking processes, as that is where our labour was directed, and refer only to email correspondence regarding post-production issues. The article also draws on interviews with Davies, who on the album shares co-producer credits with Phillipps. We have also chosen to interpret, rather than attempt to represent the songwriters’ perspectives, in order to reflect the interpretation-centred paradigm in which the production team operate. It is also worth noting that the recordings intended consumption medium – vinyl – is also significant in terms of nostalgia and playback formats, although this is outside of the scope of this article.

We begin our analysis by providing a summary of the discourse about The Chills and the ‘Dunedin Sound’, which is firmly connected to the output of the Flying Nun label between 1979 and 1989. We explore both the media coverage, and the scholarly discussions of this concept, which outlines the specific tropes that are both reaffirmed and redefined through the production processes explored in the remainder of the article. We then outline key characteristics of the first case study; The Chill’s re-recording of ‘Pink Frost 13.’ This discussion focuses on the deployment of contemporary production techniques in the (re)production of a song strongly associated with a historical DIY music scene and production aesthetic.

Proceeding the discussion of the production of ‘Pink Frost 13’ – and following the chronology of the band’s recent endeavours – we then explore responses to the new version of the track, and consider the degree to which these affected the production processes for subsequent recordings. Fan-led social media discussions about the band and their recordings contribute to this contextualisation. These media discussions were posted on various online forums, including Facebook, YouTube, SoundCloud and various review sites and blogs. This inclusion is notable, as scholars have recently started to explore online discourse in relation to the activities of producers (see Greene and Porcello: 2005; Frith and Zagorski-Thomas: 2012; Burgess: 2005; Howlett: 2012; Moorefield: 2010). However, few have used insider ethnographic case studies to explore the ways in which fan discourses influence ‘behind the scenes’ production discourses. Doing so expands on Thorley’s idea of a ‘feedback loop’ between audiences and productions that are facilitated through online engagement with fans and artists (Thorley: 2012).[6] In the remainder of the article, we explore aspects of the production of the forthcoming full-length album, Silver Bullets. This discussion considers the degree to which online fan-led discourse contributes to a nexus of pressures on the producers of popular music. We conclude by suggesting that in these case studies, the pressures have triggered complex responses and compromises that centred upon the intersection of technological processes with aesthetics and values that are grounded in conflicting notions of nostalgia, creative progress, and modern production standards.

The Chills and the ‘Dunedin Sound’

The underlying aesthetic and ideological values associated with The Chills are largely entangled in preconceptions relating to the concept of the ‘Dunedin Sound’. These preconceptions concern its social and stylistic connotations, and are based around several interconnected phenomena, namely Dunedin’s isolation, the (lack of) technology, the local music making community, and DIY creative approaches. Referring to the base of many of the Flying Nun label’s bands, (and also home to The Chills), the ‘Dunedin Sound’ is broadly understood to be “a media creation sustained in the global popular imaginary that describes a particular music which is so unique to a place that it warrants geographical definition” (Bendrups: 2011, p.10). We suggest however, that the significance of this ‘sound’ is more related to Dunedin artists’ subversion of dominant commercial music industry and recording practices – grounded in a specific time and ideological space – than its musicological or sonic uniqueness. In addition to its exploration in scholarship, the international significance of this ‘sound’ is evidenced through the continued mainstream music media coverage of the ‘sound’ and its main label Flying Nun (see Mitchell: 1996, p.223). For example, a 2014 NME article explained that the ‘Dunedin Sound’ “has never held a bigger sway over the cannon of modern indie rock” (Welsh: 2014b, p.34). This notion was reiterated in an ensuing NME blog, which described the ‘sound’ as having “a vital legacy still felt to this day” (Welsh: 2014a). The Chills in particular have managed to maintain a position as one of the most celebrated ‘Dunedin Sound’ bands. A recent Guardian review for example, stated, “In New Zealand in the mid-1980s, a stream of bands emerged on the tiny Flying Nun label that were acclaimed around the world. The Chills were the pick of the lot” (Simpson: 2014). Their significance is further substantiated by the bands’ position at number 55 on the NME’s ‘100 Most Influential Artists” list in 2014 (NME: 2014, p.30).

These sentiments and ideals are extrapolated in previous scholarly discussions of Dunedin music published in the 1990s, which tend to theoretically frame the ‘sound’ by linking culture with geography, and are quick to highlight the city’s position as peripheral to the global music industry as a central theme (Shuker and Pickering: 1994; see also Mcleay: 1994 p.43). Mitchell emphasises that as a relatively small Scottish-settled University town with a population of 120,000 people, Dunedin is highly isolated; it is located in the “bleakly isolated and uninhabited southern part of the South Island” (Mitchell: 1994, p.38). This isolation, according to Flying Nun’s label founder Roger Shepherd means that Dunedin musicians “were a bit more inclined to write and perform the music they wanted to hear… like different dialects, a unique style definitely emerged” (Shepherd, qtd. in Mitchell: 1996, p.225). According to Craig Robertson this quest for originality was fuelled by a “cynical attitude to new [global] trends and attitudes” (Robertson: 1991, pp. 20-21).[7] Credited as a consequence of isolation, the Dunedin bands of the 1980s shared a lack of access to professional recording technology, resulting in a DIY approach that fostered a strong sense of community through sharing of equipment and rehearsal spaces (Robertson: 1991, p.65). The DIY approach also played an important role in bands’ ‘authenticity’, as they were able partake in the recording industry without risking their integrity (Robertson: 1991, p.111). Robertson suggests that in this environment, Dunedin musicians placed a primacy on the quality of their songs, rather than their ability to play them proficiently (Robertson: 1991, pp. 53–58). Mitchell (1996) succinctly summarises Robertson’s delineation of the Dunedin “aesthetic of sorts” (1991, p.44) suggesting that:

The musical aesthetic involved a total disregard for musical fashions and trends, as well as commercial recognition, expressed in the idea of authentic music, which legitimised the ignorance of contemporary musical trends. An adherence to authentic music involved stepping outside the confines of musical fashion and justified an ignorance of any boundaries of what was considered popular (Robertson cited in Mitchell: 1996, p.229).

The Case of ‘Pink Frost 13’

The Chills’ output over the last decade has been relatively minimal, with the last full-length studio album – Sunburnt (The Chills: 1996) – being 19 years old as of 2015. In the intervening period a number of compilations were released – 1999’s Sketch Book (Phillipps: 1999), and 2000’s Secret Box (The Chills: 2000) – though between 2000 and 2013 there were no releases, except for a self-released EP entitled Stand By in 2004, which was re-released by Fire Records in 2014 as part of their UK and European tour (The Chills: 2014b). The turning point was Phillipps’ return to relative health following a series of medical issues, which coincided with the formation of new relationships with music recording and promotion companies. With the aid of a new management company called Far South Records,[8] a live album entitled Somewhere Beautiful was released in 2013 through Fire Records (UK).[9] Following this release, Far South funded the production of the ‘Molten Gold’ single, (which was recorded in Dunedin by Holland), on which the new version of ‘Pink Frost’ featured.[10] The production of ‘Pink Frost 13’ is an important part of this case study because, as a cult classic track, the song is strongly linked to conceptions of the band’s status as a seminal ‘Dunedin Sound’ band. After the ‘Molten Gold’ 7-inch release, ‘Pink Frost 13’ was subject to more online discussion than its A-side, and provides a useful insight into the ways fans perceive The Chills’ new recording activities. In order to fully understand the reaction to this re-versioning of the song, we will first discuss its production context and describe key characteristics of its recording.

The first consideration is the varying internal motivations and expectations underlying the project. The re-recording of past hits is not unusual, as it enables the creation of new mechanical rights over old recordings. While the production team acknowledged the relationship between the new production and the original version – in terms of the need for both to share certain sonic characteristics – this issue was largely over-ridden by the band’s own (sometimes contradictory) goals for the production. These goals resonate with Pinch and Reincke’s definition of “technonostalgia” as being “a movement toward both new sounds and new interactions” and not merely a revisioning of the past (2009, p.166). Private correspondence between Phillipps and the band during the planning process echoed this message, with Phillipps stating:

We are not out to make a basic faithful copy – we have our own new and worthwhile angle on it which we have never really sat down and listened to and developed as yet. We can make it beautiful and not miss the real initial intention. Anyway – it’s my bloody song and I can do a German oom-pah version if I choose to! (Phillipps, email correspondence, 02/8/2013)

Phillipps’ public explanation for the re-recording of Pink Frost emphasised the creative evolution of the group:

Pink Frost was originally recorded in 1982 and has been performed at nearly every gig that the band has played since then. It is a unique piece of music and it has always changed and evolved over the years as the various line-ups of the band have approached it in subtly different ways. The current line-up of The Chills has been stable for many years now and with the band realising that ‘Pink Frost’ [13] had recently become something different and distinct again, it felt right to capture it once more in the studio – with tremendous results (Fire Records: 2014).[11]

The new version was produced in a significantly different studio environment to the original, with a more expansive set of resources at the disposal of the band and production team. The original version of Pink Frost was recorded on a TEAC 4-track recorder[12] at the Lab Studios in Auckland, New Zealand – an environment that Phillipps describes as:

… technologically very crude by today’s standards, but there was that thrill of discovery and of having your friends along – as well as people you could trust, like Chris Knox and Doug Hood, to make sure that you didn’t get carried away (Phillipps: 2014). [13]

In stark contrast, the tracking of ‘Pink Frost 13’ took place in a fully-equipped top-end commerical recording studio called Karma Sound, in Thailand. The studio contained a large array of recording equipment, including acoustically designed, isolated recording and control rooms, an SSL 4056 E/G+ console, a large selection of outboard preamps and dynamics processors, and a Pro Tools HD recording system with a large collection of plugins.[14] Musically, the song and arrangement almost entirely mirrored the original version, except for the extended introduction section that developed the original electric guitar motif. The majority of the differences instead concerned the production.[15] On arrival in Thailand the band, along with Holland, who was employed as producer to oversee the project, met with the studio’s house engineer Brendan Davies (who would later be hired to produce the Silver Bullets album). The band’s prior correspondence with Davies had been minimal, with one Skype conversation and brief discussion of demo’s between Davies, Holland and the band’s management. Upon arrival, the production team began discussing goals for the sound of the productions. These conversations touched on some issues to be negotiated in creating a ‘new’ version of ‘Pink Frost’, and its potential relationship with the production values of the original recording. These considerations, however, quickly became subservient to the task at hand and the limited time available, as ‘Pink Frost 13’ needed to be completed in little more than one day.[16] Consequently, the tracking session for ‘Pink Frost 13’ was charactersied by compromises relating to the available time, technology, and the skillset at the band’s disposal. This rationalised process involved rapid pre-production, the capturing of acceptable takes, followed by extensive post-production manipulation. In many ways, it is this standardisation of production tool, and the related standardisation of practice (see Théberge: 2004, p.763), that defined the production of this track. The recording of ‘Pink Frost 13’ began with the tracking of rhythm section parts. Drum performances were captured using an elaborate, multi-microphone plot in a relatively neutral, medium sized room, and recorded through analogue signal-chains to Pro Tools, via the console. Individual performances of rhythm section parts were workshopped with the player(s) and production team, and several parts (particularly the drum pattern in the chorus, which varies significantly in terms of the right-hand cymbal work) were simplified, and then subjected to a significant amount of digital editing in relation to their timing.[17] These tracks were then overdubbed with additional samples, instruments and textures. Following this, the bass and keyboards parts were overdubbed relatively quickly, and edited manually by an assistant to follow the drum pattern. Lastly, Phillipps’ guitar and vocal performances were overdubbed into the track, along with many additional textural guitar, keyboard, and percussion overdubs, many of which were done in only one or two takes, and would later sit far back in the mix.[18] The final track count for the production ended up being over 100 tracks, a significant number for the time spent on it, which included a number of ‘texture’ tracks, largely comprised of synthesisers and guitars, with large amounts of room ambiance included.

The mixing of ‘Pink Frost 13’ was carried out by Davies in London, following the band’s return to New Zealand, and involved lengthy discussions between Phillipps and the production team about the direction and sound of the final mix. These conversations highlighted tensions surrounding the divergent sonic identities of the original and revised productions, and the contemporary methodologies that begat the raw material for the mix of ‘Pink Frost 13’. The original is characterised by a relatively dry presentation of a driving and busy drum part that varies slightly in tempo throughout (it is safe to assume that it wasn’t recorded to a click track) alongside a heavily reverberant electric guitar, and heavily effected and softly sung vocals.[19] Mix discussions for ‘Pink Frost 13’ also focused on reverbs, which were inconsistent with the tight room used for tracking. This presented challenges for Phillipps in articulating his vision to Davies:

… I believe there is never too much reverb – well, on some songs like this one that’s almost the case anyway. Even the lead vocal may benefit from a touch more of a huge clean reverb…. Have a go – live dangerously. Enter the coffin in the hearse! (Phillipps, email correspondence, 22/3/2014).

Following the final mix revisions and mastering of ‘Pink Frost 13’, the track was released in June 2014 as the B-side to the ‘Molten Gold’ 7-inch vinyl, as well as online. Overall, most of the fan reception – measured through online discussions – was positive, and celebrated the endurance of the song. For example, one SoundCloud commenter posted “timeless no matter what year or version…. LOVE LOVE LOVE [sic]” (SoundCloud: 2014). Other positive reviews drew attention to the band’s influence on other artists – such as The xx and REM – and genres, including shoegaze (for example see NPR: 2014). However, not all responses were as accepting of the new version. Some fans commented that even though they liked the new version, they preferred the old one. One SoundCloud commenter noted: “Whoa. SO [sic] different, yet not really. I’ll always prefer the mystical fog & hazy beauty ov thee [sic] original version, but this sounds great for being 32 years old. It’s wizened, & slightly hardened, by time [sic].” (SoundCloud: 2014). Other comments defended Phillipps’ decision to re-record the song, while admitting to prefer the old version. For example, in the discussion thread on an NPR music article, a commenter states: “… If I had never heard the original, the update would knock me out… but I have heard the original (which I prefer), but the update (as someone here mentioned) is yet another gift from Martin” (NPR: 2014). Another similarly noted: “… I must admit on first listen I was sceptical [sic] for the first minute and a half… mostly because I love the original so much. But good [on] Martin Philips [sic] for having the balls to re-record it.” (Facebook: 2014). Other comments were more direct; a YouTube commenter for example noted: “[It] doesn’t quite beat the original though.” (YouTube: 2014), and some were outright condemning: “remake is horrible. misses [sic] the point completely. I hate it” ( While varied, this discourse, and the broader discourse about the ‘Dunedin Sound’,, plays a central role in the production of the subsequent album, Silver Bullets. They represent a crucial part of a nexus of pressures that contributed to the occurrence of what we have described as a series of compromises that define production processes. In the case of this album, these pressures particularly influence the negotiation and presentation of particular markers of vintage and lo-fi production conventions.

Approaches to Recording the Silver Bullets Album

The themes explored in the above responses to ‘Pink Frost 13’ are also reflected in the approaches to the Silver Bullets album, and are also varied. In his brief, Phillipps states that:

The main thing that will change overall is that the songs will be dragged kicking and screaming into the present day sonically and technologically as opposed to sounding as retro as most of them [the demos] do currently (Phillipps, email correspondence, 19/04/2014).

Davies, however, also emphasised the concurrent need to maintain ‘rawness’, and specific elements inherent in past Chills productions:

This was the first act I have worked with where there is such a wide appreciation of the rawness of it. If you don’t want to alienate those people, you have to keep some elements about what you have to love about [The] Chills recordings. Whereas for other bands, you can just bring their sound up to date (Davies, interviewed 25/06/2014).

The satisfaction of these broad and potentially divergent criteria involved the negotiation of three factors: the production team’s desire to embrace sonic elements of past Chills recordings, the artist’s desire to update their sound, and contemporary production pressures concerning time and money mentioned earlier in the article. The recording of Silver Bullets began in April 2014, with Holland tracking a series of detailed demo versions of the finished songs for the record. The tracking of the record took place at Albany Street studios at the University of Otago, located in the band’s hometown of Dunedin, between June 7 and 22, 2014. The recording took place in Dunedin (as opposed to an international studio such as Karma Sound) for mainly logistical reasons. As the majority of the band members had jobs and families in the city, working in a familiar and close-by environment allowed them to share time between these commitments and the tracking of the record. Recording in Dunedin also had other more intangible advantages too. Davies noted that:

It just seems right for the music, being in the hometown. It has definitely got a vibe, its got, the cold, the kind of… Being in Thailand [for the Pink Frost recording], it was searing heat and a swimming pool, I don’t associate that with the old records The Chills made. There is a kind melancholy in those records and Dunedin has that melancholy about it (Davies, interviewed 25/06/2014).

It is also significant that the location for tracking involved Davies experiencing the environment and personalities that had influenced the production of the band’s earlier records. During the tracking process Davies stayed at various band members’ houses, and this included an extended period lodging with Phillipps. On the third day of the tracking process Davies and Phillipps arrived at the studio with a large array of highly unconventional and rare instruments from Phillipps’ personal collection. These instruments ranged from a collection of children’s toys and shakers, a 1970’s New Zealand made ‘Jansen Transonic’ electronic organ, mandolins, and a santur.[20] Despite their unconventional nature, the band and production team recognised the value of these instruments to the creation of an album that ‘sounds like The Chills’. In discussing the value of this process Davies stated:

[Martin] lives and breathes it [his music], and it’s infectious, and he is thinking about every little quirky detail. A lot of things that some would completely glance over, but he’s like, “listen to this chime” and actually that’s really cool (Davies, interviewed 25/06/2014).

The album was tracked in Albany Street studio’s main studio, which is equipped with an SSL C-200 digital console, connected to both a Pro Tools HDX system and a Studer A8200 2” 24-track tape machine, which we will discuss further below. The control room houses a modest collection of vintage analogue outboard, including 1176 compressors, Neve and API pre-amplifiers brought in for the session, Tube-Tech equalisers and Compressors, and an array of other equipment[21] and the studio has an extensive collection of both vintage and contemporary microphones. The studio is part of a larger complex housing rehearsal suites, and a number of smaller, digital studios. The most exceptional characteristic of the Albany Street facility is a large live tracking room, which was originally built by The New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation in the 1960’s (See Figure One).[22]

Figure One: Albany Street Studios Live Room


Ensemble Recording and Room Ambiences

The basis of the tracking methods for Silver Bullets revolved around capturing the band performing as an ensemble, which demanded careful positioning of instruments, amplifiers, and performance areas for musicians in the live room. While much of the sonic character of the recording stems from the use of vintage microphones, analogue outboard equipment, and the exploitation of the room’s sonic characteristics, it is important to note the use of a ‘hybrid methodology’ during tracking. This methodology involved combining contemporary digital technologies with the use of specific sonic characteristics of analogue equipment. In reflecting on the choice of recording media, Davies noted his initial temptation to suggest recording to a ¼ inch four track, and the compromise between this idea and the role of the record in a contemporary marketplace:

I thought “why don’t we use a 4 track to give it a vibe?” [But] taking an artist like The Chills, and trying to make it listenable to someone who is a kid and doesn’t know anything else other than modern production values, we are trying to make it relevant… capturing it [the live band] in a very high definition kind of way is the right recording process (Davies, interviewed 25/06/2014).

With this in mind, the tracking sessions for Silver Bullets evoked a methodology more concerned with presenting the illusion, or ‘sonic cartoon’ (see Zagorski-Thomas: 2014, pp. 53-55) of an ensemble performing and recording in a relatively unmediated fashion.[23] It has been noted elsewhere that the ‘live’ social interaction between musicians and the production team in most recording sessions are affected by issues of isolation, lines of sight, and paths of communication (see Williams: 2012), and these issues were a primary concern in the setup of the tracking session. Consequently, several tracks were recorded without the use of a click track, an approach that was valued for its ability to elicit a representation of ‘live’ performance(s). This strategy of recording ensemble performances of rhythm section parts is a major contributing factor to the appeal to discourses around “authenticity/sincerity” (see Porcello: 2005, p.107). A key characteristic of this method, however, is that it sacrifices some post-production audio manipulability (in terms of performance correction), which is a notable departure from the primacy placed on isolation and digital manipulability in the tracking of ‘Pink Frost 13’. It is also significant that, in the tracking of a record by an artist linked to a historical scene often described in terms of its communal nature – as well as purity of the artists’ creative vision – the tracking session for the most recent record was arranged to foster these ideals. With this in mind, Davies notes:

I wanted to create that kind of collaborative atmosphere, and I know that Martin did as well … I quite like to hand over to the band and say “there’s some stuff here to work out, go at it” kind of thing, and there’s no substitute for being in a room [and] looking at each other (Davies, interviewed 25/06/2014).

Extensive use was made of room microphones, and the production team endeavoured to record as many parts as possible (including drums, guitars, percussion, amplified keyboards, and lead vocals) in the studio’s main live room.[24] Room microphones were positioned as pictured in Figure Two. These microphones were recorded to discrete tracks, and their use, both in combination with close microphones, and in many occasions as the sole source of capture, is crucial to the sound of the record.

Figure Two: Room Microphone Positions


The choice of specific microphone models for this task was also important. For the most part, the room microphones for ensemble tracking consisted of a single Coles ribbon microphone, approximately four metres from the front of the drum kit, and two Royer R121 microphones in the rear corners of the room. The choice of these microphones, with a smooth but subtle high end, was intended to accentuate the size of the room, while avoiding the capture of high-frequency early reflections. Furthermore, the ensemble-recording format and room ambiences were vital in the creation of a production aesthetic that reconstructs the ‘rawness’ of earlier The Chills recordings. The importance of this strategy relates to the historical link between early ‘Dunedin Sound’ recordings and limitations around access to technology. In order to evoke a historical production aesthetic created with limited technology, the production team made a series of conscious decisions around performance practice and instrument capture techniques, in order to evoke this relatively unmediated aesthetic. These decisions and limitations also extend to the choice of specific instruments and recording strategies.

Instrument Sounds and Recording Practices

The drum sound in particular was achieved through the use of vintage instruments, technologies, and techniques. The kit had coated heads on all the drums, and did not have a front (resonant) head on the bass drum. For most of the album, the basis of the drum sound was a three-microphone array, using a Neumann U67 overhead, a Coles 4040 ribbon microphone over the drummer’s right shoulder, and a Neumann TLM 149 in front of the kit (see Figure Two). This setup conceptualizes the drum set as one instrument, rather than a collection of individual instruments. However, not all of the drum performances were tracked in this way. One song was tracked using dynamic microphones (Shure SM57’s) as overheads, which Davies valued as: “…they’ve got a very kind of undefined top end – I thought that would be a cool way of doing lo-fi cymbals…” (Davies, interviewed 25/06/2014). Similarly, several of the drum tracks were recorded with a 1950s crystal microphone placed under the snare drum as a ‘junk mic’ producing a heavily distorted representation of the drum set. Figure Three illustrates the blend of vintage three-microphone capture methods, with carefully placed room microphones (as discussed above), and notes the specific close microphones used on the drum kit during tracking:

Figure Three: Drum Microphone Array


In attempting to achieve the compromise between historically-grounded and contemporary production aesthetics, vintage techniques that conceptualise the drum set as one instrument were also combined with the use of close-microphone placement (referred to as ‘close-mic’ing’) on individual drums (see figure three). On occasion, elements of the drum kit (largely the tom-toms) were later replaced with ‘close-mic’d’ samples of drums from the same kit.[25] Similarly, the tracking process for the electric guitars also involved an approach that captured both close-mic’d sounds, as well as the capture of room ambiances: in this case, a treated corridor adjacent to the studio’s machine room. The slightly duller sound of ribbon microphones (typically a Royer 121 or Coles 4040) was again preferred for these recordings, in order to further accentuate the perception of primitivism in a sophisticated recording context:

… [I used] the [U]67 with old vintage valve stuff, it just keeps that vibe. I was thinking more 60s this time round really… and so, when tracking guitars, I put the Coles up the 57 and the Royer ribbon, and nine times out of 10 I just kept the ribbon (Davies, interviewed 25/06/2014).

The lead vocals were also tracked in the same room as the rest of the instruments. The use of the same space gives the vocals some cohesion with the rest of the sounds on the record, all of which, with the exception of the electric guitar parts discussed above, carry the early reflectivity of the central recording space with them (see Bates 2012). However, the decision to track in this way had more to do with Davies’ desire to capture spontaneous performances than aesthetic considerations. A U67 microphone was set up at all times in the main studio, and vocals were tracked whenever the singer felt that the time was right, with Davies noting: “It’s nice to just capture something happening there and then, so I’ll tend to just have a mic up from the beginning” (Davies, interviewed 25/06/2014).

While we have addressed the production team’s focus on incorporating the natural room ambience on most elements of the production, it should be noted that decisions around the application (or non-application) of artificial reverb also plays a crucial role in The Chills’ production aesthetic. Davies succinctly suggests that: “I think yeah, The Chills sound of old has been associated with large reverbs and space” (Davies, interviewed 25/06/2014). Davies further explains that The Chills’ prior output can be characterised as “just a big wash, and the vocals are kind of just masked in this layer of reverb, and it just goes with the melancholy vibe” (interviewed 25/06/2014). A cursory listen to The Chills’ back catalogue reveals the centrality of reverb to the band’s signature sound. Phillipps’ guitar performance style centres on the saturation of spring reverb circuitry in electric guitar amplifiers, and the vocals and snare drums on most recordings are usually treated with long plate or hall reverbs (for examples of this see ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’ 1990).[26] This is typical of Phillipps’ approach, again evoking his above-quoted statement that “there is never too much reverb” (Email Correspondence, 22/3/14). Despite this, few instruments were tracked with reverb effects committed, with Davies instead electing to apply these effects digitally during the mix process:

I really came down on the side of “I’ll leave some stuff a little bit safe,” [in terms of reverbs] so that we can get to that afterwards, because there’s a whole layer of arranging to go through before that (Davies, interviewed 25/06/2014).

Session Workflow: Increasing Rationalisation / Distributed Labour

In contextualising the above discussion of production techniques that explicitly foreground vintage and analogue sounds, we must also note the tendency of the production team to exploit the use of modern methods and digital technology to expedite the recording process, particularly in its final stages. Several aspects of the record are heavily edited, and as the tracking process moved towards its conclusion, the workflow became further rationalised.[27] For example, the session workflow for the final week of production consisted largely of Wilson working on keyboard parts on his laptop in a makeshift studio located nearby, while Davies tracked vocals and guitars in Studio A, with Holland compositing (comp’ing’) and editing tracks in Studio B. While this was occurring, Phillipps would be moving between all three spaces to oversee work and provide additional input. This process is characteristic of contemporary production methodologies, and evokes Théberge’s notion of the “Mothership Scenario” (1997: p.232). The shift towards this distribution of labour suggests the degree to which time constraints came to impinge upon the stated goals of a communal and collaborative production environment. Thus, while the tracking sessions for Silver Bullets focused on capturing vintage sounds in a communal environment – a set of ideals that suggest linear models of production with a focus on musical performance – the reality of the final stages of the session can be seen as constituting a shift that echoes the transition in contemporary production methodologies since the digitalisation of production practices.[28]

This blurring of analogue vintage and digital production methods is most evident in the post-recording treatment of tracks in preparation for mix. The day following the completion of tracking was spent duplicating edited and pre-mixed stems of the productions to a 24-track 2” Studer tape machine, and then recording them back into Pro Tools. The resulting tracks were consequently imprinted with a degree of the characteristics of analogue tape recording, in particular, the smoother high frequency response of the medium. This use of analogue tape technology in studio production practices is a considerably more expedient deployment of the technology than those propagated in popular contemporary discussion of such techniques.[29] This compromise – the colouring of the entire digital recording with analogue tape technology – can be considered as being emblematic of the Silver Bullets production brief: capturing some of the markers of vintage sounds in a practical and efficient manner, while maintaining hi-fi production values, and the necessary ability to edit performances to a standard that contemporary audiences deem appropriate.

Conclusions: An Aesthetic Born From Compromise

In tracking Silver Bullets, the production team devised a series of strategies in order to negotiate the nexus of pressures outlined in the introduction. These included the deployment of carefully selected locations, ensemble recording strategies, the coordination of natural spatial effects, vintage instrument sounds, and recording practices, alongside the use of hybrid recording media. In addition to practical and economic considerations, the use of these strategies also constituted a response to pressures articulated in discourses revolving around the band. These were primarily articulated in fan’s responses to ‘Pink Frost 13’, which we contextualised and extrapolated in our review of the media, and scholarly discussions concerning the ‘Dunedin Sound’. The fan discourse tended to criticise and/or praise the new version based on subjective evaluations of the degree to which the recording upheld or disrupted sonic references to the past. Tim Taylor (2001, pp. 111-13 suggests that the pull of technostalgic consumption practices (in his case a discussion of space-age pop) can be understood as the desire by audiences to displace contemporary anxieties by engaging with the practices of a past ‘golden age’ (Taylor: 2001, pp. 111-13). This notion of tensions between contemporary anxieties and idealised recollections of the past is relevant here, as a large amount of effort was expended by the production team in attempting to present a record that acknowledged these idealised conceptions, while also responding to other equally important production pressures. In seeking to acknowledge and mediate audience preconceptions, the production of Silver Bullets invoked a technostalgic confluence of practices involving strategies that foregrounded vintage sounds, but in the context of a contemporary, distributed, and rationalised production methodology.

The pursuit of this vintage aesthetic in the production of Silver Bullets, owes a lot to the entanglement of The Chills with historically-centred notions of ‘lo-fidelity’ and a DIY approach, which correlates with the discourses of isolation that surround the ‘Dunedin Sound’ myth. This notion of isolation as entangled with a limited access to technology re-manifests itself in the tracking of a contemporary album by the same band through the use of carefully directed strategies to suggest low fidelity, while responding to contemporary production pressures, which in this case, resulted in product that was technically ‘hi fi’, but tried its best not to sound so. This expands upon Zagorski-Thomas’ observation that while the idea of ‘lo-fi’ is commonly used to denote a rejection of schematic clarity and the associated entanglement with the machinations of commercialism in the music industry, the use of lo-fidelity strategies, and in fact divergent production strategies in general, can signify a complex range of positions, ideological and otherwise (2014: pp. 222-23).

The position occupied by the Chills in the production of Silver Bullets echoes the production strategies discussed above: there is a certain liminality in the band’s musical and technological approach, and this is reiterated in fan and media discourses that both celebrate and are critical of the music. These discourses are based on nostalgic perceptions of what constitutes The Chills sonically. In this case, the production team attempted to negotiate this positioning of the band – as occupying spaces within both the commercial music industry and subversive indie-rock canon – through the use of the hybrid set of tools and methodologies described in this article.


[1] For further discussions of the indie genre and its socio-cultural connotations see (Hibbett: 2005, p.57). (Kruse: 1993, p.40)

[2] While this particular combination of band members has been performing live together for a relatively long period of time, their studio experience varies significantly between members. Simon Zagorski-Thomas notes that the nature of studio performance differs fundamentally from live performance, and suggests that adaptation of performance practice to the studio context involves a shift from the individual to the collaborative, a shift in nature and types of responsibility for the performer, and changes to social dynamics, resulting in a ‘different type of performance anxiety and different type of positive reinforcement’ (Zagorski-Thomas: 2014, pp. 21-22).

[3] See also Taylor (2001).

[4] For other examples see (Frith and Zagorski-Thomas 2012; Greene and Porcello: 2005; Meintjes: 2003; Negu: 1999; Théberge: 1997).

[5] Comp’ing refers to the process of compiling one performance from a series of alternate takes.

[6] Other studies have also noted the influence of fan involvement on the broader creative process; Peter Wikström for example, notes that through engaging with fans online via a YouTube channel featuring video updates during a recoding process, the singer-songwriter Imogen Heap, ‘picked up [audience member’s] comments, and allowed them to influence her creative process,’(Wikström: 2013, p. 178). Online forums relating to music ‘scenes’ have also been noted to impact production processes. However most of the extant research on fan engagement with the industry is generally only understood in terms of marketing and promotion, rather than the potential for fan discourse to impact upon the endeavour of music production (see, for example, Baym: 1999; Baym and Burnett: 2009).

[7] Themes of isolation are also evident in recent media discussions about the Dunedin Sound, as exemplified in the aforementioned NME magazine article which summarises ‘So you’ve got isolation, malaise, dislocation and unrest: all excellent songwriting fodder that lent Flying Nun its otherworldly sparkle’ (Welsh, A. C.: 2014b, p.34).

[8] See:

[9] A collaboration between The Chills and New Zealand visual artist Shane Cotton, the record is pictured and described on the Fire Records Website:

[10] The original recording and official video can be heard here: and official new version heard here:

[11] See “The Chills – Pink Frost” Fire Records Website.

[12] The seminal Flying Nun ‘Dunedin Double EP’ for example, is publicised for having been recorded on a TEAC four-track tape recorder in a dilapidated shared-house (Bannister, M.: 1999, p.54; see also Dale, J.: 2011, p.197).

[13] The connection between the sound and workflow of relatively primitive recording technologies, a select group of personnel, and “Pink Frost” as emblematic of Dunedin Sound should not be underestimated. For example, in discussions about recording technologies and marketing on a popular music production forum associated with several notable professional producers, (see: The Womb Forums, also discussed in Bates, 2012), Pink Frost is mentioned by a poster, who states, ‘It’s a good thing Chris Knox believed the lies,’ before another poster provides a link to The Lab studios, and an online version of the Pink Frost video (see:

[14] See:

[15] The session in Thailand also included the recording of an additional song that ended up being included on the Silver Bullets album, as well as a live in-studio filming project for promotional purposes

[16] Relatively manual waveform editing techniques were favoured over the use of the elastic audio or beat detective tools available in the Pro Tools software, due to the control that they give the editing engineer.

[17] In the background of the original recording is a persistent tape-hiss, and the overall impression is one of an immediate and simplistic approach to recording. As Phillipps noted, the drum part on the original track was the product of a session that the band were unsure about at the time, though the passing of drummer Martin Bull prompted the group to revisit and use the material that had been captured in the initial session. For further discussion by Phillipps see:

[18] The santur is a type of hammered dulcimer of Persian origin.

[19] For details of this setup, see the NZMIC Albany Street Studios Specifications, available at: http://www.

[20] Zagorski-Thomas notes that studio recording practices often create ‘a sonic ‘image’ that exaggerates or distorts particular features,’ and that this exaggeration ‘encourages a particular type of interpretation [that] is obviously analogous to the visual world of cartoons’ (2014: p.55).

[21] See Porcello, 2005: pp. 107-09 for a discussion of common techniques for foregrounding textural participatory discrepancies.

[22] Techniques and approaches to sample replacement vary across production methodologies, though for this session an emphasis was placed on using a minimal number of drum samples, all recorded from the studio kit, and hand selected and aligned to match the placement and dynamics of original hits. While more automated forms of sample replacement exist – including plugins such as Slate Trigger, Sound Replacer Pro, and the use of audio-to-midi functions and software samplers – these processors often cause both dynamic and micro-temporal discrepancies between the sample-replaced tracks, and those containing the original audio data. This can lead to phase discrepancies, and, in the most simplistic of uses, the perception of a mono-dynamic, inhuman performance.


[24] Similarly, in his discussion of the production of Austin Blues/Rock, Thomas Porcello notes that the ‘”rationalized” recording process … is usually one that devalues, and often outright discourages ensemble performance’ (2005, p.107).

[25] This issue has been discussed by Zagorski Thomas (among others), who suggests that the linear development model that Albin Zak describes in The Poetics of Rock appears to be centred upon the notion of, ”organic development” (in terms of progressive growth).’ Zagorski-Thomas implies that Zak fails to fully account for the fact that, ‘the “cut–and–paste” method of desktop systems has encouraged composers to work in a modular fashion’. (Zagorski-Thomas: 2007, pp. 15–16).

[26] For example, Dave Grohl’s Sound City film essentialises characteristics of recording media, conflating the use of analogue tape-based systems with a particular recording methodology concerned with the rhetoric of human interaction. Samantha Bennett provides a more nuanced perspective in an article on the CLASP system (which performs a very similar function to the process described here): quoting Barlindhaug’s assertion that, ‘by following this quest for analog sound, digital technology helps to create an acknowledgement of analog aesthetics. This must not be seen as merely an act of nostalgia, but rather as a sense that the context of its use is what really makes a particular technology novel’ (Barlindhaug, 2007: p.90; see also Bennett, 2012). While noting that vintage technologies are sometimes romanticised by consumers and clients, Bennett suggests that recordists are generally more pragmatic in their approach to using such equipment (2012).


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