10 years of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion
Are you referring to the album with this trippy moving cover?
Exactly. In this age of the ephemeral, few artistic works manage to transcend in the least. Even fewer are the works remembered a year after they were conceived. And let’s not even mention those that are still in the collective memory a decade later. That’s right: practically none. But one of them is the one we’re dealing with here today, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective‘s eighth album. To understand it, you have to take into account two factors: unlike other bands, these Americans write songs for going on tour, and not necessarily to record (something they do later, of course). Secondly, the creation of Merriweather Post Pavilion was marked by the decision of the then guitarist, Deakin, to quit the band. Accustomed to making virtue of necessity, the band decided to create an album from samplers, without using the guitar for the first time. Hand in hand with eclectic producer Ben H. Allen, the (then) trio gave shape to a majestic album, accessible and complex at the same time, an ambitious accomplishment. For some, Merriweather Post Pavilion designated Animal Collective as the Beach Boys of our time. Big words, indeed!
Beach Boys with samplers?
Yeah, that’s what people are claiming. Animal Collective considered the possibility of reaching the sublimation of melodies through sampler technology. This comes to mean the same thing James Blake does with certain reminiscences of soul, for example: to try to unite the tradition of popular music with the possibilities of the new sounds. In this journey, there was an essential device, a sampler without which Merriweather Post Pavilion would be a completely different album: we’re talking about the Roland SP-404. This is explained by one member of the Collective, Brian Weitz (also known as Geologist): “The SP404 was just what we started using, because it was what we could afford and it was the most simple thing. And now it’s become an instrument that we know really well. It’s really user friendly. You can do things in real time on it. So we’ve gotten used to them. We almost may be approaching a point where we know them too well and it’s time to try something else.” We are talking about a sampler designed to use live, which is usually complemented with the Roland TR-8, making it possible for the perfect balance between sampling and beats. The SP-404 (the new model in our shop being the SP-404A) recovers all functions and features of the classic SP-404SX, such as 16-bit linear sampling, the 29 effects, Integrated DSP, FX switching and 12 professional performance pads. It also includes an SD with an updated loopmaster library.
Hmmmm, think I’m into this. Tell me more!
OK, well, four other devices that they used heavily on the album were the Roland SP-303, Roland SP-555, the DigiTech Vocal 300 and the Korg Kaoss Pad 3, all of which are now discontinued and only for sale second hand!
The good news is that, as usual, there are alternatives available today. As for samplers in a similar price range and with similar capabilities there are several noteworthy options:
El Pioneer Toraiz SP-16, for example, is a sampler and step sequencer designed directly between Pioneer and Dave Smith, a collaboration which souped up this machine with the analog filters of the legendary Prophet-6.
For a similar price to the SP404-A, we find a Korg model, the Korg Electribe, a sampler appreciated for its functionality, versatility and intuitive operation. It has a storage capacity of up to 250 patterns, 3 types of filter, 72 types of modulations, 38 Insert effects, 32 Master or a step sequencer (64 steps).
OK everything noted. More gadgets?
Sure, there are still some. But before we go on, let’s focus on a few words from Ben H. Allen, the producer of Merriweather Post Pavilion: “If there’s anything that involved the whole team and that, in a way, determined the sound of the album, it’s the Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer, a discovery for Animal Collective. They were in love with the H3000. I showed them its possibilities and things started to happen. At times, with the piano (notably the Roland Juno-60) or with acoustic instruments, we put the signal through the H3000 and we created something.”
The H3000 is a mythical harmonizer that was designated at the time as the console of the most groundbreaking effects ever created. Today, Eventide has an effects plugin that recreates much of the much celebrated sounds of the H3000. It’s the Eventide H3000 Factory. Among its features, the following stand out: delays, amplitude modulators, trackers, envelope, pitch shifters, filters and LFO’s, selectable band pass filters and variable Q-factor, the Generator function, which offers 19 waveforms, one pink noise generator, MIDI control or sidechain input. Unstoppable!
If you’re looking to shop around for different effect plugins, one of the most reputable options is the company Waves. In their catalogue we can find jewels like the Horizon, a package that simulates analog sounds. The warmth and quality of its reverb and compression effects stand out. Another option offered by Waves, for a much more affordable price, is the Waves Gold bundle.
Another noteworthy effects plugin is the FabFilter Mixing Bundle. Its sound fidelity is much appreciated. It contains seven plugins: Pro-R (algorithmic reverb), Pro-Q (24-band equalizer), Pro-C 2 (multi-purpose wideband compressor), Pro-DS (De-Esser), Pro-G (Expander/Gate), Saturn (multi-band distortion/saturation) and Timeless2 (tape/delay).
We will end this section with two Antares models. The first of them, the one in the photo below, is the Antares Auto-Tune Pro, a plugin specialising in pitch correction. It allows the correction of natural tone and vibrato in real time, as well as the MIDI control of real movement and tones, voice modelling, timing correction and manipulation. All this with a very user-friendly interface, including an automatic mode and a much more interventionist one.
Another plugin is the Antares Harmony Engine Evo also focused on vocal treatment. It allows to modify the shape of the voice, the character, the vibrato and the volume Also, through its five chorus channels, you can enrich vocals and make them warmer.
Well, we’re ready now, right?
Almost, but not yet. At the beginning of this article we were talking about how the band set out to recover certain 60’s sounds and project them through a contemporary lens. For that they used, in addition to retro plugins and samplers, a microphone that is more than just a wink to past hit records, a tribute some may say. This is how Ben H. Allen tells it, who assures us that they recorded the voices with a Neumann U47 to recreate the atmosphere and melodies of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album. The U47 is a legendary condenser microphone suitable for high sound pressure levels. The cardioid polar pattern provides excellent feedback resistance, which is why the technical quality of each take is insured. In addition, its low-cut filter suppresses any noise that might be heard.
We usually find that, in these technically-focused articles, without the songs nothing matters. In the case at hand, without a concept, without an idea, without something to say, there’s nothing, even if the best plugins and samplers in the world are used. Animal Collective have always had a clear vision (their discography prior to Merriweather is impeccable), and on this album they took it to a new level. Their idea of alluding to “Beach Boys-esque“ pop with the tools of the 21st century is simply sublime. They should be applauded for their ambition alone. This article is a testament to its greatness: 10 years after its release we continue talking about, and loving, Merriweather Post Pavilion. An album which has exerted such a great influence on how the traditional and the avant-garde can be fused deserves some recognition and discussion because to this day it still sounds fresh. They certainly did something right. Now shut off your screen and go listen to it in its entirety!