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Nov 1998-Sept 1999 - Pumpkinland and Chicago Recording Company

Produced by Flood and Billy Corgan; Engineered by Howard Willing

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Sessions for the final Smashing Pumpkins album, Glass and the Machines of God. Due to the departure of D'Arcy and label pressure, the album was whittled down to Machina/The Machines of God, with a posthumous self-release of outtakes Machina II/Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. A completely different bootleg also called Friends and Enemies of Modern Music contained early takes of "Glass Theme", "Blue Skies Bring tears" and "Disco King". Additional Machina outtakes leaked on the internet in 2014, including: two alternate versions of "Raindrops and Sunshowers", "Without You", "Sleeping Giant", a full-band acoustic "Glass and The Ghost Children", two alternate versions of "Home" and "Strength in Numbers".

Chamberlin returned to the Smashing Pumpkins in March of 1999, but another absence would alter the face of the band’s fifth studio release, Machina/The Machines of God. Flood was once again asked to produce, but unlike Mellon Collie, where many ideas were mapped out before a single note was recorded, few were aware of Corgan’s creative intent: a concept album about a fictitious rock band fronted by a character whose life is forever altered after hearing the voice of God. As could be expected, the sonic subtext would prove just as esoteric.

Billy's chart

The goal was to take the digital lessons learned from Adore and apply them to a rock environment. How does one create the sound of a band playing on another planet? Through tape degradation, synth-like mechanized guitars, soaring pads and effects, heavily-processed vocals, and of course, big drums. Chamberlin returned with a custom-made Yamaha green maple kit, but Machina marked Corgan’s first real departure from his fleet of Fenders, instead using a Les Paul Junior reissue with P90 pickups that often ran through a Crate practice amp. An SIB Varidrive and a host of Moogerfooger pedals were also used to add to Corgan’s sonic repertoire. The hazy shimmer in big choruses for “Stand Inside Your Love” and “The Everlasting Gaze” is another trademark Machina sound.

“I hope I’m not taking credit for somebody else’s work,” laughs Alan Moulder, “but I’m pretty sure I created it with a tape delay on a short, slappy guitar reverb going through an AMS Harmonizer. I think I ducked it with compression triggering off the drums.”

Board

To help the band gel with the new material, Corgan decided to take the Pumpkins out for a few select club dates in April of ’99 while Flood went on holiday. They would return to the studio fine-tuned, ride that live momentum through a weeklong recording session, and then bring in Moulder to mix after another headclearing break. When Wretzky’s commitment to the band began to erode, plans began to change. Though rumored since late summer, it was publicly announced in September that she had left the band.

“Billy and I thought, ‘How are we going to do this?’” Flood remembers. “We decided that we were going to have to make a very different kind of record. They saw out their time on the tour, and after that we pretty much went back to the drawing board. Certain songs on the record are survivors from that first period, but it meant a shift in the way the songs had to be formed.”

The majority of the songs were recorded into Pro Tools through Corgan’s API Legacy board, but the band had multiple mixing consoles to choose from at Chicago Recording Company, so Flood performed a litmus test. He transferred two songs onto tape using a Studer A280, which as luck would have it, was found in each of the mix rooms. He then ran the tape through each console with all the faders at zero—no EQ, no panning—and then into a DAT machine. When he compared the recordings, the differences were unbelievable. Of the Neve VR72, SSL 6056E, and the ’80s Neve broadcast console that Corgan brought in, the SSL won out. Its low-mid punch would help tighten up the record’s bright sound. Though Corgan wasn’t a big fan of SSL boards, the team found a workaround.

Amp

“Howard Willing, one of the mix engineers, knew a guy at Inward Connections who built an API simulation mix bus,” remembers Moulder. “The idea was that we were going to replace the mix bus in the SSL with this API one, which kind of ‘de-SSL’d’ it a bit.”

Machina was made with the understanding that it would be the Pumpkins’ final album. Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music—originally intended to be the second disc on a Machina double album before Virgin vetoed the idea—received an Internet-only release, but a handful of copies were distributed on vinyl through Corgan’s own imprint: the befittingly titled Constantinople Records.[1]

Billy Corgan: First off, Jimmy hadn't played drums a lot for the three years he was out of the group, so it took a while for him to even find his chops. Because he'd broken the linear chain of us working together, it wasn't like he just stepped back in and picked back up emotionally and musically where he left off. In fact, he missed the whole transition of Adore. The last record he'd played on was Mellon Collie..., and now he's playing on Machina; where spontaneity, darkness, and these weird undersea tones are prevailing. We're speeding up and slowing down drums, and doing anything in our power to make every element of the record sound different. So Jimmy was thrown into an interesting fire. I found the most effective thing to do with him, at that point, was just to say, "Here's the song." And we would go and record it.

Jimmy Chamberlin: On Machina, I think we got – in my opinion – to where we always wanted to be sonically. That record, for me – drum-wise with the distortion and the [Eventide] Omnipressor on the snare drum, the crispy-and-crunchiness of those drums, and how they interface with the guitar dynamics – from a production standpoint, really is our crowning achievement.

More gear

Howard Willing: We recorded part of that album at the band's rehearsal complex, Pumpkinland, and it was wild. There was an API console up at the front, and it was like, "Okay, this is where we're recording." I said, "What the fuck is this?" This place was enormous. We had PAs set up. That's how we would track and rehearse, with the PAs going! So if Jimmy was playing drums, he was getting blasted with the PA and that's getting picked up by all the microphones. That became part of the sound of that record.

Flood: When Pro Tools first came out, I'd been working with Trent [Reznor, Nine Inch Nails] and I was very, very used to working with whole songs based in Pro Tools, and then committing them to tape. So it was very good for Machina. When he wanted to go off and follow a particular idea he could do that in Pro Tools, brilliantly. It was a great vehicle for him. Then I would try and hone those ideas down; just trying to make decisions. It was really good, and it meant that Billy could get rid of some of his frustrations, or try ideas while I was trying to manage something else. This is another reason why Alan [Moulder] is so vital; because he understands. If you're dealing with a very difficult situation, someone's got your back. The same for Billy. He knows as soon as Alan walks in the room that he and the other guys in the band respect him immensely. That's the thing about albums and individuals. It's never about one person; it's always about a group of people. One person cannot take credit; it's that collaboration. That's what's brilliant about music: capturing human beings reacting and working together, and providing an emotional response. You hope that you can capture that. I think you can. It's hard, but you can do it; and the Pumpkins were amazing for that. I think for me, Mellon Collie..., and Adore, and Machina capture that emotion perfectly – they're just very, very different records.[2]
Song board
Billy Corgan on song evolution: It wasn't a conscious decision [to return to heavy metal for this album], just as it wasn't a conscious decision for us to make a softer record when we made Adore. There's no faking heavy metal. Not in our world. I don't know why this album ended up sounding this way. I'm not being coy, but I don't have any explanation for this stuff. It just sort of shows up at your doorstep. To elaborate, I can tell you that for the two or three very heavy songs on Machina, there are 12 heavy songs that we didn't put on it, because it just didn't feel right; it felt like we were repeating ourselves and digging up old bones. What's on the record is what we feel: if it sounds angry, it is angry, and if it sounds pretty, it is pretty. There's no fakery in our world. Believe me, when we're faking, it's as bad as it gets.

If you look at our evolution from the first album to this album, we totally explored riff rock, and then we got bored with it. And after you explore riff rock, the only thing to do is what the Beatles did, which is explore melody. So Machina is literally the other side of where we began. To me, riff rock is frustrating: when you've got a great riff, it's deadly, but when you don't, forget it. Unfortunately, I would venture to say that, these days, there aren't that many great riffs left. It's rare that you escape the trap of rewriting an earlier riff. And once you think you have escaped it, you come across some Deep Purple bootleg and realize that Ritchie Blackmore was there 27 years before you.

Many of the songs took a number of different directions over the course of their evolution. "The Everlasting Gaze" probably had five different versions--different lyrics, different middle-eights--and the first version is unrecognizable from the final version. "Sunshowers" went through two versions, and "I of the Mourning" went through four or five. But both "Stand Inside Your Love" and "Try, Try, Try" were always pretty much the same. And now we're going through all of the old takes of these songs that we did over the 10 months it took to make the album, trying to find things for b-sides. I'm finding the four or five different versions of each song, and I'm hearing things on these takes that we forgot about that are better than the released versions. So I got pissed off because, once again, we fucked up.

Billy Corgan on the sound of the album: We felt that we had already explored the guitar "wall of sound" approach on Gish and Siamese Dream. On Mellon Collie, Flood stripped everything down and got a really muscular guitar sound. On Machina, we were completely bored with the guitar; there was absolutely nothing we could do that we found exciting. So we decided that, whether the guitars sound shitty or great, they just had to sound unique. And that became our method.

When we made Mellon Collie and Siamese Dream, we just set up one rig and used it for the entire album. It was like "This is the best cabinet, this is the best speaker to mic and these are the best mics, and we're playing a Gibson. It was down to a science, and we would actually run tests and compare sounds. For Machina, we took the complete opposite approach. We would create a sound, record the part and then tear down the rig, so that we couldn't possibly duplicate it again. The general idea was "Be quick and effective, and don't look back."

I think what I like about the guitar work on this album is that we put a lot of insistence on performance and improvisation. In the past, everything was orchestrated, and we determined beforehand how we would play a part. This time, we decided to just "wing" the performance, and then go in and look for the special moments in the performance and edit that part down.

Billy Corgan on recording process: No [we didn't use Pro-Tools on Machina]. We decided at the beginning that we weren't gonna use it. I think it's one of those things that unlocks the creative door at first, because you can be very selective about what you want to use. The problem is that we would spend three hours with Pro-Tools trying to find the part that had the right feel; whereas if we had recorded to tape, we would have just kept recording until we got it right, and it wouldn't have taken us nearly as long. Pro-Tools makes me want to insist that a part work. And the next thing I know, I'm time-stretching, pitch-changing and running the sound backwards until it sounds right. Three months later, I'll hear it and say "I don't even like this." So I think I enjoy self-editing better than digital. [3]

If, as Billy Corgan states, he and James Iha had grown tired of the guitar when the Smashing Pumpkins set out to record Machina/The Machines of God, the found plenty of ways to renew their interest in the instrument during the album's sessions. For a start, both Corgan and Iha tuned their guitars down to what Corgan calls "C tuning"--standard tuning dropped two whole steps (low to high: C F Bb Eb G C)--resulting in the albums thunderously low sound.

"The only problem with tuning down two whole steps is that the intonation is terrible," says Corgan. "So Joe Naylor of Reverend guitars built a prototype C-tuned guitar for me that has a longer scale. It's fantastic, and the tonalities and the harmonics are really beautiful. We're working together to try to develop it further and possibly even market it." Corgan also used a prototype "C-tuned" guitar built for him by Hamer, while Iha played a black Gibson SG of Eighties vintage that employed the same tuning. "James wanted to keep one guitar in C-tuning," explains Corgan, "and the SG stayed in tune the best."

Corgan says he and Iha never considered playing seven-string guitars to achieve their low sound. "To me they're riff guitars. They really don't explore the whole breadth of tonality that you can get by tuning down two whole steps. Plus, relearning how to play a seven-string guitar is really difficult, and trying to play chords down those positions is confusing as hell. And I'm too old to learn any new shit."

In addition to their "C-tuned" guitars, Corgan and Iha used more than 40 guitars during the making of Machina. "Everything from $10,000 Strats to $100 beaters," says Corgan. "During the sessions, we would line up all the guitars and choose whichever ones we wanted to use." While Corgan used his Gibson Les Paul junior reissue for much of the recording, he also played a Gibson ES-335 and a white Hamer given to him by Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen. Other electric guitar guitars used on the album include a Gretsch Silver Jet with a Bigsby tremolo (heard distinctly on "Glass and the Ghost Children") and a Fernandes guitar with a Sustainer pickup. Corgan and Iha also used Taylor 600 series acoustic guitars. The guitars employ Fishman's Blender System, which consists of a piezo bridge pickup, a mini microphone and a compact, onboard mixer that allows the signals from each source to be combined.

According to Corgan, the Taylor acoustics were essential for one of the many studio tricks employed on the album. "We would run the signal from the acoustic guitar through a cheap cassette tape recorder and into the mixer. Doing this overloads the signal and creates a tone somewhere between an acoustic and and an electric guitar. It sounds pretty cool on it's own, but when it's set within the mix, it fills the tonal gap between an acoustic and electric guitar. It's there on "Try, Try Try" although you'd never hear it among all the guitars. You feel it, though; it;s totally a harmonic thing.

Corgan adds that, as the songs on Machina evolved, he and producer Flood would often return to the guitar tracks and reprocess them to achieve a more unusual sound. "For example, if a recorded guitar part sounded too bright, we would run the signal off the tape, reprocess it though effects and run it back to tape. In a lot of cases, we would use the original signal plus the reprocessed signal, because it would produce a larger sound. We did that on "The Imploding Voice", where we used about 75% of the new signal and 25% of the original."

For amps, Corgan and Iha used a variety of makes and models, including Corgan's batch of classic Selmer amps, a Fender Twin and Iha's Eighties vintage Marshall JMP 800 head and cabinet. "I don't know where he got it," says Corgan of Iha's Marshall rig, "but it's the ebst sounding Marshall head we have. The amp compresses the upper harmonics and produces that 'Jeff Beck/Yardbirds' sound. You can hear the clean signal, but you get that nice top-end distortion as well."
Pedals
Effects used in the making of Machina include an Ebow, an Electro-Harmonix Small Stone and a Boss Digital Delay, all three of which were used simultaneously by Iha for the solo on "Stand Inside Your Love"; a DigiTech Whammy pedal for the high lead part on "Heavy Metal Machine"; a Seventies-vintage Roland Stereo Chorus; a tape-reverse effect from a vintage Eventide delay for "I of the Mourning". While numerous other effects pedals were used on the album, Corgan confesses that he's forgotten many of the specifics related to Machina's guitar tone. "Things happened so quickly that it was impossible to keep track. Flood would give James some sort of Iha-ian thunderwall of sound, and James would lay down, like, five parts. We'd bounce them down to one or two tracks, and that would be it. Even James couldn't tell you which effects were used to create the five original guitar parts. Your guess is as good as ours." [4]

D'arcy: That was more towards the end of the recording actually [that D'arcy left the band]. We probably did most of it before the tour, and I was told by both James and Billy that they were going to change my basslines and re-record them, but for the most part they didn’t. It was mostly my stuff, and they actually sent me some of the Gold records from it. Now Billy is saying that’s not true.

But the thing with that was I was going through a really bad time, I didn’t know what was happening, I was having a nervous breakdown. I had 30 plus panic attacks a day, I didn’t know what it was, it was terrible. The day after the tour, I had tried to quit two or three times, but it’s difficult to do when you have everybody, my husband, my family, telling me, ‘No, no, just wait until the next record. All of these people are depending on you, all of these people who work for you guys, don’t just think of yourself.’ I just should have left a couple of years earlier.[5]

Return to Machina

  1. Richard Thomas, "Signal To Noise: The Sonic Diary Of The Smashing Pumpkins", Electronic Musician, October 1st, 2008
  2. Jake Brown, "Smashing Pumpkins: A Studio History", Tape-Op, Sept/Oct 2016
  3. Christopher Scapelliti, "Smoke & Mirrors", Guitar World, April 2000.
  4. Christopher Scapelliti, "Machina Shop: The Tools of Billy Corgan and James Iha's Trade", Guitar World, April 2000.
  5. Brett Buchanan, "Smashing Pumpkins Bassist D’arcy Holds Nothing Back In First Interview In 20 Years", Alternative Nation, February 14th, 2018