By Benjamin Lamb
A deep dive into the techniques used on ABBA’s music.
You would be hard pressed to find a band as original as ABBA. Their decades of very popular albums and musicals have attracted many fans across the world and announced a new album that will undoubtedly strengthen their legacy. ABBA’s long career has seen them use the juxtaposition of their unique harmonies and feel good about writing songs, but perhaps more importantly, their original production and recording processes behind their music.
These processes are widely regarded as some of the best and the unique approach of longtime ABBA producer Michael B Tretow has helped the Swedish quartet become a star. There is a lot to do to create an ABBA song. Using a selection of rare and sophisticated equipment, Michael, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson have worked tirelessly to make each track an experience.
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The trio often recorded each element of a given song separately. Channels were gained and pitch changed after the fact, resulting in that unique glow that many have tried to replicate.
Starting with the most distinct element of any ABBA piece, the pristine and expertly blended voice. Many fans looked to the unprecedented cohesion of singers Frida and Agnetha, and the fact that they flowed together as one voice. It was thanks to the isolation of the tracks and the pitch shifting, but also thanks to the use of their shop and very sought after Harrison 5632 console.
The performances of their longtime drummer Ola Brunkert were often recorded in a drum booth, isolated from the rest of the group. Michael noted in an interview at the time that they were researching the stand dryness.
A number of ABBA tracks have been produced by Tretow; “Ring-Ring”, “Waterloo” and “Super Trouper”, among many others, but something that is common to these tracks is the heavy drum mixing. In order not to dominate the light and picturesque vocal lines, Michael only microded the toms and the bass drum, feeling that the cymbals dominate the rest of the arrangement. Due to his aversion to cymbal-heavy music, he put AKG-C414 condenser mics on the drums, perfect for picking up the bass sounds ruminating on Brunkert’s kit.
Guitars (bass and electric) would be the next steps in Michael’s process, recording the guitar lines of Benny, Bjorn, and bassist Rutgar Gunnarson in their own room – a storage room or add-on – anything that could house a amp and a guitarist. The amp would be pumped up to 11, with sound filling the room. The amp was foamed and a mic was placed outside the room, both picking up every little slide, bend, and strum. Once again, this unique process gives the guitar lines their own sparkle and individuality which can be heard in much of ABBA’s discography.
A common thread to much of ABBA’s music, from ballads to rock, is the piano. Michael was capturing the grand piano with three C414 capacitors, which seems to have been one of his favorite mics.
The idea of using three microphones to record a piano was not so common then and Michael became one of the first engineers to do so. The piano lines throughout ABBA’s music are some of the most iconic and the layering of these three lines gives a shine to songs like “Mamma Mia”, “SOS” and “Ring Ring”. The midline was fed by a MXR Flanger, which was then executed by a bucket brigade delay, allowing for a sort of automatic pitch change that the group seems to love so much.
Another main element of any ABBA track is the synth lines, and it’s the Polymoog that gave their music that distinct electronic vibe. In an interview with Sound International Magazine in 1980, Michael described Polymoog’s recording process for ‘Arrival’ stating that ‘the Moog was picked up by only two ambient mics. To get a “natural” sound, like it was a bunch of real instruments playing in the studio, I moved the amp around the room for each overdub we did, and recorded each. two-track stereo harmony. If you listen to the record, it is very difficult to tell which instrument it is; it sounds like all-metal bagpipes – or something like that.
Clearly, a lot of the engineering behind recording ABBA’s fullness is brought about by a lot of ambience. Microphones were placed in various places throughout the recording to pick up room noises that the main mics were not picking up. This broadens the room feel of their tracks and helps give much of their music that distinct orchestral feel.
Then, after the long and sometimes tedious process of recording, re-recording and overdubbing the instruments, it’s time to mix it up. The mixing process begins when Michael prepares a basic mix, Benny and Bjorn mix their own versions. Then they are all put together and an ABBA song is created.
A number of ABBA’s releases have been collected in their studio; Polar, which is fitted with a rare Harrison blender and Universal Audio LN 176 valve limiting amplifiers, of which the latter is yet another integral facet of the ABBA sound and a precursor of the legendary 1176! Michael used these compressors on all instrument tracks, which helped normalize the volume of each track and add depth to their music.
The last time Michael worked on an ABBA release was in 1981, The Visitors, and then, after suffering a stroke in 2001, retired from public life.
Modern ABBA’s music has been significantly less mainstream, with the band disbanded after their last album, reforming at various times to work on the popular Mamma Mia film series, and reuniting for an upcoming album. titled Travel.
21st Century ABBA had engineer Bernard Löhr at the helm, working alongside Benny and Bjorn for the production of modern ABBA, not wanting to replicate their sound in the 70s but to give it a modern twist. In an interview with Sound on Sound, Löhr described his different approach on the track “When I Kissed the Teacher” from Mamma Mia’s second film. The song contains 84 tracks, clearly following Tretow’s “Wall of Sound” mentality.
The engineering process for this recent release was very clean, with little use of plugins. The Waves SSL G-Channel plugin was one of the only changes to their original configuration and it was used on some of the backing vocals and 10 drum tracks, providing a bit of midrange punch and a part of the drought that was integral to the beginning. ABBA work.
As you can see, there was a lot that went into ABBA’s music production process which is one of the reasons their tracks still stand out to this day. Maybe the next time you’re in the studio, you can use some of these tips for your mixes.
ABBA Voyage’s next album can be pre-ordered here.