MICHAEL IVINS WAS AN AMATEURB when he joined the Flaming Lips in 1983, but he’s since evolved into a capable sideman and sound connoisseur. He’s helped engineer the Lips’ complex studio sessions since the mid ’90s. Embryonic marks a return to the band’s early freak-out aesthetic. It’s unabashed psychedelic rock, loaded with truckloads of fuzz and wild effects. Most of the material manifested from jams with frontman Wayne Coyne on bass and Steven Drozd on drums. The Lips’ endless role switching in the studio does not carry over to the stage, where Ivins always holds down the low end.
What’s the key to an interesting bass sound?
Distortion is the secret ingredient to a well-rounded sound. We do a lot of processing in Pro Tools these days, whether it is a SansAmp PSA-1 plug-in, or just overloading the input. For this record, we would also split the signal and send it to a little speaker designed for a 16mm projector in order to get a raunchy overdrive sound. Blending clean and overdriven signals is the key to creating wicked distortion tones that are also big and thick in the bottom end. The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” is a good example, and I’ve spent a lot of time considering John Entwistle’s tone.
What are your thoughts on using distortion pedals onstage?
Distortion pedals have traditionally been bottom killers, but you can retain the low end with some of the newer ones. I use the Boss ODB-3 Bass OverDrive, which has a BALANCE knob for blending, and a two-band EQ. I crank the low end all the way, set the HIGH knob around 3 o’clock, and the BALANCE anywhere from 11 o’clock to 1 o’clock. I’m still searching for another distortion pedal that sounds good layered in conjunction with it. I split my signal after the pedalboard. I use a Framptone 3-Banger to send one signal to the house, one to an Ampeg rig, and another to a Roland JC- 120. Even without the stompbox, there’s still plenty of overdrive going on in the amps. I never use a clean, Dave Matthews Band kind of bass sound—ever.
Do you experience feedback problems? Distortion pedals invite feedback as soon as you stop playing, so that’s an issue unless you’re playing a song that’s full on. I was using the Boss SYB-3 Bass Synthesizer on “Fight Test” for a while when I discovered that I could also tweak it to achieve a fun, wangy sort of distortion sound. I started using it on tunes like “She Don’t Use Jelly” that require precise stops and starts. I don’t like the new SYB-5’s synthesizer sound as much, but the distortion sound is better, so I have it permanently set that way on my pedalboard.
Do you have anything else of interest on there?
The last pedal in the chain is a Boss BF- 2 Flanger—very specifically the Japanese model. I don’t really care if the label is green or black, but there’s something about the regeneration sound on the Japanese-made BF-2 that is more pronounced than the latest model, or the recently discontinued Taiwanese one. I use the flanger in the middle of “Vein of Stars,” a little section of “The W.A.N.D,” and when we go into noise mode. Crazy sounds keep things interesting, and using them in unexpected places, like a string section, is cool. I mean, most people appreciate the sound of a good orchestra, but who doesn’t like the sound of an orchestra through an ARP synthesizer?