Nation of Language consists of songwriter and frontman Ian Devaney, Aidan Devaney who plays synthesizer and Alex MacKay who plays bass.
Below, they recommend some of their studio essentials.
1. Minimoog or some form of it
The Minimoog is really the foundation of the sound of this band. It began with the Arturia plugin version, then we'd use the tiny Behringer clone when making our first album, then the real deal for the subsequent albums. I went back and forth for a long time about whether I should buy myself one because large purchases stress me out. Ultimately, I was convinced by Nick Millhiser, who produced LP3 and part of LP2, when he pointed out that it's not just the sounds of the synth itself that I'm getting - just having it out in my apartment makes me want to create. It's so beautiful and classic I can't help but feel inspired by it, which is worth a great deal to me.
2. Moog Werkstatt
I was very excited when I saw that Lisa Bella Donna had already spoken about this on Synth History Recommends and I'm here to amplify the message. Just a pure single oscillator that I used to try to tame into a playable melodic instrument before realizing that the tuning was just too squirrely and I should embrace it as a box of chaos and noise. You can hear it all over our albums. They upgraded and rebranded it as the Moog Mavis recently which is intriguing.
3. Nashville tuned guitar
I only learned about Nashville tuning in the last year or so. It's when you replace the E, A, D, and G strings with lighter gauges so they can be tuned an octave up - kinda like having just the high-octave part of a 12 string guitar. It's so chime-y and naturally chorus-y, it leads me to approach playing in a slightly different way. Anything to break me from my typical playing habits is welcome.
4. Various poetry books
Lyrics are typically the final stage of the songwriting process for me and can feel like the most daunting part, so lately I've started compiling poetry books and flipping to random pages to see if anything strikes me. As with guitar, I'm always trying to free myself from falling into artistic ruts and finding some subject matter or way of phrasing things that's outside my usual line of thinking is crucial.
5. Logic Delay Designer Plugin
Ah, the humble Logic plugin. I've never encountered another delay plugin as user friendly and dynamic as the Delay Designer. Granted I haven't really looked, but I'm not one to research plugins and this one works great so I'll stick with it. I know there are a lot of fancy effects plugins out there but you shouldn't overlook the stuff that comes built-in.
6. Eventide Timefactor Delay
When it comes to reproducing crazy delay patterns live, this pedal has been a game changer. Each preset is essentially 2 delays that can be blended as needed, and it takes MIDI program changes from our MPC so each song can be fully dialed in, and then entirely blown up with the twist of a few knobs if we're feeling chaotic.
1. Behringer MS-1
When I sat down to write music on my own for the first time during the pandemic, with no knowledge or instincts about where to start, I reached for the closest instrument at hand: the MS-1. I found that despite not knowing how to use it, I was able to quickly dial in a sound I liked and put together an arpeggio. That became the core of Prepositional Phrase, my first song. I've used it several times since then and have consistently found it able to produce sounds I enjoy. It's a good, simple friend.
2. Aeon Bookstore
In this house we have a book buying fetish. My favorite bookstore in our hometown of NYC is Aeon Bookstore, which fits the bill for my favorite kind of bookstore writ-large: incredible selection of used books, curated record section, good vibes, cool staff, and small enough to look at everything (perfect for a completist like myself who doesn't want to give up just before finding the perfect book *insert that meme of the miner walking out of the mine seconds before striking gold*). Every time I walk out of there, I'm inspired to be creative.
The simple bath is a crucial element to my overall mental wellbeing. Put an album on, grab a book and a seltzer, and enjoy solitude for a while. You will feel healed. Current bath time soundtrack: Deep In View by Cola. It's the perfect length. Not to mention an excellent album.
4. Film Cameras
In this house - band - we also have a film fetish. I'd say a majority of our disposable income goes to purchasing and developing film. As a chronic documenter with incessant nostalgia and a fear of forgetting, taking a camera on tour, to the studio, to friends' shows, etc. is part of my ethos. I'm the flash photography in the greenroom gf, Ian is the lush tour landscape bf.
5. Moog Subsequent-37
The workhorse of our live setup. User friendly. Aesthetically pleasing. Makes those sweet sweet bass sounds that rattle the bones of those more rickety stages. Moog, sponsor us. We're simps.
1. Roland Alpha Juno 2
The first synth I ever owned—I bought it at Main Drag in Brooklyn around 2015, and it’s probably made it onto every recording I’ve done since. It’s a digitally-controlled analog synth Roland made in the mid-80s. Nothing fancy, but something about it just sounds really gooey and pleasing, and fits into mixes really well. Also surprisingly, a bass monster. Instead of faders or knobs it just has one single scroll dial on the left hand side, so you can only change one parameter at a time. It keeps my process pretty simple. You can expand it with a PG-300 box that gives you faders for each parameter but I’ve never bothered.
I’m not a very skilled keyboard player, so often I’ll write MIDI parts, edit them as needed and then run them through the Juno while adjusting the brilliance and envelope live as I record. I appreciate the simplicity, it helps me avoid getting lost in patch design instead of writing parts. If I want additional sound-shaping beyond what the Juno gives me, I’ll often use guitar pedals.
2. Boss CE-1 Chorus Ensemble
This came my way via an estate sale from a guy in California who used to roadie for classic rock bands in the 70s. From what I understand it’s a similar effect unit to what’s in a JC-120 Jazz Chorus, just in pedal form. The faceplate has “Angus” carved into the metal on the front of it. Part of me always hoped it belonged to Angus Young of AC/DC, but I think it was actually just the roadie's name.
For me this pedal’s sonic appeal is twofold- the vibrato is really satisfying and natural and enhancing, but even aside from the effects, the preamp saturates and thins out in a really pleasing way. It’s kind of a magic box for me. Maddeningly, the preamp has an extremely narrow sweet spot before it starts to clip, so careful gain-staging ahead of the input is pretty essential. It has a stereo out as well. Sometimes when I’m re-amping MIDI parts through the Juno, I’ll run it through the CE-1 and then run the L and R outputs through different guitar effect pedal chains to get a wonky asymmetrical stereo image. Afterwards if I don’t like them together, I’ll still have two distinctly different mono synth sounds to choose from.
3. Death By Audio Rooms
Death By Audio is just an amazing company and I love them a lot. Their workshop is a few blocks from my apartment which is handy cuz they’ll repair anything you bring back to them. I tend to like sounds that are wonky, oversaturated or otherwise destroyed, and the types of coloration on their effects are usually up my alley. I acquired their Reverberation Machine pedal a few years ago and it became my favorite reverb for guitar, sometimes I use it on bass with NoL too. Last year I bought their Rooms stereo reverb. It’s a bit pricey for a pedal, but in the studio I use it almost like an outboard rack unit—running a signal out of my interface via a re-amp box, into the Rooms and back into my DAW. Rooms is a stereo-in, stereo-out digital reverb with 7 different modes. There are some really satisfying classic Halls, Room + Gated sounds to be found, but also some more esoteric stuff like their Gong and Wave settings that get wobbly and freaky—those get a lot of use for detail work when I'm recording.
I still have a half dozen DBA pedals on my wishlist. I’m waiting for my next chance to see A Place to Bury Strangers play live, both because I find their live show to be a deep, pleasurable, merciless and mind-bending experience, but also because they always sell crazy DBA colorways and unique versions at their merch table.
4. Teisco Del Rey Bass
This has been my favorite bass for around a decade, and makes it onto most of my recordings. I usually play bass with a pick and the Del Rey has a very plunky sort of ‘steel pipe’ sound that I’ve become very attached to. It cuts through a mix while still retaining enough low end thud to feel satisfying. It’s a bit clunky to take on the road all the time and the bridge doesn’t make intonation very easy, but I still use it as much as possible.
5. Leuchtturm 1917 Notebook
These have been my go-to notebooks for the last couple years. Since we’re on the road a lot these days where I can’t record easily, I try to spend that time jotting down notes and lyrical ideas, then I’ll cherrypick moments and put them to music when I get back to NYC. The paper feels nice, they include a table of contents and a bound bookmark and a back pocket, and their smaller sizes are portable enough to carry around with ease.
6. Roland RE-201 Space Echo
It’s no secret that RE-201s are glorious machines. This one gives the kiss of life to almost anything you run through it. Long psychedelic stuff or really tight slapbacks, really whatever you want. The spring reverb is pretty dark but does get a little use as well. My good friend Chris got it from the people at Thump in Williamsburg, they do really great restorations and I can’t recommend them highly enough. I bartered for it a couple years later and now I run almost everything through it, especially vocals and guitars.
Synth History Exclusive. Photos provided by Nation of Language.