Behind The Release: Philip Glass Rework

January 24, 2013 by  

The year 2012 was a late-career landmark for Philip Glass.

In the beginning of the year, the composer celebrated his 75th birthday with the premiere of a new symphony and the first major production of his 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach in ten years.

By December, Beck had curated a new double-album worth of remixes titled Rework, and Scott Snibbe, the creator of Björk’s Biophilia app, developed a hotly anticipated custom program to go along with it.

Rework is out now.

Hector Castillo was charged with producing this new album of re-imagined Glass pieces. He and Glass’ label had tried a similar thing in 2005, but Castillo was never quite satisfied with Glasscuts, the collection of remixes that had been the result.

“But the idea stayed there,” Castillo told me when we met at Converse’s Rubber Tracks Studio, where he moonlights in the rotating cast of resident engineers. “I kept on bringing it up every year – ‘we should do this again, we should do this again!‘”

He may now be best known for his work with Brazilian Girls, but at the age of 14, Hector Castillo fell in love with Glass’ work when he saw the cult-classic film and tone poem, Koyaanisqatsi. A handful of years later he landed an internship at the composer’s Looking Glass recording studio in SoHo, quickly rising to become an assistant and then an engineer, and eventually taking over the B Room. He would work alongside Philip Glass for a decade.

Eventually, Glass was introduced to Beck, whose father had been a casual acquaintance in the New York art scene of the 70s, and Castillo got the second chance he had been lobbying for.

“He’s the sexy legs,” Castillo says of he post-modern pop star in a voice that betrays both genuine admiration and shrewd business sense. With Beck on board as curator, the project became an easy sell.

Assembling the Cast 

The first step was for Beck, Glass and Castillo to get together and compile a list of artists and compositions they could draw on.

“Since I know the music well and since I recorded most of what we had available, I was able to guide some of the [remixers] toward stuff that might be cool for them to work on,” Castillo says. “But Beck, even better than I, understands which people have been influenced by Philip. He is such a musicologist and just knows so much in that way. He brought in [collaborators] who weren’t really on my radar, like Dan Deacon.”

(l-r) Hector Castillo, Beck and Philip Glass

“I mean, I had heard Dan,” Castillo says, but it was Beck who traced the line of influence and saw him as the natural fit he is. “He really understands who’s borrowed from Philip in the electronic music and remix worlds,” Castillo says, and this part of Beck’s influence is especially clear on the first half of the double album.

But as the first disc comes to a close, the album takes on a new life – one that showcases not the machine-like and sample-friendly side of Glass’ music, but its moody and meditative qualities.

On the final track of disc one, the Japanese artist and producer Cornelius “remixes” one of Glass’ most iconic pieces, the piano duet that opens Glassworks, by playing it live on an acoustic piano. Where many of the artists whose work appears on the first half of the album had requested 2-tracks or multitrack masters to create their remixes, Cornelius had begun his remix with a simple piano score.

Some started with even less than that. Jóhann Jóhannsson, for his remix of “Protest”, only requested access to a libretto, the Sanskrit text that Glass drew on when composing Satyagraha, his 1979 opera about the life and work of Mohandas Gandhi. Meanwhile, Peter Broderick of Efterklang takes an arpeggio written for a full symphony and re-appropriates it for acoustic guitar.

But for Castillo, the greatest standout may be Beck’s own remix, “NYC: 73-78”.

“It’s quite a trip,” he says. “[Beck] kind of goes through the whole Philip Glass career in his remix. The arc of it is really fantastic. And it pushes the limit of vinyl. It’s about 22-minutes and change.”

Adapting the App

When the production of Reworked began, there was no talk of an app. But Snibbe Studio caught wind of the project and became intent on getting involved.

Unlike with Biophilia, which was built from the ground up with an app in mind, Snibbe had to create an app for an album that was meant to be an entity unto itself. So instead of writing programs that would control the music, Snibbe focused on creating complimentary visuals, as so many have done for Glass’ work in the past, and allowed users to manipulate how those visual elements unfold.

Rework, the App.

To make this happen, Castillo and his team had to give Snibbe MIDI data that they could feed into their visualizers. Trevor Gureckis, Glass’ assistant and a member of the band My Great Ghost (whose own remix opens the album) listened through each track to create “miles” of MIDI transcription. Castillo would then take an additional pass with a MIDI joystick to add expression data.

Snibbe also built a virtual instrument featuring two graphical arpeggiators that can be made to play through some of the most recognizable of the Philip Glass “idioms”.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Castillo says. “Like all of Philip’s music, the album works really well with images. And the times I’ve listened to [Rework] since it’s been finished, I’ve listened to it on the iPad. You can just let it go in the background, and when you come back to it, you can focus on it, play with it, and interact.”

In the end, it’s fitting that Philip Glass, a composer who found his career collaborating with visualists and slicing up  musical motifs, has given  a new generation of artists and fans to do the very same with his own work.

But if you ask Philip Glass, Rework is far from the end. His newest opera, based on the final days of Walt Disney, premieres this week in Madrid.

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based audio engineer, college professor, and journalist. He is a regular contributor to SonicScoop and edits the music blog Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.

Brooklyn Duo Creates Wondrous World of “Elska”

November 28, 2012 by  

FORT GREENE: There’s something kind of meta about Elska: Middle of Nowhere, a new concept album about an enchanting new children’s character.

Elska – an arctic adventurer who’s discovered a newly formed volcanic island – has a pioneering mind as we learn in the album’s opening song; her story begins with an idea. “It’s so bright and so clear,” she sings, “And it’s totally mine.”

Elska…and a geysir!

Of course Elska is an idea as well – one that’s been realized by her creators with the same wide-eyed determination you might imagine driving Elska herself. And much like the story of Elska, the story of the making of Elska was an arctic adventure, too.

Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Shelley Wollert and producer/engineer Allen Farmelo created Elska over, after and between several trips to Iceland. They produced the album at Farmelo’s Brooklyn studio, The Snow Farm, and Mavericks in China Town, and they brought it to life on stages from Littlefield to Symphony Space, and in videos shot in lava fields in Iceland.

When they launched the record this Fall, Elska was already much more than an album.

But it started as an idea… Like their character, Wollert and Farmelo set out on a journey to find their sound. Along the way they had to jettison some of their musical staples to dream up something entirely new. The result is what one critic called “a transcendent work that your young children will hold dear.”

No Pedal Steel Guitars In The Arctic

The aforementioned opening song, “I Just Had An Idea” lays down Elska’s first sonic footprint – a Devo-inspired minimal electronic pop soundscape with clear and close and totally inviting vocals.

Compared to the JAM-packed tween (and really, pre-tween) pop of Katy Perry and Carly Rae Jepsen, Elska’s is a sparse analog pop sound created with Moogs and other analog synthesizers, vibraphone, celeste, music box, and glockenspiel. Developing a unique sonic palette was essential to this project, which aims to bring listeners into a new, “other” world. It shouldn’t sound like it was made in Brooklyn, or in America for that matter.

“If you’re going to make a character who lives on an arctic island with a strange creature called the Goobler, she shouldn’t sound like Hank Williams,” Farmelo says, jokingly but emphatically. Even though they were going for a more Icelandic-inspired modern sound, Wollert’s pre-Elska singing style was more bluesy Americana than Björk. And they were both more likely to pick up a guitar than a Moog.

They had a lot of themselves to shed to get where they were going.

“We had to get it out of the Southwest,” says Farmelo. “We were trying to portray a vast landscape, which is something Sigur Ros (for example) does beautifully. But when I want to portray a vast landscape, I’ll throw a pedal steel over a 1-4-5 chord change and you’re in the desert. There was a moment where that was on an early version of an Elska song, and it sounded like Calexico. And that was not going to work. It’s just that that’s how I know vastness, as an American.”

Ultimately they decided to strip guitars out of the project completely and try to come at “vastness” from another angle. In keeping with the way Farmelo seems to make records anyway, they established some aesthetic guiding principles that would help focus the sound.

Allen Farmelo and Shelley Wollert

“We came up with ‘playful minimalism’,” says Wollert. “I knew I wanted everything from the illustrations to the color palette to the sound, to be clean, clear, organized, fresh and modern. And that’s how we started coming into those words: playful – because it has this imaginative, childlike focus to it, and then minimalism to bring in that modern, fresh soundscape.”

Because “playful” could take you in so many directions, the duo’s sense of “modern” really drove the musical choices. “When you have so many options in front of you, it’s really helpful to have that backbone,” notes Wollert.

And of course they had their more geographically appropriate Icelandic influences. “We definitely borrowed ideas from Iceland – you have things like Valgeir Sigurðsson-and-Björk microbeats on certain tunes, and chimes and malloted bells that are pulled from a lot of Icelandic music. Nothing on the record sounds like Sigur Ros, but we’re using those elements because they’re non-American sounding elements… For us, and the market we’re in, that creates this unique and otherworldly world.”

Then there was Shelley’s vocal – the kind, loving and at times lulling voice of Elska. “Shelley worked day-and-night for months to train herself out of that bluesy, alt-country style,” says Farmelo, “To come at a vocal approach that would match this new music we were doing.”

Alt-country what? There’s barely a trace of it on Middle of Nowhere.

“It was us taking that principle of minimalism and applying it to the vocal,” Wollert says of the process. “We spent a lot of time at the piano, going up five notes, or down five notes, or just practicing one interval from one word to the next without sliding, without scooping up to it.

“I had to whittle it down to simply expressing the notes. And in a sense that’s what made my voice childlike, but at the same time filled with wonder. It’s simple and wondrous.”

And for Allen’s part: “I would do to Shelly’s music what Devo did to ‘Satisfaction’ – square it off, take away swing, syncopation, feel – all of the elements that locate it in a bluesy or funky way, we took all that away from the music. And what’s left is playful and minimal. You get this really bouncy fun, poppy thing. So it’s not that we robbed it of that rhythm, or feel, but we robbed it of those particular rhythms and feels, and particular inflections.”

Moog bass and pocket piano were also key to creating the minimal, yet vast, Middle of Nowhere soundscape. And the guiding principles were also executed in the production, engineering and mixing of the record.

“Most of the drums are done in mono because that narrows the sonic stereofield and gives you a much more minimalist sound,” Farmelo describes. “And, for example, I knew we had to do a crooning approach on her vocal – a very light approach on the mic to get that intimacy. She’s singing very quietly, on the verge of a whisper, but right on the diaphragm of the [Telefunken AK47] mic, and it’s really hot and the preamp is driven in a certain way to bring out that textural quality of her voice. I knew that had to be there to put intimacy into this otherwise very squared off music.”

On the chimey rhythms, Farmelo adds: “I was layering vibraphone, xylophone, celeste, music box, and real glockenspiel, and that was just to get one sound. I found a combination of those things panned out in stereo would create this beautiful three-dimensional tone.”

Engineering Elska

Farmelo is a process-oriented producer/engineer, and though listeners may not recognize it, his production makes Elska: Middle of Nowhere that much more engaging, transporting and – to the little ones who don’t know it yet, and their parents who are starving for it – sophisticated.

“I always think of music as existing as a surface,” Farmelo says. “Some surfaces are convex and point out at you. Some are flat, which is just horrible – when it neither comes out at you nor invites you in. The records that I try to make are concave, where there’s a space there that invites you in. There’s room to move into it. The singing style and the way that we recorded and mixed it is really about making sure that you’re being pulled into the world of Elska.”

Purchase the album at the Island of Elska store.

Middle of Nowhere is both Wollert and Farmelo’s very first foray into children’s music. And rather than researching and pulling reference material, they purposely remained somewhat ignorant to what’s expected.

“I didn’t care that it was a kids album,” says Farmelo. “I just knew it needed to be mixed to sound as beautiful and amazing as any record. In fact I felt even more of a responsibility to make a beautiful record because it’s these fresh young beings who…this might be the first record that certain human beings ever adopt into their lives.

“So I said, this has to be high art, produced as best we can.”

Farmelo mixed Elska on the custom API console he built last year – a console that was inspired in its design by some of the same mid-century modern and Icelandic influences that brought about Elska. A Tape Op contributor, Farmelo has written about his layered approach to record making – a method he refers to as “sonic varnish”.

“Basically, you’re cascading harmonic distortion, EQ and compression over the multiple stages of the recording process, as would have happened in the analog days,” he describes. “ So, we recorded a lot of stuff with EQ and compression happening; and there were no plug-ins used on this record. It was all done on my API console with another layer of EQ and compression on each channel plus bus compression happening there, all mixed down to the Studer [tape machine] in analog.

“So by the end, I had my 12 layers per track of analog processing stacked up. That’s how I get depth and richness and warmth and articulate sounds on records – and that’s how I approached this record as well.”

One thing he was mindful of, considering his audience: “I purposely did not go too heavy on subsonic bass. I think that’s better for kids – it can be heavy, ear-damaging stuff. And that adds an innocence to the music too; since it’s a little lighter on the bass, it twinkles and sparkles a little more. Feels lighter and more open.”

Then, the record actually went to Iceland to be mastered – by Valgeir Sigurðsson, in fact.

“Valgeir was able to add yet another sonic dimension in terms of depth on these mixes – they became even more three dimensional,” says Farmelo. “I’m not sure what exactly he did, but he just knows his gear so well…I think he pushed the circuit of his analog gear to add that one last tiny layer of harmonic distortion. That final layer of varnish on there just added that bit of depth.

“He also did an incredible job of getting it all to hold together from front to back in terms of EQ. It’s what you want a mastering engineer to do: make it sound better, and make it all hold together.”

The Kids Biz – Rolling Out A Kids Record

Though they may have remained purposely in the dark on some aspects of what a kids record should sound like, Wollert and Farmelo did their homework with regard to how to market the record.

“We hired a consultant, Regina Kelland, who has an incredible history and track record working with labels in children’s divisions,” says Farmelo. “I can’t imagine trying to do what we’re doing without her.”

The kids market, after all, is quite different than the mainstream or even indie music business.  You have to consider things like “how do you get your music into school libraries? And toy stores?” Wollert points out. “And physical distribution still takes the lion’s share of kids music sales. Kids need to have it in their hands. They don’t understand ‘Mommy just downloaded the record.’ Landing that physical distribution was really important.”

Also key to the project, Wollert is a talented illustrator and graphic designer, and created a physical product well worth owning – including a 16-page color booklet with illustrations of the Elska characters and photography from Iceland. They also were sure to perform in Kindiefest, an industry showcase Farmelo short-hands as the “SXSW of children’s music festivals”, which actually takes place in Brooklyn in the Spring. [It was Elska’s first live performance, and she reportedly blew minds.]

It’s clear that as a business, Elska could take off in so many directions. Wollert and Farmelo also produced a series of music videos with acclaimed stop-motion animator Andy Biddle (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wallace & Gromit) and VFX cinematographer Alex Funke (Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit).

“The record is central, but off of that we can see vinyl, video, then merchandise and app development – because it’s a fictional world, it’s just so scalable in so many different directions,” says Farmelo. “It has so many different elements that can be expressed physically, digitally, visually, audibly, even edibly at some point – who knows?”

But the two are cautious about maintaining the integrity of the brand as they consider all the ways Elska can grow.

“I go back to Dr. Seuss and Winnie the Pooh,” says Farmelo of classic reference points. “Winnie the Pooh is a class act. You see that stuff all over the place, but there’s an integrity to those stories and the way Disney’s handled the ownership of that.”

It all comes back to the idea – “so bright and so clear”. And then what you do with it.

“You make a beautiful record. You make videos,” says Wollert. “And then you have to guard it.”

For more on Elska, to watch videos, or to buy the album or Island of Elska merch, visit http://islandofelska.com/

Central Brooklyn Recording Studio Tour, Part II: DUMBO

February 23, 2012 by  

Atlantic Sound Studios

I had every reason to expect a good view when I walked in to Atlantic Sound Studios. It’s in a highrise commercial building at the end of Jay Street in DUMBO, only footsteps away from the water. I had seen pictures of the studio online and gathered that its windows overlooked the river. When I interviewed producer/engineer Damian Taylor about the making of Björk’s Biophilia, he had mentioned that the sights were a major factor in their choosing of the studio.

Still, none of that prepared me for just how much of a spectacle Atlantic’s panorama of the East River would be. The sight stretches from the Manhattan Bridge two blocks to the west, and sweeps up the river into the distance. Straight out from the windows, Manhattan island sits in profile like a private, life-sized diorama.

Atlantic Sound Live Room View

When I visited, the effect was calming and invigorating at once, even in the grey light of a damp February afternoon. Thanks to a brilliant layout dreamed up by musician/engineer Diko Shoturma and his draftsman father, the angles of the studio allow this sight to permeate the entire studio, through the live room, into the control room, lounge, and even Studio B.

Despite his exotic sounding name, Shoturma strikes you as wholly American, and shows few surface traces of his Ukranian heritage. As a teenager, he was the kind of kid who recorded his high school band on a cassette deck, and today he’s a friendly, handsome 30-something with the professionally unkempt look of a DUMBO creative type.

Studio A control room

Shoturma moved into this space ten years ago, building out the studio in a single flurry of construction, and bringing in an original Trident 80 console and a Studer multi-track tape machine. “It was a totally different neighborhood back then,” he told me, “I think there may have been one bar back then, and maybe one restaurant too.”

Since then, the neighborhood has rapidly reinvigorated. Abandoned factories have filled up with trendy eateries, well-appointed boutiques and creative businesses, and Atlantic Sound’s clientele has grown as well, keeping pace with the boom around it. In addition to Björk, the studio has hosted sessions for Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent, Cat Power, Nada Surf, Jet, and O’Death.

The room’s gear selection is more than ample and reflects a priority for vibe and value over prestige. Corners are filled with odd and amazing vintage microphones – including rare ribbons and vintage Lomo’s – Hagstrom guitars, a suitcase Rhodes and an upright piano. Newer mics from boutique builders Soundelux and Charter Oak fill any holes for outside engineers who are accustomed to more pedigreed vintage breeds.

It’s a comfortable space that has just enough exposed brick to feel casual, and just enough of the right flourishes to appear professional to its core. The room has a Pro Tools HD system to complement its all-analog console and Studer tape deck, and it books at a surprising rate – low enough to accommodate any serious independent project.

Evening at Atlantic Sound

Saltlands Recording Studios

10 years ago, as Diko Shoturma was building his studio in a waterfront high-rise at 10 Jay Street, Steve Salett was also getting started a mere block away at 68 Jay. He began by renting out a single rehearsal room deep underground, in the basement of a renovated 19th-century factory building.

“The thing I hated most about being a musician was the rehearsal rooms,” Salett told me when I first visited. He’s still an active musician himself and plays in the band The Poison Tree. “They would all be so loud and uncomfortable, and I’d end up hating everybody who wasn’t sharing a room with me.”

In that vein, Saltlands began as almost a kind of anti-rehearsal-studio rehearsal-studio. Visitors will find no surly metal-heads, guarding awkwardly-carpeted vomitoriums of high-decibel leakage. They won’t find tattooed fashion-plates keying musicians in to pricey mirrored rooms either. Instead, they’re treated to the affable pair of owner Steve Salett and studio manager Jackie Lin Werner. They’ve struck a satisfying balance between the extremes and now oversee more than 12,000 square feet of private underground lairs.

Today, Saltlands is a lot more than a series of conventional, multi-purpose rehearsal spaces. It’s also home to at least four full-fledged production studios. The flagship room, Saltlands Studio A, is a built around a Neotek Elite console and a Neve Sidecar. Its sister-room, Saltlands Studio B, sports a Trident 80C, racks filled with vibey tube gear and an ample live room. There’s even an independently operated API-based studio just down the hall called Between the Trains.

Saltlands Studio A live room

 

Saltlands Studio A

On the other end of the building, house engineer Jim Smith runs an odd and charming C-room known as “Homeward Sound.” It’s a small, console-free tracking space that features an incongruously-placed kitchen table near the center of the live room. The table sits under a chandelier made of recycled rollerskates and a wall full of vintage guitars. It, too, falls under the Saltlands umbrella.

There are times when a tour of the grounds has an unmistakable down-the-rabbit-hole quality. As we made the rounds, one door revealed engineer/musician Rusty Santos tinkering with the open skeleton of an upright piano and a pillow-fort of improvised baffles; another opened up into a comfortable rehearsal room, decorated to the ceiling with playful kitsch ornaments.

As a space, the scale of Saltlands is impressive. Not stupefying like a Kaufman Astoria Studios, but large enough to feel like its own little town. Both Studios A and B are comfortable and incredibly affordable. They’re well-equipped, with some of the most coveted compressors, EQs and preamps around, but neither room feels over-finished or stuffed with gear.

“The gear isn’t what makes us,” Salett says, “Our focus is a community focus. I think that’s what I’d want people to know, really. That we’re a vibrant music community, dedicated to making good music.”

Werner, who manages Saltlands, has worked at several studios, most recently at Williamsburg’s Headgear Recording, agrees. She says it’s the convergence of so many creative people in one place that makes Saltlands Studios distinct from the rest.

“It’s not a tangible thing at first,” she says, “But when you come down you get a sense of it. It really is this community of people – a large group of musicians and engineers who are interacting with each other everyday and helping each other out. You can walk down the hall and borrow something from a friend, or go upstairs and talk to Joel from Ecstatic Electric, but on top of all that, there’s still this level of professionalism and of people collaborating and pitching in.”

As I left Saltlands, Smith and Santos passed each other in the hall: “What are you working on today?” one said to the other. “Oh, you know… Same stuff as yesterday.” They both laughed, a bit more than I, or either of them, seemed to expect. It was just a few words, but apparently they had said a lot.

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn recording engineer and studio journalist. He is a regular contributor to SonicScoop and edits the music blog Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.

Behind The Release: Björk Biophilia

October 13, 2011 by  

This week, we count down to our AES presentation “The Studio As An Instrument” with panelist Damian Taylor (The Prodigy, Arcade Fire, Austra) who tells us about using custom interfaces and robotic instruments to create Björk’s Biophilia.

When Damian Taylor tells me about the making of Björk’s Biophilia, it’s with the inflection of someone who’s been raised all over the world. He has the mild, blended accent of a man who spent a decade each in Canada, the UK, New Zealand before ultimately settling in Montreal.

Biophilia

It’s also the kind of voice that sounds younger than its years. Even now with a wife, small children, and studio of his own, Taylor is always on the ready to laugh at absurdity, and himself. His default tone seems to be one of mild enthusiasm.

Similarly, Taylor’s roles with Björk have been varied as his upbringing, and he seems up for anything. He’s credited in all sorts of capacities, from musical director on her tours, to engineer on her albums to, even as a co-writer of a select few songs on her latest release. The best he can muster is to say that his role is “constantly evolving”:

“On Vespertine, I was in traditional programmer’s role, where on Volta I was with her through the whole thing. My responsibilities would vary from programming and studio engineering to driving a van and carrying a roadcase around,” he laughs.

Although Taylor did the lion’s share of engineering work on her latest albums, there was also room for downtime as Björk took more than two years to conceive and create the album. “If we went to work with Timbaland, Jimmy Douglass would be there with him of course. He’s just an absolute Don, so I might just get to just kick back and hang out with Jimmy Douglass for ten days. But the next month we might be on tour, and so much of it is constantly working or preparing. I think the best way to describe it is that I’m her technical enabler.”

IMAGINING BIOPHILIA

“Björk is a huge lover of technology,” Taylor says, “but she’s not a very technological person herself.”

It’s that kind of attitude, he thinks, that leads Björk to have the kinds of insights she does into how we relate to and interact with new technology.

Her latest album, Biophilia went through several conceptual stages before Björk ultimately decided to release it as an album and an Apple iOS application. As the first major musical release to really take advantage of the new medium, the Biophilia App has been getting a lot of press.

"Virus" is one of ten "song apps" released as part of Biophilia

But Taylor reminds us that all the songs on the album except one were written before the iPad was even announced. At first, Björk conceived of the album as a literal house that listeners could visit, where all rooms would be filled with devices that would each play part of a song. At one point, the album was re-imagined as an IMAX film, complete with a working script that had a whole narrative plotted out.

Finally, the decision was made to release the music as both an album and as an interactive App that allows listeners to control the music and the corresponding visuals.

“Björk really came to love the iPad,” says Taylor. “She thinks the way you can interact with it is just an entirely different experience of computing. It wound up being the best vehicle for trying to present those ideas.”

In some ways the presentation of the album mirrors the way it was created. In the making of Biophilia Björk and Taylor became very interested in “electronic music and how you could control it in an instinctive way; without being bound by the normal rules of sequencers and samplers.”

THE “Apps” BEHIND THE MUSIC

Taylor says that the Biophilia App itself is like a “stripped-down, consumer version” of the very tools Björk used to capture and manipulate the sounds. He would know. He designed most of them.

Logitech Controller Bjork used to perform parts of Biophilia

“We thought it would be a cool idea to have an acoustic album, but to have the music all be generated electronically. In other words, we were using robotic instruments, but the performances were still being guided by a human.”

Instead of relying on conventional instruments to write the songs for the album, Taylor worked within Björk’s specifications to create a suite of unique virtual instruments in Max/MSP that she could then  manipulate with a variety of unusual devices while singing.

In place of a traditional instrument or sampler, she would be able to trigger and manipulate her sounds with a Logitech videogame controller, the Telsa-esque tabletop Reactable system, or a first-generation multi-touch screen called the JazzMutant Lemur.

“I think the simplest way to describe what this system allowed her to do, is that there’s no way you could have written these songs on a piano. Compositionally, it allows you to form your ideas and control them very precisely – but in a way that’s completely different from what I’ve experienced playing any other instrument.”

The resulting music is captivating, even when the song forms are unconventional.

“It’s kind of polarizing, which is always funny to see. You’ll hear one amazing review ‘Oh my god – it’s just so stunning’ and then you’ll hear another person going, ‘What!? It’s just an unformed bunch of improvisatory crap!’,” Taylor laughs earnestly, heartily. “What people are pissed about, and what people love about Biophilia is that the structures are very unusual. They feel like they’re unfolding in the moment. To some, that’s ‘improvised bollocks’ and to others, it’s this unique and refreshing flow.”

Oddly enough for music that was captured using pioneering new software systems, the album itself is mostly comprised of first takes. Even though they were using digital technology, Taylor thought of the process as being a lot like tracking to tape; at least as far as performances were concerned. Although Björk’s voice and performances on the controller would remain largely etched in stone, the sounds of the instruments could be easily replaced.

This is where the idea of robotic instruments comes in.

Robotic organ at Breidholtskirkja in Reykjavik. Click to enlarge.

On the song “Hollow” for instance, Björk’s voice was recorded, and her performance on the controllers were captured as MIDI data. But for the final version of the song, they brought their rig back to Iceland where Björk knew an organ-builder with novel device. He had a special robotic bar that could sit above the keys of a church organ, and was rigged to accept a regular MIDI input.

As the performance data was transmitted, tiny levers would descend from this robotic arm to push the organ’s keys while Björk made adjustments to the organ stops.

The record is filled with sounds that might be unexpected to some mainstream listeners. According to Taylor, Björk tends to have an idea of what kind of sound palette she wants to use going into each project. On this one she talked a lot about copper, which is where the Gamelan chimes and pipe organs come into to play. But when she was writing the songs, Björk also favored harps for their more “neutral” sound that allowed her “to focus on what was going on musically”. These tones made it into the record as well, most notably in the single “Moon”, where Taylor even received a co-writing credit.

“I’ve found that when it comes to bringing in something for Björk it doesn’t make a lot of sense to bring in something that’s half-baked,” he says cheerfully. “When I was working on [“Moon”] I ended up entering all these melodies into the system, so that when she picked it up she could just press “go” and it would sound pretty good. I just assumed she would change it all. But when I handed her the game controller, and explained it to her, ‘if you push this button and then that button, this melody happens’ she just said ‘Ok, cool, hit record,’ and played it straight away. So even though the harp was eventually replaced with an acoustic one, that song is really just a first take of her singing and playing those melodies on the [Logitech] videogame controller.”

Taylor also says that this process “raised a lot of questions about licensing.” They eventually decided that the person who loaded up the system with sounds and melodies plays an important role in the composition, but that the performance itself is a huge part of the songwriting as well, “because you can arrange the sounds and patterns in so many different ways.” This decision led to one of Taylor’s most notable co-writing credits to date.

RECORDING RAW

For all of the technology that went into the creation of the music, the sounds on Biophillia (and many of Björk’s latest albums) are more raw and natural than those on her earlier records like Debut, Post, or Homogenic. This lack of gloss and polish is intentional, to be sure.

“We wound up mixing the album together because Björk didn’t want to end up in a situation where her hands were off the project and someone else starts compressing stuff and changing the whole sound,” Taylor says. “It was a running joke that anytime I tried to do anything while we were mixing she’d whack me with a stick and tell me to turn it off. She was definitely trying to keep it as raw as possible.”

But Taylor is quick to remind us that Björk’s choices are informed by experience, not superstition:

“She’s done a ton of records, and she will just never repeat herself. Even if we have a great time at one studio, she won’t want to go back there for another record. She’d just feel like she’s just making the same record again. It’s an interesting way of looking at it. She wants it to be her own adventure and doesn’t want it constrained by others’ technical habits.”

“In a way she kind of hates the studio,” Taylor laughs. “It’s also about the environment for her. She went on this big search to find a New York studio that would be a nice room with big windows and a view, and so ended up at Atlantic Sound in DUMBO for some of it. She hates being in tiny air conditioned rooms, so it was perfect,” he says, even if she doesn’t end up coming back for a repeat visit.

THE APPROACH TO VOCALS

One thing that remains consistent, however, was Björk’s method of recording vocal takes. Taylor says she’s not one to stand perfectly still with headphones on. Instead, she’s favored a handheld Shure SM58 for years, and she still tracks all of her vocals while listening out-loud on studio monitors.

When Taylor brought her a Neumann KMS 150 handheld condenser to try, he says that she “sang all of two syllables into it” before handing it back for the 58.

On a few songs that needed extra sensitivity and detail, Björk sang into Martin Kantola and Bruce Swedien designed NU-47, a classic redesign of the U47 with striking wooden body. Otherwise the chain was simple: The Shure SM58 into a preamp with little or no compression.

“When I’m recording Björk, I try to compress as little as possible. Basically never. I do have a little something there on the chain just as a safety net, but basically I ride her performances the whole way in. Her dynamic range is just insane. Fortunately, I’ve gotten to know her pretty well, so I can start to feel when she’s about to take a breath and ride my output gain knob. This way, we’re not getting a squished sound going in, but we’re still getting consistent levels.”

Damian Taylor

“Bruce Swedien once said something [about avoiding compression while tracking] that really stuck with me: ‘You’re there to work. When you’re recording something you’re doing a performance too.’ I eventually realized that if you have one setting for a voice it rarely works out quite right.“

Originally, Taylor plugged the SM58 into a Neve 1084, with a Urei 1176 as his safety net. “That worked really well for Volta, where the voice had a more rock and roll sound.” But for this record, he realized the voice “would be a more delicate kind of thing”, and he came to prefer Björk’s Focusrite ISA 430 Producer Pack, while largely avoiding its built-in EQ and compression.

There are risks involved in this process, but to Björk, they’re worth it. “I think with her there’s one note on every record where the signal peaks out for an instant and I just have to hang my head in shame,” says Taylor. I suggest that he might as well shrug his shoulders instead. Medulla (which he did not engineer) has one of those moments as well, and I found it kind of refreshing. It sounded like the momentary distortion a listener might hear on an Aretha Franklin record.  He seems encouraged.

“She’s really good at what she does,” he says. “She has a vibe and a feeling she wants to keep intact, and everything else is secondary to that.”

Meanwhile, for Taylor, everything that came afterward is secondary to the music. He’s impressed by the new much-publicized Apps, but also finds them unnecessary.

“My real passion is making records. I don’t have much of an interest in [the Apps] myself. To be perfectly honest I don’t think the album needs them at all. It’s this interesting other [dimension] to the music, really. There’s been this huge deal made of it, but I’d be perfectly happy if it was just a record.”

“That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have done it. It was a brilliant choice. But to me, what I love about listening to music is that you can put it on while you walk around the house or while you drive your car. You don’t have to sit down and actively do it. But the app really gave her a chance to express her view on so many other things.”

For Taylor, who continues to work with established artists like The Prodigy, Arcade Fire and breaking acts and Austra, learning the Max/MSP software and experimenting with unusual control surfaces has “opened up new doors”.

“I love mixing on a console if I can, but it’s fun to put yourself in unfamiliar territory. Sometimes when you change what you’re doing with your body it’s almost like you can access parts of your brain you’ve never used before for music. That’s what I love about tools like the Reactable or the JazzMutant Lemur.”

“The Reactable is like something out of Buck Rogers,” says Taylor of the revolutionary control system he first started exploring as a solution for some of Björk’s live performances needs.

“It’s kind of like a table that lights up, and when you put different objects on it, it senses what and where they are and links them together. In addition to effecting the sound, it creates an image of the waveform in real-time as it goes through these different objects that act as oscillators and modifiers and audio effects. It’s basically indescribable. You’ve just got to go see some videos of it.”

Taylor on the Reactable with Björk at V Fest Toronto. Photo by Dustin Rabin.

But as much as these new control systems are a revelation, Taylor also sees them as just another stage in an always-evolving musical toolset:

Guy Sigsworth said this brilliant thing to me ten or twelve years ago when we were just starting to work all inside of Pro Tools, and I’ll never forget it. We were doing all this ridiculous over-the-top stuff with automation and editing one day and he said  ‘It’s funny – When you look at a mixing desk, it really has absolutely nothing to do with music. A fader, or a knob, is just a completely arbitrary control element. People are used to them, so they don’t think about it, but in reality, they have as much to do with music as a PlayStation controller.’”

“There’s a lot of truth in that. They’re kind of arbitrary, the interfaces we use to create and manipulate music. The controllers aren’t really important, so long as we’re using something.”

Platinum Engineers: The Studio As An Instrument” is an AES Special Event panel happening on Saturday, October 22, from 11AM – 1PM at

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based producer/engineer who works with uncommon artists, and a journalist who writes about music and how we make it. Visit him at www.justincolletti.com.

James Brown Lives. In New York. And He Mixes Records.

April 7, 2011 by  

PARK SLOPE, BROOKLYN: We know what you’re thinking. You’ve seen this name somewhere before. And not only on the marquee of the Apollo or littered among the best of your old soul 45s: this James Brown‘s engineering credits appear on records alongside iconic producers including Butch Vig, Alan Moulder, Flood, Kevin Shields, Daniel Lanois and Gil Norton.

James Brown, the engineer

Since starting his career in London, Brown has moved stateside and worked with an impressive roster that features some of the most recognizable alternative acts the major-label world has on offer. He’s engineered and mixed records for Foo Fighters, Nine Inch Nails, Arctic Monkeys, U2, Bjork, The Bravery, The Killers, and Brazilian Girls.

As of this week, Brown’s most recent credits include a new release from one of the moment’s most -referenced independent bands, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.

We talked to Brown about working alongside his heroes, building a studio for Foo Fighters, and joining Flood to help the Pains re-interpret their quirky “twee-pop” sound as something decidedly more muscular and hi-fi.

ON LIVING AND WORKING BICOASTALLY

JC: You started making records in London, moved to New York, and regularly work in L.A. as well. Can you give us a sense for how the studio culture varies between these three major hubs?

JB: I can’t say I’ve really noticed much of a difference between these places. I think it’s a very specific sort of person that makes a good studio manager, much like it’s a very specific sort of person makes a good engineer or producer. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t feel all that different.

So with all this experience in these other cities, why call New York home?

Well it really is the greatest city in the world. I’ve felt a deep connection to New York ever since I first visited in the early 90′s. It’s also extremely convenient since my wife is American!

You recently spent a lot of time with the Foo Fighters out west helping them build a studio. Can you tell us a bit about that process?

I first talked with Dave [Grohl] about recording Wasting Light at the end of 2009. He said he wanted to make it at home, and that he was keen to replicate some of the sense of accomplishment they’d felt making their third record [There Is Nothing Left To Lose] at his old house in Virginia.

He had a room in his current home that they wanted to change from a Pro Tools-based studio to an analog one. All of the major construction work had already been done for the room’s previous incarnation.

Brown at Foo Fighters' converted garage studio "607" with Butch Vig

There was an existing control room and an iso booth, and there was a small room directly beneath the control room that we could use to house the tape machines. So it really it came down to us adapting what was already there, finding a way of fitting enough of what we needed to handle recording a pro-grade record, and adapting as best we could to things like the shape and acoustics of the control room.

Then, in March, I put up a handful of mics, got a quick drum sound and recorded some rough demos with Dave and Taylor [Hawkins] just to see what we were dealing with in terms of the sound of the garage.

To our surprise it sounded awesome: aggressive, present, punchy – basically perfect for the kind of record they envisioned making. So we didn’t do a thing in terms of treatment to the garage. All we did was put three large gobos up on the inside of the garage door to stop some of the noise escaping and annoying the neighbors.

From the beginning, we had a pretty clear idea that this was going to be a straight-ahead, balls-out rock record: no ballads, no acoustic guitars, no strings, etc., so the pre-amps, compressors and EQs were chosen with that in mind. We got an API 1608 console with an additional 16-channel extension. In part, we chose it because of its compact size, but mainly, it’s because I’ve loved the sound of API gear for years. Their EQ is just so musical.

It worked out pretty well I think. All of that stuff saw a lot of use. Even though it wasn’t part of the plan, I’m really happy knowing Dave can sit down in that room and feel like he could figure out how to turn stuff on and start recording, and that in a few years time we won’t have to worry about him looking around wondering why we wasted all that money on a bunch of stuff he’s never going to use again!

ON WORKING AS AN ENGINEER, ALONGSIDE AND UNDER OTHER PRODUCERS

You’ve had the privilege of working with an impressive list of truly singular producers. Which ones have left the biggest impact on your workflow and style?

Brown at Metalworks in Toronto working with Placebo

Honestly, they’re all inspirational on some level. And everyone works differently, so that’s always fun.

Butch Vig is extraordinarily talented in so many ways, but I think one of his biggest strengths is his ability to coax great performances out of people. Flood is like a painter in the fine-art sense of the word, and Alan Moulder is a genius at putting sounds together. All of them have impeccable taste.

I’d say Alan has had the biggest influence on me, because when I started out as an engineer, his sound was what set the bar for me on a personal level. I literally modeled myself on him as an engineer long before I even knew him, so when we did eventually meet there was kind of an instant rapport and understanding. I think it helps that we’re kind of made of the same stock.

Butch and Flood have been a huge inspiration, because lately I’ve been thinking a lot about production and whether that’s something I want to try my hand at again. With the exception of the work I’ve done with David Ford, in the past I always felt a little dissatisfied with the end result of the records I produced. So working with Butch and Flood still shows me a great deal about what I can do better on the production end.

Are there any other Producers whose work you’re really loving today?

Peter Katis. I adore his work with Oneida, and The National, but what he did with Jónsi [Birgisson, of Sigur Rós] is on a whole other level.

Regardless of how you might feel about the music, the sheer volume of musical parts and ideas that make up that record… I’m in awe of how he’s managed to take that mountain of information and still fashion a record that is not only coherent, but often stunningly beautiful.

I hear you there. I had the pleasure of mixing a record Peter recorded drums on, and those tracks were a dream to work with.

Can you articulate how the process of working as an engineer, under or alongside a producer, might be different from what some of our solo producers or home-studio engineers are familiar with?

With Gil Norton and Brendan Benson at Rak in London

Well, when there’s someone there who knows how to produce, it’s hugely liberating. They can kind of guide everyone and convey a clear idea of what the bigger picture is.

There’s still an enormous amount of room to be creative within the confines of just being “an engineer” if that’s the only thing you’re being asked to do.

But the job of engineering can be quite political at times. It’s important to know when to voice an opinion and when to keep it to yourself, when to impose yourself creatively and when not to, when to spend time experimenting and when to just get the ball rolling as quickly as you can.

I think the most important thing is to not get bogged down with the technicality of it all, and to always keep the session moving forward. That’s ultimately a huge part of the job. Obviously you want to make it sound good, but a large part of it is facilitating the vision of the people who are going to be responsible for it after the fact, whether that’s the artist or the producer. I think if you can do all of that as efficiently and as artfully as you can, then you’re doing an excellent job.

ON THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have a new release out this week. Their past records have been quirky, organic, thick-but-jangly “twee-pop.”  It’s a musical style and production flavor halfway between Belle and Sebastian and third-generation shoegaze.

This latest release is tighter, larger, with a lot more sonic power and immediate impact. As an engineer, how do you help them retain some of their emotional feel and indie charm on such a massive sounding production?

Flood and Kip Berman during Pains' sessions at Stratosphere Sound

The feel and charm comes from them. That’s who they are. In my humble opinion (and not to detract at all from Flood’s fantastic work) at the end of the day the production is really just presentation of the material.

You hope that it doesn’t interfere with the song in a negative way – that’s kind of a tricky thing. But to a certain degree, no matter how hard you might try to make The Beatles sound like Chuck Berry or Motown, they’ll always sound like The Beatles. My stuff will always sound like my stuff (no matter how much I want to make it sound like Alan Moulder’s!) and The Pains will always sound like The Pains. Or at least they should. You’re doing something wrong if that doesn’t come through!

The guitars on this record are still big and somewhat quirky, with a touch of a shoegaze feel; but they also have much more clarity and lean power than a listener might expect from the band. How did you help obtain that blend?

Kip has a pedal that a friend of his made, and I thought it sounded absolutely disgusting at first. I tried to replace it with some other stuff I thought might work, but we found that stopped the tracks from having this recognizable Pains quality.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere! There are certain sounds in a band’s make-up that you just can’t take away without losing the thing that make it unique to them. It turns out that pedal is a huge signature, and as vile as I thought it sounded in isolation, it turns out it sounds awesome in the overall picture.

So anything that we added in terms of overdubs, whether it be a Les Paul through a Marshall JMP Lead, or a Stratocaster through a Fender Twin, it basically all had to sit with “that” Fender Jaguar, through “that” home-made pedal, through “that” Roland Jazz Chorus amp.

By the way, making the Roland Jazz Chorus popular again has become a bit of a personal crusade.

A noble mission! It definitely has its own sound, and many have found it can be a really cool base for layering effects.

We’d also love to ask a little bit about drums. That’s another place where “Belong” feels different than their prior records: The percussive elements have a metronomic quality that gives them a drum-machine feel; but at the same time, many of the individual tones sound like a hyped-up natural kit. Can you tell us about what inspired that kind of treatment, and how you helped get it?

Stream “Belong” at The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s website

Nearly all of it is natural kit, played by [Pains Drummer] Kurt [Feldman].

We took a bunch of different approaches on the album. “Strange” has live drums that were looped and treated; “Too Tough” uses more than one drum kit and a slap back delay on one of the snares, and I think “The Body” had a programmed machine part that we laid the real drums over.

Even on the songs that had a more conventional drum sound we’d often feed individual mics through guitar pedals. They would get fiddled with during takes to give the drums an “other” quality.

One day Flood put a [SoundToys] FilterFreak on the main drum ambience, and he set it up so the filters would only open on the snare back-beat. Over the course of the sessions we refined that. He said he’d been wanting to bring back the Phil Collins drum sound, but with a twist.

A lot of the fun in making a record like this comes from those collaborative aspects – you feed off of each other. If you have a creative producer, a creative engineer, and a creative band who are willing to try things, and there is a give-and-take in those relationships, that allows you to find yourself in some pretty unique places.

Speaking of unique places: your name is James Brown. We have to ask something about that. You don’t use a middle initial? Nothing? Has it ever led to any confusing moments?

I do get some funny looks when I walk into R&B and hip-hop sessions but I’ve stopped taking those bookings now… the disappointment on their faces was too much to bear!

It’s the name my mother gave me, so why would I not use it?

I figure it could have been worse. I could have been called Englebert Humperdink.

…Next question !

Is there any artist or producer living or dead, who you wish you could be making a record with tomorrow?

Brown at Sound City tracking Arctic Monkeys

There are tons! I’d love to be a fly on the wall at a Dave Fridmann session – it’s the understatement of the year to call that guy “creative.”

Peter Katis’ work is genius, as already noted. There’s John McEntire, and Chris Walla. And Joshua Homme, too. Not only is he an extraordinary musician, but he has a unique production sensibility that would make him a hugely interesting person to collaborate with.

I’d also love to do something with Rich Costey again. I learned a bunch from that guy. He has a viciously sharp sense of humor which sits very well with me. And of course, I’d work with Butch [Vig] any day of the week. He’s really one of my favorite people in the world.

As for artists, I’m a massive fan of Tom Waits, but I think working with him might be too intimidating for me. I’d love to do something with Harvey Milk, or Sunn O))), or Low. And Queens of the Stone Age. That’s an obvious one for me.

Even if some of those artists stay aspirational, you’ve worked on a lot of projects anyone would be proud to be part of, and managed to team up with some of your favorite producers already. What advice do you have to younger engineers who hope to see themselves in the same kind of place someday?

Just stick at it. There’s really no substitute for experience. Everyone makes mistakes, it’s whether you’re able to learn from them that sorts the men from the boys. Hang in there, even if it feels like you can’t catch a break.

I’ve met many excellent engineers who haven’t made it because for whatever reason they fell out of love with it. The ones that found a way of hanging on when the going got tough are, generally speaking, still working. From what I’ve seen, if you’ve been around long enough, and you’ve continued to learn and evolve at the job, someone will eventually recognize that fact.

Get in touch and stay up with James Brown via Just Managing.

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based audio engineer and music producer who’s worked with Hotels, DeLeon, Soundpool, Team Genius and Monocle, as well as clients such as Nintendo, JDub, Blue Note Records, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Visit him at www.justincolletti.com.

Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore and Yoko Ono Making A Record at Sear Sound

March 2, 2011 by  

A number of interesting artists have been recording at the legendary Sear Sound in Midtown Manhattan — Walter Sear’s legacy of audio excellence lives on!

Yoko Ono + 1/2 Sonic Youth recording at Sear Sound

First, Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore and Yoko Ono are making a record together. And they’ve been recording it at Sear Sound, with Chris Allen engineering.

Both Sonic Youth and Ono have a history with the studio — Sonic Youth having recorded multiple albums (Rather Ripped, Sister, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star) in Studio A with its Neve 8038 with Flying Faders. Apparently Walter Sear even recorded one of their earliest records at his former studio in the Paramount Hotel. And Ono recorded and mixed her last record Between My Head and the Sky at Sear with Allen engineering in Studio C, on the Avalon/Sear custom console.

Meanwhile, Bjork has been working at Sear Sound as well, recording tracks for her new album, with Damian Taylor engineering on the Avalon/Sear with David Schoenwetter assisting.

In other recent sessions: the NYC-based blues band JD and The Straight Shot have also been recording for a new album with Dave Natale engineering and Mark Atkins producing. The band, led by James Dolan with Charlie Drayton on drums, reportedly have their own live performance setup in the studio, with speaker wedges and a submixing Yamaha board.

And singer/songwriter Harper Simon (son of Paul Simon) has been tracking a new album, with Ruddy Cullers engineering. John Scofield also tracked and mixed his new record at Sear on the Neve 8038, with Brian Blades on drums, Scott Colley on bass and Larry Goldings on the studio’s B3 Hammond and Steinway ‘C’ grand, and James Farber engineering. They mixed down to RMG 900 1/2″ on the ATR 102.

Producer Craig Street recorded singer Madeleine Peroux with Matt Cullen engineering and a band that included Drayton again on drums, and Mark Ribot on guitar. And Scarlet Johansson was in recording overdubs for an album with Lucien Gainsbourg, with Jeremy Loucas engineering. Prior to Johansson coming in, Gainsbourg has been recording his larger album project at Sear as well.

Singer Nicole Henry recorded with producer Matt Pierson and Allen engineering, with John Stoddardt on piano, and arrangements by Stoddardt and Gil Goldstein. And Japanese outfit New Friends, Inc. were in tracking the pianist / vocalist Akiko Yano for a film. She played the Steinway ‘D’ – 9′ concert grand, and Aya Merrill engineered the sessions.

This is just a sampling of the recent sessions, according to Sear Sound’s manager Roberta Findlay. Visit www.searsound.com for more information on the studio, and its equipment and history.

Stadium Red Expands: Just Blaze and the Science of NYC Studios

December 15, 2010 by  

HARLEM, MANHATTAN: As artistic as the purpose of New York City recording studios may be, it’s fair to compare these houses of sound to modern-day warriors. Every one goes into battle with the belief that they’re invincible. Many fall – but some grow stronger.

A legendary SSL G+ and Augspurgers are just the beginning of the Stadium Red expansion.

Uptown, the facility known as Stadium Red became convinced that there was only one sure strategy for thriving in the battle-scarred landscape of NYC: expand, and you’ll be in demand. Marking steady gains since its inception in 2007, when Stadium Red owner Claude Zdanow took over the highly respected but troubled former studio of jazz legend Ornette Coleman at 125th and Park, 2010 sees Stadium Red placing a bold bet that bigger really is better – even when paying NYC prices for your real estate.

The result is a recently completed 2,500 sq. ft. Frank Comentale-designed expansion that sees big names and powerful new capabilities added to the facility. A focused new B-Room is home to hip hop super producer Just Blaze (Jay-Z, Eminem, Saigon, Fabolous, Jamie Foxx, Talib Kweil, Kanye West) and an SSL AWS 900, Augspurger mains, and a digital/analog hybrid production/mix approach. A world-class mastering suite has also been added to house Herb Powers-protégé Ricardo Gutierrez (Justin Timberlake, Usher, John Legend, Jill Scott).

Meanwhile, Stadium Red’s accommodating A-room has gotten its own facelift, swapping in the classic SSL G+ board from Baseline Studios (RIP). Another pair of Augspurger mains with dual 18” subs, a custom Dangerous designed 7.1 surround monitoring system, 24-track tape machine and more are all in there. Mix engineer Tom Lazarus (Ray Charles, Bjork, Yo-Yo Ma, Chicago Symphony), mix engineer Ariel Borujow (T.I., Black Eyed Peas, Puffy, Kanye West), engineer Joseph Pedulla (Thursday, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Mos Def, Kid Cudi) and producer Sid “Omen” Brown (Ludacris, Mya, Drake, Fabolus) also maintain their respective residencies throughout the studio. A host of old skool elite amenities – from upgraded lounge to private chef/spa services – are in the mix for good measure.

Claude Zdnaow's got a secret: How to successfully navigate NYC's intense studio scene.

While the idea of an all-encompassing studio environment of writing/tracking/mixing/mastering is not new, Zdanow believes that it’s the rare human resources he’s gathered – and what they’re on board to do – that will make the Stadium Red expansion stand out. “The idea is that more heads are better than one,” he says. “In studios it can become a stale environment, where the engineer is just a button pusher. What we take pride in is something the artists and labels don’t offer anymore, which is artist development.

“Artists come in here, and when they walk out our brand is attached to them. It’s about letting them know that all these ears are around, whether it’s Yo-Yo Ma, Eminem, or the emerging people we work with. We want to make records here that matter, and the idea is to bring back that creative community — we’re a growing team of NYC engineers and producers that care about NYC and the music scene.”

Zdanow’s energy – driven equally by his spirit of adventure and copious amounts of caffeine – was enough to convince Just Blaze to relocate to Stadium Red after closing his beloved Baseline. “I had known Ariel from before, and he said, ‘You should come look at this space and have a conversation with Claude,’” Blaze relates. “Claude explained his vision, what he wanted to build, and I said, ‘Maybe we can make something work.’ It made sense: The overall vision of the place and the appeal is that it’s a one-stop, end-to-end solution, from recording to mixing to mastering, even doing surround 5.1-7.1.

“So he physically expanded the space, and we combined our resources. It’s a win/win I get a little bit of the stress off my shoulders from running the day-to-day. That allows me to be more creative, but at the same time I have my own space.”

Whether for intensive writing sessions or serious mixing, the new B-room that Just Blaze inhabits was designed to be distinctively accommodating. “It’s gotta be something special — if it’s going to be this meeting of the minds, then it’s got to be something worthwhile,” he emphasizes. “It can’t just be a Pro Tools setup. The way I work, I need all the resources available all the time – I couldn’t go from a G+ to a writing room. And if we’re talking about partnering up and joining our resources to build a business, there’s no point in building something that’s just a production room. That’s something people can put in their houses these days. So you’ve got to take a step further and make it a destination.

Just Blaze made the move uptown to the ferocious Studio B.

“My room is the best of both worlds. If you want to walk in and get down to business in the box, you can do so: We have every plug-in, plus Augspurgers and other monitors. But if you’re a little more old school, you have the SSL and all the gear to go out of the box. Or you can go the third route, in that the AWS can go in and out of the digital world.

“By keeping it smaller we could keep it more affordable. Clients have the SSL, a full suite of plug-ins, Augspurgers – everything that would usually cost you $2500 or more a day, at the fraction of the cost. I think we really hit that sweet spot in terms of sizing. Sometimes you just need a room for production, with a controller or a laptop, but if you’re in this big huge room that’s a waste of money. Or it’s the other way around, and you’re feeling cramped. This place is small enough to feel like a production room, but big enough to feel like a room you can mix comfortably in.”

Arguably, the Stadium Red formula was working already: The studio and its personnel had a part in ten 2010 GRAMMY-nominated projects including Eminem’s Recovery (Album of the Year, Best Rap Album), Drake’s Thank Me Later, (Best Rap Album, Best New Artist), and Steven Mackey’s Dreamhouse (Best Classical Album, Best Orchestral Performance, and Best Engineered Album, Classical).

A good year, all right, but that’s already in the past. Although he’s young – still just in his early 20’s – Zdanow understands that part of moving forward is understanding what didn’t work before, and making adjustments. In that regard, the difficult decision to swap out the A-room’s ICON for the SSL G+ dovetailed with the concept of adding new faces, spaces and capabilities at Stadium Red.

Just Blaze: He is officially on board.

“We’re in an ever-changing industry,” he observes. “When we started out I had a very strong opinion about being versatile and trying to do it all in one room. People appreciated the ICON, but over time we weren’t doing anything as good as we could have been doing it.

“By adding these two rooms, we’ve come to critical mass. People want a lot of options. The ‘A’ room has a big live room where people can track through the console, and mix with tons of outboard gear. Just Blaze’s ‘B’ room is its own environment for production, with the SSL AWS. If you want a powerful controller-based system, you have that in the ‘C4’ room where Ariel Borujow works. So what we realized was that it wasn’t just about one room. There are certain things that need to be in place to do everything — and do it well.”

– David Weiss

Career Engineering: Allen Farmelo on Recording Cinematic Orchestra, & That Post-Pink Floyd Sound

November 3, 2010 by  

CHINATOWN, MANHATTAN/FORT GREENE, BROOKLYN: What headspace are you in? For a music producer/engineer/mixer like Allen Farmelo, getting your talents to that sought-after place is all about finding yourself.

Allen Farmelo settles in for a chat in Mavericks’ “open concept” studio.

In the process of doing that, of course, people will find you — that explains why one of Farmelo’s fans is an artful outfit like Cinematic Orchestra, the engrossing British jazz/electronic/soul influenced outfit led by Jason Swincoe. The ever-evolving group recently called on Farmelo to engineer their upcoming release for Ninja Tune, a project that he executed in the semi-exclusive confines of Chinatown’s intriguing Mavericks Studio.

Whether working at Mavericks or mixing/mastering at his rapidly evolving Fort Greene facility, The Farm, Farmelo’s primary angle – a sound he gravitates to that he calls “Post-Pink Floyd” – and artist-centric philosophy shows how an NYC audio pro gets on the map. As his list of credits grows (The Loom, Second Dan, Cucu Diamantes, Jonah Smith, Ian Gillan, The Cabriolets, Jesus H. Christ), so does his insight on what makes today’s music, and the business of it, tick.

You’ve been working a lot with Cinematic Orchestra the last few weeks. How would you describe that workflow?
I wouldn’t say it’s improvisational, but I would say it’s a very grand project that operates on a lot of different levels and that there’s a lot of exploration happening. Jason’s done a lot of writing beforehand, and he brings in musicians to flesh out the ideas. The writing is extremely intentional, and harmonically/melodically very plotted out. He knows the goal of those songs.

He’s an amazing producer because he manages to get people to do stuff that works for the song, without telling them what to do. Is he micromanaging? No. But is he getting the micro-details he wants out of people? Yes. So I’m watching him closely and learning from him.

Cinematic’s not like the Beatles where you have the same four members, and without one of them you’re done. Jason’s brought in people he feels will contribute to that particular song in the way he thinks it will happen best. Different singers for different songs, that kind of thing. So far it’s a bit of a different-sounding record than the previous one, and I think the lineup will reflect those changes.

Things are getting experimental…Cinematic Orchetra.

So what’s it like coming into the project as an engineer? Do they let you do your thing, or is it a collaborative process?
Jason knows what he wants to hear, he is extremely good at communicating it, and he lets me achieve that. He can sometimes get right down to the gear. They were working at Livingston Studios in London, using those Coles 4038s as the overheads. He described that setup, and I did that here to get the specific sound that worked well when he tracked in England.

So sometimes he’s very specific, other times he’ll describe a vibe or metaphor to get what he’s looking for, and then the way I achieve that is up to me. Mixing the Grey Reverend record that Jason produced was a lot like that, where both Grey and Jason would articulate well what they wanted from the record. Then I sent them home, said, “Let me do this,” and then let them come back.

My first stab was good on about 70% of the material — and then fell on its face on the other! We talked about that, and they were very good at articulating what they wanted changed. So we freed up some things in the mix, found the center of the record, and let those things happen. As the record went on, I was able to take more ownership of the aesthetic. So the collaboration is very easy and open.

So is it easier to go into this project now that you’re in the same headspace? Are there traditional references to other records he’s listening to as far as the approach, or is it like you’re already aware of what he likes based on the past experience?
Jason has written amazing, amazing music that is dictating everything about what follows. The songwriting is so strong and beautiful that everybody else is just there to serve that song – including Jason. I don’t feel any references to anything outside of those songs happening at all. Instead we’re coming from the center of those songs. And when you hear them, they all have their own character, life, logic, feel, tonality and beauty that’s obvious from the get-go, even when they’re just played on acoustic guitar. You say, “That’s freakin’ beautiful. Let’s make it more beautiful.”

How do you go about taking the song further at that point?
So everything from changing a mic to subdividing a beat to figuring out how to lay a crash down is there to serve that inner logic. Jason makes sure we’re there to serve that inner logic and the inner beauty of the song, and he communicates it very easily. You have the songwriter, the vision, and the songs are giving you tons of information from that.

You don’t have to do that much to know how to get the studio to sing properly for the song, and that’s where I feel I’m trusted to make some good choices along the way. It can be something as simple as, “Wow, slow tempo – let’s raise the overheads and let the drums sing a little more,” or for more complex patterns I might think, “Let’s get things a little tighter.”

Air to breathe.

For me, setting the tone on the guitar amp is instinctively informed by the guitar pattern. Since we feel very much in tune with the music, we all kind of trust each other aesthetically and say, “OK, let’s make this happen.” There’s not a lot of discussion about this stuff. It’s kind of obvious when things are working or not, everyone’s got great ears.

The thing that’s refreshing about working with these guys is that there’s no ego to get in the way of this discussion, so it’s an aesthetic conversation at all times – a really clean and artistic conversation.

That sounds like a rewarding way to be recording. Why is this studio a fit for this band and record?
Well, Maverick’s fits any project really well, as long as you don’t need to record forty musicians here. I had thirteen here once – that worked surprisingly well. That was a big, amazing, raucous New Orleansy anti-war album. So Maverick’s can kind of do that. We did the strings for Grey Reverend’s upcoming album here – we had a quartet in the main space. I did the whole Loom record, Teeth, which was a six-piece band all playing in the room together. A lot of people come to just do drums. It’s a very versatile space, and as long as your mics are in phase, you’ll sound good. There’s really no crappy-sounding place in here. For the Cinematic record, there’s just something wonderful happening between the songs and the room sound. They match beautifully.

It feels that way. What do you think about the “open concept” (studio in the round) format here?
I’ve been on two Tape Op Conference panels with other people talking about open concept studios, so I’ve thought a lot about it. And of course the most famous reference is Lanois. The number one benefit of it is being able to speak face-to-face with the people you’re working with and not through a talkback system. The alienation of a talkback system is apparent as soon as it’s taken away. It’s so nice to pull off the headphones and talk to the person you’re speaking to.

The drawback is there’s no room for bullshit. Everyone has to be reverent to the music happening. You can’t rattle your keys, text your boyfriend, read Vogue – a lot of what normally happens in the control room can’t happen here. So if you’re not into being reverent, you have to go into the back room where there are no speakers. You’re either in or out.

I didn’t realize I was paying so much attention to what was coming out of the speakers – instead of to the musicians – until I started working in an open studio. It’s a positive for me, but not for everyone – my friend Joel Hamilton jokingly calls us a bunch of hippies that like to sit in the same room together, and he’s kind of got a point as it can be pretty touchy-feely. But the other most obvious benefit is the amount of space I have. We have one of the biggest control rooms in NYC, because we have all this space, and when we’re tracking we can subdivide it any way we want.

If we’d had a separate control room, we’d be like a lot of little studios, but instead we’re like a good midsize studio here. For a facility our size, we have a really big control room and a really big live room. They just happen to be the same space – it’s an incredible way to take advantage of small spaces.

Good things come in twos at Mavericks.

That makes sense. What guides the gear choices here?
First and foremost, we have pairs of everything in the studio: Coles 4038’s, Royer 121’s, RCA BK 5As, Beyer M 160’s, Shure SM7’s, Elux 251s, 87s, 84s, 441s…a pair of everything. The point being that we are really ready to put up a pair of anything on any source, so we are really versatile when recording drums. We can get any flavor stereo overhead and room sound we want.

We used to have a mishmash of preamps, and then came to realize really quickly that we love API, and miss the glue/consistency of having the same preamps working off of a console. So we have 16 of the API 512s. We do have other pres – the Chandler, a pair of original 1073 Neves racked up by Brent Averil…but we have far fewer flavors then we used to, and we love it. We’re thrilled to have the same preamp on everything, because when you bring up the faders it all sits together tonally. We went through the “We could have a little of everything phase” and grew out of it.

We have a lot of really interesting compressors, and a lot of really standard standbys. We have two Purple MC77s, two 1176s, and a pair of DBX 160’s that used to belong to Johnny Cash! We have a pair of Distressors. Where we deviate is the API 2500 – I mix through that 2500 almost exclusively. I have one in my studio in Brooklyn, The Farm, and I have one here that’s always strapped onto my two buss. It reminds me not to over compress and to cascade from the individual channel compressors into that bus compressor. I work with it on all the time, so I know where I’m going to land compression-wise when it comes time to mix.

And there are other non-standard compressors here. We just got the Airfield Audio Liminator Two, which is a beautiful piece of kit, and this Gyrotek Varimu Tube Compressor is stunning – handmade in Denmark. So we have a lot of neat flavors on the compression side, and again, everything is stereo. We have two of everything, so you can run any pair of mics through any pair of pres/compressors.

Do you also mix here, or at The Farm?
I used to mix here, and then I had to mix back at my place because of a scheduling thing – this was like in 2006. So I recorded a record for Rachel Z., which featured Tony Levin, and other great musicians, and due to scheduling and some technical issues I ended up with mixes done on the console here at Mavericks, some summed in Pro Tools here, and some mixed in my room in Brooklyn. When we got to mastering, there were definitely differences – and the analog summed mixes were way better – but my mixes done at home were sounding really good. They were right up there. It was weird: I went to the news stand across the street from my Brooklyn apartment and saw that Rachel’s record was charting in Billboard, then I looked up at my window where my mix room is and said, “Wow, a new era.” So I did what everyone else did: I put together a mix room.

And now my studio, The Farm in Fort Greene, is a serious mixing situation. I have a lot of outboard gear, the Crane Song HEDD which I’m using to print my mixes off a Studer A-80 1/2” machine; a fully acoustically treated room. It’s pretty ideal and I’m doing pretty much all of my mixing there. That allows me to work within the budgets that are coming my way, allowing me to offer better deals to my clients and make a living at it.

The legendary brownstones of Fort Greene, home of The Farm, beckon.

That said, mixing here at Mavericks is a wonderful experience. We’ve got the Studer two-track, the center section of the Neotek, which is modified by Purple Audio, sounds wonderful. That console is like the mid-size luxury touring sedan with a badass racing engine in it.

We hear you’re putting together an interesting new console for The Farm. What was the concept, and how is it coming together?
The concept is to have an API Legacy console built from their amazing 7600 channel strips, which each have a 550A EQ, 225L compressor and 212L preamp along with four busses, four aux sends and infinite routing possibilities.

I realized after working on the big Vision console up at NYU’s Clive Davis school and then, days after, tracking at Mavericks with all API 512 preamps that API was a sound I could very happily commit to. But I couldn’t afford, nor did I really need, nor did I want to maintain, a full-on Legacy or Vision console.

The API 7600’s all connect to the 7800 Master Module to form a true, discrete Legacy console with as many channels you want or can afford. So I bought a pair of 7600s to try on a mix session and within about three minutes I knew I’d found my channels, and when I summed through the 7800 Master Module, I knew I’d found my console. Problem was I had to get it built.

Francois Chambard of UM Project in Greenpoint came on board, and our goal was to defy the look and feel of traditional consoles – which to my eye look like either Cold War-era military equipment, a dentist’s office, or some leather bound thing you’d expect Ron Burgundy to tell you he mixed his jazz flute on. I’m a really visual guy, and none of those inspire me, nor did I really want to spend the rest of my career behind one.

Instead we found a great blend between Francois’s sense of modern design and my own fascination with the landscape, architecture and design of Iceland. It’s going to look really different, yet it has the ergonomics of my favorite consoles all bundled together with space for over twenty-four channels, eventually. I couldn’t be happier, and Francois is a bad-ass designer. There’ll be racks and diffusors to match, I’m sure.

Sounds amaaaazing. Switching gears, let’s talk about the NYC recording scene. How would you describe what’s happening here?

There is an incredible energy around making records in NYC right now. Specifically in Brooklyn, there’s an incredibly good, positive foundation of recording happening.

Five years ago we were in distress a little bit, we were watching the big studios close. Now Avatar is still there, Sear Sound is still there – Walter RIP – they’re booked solid. Magic Shop is still there. These amazing rooms that really held close to their missions are still operating and they’re there for us to go in and use as needed. The new era is here, and we’re all relaxing into it.

The market crash happened in 2008, which was a grim year for everyone, but we got used to it. Now it’s a community of people making records. I see NYC as a place that adapted swiftly to a new model, and everyone’s got a room with an increasing amount of gear in it. Between the bigger studio and your own space, records are being made wonderfully that way. There are fewer places to get an orchestra recorded, but a hell of a lot of places for an acoustic guitar overdub!

The big loss is community. That’s not an original thought, but I do miss the community of being with a lot of people doing what you do. Writing for Tape Op helps, being on Facebook helps – when you have status updates, you feel like you’re in a conversation. I find I have to make an effort to find people who do what I do. It’s an effort, but it’s worth it.

So there’s a lot of obstacles to overcome, but musically I think NYC is bringing together the sophistication of indie, jazz and “new” classical music with the street levelness of the rock scene – now it’s almost the norm to have a string quartet on your record. I like seeing those worlds coming together. Maybe because no one can make a living at it anymore, we’ll all play on each other’s records! That cross-pollination is really exciting: Grizzly Bear and Arcade Fire used a lot of NYC string players on their last records, and you can feel a new kind of sound emerging nationally that has a particular stamp on it that, to my ears, says “Brooklyn.”

You’re from Buffalo originally, right? How did you work your way up as an engineer in the NYC studio scene?
I’m very much a self-taught guy. I had a bit of experience working at Trackmasters in Buffalo, now called Inner Machine and owned by the Goo Goo Dolls. It’s an amazing room, designed by John Storyk, and the Goo Goo Dolls are currently packing it with amazing gear. That studio is absolutely iconic in Buffalo’s music scene, and my first time in there I was playing keyboards in my highschool jazz band. We were badass that year, and then all the great players went off to college. It’s funny, I heard that recording recently and thought, “whoh, that’s amazing.”

Anyways, that first experience in a real studio had me hooked, and I soon after got a four-track and had at it. But where I really learned was in the DIY hardcore scene of the late ‘80’s. I did a record at Trackmasters in 1989 with my band RedDog7, then helped some friends make records there. I was kind of producing, but I had no idea that’s what I was doing. We made some seriously good sounding records, actually, and I was obsessed with getting good sounds – I knew guitars, amps, drums, cymbals, strings and even obsessed over sticks and picks. My head was way up in it from an early age, and I was thinking from the player to the instrument to the mic, which I now know is the right way to think.

Then we had a band house for a while, and and then this whole basement situation with the Mackie board and DAT machines. We made deals and acquired gear, recording, doing live sound and playing gigs, and then running this little DIY studio. That’s where I really cut my teeth as a recording guy, struggling to get a decent sound outside of Trackmasters. Over time in Buffalo I had the chance to become a bigger fish in a small pond, which is a nurturing environment, but that pond got too small. It was time to move on, so I came to NYC.

What’s your take on producing? You seem to have a studied approach to that role.
My philosophy of producing is that I try not to carry around any pre-ordained philosophy, but instead to generate a philosophy for the project in collaboration with the artist. I call that “guiding principles” – a very intentional guiding philosophy I try to lock in on and externalize for the project, in case we get lost.

Could these be the coveted Guiding Principles?

For example, I’m doing a children’s record with the Brooklyn-based artist Shelley Kay, and we have two guiding principles. One is, “Not Romper Room”, and the other is “Playful Minimalism.” Not-Romper-Room is easy – that means that whenever we’re getting into the mamby-pamby kindergarten shit, hit the red STOP button. And “Playful Minimalism” means that when we’re confronted with a decision we ask: Is it playful? It is minimalist? Those two words show us the choice to make. Between two drum patterns for example, if one is more minimalist, that’s typically the one to go with, and the result comes back closer to our original artistic intentions to keep the production clean.

Another artist that I’m working with, the guiding principle is “Sincere Otherworldliness.” I’m putting him through the paces as a songwriter. He’s been struggling to get his sincerity out, and the otherworldliness is an outwardly-stated goal of his to create a sonic world that’s very different from reality, another world one can enter into. To bring those two together is difficult – if you’re too sincere, you can’t get it spacey and amazing, but if you’re too otherworldly, you can miss being right there with the listener, making it sincere. These principles are meant to be challenging.

In production it’s very hard to stop saying, “I like that, I don’t like that.” If that’s going on in the conversation, you’ll never get to the heart of the matter. If you get past “I like that, I don’t like that” and closer to stating what you want to achieve, something like a guiding principle starts to open up, and you have much more productive conversations about what’s happening.

In my work, that’s the best thing I can give to their project: an open, comfortable dialogue about things, but with structure instead of just being completely wide open. One of the functions of the producer is to help the artist specify what they’re doing, and not be all over the place. Not everyone is making their fifth record and bringing all that experience to the table. A lot of people are making their first or second, and I have to be intentional about my role, because if I don’t we get sloppy.

How did you get to be like that as a producer? It sounds like you’ve evolved in that role, just as an artist does with their music.
It’s not a new idea to find artistic growth as a producer, I don’t think. I have to attribute my own growth partly to Bob Power, one of my mentors. He always says it’s about getting to a place where you’re letting the music make decisions, and I know exactly what he means. That idea inspired me to ask, “Well, how do you get to that place?” Like most great ideas, it’s not complex, but it can be a real bugger to achieve. There are so many things that can get in the way, like ego, fear, imagined or real audiences, commercial pressure, well disguised self-sabotage tendencies – basically anything external to the actual crafts of writing, performing and recording music. For me, to get to that place where the music is speaking clearly requires a pretty intentional approach to how I talk about the work being done, and that’s where the guiding principles idea kind of came from.

More and more of us producers are doing the A&R job of developing artists and their material. If we don’t have record labels, who will do all the development work? It turns out to be the record producer in a lot of cases. It’s a big part of the job. So if I can obsess about a compressor as an engineer, I hope I can also obsess about the dialogue that’s going to shape decisions about the album as a producer. That’s been a big area of growth for me, to enter into dialogue about the work with more and more clarity. It’s really fucking hard work, but when it pays off it’s amazing. I even read books about collaborating, about creativity – whatever I can get my hands on that I think might help. Right now it’s where I’m focusing my professional growth.

That sounds like amazing guidance to be able to provide throughout the process…
Yes, although I should also state that all of that development of the guiding principles, and doing the artist and material development, happens long before we hit record. It’s like pre-pre-production. It goes on long before I’m getting things ready for the actual recording date. It’s more of trying to figure out what the vision of the artist is, and helping them shape it. I’ll say it again, it’s not easy. It’s not the easy path of just saying “I like this, I don’t like that.”

Catch a Waveform: Chinatown’s Mavericks pays homage to the famed Northern California surfing mecca of the same name.

The other thing is the kind of music I’m working on can call for this kind of approach. I’ve more recently committed as a mixer/engineer/producer to this specific vibe within modern rock music that I call post-Pink Floyd. Don’t take that term too literally, but one day someone asked that inevitable question “what kind of music do you work on” and I just said it – “post-Pink Floyd.” What I meant by it is this thread of really innovative, beautiful, spacious, compassionate music.

Pink Floyd had incredible empathy, beautiful spaces, beautiful sounds, and brought in influences of jazz and classical without doing them overly in the music. The ideas they brought in were so involved in empathy – it wasn’t, “Let’s go shake our butts and hump each other and party all night long.” Instead, they were dealing more directly with the human condition, and I just wind up working with a lot of artists who seem to have somewhat similar goals lyrically and thematically. So it’s not really about Pink Floyd in particular, but if I had to point to a moment in rock history where this compassionate, open, spacious music began, I’d say “Dark Side of the Moon.”

Cinematic Orchestra exemplifies it. Radiohead and Sigur Ros exemplify it. Elbow’s got it. Peter Gabriel’s work with Lanois has it. In fact, Lanois seems to get it out of people in general – he got it out of Dylan, perhaps for the first time. I work with a lot of artist who seem to want to work towards the aesthetic that are embodied by those examples, even if those records aren’t particular influences. Cinematic Orchestra is an honor to work with, because I feel that they’re harmonically, musically, thematically within that realm. I think they’re masters of space and compassion, and I think the record they’re making is going to blow people away. But that post-Pink Floyd thing comes in a lot of flavors. In American bands I’d include The National, Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, Wilco does it do a degree, and especially Band of Horses. The Loom, whose record I produced, fits under that umbrella for me, even thought they sound nothing like these other bands, really. Again, it’s not really a particular sound, but a set of harmonic and thematic threads that run through the music.

It’s a hard and awful thing to have to put into the limitations of language something you feel and know so intuitively, but I guess that’s the exact challenge I’m putting on the artists I work with when trying to get positive dialogue happening about projects. In a way, post-Pink Floyd is my own kind of guiding priciple as I try to intentionally steer my career in a specific direction. I should probably work harder on clarifying that!

That sounds like an expansive genre to hang your hat on – what else is on the Post-Pink Floyd horizon for you?
I’m currently producing two records that are definitely going to carry some of that vibe. One is with Austin Donohue, who is writing some amazingly beautiful stuff, really finding his themes. He’s the Sincere Otherworldliness guy. The other is with Diana Hickman, who I think is writing some of the most innovative material I’ve heard in a while – like Joni Mitchell and Bjork go SCUBA diving together and surface with a record. Both of them are working their asses off, doing a ton of development work with me. Those will get done this winter.

I’ve also become inspired by Iceland as a place for music and making records. It’s a very sparsely populated, lovely place that just doesn’t go to war or pollute very much, and their landscape and relative remoteness lends itself to music that is really quite unique. When people settled Iceland, they didn’t colonize anybody, and it just doesn’t have this scarred past which so many other places rife with conflict have. It’s quieter. You can feel that lack of conflict and that quiet, and a sense of expansiveness in much of the music there, even when it’s erupting like a volcano.

At least that’s what my tired NYC ears hear. I just went back there in October to the Airwaves Music Festival in Reykjavik and saw amazing bands every night. I’m talking to one in particular about working together, and I really hope it starts to happen for me over there. I’m very interested in putting my foot on that other piece of land.

– Interview by Janice Brown and David Weiss

Lia Ices, Small Black, Banjo or Freakout, Sebastian Blanck (etc.) at Rare Book Room Studios

September 7, 2010 by  

Since we last checked in with Nicolas Vernhes at Rare Book Room Studios in Greenpoint, he tracked and mixed on Spoon‘s Transference, recorded with Dirty Projectors and Bjork, mixed the Animal Collective movie Oddsac, and much more. Read on!

Nicolas Vernhes mixed the forthcoming debut LP by Brooklyn's Soft Black, "New Chain," at Rare Book Room Studio in Greenpoint.

Most recently, Vernhes produced/engineered the upcoming Lia Ices record, which will be released in early ’11 on Jagjaguwar, and a new record by Banjo or Freakout for release early next year on his own Rare Book Room Records. Also for Rare Book Room Records, Vernhes co-produced and mixed the new album by Sebastian Blanck, Alibi Coast. Check out Blanck performing album-opening track, “I Blame Baltimore” at Rare Book Room Studio HERE.

Vernhes also mixed Steve Wynn’s new record for Yep Rock, engineered/mixed the new Versus album On the Ones and Threes for Merge, mixed the new Small Black record, New Chain for Jagjaguwar, produced/engineered the new So So Glos EP for Green Owl and recorded/mixed Endless Boogie’s Full House Head.

Vernhes has also engineered a three-song EP for a new project featuring members of Junior Senior.

Check out Rare Book Room Records here, Rare Book Room Studios here and our ’09 feature on Vernhes and Rare Book Room HERE.

Joe Lambert Mastering Hosts Dirty Projectors & Bjork, Versus, Yacht

July 6, 2010 by  

Joe Lambert Mastering has been busy with a host of high-profile sessions.

The Dirty Projectors

Artists that have been through his DUMBO suite recently include Dirty Projectors & Bjork’s “Mount Wittenberg Orca”. Kelli Scarr was in for Piece Full Length, The Knocks for Make It Better, Yacht for Utopia, and Versus for The Ones And Threes.

Additional projects included Dog And Panther’s What Happened?, Translations’ City Kid, Red Panda’s 12:34, Rekaste’s Dream, Sabastian Banck’s Alibi Coast, and Broadway Boys’ Lullaby Of Broadway.

New Blood from Jay Wud, and Dirty South from A-Track, plus the upcoming Deerhunter release, round things out at JLM.