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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
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/.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.