Dave Derr, designer of the instant-classic analog Distressor, says his high-end audio company is ready to move “furiously” and “excitedly” into the digital domain.
Dave Derr of Empirical Labs got his start in audio as an analog man at a digital company, testing circuit components for Eventide Electronics’ breakthrough hit, the H3000 UltraHarmonizer.
When he invented the instant-classic Distressor compression unit, he remained an analog man in what was an increasingly digital world. It was the late 1990s, and in a time before widespread clones of the iconic LA-2A and 1176 compressors, Dave Derr used analog FET circuits to emulate them, squeezing their charms into a brutal swiss army box dubbed the EL-8.
It went on to become, arguably, the most popular boutique analog compressor of all time. To walk into a well-appointed modern studio is to see a Distressor somewhere in the racks.
When I asked Derr about what was to come next for his company, I teased him slightly, playing devil’s advocate as I am obliged to do, in the hopes of prompting a poetic wax about his die-hard love of analog magic:
“Dave – I love the Distressor,” I said, “But tell me: Why should I care about an analog compressor now? And why should I care about one in ten years? Why stay so committed to analog?”
“Actually, its funny you say that,” Derr responded without so much as a pause. “We’re pretty much in the process of going all digital right now.”
“I worked in an digital company – Eventide – for years, and I love digital. For one thing, there’s the consistency and the repeatability. And then, you can do things in digital that you could never do in analog. That’s very appealing.”
This is not to say that Empirical Labs has plans to pull the plug on the manufacture of their Distressors and Fatsos and Lil Freq EQs. They are all still shipping now, and selling at a steady clip. Derr, a self-professed “pain-in-the-ass” spent as much as twoyears designing each of them to be hardware that would stay relevant in perpetuity.
“The goal for us is a few great products,” he says. “Not to throw out a whole bunch of products to see what sticks. So we always test the heck out of stuff, sometimes beta testing for over a year. The hardest product was probably our EQ. The goal was to make an extremely powerful EQ with a ton of features, that would last forever.”
“But I also designed 3 or 4 other products where, after up to a year of testing, we decided “Nah, this is not up to the standard of what we do.’
“People probably would have liked some of them,” he says, mentioning a DI and a handful of compressor designs that didn’t make the grade. “And we do have some test units out there that people won’t give back.” But ultimately, for Derr to release a design, it has to be among the best in its class, it has to come in at an inspiring price point, it has to be repeatable and reliable, and it has to be stuffed to capacity with both character and features.
That last bit is probably Derr’s defining genius if he has one – Every Empirical Labs unit is crammed with control and does something, or some combination of things, that no other box really can.
The EL8 Distressor can blow up audio, compressing and distorting at the same time, or cleanly and authoritatively tame peaks, adding just a bit of character and girth. It can give the impression of an LA-2A or an 1176 or a vintage dbx160, or do things none of those boxes could ever hope to do.
The Fatso Jr saturates and “warms”, sending signal through transformers and multiple non-linear circuits, while the Lil Freq packs in more features than almost any EQ this side of a computer screen, every square inch of its faceplate crammed with control.
Then there’s the Mike-e preamp, which starts with an input stage that’s flat from 3hz to 200,000hz and ends with a “CompSat” section capable of adding a little vibe or tearing it all apart.
That last one that drives home Derr’s design philosophy: As much as he loves the idea of saturation and pleasant degradation, he also wants his tools to be as hi-fi and as consistent as he can make them. He never officially released the opto-compressors he designed over the years, citing lack of consistency.
“I think the problem there is the opto-couplers themselves,” he says. “They’re like snowflakes. No two are alike.”
“There are companies that make renowned opto compressors that they’ve sold thousands of, and I can tell, they’re not within a dB or two of each other – And they have to spend hours testing parts to even get them that close.”
Engineers in the field reportedly loved some of Derr’s discarded prototype test units, but they did not pass one of his main criteria: undeviating audio fidelity. And to him, that’s one of the most exciting prospects of digital.
Adapting to Digital
“I’m friends with 10 different developers,” says Derr. “Right now we’re just trying to narrow things down.”
A few years ago, Empirical Labs put a big toe into the digital market with the release of the EL7 Fatso Jr./Sr. for Universal Audio’s UAD platform. Derr’s guess was that it would be one of the hardest pieces to emulate, because it is so non-linear. If they had some success there, he could be convinced.
“Everything in [the Fatso] is non-linear,” he says. “At first I asked Dave Berners [of UAD] if he’d even be interested in doing it, because trying to recreate that thing is like trying to model 8 Distressors.”
Their results with the plugin version of the Fatso proved two things for Empirical Labs: First, that it was possible for a plugin to live up to Derr’s exacting standards and to accurately emulate its analog counterpart.
“Right off the bat, [Berners] got the soft clipping sounding really good. I compared the soft clipping to the soft clipping of the fatso under a microscope and it was just incredibly close. As soon as I saw that I said ‘yeah, he’s going to be able to do it’.
The two went back-and-forth for about a year, perfecting the response of the plugin. Derr glows as he talks about Berners’ work, citing the man’s patience, and persistence and hunger for detailed feedback that he could put to work in the emulation.
In the end, Derr says that UAD was able to get the software to behave in a way that was stunningly faithful to the original, even as they worked together to add in bucketloads of new features. “You get the total Fatso vibe with that plugin. Even here at the studio, I’m more likely to just use the plugin unless I’m doing something really crazy. It captures not only the soft clipping, but the warmth, the saturation, the compression.”
The experience taught a second lesson as well: That a successful plugin doesn’t spell doom for hardware sales. If anything, they discovered first hand, it seems that the success of one may go hand-in-hand with success for the other.
The original analog Fatso is easily one of Derr’s most popular rack units, despite the $2,500 list price. But not long after the software version came out, software sales swiftly outpaced them, although Derr says both markets continued to grow.
“Anyone who has done this will tell you that software plugins will not adversely affect hardware sales,” he remarks. “And we have found that to be true. The Fatso plugin and hardware have not directly competed with each other. I doubted it at first, very seriously. But now, two and a half years later, I just don’t doubt it any more.”
In an industry where hardware manufacturers might be lucky to keep 10-20% of their list price as honest revenue, software, which can have far lower per-unit costs, means a company can keep profits going, even while charging less and serving more customers who they were never able to reach before.
It’s a good thing, because for Derr, new profits mean new designs.
Derr expects Empirical Labs to have a new plugin out sometime in 2013. But just as with his analog designs, Derr approaches design with performance in mind, not deadlines, so a solid date is not forthcoming.
Still, “We are definitely moving that way,” he says, “and we will definitely be selling plugins on our site.” He even says that they’re “winding down” as far as analog development is concerned. There might “be a couple more” new analog units in the works, but after that, Empirical Labs has its eye squarely on where the market is headed.
“We’re moving furiously into digital,” says Derr. “I’m looking really excitedly at it.”
The company has a few tools that would be an obvious fit for emulation. But the next new plugin EL that releases will not be based on a pre-existing analog device.
“It may have some similarities. It may do some of the things other products do. But very few parts of the circuit will come from hardware.”
Derr cites several benefits when he talks about designing directly for DSP. There’s the flexibility of interface, clearly a playground for him, and the near-limitless power to shape every aspect of a non-linear curve.
But another reason he’s not aiming to release a direct emulation of Empirical Labs hardware immediately is for the sake of protection.
If it wasn’t for cracks, Dave Derr says, “A Distressor plugin would have been out 10 years ago.”
Derr says he has received near-constant requests for a plugin version of his flagship design. And that’s precisely why he has not released one.
All that demand indicates that a Distressor plugin is especially likely to be targeted for cracking by disreputable coders with too much time and not enough scruples on their hands.
“The Distressor is a flagship product. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to put our heart and soul into it. But to go through all that, only to have it cracked within a year? I’m just not willing to do that.”
Those of us who work in the music industry are acutely aware of how a lack of control over intellectual property can sap creativity and focused effort from the world – not to mention economic activity and jobs. Let’s hope that the prospects of a Distressor plugin – sure to be a hit if it were developed and released – are not another casualty.
In the meantime, Derr and Empirical Labs are prepared to test the waters with a new plugin next year in the hopes of discovering that copy protection has improved to a point where they can continue to invest in developing new tools for the frontier where so many engineers have and are continuing to move.
I, for one, have got my fingers crossed. If a software version of the Distressor ever does come out, I’ll be among the first on line to buy it. In the meantime, Empirical Labs remains one of the most respected and accessible high-end hardware companies around. Whatever the future holds, that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.
GREENPOINT, BROOKLYN: Winters in Anchorage, Alaska are epic. And, as it turns out, ideal incubators of NYC studio innovators.
Erik Braund, chief proprietor of the intriguing new Greenpoint facility known as Braund Sound, explains the musical connection between the sub-Arctic outpost where he grew up, and the 24-hour metropolis that he now occupies.
“Alaskan winters are the coldest, darkest, longest seasons you can imagine,” Braund explains. “Music was a wonderful escape from that. It’s an easy place to hole up and woodshed on guitar and drums – because it’s cold outside! It’s dark outside! When the thermometer reads minus-ten degrees, you don’t really want to go out.”
Eventually, however, Braund did step outside – way out. (4,367 miles out, to be exact.) The result is a paradoxically distinctive home base in Gotham, where a one-room studio in-the-round houses an ambitious multimedia venture.
One Room, Many Uses
Although he’s just 27, Braund appears to have jam-packed his time on Earth with action aplenty. His life was massively altered by the arrival of Nirvana’s Nevermind, and he went from playing hockey to being a proficient guitarist and drummer. Bit by the recording bug early on, he set up his first studio in Anchorage (“a dump with a shitload of gear”), which was funded by his fiscal success managing SEO campaigns for Web clients.
A fourth-generation Alaskan with extensive family ties to Norway, the enterprising Braund began producing and engineering heavily in the US and Europe (credits include A Place to Bury Strangers, Strange Shapes, Jared Woods, The Whipsaws, Delmag, Bowerbirds) as he dropped in, out, and back in to some of America’s finest educational institutions. Not long after graduating from NYU’s Clive Davis Dept. of Recorded Music (he also spent a year at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program), Braund felt ready to carve his own niche out of NYC’s crowded audio scene.
Not surprisingly, the spot he was selected is as far North as you can go – in Brooklyn. He found that relatively affordable space was available in the bustling Greenpoint Lofts building at 231 Norman Avenue, an artistic beehive that hosts an interconnected community of filmmakers, designers, and other studios.
After a careful assessment of the 1,600 sq. ft. space, Braund came to two – seemingly diametrically opposed – conclusions: 1) that the uncommon one-room studio-in-the-round design would be necessary for Braund Sound’s first phase, and yet 2) it would be an ideal HQ for multiple content-related business models, ranging from recording to audio post, video content production to an indie record label.
“If there’s one thing that’s at a premium in NYC, it’s space,” Braund acknowledges. “It’s not huge here, but I have space. I can record full rock bands here. I can make great live videos of them performing, or I can put up a green screen and create something else entirely. This is my headquarters. I like working with my friends, and I have a good network of people I respect that I’m excited to work with.”
Making the Studio In-the-Round
As he’s done with his life, Braund has packed a great deal into the 1,600 sq. ft. studio space of Braund Sound – while still making it all an enjoyable experience. Two racks of Distressor-dominated dynamics, API/Neve-flavored mic pres and effects are connected via 32 channels of Aurora Lynx A/D/A into a “vintage” Digidesign Pro Control 24-fader worksurface running Pro Tools HD2. Genelec, Yamaha and Mackie monitoring are available, with a Dangerous Monitor system.
Instruments on hand for recording are plentiful, including an ample supply of electric/acoustic guitars and basses; two beautiful DW plus one Slingerland drumsets with Craviatto snare (six more snares available) and 1922 Estey baby grand piano. Mics on hand to capture it all include hand-picked models from Neumann, Josephson, Schoeps, Blue, and Royer. A 10-foot video screen with HD projector dominates the wall facing the mix position.
A bonus at Braund Sound is the presence of a peppy Pomeranian named Goonie. Adding to the Alaskan wildlife experience is the cat Buffy, who resides full time in the adjacent sunlit lounge, complete with foosball and the indispensable Goldeneye Pinball Machine.
Despite the significant gear and instrument manifest, the Braund Sound space has plenty of room to breathe, create, and – most importantly – collaborate. With no control room, Braund revels in the advantages of recording in the same room as his clients.
“The biggest benefit of a studio-in-the-round is communication,” he states. “You have constant eye contact, and you can take your headphones off and talk to each other, instead of the fishbowl effect of pressing the button and saying ‘Go’ from another room.
“There’s no chance you can be texting during tracking, or otherwise ignoring your client here,” he continues. “I’ve been on the other end of that. This scenario requires everyone to be present. If you’re in here, you’re in here.”
Braund acknowledges that a studio-in-the-round setup can have its perils – the slightest audible shift in his chair could blow a breathy vocal take happening a few feet away. But ultimately he sees it as a perfect match for his recording style, which emphasizes creative connectedness between producer/engineer and artist. “I was expecting more glitches, but I’ve gotten totally comfortable working this way,” says Braund. “I find that the focus is heightened when everyone is in the same room.”
By maintaining his roots in the highly active Alaskan and Norwegian rock scenes, Braund Sound has quickly established itself as a welcoming space for far-flung clients trekking to NYC and his Brooklyn studio. Even though he’s just opened in May, so far Braund has already tracked sessions for 25 clients in the space. Word is spreading to the advertising community as well, with agency clients finding that the spacious open room helps get quick results from talent in time-sensitive VO sessions.
And while Braund Sound has acoustics that make it a smart match for a wide range of styles, its founder is unabashed in his allegiance to the rock & roll that got him started. “The musical niche here is rock band tracking, if I had to sum it up,” Braund says. “Because I’ve played drums and guitar, I can speak drums to the drummer and guitar to the guitarist. And as a producer I bring my influences and taste — which is not the best taste, and not the worst taste. It’s just mine.”
A Smarter Studio Business
Braund may be young, but he knows that simply setting up a shingle as a recording/mixing studio in 2012 is a risky bet.
That’s why Braund Sound is every inch a multimedia venture. His Web channel “Live at Braund Sound” demonstrates the facility’s capabilities for shooting/editing video, as well as mixing to picture. The Braund Sound label is working steadily alongside, providing him with an angle to work closely with his friends from Alaska, Norway, NYC, and anywhere else on the planet that harbors talent.
“This is my Erik Braund hub,” he says. “I’m not just trying to be in the studio business. My goal is not for the room to be booked every day of the week. Instead, it’s about creating an environment to work with good people in different ways, whether its video, recording, editing or producing. This place is creating the space for that.”
Still, there’s no denying that the space Erik Braund created, at any given time, may very well emerge as a craved flavor in NYC’s wildly diverse recording scene – not just due to the way this distinctive space sounds, but to the way it feels.
“The first time everyone comes in here, they say, ‘Where’s the booth?’” notes the enterprising audio maven. “They start out apprehensive, but once everyone is outfitted with their own headphones and cue system, people see they all have a nook to fit in.
“By the end of the session – every single session – people all say the same thing: ‘I was really comfortable.’ That’s the best feedback I could get. That’s what people come back for.”
– David Weiss
Special thanks to Julian Silva of On Air Mastering for helping to make this story happen!
HARLEM, MANHATTAN: You don’t have to imagine what’s like to be in the head of La Dispute. Everything about this intensely emotional rock band – their lyrics, their message, their music, and even the way it’s recorded – is about removing the mystery.
It’s all obvious from the moment that you hear the band’s singer, Jordan Dreyer, pushing it out in “a Departure,” the opening track from their arresting new album Wildlife. Don’t wait around for the raw energy of this Michigan five-piece to let up either, because the artfully charging guitars, rhythmic explorations, and intimate space of their post-hardcore screamo/progressive rock songs just keep on coming at you.
The recording team of producer Andrew Everding (Thursday) and engineer Joe Pedulla (Swizz Beatz, Thurday, Patent Pending) arrived at an early self-imposed challenge while working with this uniquely inspired group: no artificial reverb allowed. Whether it was plates or Lexicon PCMs, all ambience not imposed by the band’s actual surroundings was banished on Wildlife – instead, only the natural sound of the rooms at NYC’s Stadium Red and Chicago’s Drasik Studios were allowed to influence the sonic sense of space.
Like many feats of engineering, the “no reverb” rule came not by design but as a matter of natural course, starting at the initial sessions in Chicago. “We had miked the drums in the live room, and the room mics that were in there were set up for talkback,” Pedulla recalls. “Then the guitarist was in there to be next to his amp, and we started realizing, ‘This sounds cool.’ The parts needed this ambience, and sounded really good with that sound that you don’t get from close mics.
“So we started printing more and more room mics,” Pedulla continues, “and we realized early on the importance of that way of working. Collectively, we started printing everything by having a ribbon mic in the center of the room. Midway through the record, we made it official: Shoot for no digital reverb, and bash away in a way that you can’t do in a basement studio. Obviously, it’s a digital album to begin with, recorded entirely into Pro Tools, so we did what we could from there to remain in the natural era of recording. It was a fun science experiment for us to do.”
AMPED UP WITHOUT REVERB
After recording six of Wildlife’s 14 songs in Chicago (without vocals), the scene shifted to NYC, where the rest of the album was tracked in the spacious complex of Stadium Red uptown. As Everding, Pedulla, and La Dispute — Dreyer, drummer Brad Vanger Lugt, guitarists Chad Sterenburg and Kevin Whittemore, and bassist Adam Vass – progressed, they got an increasing feel for the appeal of the real reverb that they were cultivating.
“We were just trying to capture what it would be like for an audience member sitting and listening to a guitar in a room,” says Pedulla. “There was something natural about it — no one ever listens to a guitar with their ear right against the speaker. Whenever someone is in their bedroom or basement playing guitar there’s a natural ambience to it, so we wanted to put that down and get the big parts to sound really big, and really ambient.
“The singer, Jordan Dreyer, has this crazy dynamic range – a 20dB swing from how loud and quiet he gets. So there are some vocal parts with no resonance at all, where he’s speaking/singing softly, the room is not echoing, and he sounds close and in-your-face. Then the dynamic swing happens, and we would see how big it can get.”
At Stadium Red, where Pedulla frequently works, the team took full advantage of the versatile, 1,000 sq. ft. Studio A. “I love that room for its flexibility,” Pedulla says. “It’s got gobos and a throw rug to emulate the size of different rooms, and with the small (300 sq. ft.) drum room, leaving the door full or partially open makes a difference. You can really have everything sound intimate with close mics, or you can open your room mics and get the long throw on it.”
To record the drums at Stadium Red, Pedulla first put a combination of close mics and boundary mics on the kit. Leaving the drum room’s sliding door open, he then miked the large live room purely to pick up the drums’ resonance. “We did a couple of different setups,” says the engineer. “We had a Royer 121 as our mono room mic, and a pair of AKG 414’s as the stereo-pair room mics, or two of the Audio Technica3060 tube condenser mics, which they don’t make anymore.
“There was another mono room mic from the ‘50’s or ‘60’s, the STC 4021 that I know as a ‘ball and basket.’ It’s a really cool, dark-sounding ribbon mic. Ribbon mics on rooms are king, and that’s what we used for our vocal room mic as well — there’s something about the way a ribbon mic chops off the top end, and makes it kind of smooth. Using a ribbon for the room on drums you don’t get too much of a cymbal bang, it’s not harsh, with a really solid top end and it gives you the mid range you need to capture that natural, resonating snare reverb.”
Dreyer’s close vocal mic was the Bock Audio 151 tube microphone, going into an Amek 9098 preamp, then tamed by an Empirical Labs Distressor. “We printed room mics on the vocals as well the whole album through, except for one song because of scheduling we had to record in Stadium Red’s C room,” Pedulla notes. “So for that, while I was mixing I took a Genelec 1031 speaker and placed it in the vocal booth in the exact spot that Jordan was standing. Then I placed the STC 4012 ribbon mic in the center of the live room and ‘reamped’ the vocals.”
When miking guitars, Pedulla looked to a Shure SM57 and a Royer 121 for close mikes, and a Neumann TLM 103 for the room. “There’s something cool about that, from 6’ to 25’ back from the amp. You can put it right in front of the amp and still get the ambience, or put it all the way at the end and really have it sounding big.”
Those listening even semi-carefully will hear some artificial wash on the guitar part for the song “a Poem.” “We used an analog spring reverb, the Sound Workshop 262 Stereo Spring Reverb, on one guitar part there on input,” concedes Pedulla. “The guitarist, Chad insisted on using it — he used it sort of as you would a pedal into his guitar amp. We were using it as an effect, by picking up and actually dropping the 2U box. Rest assured, this was accompanied by a room mic for more reverb.”
StadiumRed’s SSL G+also helped shape and tame the sound. “We had a 26” kick drum, and that went straight into the SSL,” Pedulla says. “Those drums were so big, and there was something about the kick that I hated at first, but Andrew and I reduced 15 dB at 120Hz – that solved the problem of the kick drum, getting rid of the low-mid garbage we didn’t need. The flexibility of that EQ and that one cut alone saved the drum kit – to me, cutting is just as important as boosting, if not more.”
MAKING IT WORK IN THE MIX
Knowing that Studio A and the SSL G+ were booked up, Pedulla executed the Wildlife mix in the box. “I really liked using HEAT in Pro Tools|HD on this album,” he notes. “For a raw-sounding rock band like La Dispute are, I really liked overcompressing at times and then hearing the harmonic character of the HEAT distortion. I summed through the SSL, with two faders up to unity gain – the SSL 2-buss compressor combined with HEAT was really important to the glue of the mix.”
While temptation ran rampant, Pedulla was able to keep his hands off any and all reverb – hardware or plugins. “It was always in the back of my mind, but I was on this mission to make the record happen without it,” states Pedulla. “Even if it was sounding weird, and the room mic wasn’t able to give me what I wanted to throw in the mix, I just did what I could to make it work. We agreed on it, that’s what it is, and we accepted that fact. Even if it was a little bizarre or not quite perfect, that’s what it was going to be, regardless of the character.”
BEAR-HUGGING THE LIMITATIONS
For Pedulla, Everding, and the brave souls of La Dispute, the self-imposed restrictions of Wildlife were well worth the pain. “You kind of get painted into a corner sometimes, and you need to know how to dig yourself out,” Pedulla says. “The limitations are fun. It’s the challenge of engineering. Some days you’ll say, ‘I have to focus on compression and making this sit well,’ realizing the dynamic and importance of it for the band.
“One of the big lessons I learned from this project is the importance of room mics, and that I shouldn’t neglect them when recording. Even if the fader is at -25 dB, there’s still a little ambience in there, so it can sit in the mix a bit better. And now I know there are some things you can do with room mics that you can’t do with digital reverb — that’s for damn sure!”
– David Weiss
SOHO, MANHATTAN: The studios of NYC are not sitting still. As evidence consider the latest sonic escalation, launched from right below Broome Street and Broadway. There, Downtown Music Studios has upped the Big Apple ante with the installation of a vintage Neve 8014 console into the control room of Studio A.
Extra musically satisfying and aesthetically amazing, this 16-channel board represents more than just a fancy bunch of faders from the year 1970. Its addition provides a focused window on NYC studio economics in 2011, shedding light on the artistic and technical demands of the sector’s current clientele, as well as the informed interplay between facilities striving to be competitive instead of repetitive.
The console has been busy since it arrived earlier this year. Early projects on it include Santigold, David Guetta, Mike Posner, Benny Blanco, and Jason Goldstein mixing SNL-borne rock stars The Lonely Island. Downtown Studios Chief Engineer Zach Hancock explained to SonicScoop exactly why this bold new board has rolled into town.
How long has Downtown Studios been going now?
The studio is approaching our third year. It’s evolved from a production space that we rented at Chung King to the full-fledged, two-room commercial recording facility that it is now.
We initially started this facility with two control surfaces, moving from two Digidesign D-Commands to just one of those, in Studio B. That’s because of the importation of an 8014 Neve into Studio A.
What led Downtown initially to the D-Command for both rooms?
For the longest time we were large format console people, and we fought passionately to prove not only to ourselves, but to the world that mixing in the box was a viable option. The move from SSL desks to mixing with a Pro Control and an HD5 was a revolutionary phase for us in the early 2000′s. Working with Tony Maserati and Vaughn Merrick, they proved that it could really be done. Implementing mixing-in-the-box with a control surface in both rooms was in part an outgrowth of my relationship with Vaughn, and his astute idea that it was the best way to work.
Part of what makes Downtown Music Studios special is that as a record label, and a publishing company. We’re generating content ourselves. We provide a commercial workspace for clients half the time, and the other half we are the client. I wanted artists and the publishing company to be able to use the space as creatively as they could.
Downtown is a brand dedicated to forward-thinking artists, and that comes out intensely in the music. Part of that is having the studio time that they need, therefore a device at the center of the workspace that isn’t proprietary. If we had a large format console that was doing the mixing, I felt that they’d have a hard time translating that at their personal spaces, or in another commercial studio.
I saw other people’s workflows following suit — mixing in the box. So that’s why we equipped studio A to what we previously had. I still believe in it, and it was an amazing opportunity to work that way for two years.
What paved the way for switching to the Neve 8014?
Something happened when Avid acknowledged to the rest of the music community that native processing was just as robust as a small TDM system. When PT9 came out, I realized all at once that so much of our workflow – editing, doing overdubs, mixing – was going to happen in personalized spaces. It was an outgrowth of the music community, an outgrowth of the robust environment the computer now provides.
I saw the opportunity to focus Studio A as a tool to record bands, and handle all the elements of a project’s tracking. I thought that if you’re going to end up doing 30 to 40% of your workflow at home editing, maybe some mixing, etc… that it would free up your budget to work at an “A” level studio to do your recording. So we picked the console that was best for that.
This Neve 8014, working in coordination with PT9 and a EuCon control surface, is the perfect implementation of the modern workflow we’re talking about. It is truly the best of both worlds, a hybrid analog digital environment. It sounds astonishing, everything works in a very elegant workflow, and people are reacting to it very strongly.
What were the criteria going in to the new console search, before you settled on this particular board?
The selection process was laborious, we looked at every option out there: SSLs, APIs, Neves of different variety. Ultimately, the most important things for us were that 1) it was not counterproductive to the way we had worked previously, and 2) that it had had the best sounding mic-pres, the best sounding EQs, and it could really bring something to the table that wasn’t there in the market before.
I’m close to people who, on paper, could be considered to be our competition. It didn’t make a lot of sense for us to be doing what they were doing. I’m really happy to see that the community of studios run by people in NYC are really good people. That wasn’t always the case.
Let’s drill down to this Neve 8014 that’s sitting in front of us. Why did it finally make the cut?
The main reason is that this console is in pristine condition, and it has the best of what we want for tracking, mixing, summing or any other in-the-box permutation of analog and digital equipment.
One of the things that we’re very mindful of is the acoustical installation in this room. It sounds like one of the best rooms I’ve ever worked in, and I’m not the only person who feels that way: Tony Maserati, Jason Goldstein, Vaughn Merrick, Ari Raskin, are serious engineers. We work out of this room for different reasons, but one is that it’s acoustically flat – Pilchner-Schoustal knocked it out of the park.
I didn’t want to get a console that would require us reworking the acoustical or mechanical infrastructure. I didn’t want to have to put in another AC unit or bulkhead, or rip apart the room to get it in, because to me the most important part of the room is the acoustics, and the ergonomics. The equipment is always within reach, and the fact that there’s not a credenza behind you is meaningful. That’s why if we had put in a 72-input console, that would have been counterproductive.
Where did you locate this particular board?
I always said I wanted an 80-series Neve. The difficulty in acquiring an 8068 is that it would have been too big a car to fit in our garage. The 8014 is really the perfect-size console, given the modern integration of the computer, and the way Studio A is layed out. We found this board in Ireland – I sent Joe Russo, who’s an amazing young tech, to Ireland to inspect it, and he spent four or five days there. We did a very thorough inspection, and decided it really was the console. Rock-It Cargo handled the logistics of getting the desk here quickly and safely.
We split a lot of hairs when it came to planning the actual switch from the D Command to the 8014. When the time arrived, we executed the plan and there weren’t a lot of surprises — it went very smoothly. The people at Neve and Geoff Tanner were kind enough to send us some documentation, and Alto Music NYC provided us with a lot of outboard gear and a new Pro Tools rig. Everybody did a really exceptional job.
You’ve been working on this board since January – how has it matched up with your vision of an ideal tracking tool?
I think that there’s an “X-factor” to the sonic architecture of the mic pres and the EQ that make you feel as though you’re listening to a record. Working in the box is transparent, and sometimes indicative of something a little bit lifeless, but this console sounds a little less like real life in a super-natural way. Ergonomically, it’s the best way to work in a tracking situation. All of your mic pres and EQs are there. It’s not arduous. It’s logistically easy to accomplish tracking.
The other thing is that the Class A mic pre really is a cut above. I think these mic pres are the best for pop and rock music. It’s a very clear, robust sound, and it has a harmonic detail in certain frequencies that are very musical. It’s difficult to explain how they sound better, but they’re famous for a reason. Having them inline, directly in front of you and your PT rig is great. You can get what you need really fast.
The artists we’ve been working with on this console have been excited about the sounds that we’ve gotten. That gives you confidence in your ability, and that’s what it comes down to: making sure the artist can create. This console has definitely augmented our ability to do that. That’s a really rewarding feeling after working so hard to acquire it.
How are you’re using the 8014 in the mix phase?
The first thing I should note is that it’s not an inline console – it’s a split console. It’s got an interesting set up for monitor returns. We’ve integrated the monitor returns at mixdown to become inputs to the console, but with a flick of a switch they can function, as they would have when they left the Neve factory in 1970. Some engineers prefer this for tracking.
So we have, essentially, 32 inputs to the desk; 16 of those inputs have faders and 1084 mic pres and EQs etc…, and the other 16 inputs allow the room to use some of the other pieces of the installed outboard– the Chandler TG1, the Distressors, 1176, Pultec style EQs, GML EQ, tube limiters. Everything can fold down to the stereo bus.
It’s all new outboard equipment in Studio A that we thought would be the perfect complement to the console, and we made a point not just put in vintage equipment. There’s some incredible new gear, and we’ve adopted a lot of that stuff in the workflow. I think of outboard processing as an opportunity to add different spices to your mix. So we bought valve EQs that would complement the Neve – they have some color that the transistors in the console don’t have, and the dynamics that we have are different than the compressors in the desk. We wanted to have mono tube limiters and compressors that you would use in a tracking environment, and the stereo bus compressors that you would use in a tracking environment or on groups in a mix.
The automation comes from the Euphonix Artist Series Controller with EuCon, integrated into Pro Tools 9, which together works like the D Command. So we were able to get the same level of integration into this amazing analog console as we had before.
Can you explain exactly how that EuCon-to-Neve connection works?
We’ll come out of Pro Tools, and dedicate an analog output to a group of audio i.e. a “stem”, or one analog output per instrument. So that comes from Pro Tools into the desk, and then the desk functions as an analog mixer.
It goes a step beyond a summing mixer, in that you can do inserts on the console that allow you to step away from hardware inserts in Pro Tools. That requires a level of digital-to-analog conversion, then analog-to-digital, so you covert twice while you go out of the box then back in. The beauty of the Neve is that you can use the inserts on the channel fader and avoid all that conversion.
For automation, we modulate parameters in Pro Tools, volume data etc… with the Euphonix control surface. Any volume changes happen before they arrive at the console. It’s an important step in making recalls easier, more convenient for all parties involved. Most people are doing automation in the box so if you open the session the next day, the automation is there. There’s no lengthy recall, and that can save your client money. You can also bring it home, etc…
You said before that you were paying attention to where Downtown fits into the overall scene, in NYC and I guess that goes for nationally as well. Why is that so important?
One of the difficult things about owning or running a studio is that there are so many choices at hand for people. At the same time one of the incredible things about making music is you have so many choices.
For me, the challenge was to live on the side of the debate where you’re making music and loving the choices. I think it’s silly to be doing the same thing that five or six other people are doing. So it was a no-brainer for us to do something a little bit unique. But it’s not just the console – the truth is I feel that we have the best Pro Tools rigs – an HD5 system, an HD Native system and an Avid Symphony system. We take each one seriously, whether its Logic or PT. We can accommodate at a high level of integration. We have almost every plug-in you could want, and a UAD 2 card, which I’ve been raving about.
The bottom line is that the computer has always been the most important thing for us. One of the ways to find a lane is to take our expertise as computer and process people, and combine it with the best hybrid approach which we’ve been developing over the last 10 years. It’s not completely unique, but it’s not run-of-the-mill by any stretch of the imagination. It’s something that people are really excited about – the response that we’ve gotten so far is amazing.
In the last several months we’ve covered some significant console switches in NYC – the ICON was switched out for an SSL G+ at Stadium Red, and prior to that Tainted Blue traded their SSL J9000 for a Euphonix System 5. Why this increased activity?
I think that studios have always changed consoles. I read Stadium Red integrated Just Blaze into their workflow. Not only is that an amazing facility, but he’s one of the greatest producers of all time. Just Blaze has had an indelible mark on hip hop and R&B. His work is amazing. The guys at Tainted Blue I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting, but time to time you hear glowing reports of what they’re doing. I can’t tell you why they switched, but I know the System 5 is the pinnacle of post production consoles. Some people use it for music, and for post it probably is one of the best tools.
I do think that technology is at a place where for the last four or five years there was an identity crisis of how people wanted to work. The expediency of working in the box became really important, because recording budgets have scaled back. The need to make changes at the last minute possible has made a definite impact on our workflow.
Computers have gotten so good that a large-format console isn’t a need, it’s a want, whereas before you had to have one. Whether or not a studio needs an analog console is something you need to look at on a case-to-case basis. But for us, this change is exciting. It makes a lot of sense.
– David Weiss
SoHo, Manhattan: Travis Harrison — record producer, engineer, founder of Serious Business Records & Studio and Guided By Voices super-fan — met late era GBV guitarist Doug Gillard when his band, The Unsacred Hearts, shared a bill with Gillard at Piano’s.
Harrison gushed about GBV, Gillard dug The Unsacred Hearts, and they stayed in touch. Later on, Harrison inquired about future prospects for Lifeguards, the Gillard and Robert Pollard GBV side-project whose one and only release, Mist King Urth, came out in ’02.
“I was a huge fan of the first Lifeguards album,” says Harrison, “I buy everything that Bob [Pollard] puts out. After I met Doug, Bob had been in touch to tell him if he wanted to produce the music and find a label, he’d be into doing another Lifeguards record. That’s when I swooped in and pitched Doug: I have a studio, a label, the [recording] skill-set and I’m a huge fan. Let’s do this! I expected to get no response.”
Of course, Gillard did respond and the new Lifeguards record, due out February 15 on Serious Business / Ernest Jenning Record Co., was engineered by none other than Harrison. Scroll down to stream “Product Head,” the album’s single released on 7″ in advance of the record. And read on for an interview about the recording and production of Lifeguard’s Waving At The Astronauts by this Guided By Voices super-fan…
Awesome that you got to engineer this record at Serious Business! So tell me about how it all came together.
The way they worked on this project is that Doug wrote the instrumentals and recorded them at home in Garage Band and then sent them to Bob who then created the melodies and lyrics on top of these instrumentals. It’s just one of the many ways that Bob works.
Doug’s GarageBand demos were pretty fully fleshed out — he recorded most of the guitars, and bass and other little sonic treatments. Then he brought it to me and at my studio, I salvaged any less than ideally recorded stuff, but we also tracked drums, bass, re-tracked any guitar that I could get him to re-track and then we recorded Bob’s vocals.
What were your first impressions of the material? Were you so psyched?!
First of all, I was just in awe. As far as Doug’s instrumentals go, the shit’s amazing. He’s a great guitar player, and has an amazing musical mind that always goes somewhere you don’t expect. He’s awesome. But I didn’t actually hear these tracks as songs beyond instrumentals until Bob was actually in the studio, at the microphone. He drove in from Dayton in May to do his vocals. And that was just amazing. The guy is a genius! Obviously I’m a huge fan, but just to see him work and see how completely natural and instinctual it is, I was blown away.
Wow, very cool! And I know you’re a drummer — did you by any chance get to play on the record?
Yes, I played on five songs and Doug played on the rest. He’s a great drummer, he basically plays everything, but it was obviously a crazy honor for me to play drums on this record. There were some parts that were really fast, that either exceeded his technical ability or that he thought I’d have a good groove for – that’s the stuff I got a shot at.
And what was your goal in the studio – what aspects were you re-recording or adding, and how did you approach the recording?
It was very important to me to make it sound as un-GarageBand-y as possible. We didn’t want it to sound homemade at all. And Bob’s vision for the record was like “ARENA ROCK.” He’s known for lo-fi, but we were consciously not going for that. Doug was the producer, so he really called all the shots. He called for a lot of really heavy compression on drums.
On one song in particular, “Nobody’s Milk,” Doug had done the original drum track on a drum machine and it was incredible but it wasn’t totally in time and he’d used the GarageBand compressor at 10 to really squash it. It was really clean but insanely compressed and I begged to redo them.
It took a ton of work to match his exact part because it was very intricate, but to achieve the compression, I used the API 2500 bus compressor as the first stage and then after that, the Fatso pretty much demolishing it in parallel. And I really favored the compressed side and went for this ultra squashed sound to simulate his Garage Band demo. That was my goal throughout the whole project, to please Doug and Bob as much as I could. I willingly and gladly checked my ego at the door!
In that process, do you feel like you learned from them? From following their instincts?
Of course, although this way of working — taking a fully fleshed out Garage Band demo and turning that into the record — is incredibly tedious. So it was a matter of enjoying the tedium of that. I spent an insane amount of time on my own editing, beat-by-beat, that ultra compressed drum track because I didn’t want Doug to hear really anything different from his version. I just wanted it to be real drums instead of these samples.
But do you feel you came up with something new and different in the process — something cool you wouldn’t have come up with otherwise?
Yes, but you know Doug was the producer and this is what he wanted to hear. And when he heard it, he (and Bob) loved it. But the way these guys work…and I should separate them, because Doug is more of a meticulous craftsman. But at the same time, he does kind of bang it out. He’s not going to do 30 takes of something. Where Bob does ONE take.
Tell me about that! What was it like recording Bob’s vocals on this?
I had a [Shure] SM7 set up in the studio. The SM7 is my favorite mic, especially for a singer like Bob. I was really excited. My thinking was to record Bob onto two tracks simultaneously. One track was just about capturing him with very little compression — an SM7 to a Great River mic pre to a distressor at 2:1 (but barely touching it) — and then on the other track, I hit him with an 1176 at 4:1 with the super-spitty setting (the fastest release and the slowest attack). And that’s the track I ended up using for most of the final mixes.
Also, for every track, I printed either Space Echo or Echoplex live. Bob would step up to the mic and say “Alright man, this one is arena rock!” or “This one’s Elvis!” or “psychedelic” and between the Echoplex and the Space Echo, I was able to get what I wanted. I would print that live so there were certain freak-outs in sections — wild, completely tasteless effects stuff.
Bob basically sang the record in sequence. He stepped up and sang the first song all the way through, he listened to it played back over headphones and then moved on. Couple tunes, he’d punch in a word here and there. He did Side A, then we took a break, had a couple tall, cold ones, and then move onto Side B. It was incredible. I’d always heard he was first-take-jake, and he really was. And he was in wonderful voice too. As good as I’ve ever heard him sound.
Awesome. And he was digging what he was hearing?
Yeah, I was giving him Space Echo on his headphones. Monitoring off my Soundcraft Ghost, I was recording the output of the Space Echo back into Pro Tools, and I knew he wanted to hear a lot of it, so I gave it to him and made it long, made it do stuff! I tried to provide him with something he was really feeling.
And that was the vocal chain throughout?
Yeah, this was a bang-it-out situation. He did the whole 10-song record in four hours, and two of the hours we were just screwing around. The thing about Bob is he doesn’t like to spend a lot of time in the studio, but he works really hard. He wakes up every morning and writes. He’d worked hard on these tunes and had practiced them a lot at home. He was on point.
And you mixed the record as well? What was the focus there?
Yes, Doug and I mixed the record together. And he’s into hearing stuff pretty bright. He doesn’t want to hear a ton of kick drum. He has a specific way that he hears records, coming from this late 70s, post-punk place, and the end result is awesome.
We worked very quickly. I mix in Pro Tools, but not in the box. I spread it out on the Ghost as much as I can and try to use as much outboard as I can, but I also keep it as recallable as possible. So I would sit at the desk and get the mix up for a few hours and then when it came time to mixdown, Doug sat at the desk and I would hit record, and he would do all kinds of cool shit!
He ended up using the console in very obviously un-Pro Tools-like ways. Like, panning sweeps on Bob’s lead vocal and on the guitar solos. Expressive moves that you wouldn’t do in Pro Tools.
And I really encouraged Doug to do this because there’s a character to all that GBV music that’s the exact opposite of Pro Tools. In the back of my mind through the whole project, I kept in mind the essential character of the GBV recordings that people love so much, and they’re on 4 track or on ADAT made in a garage somewhere.
How would you describe that “un-Pro Tools” quality? Just totally unpolished and lo-fi, or what?
Well the entire GBV and Robert Pollard’s solo oeuvre is about as varied as you can imagine. He’s obviously famous for being the king of lo-fi. You have certain records, like Vampire On Titus, which just sounds like the shittiest possible thing you can imagine. 4-track and whoa…you can barely hear the vocals! It takes like 8 listens to realize how amazing the songs are.
On the other hand, they made records with Ric Ocasek and Rob Schnapf for TVT, and those are glossy and way more hi-fi. The Rob Schnapf record sounds incredible. It’s a huge guitar record, lots of compression but modern sounding. So they run the gamut.
But the quality I’m talking about is… this thing we all get into when we make records with Pro Tools — even when you’re not trying to make polished sounding music, you polish your mixes because you can do anything you want. You have all these shades of subtlety…all these things you can do in Pro Tools, where when you’re working with this big beast of a board and you’re just trying to get something done, you make mistakes and the mistakes becomes the essential character of the music.
Do you feel you had to hold yourself back from the way you usually engineer records at all to capture that?
Yes, somewhat. But in this case, a lot of times there just wasn’t any time to do things that I should have done. Like getting the drum mics perfectly in phase, or creating musically perfect EQ relationships between all the overdubs — all the things we do as mix engineers. We just did it fast. And that speed is an essential part of the GBV aesthetic. Bob does not ponder the music.
Awesome, well congrats! Now, fill us in on Serious Business — it’s a studio and a record label — how long have you been around?
I started the Serious Business studio in Long Island City with my good buddy, Andy Ross, who’s now the guitar player in OK Go. We had a G4 with Pro Tools and the audacity to put an ad on Craigslist advertising as a studio, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
We moved from there to a big loft in Williamsburg and then partnered up in a collective-type fashion — an engineer friend of mine, Halsey Quemere, brought a tape machine (a Sony MCI, acquired from Jimmy Douglass) into the fold, and then I felt we needed a more proper studio space, so we found the SoHo location. Last year, I hooked up with [producer/engineer] Shannon Ferguson (of Longwave, etc.) and with him came this great influx of cool gear.
And the label? You guys are actually putting out the Lifeguards release, yes?
Yes, I started the label awhile back as an outlet for my own bands, and my friends’ bands, and though it tends to take a back seat to other (paying) gigs, it’s continued as a total labor of love. Artists like Benji Cossa, Higgins, Rocketship Park, etc. it is all music I love. The binding theme of the label is Class A songwriting.
For Lifeguards’ Waving At The Astronauts, Serious Business is partnering with Ernest Jenning to put it out. I did the A&R and recording and production and layout of the artwork, and Ernest Jenning is doing the promotion and distribution, etc.
And you’re also doing a podcast for BreakThru Radio — it’s cool! Tell us about that!
BreakThru Radio produces a ton of original content — including a few in-studio sessions with bands. The main property is a show called “Live Studio,” where the band comes in, plays a set, and talks to the host Maya MacDonald, a college radio-style interview. I started recording the lion’s share of those last year at Serious Business, and after awhile, I convinced them to give me my own show!
My show is the same kind of format, but way less formal — there’s drinking, silly craziness and lots of potty-mouth. My vision for that show is to create an atmosphere of what it’s really like when bands come into the studio to record with me. So far I haven’t gotten fired, which is a miracle!
Tune in every Monday morning for a new installment of Serious Business Music Live on BreakThru Radio Check out Serious Business, the studio, at www.seriousbusinessmusic.com and the label, at www.seriousbusinessrecords.com. And pick up the Lifeguards single “Product Head on iTunes.
GREENPOINT, BROOKLYN: When it’s this cold outside, huddling up together makes perfect sense. With this week’s release of Brooklyn Heat – a collection of singles recorded by six BKLYN indie bands in six days last summer – we can all hope to feel the searing goodness of NYC rock and roll come shooting through our speakers.
Interestingly, Brooklyn Heat’s helmsman, Producer/Engineer Shane O’Connor, had to warm up to the idea of making a compilation. But the offer of free studio time from Monsterland Recording Studio (now RIP) proved impossible for this hard-core recordist to refuse, and that’s a good thing.
When the collection officially launches this Thursday night (1/20) with a party at Greenpoint’s COCO 66, people are bound to hook onto what they hear. Each Brooklyn Heat band – Quiet Loudly, Gunfight!, Shark?, Quilty, Little Racer, and Magnetic Island – make their own urgently artful contribution to the comp. The rock here is as compelling, raw and real as it is well-recorded.
For music producers, engineers and artists who are as interested in how to capture a concept as they are in overdubbing a Clavinet, the machinations behind Brooklyn Heat are worth knowing.
How did the idea for Brooklyn Heat come together?
I was approached by Bones Howell (his stage name, he specifically asked me to not use his given name), the owner of Monsterland Recording Studio about working out of his studio in the winter of 2010. I did a few projects out of his studio but I had other studios around NYC and Boston that I was working at as well. His studio was more of an overgrown — and built out — project studio with great gear.
Monsterland existed for about six years in various forms and he was tired of running the studio as a commercial venture — I owned a studio for three years in Boston and I can completely understand why owning a commercial facility can be frustrating.
Bones asked me if I would be interested in some free studio time to work on a project outside of the typical confines of a commercial recording. He suggested a compilation project, but my reaction was lukewarm at best: To me, a compilation was something that ska bands from 1997 put together. It was rarely, if ever, seen as a comprehensive work and was usually meant for the purpose of selling a larger product like an album or a touring bill.
I thought about the proposition more, and I decided that a compilation in the year 2010 didn’t need to be for the purpose of commerce at all if I didn’t want it to be. With this opportunity of free studio time from Monsterland, I could create a meaningful body of work outside of commerce that was purely for the promotion and proliferation of the artist. With this goal in mind, Brooklyn Heat was born.
That’s an organic genesis – the best kind. How did you select which bands would be involved? And with the sometimes questionable nature of compilations, why do you think this was something they wanted to be a part of?
The primary factor in choosing artists for Brooklyn Heat was my personal interest in their work. I had to really dig what they were doing, and their potential in the future for selection in this project. I also wanted the artists to know each other. There are a multitude of micro scenes in Brooklyn and I wanted to highlight a moment of “rock” in the summer of 2010.
Through the filter of my personal interest and selecting artists from the same social circle, there’s a cohesive sound to Brooklyn Heat that I was not initially intending, but I think its the most significant part of the project.
The project’s sound happens to be fast, somewhat punky, and largely stripped down. For the bands that I picked, there was an effort to stay away from things that are often indulged in with home recordings such as wild effects and endless layers of keyboards. The record is more about capturing bands in a moment that an inserted production aesthetic.
You definitely get that. The bands each have their own sound, but there’s a clear common thread between all of them as well. So how did Monsterland work out as the studio for the project?
Unfortunately that studio is now closed, but I hope to do similar projects in the future. I’m not sure where yet, but I’m sure someone I know will throw me some studio time for another venture like this! But Monsterland happened to be well equipped to record a rock band in a live setting, which is how most of this project was recorded.
The Brooklyn Heat Website says that you recorded six bands in six days. Was it tough to work this way? On the other hand, what are the benefits of recording a band-a-day?
The press releases all say “six bands in six days” which is partially true but also a lie. There were some mix revisions that happened outside of that time constraint, but not far beyond 10 hours per song. The time constraint was actually created by me, not by the studio owner. Monsterland’s owner would have been fine if each song took a month, but that wasn’t what I was trying to create. I think a day to record a rock song is a perfectly acceptable amount of time.
I tend to push for live recordings as opposed to an overdub method. I was trained as an engineer by very traditional producers and engineers who tried to keep recording styles of the ’60’s and ’70’s alive, and I think the time constraint adds to that aesthetic as well. I like schedules. It keeps people honest about what’s important in a recording.
The workflow was very casual since there wasn’t a dollar sign attached to the clock. Each band cut basics before lunch and then we would cut any overdubs and vocals that were left in the afternoon. Most of the mixes were done in two hours. It’s easy when the song is good and everyone is relaxed.
For recording equipment, most of our tools were rather standard: We had a Pro Tools HD1 rig with a Lynx Aurora 16 box, and I mixed mainly in the box with a Dangerous Summing Buss on the back end, and I had some nice compressors on crucial elements such as kick, snare, vocals, bass — I had an LA-2A, two 1176’s, and a Distressor. Those all helped, but because the dynamics of the performances were on I opted for a lot of group compression with plugins. I like those Stillwell Audio plugins a lot.
Throughout the entire record I was testing the ADK S-7 and A-6 microphones for a review. I usually don’t test gear in actual recording sessions, but for this project I felt it was appropriate. They are nice mics.
Sounds like an uncomplicated workflow, which is totally appropriate for the project. Was there a song from the bunch that you really enjoyed capturing?
The Gunfight! cut (“I Would Be Your Man”) was probably my favorite song to record for this project. On this song, members of Quiet Loudly lent a hand with some guitar solos, and backing vocals. Both bands share the same bass players so there was this weird incestuous quality about the creation of that song that felt like I was really capturing something special. Gunfight! and Quiet Loudly were on tour together all summer so they had all kinds of unspoken chemistry that I had to tap into very quickly.
On a usual record I may have a month or more to develop relationships within a band so that once we’re in a studio, I understand who’s the boss, who’s the diva, and who’s the “recording guy”. With Brooklyn Heat I had to discover individual roles in ten minutes.
Even though you had your own doubts before getting started, I’d say overall that producers, engineers, studios and artists seem increasingly interested in creating compilations like this, where there’s a common thread to how the record is produced/created/etc… What’s the attraction of doing a focused project like Brooklyn Heat — what makes it good for everyone involved?
It’s great for the artist — specifically with this project — in that they’re given a platform to create without the financial constraints that the “recording industry” typically puts in place.
For me, it was a way to do what I love without a lot of the downsides put into place by the financial reality of recording. I can only hope that it shines a positive light on the artists I am showcasing. An added benefit would be recognition of my engineering work, but that is not really the intention of the project.
Hopefully, for our intended audience it’s a document of a time in Brooklyn rock.
Those are admirably modest — yet somehow lofty — goals. For you, what’s the particular draw of documenting, and being a part of, the NYC audio scene right now?
I lived in Boston working as a producer and an engineer for six years, and the scene is great there. NYC in comparison has a commitment to create something special. People move here from all over the world to create a new thing — from that perspective I think it is an ideal place to live and work in music.
The flip side is that it’s expensive, dirty, and competitive. Most cities are. I would rather record some awesome bands in NYC and spend less money than record more less-inspired bands in Rochester or something. I’m not saying that one has to live in NYC or Nashville to “make it” — but it is certainly easier.
Here here. You definitely seem to have some righteous influences going. Who’s inspired you to approach producing and engineering the way that you do?
Although I don’t make records like his, Phil Elvrum (Mount Eerie, The Microphones) has always interested me. People put a “producer” cap on him, but I think of him as more of a songwriter put into a recordists chair out of necessity. He was given solid tools to work with well before the home recording thing got big, and he made the most out of what he had.
Fast forward ten years, most 14-year-old kids with a laptop have access to what he had, and yet you don’t see those 14-year-old kids with the Dr. Dre laptop/headphone bundle creating lush atmospheric and dramatic productions like Elvrum. I think he’s a testament to creativity over gear.
Catch the Brooklyn Heat Project Launch LIVE! The show is January 20th, 8pm at COCO 66 (66 Greenpoint Ave) in – you guessed it – Brooklyn, NYC. All of the bands on the bill are on the compilation, including Quietloudly/ Gunfight (collaborative performance), Shark?, Quilty, Little Racer, and Magnetic Island.
– David Weiss
PROSPECT LEFFERTS GARDENS, BROOKLYN: No slave to the studio, Nic Hard. For this in-demand indie producer/engineer/mixer (The Bravery, Aberdeen City, The Church, The Kin), professional recording often means a move away from controlled conditions into creatively comforting confines.
Hard’s latest project, capturing the arresting rock/new wave/electronic concoctions of Baltimore’s the Perfects, bear out his current preference for recording world-class albums in the living room, as opposed to the live room. A former Philadelphia DJ, Hard had meshed well with the Perfects’ love of synths, electronic drums and ‘80’s influences, first on their 2005 self-titled debut EP and subsequently on the 2009 full-length future automatic.
Collaborating on the Perfects’ upcoming (Spring 2011) album, Hard recently had the band come up to a Bushwick loft where his own personal “Living Room Studio” workflow could be effectively deployed. Recording in sonically informal environs happens every day, of course, but Hard’s approach – borne out of an unexpected set of sessions with the Bravery – shows that there’s always another spin.
Tell us about your take on the “Living Room Studio”. How do you go about it?
Basically, the idea is taking the recording process away from a traditional “pro studio” setup with the big desk, the glass, the sweet spot and the perfect listening environment, and forcing yourself to listen in a more casual way. Instead, we set up a room — rehearsal space, warehouse, house or living room — with whatever gear is needed centered around a couple of couches, coffee tables, and maybe a nice rug.
For most of my career I’ve worked primarily with independent bands. Most bands don’t have unlimited funds, and therefore booking Electric Lady for three months isn’t usually in the cards. I’ve always leaned towards working at less expensive studios so that more time could be spent. To me time is by far the most valuable thing in the recording process: If it came down to it, I’d rather have a month with a Mackie and 57’s than a week at a studio like the Hit Factory (RIP). That’s not to say I don’t use good stuff, but the time means more to me.
That seems like a sound theory and a music-first approach. When did it start to take shape for you?
I’ve done a bunch or recording where gear has been brought into an ordinary space, like The Kin’s “Rise and Fall” record which was done in an old farmhouse out in Pennsylvania. Even with that record there was still somewhat of an attempt to have a “control room” type situation.
It wasn’t until I was working with the Bravery on their most recent record that I got the idea to take it one step further. I ended up cutting almost all of the vocals for that record in the singer’s apartment — oh — and a couple of hotel rooms and on their tour bus! This was done mostly so that (vocalist/guitarist) Sam (Endicott) could be totally comfortable, and take as much time as he needed in an environment that he was used to listening in.
The record was mixed by Michael Brauer, but when it came time to pass the tracks off we still had stuff to finish, so we setup in Brauer’s lounge, which also happened to be a live room. There was a couch, a TV, nice rug and a pair of ProAc loudspeakers. As I sat on the couch and kicked back with my laptop finishing things up I realized that not only it was way more comfortable, but that I wasn’t listening as much to the quality of each individual thing — not focusing in on the technical aspects — but more just listening to the song. Since then I’ve done a handful of records where I’ve gone out of my way to setup in a way that was non-traditional.
I think personal workflow innovations are always best when they’re discovered like that, organically. When it came to the Perfects, where did you and the band work, and what kind of rig did you take with you to the space?
For the last round of songs I did with the Perfects we sublet a loft in Bushwick. Logistically this ended up being more convenient than Baltimore for me, because I was also doing a couple other projects and needed to be close.
The rig consists of a 192, a tower with three Pro Tools cards and a Dangerous Music D-Box. The D-Box has been great in a tracking situation, because one of the things I’ve missed about tracking with a console is the ability to blend mics on guitars or keys down to one track — you know, commit! Using the sum inputs on the D-Box has been great for that.
Typically in these situations I have a friend who I’ll rent mic pres, compressors and mics from as-needed. In the case of the Perfects we had a couple of Vintechs, a pair of Distressors and an LA-2A. We were also lucky enough to have been loaned a couple of BAE pres and a Burl B2 bomber by Audio Power Tools to test out. For this project, a lot of the drum sounds were a hybrid of live and electronic, so I opted to track minimal mics on the kit, sometimes just the Royers as a pair of “kit mics”.
You told me that you’ll also mix in the band’s gear where appropriate…
Since Pro Tools and Logic became “consumer” products i.e. cheaper, it’s allowed artists to have the ability to track themselves. When this began I remember being worried that I’d be out of a job, but it has actually turned out to be great: I get tons of demos that people have put together in their bedrooms or sometimes I’m mixing something that has been tracked entirely in that way.
What I’ve found is that it’s led to is a level of creativity that is unobstructed by technology, and people can come up with some crazy shit when they are up at all hours of the night with the ability to multi-track. The advent of these bedroom room studios also means that a bunch of bands also buy lots or recording gear, and this can always be used in the process and keep the budget down.
The “Living Room” approach sounds like it would be perfect – no pun intended – for a straight-up rock band. How does recording the Perfects’ many electronic/programmed elements live work in this scenario?
With the Perfects it’s a lot of synths, heavily-effected guitars and electronic stuff. I’ve recently been getting into Ableton Live and found that it allows me to do more on the fly, because when searching for sounds it’s just so fast to tweak/add/destroy things, all without having to stop and add a plug-in. Sometimes I’ll loop Pro Tools on my rig and run Ableton on a laptop, synced with MIDI through an Ethernet cable just to have more fluidity in the process of finding a sound.
Moving on to the mix, where did you take the tracks after the recording? What’s your own personal approach to mixing?
As of the beginning of 2009 I’ve had my own mix room in my house, which has been awesome! It has by far been the smartest thing that I’ve done for my mixing — about half the work I get is straight-up mixing, so it has really enabled me to hone my skills because of the ability to gain perspective. I’ll mix for as long as I feel fresh, then I’ll do something else, then later on come back to it. I’ve been way happier with the mixes I’ve been turning out.
Another great advantage has been that the feedback given by the band seems way more useful. I think for a lot of people, listening during a mix session on speakers and in a room they aren’t used to can be less objective than if they listen in their own house, or on whatever they usually listen on. It really takes the pressure out of the situation, and allows me to work on something until the band and I are happy with it.
What did the band think of the workflow?
Given the music’s electronic core and the need to mess around with sounds and parts to find the right stuff, it just seemed like a good way to do it…Oh, that and they don’t have a bazillion dollars!
It seems pretty clear that you like working the “Living Room” way as well — what makes it good for an engineer/producer like you? Do you think this is especially good for NYC recording, or is this a universally useful technique?
The main reason I like this has to be the more relaxed atmosphere and comfort in knowing that I have time to play around. I’m not sure how it will progress or if it will even last for me, but right now it seems to work.
I think that there are probably huge numbers of people all over the place doing very similar things. I think many “pro” engineers and producers still prefer the safety and control of a studio, and the living room thing definitely has its disadvantages — but they’re ones that I am willing to concede.
– David Weiss
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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