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Interview d’ingénieurs du son et producteurs.


 

Mixer with the Midas Touch: Bob Clearmountain on the Tools and Techniques of His Trade

 

 

   
   

Interview d’ingénieurs du son et producteurs. Spotlight-June07-1

This article originally appeared in the July 1998 issue of Electronic Musician.

If you take a look at some of the liner notes in your CD collection, I can almost guarantee you’ll come across Bob Clearmountain’s name. With a long and distinguished career as a recording engineer, producer, and mix engineer, Clearmountain has a discography that reads like a rock ’n’ roll encyclopedia: Bryan Adams, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Robbie Robertson, and the Rolling Stones, to name a few.

A seven-time recipient of Mix magazine’s TEC Award and recent Grammy nominee for his work on John Fogerty’s Blue Moon Swamp, Clearmountain has earned the respect of engineers worldwide and secured a place for himself among the elite few who have entries in the audio history books. In addition to session work, he recently entered the world of product development by designing Apogee’s studio management software, Session-Tools. In the midst of his busy schedule, Clearmountain was gracious enough to spend some time with EM, discussing his mixing techniques, his studio, and the music industry in general.

It seems like your name appears on an album every other week. What does your daily schedule look like?
Mixing, mixing, mixing! My mix room, Mix This!, is in my house, so around ten in the morning I wander downstairs and start. The artist and/or producer I’m working with comes over at about eleven; we’ll finish up a mix that was left up overnight, and then they’ll brief me on the next song. Then they’ll either go away or sit out by the pool for a few hours while I get the mix together. When they come back, they’ll tell me either it needs a few minor changes here and there, or it’s simply total garbage, and I’ve missed the point altogether. We usually have dinner about 6:30, then work on the mix until about nine or ten, run copies, and finish it in the morning.

What console and multitrack are you working with these days?
I have a custom-built, 72-input SSL G+ with Total Recall. I use a bunch of multi-tracks: a Sony PCM 3348, a Sony PCM 3324, a Studer A800, and the obligatory Alesis ADAT and Tascam DA-88. I also have a Digidesign Pro Tools 24 system, which I use strictly for editing.

How about your mixdown format?
I’m now mixing 24-bit through an Apogee AD-8000 8-channel A/D—which I helped design—to a Tascam DA-88 and a DA-38 for backup. The AD-8000’s TDIF card bit-splits the 24-bit word, putting the extra 8 bits for each channel on a separate track of the 16-bit TASCAM machine. It sounds pretty amazing! It’ll work the same way with the AES/EBU and ADAT interface cards. I’m also using the AD-8000 as the analog and digital front end for the Pro Tools system. With the Digi-8 card, the AD-8000 plugs directly into the Digidesign I/O. The AD-8000 also makes digital transfers between formats a breeze.

How do you feel about the current craze of computer-based recording?
I’m not the guy to ask; I only use them for editing, not for recording. I don’t actually trust hard disks, although Lisa Loeb’s album Firecracker was recorded in Pro Tools, and I thought the tracks sounded great.

What outboard gear is in your current collection?
As far as the old stuff goes, I have three Pultec EQP-1A3 EQs, three UREI LA-3A compressors, a UREI 1178 limiter, two MXR Flangers and two Phasers, an Ursa Major Space Station, a Roland Space Echo tape-delay box, and an ancient RCA limiter, which sounds awful but looks great.

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Other good boxes include three Yamaha SPX990s; a Yamaha D5000 digital delay—the best one going at the moment, in my opinion; a Focusrite Red 3 compressor; three Roland SDE-3000s; an Eventide H3000, two H3500s, and a DSP4000; two Lexicon PCM 70s; a pair of Distressors; a BSS DPR-901 Dynamic Equalizer, which, on a vocal, is like cheating; an old AMS Reverb and DDL; an SSL compressor; and lots of Drawmer gates and dbx 901 de-essers.

My favorite pieces of outboard gear are my two live chambers. Another new thing I’d like to mention are the KRK E7 monitors—absolutely amazing! They’re self-powered and biamped. They’re not “hypey” at all but fun to listen to. Great for mixing—and parties!

How do you approach a mix?
I think of the mix as an environment with the elements appearing in different places, almost like the characters in a play on a stage: some are in the front, some are in the back, the center, the left, etc., and some are more important than others at different times.

For a pop record mix—basically anything with vocals—the most important element is, of course, the lead vocal. My starting point is usually a quick vocal-heavy rough mix to give me an idea of what the song is about.

Do you ever have a preconceived idea of what the mix should sound like?
Never, unless the artist or producer has given me one to work with. Either way, I try to let my ideas develop as I work. It’s really all dependent on the material.

Your mixes are pretty identifiable. What constitutes the signature Bob Clearmountain Mix?
Hopefully, there is no “signature Bob Clearmountain Mix,” only that it is enjoyable to listen to. I believe each mix should sound like the artist had mixed it themselves—a true reflection of how they want to sound—possibly with a bit of extra commercial potential thrown in.

How about a brief tutorial on mixing—Clearmountain-style?
I mix at various monitoring levels, through different speaker systems, in a somewhat random order. I also use a bit of overall compression and, of course, make the important things louder and the not-so-important ones quieter. I’ve found a good, generally useful technique is to make sure there’s no unwanted extra low end coming from instruments other than the bass and kick drum. Doing this will almost always make the bass sound better, louder, and clearer.

How do you feel about radio-specific mixes?
Unfortunately, radio seems to have developed a severe case of tunnel vision over the years, categorizing records into specific “formats.” In fact, just today I mixed a very nice pop record that happened to contain a steel guitar. We had to mix a special version without the steel guitar because there are a lot of Top 40 stations that won’t go near anything that remotely sounds like a country record, and the steel is a signature of country music. I’ve been asked to remove all guitars from some pop/rock records so they can be played on Adult Contemporary stations.

Let’s talk about automation for a minute. How often do you use it, and how do you approach automating a mix?
I use it for every mix I do. I really believe in it. Whoever invented that “manual mixing” thing was really full of it! If there are a lot of mutes to be done, I’ll do them first and work in Play Cuts Only mode on the computer. If not, I’ll leave the computer off and get a reasonable static mix happening. Once it sounds decent, I’ll start from the top, with the computer in Absolute or Play Cuts Only mode, working on each section of the song—paying attention to all the tracks but mainly dealing with the vocals.

In the next pass, I may work on drums, guitars, or whatever seems to need the most attention. I’ll then keep doing more passes, catching whatever I hear that seems to be out of place, possibly adding a tricky effect or two if it’s called for, until I can listen to the whole thing without rewinding and riding any levels. Then I’ll take a break, go out for a walk or something, come back, listen again, and inevitably ride a few more things or change an EQ.

 

 

   
   

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You’ve mixed quite a few live albums. Do you find these types of projects to be a challenge?
It depends on how good or bad the performance and recording is. If both are good, it can be really easy. The big trick is using the ambience from the audience mics and blending them with whatever artificial effects you’re using to achieve a realistic impression of a live performance, while keeping it all sounding good.

How does your technique differ from working on studio-recorded tracks?
Well, live stuff is generally a lot more straightforward than studio recordings because there are usually no overdubs. As far as how my technique differs, I think it actually differs for everything I mix, depending on what’s recorded. So no different than anything else, except having to ride the audience mics and always muting vocal mics when no one’s singing.

I mixed a live Bryan Adams track the other day that was interesting because it was being used for a movie soundtrack: Hope Floats on Twentieth Century Fox. The producers, of course, wanted it to sound like a studio track, so I had to completely eliminate the audience, which was hard because at the end of the song the audience was leaking into practically every mic. Luckily, the last chord of the song was held by a real string section that was miked with contact mics, so I was able to mute everything else, letting the strings hold that chord where the audience would normally have been roaring.

Paul McCartney’s Tripping the Live Fantastic is, in my opinion, one of the best-sounding live albums to date.
Thanks!

Was this a difficult project to mix? How clean was the location audio?
It was very good, although the guy who recorded it was sitting next to the monitor mixer while wearing headphones and couldn’t hear the cymbals clipping occasionally. There were 80 shows on digital tape, so we had plenty to pick from. They didn’t replace anything, although I did do a few electronic repairs, like taking a solo from one show and putting it on another—things like that.

David Bowie has a reputation for using innovative recording techniques. What was it like being a part of that process?
The Let’s Dance album took a total of fifteen 8-hour sessions to record and mix. It went by so fast I hardly remember it! His most prevalent technique was the “first take” method. He and Chrissie Hynde are probably the best singers I’ve had the pleasure of recording. Unfortunately, on Let’s Dance he didn’t use any of those innovative techniques he’s supposedly known for, unless they went by so fast I didn’t notice them!

What is the most challenging project you’ve worked on?
Probably the first two Robbie Robertson albums. The first one because most of the songs were recorded with absolutely no arrangement in mind, so it all had to be created in the mix. I must add that this made it one of the most interesting and fun albums to mix, despite being difficult. Also, Robbie tends to have a new mix or edit idea every 30 seconds or so, and they’re mostly pretty good.

The producer on the second album, Storyville, left the project after about a year. He had recorded it on Dash 24-track and made slaves for Robbie to do his vocals and guitar on. It turns out that they did quite a number of digital edits on the slaves before they were finished recording on them. Besides not duplicating the edits on the masters, no one thought to keep notes on where the edits were done or what edits were done, for that matter. When I came in to mix it, the producer was long gone. Robbie told me we had to bounce the slaves back onto the unedited master tapes to tracks 25 through 48, and there were just one or two edits to match on the masters. No problem!

I soon discovered it was more like fifteen or twenty edits, and I barely had enough time to mix the album, much less duplicate massive edits, before I had to start my next project. I remember transferring the tapes and Robbie saying, “Hey, wait a minute, the vocal and guitars are playing the second verse, and the drums and bass are still on the first chorus! Oh yeah, I guess I forgot about that one too.…” This went on for more than a week. Of course, the edits had to be matched exactly, otherwise everything after the edit would have been out of time.

What do you think is the best mix you’ve ever done?
There isn’t just one, but if I have to narrow it down, there’s “Into Temptation” by Crowded House, not because the mix is all that great, but because it’s one of the most incredible songs I’ve ever worked on; there’s “Ghost” by Altered State because it’s a real fun, “effecty,” over-the-top mix; “Satisfied” by Squeeze and “Victim of Love” by Bryan Adams because they’re both great songs and pretty good mixes; there’s Aimee Mann’s entire first solo album, Whatever, because it’s amazing and unusual sounding; and, probably most of all, Jonatha Brooke’s album Ten Cent Wings because the songs are so good I just can’t stop listening to it.

How about a mix that someone else has done?
It could be “Tempted,” by Squeeze, because it simply sounds perfect. In fact, the whole thing—the song, performance, recording, and mix—is absolutely perfect, no matter where I hear it. Hats off to Squeeze, Elvis Costello, and Roger Bechirian! Also it could be “Street Fightin’ Man” by the Rolling Stones.

Tell me about your involvement with the development of SessionTools.
It started when I became tired of not being able to read DAT and cassette J-cards that assistant engineers had scrawled on. I got turned on to Claris FileMaker Pro by someone at A&M Studios, and I started printing them myself. When I opened Mix This! I needed a system of work orders and invoices that was quick and easy because I was doing it all myself. So, having taught myself FileMaker, I created some layouts. I also needed a client database and an efficient way of logging tapes. It turned out the same program was well suited for all these things.

In 1994 I hired Ryan Freeland as my assistant engineer, and he expanded the J-card section to include many other formats—sticky labels, floppy-disk labels, track sheets, and outboard-gear recall layouts. Last year, after a few clients with their own studios asked for copies of the program, my wife, Betty Bennett [president of Apogee Electronics], suggested that Apogee market the whole thing as a stand-alone program. Ryan and I then spent about eight months trying to get it to the point where the general public would be able to use it.

So what projects are next for you?
I’m doing a new Paul Westerberg album, a live Counting Crows project, and more work for the soundtrack of Hope Floats, which I’m producing with Don Was. Aside from that, I’m trying to engineer a couple of days off. I’ve worked pretty much seven days a week for my entire career, and I recently discovered that there indeed is a world outside the recording studio—and it’s actually pretty cool!

To sum it all up, what do you think is the key to a great mix?
I really have no idea. When you find out, please let me know!

 

Tony Visconti: Audio Visionary

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This article originally appeared in the October 1995 issue of Electronic Musician.

Tony Visconti has worked with just about every legend, singer/songwriter, and scoundrel in rock. Although he is best known for his classic works with David Bowie and T. Rex, his audio productions have made a lasting imprint on every decade since the late 1960s. Visconti’s credits, therefore, are almost impossible to list comprehensively in the print medium—we’d need to dedicate an entire issue to his discography alone! An (extremely) short list of luminaries he has directed from behind the control-room glass includes Adam Ant, The Alarm, Badfinger, Boomtown Rats, John Hiatt, Mary Hopkin, Paul McCartney (as orchestrator), Moody Blues, Tom Paxton, Iggy Pop, Thin Lizzy, and U2.

Even more amazing than Visconti’s prolific output, however, is the fact that most of his productions are truly pioneering achievements in the use of signal processing and manipulation of the audio soundstage. Not bad for a kid who started out playing the Catskills.

The Brooklyn-bred Visconti actually did begin his career ascent playing double bass in jazz clubs and Catskill resorts when he was only sixteen years old. He soon focused on becoming a songwriter and recording artist, that is, until his music publisher recognized the quality of Visconti’s song demos. In 1967, the publisher “loaned” Visconti to legendary British producer Denny Cordell and instructed him to report back on how the English made records. The spy mission was supposed to last six months. It ended tip being a 23year assignment, and during that time, Visconti produced so many classic tracks that the British (like everyone else) were stealing his riffs.

But even though Visconti has produced some of rocks biggest stars and worked in some very heavy studios (including his own Good Earth, a world-class facility in London, from 1972 to 1989), he has also embraced the personal studio. In his current home in New York, he has installed an ADAT and Macbased studio with myriad digital editing tools.

As a consequence. Visconti has developed a production methodology that affords him the luxury of tracking in large studios and doing editing and overdubs in the comforts of home. And Visconti is no less an audio pioneer within the constraints of the “small” studio: he has developed all kinds of tricks for making his homegrown digital tracks sound as sweet and sexy as the analog productions that made him an industry legend. On occasion, he will also share his tips, tricks, and experience with America Online subscribers in the Producer’s Forum of Composer’s Coffeehouse (keyword: composers). Visconti is definitely a sage for anyone who is considering a career as a producer.

PRODUCER TALK

Originally, this feature was planned as a conventional prose interview. However, Visconti’s responses were so packed with information (and some wonderful anecdotes) that I felt it would be criminal to rob EM readers of the complete dialog; hence the question and answer format.

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A recent photo of Visconti in his studio.

I tried to organize the interview to run somewhat chronologically through the main aspects of the producer’s craft: finding talent, critiquing and arranging material, eliciting passionate performances, optimizing technological tools, and recognizing the value of unexpected “gifts.” Visconti’s responses to these questions almost form a mini-textbook on the producer’s art, offering a blowbyblow account of what happens when an artist and producer are locked into their creative fertility dance.

What elements must an artist possess to seduce you into wanting to produce him or her?
That’s like asking, “How do you choose your spouse?” The answer is I fall in love. However, a recurring theme in my work is a quirky, unique voice. When I first heard Mare Bolan [of T. Rex] singing in a small London club, I was bowled over by the quivering, Delta blues-inspired quality of his voice. It was unearthly, and I just had to move closer to find out where that sound was coming from. His delivery was almost feminine, and I couldn’t decipher the words or even confirm whether he was singing in English. I was completely enthralled by his voice.

The quality of the artist’s material is also very critical. The songs must sound like they could be “classic” works while also offering something that is new and unusual. Perhaps not coincidentally, most of the truly successful artists I’ve produced wrote their own songs. Bolan didn’t have instant chart success, but he had a unique songwriting style that I could help develop. When we hit it, we had a continuous run of success for three years and formed a style that is still being copied today.

Finally, I want to be sure an artist has chops. I don’t require that they be classically trained or schooled, but they must have talent up the wazoo and a great sense of how to project that talent. Although I can perform all sorts of sonic miracles in the studio, it’s more exciting to work with a great musician than to throw a zillion vocal takes into a computer and “fix » all the out-of-tune notes. A greater form of magic is still the traditional kind: where an artist stands in front of a mic and sings his or her heart out.

Is there any way to gauge whether a working relationship will be productive or not?
After I hear the artist’s demo and see him or her perform live, I just follow my gut feeling and go with it. At that point, there’s no way to know what will happen. But when we actually start working together, I try to foresee as much as possible what level of sanity I’m going to have to deal with in the studio. It is my experience that all artists are either insane or big babies; it just has to he gauged to what degree they are afflicted. Of course, I’m being facetious here, but the “honeymoon” usually comes to an end after the first week in the studio, and then you see what the artist is really like. It can be quite scary sometimes.

Let’s say an artist isn’t delivering the level of performance that you believe he or she is capable of what do you do?
I will do anything that comes to mind, including some real disgusting stuff. I learned years ago, while playing improvisational music, that the music one makes is a result of one’s experiences. So if artists are stuck, I often give them all “experience.” This might take the form of a practical joke, or perhaps we’ll just sit down and drink a little wine. I’ve even been known to employ a strip-o-gram to get a band to loosen up. The process of making music should he both passionate and fun. If those two vital ingredients are missing, it’s not worth being in the studio.

It’s also important that the artists feel comfortable—young bands, in particular, often find studios to be very intimidating—so I do my best to cloak the studio’s high-tech surroundings. I might bring in table lamps to replace harsh lighting fixtures, and I encourage groups to post their favorite works of art and other familiar items around the studio. Cameras are a great source of fun, too. If you pull out a Polaroid or a Handycam, instant mirth forms in the studio.

If a performance still isn’t happening, I call a break and sit with the artist to talk about the “meaning” of the piece. Sometimes musicians can get too focused on details and forget the big picture. I think it’s important that the artist be reminded of what he or she is trying to communicate with music. For example, the song isn’t about singing the third chorus louder than the second, it’s about a woman who has left you for a trapeze artist and broke your guitar before she left with your credit cards!

Also, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get the vocal or solo during the scheduled session. If the artist’s biorhythms aren’t right, we simply take a break and try again later. I keep a lot of tracks free, because I like to use at least eight separate tracks for lead vocals and solos. I’m a firm believer in keeping everything the artist puts on tape and then editing the best performances together on a composite track; if I’m out of tracks on the master tape, I bounce the backing tracks to a slave reel and continue recording. I like to save everything, because I’ve discovered that everything tends to sound much better after a day’s rest. I find that the little mistakes that irked me are forgotten and that the overall performance was far better than I had imagined.

How much do you involve yourself in reworking an artist’s material?
Oh, I get involved! I hate to see a basically good song go by the wayside do to a glaring fault. I consider myself a “song doctor.” I try not to actually write anything myself—I know that there are many producers who take a writing credit just for changing a few notes—opting instead to help the writer take the song one step further towards being a classic song. I think it’s my job to do that.

So Is there some secret pop producer’s trick to making a song more commercial?
I just follow some basic rules, such as ensuring the song has a strong chorus that is heard several times. But let me give you a practical example: Bono phoned me after U2 released Unforgettable Fire and said that “A Sort of Homecoming” was picked for a single but that Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois couldn’t edit down the 6minute album version. The edits just didn’t flow satisfactorily.

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Founding members of T. Rex: Steve Peregrine Took (left) and Marc Bolan.

I listened to the album cut and determined that commercial elements were already present but were not highlighted or repeated. A lot of attention was paid to very floaty, washy instrumental passages. I called Bono back and suggested the band ignore the album format completely and define the main musical elements of the verse, chorus, and bridge.

Fortunately, the band was performing the song on tour and the live version was considerably different from the album version. We decided to re-record the song live and use that version for the single. So I rehearsed them during the sound check for a concert at Wembley, and they all loved the tighter arrangement I suggested. The original idea to use one of the subsequent concert performances was rejected because stage adrenaline prevented its from capturing a decent, well-played track. A recording made during the soundcheck rehearsal was used instead. We did some overdubs in the studio the following week, and when the new single version was released—on a 4-song EP entitled Wide Awake in America—it became a big hit.

Do you already have a strong sense of a song’s musical arrangement during preproduction, or do you develop ideas during the overdub and mixing processes?
I have a good imagination, so I often “hear” the finished work before the rhythm track is even conceived. Most of the time I go for a strong rhythm track and make sure there is enough sonic space to overlay my ideas for strings, brass, or backing vocals. A great signature line during the song’s intro that is repeated between the choruses and verses is just as important as the song itself. The arrangement is everything.

Having said that, Bowie usually managed to make arranging very difficult, because he’d seldom bring a finished lyric or melody to the sessions. He’d only have a basic idea, based on a book he’d just read or a recent conversation. Even the key of the song would be arbitrary. For example, the song “Fashion” was conceived as nothing more than a riff while the band was rehearsing in a house in Jamaica. The song was called “Jamaica” even after all the music was recorded! All the little musical “tastes” were recorded simply because they sounded good; they weren’t embellishing the vocal melody, because there wasn’t one. Months later, back in London, Bowie admitted he couldn’t come up with a lyric or melody line and suggested we abandon the track. I vaguely remember pleading with him to come up with something, and the next afternoon he arrived with most of the song finished. Some lines were written on the spot as we recorded the vocal. Bowie is the only artist I’ve worked with who actually writes on mic!

Because you develop your arrangement ideas very early in the production process, do you tend to “stick to the plan” as the recording progresses?
I follow my vision but not the letter of my law. It’s important to avoid being a slave to a concept that should really be under constant revision. This is because I think it’s important that every musician be allowed to make his or her personal contribution to the group. I have no problem modifying my plans to accommodate any spontaneous magic that occurs when the musicians start playing.

At what point do you begin the sweetening process, and how do you decide which sonic elements will best enhance the track? Almost immediately after a rhythm track is recorded, I begin laying down some elementary sweetening and don’t stop until the basic track sounds great. I may ask the guitarist to double or harmonize some lines, or I’ll request that the keyboardist double the bass line at certain points. Of course, there are always a few spots for the drummer to slap on a tambourine or shaker. These quick “tastes” can polish up a rhythm track without muting its punch and spirit. Another good reason to start the sweetening process fairly early is that these sonic enhancements can magnify whether the track is truly hot or not. If the track doesn’t come alive after sweetening, we re-record the basic tracks, armed with a better idea of what must be changed.

The real intricate sweetening, however, takes place after all the rhythm tracks are finished. Then, we can break down the board from recording basics and plug in a whole bunch of toys, such as samplers, multieffects processors, and various types of microphones. I don’t mind spending all day getting a 30-second “eargasm” on tape, but I must have all the basics completed in order to be free to orient my mind solely towards the sweetening process.

How do I choose the actual sweetening elements? I adapt what works best with the song. The same riff can sound great on many different instruments, and with MIDI modules the range of options is incredible. I trust my gut feelings to narrow the choices down. There are always emotive guidelines you can follow to select sounds that empathize with what the artist is communicating: guitars make you feel angry or passionate, brass makes you feel bold and cocky, strings make you feel sad or romantic, and so on.

 

 

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Bruce Springsteen (seated, left), David Bowie (standing, far right), and Visconti (seated, right) listening to the Thin White Duke’s version of Springsteen’s “Saint in the City” during the recording of Young Americans in 1974. Sadly, the track was never finished.

So what inspired you to sweeten all those T. Rex tracks with classical orchestrations?
I was trained in music and Marc wasn’t, but even though he knew only seven chords, he used to delight in anything I’d show him from the classical world. One of our favorite records was Instruments of the Orchestra narrated by Sir Adrian Boult, and if Marc heard something like a Cor Anglais, he would giggle with delight and say he wanted one on his records. So after “Ride a White Swan” became a hit, we made an agreement that I could suggest and write for any combination of classical instruments that I saw fit to be on a T. Rex record. Now, T. Rex records were made very quickly with no thought whatsoever of orchestral overdubs, but somehow we made it happen. On “Jeepster,” for example, I used four cellos and a bassoon to play those descending bass lines. It was a good period of my life to learn and devise new tricks to make some very simple rock tracks into stunning productions.

In addition to your conventional orchestration skills, I’ve always loved the way that you’ve used sonic textures as “hooks.”
I acknowledge that I am a sound addict. I love enhancing and changing the sound of an ordinary instrument and coming up with something that has never been heard before. Robert Fripp’s guitar tone on Bowie’s “Heroes” was filtered, ring modulated, and otherwise mangled through Eno’s briefcase synth. Although the guitar plays a strong theme, the sound is the thing that is mesmerizing. Rock music is mainly about energy and sound.

Also, a conventional melodic part can really come alive when its timbre is rendered “unconventional.” The riff at the beginning of “Ashes to Ashes” on Bowie’s Scary Monsters album, for example, started out as a simple piano motif. But the part gained a wonderfully eerie presence after it was strangulated through an Eventide Instant Flanger that only had one side of the stereo output working. The first choice for the motif was a Fender Rhodes, but we couldn’t get one right away. I’m glad we didn’t.

But what inspired fit of madness caused you to process a snare drum through a Harmonizer on Bowie’s Low album?
I owned one of the first Eventide Digital Delays, so I received a press release about the Harmonizer that claimed it could change pitch without changing speed. This was science fiction to me, and no matter how much it cost, I had to have one. Now, as the manual suggested auditioning instruments and voices through the Harmonizer, I stayed up all night processing every single track on a multitrack tape. When I put a snare drum through it—while decreasing the pitch and adding feedback—I heard the heaviest snare of my live. It was truly magic, and I couldn’t wait to try this thing out on a commercial recording.

About that time, Bowie asked whether I’d mind making an album with Brian Eno in France, and we commenced to make Low. I unveiled my secret weapon, patching the snare mics directly into the Harmonizer and recording the effect on track 24. When drummer Dennis Davis heard the sound, he begged to have it routed into this headphones. We soon discovered that the rate of the Harmonizer’s drop off was controlled by an envelope at its input. So now that Dennis could hear the effect as he played, he was able to control the sound by how hard he hit his snare. This is why hardly anyone has duplicated that snare sound—we didn’t do it in the mix, we did it live!

It seems obvious that experimentation and “happy accidents” are major components of your production style.
Yes, accidents are always waiting to happen. I’m delighted when I push up the wrong fader and discover the guitar amp blasting through a vocal mic from 30-feet away. If it sounds good, I record it and don’t ask questions.

Another happy accident is when I carefully rehearse background singers or an instrumentalist to end a section on a particular note or chord. However, when the time comes, they forget and hit something so far out, I never would have thought of it. If it sounds incredible—even if it wasn’t planned—I just have to go with it. I love it when stuff like that happens.

I know that you’re extremely proud of your home studio, but isn’t it difficult to work at home when you’ve tracked in the best studios the world has to offer?
Believe me, my digital-editing facilities at home are far better than in any studio I’ve ever worked in. I can bring tracks home from anywhere I work and do some scary, tricky stuff with my Macintosh and MIDI equipment. I can edit drum tracks, “tune up” vocals and guitar solos, and record overdubs at home and simply transfer the results back to whatever format I was using in the large studio. Then, I can mix in the grandeur of an SSL or Neve room.

And there’s another benefit to my home studio: I can take on projects that tickle my fancy but lack heavy financial backing. This situation is directly responsible for my being able to work with Alex Forbes, a very cool songwriter who wrote “Don’t Rush Me” for Taylor Dayne. Alex has another one of those “quirky” voices—and she writes brilliant lyrics—so I casually entered a writing/producing relationship with her.

We now have a completed album that contains eight mutually penned songs. And although the project was recorded at home, it has Richie Morales on drums and Noel Redding and my son, Morgan, on bass. I am very proud of this album. I’ve often felt that I started my music career as a songwriter but got waylaid into being a producer for 28 years. Now I think I’m on the right track again, thanks to my home studio and Alex.

Now I do want to make clear that although I love my little home studio, I still enjoy having a million-dollar console wrapped around me in a world-class facility. My home studio is just an alternative and serves different purposes.

Obviously, you’ve done your share of engineering, and you continue to engineer at home. Is it difficult to turn the console over to someone else when you’re producing a session in a large studio?
No matter where I work, I do most of my own engineering. I’ve been working like this for 25 years, so it isn’t that hard for me to engineer and produce simultaneously. However, making records requires teamwork, so I’ll often work with another engineer or a talented assistant. If the engineer is really hot, I will rarely interfere. I’m always open to learning about different recording techniques and new microphones, so I turn the experience of working with an engineer into a personal seminar. But if I’m looking for a very specific sound and I know exactly how I want to get it, I have no problem giving the orders. Too much is at stake to allow everybody to put in their two cents.

Do you feel a producer must have engineering chops or just an intuitive ear for music?
Without a doubt, you need some recording chops. After all, this is a profession. Making a record has become a highly technical procedure that requires a vast knowledge of music and technology. You can never know enough. Every month, I read all the journals pertaining to my profession and have regular talks with my colleagues about new equipment and how it works. As a musician I make it a regular practice to jam with my mates and listen to as much new music as I can stand. Knowledge is power.

What are some of the major differences between being a producer today and when you started your career in the late 1960s?
There are so many more ways of recording music now. I was fortunate enough to start out when 4-track recorders were pretty much all that was available. My learning curve was slow and steady. I pity a producer starting out today!

Cut and paste wasn’t even conceived in the days of T. Rex, and two machines couldn’t be locked up until the early 1980s. We did everything on the fly. We speed up and slowed down tapes, we put buckets on our heads, and we swung mics around the studio like lassos to emulate the Doppler effect. We had very few tools capable of making fantastic sounds, so we taxed our imaginations to reproduce the noises we heard in our heads. And my generation was living in the shadow of the Beatles, who made fantastic, surreal recordings with even less equipment than we had!

However, it is still the producer’s, job to record music, and the responsibilities have remained the same throughout the years. You work within the confines of a budget and strive to cut a record that makes such a shocking contribution to the culture that it is considered a classic. So, in a sense, nothing has really changed except the toys.

 

 

Andy Wallace

 

Oct 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Michael Barbiero

TALKING TECH WITH THE HOTTEST MIXER IN ROCK


Driving up to Andy Wallace’s farmhouse, nestled on 200 acres in northwestern New Jersey, one gets the sense of a man who is at peace with himself. Had a tractor been parked in front of his barn instead of a black and silver 1930 Rolls Royce Phantom II, I might have guessed I was at a country farmer’s home rather than at the refuge of one of the hottest mixers in the music business.

Andy-Wallace-2 From fashioning his own humble garage studio in Cresskill, N.J., to founding Hit City West recording studios in Los Angeles, through his involvement with seminal recordings such as the Run-DMC/Aerosmith hit, “Walk This Way,” and one of the defining albums of the ’90s, Nirvana’s Nevermind, Wallace’s career has been a success story. More than 80 million albums have been sold with Wallace’s mix credit on them, and since his breakthrough with the Nirvana album back in 1991 and the subsequent shift away from the “big rock” sound of the ’80s, his synthesis of danceable drums and in-your-face guitars has taken rock well into the 21st century. The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory, System of a Down’s Toxicity, the Grammy Award — winning Velvet Revolver album, Contraband, Puddle of Mudd, Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine — these and dozens of others have kept us all accelerating along life’s highway with radios blasting.

As a producer, he has helmed albums by the likes of Jeff Buckley (Grace), Bad Religion, Faith No More and Phish, among others. For the past three years, however, he has put his production ambitions on hold to satisfy demand for his mixing talents. It was precisely because of his busy schedule and because he and I share Advanced Alternative Media for management that Wallace and Universal Records entrusted me with the surround sound versions of his mixes on the new 3 Doors Down album, Seventeen Days. Sitting behind recalls of his work in Studio G at Soundtrack Studios New York, I was provided with a unique opportunity to get a bird’s-eye view of some of Wallace’s personal mix techniques. Graciously, he has acceded to my request to share some of them.

You use very little outboard gear: A few digital chambers, a symphonic effect more or less on the bass, a couple of delays, but, by and large, you stay with the compression and gating on the SSL. Is this for ease of recall or because you prefer the SSL sound as compared with older equipment like Pultec or UREI?
It’s a little of both. The primary concern is not so much ease of recall, although that’s definitely a good benefit, but I like the way the SSL compressors sound and, for the most part, I’m happy with the gates. I have been known to patch in Drawmer gates from time to time, just because I can fine-tune them better and they have nice ducking abilities and that sort of thing. But for the most part, I’m happy with the onboard compressors. I don’t really know if I would say that I prefer them to the old gear, but I guess I don’t prefer the old gear enough to warrant fiddling around with it.

That’s fair enough.
I do a lot of riding anyway, so I’m not relying on the compressor solely for level control. It’s usually more for the sound, and the SSL compressors are pretty aggressive-sounding. One exception to that is that I used to like to use the old LA-2As for vocals. When I was recording, I would almost always use them.

There is a unifying, overriding personality about your sound that says “Andy Wallace.” Part of it is the very present, crisp drum sound; part of it is that the guitars are brutal and outrageous; and part of it is a dynamic sense that comes from your own musicality. Do you do your drum rides first?
Not generally. I listen to the song and try to get a feel for it. If it’s a rock song that has a section that’s really rockin’, I’ll sometimes go to that first and just work on that section, getting the band to really kick ass. I’ll do that just to kind of make sure that that’s my level. Then I’ll work it down and build up from there, but that’s the place that’s really got to be rockin’. And that’s usually where I find out how hard I want to hit the quad compressor.

Which I’ve noticed you consistently set at 4:1 on automatic release.
Pretty much.

And you usually leave the makeup gain at unity?
To my ears, the gain makeup sounds like a noisy amplifier. I suppose it’s paranoia, but I figure I can achieve the same end by how hard I hit the compressor. As long as I can get a reasonable output, which I can, I’ll usually only use seven groups to put everything on and then I assign all those groups to group number eight, which serves as kind of a universal pre/quad compressor trim. So I can adjust how hard I can hit the compressor by moving that without having to adjust the makeup gain.

From watching you in past years up at Bearsville, I was under the impression that you ran your compression between -2.5 and -4 at 4:1. I was surprised to see it running between -4 and -6 on the 3 Doors Down Seventeen Days album. That’s pretty slammed in there. How would you advise a young kid mixing today to handle stereo compression without ending up with a tiny mix? It’s a trick.
Yeah, it is. I don’t really know. I mix through the compressor right from the beginning — maybe not the very beginning, but while I’m still working on that loud section.

Do you begin by defining the size of your bottom end?
Yeah, and everything. Defining the impact. And I usually do it pretty fast. Usually, when I’m working on a mix after I’ve gone through and done my little road map and decided, “I’m going to work on this part of the song,” within about 15 or 20 minutes, I’ve got the basic energy slamming the way I want it to sound or pretty close. Then I’ll just keep going over and trying to find out how loud I can have this guitar and have it still feel right or how quiet.

And all your records seem to have a really ballsy kick drum that’s never defeated by the compression.
I like to have the kick drum really in there. I guess it’s from the old club record days. And, for the most part, it seems to work. Every once in a while, I’ll say, “Okay, maybe it’s more appropriate to tuck this one in a little bit.” I don’t like super-bright kick drums. My kick drums usually have a good snap on them, but not that little typewriter thing.

I believe that dynamics are really, really important. Most mixes I hear that are unexciting to me, that’s usually one of the faults. Things just are too mashed together, which passes as kind of a sound at times, but to me just sounds uninteresting. It’s kind of like watching a movie that’s out of focus.

I noticed that you ride the overhead tracks of the drum kit up in the choruses. Having seen it, I’ve listened for it and can hear it in other albums that you’ve done, so it’s obviously a dynamic thing that you bring to all your mixes. When did you start doing that? I mean, did you just find that you were burying the cymbals with guitars?
Well, first of all, I ride them a lot of times because sometimes a cymbal won’t be as loud as another cymbal or something. So there’s that. But also, in a greater sense — and I think that this is what you’re referring to — every cymbal crash will be ridden up maybe 5 or more dB.

Sometimes I will feel that I’m hearing more ambient stuff in the overheads than I want to hear in the mix. So when I get that loud section rocking the way I want, I’ll end up with the overheads balanced where I want to hear the ambience and sometimes the cymbals simply won’t be loud enough to have the impact that I want.

Speaking of ambience, there’s another interesting difference between you and other mixers. You use samples in virtually all of your mixes, but unlike other mixers who use samples either to replace a drum or to repair a deficiency in a drum sound, you tend to use your samples as drives to ambience.
Right. Exactly.

I find that very interesting. On the Seventeen Days album, you only used a snare sample, but I’m told that you also used a kick sample.
I have a similar thing I do with kick drum, sometimes.

But just to drive ambience? Then do you design the drum sound to fit into that ambience?
No, not exactly. I use the samples more to drive reverbs. If you killed the reverb, you’d still hear the sample. And the thing I like is that I can EQ them so that I can really tune the ambience and where it sits in the whole frequency response.

Again, more so than I can with the overheads because I usually EQ those so that the cymbals sound the way I want them to sound. Not always, but often, when the cymbals are sitting where I want them to sit, I’ll hear more ambience from that. I’d rather keep that down and be able to shade with a little more control using my ambient sample.

And just ride the cymbals for the actual hits?
Right. And then after I end up getting the guitars happening, the vocals in and everything, I’ll find that the cymbals to be effective need to be a little louder. But, as I said, I don’t like to flood the drum sound with too much ambience. It depends on the nature of the song, but especially if it’s a dense song with a lot going on in it as opposed to an old Led Zeppelin thing with one guitar and bass and drums for miles. You can get away with a lot more interesting ambience with that kind of a thing. But there are not that many records out there that are that sparse.

The Jeff Buckley album Grace is, by my reckoning, a masterpiece, yet you no longer produce. Why?
Well, I never made a conscious decision to stop producing. And I like producing a lot. I kind of like doing both producing and mixing, but in a production, you’re really working from the ground up. That was my whole initial drive in the first place.

So it’s not something you’ve given up permanently. It’s just that you’ve focused more on mixing these past three years.
It came about in a funny way. I had an opportunity to produce two albums that I really wanted to do. One was the Phish The Story of the Ghost album and the other was Skunk Anansie’s Post Orgasmic Chill. And I thoroughly enjoyed doing both albums and had a great time up at Bearsville. But the problem was that the [albums] came back-to-back. I can’t remember if I mixed an album in-between them or not, but in any event, I was out of the mix game for about six months. Right about that time, I was getting a lot of good mix work and I was on a roll, so to speak, with A-level projects mixing. And I do like mixing, so it was certainly to my advantage to keep that ball rolling. I lost a lot of momentum over that six months when I was out of the game, so we — we meaning Andy [Kipnes] and Mark [Beaven of Advanced Alternative Media] and I — kind of put our heads together to regain that ground. They really helped get the ball rolling in the right direction and helped mend a few bridges.

You mentioned Bearsville as the studio you used for productions. You mix on an SSL G Series. Do you prefer the Neve for recording?
I tend to like old, non-automated consoles for recording. I’m pretty open-minded. I can just move pretty quickly on a console like that without a lot of frou-frou.

You and I started before the days of Pro Tools. When did you first start using Pro Tools?
The first time I used it — and probably the last time I used it without having an operator — was when I did the Blind Melon Soup album. I did vocal comps. Somewhere in the middle of it, we had to clear out of Daniel Lanois’ studio, Kingsway, for about four or five days. So I took that opportunity to go to another little studio down there [in New Orleans] to do vocal comps.

Did you enjoy that?
I found it fascinating. It’s always kind of cool to learn something new, and it certainly did give me the opportunity to do a little more precise editing, although I had a very rich bag of tricks for editing analog tape. Not just editing and cutting tape, but bouncing and moving things around and shifting guitars ahead — as well as back — 30 milliseconds and this type of thing. And not just the whole track, but even certain sections or just one little bar. I did that for years.

The Pro Tools thing is a mixed blessing. The younger guys who have never had to cut tape or edit by bouncing on analog have a different perspective and are more easily caught up in over-editing. Not so much to the detriment of the material, although that can certainly happen, but just taking up too much time. Editing stuff to a degree that doesn’t matter. You’re never going to hear it.

With the advent of HD 96k recording, do you think that the difference between analog and digital has become minimal enough as to make analog tape superfluous?
Probably. I mean, I realize that analog tape has a certain tape compression that I’ve relied upon in a lot of productions, but I don’t think that that’s the be-all, end-all. The first thing I liked about digital was the absence of hiss. When I first discovered noise gates, I thought, “God has smiled on me,” because I really, really like to get rid of noise and you’re so far ahead of the game in digital without having that hiss.

And then, being able to edit — as I’ve said, as long as you don’t get caught up in it and lose sight of what you really need to accomplish — it’s wonderful. Even with the 3348, being able to bounce drums in and not have a hole every time you punched in — things like that were great. Not that I’m the world’s greatest critic of fidelity in recording anyway, ’cause I always operated with whatever I had and did whatever I had to do to make it sound as good as I could get it to sound. But I have to say that the new manifestation of Pro Tools really sounds pretty good.

wallace_3-doors To get back to the recall of your work on the Seventeen Days album, I was fascinated to see how you constructed your delay reverb. You pan your delay on the vocal slightly off to one side and then make up the difference on the other side with reverb return. Then you crack the pan on the vocal just off detent to open up the middle of the record.
Yeah. I do a lot of little things like that where I don’t put things down the middle. Just moving them a little bit sometimes seems to open [the mix] up, which is one of the reasons I like to use the symphonic [effect]. Not so much as, “Dig the flange on that bass,” because I kind of prefer that nobody even knows it’s there. Sometimes it gives it a growl, which is kind of cool. But a lot of times, I use that just to open things up a little bit so that everything is not kick, snare, bass right down the middle. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but sometimes it feels sonically a little more interesting to me.

You are among the most in-demand mixers in the music business today. To a large extent, radio has changed to accommodate the sound of what you do. Your mixes sound completely different than mixes sounded, say, 15 years ago. Do you mix for radio or primarily for the sound of the CD, or a combination of both?
It’s a combination of both. Primarily, I mix so that the thing sounds good to me, which I guess translates to how the CD sounds. But I grew up with radio and I guess I kind of like the way mixes sound on the radio with that compression, which is why I probably have gotten a little more aggressive with it over the years. Years ago — 10 years ago — I probably rarely drove the SSL compressor beyond that -4 mark. But I found that occasionally I’d get things hitting harder without even realizing it. I’d say, “Oh gee, I’m getting 8 dB of compression here,” and I’d say, “I better back this thing down.” But when I backed it down, I didn’t like it as much. It was rockin’ that way.

A long time ago, I learned that the great amount of compression in radio broadcasts was seriously changing how the low end [of my mixes] sounded and the balance: how much low end was there, how much of the bass I could hear and other things. That’s when I really started experimenting with a substantial amount of stereo compression. And I found that if I had something compressed ahead of time and was happy with the sound of it, the additional compression from the radio station had less effect. So I sort of felt that I was doing damage control, as well as the fact that I liked the sound.

I found that I was automatically compensating by bringing up the bass in my balance, and I don’t know if this bears out in reality, but it seemed it was true that the mixes I compressed more aggressively and then compensated for in the process of doing the mix held up better with additional radio compression.

Soundtrack New York has designated Studio G as the “Andy Wallace” room. How important is it to you to have a regular home base in which to do your mixes?
It is nice to have a room you’re familiar with. Not just sonically, but you know what’s where and you’re physically comfortable in the room. For years [it's closed now], I used to mix in L.A. at Enterprise Studio E.

I asked you a long time ago what project you felt was the biggest turning point in your career and you mentioned Nevermind by Nirvana.
Sure. That has to be about the biggest.

What is one of the most satisfying moments for you in a recording studio?
As far as my career of producing and mixing records, it’s really hard to say, but working on Jeff Buckley’s [Grace] album was phenomenally satisfying. It was aggravating at times because Jeff could be very hard. Not that he was an aggravating person, because he wasn’t and I got along really well with him, but he could be very scattered at times and difficult to reel in. Anytime you’re working with an intense artist like that you’re going to have frustrating moments.

You got such personality out of his vocal performances. I remember coming up to Bearsville and doing a project in Studio A while you were in B. I don’t know if it was the Jeff Buckley project, but you had speakers set up and the artist wasn’t using headphones because you felt he performed better without them. How important is the ambience that you set up for an artist to perform in?
Well, it’s pretty important. I never had any formula as to how I would get an artist in what I felt was the right state of mind to do a recording, but a lot of it is creating a certain personal trust: They’re in good hands and that an intelligent person is listening to what they have to say and maybe not agreeing, but at least not missing the point.

Working with Jeff was extremely satisfying in the sense that you really felt that you were working with a uniquely gifted artist. Had he lived, I think he would have been one of the very great artists like Bob Dylan or Paul Simon. It was gratifying to be able to capture that and be a part of the inspiration of making it happen.

What has been your most difficult moment in a recording studio?
It’s difficult for me when I have a mix that I know is sounding good and the artist and the producer, or whoever is appropriate, starts getting too involved in little things that really don’t make a big difference; they’re not making a better mix out of it, they’re just changing things. I don’t mind that to a point, but if it gets almost endless — you know, where they just can’t let go and need to keep changing things — then I feel like I’m just doing damage control, trying to keep the thing from eroding. Sometimes that’ll happen. They’ll ask me, “What do you think?” and I’ll say, “I liked the way it was when I played it for you; otherwise, I wouldn’t have played it.” Is it possible to make some changes to it without my hating it? Sure. Are any of the changes you’re making, in my estimation, making it any better? No. And, collectively, when you keep doing it, sooner or later we’re going to get past where we are. So that’s always difficult when I get into a situation like that where it’s getting overboard.

The mix is degrading.
Yeah, and then I really can’t just pop back into it and repair it all. I mean, I can repair it all by recalling settings and such, but as far as the mind thing, I’m out of it.

I’ve also had a kind of a thing where it’s sort of like breaking up with a girlfriend or something like that — where, after getting into a thing for a couple of mixes, you realize that you’re not the right guy for the job and that you’re not giving them what they want. I may not agree with what they want, but it’s their record. Usually, it’s something where they want it to sound real garage-y or super-muddy. I can certainly get something to sound garage-y, but I can still make it have definition and such. That’s just a matter of ambience. That’s not a matter of clarity, you know? But that’s happened a few times. It’s usually mutually felt by all of us that we’re not nailing it.

Aside from the change in compression you mentioned, have you made a conscious effort during the years to change what you do to change with the times?
I don’t really have any particular approach toward what I’m doing, either in terms of changing with the times or really even toward the style of music. I pretty much go into it with the same head, whether I’m doing Sepultura or Jeff Buckley or Sinéad O’Connor or whatever.

Did you have any idea that Linkin Park was going to be as big an album as it was when you were mixing it?
No. And I would say the same thing holds true for Nevermind. We knew we liked it as an album. We knew that it was a particularly strong record. But given that there was no track record for that kind of music on a major label and you only had indie sales to go by, 50,000 looked good!

And so we all thought, “Wow. Maybe it’ll go Gold.” In fact, I remember I recorded the band live at the Paramount Theater in Seattle on Halloween, and we’d just gotten word that night that the album had gone Gold, and we were all like, “Yeah!” — totally naive to the fact that it had gone Gold in about three days. So this indicated something was up. But you never know. Because when a record sells multi-millions, it’s a combination of so many different things that led to it.

Luck and timing.
Yeah. And, of course, a good record is a big part of it, but no one can hear a record and say, “Oh, that’s going to sell 15 million.”

Last question: Who would you most appreciate having an opportunity to work with, if given the chance, of all the artists you’ve never worked with?
The Beatles.

 

 

 

 


Michael Barbiero is a noted producer/engineer/mixer with credits on a slew of albums by top artists, including Ziggy Marley, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Gov’t Mule, Maroon 5, Counting Crows, Blues Traveler and so many others. 

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY

P = producer; E = engineer; M = mixer

Nirvana:Nevermind (M, 1991), From the Muddy Banks of the Wishka (M, 1996), Westwood 1 Live Concert (P/M)

Jeff Buckley: Grace (P/M, 2002), Sketchees for My Sweetheart the Drunk (M, 1998)

A Perfect Circle: Emotive (M, 2004), Thirteenth Step (M, 2003)

System of a Down: Mezmerize (M, QQQ), Hypnotize (M, QQQ), Steal This Album (M, QQQ), Toxicity (M, QQQ)

Linkin Park: Meteora (M, 2003), Hybrid Theory (M, 2000), Reanimation (M, 2002)

Jay-Z and Linkin Park: Collision Course (M, 2004)

Sheryl Crow: C’mon C’mon (M, 2002), The Globe Sessions (M seven tracks, 1998)

Disturbed: Believe (M, 2002), The Sickness (M, 2000)

The Strokes: Upcoming album (M)

Rage Against the Machine: Evil Empire (M, 1996), Rage Against the Machine (M, 1992)

 

 

STEVE ALBINI‘S NO-NONSENSE APPROACH TO RECORDING

 

 

Steve Albini Biography

 

A member of the ’80s cult band Big Black and later one of the most visible producers in the alternative rock underground, Steve Albini came to reflect better than anyone else the defining values of college rock — a fierce sense of independence and complete refusal to be affected by major labels or album sales. Raised in the Chicago area, Albini wrote for fanzines between listening to hometown heroes Cheap Trick and funk bands like the Ohio Players. In 1982, he formed the first edition of Big Black — himself — to record an EP, Lungs. Gaining members as the group went on, Albini and Big Black became one of the hottest underground bands in the U.S., with industrial-strength art funk in the mold of Public Image Limited and Gang of Four, married to a rather bleak — though by no means humorless — dystopia of American culture.

Big Black released their debut album, Atomizer, in 1986, but just one year later, Albini split the group just before the release of their second proper LP, Songs About Fucking. In a move that came to be indicative of his entire career, Albini had refused any negotiations with major labels regarding the status of his band’s contract, and he continued his independent ways after the dissolution of Big Black. He continued his production work for outside bands, and quickly gained a reputation as a difficult man with whom to work, but one who could bring out the best from any alternative group, from the Pixies, the Breeders, and the Wedding Present to Tad, Poster Children, and Helmet. The constants in the wide variety of Albini-produced albums were raw percussion, raging guitars, and plenty of mid-range punch. He often refused to be credited as a producer, preferring instead the more hands-on title of engineer.

Albini remained an artist as well, forming his second band, Rapeman, in 1988 with David Wm. Sims and Rey Washam. The group released just one album and an EP before trouble arose in pressing plants, where workers refused to handle any product adorned with the group’s name. Just as Albini felt Rapeman was starting to work, the group fell apart; it would be awhile before he felt ready to join another. Instead, he committed himself to providing solid production for almost any band that came looking. In fact, his occasional clenched-teeth work for major-label groups like Nirvana, PJ Harvey, and the Auteurs provided the bankroll to give solid performances to obscure bands and personal projects.

Albini finally returned to the recording ranks with Shellac, formed with fellow producer/performers Bob Weston (Volcano Suns) and Todd Trainer (Rifle Sport, Brick Layer Cake). The trio gelled quickly at live shows during 1993, and the group’s trilogy of 7″ singles were among the tightest and most energetic of Albini‘s career. Shellac‘s debut album, At Action Park, appeared on Chicago’s Touch & Go Records in mid-1994 — in true indie form, it was released on 180-gram virgin vinyl several weeks before its CD issue. During 1994-1995, the group toured for a while, and Albini remained busy with his production career, working on the second album by high-profile grunge rockers Bush, as well as LPs by indie acts like Storm & Stress, Melt Banana, and P.W. Long (formerly of Mule). Shellac‘s second album, Terraform (which saw the trio working in the surprising locale of London’s Abbey Road Studios), was released in March 1998. ~ John Bush, All Music Guide

 

BONUS MATERIAL
Additional Interview With Albini
Photo Gallery With Albini

Steve Albini

Steve Albini
Photo: Rich Markese

Over the course of his 25-plus years of studio work, punk icon and longtime recording engineer Steve Albini has recorded literally thousands of records in facilities around the world. To those who are unfamiliar with his work, he may most easily be described as the engineer who recorded the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa (4AD, 1992), Nirvana’s In Utero (DGC, 1993), and the Page and Plant album Walking into Clarksdale (Atlantic, 1998).

However, those are but a few bullet points on a very long list of accomplishments that contribute to Albini’s renown. His first band, Big Black, along with other independent bands of the early ’80s, helped string together the network of clubs and other resources, both in the United States and abroad, that created the underground culture we know today. (He also wrote widely for the underground ‘zines of that era.) As a guitarist, he commands a singular sound and playing style, hair-trigger, full of treble, and instantly recognizable. For the music of Shellac of North America, Albini’s current band, he grafts this guitar onto an increasingly stripped-down aesthetic and experimental arrangements, which together pleasantly upset the standard power-trio motif.

During practically every other spare minute, it would seem, he records other bands, and his regimen in the studio has remained essentially unchanged. Every recording is an entirely analog process from microphone to master tape, using the best available equipment, and with minimal gimmickry. (Although the studio is equipped with a Digidesign Pro Tools system, Albini himself doesn’t use it.) The resulting albums share common aural attributes that have attracted scores of bands over the years: a naturalistic sound similar to that of the best jazz recordings, detailed and dynamic, albeit often with a more thunderous drum sound akin to that of, say, Led Zeppelin.

In 1997, with the completion of the Electrical Audio studios (electrical.com) in Chicago, Albini and his crew had created a world-class facility built to his specifications. The studio building is completely self-contained, with Albini’s own living quarters located on-site, rooms available for clients to rent over the course of their projects, and a large lounge and kitchen area. The studios themselves are marvels of acoustics, flexibility in design, and thrift — the oak floorboards, for example, were reclaimed from the facade of the building itself.

The main purpose of this interview was to find out Albini’s normal mode of operation in the studio for a variety of standard tasks. Although he touched on a few favored microphones for given situations, this was not the focus. You can find particular mic applications, and more, thoroughly documented on Electrical Audio’s Web site.

During the course of the interview, we also touched on details of the studio’s design and the building itself, both of which are, of course, integral to the overall sound of an Electrical recording. Additional text, as well as a short video tour of the studio (see Web Clip 1), can be found at emusician.com.

albini_fig1

Fig. 1: Steve Albini uses a stereo mic in front of the kit and often mics both sides of the kick and toms.

What’s the general approach of Electrical Audio?

The vast majority of the records that I make are performance-based records, where you’ve got a band playing their material essentially the way they would in rehearsal or live, maybe with a few overdubs. But the idea behind the studio is that you can do essentially any project here. We have 48-track analog available. We also have a Pro Tools system, and other external equipment can be strapped in very easily if necessary. We have multicore patch bays so that you can replace the multitrack machines with a Pro Tools rig just by changing one cable. Overall, it was designed to be as flexible as we could make it.

Let’s start with a basic rock-band setup: drums, bass, guitar, vocals. Beginning with the drums, how do you typically mic them?

There’s almost nothing that I do all the time. But normally I’ll have close mics on all the drums, a stereo mic to pick up the drum kit sound as a whole, and then distant ambient mics [see Fig. 1]. The ambient mics are generally on the floor and triangulated from the seated position of the drummer, equidistant from the drum seat.

As normal practice, I combine multiple microphones for certain sounds. For example, I normally mic the top and bottom of tom-toms. I reverse the polarity of one of them because the two mics are pointed in opposite directions. But I’ll sum those to one channel each, so there will be one track for the rack tom, and one track for the floor tom, for example. You just make sure the balance sounds good and then print that balance.

I’ll often do that for the bass drum as well. I’ll have a batter-side mic and a front-side mic, and I’ll get a balance between those that sounds good and record that. I don’t often use a snare drum bottom mic, but when I do, I’ll do the same thing there.

 

I tend to use microphones as they were made and choose them accordingly. I’ll put a microphone up, and if I like it I’ll leave it, and if not I’ll put something else up. Occasionally I’ll think, “I like that, but there’s a little low-frequency rumble in there that’s not going to be helpful,” so I’ll roll that off. Most of the time, though, I’m using things flat, no EQ. In a typical tracking session, I’ll probably end up brightening the top mics on toms to get a little more attack out of the toms, probably brighten up the top mic on the snare drum.

Almost any microphone you put on the snare drum is going to sound thick and meaty when it’s right up next to the snare drum, but it may not give you enough of the impression of crispness. So I would expect to have to use an equalizer to brighten the snare drum, to brighten the top mics on the toms. But that would be about it.

Also, most of the time, the drummer’s in the room by himself — I’d say 80, 90 percent of the time. But it’s not as if the drums are recorded and mixed on their own and then the band is added later. My normal working method is to have the whole band play, and then from the first playback, you have about 80 to 90 percent of the record. That way, you can tell very quickly if there’s a problem, and if there is a problem, you can stop and fix it before you continue.

What do you use for the stereo-mic setup on the drums?

For the stereo mics, I use Blumlein or M-S setups for a lot of stuff, especially in front of the drum kit.

And the choice between the two is dictated by what factor?

Whenever I’m bored with one, I’ll throw the other one up. I don’t make a real distinction between them. Blumlein stereo is slightly hollow in the middle, so if I feel like the majority of the drum sound is going to be coming from the stereo microphones, I’ll probably use M-S rather than Blumlein. Whereas if I feel like the stereo mic is going to be mainly an addition to the close-mic sound, then I’m more likely to use Blumlein. But that’s a real subtlety.

Do you run into phase issues from using so many mics on a drum kit?

It’s not really that much of a problem. If it starts to sound weird, I’ll just move a mic. I’m not afraid of getting out of the chair and moving a mic. It can be more of a pain with more mics, but that would never prevent me from doing something that I thought was the right thing to do.

What’s your method for recording bass?

albini_fig2

Fig. 2: Albini combines two different mics on a bass rig in order to capture a wide frequency spectrum.

I tend to treat the bass guitar sound as it comes off the amplifier as “the sound.” I often use two different mics on the speaker; one will be a microphone that has a more generous low end, and the other will have more-detailed high end [see Fig. 2]. I’ll balance those microphones in the control room to get what sounds like the most accurate picture of the bass sound.

Most of the time, the microphone that favors the low frequencies has a couple dB of compression on it. There’s a compressor that I really like on bass guitar, a UREI LA-22. It’s a dual-detector compressor — it has a peak detector and an RMS detector — and you can pan between the two to get the most flattering attack sound. I use that a lot on bass guitar, generally only taking a couple dB off, and generally only on the low-frequency microphone.

The reason for that is because in a lot of cases, bass players nowadays have distortion that they fire in now and again. That tends to not have much of an effect on the low frequencies, and in fact distortion often flattens the low-frequency information out. But it can give you a really big spike in the high frequencies and change the texture of the bass. I don’t usually compress the brighter of the two microphones so that the effect of the distortion is more evident. It’s a way of mimicking the way the bass sounds live, where clicking on a distortion pedal not only changes the sound quality but actually gets louder. Also, pick attacks sometimes trip compressors and make them start sounding odd, so it sounds more natural not to use compression for the microphone that favors high frequencies.

albini_fig3

Fig. 3: Here, a pair of mics are aimed at the middle of the speakers of a guitar cabinet.

How about guitar amps?

It depends on the setup of the band. If it’s a multiple guitarist scenario, I’ll try to find out if there’s one guitar that’s more critical than the other, and I may keep them separate. I don’t have any qualms about combining them together, though. If it’s a band with one guitar player, sometimes it sounds better if you keep the mics separated and use them as a pseudo-stereo image. If the guitar player has a complex setup with multiple amplifiers, I’ll try to keep those amplifiers discrete.

Normally for guitar amps, I just listen to the speakers to see which ones sound best, and pick a mic or two that sound flattering for the speakers. I’ve noticed that for close-miking, other people generally put the mics closer to speakers than I do. A lot of people take the mic and smash it up next to the grille; I’ve just had better results with microphones a little bit farther away — say, 8 or 10 inches away from the speaker cone. I’ll usually position it on-axis, square in the middle of the speaker [see Fig. 3].

albini_fig4

Fig. 4: Just a few of the microphones in Albini’s collection, which includes transducers from AKG, Josephson, RCA, Neumann, and STC/Coles.

I use ribbon microphones on guitars a lot; in particular, I really like the RCA 74. I’ve been using that a lot in the past couple years. It’s got kind of a slight crispiness to the high end, which I think is due to the fact that it was originally intended to be an announcer’s mic. It was basically the budget version of the 44 or 77, which are the big announcer’s and vocalist’s mics. The 74 is a dinky desktop version, and they might have engineered a peak in the response for articulation’s sake. It sounds fantastic on guitar cabinets; I use that mic all the time. I also use the STC [or Coles] 4038. That’s also a fantastic microphone [see Fig. 4].

Also, ambient mics sound really good with guitar, even in a dead room. Sometimes just having 10 or 12 feet of distance from the cabinet makes it sound a little more convincing, more familiar. When you’re playing guitar, you’re not normally listening to it with your head leaning up against the cabinet. If it’s a distant mic on a guitar cabinet in a live room, I’ll use a condenser mic, just because it picks up the sound quality of the room a little better. But if it’s just a mic that’s picking up a distant signal in a dead room, I’ll normally use a dynamic mic. Sometimes I’ll even just use the talkback mic that’s set up for the guitarist.

And for acoustic guitars?

Normally I’ll have a mic on the bass side and another on the treble, very close to the player’s picking hand. Occasionally I’ll have a stereo microphone out in front of the instrument, sort of from an audience perspective. The mics by the picking hand tend to sound more like the guitar does to the player, and the mic out front tends to sound more like it does in the audience. For more-detailed guitar passages, I’m more likely to favor the microphones close to the player’s hand. The more strummy and noncritical the playing articulation is, the more likely I am to favor the mic out in front.

Generally I’ll have the person play a bit and I’ll move my head around until I find a spot that sounds good and stick the mic there. I often use either the Neumann SM2 or the AKG C24 stereo mics for that. For the close mics, I tend to use small-diaphragm condenser mics. The Schoeps M221 is a favorite for that. I also like a couple of Lomo microphones; Lomo was a Russian company that made interesting microphones in the ’50s and ’60s, and there’s one called the 1918 that’s particularly good for acoustic instruments.

How do you typically treat vocals?

If I’m in a situation, for example, where I have to do four vocalists in the last hour and a half of the session, then I’m just going to put up some sort of bog-standard vocalist microphone, like an AKG C12. I can just open the fader and it’ll be okay. It may not be ideal, but it’ll be okay.

Practical considerations weigh very heavily in a lot of my decisions. A lot of the bands I work with have extremely limited budgets; they’re sort of spending their rent money to come and make a record at all. As a matter of simple human decency, I don’t want to waste their time. I don’t want to indulge myself in experimenting and trying to find some nerdy, perfect thing when the meat-and-potatoes thing is fine. [For a discussion of one such nerdy, perfect thing, see Albini’s take on the Josephson C700A in the online bonus material at emusician.com.]

Does the approach ever differ from that?

Sure. For example, when I did the Stooges sessions [The Weirdness, Virgin, 2007]. The Stooges have always recorded with Iggy singing live along with the band, so that’s the way we did the record. Iggy was set up in an isolation room, he had an [Shure] SM58 and a [Neumann] U48, and he could either go for the classy U48 sound or the onstage SM58 sound. He had a monitor playing his vocals back at him in the room. There were vocal speakers scattered around the rest of the band. So everyone could hear Iggy through the P.A., like always. That’s not as common as overdubbing the vocals later, but I’m perfectly comfortable doing that if people want to do that.

Let’s switch over to the mixing process. First, what do you use for monitoring playback?

I listen mostly on near-field monitors, and I’ve gravitated toward B&W near-fields. They’re fantastic speakers. I can work on them all day and my ears never hurt, and that’s not true of almost any other near-fields. My experience with monitors has been that after a very short amount of time, you get acclimated to whatever you’re listening to. The choice of monitoring doesn’t really matter in terms of whether you can make a good record with them. It matters much more whether or not they’re going to be a nuisance. Like, if you turn them up to a comfortable listening level and you’re clipping them, or if they have an irritating sound quality. Or if there’s beaming in the high frequencies and where you move your head changes the sound quality a lot; that kind of stuff.

The choice of near-field monitors is mainly a matter of practicality. Genelec near-fields sound fantastic, for example; I enjoy listening to music on them, but they handle complex material very well. They tend not to make me think that there are problems that, intuitively, I think might be there. I’ll listen to the Genelecs and think, “Oh that’s fine,” and it sometimes makes me a bit lazy.

The B&Ws, on the other hand, are just nice, neutral, “nothing special” speakers. But they can handle whatever abuse I can throw at them. I can play them at any volume I can stand to listen to them, and the speakers are going to be fine. And they’re not fatiguing at all, which is an enormous benefit.

For mixing in general, you like to combine signals and keep the overall track count low. Does that mean you can usually stick to 2-inch 16-track?

Yes. For most of the sessions I do, 16-track is an ideal format. It’s the perfect balance between flexibility and sound quality. For really involved sessions with a lot of extra musicians and a lot of overdubs, no, but for a straightforward recording of just about any performance ensemble, you can probably do it on 16-track. And the sound quality is outstanding. Having said that, 24-track doesn’t suck.

As far as mixing is concerned, I’ve always treated it as an extension of the recording process. I don’t record stuff that I know sounds bad thinking that I’ll make it sound good later. And I don’t record stuff that I know is useless thinking that I might erase it later. A lot of people record stuff not knowing whether they want it or not, thinking that they will have an infinite amount of time later to sort it out at the mixing stage. But I know that at the mixing stage, you’re going to be making a million critical decisions.

So why record five microphones on the guitar if only one of them sounds good? Or why do ten versions of something and leave them all sitting there when you know that in the end you’re going to have to pick one? Just pick one. If you take care of all the trivial details in advance, the more accurate you can be with the more important decisions at the mixing stage.

Like a lot of people, you started by recording yourself on a 4-track. And before Electrical, you had a recording studio in the basement of your house. What are some of the things you’ve learned along the way about the process of recording?

There’s an analogy about recording that came to mind not that long ago. Think of three types of movies: a normal character/content/dialog movie; a super-high-tech movie, like The Matrix; and something technically bone simple, like The Blair Witch Project. Those three kinds of movies pretty much cover the spectrum of the technology of moviemaking.

Now, not every movie can be made on a camcorder. But a lot of movies can. If you took a character-driven film and made it more simply just by using camcorders instead of with big Hollywood production values, you wouldn’t lose much of the movie. You’d still get the important aspects. But if you took a movie like The Matrix and tried to fake it with a camcorder, you wouldn’t convince anybody.

With audio, it’s similar: it’s a matter of trying to make your production environment suitable for the music that you’re recording. If you’re recording music that has certain technical demands on it, and you can’t satisfy those demands, you should move the job to another studio. Just be honest with yourself.

As far as the basement studio, it’s where I learned how to do almost everything I do now. The whole attic of the house was a control room; the playing areas were in the basement. There was a dead room and a live room, and, while they were quite modest, they both sounded good. But if I tried to do a session with 20 people there, it would be insane. It would be completely inappropriate.

The critical factor for any kind of small studio setup, though, is that no matter what you have, make sure you can get the most out of it. Before I had a 24-track machine, when I was first doing sessions in the basement studio in my house, I used an 8-track machine and a 16-channel board with four subgroups. I got the most out of that desk because I had to be inventive, I had to figure out how to solve problems one after another.

I think it would be good practice for anyone to start small. Start with a 4- or 8-track machine and a couple microphones and a modest mixing desk. Work your way up piece by piece, and learn everything as intimately as you can. And as you gradually accumulate equipment and gradually improve your recording environment, you’ll have that same level of comprehension of everything in your studio, because you didn’t try to attack it all at once; you’ve learned it one thing at a time.

When I was first starting out, if I had had a 36-channel board and a 24-channel machine and a raft of microphones and outboard gear and assistants and stuff like that, I would never have learned how to be as resourceful as I have. And I think that that resourcefulness and that willingness to solve problems in unconventional ways, that helps a lot when you go into bigger environments. There, you may be confronted with fewer issues, but the problems you do encounter generally require abstract thinking to solve.

It’s very good to get yourself in the frame of mind that you can solve problems. Once problem solving becomes second nature to you, you’ll know that you can work through any issue. Rather than coming at it from the mind-set of “There is a solution that I need to ask somebody for, and then I can do it,” you’re accustomed to thinking things through yourself.

 

 

George Massenburg


Record Producer of legandary reputation.

 

music producer george massenburg
George Massenburg pictured at KMR Audio, London. 2007.

George Massenburg Picture Gallery

George Massenburg’s engineering and producing credits include Billy Joel, Kenny Loggins, Journey, Madeleine Peyroux, James Taylor, Randy Newman, Lyle Lovett, Aaron Neville, Little Feat, Michael Ruff, Toto, The Dixie Chicks, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Linda Ronstadt, among others (see the discography page for a more complete list). He has been nominated many times for the non-classical engineering Grammy (including a nomination in 2001 for the Mary Chapin Carpenter’s « Time*Sex*Love »), for Record Of The Year in several years, and has won Grammys as producer for Linda Ronstadt’s 1996 « Dedicated To The One I Love » and another for Best Engineered Non-Classical Record in 1990, for Linda Ronstadt’s, « Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind. » In 1998 he received the Grammy for Technical Achievement, one of only four such awards presented in the history of NARAS. He also won the Academy of Country Music award for Record Of The Year in 1988 (for « The Trio »). In 1989, he received the Mix Magazine TEC Awards for Producer and Engineer Of The Year (for Little Feat), as well as Engineer Of The Year Award (for Linda Ronstadt) in 1991, and 1992 (for Lyle Lovett).

George Massenburg
George Massenburg pictured at RAK Studios, London. May 2006.

Find out much more about George at his GML website.

 

 

Une histoire de la production musicale

Interview de Bruce Swedien

Co-producteur de Michael Jackson, ingénieur du son de Quincy Jones.

arton65-4f09c

mardi 10 février 2009
par Marc Salama
popularité : 56%

Issu d’une famille de musicien des années 1930, Bruce se retrouve très tôt plongé dans le son, notamment celui des répétitions symphoniques où sa mère l’entraîne régulièrement dans sa ville natale de Minneapolis. L’empreinte laissée est profonde et quand son père lui offre, à dix ans, son premier magnétophone, en dix minutes sa décision est prise, il sera ingénieur du son.

Épaulé par ses parents, il s’installe dans le garage, accroche des enceintes au plafond, fait défiler des musiciens de toutes les couleurs aux heures les plus indues et manque de faire brûler la maison une bonne demi-douzaine de fois sans jamais faire l’objet de mesures de dissuasion. Dans les années 50, faire du son, c’est être un pionnier, un découvreur au quotidien, un bricoleur de génie. En 1951, Bruce obtient son bac, il a 17 ans, il s’inscrit à l’université du Minnesota et s’achète son premier magnétophone professionnel, un Magnacord PT 6.

Il se met à travailler en même temps qu’il poursuit ses études. Tout est bon à enregistrer, les groupes de jazz ou de polka, les chorales d’églises ou les pubs radios. Son héros, idole, initiateur et mentor s’appelle Bill Putman et oeuvre à Chicago au studio Universal Recording. Grand défricheur de la bande passante, inventeur de la réverbération et de l’écho artificiels, celui ci participe ardemment aux premiers pas d’une industrie à peine née. «  C’était merveilleux » explique Bruce Swedien, « Une piste !… D’ailleurs quand j’ai commencé à travailler à Schmidt Music Compagny, à Minneapolis, nous n’avions pas de magnétophone, on enregistrait directement sur disque, avec une énorme console Western Efectric à 7 entrées ». Vers 1955, il rachète l’équipement et la clientèle de Schmidt Music, ainsi qu’un vieux théâtre du sud de Minneapolis qu’il reconvertit en studio d’enregistrement. Fraîchement marié avec Béatrice Anderson, ils « acoustisent » l’endroit avec des cartons d’œufs. «  B., ma femme, depuis quelques semaines et moi même », explique Bruce « avons passé des jours à encoller ces cartons, on en a mis partout dans le studio, le son était fantastique ! ». Le lieu est encore un studio, mais aujourd’hui de renommée internationale.

Quelques années plus tard, Bill Putman lui offre un job à RCA, alors qu’il vient lui-même de terminer le studio B à Universal. Le jour Bruce fabrique de la pub pour les radios, et la nuit, il place les micros pour les orchestres symphoniques ou les Big Band, que Bill enregistre dans le somptueux studio A, au 36 East Walton à Chicago. « Je m’en rappelle comme si c’était hier. En 57, Bill enregistrait Stan Kenton, le groupe chauffait incroyablement. J’avais placé et testé les micros, Bill fit quelques prises et s’en alla. Ce fut mon baptême du feu ! J’étais complètement terrifié, mais Stan semblait être prévenu. » Depuis, sont passés entre ses mains Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughn, Woody Hermen, Dinah Washington et bien sûr Michael Jackson et Quincy Jones (liste non exhaustive qu’il serait vain de faire paraître ici !).

Un mur chez Bruce Swedien

Un mur chez Bruce Swedien

Pendant le tournage

En 1958, Quincy passe la porte d’Universal, il a 23 ans. Il est vice président de Mercury Records et sans doute l’exécutif le plus jeune du métier dans un label de cette importance. Il s’occupe des arrangements de l’artiste Dinah Washington, sur une production de Jack Tracy en août 58. « Quincy écrivait des arrangements incroyables, et il me semblait évident qu’on ferait de la belle musique ensemble. On s’appréciait mutuellement, nos goûts et nos opinions étaient déjà très semblables. »

L’époque est au bebop, Bruce a 22 ans et il va passer les trois années qui suivent sur des productions pour Mercury Records en compagnie du Dude. Par ailleurs, il travaille en indépendant pour Roulette Records sur les projets de Duke Ellington ou de Count Basie. «  C’était en août à Chicago, grandes chaleurs, moustiques, humidité… Je travaillais sur l’album « Nothing But the Blues » avec Count Basie et Joe Williams. L’orchestre jouait dans un club local jusqu’à une heure du matin et rappliquait au studio A vers 2 heures pour travailler jusqu’à l’aube. Mais le plus incroyable était que la moitié du public rappliquait aussi. Ces séances étaient mémorables… » Le Studio A d’ Universal était un lieu de 360 m2 sous dix mètres de plafond conçu par Bill Putman, et tout le monde se retrouvait dans la pièce. Les musiciens répétaient quelques riffs et les verres tintaient pendant que Bruce tentait de faire une balance. « Je n’avais aucune chance de pouvoir équilibrer les niveaux correctement à cette époque. Count Basie se levait soudainement et donnait le décompte sur le down beat, et, mon vieux, il valait mieux que la bande tourne. Mais le plus étonnant, c’est que dès la première mesure il n’y avait plus un bruit venant du public. Les performances restent à ce jour incroyables. Joe chantait d’ailleurs sur le U47 que j’utilise toujours avec Michael. »

Swedien expérimente alors toutes ses techniques de micros avec les grands du jazz. C’est l’âge du mono, sorte de préhistoire sonore, « Les nababs de l’industrie du disque de l’époque ne croyaient pas en la stéréo. Un des plus connus allait jusqu’à dire que la stéréo était pour lui comme « prendre une douche avec deux pommes de douche »… Ah, Ah… ça montre le niveau ! Pour eux la stéréophonie n’avait aucun avenir et il n’était pas question qu’ils payent pour de la bande et des machines supplémentaires, Alors je l’ai fait en cachette… ». Il existait, en effet, une cabine stéréo déguisée à l’arrière du studio Universal dans laquelle Bruce et Quincy mixaient et planquaient les bandes stéréos, histoire de calmer les esprits. « Les ingénieurs du son n’avaient pas droit aux accréditations sur les disques et on les considéraient comme des mécaniciens. Ce qui est la chose la plus éloignée de la vérité et me rendait fou de rage. J’étais une sorte de rebelle et je sentais bien que quelque chose se passait. » Avec les années soixante et la pop music, la stéréo devient, en effet, un acquis technique où l’espace devient perceptible.

Le Home Studio de Bruce en 1990

Le Home Studio de Bruce en 1990

Après trois années de fructueuse collaboration le couple Jones/Swedien se sépare en 61. Quincy vient s’installer en France où il travaille pour Barclay, puis va à New York. En 1975, les deux larrons se retrouvent sur des projets avec Brother Johnson, Leslie Gore et Georges Benson pour A&M Records. L’étincelle est toujours au rendez vous, et ils réalisent ensembles et dans la foulée, les albums solo de Quincy Jones et ceux de Michael Jackson, Depuis, le « Thriller » de Jackson est entrée dans la légende en établissant LE record des ventes qui fait référence, et l’album « Bad » est le premier album de l’histoire de la musique enregistrée qui ait fait cinq numéros 1 consécutifs dans les « Pop charts » pour un artiste solo.

« Travailler avec Quincy et Michael a été une expérience merveilleuse. Nous sommes des amis et aussi une équipe. Nos votes ont la même voleur et c’est pour cela que ça marche. Quincy vient juste de créer la Quincy Jones Entertainment Corporation, et il produit et réalise des films de TV, de cinéma et j’en passe. Il fait ce qu’il rêve de faire depuis des années, et il est heureux comme un cochon dans la boue. Il ne travaille pas sur le prochain album de Michael… ». Fin d’un grand trio, au simple pause, l’histoire de la pop music en témoignera…

BRUCE SWEDIEN SES TECHNIQUES D’ENREGISTREMENTS

Depuis leur première séance, Jones et Swedien ont été d’ardents expérimentateurs des techniques du studio, en effectuant notamment des enregistrements en stéréo d’artistes tels que Sarah Vaughn, et ceci bien avant que les premiers disques stéréo ne soient disponibles dans le commerce. Ils furent également de ceux qui défrichèrent les débuts de la synchro entre deux magnétophones 4 pistes à l’aide d’un système pour film usant d’une fréquence de synchro à 60 Hz avant que le code temporel SMPTE ne voit le jour.

Bien que Les Paul ait conçu le premier magnétophone 8 pistes au début des années 50, à la fin de la décade on utilise au mieux une machine à trois pistes sur une bande d’un demi pouce, Le Duke et Basie en font l’expérience, les pistes 1 et 3 servent au mix stéréo de l’orchestre, et la piste 2, centrale, reçoit la partie vocale ou le solo “Je n’oublierai jamais le jour où nous avons reçu notre premier 4 pistes à Universal vers 1960. On s’est assis devant pendant deux jours, en essayant d’imaginer ce qu’on pourrait faire de cette quatrième piste »,

Aujourd’hui, Bruce est connu pour sa débauche de pistes en production. Sur le disque le plus récent de Quincy Jones, Back On the Block, 150 pistes furent nécessaires rien que pour les batteries. Le titre « Places you Find Love » comprend à lui seul 90 pistes de sons réparties sur trois machines 32 pistes numériques Mitsubishi. Cet usage a donné naissance, il y a des années, a un processus nommé Acusonic Recording Process D qui augmente aussi considérablement la consommation en aspirine de ses assistants. « C’est un terme que Quincy et moi avons inventé et déposé », explique Swedien, « il décrit ma manière de travailler avec des bandes multipistes. Par égards pour la musique, je pense qu’il n’est pas bon de faire des prémixages des choeurs, des synthés, des cuivres ou quoi que ce soit avant d’avoir entendu tous les éléments d’une composition musicale. Ils sont tellement en relation les uns avec les autres que ce genre de décision est impossible à prendre avant que tout ne soit enregistré. »

Bad - Michael Jackson

Bad – Michael Jackson

Produit par Quincy Jones, enregistré par Bruce Swedien

Acusonic signifie synchroniser assez de machines multipistes pour isoler chaque partie sonore, instrumentale ou vocale d’une chanson. La plupart de ces sources sont d’ailleurs enregistrés en stéréo, autre luxe que le procédé offre à Swedien. La gestion des pistes sur les bobines multipistes demande donc un sens de l’organisation particulièrement développé. Une bobine ne contiendra que des pistes de synthé, une autre uniquement des chœurs et ainsi le nombre de bobines augmente rapidement. « Il y a eu 30 bobines de 32 pistes pour la seule chanson « Bad », cela inclut plusieurs versions, différents montages, la vidéo, le mix discothèque et le reste ». Swedien prémixe toutes ces pistes sur une ou deux machines multipistes avant de faire le mixage final, « Je mixe rarement avec plus de deux machines. Cela devient trop complexe à manier. On commence par se prendre la tête avec les problèmes mécaniques et on n’a pas Ia moindre chance de se concentrer sur la musique. Si je veux changer quelque chose, tout ce que j’ai à faire est de reprendre une bande 24 ou 32 pistes et refaire un prémixage ». Pendant les séances, Swedien utilise un Apple Macintosh pour gérer le classement des bobines et des pistes. « Acusonic nécessite un formidable sens de l’organisation » avoue t il. « On doit garder à l’esprit le fait que cela doit être prêt à l’emploi avec tous les problèmes que cela implique. Heureusement, je suis bon à ça. J’aime beaucoup les détails ».

Thriller - Michael Jackson

Thriller – Michael Jackson

Produit par Quincy Jones, enregistré par Bruce Swedien

Toutefois, il précise qu’en prise de son «  il n’y a pas de règles, il n’y a pas de mauvaise façon de faire tant qu’il s’agit d’élever le contenu émotionnel de la musique ». Bref, tout est permis et l’obsession technique est pour lui une entrave à la créativité. « Les scientifiques n’achètent pas de disques… » ajoute t il enjoué. « Quand j’ai un vrai problème technique qui demande une vraie réponse, j’appelle Georges Massenburg, mais très souvent, je ne comprends pas ce qu’il me raconte ! », Massenburg fait partie des grands inventeurs de ce métier, qui perfectionnent le détail technique et font reculer les limites technologiques. « Un morceou de musique a sa propre vie. Dès le départ, le morceau vous dit ce qu’il faut entendre. C’est très intuitif. J’ai trop souvent enregistré une section rythmique ou une partie de synthé qui ne collaient pas finalement. Il ne faut surtout pas forcer une partie sur un morceau ».

Bien qu’il se défende de tout systématisme, Bruce affectionne particulièrement la stéréo et plus particulièrement la prise de son en stéréo à tel point qu’à l’acquisition de son premier 24 pistes il a pensé « Un 12 pistes stéréo !… La prise de son par paire stéréo est très importante à mes yeux, mais j’enregistre également des pistes mono quand je veux qu’une source sonore vienne d’un point précis de l’espace. ».

La plupart des prises sont faites sur le 32 pistes numériques Mitsubishi X 850 et le 2 pistes X 86 dont Swedien possède le premier exemplaire à avoir été commercialisé. « Mais j’utilise encore beaucoup d’analogique. J’ai un Studer A800 et un Ampex 16 pistes. J’enregistre toutes les percussions sur le 16 pistes analogique, sans Dolby, à + 13 dB, Je fais aussi toutes les voix de Michael sur analogique, Il est impossible de renier le son analogique très réel et si présent, Et une fois que j’ai capturé quelque chose en analogique, avec le son et le caractère recherché, je le transfère sur numérique et il ne changera plus ».

Côté échantillonnage, il n’est pas en reste, Il réalise personnellement la plupart des sons de batterie qu’il enregistre et utilise avec sa boîte à rythme. La batterie est sa seconde nature, celle qu’il n’a pas pu développer, et il avoue ne pas être très brillant, « mais, avec la technologie moderne, plus besoin de savoir jouer en place ! » ajoutet il. Dans « Man in the Mirror », chanson de l’album « Bad », il a enregistré chez lui la caisse claire, qu’il a réaccordée à la chanson en montant la tonalité, puis il a superposé un claquement de deux planches de contreplaqués.

« De mon point de vue », affirme Swedien, « il n’y a pas beaucoup de place pour les sons complètement naturels en pop music, ce qui est bien. Néanmoins, il y a parfois des possibilités pour des sons acoustiques vrais, des sons absolument purs. Et ils deviennent plus grands et plus importants par contraste. Les guitares sur « Billy Jean » en sont un exemple. J’ai fait la même chose dans « Man in the Mirror » sur l’album Bad. Cela a été fait au studio D, à Westlake avec seulement deux microphones : une paire de AKG 414s. Et ce qui est apparu au mixage est précisément ce qui était sur la bande, sans traitement, ni changement. Le son est celui de ces deux micros passant à travers des préomplis spécialement fabriqués (par Jim Cunningham de Studio Technology). Ils ont été placés de telle façon que les capsules s’entrecroisent, pour une cohérence de phase maximum, Et c’est tout ce qu’il y a eu. ll n’y avait même pas d’égaliseur ». Mais quand la situation l’exige, Swedien est plus que partant pour le tout électronique. Les chœurs des refrains de « Bad » en sont l’exemple. Swedien utilise les effets de réverbération et de flanging numérique d’une Yamaha Rev 1 pour créer une plus grande densité, et obtenir un son plus large. Par contre, la voix soliste a été volontairement rapetissée à l’aide d’une compression dbx 165, entre autres machines. « Je voulais créer un effet dynamique avec l’arrière plan sonore plutôt qu’avec la voix principale, par opposition à l’approche normale. J’ai donc placé la voix dans le plus petit espace possible »,

A part quelques cas particuliers comme ceux là, Swedien agit très peu sur la voix de Jackson. « Tous ces doublages de voix ne sont pas des trucages électroniques. ll les chante vraiment, ainsi que les arrière plans. Pour Ia voix, j’ai quatre Shure SM7s, dont deux que j’utilise sur Michael, chacun d’eux est légèrement différent des autres. J’utilise aussi un Neumann U47 à tube avec lui. C’est un vieux micro que je me suis offert pour mon Baccalauréat en 1951 ». Bien qu’il évite les effets vocaux exagérés, Swedien capture souvent les cris de l’âme et autres inflexions vocales de Jackson avec un DD 1. « J’essaie de ne pas me servir du DD1 de façon immuable tout ou long d’une chanson, c’est surtout intéressant pour un effet dramatique « 

BRUCE ET QUINCY

Back On The Block

Back On The Block

Engineered by Bruce Swedien

Quincy Jones est à l’évidence une personnalité charismatique. « Q (prononcer kiou) est le genre de personne qui transforme l’athmosphère de la pièce dans laquelle il pénètre. On sent sa présence dans le studio sans qu’il ait dit un seul mot » affirme Bruce, que Quincy surnomme Svensk, eu égard à son ascendance suédoise. Le petit nom dont Jackson est affublé en séance par les deux compères est « Smelly » (renifleur) en hommage au flair du chanteur pour les idées musicales rentables (une ambiguité persiste toutefois car une autre traduction est : malodorant). « Quincy et moi parIons d’ailleurs assez peu en studio », continue-t-il, « cela fait si longtemps qu’on travaille ensemble que tout se met en place naturellement, à un niveau subconscient. Le subconscient est ce que nous devons respecter le plus, parce que c’est lui qui fait tout le travail. De même, les limites de temps rendent plus efficace. Nous avons travaillé sur Bad pendant 11 mois, mais tout le vrai travail s’est fait dans les trois derniers, comme avec Thriller. Quand on est charrette, on n’a plus le temps pour analyser les situations. L’analyse paralyse. On a plus qu’à s’y mettre avec ses tripes ».

« Tout ce que j’ai appris sur le contenu émotionnel, la valeur et l’éthique de la musique, je le dois essentiellement à Quincy. Qui d’autre à part lui ? Il est unique ! ». Et s’il est un des meilleurs pilotes de la production musicale depuis plus de trente ans, c’est sans doute pour compenser son incapacité à conduire une voiture, « Quincy n’a jamais appris à conduire une voiture et quand il a déménagé de New York à Los Angeles, il a décidé d’apprendre. ll devait avoir 40 ans, et il s’est inscrit à un cours de 13 semaines. Au bout des 13 semaines le patron de l’école l’a pris à part dans une petite pièce et lui a dit « Quincy, vous ne pouvez, pas conduire » et il lui a rendu son argent ! Tous les autres élèves ont eu leur permis sauf lui. » Sa réaction fut typiquement quincyesque car il répondit : « Je n’y arrive pas parce les panneaux de STOP ne tombe pas en mesure ! » »

« Rod Temperton non plus n’a jamais passé son permis. Il faut les voir tous les deux à la fin de la séance quand ils vous regardent avec leurs petites têtes toutes tristes à 2 ou 3 heures du matin. Ils sont passés maîtres dans cet exercice qui consiste à vous rendre désolé pour eux et à les raccompagner à la maison… Ah ah… Un jour Quincy déboule dans le studio en disant  » Venez tous ! Je viens d’acheter une nouvelle voiture, allons faire un tour !  » Rod était là avec Herbie Hancock et nous nous sommes regardés tous les trois avec un étonnement teintée de crainte. Finalement nous le suivons sur le parking, montons dans sa voiture et ajustons immédiatement les ceintures de sécurité, bien entendu… Quincy démarre le moteur, VROUM VROUM, enclenche à fond l’air conditionné, ouvre la radio à plein volume, et on reste assis là à se les geler. pendant quelques minutes, puis il coupe le moteur, il coupe Ia stéréo et enfin l’air conditionné et se tourne vers nous et dit « ça marche, hein ? ». Travailler avec Quincy tient souvent du gag… »

Livret interne Back On The Block

Livret interne Back On The Block

Quincy y explique l’idée de cet album

Livret interne Back On The Block

Livret interne Back On The Block

L’équipe technique audio

Interview par Marc Salama et James Cote, le 25 Septembre 1990

James Cote, Bruce Swedien, Marc Salama

James Cote, Bruce Swedien, Marc Salama

Souvenirs…

 

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Par theaudiodomain le 4 février, 2009 dans

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