From Behind The Glass, Volume II: Top Record Producers Tell How They Craft the Hits by Howard Massey, Daniel Lanois tells us why he says nothing is sacred when it comes to making great recordings.
Many of your best known recordings were done to analog tape. Do you prefer the sound of analog to digital?
Not necessarily. When I listen to my records from the seventies and eighties and compare them with newer recordings, I can hear a difference, but it’s not just the tape – it’s where we have traveled in our minds and where our expectations have taken us. It’s a slow creep, and year by year a little bit of the old way of doing things just disappears. It’s an erosion rather than a change of technique. So I don’t really miss the sound of tape, but I miss some of the philosophies that we operated by back in the day. I think that was probably more significant than the sound of tape versus digital.
What philosophies are you referring to?
People were really excited to be in the studio and it was an amazing day to look forward to; there was a hopes-and-dreams aspect to it. Now every day is a day in the recording studio, because every other house seems to have a Pro Tools rig in it. In fact, I hear that some condominiums come with ProTools and the Internet, as well as a microwave. [laughs] It’s just regarded as a contemporary communications system. You get to download your in-house condo demos directly to iTunes! [laughs]
It’s funny, but there’s truth there: there’s less mystique to the recording process today. You can almost compare it to when you went out on a date in the 1950s. You’d put on your best suit and your best shoes and your date would put on her best dress and you just knew it was going to be a great night; it was a great night because you didn’t get to do it all the time. Then you wind the clock forward to where that kind of Saturday night romance might have disappeared, and therefore people are more sloppily dressed and the night is not as special as it once might have been. I think that’s the main difference.
Has the transition from analog to digital recording caused your choices of microphone and mic placement to change through the years?
Perhaps, but what has never changed for me is my respect for my stations. Let me define the concept for you. “Stations” are positions of sound, and they include instruments and their microphones, as well as whatever integrated technology you use to make that station be effective. A fundamental station, for example, might be a well-chosen acoustic piano, miked with a single ribbon microphone, positioned correctly. Put it in there, close the lid, put a blanket over it, and you will get a beautiful sound. I like mono recordings for piano because it gives me a very focused single point source, but I’ve also used a C24 [AKG stereo mic], which gives a beautiful sound as well. But if a track is going to be dense, i.e., if the piano is not an upfront main feature but is instead a little melody part panned over to one side, then I’d rather use a mono mic source.
So once I get that station sounding good and the piano is in the sweet spot of the room, the good RCA 77 is in the piano, the blankets are on, we’ve chosen the right preamp, maybe we’ve hit a compressor, we’ve got the right EQ – now my great piano sound lives at the end of one patch cord, and it says “piano” on it. You can be drunk and blind and you walk into my studio and you pick up the plug that says “piano” and bang it into whatever track you want, and you’re recording; you don’t have to go fishing out of cupboards or have people get flustered trying to figure out why it’s not working or anything. That’s my reason for having stations, and they are completely independent of the recording medium.
What are your thoughts on MP3s having become the primary means of music distribution?
There’s a part of me that wishes we were never in the race to the changing of the medium. It’s always kind of bothered me every time it’s changed. I liked it when analog got to its peak with those beautiful Studer and MCI multitrack machines. I used MCIs for years; they were really rockers, with great bottom end. Those machines have become doorstops today. It’s a great time for making records now, in a way, if you buy up a whole bunch of old equipment.
But the idea of having to completely change the way you work to accommodate a medium just doesn’t appeal to me very much. I have a beautiful Nikon 35 mm film camera that I’ve taken a lot of nice photographs with, including Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind record cover. Not only does it take nice pictures, but when I push the shutter button on it, it takes the picture right away. Digital cameras are not quite as fast; sometimes it takes a split second for the camera to decide whether it’s the right moment to take a picture, even though you’re pushing the button down.
Yes, there are more options, and it’s more convenient, and you can edit right in your camera – you can see an immediate result. But it’s not as fast, so it’s not as good for capturing the moment.
When you’re working with a solo artist, as opposed to a band, do you prefer the backing track to have the minimum number of musicians, or do you like having a lot of players in the room at the same time?
It depends on the artist. When we were making Peter Gabriel’s So, we built that record with three people: Peter, [guitarist] David Rhodes, and myself. We used prepared rhythms; Peter had done a lot of work with beat boxes. His songs were not fully written, but his beats were there, and we would be chasing after an idea relative to a beat that Peter was excited about, or a certain kind of chord sequence. As a result, we had a nice starting point. In that kind of scenario, it’s not a good idea to have a lot of people around because you get nervous that you’re wasting people’s time while the song is getting written. But by having just the three of us, we had this “turning up for work” kind of humor: we’d wear these construction worker hard hats. What was nice about that was that there was not a lot of icing to cover up any weakness in an arrangement or song structure, so we were able to dedicate that time to the building of the songs for Peter, and we could quickly change the course of an approach, because there were only three people in the room – it was less of a large ship, or barge; it was more of a canoe at that point and you could quickly make a turn. Plus it’s less of an emotional investment when you have a smaller group of people, because you don’t have to communicate an idea to ten different people. The more people you have, the more expensive it gets, and the harder it is to put a twist in an approach.
So that worked out very well for Peter, and once we had our songs finished and our structures there, we overdubbed drums and bass and horns and everything else afterwards. The emotion came from Peter, and we were building on something that was reliably soulful relative to the input of three people.
Now let’s wind the clock ahead to Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. Bob had the songs written beforehand, because he comes from that world: he writes the songs ahead of time, and then he brings them into the studio, more or less complete. We put 11 people in the room with him, and that worked out well because in that case there was no mystery about things; Bob was not about to change the chorus or write a new angle for the song – everything was pretty much carved in stone ahead of time. Maybe we would modify a riff or give it a certain musical identity on the day, but we never went into the bedrock and changed it. When you have the luxury of the song being already written ahead of time, the job at hand is to serve the song and to come up with as cool and as soulful a vibe as you can.
There’s also an automatic depth of field that you get by having 11 people playing together in a room. Every microphone is open literally to someone 50 feet away, who’s going to sound literally 50 feet away through the vocal mic. As a result, Time Out of Mind is dripping with ambience. It paints such a picture that you can really feel the presence of people in the room, and that’s an exciting sensation. It’s like hearing a great Miles Davis record, where you know that everyone was doing it in the room at the same time.
Will you have tape rolling constantly during rehearsals?
I’ll at least have a two track running all the time so that if somebody comes up with some thing while they’re fiddling around, we can at least reference it and have a conversation about it. There’s a momentum that I tap into that’s usually based on the thrill of an idea. It doesn’t matter where the idea comes from; what’s important is that you chase after it. And if a result comes from the idea, then that usually triggers a second idea, and a third one, and you start capitalizing on the potential of the momentum in the room. There’s a power that exists when you have a group of folks in a room. You sort of go down this labyrinth that you might not have expected beforehand.
You often play on the records you produce. Do you like playing with the band as they’re laying down the backing tracks, or do you usually just do overdubs?
I like to be part of the band, especially during the first stage of a record where you’ve got to juice up the room. It’s been different on every record, though; I suppose on Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind I was very much the music director because I’d been living with the material for a while and so I’d built up a lot of knowledge about it. The musicians that came in were great players, but some of them had not heard the music before, so they needed me to coach them through an arrangement. I’d just keep a communication mic close by and I’d announce a section as it was coming up.
I do my homework, which is having a good understanding of what the song is made of. To that end, I create these elaborate charts, laying out the entire song in these big charcoal drawing books. The way they work is that a song starts on the left and ends on the right, just like the way you write words, and every little turn in the song gets a signpost: a signpost might indicate a four bar intro, and then the band entry at the fifth bar; then at the ninth bar, melodic signature; then at the twelfth bar, verse vocal comes in. I position the song in the center of the page so that I can draw lines from each particular section, and then add signs that are almost like thought bubbles. Each thought bubble will have a thought relating to that spot in the song – a reminder about a vocal level, or a background vocal, even processing equipment instructions if I come up with a nice delay on the vocal, for example. I keep adding thought bubbles as people keep coming up with ideas. As a result, when you look at the entire chart, you can see what is carved in stone in the arrangement of the song, as well as all the ideas people have come up with.
So the chart holds all the information that I’m going to need to have a nice communication system in the room. After all, you can’t be standing in there like an idiot; you can’t just be a cheerleader. Perhaps you can get away with that for a minute, but when somebody says, “You know, in the second bar of the third verse there was a little skip in the high-hat,” as the producer, you have to be able to say, “I know exactly what you mean.” Not, “Oh, where’s that?” and waste people’s time. You have to be able to say, “That happens at 2:42, and it’s track such-and-such, and we’re going to go in the other room and repair it right now.” That way, you can actually do something about a suggestion in the room and not be a dummy. That’s one of the reasons I like to play along with the band on the backing track – because I want to have full knowledge of what’s going on – and that’s why I make my charts: so we can speed the process up and quickly accommodate repairs and suggestions that are made in the room. Cheerleaders not allowed.
Can you contrast your approach to recording when you’re on your own, as opposed to when you work in collaboration with Brian Eno?
Eno and I play very well together, so without speaking a lot of words, we just walk into a room, go to our rigs, and within a matter of minutes there’s something happening. We’re usually able to come up with a vibe very quickly, and that’s the gift of our partnership. Consequently, we play on the records we produce together. Eno will almost always come in with some kind of beat, or a sound that will have a powerful emotion within it, something that might be the perfect complement to a lyric.
So we’re a good tag team, but we have a couple of rules that we operate by. One of them, which Brian explained to me very early on, is this: whatever I say, you agree with, and whatever you say, I will agree with. That’s because it’s better to agree on something and get the ball rolling. That’s much more important than suffocating the subject matter with too many opinions; being in agreement matters more than whether one person’s idea is better or not. We made that pact a long, long time ago and we stick by it.
Then we have some fun techniques we apply. For example, we keep an independent station in the control room with an external console – something like a 32-track Mackie – which is receiving the multitrack information all the time. This station will have a set of cans and some processing equipment, so Eno can go and sit there, put on the headphones, and do something to the song that’s appearing on the main console without changing the vibe of the room; he’s just quietly in the corner doing his thing. The output from his station appears on two faders of the main console, and occasionally he’ll stick his hand up, signaling that you should pull up his faders so you can listen to what he’s done. That’s a nice way of maximizing Eno’s talent: just give him a station and let him play with the tracks until he comes up with something he likes. I have a similar station, with my little loop machines and pedals and sometimes in a quiet way I’ll be coming up with something too. I’ll put my hand up when I feel I’ve done enough fiddling and I’ve hit on an idea, and that in turn might trigger another idea from Eno.
We’ve taken this concept into mixing as well. The way it works is that one of us – it doesn’t matter which – sits at the console and begins mixing a song on our own. But the rule is that you have to lay down a mix onto two track within fifteen minutes. Then you get out of the chair and the other guy sits down, working from where you left off – he never pulls down all the faders and starts from scratch. Now he gets another fifteen minutes to do another mix, and the one rule here is that nothing is sacred: he can change whatever he wants. Fifteen minutes later another mix is laid down.
We swap back and forth like that for two hours, which gives us eight mixes. The especially good thing about this is that you’ve only put in two hours of your time, so you’re not emotionally invested in what you’ve done. You’ve focused instead in curiosity and fun, and maybe you’ve tried a few crazy things because, hey, it’s only a fifteen minute mix. But at the end you have eight mixes to play for the artist. Together, you sit in a room and listen to all eight of them, and there’s invariably going to be something special about two or three of them, and those mixes get to be a kind of character fundamental at that point, a reference as you keep working towards a final mix. You’re simply not going to get that if you’ve got everybody in the room and you’re just inching towards a final result over the course of twelve hours.
That’s a fascinating approach to mixing. But I’m even more interested in how you’re able to stick with the first rule. What do you do if you totally disagree with the other person’s suggestion, if you honestly feel it’s totally the wrong approach?
You just shut up. You just go with the other person’s idea. The thing about ideas is, if you don’t chase them up and see them through to their conclusion, you may have frustration living in a corner of the room. And I’ve never had a disagreement regarding result. Somehow it always works out that everybody agrees on the approach that sounds best.
So you’re saying that if it really was a bad idea, everybody will pretty much realize it at the end of the day.
Well, we never call them bad ideas. There are only good ideas that don’t work out. And even if they don’t work out, that doesn’t make for a bad feel, because we gave it a try.
Daniel Lanois: Acadie, Opal, 1989; For the Beauty of Wynona, Warner Brothers, 1993; Belladonna, Anti, 2005
U2: The Joshua Tree, Island, 1987; Achtung Baby, Island, 1991; All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Interscope, 2000; No Line on the Horizon, Interscope, 2009
Peter Gabriel: So, Geffen, 1986; Us, Geffen, 1992
Bob Dylan: Oh Mercy, Columbia, 1989; Time Out of Mind, Columbia, 1997
Willie Nelson: Teatro, Island, 1998
The Neville Brothers: Yellow Moon, A&M, 1989
Buy Behind The Glass, Volume II by Howard Massey at HalLeonardBooks.com. This excerpt reprinted with permission.
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