The Mystery Of The Making

Written by Dan Schwartz

I never think about how mysterious the process of contemporary record making is, or was, to the people who buy those records. Which, when you think about it, is really naïve — since I devour stories about the making of records I love like a good meal.

In the early days of recording with Bill Bottrell, his studio, Toad Hall, was new, and we experimented with the spaces. There are some outtakes from the early weeks of Triage (David Baerwald’s bleak and angry rant about America in the era of grunge was released in 1992, and seems startlingly prescient today–Ed.) that were recorded with the band in the large room, and the board, the control desk, in the little room. Other than the acoustic treatments, that’s the traditional set-up. By later in the album, the situation was reversed, and that’s pretty much the way it stayed. Even when I recorded Indian music in there, the larger room was still used as the control room.

Toad Hall was initially a bank, in the very early part of the 20th century. It was part of 3 reasonably identical spaces. Bill leased two of them and started what modifications there were. I first saw it, I suppose, early in the spring of 1991. It was still just coming together. My sometimes-roommate George Newburn was the acoustic consultant — he took me out there with an instinct that Bill and I would get along. I was surprised to see my good friend Robert Newman (who had been the Motels first drummer and whom I met when we played in Terry Reid’s band) was way up on a scaffold doing a faux-finish to a concrete beam, painting it to look like wood. I remember my visit there, that Madonna had just been in (and that George was mildly and humorously obsessed with the lipstick stains on her Styrofoam coffee cup). I vaguely recall that Bill and I talked about Neil Young, and were more-or-less in agreement that he was all that was left.

Meantime, Baerwald was calling constantly, talking politics, usually late at night, and I finally encouraged him to put down on paper what he was talking about. The next morning, my phone rang at 6 AM; he said, “I’ve got your left-wing rant written”, and he read me “The Got-No-Shotgun Hydrahead Octopus Blues”.

A couple months later two things happened: Baerwald was really leaning on me to produce his album, and George told me that he had found out that Bill was producing Michael Jackson. Well, I’m no dummy — I knew A&M Records weren’t going to trust me with $300,000, and I knew they WOULD trust Bill if he was producing Michael. So I called him, and very soon after, he, Baerwald and I were having drinks in Pasadena. (OK, they were drinking).

The next night we all got together with Brian MacLeod and Gregg Arreguin, and did our first recording. Then Bill was busy recording Michael, and Baerwald and I did a little development, When we reconvened in Toad Hall, we did a couple days with Kavi Alexander’s mics and drummer David Beebe, and then a few weeks with David Kemper on drums and pianist Nicky Hopkins for a day. And when we finally started the album in earnest about 4 months after our initial recording, the cast had settled: Bill’s tenant, Kevin Gilbert, MacLeod and Arreguin— and the studio was reversed, the big room was now the control room and the small room had become the drum room. There might have been a handful of studios set up that way, or Bill may have been the first. I visited Mark Howard at Teatro, Dan Lanois’ place in Oxnard 15 years ago, and by then they were set-up that way.

It was extremely dead sounding in the drum room, no reflections, and so the prevailing ambiance became dead drums, live everything else. The only real treatments in the live room consisted of acoustic fiberglass behind half-a-dozen long drapes, and a bass trap above a floor-to-almost-ceiling bookshelf in the back of the room. The console was a mid-70s Neve, and the tape machine a Studer A800.

But the real innovation came in the form of the collective musicians’ monitoring, the headphone system. For one thing, it was powerful, a 400-watt-per-side Bryston amp. But mainly, it didn’t allow for what came to be called a “More Me” control — it was 2 channels, a stereo send, and that was it. We all heard the same thing: if I wanted more me, everybody got more me. (That encouraged us to be pretty circumspect when asking for more of ourselves). I can’t adequately describe what this did for us — in all my years of playing, this was the first time that I had an experience of playing a record AS I was making the record.

Maybe I should explain myself: in working up that point, I had been used to using headphone systems that separated, rather than unified, the players. Everybody had a feed, usually one of 3 or 4 headphone sends — or sub-mixes — from the recording desk. That’s what everybody had, and it only got worse with years, finally enabling us to literally create our own mix. On a 2006 session with Jim Keltner and a half-dozen other players, Jim took off his phones and whispered to me, “What are you listening to?” Surreptitiously, we collaborated in hearing the same things.

This is probably among the many innovations that came with multi-track recording that led us down the garden path and away from really making MUSIC. My pal Terry Manning usually recorded with no headphones at all. It’s hard to imagine, as gloriously “primitive” as the REDD desks were, that the Beatles had multiple headphone signals.

In later years, I found myself so reliant on Bill’s system that even when we used a different studio, when he really didn’t want to engineer, I would sometimes needle him until we had a reasonable facsimile of his great set-up, if he hadn’t done it yet. He once referred to his headphone system as his real innovation.

Finally, there were usually enough open mics, a Neumann U47 with a very wide field of pickup, and a couple Neumann KM-54 or Schoeps small-diaphragm tube mics, to give us all a sense of being in the room — even through standard-issue AKG 240s.

As the record went on, things became more and more tense between David and I, culminating in us arguing in the “drum room”, away from prying mics, in which he said that I “took the lid off his anger” by encouraging him to write about what he was always talking about. I replied that I didn’t have to believe him to believe it was right for him to say what the album was saying.

Of course, after 25 years, it’s obvious that everything that he, and we, said on that album was utterly true.

Next issue: thoughts on Triage.

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