Tag Archives: Ron Saint Germain

Live Recording

A few days ago I happened to listen to an old edition of the Mixerman Radio Show in which Ron Saint Germain talked about recording live jazz to two-track.

OK, some explanations first. Mixerman is the online alias of Eric Sarafin, an LA-based engineer and producer who got a high profile among people interested in recording for his Mixerman diaries, originally published on the internet in serial form. Sarafin set up an audio forum (The Womb) and began recording podcasts (which he called Mixerman Radio Shows) with some of his industry friends, some of whom used aliases (Slipperman, Aardvark) and some of whom didn’t (Bob Ohlsson, Ron Saint Germain).

The forum was a bit of a boys’ club, and it had its share of backbiting and general nonsense, but unlike the folks who hung out on Gearslutz, these guys all had solid track records as pros in the actual music industry, and some of them were a very big deal indeed (particularly Ohlsson and Saint Germain, who have had genuinely amazing careers).

I found this forum at a time when I was becoming obsessed with recording but had very little money, so I listened to every podcast and read every post to try to absorb the knowledge and techniques on offer. Slipperman (Tim Gilles), in particular, went out of his way to teach newbies, recording a series of podcasts in which he proved himself entertainingly foul-mouthed, hugely knowledgable about tracking and mixing heavy rock guitar and music in general, and in possession of a heart the size of New Jersey. The guy’s an absolute hero and a total inspiration.

So, back to Ron Saint Germain and his live jazz recorded to two-track.

This is recording of essentially the opposite sort to that which I described last time, with the endless tweaking and the mixes that are never quite done. Live to two-track means live to stereo tape (stereo tape has two channels, one that you hear out of the left speaker and one that you hear out of the right speaker). Since the invention of sound-on-sound recording, records have as a rule been recorded to multitrack tape, and then mixed down to stereo tape as the last step in the mixing process. Working this way, you can always remix if you decide tomorrow that, say, the vocal’s a little too loud. Collapsing the process by recording live to two-track, with no possibility of altering the balances, stereo-field placement or performances later, is for most musicians and engineers simply an obsolete way of working, as well as one that forces them to live with flaws in the end product that could easily be fixed if it had been recorded to multitrack and mixed down to stereo after.

Boy, did Saint Germain make it sound fun, though. And in my limited experience, it is fun. And hugely challenging. And massively rewarding when it goes well. It forces you to up your game, whether you’re placing the microphones or having them pointed at you – and I’ve a bit of experience at both. You can’t rely on punch-ins, edits, retakes or any other staple of the multitrack world to come to your rescue if you can’t play, and if the sounds you got when you placed your mics are phasey and indistinct, how do you think the recording’s going to sound?

Maybe I’m a masochist, but I think that’s great. In fact, I went through a phase last year where I tried to record all of my solo acoustic songs this way: partly to sharpen up again as a player so I could cut it in front of an audience after a few years of not really doing many gigs, and partly because I felt like my recorded vocals were hampered by self-consciousness and lack of confidence, and that recording live while playing guitar would help. In some respects it did; it forced me to be able to truly perform a song before recording it, which oftentimes isn’t necessary when you’re multitracking and not planning to ever play a song on stage.

I’m recording with Yo Zushi this weekend and have a hunch that the session will once again include some live recording: the band all in the room together, leakage and all; maybe with live vocals, maybe without. I’m looking forward to it.


Recorded live with two microphones last year

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Like Suicide – Soundgarden

I felt very proud to be part of a music scene that was changing the face of commercial music and rock music internationally, but I also felt like it was necessary for Soundgarden — as it was for all of these Seattle bands — to prove that we deserve to be on an international stage and we weren’t just part of a fad that was based on geography. I knew we had the ability to do that, and I also knew that the timing was important. This was the time.

 Chris Cornell, Get Yourself Control: The Oral History of Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Spin

Soundgarden were the first of the big-name grunge-era Seattle bands to release a record, the first to sign to a major and the first to get a Grammy nomination. But they were last of the big beasts to really catch on commercially. 1991’s Badmotorfinger (mixed by the incomparable Ron Saint Germain, making a silk purse out of the sow’s ear that was Terry Date’s wimpy, tinny tracking on such mighty cuts as Slaves & Bulldozers) was a hit, as was single Outshined, but it was overshadowed by the mega-success of Nevermind, Ten and Dirt.

In 1993, Soundgarden began work on Superunknown with producer Michael Beinhorn. Beinhorn had developed a reputation for breaking alternative acts big following his work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Mother’s Milk) and Soul Asylum (Grave Dancer’s Union). His methods were confrontational; he was, shall we say, not afraid of conflict. He had the balls to (temporarily) can Anthony Kiedis from the Chili Peppers for his drug use and hire Sterling Campbell to replace Soul Asylum drummer Grant Young’s playing, and would go on to fire Hole’s drummer Patty Schemel while producing Celebrity Skin.

While all four members of Soundgarden made it through production without getting fired,  but Beinhorn didn’t let them off easy, and he’s had some interesting things to say about them in the years since*. If they were to be the next band to ascend to the alt-rock stratosphere, they were going to have to earn it, was his attitude. He went toe to toe with Chris Cornell in an effort to get him to broaden and diversify the band’s sound and include more Beatlesy songwriting and less Zeppelinesque yowling, alienating guitarist Kim Thayil in the process, who was used to being a major source of the band’s material.

There’s still a healthy dose of yowling on Superunknown, but the riffs are beefier and less twisty and dissonant than before, Cornell sings with great imagination and musicality across those riffs and drummer Matt Cameron gets the drum sound his magnificent contributions deserved.

Cameron is one of my very favourite drummers – he’s powerful, groovy and imaginative, making the twisty-turny Soundgarden material sound like the most natural thing in the world. He’s on superlative form on the record’s last track, Like Suicide, and Beinhorn and his team (Adam Kaspar, Jason Corsaro and Brendan O’Brien) really allow him to shine.

Like Suicide illustrates a lot of the ideas I was getting at in my last post on Radiohead’s The Bends. Superunknown is a record that is frequently referenced for drum sounds; bands want to sound like this, engineers put their own work up against this. But the reason that Cameron’s drums sound as big as they do is because of the sparseness of the arrangement. Kim Thayil was never a wall-of-sound type of guitar player and his from-the-get-go decision to play a certain way had the benefit of freeing up real estate for Cameron. It just took until the band’s fourth album for full advantage of this to be taken on record. But this is the key thing: half the bands trying to get their drums to sound like Matt Cameron on Like Suicide will never get there because their band isn’t Soundgarden. Superunknown may not be the group’s best record, but it’s undoubtedly one where their unique sonic potential is fulfilled.

Like Suicide is, mostly, a half-time feel, with acres of space inside the lines for fills. For the first half of the song, Cameron keeps it tight. He plays a small kit with the snare wires off, and only plays a minimum of fills, largely laying off the toms. His masterstroke (or maybe Beinhorn’s), is the switch to the big sound at 3.30: a full-kit, large-room sound, with monstrously huge toms and a big reverb (listen to the size of the cymbals, how live they sound). At this point, he begins to cut loose and the 22-second stretch between the heavy section starting and Cornell’s vocal coming back in is one of the most exciting passages in rock music, with Cameron playing a de facto drum solo. He’s still playing the heavy half-time beat he started the song with, albeit with loads of kick drum variations, but the fills are just so creative, it takes it beyond just playing the groove. Note also how the tempo speeds up subtly when the group switches out of half time at 4.30. Absolute adherence to absolute time has never been a virtue in rock; just listen to some Zeppelin for proof.

It’s a killer end to a great album, and when Thayil and Cameron are cutting loose at the same time, it’s as exciting as rock music gets, as good as Page and Bonham during the guitar solo on Since I’ve Been Loving You. I can’t think of any higher praise to bestow on a rock band.

SOUNDGARDEN
l-r Chris Cornell, Ben Shepherd, Matt Cameron, Kim Thayil

“It was kind of nightmarish. These guys did not get along” – Beinhorn in a radio interview on Australia’s Triple J

Bob Clearmountain, mix engineer

The idea of “mix engineer” and “tracking engineer” never used to be different job titles. Before Bob Clearmountain, the only guy I can think of to be known as a prominent mixer but not a tracking engineer was Tom Moulton, the pioneer of the 12-inch disco mix. Clearmountain is a line in the sand, the guy who was hired just as much for the rep he had as a hitmaker as for his mixing skills. It’s not much of an overstatement to say that mixing engineer and tracking engineer become different job titles begins with Clearmountain. Many others – the Lord-Alge brothers, Andy Wallace, Michael Brauer, Ron Saint Germain, Rich Costey, Tom Elmhirst, Mark Stent, Andy Sneap – have, for better or worse, followed.

Making his name with his work on records by Kool & the Gang, Chic, Roxy Music, Springsteen and the Rolling Stones (who sought him out to mix Miss You and have kept him on board more or less ever since), Clearmountain was soon all over the radio, mixing records by many of the biggest names of the era: David Bowie (Let’s Dance), Huey Lewis & the News (Picture This, Sports, Fore), Meat Loaf (Dead Ringer), Hall & Oates (Big Bam Boom, Ooh Yeah) and Bryan Adams (Cuts Like a Knife, Reckless), as well as continuing his association with the Boss (the apogee of which was, of course, Born in the USA).

But Clearmountain’s years of big bam booming mixes aren’t what I want to talk about here today. They do their work with total efficiency, but they can be brash and overbearing, like many of the artists in whose service they were employed. And, interestingly, Clearmountain, when asked in 1999 by Sound on Sound which work he considered his finest up to that moment in his career, pointed at his work with Aimee Mann and with Neil Finn’s Crowded House.

These records (with the exception of the first Crowded House album, which is fairly of its time sonically – the mix of Don’t Dream it’s Over, for example, is needlessly grandiose) give us a Clearmountain who, while still all about vocal and rhythm section, is also much more intimate and subtle than might be suggested by his reputation as the ultimate hitmaker.

Let’s examine some individual songs and techniques.

When I say he’s all about vocal and rhythm section, what do I mean? Let’s take Four Seasons in One Day by Crowded House from Woodface. The mix is noticeably uncluttered, even as it builds. The main rhythm guitar, placed centrally and presumably played by Neil Finn, is way, way quieter than most contemporary mix engineers would have it, which gives plenty of space to the Finn brothers’ vocals, and ensures that when the drums enter, they have plenty of space and punch. The piano that enters on the word “domain” is panned right, the shaker entirely left. In the second verse, an electric piano enters on the left, and Tim Finn’s voice joins in centrally, as does the “choir” vocal. In the chorus, you get drums (stereo), a mandolin on the right and what sounds like a Mellotron on the left, which drop out again for the harpsichord solo and final mini verse, before coming back in for the last chorus.

Of course, any great record is a product of many people’s labour. Nick Seymour’s bass playing is superb, and Paul Hester resists giving the drum track an arena-sized performance. Finn and producer Mitchell Froom deserve great credit for the arrangement. But still, Clearmountain’s mix is extremely lucid and spare, so that the details that are included (the counterpoint harpsichord, the choir, the mandolin) make that much more impact. And, it should be stressed again, part of the reason there is so much space to fill with these important touches is because Clearmountain didn’t make the rhythm guitar, which provides the song’s harmonic and rhythmic glue, very prominent. The same is equally true of his mix on Fall at Your Feet, which is another masterclass in these techniques.

Mixing acoustic guitars against drums is far harder than you might think, particularly if the performance isn’t hugely tight; I hear many mixers resort to ludicrous levels of compression so that neither instrument has any attack left, purely in an effort to prevent distracting flams where the snare drum and guitar strum aren’t in sync; an example of a cure that’s much worse than the disease. Of course, a good performance on both instruments by players who can work with each other’s feel will help, but the noughties fashion, which still continues (and which is so prevalent it filters down to open mics and small club shows), of having a simple, bare-bones strummed guitar right up at the forefront of the mix is needless and completely antithetical to good-feeling rock music, which is, was and ever shall be about the drums first.

At the other end of the decade, Clearmountain worked with Aimee Mann on two projects – the Magnolia soundtrack and studio album Bachelor No. 2 – which have so far proved to be their final collaboration. The two records share several songs, so let’s look at one that’s on both: You Do.

The first thing to say is that You Do is not built on a live drum track, but a loop. Working with loops rather than live drums changes things within a mix, within a production, quite substantially. A live drum track, whether recorded with a whole band or separately as part of an overdub process, creates a sort of dynamic roadmap for a song, wherein this bit gets louder, this bit gets quieter, this bit builds in intensity by the use of crash cymbals rather than ride cymbal, this bit pulls back by replacing open snare hits with cross-stick, and so on.

Now, you can program loops to mimic this kind of thing, but no programmed loop ever has the moment-to-moment interaction with other musicians that a genuinely live off-the-floor take has, or even an overdubbed performance from a drummer who genuinely knows and feels the song. It’s not uncommon to hear tracks that attempt to present programmed drums as live performances, but it’s extremely uncommon to find it done well enough to fool a drummer or anyone with a good ear.

Mann, the song’s writer and producer, and her manager and former bandmate in Til Tuesday Michael Hausman (a drummer), wisely decide not to try to make the loop sound like a real kit. There are no fills, no cymbals and no frills at all except for a ritardando at the end of the song. This creates its own issues though, particularly for the mix engineer. With the drum loop playing over and again at the same intensity, do you use volume rides or heavier compression or something to create a difference at different points of the song? Do you, maybe, ride the reverb return to make the loop “bigger”? Adjust the balances of the other instruments?

All these issues faced Clearmountain when mixing You Do. So the main skeleton of the mix is as follows: bass, drum loop, vibes, lead vocal in the middle. Main rhythm guitar (acoustic) on the left (hard left) and electric lead hard on the right. In the chorus we have an added piano on the left, a keyboard on the right, Chamberlin (Mellotron) strings on the right and a couple of electric guitars playing a lead riff, one right and one left, plus added vocals in the middle. Again, Clearmountain is creating space in the middle for those vocals by keeping everything else out of the way (the key advantage of bold LCR panning, but something many neophyte mixers are frightened of – mainly because if the arrangement is itself unbalanced it will create an unbalanced LCR mix). This time the acoustic guitar is quite prominent, but it’s panned out of the centre, so the overall effect (creating space for vocals and lead instruments) is the same as it was for the Crowded House track looked at earlier. The sparser, more ambient, third verse, has some beautiful effects – I love the electric guitar tone, the squiggly synth line at about 2.42 and the single-note guitar (?) that floats from the right to the centre and back again between the line “Baby, anyone can change” and the first line of the final chorus “And you do”. In the midst of a fairly dry and organic presentation, there’s some subtle but very effective time-domain effects on these things, which may have come from the players or Clearmountain. Either way, it’s great stuff.

Bob Clearmountain’s work speaks loudly of quality and big-budget luxury (does anything in popular music sound bigger or grander than More than This by Roxy Music from Avalon?), yet he’s adaptable, soulful and alive to the artistic as well as commercial possibilities of the music he mixes.

bob clearmountain

A rough demo of a new song:

Slaves & Bulldozers – Soundgarden

Soundgarden were one of the original Seattle ‘grunge’ groups, a term the bands involved would quickly come to hate and resent, but which in 1988 Mudhoney’s Mark Arm had used to describe his own band’s music: a dirty, scuzzy blend of mainstream seventies metal, late-sixties garage, and early-eighties punk. Mudhoney leaned towards the punk end of things; in fact, their biggest debt was to Iggy Pop’s proto-punk outfit the Stooges. Early Nirvana was pretty much equal parts punk and metal – plenty of Sabbath, but plenty of Flipper too. Soundgarden shared some of those influences, but in Chris Cornell had a singer with a classic hard-rock voice, which made it easier for mainstream-label A&R guys to work out where the band was coming from.

So it was no surprise when Soundgarden became the first band out of Seattle to put out a major-label record since Heart in the seventies (Mother Love Bone, whose members later regrouped as Pearl Jam, were the first Seattle band to get signed by major, but singer Andy Wood OD’d before the band had released their first LP). Badmotorfinger, released in 1991 on A&M, was actually Soundgarden’s third record, but they’d outgrown Sub Pop’s ability to distribute their records nationally. This problem had plagued the more successful underground bands for years (since Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade at least) and was a key reason why they began signing to majors – if fans can’t find your records in shops and the label can’t press enough to keep up with demand, what’s the point in staying with that label?

Badmotorfinger got somewhat left behind by the Nirvana juggernaut, but in any event it was a little too arty and dissonant for the mainstream. Chris Cornell might have had an accessible, incredibly versatile rock voice (his vocal on Slaves & Bulldozers is a tour de force: one minute he’s out-shrieking Cobain, the next he’s Ronnie James Dio, then he’s Bruce Dickinson), but Kim Thayil wrenched every conceivable noise out of his guitar except conventional ones, like a less schoolmasterly Robert Fripp. Most rock guitarists given the awesomely sludgy bass riff that Ben Shepherd plays in the intro (placed hard to the left by mix engineer Ron Saint Germain) would have chosen simply to double it while throwing their hair around. Not Thayil, God bless him. His was a cerebral take on metal. There is a guitar track that doubles the bass riff, but the listener’s ear is instead drawn to the squonky squealing noises up top. Pure Thayil.

With their frequent use of odd meters, Soundgarden were playing math-rock for a far wider audience than it ever had in the Midwest in the 1980s. They never made a big deal of it though, they simply threw in an extra beat in this measure and took one away in that measure as if it were the most natural thing in the world. On Fell on Black Days and Spoonman they’d even make math-rock into pop music. For this and much else they haven’t really received due credit. Still not enough people talk about how great their rhythm section was. Yet Matt Cameron was a monster drummer (inventive, powerful and groovy, never stiff and always musical) while Ben Shepherd’s bass playing was intense and furious – you can hear how hard he’s hitting his strings on those occasions where he’s not quite tight with Cameron’s snare drum.

Soundgarden’s next album, Superunknown, did get them the big mainstream hit that A&M wanted from them. The shift towards a slightly more commercial songwriting style felt like an evolution rather than a cynical change of direction – like Cobain, Cornell had always been a Beatles fan – and like its predecessor it’s an essential nineties rock record, but Badmotorfinger is the Soundgarden record where they sound most like themselves, the record that only they could have made.

They’re back touring and making records again, and that’s great. They’re unlikely to do anything cheesy or regrettable, but it’s also unlikely they’ll do anything to top the music they made in the first half of the nineties. I’d love to see it happen though.

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The Garden of Sound