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Thinking Outside the Boxes

June 1, 2002
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From the time he was a curious four-year-old banging on a garbage-can drum set to his recent Grammy nomination for the score of the motion picture Magnolia, Jon Brion has been busily exploring the infinite realms of music and sound — and usually pushing the envelope each step of the way. Never one to heed trends, Brion has opted for the narrower path, pursuing only his own muse. Judging by his successes to date — as a session player, a songwriter, a producer, and an engineer — his muse has clearly appreciated the attention.

Brion's iconoclasm, innate musicality, and consuming quest for original sounds, not to mention his wonderfully diverse collection of unusual and vintage instruments, processors, and whatnot, have helped establish him as one of the world's most respected musician-producers. His production credits are as eclectic as any music geek's record collection, yet they read like a listing of recent Rolling Stone covers — Beck, Fiona Apple, Macy Gray, John Hiatt, Robyn Hitchcock, Dave Navarro, Elliott Smith, the Wallflowers, Sam Phillips, and the Crystal Method are but a few of Brion's satisfied clients. When studio veterans such as Bob Rock and T-Bone Burnett hit an overdub wall, they call on Brion, the one-man wrecking crew. His highly regarded session work (guitar, piano, vibraphone, harp, Chamberlain, and Optigan) on Fiona Apple's debut record, Tidal, stands as a prime example of his musical multitasking abilities.

Most recently, Brion's career as a producer has eclipsed his formidable work as a session player and songwriter. Indeed, it was the fruitful working relationship he developed with Apple that propelled him to the rank of producer on her second LP, When the Pawn…. Increasingly, Brion's career trajectory is reminiscent of eclectic musician-producers such as Brian Eno and Todd Rundgren: just as Brion has no shortage of odd instruments and inspiration, he has no shortage of opinions on what makes a recording compelling.

What are you working on now?

I'm finishing the score for Paul [Thomas] Anderson's new movie, Punchdrunk Knuckle Love.

What are you doing to mix things up on the score?

We're doing something tomorrow on an old wire recorder.

Do you think lo-fi or 4-track recordings have value?

I think they're amazing. I've tried to learn from my experiences and other people's experiences of having a great piece of music on 4-track and then going to the studio and killing it or worrying too much. The 4-track cassette recorder performs a wonderful task in getting people to feel less self-conscious. Its purpose is home recording. Everything about it makes you not worry about the recording — which, in truth, is how you need to be when you're in the recording studio. I like to think of what I do as a 4-track approach, but with extra tracks.

The reason I can be such a hard-ass about my choices for mics and preamps is that I don't want to be equalizing when I'm working. I don't ever want to sit and watch a drummer hit a snare drum for an hour. I get massively depressed if I do that. That's one of the great lessons of the 4-track — don't get so hung up on fidelity. People with a 4-track take a Shure SM57, shove it in front of a guitar, and say, “Go.” The immediacy of that is so good, and that's what all recording should have — immediacy.

Is home recording relevant only when you're doing demos or going for a lo-fi thing?

Here we get into the realm of the D word, which is demo. I don't believe in demos. I think they're really bad. What happens is people spend their first-take energy on the 4-track — the one moment when they aren't self-conscious with the song. Then they go into the studio to try and recapture the magic. It's never going to happen. You're not the same person you were the day you recorded the demo on your 4-track. Now you're in a big studio and you're paying for it. It's not the 4-track sitting on your kitchen table. Everything's different now.

Every time you record a song, you should think of it as a version of the song. If you're dissatisfied when you're done, try doing another version — but remember to take a different approach. After all, you were already dissatisfied with the song.

What are the key benefits of digital recording in the personal studio?

The beauty of digital is that instead of wasting that wonderful moment when you're first messing around with something, you can capture that first-take magic with the same sort of immediacy as with the 4-track and with the same ease of operation, but with better fidelity. That unself-consciousness is the main thing I try to capture on recordings. Always keep things rolling. Try to get the moments when someone stumbles onto something.

Of course, digital is unbeatable for editing. There are times when I choose Pro Tools simply because of noise-floor issues, especially with ballads. I usually run Pro Tools in tandem with my analog setup.

What do you think are the most frustrating things about recording at home, and how can we avoid them?

The most frustrating thing is that computers are so powerful that they set up unreasonable expectations. Because they can do so much so fast, it makes you think you can just go and go. But crashes are virtually inevitable. You get a large number of tracks in the computer, and then it just goes kablooey. It's a number of tracks you could never expect to record onto an analog machine. Before digital I would never have kept all seven passes of the same guitar part. Now I'm asking my digital recorder to do things I never would have expected from an analog machine. Then you run around the room cursing the computer when it crashes. You can easily avoid all that stuff by remembering it's your job to be a good musician still. Don't get caught up doing endless permutations of parts.

How did you learn to operate your personal-studio equipment, and how long did it take?

I'm still learning Pro Tools. I'm not very good with computers. When I'm working on real projects, I have somebody do all that stuff for me.

You're between personal studios right now. What are you looking for in a personal-studio location?

A gigantic room is what I want. I have a lot of bizarro drum sets and keyboards that I'd like to be able to have set up all the time. That way I can easily play an instrument without any setup, and I can pull microphones back and get the air around things. I'd like to have six upright pianos around. You can rent a truck on a weekend and pick up four or five amazing pianos — they're in the paper for free every week. For example, you could have one with an old-fashioned John Cage treatment, another with the hammers cut off and replaced with something else, another that's detuned honky-tonk style, or whatever. You could have endless great keyboard sounds on your records that nobody has heard before. I guess what I want is a laboratory.

What advice would you give to someone who is building a personal studio?

Buy one microphone that you really like. Just buy one really good mic and use it on everything: drums, acoustic guitar, vocals. Also, go to music stores and buy the stuff that nobody else wants. I go in and say, “Where's your junk?” Often you're better off buying a cowbell at a thrift store — and having a box of that kind of stuff — than you are buying an expensive piece of gear. I have a pile of cheap snare drums [see Fig. 1]. It's also great to have, like, ten tambourines when you're working on a track: one might hide behind things better; another might do a better job of poking through tracks that are really full; yet another might blend in just right and sound like it's part of the drum kit — you don't even sense it as a tambourine.

I also think comfort is important in a personal studio. The studio should be like you. If you like a big unholy mess, then let it be that. If you want good sounds, there's no faster way than recording in your bathroom. Every bathroom has a different sound. Even if you have a tiny practice amp in your bathroom, it's going to sound great. People need to get back into recording the molecules around a sound, the air. There's so much distinctiveness there.

Also, when you're recording at home, don't get hung up on what the standard of tone is. I think that notion should be abandoned. Even if you spend days, you won't get as good a tone as what a great studio can. So don't waste your time tweaking to get “record-quality” sounds. If you sit down with a song and spend an hour on a guitar sound, your brain will be gone. Just get a quick, accurate version of the song. If you're going to tweak the tone, it should be for fun — to create original sounds. Why spend all day equalizing to get a B+ sound when you can just move on and get an A+ performance instead? There's a really clear hierarchy for me: first is the material, second is the performance, and last are things like sonics. It's great to have an A+ sound, but that's always secondary to the song and performance.

What are some of your secret weapons? Do you try to avoid doing the same things twice?

My secret weapons are secret, and I try not to use them all of the time so they won't be a crutch. [Laughs.] My secret weapons were developed by not doing the same thing all the time — and by remembering that that principle works best every time.

So I guess you always do the same thing.

Yeah — I always try something different. [Laughs.] Now it's not a secret.

What's the most amazing technique you have learned in the studio?

I think it's probably understanding the psychological environment that's important to making good music. As a session player, I've been able to examine a lot of producers' techniques, and I've experienced what it feels like to be told certain things. I've learned a lot about how to be in the right place mentally to record. The best tricks are more about attitude.

As far as mixing goes, I've watched Bob Clear-mountain mix, and you think he's going to have all these secret boxes. But in fact, there aren't any. He sits with the vocal twice as loud as the rest of the mix and listens to the song for hours. Each fader moves imperceptibly. By the fourth hour, everything sounds amazing — and he's been using only the faders. The real secret of the people who make great records is that they know when to stop and not worry about things.

What is the most important piece of gear you own, and why?

Me. Whatever the hell it is that makes me me and makes me want to find new things. I didn't realize that until I was telling someone that my best asset was my collection of vintage gear, and the guy said, “No, dummy, you are.” It seems like a really obvious, dumb thing, but the real solution is realizing that everything you have is your palette. It's all important: your good mic, your bad mic — anything that makes a sound is potentially important. The various dishes and silverware from this room are just as vital as the most beautiful snare drum, because things are always changing — it's a new song and a new day. Things are constantly morphing. The real job at hand is to ride with it.

What pieces of your gear get the most use?

My MGM Church Cinemikes [see Fig. 2] and probably my pump organ or Chamberlain. My Dictaphone is big, too, because it gets used so much in my day-to-day life, which spills over into the studio. It's with me every step of the way, from the core idea of a new song to an interesting sound I hear to being an instrument that I play while singing into it and applying the speed control as an octave device. I've used it to make basic tracks that I then lay down on my multitrack machine. I do so many things with my Dictaphone.

What do you think of some of the new digital products such as modeling amps and vintage plug-ins?

The good thing is they're inexpensive, and they put a ton of tones in more people's hands than before. That's great. They open people up to playing with a variety of tones when recording. That's great, too. But when people buy a new product with a choice of 99 sounds, they spend the first night going through all 99 sounds. Then they pick a couple they like, and that's basically what they use the rest of the time, because the other sounds aren't actually that different.

In every modeling box, there's a device that creates distortion, and it has its own “grain” or window of fidelity. The unit may claim to have every sound imaginable, but it's still all those sounds within that grain. The fact is you always get a more individualized sound from boxes devoted to a single function. So if you've already used a certain fuzz box on a song, plug in a different fuzz. Now your song has two entirely different grains of distortion, which gives that much more tonal “life force” to the track.

Another trick is to combine your modeling boxes with other effects. One of my favorite sounds comes from patching a factory preset on my Line 6 Echo Pro delay modeler through this little Ibanez FZ7 fuzz box. [For more on the Echo Pro, see the review on p. 146.] There's a preset on the Echo Pro that's delay with a chorus [Digital Delay w/Mod], and when you put it through this cheap little Ibanez fuzz box, you get this great sound from the fuzz being driven like crazy. There's all this different information from the delay time moving and the chorus. You get the sickest, meanest fuzz sound out of it.

Another tip is to run your Line 6 Pod through an old cassette deck to keep it from sounding like a glorified Rockman. You'll turn it into a more important piece of a much more complex sound.

You can take the same approach with samples. Instead of using samples of vintage instruments, why not take a woodwind sample or something with some complex harmonics, run it through a fuzz box and then into a guitar amplifier, mic it from a few feet back, and compress it so you can hear a little bit of the room? Then you have something with complex harmonics making the fuzz box go crazy. It can't handle how complex the initial tone is, so it starts spitting out weird stuff, and that's going to an amp and getting colored by the tubes, then that's getting pumped into a room and it's moving molecules, and you're recording the reflections of actual atoms moving. With compression you can decide how much of the information slapping around the room you want.

What other tips do you have for overcoming the limitations of plug-ins and presets?

Don't always use the plug-ins. Run out of your I/O and into some hardware. Most people think their Neve, LA2A, or whatever plug-ins sound great. But most of these people have never even seen a real Neve, let alone listened to one. Stop expecting plug-ins to sound as good as the devices they are simulating and respect them for the good sounds that they do make. Mix it up. Go to the local used-instrument music store, spend a hundred dollars on some weird effects pedals, and experiment with those as your outboard effects. I'm more interested in acoustic ambience devices and making use of acoustic environments the way engineers did in the old days. Joe Meek used to have a speaker with a fan in front of it and a mic on the other side.

Here's something else you can try: I heard that when Trent Reznor starts a project, he makes a list of things you're supposed to do, such as eighth-note tambourine on the chorus and chorus bigger than verse. The list gets posted in the studio, and you're not allowed to do any of those things. That's a great way of working.

Do all the different recording mediums and techniques somehow complement one another and influence the material or the artist?

Definitely. I use different mediums a lot to consciously color what I'm working on. A specific medium can force everyone in the environment to work differently, especially the players in the room. Pro Tools, for example, makes people play a certain way. You stare at the screen and you know that you can play ten tracks of overdubs, and someone will comp it together when you leave.

People playing live together results in something entirely different. Tell everybody, “Okay, we're going live,” and see what happens. I find that people perform really well live to two tracks. It gives you some of what we had with bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

We need more communal music making, human beings responding to each other. Now there's the overdub, and it has become massively powerful with digital. Recording as an art form is about using all these different mediums as a palette, not an instruction manual. Potentially, everything you own is the perfect thing for the job. No one piece of gear, technique, or scenario is any more important or useful than another. In fact, your most prized piece of gear or your best friend's secret weapon can often be the wrong thing for a given song.


Kenneth A. Woods is a writer, producer, and musician living in Los Angeles. He is working on a book titled Rock and Roll Is Dead.

JON BRION: A SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY

Fiona Apple, Tidal (Sony/Work, 1996); guitar, piano, tack piano, harp, marimba, vibraphone, dulcitone, Chamberlain, Optigan

Fiona Apple, When the Pawn … (Sony/Work, 1999); producer, mixer, instrumentation

Eels, Beautiful Freak (DreamWorks, 1996); producer, engineer, guitar, trombone, Chamberlain

Eels, Electro-Shock Blues (DreamWorks, 1998); organ, Chamberlain

Macy Gray, On How Life Is (Epic, 1999); synthesizer, guitar, piano, marimba, orchestra bells, Chamberlain

John Hiatt, Little Head (Capitol, 1997); vibraphone, Chamberlain

Robyn Hitchcock, Jewels for Sophia (Warner Brothers, 1999); organ, bass, percussion, drums, vocals, producer, engineer, Chamberlain, keyboard bass

Aimee Mann, Whatever (Geffen, 1993); producer, arranger, organ, bass, drums, glockenspiel, electric guitar, keyboards, tambourine, vocals, Mellotron, Chamberlain

Aimee Mann, I'm with Stupid (Geffen, 1995); acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, harmonica, percussion, cello, drums, keyboards, vocals

Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2 (Supergo, 2000); producer

Miranda Lee Richards, Herethereafter (Virgin, 2001); bass, guitar, bells, producer, engineer, Chamberlain, Marxophone, Optigan

Elliott Smith, XO (DreamWorks, 1998); Chamberlain

Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks, 1998); producer

The Wallflowers, Bringing down the Horse (Interscope, 1996); guitar

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