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Let The Right Sounds In: Fleetwood Mac's Studio Genius Opens Up About His Off-Kilter Production Techniques

4/1/2009

Buckingham’s carefree attitude toward the tools of his craft seems diametrically opposed to his painstakingly layered production approach. Despite his sometimes lo-fi applications, Buckingham consistently turns out musical projects of sonic richness and lyrical depth that reflect the clarity of the conceptual mastermind behind the console. With releases such as Fleetwood Mac’s left-of-center Tusk, the Fairlight-laden Tango in the Night, and his own Go Insane, Law and Order, Under the Skin, Out of the Cradle, and the recent Gift of Screws [Reprise], Buckingham has built a reputation as a studio experimentalist. He meticulously details every tune with multiple bluesy, folk-inspired, and slightly distorted guitar tracks that dart in and out of the stereo image; blossoming multi-part vocal sequences; and magical, yet almost unidentifiable sonic particles. Now, if only we could corner him on the specifics of how he does it...

THE LONG ROAD TO GIFT OF SCREWS

Aside from being one of the most popular records of the 1970s, Fleetwood Mac’s Grammy-winning Rumours was a milestone in highfidelity recording. Yet, it was the successor to Rumours, 1979’s Tusk, that transformed Buckingham from international pop star and fingerpicking guitar hero to quirky, Brian Wilsonesque studio maven with an almost reckless disregard for music-industry commercialism.

“I was engineering a lot of stuff myself during the Tusk album,” says Buckingham, who cut his teeth coproducing Rumours (with the band, Richard Dashut, and Ken Caillat) and its predecessor Fleetwood Mac (with the band and Keith Olsen). “Making a record like Tusk was challenging the status quo. I was following my heart as a producer and writer. With Tusk, I was doing what I wanted to do, as opposed to what the machinery around me would have liked me to do.”

Today, Buckingham enjoys a safe and sane distance from the Big Mac juggernaut, despite bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood appearing on Gift of Screws, and tours with the band (sans Christine McVie). Buckingham’s new life— which includes his wife and three kids—has infused a “sense of possibility into everything,” and this attitude has spilled into his work. At the same time, Buckingham appreciates the unique perspective on the music biz he is afforded as a member of Fleetwood Mac.

“For me, it’s a luxury, and it’s also very ironic to be in a group like Fleetwood Mac,” he says. “It is a doubleedged sword. It gives you freedom, and it gives you credibility. But I also have to understand that when I go out and make solo albums—and do things that are pretty much what I want to do—I can’t expect a record company to get too behind those projects. I have to realize that I am making something that does not have a bottom-line mentality to it. I’ve always dealt with dead ears from the music industry machine as far as my solo work goes, even though I am in a very successful other machine.”

Each track of a Buckingham production attempts to unearth artifacts— both aural and autobiographical—that symbolize the artist’s inner demons, emotional pain, and manic, celebratory freak outs. Simply put, Buckingham’s records—often one-man band affairs— are haunting collections of uber-emotional musical statements resembling his sometimes charged and shattered psyche. So it’s no surprise to learn that Gift of Screws—which runs along a kind of musical narrative traversing the miles of psychological bullsh*t the songwriter has crawled through to claim some small measure of personal peace—is as fresh, tight, and musically exciting as any Fleetwood Mac release in recent memory.

“I did Under the Skin in 2006, which was really about taking a fingerpicking style, having one or two guitars doing the work, and not playing lead or having drums or bass or anything else on the songs,” says Buckingham. “Under the Skin was sort of an opening act to Gift of Screws, as the newer record seems to address a range of things I’ve done in my career.”

THE CREATIVE POSSIBILITIES OF UNKNOWNS

Despite its manic/euphoric energy and orgiastic ballyhooing, the textural flavor of Gift of Screws ultimately reflects the psychological catharsis experienced by Buckingham in the last decade. It’s also, arguably, as sonically lo-fi and off-the-cuff as anything Buckingham has done in his solo career to date. The record opens with the aerobic “Great Day,” moves through tunes that comment on life in-and-out of Fleetwood Mac (“Underground,” “Bel Air Rain,” “The Right Place to Fade”), and comes to rest on a meditative and cautiously optimistic note, “Treason.”

“I don’t necessarily think of myself as a writer,” says Buckingham, who cites Brian Wilson and Phil Spector as influences. “I think of myself as a stylist, and the process of writing a song is part and parcel with putting it together in the studio. If you are playing the instruments yourself, you’re slapping the paint on the canvas, and it leads you in the direction that you may or may not have expected to go. So, you go in and play around until you find the right inversions and the right notes that are going to support the melody. You don’t necessarily know what that is. You might think you know, but, most of the time, you try things that may or may not work. You might record twice as many tracks as you end up using. You push the faders up in different combinations until something feels right. All of these actions open up the possibilities to any number of unknowns, and I think this is the way a lot of producers who were interested in pushing the envelope have approached making records.”

“Even as early as Rumours, we would be working on a song for months, and then, one day, Lindsey would come in and put a counterpoint on the track—something that was always his original idea—and it would turn the song inside out and make it three times better,” says Buckingham’s longtime equipment tech and recording engineer, Ray Lindsey.

The creative benefits of embracing “possibilities” when they present themselves is perhaps best illustrated on Gift of Screws by the development of the track, “Great Day.”

“I was in the studio, and my son, Will, was hanging out, and he started going, ‘Great day. Great day,’” says Buckingham. “I asked, ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. I just made it up.’ I thought, ‘I’m going to see if I can make it into a song.’ I don’t necessarily think I was intending it, but that song ended up being a capsule report on everything else that followed—in kind of like a ‘cubist’ sort of way—with its fingerpicked acoustic parts, counterpoint vocals, and flashy leads.”

Likewise, the mysterious rhythmic pitter-patter rhythm at the opening of the tune is an example of Buckingham’s willingness to use anything at hand to subvert obvious sonic choices.

“You know how mixing consoles have that little padded area where you put your elbows?” he asks. “Well, I pounded on that pad to create that rhythm. Sometimes, I use a leather chair. You set your tempo up with a click track, and you just hit the padding with your hand. This is something I’ve done over and over again— probably as a reaction to the ’70s, where you had this fat kind of very clean and in the forefront sound for the drums. Maybe that was because of disco, but if you go back to the early rock stuff, the drums were more elusive. There was so much more atmosphere. So since Tusk, I’ve often looked for alternatives for the function of things such as the snare and hi-hat— anything that would get away from the norm. I’d think, ‘What can I do on the two and four that doesn’t sound like a snare?’ Of course, in rock, you need the action and rhythm of that instrument, but why not subvert the norm and find other things? On Tusk, for example, I used a Kleenex box on ‘I Know I’m Not Wrong,’ and a 24- track tape box on ‘Save Me a Place’ instead of the snare. Those aren’t really big subversions—especially by today’s standards—but, at the time, they were.”

THE GLORY OF DOING THINGS WRONG

While Buckingham’s production esthetic can intentionally run towards the trashy at times, he has also taken things even further—in the realm of, well, wrong. Consider “Love Runs Deeper” on Gift of Screws. Is the volume really supposed to jump up so considerably during the song’s big, anthemic chorus?

“That was a tool, if you want to call it that,” says Buckingham. “It has sort of become a part of the way I mix. I offset different sections of a song by making one section louder than another. I don’t think someone else would have mixed ‘Love Runs Deeper’ that way. It is probably an outgrowth of not really knowing what I’m doing as a mixer. I don’t approach it from a technical standpoint. I don’t have any sense of, ‘Well, let’s cut 80Hz here, because that is what you are supposed to do when this situation comes up.’ For me, it’s all about turning the knobs until it sounds good. One of the things I was painfully aware of as I was mixing Gift of Screws was whether I was getting into bad habits, or actually doing something interesting. I was quite worried during the mastering process that [mastering engineer] Bernie Grundman would say, ‘I’m going to have to squash this and completely lose the dynamics, because we can’t master it otherwise.’”

“When something jumps like that, if it is exciting, it doesn’t bother me,” answers Grundman. “I consider it a good musical effect. For any little adjustments on parts that were too dynamic, I marked the tape and did it all by hand, bringing down the level a few dB at different places. I didn’t let the compressor do all the work, because with that you get a homogenized sound, and you tend to lose definition. I wanted to keep Lindsey’s music open and transient so there was still nice detail. You want to hear his musicianship.”

“You can’t get too academic about mixing,” continues Buckingham, who mixed Gift of Screws on a ’80s Neotek Elite console he purchased during the 1987 sessions for Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night. “What you do is you work on a song, shape it, and then get away from it for a while. And when you do sit down to mix, you just go until nothing is bothering you. It is not about saying, ‘The guitar is not loud enough.’ You have to listen to each element within the overall mix, and say, ‘Oh, that is hitting some chemical reaction in me. It elevates the song!’”

Buckingham can also be delightfully relaxed in his choice of effects processors.

“I love using plate reverbs and delays, and you could make a case that I overuse them sometimes,” Buckingham says. “I just really like what a delay does. It takes something out of sounding too real and makes the elements liquid. I won’t go to a piece of outboard gear for these effects, though. I’ll typically use a Boss DD-3 Digital Delay, which is about as lo-fi as you can get. But it works. You would be surprised by how low-tech my applications are.”

THE BENEFITS OF COMFORT OVER PROGRESS

For Gift of Screws, using Pro Tools wasn’t an option, but not because Buckingham hates DAWs or digital audio.

“Lindsey is not a gear head at all, and he simply doesn’t want to work with anything that takes him out of his creative focus,” says Lindsey, who also reports Buckingham used to record with six synced-up ADATs (48 tracks worth) until switching to a Sony PCM3348, 48-track digital reel-to-reel machine. “For example, even though he knows that Pro Tools offers a much faster way to edit, he still does all of his editing on a half-inch Ampex 2-track with boxes of razor blades. You see, if he was working by himself, the whole process of using Pro Tools— managing disk space, managing your CPU, saving and labeling things, and so on—would prevent him from getting on a roll, creatively. Lindsey definitely has a kind of studio comfort zone. He still monitors with Yamaha NS10s, because he knows what the NS10 can and cannot do. As long as the sound is consistently coming back to him, he can compensate for whatever deficiencies or idiosyncrasies the equipment might have in his head— which is crazy and scary. And when we go to master something, he knows exactly where to do a couple of EQ bumps. It’s all about being familiar with the equipment.”

The familiarity factor was actually a huge part of the Gift of Screws process, as the album began its life modestly as a series of tracks Buckingham recorded on his trusty Korg D1600—a portable, 16-track digital machine that some would consider as no more than a “demo” recorder.

“The songs ‘Did You Miss Me,’ ‘Treason,’ and some others were all started on that deck,” says Buckingham. “I’d grab the D1600, a guitar, one microphone, and a little set of speakers and start blocking out tracks and ideas.”

“The D1600 is very important because it sort of bridges the gap between ideas and actual master tracks,” says Lindsey. “It was meant to be a writing tool, but approximately half of Gift of Screws came straight off it. Lindsey would bring it home, and we’d transfer tracks right to the 3348. And this was all stuff that Lindsey wouldn’t have been able to get on the record otherwise.”

DIRECT ELECTRICS & TINY ACOUSTICS

For his guitar parts, Buckingham used a Baby Taylor, a Martin D-18, and a Turner Renaissance acoustic and a Model One electric. However, amplifiers weren’t usually part of the equation for the electric parts.

“Almost everything on this album is recorded direct with only a few uses of amplifiers,” says Buckingham. “Sometimes, I just plugged into a Boss OD-1 Overdrive pedal and went direct.”

Buckingham recorded a lot of the guitar tones on Gift of Screws direct, but not always by simply plugging into a stompbox. He also employed Roland’s high-tech VG-8 V-Guitar System.

“He uses just the presets on the VG-8,” explains Lindsey. “What he does is layer and double guitar tracks, using a lot of dry and direct sounds in combination with effected sounds. For a guitar solo to pop out and have the balls it needs, Lindsey is looking for ways for it to live in the track while not cluttering it up, or getting in the way of everything else going on. If something motivates him, he’ll go ahead and play a solo with a sound he has chosen. Through that process he is refining what he is playing, what the solo is doing, and what kind of direction he wants the song to take. He’s always working in a way to try to spark a creative thing. In fact, he wants everything to change all the time. The last thing I would want in the studio is to set up predetermined guitar sounds for him. Although when he plays on stage, he wants everything static so he can concentrate on his performance and his energy. Once his live sounds are set, he doesn’t want that sh*t to change!”

Although Buckingham is a brilliant acoustic player who has tracked more than his share of stunning acousticguitar tones, he didn’t always reach for a big, resonant instrument to construct the acoustic textures on Gift of Screws.

“I loved using the Baby Taylor, but they are not necessarily that great sounding when you play them sitting in a room,” says Buckingham. “They don’t fill up a room with their sound, but there’s something about the way they contain the sound that works very, very well in a recording. Why that is, I don’t know. But when you’re layering guitars, and you have a few different guitar sounds going on, you’re not necessarily interested in capturing the fidelity of what a certain guitar has to offer. It’s not about the sound of one guitar on its own, but about how it works with the other elements in the track.”

GOING HIS OWN WAY

“Lindsey is all about creating music,” says Lindsey, “and working with him is like watching a great composer—like Mozart or Beethoven—who can sit down at a blank sheet of music paper and start scoring multiple instruments. There aren’t too many musicians around like him.”

“I’m a big believer in ‘It ain’t whatcha got, it’s what you do with what you’ve got that’s important,’” says Buckingham.

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