30th Anniversary Special: Three Decades of Interviews

Advice from Artists, Engineers, and Producers
Publish date:
Social count:
Advice from Artists, Engineers, and Producers

This article is part of Electronic Musician's special 30th Anniversary issue. To read more commemorative content, visit www.emusician.com/30thAnniversary.

Over the past three decades, we’ve conducted thousands of interviews with the brightest minds in music. Some waxed philosophical, some had uncanny technological foresight, some were utterly hilarious. But they were all inspirational. Here are some of our favorite words of wisdom collected over the years.


“The more sophisticated technology gets, like the Synclavier, the simpler the sound gets… the second that technology becomes the most salient feature of music is the point I think the music begins to fail. Then you’re at a trade fair listening to the latest in modern technology. Now that’s very interesting, but it has nothing to do with art, nothing.”


My music has never been very collaborative. It’s been accommodative, because when you hire a musician, you can’t always get that musician to play what you thought up because musicians are not uniformly expert in different fields. You put together a band, you have to average out the assets and liabilities of each musician and then find what the style of that band is going to be. So you have to compromise the pieces because you might have a drummer who can play anything, but a rhythm guitar player who might sing great but can’t count and couldn’t play any parts. Or a piano player who has a certain amount of technical expertise but doesn’t know what it means to play a whole note rest and leave some space in the music. So everything gets adjusted for the personnel. But with [the Synclavier], the only thing I have to adjust for is how much RAM I’ve got in the machine.


Quite probably my earlier records were aided greatly by the fact that they were done while working within very narrow regions of possibility. But in late 1984, I found myself swamped by the anarchy of total possibility, so I began making choices. I chose to limit myself to some small, selected regions of the palette of “everything.” In timbre, I decided to see what would happen if I took orchestral instruments that I understood and began combining selected properties of two or three, creating hybrids. That’s a fairly small cast of the line; it’s not nearly what the hardware allows, but it’s a good way to learn the limits in a disciplined manner.

I was mainly concerned with learning what rich things could be developed from models of past good instruments: the best Stradivarius overtone structure merged with the best Steinway action. What does that do? Does it sound good? And the answer is yes, it does, it sounds delightful. There are in fact several ways of doing it, and they all sound wonderful. You find a lot of fascinating sounds this way, because you are standing on the shoulders of giants of the past of timbre, and yet they are genuinely new sounds, subtly or wildly unlike anything ever heard before.



Electronics, of course, is very much a part of our music physically and of our lives generally and it is what [media analyst Marshall] McLuhan said, an extension of the central nervous system rather than an extension of our ability to walk. It’s not like the wheel. Electronics brings about a situation in which our lives are concentrated on the interconnectedness of everything.

I remember, for instance, giving an electronic concert with David Tudor in which one of the machines that I had to play with was not turned on, yet sounds came from it and I said, “Isn’t that strange, David. It is producing sounds without being turned on.” And he said, “Well, it would be strange if it didn’t,” because it was in a situation that was so turned on. Maybe that’s what’s meant by totally wired [laughs]—that we’re even wired when we aren’t wired.


I believe that the best records have been made by engineers who were also musicians, or who had a lot of musical knowledge. Technique is secondary. On [The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik], I learned that getting a great performance is the key to producing a great record.

For example, if you’re recording a guitar track, and the amp sounds good, and the guitarist is playing well, it probably won’t matter what microphone you use. Whatever records the performance cleanly onto tape is usually good enough. We even had what we called the “magic mic,” a Shure SM57 that sounded great on everything. I’d say 75 percent of the overdubs were tracked with that single microphone.


The records I do are representations of what the band is about. To achieve this, I’ll see the band play live and try to recapture on tape the energy they put out in performance. Usually that live energy gets lost in the recording studio. Then I may throw weird ideas at them to get the band thinking about developing their sound further.

For example, during the Skunk Anansie sessions, I wanted to experiment with the cheapest second- hand store electric guitar they could find. By a fluke, I happened to hear the drums through the guitar’s pickups. The drummer was warming up and the guitar was just sitting on the floor facing the kit. It made the weirdest noise because the strings resonated with the kick drum and produced a sitar-like sound. So for one song, we set the guitar on a stand directly in front of the kick drum, tuned all the strings to the song’s key, and recorded the drums through the guitar pickups.



Bowie usually managed to make arranging very difficult, because he’d seldom bring a finished lyric or melody to the sessions. He’d only have a basic idea, based on a book he’d just read or a recent conversation. Even the key of the song would be arbitrary. For example, the song “Fashion” was conceived as nothing more than a riff while the band was rehearsing in a house in Jamaica. The song was called “Jamaica” even after all the music was recorded. All the little musical “tastes” were recorded simply because they sounded good; they weren’t embellishing the vocal melody, because there wasn’t one. Months later, back in London, Bowie admitted he couldn’t come up with a lyric or melody line and suggested we abandoned the track. I vaguely remember pleading with him to come up with something, and the next afternoon he arrived with most of the song finished. Some lines were written on the spot as we recorded the vocal. Bowie is the only artist I’ve worked with who actually writes on mic!


When I’m starting a film, I make sure I compose a primary theme and at least two secondary ones that can be turned a number of different ways. I’ll take the theme and figure out whether I can play half of it and still recognize it. Then, does it work in a major and a minor key? Can I turn it from funny to spooky? Can I cut it down to just three notes and still make it recognizable? These are some of the acid tests I put a theme through while I’m composing.


On the [Beatles] song “She’s Leaving Home,” I recorded the orchestra on all four tracks. I put violins on two tracks and violas and cellos on the other two tracks because I wanted to be sure I got it so I could really handle it. Then I bounced that down to a stereo pair, which left me with only two tracks for the voices. I knew that I wasn’t requiring anything else besides the voices, but I also wanted to double-track them. So I said to John and Paul, “You’ve got to do this live, both of you singing at the same time.” As you know, the song has answering things and there’s more echo [reverb] on one voice than the other, that kind of thing.

We put them on two separate mics so when they got to “she is leaving...what did we do with our lives,” the “what did we do with our lives” had less echo than the “she is leaving.” We got that balance right and got them singing it right the first time round. Then all we had to do was duplicate it—exactly. This is where the Beatles were so good, because they did duplicate it and we got a really good double track, with the same perspective that we needed in the voices, so we didn’t have to go to another generation.



There really isn’t anything to tell someone like Aretha or Patti LaBelle or Barbra Streisand. At the most, you might give a general idea of what you think, if you’re presumptuous enough to speak, and say, “Maybe you could do something like this here, but you know best, darling.” She’ll do her take and you’ll say, “Aretha, this sounds great. We all love it.” But she will say, “No, I have to do it again.” For us mortals, that was a great take, but she hears something that’s even better.


This horrible trend [of compressing mixes heavily to achieve hot levels] started about eight years ago, with the invention of digital-domain “look-ahead” compressors.” First was the German Junger compressor, then the Waves stuff, and the most infamous of all, the TC Electronic Finalizer, a great piece of gear that’s often misused. I’m so glad these devices didn’t exist when the Beatles were making their music. Never in the history of the human race have people been exposed to sounds as compressed as in the past few years. It’s a losing battle for musicality.


When working with bands, I always encourage them to go for the final sounds that they want. Sometimes when working in DAWs, people leave everything half-finished, thinking they can always change it later. But it’s really nice when you put a song up and all the sounds are exactly as you want them to be. And if you’re working on a less powerful system, the fewer channels and tracks that are playing, the better. If you have a lot of stuff playing, it may slow down the computer and you may start to get delays, which you can start to hear on some effects. Like suddenly the attack on the compressor doesn’t quite work the way it should.



I like creating something with lots of personality, lots of depth, and lots of things you can hear over and over—things that you don’t notice at all until the 50th listen, that most would say, “Why are you still in the studio working on that damn song?” I want to get the detail that you couldn’t possibly take in on your first, second, third, fourth listen.


I’ve developed a great number of controllers and control techniques, and so on. The breakdown is that the ones that are accepted and used and developed further are those that are most closely linked to the thought. It’s amazingly illustrated [by this story]: I work a lot with bionics, usually with amputees. I was impressed by what a woman said to me just three days ago. She no longer has to think about picking something up. She no longer has to think about a movement. She just moves—that is the word she used. If you play an instrument, you don’t want to think about it. The things that contribute to thinking about it and then playing are, one, latency, obviously, and two, non-familiarity with the process and the outcome of the process.


You know that scene in The Wall where the faceless people are falling into the machine that’s grinding them into paste? Digital editing has robbed drummers of their identity, just like that. I’m heartbroken by what heavy-handed producers have done with drummers over the last 10 years.

A drummer walks into a studio; he says, “This is how I play the drums,” and the producer says, “That’s not good enough. I am going to make you sound like a machine.” That’s fucking lame! I am not the greatest drummer in the world, but when I record drums, it doesn’t sound perfect and I am all over the place and the cymbals wash a little hard, but that’s how I play the drums. If you don’t like it, don’t call me back. I wish that every drummer would tell their producer, “That fucking machine doesn’t make me sound like me. It makes me sound like you, and you’re not the drummer, motherfucker.” We’ve got Taylor Hawkins—who is the greatest fucking rock drummer I’ve ever played with—why not let Taylor sound like Taylor? So that’s why we used tape and no computers [to record Wasting Light].



I saw an ad a couple of weeks ago for some soft synth that said, “It’s going to take you a lifetime to figure out everything that this instrument can do.” And I kind of scratched my head: If I’m playing a musical instrument, do I want to spend a lifetime just learning what it can do? Or do I want to be able to play it, and play it the same way tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that? A lot of people are getting analog instruments now because they want something that they can touch—turn knobs—and it always does the same thing. They’re not clicking through menus. They’re not bothering with software and having to update it every couple months.

MOBY | JUNE 2011

Years and years and years ago, I realized I loved big, rich analog string sounds, and they’ve appeared somewhere on almost every record I’ve made. I saw an interview with Bob Moog quite a while ago, and he’s talking about analog circuitry in an almost spiritual way, and I think I’m the same in that I almost anthropomorphize the physicality of it, whereas digital is just a re-creation of what happens in the analog world. So I do have a lot more respect for analog, but I’m equally, increasingly obsessed with processing and layering these pristine sounds until they take on a granular texture, which is equally beautiful.


Any trait that you see in a popular art form always has its roots in a strong underground movement. Everything I have created and everything people in this scene have created, it’s completely organic. When I was making music in my bedroom, there wasn’t a dubstep wave to ride. It wasn’t cool when I started doing it. I didn’t learn my production and synthesis overnight. It takes time—a lot of trial and error. The coolest part about the Grammy nominations is that it proves something real is happening culturally. And even though the mainstream is trying to latch onto it, they don’t even know what to really latch onto yet.



If somebody asked me, “We’re going to record a guitar part in a hotel room: What do you want in the room?” I’d say, “I want a 15-watt amp with a reverb, that Supro guitar, a ribbon microphone, and a reel-to-reel. Somebody else would say, “Why don’t you bring down ten of my Les Pauls, three Stratocasters, a Tele, four of the Silvertones, the Marshall, a Twin Reverb, six other amps, and we’ll record 45 guitar tracks. And then I’m going to go on vacation and you engineers pick the best one.”


I’ve always been quick at recording vocals. It’s about warming up, getting my throat and chest in the right position, and then emotionally preparing to go for it. When you go through the demo process, you know what kind of emotion the song will need, and when to scream and when to whisper. This is why I like to take time and really get all the arrangements done and know what kind of vocal take I am going to end up doing before I start recording the album tracks. At the vocal session, I start softly and try not to overdo it, so I don’t ruin myself for the day. I get myself in the zone, and eventually, my voice just starts to happen. I sing about eight inches from the mic, and throw down around three takes. We’ll comp performances if necessary, but, most of the time, it’s all pretty much live takes.


I don’t think [DAWs] will ever come to a solution that’s perfect for everyone; everyone will always have some obscure, weighted thing. I’ve never seen a “live electronic music” setup that didn’t have some weird fucking workaround or some weird ingenious way of combining different things. It’s always been that way and it always be that way, or we’ll all just end up using [High End Systems’] Road Hog [consoles] and Ableton, and show technology won’t advance. Any developer that sees someone is using this-and-this for a task can come up with something new to deal with those chores specifically, but of course you’re going to have a new problem, and then a new solution, and then another problem.



When I saw Star Wars, everything changed. It has a lot of antagonizing sounds; a sound would stick its head up, and another sound would come, and then, this drop. I envision sounds antagonizing each other or communicating with each other and working their way through. Sounds have to get in there and fight for their space within the song. I like sounds that are aggressive and have a place. And another sound shakes that sound out of its place for a second. [The Crystal Method has] been accused of being too bombastic with our sounds, and I am guilty as charged. That’s what we do.


I laugh when certain rappers and MCs have all these gargantuan, Van Halen, brown-M&Ms-only demands on their rider. I once saw someone cancel a session because they didn’t have the proper gouda cheese and Merlot. I’m dead serious. There’s no gouda cheese and Merlot? I’m outta here. Personally, I’m more comfortable creating albums in uncomfortable circumstances. Our dressing room [on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon] is only made for six people, and on average there’s always eight to ten people here. It’s like the size of a closet. I fit my drums inside a changing closet, and Elvis [Costello] just sang his vocals in the break room. It’s a very unromantic, unglamorous atmosphere, but I work harder when I don’t have any distractions. I’m one of those people who can’t really record in a lavish environment, or I’ll just get too comfortable.


When setting the gain on a microphone, I usually start with no compressor in line and then set the peak level at about 4 dB from clipping or hitting the red on the Pro Tools channel meter. Once a singer gets rolling, she almost always sings louder than she does on the first run-through. Give yourself some headroom so you don’t clip a great vocal. I also find that Pro Tools tends to sound better and more natural, particularly on vocals, when you’re not right on the edge of clipping.



This is the technique that I’ve embraced over the years. It started when I worked with Brian Eno in the early ’80s; we made a lot of ambient records. You build your music according to plan, and then strip away the spine or the central character of your plan; the you’re left with the ornaments, the overdubs, the garnishings, the effects. By removing the center, I’m left with the garnishings and the ornaments as my center.


I notice—contrary to say 20 to 30 years ago—all the singers are so busy right now. And most of the singers now have their own engineer who knows which mic the singers use. A lot of them have a vocal producer, so they are quite independent; they can do a lot of stuff by themselves. So like David Guetta and Aviici and those guys, I don’t think they are sitting in the studio with the acts present all the time. It’s a new way of working. I think if I would have to go find the studio, the singer, the arranger and all that with some of those singers who are traveling the world, an album would take quite some time. With Donna Summer, David Bowie, or Blondie, I was more in control. You were in the studio, you record, you finish the recording and you start to work on the tracks and mix. It was more in my hands. Today, if a singer gives you a great vocal, it’s there and it’s great, but the control is a little less.