Recording at the Old Home Place

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Producer Malcolm Burn records the latest
String Cheese Incident CD in an
improvised home setup.

Courtesy Malcolm Burn

Malcolm Burn may not be a household name, but he has a resume that's sure to impress. The Canadian-born producer and engineer has worked with such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Daniel Lanois, and the Neville Brothers, among others. Unlike many producers today, who are into slicing, dicing, quantizing, and tuning up tracks in an attempt to perfect a song, Burn has an "old-school" modus operandi in the recording studio. To him, capturing a genuine performance of a good song, even if it's not completely perfect, is the best way achieve a successful outcome.

One of his most recent projects was producing One Step Closer (see Fig. 1), the new CD by the String Cheese Incident (SCI), a band that has made its reputation on the jam-band circuit. In the following interview, Burn tells how he and engineer Jim Watts recorded the CD in a studio that they assembled in the house of one of the band members' friends. Burn chose to setup all the musicians but the drummer in one room to try and capture as "live" a vibe as possible. In this interview, he not only talks about the recording of the CD and the unlikely combination of gear he used, but he offers some strong opinions on the art of music production.

Had you worked with String Cheese Incident before?
No, this is the first project I've done with them. I'd talked about working on their previous record, the one before this. And I had actually met with the band, and I guess they had a few people in mind. I think their last record was a more sort of technologically motivated record, more electronic. And I think they wanted to swing back in the direction of people playing their instruments, writing songs, and playing them together.

How did you end up deciding to record it in a house rather than an established studio?
The whole evolution of doing the record in that location came about because they all live out there, in the Boulder Colorado area, and they didn't want to be away. They're touring so much that they wanted to be closer to home when they were doing the record. So I went out there, and I looked around at different studios, and we couldn't agree on a studio that everyone felt good about. And so, I think actually their manager Kevin brought it up. He said, "Well, maybe we could do it in this house." One of the guys, a friend of the band had this beautiful house up in this mountain. I said, "Sure, let's take a look at it." It turns out that the guy had already been setting the place up to be a studio anyway, and he'd done a bit of the initial work.

Did you have any concerns about the space?
The only real issue that we had was kind of a logistical one in that the house was on a steep incline, and it was rather treacherous getting the equipment in and out of there, especially in the winter. Once we got the gear up there, it was all great. There wasn't one problem at all. In fact, I can't actually recall one day or even one period of time, even an hour or two, when we had any down time due to technical malfunctions.

Fig.1: When recording One Step Closer, Burn captured a live vibe by recording all the band members except the drummer together in a single room.

For this CD, you didn't use the typical arrangement of recording the basic tracks first and then overdubbing lead instruments and vocals.
With the exception of one song, all the tracks were done pretty much with everybody there. I really encouraged whoever was singing in the song to lay down as convincing a guide vocal as possible, with the idea that it may or may not end up being the lead vocal.

What if they were playing an acoustic instrument, did you have to worry about getting separation?
I didn't, and I never take that into consideration because, to be honest, I embrace those aspects of recording that give you a sense of limitations. I'm not big on the concept of options. I don't like having to go back and reinvent the wheel once I felt that it's been invented. Having worked with some pretty great people in the past, whom I have a great deal of respect for—I'll name a few names: Emmylou Harris, Daniel Lanois, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and a few other people that I've worked with. The sense that I've always gotten from working with any of those people is that for the most part what's important is actually the song. If the song is in place, then if this or that is not quite in form, it doesn't matter quite so much. It's just delivering the message.

So it was a pretty "live" recording.
Jim Watts is extremely good at managing that kind of thing in the recording environment. He's undaunted by that kind of situation. He understands that if there's someone singing and playing, and there's a bit of racket going on in the room that's getting into some of the microphones, then that person is going to be playing their instrument again if they have to overdub vocals. For instance, the second track on the record is called "Sometimes a River." Keith Mosely sings that song. He sang a vocal as we were laying down the basic track, and once we got the basic tracks I said "Keith, let's run the track again a few times through." We were working with floor monitors like you'd normally work with in a live situation. And we just pumped the mix through the speakers and that gave us the ambience of the band bashing away in the background.

Was the whole band in the same room?
The drums were in a separate room. But everything else was out on the floor.

So it was a pretty loose environment?
People could always play no matter what was going on, people could pick up their instrument and start playing so there was always that sense of continuity. There was never a feeling of "us and them" in the recording environment. There was never a sense of "now we're doing it, now we're not." Put it this way, the red light was always on.

I would assume you structured it like this to maximize creativity?
I kind of liken it to the working method of a film director named John Cassavetes. He was notorious for just rolling and improvising. It's a different experience. The fact that he managed to do that with film is stunning, because obviously it's a much more cumbersome medium. When you're recording it's not so difficult. Everybody is always in the same location, and you're not dealing with lights and people walking through the scenes and so forth. I've kind of come to realize that my method of recording is kind of closer to his way of working than someone who is maybe more script oriented. Everything is valid, and I actually tend to sort of write the script once I have the inspiration. And the inspiration is something that comes from a pretty strong, compelling performance.

Were the songs pretty set, or did the process lead to a lot of changes in arrangement?
There's a couple of songs, there's at least two, maybe three songs that are manipulations of tracks that were actually other songs. The very first track on the record, is called "Give Me the Love," and there's one called "Drive," which is later on the record. They had different melodies and different words and entirely different arrangements. The only things they had in common is that they were at least in the same key. They were kind of rewrites. The track for "Drive" was laid down, and it had this fantastic feeling to it. But my personal feeling was that the song was no longer as strong as the track and that it would behoove us to go away and come up with something new. Amazingly enough, the band actually sat down, five guys with five different verses, and put it all together and created something.

So you didn't achieve it by editing, you rerecorded it?
Yes and no. The format that we recorded on was [iZ Technology] Radar, and there is obviously a certain amount of editing [capabilities]; the basic necessities are all there. With the editing functions, we could take this verse and put it there and take out that bit and stick it over there. Nothing different than I've been doing for a long time with tape or anything else. The interesting thing about this record, and I'm not trying to pitch Radar, because to me, a storage medium is a storage medium, but it's an extremely good format, and I think one of the reasons that the record turned out as vital as it did is because that we did stick to that format, as opposed to the initial push, which was towards doing the record in [Digidesign] Pro Tools, and I resisted that notoriously.

Do you like Radar better than Pro Tools?
I didn't say that I like or dislike one or the other, I simply feel that there's a certain working method, particularly for this record and the result that they told me that they wanted. It seemed that it would be much more beneficial to do it with a multitrack. I would have done it with tape, but getting a tape machine up the hill probably wouldn't have been quite so easy. The thing is that all the band members have Pro Tools in one form or another. They all have it in their world. I was a bit nervous about getting five people all over the board, manipulating their own tracks. To me, that's not really making a record. That's a different thing. Keeping it on the Radar system, we limited it to a 24-channel system. In other words, the format was: 24 channels, and once they're full, we have to go over something.

What kind of console did you use?
When we were discussing what board to use, I said, "Look, the people I have the most respect for are the live guys." They're like the guerrilla warfare guys, they're like the Marines. They go in someplace every night and they have to deal with all kinds of crap, so they don't have two seconds for gear that doesn't work. So if they're using something live, you know one thing is for sure, it's going to work. So I said, "Whatever we do, we're going to use a live mixing board." So we actually brought in a Midas. It was a fantastic thing. It was actually a Midas monitor console, which was, dare I say, a stroke of genius. Because it had all the inputs and outputs you could need. That's all it is. The board is just inputs and outputs.

So sonically it was good enough for recording?
Oh yeah. The irony is that we were going to lay down the basic tracks in this place and then come to my place to mix, because I've got the stuff for mixing. We took a Christmas break and we kind of made the records in two halves. After Christmas, I came back and talked to Jim and I said, "I've been listening to our rough mixes and it sounds really good." And he looked at me and I looked at him and we both kind of nodded and I said, "You know what, I think we're stupid to move out of here. I think we should just keep making this record in this place. I think we should mix it here, and that should be the record." And I'll tell you, I'm absolutely thrilled that we did that.

Because I think that the record has a continuity, and it has a character, and it has a sound. It's been a long time since I've made a record with hat sense of continuity to it. I've not been allowed to do that, and I do think that my favorite records, the ones that I've worked on that I love are all albums that were done by a certain group of people in a certain place at a certain time, and it holds up. You know, 10, 15 years later you listen to the record and you go, "Wow, that was a great sound we got for that record."

Did you spend a lot of time getting sounds during the tracking phase?
I have this feeling that the more time one spends on sounds, the less good they get. And I know from experience because I've done it. I've spent hours and hours and hours working on, say, a drum sound. And then listened back to when the person first sat down and started playing and you just happened to record it. And you go "Damn, that sounded great. What were we doing for five hours?"

Do you do a lot in the way of signal processing to sounds once they've been recorded?
I think the more processed sounds are the less they breathe, the less free they are. People start EQing and compressing and doing this, and it just becomes like Jim Watts was telling me. Because in his spare time he'll have people coming to him with their Pro Tools sessions that they've done. And they say, "Geez, you know, we've been working on this and we can't get it to sound any good. Can you help us?" And he'll sit down and look at their sessions and every track will have an EQ and a compressor on it.

He told me a great story. He said these people came in and he said "Give me an hour or so to try some things." And they went away, and literally all he did was take all that crap off the tracks. He just undid all the EQs and compression that these people had on their tracks and had never bothered to listen without. And they came back and hour later and said, "Wow, it sounds amazing, what did you do?" Of course, he didn't want to give the game away. He didn't want to say, "literally all I've done is just take all the stuff off and let them breathe again, let them have the air that they need to be heard." In that, I think is a very good lesson.

Do you tend not to use a lot of compression on your tracks?
To me, compression is something I almost use like an instrument. I like using compression when it kind of colors the sound to give it a certain vitality. Like certain sounds that I really like from old Beatles records or stuff where the piano just goes "bwow!" and you know it's really been squashed to hell. There's something cool about that. I'm not a big advocate of evenness. I like things to jump out. In fact, I make things jump out on purpose, then they get noticed. I don't like records that kind of come on and everything is sort of there, and everything is kind of fine. Because I guess, at the end of the day the records that moved me when I was forming my opinions about music were the ones that seemed to break those rules whether I was conscious of that or not. Some of the old blues records and stuff, the recordings are just insane. When you hear these Howlin' Wolf records it's like, "what the hell's going on?" It just sounds amazing.

Since you've done a lot recording projects in houses, is there anything in particular that you look for that makes a place more or less suited for recording?
Oh yeah, absolutely. There's a whole list of things that I could rhyme off. The light: what kind of lighting. Obviously, if you're in a house, you don't want to board up all the windows. It would be wonderful to have a nice high ceiling.

Those are more from a vibe standpoint than an acoustic standpoint.
Both. All of these things to me are sort of hand in hand. I would never say to somebody, "Well, this place may be ugly and depressing, but it sounds great, so let's record there." You know what I mean? On the other hand I'm not going to say to somebody, "This place is so cool and groovy, but it's not going to sound any good." You have to be sensible about these things. There are sort of rules of thumb, generally speaking, high ceilings are fantastic. If you can find vaulted ceilings that's even better.

It allows the sound to kind of move around and go where it wants. The counter balance to that is to throw down lots of rugs. If you can get your hands on those Turkish rugs that people like to use. Those are great because they look good, they're comfortable to sit on, and they do great things for the sound. It's great to be working in a place with good sight lines where the people can all be looking at each other and be able to visually communicate; it's pretty important. It's just a matter of being intuitive about it. I simply don't believe that there are any rules to things. You need to be able to improvise your way through any given situation and make the best of what you're given to work with. That's not only a good music method, it's a good life method.

Mike Levine is an EM senior editor.