Utterly taken aback by the rich sonic treatment (no pun intended) given to the album, we felt it morally preferable, nay necessary, to track Costey down and get the real story behind Black Holes; and he was kind enough to sit down with us for a lengthy conversation regarding the making of what has been dubbed one of the top albums in recent memory from NME to the BBC. So sit down in your favorite comfy chair, because you’re about to have . . .
EQ: When were you first asked to participate on Black Holes and Revelations?
Rich Costey: Matt had asked me during the tour of Absolution about possibly doing something, because I had produced Absolution, the album before Black Holes and Revelations. We kept in touch and a few months before we were looking to get started, I opened up a dialog with him about the new tunes and where we thought the album should go.
EQ: Did you sense the potential of the record from the outset?
RC: We were definitely going for something great, but we were also going for something a bit more personal than Absolution. On Absolution, for example, the guitars really sound big, but you don’t hear as much of Matt as a true player. When Muse plays live, you can really hear his personality as a player. I wanted to make sure we preserved that — I wanted to make a record where you could hear his fingers on the strings, and you could hear his pick hitting the strings. I wanted a little more clarity on the album than Absolution had on it, perhaps.
EQ: Was there a lot of pre-production involved before you started tracking?
RC: We kind of merged the pre-production and the recording of the album into one. The location with Muse is always an interesting component to any of their recordings — even before I got involved with them, the location always has a lot to do with how the album comes out. That’s partly because they’re very adventurous people and they tend to never want to work at the same place as they’ve worked before. They all live in different places as well, and I don’t even live on the same continent! We ended up settling on a studio in France that had been closed down for a little while and we convinced them to open up again.
EQ: This is Miraval?
RC: Yes. They arrived there about a week before I arrived and had set up so they could rehearse. We were rehearsing in the live room and we set up a little demo space so we could record our rehearsals, but at the same time we were setting up to do more formal recordings. The idea was that we would be able to seamlessly transition between rehearsing and developing songs in a primal way, to record them in a slightly more formal way. That’s not exactly what ended up happening though. Miraval had some very strong points, but it also had a couple of areas that made things just a little bit difficult to transition between demoing and recording. At any rate, I think we spent two/two-and-a-half weeks of rehearsing.
What we really did at Miraval was quite a lot of creative focusing and trying to get a grip on where the album was heading. I think that because of the fact it was so geographically isolated, we developed a lot of schemes that ended up being chucked out the window as soon as we landed back in civilization [laughs].
EQ: How much raw material was there and how did you narrow the tune selection?
RC: There was a lot of material. One of the difficulties with Muse is that they are capable in so many different areas that one of the things that we wanted to do was to reign that in and give the album one feeling from top to bottom instead of “okay, here’s the showboat piano song, and here’s the showboat guitar solo song.” Because they are so good, in contrast to many bands whose strength comes from limitation, Muse’s strength comes from having no limitations.
EQ: This reminds me of The Dark Side of the Moon in the sense that everything on this album seems to have converged to a very strong result: the album cover artwork, the lyrics, the songs, and the production.
RC: It’s funny you say that, because that’s actually what kept coming up. They actually didn’t know that record hardly at all. There were quite a few times where we sat around in France just listening to records, and that was one of the records we listened to because it is consistent from top to bottom and it has so much feeling. That was one of the things we wanted to do with this album, but because we recorded the album in so many different locations in so many different situations, holding onto that feeling is often tenuous . . . but I think we managed to pull it off.
EQ: On this record, I hear more dynamics in the performances than on previous records. Were their performances more rounded in terms of their emotional range?
RC: I wouldn’t say that — I’m a huge fan of all their records. In fact, one of the songs, “A Soldier’s Poem,” was leftover from Absolution. On that album, that song just didn’t seem quite ready and we ended up leaving it behind. For the new version of the song, Matt had completely changed the lyrics, the meaning and the arrangement. It is actually inspired by an Elvis recording, “(I Can’t Help) Falling In Love.” You can hear this in his tenor.
EQ: Did Matt have a good idea where he wanted to take the tracks in terms of adding the complex harmonies and layers that came about?
RC: Each song had a different amount of development in the studio. Something like “Supermassive Black Hole” ended up being pretty similar to his intention in the demo. It ended up being more dynamic, and other programming was added that wasn’t there in the demo, but the essential core of the song is not that different.
On “Knights of Cydonia” the basic arrangement of the song might be similar, but that song went through a number of changes. It started out very “surfy;” then when we were working on it at Electric Lady, [Matt] was horsing around one day, as he does quite a lot, and came up with that tremolo guitar part that is the first melody once the song kicks in. That pointed toward a very new direction of the song, and to me, sounded like “Telstar.” When you put that guitar track down, because it sounded so much like “Telstar” by the Tornadoes, which his dad was in, that was a song that was produced by Joe Meek and was the first UK single ever to make number one in the U.S., that became a total inspiration for the direction of the track. As soon as that guitar track went down, it clarified where we could take that track from where it was.
EQ: What did you leave Miraval with before you had to move on?
RC: When we left Miraval, we had full takes of quite a few songs. Some of these were developed in certain ways. “Map of the Problematique,” we ended up putting down the guitars first because Dom was out of town. That song was originally all done on keyboards and I really wanted to hear it on guitar, but it was impossible — there was no way to play the keyboard part on the guitar. We spent about two days back-engineering what the keyboard part was on guitar. So it is actually a guitar that is going through three different modular synths that are opening up at different times. Two of the synths are routed into different pitch shifters — one is an octave up, the other is an octave down. Then we chose what octave we wanted to hear based on which synth we wanted to open up at which time. We had like an ARP 2600, some other things and a little spring reverb that was sort of playing the high octave. It was all done with hardware and the guitar was split into three: One went into the ARP 2600, Korg MS-20, and an EMS Synthi AKS.
EQ: How much of a technical understanding does Matt and the others have? How much of these sounds did he get on his own?
RC: Each song was a little bit different, but on “Map of the Problematique,” I basically put that whole guitar sound together. Matt just wanted to use a keyboard — he was a little unsure of whether a guitar was going to work. I really wanted a guitar sound and we did manage to back-engineer it to make it work. It took a couple of days, but we did manage to do it.
EQ: Where did you go next?
RC: Avatar. We left Miraval and all the songs had gone through pre-production to a point where we were comfortable. We also achieved a bunch of basic tracks as well. By the time we went to Avatar, we had our focus and things started to happen really fast. We made it through the basics in really short order. The band was able to take in a little of the city entertainment as well — being in the woods for so long, it was turning into a little of The Shining out there.
EQ: Then you went to Electric Lady?
RC: Yes, by the time we left Avatar, all the basics were done, and quite a few of the songs were in an advanced state. For instance, “Soldier’s Poem” was done in one take — that is totally live, except there is a piano in there and some backing vocals. By the time we got to Electric Lady, we were going through guitars and synths and that sort of thing.
I’d been to Electric Lady, but I hadn’t actually worked there before. I think all of us just wanted to work there, partly for the history of it and partly because I think the room is set up really well for those guys. I think the fact that Hendrix had played there was pretty inspiring, and the room is sort of set up to feel like a giant spaceship, which worked well for the band because they are pretty inspired by outer space [laughs].
In many ways, it’s a very, very modern studio. You don’t feel like you’re walking into 1969, unlike Oceanway where you walk in and the rooms, including the control room, are exactly how they were 30 years ago. The control room is very, very modern and the lounge is ultra modern. Quite often, that’s where you find yourself being.
It was interesting — there were a lot of overdubs going on in the control room, and I think we were all getting kind of sick of that. In fact, any time Matt or anyone else walked out into the live room, something great happened. So one of the things we’ve realized is to stop doing overdubs in the control room whenever possible. Control rooms are not very inspiring places to hang out if you are a musician. There are knobs everywhere and it’s very analytical; it’s not a great place to get loose and creative. Live rooms and all other kinds of rooms are better for that.
EQ: How about all the complex vocal harmonies on the album? Many of these could give Queen’s A Night at the Opera a run for its money. . . .
RC: He had all those harmonies in his back pocket before we started recording. The demos have all that stuff. As far as the vocal harmonies, that stuff goes very, very quickly for him. Chris, who plays bass, actually sings a lot as well. They’re both actually very good singers — very rarely was there a moment when we were grinding something out.
EQ: On “Starlight,” is that a bass guitar and a real piano at the beginning?
RC: Yes. A fair amount of the melody in that song happened at Electric Lady. The melody was originally always done on piano — I think there were two different pianos playing at two different octaves on that song. Also, we ended up sampling a treated piano and then that was playing the melody as well. We used samples of dropping forks on the strings and plucking them with guitar picks, putting putty on the strings, a few different tricks.
EQ: So you guys are pretty patient in searching out for the right sounds? That can take a long bit of time.
RC: Matt is really interested in searching out for the right sound, but like any great artist, they don’t really like to sit around when things aren’t happening. Usually we try to keep things rolling pretty quickly — when we have an idea, we execute and think about it later.
EQ: How much time did they have to focus on this project? Is it hard to get their focus on a recording project given their aggressive tour schedule and other commitments?
RC: They shut everything down and we were just making the record. We didn’t have any idea how long it would take necessarily. We just felt like we were going to work on it until we feel like it’s great. All bands, up until they reach a certain point, have someone telling them when a record needs to be handed in. That can be really debilitating — obviously when bands make their first record, they don’t have that problem. They have forever to make a first record and very little time to write and record a second album. This is Muse’s fourth album — they obviously can take some time and that’s what we intended to do.
Having said that, the amount of time we actually spent recording was about four months including recording and mixing. Obviously it was drawn out over a longer period of time, and after Electric Lady, we went back to Italy where Matt lives — we spent about four or five weeks there at a studio working on vocals, but then we had to wrap it up. We sometimes had three different control rooms going at once because the band had booked the Reading Festival and simply had to get it done. The time period of standing around and dreaming about where the album was going to go was gone.
EQ: Did you have much leeway mixing Black Holes and Revelations, or was the band right there looking over your shoulder?
RC: If it’s an album I’m producing, I feel that mixing is an extension of the recording process, not necessarily a different thing. It wasn’t like we had rough mixes and just sat on it for three weeks and went to mix something. We were mixing the whole time throughout the project and the band was there the whole time. Occasionally, we’d have to do an overdub here or there, or put a guitar part down and mix it together.
EQ: How technical are the members when it comes to mixing?
RC: They’re not technical when it comes to mixing, although they’re getting a little more so. Matt has purchased a bunch of recording equipment and is really interested, but at this point they aren’t really technical — they are interested in the arrangements and dynamics of every song though.
EQ: How did you use reverb on the album, and what was your overall philosophy of using it?
RC: There’s very little reverb on that whole album. Occasionally you get a bit of spring reverb here and there, but what I really like are tape delays and oilcan delays that can create a blur behind an instrument without you knowing what it is. I’m really into Binson echo units. I’ve got quite a few different echoes, because it’s something I’ve been interested in for quite a long time. I have a pair of Echoplexes, a Tel-Ray, a few weird pedals and other things I use for echoes. I tend to like these because they fit well behind the instruments instead of taking up the entire sound stage.
EQ: What was the basic mic setup on “A Soldier’s Poem”?
RC: We were recording in the main room Studio A in Avatar, which emits this classic gigantic drum sound, and that was of course the opposite of what we wanted for that song. I couldn’t find a room that was dead enough, so I stuck them in the lounge. The lounge in that room is really narrow and long. The lounge is split in half, so we put Dominic in one of the lounges, and basically just put a U47 on the bass drum and a Coles on top of the drum kit, and that was it.
EQ: So you only used two mics?
RC: Yeah, that was the funny thing about it! [Laughs.] Left of him, Chris was playing acoustic bass and I probably had a Coles on that and he was also going into a ’50s Gibson amp that was in the live room. Then on the other side of the small door was Matt playing this very small-bodied Gibson guitar that was just a beautiful sounding. I think it was an antique from the ’50s. We started out using a U47 on that, but it just couldn’t capture the intimacy of the guitar. We ended up downsizing the microphone quite a lot, and ended up using a dynamic. It made total sense — we used a Shure SM-81.
EQ: What kind of amps does Matt use?
RC: We ended up settling on a couple of amps for the whole album. Most of the guitar sounds are just a few different amps. The interesting thing about Matt’s guitar sound is that all of his guitars are custom made by this guy named Hugh Manson in England, and I think that just about every single note on the album was played with one of those guitars. Right before we started recording, we sort of felt that his guitar sound in the past had been a little bit muffled or we just weren’t hearing his fingers as much as we wanted. So he went and came out to France and changed all the pickups. We ended up with a guitar sound that really kind of cut through and had a lot of brightness to it. I think that was just one of the Manson guitars going into an AC30.
EQ: What about for the rougher songs with a harder edge?
RC: The rougher songs were usually just a combination of a Marshall JMP and also an Ampeg V4 head that we use quite a lot of as well. The stuff that sounds quite rough is usually the V4 head.
EQ: And how about the bass tones?
RC: Chris has developed his bass tone over many, many years. At the beginning of the album, he was really interested in changing his bass tone. He brought in about five or six different amps to try out, and we ended up right back where we started [laughs]. They’re basically these Marshall bass heads that nobody else has. I’ve never seen them anywhere else. They don’t make them now, and they were never for sale in the U.S. Chris’ bass tone between Origin and Absolution, from where I can tell, that’s where he really settled on the system that he’s got. And he’s got a very well-defined system that sounds like nobody else.
EQ: The bottom end just jumps out on this record.
RC: Yeah. I also think that quite honestly, that’s because he’s one of the best bass players there are. I mean, his technique is incredible, his finger strength is staggering. He always plays with his fingers pretty much, and he hits the strings really goddamn hard. It sounds that way because that’s the way he plays. I’ve worked with Rage Against the Machine a bit as well, and Timmy C is the only other bass player that I’d put in the same conversation, because they both have a gigantic tone that reflects the way they play and in some ways their own personalities.
EQ: Was there any particular console at all these studios that you and the band jived with particularly well? Or did you find all the gear interchangeable?
RC: No, I have a Neve BCM 10 that I travel with, and most of the album was actually recorded through that. Avatar has a Neve 8088 that I thought was fantastic — I tend to like Neve’s for tracking, and I usually end up mixing on an SSL G series, and that’s what we used to mix it. The mixing all occurred at Townhouse in London, with the exception of “Hoodoo” and “Starlight,” which were mixed in different rooms. Once you’re mixing in a new room, it usually takes you about a week to sort the room out, and then you get it together and go through the material.
EQ: What was different in the band’s approach from this album from the last album in terms of the process or the sensibilities in how you approached it?
RC: I think there were a couple of main differences. For one thing, there was a greater amount of fixed time in which we had to get things done. Absolution wasn’t done very, very quickly, but it was done pretty much to schedule. There was more time on this album, and more time to think about what we wanted each song to be before we really got into it.
That’s something we didn’t have before. I guess there was much more intent in the recording this time than there necessarily was in Absolution. There was more discussion, and there were more routes taken. Some songs lend themselves to driving down a couple of roads, and seeing which ones fit the songs the best. We were able to do that on this album, and on Absolution we weren’t able to do that quite as much.
EQ: Were you nervous about sending the final mixes off to mastering on this, and do you get really hands-on in mastering?
RC: Yeah, I’m usually really involved all the way to the end. I always attend the mastering if I can, and certainly in this case I did. You basically want to preserve what you’ve done and make it better. We did this at Masterdisk and Sony.
EQ: How would you characterize the mood during the recording at each place?
RC: Literally, each location had a different mood. Miraval ended up being tense and paranoid, New York was fun, getting it done, slamming through the stuff and really getting down to business. Italy was just loose and weird [laughs]!
“Take a Bow”
“Take a Bow” went through a few permutations. The concept for the track was that it would start out and carry through several different epochs of music. We started out in the classical realm, then went into some kind of techno-never-world, and there’d be sort of a heavy rock at the end. We kind of started with clean arpeggios, and to capture those arpeggios, we tried vocoding, we tried a technique from Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” we tried amping some arpeggiated analog synthesizers that didn’t sound very good, and it was a shame because David Bowie came in the control room when we were working on that! [Laughs.] Caught with our pants down, we said, “Doesn’t sound very good, does it?” We ended up kind of doing the straight up Philip Glass strings. I worked for Philip for a few years, I was his Chief Engineer — so that was pretty familiar territory.
To get string players to play that was pretty tough. We did them in Italy, and the Italian string players are very dynamic and very romantic. Then there is sort of a Moog on top of it so we ended up thinking of it as a Moog symphony where the Moog is playing the lead and you have an orchestra behind it.
The interesting thing here was that we went down a couple of different roads with the drum pattern. There was one that was a little bit more of a groovy rock thing. There’s an element in the song that I was sort of chasing for a little while that was a little bit glammy — for whatever reason it seemed to make sense. We recorded the song a few different times, and we settled on this kind of glam beat that we tracked at Avatar and it just added a tremendous amount of life to the track. I thought it really, really sounded great. Part of it was just having that giant piano riff. You can’t go wrong with something like that.
“Supermassive Black Hole”
The drum track is basically a couple of samples that Matt got from God knows where. I think he just came in with a kick and a snare, then I processed a whole bunch of samples through a Kyma system which I have, which is basically just an open architecture sound designer box and you can build whatever you want. It’s unbelievably deep — it’s like a black hole of sound design. It’s similar in context to Reactor, but I think it’s much deeper and it sounds incredible. A lot of the drums on that track were processed by a Kyma. The sounds that are jumping out, and the fills and stuff, that’s all processed by the Kyma.
“Map of the Problematique”
This song was originally worked up on synthesizer and had a really sort of inspired feel to it. Then by the time we transferred it over to guitar, it got much, much darker and just kind of really drives to it.
“A Soldier’s Poem”
The vocals were all Matt with a Telefunken 251 going through an 1176. I am a big proponent of the vocals sound fitting the intent. The 251 didn’t work on every situation at all. It works in a situation where you want a vocal that’s really beautiful, but other times he sang into an SM7 and some other songs he sang through a bullet mic he got somewhere — I don’t even remember where he got it. Sometimes background vocals would be done with the trash mic, and lead vocals would be done with the hi-fi mic, sometimes the other way around. In the case of “A Soldier’s Poem,” you want to put up a big fat tube mic and have it sound great.
Invincible was originally played all on guitar, and then as we were in rehearsals in France, the song seemed to open to a few different concepts so Matt started transferring the intro to keyboards. Then the song took on a much more spiritual kind feel to it, and that ended up inspiring some lyrics out of him as well, I believe. That is a very live performance. I’m pretty sure all of that is a live performance with just a couple of overdubs on it.
When we recorded at Miraval, we had moved the drums into several different locations for several different songs. On that song, the drums were quartered off in the live room. It just had a very dead sound, which we were very into getting. We just wanted it to sound very dark and sort of in your face without a whole lot of decay to it. The core of that is really just them playing and then we just built overdubs on top of it.
This started out as basically a 7-1/2 minute prog number. It had a huge piano break, and that version is going to be released as a B-side at some point. It was a big live number on their Absolution tour, and that song started out as a really strong contender. It is really influenced by bands like Lightning Bolt that Muse are really into. We ended up shortening it and taking some of the prog out of it, and that put a whole new face on the track. It put the song in a totally different dimension. There’s a fair amount of working out the parts on this song.
Dom’s a great drummer and the band is really good, so there’s no sweating over takes. Miking up the drums on a song like this, it’s a really busy drum part so you want the most definition possible. You want to be able to catch all the nuances of what he’s doing, so I mic everything. The bass drum had a few extra mics — you have one inside and two on the outside. I tend to use a speaker as well to pick up some low stuff off the bass drum. On the snare, I tend to use condensers. Some of the album we used ’57s, and on some of them we used the Josephson E22 mics that sound pretty good.
That song went through a lot of different variations. I think one of the cool things about that song, one of the things that makes it really interesting, is in some ways it is Matt taking the piss out of himself in some ways, but there’s a sort of Theremin sound that plays the melody in the intro of that song. And what that actually is Hugh Manson built a couple of guitars for Matt that a Kaoss pad controller built into the guitar. The Kaoss pad isn’t in it, but the controller is. So essentially he’s playing Theremin on the guitar.
It ended up being really funny, because when he first got that guitar he was sampling his voice over and over. Usually I have a lot of patience for doing many, many takes over and over again, by the second or third take, while we were trying to get a drum take, he was just kind of horsing around, sampling his voice into the Kaoss pad, taking the piss out of anything with the Kaoss pad while we were trying to record takes.
That song went through a bunch of permutations. At one point it had no drums, at one point it was straight up rock, and it ended up being a combination of the two. One of the interesting things is that the guitar solo on that song is actually just a very small amp, face down into a pillow with a mic on the back. The amp was a Masco, which I’ve never heard of. Matt picked it up at some store here in New York.
“City of Delusion”
One of the brilliant things about this is Mauro Pagani’s string arrangement. That’s probably the oldest song on the album — the band had written that quite a while ago, and they had in mind a certain sort of feeling. But at the time, when we were in France, I was quite interested in a lot of Eastern music, Arabic music. We were all listening to a lot of Arabic music. That song is one of the ones that took that feeling, texture, and sound and really going with it. Partly just because Mauro is a brilliant violinist, and the area that is really his vocation is Eastern music, Turkish music, that sort of thing. So we basically just asked him to do a string arrangement on it. He did a quick mock up, and it sounded amazing — I think that absolutely took the song to a whole new place.
That song used to be all on piano. I think Matt felt like the intro and the outro sounded a little bit too posh on the piano so we ended up just deconstructing it and doing a straight live guitar and vocal. Then that sort of crossfaded into the live take of the band playing piano, bass, and drums together, and it also had a string arrangement on that as well. Most of that was done at Avatar, and the strings and the intro and outro were done in Italy. There was cross-continent editing [laughs]!
“Knights of Cydonia”
Telstar became sort of the prime inspiration for that track. Also, you sort of have that “Bohemian Rhapsody” break in the middle of it. That song went through a couple of changes — it was originally very surfy, but ended up getting very, very Telstar before it was done. The vocals in the mid-section were essentially done live, and I have a distorted EMS synth running underneath it.
It’s interesting — a lot of people like to take bass and drums and put them to tape, then do the rest in the computer. That’s fine and dandy, but I think that vocals benefit quite a lot from going to tape. So a lot of times if there was a big vocal section on the album, we would dump it to tape and hit it real hard on the tape machine then put it back in the computer — this song was an example of this. All those vocals went to tape.