From Talking Heads to Production Whiz

Former Talking Head member Jerry Harrison has established himself as a successful producer. Electronic Musician talks to him about his production philosophy, gear choices and his advice for personal-studio owners.

Just a couple of miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito rises picturesquely above San Francisco Bay. The idyllic Marin County town is popular not only with tourists but also with studio owners, and it sports two commercial studios — the Plant and Studio D — as well as numerous private facilities. One such facility is Sausalito Sound, owned by former Talking Heads keyboardist and guitarist Jerry Harrison.

Harrison made his first musical splash in 1976 with Jonathan Richman's proto-art-punk band the Modern Lovers. But he is best known for his tenure with the Talking Heads, in which he played keyboards and guitar. He also cowrote and coproduced much of the band's output, ranging from their seminal debut, Talking Heads: 77 (Warner Brothers, 1977), to their magnum opus, Remain in Light (Warner Brothers, 1980), to their last album, Naked (Warner Brothers, 1988). The band split up toward the end of the '80s, and Harrison segued into a production career, working with the likes of Elliot Murphy, Violent Femmes, Fine Young Cannibals, and Live.

When Harrison is asked how he made the transition from musician to producer, he explains that his role has always been much the same. “I was always the person who helped people realize their visions, whether that was Jonathan [Richman] or David [Byrne], rather than someone who was creating things from the start,” he says. “That's one reason I was asked to produce Violent Femmes' The Blind Leading the Naked. People thought that I was able to handle creative people who might piss people off. They thought that Gordon [Gano, the band's leader] was an unusual guy, and indeed, I got on fine with him.”

Harrison also conducted a solo career, releasing three albums under his own name: The Red and the Black (Sire, 1981), Casual Gods (Sire, 1987), and Walk on Water (Sire, 1990). But, says the producer, “Once I had children, it became hard to maintain a solo career. And my wife and I decided that Manhattan was not a good place to raise three kids, so we moved to Marin County in the early '90s. One reason I came here was to be close to some kind of recording industry. So I rented a room at the Plant, where I had a board and all my equipment.”

Delightful Color

After his move to the West Coast, Harrison continued to score production successes with Crash Test Dummies, Black 47, the Verve Pipe, Elliot Murphy, Violent Femmes, and Live. Then in late 1999, Harrison decided that he wanted to have his own facility. “I had accumulated enough equipment to have my own studio,” he explains. “And when I'm working with young bands, it's often hard to predict how long the recordings will take. So in having my own place, I can more easily go overtime when needed. I thought it would be more convenient to have my own studio and that it would help me make better records. Also, the Plant wanted to turn my room into a mastering facility.”

FIG. 1: Sausalito Sound''s spacious control room was the live room in the studio''s previous incarnation.

For a brief while, Harrison didn't have a studio, until he heard that Sean Hopper, a former keyboard player of Huey Lewis & the News (also from the Bay Area), had a studio in Sausalito that he was eager to sell. “The studio had been there for a while under different names and it wasn't making enough money, so they were leaving no matter what,” says Harrison. “That made it a better deal for me. They took all their equipment with them, but the soundproofing had been done — it's a floating studio — and there was balanced electric power and troughs to run all the wiring in. We rewired everything and installed my equipment.

“We changed things around a lot. Mainly we reversed the functions of the control room and the recording area, because we wanted a really big control room [see Fig. 1]. So the original recording area became the control room, and vice versa. We figured that with all these great studios around here, if we needed a large live room to cut a band or have a live drum sound, we could just go there. The live room now is fine for recording guitars, vocals, or keyboards, and you can do drums in there. It just will sound tight — you won't get the massive sound that people are often after today. We recently did a horn section here, so we can make the recording room work for many different things.”

The equipment at Sausalito Sound centers on two upto-date Digidesign Pro Tools HD systems usually running at 96 kHz. One system runs on a dual—processor Apple Power Mac G5 with 4 GB of RAM and five Digidesign 192 interfaces (for a total of 72 analog outputs and 64 inputs). The other runs on a 933 MHz Apple Power Mac G4. Both systems have the same sets of plug-ins by Digidesign, MOTU, McDSP, Spectrasonics, Waves, and others. There's also a 16-fader Digidesign Pro Control controller and a wagonload of outboard gear, preamps, and microphones (see the sidebar “Gearing Up in Sausalito”).

“I have been friends with the people who run Digidesign almost from the moment they started,” says Harrison. “The company is perhaps 30 miles from here. So I worked my way up from the Emulator editor to SoundTools to Pro Tools. The convenience and editing power of digital recording was immediately convincing to me. Digital tools for fixing performances are so much better than what we used to have.”

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A Little Knowledge

Since establishing Sausalito Sound at the beginning of 2000, almost all the projects that Harrison has produced have been done there. He's produced for Gary Lucas, No Doubt, O.A.R., Pink Spiders, and the Von Bondies. He recently recorded, produced, and mixed the music for 10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads, a DVD and CD by Kenny Wayne Shepherd that features the blues guitarist traveling around the South visiting, interviewing, and playing with a variety of blues musicians. It was recorded completely on location (see Web Clip 1).

FIG. 2: Harrison playing his Clavia Nord Electro 2 in the control room with second engineer Matt Cohen adjusting the Digidesign Pro Control in the background.

The 5.1 mixes for the recent feature movie Stranger Than Fiction (Sony, 2006) and the award-winning Talking Heads boxed set Brick were also done at Sausalito Sound. Brick encompasses the group's eight studio albums in remastered stereo, high-definition stereo, and remixed into 5.1. The collection, which also features album outtakes, consists of a whopping eight dual discs. (The dual discs were also released individually in 2006.)

Sausalito Sound features an extensive collection of microphones and microphone preamps. Harrison states that the studio is in a kind of hybrid situation between the old-fashioned working methods and doing everything in-the-box. This is evidenced by the studio's three Dangerous Music Dangerous 2-Bus analog summing amplifiers, which are placed between the main Pro Tools system (run on the G5) and the second Pro Tools system (run on the 933 MHz G4) that Harrison mixes to. The Dangerous boxes introduce an analog link in the chain that is intended to dramatically improve the sound.

“I find that if you take things out of the box, they have more air,” explains Harrison's regular engineer, Eric “E. T.” Thorngren. “If you mix everything within one computer, the sound seems to collapse a bit. I'm used to mixing Pro Tools sessions via an SSL, and I always loved the way analog summing in the SSL sounded better than in Pro Tools. We searched around for something that could do the summing in Sausalito Sound and that wouldn't necessitate installing a large console, and we ended up with the Dangerous 2Bus. We bought two more when we did the 5.1 remixes for the Talking Heads. So we now have 48 inputs and 6 outputs that can feed our two 5.1 monitoring systems: one a Blue Sky system, and the other consisting of five [Yamaha] NS10s and a Meyer [Sound] subwoofer.”

In Harrison's view, plug-ins that imitate the effect of analog are the way of the future but not yet of today. “The need for running things through tape or going into the analog domain is less than it once was. But E. T. says that though many of the plug-ins are very good, when he goes back to using the original analog effects, they are still another step better. The only exception is plug-in EQ, which can be as good. But we're a bit old-fashioned here, and many of the Pro Tools outputs and inputs are prewired. So if you do an insert on a track, it can automatically go to an 1176, an Alan Smart, a Focusrite, or an LA1 or LA2. That being said, we often EQ or compress while recording using the preamps. It's better to make things sound good to begin with.”

For that reason Harrison recommends that personal-studio owners with limited financial means prioritize the acquisition of the best possible front end, rather than spend all their money on the latest-and-greatest DAW. “A lot of excellent and affordable all-in-one units by the likes of Avalon, Focusrite, and Universal Audio have come out in the past few years,” Harrison says. “I'm a fan of the Universal Audio remakes of 1176 and LA2A, LA3A, and LA4. The UA 2-610 is an excellent box, for instance. I'm also a fan of Grace [Design] equipment. I'm not very familiar with midrange microphones, but everybody should certainly own a Shure SM57. There are still times when it's the best vocal mic around.”

A Little Knowledge

Like everyone, Harrison has been strongly affected by the home-recording phenomenon. “Bands, particularly new bands, now think that they know everything,” he observes, “and they can be very stubborn about their stuff. People have their own digital setups at home, and when they come down to the studio here, they have the lingo down. But a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. If they are wrong, it can be very hard for me to explain why they are wrong, and things can turn into an argument.

“Every person who uses digital audio for the first time can get too perfectionistic. Just like with MIDI many years ago, you gradually realize that the most interesting aspect of music is that things are not perfect. I had to leave one project because the musician I was producing wanted to fix things way more than I wanted to fix them. So you learn to have a softer touch. Machines can be used to retain human feel or to suppress it.

“The primary focus should always be on the song. A lot of people think that they're ready if they have two parts to a song — a verse and a chorus. But that's just the beginning. You may also need an intro, a bridge, or a prechorus. Capturing a great performance is the next important thing; it can happen in a minute.

“One of the great things about digital recording is that you won't be running out of tape, so you can record as much as you like. Later you can go back and fix the most obvious mistakes that may have happened when you played with complete abandon. But it's important not to tweak too much. Sometimes a performance or a sound overrides any flaws in the recording. I demoed The Red and the Black on a 4-track cassette deck, and it also had some weird delays because it was recorded in a brick loft. When I transferred the demos to a 24-track tape recorder, I could not re-create them; so I used them, even though they were noisy.

“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.

“Another problem with home studios is that people often lack good monitoring systems or quiet rooms, and they can miss hearing distortion on the recording. People often don't hear it until they come here or visit a mastering room, and the distortion suddenly becomes audible. That is why I strongly recommend that home-studio engineers invest in a good playback system. A good set of headphones may already make a difference, but something I particularly recommend is the Benchmark DAC-1 2-channel DA converter. It costs around $900, is a wonderful piece of gear that sounds great, has a volume control, and comes out at +4 dB, so you can run it through a power amp. The Benchmark is also a really good headphone amp.”

As a keyboardist, Harrison still prefers playing old hardware keys to soft synths. He's a fan of the Clavia Nord Electro 2 (see Fig. 2) and plays an Emu Emulator III, a Hohner Clavinet, a Nord Lead, a Sequential Prophet 5, a Sequential Prophet T8, a Waldorf Microwave, and a Wurlitzer. He says the reason for that has more to do with growing up turning knobs than with any inherent sonic flaws in the realm of soft synths. He's very impressed by the results that can be obtained with Arturia, Native Instruments Reaktor, and Propellerhead Reason synths.

Reflecting on the changes brought about by digital technology, Harrison bemoans the emergence of music that's “like a commodity,” with individual tracks downloaded in lossy formats — a bit like the aural equivalent of fast food. “In a way, we are going back to the '50s, when you had to buy singles and when albums were single compilations.” He thinks that MP3 and AAC are great for “finding out what songs sound like” and that they're convenient in noisy surroundings such as airplanes and public transport.

“As I said,” concludes Harrison, “the most important thing is a great song; a great performance is second. The equipment you use is in many ways a distant third. So I do everything I can to give musicians the space and time to redo things if they want to. Recording budgets have become smaller over the years, so having my own studio is helpful here. I never thought of it as a way to make money; it really is a place to aid the creative process.”

Paul Tingen is a writer and musician living in France. He is the author of Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (Billboard Books, 2001), a book on early weird funk experimentation. For more information,

Go to the next page for a list of Jerry Harrison's gear and his discography.


Computers and Peripherals
Apple Power Mac G5 with 4 GB of RAM through five Digidesign 192 interfaces for a total of 72 analog outputs and 64 inputs. Digidesign Sync and MIDI interfaces. Digidesign Expansion chassis with four HD process cards and two HD Accel cards. Video streaming through Canopus FW box to separate mounted monitor.

933 MHz Apple Power Mac G4 used for mixdown at 96 kHz.

Apple Mac 9600 running as a mix aux send/return to run older plug-ins (such as Lexiverb) with analog sends and digital returns to the mixing computer via sampling-rate conversion through AES/EBU.

Custom-built PC with an Aardvark Q10 interface.

Mac Software
Digidesign Pro Tools HD 7.2; McDSP plug-ins; MOTU Mach Five; Spectrasonics Stylus RMX, Atmosphere, and Trilogy; Waves Diamond, Platinum, and Surround bundles; and 5.1 plug-ins, including Digidesign Impact and Digidesign ReVibe.

PC Software
Native Instruments B4, Propellerhead Reason, Sony Acid, and Tascam GigaStudio 96. Sound library of Acid and Giga files.

Outboard Gear
Alan Smart stereo compressor (2), Cyclosonic Panner, dbx 120A Subharmonic Synthesizer, dbx 160x, Electro-Harmonix NY-2A compressor (2), Empirical Labs Distressor (4), Eventide H3000, Focusrite 3 stereo compressor, Neve 2254 stereo compressor, Roland Dimension D (2), SPL Transient Designer 9842, Thermionic Culture Phoenix, Thermionic Culture Vulture, UA Teletronix LA-2A (2), Urei 1176LN Peak Limiter (2), and Urei LA-4 (2).

Synthesizers and Modules
Clavia Nord Electro 2, Clavia Nord Lead, E-mu ESI-32, E-mu Proteus 1, E-mu XP, Korg Wavestation, Roland D-550, Sequential Circuits Prophet T8, Voce V3, Waldorf Microwave, Yamaha DX7, and Yamaha TX-816.

AKG 414 (2), C451E (2), and D12 (2); EV RE18 (2) and RE20; Neumann KM86i (2), KM88i (2), TLM 103 (2), U67 (2), U87 (2), and U89i (2); Sennheiser 421 (4); and Shure SM57 (4), SM7B, and SM58.

Microphone Preamps
Daking (2), Focusrite (6), Grace (8), Neve 1073 (8), Neve 1084 (8), Telefunken V76 (4), and Upstate Audio (4).

System 1: Five Yamaha NS10 monitors powered by Hafler 200 power amps and a Meyer Sound subwoofer.

System 2: Blue Sky Audio surround system with five matched satellite speakers and Blue Sky subwoofer, controlled by Blue Sky's bass-management remote controller.

Digidesign Pro Control Console with Edit Pack and 16 faders.

Three Dangerous Music Dangerous 2-Bus summing units (one full and two LT) for a surround analog spread of 48 channels.

Stereo mixes are sent back to the 96 kHz session from the 933 MHz Power Mac G4 and to an Alesis Masterlink ML-9600 at 16-bit, 44.1 kHz, passing through a Benchmark 8-channel A/D converter clocked from an Aardsync Master Sync Generator.


Kenny Wayne Shepherd,10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads (Reprise, 2007)

O.A.R.,Stories of a Stranger (Lava, 2005)

Talking Heads,Brick (Rhino, 2005); remixed for 5.1 surround

Von Bondies,Pawn Shoppe Heart (Warner Brothers, 2004)

No Doubt, “New” from Return of Saturn (Interscope, 2000)

Stroke 9,Nasty Little Thoughts (Cherry/Universal, 1999)

Foo Fighters, “Walking After You” from The X-Files: The Album (Elektra, 1998)

Big Head Todd and the Monsters,Beautiful World (Warner Brothers, 1997)

The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band,The Trouble Is (Warner Brothers, 1997)

Rusted Root,Remember (Fontana/Island, 1996)

The Verve Pipe,Villains (RCA, 1996)

Live,Throwing Copper (MCA, 1994)

Crash Test Dummies,And God Shuffled His Feet (Arista, 1993)

Poi Dog Pondering,Volo Volo (Sony, 1992); produced selected cuts

Live,Mental Jewelry (MCA, 1991)

Fine Young Cannibals, “Ever Fallen in Love” from The Raw and the Cooked (MCA, 1989)

BoDeans, Outside Looking In (Reprise, 1987)

It's Immaterial, Driving Away from Home (Virgin, 1986; import)

Violent Femmes, The Blind Leading the Naked (Warner Brothers, 1986)

(Produced by Jerry Harrison except where noted.)