In 2007, after years of hyperdetailed, program-heavy albums that helped define and challenge contemporary music, Björk Guðmundsdóttir took a minimalist turn. Now 30 years into her recording career — long after her debut release when she was just 11 — Björk's latest album, Volta, is the result of a guerrilla recording approach, with the Icelandic icon working in studios all over the world to capture a moment in time. Accompanied by a Mac G4 PowerBook, a Mac G5, an external hard drive, a Shure SM58 mic, a Pro Tools|HD system and programmer Damian Taylor as her traveling companions, Björk followed a raw approach, looking for “rude sounds” and hoping to enter the world of musicians she admired and grab a bit of their magic. Never one to look back, Björk was typically fearless in her methods, broad in her technical brushstrokes and musically uncompromising.
“Volta wasn't so techno,” Björk explains. “The only thing I remember [in preparation for the album] is that we spent some time doing show-off, kinda filigree Pro Tools beats à la Vespertine [Elektra, 2001], but we threw them all in the bin. They were just too pretentious for this album. The beats had to be effortless, primitive, lo-fi style.”
As Taylor suggests, the album was built spontaneously. “Björk didn't have a manifesto for this record,” he says from New York's W Hotel two days after Björk's recent Saturday Night Live appearance (which featured a 10-piece female Icelandic brass section). “She only wanted it to be a bit more extroverted than some of her previous records. And she wanted it raw and pretty rude, which are the words she was using. Unlike having a very definitive description of how [the record] was going to sound like she did with Homogenic [Elektra, 1997] or Vespertine, it was more of an exploration of the whole process. She wanted to have an adventure, like jumping off a cliff, just going somewhere and working with someone without preconceived ideas — what happens when you put Björk in a room with Toumani Diabaté or Konono N1 and hit go, basically.”
Combining a large brass ensemble with live and programmed drums and ethnic instruments like the electric likembé or thumb piano (played by anarchic Congolese percussion troupe, Konono N1), pipa and kora (by Malian master Toumani Diabaté) — all under the roaring rubric of Björk's lioness vocals — Volta (Atlantic, 2007) is an abrupt, often astonishing listening experience. If musical innovation is based on an inventive collision of melody, harmony and rhythm, Björk nailed it on the head. This is no easy listen, but it's Björk's journey to shake up her own status quo and that of her legion of followers.
“On Vespertine, we went as superhigh-tech as we possibly could,” Taylor says. “Every single sound was chopped up on a grid, and I would be drawing in little clicks and pops by hand. It was really meticulous, but with this record, we agreed that we find that approach a bit tired. Now we want stuff to be very raw, basically. It wasn't so much like Björk would sit down with Pro Tools and loop something up for 4 bars on 16th notes; she would choose several bits or phrases and direct where she wanted them. She will sit down at the rig and hack away, but when there is an intricate bit of editing, she makes good use of her time in making decisions, like, ‘How do we shorten that syllable?''”
“I started working with brass on Drawing Restraint 9,” Björk says. “It was quite ambient or abstract, so when that project was done, I was excited about looping the brass into a more poplike manner. That developed into me doing a couple of brass arrangements for the songs I was working on, and [it] ended up on six songs on the album. It was so fun and possibly the area where I was most innocent on this album, the steepest learning curve. I had learned a lot from arranging the strings on earlier albums, but obviously it is a different animal. I was quite excited about doing techno brass in the rudest possible way. I used Sibelius to do this and had a guy called Matt Robertsson help me distribute the parts to the instruments. Then, similarly to the string stuff, I recorded them both as a group and separately and edited quite a lot afterwards.”
The drums on “Vertebrae by Vertebrae” are equally compelling, a real rollercoaster of rhythm. Like most leaders, Björk knows when to farm out the work. “I have to give Damian Taylor credit for that,” she says. “He is an amazing drum programmer. First, I tapped on a table sort of where the main accents should be. It is a tricky song because it is in 9/8. He then programmed a beat and used a white noise, static micropallet for the beats. I felt the pattern was right but the noises were wrong and suggested he should change it into a marching beat. He then used the same pattern but changed the noises and sprinkled some magic dust on top.”
But before that, Taylor explains, Björk first sampled brass and made some weird loops. Her original idea was to put 20 people in each [5.1] speaker so “you'd end up with a 100-person brass section,” he says. With that idea, Taylor created the beat with samples and Native Instruments Kontakt.
“‘Vertebrae'' was actually created out of a loop manipulating the different channels of the 5.1 mix,” Taylor says, “as opposed to having them play out in a conventional timeline. The beats were originally programmed with 808 kicks and static-y noises. I used NI Kontakt for the snare-drum rolls and really careful programming. I layered up a whole bunch of different snare samples and detuned them and used some randomization to spread them out. And then I added an orchestral kick-drum sample and orchestral percussion to replace the electronic stuff. The swooshing sounds are some white noise that I automated with EQs in Pro Tools. Originally, I took that sample from a Moog software synth, used a white-noise generator, recorded a bunch of noise and automated some high and lowpass filters and Pro Tools EQ3, and I used the Echo Farm plug-in as well.”
AROUND THE WORLD
More than capable on Pro Tools, Björk also plays clavichord and synth bass on the album. But as her travels took her to 13 different studios, either professional or makeshift, she was really all about working with the guest musicians in their space. Like Alan Lomax in the '60s searching the Deep South for the original cosmic blues player, Björk was looking for a human connection to authenticate and incorporate with her digital bits.
“I never write volume or expression directions into the brass parts,” Björk says, “but I stand there in the room and feel it and then perhaps change the parts, ask people to go up or down an octave in certain areas and give them emotional hints [to] what the song is about. Then we play it many times through, most often with me singing, until we've got it. I enjoy, with acoustic instruments, to be quite organic and feel it in the room hands-on so it can become as ‘live'' as possible.”
Björk repeated this process in similar fashion with Konono N1 at Studio Caraïbes in Brussels, Belgium, with kora master Toumani Diabaté at Studio Bogolan in Bamako, Mali, and with Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons at Gee Jam Studio in Portland, Jamaica, as well as studios in New York, Iceland, Malta, Tunisia, San Francisco and on the volcanic Spanish island of La Gomera. In true guerilla style, she and programmer Damian Taylor carried only essential, almost reductionist gear, reflecting Björk's “rude” designs for the music.
“Technologically,” Taylor says, “this record was hyperminimalist.” As well as their respective Macs — G4 PowerBook for him, G5 tower for Björk (after her G3 blew up halfway though the sessions) — the pair ran Pro Tools|HD with a Shure SM58, Neve 1081 and 1076 channel strips, a Focusrite ISA 430 MKII Producer Pack, Ableton Live, Celemony Melodyne, Sibelius Scorewriter and a Digidesign Mbox while depending primarily on the studios in every locale. But Pro Tools plug-ins ruled the day.
“[Because] we didn't work in one central studio, we had a full-on HD rig in a flight case that we carried around with us in a soundproofed Isobox case,” Taylor says. “That was critical because we usually set up in a hotel room or a cabin, and we didn't have a separate control room. We used all the EQs and plug-ins in HD and the different Pro Tools rigs in the different studios. I was minimalist with the plug-ins. I used the stock Digi stuff. If you actually A/B the really expensive, esoteric third-party stuff against the Digi stuff, it holds up really well and, in some cases, a lot better. I used the stock Digi EQ2 and EQ3. And I am a huge fan of Lo-Fi, one of the best Pro Tools plug-ins because it is so versatile, and depending on where you put it in the chain, you can get a lot of different effects out of it. On Volta, a lot of the vocal effects are a combination of those EQs and compression, before and after Lo-Fi. If you squash something really hard, brighten it up, then hit Lo-Fi gently with a little bit of distortion and 1 on saturation, then re-EQ it afterwards, you will get a totally different kind of roughness than if you put Lo-Fi in front of the chain then squash it. It's a huge thumbs-up for stock Digi plug-ins!”
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VOCAL EASE, STUDIO SIMPLICITY
Björk can get her hands on the most expensive, rare mics, but it's the world's most common mic that often suits her best. “The SM58 was key,” Taylor says. “We also had a Martin Kantola NU-47 mic — there are three in the world — and Martin gave one to Björk. It is a gorgeous mic, but Björk got a better performance with a handheld 58 just 'cause she could crank up the monitors and jump around. That is a good metaphor for the whole record. It was much more a case of making the technology less of a priority. We weren't going for the most technically perfect environment; it was more, ‘Here we are, let's do it.''”
That lo-fi, au naturel persistence lent itself to Björk's vocal chain as well. She chose next to nothing in the way of vocal effects, a constant on all her recordings. “I prefer working with vocals dry,” Björk insists. “The engineers I work with tease me because I have an ongoing mantra: no reverb and no compression. It ruins so many things. It is like engineers are taught to always put that on before anyone even asks for it. It takes away all sensitivity and nature out if the voice. And then when you finally want an effect, it is not going to work. I feel if you are going to use compression and reverb, use it with pride and show it off on special occasions; make a feature out of it. All the other moments — 95 percent of the time — skip it.”
True to their respective natures, Björk is intuitive and visceral when explaining the recording process, while Taylor is more gear- and grid-driven. Björk draws the dots; Taylor connects them. “I trust her instincts and her gut feeling and process implicitly,” Taylor says. “She works in a way that her gut is louder than anything else. She would make really clear artistic decisions — very different from working with someone like Guy Sigsworth [producer for Post, Homogenic, Vespertine]; he is a real mastermind. Everything is in the details, and you might work half a day making a little bubble sound. Björk works in big brush strokes. She knows when you are getting too lost looking at a screen and when to let her subconscious mull things over and return the next day.”
LULLABIES AND IMPROV BEATS
Describing the process for “Wanderlust,” Björk proffers Mark Bell as the originator of stuttering, head-drilling beats and her generally impulsive nature. Is she like Picasso inventing abstract shapes or Jackson Pollock splattering a canvas with emotional colors?
“The ‘Wanderlust'' beat came from Mark Bell, and I [have] to say in his defense that he put out one of the first albums on Warp [Frequencies, Tommy Boy, 1991], the label Aphex Twin is on,” she says. “That beat is very Mark Bell or LFO. I worked on the beats with several people, and slowly as the album became more ready, it became obvious that we should go for tribal live drumming and 1990 kinda drum programming, 808- and 909-style. So I contacted [drummers] Chris Corsano [of Sunburned Hand of the Man] and Brian Chippendale [Lightning Bolt], and they spent a day each improvising on all the songs. They did not get to listen to them first and only did like one take each, so their reactions were very impulsive. Then I sat down and edited away.
“Things like this are usually very impulsive and instinctive with me,” she continues. “It is like I know the character of the record before it is made, and I am very stubborn on what fits and what doesn't. At that stage, it is usually very difficult for me to describe it, so there is a lot of detective work going on — a lot of things tried and a lot of things thrown away. And it's often not until right at the end when things start falling into place.”
“I See Who You Are,” a lush lullaby written for her daughter Isadora, was built up from Björk's “embroidery editing,” most noticeably heard on Min Xiao-Fen's playful pipa.
“[For that track], Mark Bell brought a loop, and I sang on top,” Björk explains matter-of-factly. “Because it was about my 4-year-old girl, I thought it was sweet but had to have a child's kinda dark side in there — an innocent, growling-monster dark side. So I contacted Min Xiao-Fen, an outrageous pipa player, and asked if she could both be incredibly sweet and also kinderpunk. She has a daughter of similar age, so it was easy for her. She did a few takes, all immaculate, and I spent some time editing them afterwards. Chris Corsano then played on top, and I played around and edited and looped his stuff. There is a lot of layering going on, a lot of ‘embroidery.''”
Whether in Malta or La Gomera, London or New York, Björk approached every situation differently. Sometimes Björk played a skeleton track, and the guest artist would respond in kind; other times, as with Timbaland or Diabaté's band, a live studio jam produced results. There was no method, no leader, no guru. “It was all intuitive, really,” Taylor maintains.
As one of the most visceral artists of the past 20 years — since she gained international notoriety with her band, The Sugarcubes — one who continues to create her own stark vision of the future while artists in many disciplines atrophy, Björk's artistic advice sounds simple enough. To understand her voice, you must follow your own.
“Follow your gut,” she says. “And if it is boring, it is boring. But if it is fun, it is fun.”
Volta and the Venue
As Björk's front-of-house mixer for her live shows, Kevin Pruce is responsible for supporting her sonic vision onstage. In both preproduction rehearsals and on tour, Pruce uses Digidesign's Venue D-Show Profile console, smaller sibling to the Venue standard desk.
“Easy Pro Tools integration and all the plug-ins — that is what separates the Profile from all the other digital consoles,” Pruce explains. “They are all software-based plug-ins, and they are quite versatile. I can play it all back in real time. The beauty of any digital console is its ability to recall all or some of the settings on a track-by-track basis. In the Profile, these are called Snapshots and are a must for a show like Björk's.
“Most of the digital boards sound reasonable, but the Profile sounds very good. You don't get those digital artifacts that you associate with digital consoles. The mic pres sound very clean. I've put them up against various external preamps in the live environment where you have so many other factors contributing to what you are hearing; it is difficult to tell the difference. I have in the past used either Tube-Techs or Avalons for Björk's voice, but not this time.
“Connection to a Pro Tools|HD system is simple, and once recorded, I can play the show back exactly as it was recorded through the same channels and plug-ins, like a virtual soundcheck. I do not use any external effects or gates or comps. I use the various plug-ins to create all the effects and most of the dynamics.
“The Profile console comes with a standard package of plug-ins, made up of mainly Digidesign plug-ins with a few third-party ones. With Björk, I am also using Venue's All Access Pack with a lot of the Eventide Anthology II plug-ins for dynamics and effects. Before using plug-ins live, my main effects unit would have been a TC Electronic 6000. There is an emulation of that in the console, which I am using on brass and vocals, though on some songs, Björk's voice is quite dry — unless we are outdoors where it will need more help — and some of the songs have a slightly distorted effect using the Lo-Fi plug-in. And there are various amp-emulation plug-ins that you can use for that, too, like Line 6 Amp Farm. I also use a lot of the URS [Unique Recording Software] compressors and the McDSP multiband plug-ins. Of course, the console has its own compressors and gates, which are also used on various channels.”
Computers, DAW, recording software
Apple Power Mac G5, PowerBook G4 laptop
Digidesign Mbox, Pro Tools|HD system
Synths, software, plug-ins, instruments
Ableton Operator soft synth
Celemony Melodyne software
Digidesign EQ2, EQ3, Lo-Fi plug-ins
Focusrite ISA 430 MKII Producer Pack
Line 6 Echo Farm plug-in
Native Instruments Kontakt software
Sibelius Scorewriter software
Mics, mic preamps, EQs
Martin Kantola NU-47 mic
Neve 1081 and 1076 channel strips
Shure SM58 mic