Daniel Lanois is an enigma with a long and interesting history. The 54-year-old Canadian has produced a staggering list of classic recordings from artists such as Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson, and U2 (see the sidebar “Daniel Lanois: A Selected Discography”). These productions are high on grit and atmospherics, short on bombast and high-tech gloss, and have earned Lanois much critical praise. Rolling Stone called him “the most important record producer to emerge in the '80s.”
Since the release of his first album, the introverted and lyrical Acadie (Warner Brothers, 1989), Lanois has also conducted a highly respected solo career. Acadie is widely regarded as a masterpiece, but its successor, For the Beauty of Wynona (Warner Brothers, 1993), is more uneven and was followed by a decade-long hiatus on the solo front. Nevertheless, Lanois is one of those rare musicians who have had a career filled with commercial and critical success.
More recently, however, there were indications that all was not well in Lanois's world. For example, his steady stream of productions had almost dried up. Since his most recent major U2 project, All That You Can't Leave Behind (Uni/Interscope, 2000), all he had produced was Harold Budd's La Bella Vista (Shout Factory, 2003).
In 2000, he sold his legendary Kingsway studio in New Orleans. It was located in a 19th-century house full of high ceilings and carpets. The studio exemplified the two production approaches for which Lanois has become best known: recording in unusual, atmospheric locations, and recording without a separate control room.
After a long dry spell in his solo work, Lanois has lately been -focusing on it exclusively.
Around that same time, Lanois began to lead a more nomadic lifestyle, moving to a small village on the west coast of Mexico called Todos Santos. After a year, he packed up and headed for Oxnard, north of Los Angeles, where he set up shop in an old Mexican cinema called El Teatro. Before long, he relocated again, to Silver Lake, California, where he set up his current studio.
Lanois also created a second private recording facility in Toronto. Those changes occurred along with the rekindling of his solo career. He has gone on several live tours in the past two years and has released three albums — Shine (ANTI, 2003), Rockets (daniellanois.com, 2004), and Belladonna (ANTI, 2005). Although this wealth of activity is a sign of an artist on a creative roll, the sense of melancholy that dominates his recent records is unsettling.
“I kind of went to a bad place emotionally,” admits Lanois. “I dropped out of sight for a while. I have been in the machine since I was a kid. That's fine as long as you have your nose to the grindstone, but I have taken a lot of punches [laughs], and I am not taking it anymore. I got sick of the business; it felt like quicksand. So if I see hypocrisy walk through the door, I just turn away.
“I have become a lot more spiritual about the whole thing. I just follow my musical instincts — my heart — these days. And I don't have the itch right now to produce other people's albums, so I am not going to do it. I'm happy to be working on my own music. The melancholy that you hear is there, but it has always been in my work. I have just surrendered to the fact that I am who I am, and I do what I do.”
Lanois has always been on a journey of inner healing and rediscovery and is known as a very soulful musician. That trait is apparent in his production approach, his singing, and his guitar playing — especially when he plays his pedal steel, which he features on Belladonna (see Fig. 1). Although Lanois puts a heavy emphasis on organic musicianship, he's also a master at using the tools in his studio (which he calls his “studio laboratory”) to come up with interesting new sounds.
FIG. 1: Lanois has been playing more pedal steel and says that he''d like to put out a pedal steel record.
At the heart of Lanois's approach, though, is his favoring of performance and atmosphere over technical perfection. When he emerged as a producer in the '80s, mixing desks were being automated. Lanois, however, highlighted the performance aspect of mixing, insisting on mixing by hand. While most producers were going for the glossy sound of digital reverbs and the sonic “perfection” of digital recording and of sequencers and drum machines, Lanois preferred low-fi analog effects and treatments, imperfect but soulful performances, and the warmth of analog tape recorders.
“A good performance will override any production idea or sonic idea that you can have,” says Lanois. “If you have a vocal that's strong and transports you as a listener, you're not going to worry what kind of EQ you've got on this drum or what sound you've got from that guitar. The delivery will override whatever small changes you can make in the sound. And the place where you record can make a huge difference. Unusual locations have much to do with creating a recording environment. We're talking here about creating spontaneity and performance in whatever way one can.”
Lanois's approach was effective and has become part of mainstream producing. It's at the heart of his two studio laboratories. “The house here in Silver Lake is a trilevel house,” explains Lanois, “and the studio is on the lower level. I still work with everyone in the same room together. I don't think of the recording equipment as something for other people in another room — although the house in Silver Lake has lots of little labyrinths, side rooms, and hallways, so there are some rooms I can use for isolation. I keep the drums in a separate little room, behind a Plexiglas door, so you can still see the drummer. The house setup in there is a couple of Neumann U 47s above, kind of like jazz miking, and the bass drum mic is either a [AKG] D 12 or a Coles.
“I have a 38-channel Neve 8068 desk here in Silver Lake that I have been restoring for years. It is a sweetheart. I also have loads of other small Neve desks, like the BCM10, the Kelso, and the Melbourn, which get used as microphone preamps. My favorite is the Neve 1066. I also like my API preamps. I've gotten some great vocal sounds from them. My main recording tool now is the iZ Technology Radar, a Canadian computer-based machine. It's in a similar league as [Digidesign] Pro Tools. Its sound is so transparent that it's not a vital link in terms of personality. I don't know what the sampling rate is, and it's not a great concern for me. The personality of the work comes from the source of the sounds, the players in the room, and the microphones used.
“I've built the Toronto studio since I finished Shine in 2003,” adds Lanois. “It is in a penthouse loft, which is about 5,000 square feet in size. It's big, like a dance studio, but it's not a crazily reverberant place. The sound has a lovely way of resolving itself, as if you were on the wooden stage of a beautiful old theater, where you have a great sense of space. There are no acoustic treatments; it has just a hardwood floor, loads of windows, and a wooden ceiling.
“The studio is in a corner of a big, open room, where I have a 40-channel Amek Tac SR9000 console and another Radar. I have almost every Studer tape recorder ever made, including an A80 in Toronto and in Los Angeles. Although I mainly use the Radar, the Studers are still there. I have to trust them, because I have made so many records that sound great on them.
“The secret of my studios is that I keep everything plugged in all the time. You pick up the bass, and it automatically shows up on a certain channel. It's like a throwback to the '50s, when studios would have a drum kit nailed to the floor and several amplifiers ready to plug your guitar or bass into. So each studio would have its own house sound. I am a bit of a romantic in that respect; I never liked a studio that neutralizes itself at the end of a workday. There is a spirit to each of my studios, and they happen to sound great. Toronto has a more open sound, whereas Silver Lake is more dense with more control. Microphones in both studios include AKG C 24s for piano and Shure SM57s and Sennheiser 409s for guitar combos. I also like the RCA 44 and the 77 — I love ribbon microphones.”
Power and Punch
Not surprisingly, given Lanois's emphasis on recording in locations where musicians feel at home, he welcomes the exponential rise of the home studio. “It is fantastic that you can walk into a music store and come out with a full studio for not that much money,” he says.
“Some great records will come of that, because people who can't afford to go into large studios but who are really talented and have great visions can now express themselves. The downside is that when recording to hard disk, you can keep putting off decisions and people become precious and don't want to chop things down. It is the curse of the modern world. Records have become longer, at a time when people have less listening time.
A cornerstone of Lanois''s production philosophy is that getting a good performance is a higher priority than achieving perfect sonics.
“My recommendation for home recording is to have lots of instruments and not so many microphones. Just have three microphones active, get a beautiful sound on each one, and move them around as you need to.
“Here is Daniel Lanois's tip for a great acoustic-guitar recording: leave the guitar in the case! Put up a couple of nice microphones — whatever you have in your studio that you think sounds great. I usually use a Neumann U 47 and a Sony C37a. Go to the console while you have one of those microphones in your hands, turn up the speakers, and get a really nice sound going on your voice. Get the preamp nice and hot, add a little bit of EQ, and crank up the LA2A or any other compressor until everything you are saying sounds beautiful.
“Now go to the other microphone and do the same thing. Then put the two microphones on stands in the neighborhood of the acoustic guitar, put some headphones on, shut off your speakers, and make the microphones sound nice and hot in the cans. Now, finally, take your guitar out of the case, go to the vicinity of the microphones, and start strumming and picking — whatever you are going to play. Find the sweet spot on each of the microphones. Choose the one that sounds best to your ears, and put the other one away. In my case, my Sony C37a is often magic.
“As an added bonus, put a good magnetic pickup on the acoustic guitar, like an old Lawrence from the 1980s, and put that signal into a small guitar amplifier like a Fender Champ or a baby Peavey. A battery amplifier is preferred, so you don't have any ground problems. Just bring up the volume of that little amplifier (but not to the point where it is blaring in the room), hang a microphone right on the speakers, and either put a bunch of pillows around it or put it behind a sofa to muffle the sound.
“Track the pickup and the main microphone separately. In the end, you have that really great recording [from the mic], and then you have the pickup sound coming through the amplifier, which is the cherry on the cake. The amplifier sound is mixed in low, only for seasoning, just to add a little bit of guts in the midrange. Played together, those two tracks should give you a beautiful sound.”
Crank Up the Bass
In expressing his discomfort about records getting increasingly longer, Lanois walks his talk. His latest effort, Belladonna (see Fig. 2), clocks in at 38:44, with some tracks shorter than 2 minutes. In recording the album, which is his first entirely instrumental record, Lanois tried to apply what he considers the all but lost art of capturing the peak moments that occur when the red light is on.
FIG. 2: Belladonna, Lanois''s most recent solo CD, features 13 instrumental songs.
“We live for those moments,” notes Lanois, “and when they come, I thank my lucky stars and try to have the wisdom to pick them and put them on records. It's the way things should be, and it is the way rock 'n' roll started. It began in the streets, and the record companies couldn't help but notice and record the stuff. It cannot be surpassed. It's interesting how everybody references Led Zeppelin records today, but nobody wants to make them anymore.
“Instead, they go into the studio and choke the bass drum to death, make sure it sounds ticky with no roundness whatsoever, and God forbid it should ever resonate. So that's where we're at today; we have our references intact, but we are not brave enough to do anything with them.
“The greatest folly of modern times is to try to make things sound small, so they occupy a tiny space in the picture and can cut through the mix or something. It is crazy. Engineers will cut down everything below 400 Hz from an acoustic guitar because they think it's booming. But 90 percent of the body of the guitar is in that range. If you kill that, you're left with the scratchy-nails-on-the-blackboard sound. Or people use transducers that sound like crap. Or you get the flunky engineers (who all end up doing work for television) rolling off the bottom end, because TV sets aren't supposed to have the capacity to reproduce that.
“Instead, make a thing sound as big as you possibly can, so it can hold its head up with dignity and pride! When you pipe a Bob Marley track through a TV set, it will sound fantastic because everything in the sound picture is perfect. Even though the television set may not be capable of putting out anything below 90 Hz, you still get relative harmonics ringing. So by putting 30 Hz in there, you get a better 150 Hz. That's why old records sound better than current ones; producers were not afraid to crank up the bass.
“Now it's all about cranking up the hi-hat and making things as bright as possible — and for God's sake, roll off everything in the low midrange and don't have any bottom. And then go home and listen to old Led Zeppelin records for inspiration! The only records that sound good these days are hip-hop records, because the producers understand something about bottom end.”
Lanois has become famous for his “treatments” — the intricate and often atmospheric application of electronic effects. One striking aspect of his recording approach is his use of treatments to stimulate performances, rather than adding them later on. “It can be exciting if processing allows you to look at a song in a different manner,” he says.
“It's nice if it can drag you out of your usual habits. It's like being introduced to a new kind of food that you wouldn't know unless someone had turned you on to it. But processing shouldn't be the domain of just the engineer or the producer. I like the idea of giving everyone a little workstation and seeing what they come up with. I also encourage musicians to have their own effects — to have their own rig. If it's great, you record it. In my experience, when musicians play off processing, that processing should not be separated from the performance. It's all one and should be documented that way, even if you track the processing separately.”
Lanois goes on to elaborate on his favorite processors, offering some of the tracks on Belladonna as examples. “The Lexicon Prime Time is an old favorite; I know how to get results on it. It delays and it wobbles. I used it on the track ‘Two Worlds.’ It opens with my friend Bill Dillon on guitar and with me manipulating the sound through an AMS Harmonizer, an EMT 250, and the Prime Time. The effects were set very high and were all interlooping and feedbacking off each other while he was playing, giving it a psychedelic sound. The amplifiers were in the control room, and there was so much volume that we got a lot of feedback, which gives it a tormented sound. We recorded the track in Toronto, to 2-inch tape and via an MCI desk that has since died.
“On ‘The Deadly Nightshade,’ I plugged a Les Paul Junior straight into a Korg SDD3000 digital delay. The Korg has two outputs — a clean output and an effect output — and I then found the sweet spot on the effect side. The guitar was so heavily treated that I didn't add any more effects during the mix. ‘Dusty’ also features my Les Paul and a Boomerang Phrase Sampler box, which is a kind of cheap self-overdubber. You put your guitar through it, and you stack up some sounds. I laid down an initial take, and then played on top of it. I didn't add any effects.
“For me, the mix is usually just a matter of bringing up faders and balancing things. I hardly ever use reverb; I haven't since the early '80s. My tracks have just echoes — slap echoes like in Jamaican music. It may be the Lexicon Prime Time. If you notch it in such a way that it has two, four, or eight repeats, you don't get much high end on your return. So you're creating the illusion of distance.
“On ‘Sketches’ I also did a guitar loop on the Boomerang pedal. Brad Mehldau played a beautiful cascading piano, and we found an effect that gave it a watery sound. It was a custom-made Eventide H3000 effect that we called Purple Vista. I think it's a short delay that's tripped onto itself so it generates internal feedback. It is one of those magic sounds that we store and keep in the box. In that case, the effect was added in the mix.
“The final track of the album, ‘Todos Santos,’ is a ‘studio laboratory’ piece. The only sound source is an old Yamaha CS80 polyphonic synthesizer that I put through an AMS Harmonizer, on which I came up with various pitches that I liked. Each time I found one I liked, I stored it. The AMS has nine stores in it, and I would then play its keypad. I made the sound weird with all kinds of effects. That took days and days of processing. When you're into that, it's like an incredible vortex that you fall into and you become a mastermind of that technique for the time that you are in the vortex. And then you document it, and when you leave, it is like ‘Oh my God — this sounds so amazing!’”
Lanois continues to be full of enthusiasm about working in his studio laboratory and offers one more tip for those who record at home. “It's important to become a master of a few boxes, rather than to dabble in too many that you don't fully understand. Whether it's a Pro Tools box that you're excited about or something else — it doesn't matter. What's important is to become really good at using it; become a master of something. That requires a lot of discipline in these modern times, because there is so much equipment available. So find something that you believe in and go after it. That way you have a chance to develop a sound, and your records will have a more unique personality.”
Lanois reflects for a moment, then says that he has become rather good at playing the pedal steel guitar, and that he'd like to put out a pedal steel record. “I am always tempted to do that,” he remarks. “I have enough pedal steel recordings to be able to put it out pretty soon. Aside from that, I have a bunch of nice songs.”
Lanois sets himself behind the piano at his Silver Lake studio and performs a song called “I Am Leaving Tonight.” He sings enigmatically, “Gonna leave this place, don't want to run this race, yes, I am leaving. I want to feel the dirt running through my fingers, where I can't get hurt. Yeah, I'm leaving tonight, I'm leaving the gold, I'm leaving in search of a house of soul. A house of soul.”
Lanois's latest record may have been instrumental, but his songs still speak louder than anything else.
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, visitwww.tingen.co.uk.
DANIEL LANOIS: A SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY
Bob Dylan, Oh Mercy (CBS, 1989)
Peter Gabriel, Us (Geffen, 1992)
Peter Gabriel, So (Virgin, 1986)
Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball (Asylum, 1995)
Jon Hassell, Power Spot (Uni/Ecm, 2000)
Luscious Jackson, Fever In, Fever Out (Grand Royal/Capitol, 1996)
Willie Nelson, Teatro (Island, 1998)
The Neville Brothers, Yellow Moon (A&M, 1989)
Robbie Robertson, Robbie Robertson (Geffen, 1988)
Artist and Producer
Daniel Lanois, Belladonna (ANTI, 2005)
Daniel Lanois, Acadie (Warner Brothers, 1989; daniellanois.com, 2005 reissue)
Daniel Lanois, Rockets (daniellanois.com, 2004)
Daniel Lanois, Shine (ANTI, 2003)
Daniel Lanois, For the Beauty of Wynona (Warner Brothers, 1993)
Composer and Producer
Sling Blade soundtrack (Island, 1996)
Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind (Columbia/Sony, 1997)
Brian Eno, On Land (EG, 1982)
U2, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope, 2004); coproducer on selected tracks
U2, All That You Can't Leave Behind (Uni/Interscope, 2000)
U2, Achtung Baby (Island, 1991)
U2, The Joshua Tree (Island, 1987)
U2, The Unforgettable Fire (Island, 1984)
Additional Production and Mixing
Scott Weiland, 12 Bar Blues (Atlantic, 1998)