Recording by Instinct

Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron and Monster Magnet founder John McBain are the producers, engineers, and primary musicians for the psychadelic rock project the Wellwater Conspiracty. Self-taught as engineers - they both cut their teeth on 4-track cassette recorders in the predigital days - the two are not afraid to use unconventional techniques to pursue their recording goals.

When you think about the personal studios of successful musicians, it's easy to conjure up images of acoustically perfect spaces, decked to the rafters with the latest, greatest, and fanciest gear. But Space Studios — where Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron (formerly of Soundgarden) and John McBain (former Monster Magnet guitarist) produce and engineer the songs for their long-running psychedelic garage-rock project the Wellwater Conspiracy — would never be confused with a state-of-the-art facility.

The studio used to be a rehearsal and equipment-storage space for Soundgarden (whose former members, including Cameron, still own it), and at various times before that it was a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and a travel agency. Located in a run-down section of Seattle, the studio has its share of sonic distractions, including traffic noise, RF interference, and even the occasional vagrant knocking at the door. And it's where Cameron and McBain (along with keyboardist Glenn Slater) recorded their most recent release, Wellwater Conspiracy (Transdreamer/Megaforce, 2003).

Cameron and McBain do have some pretty nice gear at the studio — including an Ampex MM1200 2-inch 24-track and Universal Audio LA-2A and 1176 dynamics processors — but you get the idea from talking to them that they're much more concerned with recording good-feeling tracks than achieving sonic perfection.

“When you listen to our records,” says Cameron, “you can tell that we're certainly not graduates of Full Sail. We just kind of go for the vibe more than the audio accuracy.”

The two started recording and engineering their own projects in the days when 4-track cassette machines were the main personal-studio recording option. “I came up on a Fostex 250, and John had a Ross 4×4,” Cameron recalls. Even though they've long since shed their 4-tracks, they both say they were influenced heavily by the approach they learned from making music on those early machines.

Cameron and McBain first worked together in the early 1990s, on a project called Hater, which also included Soundgarden's Ben Shepherd. They began writing together and eventually released the first Wellwater record, Declaration of Conformity (which was recorded mainly on a 4-track cassette machine), back in 1997. The new CD is the band's fourth full-length effort, and it showcases Cameron and McBain's propensity for nonstandard production techniques such as hard-panned vocals, phase-shifted drum kits, and other psychedelic embellishments.

Cameron contributes lead vocals, drumming, rhythm guitar, and some bass parts to the new CD. McBain plays lead guitar and the majority of the bass, and Slater plays a variety of (mainly vintage) keyboards including a Mellotron, Minimoog, Rhodes, and Hammond B-3. I had a chance to talk with Cameron and McBain not long before the new CD was released.

Do either of you guys have recording backgrounds?

Cameron: No, John and I pretty much taught ourselves with 4-tracks when they first came out — 4-track cassettes in the late '80s.

So your philosophy is basically just “do what sounds good”?

Cameron: Absolutely.

Do you worry much about using proper recording techniques?

McBain: We're kind of casual about it, I guess, on the surface. But we don't want a bad sound going to tape. We don't take that scientific approach where we're pulling out the tape measures and measuring the distance from the mic to the center of the snare and all of that stuff. We just sort of do it by feel. We just kind of throw the mics up. Matt knows where he wants the mics to go for his drums, and I know where I want them to go for my guitars. And usually we're right in that ballpark; we usually get something good. If we don't, we'll listen back and we'll hear it and we'll just retrack.

And you have the luxury being in your own studio.

McBain: Exactly. That allows you to experiment like crazy.

Tell me a bit about the history of the studio. Was Soundgarden the first band to use it?

Cameron: Yeah, when Soundgarden was together, we purchased the building in, I believe it was '95.

Did Soundgarden do any recording there?

Cameron: No, we pretty much had it set up as a rehearsal space. And we stored all of our gear there. We had accumulated a lot of gear over the years. So it was basically like a big storage and rehearsal space.

So it wasn't until you guys started your projects together that you turned it into a recording space?

Cameron: Yeah. It's never been a professional, proper, setup recording environment. But I bought some selected pieces of recording equipment, and we took it from there. So we don't have a control room or anything like that. It's all in one room.

Did you install any acoustic treatment?

Cameron: We put up some baffling where the drums are set up. It's kind of an okay live sound that we've been able to use over the years.

I understand you have some problems with outside noise.

McBain: The studio is right on one of the main arteries connecting downtown Seattle to the outer boroughs. So right around rush hour it's just crazy. You get semis coming by and traffic backs up, and people start pressing their horns and it just gets crazy. And then we're surrounded by some radio towers.

Not the kind of buzz you're trying to create?

Cameron: Not the atmospheric buzz, the real-life one.

So you get RF?

McBain: We get RF. And we've just recently installed some power conditioners upstairs and downstairs. Essentially the rule at the studio is: From 4:30 to 7:00 p.m., don't even bother.

So your method of dealing with your sound problems is basically to just avoid them?

McBain:[Laughs.] Exactly. At 4:30 we'll either call it a night, or go out to eat. Then we'll come back around 7:00, and usually the RF and the street noise have lessened. There's still no way to prevent the occasional crazy homeless guy from knocking on the door and trying to come in. But that's all part of where we're living right now.

You did all the tracking for the new album at your studio, but not the mixing?

Cameron: Correct. We tracked pretty much everything at Space, and I tracked some vocal parts here at my house on the ADAT, and just brought it down there. But everything else was done there [at Space].

Where was the mix done?

At a place called Avast, here in Seattle. Mixed by Adam Kasper.

Did you do anything different on this record from a production standpoint?

McBain: I think on the last record [The Scroll and Its Combinations, TVT, 2001] we were really focusing on getting the mix right and getting a certain sound overall. So we spent a lot of time on the actual mixing process. But for this one we wanted it a little bit looser; keep the rough edges on there.

It definitely has a vibe to it.

McBain: You can tell people are actually playing it; it's kind of a novelty.

Since only three of you cut the whole CD, what was your process for recording basics?

Cameron: I set up right by the tape machine, and reach up and hope for the best.

Do you use a click?

Cameron: A lot of times we'll track to a click track, because sometimes in our music, a guitar part will be the first thing to go down, or a keyboard part, or even a drum part. We normally like to have a guitar and drum part to start with, but there are times when John or I will write a complete song and it requires a click track along with whatever instrument we're using at the time.

So you'd play drums and John would play guitar to start with?

Cameron: Yeah, there would be some occasions where either John or I would create rhythm tracks ourselves, playing guitar and bass and drums, but mostly on this one we tracked a guitar and drum track at the same time and built upon that.

You don't find that playing rock music with a click is too constraining from a tempo and feel standpoint?

Cameron: No. We've been doing it that way since day one. A lot of times John will put down a guitar track first, and on some occasions the drums go on last. I'm kind of used to doing it that way. We also track together.

McBain: Matt and I are of that 4-track generation, so we're used to playing to drum machines when we're doing our demos. I can sort of tune out the click in a certain way, and it's just there. And if I want to come back to it, I know where it is. But I don't sit down with the headphones on and just zero in on the click track and try to make it exact. You kind of learn how to play around the click track.

Talk about the gear in the studio.

Cameron: I have an Ampex MM1200 2-inch 24-track machine, and there's also a Quad/Eight board — the Ventura Model — that we use the mic pres from, into the Ampex. And I play back on a Mackie 32-8.

So you just use the Quad/Eight for input?

Cameron: Right. But there were occasions on this record when we did do some digital stuff. That was a Roland VS-1680. So we did some stuff on that and on ADAT.

Why were you switching formats?

Cameron: Well, basically the way we record is like any home recordist would, where we use pretty much what's available. Also John has access to an ADAT here, and I have one at my house, and there would be occasions where I'd work on stuff at home and then bring it in and either dump that on the 2-inch or the Roland.

Is it a newer ADAT?

Cameron: Yeah, it's a 20-bit [XT20 model].

McBain: The ADAT was a big jump for me.

So you hadn't done anything digital at all before that?

McBain: No, I need tape. That was my thing, I have got to see tape moving. But we just threw some stuff down on this Roland [VS-1680], and I ended up being pretty impressed with it. Impressed enough that I went out and bought one.

Overall do you prefer analog to digital?

Cameron: It depends on the project and the type of end result you're going for. For a band, analog will always be best. But for a tightly produced rap track or some obvious pop type of track, computer stuff is great. I think that's the way to go.

But for you, analog?

Cameron: For this band I would say analog works.

Yet some of the songs on the CD were tracked to digital. How come?

McBain: About three quarters of the way through the recording process, the 2-inch machine broke down. [Laughs.] That's the way those things are. They're like old cars. You really have to keep on top of them. You have to keep tuning them and checking them and popping the hood.

Did your 4-track background affect the way you work now on larger format machines?

Cameron: I think so. It forces you to record economically; you always have to be bouncing tracks when 4-tracking. There's a certain art to that, where you need to make sure your instruments are balanced properly before you commit. And we had to do that a couple of times on the ADAT and on the VS-1680 [during the recording of the new CD]. There are a couple of bounces going on. I think that's the main thing I've taken away from 4-tracking.

When you first got a larger-format machine, did you go crazy and record tons of tracks?

McBain: Initially, yeah, it's hard not to record a guitar part eight times. And we did that a lot with our second record, Brotherhood of Electric; that's when we had the 24-track. On that one, yeah, we kind of did go crazy with the overdubbing. But I treat a 24-track like it's a big 4-track. You have to manually punch in, and we don't have the remote switch, so you have to kind of time it by holding that chord and then quickly reaching over and hitting the Record button. So it's just like a big 4-track to me. Definitely on the new one we've limited ourselves. My attitude going in was, “Well, I can probably get all these parts I need in two tracks. I'm just going to do that.”

The first Wellwater album,Declaration of Conformity, was recorded on a 4-track?

McBain: A cassette 4-track. And then we dumped it to a ½-inch 8-track, an old Tascam 38. The music would go to 4-track, and then we'd dump it to ½-inch and put the vocals on it.

So you'd have to do a lot of bouncing?

McBain: There was bouncing, yeah. It's funny, there was also a case with the first album where I gave Ben [Shepherd], who sang on the first album, a song that I wanted him to do that I had mixed down to two tracks of a 4-track cassette. So he had two tracks of instrumental. I said, “Here's the song. Go ahead and learn some vocals, and then we'll set up a time to go into the studio and we'll do the vocals on the 8-track.”

But Ben recorded [his vocals] on the other two tracks of the cassette on his 4-track. He gave it to me and I said, “I wanted to mix it from the 8-track.” But he said, “Well, these vocals are perfect.” And I agreed. So I had to sit with the Tascam 38 on one side and his Yamaha 4-track on the other and manually sync up his vocals — fly them in manually to the ½-inch [machine], literally line by line, and it took me about three days to do it. Because I realized quickly that when you hit Play on the Yamaha, there was a pause. So I had to learn what that pause was and practice and practice, and then line by line I synced up his vocal to the ½-inch. There was no MIDI. I just played with the tape speed on the 4-track as I was going. If I felt him getting a little ahead I'd slow him down between verses.

Matt, I understand that you use an unconventional drum-miking approach when recording your drums; you don't use a lot of mics.

Cameron: I would say we varied it a little bit on this record [Wellwater Conspiracy]. But drum miking normally consists — for me — of having a good kick and snare sound. I don't mind using a mono overhead at all. So instead of miking all the toms, we normally try to get a tom and overhead sound, which involves some mic placement stuff.

What mics do you typically use?

Cameron: We use an AKG D 112 on the kick, and then a Shure SM57 — top only — on the snare. And then we have the Shure KSM44s for overheads, and if I do mic the toms, it'll normally be the Shure Beta 56.

John, you do most of the lead guitar work?

McBain: Yeah. Matt lays down some rhythm tracks here and there and has done a couple of leads. But for the most part, I'm the guitarist.

Do you have a particular amp you use?

McBain: For everything on there, except one song, I use a 1970 Vox AC30.

Do you close-mic it?

McBain: Close-miked with an SM57. I just turn the amp all the way up.

So, for the most part, you guys weren't using super-high-end mics?

McBain: No.

What did you use on the vocals?

McBain: The Shure KSM44, through one of the Universal Audio mic pres and a limiter. Matt got those reissues [LA-2A and 1176] from Universal Audio, and they're incredible. They color your sound in a certain way that's really nice. We like compressors that are transparent, but sometimes you need one that's got a definite spring to it.

What other compressors do you use?

McBain: We both like to use the dbx 160, and I have the stereo version, the 162. That's normally what we use. But when we're mixing at a studio we'll use lots of stuff.

Who plays the bass parts?

Cameron: John and I mixed it up. He plays most of the bass parts, and I play bass on about three or four cuts, but it's mostly John.

How did you record the bass?

McBain: There were a couple of times when we ran it through a 4×12 Mesa/Boogie cabinet, and a Dual Rectifier, and we miked it. Just dirtied it up a little bit, ran it through a guitar amp. But for the most part all the bass was done direct through a Joemeek VC6 mic pre.

Do you ever use Pro Tools?

Cameron: We used Pro Tools pretty much exclusively for editing this record. A couple of particular songs were mixed into Pro Tools and edited. Just the real basic use of it. Not for tracking.

Let's talk about the mixing a little bit. On the song “Galaxy 265,” the vocals were all the way to one side. Were you trying to get a retro Beatles-stereo type effect?

Cameron: Yeah. The whole track is hard-panned. We decided to do that whole particular mix that way, and it seemed to fit the song pretty good. It's kind of an older-sounding song.

It seemed as though there were some other songs that made use of unconventional panning techniques, like where the kick and snare weren't panned up the middle.

Cameron: Yeah, like the song “Rebirth,” the kick and snare are hard-panned right and left, and there's a drum-machine pattern that's straight in the center. We like to mix it up that way.

Talk about some of the effects you used on the mix.

McBain: When we mixed at Avast, aside from all the really nice, juicy vintage gear that we had to work with, I also brought in my tube Echoplex, and that was always part of the effects chain. We were running drums through it, we were running vocals through it, guitars, reamping, and stuff like that. And we also used an old Mutron Bi-Phase. You can hear it on the beginning of a couple of songs. It's two mono Mutron phasers run together. You can pan them left and right.

I heard some phase-shifting on the drum track. Was that the Mutron?

McBain: Yeah, we ran the stereo drum mix through it. One phaser was set kind of fast, and one was a little slower. They're quiet. They're really well built and quiet.

Clearly, you guys do not have any qualms about using unconventional techniques.

McBain: No, not in the least. That's all part of all that time we had at the rehearsal studio to experiment. I'm certain that we could find a piece of high-tech gear that we could dial-in a similar sound on, but there's just something special about running it through the Mutron.

Did you use much compression on the full mix?

McBain: No, just on instruments here and there. On the drums, on the overheads probably there was a little compression going on.

Do you try to keep it to a minimum?

McBain: Yes. We try to get the best possible sound onto tape at the very beginning. If you can accomplish that, most of the time you don't have to do anything with it.

So you experiment a lot when you're doing your basic tracks?

McBain: Yeah.

Mostly with mic placement?

McBain: Yes.

Was there anything else about the production that was particularly different or unusual?

McBain: The cool thing about this record is that it came out sounding just like it did when we recorded it. Going through the whole process of mixing it and mastering it, and then we had to remaster it, and then we had to remaster it again.

What was the problem?

McBain: Just a bit too much compression in the mastering stage. We recorded it, for the most part, to 2-inch tape, so there was tape compression. There's really no sense in compressing it at [the mastering stage].

Cameron: Right. We recorded everything hot onto tape. So we weren't really able to go too crazy in the compression department once we got to mastering. Because we added stereo bus compression on the mix.

So the first mastering facility took the as-loud-as-possible approach, but you weren't happy with it?

McBain: We thought we'd give it a shot and try some of that approach, but it didn't work for us.

What didn't you like about it?

McBain: It seemed to make things a lot smaller. The masters were louder. Those versions of the songs, those masters were louder, but they didn't have any depth. They were kind of two-dimensional.

So the dynamics were lost?

McBain: There were no dynamics. It was just flat, pushing right up against the speakers.

So what did you do?

Cameron: We just had to do it again and use a lot less compression. It came out great.

Where was the remastering done?

McBain: We did it at Hanzek Audio and got the best mastering guy in town [Chris Hanzek], and he helped us out a lot with it. By not doing things, he helped us a lot.

Matt, you've done a lot of performing and a lot of recording. Which do you prefer?

Cameron: Recording has always been the most fun aspect of what I do. It's what I cherish the most, because you're able to create that perfect performance and put it down for eternity.

Talk about the differences in your approach when recording in a commercial studio and recording in your own setup.

Cameron: When I'm in the [commercial] studio, I try to be really confident with my ideas and not waste any time, because time equals money when you get into a big place. There's a lot more pressure involved in that setting. But once you go in there, if you can be confident and get that performance down, then it's going to sound amazing. The great thing about doing home recording is there's no pressure. You can actually do some songwriting and work on whatever tickles your fancy and record it right then and there. I think you can use recording as a form of expression, as an art form.

What advice would you give people who had their own studios?

McBain: When you're recording, go with your instincts. And it seems like, as a rule, those initial tracks that you lay down are always the best ones. When you're recording on your own, it's that freedom of, “Well, I can just record it over and over and over again,” that can be a problem. Go for those initial takes. The initial takes always sound the best. They might not be technically the best tracks, but the feeling is always there right at the start. And that's the 4-track thing again. It's like, “Oh, that's the one. There are some mistakes there, but you know what? It's got feeling, it's got something going for it. Don't overanalyze. That's something we don't do, we don't overanalyze, with everything, from the drums to the guitars to the vocals. There's going to be stuff on the records that a professional might deem a little shaky, and a little pitchy and maybe not necessary, but we go with it. We go with our instincts.

Mike Levineis a senior editor atEM.