Rhythm and Noise | John McEntire

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Photography by Rich Markese

John McEntire is a ubiquitous fixture in Chicago's thriving independent-music scene. For close to 20 years he's been a drummer, percussionist, writer, engineer, and producer for groups both influential and musically diverse. Two groups for which he's most widely known are Tortoise, an instrumental quintet that features three percussionists, an experimental nature, and a fiercely open-ended musical direction, and the Sea and Cake, led by guitarist-vocalist Sam Prekop, which makes sparkly and sublime pop/rock and has just released Car Alarm (Thrill Jockey, 2008).

McEntire is equally famed for his work with other groups, such as Stereolab on Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Elektra, 1996) and Dots and Loops (Elektra, 1997). He has also appeared on record with Bright Eyes, toured with Tropicália legend Tom Zé, produced Afrobeat-leaning Antibalas, and mixed Widow City (Thrill Jockey, 2007) by the Brooklyn-based Fiery Furnaces, a popular and critically acclaimed group comprising the Friedberger brother-sister songwriting team.

McEntire works almost entirely out of his well-appointed Soma Electronic Music Studios (somastudios.com) in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. While relatively compact, Soma is equipped to handle nearly every type of recording need. A moderate-size live room and a deadened iso booth are the main areas for tracking, although McEntire frequently records drums and bass in the control room. Even Soma's hallways are regularly put into service.

The control room features one of the 13 Trident A-Range consoles still in service and a fine complement of new and vintage outboard gear. A 2-inch MCI JH-16, with 24- and 16-track head stacks, stands ready, as does a Digidesign Pro Tools HD2 Accel system. The room also boasts an entire wall filled with analog synths from Buchla, Moog, CMS, EMS, Korg, Synton, and Serge, among others. (See the online bonus material at emusician.com for more info on his analog synthesizers and other goodies.)

I had the opportunity to speak to McEntire in August and to find out his thoughts on recording, production, and arrangement.

Tell me about the process of recording the Sea and Cake.

With the Sea and Cake, the focus of recording basic tracks is always to get a great band sound so that we can then concentrate on the other elements that will most likely be the focus of the tune, like the vocals (obviously), and guitar and keyboard overdubs. Sam is the principal songwriter, and he'll usually come to us with things about 90 percent written. We may add or subtract four bars here and there, but that's about it.

With this group, we usually try to do full band takes, or at least as much as we can, together. With Car Alarm, I was out in the live room, and Eric [Claridge, the bass player] was in the control room running Pro Tools. This was before I bought the Frontier TranzPort, so it was helpful to have someone running the machine.

Sam and Archer [Prewitt, the guitarist] will often be in the live room, with their amps separated in the iso booth and the hallway. And this time we had the bass amp set up in the control room. Every possible combination of where you can put things to get the isolation you want, we've tried over the years. There are enough possibilities that you can pretty much do whatever you need to here. But just barely! If you had, say, three guitar players that wanted to track at the same time, that might be a little difficult, but it's extremely rare that that kind of thing happens.

Starting with your album The Fawn and continuing through Oui and One Bedroom, programmed drums and electronics became an integral part of your sound.

The Fawn [Thrill Jockey, 1997] is 70 to 80 percent sampled drums and percussion. For getting basic tracks down, we'd set up a loop that everybody thought had the right kind of feel. Then I would go back and do more in-depth programming and editing. There were actually some very practical reasons for using programming when we were working on The Fawn: we'd recorded The Biz [Thrill Jockey, 1995] at my home studio, which was what eventually grew into Soma. But when we started working on The Fawn, it became apparent that I could do more with samplers and sequencing and programming. Sam and the other guys were interested in trying to shake things up a little, because we'd already done three relatively straightforward records.

To get more of a jazzy drum sound, John McEntire will sometimes go with a simplified setup: stereo overheads and a mic on the bass drum.

Most of it was done with an Akai sampler, sequencing it using [Opcode] Studio Vision Pro. And I'd just gotten [Propellerhead] ReCycle, which is why there's a lot of chopped-up beats on that record. At that time, it was really exciting to be able to do that. The Fawn was an experiment in getting things done with these new tools, in a way that fit with our aesthetic.

By the time we did Oui [Thrill Jockey, 2000], which is the first record we did in the current Soma, there was a quantum leap forward in terms of what was available to us studiowise; for instance, using the 2-inch machine and the computer in tandem. We wanted a really broad palette to work with, including string and horn arrangements.

With One Bedroom [Thrill Jockey, 2003], the focus was on seeing how far we could push that, delving into many keyboard overdubs and as many different synth textures as possible. I had two ARP 2600s at the time, and they play a fairly large role on that record.

We felt like it worked out well, and for those songs it seemed like a logical thing to continue to do. But when we started work on Everybody [Thrill Jockey, 2007], we decided to switch it up again and go for the live-band thing. And that's a more accurate representation of what we do when we're on tour; we don't have a sequencer playing the parts with everyone playing along to it. We play the songs as a 4-piece rock band.

It seems like it's always a process of going toward something, then coming back again. The last two records have been fairly concise in terms of the arrangements and overall presentation. We wanted to step back from that baroque, big-arrangement thing and write very direct 3-minute pop songs — two guitars, bass, drums, and just the occasional keyboard overdub.

And what kind of differences are there with a band like Tortoise?

For Tortoise, we try to leave it a little more open ended. Sometimes we may want to use one of the instruments, or just a small idea, as a springboard for further experimentation. It's also rare for all five of us to do a basic track together; usually either three or four of us play at the same time. Lately we've been tending more toward working on songwriting and arranging, whereas in the past we just had ideas we'd record, and then arrange it in post. That's worked well for us in certain circumstances, but we're a little bit wary of relying on that too much because, for us at least, if you have a record with a lot of pieces like that, the fear is that it will sound too constructed. Sometimes those pieces don't have the vibrancy of people playing together in a room, so it's always good to have some contrast between the way the tracks on the record are created.

Apart from that, we do things by consensus. Two or three people will put down the foundation of something, and usually there'll be an overdubbing process, which can last anywhere from a couple of days to years, depending. And then it's just a matter of tightening up what's there and finding a direction for the sounds and for the mix in general.

Even though I'm dealing with the nuts and bolts of that, we're all making decisions collectively about the right general approach for a piece or how it should evolve. Everything is fair game as long as we like it and it sounds good or interesting. I guess it doesn't even have to sound “good”!

As I mentioned, one of the trends that's been happening with us in recent years is that we've been moving more toward approaching things from a writing perspective as opposed to a postproduction perspective. We're spending more time in the rehearsal space working on the arrangements beforehand, making sure that everybody has parts that they're happy with. If there's extra work that happens after that, fine, no problem, but it's more about having things that are compositionally sound rather than the old days of just looping one idea for 8 minutes and making a mix out of it.

With three percussionists in the group, is it necessary to leave space?

We all tend to hang back instinctively. It's very rare that there's a case where we're like “Oh, we're all playing too much.” Typically it's the opposite. It's funny, with Dan [Bitney] and Johnny [Herndon] and I, a lot of times we'll rotate through something one of us might be working on. One of us will start out playing a part and then say to another, “You know, why don't you try this? I think your feel would work better for this.” Then the next person will try it and say to the third person, “I don't know, why don't you try it?” [Laughs.] And eventually we get to a place where we've found the right person and the right feel for the tune. It just takes a little trial and error.

Dan, Johnny, and I [under the name Bumps] recently made a breakbeat record [Bumps; Stones Throw, 2007]. It's just the three of us doing drumbeats, and they run the spectrum from kind of trad funk/disco sounding to really, really freaked. But in both Bumps and Tortoise, the things we're working on now tend to be more about interplay, letting the parts breathe, and creating interesting counterpoint.

Let's talk briefly about how you set up to record at Soma, starting with drums.

Recording unusual instruments is one of McEntire''s specialties. Here, he''s miking a hammer dulcimer with a pair of small-diaphragm condensers.

The first consideration is whether we want it to be superdry or to have the possibility of utilizing room ambience, and that will dictate the physical location of the kit. In either case, I tend to prefer — and rely on — close-mic setups. In addition, I'll usually print more tracks than I need. Obviously there's a little bit of trial and error involved in every setup — swapping mics out and moving things around. And on rare occasions, I'll do a minimalist setup, with just two to four mics for the whole kit. It all depends on the song and how the artist and I foresee approaching the mix.

The choice of what mics I'll use depends on how the drums are tuned and the player's style. In general I tend to like condensers on snare and toms, unless we're talking about a really loud player or toms that are tuned very low. In either of those cases, I'd probably reach for dynamics from the get-go. For snare, I tend to like the Schoeps CMC6 with a hypercardioid capsule. That or an AKG C451 with a Blue Red C-12-style capsule. A dynamic mic that I really like on snare is the Sennheiser MD441, which is also hypercardioid. I find that pattern to be a big help. I think most people will agree that it's a constant battle to fight hi-hat spill in snare tracks. Shure SM57s will work in a pinch, and occasionally you'll get a particular drum that will sound really good with a 57. On the resonant side, I'm not too picky. I might use a microcondenser like an SM98, or a 441, or a 57.

In terms of overheads, I'll usually do some sort of stereo setup, either a single stereo mic such as a Neumann SM2 or an AKG C422, or a pair or whatever happens to seem most suitable given the situation. For a long time I just did a simple XY, crossed-cardioid setup, but lately I've been really fond of using an M-S pair for this application, as I like having the imaging options be more flexible during mixdown. In addition, I'll usually set up a spot mic on the ride and another on the hi-hat side, because sometimes it's helpful to have a little more definition on those elements.

Kick drum mics vary a lot. For a long time, on the batter side I would use a dynamic mic outside the drum, next to the pedal, pointed right at where the beater hits the head, and then I'd use a large-diaphragm condenser on the resonant side. Even if there was a hole in it, I'd put the mic on the head, not inside the drum. Recently, though, I picked up an AKG D12e, and I've been using that inside the shell, pointed where the beater hits the head, usually at a bit of an angle. I've been liking that a lot as a single source, or again sometimes with a condenser, placed a little further out. Occasionally I'll use a Yamaha Subkick instead of the condenser. It doesn't sound like much on its own, but it can add something really great in the mix. I've also used the Subkick on bass amps as well, blended with a mic or DI signal.

Over the years, I've used all the rooms here for recording drums, including the control room. In fact, all of the Sea and Cake records that we've done here (with the exception of the newest) had the drums tracked in the control room.

And sometimes I like to do little experiments. For instance, I might set up a mono mic somewhere weird, either somewhere out on the floor, or just over the player's shoulder, or way off in the corner somewhere. The idea being to capture something slightly unusual that might be useful later, either heavily processed or just to provide a strange representation of the kit that could be sent to a reverb, for example. Sometimes that's useful, but other than that, I usually stick to the tried-and-true 10- or 12-mic setup.

How do you go about recording electric guitar?

Usually I start with a standard combination of dynamic and ribbon mics, though of course it depends on the player, the amp volume, and overall sound. Most of the time, I'll have the two mics right next to each other, pointed at the middle of the cone, 4 or 5 inches away. Sometimes I'll use a distant mic, though not very often; for one reason or another I tend to use outboard gear for spatial processing. And sometimes I'll use a splitter and run two or three amps in parallel. Again, it depends on the song and the types of options we need to have available during mixdown.

McEntire''s keyboard analog-synth collection includes the Oxford Synthesiser Company OSCar, the Synton Syrinx, the Elka Synthex, and other classics, as well as digital instruments.

One thing I got recently that's really interesting is the Radial JDX. It's a DI that you put between the amp and the speaker, so you get a totally dry sound with all of the characteristics of the amp. The amplifier sees a reactive load on its output, so it behaves as if it's driving a speaker or network of speakers. The output of the box has a set of filters that mimics the frequency curve of a closed-back 4 × 12 enclosure. So it sounds exactly like a miked amp, except with zero ambience. It's extremely useful and also works well blended with a mic signal. They make another box that does phase adjustment, which lets you really tailor the way the DI and mic signals interact, but I actually don't own anything like that. I'm more inclined to just nudge tracks around in Pro Tools if needed, or try different combinations of reserving polarity.

I see you have the 2-inch machine. With almost everyone jumping ship on tape, I'm wondering if it still sees much use.

Not so much these days, and for a variety of reasons which we all know. I still enjoy using it, though. We used it for a Tortoise session recently and it sounds fantastic. In terms of my day-to-day work, apart from my own projects, the majority of what's been happening here is mixing sessions that were recorded elsewhere, and from an amazing variety of places: Japan, Europe, Australia, South America, and, of course, plenty of projects from all over the U.S. So almost everything comes in as files, and I do the work in Pro Tools. It certainly is easier now that Pro Tools has become the de facto DAW platform.

Once in a blue moon, somebody will want to mix a project that was tracked in [Apple] Logic or [Steinberg] Cubase, but that's pretty rare. If that's the case, I encourage them to print contiguous files so that I can work in Pro Tools. Occasionally we'll get sessions that need a lot of cleaning up and time-consuming maintenance work, but what's been coming in lately has gotten a lot better in terms of preparedness and overall quality.

Tell us how you approach the mixing process.

When I'm mixing, I'll send tracks out individually to the console, and I tend to use hardware processors as much as I can. But obviously, nowadays, sessions can get pretty dense, and when you have 60 or 80 tracks, you have to submix some things, which is fine for, say, backing vocals or percussion overdubs. Since I'm doing so much with the console levels and EQs, it can become a little tedious with recalls. But realistically, that aspect of it is no different than the world was before DAWs. The only difference is that nowadays everybody wants recalls, and they expect them to be instantaneous. So I spend a lot of time charting everything, and the recalls don't happen instantly!

When I use inserts for hardware processing, it's mainly for compression and EQ. We have a fair number of color compressors here that get used a lot, like the Gates SA-39, the “Federal” compressor, and the Spectra Sonics 610. Another box I really like — though it's not a compressor — is the Thermionic Culture Culture Vulture. It's very useful for applying a little — or a lot — of harmonic distortion. It has three different tube modes: triode and two different pentode modes. The great thing, though, is that you can adjust the amount of current (bias) that's hitting the tubes, so you can really choke them off, and you can get these kind of almost gated, dead, decayed sounds. Really useful. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Empirical Labs Distressor and how multifaceted that unit is, including the distortion functions.

In terms of effects, I went through a kind of renaissance recently with the Eventide Ultra-Harmonizer H3000. I decided I was going to try to make gated reverb work for me! There were a couple of projects I worked on — for instance, the Fiery Furnaces and Small Sins — where it made sense to incorporate those sounds, tucked in under everything else. I actually found it to be really effective. Though if two years ago you'd told me I'd be doing that, I probably wouldn't have believed you.

So you'll still go to a unit like the H3000, even though it's now possible to do similar things in software?

Well, I really like the sound of the H3000; it's got a unique timbre. I think the Eventide Factory plug-in is great also, but again they're pretty different beasts from a sonic perspective. One of the other things I really like on the H3000 is the Stutter algorithm. It takes small chunks of audio and either loops them or it flips them backward and loops them. It also randomly changes the pitch and length of the chunk. And what's really interesting is that it behaves as if it's applying this processing based on the content of the input signal. For instance, it does things that seem like they're in tempo, or based on a trigger threshold. So even though it's random, it tends to make sense musically. There's a good example of this effect on the Fiery Furnaces' song “Wicker Whatnots.” The GRM Tools Shuffling plug-in is basically the same concept, though it's more geared toward granular processing, whereas the Eventide tends to capture longer segments, in the 100 to 700 millisecond range, I would imagine.

Is there a lot of planning involved with your bands to make sure that you maintain sonic space in the mix?

With a band like the Sea and Cake, it's a pretty collaborative experience. If the guitar players know there's going to be some kind of brass or string arrangement going on, they're probably going to lay back a little bit. In terms of mixing, it's not really that difficult, assuming that the other players have left a space for it. Other than that, by simply applying whatever automation or EQ that you need to make it work, it's usually pretty straightforward.

If you're mixing someone else's project, do people mainly leave it to your discretion about how the synths and effects are used, or about whether you might run prerecorded tracks through various filters, etc.?

Some people leave it up to me, sure. And then there are others who are really knowledgeable about the gear and fairly specific about what they want. For instance, they might say, “Let's use the Fenix bandpass filter on the guitar in the bridge, CV'd from the ARP sequencer running at dotted eighths.” They'll just have a laundry list of things that they want, which is great. And other times, the direction can be really vague, like “Let's try to mangle this somehow.” It really runs the gamut.

Rich Wells oversees the Supreme Reality, a recording studio in Portland, Oregon. Visit his Web site atthesupremereality.org.