Sneak Peak: An Interview With Jon Hassell

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Hassell and Freeman in the Studio

Do you have a personal studio?
: No, not really. I just got conversant with [Digidesign] Pro Tools in the last year when I was working on this piece for a choral group in Norwich, England, in this beautiful cathedral. Peter will tell you the number of phone calls to him—what do I do here, what do I do there? That''s my first multitrack capability.

Everything else before, it started out with two Revoxes, kind of mirroring Terry Riley''s early setup. It was all about just putting sound on sound to make a sketch of something, and then getting into a studio and using that. When you say, “I''m going to make a sketch of this and I''ll do the real thing later,” often the sketch is the thing that has the vibe and is very difficult to achieve in another way. We''re always running into accidental things. Yesterday we had a sound check where there''s no pressure, and I said, “I''ve got this little cut beginning on my lip. I''m just going to hold back now.” But we did this great little three- or four-minute version of “Abu Gil,” a big track on the new record. Given the immediacy of super-high-fidelity stuff, we''ve become more smart about grabbing things as they happen, so Arnaud Mercier, the technical director and genius who does everything [with us live], is always recording multitrack, even when we''re doing sound checks.

Do you record those sketches directly into Pro Tools?
: It depends on what we''re doing. In France, we prearranged the entire session. Not a lot from that session got used in the final product, but there are elements. I work on a massive TDM system. Sometimes I''m using Pro Tools as the front end for it, sometimes I''m using [Apple] Logic, and occasionally I also like to use Ableton [Live] with the native audio drivers for certain things. In the context of this [album], it''s almost always in Pro Tools.

In France, the studio had a basic HD3 system, but it only had one or two interfaces, and we had large group, so we ordered a couple more interfaces. A lot of us had ADAT Lightpipe outputs, so we coordinated everyone to have complete digital connections into Pro Tools live at the same time. [We also had] a certain amount of analog because Rick [had some analog sources], and of course, Jon [was] coming in through his mic preamp. We had tons and tons of inputs all set up, so we could just go into record and everything [was] all broken out, all coming in on its own channel, all at once, all the time.

Did you decide going into the album that you were going to take that approach, or did it just evolve that way?
: It's just about what Jon wanted to accomplish musically and how we could do that. He'll say he'd like a certain kind of flavor and someone's contribution, and we can find something that musician did and usually make it work. Maarifa Street was an extreme case; the entire record was constructed from live performances of the same few pieces of music in different cities. You take a keyboard part [from] the Montreal performance, and then use the underlying track from a different city. You have these constant cut-and-paste hybridizations of different performances from different nights, as well as individual tracks from totally different pieces of music getting added into different contexts because they worked really well.

But we didn't really do that [on the latest album]. The basic foundations were there, whereas on the other record, sometimes the foundation of something was a programmed element, and combining that with one of two musicians' performance from a certain concert in Europe would be the basis. In this case, we had the France recordings, we had the London recordings, and I would add things. So it was a little more straightforward this time.

What kind of post-production processing did you use?
: My rig is kind of an octopus-like hybrid of old and new, analog and digital. It''s basically a massive Pro Tools HD3 with five [Digidesign] 192 I/O interfaces. The interfaces are there because I have a lot of outboard equipment—tube limiters, solid-state limiters, EQs, and things going all the way back to the ''40s. I don''t like dealing with patchbays because it''s a huge, slow nightmare. I prefer to have everything normalled into the interfaces; I never have to patch anything. The only thing I have to do is occasionally write down knob settings on the old equipment. There are some Neve 1081s, my beloved Compex limiter, Altec 438C (which is fantastic), UA-175B (another classic, kind of a Beach Boys limiter), and there''s more exotic stuff than that. It also extends into the realm of timelessly good digital outboard equipment. I have a Lexicon PCM 90, PCM 81, [TC Electronic] TC 2290, Eventide H8000; I use all those things pretty much all the time.

Occasionally, of course, there''s the whole plug-in world. I tend to stay 95% TDM. The record went pretty smoothly, and I never ran out of DSP the whole time. Part of that, I have to give credit to the Waves SSL plug-ins. I like the way they sound, and they are amazingly DSP-efficient. On this record, there was not a ton of dynamics processing going on, a little bit of EQ, but I wasn't going crazy with compression; it wasn''t necessary. I don't do any plug-in reverbs—in my view, nobody''s got that right yet—and almost no plug-in delays.

Occasionally I''ll dip into the native side, because there are some very useful plug-ins that are most easily accessible in the native world. I''ll bring things into Ableton and process them with a number of plug-ins, including [Cycling ''74] Pluggo, record the results, and take it back into Pro Tools. There are other plug-ins I like to use, like Native Instruments Spektral Delay, which is sadly discontinued but wonderful and irreplaceable. Sound Toys, I absolutely recommend to anyone. Ken [Bogdanowicz] is brilliant and has the best ears in the whole plug-in business, and a more profound understanding of true classic vintage outboard gear than any other plug-in developer in history. He''s really the king, in my opinion.

Occasionally [I''ll put] plug-ins on hardware effects returns. As an example, on the track “Blue Period,” the guitar parts went through a patch on the Eventide H8000, and I had one of them coming back through GRM Tools Doppler—many years old, but used properly, still very useful. That kind of thing goes on all the time. Plug-ins are great for radical stuff, as well as subtle things.

I haven't quite gotten over the fact that what I'm able to do at home just makes things so much more relaxed, instead of having to pay tons and tons of money to do the same thing in a much shorter space of time.