The Making of the Moon

Brian Deck expounds on migrant recording and his role in Modest Mouse's major-label debut The Moon and Antarctica.For the past ten years or so, drummer
Author:
Publish date:

Brian Deck expounds on migrant recording and his role in Modest Mouse's major-label debut The Moon and Antarctica.

For the past ten years or so, drummer Brian Deck has played or produced some of the Midwest's more adventurous pop music. Much of Deck's work bears the imprint of Chicago, the enormous city he calls home. Possessed by a surreal, grizzled sense of Americana, Deck's work evokes the clangor of the Windy City's meatpacking district at the turn of the century.

Idful Music, the studio he helped design and build in the early 1990s, spawned quite a few notable records (such as Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville) and made names for engineers such as Brad Wood and John McEntire. Deck worked there while making records and touring with his band, Red Red Meat, which was signed to Seattle's Sub Pop label. He later left Idful and recorded bands such as cult legend Souled American in spaces ranging from bandoned social halls to cramped living rooms. After Red Red Meat made its experimental final album, 1998's There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight, its members formed a bevy of satellite projects - Califone, Loftus, Orso, and Sin Ropas - that took the former band's sound to new, more elemental ends.

The new groups' albums were recorded and released by the Perishable Records label, run by percussionist Ben Massarella and guitarist Tim Rutili (both Red Red Meat alumni). After securing space in an apartment building early last year - less than a hundred yards from Comiskey Park - Perishable set up shop next to Deck's new Clava Studios, built into a converted five-car parking garage.

Clava exists in large part to record Perishable artists. (As of this writing, 16 albums have been released.) Its first project, however, was recording indie phenomenon Modest Mouse's third album and Epic Records debut. Consisting of Isaac Brock (guitar, vocals), Eric Judy (bass), and Jeremiah Green (drums), Modest Mouse amassed a large and devoted audience drawn to the band's caffeinated sets and Brock's tumbling lyrics and raucous behavior. Modest Mouse's earlier recordings were more straightforward affairs, but for its latest offering, The Moon and Antarctica, Deck gave the band the Clava treatment. I recently spoke with Deck at his studio about the new record and some of the audio tricks up his sleeve.

After leaving Idful in 1992, you made a niche for yourself in Chicago by recording bands in homes or practice spaces. How long were you out and about?

After taking a good couple years off, I started working with borrowed or rented gear. Star Above the Manger was recorded that way; I just used a really awful old PA board for mic pres. In spite of equipment frustrations, I found that the bands I recorded were always at their most comfortable in their own place, and you could hear that in the recordings. So when we started buying the gear for Clava we made sure it would travel easily.

We were kind of itinerant for the first year and a half or so, and the first semipermanent place we set up in was a really cool old social hall in Pilsen, a Southside Chicago neighborhood. It wasn't exactly a legal space; the owners had a deal with City Hall where, if they didn't rent out anything, they wouldn't have to pay property tax. They had begun renovation on the place, but for whatever reason stopped midway and eventually we were able to get in.

There was an empty 2,500-capacity theater with a 50-foot ceiling and nothing in it - no carpet, no seats. They had started to sheetrock the place, which was a disaster because the theater had really beautiful old plaster work. They'd hung all the wires to put a hung ceiling but never got around to finishing. So basically it was this enormous, open, raw reverb chamber with a 5-second decay time on it.

Souled American was one of the bands that came in there to record. They have more of a dedication to vibe and performance than anyone I've ever worked with, and you can totally hear it on their records. I love that; it can be trying on your patience if you're the guy sitting in the control room. But during the course of three records I got it.

But it's kind of like the story of Prince making everyone wait on the set of Purple Rain for hours until he was in the right mood to perform the song, and then he'd do it in one take, the take that you see in the movie. And that's kind of how Souled American were: they would wait and wait, and try the song, and work at it, and hang out. Finally they'd get the perfect performance. I don't think they've ever released a song that wasn't all that it could have been. Most people don't have that dedication; a lot of people feel the clock ticking away.

What kind of projects are you getting now that you're in the new space?

Modest Mouse was the first band to record in the new location; it wasn't even finished when they arrived. Since then, we've done a few other projects for other bands, maybe close to a dozen. But at least 75 percent of what I do is for Perishable. It's one big happy family in a way because no matter who's working, the label's right across the hall, and probably most of the people in the other room are going to come in here and play on it. That happened with Modest Mouse: Ben played on it, Tim [Rutili, Deck's band-mate from Red Red Meat and Califone], my assistant Greg played on it, I played on it.

What's your usual method of tracking?

Depends a little bit on what I'm tracking for. I don't have any outboard mic pres, so I use the ones in my Amek Big console. If I'm tracking a whole band, generally we've got the bass amp in the small iso booth, one or two guitars in the large iso booth, and the drums in the big room. That way, we can have dedicated room mics for the drums. I'll usually take it onto the 3M M79 first if the band wants to spend the money on tape.

But usually we'll track basics to tape and fit whatever overdubs we can onto it. Then I like to bounce all of it into Pro Tools in sync, so I'll use one of the 16 tracks for SMPTE. That way, if we decide later on to mix the drums from the analog tape, it'll be synched to the Pro Tools file.

Beyond the basic tracking and maybe one or two guitar overdubs, pretty much everything else happens inside of Pro Tools. I don't like to shuttle tape anymore; it's so immediate with the computer. I've seen that people I work with, too, really enjoy the immediacy of saying, "Aw, that was a crappy take," knowing that they can start again right away before they get cold, while their part is still fresh in their minds. Command + Period, Command + Spacebar, and you're ready to go.

If I'm tracking drums for a loop, I'll usually do that with just a couple of microphones. And just for the ease of working with the sample, I'll usually track that type of thing directly into Pro Tools.

One thing that I do is use default technical methods. I don't have a huge budget, but I have a very defined selection of microphones. I know them very well, what they sound good on. I don't ever EQ anything to tape unless I'm going for a really screwed-up effect. The only things I usually compress to tape are bass and vocals. But I don't much mind tape compression and tape saturation.

Do your clients?

Very occasionally. I tend to print acoustic guitars pretty hot, and sometimes when I'm mixing something, I'll have the acoustic soloed. Once in a while someone hears the saturation and wonders why it's so hot. I'll usually say something like, "I'm sorry if you didn't notice or if I didn't point it out before, but here's how it sounds in the mix." Usually people are pretty happy about how it sounds that way. A hot acoustic guitar on tape lends a nice, aggressive sound to things, which I like to have even if I'm working with a slow, quiet ballad.

So I have these default engineering things that I do. That means I don't necessarily need to hear something through the control room speakers, completely isolated from the room where the performer is playing, for a solid 15 minutes in order to know that I'm ready to go. I just set up one of the microphones in my collection that I know is going to work well, get a good level, and we're off and running.

Do you have a default method for drum miking?

I do. My mic selection is more limited now than when I was at Idful. At Clava I use an Audio-Technica ATM25 for inside the kick drum, sometimes an AKG 414 or a Neumann KM 86 for the outside. I might also use a Coles 4038, which is good for some kick drums. Then I have a pair of Sony C-37s - solid-state mics - for the toms. I love those on toms; I don't have to EQ them, ever. They just come out sounding perfect.

I've never met the perfect snare mic. I've got some old Altec Lansing thing that's more or less an AKG 451 with a built-in pad that's okay, especially for a tight snare. Sometimes I'll use it in conjunction with an SM57 on the top. More often than not, I'll use a 57 on the bottom.

Three mics on the snare?

Sometimes. But I'm big on this "no EQ" thing, so it's blending and getting the phase just right so that the mics are all affecting each other in the right way.

For the overheads, right now I'm using a Shure VP88, a stereo microphone. It's an all-in-one M-S mic, and you can adjust the width of the stereo field. It puts out a left and a right signal, or you can switch it so that it's giving you the cardioid and the bidirectional separately, if you want to matrix it yourself.

I'll use a beyerdynamic M160 on the hi-hat. I also have an old Universal lavaliere mic, an unbalanced output mic that I like to use for the hi-hat. I like to go for a rich, crunchy signal because I already get a lot of hi-hat sizzle from the overhead. A lot of times I'll use just the hi-hat mic at some points in a mix for a weird drum sound.

For a room mic, it's often 4038s, sometimes 414s. I've experimented with different placements trying to figure out what's best in this room, and what seems to be best is two mics 10 or 15 feet out in an equilateral triangle from where the drummer is sitting. Either they'll be pointing at the drums or pointing on either side past the drums. But it's weird - almost by happenstance, we built a live room that's pretty even sounding. It almost doesn't matter where you put the room mics out there, the sound will be very similar unless you do something extremely radical like up near the ceiling pointed toward the corners of the room.

How about guitar miking? Will you put up several mics at different distances from the amps?

If I'm doing a rock band, there's generally two guitars. I'll try to listen to how they interact while we're doing basics, and when we go to do overdubs, I can then accentuate the difference between them. We've got the 4038s and the M160s, both of which are great-sounding ribbon mics for guitars. I usually use one of the ribbons on each amp, and then I'll enhance it with a 57, which I really like.

I've used that lavaliere on guitar amps, and it's an interesting sound if the amp isn't too loud. It won't take a high SPL. I'll usually do the off-axis thing, sort of out at the edge of the cone, more or less pointing toward the center. Kind of close, maybe four inches off the cone. We have a collection of old, crappy garage sale mics, all of which have their own charm.

Sometimes I'll use an M160 and a 57 the same distance away from two different cones on the cabinet. That usually makes for good sound with no phase problems.

Do you ever put another mic in back of the cabinet and reverse the phase?

I used to do that all the time at Idful. You ever see the old Altec ribbon mic that also had a crystal element in it? It has a screwdriver-set switch that set the way the two were matrixed together. That sounded great in the back of a Fender amp. I haven't done that kind of thing lately; I should probably get back to that. I guess most of the people I've worked with lately have had closed-back cabinets.

It makes for a great, unreal sound when you pan the two signals hard left and right.

Almost any pair of mics can be used to introduce some kind of phase problem and produce a great effect. You might have a really cohesive mix going, but you want something to really snap the listener out of it. You throw in something like that, and it really calls attention to itself.

The Moon and Antarctica has a lot of production touches that are a far cry from earlier Modest Mouse recordings. Had the band worked with synths or MIDI, or done heavy-duty production much before?

Not much - it was a bass-guitar-drums, analog-tape, quick-overdub-and-mix kind of a band. But the band members were definitely interested in production, and Isaac in particular really gained a handle on the possibilities. By the end of making the record, he was able to mastermind some cool maneuvers with plug-ins and Pro Tools. Shifting things back and forth, flipping parts around backwards; he was getting good at knowing what he wanted to hear and knowing how to express it. It wasn't so much that he was mixing, but he could look at a song, understand the musical event that he wanted to make happen, understand the tools at his disposal, relate it in a way that I could understand, and make it happen pretty quickly. That helps you to get a good working rhythm.

We didn't use much MIDI at all for this record. There were parts where we wanted to sprinkle a little piano onto a track. I'd hook up the Kurzweil K2500 and record a MIDI track in Pro Tools, just in case we wanted to edit it. But in the end we just used the original recorded track.

Actually, most of the technologically tricky stuff that we did was in editing. Once any band I work with finishes recording on tape, we bounce the basics into the computer. What I'll frequently do - almost by default at this point - is to make a tempo map in Pro Tools. You just set your cursor wherever you want and hit Command + I. A dialog box comes up, and you can say this is bar-whatever, beat-whatever, and the time signature is thus and so. It'll take that and calculate a beat map for however many different markers need to be in there.

I pretty much put a marker on the first beat of every bar throughout the song, which is extremely tedious, but you get a really precise map, and you can export that as a tempo map into [Emagic's] Logic Audio, so that all your MIDI files will chase your live band performance perfectly. It also gives you a really accurate editing grid.

The main reason I do this is to avoid playing to a click track. I can't think of a single band that I've worked with that uses one, and I don't like them, either. A click-track recording usually just doesn't breathe; most people can't play to them and still sound human. And Chicago isn't a click-track kind of a town. So if I can get your MIDI stuff to chase a live-band performance, that's going to be the most natural-sounding thing you can get.

I may come up with a loop, but I don't necessarily ReCycle it and SCSI it over to the K2500. I'll just make a simple audio loop, define a region, and stick it into the song. I have the bars and beats defined, and if the tempo of the band moves one way or the other, throwing the loop off for a bar or two, I can just time stretch it. It's usually a very small amount. That's about the level of intensity we were working at with Modest Mouse.

All of your equipment resides in road cases. Do you travel much with it?

We intended to be a mobile studio because, prior to some of the recent big jobs we've done here, I'd been doing a lot of recording at places other than studios. I always enjoyed it, and it seemed to me that the bands turned in some really great performances because they felt comfortable in their surroundings and didn't have to worry about what every hour in a proper studio would cost them.

Here's the funny thing: ever since we got the portable system together, everyone's wanted to work at the studio. I haven't had a session yet where someone wanted me to bring this out to a live show or to their practice space or to their house or anything.

Even so, the rig is designed to set up and tear down easily; the whole process only takes about four hours. And the nice thing about the way it's designed now is that as long as you're willing to lug every piece of gear wherever it is you're going, you'll have it all.

Except possibly separate rooms and isolation.

Right, although the isolation we can get here was, to a good extent, built for the sake of pleasing Epic records. I was doing my first major label project [the Modest Mouse album]; I knew it was going to be ugly and that it would freak them out. I didn't want them to have the extra added thing to freak out about: "Oh, well, you don't have isolation."

As it turned out, Matt Marshall, the Epic A&R guy, came out and he was super cool. Coming from the indie world, I was wary of having a major-label A&R guy on the premises while making a record. But as it turned out, he was great to work with.

So all in all, the label wasn't concerned with separation?

Maybe not. I don't know. I'm certainly not that concerned about it. The first place we were in - the ballroom I was telling you about - had a number of closets along one wall. It was fairly sizable, but there was no sound isolation built in, just a door that would close. And we'd just shove amps into there and close the door partially. If you wanted more bleed, you could just open the door a little. For the control room, we set up the equipment in another room. There was no window, everything was done through talkback mics and headphones. We were just a door away - we could yell at them too. [Laughing.]

But in all other situations, the sort of location recordings, I've been in the same room. For the Orso record, we had the whole system set up in Ben Massarella's living room, and that's where we did most of the recording. We started the record on 11/44-inch Fostex 8-track, and it turned out we had a bad batch of tape. We started losing big piles of oxide, and we freaked out and bounced the whole thing on the ADAT, doing a few more tracks and finishing it on the ADAT. Audible glitches are in there that happened because we'd lost chunks of audio, but we went with it. It turned out to be "manipulation." I'm all about turning f superscript *** ups into art.

In any case, it's not too much of a problem for me to be in the same room with a band recording. I don't know how other people do it; I know a couple of large, very nice facilities in Nashville are built on that model. [Peter Gabriel's] Real World studios is that way, too. Huge SSL, great big room.

If you're tracking in the same room, without the isolation of a control room, do you spend a lot of time making sure you're not distorting or having phase problems?

I'll spend a little more time setting levels if I'm going straight to Pro Tools, because you need to max out the levels to get the bit depth, but if I'm going to tape, I'll be a little bit more slovenly.

Assuming your mic pre or your board has some kind of reliable overload indicator on it, and you can see your meters on your tape machine and on your buses, you pretty much know whether you're overloading. If you're working with analog tape, you know that if you're printing a tambourine or a triangle track, you can't go up above -7 or -5 Db. You just get to know these things, and I don't record a little bit, listen back, change the level. It just isn't worth that much screwing with. Usually people are much more interested in getting going and working out their ideas instead of asking, "Oh, is there 0.01 percent distortion on my signal, and did I really mean to have 0.03 percent?"

When it comes to phase stuff, that's the hairiest thing when you're trying to work in the same room with musicians. The drum phase relationships, you have to check that stuff. And the thing is, if you're in that situation, you're probably working with a Mackie or something like it that has no phase buttons. You have to solder up a bunch of phase-reversing adapters for yourself, and you're not going to be able to fix it when you mix.

So you need to watch the two kick drum mics in relationship to each other, the two or three snare mics in relationship to each other, that kind of thing. You watch the tom mics and the snare mics and possibly the kick mics as they relate to the overheads, all of those mics as they relate to the room mics. If you know that all your microphones have the same wiring, the mic cables have the same wiring, and the wiring between the board and the mic pres and the tape machine have the same, proper phase relationship - in other words, if you have perfect phase going on - then there's a little less to worry about. So I check all that stuff. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of the mixing later on.

You mentioned earlier that you sometimes record drums in stereo straight to Pro Tools if you're making a loop. Do you give much consideration to the reverb characteristics of the room, or try to prevent the loop from sounding "unnatural"?

I'm not a huge fan of "natural." I like to record drums well, but after that I tend to really manipulate stuff, and sometimes if there's a really noticeable ring to the drums in the room, and that ring in the sample gets cut off, I get into it.

Would you try to enhance something like that?

Yeah, constantly. With Califone, and some of the other bands I'm directly involved in, we like to start out with something as natural as possible. We like to have hands on the instruments, and amps moving air, and picking all that up with a microphone. But beyond that, the signal will frequently find its way through several guitar stomp boxes and be heavily compressed or gated beyond reason before it gets mixed.

Do you often get involved in producing, or even playing and directing things when you're working with a band?

A lot of people, especially in this town, have the mindset that the best way to produce a record is to keep your dirty mitts off of it. Just do a really good recording, kind of a photorealist approach. Capture what the band sounds like and hand that back to them; that's all you're supposed to do. But I've never really enjoyed that; it's not fun. I guess that someone might say that you're not supposed to have fun; it's not about having fun. But I'm not going to do something that isn't fun for a living for the rest of my life. So, in order to keep it fun for me, I'll get involved. I'll go to rehearsals with the band before they're ready to come in. I try to get demo tapes, and we'll talk about songs and arrangements.

They might have a song ready to perform live, and we'll talk about how they might do it. You know, these are all the boxes you step on in the various parts of the song, but for a recording of that song we try to get a deeper understanding of the song, to pull out each section separately. You don't have to do this the same way as you would with a live performance, so how can it be better represented? The musical idea in your head - maybe it isn't a guitar part; maybe it's a completely different guitar, amplifier, room, microphone. We try to plan ahead like that. I'll even mess with people's lyrics - there's no end to what suggestions I'll make. I think that, contrary to popular opinion, that is your job. Your job is to point out every possibility you can that isn't too distracting from the making of the record, or you're not giving people what they're paying for.

That actually reminds me of something we came up with when we were making the Loftus record - I like to come up with variations on this idea any chance I get. Loftus was Red Red Meat plus Rex [a band from New York, and friends of RRM], plus Bundy K. Brown [member of Tortoise and several other Chicago groups]. A couple of the Rex guys had come to town the month before we started recording, and we had maybe four songs prepared for the record when they arrived. We had ten days to make the record, so we needed to come up with a bunch of material. We put everyone's name in a hat, and we would draw three or four names and send the squad into the room. They'd have ten minutes from the time the door closed to come up with something, perform it, and record it.

We played this game all day long for the first day, and it's extremely stimulating. We started coming up with all kinds of stuff, and ideas were flowing so quickly. And every pairing of people was different. We had a couple sampling/delay pedals, and the one other rule we had was that if someone left a loop going when they left the room, the next squad had to use it. So we ended up with a few songs that were pieced together from different jams and different people.

We'd mix the different sections as stereo mixes and throw them into [Tim] Hurley's computer, which was the only computer setup we had at that point. We were working with Steinberg's WaveLab, and we'd piece together the song in the computer and dump it back onto tape and finish overdubbing. Generally, everything synched because the parts came from the same loops, but occasionally we'd have to time-correct the loops a bit if we jammed two different loops together.

Sometimes things would be in the right rhythm, but maybe the key would be off from one loop to the next. But instead of applying pitch shifting, we'd find some sort of compositional solution, modulating, basically, to make it sound okay. It's a weird way of working but it's a great game.

Did you do that at all with Modest Mouse?

It was mostly straightforward with them. But in lieu of having the liberty or the time to play that particular game, instead of being specific sometimes about an overdub idea, I'd suggest to the band, "This idea is too organized. You need to go choose an instrument you've never played before and come up with something right away." Or, "This is really even. Think about prime numbers and go try this again." You know, just ridiculous things, "oblique strategies" and other Brian Eno-type things to say to them to trigger a different way of thinking.

There are a lot of different variations and mind games that you can play on yourself and other people in the studio, just to grease the wheels; even if nothing comes of it directly, it can be that mental colonic that people need.

People sometimes consider studio construction and design to be voodoo, but actually it's really easy stuff. The information you need is readily available. I used the book Master Handbook of Acoustics by F. Alton Everest when we built Idful, and we used an Excel spreadsheet to work out the dimensions of the room for the acoustics.

Your space is always finite. We weren't trying to allocate the space. It just so happened that at Idful there were two ceiling heights and support members in a couple spots, which all defined where the control room and the live room would be. We just wanted to know the right dimensions so we didn't have multiple room resonances.

The Everest book has an equation in which you enter height, width, and depth dimensions to calculate the room's mode. Most of the resonance problems are going to be down below 300 Hz. So this equation shows you distribution of room resonances, and what you're trying to do is get them to be equally distributed. You can make sure, for example, that you don't have a general decay time in your room of 0.8 second, but it takes 3 seconds for 160 cycles to go away. That's a problem.

For Idful, I did basic calculations for a rectangular room with parallel walls. But the Everest book points out that you need an offset of 1 foot for every 10 feet of wall, which will give you completely nonparallel surfaces along the walls. As soon as you offset your walls, which I did, you're changing your dimensions. You don't know exactly what you're doing to your room resonances because you're randomizing them, but if you've covered your basic dimensions using the calculations, you'll be okay. For Clava, we made sure that the height, width, and depth were not divisible by the same number, and that the wall offset was correct. It turned out great.