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Then & Now: Mission of Burma - EMusician

Then & Now: Mission of Burma

There’s no other rock band in the world that sounds like Mission of Burma. Abrasive yet melodic, loud and soothing, Burma were formed in Boston, 1979, by Roger Miller (guitar), Clint Conley (bass), and Peter Prescott (drums), and later joined by tape manipulator/soundman Martin Swope.
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The group released two 45s, an EP (Signals, Calls, and Marches), and an LP (Vs.) in their initial time together, all of which were produced by Richard W. (Rick) Harte and released on his own Ace of Hearts Records. Disbanding in 1983, mostly due to the tinnitus that had worsened in Miller’s ears, the group inexplicably reformed in 2001 (with engineer and one time Prescott band mate and Albini familiar, Bob Weston stepping in for the absent Swope), releasing a new album, ONoffON, on Matador in 2004 while continuing to sporadically perform live.

In comparing Vs. with ONoffON, there are similar sets of circumstances in the recording process for both (24-track analog) and differences as well (22 years, the advent of digital technology). In discussions with Miller, Conley, Prescott, Harte, and Weston, an attempt was made to bridge the two albums and link the Burma of then with the Burma of now.

Then


Vs.
Produced by Richard W. Harte.
Recorded: January – April 1982, Normandy Sound, Warren, R.I.;
Engineer: Phil Adler;
Mixed: Soundtrack, Boston, MA.
Engineer: John Kiehl;
Mastered by Ted Jensen at Sterling Sound.
Released: Summer 1982

Roger Miller: We tried to capture the live thing on Vs., but, quite clearly, we captured something else.

Clint Conley: We were going for the Goldilocks approach: The 45 was overproduced, the Signals EP was underproduced. We were looking for something that would go well with oyster crackers.

Peter Prescott: That whole notion that something can’t express a punk rock sentiment unless it sounds like lo-fi is the biggest pile of crap. I mean, the Sex Pistols record . . . that’s one of the most produced records I’ve ever heard. No record that Burma ever made was particularly lo-fi, and I think what we were looking for was how to make it more intense.

Rick Harte: The band was very loud at this point. Not Blue Cheer loud, but loud. I wanted an environment where these tones could be recorded and where the ambient information would be available, so the idea was to record the room and to record the band, and the way to do this was in a big, accurate room. On every record, my first goal is to maintain as much low-end on the record as possible, because on the songs that I like, they have gigantic low-end and it’s exciting to see the room shake when you play them. The idea is you want to feel the kick drum and feel the bass, not just hear it. I think I lost track of that goal a little on Vs., but I gained everything else.

RM: With Rick fully in line with our thoughts, we all recorded in the same room with limited baffles between the instruments so there was plenty of bleed.

RH: Bleed is music, and bleed is a good thing.

RM: We recorded the songs in five-song sets, in a row like we did live, so sometimes songs would interconnect. After a couple of those five-song sets, we’d see what was a keeper. Then we’d do another five-song set until we either got keepers for everything we wanted, or got fed up with ourselves.

RH: The setup was basically everything. [The band] would be set up to simulate the live performance so that the band members would be in the same proximity to each other as they were live to create this comfort. [At] Normandy, I was told that it would not work, and I became angry because at that point no one would have dared say that to me. If I had brought zebras out in the room and put mics under them, people would go, “this would probably work”. But Phil [Adler] didn’t agree with it, and he was bucking the system all along. The floor tom did not get recorded. The machine showed the floor tom being recorded, with the levels, but it was probably the bleed. The bottom line was there wasn’t a floor tom on there.

RM: When we mixed, Pete had to overdub some floor tom parts because they were inaudible. But, on the other hand, it gave the whole mess a certain edge.

RH: As time went on, I really respected what Martin Swope did, and I realized how revolutionary his work had been. But initially, I bucked it, because in the studio it was an overdub, an afterthought. He would put his loops on the records often during the mixes. I was not as open minded as I could have been or should have been about his role. If I had been, and had been embracing it more, I would have demanded or asked to find a way to have the loops generated during the recording process, which was more what happened on ONoffON. I wish Martin had said, “we should be doing these things while this goes down.” It never came up. In the end, though, the recording was exactly what it should have been, and it was Phil and the other engineers that were working in the studio who came in and asked to take the pictures (of the setup) when they heard what it sounded like.

Now

ONoffON
Produced by Mission of Burma.
Production assistance by Richard W. Harte;
Recorded and mixed October/December 2003 at Q Division, Somerville, MA, by Bob Weston;
Mastered by Ted Jensen at Sterling Sound;
Released: 2004

Bob Weston: We were just setting out to make a good record. There was no agenda to try and recreate or distance ourselves from the old recordings. It was the band (including me) and Rick in the studio. I was the engineer. We all produced it. Rick helped as an extra set of ears, and as a production link to the old recordings. We were just recording Burma . . . they sound how they sound. I suppose that both my particular studio techniques and my having listened to the old Burma records millions of times influenced how ONoffON came out.

RM: Bob is a fairly adamant analog guy, though he knows how to use digital technology very well. Digital or not is not an issue to me — as long as the A to D is good. I consider that it’s getting less and less important. However, I support the analog-o-philes in their quest for quality.

RH: I was blown away by how good Bob was, engineer-wise. I didn’t know if it was going to work out or if I would feel like an extra because of the situation, but he was the one that initially asked me to become involved. I felt really good about my contribution, and when I finished doing it, I felt I had really been on.

BW: I thought Rick’s input would be valuable and would add some continuity to the band’s recorded output. He wasn’t there every minute, but he was there for a lot of it and his comments really helped: mixing comments, as well as helping to pick takes during basic tracking and vocal overdubbing. I made all technology decisions: amp locations, mics, preamps, routing, tape choice-speed-EQ-levels, control room monitors, drum tuning, etc.

RH: We worked as a team on it. I produced a lot of the vocals, and it was very, very aggressive. And the band permitted me to be very brutal, meaning that they seemed very open to it and I was able to push the envelope on making the vocals as good as possible.

RM: It’s what it is, and it’s good, as far as I can tell. There was nothing we could have done in a natural fashion that would have made it sell more or less copies. As usual, we didn’t care that much. We had another agenda, and that was to bring Mission of Burma back to life on a recording as gracefully and accurately as possible. It seems that we didn’t fail miserably.

CC: I finally got a good bass sound — I like the way Peter and I toil together in the dark, sub-intelligent regions while Roger showcases his fabulousness.

PP: The least produced record we’ve done by a huge stretch is ONoffON. I think the biggest fear Weston had was screwing with it, so his hands are off of that. So, Rick was there, but essentially it’s not produced. I understand that to everybody else it does sound produced, but who knows, maybe the other records we made before weren’t that produced either.

Burmese Materiel Then

Vs.
Roger Miller:
Two Fender Lead I guitars, 50-watt Marshall combo amp. Vacu-Fuzz and Vacu-Trem. Cornet, Piano.

“I started off using a Big Muff Pi,” says Roger Miller, “but, as is often common with Electro-Harmonix, their units’ quality varies with time. Its volume didn’t work for me around 1980, so (producer) Lou Giordano was recruited to build a better fuzztone mousetrap. He took apart the Big Muff Pi and proceeded to obliterate it with the “Vacu-Fuzz” (titled because Lou had played in a band called the Vacuum Heads). I also had been using a terrible Peavey Guitar amp (it’s used on the first 45) that had tremelo. When Clint wrote “Tremelo” while I had that amp, the tremelo effect became a major part of the song. So when I bought the Marshall 50-watt and it didn’t have tremelo, Lou was recruited again for the Vacu-Trem. He cranked that baby up to the max also — at slow tremelo it almost sounds like a delay (“Trem Two”). At all knobs on 11 it does a weird amplitude modulation that sounds like six or seven guitars all playing microtones apart. Truly bizarre. (When I was in No Man, I had Bob Weston modify the “speed” pot so that it could be run by a volume pedal — I use that effect on the Burma song “Max Ernst’s Dream”). ‰

Clint Conley: Fender Jazz bass. Rick Harte states that Conley was using a Sunn setup for his bass rig, but to quote Conley: “I hope I wasn’t using that hideous fuzzy Ampeg solid-state thing that I used live . . . can’t honestly tell.”

Peter Prescott: 22" Slingerland drum kit (green), 22" kick, 12", 13", and 18" toms, Slingerland snare drum, Ludwig Ghost drum pedal, two Zildjian cymbals plus Zildjian hi-hat.

Martin Swope: Braun two-speed reel-to-reel tape deck.

“Martin used a Braun tape deck that had two speeds probably, says Miller. “During soundcheck, he would cut three or four tape loops, a couple feet or so in length (circular, of course, once he taped them together). They would always be blank. During a performance, he would record material while the band was playing a song — usually these bits would be pre-worked out (a vocal bit, drum hits, guitar noise, etc.). Then, while we went on playing, he would feed this back into the mix at the appropriate time: Sometimes he had twisted the tape half-over to make it play backward, or drop or raise the speed the tape was playing at, whatever was appropriate. Sometimes he would use the tape recorder as a slap-back echo. One nice feature of the Braun is that when you changed speeds on the fly, it would “glissando” down or up to the next chosen speed. Thus the slowing down of the vocal loop at the end of “Red”. Sometimes the composer of the song would have an idea for Martin, and sometimes he’d come up with an idea and clear it with us. When we approached Bob Weston to fill Martin’s position, we told him he could use current digital technology (which accomplishes Martin’s antics in an easier fashion). However, Bob opted for maintaining the original integrity, and used a tape deck (an Otari MX-5050). Bob learned Martin’s parts as a starting point, but has added a lot of his own gestures, especially in the new songs.

Normandy Sound (Recording):
Rick Harte: “Normandy had a larger array of mics, plate reverb, a tile room, an LA2A, and good compressors.”

Board: MCI
Tape machine: MCI 2" 24-track running Ampex 456 at 30 IPS, Pultech EQs.
Recording: Breakdown of the master reels and what microphone was used per track/instrument:

01: Kick drum in (Sennheiser 421)
02: Kick drum out (AKG D12)
03: Snare drum top (Shure SM81)
04: Snare drum bottom (Neumann KM84)
05: Hi-hat (AKG 414)
06: Toms (Sennheiser 421)
07: Toms (Sennheiser 421)
08: Overhead Left (AKG 414)
09: (Not used initially, but later for floor tom and other overdubs)
10: Overhead Right (AKG 414)
11: Bass (mic) (Neumann U84)
12: Bass DI
13: Guitar (Sennheiser 421 & Shure SM57)
14: Roger Miller vocal (Neumann KM84)
15: Peter Prescott vocal (Shure SM81)
16: Clint Conley vocal (Neumann KM84)
17: (Not used initially but used later for overdubs)
18: (Not used initially but used later for overdubs)
19: (Not used initially but used later for overdubs)
20: (Not used initially but used later for overdubs, often Martin Swope’s tape loops)
21: (Not used initially but used later for overdubs)
22: Ambient (Neumann U87)
23: Ambient (Sony C500)
24: (Not used initially but used later for overdubs, often Martin Swope’s tape loops)

Soundtrack (Mixing):
Rick Harte: “We didn’t mix at Normandy because it was too far from Boston. They wanted us to, but the idea of driving down there was like driving into a black hole. I still don’t even know where the place is. I’ve been down there hundreds of times. It was out in the middle of nowhere, but the idea of going down there was kinda dreadful. It was hard to tell them that, I used to say it was too far.”

Board: Neve with Neve modules.
Tape machine:
Studer A800 2" 24-track running at 30 IPS to Studer 1/4" 2-track, Pultech EQ’s.
Effects:
1176 compressors, DBX, slap reverb, spring reverb, and EMY plates.
Sterling Sound (Mastering):
Mastering:
Ted Jensen’s custom Neve board. Mastered to Studer A80RC 1/4" with convertible heads running at 30 IPS with no noise reduction.

Burmese Materiel Now


ONoffON

Roger Miller: Fender Lead I guitar with a hotrails-type pickup. 1960’s Kay guitar with a hotrails type pickup. (RM: “This guitar, named ‘Mr. Science’ after the gentleman in Madison, WI, who conjured it up for me, is tuned unorthodoxly: There are three low E strings (48’s) tuned to low E, and three G strings (17’s) tuned to G#.”), Burns Steel guitar with two pickups, Brownsville Thug with two Alinico pickups, Danelectro baritone guitar (RM: “Both Clint and I used this, as a doubling instrument. Perhaps that’s why the sound is too thick even for me at times!”), Marshall JCM 50 watt amp, Ampeg as a second amp (RM: “I didn’t use the second amp much in the sound — it was mostly for subtle textural variations.”) Vacu-Fuzz and Vacu-Trem. Piano.

Clint Conley: Fender Jazz bass, Danelectro baritone guitar, Sunn guitar head, SVT cabinet.

Peter Prescott: 22" Slingerland drum kit (green), 22" kick, 12", 13", and 18" toms, Slingerland snare drum, Ludwig Ghost drum pedal, two Zildjian cymbals plus Zildjian hi-hat. Casio SK5 sampling keyboard.

Bob Weston: Otari MX-5050 reel-to-reel tape deck.

Bob Weston on Mission Recording

Board: Neve 8068 desk.

Tape machine: Studer A-820 2" 24-track running Emtec 900 at 15 IPS, CCIR EQ.
Recording: For microphones, I use whatever suits our needs and is available. I bring a case with a bunch of my own mics. And Q had a real good selection, too. I’d need to look at the track sheets to know exactly what I used. A few things I remember: I probably used small diaphragm condensers on the toms: top and bottom heads bussed to a single track per drum. I think I remember using a pair of U67s as spaced overheads. Maybe.

I usually put a pair of B&K 4006 mics out in front of the drums taped to the floor to make fancy PZMs. But I don’t think we used them that much in the mix on this record.

We had a different vocal mic setup for each guy. I think Peter was an RE-20. Roger was some old tube Neumann. And Clint was one of the Soundelux condenser mics. I really like those.

No DI on the bass. Probably two mics to separate the tracks. Two or three mics on the guitar to separate tracks.

Basic track guitar/bass/drums were all kept through to the final mix. Not replaced.

Q has a Neve 8068. I’m sure I used those mic pres for most everything. Along with some APIs that were racked up by Alactronics (property of Carl Plaster).

I monitor through B&W Matrix 805 speakers.

I did string overdubs on two songs with my laptop while I was touring with the Rachel’s in Port Townsend, WA. I used Digital Performer and a MOTU 828 Mk II. You can generate SMPTE with DP and the 828 and lock the computer to the 24-track. I dumped rough mixes of the songs into the computer for Christian and Eve to play along with.

Also, on “Wounded World”, we ran out of tracks and so I used DP to buy us a few extra tracks for the children’s chorus and some acoustic guitar. I think. ‰

Mixing: Mixed to the best tape recorder ever made: Ampex ATR-102. The stereo master was 1/2" 30IPS, Emtec 900 tape. Occasional plate reverb. They have a nice sounding plate at Q.

I did that drum bus-compression trick that lots of people seem to use. I almost never do that, but it worked for these mixes. You have your normal drum mix going to the stereo bus, but you also bus the drums to a compressor and bring the compressor output up on two channels of the console. So you add the compressed drum mix to the uncompressed drum mix. And you can vary the balance between compressed and uncompressed. I used a Neve compressor.

Mastering: At Sterling, the mastering EQ and limiting was analog. When available, I prefer to use a 2" multitrack machine and to mix down to a 1/2" stereo master. The only time things went digital is at the mastering lab, after Ted Jensen did analog EQ and limiting, the analog signal went through the hot-shot A/D converters at Sterling for the CD and SACD production. We even sequenced in analog with splicing blocks and tape. In fact, the LP version is an AAA production. Analog multitrack. Analog stereo master. All-analog mastering transfer. I’m not scared of digital, but analog is an extremely mature format, sounds great, and has excellent archival stability. Why change? SACD sounds pretty amazing, as far as digital goes. But, unfortunately, I think Sony just dumped it.

Roger Miller: Full Speed Ahead
Perhaps the most instantly recognizable aspect of the unique sound of Mission of Burma is the whirlwind powerhouse guitar playing of Roger Miller. Wrenching complex and rather otherworldly sounds out of his decidedly unhip Fender Lead I, it is often hard to believe the sheer amount of sound Miller can get out of a single guitar and amp.

Miller states: “I chose the Lead I because it was a brand new model of guitar, and no one had ‘made a mark’ with it, so I could start off with a fresh slate to make my own marks. In actuality, Lead I’s aren’t particularly great guitars. I’ve put on new pickups (hotrails types) because the original pickup was kind of slack. I’d had trouble with the Stratocaster because Hendrix had already wrung so many amazing sounds out of it, and I was using a Marshall Amp, so even the sound of the feedback automatically sounded like Hendrix. I just wanted something of my own. I also had used a Telecaster — I still love Telecasters — but the sound wasn’t quite right for the band.”

When asked in conclusion what his favorite recording of himself is, Miller replied, “on five different days, quite possibly five different answers. If, at the Pearly Gates, someone was to ask me right now which guitar-based disc I’d pull out to prove that I shouldn’t be roasted in hell, I’d pull out Burma’s Vs.

Miller then added, ”I’d probably end up being roasted. . . .”