Yours, Mine, and Ours

Considering the ever-increasing fusion of music and technology, you probably wouldn't be surprised to hear that an artist recently released an album containing

Considering the ever-increasing fusion of music and technology, you probably wouldn't be surprised to hear that an artist recently released an album containing both stereo mixes to listen to and individual tracks for remixing. What is surprising is that the artist is Duncan Sheik, a singer-songwriter whose folk-influenced pop/rock is not normally associated with remixing.

The new project, entitled White Limousine (Zoe, 2006; see Fig. 1), is Sheik's first release since moving to the Zoe label, an imprint of Rounder Records. It comes with two discs: a CD, labeled Mine, which has the stereo mixes; and a DVD, labeled Yours, which has WAV files of the individual elements of the mixes for each song, as well as Ableton Live session files that open with all the tracks in a given song already set up to mix. The CD was recorded at Allaire Studios in upstate New York, but the preproduction was done at Sheik's personal studio in Manhattan.

FIG. 1: Sheik''s latest release includes a DVD with individual tracks for each song so that users can do their own mixes.

Sheik, who was born in New Jersey but raised in South Carolina, burst on the music scene with his 1996 hit single “Barely Breathing,” on his self-titled debut CD on Atlantic Records. That album garnered him a Best Male Vocal Grammy nomination in 1997. He subsequently recorded two more albums for Atlantic and one for Nonesuch before moving over to Zoe.

Besides his CDs, Sheik has branched into other areas of composing in recent years. He has scored two films, including A Home at the End of the World (Killer Films/Warner Classics, 2004), which starred Colin Farrell, as well as a number of theatrical productions. He recently wrote the music for an off-Broadway musical called Spring Awakening, which at press time had opened to strong reviews and was being considered for a move to Broadway.

I had a chance to interview Sheik about White Limousine and various other subjects at his spacious New York loft. The main room is filled with a large collection of guitars and other stringed instruments, and off to the side are the live room and control room that constitute his personal studio.

How would you describe your musical style?

As far as radio is concerned, the format that plays the kind of music that I do is AAA [Adult Album Alternative]. But all of the artists who are in that world — whether it's Aimee Mann or David Gray or Ben Folds or even a band like Elbow — take from the folk music tradition in a big way. A lot of us take from the classical music tradition in terms of orchestration and the use of that instrumentation. Some of us take from the jazz tradition in terms of harmony and the way that we use it in the songs. Obviously, rock 'n' roll is there in a big way, and country too, in a lot of people's cases. A little less so in mine, because my influences are mostly English bands. So what kind of genre would I consider my music? It's kind of the “nongenre” that takes from all of these other ones.

Why did you decide on Ableton Live as a format for theWhite Limousineremix tracks?

Here's how that situation went down: I was going to make my next record. At the time I didn't know it was going to be White Limousine; I didn't know what it was. But I started writing songs, and I had all the material in [Propellerhead] Reason. When I first got Reason I thought it was like a Game Boy for musicians.

So the material you had was all in MIDI format?

Samples and synths, no audio. I was on tour, and I was making all these little bits and pieces in Reason, just for fun. I took them home and I thought, “This is interesting.” Because I love electronic music, and it's definitely been a major part of the music that influences me, even though you might not know that from listening to my records. It was the first time that I'd gotten into a piece of software where I actually used synthesizers, samplers, and these kinds of things to create the architecture of the song — as opposed to an acoustic guitar or a piano or whatever.

And so my initial conception of the record was that all the arrangements would happen in Reason, and then there'd be one acoustic guitar and one vocal. And I would mix the record normally, but put it out with the Reason files for people to remix with. And they'd have a stem of the vocal and a stem of the acoustic guitar. It's kind of a very simplified version of how it eventually turned out.

But then users would need both Reason and another sequencer.

Exactly. Which poses all kinds of issues and problems, and it becomes less universal in terms of people being able to use it. So then, as I continued to refine the songs and write new songs, and the project evolved, it became more organic and less kind of electronic music based, although it started in that place. But then, I still wanted the concept of the listener being able to manipulate the material in some way, and being able to reimagine it and remix it.

Since the tracks are WAV files, users can import them into [Digidesign] Pro Tools or any sequencer they want. They don't necessarily have to use Live.

I love Ableton, but I think a lot of the work is being done in [Apple] Logic and in [MOTU] Digital Performer, and [Steinberg] Cubase or whatever else people are using.

Do you know of other artists who have released individual tracks along with their records?

Well, here's the backstory. I remember reading Brian Eno's A Year with Swollen Appendices [Faber and Faber, 1996]. It's basically his diary from about 1994. He talks about the idea that in the future, people will release all their records along with the 24-track masters and whatever. And I remember reading that and thinking to myself, “That's a really fantastic idea, and I hope one day the technology will be in a place where we can do that.” And then I think even prior to that, Brian Eno had done a little tiny 4-track version of the Us record [Geffen, 1992]. There was a DVD that came out of the special edition of that record. So that's another precedent. I know Todd Rundgren had done something similar, I'm not sure exactly what it was. And then, most recently, Trent Reznor put out a single in [Apple] GarageBand format.

I think this [White Limousine] is the first time that somebody has taken their entire record and put all the constituent parts of every song along with the record. But, that being said, it's just because the technology is at a place now where that's possible, and there's a program like Ableton Live that makes that fairly doable on a lot of people's laptops and computers, and because Ableton has a demo version of the software that everybody can access.

Of course, the demo version doesn't allow the user to save.

You can't save anything, but to me there are so many uses for it. Like if you're a guitar player and you want to learn the acoustic guitar part: you can solo it. Or let's say you want the karaoke version of the song: just mute that pesky vocal and it's gone. I think there are very simple uses for it, and then there are obviously more. What I really hope to see is that kids in their bedrooms with their laptops will really dive into it and turn it into something that's much more modern and much cooler and just kind of different.

You established, a Web site for people to submit remixes of theWhite Limousinetracks and where you'll be posting selected remixes. How does it work?

Creative individuals who do cool stuff at home can post those remixes and they're streamable, and then anyone can go on the site and listen to what other people have done. Depending on what happens with all of that, there might be some “version two” of White Limousine that ultimately exists that will be the best of the remixes from each song.

So what kinds of remixes have you been receiving?

Initially I was getting mixes that felt very polite to me in a way; they didn't want to change too much. But then I put the word out that what I was really interested in was people taking the materials and doing something radical. What's most interesting to me is when they take those materials and kind of use them and put them into this more electronic-music genre, whether it's hip-hop, or trance music, or progressive house, or whatever it is.

This is your first CD on Zoe. Did they freak out when you told them you wanted to release the individual tracks along with it?

Luckily, when Troy Hansbrough — who's my A&R person — first heard the record and approached me about putting it out on Zoe, it was the first conversation I had with him. I said, “Okay, I love your label, you have all quality artists, you're really great people, but here's the deal: I want a 3-panel Digipack, there's a CD called Mine, there's a DVD called Yours,” and I explained to him exactly what it was. And I think he was intrigued by the idea enough that he said, “Okay, I can accept that.”

Then what happened?

There was the kind of marketing meeting where I had to go in there and explain it to everyone around the conference table at 9 a.m. in that kind of hideous way [laughs].

Let me ask the cynical question: was part of the reason to release the remix tracks to make the record stand out from the crowd?

FIG. 2: A view from inside Sheik''s control room. In the background is his small live room.

Absolutely, and I make no apologies about that at all because the reality is that there are so many CDs that come out every day. It's just absurd. There's just a glut of music right now.

Much of it's not very good.

Most of it is not very good. And you know, frankly, I'm the first one to say, “Am I really interested in hearing another record by a white guy with an acoustic guitar? Like, please, shoot me in the head, okay?” [Laughs.] It's just not that compelling, really. Couple that with the fact that I had this initial conception of the record that was much more minimalist electronica, I thought this was a very good way to put out the record that meant something to me, that really moved me personally in my own heart. But then also that there's the possibility that this other version of the record could exist, or multiple versions of it. And that it could continue to spin out versions for a really long time. And to me, that's what's most fascinating about it.

Let's talk a little about your studio. I see you have a separate recording room next to your control room [see Fig. 2].

It's kind of where drums and loud guitars happen. Like a little live room.

What kind of mixer are you using?

FIG. 3: Sheik''s Calrec console was originally in a BBC radio studio. On top of it are M-Audio BX8 monitors.

It's a Calrec console [see Fig. 3] from the BBC. It was at Maida Vale Studios in London, which is a classical music broadcast studio.

What's the vintage?

It's an '80s model. It's solid-state, but it's very musical. Calrec was like a sister company to Neve. It's kind of a poor man's Neve.

What kind of mics do you generally use on your voice and acoustic guitar when recording?

I have kind of a rare microphone that Dave Royer was making before he started making the ribbon mics that everyone knows him for now. According to him, it's basically a [Neumann] U 47 with a slightly different capsule.

Do you use the mic pres in the Calrec?

No, I have a Telefunken V72, I have a Summit, and I have these tube mic pres called Giltronics; they're really nice. I've got a Tube Tech stereo compressor, and I've got an [Urei] 1176 compressor.

What's your typical signal chain for recording your vocals here in your studio?

Usually it's the Royer microphone into the V72 into the 1176. And that goes directly into the Apogee converters.

FIG. 4: A blackface Fender Deluxe Reverb and a pedalboard full of effects give Sheik plenty of sonic options when he records his guitar parts.

I noticed that you had a nice pedalboard and an old Fender amp [see Fig. 4]. Is that what you use when you record your electric tracks?

Yes, generally. That's the pedalboard that I take on tour with me as well. I actually just built it about six months ago, and I've been happy with it.

You have both Yamaha NS-10Ms and M-Audio BX8 monitors.

M-Audio has been so generous in sending me microphones and speakers and bits and bops. I tend to monitor on NS-10Ms, but when I need to hear low end, I'll switch over to the BX8s.

You use a Mac as your music computer.

Yes. I have a [Digidesign Pro Tools] Mix Plus system with Apogee converters. I use Logic Pro on the front end. But I end up using Reason, and recently I've been using Ableton Live a lot. Especially in shows, like in Spring Awakening, a percentage of the music is electronic. And so almost all of that stuff is being triggered from Live so that we can mess with the tempo in real time, and mess with how it relates to what's going on.

Are you using Live in ReWire mode with Logic?

No, it's all coming off Live. I'm a Logic guy, and I don't want to say anything politically incorrect. But the reality is that for me, Logic is an amazing tool, and when I'm producing and engineering a record in my house, it's all about Logic. When I'm making music in a performance situation, whether it's triggering stems of music or whatever it is, that's what Live is all about. With Live, you can have 16 tracks of audio at full bandwidth coming off a laptop, and there aren't weird issues of the computer being able to handle it. I just think that Live's engine is more efficient in some ways.

Did you do your film scoring in Logic?

Yes. I had the editors just send me QuickTime movies of the chunks of the movie that I was scoring. It was so easy and seamless, I just hooked up another monitor. The movie comes up on the monitor, and Logic is on the main screen.

How much ofWhite Limousinedid you record here in your studio?

I did an initial version of the record here at home, but it just didn't feel right somehow. So I said to my bandmates and Kevin Killen, let's go up to Allaire Studios for a week, which is a great place.

Was Killen the producer?

He was engineer and mixer. I produced the record. The reality was I made the record myself and I was paying for it myself. Everyone involved in it was very generous and patient about getting paid and all that. But to hire a producer of the caliber that I'm used to working with, it would have been prohibitively expensive for me. And I had a vision for what the record would be. Kevin's a great producer, and Pat Leonard is a great producer, and Rupert Hine is a great producer, but for this process I had a lot of really smart people's opinions around me and I listened to them. So spending another $50,000 or $100,000 for a producer of that level was just not going to happen.

And you had Killen there for the mix anyway, right?

I had him there for the mix, and he's obviously a very smart and skilled guy.

So you rerecorded it at Allaire?

We kind of redid everything up there. We basically did 6 to 20 takes of about 16 or 17 songs. We got set up, and we would just kind of press record and go. And we recorded everything with an almost “live in the studio” sensibility. And usually by the time we got to whatever it was — take 6 or take 8 or take 10 — we'd pretty much got what we needed.

But you did the vocals later, right?

Exactly. And then I came back here and fine-tuned everything. To be honest, I tried very hard to keep as much as I could from the initial [Allaire] recording so that it had that kind of texture. So there was a sense that there are four or five musicians playing in a room together, and it's not that we're just overdubbing for the sake of some sort of anal perfection, you know what I mean?

What about the strings?

They were done in London at Angel Studios with the London Session Orchestra. I've worked with them on all my records and Simon Hale is a really great arranger who I love.

I was listening to them and thinking, “There's no way these are MIDI string parts.” If they were, I wanted to know how you did it.

No, they're very real. Getting back to this issue of electronic music versus kind of organic music — in the end, there is a thing about human hands on a wooden instrument that is very emotionally involving to me. It's not that electronic music is not emotionally involving, it's just that it does it in a very different way. And I guess I like electronic music to sound electronic, and I like organic music to sound organic. When one thing tries to do the other, it's always a bit frustrating.

Ironically, by releasing the remix tracks, you're promoting the crossover of those two styles.

I am. But I'm not promoting a hybridization of them; I'm promoting the use of the raw materials of one style and wanting them to be used for music production in the other style.

So the tracks that you initially did here were programmed tracks and you didn't really feel that they had what you wanted?

No. There was a lot of live instrumentation and there were combinations of real drums, programming, and a lot of stuff from Reason. When I listen to a record by Air or Bjork or Boards of Canada or Mum or any of these electronica bands that I really respect and admire, I really love the way those records sound. I have a pretty good sense for how they did those kinds of things, but I'm not always so confident about doing them myself. As much as I can appreciate that world of music, and I dabble in it to some degree, I'm much more interested in what other people do in that realm. And again, that's another reason why I'm putting it out there on that DVD, and kind of putting it out there into the universe: so that other people can do their thing with it and make it their own.

So you felt like you needed the interaction of live musicians on the CD?

Yes. Those are the records that have been the biggest influences on me, whether it's the first three David Sylvian solo albums or Mark Hollis's record or Talk Talk records or Jeff Buckley's record or a Radiohead record or the new Elbow record. Those are really just bands that are playing together and making music together in some way. There are often modernist kind of things going on, and there's often experimentation that's happening in a very progressive spirit, but it really is musicians playing together. And that ends up being really important to me. Not to discount electronic music that's solely programmed, but I think that what really moves me deepest is music with real players.

Mike Levine is an EM senior editor.

See next page for a list of Duncan Sheiks Credits


Recording Artist: CDs White Limousine(Zoe, 2006)

Daylight(Atlantic Records, 2002)

Phantom Moon(Nonesuch Records, 2001)

Humming(Atlantic Records, 1998)

Duncan Sheik(Atlantic Records, 1996)

Producer: CDs

Samantha Ronson,Samantha Ronson(Island/Roc-a-fela Records, 2004)

Custom,Fasst(Artist Direct Records, 2001)

Micah Green,Micah(independent release, 1999)

Composer: Film Scores

Through the Fire(ESPN Original Entertainment, 2005)

A Home at the End of the World(Killer Films/Warner Classics, 2004)

Composer-Performer: Songs for Film

“I Am a Pilgrim” from soundtrack ofTransamerica(Weinstein Co., 2005); performed

“Half-Life” from soundtrack ofWhat a Girl Wants(Warner Bros., 2003); composed and performed

“A Body Goes Down” from soundtrack ofGoodbye and Hello(Netherlands TV, 2000); composed and performed

“Alibi” from soundtrack ofTeaching Mrs. Tingle(Dimension Films, 1999); composed and performed

“That Says It All” from soundtrack ofThree to Tango(Warner Bros., 1999); composed and performed

“Wishful Thinking” from soundtrack ofGreat Expectations(20th Century Fox, 1998); composed and performed

“In the Absence of Sun” from soundtrack ofThe Saint(Paramount, 1997); composed and performed

Composer: Theater Music

Spring Awakening(Lincoln Center's American Songbook, New York, 2006)

The Golden Rooms of Nero(Magic Theater, San Francisco, 2006)

Twelfth Night(Public Theatre, New York, 2002)