Robin Morton - EMusician

Robin Morton

Just south of Edinburgh, Scotland (in what’s affectionately referred to as “The Old Country”), one’s ears need only follow a few bagpipes before being led to Robin Morton engineering and producing Scottish folk-oriented albums for his Temple Records label. Best known for his work with the Battlefield Band (a traditional Scottish ensemble that has been touring internationally and making records since the early ’70s), Morton’s latest project has been producing the four-piece ensemble’s latest offering The Road of Tears — a powerful new release chock full of exquisite musicianship that serves to tell emotionally-charged stories of forced emigration, of families being unwillingly displaced all over the world.
Author:
Publish date:

Recorded in a converted church that was originally built in 1832 (and now houses Temple Studios facility, office, and residence housing), The Road of Tears was brought to life not at the hands of an overly technologically savvy engineer (Morton humbly states that he is anything but a gearhead) but rather is the result of an incredibly well-rehearsed band recording in their element. Of course, with all the years and production credits under Morton’s belt, he’s quite the apt pupil of the recording arts — having learned through trial and error which ingredients are essential to making great bands a recorded reality. Still, he credits the success of The Road of Tears sessions largely to the experienced musicians behind the collective . . . and his refusal to work with anything less. “I want [my artists] to come in the studio knowing what they’re going to do,” he says, without a hint of apology in his voice. “If they don’t know what they’re going to do, then they need to rehearse it and rehearse it and rehearse it until they do know what they are going to do.”

ALL IN THE ROOM

Thankfully for Morton, he was working with the very best from day one. From the first spin of The Road of Tears, it becomes evident that each respective player (Sean O’Donnell, vocals, guitar; Alasdair White, fiddle; Mike Katz, highland pipes, small pipes, various whistles and bass; Alan Reid, keyboards and vocals) is virtuosic in his performance. But this naturally creates barriers in the studio, Morton claims, stating one of the biggest challenges he experiences in dealing with very accomplished musicians is helping them recognize the importance of performing as a single unit: “They need to get past that stage of listening to themselves so they’re listening to everybody else. That is the nearest thing you can get to a live situation before you can begin to sweeten anything up.”

This was especially important when working with the Battlefield Band — a group known for their electrifying live performances; performances of which Morton strives to capture the essence in each recording. But though it has taken some time to figure out the proper environment, both externally and internally, for the band to transfer their live energy into a recorded product, Morton feels he has achieved a nice physical balance by utilizing the Temple Studio space to situate the players appropriately, thus maximizing results. “Just beyond the front door, we have a room that is about 35 feet long by 15 feet wide, ceilings about 14 feet high,” he says when asked to describe the room he used to track the band. “The room has got a live end and a dead end, and I tend to put the guitar and fiddle on the live end. I’ll situate the fiddle player, the guitarist, and the keyboard player in kind of a triangle, and I have the bagpipes out in a hallway, which is between the studio and the control room.” This is done, Morton says, because working in the hallway allows for proper isolation of the bagpipes yet the proximity to the live room lets the members maintain visual contact — a primary concern when tracking a band live. “You couldn’t do it with everybody, but I can certainly do it with Mike and Alistair. They know each other so well, and of course they are hearing each other on the foldback system. The hallway is really small and it gets bloody loud in there, but it works.”

PIPE DOWN

Having recorded folk music in his native country for over three decades, Morton has learned a thing or two about how to capture bagpipes and other instruments used in traditional Scottish compositions — and how to marry those elements with more non-traditional components. “For the Battlefield Band, I’m recording a fiddle, highland bagpipes, small pipes, various whistles, accordion, acoustic guitar . . . and electronic keyboards,” he relates. But in the case of the Battlefield Band, these rather disparate instruments work incredibly well in a traditional Scottish arrangement, leading to a mood-evoking and powerful experience that transcends culture and national heritage. And while the nature of the music may strike many listeners as a bit “foreign,” and the instruments applied as “exotic,” Morton’s preferred tools should strike any engineer as familiar. For instance, when it comes to recording bagpipes, he uses the traditional, standby Shure SM57: “I mic it right on the chanter with the 57, because it’s kind of forgiving. For the drones, as overheads, I’ll often do a cross pair of [Beyerdynamic] 201s, maybe a foot above the drones. Everyone says that bagpipes are so hard to record — but if you listen carefully to them, they are very loud but very level.”

Morton holds that it is very important to have the mic on the chanter fairly close at all times, otherwise the result is an unwanted bleed into the overheads, which reduces his ability to control sounds individually at the mixing stage. But when overdubbing he says there is flexibility in proximity, and he sometimes moves back away from the instrument to add an extra dimension: “If I’m doing the drones alone as an overdub to lay against a chanter that’s already been recorded, I’ll give them a couple of feet to get a bit of air in there.”

STRINGS ’N THINGS

Another instrument that is featured prominently on The Road of Tears, and in traditional Scottish music as a whole, is the fiddle. As with many acoustic instruments being recorded in a “live” scenario, Morton says the fiddle can prove to be tricky to record unless you have just the right mic, with the right response, on the right spot: “I like the Audio-Technica 4033 mics to record fiddles. They have a nice edge to them, with a bit of brightness at the top end. I’ll put the 4033 on the fiddle mostly toward the bridge, toward the bass strings. Once again, I’m right on it really, because you’ve got another guy six feet away playing the guitar.”

Morton also uses the 4033 for tracking the acoustic guitar, though he confesses to being the type to switch out mics just for the sake of doing so — oftentimes substituting a Neumann U87 for the 4033. “Sean [O’Donnell] has a light, very percussive guitar style so I like to get more bass than he’s giving me. Therefore I’ll tend to put the mic up behind the sound hole, but close to the bridge and on the bass end. I’ll use a DI as well [for the electric-acoustic] and blend the signals in the mix.”

Lastly, there is the small harp (or Scottish harp), which Morton prefers to record with a distinctly non-classical approach. “I’m not keen on making this instrument sound too ambient, and I rather like the finger noise,” he states, informing us that he uses a pair of Neumann KM 184s in an XY pattern, fairly close to the soundboard of the instrument, coupled with a U87 towards the bass strings — a tactic he says gives the recording more presence and makes it sound less clunky. “I want this instrument right in your face, and to sound as it sounds to the musician playing it.”

WIND DON’T BLOW

While most of the Battlefield Band’s tracks contain either a bagpipe or a whistle at the forefront, both of which go along naturally with the tones achieved from the fiddle, guitar and synths (which, of course, are recorded direct), Morton says that the difficult-to-record whistle oftentimes serves as the bane of his engineering existence. He elaborates: “If it’s a breathy sound, I tend to go back to the 57 because it’s, once again, very forgiving. Whistles sound so different, even ones from the same company. Maybe there will be overtones, buzzings, or other unwanted sounds coming from the mouthpiece. The 57, as it’s a dynamic, tends to keep this stuff out. So, again, I mic fairly close, positioning the 57 towards the center of the sixth note.”

Border pipes — another wind instrument that can prove to be difficult to track — also make occasional guest appearances throughout The Road of Tears. Similar to the Irish-oriented Uillean pipes in that they are elbow blown, Morton says the Border pipes sound sweeter than their larger cousin: “Border pipes are not as brash and harsh as the bagpipes, and certainly not as loud, so I tend to use ribbons to capture their gentle sound.”

THE SIMPLE LIFE

Morton adheres to the “natural = best” rule when making albums, going so far as to forego the use of VU meters or other sound measurement apparatuses in favor of his ears, which he says are his ultimate gauge. Preserving the immediacy of the performance is of penultimate importance to Morton (which would explain why all of the vocals on The Road of Tears, sung by keyboardist Alan Reid, were cut live in the same room using just a Rode Classic II), and this mindset is amply demonstrated in his overall gear selection, which is, to say the least, largely utilitarian.

“If you’re not recording all the time, which I’m not, my attitude is to keep it simple because otherwise you have to re-learn your setup every time,” he says. He records into a Mackie HDR 24 through a TASCAM M600 console, which has served him well through the years: “It’s a great old budget desk that is very quiet. It’s only got 32 inputs and 16 out, but people generally like the sound of it.” Furthermore, Morton employs as little processing as possible, though he does rely on an Aphex Compeller from time to time. “It is an intelligent compressor and it’s wonderful; you can actually level things with it. It’s especially good for controlling peaks on a fiddle or whistle.”

It’s an old adage, but it holds true: Despite all the gadgets and devices available in this day and age, technology is mostly just a means to an end, and an engineer needs to listen first and foremost. And Morton cautions against those who save the magic for the mix: “It is really about the live performance — there needs to be some kind of tension there. I’ve learned time and time again that things get very flat without that tension.”