If you’ve ever heard of Arcade Fire, A Silver Mt. Zion, or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, then you’ll want to read about their producer/engineer, Montreal’s Howard Bilerman. Howard is also a guest lecturer at RAC’s Montreal campus.
Original Article by Robert Breen | EQ Magazine, June 2005
If you've ever heard of Arcade Fire, A Silver Mt. Zion, or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, it's clearly about time that you know that their plush post-rock operatic set pieces, offsprings of many fathers, have been ushered into existence by one: studio owner/engineer Howard Bilerman. EQ's Robert Breen bends the ear of the ear-bending Bilerman on everything from Joy Division and Leonard Cohen to compressing close mics for the home team.
Bilerman is a guest lecturer at Recording Arts Canada (RAC) Montreal, sharing his wisdom and knowledge with aspiring music engineers and producers.
You are officially being served notice that the grid-edited, sound-replaced, auto-tuned pop-punk record with ironic, sarcastic vocals you're working on right now is already out of style. Its time has come and gone.
Engineers and producers, maybe you included, are often heard complaining about modern music. "The bands can't write, they can't play, computers make musicians lazy 'cause there's unlimited tracks and editing, and the industry sucks," then adding, "I'm looking for the next big thing."
Right. According to the news, the Montreal, Quebec, music scene is that "next big thing." Interestingly enough, in Montreal there are folks who haven't been simply grunting the same old complaints. They've been working. Differently.
But back up: Montreal is indisputably unique. Back in 1997, music clubs in Montreal were "pay to play," much like the clubs where you are/might be. That year, Godspeed You! Black Emperor put Montreal back on the musical map when their self-recorded album got praise worldwide. Being independent, they even actually earned some money. Members Efrim Menuck and Thierry Amar put it back into their city, starting the hotel2tango as an alternative performance venue. Local artists could play for free and keep 100% of the door.
Many of these bands made their first recordings not far away at Mom & Pop Sounds with owner Howard Ian Bilerman, an engineer with a vision and aesthetic completely out of sync with the times. As good clubs gradually opened for the groups to play, the hotel2tango evolved into a fulltime recording studio, which Howard runs with Efrim and Thierry, now A Silver Mt. Zion members.
In Montreal, the clubs got better, artists met and collaborated, the bands got better, their art was documented, and the word got out . . .in that order. There's your blueprint . . .no grid mode or auto-tune.
Talking with Howard Bilerman about music and engineering is, truly, inspiring. Here are some of the insights Howard has shared with students at RAC during some of his guest lectures.
Montreal had been portrayed in the press for years as financially and culturally depressed. . . What happened while we weren't looking?
First off . . . never believe anything you read in the media!!! Montreal's economic and social depression was grossly over-exaggerated, as was the animosity between the French and English. The lack of big industry actually helped the bands here grow in an organic way, as opposed to what all this media attention is doing to bands now. The scrutiny is a lot of pressure.
Who are your influences?
I am constantly learning from Efrim and Thierry, my partners. It's so easy to get uptight about stuff that you initially think "isn't right". They see the beauty in it. It's taught me to think about imperfections more as character . . . which is really what makes a recording human. Last year, I realized that every record on my turntable was produced by the same guy. . . . Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, the first few Leonard Cohen records, Sunday Morning Coming Down by Johnny Cash . . . all done by this enigma (to me) Bob Johnston. My God . . . Imagine being in the room for all those great records! I would love to know more about him, and pick his brain. There are others, too. Jimmy Miller, John Simon, David Briggs . . . all of those folks were credited as "producers", so I don't really know how much credit they can take for the sound, but under their watch the artist never suffered from the often-malignant presence of "the producer." Steve Albini has been a huge inspiration. He championed analog recording, and politicized the process of recording in the context of an industry with suspect interests. As a wet-behind-the-ears university graduate in 1994, this discourse meant the world to me.
Can you take us inside the hotel?
The hotel2tango is a 5000 square foot loft in a 100-year-old industrial building, right next to the train tracks, above a car garage. We don't work during the day due to the noise of drills, and the smell of exhaust!
When I first approached you about this article, you graciously declined, adding: "That record [Arcade Fire's Funeral, which Howard co-engineered, co-mixed, and played drums on] was made the same way I recorded some 200 or so other records over the past 14 years . . . clean tape heads . . . set up the right mics in the right places . . . never let production be more important than the music." I got to thinking . . . well, exactly. What makes a record special is the writing, performance, and arrangements. . . .
When I was younger, I used to dream about equipment. "One day I'll have enough money for a condenser mic" . . . stuff like that. Now, all I dream about is that good and interesting bands will ask me to record their records.
Was it gratifying to see Funeral tearing up radio playlists around the world? I think of that as a major victory for the underdog. . .
I could care less about radio play to be honest. I would just as soon record records that only sell 5,000 copies if I believe in the music and like the people who make them. The industry side of things is the most repulsive and lecherous world I have ever laid eyes on.
The industry has nothing to do with the Arcade Fire hype, though. Thousands of fans, instead of press agents, used their text messagers, blogs, and websites to tell each other about them . . . the industry only noticed because they had to. Don't you think that's cool???
I think it had more to do with the fact that they played two or three years of live shows before Funeral came out. This got people talking . . . and they would have been talking with or without the Internet. It is still the best advice I can give any band . . . PLAY SHOWS!!!!
You've described your production role as that of a "midwife". . . How do you help a band perform their best?
Recording was originally a process of documenting. With the advent of multitracking, it turned into a process of creating. This yielded some pretty remarkable creative achievements, but it also was the beginning of most records being lies. The listener was asked to believe what they were hearing was a band playing music, but really, it was a piece-by-piece assembly. Computers have taken this lying to a whole new level, and I don't want to have any part of it. I try to document what is happening on the other side of the glass. This means having people be as comfortable in the studio as in their practice space. Too much futzing around with mics and sound-checks only reinforces to an artist that they are under a huge microscope. That's why I like things to happen fast, and why I don't feel it's beneficial to spend hours comparing the difference between two mics on, say, the snare. I'm not endorsing carefree haplessness here. I do have 14 years of experience recording, so it's that knowledge that has afforded me this attitude.
Do you think folks younger than us are genuinely moved by recordings that are polished, tuned and timed perfectly, or programmed?
If the fall of the Third Reich and eugenics has taught us anything, it's that there is a huge danger in trying to define "perfection", and work toward that ideal at all costs. Tinkering with tempo and pitch diminishes the feel of a song. To me, that is a great loss. I am not saying there needs to be obvious errors in a recording to make it "human"...but I am saying that listening to music that someone has tried to make "perfect" is really boring to me.
How do you deal with obvious performance issues that'll hurt the final product? An exchange I remember was, Musician: "You've made me do this line 60 times, man!". Producer: "Yeah and you've given me 60 lousy takes."
That's funny! Um . . . well . . . I try to be really gentle about stuff like that. I think it's important that the record ultimately reflects where a band is. Sure, people struggle with stuff . . . but I try to make the record sound like the band playing live on a good night. You talk about "final product" as if it were something separate from the sum of the band's parts, which it's not really.
It is with some producers. But I know what you mean. . . .
Now there's always the situation when someone hears what they just played, and are in shock at how different it sounds from what they intended . . . that's completely different.
"The right mics in the right places". . . how do you approach that?
Well . . . not having 200 mics makes the decisions a lot easier. Usually I'll track more than I need, and not worry about which one I'll use until later. I think it's pointless to tell you specific applications, because a 2" difference in placement can alter the sound drastically . . . so can the way the person plays.
Do you cut vocals live?
I would love to record more vocals live, but most musicians these days don't want to worry about vocals when they are tracking beds. Actually, we ended up using a scratch vocal on the new A Silver Mt. Zion album (Horses in the Sky) as the final vocal, because after listening to it, there was no way Efrim was going to do a better take . . . so we kept it despite the drum bleed.
Efrim's vocals on the song "Horses in the Sky" have a neat, roomy sound. Your space at the hotel to my ears sounds like a secret weapon - and you use it.
Well . . .those vocals were mic'd with a close and an ambient mic. In mix, we compressed the close mic, and added 30ms of delay to the room, panning the delayed signal across from the original. The result is the voice becomes roomier when Efrim sings louder, and the room sound moves a bit. That "trick" was so satisfying that we ended up using it on a few songs.
You mentioned you'd love to trade places with Alan Lomax. There's a "Garfield's Campfire" location credited on "Hang On To Each Other" . . . did you actually record around a campfire???
It was one of the most gratifying experiences of my recording life, on my birthday in fact. Spent the afternoon setting up and breathing the country air . . . city troubles melting away. We waited until nightfall and tracked a few songs, lit only by the moon and the campfire. It made me want to move our studio next to a lake.
How did you start recording Arcade Fire's Funeral?
We started by laying down everything people played live or in practice, then filled up spaces with other stuff as we saw fit. There were lots of guests who came in. A lot of the overdubs got worked out in the studio. I'm really big on using the stereo-field, and love to find little "pockets" to tuck stuff in.
Can you tell me about some of those overdubs? The sounds are so intriguing. . . .
The vocals on "Laika" are an old RCA Jr.Velocity, run through a distortion pedal and double tracked. During a rough mix, Win [Butler] accidentally added a lot of reverb on one line. He ended up liking it so much, we did it on the mix... In part 2 of "Wake Up," we needed to add claps and piano, but only had one track left. We just gathered everyone 'round one mic, and compressed it pretty heavily. It's one of my favorite parts of the record. In "Tunnels," Win's guitar [on the left] is a heavily compressed room mic that triggered every time he stomped. It sounds like a needle bouncing up and down on vinyl! I begged for us to track it again, but Win refused. I wonder if anyone sent their 7" back to Merge thinking it was defective?
The Beatles always made sure to keep their mistakes, too. I think that's so cool. . . .
When we tracked "Rebellion," Richie [Richard Reed Parry] was pressing Record while I was playing drums, and he forgot to record-enable the overheads. When we finally got it, I realized the overheads didn't get recorded, so all we had was the close kick and snare. Win convinced us to keep it, and Richie tracked another snare from 15 feet away, which we mixed in with the other snare in parts.
The booming snare effect in "Power Out" really makes that song kick, especially on the radio.
That "effect" was actually that we kept the kick and snare click-track that I played to. It enhanced the real drums in an interesting way.
I was wondering if there was even a click used on the record!
We used a click on two songs . . . for different reasons. Win and I were really big on how early New Order combined real drums with drum machines . . . so for "Power Out" we programmed some drums to play the pattern, not knowing if we'd keep them or not, then tracked a real snare and hi-hats. "Power Out" owes a lot to New Order/Joy Division. Dare I say certain drum patterns were . . . "ehhhem" . . . borrowed. I guess it was even more uncouth to steal some recording ideas as well! On "In the Backseat" we used a click because all these great string players were in Montreal for the afternoon, but we hadn't laid the beds yet. The strings played to a click, then we tracked the drums afterward.
Tim Kingsbury told me the album was mixed "together" by everyone. How that did work?
I am loathe to accept too much credit for how Funeral sounds because, yes, it was a group effort. I did the lion's share of setting up the mics and pressing buttons, but Richie did a bunch of that stuff too. As for mix, usually I'd setup the board . . . basic levels and pans, then hand things over to Win for a bit. Then I'd step in at the end to refine things. Anything that meant the songs were how Win heard them in his head was fine by me, and if it meant sitting on the couch for an hour, that was ok. Usually that is not the way I work. For the most part I'll play around with the faders until everything seems right, then ask the band for their input. This is not to say they are excluded from the process at the beginning, because at that stage there have usually been some rough mixes done, and some comments on them, which informs the mix.
The Mt. Zion record has the biggest dynamic range I've heard on CD possibly ever! Aren't records these days supposed to be as loud as possible?!?
The Mt. Zion mixes had a great deal of dynamics, which is a direct reflection of the music. We really wanted to keep that. The mastering engineer left us with a 35db dynamic range. Dynamic range, to me, is what is exciting about music. So many times a CD goes in to be mastered, and it comes out so different from the mixes you know and love. We are really lucky that a good friend of ours, Harris Newman, masters most of our stuff. He takes the Hippocratic oath, "do no harm."
Is "no harm" your oath too?
I think we need to move back to a place where going into a recording studio is more about documenting, rather than creating. . . . If you take that approach, then you serve the music in a completely different way, and are generally far more sensitive to the artist and their songs. Finding space to be creative within that is the true art of recording.
HOWARD BILERMAN ON THALIA ZEDEK
When Thalia Zedek approached you to do her record Trust Not in Those Without Whom Some Touch of Madness, how'd you feel about that?
Honored. She had come up to record some guitars and vocals for a Molasses record, and I know she felt really comfortable at the Hotel. But she has worked with some pretty reputable people, in some really nice studios, so it still felt like a victory when she asked me to record her.
You've said her band "were all a little freaked out by the lack of editing at their disposal." It's like editing has become a security blanket and you're taking it away!
It's just that they tracked their last few records using computer, and were worried that they didn't have enough time to do what they needed to do without the "time saving" of computer editing. Like riding a bike, then putting training wheels back on...there is always this small, irrational fear that you might not be able to ride with them off again. They did amazing work in the studio. David Michael Curry (viola) joked that they were "at the height of their powers." They nailed each bed in under three takes.
I wonder how many genuine talents aren't ever expected to give what they've really got in the studio... what a loss for all of us!
Limitations make better art...
I love the slide guitar on "Evil Hand"... it's a violin playing like a slide guitar... no there is slide guitar in there... what's going on?
Ha, ha! Funny story about that one. We talked about putting slide on that track, so our friend Harris came in and laid down three different tracks. When it came to mix, we got really used to the rough mixes, which didn't have the slide, and the inclusion of the slide was really taking up too much space. I asked Thalia to give me a half an hour, and found the five or six "sweetest licks" Harris played, and we just rode the fader at those points. The Wire called it something like 'tasteful and restrained playing.' I told Harris he owed me one!
"Hell is in Hello"... that middle destructo bit... YEAH.
That was fun to mix! That song featured my first ever 2" tape splice. They laid down two takes, and really loved the take we ended up with, except for a pretty big flub at the beginning. They were really bummed, so I suggested using the first minute of the earlier take. They asked me if I had ever spliced before, and I assured them I had done it hundreds of times. What I neglected to mention was that it was only ever 1/4" tape! Doing that splice was equivalent to an hour of cardiovascular exercise!
Solo the kick?
Yeah...solo the kick on the splices. Actually, I dumped both takes in the computer first to see if the cut would work. Once I knew they'd splice, I did the cut on the tape. I told the band..."look, the worst that'll happen is we'll have to do another take...which is exactly where we are now. The best thing would be we've saved this amazing 12 minute song." There was a fair deal of improvisation, and they really nailed it on that last take, I thought we should do whatever we could to "save" that one. If it were a three-minute pop song I would have probably told them to try it again.
Was there a specific sound she was looking for when she came in?
Thalia has been making records for over 20 years. She had a really clear idea of how she wanted her vocals to sound, just due to the fact that she has heard her voice coming through speakers for so long now. It's really amazing to work with artists who know exactly what they want.
Thanks to Howard Bilerman, RAC guest lecturer, a talented and sensitive producer, engineer and musician, and an all round good guy.