For the next four weeks, XLR8R will chat with four indie engineers who invite us into their studios to discuss production philosophies, gear, and how to set your music free. This week we talk to Efrim Menuck of HOTEL2TANGO, which has hosted recording sessions by Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, Tony Conrad, and Pony Up!
Do you have a particular philosophy when entering the studio?
A recording studio is a dangerous place–it's full of sketchy musicians and electricity, the hours are long, the air is bad, and a fresh reel of two-inch tape smells like burning cat piss when you first spool it on. There is so much that I do not know about making records, and there's so much glorious confusion knotted into the hairy guts of music that's just plain unknowable, that all you can do is try to go into it humble and reverent. I believe in music, people, labor, and impossible circumstances, and when a band is experiencing one of those rare communal states of grace that makes one's heart thrum like kittens falling through a rainbow, it can feel like there's sounds just hanging there in the air like motes of dust in a cloud of light, and you just have to drop the microphones there and let them inhale. Most days, though, are a little more austere.
Is there a process which you undergo before you go in?
A series of short double espressos, a brisk walk, and deep breathing. Sometimes I'll spend a few hours prior with earplugs in.
Who are you currently working with in your studio?
These past few days I've been helping out on a session by a band called Land of Kush, fat little baby of local hero Sam Shalabi. It’s long-form Egyptian music with 24 musicians: four drummers, three cellos, violin, viola, one trumpet, two saxophones, one guitar, two synthesizers, one lap steel, four singers, electric bass, string bass, lap-steel and oud. Last week was Grant Hart (from Hüsker Dü) mixing.
Tape or hard drive?
We track onto two-inch tape on a 24-track Studer A820 machine. We mix-down to 1/4-inch tape when the client's budget allows, and mix-down to hard-drive when it doesn't.
When a band comes into your studio, what do you typically wish they had more prepared, and why?
A lot of bands seem to have a clearer idea of what they don't want to sound like than any sense of what their own clumsy, stubborn strengths might be. It's like an inherent musicians' trait, a certain type of self-doubt and insecurity that can lead to hours of flailing and a no-win endgame where everybody gets bummed. A recording studio is not a good place to work out self-esteem issues, but if you love thyself and thy band, and go forth into that murky darkness and make your own damn light to follow, then you're golden.
Who is the most prepared band you've worked with, and why?
The only bands I've worked with who've been prepared in the traditional sense have been incredibly dull.
When producing [x] band, what went well and what not so well?
I've fucked up a lot of records; big fuck-ups and little fuck-ups, technical fuck-ups and emotional fuck-ups. I am, for real, a rank amateur, but the worse job I ever did was a record by a band from Toronto called The Phonemes–good band and good people. I've known the drummer since I was 10 years old, and though the session was free, I did not do right by him. We recorded their record during off-days at the studio over the course of two and half years. A broken chain of short, abrupt workdays, like knitting a scarf out of patchwork twine on days that it rains. The songs were great, but the execution was a little nervous. The bass player had just had a baby, so the initial bed tracks were recorded between nursings (which sounds a lot sweeter than it actually was). The gaps between recording days were so long that I completely lost focus, and did not practice due diligence. We spent hours doing little fix-its and replacements, over-whittling until the tracks lost all dynamic and spatial coherence. Mixing was like an exercise in meditative self-laceration. Somehow, though, I think it turned out alright; like a flash Polaroid, it has its own washed-out charm, and rings true, at least, to the circumstances that bewildered its conception.
What's the centerpiece of your studio, gear-wise?
Our console. It's a Neotek Series II. It's about as sexy as a K Car, but it rides like a well-worn dream.
What's the production element you tend to spend the most time on, and why?
Bed tracks, bed tracks, bed tracks. You can't fake the sound of people playing together in the same room, and a record built out of overdub piles is about as rewarding as a mid-'80s car-chase movie.
Aside from equipment, what other things need to be in place before you can record?
Mid-day sobriety, absolutely. A drunk musician in the afternoon is worse than any Jonas Brother. No joke.
What’s more important than equipment when it comes to producing a record?
I think that intention is the only thing that really and truly matters–everything else is just context, back-story, and circumstance.
What records that have been produced at your studio are you particularly proud of, and why?
Two records: I recorded a record by Carla Bozulich under her Evangelista guise that was like wrestling a bear, except the bear was glorious and deserving, and it won. Also Dull Lights by Eric Chenaux–guitar, electrified pre-war banjo, and drums, tiny amplifiers, highland balladry, and fields of treble. I sweated over boundary mic placement like a nervous matron. At certain points, listening on headphones, you can actually hear the nails in the floorboards ring.
What are the most important elements to have in check before a record is mastered, and why?
If you're the type of band that likes or needs to crossfade chunks of music into each other, then dummy that shit up ahead of time and figure out the fade lengths and crossing points ahead of time. Also, don't let yourself get bullied so late in the game–have a clear idea of what you like about your pre-masters and protect them like your own kin.
In your opinion, what’s the best-produced album ever made, and why?
Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, because it sounds like it was Scotch-taped together. And it soars.
What are the most common mistakes that home producers make, and how can they avoid them?
Aspiring to be like Brian Wilson leads to frustrated desires and mental illness. Also, plug-ins make everything sound like cotton candy, a food which is entirely lacking in fiber–you need fiber in your diet, or else you just shit yourself to death.
Who is one engineer you really look up to or would really like to work with and why?
I love Jack Nitzsche, but he's dead.
Last Week: John Vanderslice