Totally Faded: Brett Allen

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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. Our last installment features Snowghost Studios in Whitefish, Montana, where engineer Brett Allen has worked on records with Dan Deacon, Matmos, Christopher Willits, and Death Cab for a Cutie.

Who is the most prepared band you've worked with?

The younger bands. They have nothing to lose–it’s kind of their shot. The bigger bands usually feel like they get in the studio and that’s the place where they’re going to figure everything out. The studio is a place to get good sounds but not necessarily a place to compose. There’s too much at stake and too much pressure.

How is it different working with more electronic artists like Christopher Willits or Matmos versus bands?

I got a minor in electronic music at UC Santa Cruz so it’s not foreign to me. It’s so easy to make beats or loops in Garage Band or Reason, but I would like to hear people make more sample-based music that involves analog sound. Like, recording yourself banging on piece of metal and then shortening it up until it sounds like a snare drum. My biggest complaint with electronic music is how canned it can sound. A lot of that is producers who are more into the finished product than dialing in each sound individually. It’s cool to use Garage Band or Reason to get the idea out quickly, but then go back and replace those sounds with something more adventurous or advanced.

What were the challenges of working with Dan Deacon?

Me and Dan have very different styles. My style is to cut things out so that there is lots of room for what you might call the lead. Dan’s style is “Let’s fill up every inch of space in this spectrum.” Working with him the first few times, I would do a mix and then he would show me his mix and I would be like, “That’s so dense I can’t hear anything.” After working together for a while, I found I was able to understand that “wall of sound” approach and he was able to get more clarity out of each individual sound.

What about with Matmos?

It’s really easy to work with those guys, but I like things to be very warm and rich and Matmos likes things to be really edgy, borderline ear piercing. They would be like “Turn up the highs on all of that.” And I was like “Really? That’s making my ears bleed,” and they’re like “Yeah that’s what we’re going for.” I’ve learned a lot from working with sound designers like Matmos and Christopher Willits.

What do you spend the most time on?

With mixing, I spend a lot of time on the drums. I always record them and I track them as full and present as possible. It’s always a bit of a challenge figuring out where they’re going to sit. Are they going to be big stereo drums or tiny present mono drums? There’s so much you can do with compression and EQ to make drums sound completely different. I also spend a lot of time on the vocals, generally EQing. Are they going to be full and present or are they going to be like English punk rock, where they sit unintelligibly in the mix? Bass is really problematic and controlling. After I get the mix I want, I spend a lot of time trimming things away so all a mastering engineer would have to do is make things louder.

What is your advice for home producers?

Try to get the mix out of your computer and headphones. Listen to things in an actual environment, not in a vacuum. This is a concept that I’m really stuck on right now. Live recordings from the ’50s and ’60s sounded so good because they put everyone in the same room; all the playing wasn’t so discreet and separate. Compared to digital mixers, a channel on my analog mixer is three centimeters away from the next one. There’s going to be bleed from the two pieces of copper that are next to each other. Analog bleed makes stuff real. Even if you take your sounds from the computer, run them into a Mackie mixer, and then back into the computer it’s going to be better–you’re gaining bleed back.

Where do you stand on plug-ins?

I’ve had the privilege of recording a guitar into a Fender reverb–that sounds way more present into a computer with a similar plug-in. if you can make great records that work using that set-up, then eventually, when you have money or you get in a studio, you can use the real thing. I can hear it on record. I know when a guitar’s not real or a drum’s not real or it’s a digital synth. Then again, I’m listening on reference speakers, not computer speakers. Most people’s argument would be like, what’s the point? But I listen to a record not only for the creative content but also the sonic palette. I like DSD or analog over Pro Tools. Using Pro Tools at 4416 is great but if you become an artist and have the funds to record to tape you’ll hear the difference. The music industry has kind of tricked everybody. Because it’s way cheaper to manufacture CDs, they sold people on this noise floor thing like “[With digital], there’s no noise.” But without noise, you lose everything that’s there on the top end.

Our ears aren’t our most sensitive aspect of hearing, our skin is. That’s why we feel music when someone is playing a guitar in a room, or the sound of a grand piano in a big hall. The hair on the back of our arms is feeling it. Listening to music on an iPod through ear buds or recording a guitar direct into the computer, your ears can hear that stuff but you don’t feel it physically.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t make it too precious. Don’t hang on to something because you’re trying to make it perfect. You’re always going to feel like there’s something to fix. The artists that are so prolific just write it, record it, put it out there, and if they feel it could be better, they write a better song next time.

What's the centerpiece of your studio, gear-wise?

Our monitoring set up. I use Wilson audio speakers and transparent cable with Halpro amps. It’s a hi-fi set up. The speakers are really, really transparent and they’re not really nice to things like fake reverbs and compressions. I like listening to very natural recordings. I like listening to crazy electronic music, but I generally don’t listen to it on those speakers. Also the SSL console, which is one of the more ergonomic and advanced analog boards for its time, and the Sonoma DSD recording system that we have. It’s got a really high-sample rate, and it’s the closest thing we have to analog tape as far as frequency range and dynamic range.

What are the most common mistakes that home producers make?

I learned a lot by making live recordings. Also, the most important thing is not your gear but your mic technique. Understanding, for instance, how a mic is going to react to a glass wall or a shag carpet or a carpeted wall. Knowing the basic principles of obstruction, reflection, and diffusion. The best advice I would give is own a Shure SM-57, maybe a condenser mic. Work with the room that you’re in. Throw up a blanket, throw up plywood, record next to a mirror–try different things and see how it sounds.

Who are some engineers you really respect?

I like Steve Albini for his room sounds; his drums sound fantastic. John McIntyre’s overall sounds; the stuff he’s done for Tortoise, The Sea & Cake, and Jim O’Rourke has really cool, present sounds. Tom Dowd, who did all the early Atlantic stuff, and a lot of the Stax Records which I think to this day stand up as some of the best recordings ever, especially the Otis Redding records.

Do you have a particular philosophy when entering the studio?

Well, sessions at Snowghost only last four days and we’ve purposely fashioned it that way. Part of the problem with music nowadays is that people spend too long to make it. In the ’40s and ’50s, bands would go into the studio for a day. Having a time limit, makes bands really focus and hone in on what they do. We don’t have time to overthink things, it keeps things really light, and right about that point we start getting sick of each other it’s time to go. I like the idea of short creative bursts.

Last Week: Efrim Menuck