INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Studio Sound OCTOBER 1995 - by Phil Ward
Universally regarded as the most creative and influential producer of his, or any other generation, Brian Eno grants Studio Sound a rare technical interview, where he muses on everything, from his involvement in War Child to the latest Bowie and U2 albums. Phil Ward was the lucky scribe.
"It might as well be a hamburger," says Brian Eno, Record Producer extraordinaire and self-professed "non-boffin"". He's referring, of course, to his DX7. It sits among the collection of tools that makes up his sketchpad in the West London office of his company, Opal, and the remark is typical. His respect for audio technology is willfully limited, and his practices are among the most challenging you will ever encounter.
Despite having a few favourite bits of gear that accompany him to most sessions, he's not inclined to marvel at the power of machines. In fact, he sees the record producer as a navigator through the infinite choices equipment presents, and beyond that, as someone who can put the exercise of making a record into its wider cultural context. To create the philosophical agenda to which his artists can work, his own terms of reference are, ironically, encyclopedic. But that, no doubt, is why artists of the calibre of U2 and David Bowie both recent clients are happy to hire him.
Eno's assistant Andrew Burdon has constructed wheeled cabinets for every item in the studio. Far from Star Trek-style wall-to-wall electronics, Eno's set-up resembles a small corner in IKEA, and can be easily transported anywhere. It represents a design philosophy that seems likely to be repeated in a project underway to build a music therapy complex, community centre and recording studio in war-torn Bosnia, an extension of Eno's close involvement with the charity War Child. Practicality is one consideration, but the idea of a modular, moveable recording kit also corresponds to Eno's notion of any space being a potential recording space, and his dismissal of the concept of a sacrosanct acoustic interior, where ambience must be artificially created according to a fixed set of rules.
"I'm actually very much in favour of small, portable facilities, he says. So, instead of having a dedicated studio within the site in Mostar, we'll have something like I've got here, which is all on wheels. This is my new idea; for the last couple of years I've had everything built on wheels, because it takes me a long time to get my angles right in relation to the light and everything. Instead of investing a lot of money in one big multitrack studio, why not have two mobile studios within the building, so if something interesting is happening in one of the rooms say someone is teaching a group of five people and they would like to record instead of them having to decamp into the studio and set everything up again, you bring the studio to them. My ideal would be to have a situation where you just stick one plug in.""
He cites ADATs as the likely format, running to a maximum of about sixteen tracks. But while smaller, modular technology has arguably contributed to the demise of major institutions like The Manor, Eno still sees an important role for the traditional, commercial facility.
"Certainly, what people are gaining at being able to work at home with little studios like this, is the ability to cheaply explore a lot of options. What you lose through that way of working is the quality of rapport that a good player has with their instrument. One of my running arguments with manufacturers in general is that their whole emphasis is towards increasing options within the equipment. So you get more and more things stored in there, more and more ways of manipulating more and more data. But they never work on the more interesting problem, which is how you increase rapport with an instrument. The thing that makes a violin, which is practically the most limited instrument on earth, still viable is not that it is particularly interesting, but that people have an interesting relationship with it.
"One of the ways you can make an interesting relationship with any piece of equipment is by reducing the number of options with it not by constantly amplifying them. This is why guitar players consistently make more interesting music than synth players. A musician has to learn ways of focusing attention making prior decisions before going to the instrument to cancel out a lot of the possibilities. Life is too short!
"Having said that. I wouldn't like to be in the business of designing studios. I think it's an act of faith one which I'm prepared to make. People are going to want to work with musicians. Certainly if I was going to design a studio I wouldn't design it for an orchestra. I think that entity might well become obsolete or so rarefied that you'll only need one studio in England to deal with it. I would definitely want to design a studio particularly for drummers, because they are more irreplaceable than anyone else. Second in line for irreplaceability are guitar players."
The Bosnia studio is therefore not likely to be the MIDI-controlled sonic greenhouse which Eno patiently sits in our photographs.
"It won't be equipment like this. I think there will be a couple of little study rooms with equipment for recording live musicians, because that's going to be the biggest call out there. But it will be a portable studio. I think this is possible because recording engineers have made much too much fuss about acoustics. One of the liberations over the last few years has been the realisation that everybody actually like those recording made in garages and swimming pools. Acoustics don't have to be neutral. That idea of the acoustics being neutral is left over from classical music the idea that there could be a perfect recording environment, a transparent environment.
Acousticians beware. Eno is prepared to leave no quarter on this one.
"Acoustic space is active, so let's not worry about it. If it's a funny little room; it's a funny little room. Good players respond to the space they are in. I think most of the attempts to standardise the activity of recording have been based on a philosophy that is really obsolete. And rock music has made it obsolete, because we've grown up listening to things that have either been recorded in weird places and we like the weirdness or which have been made weird after the event. So they've been recorded in neutral spaces but then people have spent hours making them sound like they've been recorded in garages or canyons or something.
"It's rooted in the Renaissance idea that we can control the world, organise it into manageable, scientifically measurable compartments. I think this idea is no longer of any use; we cannot regulate our environments like that. It's all based on the idea that there is a correct starting position. For me, the worst way of mixing, that you see some engineers doing, is to take the finished track, put up the kick drum and sit there listening to it for 25 minutes. Then finally, around lunchtime, the snare drum comes up. I think, fuck this. I ban it now. It's just an unquestioning obedience to a concept. That's what a lot of people spend a lot of their lives doing obeying a concept."
In the light of this, it should come as no surprise that the demands Eno places on a recording studio have little to do with measurable frequency responses.
"The only thing I care about, he states, is space and the lack of shag carpet! I'd say those two things make a difference to me. I like space because I think it's very counter-productive to have everybody in the same musical space together, and more and more I find that what matters to me is having rooms that you can sit in where you can't hear what's going on. If people are in the studio, I would like them to be engaged or not there not just hanging around and thinking 'Oh, I suppose I'd better say something, because otherwise people will think I'm useless.' What I now want from studios is the sitting-around room; the control room, which should be the biggest; and the studio room. Lately I've been working in bigger studios because I've been doing more improvising with people. After working with all this desktop stuff, improvisation is so much more fun. The chaos of having five people in a room playing is thrilling. There's nothing chaotic about working at a desk. I mean, for a start you're sitting down. I often work standing up because I think that as soon as you stand up you engage the rest of your body. I have this thing that the body is the large brain. When you're sitting at a Mac and only your eyes and your right hand are being used, that's awful. It's so stultifying."
The material that Eno works on so fruitfully, despite this sense of confinement, often generates ideas that he might take into a studio when producing another act. His solo experiments are, of course, legion. But his sonic presence can be felt directly on any album he produces. One reason for this, is his habit of taking DATs and DX7 cartridges into a session but never computer data. He encourages commitment to tape as early as possible, and, surprisingly, shuns the possibilities for endless reinterpretation that computers provide.
"What I'm more and more inclined to do is to limit options," he says. "One of the reasons for destroying programs I never keep sequences is so that there isn't the choice of going back to them. What you've got is the DAT, you've got that or nothing.
"I've just been doing a song with U2 which was a very good example of this. It is a very dense-sounding piece, and one day we had a beautiful mix of the backing track, so we just mixed it to two tracks of the multitrack. I've always loved doing this, because then, when you come back to that tape, you just put up two tracks and get on with your work. And if there's something wrong like there's not enough of something you've still got it on the tape adjacently, to put up if you need to. If there's too much of it, you can put it up out of phase and it cancels. The value of that is you've then eliminated a whole number of options so you can focus your attention somewhere else.
"There are two interesting areas to focus on: what do I do on top of this or with this? Then, when you've got a whole track there, you start doing treatments of the whole track. That is something that very rarely gets done, because normally people just don't know what the track is until the day of mixing. It's frightening that people throw on overdubs and bits and pieces, and then on the day of mixing they think now, what are we actually trying to do here? Well, that's already too late. You don't have time to have any relationship with what you're doing like that."
Ironically, having to commit to tape was a limitation of the recording process that computer technology was supposed to solve. But in spite of a decade of being sold the idea of limitless options meaning limitless creativity, Eno is like many other producers in holding firm to the principle of capturing and printing a performance. For him, though, this step has a much wider significance.
"I sometimes enjoy the freedom of digital methods. But I think one of my jobs as a producer is to focus attention or, could I say, to limit options. They both mean the same thing. I do that by trying as much as I can to establish the cultural territory. Where are we culturally? What are we trying to be? What books? What films? OK, if this is where we are, then we are not going to do that or that. What are the things that we're not going to do? Let's just get them out of the way and narrow the field a little bit.
"You know, the reason that records take 10 fucking years to make now is because people do that to begin with. They mostly don't have pre-written material when they come into the studio, so they've got a double problem. They throw themselves into this sea of possibilities, and they have no coast to look at, no stars to orient by, and they haven't yet learnt how to use the ship. They toss around on the waves for months and months. So more and more, I think, wherever you can limit options, do so. Or wherever it's prudent to obviously you don't want to create a situation where you stop all creativity. But you want to create a situation where there's a meaningful amount of attention on something, rather than a small amount of attention on everything.
"I think one of the things people expect of me when I work with them is that I will work out where the project is in terms of psycho cultural space, if you like. The second thing is purely technical. Yes, we could have all these possibilities and yes, we could explore them all but let's not. Let's decide not to for no reason, it can be a completely arbitrary decision. Let's decide to use just one guitar sound."
Is that the producer's decision?
"No, decisions are irrevocably anyone's, in most situations. But I think one of the things that people expect of me when I work with them is that I will do things like that, or suggest things like that. I have no pride about these suggestions; if it turns out a week later that somebody says you know I'd really love to use a different sound, well, fine, it really doesn't matter. It doesn't matter which areas of the world you decide to regard as fixed. You could invent the whole history of recording every time you went into the studio but you wouldn't get very far!"
The role of the producer, according to Eno, is somewhere between the dictator and the mediator.
"Usually what people are practising is not democracy," he believes, "but cowardice and good manners. Nobody wants to step on so-and-so's toes, so nobody wants to say anything. The valuable idea of democracy is that if there are five people in a room and one of them feels very strongly about something, you can trust that the strength of their feelings indicates that there is something behind it. My feeling about a good democratic relationship is the notion that it's a shifting leadership. It's not: we all lead together all the time. It's: we all have sufficient trust in one another to believe that if someone feels strongly then we let them lead for that period of time." And this is what typically happens: somebody will say: 'no, I really think we should do it this way' and I'll say: 'OK, let's try it, let's see what happens'.
"Normally I don't stay with the project for the whole time. I deliberately keep out so I can come back in and hear things with fresh ears. Some things will seem completely obvious to me straight away. Like: 'that doesn't work', 'that works brilliantly', 'this is confused'. I can very quickly, within an hour's listening, set up an agenda which says, 'this we must talk about philosophically', 'we have to look at that structurally', 'we have to look at this in terms of whether it's going any way like the direction of the rest of the record'. I set agendas like that, to the extent that I will say that I want to take control of this song for, say, half a day. For half a day I'll say what to do and we'll see if it works. Sometimes it doesn't. And, of course, any other participant can take the same role.
"It's very good if you can be in a working relationship with people and you can say, 'OK, I tried it and it doesn't work'. And they say 'Yep, fine'. Fortunately most of the relationships I'm in are like that. You have to have the respect for people that say, 'look, you're grown up, you can take an option and not pretend that it's interesting when it isn't'."
Economy of method means a lot to Eno. Like his compact, portable workstation, his mind is streamlined and multitasking, so there's not much room for pointless wiring. Whether or not his ideas can be applied to every situation, the truth is that, where they have, some of the most groundbreaking sessions in the history of recording have resulted. Whatever the secret, it may be simpler than it sounds.
"I admire people like Howie B who turn up with their record collections and they don't bring a single instrument with them. They just patch together other bits of music. This is so intelligent. You get all the complexity of one sound, all its cultural resonances, and then you stick it with all the complexity and cultural resonances of another. I really admire economy more than anything else: elegant ways of making big things happen which is the opposite of what normally happens in a studio, where you have clumsy ways of making small things happen."
WORKING WITH U2
The U2 sessions for the latest album took place in a warehouse space they recently discovered in the centre of Dublin. Eno's impressions?
"It's lovely, it's right on the river. At the moment they've got an Amek desk in there, but they're replacing it this month with a classic Neve. There's nothing particularly special, it's just a great spot. It's only been operating since May. I'm sure they'll do most of their recording there from now on. It's very comfortable for them, and one of the good things about it is a very large lounge, which as I said is really important because it means that people can sit and listen to something else. You can if you want pipe through what's going on in the control room, but you can also escape that. And there's a good room upstairs for meals and guests and so on. I'd say about 60% of the building is not functioning studio space but it's very functional space."
WORKING WITH BOWIE
David Bowie's 1.Outside was mostly recorded at Mountain Studios in Switzerland. The producer speaks:
"There is no recreational area, which is a very serious matter, and no windows. It's at lake level, right on the shore. The control room is separate from the studio, and you have to go upstairs to the studio. And it's built onto the side of a casino.
"Our techniques changed from track to track. A lot of it is live improvisation, then sometimes with additions on top, and on some tracks I'm playing everything. There are a number of co-compositions between David and I where I played nearly everything. I think he had one or two things written in advance, but I tried to persuade him not to pay any attention to them! I wanted to start from scratch, and that's pretty much what we did. They were improvisations, though conceptually they were quite structured. That is to say, they weren't structured in terms of you play this, I'll play that, you play a G and I'll go to D, but more in terms of what kind of attitudes people should take towards what they were doing."