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Gearing Up To Take On Monsanto

To record Neil Young at the famous Teatro, Jon Hanlon linked up the UA Green and Brown Boards with a Neve BCM10 and PSM12 into the ultimate DIY ‘large format’ console.

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16 September 2015

Artist: Neil Young & Promise of the Real
Album: The Monsanto Years

Neil Young an old fogey? With the legendary musician approaching 70, the description has been whispered a few times, even if there’s too much respect for the man for most critics to say it out loud. There’s a peculiar video on YouTube (Neil Young Shows Haskell Wexler His LincVolt) that initially seems to confirm the old-fogey angle. Young — baseball cap, T-shirt and scruffy jacket, sunglasses, heavy sideburns and long hair — shows off his shiny, 1959 Lincoln Continental convertible. His look has ‘old hippy’ pasted across it in neon, and the car itself screams nostalgia, suggesting an owner firmly rooted in the past. 

The devil is under the bonnet though, because while it’s easy to miss when Young calls the car an “electric cruiser” right at the beginning, a moment later he explains that it’s powered in part by a generator that runs on “cellulosic ethanol, a future fuel made from waste.” The more cynical may still categorise it as an old-hippy pursuit — ‘Young’s an environmentalist, you know’. But as the video progresses and Young shows the gleaming, hyper-advanced technology just underneath the surface of the Lincvolt, the realisation dawns that the car is, in fact, totally and utterly futuristic. 

The Lincvolt project is initiated and presumably funded by Young, and its mission statement is to “to inspire a generation by creating a clean automobile propulsion technology that serves the needs of the 21st Century and delivers performance that is a reflection of the driver’s spirit.” With the world heating up increasingly fast and mankind desperately needing to cut its CO2 emissions, it does not get more forward-looking and relevant to our times than that. Neil Young undoubtedly is an old hippy, but he also is far more with the times than many people a quarter his age. 1-0 to Young in his tussle with the 21st Century.

YOUNG STAR BUCKS

The same reflections, and conclusion, come to mind when considering Neil Young’s latest musical project, his 36th studio album The Monsanto Years. Young’s 51-minute rant against the Monsanto multinational company (think Roundup), Starbucks, and big companies in general hijacking our democracies and endangering our environment and our lives, has come in for quite bit of criticism, ostensibly because the lyrics are too “didactic.”  These reviews also often have a hint of ‘who does he think he is to lecture us about anything?’ And yet, at a time when news of fast-approaching Armageddon is dominating newsfeeds everywhere, the question is far more pertinent why the vast majority of today’s artists take the ostrich-approach to the Big Issues Of Our Time. That’s Young 2, 21st Century 0. 

There’s more. The Monsanto Years sees Young team up with a band of youngsters (’scuse the pun), called Promise of the Real, featuring Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah. Presumably, the idea is for Young to tap into their youthful energy and help him connect with a younger generation. The album was recorded at the Teatro theatre in Oxnard, a coastal town half an hour north of LA, where Daniel Lanois set up shop in the late ’90s and recorded and produced classic albums by Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and others. 

The Monsanto Years was recorded in typical Neil Young fashion; quickly, nearly live, full of rough edges, and to analogue tape using vintage analogue gear. Yet it turns out that a Pro Tools rig running at 192k was also involved. So just like the LincVolt, a combination of vintage and advanced 21st Century technology was used, and the result sounds downright spectacular; big, panoramic, energetic, gutsy and very alive. All this surely helped in prompting sympathetic reviewers to state that the album sees Young, “at his usually defiant, belligerent and downright hostile best,” and “on angry, brilliant form.” 3-0 to Neil Young?

JOHN HANLON BIO

John Hanlon first worked with Young on Ragged Glory (1990), as an engineer and mixer, and has since worked on a multitude of other Neil Young projects, including Weld (1991), Arc Weld (1991), Unplugged (1993), Sleeps With Angels (1994), Young’s Dead Man soundtrack for the Jim Jarmusch film (1996), Are You Passionate? (2003), Americana and Psychedelic Pill (both 2012). Having been trained in electronics in the Navy and worked in the computer business, Hanlon was hired by a small film sound post-production facility in San Francisco in 1973. He fell in love with tape machines and studio technology in general, played guitar, and later moved to LA, where he was a roadie for several well-known acts, worked as a studio tech at Record Plant Studios and A&M Studios, and eventually landed himself a job at the Beach Boys’ studio in Santa Monica. He went independent in the early 1980s, and did a lot of work with producer David Briggs, known for his pioneering work with Neil Young. The rest, as Hanlon says, “is history,” with much of Hanlon’s current time being taken up working at Young’s Broken Arrow ranch, just south of San Francisco, on the musician’s archives. In addition to his work with Young, Hanlon has over the years also worked with the likes of The Beach Boys, Cat Stevens, Dennis Wilson, Stephen Stills, R.E.M., Jackson Browne, and many others. 

SHIP STIRRER

John Hanlon manned the ship during The Monsanto Years sessions, not only engineering, mixing and co-producing (with Young) the album, but also as the project’s general organiser, studio designer, and trouble-shooter. Perhaps it’s Hanlon’s old Navy and/or electronics background, but he’s extremely precise in his recollections, remembering that he got the first call from Young for The Monsanto Years project on December 17, 2014, saying that he wanted to record a new album… with Promise of the Real as backing band… at Teatro. Hanlon was immediately aware that Young’s simple pronouncement posed some significant challenges.

“It’s really important for Neil to find a space where he can set up and be comfortable,” explains Hanlon. “That usually means big spaces. Teatro is a big, empty theatre, with a high ceiling, and all the seats have been taken out, so the acoustics are cavernous. We could have worked in tons of places with better acoustics but Neil had his heart set on Teatro so it was my job to make the live area work and build a studio there for him. He wanted to record there because of the vibe and because of what the place represents. Particularly the great records that have been done there, even though it was with a different producer and 18 years ago.

“Also, the band consists of really accomplished musicians, with whom he’d worked at a benefit earlier in the year, and he wanted to work with them because they’re fearless and not afraid to go for things, yet take his lead. This meant that I had to record six musicians including Neil, which posed its own problems as we were working all-analogue with a limited amount of inputs and buses. I had a ton of work to do in terms of organising the acoustics, the band set-up and the studio. What I thought of Teatro did not matter. What was important was to make it work technically, and create an atmosphere where Neil can relax, and just be in the moment inventing and performing music. If I could achieve that, and Neil’s happy, I had a chance of recording great and heartfelt music. Because that’s what it’s all about, capturing the moment.”

THEATRE TREATMENT

Hanlon elaborated on the considerable amount of preparation that “capturing the moment” at Teatro required. “Given that Neil’s call came just a week before Christmas, all I could do for the rest of the month was get on the phone and start lining up vendors, the acoustic team and so on. I started readying the recording space the first business day of the new year, January 5th. I laid down mats and carpets and put up gobos in the area where the musicians played to dampen reflections, and installed large panels against the back wall to break up the flutter echo. Of course, when the area filled up with gear it helped as well. The acoustic crew I had hired came in to work on the control room, which I had decided to build in the former projector room upstairs. It’s as bad an acoustic environment as you can have, with a big concave ceiling that was like the upside down hull of a boat, so we put clouds and traps up there, in the back and front, in the corners, and also left and right of the theatrical space, to turn everything into listening areas I could trust.

“The acoustic treatments were done in the first week, while I was installing the gear with Jeff Pinn. Most of the gear came from Neil’s studio at his Broken Arrow ranch. I first worked there on his album Ragged Glory with producer David Briggs in 1990, using the Record Plant mobile truck. It was the first time I encountered the 12-input Universal Audio Green Board. It’s an all-valve console, built in 1965, based around UA 610 mic pre units with EQ at 100Hz and 10kHz. It sounds great, and was at one point owned by Brian Wilson. In all I had four consoles set up in the impromptu control room at Teatro. From left to right from where I was sitting they were a suitcase-model Neve PSM12, the Green Board, another 16-input UA board which we call the Brass Board, and a Neve BCM10 sidecar. The Brass Board is a solid state version of the Green Board, without mic pres or EQ, all hand-wired with point-to-point soldering onto a big piece of brass, and only LCR panning. I believe it was handmade for Neil around 1969.

“I also brought in a Pro Tools rig, tons of outboard, and Neil’s Studer A827 24-track tape machine, with a 16-track head block. I had used the same machine for the recordings of Americana and Psychedelic Pill (both 2012) but with an 8-track head block. Those albums were done with a four-piece, but I needed more tracks to be able to record six musicians. I set up 28-30 microphones at Teatro, which is not a lot to record a band, but you don’t use stacks of microphones when you’re confronted with the small amount of inputs that I had! I also set up a PA, mainly so they could hear themselves singing, and to amplify the percussion. My studio monitors were PMC IB2s as main monitors and PMC twotwo.6s as nearfields. I don’t EQ bottom end on small bookshelf speakers, and Neil wants playback to be as loud as possible when he comes into the control room with the band. So the IB2s served a dual function. The ability to check the low end is crucial for me, because the mid-range and the top are very affected by the low frequencies.”

I had four consoles set up in the impromptu control room at Teatro… a suitcase-model Neve PSM12, the Green Board, another 16-input UA board which we call the Brass Board, and a Neve BCM10 sidecar.

CAPTURING IMPERFECTION

Setting up the Teatro recording space and studio took Hanlon and his crew two weeks. Once all the equipment and acoustic treatments were in place, he began the second phase of conducting the sessions. “Neil had recorded demos of him singing with an acoustic guitar at Capitol Studios in LA, with Niko Bolas and Al Schmitt engineering. I brought a CD of that in on Monday January 19, for Lucas and the band to be able to hear the changes and melodies and lyrics when they came in for the first time. They also brought a few of their own tunes — it was part of the deal that I’d record them playing some of their own stuff as well. They ran through each of the eight songs on Neil’s demos, and a few of their own, over the course of a week, making sure they didn’t learn Neil’s songs into the ground, so to speak. Neil hates it when everybody learns things to the point that the life goes out of it. A lot of music today has been perfected way too much, which is not human nature. Neil is into the human condition and into capturing imperfections.”

Having Promise of the Real run through the songs for a week also allowed Hanlon to perfect his setup and get the best sounds possible. The producer had one more variable to negotiate, which is that Young prefers to record around the time of the full moon. With the next new moon on February 3rd he wasn’t expecting Young to arrive until the end of January, but in fact the main man turned up on the 26th. “Neil came in with one additional new song, and the band learnt that very quickly. We went straight for takes after that. We usually recorded three takes of each song at the most. Sometimes we got it on the first take. If we didn’t have it in three takes, we took a break and moved on, then came back to the first song a few days later. The main thing is for everyone and everything to stay fresh.”

The recording and mixing setup that Hanlon had built at Teatro sounds straightforward enough, but the lack of inputs and buses meant a rather complicated web of signal chains. Using a 16-channel mixing desk without EQ or continuous panning, plus quirky mix preferences on the part of Young, required meticulous forethought. Hanlon went into detail on what was involved, starting with the microphones right at the beginning of the signal chains.

Hanlon: “The fact that I didn’t have many mic inputs was handy from one perspective, because the fewer microphones you use, the less phase errors you are going to introduce into your recording. I come from a love of English rock ’n’ roll records, and all my microphone techniques are based on those by Chris Huston, Andy Johns, Eddie Kramer — the guys who cut Led Zeppelin 2 — who also used a limited amount of mics. My whole concept at Teatro was to try to balance people in the room as best as possible, even before I put up any microphones or switched on the PA. I placed the guitar and bass amps in a semi-circle, with the drums behind them so the drummer is not getting the full force of the amps and hearing himself. As long as you maintain dynamics in the playing area, you get much better performances.

“I recorded the drums with only three mics, using the Glyn Johns method, with a pair of Neumann U67s above, at a 90-degree angle from each other and in front of the kick a Neumann tube 47 with a large piece of foam to protect the capsule from air pressure, and a Neumann 47 FET as backup. I had leakage from the guitars, but leakage is your friend. You’re hearing everything at the same time, and that’s your record. I augmented that drum setup with a Shure SM57 on the snare and a Neumann KM84 on the hi-hat, but I only used them occasionally. I bused the kick drum to Track 1, and the 67s, SM57 and KM84 to Tracks 2 and 3.

“I had another Neumann 47 FET on the bass cabinet, and while I also had a direct, I usually used the 47, which went to Track 4 on the tape. I like to use two mics on the guitar cabs, a Shure SM56 and 57 — Andy Johns style — with one mic close and straight on, and the other angled. The straight-on mic gets you the mids and top end, and the angled mic the low end. As a result you don’t need EQ. I used this technique on Neil’s Fender Deluxe and Magnatone amps, and on Micah Nelson’s Princeton, but Lucas played both my 1964 Fender Vibroverb and another old Princeton. Because I didn’t have enough inputs, I had just a single 57 on each, angled at around 30 degrees off-axis, so I covered both the top and the bottom end. Neil played an acoustic guitar on the track Wolf Moon, a pre-war Martin D28 formerly owned by Hank Williams, and I recorded it with an AKG C12A and direct from the pick-up. The guitars went to Tracks 5 and 6, and Neil’s on Track 7.

“I had a Neumann KMS140 on Neil’s vocal, which is cardioid, because he tends to move around a lot, and this was recorded to Track 8. To pick up less from the room, I used hyper-cardioid Neumann KMS150s on the three band members who sang; Lukas, Micah and [bassist] Corey [McCormick]. These went to Tracks 11, 12, and 13. We also overdubbed backing vocals on some songs using a Telefunken 251 and a 47 FET for the double. I recorded those overdubbed vocals directly to Pro Tools, and they came up on Channels 15-16 on the Brass Board for the mix.

“Track 9 had percussion, which I recorded with a pair of fixed cardioid Neumann TLM103s. The room mics were on track 10. I put up five of them, consisting of a pair of Klaus Heyne-modified Neumann U87s in front of the band, two Coles 4038 ribbon mics behind the drums, and a tube Neumann 47 low in front of the stage for more bottom end. I didn’t use the Royer ribbon mic I put up on the balcony, because it had too much delay, which made it useless. It would have gone to Track 15.

“And finally, on Track 14 I had the subkick. I sent the kick mic out to a big subwoofer in the back of the room and recorded that back in, so I could get more bottom end on the kick. It excites the room and also gives the drummer a better sense of his kick drum. In the end it was a 14-track recording. I also had a pair of AKG C12As on Neil’s ‘Gold Rush’ upright piano, which is named like that because it was used on After The Gold Rush, and a pair of matched AKG 451s on a pump organ. I never used any of them. But if there are instruments in the studio that Neil can play, I better be ready to record them, otherwise I risk being in a world of hurt!”

If there are instruments in the studio that Neil can play, I better be ready to record them, otherwise I risk being in a world of hurt!

INS & OUTS

So far, so straightforward, though Hanlon’s approach in reducing 28-odd mics to 14 tape tracks was not quite as clear-cut. Hanlon elaborated both on his bussing and some of the outboard he put into action. “The outboard was a lot of tube and old solid-state stuff, and it was all used during tracking. They included a pair of Pultec EQP-1As on the bass and kick, and a Neve 2254 compressor on the bass microphone and DI. On the guitars I had Neve 32264 compressors and Lang PEQ2s — I like what the Lang does to the low-mids and upper bottom end on guitars. It sounds great. The mic pres on all the vocalists were Neve 1073s, and Neil’s vocal went through my Quad Eight compressor. I used three UREI 1176 compressors on the other vocalists.

“All my inputs came down to 12 on the Green Board, 10 on the BCM10, and external 1066 mic pres for the bass and DI, and 1073s for the vocals. The Green Board’s 610 mic pres were great for guitar amps and room mics, and I used one line input for Neil’s vocal from the Quad Eight.
I didn’t apply any EQ on the mics on the Green Board, because the console sounds so open and ballsy, you don’t really need to do anything. The drums and percussion and other room mics came in on the BCM10. The Neve PSM12 was there because I needed extra buses. It was used to combine the room mics that came in on the Green Board and on the BCM10. The Green Board only has four buses, but none can be multiple assigned. I needed to combine the room mics that came in on the Green Board and the BCM10, so I used their echo and foldback outputs to go to the PSM12, where they were blended into a single output going to Track 10 on the tape recorder. I didn’t need the room mics in stereo as I already had enough width from all the other microphones, particularly the drum mics on Tracks 2 and 3.

“The Studer was running at 30ips, with 5000ft reels, which gave me just over half an hour of running time. I had to do some ‘hot’ reel changes, which was tricky! After recording things on the Studer, I transferred them to Pro Tools at 24-bit/192k. The reason was that if you start running tape a lot, you begin to lose high end. It may not be discernible to most people, but the sound does change. I love tape and love rolling it back and forth, but we treated these 2-inch tapes as masters. The way we worked gives you the option of doing all your mix preparation in Pro Tools, and then later using time code to connect the tape recorder again to mix from the actual tape. We didn’t do that in this situation. The 14-track Pro Tools recording of each session came up on the Brass Board and I mixed on that.”

ON THE CLOCK

Given that Young and Hanlon are self-declared, diehard analogue fans, the use of Pro Tools is a little puzzling, though the answer, at least on Young’s part, appears to mirror his championing of the hi-res Pono music player. “The reason to go to digital is practical,” replied Hanlon. “But when we use digital, Neil wants to go to the highest resolution available. We have done listening tests, and 192k sounds great, though it does depend on having a good clock. We have used the Apogee Big Ben, which I think is very musical, and I checked out the Antelope, Rosendahl Nanosync, Aardvark Aardsync and the new Pro Tools clock, and they’re all really good. We did a shoot-out and went with the Grimm Audio CC1, because it sounded the best with 24-bit/192k and the new Avid HD I/O converters.“I love the sound of tape, and these days it’s more of an effect. I used to like the lower output tapes, because you can get more tape compression, but with the high output tapes now you really have to work to compress it, and sometimes the tape machine electronics start to distort before the tape saturates! With rock ’n’ roll there’s so much harmonic distortion on everything, I like what happens when you put the whole band on tape, but if I was recording jazz or classical, I might go strictly digital, at high resolution. But up to a point it does not matter what I like. Neil likes tape, and then wants it recorded to hi-res digital as soon as possible. Once again, just like with the place where we recorded, it doesn’t matter whether he’s right or wrong, if that’s what he wants and I can make it happen, I have a happy performer and will get better takes.

“It’s a similar situation with the mix. Everything you do with Neil is a fight against time, because he doesn’t like waiting. The moment we had finished the transfer to Pro Tools and they came in to listen back, I was mixing the session live on the Brass Board and that was our starting point. That first playback with me running the faders — or rotary pots in this case — doing a mix better be going somewhere, because Neil is really into the vibe of what’s going down in the moment. He’s not afraid to decide that’s the final mix. While he’s also not afraid to bin a mix, when necessary, often he gets wedded to the first thing he hears. David Briggs told me a long time ago: ‘If you do a mix for Neil you better make it great, or make it unusable by running a 1kHz tone through it, because anything in-between he will use!’

“I consider my initial mixes roughs, but Neil doesn’t like me to mess too much with them. He doesn’t like it when things get too perfected. Sometimes I was able to do another mix because you always try to improve on what you have done. Neil has good ears, so if he liked the new mix better, that’s what we went with. Either way, all the mixes were done on the Brass Board, which meant almost exclusively adjusting levels. If EQ or compression was necessary, I had to use a plug-in in Pro Tools, which I did in a couple of songs, using the UAD 33609.

“The stereo mix went to my monitors, back to Pro Tools, and to an Ampex ATR 102, with quarter-inch tape running at 15ips. I like quarter-inch tape, and I decided to make a change. I mixed to analogue and digital at the same time, and later we compared them. Some songs sounded better right off the quarter-inch tape, for other songs the digital mix sounded better. I also transferred the tape mix prints back to Pro Tools. We did some editing on a couple of songs at Fantasy and Shangri-La studios, then I took the digital mix files to Bob Ludwig who mastered the album. I like to be there for the mastering, particularly with an album like this that I co-produced, engineered and mixed. It’s all my fault!”

Hanlon laughed. Whether he made mistakes or not was probably not the issue most prominent on his agenda, in the context of working with an artist who sees capturing the moment and imperfections as an essential aspect of “recording great and heartfelt music.” Judging by the aural evidence, Young and Hanlon succeeded in their aims. That’s 3-0 to Young, with a little bit of help from his friends, amongst them, notably, John Hanlon.

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Issue 93

REVIEWED

Ableton Live 12
What’s in. What’s out. What to expect.