HARPING ON WITH NEWSOM
When Noah Georgeson took over from Steve Albini to produce Joanna Newsom’s latest album, he replaced Albini’s favourite setups with his own — including eight mics to capture the centrepiece harp.
Story: Paul Tingen
Artist: Joanna Newsom
A woman playing a harp should conjure feelings of peace, not controversy. Yet Joanna Newsom consistently manages to make waves. Her fourth album, Divers, ascended almost all ‘Best Albums of 2015’ lists that matter, and had a review average in the high 80s. Even mainstream rock and pop reviewers, who have pigeon-holed her largely acoustic music under labels like ‘New Weird America’ and ‘Freak Folk’, were wheeling out the superlatives — “truly incredible”, “a masterpiece”, “startlingly beautiful”.
But even with all that high praise, the singer, harpist, multi-instrumentalist and composer has also been called “one of the most polarising artists of the last 10 years.” While most critics clearly adore Newsom, there are also some that hate her music and voice with a vengeance and aren’t shy of expressing their dislike. My favourite quote from a reviewer was, “What ties both the love and the hate together is bewilderment,” while conceding that “visceral bewilderment” is actually rather interesting. Go figure.
So what’s all the ado about? Well, firstly, it’s not just the harp. Divers features Newsom playing an array of instruments including piano, harpsichord, Wurlitzer, celesta, synths, and zither. Other instruments that appear on the album include violin, viola, trombone, English horn, bouzouki, baglama, drums, electric guitar, and the entire weight of the City of Prague Philharmonic. All these colours are woven together in baroque, kaleidoscopic arrangements, over which Newsom sings almost scholarly lyrics and inimitably complex melodic lines. Her mannered, childlike approach to singing borrows from early Kate Bush and Björk, but is otherwise entirely her own.
Whatever Newsom’s music is, mainstream it ain’t. The fact that it strikes a chord (and occasional discord) with audiences is largely due to the originality of her song-writing and musical arrangements, but also in its sonic presentation. Newsom’s albums aren’t limp-sounding, folky-affairs; they kick butt. And despite the absence of deep bass, they still sound in-your-face enough to hold their own in the current loudness-saturated music-scene.
OLD FRIENDS, NEWSOM SOUND
Noah Georgeson is the man responsible for the sonic and production aspects of much of Newsom’s recorded output. Georgeson set Newsom’s, and his own, career on course by engineering, mixing and producing her sparsely-arranged 2004 debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender. Newsom’s second album, Ys, was made with Steve Albini engineering, Jim O’Rourke mixing and Van Dyke Parks co-arranging and producing, but Georgeson returned for album number three, Have One On Me, recording Newsom’s harp and vocals and mixing most of the album. His contribution on Divers was even more significant, as he engineered parts of the album, and mixed and produced everything.
Georgeson is one of the driving forces in the American alt folk movement. He’s worked with Devendra Banhart, Robin Pecknold (of Fleet Foxes), Vetiver, Mason Jennings, Cedric Bixler-Zavala (of the Mars Volta), as well as the likes of Bert Jansch, Charlotte Gainsbourg, The Strokes, and a Mexican artist called Natalia LaFourcade; which won him a Latin Grammy Award.
There are more than a few ties that bind the pair. Both Newsom and Georgeson hail from Nevada City, a small town in north-eastern California full of artists, ex-hippies and New Agers. They also both studied at the liberal arts Mills College in San Francisco, were part of the band The Pleased and… were romantically involved.
“I hesitate to say I am an engineer, because it implies a technical or scientific approach with an empirical, objective ‘right’ and ‘wrong’”
From his home studio in Los Angeles, Georgeson shared key points of their musical history: “I played music from my early teens, first piano and then classical guitar. Of course I played in shitty bands during high school, and I was always the one recording us, using both analogue and Pro Tools. When we were at Mills together I helped Joanna record her material, at home and also secretly at a studio at Mills. In working with her I had to figure out how to record acoustic instruments, particularly the harp, which is one of the most challenging things to record, because of the way the sound comes off it.
“Those recordings became her first album, and suddenly I was a producer! Then my friend Devendra asked me to help him with his next record [Banhart’s fifth, Cripple Crow], which turned out to be quite successful. So while the first two albums I did were both in the small indie folk world, they also went pretty big. I really lucked out. I was among a group of people who were doing great things, and my career carried on from there. I’ve never had a lack of work since.
“I always saw myself more as a musician and a composer, and have to admit that until doing Joanna’s first album it had never crossed my mind that being an engineer and producer was something I could do. Honestly, I am not the most technical guy. I hesitate to say I am an engineer, because it implies a technical or scientific approach with an empirical, objective ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.’ I wholeheartedly don’t believe in approaching music that way, unless you are simply trying to document something — like a field recording or something. I think that every single aspect of music and recording is entirely subjective. I don’t have the analytical, scientific mindset that the word ‘engineer’ implies. I can get the sound I want out of pretty much anything but am not particularly interested in how things work from a technical perspective. Instead I’m best at making things sound a certain way, and giving my opinion. It’s kind of weird to be hired for giving my opinion, but it’s also flattering!”
ALBINI OUT, GEORGESON IN
Recording for the album started at the beginning of 2013 in Vox Studios in Los Angeles. Steve Albini was engineering, but he dislikes LA and is reluctant to work away from his Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, so he left in April and Georgeson took over. Recordings continued on and off at Vox and other studios for another year and a half. The project finally concluded with four months of mixing — partly at Georgeson’s home studio but mostly at House of Blues Studio in LA — then mastering wrapped up in early 2015.
In today’s low-budget climate, two years — even broken up — is a pretty long time to be working on an album in commercial studios, particularly for someone who is not a best-selling, mainstream artist. In an Entertainment Weekly interview, Newsom said the recordings took so long because she “wanted the character and colours of the instrumentation to shift definitively, from song to song, which entailed a wide pool of collaborators and a lengthy collaborative process with each person.”
Georgeson supported Newsom’s vision, and elaborated on why things took so long: “In the months before I arrived, Steve had recorded the basic tracks for about two thirds of the album. I came in literally the day after he left with all his mic setups still in place. He wrote me a long email detailing everything he had been doing. He likes particular mics, but I chose to do a reset because I had a different aesthetic vision than he did. He had recorded everything to tape and dumped things into Pro Tools. I decided to keep going purely into Pro Tools because of the workflow, but also because I wasn’t hearing the benefits of using tape. The sounds were good, but there was tape hiss, which is fine for some recordings but not for Joanna’s record.
“For me tape saturation and compression are a large part of the charm of using tape, and there wasn’t any of that. The recordings had tape artefacts I thought didn’t work for the record, yet none of the things I like about using tape. I’m often looking for that kind of messiness, and imprecision and fuzziness that analogue can give you. But this record did not call for that. It has a lot of detail in the mid and high-mid ranges, and it’s not bass heavy, so it seemed to be calling for a sound image that’s cleaner and more precise. It made sense to stay in digital.
“Joanna and I worked full-time for another couple of weeks, and from then on we worked when we both had the time. Sometimes we weren’t working because we were waiting for collaborators to send in their material. I either recorded the additional musicians at House of Blues, or they would record their parts where they lived, and would check with us about the arrangement and technical aspects of what they contributed. Joanna was not dictating the arrangements note for note. Even though she had very strong ideas about the parts, she also gave the players options that we’d sort through later. There was a lot of working from a distance, for instance, the classical music instruments in Anecdotes were recorded in a studio in Northern California. The modern world allows us to do that.
“When I arrived at Vox the idea was to record all the overdubs, get the material in from collaborators, and then mix and be ready half a year later. But that turned out to be wildly optimistic. As Joanna listened to what we had, she judged the record to be less and less complete. In some cases she didn’t like the performance, other times we were continually putting things in and taking them out until the arrangement felt right. As soon as that point was reached, we’d go to the next song. We’d move on when it felt sprawling and we’d reached a point of diminishing returns. Overall, we re-recorded some parts, added overdubs, and because things took so long, we also recorded a few additional songs from scratch, like A Pin-Light Bent and Same Old Man.”
CLASSIC VOX TONE
The variety of acoustic instruments, Newsom’s synth sounds, and the image Georgeson placed those sounds in, all contributed to Divers’ rich sonic palette. But Georgeson also credits a lot of that sonic diversity to Vox Studios. “Vox is a super old-school place,” explained the producer, “with a very special old-time feeling. I don’t like the velvet, brushed-metal and scented candles aesthetic of many studios these days. Vox almost has a laboratory vibe; very Spartan, very cool. The studio has a lot of crazy old gear, both recording and musical instruments — like real Mellotrons, old synths, pianos, and pedals. A lot of the unusual instruments you hear on the album happened to be at the studio and we tried them out.”
Vox Recording Studios, which bills itself as the ‘oldest privately run recording studio in the World, since 1936,’ also has some very unique studio equipment, including a Universal Audio/API console custom-built by Frank Demideo in early 1967, which has been used on classic records by Wings, Van Morrison, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, and many others. The desk has 24 channels of UA 1108s, 24 UA 508 EQs, and 20 channels of API 560, 550 and 550A EQs.
Georgeson made extensive use of the desk and other vintage gear, but not for purist, audiophile reasons: “I don’t mind working in the box, but if there is a desk, I like to use it! That said, I don’t really care about keeping things analogue and pure. For me gear is a tool to get me what I want, and I’m used to digital as much as analogue, both can sculpt the sound however you like. I don’t like getting dogmatic about it. I try to stay as flexible as possible and not to get too attached to any particular piece or kind of gear. If I’m in a nice studio I like to use the old gear, like Neve and API, but in general I only lightly treat recordings on the way in. For Joanna’s record I wanted to record everything as natural, clear and uncoloured as possible, then work extensively on them in the mix. For all these reasons I was happy to use the UA/API desk at Vox and get beautiful, natural-sounding recordings.
“I tend to record vocals with three microphones: a good large, diaphragm condenser, a ribbon, and a cheap dynamic. I place them right next to each other, trying to get the phase right. In Joanna’s case I recorded her vocals with a Neumann M49 or Telefunken Elam 251, which gave me the detail; the ribbon was an RCA 44, which is nice and dark; and the dynamic would have been an Electro-Voice mic, which have coloured high mids and are good at documenting things without too much detail. When you hear too much detail in a singer’s voice, it demystifies things a little bit. I mean, nobody will ever be singing one inch away from your ear with ultra-clear focus; it’s not natural.
“I like vocal mics that are dirtier and not as precise. The sound from dynamic mics can cut through and have emotional impact, and then you can add in the smoother, more romantic quality from the ribbon and the details from the large diaphragm condenser. In the mix I balance the different qualities of the three mics against each other. I also often use a room mic and try to find a spot where the vocals sound good, though I usually don’t end up using it. I record the mics using only EQ and some light compression on the condenser from something in an LA2 style. The UA/API desk is very cool, it adds that signature colour to everything you plug in.”
THIS TIME WITH HARP
Georgeson applies an extreme version of this multi-mic approach when recording the harp — a whopping seven to eight mics. “The way I record the harp is still more or less the same as what I did when I began 12 years ago. The sound comes off a harp in pretty much every direction, so it’s hard to stick one mic up and get a sense of the harp as it sounds in real life. You want to get the pluckiness of the fingers pulling the strings and also the body of the instrument and the depth of the bass. I put up two small diaphragm mics on either side of the string to pick up the string plucking. I may use Neumann KM84s for this, or if I want to have something more rustic with high mids I may use an Electro-Voice dynamic, something that has its own colour, not too much detail and a little bit of crunchiness.
“Next I’ll have a mic on either side of the soundboard — a large diaphragm for the low end, and something detailed with a wide frequency spectrum for the high end — where you get most of the sound of the instrument. A lot of bass comes out of the sound hole at the back of the sound board, so I’ll also put a microphone on the floor to pick that up, like an EV RE20, nothing super-detailed, just something that can capture the power of the low end. Finally, I’ll have two ambient mics in stereo, which may be a pair of Coles ribbons, and maybe also a large diaphragm vocal mic, like a Neumann U47, to pick up the entire harp sound in mono.
“I record each microphone to a different track, and during the mix I’ll decide on a balance, for each song, or even for each section of a song. If I want to hear lots of detail and plucking I’ll go with more of the close mics, but if I want a sense of the harp receding into the ensemble, I’ll back off and use the soundboard and room mics.
“I enjoy finding that balance during the mixing process. It’s not that I don’t like to commit early, I’m just better at doing it during the mixing stage. Occasionally I’ll put up some very coloured microphone options. I use these old crystal microphones that were made for trucker’s CB radios because they sound very particular; they have no highs, but pick up high mids and particularly bass in a strange compressed way. I also have this old STC 4021 ball and biscuit mic, which automatically gives the instrument a pretty unusual sound when I mix it in.”
QUAD EIGHT HOME COOKING
In between recordings, Georgeson tinkered with the Pro Tools sessions at his home studio, and prepared mixes there for the final mix stage. “The main piece at my studio is an old Electrodyne Quad 8 rack mixer,” explained Georgeson. “It’s from the ’60s or ’70s, I think it was originally designed as a location rack mixer for film. It’s a little brighter than classic Neve stuff, but it definitely has that old-school vibe. I mix through that. I also have a couple of LA2-style compressors, just some really basic outboard, and Yamaha NS10 monitors, plus old consumer-level Advent speakers, which I bought when I was a teenager, and which are very representative of what the average person might be listening to. When I noticed that a couple of mastering places also had them I felt validated!
“I don’t have a laptop. Instead I have an old Mac tower with Pro Tools 8. I still use that, because I fear that upgrading will take me a couple of weeks, and I simply can’t afford the time. I also don’t want to drop 20 grand for another HD system, and find out that plug-ins I like don’t work anymore. When I’m working in a commercial studio I use whatever is there, but because my system can’t open .ptx files I need to save using an older format. I strip them down when I get home so they work on my system.
“After the sessions for Joanna’s album, I did a lot of listening, clean-up and shaping of sounds at home. Most of all it was a matter of getting familiar with the sessions. That way, when we went into the studio I could just put them up on the board and know exactly what I wanted in terms of EQ and compression. I do broad strokes at my studio using the plug-ins on my system to get a general idea of where I want to go, then replace them with outboard in the studio. If I’m doing final mixes at my house it’s a different process because I’m committing and will send more elements through the bits of outboard gear I have.”
MICROMANAGING A MIX
Georgeson mixed the final version of Divers at House of Blues Studios. “It’s great for mixing,” said Georgeson. “They have an incredible amount of gear: a 32-channel Neve 80 series desk with 32 1073 mic pres, and a 16-channel API 1604 sidecar, both of which are great. I laid my mixes out over the Neve, because I like the process of mixing through a desk and the Neve EQs sound great. I also like desk bus compression, you get more headroom when mixing through a desk. Some of the songs were very complicated and it gave me a sense of having more space to work in.
“The issue with mixing through a desk today is recall. We tried to stay with each song while mixing it and not do a lot of recalling. We had a song on the desk for five days! Sometimes I’d start working on the next song by laying the session out over the API sidecar, then port that session over to the Neve because it sounded better.
“Typically I’d get all the sounds sitting in the right places and context, then Joanna would come in with tons of feedback; micromanaging levels and pan placements. At that point I’d zero everything on the board and do all the volume changes in the box. It was a hybrid system.”
Georgeson went into detail on his mix of the album’s opening track Anecdotes, which features classical music instruments like a violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, bass clarinet, English horn and trombone, as well as Newsom on harp, piano, Juno 106 and Minimoog.
“I approached this in a modern sound design-like way because the instruments don’t function as they would in a traditional chamber ensemble sense,” began Georgeson. “Instead I tried to give each instrument its own character and function.
“I saturated the colours each instrument naturally has, mostly using desk EQ. The English horn, for example, has a particular reedy sound I tried to bring out in the mid range — not something you would want to do in a classical recording. I allowed the instruments’ natural dynamics to breathe in the track, but the EQ was fairly heavy-handed. Those Neve desk EQs are great because you can get pretty intense with them, and you don’t realise the instrument has stopped sounding real until you compare it to the dry signal. You can push them pretty far and get some really interesting sounds without it sounding crazy or horrible.
“I didn’t actually do many treatments on Anecdotes other than EQ and some light compression now and then. The other main effect was the studio’s big, analogue EMT 140 stereo plate reverb, which I used on Joanna’s voice. The studio also has the first digital reverb, the EMT250, which looks like a robot. I used some of that on Joanna’s voice, as well as the Eventide H3000, for some crazier delays and stranger reverbs. I also had either an LA2 or a Gates Sta-Level compressor on her voice. I had very little reverb on the harp because it is so resonant on its own. Too much reverb quickly makes the harp sound like a mess. I compressed the harp string mics with an 1176, treating them like an acoustic guitar to get a real sense of pluck, and I definitely used EQ on the harp. I also had a Pultec EQP1A EQ on the master bus and a Fairchild 670 which hit the low notes on the harp in particular.
“I only treated the synths with EQ to bring out the mid range and warmth of the Juno, and I added some bass to the Minimoog where it was supposed to supply low end. I didn’t try to create any frequencies that weren’t in the original material. I’m not against making things sound artificial, but for this record that just wasn’t right. The main issue I had to address was that many instruments were playing in a similar mid-range, the same range as Joanna’s voice. I had to find a way for each of the instruments to live together and not get in the way of the voice.
“Joanna always has loads of very detailed notes and really wants to micromanage the levels of instruments coming in and out, how they interact volume wise. Sometimes note by note. We’d also edit parts. If we felt a performance was a tiny bit ahead or behind in time we’d micro-adjust them. Nothing was to a click or a grid, and the edits were not designed to make things sound perfect in an objective way. It was about pushing and pulling the rhythm and the flow of the track.
“Joanna has very specific ideas about individual moments, and they are very important, but the broad strokes are the most critical. It’s okay if a vocal is slightly too loud or soft. Records can easily end up sounding too conservative because everyone is focused on controlling the minutiae. The most important questions are: Is the song effective? Is it evoking something? And that happens from the first note. On some old records the hi-hat might be 10 times louder than it should be and hard panned to the left; that stuff is interesting to me.
“My interest mostly lies in the bigger picture and the bolder colours, and in creating something that is unique enough to justify its existence in a world that is completely saturated by content. This can manifest in even the subtlest detail of a song or recording, or paradoxically, it can be in its simplicity or incompleteness. The Japanese phrase ‘wabi-sabi’ describes this [Beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete — Ed]. I only recently became familiar with the concept, but I think it perfectly describes my aesthetic and approach to music.”