You need golden ears for this job, which is something Brian developed in a pre-Daft Punk robotic synth duo called The Moog Cookbook, and at California State University, Dominguez Hills, where he double-majored in audio recording and music synthesis. His gigs have run the gamut: keyboards for Air and Save Ferris, a tour with The Who, production work for Kinky and The Muffs, and perhaps his greatest musical and diplomatic achievement: bringing Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine album to fruition after it was left for dead (a fascinating story he tells here).
Brian shared his insights on getting the best listening experience, and explained what happens when he goes into the archives.
Brian Kehew: Good question. I'm not allowed to talk about it. Can I say that?
Brian: A lot of my project is not super top secret, but they don't want people digging in and poking and doing things before it's ready to be announced. So it's a big project with an old band for Warner Brothers, and the band is not involved, but they will be once they get the package together. But we've got to go through all these old tapes and see what turns up.
Songfacts: What was the last project you worked on that you are allowed to talk about?
Brian: Well, let's talk about one that's just being launched this week. It's a giant box set from Lee Hazlewood, the old country singer. This company, which is an independent record label called Light in the Attic, received the rights to use his whole archives.
So we went through 100 tapes; we dug through looking for outtakes and masters that had been lost and new versions of things, and we found hundreds of great things. So they're putting out a master box set this week of the things we uncovered.
Songfacts: I always picture "The Vaults" as being this Raiders of the Lost Ark kind of thing where you go in and discover these tapes. What's the reality of it?
Brian: Well, sometimes it is that fascinating. The Warner Brothers vault is the main one I've worked in, and it's been incredible to see something like the Jimi Hendrix tapes sitting there next to some guy you've never heard of - there's a nice perspective there. You'll see things like hundreds of Blues Brothers tapes, and there'll be very little interest in those right now.
Some bands recorded tons of stuff, and you'll see modern bands doing thousands of takes that are not really great music, and then you'll see one of those great albums that was recorded in one day, like Black Sabbath that took them a day to record and there's two rolls of tape and that includes the whole record.
Songfacts: I'm kind of surprised that so many acts, especially the smaller ones, would keep these outtakes. Because tape is kind of expensive, and I know a lot of engineers just record over stuff if they don't like it.
Brian: Well, it's challenging and it's interesting to me, not having been present, of course, for every session that we're going through. In the good old days when people played live in the room, you'd generally do four or five takes of a song, pick the best one and add overdubs to it. You'd cut it out and put it on a separate reel for safety, and then the others are considered outtakes. But they usually just throw them in the vault with the tapes. But a lot of times those outtakes have gone missing, which is too bad. Like, we went through all the Van Halen tapes with David Lee Roth hoping to do a box set, and there were tons of great things on the master tapes. We know that they played every song several times and did alternate verses, but no one knows where those tapes went.
So there are some outtakes, there are some rarities there. There are different vocals or different lyrics on some of the songs present on the master tape. Fleetwood Mac Rumours, they did keep a lot of sessions and the jamming. But then other things like Van Halen, it's missing.
Songfacts: Are there times when you're able to piece together a better version of the song than what was released originally?
Brian: Oh, all the time. In fact, it's fantastic to hear what people reject. We generally don't remix something just to make it sound better. If something's flawed or even of its time - there was lots of reverb in the 1980s, for example - we'll leave it that way because it's period style. And yet if we hear something that's very intriguing or different, we will often do a version of it, whether it's the same tape or even just an outtake that's quite often superior to the one we're used to. That happens more often than not. It's a surprising thing that people have strange choices, depending on what they're looking for.
We found something yesterday that could have been the single from an album that never really made it. But the single was cut off and they did an acoustic version instead of an electric version, and then we realized that this would have been a great hit single had they done the electric version. So it's just personal choices that they made back then. Sometimes we'll never know why.
One day I was mixing at Capitol Records with Warren Zevon outtakes, and there was something from his early albums, a beautiful song. I was finishing mixing it when somebody behind me said, "What are you doing?" And it was Jackson Browne, who produced that album. He had wandered down the hallway and heard us working on this record. I said, "I'm mixing this song." And he said, "Well, why would you be mixing it?" And I said, "Because it never had a mix." And he said, "Well, it's on the record." And I said, "No, it's not." And he said, "Of course it is. It's one of the best songs on the album." And I said, "Well, that's what I thought. Except it's not on the record." He said, "Of Course it's on the record," and I handed him a copy of the vinyl. He went, "Wow, it's not on the record. Why would we cut this from the album?" And I said, "I was hoping to ask you that question. Why would you cut such a great song from the record?" And he says, "I can't believe we didn't put this on the record. It's one of the best songs."
It's a song called "Frozen Notes," and now it's finally been released. It's a beautiful song, and even Jackson Browne thought it should have been included on the record, but he was the one who had cut it off at some point and taken it away. So it's interesting how those things work. And once in a while you get a chance to ask someone who was there, and they may not even know why the good songs don't make it.
Songfacts: Are there any examples of songs that you were able to put together that ended up being better than what we heard originally?
Brian: Oh, yeah. In fact, we went through all the Talking Heads tapes for Warner Brothers. Originally it was supposed to be a box set of a bunch of rarities and strange things, but they decided at the last minute to repurpose it. The band wanted to put out a triple disc greatest hits, so they just used the original records and they put out three discs. It's called Once in A Lifetime.
But in doing the outtakes, we actually did a rare thing, which is actually remixing a song. We found two songs - one's called "Drugs," and one's called "Cities" - that Brian Eno had done a lot of cool synthesizer work on that was minimized in their versions. We thought it would be great to hear these things brought out - they're so cool and interesting.
And in those two cases, the band, having heard our new mixes, voted universally that they preferred them to the original version. They were there for the originals and chose the mixes they wanted back then, but hearing it now, they liked the Eno-isms and the different mixes we did. So right next to all the greatest hits on the three disc box set, they used our two mixes of those two songs.
Songfacts: Do you run into resistance from some artists? I know Van Morrison, for instance, was horrified by the idea of his outtakes being made public.
Brian: You know I did that record. [Laughing]
Songfacts: Oh, really?
Brian: Yeah, that's me. The company hires me on a project, and you don't necessarily consult with the artist. It's often an A&R person saying, "Let's go through the tapes in the vault to see what we have." Part of this is a legal issue and fairly simple: whether it's there or not. When you sign with a record company, anything you record - live performance, studio, demo or anything - is owned by the record company because they're paying you to be an artist and they're putting out your records and they're funding your projects. All those things are owned by the record company unless someone renegotiates and gets out of the contract later on.
So, sadly, and it's true, musicians will want a record deal and sign the contract that says, "You own everything I record and you are allowed to do what you want with it in most cases."
Now, Van Morrison is very different. A lot of artists really are pleased by having a career jumpstart and a resurgence where people pay attention to their back catalogue and go see them on tour, and they're very involved with the project. But Van's negativity is fairly famous, so I think they declined to have him involved in the project.
But I can't think of anyone else on the planet who doesn't think that a box set is quite amazing. Everyone else thinks that there are some superior versions on the record and even some outtakes of songs you've never heard that are great. Then again, we try not to mess with things too much - we try to leave the original intent in. We don't sample things, we don't add stuff or tune vocals or things like that. We'll just work from what's there. If there's a bad note here and there, we just leave it, because that's the reality of it.
Songfacts: Another thing I've always been fascinated with is that studio banter. Hearing Otis Redding, for instance, giving instructions to the guys at Stax when he's doing "Dock of the Bay." Did you ever come across something like that that really fascinated you on a project?
Brian: We were going through the Yes tapes and at one point they were doing rehearsals of a song and running through it. And they stopped and they said, "Let's take a drug break." And they all stopped recording. [Laughing] I don't know what their drug of choice was. It's probably very minimal and minor, but it was pretty funny and we laughed when we heard it.
And there are numerous unexpected things, I think my favorite being the Elvis Costello sessions when we went through all his recordings and all his tapes. He and his band were so powerful and talented that he would say, "Let's do this as a slow waltz number," and they would play it and then come up with parts. And then, as soon as it's finished, five seconds later he says, "Let's rock it out. Let's do something different," and he would start playing the song in a charging rock version. They would literally play it once, and that's the record you've heard. And they'd never played it that way before.
So it's fascinating to see how they would treat the songs as being something malleable and workable. He and the band were really, really talented, and if they could come up with parts on the fly, they could shift the style of the song in a moment. The one we're used to may be just a whim that they decided to try that day and it's been stuck in your head ever since. But that's why he and his band are so talented.
Songfacts: When you buy an album these days, there will sometimes be three or four different versions of this album remixed, remastered, whatever. What version do you generally buy?
Brian: You know, I used to think that mastering wasn't very good. In other words, when CDs first came out, you'd hear a version of some record, David Bowie or Bob Marley or something. And I would think, Well, they could have done it better. Because I know what master tapes sound like and they generally weren't that clear. Or sometimes in those days they didn't use the actual master. They were afraid of messing with the real master tapes and worked off the safety copy. But nowadays, I actually don't like the remasters of things. They make them louder on purpose. That's one of the goals is to make it louder by smashing the dynamics out of it.
Even the Beatles recent reissues were done that way. They took off just a little bit, but they didn't try to make it louder by taking out the dynamics, so the snare drum doesn't smack as much as it used to. It does bring up low level things, like backing vocals and strings and reverbs, so you hear a new sound but it's not the mix we grew up with or was intended, because that really does change the balances of things. And they also do tend to brighten things a lot, maybe put some subsonic bass so it sounds like movie rumble into a 1970s record.
So generally, it's not that true to the original, and I do stick with the older masterings in my cases. When something says "remastered," I tend not to buy it now, because it usually is smashed dynamics, much louder, and I don't like that trend at all.
Songfacts: The way we're hearing music is so different these days, especially in the digital realm. I was listening to satellite radio the other day when I realized that the sound quality is just horrendous, especially when you pop over to FM for comparison. What are your thoughts on getting the best sound experience?
Brian: Well, in some ways, it's just education. In other words, when you've never eaten good food, you're happy with McDonald's, and if somebody gives you a decent steak, that's good. But if they take you to get a really great steak or an amazing pizza, your perspective shifts. So if we can ever train people to listen on really good speakers to a really great recording that's properly presented, that can be really powerful. It's amazing when you can hear the snare drum rattle and things like that. People do want that sound; they'll spend more money on good speakers, they'll want to buy records that aren't so compressed, and listen to the details, even with something like AC/DC or Thin Lizzy that may not be the most hi-fi thing.
The only trouble is that when you test it, people always choose the louder one. It's just a natural phenomenon - you think you can hear more. But the reality is, on average balance, they would choose the one that has more spikes and dynamics in it. It's not fair to do an A-B test when one is essentially louder - if you hear one that was smashed versus one that wasn't smashed, you would pick the un-smashed version.
And we all have a volume control of every piece of gear we have, computer, car, and otherwise, so you can turn up anything you want and quite often do. So I think that we can eventually get people away from the smashing a little bit, and there's a trend that way right now.
Songfacts: What format do you prefer to listen to music on?
The quality of the reproduction and playback, let's say on a CD or vinyl, is much better than the music we're listening to in almost all cases.
Songfacts: How tuned are your ears? If I was to take a song and maybe tweak the compression or something, would you be able to tell the difference?
Brian: Oh, yeah. That's the one thing in my world I can trust, and it’s infallible: my ears. I don't mean it as ego - it's just my job and it's the way I've grown up.
Songfacts: When did you realize that you heard things differently than other people?
Brian: I don't know. It wasn't like I was born that way. I couldn't play guitar when I was born or when I was 10 years old, but I eventually learned to do it quite well over time by learning and paying attention. So I'm the same with audio and sound. I probably didn't know the difference when I was young, but some people, given tools and an aptitude, will learn to make great furniture and other people won't. It's just a combination of preparation, practice, experience, and learning, plus the opportunity to do it over and over and over again.
Songfacts: So it sounds like you can be taught this stuff.
Brian: Definitely. There are a lot of ways I teach recording. You can show people a difference and then they're aware of it. If you say, "Here's the version with less salt and here's the version with more salt," they can start to differentiate: maybe salt is not part of the hamburger, it's something they add to it. And I would like different amounts, and choose carefully that way.
A great example: I was at Abbey Road Studios, and they were giving listening experiences on different size speakers using a laptop and a small computer system with plastic speakers, and then small nearfield monitors, and then the big, expensive speakers, $12,000, in the room. They were playing the same recording on the different speakers, and the kids heard the differences very clearly and were thrilled by the fact that they could take their own record collection and make it sound better without having to buy a remastered new version, just by buying better speakers.
It was a speaker company that had sponsored the day and brought in groups of students, a few dozen at a time, and then taught them about listening. And also in doing so, they showed them how bass, middle, and treble can be in or out of balance, so when you listen to hip-hop and the bass is too boomy, it eats up the rest. And if the treble is too bright on a modern recording or an XM radio broadcast, you can hear the difference and adjust for it. So it was a wonderful example of how simple it is to teach people just to pay attention to audio, and that may be all we need to do.
Songfacts: How do you archive music these days if you're a band? Is tape still the method of choice?
Brian: No, I don't think so. I think everything's digital now. I may live in a very strange world, because I have tape machines all over my studio. 98, 99 percent of the time that's what I'm working with is tape. But other people are certainly not that way, and most people have abandoned it even if they were once proponents of tape.
But archival is different. One of our friends was working with George Harrison when he was alive and said, "What is the best way to back up his tape collection?" I said, "Well, I think the best way is to plug in another tape machine and copy straight across." You may get a slight generational thing or gain a little bit of noise, but that's a worst case scenario. If you lose the master, you've still got a very good copy.
We can play Frank Sinatra tapes on any tape machine - doesn't matter who made it, Ampex or Studer or 3M, I can play a Frank Sinatra tape. I can play it backwards at half-speed on the wrong tape machine and get that information, and then flip it and turn it into something usable. But try playing from Protools 5.1 on a Protools 2.0 rig or vice versa with the wrong plug-ins and so forth, they won't even work. You have to have the right disc system or Firewire USB SCSI, midi, et cetera, and what will those be in the future? I mean, does anybody have a SCSI drive anymore? No. So it's very timeless to put something on a simple format like tape, or in the case of documents, paper. If I read a note on paper, it's much more likely to last than an email.
So keeping in mind that, yes, tape might not be perfect storage, but it's very durable. I can take a piece of tape out and I can throw it all over the studio floor and even pull on it a bit and it would come back and play for me. It may even have some flaws - and I've seen dirty tapes and crackling tapes - but I can still hear the music pretty well, and maybe clean it up later. But once you've got a corruption in a digital file...
I've had at least three or four hard drives, which is about half of the number I own, go bad this year because they're made so cheaply and they're very fragile.
Brian: Good call. I think it's "Blue Jay Way," which is not a famous or legendary Beatles song, but it has the most Beatle-ism tricks and styles in it. It has phasing, flanging, it has varied speed recording, it has tape echo. They put things through Leslies, they compressed and EQed things. It's really fascinating, and it has more stuff going on with it that's more detached from traditional classical recording or a Miles Davis record. It's more Beatles-y in that way. All the tricks that The Beatles had developed with compressing instruments and with EQing things in very strange ways are present on "Blue Jay Way."
My favorite part of it, which is really a fascinating concept, they took the track, specifically with the vocals, and then mixed it. That mix was played backwards and recorded back into the record on the multi-track, but they played it through a Leslie speaker that's spinning in the room. So occasionally during the song you hear some backwards Leslied tracks, especially vocals, swirling in and out. It's the actual song playing backwards against itself through a Leslie and then fading up and down, which is a really creative and very strange idea. I've never heard of anyone else doing something like that.
Songfacts: If you think of the most outrageous Beatle productions, you might think of something like "Rain" or "Revolution."
Brian: Well, if you listen to it closely as it develops into something, it actually becomes more of a "Strawberry Fields Forever," which is pretty much a production. "Blue Jay Way" has these cellos at the end. If you listen closely, they're doing a repeat echo. This is another Beatles thing: to add cellos and strings to a rock song in that kind of way. But the cellos are going, and there's echoes switching on and off at the tape machine. Not just a normal echo, like Elvis would have, but a repeating echo that's almost running away into feedback, then they switch it off and then they switch it on again. It's just really bizarre, but beautiful how they went deep into that.
Most people, including George Harrison, would probably not say it's the best-written Beatles song. That's the number one reason it's probably not more famous, but it was written about a house not far from where I am right now, up in the hills of Hollywood. It is a cool song, but not a great song. You wouldn't cover it and play it on acoustic guitar, for example. It's just not that strong writing.
Brian: Oh, a keyboard tech. It's a roadie for keyboards.
Songfacts: What does that mean?
Brian: Well, you set them up from the flight cases when you go on tour with somebody. You set up the stage and make sure everything's plugged in and working. Sometimes you have to design sounds, because on a synthesizer or on a keyboard you can adjust the sound and make that piano brighter or you can make the strings longer or thicker, or create a new sound. So sometimes you're programming the sounds for a tour.
It's a whole gamut of things, including helping the other road crew do their job when they need it. But it's very simple process of doing the same thing over and over again every day to make sure the show is good.
However, it can be as mundane as putting out a bottle of water for the person or putting up the set lists of the songs, but they're very critical things if they're not happening or they're not right. You're also available in case something strange or disastrous happens, like the power goes off, or somebody needs something they didn't need yesterday. You have to find ways to solve things very quickly during the middle of a show.
Songfacts: Many times I've heard songwriters say that they came up with a keyboard riff by hitting a preset on a new machine they just got. I'm thinking that as soon as a synth or some other new machine comes out, if you're a songwriter, you should be hitting every preset to see if there's a new sound there. Have you come across that at all?
So one of the songs on Fiona's record she actually wrote with an electronic keyboard. And she never uses them. She's not a synth person, but she has a little electronic portable Yamaha thing at home, and she started writing something which is called "tymps." Short for tympanies - excuse me, timpani, because that's already plural. But she wrote it on that and it had a sound of a kettle drum, the timpani. It was re-recorded using other sounds, but that's why it was written.
It was a temporary title for it called "Tymps," because that's how we referenced the song. Then it eventually got subtitled "Sick in the Head," because that was one of the funny lyrics in it. But she wrote it that way and it inspired her to create something different than she might have done on the piano.
It's funny, though, because that's the only song that I know of that she didn't write on the piano, period. Everything else in her life, I'm pretty sure, was written on the piano. Although there could be exceptions.
Songfacts: Which makes it tough, because you have to have a piano nearby if you're going to be writing.
Brian: Yeah. And another good example is the song called "Red Red Red" on her record. Very slow and dramatic. We were re-recording it. There was a very good version on the Jon Brion versions, but different. I was bringing in a keyboard player. I can play keyboards, so can Mike, so can Fiona, but I wanted, just for the fun of it, to bring in the guy that played keyboards on tour with her for years - he never got to be on her records. His name is Jebin Bruni. I said, "Jebin, why don't you come and play on the record? You're a great guy and an amazing keyboard player." So he brought a little Casio keyboard with tiny keys, as well as the keyboards we had available. He started playing along with that song, and he started playing this moody, dark, low thing on his Casio that instantly changed the mood. Fiona was there and said, "I like that."
And we, at that moment, changed the style of the song to a different, slower kind of languid mood; almost drone-y, but not quite. It now sounds like slow molasses, which is a different kind of feeling than it originally had when the recording was done. But that took it in a new direction just from a keyboard sound. Fiona was there and said, "Oh, I love that. Let's go in that direction," and we went with it. So it makes it a very slow, drawn-out version of the song. Just one way it could have been done, but it came out very nice.
Songfacts: Well, you added a different element by bringing in an extra person, which triggered some creativity.
Brian: Yeah. I can play keyboards and guitar and drums, but another person will hear a different thing, something I may not have thought of, which could be superior. It's good to be open to that and to welcome it as an option, and just say, "Yeah, let's bring in some fresh ideas and some fresh fingers in this case that think differently or have different sounds."
Songfacts: Yeah. Because it sounds like going in that room and just doing the same thing over and over wasn't happening on this album. You really needed to do some different stuff.
Brian: Yes. And we also needed to work quickly. So bringing in Jebin, who's a better keyboard player than any of us - truly more powerful and flexible - helped us get things done quickly and efficiently.
Songfacts: I want to ask you this because you work with masters all the time and you know the workflow. When you hear songs these days, chances are they've been digitized somewhere along the way: you're downloading them, you're listening on satellite radio. I was there when radio transitioned from cart machines to CDs to a big server, and I'm not convinced that the songs that we hear these days come from the masters. Do you have any insights on that?
Brian: Well, most companies with a fairly substantial catalogue, the major labels if you will, have digitized the masters, the final versions of their most important and valuable songs. So certainly anything recorded in the last 20 years is already a digital mix, done to a computer, done to a CD, done to a DAT machine or something in the last 20 years. So that would be the master; it doesn't need to be digitalized other than backed up and multiplied a few times.
But all the older stuff, if you're listening to Led Zeppelin or anything from the 1950s or something that has been taken from a tape and transferred, hopefully very clean and very flat, but again, each machine you play it on will have a different sound, thereby affecting your Led Zeppelin or your Beatles. And that's a choice made or not made. Some places don't have a choice of machine. They have just the one and you have to live with the sound qualities of that machine, no matter how you set up the tape.
So that's an interesting phenomena nobody even thinks much about, but I chose certain machines because I want their particular sound qualities. A newer, professional machine may not sound as good as one that is older, doesn't have as many cool features. Some people may not use an old '50s machine, even though that would be appropriate for playing old jazz records and things like that. They may play it on a more modern 1980s tape machine to reproduce their Elvis tapes, which would change the sound of those tapes.
So then we've got a digital copy made, a safety, and they rarely now touch the tapes of even an early Madonna record or a Green Day record on tape. They would go to the digital file and say, "Here's our version for Guitar Hero, here's a version for the radio, here's the version for XM." And someone usually, because that's a raw mix, will master it and then squash it a bit or add some bass or some treble to compensate for any errors that might be in the original recording.
Mastering's a great step. It can take any recording finished and make it 10 or 20 percent nicer sounding, usually. In the case of mastering, they'll very carefully listen and say, "Oh, there's a little bump in the paste, let's move that out. It's a little dark and muddy, let's clarify it." And they'll tweak it in some ways that hopefully restore what the original intent was - whether they can know that or not, they'll try to. And say, "Here's a good balance of those instruments in the mix."
It is very difficult to say where things come from, but usually it's been mutated. Even if it's a digital mix done in 1999, somebody will have taken that digital mix and processed it before they release it to you, maybe to make it sound good for cheap speakers or radio broadcast or something. They have an intent why they process it certain ways, but it's rarely the exact sound that they intended you to hear.
January 16, 2014
Here is Brian's story about the making of Extraordinary Machine.
More Song Writing