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Rhythm and Noise | John McEntire (Bonus)

November 3, 2008
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We continue our exclusive interview with John McEntire, discussing his recording techniques as well as his collection of analog synthesizers and effects.

Jazz groups are also a large part of what you record. Can you describe your standard setup for that?
For upright bass, I''ll typically use two large-diaphragm tube mics, like an AKG C12 and a Neumann M49, one on the f hole and the other in front of the bridge. Even if the player has a pickup, I usually avoid them. I''ve just never heard a bass pickup that sounds good, though perhaps there is one out there! So, just the LDCs right in front, and I''ll move them around until they''re phase coherent. That usually works pretty well. I still try to separate all the players at least a bit, even for jazz sessions. Occasionally I''ll have the bass player in the control room, where they''ll still have sight lines to the rest of the group.

Drums are usually in the main room. I track them essentially the same way as I would for pop music, though I might give it a little bit looser sound—for example, miking with a little more distance from the heads, and maybe only a simple stereo overhead.

I''ll typically put horn players in the iso booth. If they''re concerned about being too separated, I''ll leave the doors open. It still helps to have that little bit of physical distance, plus the deadness of the room dampens some of the washiness of the drum spill. I think ribbon mics are great for brass instruments, for trumpet especially. It might be a Royer R-121, or a Coles 4038, or a beyer M160. I also have an AEA R-92, which is excellent for guitar amps, as it''s designed to deal with high SPL.

For sax, again, it depends on the player and their sound. But I''ll usually go for a condenser of some sort, unless it''s an alto or soprano player with a really bright tone, in which case I might go for a ribbon.

You''re using ADAM S3As for your main monitors. How do you like those?
I''m a huge fan of the ADAMs. I had been using Genelec 1032as previously, and back before that, Yamaha NS-10s. The jump from NS-10s to the Genelecs was a total paradigm shift, obviously. So switching to the ADAMs wasn''t as dramatic, but I recognized their strengths immediately. I guess it was about five years ago when I started feeling that the Genelecs tended to be a little bit harsh on the top end, and almost simultaneously I began reading a lot of really good things about the ADAMs, so I decided to give them a try, and I''ve been really happy since. I can work on them for long stretches of time and not get fatigued at all. And the low end is phenomenal, considering the size of the drivers.

And your secondary monitors?
These are bookshelf speakers that Tim Gane from Stereolab hipped me to. The model number is LS3/5a, and it was a design that the BBC commissioned and then granted a license to a bunch of different manufacturers. So you''ll find about half a dozen different brands that make LS3/5as. They were, and perhaps still are, a standard monitor speaker for the BBC. They''re really great, definitely a good contrast to the ADAMs. For myself, I tend to like working on initial sounds and balances on the ADAMs, and then flip to the LS3/5as to see how the perspective differs and if the balances are working. I do a lot of listening at different loudness levels and switching back and forth between the different monitors.

You''re inclined toward nifty new gadgets as well. What are your latest acquisitions?
Well, it may not seem terribly exciting, but the Frontier Design Group TranzPort wireless remote has been extremely useful. For about $200, it''s a total lifesaver; it keeps you from running back and forth between rooms if you''re recording yourself. You can record-arm channels individually, and it has complete transport control. You can even potentially sit on a couch in the back of the control room and tweak mix levels if you wanted.

Here''s an unusual and very powerful keyboard-style controller, the Haken Audio Continuum fingerboard. It''s a multidimensional control surface that outputs MIDI and CV polyphonically and allows a full range of pitch transitions between notes, from fully equal tempered to full glissando. So if you set it up in a particular configuration, it''s like having a polyphonic Ondes Martenot–style controller. It also outputs data on the x, y, and z axes for all fingers continuously, so it''s great for controlling something like the Buchla 200e, where you can assign these outputs to many different parameters enabling very expressive performance gestures.

The 200e [see Fig. A] is relatively new to me, and it''s a truly amazing instrument, whether you consider it as a complete system or look at any of the modules individually. It''s interesting and somewhat unique in that a large degree of timbral complexity originates directly from the Waveform Generator (aka VCO) modules. I have the Triple Morphing Filter in my system, but to be honest I don''t use it a whole lot. Between the VCOs and the Quad Low Pass Gates, there''s plenty of variety. The filter is almost like a completely different kind of module, since it has three separate audio paths and an 8-stage sequencer.

The 250e, the Arbitrary Function Generator (aka Dual Sequencer), is easily one of the most interesting and conceptually deep modules I''ve ever used. You get three parallel rows of CV outputs, which can be quantized in different fashions; you can create nested loops within the sequence; and you can replace stage values with external voltages, among other things. There is also a strobed mode, which allows you to create extremely complex, long cyclical patterns that I think would be impossible to achieve with any other sequencer.

You have an extraordinary collection of synths, especially modular gear. Is the new modular equipment much different in scope than older versions?
One of the things that''s really exciting these days is the number of folks manufacturing great-sounding, unique modular gear. They all tend to be relatively affordable and do lots of different things. Here are some manufacturers and modules I really like: from Blacet Research we have the Binary Zone and the Wiard/Blacet Mini Wave. The Binary Zone lets you create complex staircase waveforms up to 64 segments in length. Great as a general CV source, but even better when used with any of the quantizing banks in the Mini Wave. The quantizers will turn the output of the staircase into specific scalar patterns or arpeggios, depending on which bank and wave you have selected. Then there''s the Harvestman Malgorithm, a voltage-controlled bit crusher and sample-rate reducer, with an additional waveshaping section. Tons of possibilities with this, from slight graininess to total, full-on noise bliss. This Plan B Triple Event Timer is really interesting. It gives you three thresholds to trigger other events, and their timing relationship remains the same no matter how the overall timing offset is changed. You can set up some really unusual rhythmic patterns with it. I also really like the Metalbox Waveshaper. It''s got lots of CV inputs, so you can achieve some pretty intense and complex harmonic sweeps. Very lively.

My current large modular system was built by CMS (aka Discrete Synthesizers). The designer-builder, Phil Cirocco, is considered to be the foremost ARP guy in the world, and a lot of his design philosophy comes from the very early ARP instruments. But his modules are all very modern in terms of componentry used, maintaining an extremely low noise floor, utilizing high-current, regulated power supplies, etc. His filters have a very individual sound. It''s hard to describe, but a kind of beautiful, brilliant, woody character emerges with certain resonance settings. The highpass and lowpass can be linked, thereby giving you dual 4-pole bandpass, which is extremely powerful and unique.

Recently I''ve scaled back—a bit!—in terms of the keyboard-based instruments we have on hand here to what I think are the classics, or the instruments that are so unique that they are absolutely essential [see Fig. B]. A good example is what we see here: the OSCar [made by the British manufacturer Oxford Synthesiser Company, or OSC] and the Synton Syrinx are just astounding. I think they''re the best mono synths ever made. And below them, the Elka Synthex is a totally killer poly synth. I also have a Memorymoog, though it''s in the shop right now. Those two are my absolute favorite poly synths—though mind you, I''ve yet to play a Yamaha CS-80!

How do you feel about using soft synths?
You know, I''m sorry to say that I''m not really a fan. For me, it''s mostly about the subtleties of the sound, the way that the hardware instruments have more depth and character. And then there''s the interface issue; I''m just so used to having the tactile feedback from hardware synths that working with a mouse and menus seems really foreign. Obviously I could get a USB hardware controller and approach it that way, but it just doesn''t appeal to me all that much.

I will admit that there are some things about soft synths that I like sonically. For instance, you can get some really interesting, complex, evolving textures that would be hard to do in the analog world. And the automation possibilities are also very useful—there''s no denying that. But at the end of the day, for myself personally, I can''t see a lot of practical uses for them unless I was doing some serious sound design for TV or film. Just in terms of the raw sound, I prefer the hardware. And with MIDI-to-CV converters, it''s easy to get the kinds of control you want.

You seem to have cornered the market on tape delays—you have five different models! Can you tell us a little about the differences?
Well, it may seem excessive, but the fact of the matter is that they all sound completely different and have unique feature sets. Obviously the Roland RE-201 is the time-honored classic. I''ve owned the 501 and the 555 at various points, but I really prefer the 201; it just has “the sound.” The Plex [made by Rock Hard] is an all-tube design, basically a reproduction of a ''60s Echoplex, and it''s unique, extremely grainy and gritty.

All of these tape delays are very specific in terms of their character. For instance, the 201 and the Plex are kind of apples and oranges. I personally don''t think they could be used interchangeably in the context of a mix.

And the Multivox MultiEcho is really amazing. That''s a little more along the lines of the 201 in terms of sound and features. It''s kind of a sleeper, though. People don''t seem to talk about them much. But you can get a lot of different sounds out of it; you have a 2 x 4 matrix of push buttons for mode selection, and you can make different echo and repeat patterns by engaging the playback heads differently.

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