Sunday, March 10, 2013

Too Noisy Fish

An old friend, Pierre Vervloesem, introduced me to his friend Peter Vandenberghe the pianist of the Belgian piano jazz trio Too Noisy Fish.  I worked with Pierre in the early '90s when Bill Laswell and I produced and engineered a couple of albums for the avant gard jazz/rock combo X-Legged Sally (pronounced Cross Legged Sally) at Greenpoint.

 Last time I saw Pierre, himself a talented producer and engineer, was backstage at a Material concert in Ghent, Belgium.  I remember this trip clearly for being one of the few times I got to mix my brother-in-arms Grandmixer D.ST one of the progenitors of turntablism, ie the turntable as a musical instrument.  At the time, I was wading through a complete linear read of Finnegans Wake for the first time while D.ST (now known as DXT) observed signs of an Illuminatti conspiracy in the jewelry of a woman seated across from us in a restaurant.  The thick plottened when Pierre laid a couple of cds of his recent labors havin' guarded experimentally eclectic approaches to its music and whimsical titles not so far from the Illuminati/Finnegans Wake nexus in the air. 

X-Legged Sally went their seperate ways in 1997.  Bandleader Peter Vermeersch went on to form a big band group called The Flat Earth Society.  Pierre plays guitar for them, engineers and mixes their recordings.  The members of Too Noisy Fish, Peter Vandenberghe, contra bassist Kristoff Roseeuw, and drummer/percussionist Teun Verbruggin comprise the heart of their rhythm section.

When I spoke to Peter Vandenberghe he mentioned liking the sound of the X-Legged Sally albums and asked what it would take to make a record with Too Noisy Fish.  I turned him on to my home away from home, Prairie Sun Recording in Cotati, California and a plan was made.  Peter sent me their most recent cd, Fast, Easy Sick which had been mixed by Pierre.  It sounded quite good, almost intimidatingly good because I wished to produce a recording that sounded at least as good or better.

Many of the song titles from Fast Easy Sick were quite humorous such as: 13 Potatos, Black Keys, White Keys: What's the difference, they All end Up the Same, Curly Wurly Napolean, and The Sky is Falling.  You can get a copy here.

 From left to right: Kristoff Roseeuw, Peter Vandenberghe, & Teun Verbruggin.  
Names of the fish unknown.

I booked Too Noisy Fish into Studio C at Prairie Sun mainly for the sound of the 9' concert grand piano that lived there.  It's an older piano, built around 1912 or something like that and has a darker sound with more character than your average contemporary recording piano such as a Yamaha.  The alternative was to put them in Studio B which has a Kimball 7' grand with a brighter, more generic sound similar to a Yamaha.

I miced the piano with a pair of Neumann KM54 tube mics in an X-Y pattern hovering over the hammers around middle C, and a pair of omnidirectional DPAs micing the body of the piano on the side the lid opens, one towards the back, the other near the front.  As the piano was in the same room as the drums, I used the lid open on the short peg and made a little tent over the DPAs with furniture blankets to minimize leakage.

The piano and drum worlds were set up facing each other in opposite diagonal corners, but not stuffed into the corners. Many gobos (baffles) were used to help with the isolation.  I had hoped to set up the contra bass world just outside the glass doors so everyone would have a line of sight with each other while also getting some isolation for the bass mics.  Kristof preferred to play his bass in the same room.  I acquiesced without protest despite this making my job considerably more difficult.  I had seen the Fish on You Tube so knew they played dynamically and listened to each other.  This is key to getting any kind of reasonable balance with acoustic instruments all playing together in the same room live.  I dampened the acoustics in the Corn Room as much as possible.

Studio C at Prairie Sun has three rooms, the Corn Room - very live when you take everything out of it, The Waits Room named after Tom Waits who first suggested recording in it; a stone floor, high ceiling & wood panels give this small room golden acoustics, and Room 66 - the "control room" area resides in one corner of this room that serves as an antechamber to the Waits and Corn rooms at opposite ends.

I miced the contra bass with a Neumann tube 47 near the " F hole"  - the opening on the right side of the bass body, and used a Neumann 582 cardiod condensor aimed at the strings a foot or so above the bridge to get a brighter sound.  Also had a DI ( direct injection) box for the pick-up on the bass. It sounded nasally on it's own but blended with the mics, worked well.

Teun put together a drum kit from the Prairie Sun collection of drums.  He used an 18" Sonar floor tom for his bass drum.  It was double headed with nothing inside to dampen it resulting in a very deep and resonant, old school jazz kind of sound.  He accented a standard drum kit with a variety of percussion instruments and sound modifiers.  He uses some of these percussion instruments to "prepare" the drums ( as in a prepared piano) by putting them on the drum skins - the snare or toms - to alter the timbre of the drum as well as adding the sound of the percussion.  These include: 2 children's music boxes, 2 Thai healing bells,  3 egg shakers, Christmas bells in a plastic bag - the bag adds to this sound, 2 kalimbas, a woodblock, 2 cowbells, Ahoko - dry nuts from Africa's Ivory Coast, a small drum to put on the rack tom, a child's toy xylophone, a tambourine, East Indian finger cymbals, and an iron chain.  Teun brought his own cymbals which were strategically broken and taped to give a very different cymbal sound.  He used regular  drum sticks, brushes, and hotrods (a combination of brush and stick), and sometimes even chopsticks to play the drums.  Also, a contra bass bow that sounded quite eerily alive when used on the edges of the cymbals.

Too Noisy Fish, along with Peter's wife Trisha arrived from Belgium a couple of days before the start of the sessions, and settled into the studio accomodations, their own house on the southwestern corner of the studio property. Trisha, a filmmaker, was there, apart from moral support, to document the proceedings.  I did a short interview with her on a break from mixing.

My nervousness at making a record that sounded as good as the last one completely disappeared as soon as we got sounds and they started playing.  I realized that the excellence of their sound came from the group itself, the technical sound just had to capture that faithfully.  I never heard that piano sound as good , and it was almost as easy as just turning up the faders.  Usually I end up applying some eq to the piano . . . not this time.  The mics were going into vintage Neve mic pres with only a mild amount of compression. 

I knew that part of what makes a great horn, string, or woodwind player great is the tone they get out of their instrument but had forgotten that this also applies to the piano.  The piano sound was harmonically rich, warm, articulate and clear - very even up and down the keyboard.  It reminded me of recording Herbie Hancock for a Jungle Brothers record, and of the Cuban musician Pepcito Reyes who played like he was making love to the piano. 

The songs were almost all instrumentals though they did have lyrics for a two song cycle called Bring It Home/ Oh God.  However, there was only one person in the world they felt could do it justice and that was Tom Waits.  I agreed with them and sent Tom an email.  Within a couple of hours we received a reply from his assistant Julianne Deery saying he had commitments he couldn't shake.  The promptness and cheerfulness of the reply led us to believe we had Tom's blessing anyway.

Another song was titled Turkish Laundry which continued their emergent tradition of "laundry" songs set in interesting geographical locations.  On the last album it was Latin Laundry, and suggestions were solicited on where to go for clean clothes on the next one.  When hearing about this tradition it recalled being in Mali with KSK producer Aja Salvatore when we auditioned Bari, a master musician who played a short Fulani reed flute that had a beeswax mouth piece. - we ended up recording and mixing a record with him bthat's in the vault.  After playing for a bit, he walked up to me and started directing his flute playing up and down the outside of body as if to clean the edges of my electromagnetic field or what some people call the "aura."  He proceeded to do the same for Aja.  Later, I asked what he was doing.  He laughed, and said he was just dusting us off.  Turkish Laundry reminded me that music can create cleaning environments.  Bob Dylan underscores this point when he "goes into a laundry to wash his clothes down" before going on an epic journey in the song Isis.

On a break during the second day of recording, Lucas Nelson, son of Willie came down to say hello.  He was recording with his band in studio B.  Nicest guy you could imagine, he spoke of the thrill of playing at Farm Aid sharing the bill with his father, Neil Young, and Jack Johnson.

Too Noisy Fish got everything recorded in about two and a half days.  The last half day we spent reviewing and choosing master takes.  Most of the songs landed within two to four takes.  At least one, maybe two were done in one take.  The most we ever did was six or seven versions of one song.

I recorded them to 24 track, two inch multitrack analog tape running at 30 inches/second (ips) with no noise reduction then transferred it to Pro Tools.  Mic pres were mostly vintage Neve with vintage APIs on some of the drum tracks.

Everything had been recorded live with the exception of one or two percussion overdubs, and my voice, playing the (uncharacteristically I hope) part of a harried music producer.  The length of the cd was getting to be too long so they recut two of the improv pieces, Slow B (for blues) and Fast B then had them end abruptly with an old-fashioned phone ring that I answered.

Two samples were used - one from the original Space Invaders video game for the song Jazz Invaders, and the other from and old Russian documentary with haunting female narration that had been financed by the Soviet regime.  Peter tried to have the Russian dialog translated but was told that it was too abstract to understand.  To me, this sample and the whole song, Necrophilology has a mood like something out of Dostoevsky.

We celebrated the finish of the recording by going out for Japanese food.  The conversation was as good as the food ranging from the state of the biz in Europe and America to natural ways of expanding consciousness apart from playing music.  

  I chose to mix this in Studio B on Pete Townsend's old vintage Neve to maintain the purity and naturalness of the tones.  Most of the time I prefer mixing on the SSL in Studio A as it offers a lot more versatility to sculpt the sound but with this record I wished to manipulate the tones as little as possible to keep it honest with what the musicians had laid down.  The mixdown recorder was an analog Ampex 1/2 inch running at 30 ips.

The mixing went well and was accomplished in two long days.  I would have preferred a third day but sometimes imposed limitations become a necessary parameter for the final outcome.  We spent a lot of time on the first song with everyone zeroing in on what they wished to hear out of the balance then the rest seemed to flow fairly easily from there.  The only difficulties I encountered was when they played triple forte ( ie very loud) making a lot of leakage to contend with.  The band wisely stayed out of the control room and left me to my own devices until I was ready for them to hear a mix.  Peter had a very strong reaction to one of the mixes as it was going to tape.  I'd only experienced an artist react that way once before to hearing a final mix.  That was the lead singer for the Brazilian band O Rappa who wept when he heard the final mix Bill Laswell and I had made.  That lets me know, at least for those pieces, that I've done my job which is to sucessfully realize the vision of the artist . . . and then some!

The record still has to be mastered which I'm going to do at my new location inside the Song Relic Studios compound in the Sierra foothills.  Stayed tuned for further info on how to get this when it's released which likely won't be for a few months.

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