One of our favorite albums of the year is Fred Eaglesmith's 6 Volts. Like the Le Noise project from Neil Young and producer Daniel Lanois, 6 Volts is decidedly lo-fi. The main technical challenge for Eaglesmith and producer Scott Merritt, who goes back with Eaglesmith virtually to his recorded beginnings, was how to record the songs as a band with a single microphone in monophonic.
We recently emailed with the noted Canadian producer to delve into the technique and art of lo-fi recording and the recording of 6 Volts in particular.
Rocks Off: How did you conceive this record? One mike, one track mono, so what made you guys go 'this is what we're going for this time'? What were the conversations going into this one like/about?
Scott Merritt: Fred and I were both feeling that we were starting to suffer a bit of listening fatigue when it came to most modern recordings we heard around us. Super-human voices, precise instruments pasted on a grid, crazy editing, all scrubbed up. Not all of it of course, but I think it's safe to say an awful lot of it.
For a start, it's good sometimes to at least know what you don't want.
On the other side, we have always shared great fondness for the music that used to play on the old transistor radio on the kitchen sill when we were kids. Tiny lo-fi mono boxes, just one cheap speaker, but still somehow it could be enough to bowl you over.
Also, for the last few years a fair amount of my personal listening has been to archival types of music recordings. I love the Smithsonian stuff. Most all of it recorded well away from studios, worlds apart from the multi-track revolution that started in the early Sixties. I just love the clarity of a lot of those performances and beautiful lack of hype of the recordings. Naturally, you start to consider how those recordings were actually created. The types of places and situations. You look into it - and you begin to wonder if maybe there might be some way to integrate whatever they were up to into what you happen to be up to, hopefully with some sort of relevant spin on it. Not just "doing retro for retro's sake". You want players to respond somehow similarly maybe.
Of course it would be dumb to suggest we pulled the one mike / mono idea out of thin air. The first mono / one mike "modern" recording that I heard was back in the Eighties when the Cowboy Junkies released The Trinity Sessions disc. Great atmosphere on that one.
RO: Correct me if I'm wrong, but doing this one mike,/mono, I assume the "mixing" was done on the fly, track by track prior to pushing "record." Can you explain the process a bit?
SM: Yes, one microphone -- in this case, a real nice old RCA ribbon mike Fred has -- but there are no "separate tracks" involved. He and the band set up in the main room at the Masonic Hall -- where he lives -- around that one mike. There is no real "mixing" involved in the modern sense, since there is no console or multi-track recorder involved. Balancing the instruments depends completely on where the players are placed in proximity to that one mike in the middle of the room and the control each musician has personally over their own instrument's volume and tone. No overdubbing or repairing of parts. Whatever happens, happens. The recorder was a mono MCI analog tape recorder. We spent a fair amount of time working out the band arrangements, but recorded the progress of most everything along the way, all onto the "one track" tape recorder. Whatever we liked at playback, we dubbed over to a digital recorder - I took those mono files back to my place -- the Cottage -- where I listened through and assembled everything. Sometimes I edited different takes to create a new master take of the given song, sometimes not. Very quick. Intense, but quick. Probably worked out to about a song or two a day, start to finish.
RO: Did Fred give you demos? What did you think/hear when you first heard these songs, and as a producer/engineer what did you think in regards to 'this is what I need to do'?
SM: Very few demos ahead of time. I don't know... maybe four or five. A bit of trust involved, but I've known him a while now. His work and his intuition are about as dependable as I've seen. When he plays a song, nine times out of ten he convinces me that he's in it somehow.
Still when I suggested the mono thing, I was surprised that he thought it'd be worth a kick ... takes quite the nerve. Blind faith. The safety net is very small. It sure gets the players to be on their toes more than usual. Which is great. It's too easy when multi- tracking to become a bit lackadaisical as a player. When multi-tracking, anything can be repaired or replaced or manipulated "later." Perfected. When it's all live like this though -- if you mess up, you have a roomful of people staring at you 'cause you're making them play the whole thing through again!
RO: What was the main technical challenge working with single mike, mono, tape etc?
SM: Recording between the sound of passing cars.
RO: Just from a fan perspective, what are your faves from 6 Volts?
SM: Can't really give you a definitive on that... purely on a craft level, there are some really well told stories on it. "Katie" and "Betty Oshawa" come to mind for that. "Stars" still sticks with me too, though, which is more of an autobiographical thing. I'm a sucker for anything believably told.
RO: What were your thoughts when Fred first played you "Johnny Cash?"
SM: He was playing it as a country song. Reminded me a bit of a song we tracked long ago called "Alcohol and Pills." Strange, on the one hand, I think I thought it didn't sound quite angry enough and on the other, I think I worried a little that the lyric sounded a bit ... um... didactic.
RO: After working together on so many projects, what has changed in your concepts, work habits etc.?
SM: Hmmm... hard to really remember what we were actually thinking about when we started working together. We were pups! No doubt we were in a different orbit. More technical brailing involved back then for sure. Some wild guessing going on! You know though, every collection of songs seems to have had some little voice about it whispering clues. You lean in and try to make out what it's saying, do what it wants you to. I think it's safe to say it's always been a little like that.
RO: You've done numerous Fred albums. What are your three favorite songs that you've worked on and why?
SM: Songs? That's tough. I think i still look at albums as whole collections - albums, in the old sense of the word. Those Razor and Tie records, 50 Odd Dollars and Lipstick, Lies and Gasoline were kind of liberating to work on. That's when we started to realize how nicely some of Fred's songs could hybrid with other styles of music. Anything seemed possible: "Let's make it Zeppelin-style today!"
I love the feel of a lot of those tracks still when I hear them. Some really inspired playing. Also still feel a real attachment to most of the stuff we did on Dusty... the title track with the cello quartet. Who'd a thunk?
One other song I think of often is "18 Wheels," not sure which disc that was. I was in as an editor / mixer for it. I remember trying to make sense of that multi-track. I was by myself putting up one track at a time - it wasn't really making much sense - finally I got to track 19 or whatever and put it up. It was Willie's [P. Bennett] background vocal. I don't know what it was about it, but I remember I actually had to stop the machine when I heard it. "... danger pay, I'm trying to be strong...". The lonesome-est thing in the world. Always meant to tell Willie about that. Real sorry I never did.
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RO: You've played many instruments on Fred records, but do you ever do shows with him?
SM: No. I can get a bit nervous out there. Fred's got plenty of good help already, anyhow.
RO: What is going career-wise with you as far as making your own music?
SM: I have always had something on the go between the projects I do for other folks. I''m okay with the reality that I enjoy making stuff quite a bit more than I want to strut it, at least for now. Such a buzz just to make stuff. Most days, crazily, that's what I get away with.