Michael Brook: World Music

Interview | Producer/Guitarist

Published in SOS July 1995
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

Having recently completed two new World Music albums, one for Indian electric mandolin player U. Srinivas, the other with legendary Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Canadian producer/guitarist Michael Brook never wanted to confront music technology ever again! PAUL TINGEN explains why...

 

From a beach apartment in sunny California, Michael Brook waxes lyrical about all manner of things, amongst them the beauty of the town where he's staying and the quality of a Lowden acoustic guitar that he's just found. What appears not to be on his list of favourite discussion topics is life in the recording studio in general and music technology in particular. This is a little surprising, coming from a man who has a name to uphold as one of the leading lights in the international music scene -- famous for his work with Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Jon Hassell-- and who has achieved many feats of musical innovation by means of cutting-edge music technology. It's equally surprising since we're supposed to be doing an interview for a hi-tech music magazine, following the occasion of two brand new collaborative releases that carry his name. One has just been released, namely Dream, with the electric mandolin player U. Srinivas, revered in his native India. The other, with the legendary Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, is expected in Autumn.

Both records were made in a decidedly hi-tech manner, with sampling, digital editing, looping, and sonic manipulation all employed. Yet Brook initially appears reluctant to talk in too much technical detail about them. It's not that he has anything to hide, it's just that he is fed up with making hi-tech records. Hence the beach holiday in California and his present affection for the low-tech simplicity of an acoustic guitar. Clearly, the man has developed a severe case of hi-tech blues.

In our previous discussions, Brook was an avid talker about the ins and outs of modern technology, and he even holds an electronics degree to prove that his interests extend purely beyond being a user. In car owner's terms, he likes to have a 'look under the bonnet' too. Yet when we talk this time, he gets more fired up talking about technology on a more conceptual level. This shows when he exclaims that the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan record was "a monumental nightmare to make in some ways", and adds that even with the Srinivas record (a much easier record to make), he had moments of grave doubt about the way he was doing things: "I sometimes really thought in the middle of it: 'why the f**k are we doing this? Why don't we just get musicians in, have them play some music and record it?' Instead, there was just the two of us staring at computers. That is not fun. Playing an instrument is generally a lot closer to what one would call fun."

MODUS OPERANDI

Thus it is that Brook is in irritated and instrospective state of mind about music technology, explaining that part of the brief for his first deadline-free holiday in five years is to reassess for himself how he will use technology in the future. His thinking isn't entirely dissimilar to Rupert Hine's [SOS February 1995), who stresses the difference between 'creative' mode and 'editorial' mode, and laments that many technological interfaces force the musician too soon and for too long into editorial mode. To this, Brook adds the concept of 'engineering' mode.

Brook: "There's something dead about all this eternal editing and looking at f***ing VDU screens. The alternative to being in engineering mode is to hire an engineer or a programmer. The disadvantage is that someone is translating your ideas for you. You're one layer removed from directly manipulating things."

Those record producers that hire engineers and/or programmers argue that in order to make sound judgements on the tracks they are working on, and do their job properly, they can't be too involved in the technical aspects of record production. In other words, they prefer to stay as much in creative mode as possibe, limit their time in editorial mode, and stay completely clear of engineering mode.

Michael Brook, on the other hand, belongs to that breed of producers that prefers a hands-on approach. He has his own home studio (Allen & Heath Saber 24:16:16 desk, Fostex E16 multitrack, Yamaha NS1000 monitors) where he writes and records his own music and often does the pre-production for artists he produces. This exemplifies his background: he started out as an engineer, working in Bob and Daniel Lanois's Grant Avenue studio in Ontario in the late 70s/early 80s. So how does he reckon that his frequent ventures into engineering mode affect his ability to make musical judgements?

Brook: "It does affect it, though not necessarily always poorly. It makes you listen more closely, and that can help you to evaluate stuff. The negative side is that it might freeze you up compositionally, because you can endlessly move things around and chop and change them. In the past, it was technically possible to get two 24-track tape machines and copy, say, a vocal part and move it across from the first to the third verse. But the cost of doing that in terms of time, inconvenience, and losing focus of your original idea was so great that people didn't tend to do that very often. To me, this has to do with a very important factor in the making of records that's seldom acknowledged; I call it 'the overhead of inconvenience.'

"With today's MIDI-plus-audio sequencers, the cost of moving vocals around or experimenting with different arrangements is lowered, and the result is that you're more likely to try that kind of thing. I find it silly sometimes when people say: 'well, you can do it this or that way', yet they never seem to acknowledge how much time it's going to take them to do it, and what price they'll have to pay when if it puts them in a different state of mind. The problem is that to do these kinds of edits you have to shift into a kind of 'computer operator' state of mind, thinking in a logical cause/effect mode, rather than asking 'what aesthetic effect is this having upon me?' This may detract from your ability to make good musical decisions."

Brook cites other major disadvantages of the hours, days, weeks, and months that one can spend fiddling and fretting in front of VDU screens: "I definitely don't spend as much time playing as I should." And in calling the Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn project a "monumental nightmare", he indicated that this is where he reached his nadir in nose-to-the-VDU-grindstone, suggesting that he severely violated his own 'overhead of inconvenience' principle. So how badly was his artistic judgement clouded in this case?

Brook: "It probably wasn't as objective as it should have been. Yet I'm not sure it negatively affected the final result. I feel pretty musically proud of what we ended up with. I think it's really good. It just was harder to do and the record took longer to make."

AMBIENT-CROSSOVER-TECHNO-FUSION

Since the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan CD hasn't been released yet by Real World Records, and preview tapes were unavailable, it's impossible to make a judgement on its quality, though I can say that the snippets that I heard when I visited Brook last year in Real World Studios, where he was editing one of the album's nine tracks, sounded excellent: fluid bass lines and infectious grooves underpinned some exciting vocal performances from the Pakistani master. However, an informed judgement can be made about the Srinivas CD, Dream. Whatever headaches Brook may have had in making it, the Srinivas CD itself is a miracle; absolutely captivating with a gorgeous, yet delicate, spacious sound, and destined to become a classic of World Music crossover.

Dream contains four tracks, three of them well over 10 minutes long, and features the talents of violinist Nigel Kennedy, Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelous, Canadian singer Jane Sibbery, and cellist Caroline Lavelle, with pride of place going to U. Srinivas's mesmerising and lightning fast electric mandolin playing, Sikkil R. Bhaskaran's elegantly evocative violin playing, and Brook's infinite guitar. Two tracks have strong, hypnotic grooves, the other two are of an ambient nature.

In the promo literature, Brook writes that he wanted to bring out "the more introspective, meditative spirit that Srinivas reveals in his music and that is a big part of Indian music." He also writes that "one of the big challenges of the record was to try and encapsulate the large contrasts in styles from the frantic, almost heavy metal, sections to extremely tranquil sections of music", and he mentions that the musicians involved jokingly referred to the project as "an ambient-crossover-techo-fusion record!"

DREAM SEQUENCE

Dream was recorded during Real World Recording Week in September 1992, at Peter Gabriel's Real World studio complex near Bath.

Brook remembers: "When I arrived at Real World to record Srinivas's traditional record (Rama Sreerama, 1994), there were so many musicians around that I thought that it would be possible to squeeze another record out of it. So before we recorded Rama Sreerama I withdrew to Peter Gabriel's writing room, called The Shed (a stone's throw from the main studio building), and with a Roland S770 sampler, DX7 and Atari/Notator, worked out some bedtracks that Srinivas and other musicians could play to. One of them was Caroline Lavelle, whom I recorded during this period at The Shed, when she improvised to some of these grooves."

The second round in the construction of Dream happened directly after the recording of Rama Sreerama, which was recorded live in Real World's massive control room, with an audience present. Once the recordings for the latter album were completed, Brook brought out his bedtracks and Srinivas and Bhaskaran improvised across them. These sessions formed the foundation for what was to become the album's title song. The next evening there was a session with Srinivas, Nigel Kennedy and Nana Vasconcelous, who improvised both on their own and with another of Brook's bedtracks. This session formed the basis for the two more danceable tracks on the album, 'Dance' and 'Run', with especially the first three-quarters of 'Dance' being a fairly faithful reflection of what happened that September evening. After this there was yet another session, with Srinivas, Jane Sibbery, and a few other musicians, of which Brook only used Sibbery's harrowing, wordless backing vocals. The other musicians that feature on the album -- amongst them King Crimson's Trey Gunn on Chapman Stick -- were overdubbed at a later stage.

All sessions were recorded to 24-track analogue and until this moment there was nothing unusual to the making of Dream. It was only in round three that music technology started to play a crucial role, making things possible that "hadn't been technically possible or easy to do until recently", writes Brook in his sleeve notes, adding that this concerns "quite a different and new way of working for me, where you grab moments with musicians and later turn them into pieces of music." During our interview, Brook explained that his sleeve notes were referring to the ability to record musicians without having a clear idea about the structure, form, or even musical contents of the final piece of music, and create that structure afterwards out of the building blocks you've recorded.

 

"...I withdrew to Peter Gabriel's writing room, and with a Roland S770 sampler, DX7 and Atari/Notator, worked out some bedtracks that Srinivas and other musicians could play to."

 

Brook: "For instance, with Caroline Lavelle, I knew the key and the tempo of the piece I wanted her to feature on, but that was about it. So I got her to improvise along with a rhythm track and then much later, when the piece of music had some shape, I took bits of what she had done and fitted them in."

Brook had recorded Lavelle's cello on a DAT, sampled the sections that he wanted to use in his S770 (stereo sample time of 200s), and dubbed them back onto the 24-track. Brook's S770 is his sampler of choice only in so far as "it's the sampler I own (laughs). But if I were buying one today I'd look at an S760, or the new Emu. I've never got on with the Akai machines. I don't like their fiddly interface and dinky little screen, and the sound is rather hard. I bought the Roland because of the screen and the hardware controller, and every engineer that I've ever worked with has commented on how great it sounds."

All four songs on Dream were constructed in a similar cut-and-paste manner from the initial sessions with the S770, with Brook applying his talent for electronic treatments to great effect on 'Think', where an unearthly, hypnotic-sounding, 16th note arpegiated riff turns out to be a short cello phrase, played back at double speed, looped in an Electro-Harmonix Memoryman analogue delay and heavily treated. Brook even went as far as to paste in some percussion playing by James Pinker, which he'd originally recorded for a different album, indicating that there's no limits to this way of working.

CUT-AND-PASTE CULTURE

Constructing tracks by cutting and pasting sampled building blocks is one way of working that is being used to great effect in the remix world. A remixer usually gets a copy of the original format that a track was recorded on, whether 24-track or ADAT, samples the parts that he thinks he's going to need, and rebuilds the track from these elements, adding other instruments and drum arrangements that take his fancy. The end result may well bear only a passing resemblance to the original song.

Michael Brook constructed the whole of his Indian/Western crossover album in a similar fashion, albeit with one crucial difference. And it was this difference that was to cause him the greatest difficulties, nearly driving him to distraction with the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan record. A remixer typically builds his mixes out of recorded parts that have already been carefully selected and edited by the original artist and producer. Brook, however, had to decide which sections out of sometimes hour-long improvisations were the best and how they were going to fit together, without having a structural point of reference to start with or aim towards. Anyone experienced in working in the studio can imagine that this involves a gigantic editing challenge, and the risk of not seeing the wood for the trees anymore.

Brook: "The Srinivas album involved two days of recording, a week of making an inventory of what we had, and a month of making it into a record."

On the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan project, this balance between actual recording session time and editing time was even more lop-sided. Brook had worked with the singer before, producing traditional albums such as Shazbaaz (1991) and The Last Prophet (1994), as well as Khan's first crossover album, the highly acclaimed Mustt Mustt (1990).

During the making of Mustt Mustt Brook discovered that Khan soars to his greatest heights when he has ample time to improvise and Brook was frustrated because the backing tracks he'd made were on the short side. This led him to try a different approach for the new collaborative album. For logistical reasons, it wasn't possible to have Khan and the Western musicians in the studio at the same time, so Brook decided to improvise bedtracks with guitarist Robert Ahwai, percussionist James Pinker, and Brook himself on infinite guitar, bass, keyboards, and drum programming. He selected the best parts of these 24-track analogue recordings, and sampled and looped them in the Roland S770, triggered from his Atari/Notator sequencing system. These loops were then mixed to two tracks of another 24-track reel. A 24-track reel has a running time of 28 minutes, which meant that Brook had 21 tracks (one was sacrificed to SMPTE code), each 28 minutes long, available for overdubs. Khan ended up improvising three or four takes to each of the nine tracks, resulting in many hours of unedited material. But it turns out that this was only the beginning of Brook's problems....

Another problem was that, whilst the 2-track mixdown of looped backing track sounded too "loopy", the original bedtracks of Brook, Ahwai, and Pinker sounded too rough and inconsistent to really work well with the vocals. Transferring sections of the vocals to the bedtrack 24-track didn't work for that reason. So Brook decided to sample sections of the original bedtracks and transfer them to the 24-track vocal reel, and then overdub other instruments onto that.

The problem was, however, that Brook had no idea at all of what structure he was working towards: "The best bits of the vocals were spread out all over the tape, and it was very hard to hear things in context or in proper sequence. So what we then did was to transfer sections of what we called the original master to the vocal master, and then do a mock-up, synchronised mix to DAT of the different sections that we liked, stopping the DAT every time we moved to the next section. We'd then listen to this DAT mix to see if things worked in sequence. It was a very slow process, because you could never let the multitrack tape run and say: 'oh, this sounds good', or 'that transition doesn't quite sound right'.

"It was made even slower because I didn't have a hard disk editor available, and had to do everything with the S770 sampler. To be able to hear whether something worked or not I had to load it into the sampler, copy it onto tape, maybe do this for five or six tracks or more, and then do the rough DAT mix to listen to the result. It would take us half a day just to be able to listen back to something, whereas the same edit would have taken two minutes in a 24-track Fairlight."

Brook remarked during the sessions, with a sense of understatement, that he "cannot imagine a more laborious way of making a record." Nine months on, he still appears to shudder at the memory of the technological nightmare that the project became: "One day, after a particularily long period of laborious editing, sampling, and shifting things around in MIDI sequencers, some people from Baba Maal's band came in to do some overdubs for us. It was amazing how that instantly lifted our spirits. When you get so bogged down in details, you quickly lose the mood."

The Srinivas CD was much less of a problem, explains Brook, because he had a lot less material to sift through, only four tracks to work on instead of nine, and he found editing mandolin and violin playing a lot easier than endless tracks of 28 minutes of vocals. "Just to listen to the vocals for one track would take two hours, and then you had to try to edit that! You kind of lose your way."

APPROPRIATE TECHNOLOGY

So what then are the conclusions, if any, that Brook has come to now that his head is slowly being cleared by the fresh air of the Pacific? Amazingly, he reckons (with a grin) that he cannot rule out the possibility that he will work in this way again, but mainatins: "I would insist that I have the right tools to do the job, rather than attempting to fit the camel through the eye of the needle. If we'd had a 24-track Fairlight it would have been alright, but there was no budget for that. Even using a few ADATs, where you can slip and slide tracks, and bounce between them, would have been much better. Having a single 24-track most of the time was very frustrating. Working with this montage-type approach meant that everything took forever."

So one of Brook's answers to 'the overhead of inconvenience' issue is to reduce the overhead, not by shying away from technology and near-impossible edits, but by moving straight ahead and using more appropriate technology. He's now looking into buying his own hard disk editing system, and as a prelude to this he's currently getting to know Notator Logic on a Mac Quadra 840. At the same time, he readily acknowledges that he wants to shift his focus and, amongst other things, would like to get his guitar chops back into shape: "I really want to get away from this way of working and make more time for actually playing music."

 

MICHAEL BROOK: TRACK RECORD

Michael Brook was born in Toronto 43 years ago. He studied electronic music, electronics, and psychology in the arts at Toronto University. Soon afterwards he played bass on one of Jon Hassell's albums, and guitar with Martha & The Muffins (remember their UK hit, 'Echo Beach'?), before finding work as an engineer at Daniel and Bob Lanois's Ontario-based studio. It was here that he first met Brian Eno, who had a decisive influence on his career. He collaborated on several Eno albums, before Eno (and Lanois) helped him out with his first solo album, the dark and ambient Hybrid (1985).

Since then Brook has worked as a solo artist and producer, especially gaining acclaim for his productions of World Music artists such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Youssou N'Dour, Khaled, and The Pogues. In 1992, 4AD released his second solo album Cobalt Blue [for an in-depth interview on this album see SOS June 1992] and later that year Live At The Aquarium, a remarkable live CD that featured many of the tracks from Cobalt Blue. These were performed single-handedly and entirely live on one electric guitar by Brook, aided by a battery of MIDI sound sources and looped parts that he played into his delay lines live. He also played this material during the Sylvian/Fripp tour of late 1993.

 

INFINITE GUITAR WISDOM

Michael Brook's Tokai Stratocaster guitar is fitted with an IVL Pitchrider 7000 MkIII pitch-to-MIDI convertor and Digitech Mark IV guitar-to-MIDI interface, triggering a whole battery of MIDI equipment and sample/delay boxes.

The main delays that he uses for looping are the Electro-Harmonix Memoryman and the Bel BD80S delay/sampler. Other equipment that he currently uses for live gigs includes six volume pedals (to adjust the volume of the various loops, plus the level of his infinite and normal guitar output), Eventide H3000 Harmonizer/multi-effects, Electro-Harmonix fuzz, Electro-Harmonix 16-second delay, Yamaha GE10N graphic EQ, Yamaha TX802 FM tone module, Korg OVD-1 overdrive, Sansamp amp simulator, DOD 280 compressor, and a Rocktron Relay Switcher.

The 'infinite guitar' is a famous invention by Michael Brook, that is essentially his superior answer to the E-Bow. It gives the guitarist infinite sustain, with a controllable breaking point where the guitar goes into screaming overtone feedback. Unlike the E-Bow, it does not require the guitarist to hold any devices, and with both hands free great expressiveness can be achieved. Wishing to maintain the mystique, Brook is reluctant to discuss exact technical details, but apparently the infinite guitar works electronically, rather than mechanically, by feeding some of the output of his Tokai Strat back into the guitar.

To date, Brook has made two other copies of his infinite guitar system: one is owned by U2's guitarist The Edge, the other by producer/musician Daniel Lanois.

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