Photos: Nigel Copp
Back in the 1960s, Phil Spector's approach to production was described by the now legendary term 'wall of sound'. Forty years later, Californian producer and engineer Joe Barresi is attempting to inch ahead of Spector with a sound that's so massive, hard-hitting, and in-your-face that it can perhaps best be described as a 'wall of rock'.
An audio fanatic, who sleeps, breathes, and walks music in an effort to perfect his engineering and production skills, Barresi started out playing guitar at age seven. He went on to play in local bands and study classical guitar and music theory at the University of South Florida. After graduation he moved to Los Angeles where he eventually gained prominence as an engineer, mixer, and producer. You're likely to have heard Barresi's work at some stage or another, as he's engineered, mixed and/or produced tracks for Skunk Anansie, Hole, Monster Magnet, Anthrax, Bauhaus, Fu Manchu, The Melvins, Bad Religion, L7, The Jesus Lizard, and many others.
However, the best-known example of Barresi's sonic barrage is Queens Of The Stone Age: he engineered, mixed and co-produced the band's eponymous 1998 debut album, as well as their recently released fourth offering, Lullabies To Paralyze. Co-producer on both was bandleader, guitarist, singer and songwriter Josh Homme. "Josh and I have been friends for a long time," explains Barresi. "I had worked on three Kyuss albums [the rock band on whose foundations QOTSA was built], and after they broke up, Josh moved to Seattle and pursued some other interests. He sent me some demos of an album he was working on, and they blew me away. So he put up the money to make the record, and we went out to the desert and recorded it in under three weeks. It was purely a labour of love. That became the first Queens album. Josh later asked me to do Songs For The Deaf [2002, the band's third album], but Interscope wanted a 'name' producer. That situation soured, and by the time Lullabies came around, it was obvious that Josh knew his music better than anyone else, so that's when he called me in."
So, with full creative control and a much larger budget to work with than for the first QOTSA album, Homme and Barresi set out to experiment more than ever before and, says the latter, "create something unique".
"The band had gone out to Rancho de la Luna studios [in Joshua Tree National Park] to rehearse the songs," explains Barresi. "When they came back to LA they knew the songs and arrangements fairly well. I sat in on a couple of rehearsals in LA, and it was mainly a matter of me learning the music and seeing what worked, sonically, guitar- and tempo-wise, and so on. Then we loaded all the gear into Sound City studios and spent the first day sorting through it, plugging things in and deciding what would sound good for what parts. We had a massive array of amplifiers and guitars and drums, including some of my own stuff."
When Barresi talks about "some of his own stuff", he shows mastery of the art of understatement, for he's the proud owner of a rather extravagant collection of assorted boxes, guitars and amplifiers. "I have 250 guitar pedals, probably close to 45 guitars, 75 guitar amps (35 combos and 40 heads), and countless pieces of outboard gear. Altogether enough to fill a garage."
Barresi's gear also includes over 30 microphones from the likes of Royer, Neumann, Shure and Sennheiser, almost 40 compressors from Tube-tech, Focusrite, EMI, Neve, Trident, Urei and more, 30 mic preamps bearing names such as Studer, Sontec, Pultec, API, Urei, Joe Meek and Quad Eight, and some more esoteric stuff he's reluctant to talk about. The sheer number as well as the nature of these boxes reveals much about Barresi's approach to engineering: many affect the front end of recording, and most are analogue, valve, and/or vintage.
"I like to focus on things like how a part is played, what guitar is played, where you position amplifiers, the drums, and the vocalist, what console you track on, the kind of mics and mic pres you use, and so on," stresses Barresi. "A few nights ago I spent hours AB-ing Neve and Quad Eight mic preamps. Stuff like that matters to me. Personality is mandatory. Every little bit helps. Analogue gear allows me to experiment, and it doesn't sound like everybody else. If I was lazy, I'd just put a plug-in on something, but instead I prefer to pick the right compressor or microphone, or mic placement. All this is about the art of making records, which is getting lost at the moment."
As a keen student of the art of recording, Barresi is an avid reader of recording books and magazines, and enjoys watching any kind of making-of documentary. He explains his emphasis on the front end of the recording process: "What really blew my mind was watching this documentary about the making of [The Who's] Who's Next and seeing Glyn Johns push up just four faders and hearing what I've been listening to for three quarters of my life. Now, everything is aimed at being totally perfect, at optimum level, with complete isolation on each microphone, and so on. It's just ridiculous. But I like recording without a click track and straight to analogue tape and without listening to whether this particular beat is ahead or behind. And that's what we did with Lullabies To Paralyze."
Further prodding for details of the recording of the latest QOTSA album runs into the occasional bit of resistance on Barresi's part, apparently out of respect for Homme, who likes to shroud the recording process in secrecy. For this reason exact details of the guitars, amps, and effects pedals used on various songs will have to be scanned from the impressionistic session documentary on the DVD that comes with the Special Edition version of Lullabies. Luckily, though, Barresi is happy to spill the beans on the tricks and working methods that were his own territory.
"In having so much equipment, I try not to use the same thing twice. If I used an Echoplex on the first Queens record, I wouldn't bring that the second time round. The making of Lullabies was also experimental in the sense that we tried to get a different sound for each song, and even for sections of songs, and would try different microphones that I would not normally use. It was like a recording dream, because not only were the songs good and the guys amazing players and was it a fun record to make, it was also like going back to recording school."
For each track the group and Barresi would experiment until they were happy with a combination of certain instruments, amplifiers, pedals, microphones, and their placements. Then, says Barresi, "We went for it and tracked the song. We cut drums, bass, and two guitars completely live on all the songs. 'Medication', 'Little Sister', 'Long Slow Goodbye' and 'Tangled Up In Plaid' were all done in one take. On other songs we did some very minimal editing of different takes. Then we'd punch in anything that needed to be fixed. The beauty of that was that at the end we basically had the bed tracks done, and I don't think we did too many overdubs."
To capture Queens Of The Stone Age, Barresi used a combination of his more standard approach to recording guitars, bass and drums (see the 'Joe Barresi's Mic Guide' box), and some wild variations. He elaborates on some of the specifics, beginning with the album's deceptively gentle opening, 'This Lullaby', which features only Homme on guitar and Mark Lanegan on vocals.
"We tried a million times to capture the right moment, and we finally got it while I was already mixing the album. Josh and Mark were in the studio lounge, sitting in the couch, chilling out, and I had a mic in front of Mark, while I recorded Josh's hollow-body electric guitar acoustically and the guitar amp in the bathroom. Josh also did some whispery background vocals, which was him singing through a mic with an analogue guitar pedal reverb on it. Actually, 90 percent of the guitars on the album were hollow-body, so a lot of jokes were made about 'F' holes."
Following 'This Lullaby' is the full-on 'Medication', a shift which is a bit like being whacked by a 2x4 while dozing in your rocking chair. According to Barresi, "The song was intentionally made to sound like the first album, it was like 'welcome back' to the listener. After this there was a lot of experimentation in sections of songs. We'd experiment with maybe changing the drum kit around so the texture is different, and have everyone in a circle looking at each other and putting a couple of guitar amps in this circle. We might put a mic up in the middle and cut a whole song like that, with a lot of bleed."
One song that saw a lot of experimentation was the album's lengthy centrepiece, 'Someone's In The Wolf'. With its long, impressionistic middle section, it almost comes across as a slice of '70s prog rock. "The band laid the song down live with the middle section in there," revealed Barresi, "and we then overdubbed all sorts of studio experiments to it. Josh had been reading a lot of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales, and wanted it to be something like a fairy tale, with two children locked up, like Hansel and Gretel, and the big bad wolf is outside.
"So we had Chris Goss come in and he made all kinds of kitchen noises, like a tea kettle whistling and the chopping of a knife and the rustling of the pages of a recipe book. There's a snippet of him doing that on the DVD. These things were recorded on individual tracks and then bussed to one track. So the middle bit of the song has that as a whole montage of sounds, and multiple guitar parts, and also Alain Johannes played Marxophone, a weird, small instrument that you pluck and that vibrates multiple times. It makes this kind of very metallic, fluttery sound. That's the little melody going on in the background, along with some guitar swirling. There's also some slide guitar going on. All the slide lap-steel stuff went through a little Rivera amp, with some kind of weird tape echo."
While Homme is adamant that Queens Of The Stone Age aren't a heavy metal band, much of the music on Lullabies To Paralyze is of the eardrum-assaulting variety. It's a perfect foil for Barresi's wall-of-rock approach to recording. But as ever with QOTSA, there are surprising leftfield turns, such as the opening to 'The Blood Is Love', which, being in three time, with clean guitars, weird sound effects and cheesy drums, sounds like it comes from a different musical universe.
"We wanted a circus feel," states Barresi, "and you can't have a big rock circus feel. So we made it like merry-go-round type music, with a swirling feeling. The 'circus guitar' is a hollow-body guitar through a weird little combo amp and a bizarre microphone. There was also a mic in the middle of the group playing. I think that intro had only three or four mics. We cut the whole song with the sound of the intro, but decided that this didn't fit, and went back to a big rock approach. The shift from the intro to the big rock section was an analogue tape edit, a hard cut. There were a lot of intentional contrasts in the record in general: soft versus hard, very dry sections versus very wet sections, dry lead vocals and wet background vocals and vice versa."
Another striking contrast is offered by the bonus track 'Like A Drug' (only included on the album's special edition CD/DVD version), which sounds like a psychedelic '60s number, all hazy, wistful vocals, jangly guitars, laid-back rhythm section, and very gentle, open production. Even stranger is that it is one of the tracks on the album featuring guitarist Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, himself no stranger to the hard-hitting, wall-of-rock approach to music.
"It's kind of crazy," says Barresi. "The four guys and Billy are all playing together, with Josh singing into an amplifier, and every mic in the room wide open. That's where all the space comes from. I did two different mixes in analogue on the fly, and loaded them into Pro Tools to line them up to see if I wanted to cut sections from one mix to the other. I then started nudging one of the mixes slightly ahead or behind, getting a phase going when I played the mixes together. It totally tripped it out, and was the effect we were looking for. So I ended up putting the two mixes on top of each other like this. It's got a vibe."
Joe Barresi's Mic Guide
"I never go in knowing what vocal mic I'm going to use. While cutting tracks I'll put a couple of mics out and see what the singer sounds like. On vocal days I'll then put up a couple of mics again and listen and do a shoot-out. Sometimes you have the same microphone for the whole record, but on the Queens album we used different mics on different songs. I rented a Brauner VM1, and that worked really well on pristine vocals. It's a beautiful, very clear-sounding mic. I also used the [Neumann] M49 on a couple of tracks, the [Shure] SM57 on some others, tried the [BLUE] Ball, and used the Shure KSM44, which is really good.
"I'll split the guitar signal, using the PCP Instrument Distro or more often my Systematic Systems guitar splitter, which can split the signal to six amps. I don't tend to use them all at the same time — sometimes it's just three or four outputs, and one may go to a tuner and another to a DI box. Using six amplifiers is excessive, really! In choosing the amplifiers and speakers, it's important to remember that larger speakers give a more compact, tighter sound. A tiny amp turned all the way up will give a more blown-out sound. This volume war obviously also applies to bass amps and cabinets.
"The two microphones I use most for recording electric guitars are the Shure SM57 and the Sennheiser MD421, often both, close up, placed at the edge of the speaker, where the speaker centre meets the cone, or, if I'm looking for a more bright sound, dead centre. When I want more low end, I may have an AKG 414 on there, and when I'm after a little more personality, a Neumann 87, backed up a foot, or a ribbon mic — like the Royer 122, or an RCA BK5 or 77. I'll often take the microphones through some Neve 1272 preamps into the desk, and then via an API 550 or Quad Eight EQ to the multitrack."
"I'll record basses via a DI and an amp, sometimes two amps blended into one track. I won't normally use a splitter, but just go through the DI into the amp. The microphones on a bass cabinet could be an SM57 or SM7, or Neumann 47FET. The guys in the Queens turned me on to the BLUE mikes. The BLUE Mouse, Blue Ball or Red Ball can all be great on bass. If I'm looking for a very full sound, I may back the mic up five to six feet, where it will almost become a room mic. You always use your ears and go from there. Sometimes I'll re-amp the DI bass track when I'm mixing and add a slightly distorted signal back in."
"On kick drum I always love a mic in and out. Inside I prefer the Sennheiser MD421 — I'm not a huge D112 fan. If the 421 doesn't work, the next choice would be a [Shure] Beta 52. Outside could be anything, an NS10 speaker, a 47 FET, or a Beyer 160, about three feet away. Snare drum would be an SM57 on the top and a 57 or [Sennheiser] 441 on the bottom. I may also use a [Neumann] KM86 or a [AKG] 452 taped to a 57, or a 414 at the top. Toms could be 421, or 87 if I'm looking for a little more low end.
"Overheads depend on the studio I'm working in. Sound City has a really good pair of [Neumann] U67s. It could also be a 414, or a Sony C37 or a 47FET. Hi-hat and ride are usually something more condenser-like when I'm looking for a crisp sound, or SM57 or SM7 when I'm looking for something a little more sloppy. I'll usually compress the drums to some degree, and blend all the kick mics to one track and all the snare mics to one track. I like the kick to be under one fader, and the same with the snare."
"I love to use a combination of a stereo and a mono room mic. So nine out of 10 times I'll have three tracks of ambience. That could be a pair of 87s or PZM or a 414 or a Coles ribbon mic. I love to put a room mic like a 441 close to the kit and highly compress it, à la Tchad Blake. And I'm a fan of M-S and Blumlein microphone configurations. For instance, when you're not getting a very even kick drum on both sides, I might end up putting a Blumlein array in the middle of the room, and that can work really well.
"Nine out of 10 times the room sound will be compressed to some extent. Sometimes it may be severely compressed, on what I call 'Full Canadian' setting, with all buttons pressed in and to the right. I like the EMI compressor for its fast attack. I often use the room mics for reverb, rather than adding reverb from a digital box. I may put an amplifier or the singer in the bathroom, or use reflective surfaces. At Sound City they have an echo chamber that doesn't have its speakers any more, so a lot of the time when we were looking for something echo-y or chamber-like, we stuck a cabinet or the drum kit in there, or did hand claps or vocals in there. It doesn't get more analogue than that!"
Almost the entirety of Lullabies To Paralyze was recorded through Sound City's Neve 8028 desk, often in conjunction with Barresi's own mic preamps, and to Studer 24-track tape as well as Pro Tools HD. "I brought in some Helios and Telefunken V76 preamps," explains Barresi. "Just fat-sounding boxes. There's nothing on the album that didn't touch the Neve at some stage. Also, everything went to tape, but in cases where I'd filled up all 24 tracks I'd record the rest into Pro Tools. The brass went to Pro Tools, any of the crazy stuff.
"A lot of the vocals went right into Tools, through several preamps. Some of the vocal sounds were pretty complex: sometimes they were treated, or I'd use an additional mic that was slightly overdriven, or they were sung through an amplifier or a Leslie cabinet, things like that. I might use two or three microphones on a vocal, and a lot of times I would print the components separately, so I could re-balance later if needed for sections of the song. Of course this would eat up a lot of tracks."
When queried on the respective advantages and disadvantages of analogue and digital, Barresi has a lot to say on why he prefers analogue and why he thinks digital is in part to blame for the art of recording being at "a standstill". "I love the sound of the analogue tape machine," he says, "and I don't use Dolby. Never. For the kind of music I work on it's hardly necessary. I'm not doing super-hi-fi recording. I also think that noise is a good thing. The hiss is like reality for me.
"Another thing I love about analogue tape is that it forces you to commit early. Like, here's the guitar sound on one track, as opposed to using 15 microphones on a cabinet and putting them all on separate tracks. I don't think you can build an idea of how the song is going to sound in that way. To me recording a song is like building a house. There's a floor and there are walls and there's a ceiling and roof. How can you figure out what your roof is going to be like when you don't know what your walls are going to be?
"HD sounds really good, but I'm not of the opinion that you need things to be at 96k, because in the end CD is only 16/44.1 anyway. If it's properly used, digital is fine, though many people don't spend enough time looking at how things are clocked. The simplest issue is whether digital is your master or your slave. If your Pro Tools session is the master and the tape the slave it sounds fine, but if you're slaving Pro Tools to the tape, Tools will move back and forth and it sounds less clear to me. Analogue is a little more forgiving when it's speeding up and down.
"A further complication with Pro Tools is that many people delay their decisions indefinitely. They'll mic the kick drum inside and out and print them separately. But at some stage you have to make a decision: here's the drum sound. Whether you have 20 or four tracks of drums, you have to commit at some point. And the sound of the drums affects the way the guitars and bass will sound. But people buy a computer rig nowadays and they never have to make a decision, because they have Mic Modeler and Sound Replacer and unlimited tracks. When I mix I get a lot of projects in that have been recorded on Pro Tools and where I spend ages trying to work out what the actual guitar or drum sound is. It bums me out."
According to Barresi, another issue with recording on computers is that the focus shifts from the ears to the eyes. "You're not supposed to look at music! A friend of mine, engineer Mark Dearnley, an amazing engineer and avid Pro Tools fan, did four albums for AC/DC. He once held his hands 30 inches apart and said 'Imagine this is a piece of tape and here's the kick drum in the middle. The bass is going to be a little bit behind, over here, and the guitar player will be a bit ahead, over to the right of the down beat, and essentially your entire downbeat will sound huge!' The moment you start looking at music you start lining things up and your down beat is small again. There's none of that push and pull that makes music come alive.
"The whole idea of perfect music is just ridiculous to me, unless you're making dance music and you want that hypnotic effect. Playing with a click and then gridding things is insane. You find yourself fixing things as opposed to listening to the music. Playing the song a little bit faster next time may make the whole difference. We never used a click track with the Queens.
"Doubling music with Vocalign, or Auto-Tuneing a vocal, is equally ridiculous. The whole idea is to use your ears and double things until they sound good. Listen to old records. I think that some people these days decide that when they hand in a project that's perfectly in tune and time, they've done their job as a producer. But at the same time they've taken the life out of it and made things perfectly unmusical. What's the point?"
However, Barresi is no Luddite. At the time of writing, he has just bought a Pro Tools HD2 system, to complement his M Box, laptop and Firewire drive, which he's been using for several years in the back of the control room, "doing edits, moving things around, or whatever".
"The M Box is amazing value," reckons Barresi, "because you can do so much with it, and it's so small. I got the new HD2 system because recording budgets are getting smaller, and a lot of projects come to me that have already partly been done on computer. And as an engineer you now need to be a Pro Tools operator as well. All the material on the new Queens album lived in Pro Tools at some point. Some songs had some intricate stuff on them that I needed Pro Tools for. And if I had more than 24 tracks of material, and the extra tracks were in Pro Tools, then it was often easier to load everything into Pro Tools and mix from there. Although in some cases I combined tracks in Pro Tools until I had less than 24 tracks, and we went back to analogue multitrack tape for the mix."
Mixdown for Lullabies was to half-inch analogue, Pro Tools, DAT and CD, with the half-inch tape used as the master. The multitude of formats reflects Barresi's concerns over the uncertain longevity of digital media. "I worry that in five years from now you won't be able to open a Firewire 400 drive on a G5. I've already had issues opening a 9GB drive from a couple of years ago. Whereas I know that years from now, everything will still exist on tape. The tape may have to be baked, and someone may have to fix a mechanical part on a tape machine, but it will play. So I also backed all the unmixed material up to 24-track tape, to two reels in case a song had more than 24 tracks."
It's at the mixing stage that a number of important secrets of Barresi's volume-to-11 trade come to the fore. Analogue outboard gear and guitar pedals play crucial roles here too, explaining why he opted to mix via an analogue desk. "I mixed the whole record at Bay 7 Studios in Los Angeles," Barresi explains, "because of their G-plus-series SSL. They also have a lot of vintage outboard gear and two great Studer 24-track tape machines. I needed automation for multiple signal passes or to mult some things out or to change sounds in different sections. Also, I use this thing called a PCP Instrument Distro, made by Jonathan Little of Little Labs, which allows me to take three XLR signals off tape and convert them to quarter-inch. It allows me to set up three pedals in a chain, and have them as three mono outboard boxes.
"The Pro Tools rig that we had didn't have a lot of plug-ins on it, which was perfect. There are a couple of plug-ins that I like, but in general I'm not a fan. They don't sound good. I don't need Bomb Factory's emulation of an 1176 when I'm surrounded by real 1176s. If I use any kind of plug-in, nine out of 10 times it will be a de-esser, because it works quickly and is very controllable. I have to say that I do love Altiverb. It sounds good. But in general I don't think there are enough unique-sounding plug-ins out there.
"Everybody who has Waves will have Meta Flanger, and they will all sound the same. The Sansamp plug-in isn't bad, but there are four or five different Sansamp pedals that all sound different, plus there are two rackmounted versions. My rackmounted Sansamp has been modified for more bottom end, and you can't really modify plug-ins. I have three Boss overdrive pedals, and they all sound different. So analogue effects have much more character. Also, it's easier to manipulate buttons with your hands, than looking under a menu and loading fucking factory presets and trying to alter them. I think a lot of people use presets. It's simply too easy to plug and play now."
When nagged further about the ins and outs of his wall-of-rock sound, Barresi soon lands on a not-so-secret ingredient. "I use a lot of compression, obviously, for example the EMI TG12413, Focusrite Red 3, Tube-tech LCA 2B, Dbx 160, Neve 33609 or 2254, things like that. I also spend a lot time riding the faders when I'm mixing, so I can retain some dynamics and separation and the individual sounds are still recognisable and hard. When you compress too hard you lose all your dynamics. I'm a big fan of parallel compression, so I'll often mix in non-compressed sound with compressed sound to maintain the transients. Or I may use the console compressor on the SSL on an individual channel and buss my whole drum kit to a Tube-tech compressor or something. Also, in general I try not to over-EQ stuff, unless it's to get a particular sound. I'd rather get the sound I want out of the microphone. It does start there. It all starts at the source."
Audio files to accompany the article.
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