Christopher Fogel accepted an offer to mix an album by an unknown Canadian, and found himself caught up in the phenomenon that was Alanis Morissette. He tells Nigel Humberstone how he went about recording her without losing the vibe and spontaneity.
Strangely enough, Alanis Morissette got her first taste of international fame as an actor on a children's television series, You Can't Do That On Television, back in 1986 when she was only eleven years old. The very first episode in which she starred was all about music — and it was predicted then that Alanis would be a hit in the music industry.
The multi‑million‑selling and Grammy‑bestowed Jagged Little Pill was preceded by two more forgettable albums, Alanis and Now Is The Time, which, although they established her in her native Canada, did little to raise her American profile. The breakthrough came when she met Glen Ballard, a songwriter, producer and arranger who'd worked with a string of artists, including Wilson Phillips, the Pointer Sisters, Celine Dion and Michael Jackson, and a magical co‑writing partnership flourished. This dynamic collaboration resulted in the basics of the 1995 album being written in a staggering 13 days — a testament to the creative chemistry which also involved a third, less high‑profile team member: engineer Christopher Fogel. Credited with mixing the majority of the Jagged Little Pill album, Fogel was undoubtedly an essential figure in the whole process. As the 28‑year‑old graduate of Fullsail, the Centre for Recording Arts in Orlando, awkwardly puts it: "The person that was there the next most was me."
Fogel had worked with Nine Inch Nails and other more alternative groups, before meeting up with Glen Ballard on the second Wilson Phillips record. His leaning towards projects with more edge obviously struck a chord with Ballard, who was moving into that area and away from pop. Offered his first full‑length album engineering an unknown Canadian artist, Fogel had little idea that he was stepping into something special.
"At that point in my career, I knew that they were good songs, but I didn't know that it was going to go any further. I latched onto the tracks — they weren't necessarily my taste, but I began to get attached to them. Then a buzz started in the LA recording community about what we were doing, and I remember saying as we were finishing the mixing that we'd be back next year, having sold two million copies, and everything would be great. That's the way we looked at it — and here we are now!"
Exactly: with sales of 22 million and counting, Jagged Little Pill has become the biggest‑selling album by a female artist.
"I was brought in piecemeal at the beginning," admits Fogel. "Glen and Alanis wrote everything between them and they'd help each other; it was a very good partnership. Sometimes Alanis would get a lyric at two or three in the morning and they'd lay the track down real quick — just the basics: a loop, a couple of passes of guitar, a vocal — and then I would come in and add any embellishments on top of that. We'd re‑do some guitars on occasions, but rarely, because most were done in a single pass, and Alanis had grown attached to them. We added real drums to five of the songs, and did organ on all of them. I'd say that on three‑quarters of the songs I cut the vocals myself — the other quarter Glen did at the demo stage."
Bearing in mind the immediacy of the sessions, Fogel adopted a pretty standard vocal setup in preference to experimenting with different microphones.
"Prior to this record Glen had spent $25‑30,000 on a mic collection. He bought an AKG C12, a pretty good Neumann U67, and a great U47 which we pretty much reserved for male vocals. We instinctively went for the C12 for Alanis, and ran it through a Demeter preamp and an old LA2A. We never tried anything else because there was a presence to the vocal that just vibed; so we kept it and there was no experimentation. Vocals were mostly single takes — except in the case of the first album track, 'All I Really Want', where we did 12 background parts. You can hear them all over the chorus, there's octaves and ninths. Most of the doubling sounds I did electronically with a doubling program on a Yamaha SPX990 and an AMS unit."
The essential writing, recording and mixing of Jagged Little Pill took place at Glen Ballard's Encino‑based home studio in LA, the centrepiece of which is a Euphonix CSII desk (now updated to a CS2000). This contributed much to the easy atmosphere that characterised the recording sessions.
"It's just such a fluid‑thinking console," Fogel explains admiringly. "If I want to pan something I love being able to just hit a button and pan it automatically. Especially with the newer software versions — if I want to write something I can do it right then and there. If I was pulling up rough mixes and someone said 'Every time it goes by I wish you'd make it quieter at that point', I didn't have to remember it, I could just do it and the software remembered it every time.
"The fear surrounding recalls is virtually non‑existent now — we recalled every one of the songs in Jagged Little Pill over a period of two days, just to do final tweaks before we went to mastering, and I can honestly say that the recalls were perfect every time. I got to the point at the end where I wouldn't even check them against the previous mix.
Alanis is so attuned that I could place a mic de‑esser on her voice, and she would walk in with no meters showing and immediately know.
"For me, it's a very intuitive console: I grew up on Neves, and didn't spend much time on SSLs, but for me the Euphonix sounds like Neve circuitry with the thinking of SSL automation — but with an immediacy that neither of those has."
The Euphonix was used to digitally interface an array of ADATs (original and XT models), which was used almost exclusively for most recordings, although analogue tape was used afterwards when some drum parts were transferred.
"It was really to satisfy my own questions," admits Fogel. "I wasn't sure I'd made the right decision doing the drums initially on ADAT, as I thought maybe they were sounding a bit brittle, a bit harsh. And I still think to this day that they do — but that lends itself to the character of the record."
The ADAT is commonplace in the US recording world, but Fogel nonetheless has reservations over its reliability.
"I really ran into this on an Aerosmith project I worked on — ADATs just have some software bugs that have been there since the beginning. Some of the problems seem to have been sorted out, but they're still buggy. You'd get one machine take off and snap tape, drop out bits in places; you'd have errors occur for no apparent reason — put them in another machine and they're gone, and put another tape in the machine that was giving you errors and there are no errors! But the key to using ADAT is safety, safety and safety. If I've got a brilliant organ part with Benmont Tench or something like that, the first thing I do is back it up, before I ever play the tape again. It makes producers mad at times, but if they want the cool features of the ADAT, they've got to put up with the reliability factor. And it's not so much that they're going to have a problem — it's just the chance that they might. I make sure that I'm backed up two or three times, all the time. Towards the end of this project some of these tapes had been running over the heads for maybe 25‑30 hours' solid time, because with the XTs they don't release from the heads. Occasionally I'd hear dropouts, so I'd just throw in the safety and mix off that. But I still love ADATs — and I know the BRC like... driving a car, because it's so intuitive."
Mixing was almost exclusively Fogel's domain, and his recollection of the process once again highlights the recall features of the Euphonix.
"As I recorded, I basically knew everything that was on tape and I kept snapshots going in the computer when things sounded good — so I could recall the snapshot and start from there. I'd begin with mutes and start from the ground up. I experimented with bringing the vocal up first and then building the track up underneath the vocal, but it didn't really work. So we ended up doing it the traditional way — building drums first.
"Starting at around 11am, I would take probably four hours to put the mix together. Then Glen would come in at 3 or 4pm, listen to it, and tell me what he did or didn't want to leave. I'd finish it, and if there was something that was really in‑depth then he'd tell me exactly how he wanted things to play together — and then we'd print it and it'd be done. Nearly all the time Alanis would be there, so we got word‑of‑mouth artist approval; then we'd send it off to Guy Oseary at Maverick Records who would send us their comments. Glen also put together a comments list, following which we spent a couple of days going through some recalls, and that was it. I think the first thing that I mixed was 'Head Over Feet' and the whole process from then took about a month."
When it came to mastering, Fogel covered his options by using two formats. The first was DAT (recorded at 48kHz) through an Apogee 500 digital converter.
"The 1000s were available, but I use the soft‑limit function as well on the Apogees — there's something about the crunchiness of 16‑bit compared with the 18 or 20 bits of the 1000s which sounded better to me. There was better depth to the newer ones, of course, but I just happen to like that crunch. We also mastered to a stereo analogue machine on Ampex 499 half‑inch tape at 15ips.
"The songs that were the heavy bottom‑end ones, 'All I Really Want' and the loop on 'You Learn', we ended up taking from the DAT while the rest came from the analogue source. Our final word was Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering — I trust that guy with my life."
At the time of my interview with Fogel, he had just finished mastering the debut album Hint Of Mess (on Sony) by Andrew Dorff — the younger brother of actor Stephen Dorff, of Backbeat and I Shot Andy Warhol fame. Fogel describes it as, "A fun record, another one that's harsh and in‑your‑face, but more modern‑sounding and avant‑garde than Alanis. It's going to be an interesting record, because I'm starting to get the same buzz as I was getting with Alanis towards the end."
I experimented with bringing the vocal up first and then building the track up underneath the vocal, but it didn't really work.
The project is significant because Fogel has experimented with new drum‑recording techniques, and he plans to employ them in the forthcoming Alanis album which he begins in March.
"I'm now getting drum sounds in 10‑15 minutes, and it's not because I'm lazy, it's just that I'm satisfied with what I've got and I've got to a point where I know how to get it.
"With drums I tend to stick with more dynamic mics rather than condensers. I'll use condensers or a two‑mic setup on the overheads, and on the hi‑hat and kick drums I'll use the Audio Technica ATM25 — and it's Shure SM57s everywhere else, basically. Occasionally I'll put an AKG 452 on the bottom of the snare or 57s on the toms, or maybe if I need a subtle touch, I'll use an AKG 414.
"I'll compress heavily to try and get a real 'blatty' sort of sound — or sometimes I'll just use a ribbon mic placed at a 45° angle above the drummer's head and compress that as much as I possibly can in a Fairchild. That will give me this low‑fi, almost vintage, Portishead‑type drum sound which feels great. I've also been doing this thing where I run everything that's at the bottom end, like kick and low tom, into a powered 18‑inch sub‑woofer situated right behind the drummer. I've only just started experimenting with this on the Aerosmith and Andrew Dorff recordings, but basically it extends the bottom end on the kick drum, and when the drummer hits the kick, you really feel it: I have no problem pulling out that chest frequency.
"In fact, in some cases, I didn't have to EQ the drums at all — it was right where I wanted it." Fogel clenches a fist into his upper chest to demonstrate. "It was originally here," (he moves his fist up to his forehead); "it moved to here..." (to his neck); "and ended up here," (his chest) "...when I put the sub‑woofer on it. I've told Glen about it and he's really into trying that with Alanis.
"I also did a lot of live drum‑looping on the Andrew Dorff record, where we'd get the drummer, Matt Chamberlain, to play a pattern — pick the two best bars, and loop it in the ADAT, keeping all the tracks individual."
Fogel has also recently finished recording Alanis at two specially‑staged live shows in New Orleans. The recordings are planned for a future European video release. Recording equipment took the form of six ADATs.
"Alanis is very into the way her voice sounds, so I didn't want to change anything. She's so attuned that I could place a mic de‑esser on her voice, even before we had finished the record, and she would walk in with no meters showing and immediately know that I had a de‑esser on the voice and say 'Take it off'. So I didn't want to change the Audix OM7 mic she had been used to holding and singing with — although I think she would have been better using the OM5. The OM7 has a very tight pattern, and if Alanis moves a little bit, all we've got is drums and audience, whereas the OM5 is a bit wider, and that's what the front of house had on the background vocals. I wasn't knocked out by the sound of the OM7, but there was no way that I could change it!"
"I also used the TL Audio 2051 vocal processor as I was dealing with a limited space" — a Mackie desk in a van, in fact — "and wanted something that was going to be good quality. I'd already used the C1 stereo compressor across every mix on the Alanis album and that was great, so I got the 2051 to record Alanis' live vocals.
The key to using ADAT is safety, safety and safety.
"I recorded everything through some API mic preamps, although some gave out on me so I had to run them through the Mackie — and I can't believe I'm saying this, but the Mackie often sounded better. Particularly on the toms, on some of the percussion elements and on the guitars, they probably sounded 20% better than the APIs. Maybe I had a bum set of APIs, but the difference was like night and day.
"So it was basically the drums, her, the guitarist, bassist, audience tracks and that was it. It ended up being the best live recording I've ever done."
Three new tracks were recorded as part of the live show, but these will not be featured on the video release. Fogel insists that they are a crucial pointer to the direction for the next album.
"The new tracks are in a progressive mould; in other words she's definitely moving forward. They don't sound as if it's not her — they're very well written, strong songs. And Alanis and Glen worked just as they did before: they wrote them in a day, we demo'd them, and for all I can see, they're pretty much done and ready to go on the next record."
However, expectations are high, and it wouldn't be the first time that such a monumental breakthrough has failed to deliver second time round.
"We'll see. She's been in a bubble for the last 18 months — all this kudos, all these awards and all these things happen to her while she's been on the road, and that's not a realistic way to live. So when she comes back we'll see what she's like in the studio. Glen's a little nervous already.
"I'm looking forward to combining the directions that we've each taken and seeing where we all are. I know she's advanced her songwriting — and she's had some experiences that she definitely will want to write about. So it's going to be a good project in that respect.
"If these new songs are any indication, then everything's going to be great — they'll get the songs written in two weeks, we'll spend three or four months doing the record, and it'll be done."
Despite having cut his teeth at the advent of digital, Fogel is no stranger to analogue technology, having worked with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, an unashamed analogue freak. The album Downward Spiral, from which Fogel remixed 'March Of The Pigs', was notable for its controlled use of feedback and distortion — elements that Fogel employs in his present‑day work, in particular the drum and snare sounds for Morissette.
"There are combinations of snares — we didn't do much triggering, but as far as the sounds went, it was live ones playing in correlation with loops underneath, on songs that had loops (such as 'You Oughta Know'). 'Right Through You' didn't, but that was because we went after a bigger snare sound on that — generally, I wanted smaller snare sounds, so that they didn't get in the way of the loops."
"My favourite pieces are my SansAmp guitar preamp and my C1 compressor from Tony Larking. And if it can't be run through those and sound good then it's not going to make the record!"
By the time this article goes to print, Fogel and Ballard should be working on the next Morissette album, utilising Ballard's home studio, his new studio at Capitol Records and no less than three Pro Tools setups.
"The Capitol studio is really going to be the cool studio now," says Fogel; "that's part of Glen's record deal."
The studio, on the twelfth floor with views of Hollywood and LA out to the ocean, will be fitted out with a Euphonix CS2000, six to eight ADAT XTs, and an analogue multitrack; it will also feature ISDN lines — as fitted in Ballard's home studio — and the new Pro Tools 3 system.
"I don't know to what extent they're going to be used, but Glen's a clever guy, and at this stage money is no object to him. If he's going to do something, he's going to do it all out. We've always used a Macintosh computer, so when Glen wanted to throw out his Linn and move over to Cubase Audio he thought, 'Well, I've got the Mac with the PCI slots — I might as well do the Pro Tools thing as well'. So now he's getting three full‑blown Pro Tools 3 and Cubase Audio setups; one for each studio and one for his programmer — the whole shot!"