NOAH GEORGESON MIXED AND PRODUCED JOANNA NEWSOM’S ALBUM DIVERS. A DIVE BEHIND THE SCENES REVEALS HOW HE HELPED THE HARPIST MAKE WAVES.
Generally speaking, a woman with a harp is not one of the world’s most epoch-making, let alone controversial, propositions. Yet Joanna Newsom consistently manages to make waves. Her fourth album, Divers, made it high up almost all best-albums-of-2015 lists that matter. This was a natural extension of the floods of prodigiously positive reviews that followed the album’s release in October 2015, with Any Decent Music calculating a review average of 8.6 out of 10, and MetaCritic of 88 out of 100. Mainstream rock ‘n roll and pop reviewers called Divers “truly incredible “a masterpiece,” “startlingly beautiful,” and so on. This is pretty impressive for someone making largely acoustic music that’s pigeonholed with peculiar and obscure labels like “acid folk,” “New Weird America,” “psychedelic folk,” and “freak folk.”
Stronger still, the singer, harpist, multi-instrumentalist and composer also has been called “one of the most polarizing artists of the last 10 years.” While the vast majority of critics clearly adore Newsom, and many fans write in exulted admiration about her music and lyrics, there are also some that hate her music and her voice with a vengeance and are not shy of expressing their dislike to anyone who will listen. As one journalist wrote, “What ties both the love and the hate together is bewilderment,” concluding, quite rightly, that “visceral bewilderment” is rather interesting.
It’s quite something for someone with a harp to stir such strong emotions. So what’s all the ado about? Divers has been called her “most accomplished album yet,” and features Newsom playing an array of instruments in addition to harp, including piano, harpsichord, Wurlitzer, celesta, synths, and zither. Other instruments that appear on the album include violin, viola, trombone, English horn, bouzouki, baglama, drums, electric guitar, and an appearance is made by the City of Prague Philharmonic. All these colours are woven together in baroque, kaleidoscopic arrangements, over which Newsom sings almost scholarly complex lyrics and inimitably complex melodic lines with a mannered, childlike approach to singing that borrows from early Kate Bush and Björk, but is otherwise entirely her own.
Whatever Newsom’s music is, mainstream it ain’t. The fact that it strikes a chord (and, occasionally, discord) with audiences the world over is to a large degree due to the originality and cohesiveness of her song-writing and musical arrangements, as well as the way these are presented sonically. Newsom’s albums aren’t limp-sounding, folky-affairs but kick butt and despite the absence of deep bass, sound in-your-face enough to hold their own in the current loudness-saturated music-scene.
OLD FRIENDS, NEWSOM SOUND
Noah Georgeson is the man responsible for the sonic and production aspects of much of Newsom’s recorded output. Georgeson set Newsom’s, and his own, career on course by engineering, mixing and producing her sparsely-arranged debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004). Newsom’s second album, Ys (2006) was made with Steve Albini engineering, Jim O’Rourke mixing and Van Dyke Parks co-arranging and producing, but Georgeson returned for album #3, Have One On Me (2010), recording Newsom’s harp and vocals and mixing most of the album. His contribution on Divers was even more significant, as he engineered parts of the album, and mixed and produced everything.
Georgeson is one of the driving forces in the American alt folk movement, even as he also works in other genres. He has worked with Devendra Banhart, Vetiver, Mason Jennings, Robin Pecknold (of Fleet Foxes), Cedric Bixler-Zavala (of the Mars Volta), as well as the likes of Bert Jansch, Charlotte Gainsbourg, The Strokes, and a Mexican artist called Natalia LaFourcade—the latter collaboration won him a Latin Grammy Award.
Newsom and Georgeson’s personal and musical trajectories converged early on. They both hail from Nevada City, a small town in north-eastern California full of artists, (ex-)hippies and New Agers. In the early years of this century they both studied at the liberal arts Mills College in San Francisco, were part of the band The Pleased and were romantically involved. From his home studio in Los Angeles, Georgeson recalled…
“I played music from my early teens, first piano and then classical guitar. Of course I played in shitty bands during high school, and I was always the one recording us, using both analogue and to Pro Tools. When we were at Mills together I helped Joanna record her material, at home and also secretly at a studio at Mills. In working with her I had to figure out how to record acoustic instruments, particularly the harp, which is one of the most challenging things to record, because of the way the sound comes off it. These recordings became her first album, and suddenly I was a producer! Then my friend Devendra asked me to help him with his next record [Banhart’s fifth, Cripple Crow, 2005], which turned out to be quite successful. So while the first two albums I did were both in the small indie folk world, they also went pretty big. I really lucked out. I was among a group of people who were doing great things, and my career carried on from there. I’ve never had a lack of work since then.”
“I always saw myself more as a musician and a composer, and have to admit that until doing Joanna’s first album it had never crossed my mind that being an engineer and producer was something I could do. Honestly, I am not the most technical guy. I hesitate to say I am an engineer, because it implies a technical or scientific approach, with an empirical, objective ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.’ I wholeheartedly don’t believe in approaching music that way, unless you are simply trying to document something – like a field recording or something. I think that every single aspect of music and recording is entirely subjective. I don’t have the analytical, scientific mind-set that the word engineer implies. I can get the sound I want out of pretty much anything, but am not particularly interested in how things work from a technical perspective. Instead I‘m best at making things sound a certain way, and giving my opinion. It’s kind of weird to be hired for giving my opinion, but it’s also flattering!”
ALBINI OUT, GEORGESON IN
The theme of Georgeson approaching engineering, mixing and producing in an intuitive, artistic, and non-technical way, is a leitmotif that runs through his descriptions of his work on Divers. Recordings for the album started in Vox Studios in Los Angeles in the beginning of 2013, with the legendary Steve Albini engineering. Albini, who dislikes LA and is reluctant to work away from his Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, left in April, and Georgeson took over. Recordings continued at Vox, and at other places, for another one and a half year, off and on. The project finally concluded with four months of mixing, partly at Georgeson’s home studio and mostly at House of Blues Studio in LA, and mastering finished early 2015.
In today’s low-budget climate two years, even if not continuously, is a pretty long time to be working on an album in commercial studios, particularly for someone who is not a best-selling mainstream artist. In an interview in Entertainment Weekly, Newsom explained that the recordings took so long because she “wanted the character and colours of the instrumentation to shift definitively, from song to song, which entailed a wide pool of collaborators and a lengthy collaborative process with each person.” Georgeson elaborated on how the assisted in supporting Newsom’s to achieve her vision, and why things took so long …
“In the months before I arrived, Steve had recorded the basic tracks for about two thirds of the album, and I came in literally the day after he left, with all his mic set-ups still in place. He wrote me a long e-mail detailing everything he had been doing. He has special mics that he likes, but I chose to do a reset because I guess I have a different aesthetic vision than he has. He had recorded everything to tape and dumped things into Pro Tools, and I decided to keep going purely in Pro Tools because of the workflow, but also because I wasn’t hearing the benefits of using tape. The sounds were good, but there was tape hiss, which is fine for some recordings but not for Joanna’s record.”
“For me tape saturation and compression are a large part of the charm of using tape, and there wasn’t any of that. So for me the recordings had tape artefacts that I thought didn’t work for the record, yet none of the things that I like about using tape. I am often looking for that kind of messiness, and imprecision and fuzziness that analogue can give you. But this record did not call for that call for that. It has a lot of detail in the mid and higher mid ranges, and it’s not bass heavy, so it seemed to be calling for a sound image that’s cleaner and more precise. Also for that reason it made sense to stay in digital.”
“After I came in, Joanna and I worked full-time for another couple of weeks, and from then on we worked when we both had the time. Sometimes we were not working because we were waiting for collaborators to send in their material. I either recorded the additional musicians at House of Blues, or they would record their parts where they lived, and would check with us about the arrangement and technical aspects of what they contributed. Joanna was not dictating the arrangements note for note to each player. Even as she had very strong ideas about the parts, she also gave the players options, and we’d then sort through those. Also, the classical music instruments in ‘Anecdotes’ were recorded in a studio in Northern California. There was a lot of working over a distance. The modern world allows us to do that, which is fine.”
“When I arrived at Vox the idea was to record all the overdubs, get the material in from collaborators, and then mix and be ready half a year later or so. But that turned out to be wildly optimistic. As Joanna listened to what we had, she judged the record less and less done. In some cases she did not like the performance and we were continuously trying things, putting things in and taking them out, until an arrangement felt right. As soon as that point was reached, we’d go to the next song. There were moments when it felt sprawling and where we reached a point of diminishing returns, and where we had to decide to move on to keep things going. But overall we rerecorded some things, added many overdubs, and because things took so long, we also recorded a few additional songs from scratch, like ‘A Pin-Light Bent’ and ‘Same Old Man.’”
CLASSIC VOX TONE
The sonic palette of Divers is exceptionally rich, because of the enormous variety of acoustic instruments used, to some degree courtesy of Vox Studios, the many synth sounds Newsom contributed, with help from Georgeson, and the sound image Georgeson placed all the sounds in. “Vox is a super old-school place,” explained the producer, “with a very special old-time feeling. I don’t like the velvet and brushed-metal and scented candles aesthetic of many studios today. Instead Vox also almost has a laboratory vibe, very Spartan, very cool. The studios has a lot of crazy old gear, both recording and musical instruments. There are tons of super-old keyboards, like real Mellotrons and old synths, pianos, and pedals and so on. A lot of the unusual instruments you hear on the album happened to be at the studio and we tried them out.”
Vox Recording Studios, which bills itself as the “Oldest privately run recording studio in the World,” “since 1936,” also has some very unique studio equipment, including a Universal Audio/Api desk custom-built by Frank Demideo in early 1967, which has been used on classic records by Wing, Van Morrison, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, and many others. The desk has a staggering 24 channels of UA 1108’s, 24 UA 508 EQ’s, and 20 channels of API 560, 550 and 550a EQ’s. Georgeson made extensive use of the desk, and of other vintage gear, but not for the purist, audiofile reasons one imagines…
“I don’t mind working in the box, but if there is a desk, I like to use it! But I’m not into keeping things analogue and pure. I don’t really care. For me gear is a tool to get me what I want, and I’m used to doing this in digital as much as in analogue. I find that both can be used to sculpt to the sound to be whatever you want it to be. I don’t like getting dogmatic about it. I try to stay as flexible as possible and not to get too attached to any particular piece or kind of gear. If I’m in a nice studio, I like to use the old gear, like Neve and API and so on, but in general I go very light on treating recordings on the way in. For Joanna’s record I wanted to record everything as natural and clear and uncoloured as possible, and then work extensively on them in the mix, mainly using EQ. For allo these reasons I was happy to use the UA/API desk at Vox and get beautiful, natural-sounding recordings.”
“I tend to record vocals with three microphones: a good large, diaphragm condenser, a ribbon, and a cheap dynamic, placed right next to each other, trying to get the phase right. In Joanna’s case I recorded her vocals with a Neumann M49 or Telefunken Elam 251, which gave me the detail, the ribbon was an RCA 44, which is nice and dark, and the dynamic would have been an Electro-Voice mic, which have coloured high mids, and are good at documenting things without too much detail. When you hear too much detail in a singer’s voice, it demystified things a little bit. I mean, nobody will ever be singing one inch away from your ear with ultra-clear focus. It’s not natural.”
“I like vocal mics that are dirtier and not as precise. The sound from dynamic mics can cut through and have emotional impact, and then you can add in the smoother, more romantic quality from the ribbon and the details from the large diaphragm condenser. So in the mix I balance the different qualities of the three mics against each other. I also often use a room mic, and try to find a spot where the vocals sound good, but I usually end up not using the room vocal mic. I record the mics using only EQ and some light compression on the condenser from something very basic, LA2 style. The UA/API desk is very cool, and adds a colour not matter what you do. You just plug something in, and it will have that signature sound.”
THIS TIME WITH HARP
Georgeson applies his approach of recording a sound source with multiple mics and then choosing the appropriate balance in the mix in extremis when recording the harp, for which he uses a whopping seven to eight mics. “The way I record the harp is still more or less the same as what I did when I began, 12 years ago. The sound comes off a harp in pretty much every direction, so it’s pretty hard to stick one mic up and get a sense of the harp as it sounds in real life. You want to get the pluckiness of the fingers pulling the strings and also the body of the instrument and the depth of the bass. So I put up two small diaphragm mics on either side of the string to pick up the string plucking. I may use Neumann KM84’s for this, or if I want to have something more rustic with high mids I may use an Electro-Voice dynamic, something that has its own colour and not too much detail and a little bit of crunchiness.”
“Next I’ll have a mic on either side of the soundboard, ie a large diaphragm one for the low end, and something detailed with a wide frequency spectrum for the high end, because the latter is where you get most of the sound of the instrument. A lot of bass comes out of the sound hole at the back of the sound board, so I’ll also put a microphone on the floor to pick that up, like an EV RE2E, nothing super-detailed, just something that can capture the power of the low end. Finally, I’ll have two ambient mics doing a stereo thing, which may be a pair of Coles mics, and maybe also a large diaphragm vocal mic, like a Neumann U47, to pick up the entire harp sound in mono. I record each microphone to a different track, and during the mix I’ll decide on a balance, for each song, or even for each section of each song. If I want to hear lots of detail and plucking I’ll go more for the close mics, but if I want a sense of the harp receding into the ensemble, I’ll back off and use the soundboard and room mics. The mix of these microphones may shift even within a single song.”
“Especially with a record like this I didn’t go too out there during the recordings. I find that I enjoy doing that more during the mixing process. It is not a matter of that I don’t like to commit early, it is just that I feel that I am better at it during the mixing stage. However, I did sometimes put up some very coloured microphones just an option. Sometimes I use these old crystal microphones that were made for truckers, like for CB radio talkback and so on, because they sound very particular. They have no high highs, but they do have high mid and they pick up the bass in a very particular, strange way, that’s kind of compressed. I like those, and then I have this old ball and biscuit mic, the STC 4021, which is pretty interesting-sounding as well. I then later mix these in with the other mics, and that automatically gives it a pretty unusual sound.”
QUAD EIGHT HOME COOKING
In between recordings, Georgeson would tinker with the Pro Tools sessions at his home studio. When the final mix stage came into view he also prepared the mixes at his own place, which has some older gear, requiring some unusual working methods. “The main thing at my studio is an old Electrodyne Quad 8 rack mixer,” explained Georgeson. “It’s from the 60s or 70s, and I think it originally was designed as a location film-rack mixer. It’s a little brighter than classic Neve stuff, but it definitely has that old-school vibe. So I mix through that. I also have a couple of LA2-style compressors, just some really basic outboard, and NS10 monitors, plus old consumer-level Advent speakers, which I bought when I was a teenager, and which are very representative of what the average person might be listening to. When I noticed that a couple of mastering places also have them I felt validated!”
“I don’t have a laptop. Instead I have an old Mac tower with Pro Tools 8. I still use that, because I fear that upgrading will take me a couple of weeks, and I simply can’t afford the time. I also don’t want to drop 20 grand for another HD system, and then suddenly plugins I like don’t work anymore and so on. So when I’m working in a commercial studio I use whatever is there, but because my system can’t open .ptx files I need to save on an old format, and then when I come home and want to work on these sessions, I strip them down so they work on my system.”
“After the sessions for Joanna’s album, I did a lot of listening and clean-up and shaping of some of the sounds at home. Most of all it was a matter of getting familiar with things, so that when we went into the studio, I could just put the sessions on the board and I’d know exactly what I had and what I wanted in terms of EQ and compression, and we can get going pretty quickly. I’ll use the plugins on my system to get a general idea of where I want to go, and in the studio I replace them with real outboard. So I do broad strokes at my studio. If I know that I’m going to do the final mixes at my house it’s a different process, of course, because I know I am committing and I will send more things through the bits of outboard gear that I have.”
MICROMANAGING A MIX
Georgeson conducted the final mixes for Divers at House of Blues Studios, noting that it’s “great for mixing, because they have an incredibly amount of gear. They have a 32-channel Neve 80 series desk, with 32 1073 mic pres, and also a 16-channel API 1604 sidecar, both of which are great. I laid my mixes out over the Neve, because I like the process of mixing through a desk, and I really like the Neve EQ that they have. They sound great. I also like using desk bus compression. You get more headroom when mixing through a desk and with some of the songs being very complicated it generally gave me a sense of having more space to work in.”
“The issue with mixing through a desk today is recall. We tried to really stay with each song while mixing it and not do a lot of recalling. Sometimes we’d have a song on the desk for five days! But I’d sometimes already start working on the next song by laying the session out over the API sidecar. I’d then later would that session over to the Neve, because it sounded better. My process in general was that I’d get all the sounds the way I wanted them and to sit in the right places and context, and then Joanna would come in and she’d have tons of feedback in terms of micromanaging levels and pan placements. At this point I’d zero everything on the board, and then I did all the volume changes in the box. So it was a kind of hybrid system.”
Elaborating on his approach in getting things to sound the way he wanted them, Georgeson went into detail on his mix of the album’s opening track, ‘Anecdotes,’ which features classical music instruments like a violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, bass clarinet, English horn and trombone, as well as Newsom on harp, piano, Juno 106 and Minimoog. “Yes, I approached this in a modern sound design-like way, because the instruments don’t really function as they would in a chamber ensemble in the traditional sense. Instead I tried to give each instrument its own character and function.”
“What I did was to saturate the colours that each instrument naturally has, mostly using desk EQ. The English horn, for example, has a particular reedy sound and so I tried to really bring out the middle range in that, kind of exaggerating the colours that are present in that instrument. This is not something that you would really want to do in a classical recording. I allowed the instruments’ natural dynamics to breathe in the track, but the EQ was fairly heavy-handed. Those Neve desk EQs are great because you can get pretty intense with them, and you don’t realise that the instrument has stopped sounding real until you compare it to the dry signal. You can push them pretty far and get some really interesting sounds without things sounding crazy or horrible.”
“I did not actually do many treatments on ‘Anecdotes,’ other than EQ and now and then some light compression. The main other effect was reverb, with much of it coming from the studio’s big, analogue EMT 140 stereo plate reverb. I definitely used that on Joanna’s voice. The studio also has the first digital reverb, the EMT250, which looks like a robot kind of thing and is very cool and very weird. I used some of that on Joanna’s voice, as well as the Eventide H3000, for some crazier delays and stranger reverbs. I also had either an LA2 or a Gates Sta-Level compressor on her voice. I had very little reverb on the harp, because it is so resonant of its own. Too much reverb quickly makes the harp sound like a mess. But I’d have had some 1176 on the harp string mics, treating them like an acoustic guitar to get a real sense of pluck, and I definitely used EQ on the harp. I also had Pultec EQP1A EQ on the master bus and a Fairchild 670 which hit the low notes on the harp in particular.”
“I also treated the synths with only EQ, just to bring out the mid range and warmth of the Juno, plus I probably added some bass to the Minimoog where it was supposed to supply low end. But I didn’t try to create any frequencies that that weren’t in the original material. I’m not against making things sound artificial, but for this record that just wasn’t right. The main issue that I had to address was that there were many instruments playing in a similar mid-range, and many of them in the same range as Joanna’s voice. I had to find a way for each of the instruments to live with the others, and not get in the way of the voice.”
“I did some of these treatments and effects with Joanna in the room, but in general I had already established the sonic landscape of each song by the time she sat with me and we’d started carving out levels in detail. She would have opinions on the landscape, but in general it did not change that often. With regards to the levels Joanna always has loads of very detailed notes. She really wants to micromanage the levels of instruments coming in and out, how they interact volume wise, sometimes note by note. We’d also edit things, like if we felt that a performance was a tiny bit ahead or behind in time we’d micro-adjust these things to get them to sit right. Nothing was to a click or a grid, and the edits were not designed to make things sound perfect in an objective way. It was about pushing and pulling the rhythm and the flow of the track.”
“Joanna very specific ideas about individual moments, and they are very important, but for me the broad strokes are the most critical. For me personally it’s OK if a vocal is slightly too loud or too soft. Records can easily end up sounding too conservative because everyone is focused on controlling the minutia. But for the most important questions are: ís the song effective? Is it evoking something? And that happens from the first note. You listen to old records and the hi-hat may be 10 times louder than it should be, and hard panned to the left, and that stuff is interesting to me.”
“My interest mostly lies in the bigger picture and the bolder colours, and in creating something that is unique enough to justify its existence in a world that is completely saturated by content. This can manifest in even the subtlest detail of a song or recording, or paradoxically, it can be in its simplicity or incompleteness. The Japanese phrase ‘wabi-sabi’ describes this. [Wikipedia: “beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”] I only recently became familiar with the concept, but I think it perfectly describes my aesthetic and approach to music.”
© 2015 Paul Tingen.