By Howard Massey
One of the maxims of the music business is that it can make for strange bedfellows. Who would have thought that a classically trained musician with finely honed composition, harmony, and arranging skills would be the primary architect of the second-wave New York punk movement of the mid-1970s?
The man we’re talking about is Craig Leon. Not only did he discover the original thrash-rock band – the Ramones – and go on to produce their groundbreaking first album, but he proceeded to bring many other denizens of CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City to the listening public – bands such as Blondie, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and Suicide. Eventually abandoning the Big Apple for the lure of L.A., Leon’s eclectic career took a decidedly country twist – working with singers Rodney Crowell and Dwight Tilley – before he relocated to London, his present base of operations. In 1999, Leon reunited with Blondie for their critically acclaimed comeback album No Exit, and today he finds himself returning to his classical roots as he explores new ways of assimilating modern recording technology with conventional orchestra performance. To say that he has a singular perspective on the past, present, and future of record production would be an understatement.
EQ: How do you feel your classical background has enhanced your ability to make pop records?
Craig Leon: I taught myself how to engineer in the ’70s because I was flying by the seat of my pants and nobody would engineer the way I wanted to. I originally came from an arranging background – orchestration, composition, and piano – and a lot of that ended up in my method of production. I would actually attack each recording as you would a composition – lay it out in blocks, like you would with normal orchestration. So I would do a lot of things in the arrangement that ultimately affected how the record sounded. Not on something like the Ramones, where everything was just a big wall of sound, but that approach is more evident on something like Blondie – music that has a lot of countermelodies in it. Even something which sounds radical, like the Suicide records, were really thought out in terms of sonics – which frequencies people were going to be playing – rather than trying to EQ it. It’s about, “Let’s change the register where that bass is,” going through that type of preproduction to create a hole for the vocal. So, consequently, on a lot of those old punk records – and even up to the new Blondie record – I don’t use a lot of EQ and I don’t use a lot of effects; the arrangement is what shapes the sound of the record. Which is not a million miles away from what we were doing with classical records. Doing things with harmonies and different chord changes and not necessarily playing the root all the time in the bass changes the way a record sounds more radically than anything you can do electronically. The sound of a record has much more to do with what the musicians are playing and singing than it does mic placement.
Conversely, how has your experience as a pop record producer influenced the work you’re doing now in the classical genre?
Actually, what I’m trying to do is to not do core classical recording. I’m doing more modern things – something that’s very early music, but modernized. I’m trying to incorporate some of the techniques of pop in classical recording, like using multi-track – even though they are live orchestral performances – and doing things with sequences. Sometimes, there are live instruments sequenced [through digital editing] and then overdubbed with more live instruments. So it’s actually making very radical recordings in the classical world – I guess I can’t ever quit making radical recordings of one kind or another! [Laughs] There’s not a lot radical you can do in pop right now; it’s pretty much established.
In 1900, they said that everything that was ever going to be invented had already been invented, so that’s a dangerous point of view.
Well, I’m not quite saying that. Someone could come out in the next year and make the killer record of all time that nobody’s ever heard before – please, somebody do it! But I’d like to do a straight core classical record in a modern way, where you do something multitracked and use different EQ’s and different echoes to change the shape of the music a little bit. That’s one thing I’m really interested in right now.
You said earlier that you learned engineering because nobody was around who could engineer the way you wanted.
Well, you’ve got to realize that it wasn’t that far away from the ’60s when we were starting to do Blondie and the Ramones. When you’d go [into the studio], you’d have people that were still unaccustomed to live, loud music. They were still trying to dampen things down, even in 1973 and 1974, when I started doing some of the preliminary work on the things that came out in ’75, ’76, and ’77. So you’d get very conventional engineering, very flat-sounding compared to what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear the impact of a Ronettes record without having 300 things playing. [Laughs] That was the goal; I wanted to hear the band sound like that. But wanting to get that larger than life sound involved a lot of things that were different in those days.
The way we did the new Blondie album is pretty much the same way we did the old Blondie stuff, which for then was really radical but now is the standard way to make a record. It was using a lot of room mics with leakage. On the early Ramones and Blondie stuff, there’s hardly any processing, and there’s very little reverb. Even though it sounds really roomy, that’s actually the sound of a huge studio. Then, that was really radical – you didn’t do that. Instead, you put an amplifier in a little cage and you put the drums in a little booth with foam all around it. So I’d have a lot of trouble with engineers wanting to do that.
A couple of guys really got it. I worked with Shelly Yakus on a couple of things back then and he really had it down, but because of the low budget nature of a lot of the records I was making, I couldn’t get him all the time. So I’d have to go and do it with whoever was in the studio. I’d just put the mic wherever my ear was, and hopefully it would sound right. Nobody taught me that – it was just a matter of moving things around until they sounded right. You know, “What’s this? A limiter? Well, let’s put it across everything and see what happens.” In those days, nobody was limiting the mix before it would go to mastering, or putting the whole drum kit through a stereo limiter. Everybody was saying, “This is technically incorrect,” especially when it’s a pair of API limiters that crunch the hell out of it! [Laughs] So we were trying a lot of things like that, and I had to do it myself because there was no method for doing it. We were still having people that were very used to recording close-miked jazz sessions and stuff, which was really cool also, but it just wasn’t what I was after, not with those bands. Later on, when I did Rodney Crowell and people like that, we did a mixture of both – very conventional close miking combined with a bunch of room sounds and having the drummer play in the bathroom and things like that.
So you are definitely from the “leakage is good” school of thought.
Oh, yeah. That, and getting as much of the live performance as you can possible get on the record. Even today, when you’re hearing things sequenced, get as much live as you can get. I never really separated things a lot, not even to this day.
But, with the exception of the Ramones recordings, there is good separation. You clearly carved out spaces for the individual instruments within this broader brush of the big sound.
That’s because there are a lot of overdubs , but the basic core of it is one big sound. We did a lot of the new Blondie record in the basement of Chris Stein’s house, in his rehearsal room – a home environment, albeit with a lot of the equipment from my sophisticated studio. But still, the basic feel of the album was the bass, drums, two guitars, and keyboards recorded live at Electric Lady for a couple of days. We then took that away and stripped things down and built on top of that, so you still have the live core of what the band was sounding like, even though there later is a bunch of separation from the overdubs.
Generally, you can get a very good picture of things – even within the mass – by panning instruments hard left and right. That comes from me listening to old Beatles records, where, by necessity, the whole band’s on one side and then a guitar solo and a tambourine is coming out of the other side. [Laughs] I thought that was really the way they were supposed to be! Because I grew up in America, I didn’t know that the band and George Martin disowned all of that stuff.
Do you tend to use fairly standard drum miking in addition to the extensive room miking?
It’s pretty much a close-miked kit plus a stereo overhead of one kind or another. Sometimes there’s added emphasis on a cymbal or two if it’s not being picked up, but it depends on the drummer. How you mic something and how you EQ it – in fact, everything that you do – is actually driven by the way the instrument is being played. If it’s a guy that has a really heavy foot, you would use a different mic on the bass drum than the guy who has a very light foot. You would judge where the room mics and where your overheads are placed more by that than anything else. How the drummer’s playing determines your mic setup, so there isn’t a standard setup that works; no one thing works all the time. I’ll even change mics within a session. [Blondie drummer] Clem [Burke] is pretty consistent in the style that he plays, but within different styles of music, we use different setups; sometimes the room mics and the overheads will be way overhead and sometimes they will be really close, depending on how hard he’s playing the cymbals.
Do you experiment with placing the drums in different areas of the room?
Yes, or even in different rooms. If you’re going to throw a whole bunch of digital reverb on it later, it wouldn’t really matter, but if you’re trying to get an organic sound, the room means so much more than which specific mic you’re using.
For example, we did some overdubs on that first Ramones album in a huge room – again, there’s that connection between punk and classical music, because it was Arturo Toscanini’s old rehearsal hall with the NBC symphony above Radio City Music Hall. So we were in this room that was about 65 by 100 and 30 feet tall, and we had room mics all over the place. We wanted the sound of an explosion on one song so I ran around and had people climbing up ladders and putting room mics all over the place while Tommy [Ramone] hit a tom-tom. For all that, it just didn’t sound roomy enough. No matter what we did, it sounded like someone hitting a piece of paper – even if it was 50 feet away and cranked up and run through API limiters. So we just took a pair of grand pianos and put them around Tommy’s kit and put bricks on their sustain pedals. Then we put up a pair of [Neumann U] 87’s in a normal pattern over the drums, cranked them up, limited them to death, had him do one hit, and it sounds like cannons exploding.
That’s not just an isolated incident, either; something like that seems to happen on almost every session. For example, on the latest Blondie album, Debbie [Harry] didn’t want to have as resonant a sound as she usually did, so we got different pieces of foam to put up above her head and we’d lower them or raise them to get more or less resonance on her voice. There were even a couple of songs where she wanted to do something really deadpan, so she’d actually put the foam on top of her head and wear it like a little hat! [Laughs] Maybe that sounds like 1920’s recording techniques – you know, move farther away from the horn – but it works. We’d have people, within the course of a track, moving on and off mic on things. We’d move mics – do half of a guitar solo with close mics and then do another take with different miking, maybe putting the two mics out of phase – and then combine the two in the middle of the solo. As much as I want a live base, I do stuff like that a lot.
Every incident that I’m describing is not an over-the-top trick; it’s something that worked because the guy really thought about the way the piece of music was meant to sound, about what the composer intended or what the artist wanted out of his guitar solo. You want to do what emphasizes that and not just do it for the hell of it. And when it’s done right, you really get that bit of magic that makes the record something special. You want to use whatever devices you have at your disposal to any extreme in order to make the record sound right.
How will you decide to record a particular instrument on analog versus digital?
I’ll use analog if I want to hear tape saturation, and that wouldn’t necessarily be on the instruments you would think you’d want saturation on. I’ve done acoustic cello on a classical recording with tape saturation and heavy, heavy compression. Why not? It’s almost like a little homage to George Martin.
So the only reason you’d go to analog would be for tape saturation?
Well, there’s a theoretical “warmth” factor, which really isn’t the right word. It’s just that, because we grew up listening to analog, it sounds right to us. And the more I’ve been working in digital, the more analog’s sounding older and older to me. That’s more in my past than my present, but when the transition to digital was happening in the ’80s, I’d always have in the back of my mind that it doesn’t sound right until it’s analog. Now, because we’re ending up in a different medium – because we’re not going to vinyl anymore – I don’t know how valid that is. But there are certain things where I’ll go for analog, maybe more from worshipping some sound that I heard in my youth than any other reason. Maybe I’m wrong, but I have a feeling that, as the years go by, I’m going to be less dependent on hearing that old “warm” sound.
That’s kind of the tube versus solid state argument, also.
It’s the same thing. When I started doing some of these classical things, I had access to the mic cabinet of both Decca records – which is unbelievable – and the mic cabinet of Abbey Road, which has everything, you name it. I would be able to set up fifty [Neumann] M49’s if I wanted to, but what ended up sounding right to me was a modified transformerless M50. On the other hand, I’ll use valve [tube] mics on certain instruments, because they sound a bit more mid-rangy and brighter to me in an odd kind of way. You’d think the opposite – that they’d sound round and warm and velvety, but they don’t. Nowadays, especially when you’re recording to digital, the criteria for not using a valve mic is generally noise. When you’re doing very, very low-level recording of something, they just won’t work. But I tend to use valve mics more in pop stuff than in classical, because it’s masked and it gives you a different kind of a punch – kind of a mid-range, lower octave punch. I also like to use valve mics as overheads on drums – a [AKG] C24 instead of a pair of 414’s or something like that.
The flavor of tube equipment on tape is also different than tube to digital.
Which is why I’ll do things simultaneously. On the Blondie album, there are a lot of things that I ran to analog and to digital simultaneously – bounce some bits over from the analog, edit some bits on the digital. There are times when I’ve actually used the analog drum take for the verses and the digital drum take for the choruses. It’s all subtle stuff, but it builds up over the course of many instruments on a record. I wouldn’t say that that’s going to miraculously change anything, except in your own mind when you’re doing it. But if you apply that philosophy to many different elements of a recording, then it can all of a sudden open up in the choruses as opposed to being really intimate in the verses.
Do you generally mix to both domains as well?
Not anymore, because we’re in the CD medium and you might as well get it sounding good in that medium as soon as possible. I’ll use outboard analog, but I usually mix to digital.
As an American producer living and working in England, do you think there’s an “English sound” versus an “American sound”? If so, what accounts for it?
I do. There’s a different approach and a different mentality. I think it’s because the control rooms in England are drawn up more by the seat of their pants. You’re working on speakers that are extraordinary, but they’re not positioned using any kind of scientific method; they’re placed according to what sounds good to the people that are working in the room, so it’s done by ear. Whereas in America, I think it’s done a little bit more technically by the book, and that creates a different sound.
I find that I actually push myself a little more in English studios, because the environments are a bit unnatural. One of my favorite rooms to work in here was the old AIR studios. The control room had big floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Oxford Street. That was how the room was designed, yet George Martin would sit there and get the most incredible sounding things out of there, and I got really good results as well.
All of which proves that the sound doesn’t come from the equipment, but from the way you hear things in the room. The most important criteria, more than anything outboard, desk [mixer] choice or anything, is how you hear something coming through the speakers.
But will a number one British pop record and a number one American pop record have qualitatively different sounds?
These days, it’s really odd because chances are both of them were recorded all over the place, the vocals were done on an ISDN line and they were mixed by some guy in Sweden. That’s another thing that’s becoming great: the ability to work on things in many places. As a result, the sound of records has become more universal now.