This is a guest post by musician Daniel Shuman
“I wasn’t interested in recording music because I particularly enjoyed putting up microphones,” says producer and engineer Scott Solter. “I wasn’t somebody who understood anything technical about audio – or anything technical at all.”
This might come as something of a surprise to anyone who has worked with Solter, or heard his productions. He’s an exceptionally creative engineer and a bona fide sound wizard known for more than a decade’s worth of work with artists like John Vanderslice, Spoon, Mountain Goats, Pattern is Movement, and Superchunk.
Though years of constant recording have allowed him to establish his formidable technical skill, Scott insists it was a vision for sound that drove him from the beginning. “I went into engineering with a purely aesthetic appetite,” he recalls.
Solter, a California native who worked for years in San Francisco studios like Tiny Telephone, now calls a bucolic stretch of North Carolina’s ‘Triangle’ area home. His masterful catalog of work and dauntless approach to shaping sound continues to keep him very busy.
This year marked the third time I worked on a record that Solter had helmed, and we came to record with him at a personal studio, built out of a converted barn on a sprawling residential property. When he agreed to share some of his insights about recording with me, I found him a fiery intellectual with a penchant for language and aesthetics. He was so natural in this role that I was surprised to hear he generally eschews interviews.
Scott entered the world of audio engineering around 1999, thanks to a creative fire sparked while listening to David Sylvian’s “Gone to Earth”. He began recording bands for free, under the sole condition that he be given “an influence over the aesthetic nature of the record.” This, he quickly adds, was not to control the music, but to have a voice within it, and to apply his own creative instincts.
“I was never interested or patient enough to be a practicing musician,” Solter says, “but [I was] always wanting to be involved in music…Eventually I would realize that the studio was the instrument that I [had always] needed.”
Where Does The Song Sit?
While his wildly varied clientele presents a range of demands, each of Solter’s sessions begins with more or less the same question: “What exactly do you want this piece of music to say?”
In order to gauge the direction of the recording, he might ask artists, on a scale of one to ten, what kind of space they envision for the work – with “one” being the inside of a telephone booth, and “ten” being the Taj Mahal. This, says Solter, encourages a spirited exchange, and helps him to better “animate what the end sound will be..In essence, we could take any composition and turn it into anything…There are so many options.”
Some pieces arrive at Solter’s desk more fully realized than others, and in his mind, there are two basic points of departure: When the “personality of the piece” is very strong in a demo, the conversation focuses more around “fleshing out the highs, the mids and the lows that [one wants] to occupy that song.” “Do you want this one bridge change, this gargantuan low end? Or here, I think we shouldn’t just have solo piano, we should have…two vibraphones and a celeste playing that melody on the second verse, because it makes it [sound] more exciting…”
Other artists come bearing bare-bones demos – lyrics and chord changes with little indication of the music’s emotional nature. Generally, this type of client is very open to where a piece of music might go. Solter recalls a Michael Zapruder session that began as a group of piano ballads, but became “sort of kaleidoscopic…in some cases very synthesized, and in other cases very distorted.”
“The songs just got reanimated in a very liberal way.” Solter says the two both took on the same attitude, essentially: “we’ll just go for it, we’ll experiment with the song, and we’ll know it’s right when we’re smiling and shaking our heads. We don’t have a direct vision of what this should be doing, but let’s move forward with it, start turning knobs and playing things and behaving. Something cool will arise out of it.”
In my own experience, I’ve seen that the studio environment, full of gear and technology, can often intimidate and overwhelm. But Solter seems to have a natural flair for diffusing some of that anxiety. “Sometimes I’ll just keep everything turned off at the start of a session, and I’ll just point to all the gear and say, ‘Let’s choose three pieces of gear that we’re going to use today, and those are the only ones we turn on.’”
“I think limitations are incredibly helpful for people,” he adds “Lack of choice can be very liberating to a creative process.”
Solter, who has worked extensively with analog tape, praises the inherent restrictions of that medium. “You have to start making confident, and in some cases, final decisions in the moment as you’re working; Things like submixing, to free up new tracks, really cause people to live very clearly in the moment with the work that they’re doing.”
“Sometimes the computer, because you can keep documenting without any consequence, pushes a lot of crucial decision-making back in the process. Then, all of a sudden, you get to mixing, and you’ve got, like, 80 tracks…There’s something cool about really committing to stuff…It makes people pay attention – it really does. It’s kind of sad that it’s taken on a negative quality – [when I] think it’s actually a positive quality.”
He remembers an anecdote about composer Morton Feldman, who, late in his career, did all his composing in pen. “It made him think longer and harder about the decisions he was making.”
“It’s more difficult; anything like that makes your life more difficult. But if you’re going to the trouble to create art in the first place, why would ease be a factor? If you really want your life to be easy, go on vacation.”
But for Solter, that burden of work is meant to be applied to creative choices. He’s quick to go on the record to say that he also loves working in the digital realm, which he praises as an excellent conduit for his own self-professed impulsive nature. “There were times, working on all tape – especially doing some of the earlier remix work – where it felt very labored. In some ways, I wasn’t able to behave as spontaneously as I wanted to. There’s something to say about just turning on the computer, arming a track and going. You’re not thinking about aligning the tape machine, and making sure that the signal to noise is correct and all that stuff, so it definitely feeds the spontaneous mind.”
The computer, he feels, is best when it’s used to free up technical effort so that it can be re-applied as creative or aesthetic effort.
The dark side of this technology to him is that it sometimes it “gives people who are not terribly qualified to do it a sense of power that they don’t actually have.”
“Because of the internet, and I think because of computers, this atmosphere of entitlement exists among people. I’ve definitely had some come in who don’t have a lot of talent, or they’re not writing particularly compelling songs, or they’re really not that good and they don’t have a lot of money – but yet they bring, y’know, a tough-talking attitude to the game. They’ve got, as they say, a champagne attitude on a beer budget. And sometimes you have to really shut that down.” Suffice it to say, he does not suffer fools lightly.
I really like that snare sound. What kind of mics did you use?
Solter is an active, bold, and decisive engineer. He’s completely unafraid to overdrive tape machines or apply gobs of vibrant, additive EQ during tracking, committing to all of it on the spot. But as powerful as his use of electronic sound-shaping tools can be, so much of Scott’s welcome influence on the sound comes at the source.
I witnessed this approach to drum recording firsthand during a session for the forthcoming Monocle record. The rhythm section came to that recording rather well-prepared (if I do say so myself), and it was great to have the music kicked into an altogether higher gear as it was being made.
I remember clearly how often Scott would have Miles Kennedy, our drummer, swap out a ride or a snare, tape up a cymbal, or change a part. When asked about how he coaxes the optimal performance out of players, Scott thinks back to that initial conversation with the artist:
“When Rich [Bennett, of Monocle] described what he wanted from the record, he said ‘I want the drums and the bass to have this really tight, close feel to them, and the rest of the music is much more atmospheric around it.’ So, for me, I immediately sort of open up my mental suitcase of some of the things that I’ve done in the past, to at least get through that door and get into that sound.”
“It results in very immediate decision-making that, in some ways, seems contrary to what you [might think to] do. I will often cover cymbals in tape, because guitars and keyboards are already taking over that high-frequency sustained area. And even though we want the pulse in – say- a ride cymbal through a section of a tune, we just don’t want all that sustain, all of that sound that will compete with the other instruments. So it’s really about just walking in and saying, ‘Cool, hey, I’m gonna cover your cymbal in duct tape, and just play the part the way that you’ve been playing it.”
How about when cats come down there looking for ‘that drum sound’ he got on ‘that record’? What about when they want to know what mic he rocks on snare?
“Dude,” Solter says to the theoretical drummer, “it has way less to do with the mic than it has to do with the type of stick we had the drummer use, the type of snare, how it was tuned, what room it was in, and what he was not playing as much as what he was playing.”
So much of the sonics really come from an “arrangement conversation,” where the song is played and he works with the band to remove all the instruments that don’t work. “We take those away and have him play only the instruments that we felt were effective. Then, once he felt confident in the part on the technical [performance] end, we can start goosing stuff up, and making it sound rad.”
A similar approach works with other instruments. “The bass player will be playing the song, and sometimes they’ll be holding the notes too long [which might be] inappropriate for a tighter, funkier, noir kind of feel, so you walk out with an arsenal of picks and foam. You hold them out to the bass player and say ‘Have you ever tried these drugs before?’”
During the Monocle session, I enjoyed reworking parts with my newly ‘prepared’ Fender bass – its bridge muffled with foam – or giving it a go with Solter’s fretless. The experience, as well as the result of those sessions, was exciting and satisfying.
For all the aesthetic vision and initiative that Solter might take upon himself, he emphasizes the give and take in this process of making records. So much of skill and success in anything, he says, comes from “the interactions that we have with others that provide us with the information – and the inspiration – to do a better job.”
“It has less to do with the choices between machines,” he says, “than it has to do with the personalities of the people that are working with each other.”
Daniel Shuman is a bassist, songwriter and producer who lives in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. His latest release as a bass player will be with the band Monocle, out May 1st on Hidden Shoal Recordings. Scott Solter recorded, mixed and co-produced the album.