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Working with Nigel Godrich...

Discussion in 'Ask Justin Meldal-Johnsen' started by Jespoc, Sep 19, 2013.

  1. Jespoc


    Sep 19, 2013
    Hey Justin.

    Thanks so much for all your responses and support (and of course, your music). I've been lurking this forum for a while and so much of what you've written has been helpful to me and others.

    I'm more a studio-oriented guy so I was wondering if you could tell me a little about what you may have learned working with Nigel Godrich. Things that are both psychological/emotional and technical, I guess. How quickly or slowly he works, how he treats the bands/artist - how that's influenced you - and maybe, philosophically, the way you both utilize effects and processing in the mix. And the way you both seem to create a vibrant, teeming world for whoever you're working with.

    Also, if you picked up any tips on the arrangement and tracking/mixing stages. I've noticed he's got some quirks - like certain particular drum set-ups and he also seems to cut up bits and pieces and heavily effect them in the back of the song. If you've got any insight into that process or anything similar, I'd love to hear about it.

    The reason I ask about all this stuff is because it seems like not much information gets out about sessions Nigel's done. And I suppose by now it's clear that he doesn't like to get into the technical stuff (publicly, at least).

    If these things are kept private for a reason, no big deal. Just thought I'd ask while I had the opportunity. I'm a total geek for sonic excellence on recordings. You know how it goes.

    Thanks so much for all that you've created and helped create. A major influence on me, no doubt.
  2. jmjbassplayer

    jmjbassplayer Justin Meldal-Johnsen Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 25, 2005
    Thank you for this post, Jespoc.

    This is a bit of a large thing to comment on, probably best reserved for an interview or something. I only say that not out of vanity, but rather because I just don't feel like typing that much! :)

    Nigel is great. Suffice to say, I look at it like this: with Nigel, it's 50% taste, 30% excellent basic recording fundamentals, and 20% innovation.

    He has strong ideas about things, and is very clear about what he doesn't like. However, when recording with him, one never feels that you are under a totalitarian regime. It's not even a benevolent dictatorship. He invites participation. We try stuff. We do lots of group overdubs. We process. We flip the tape, we stand in the echo chamber, we all play piano.

    I don't know exactly what I've learned from Nigel with my work. By osmosis, all of us have certainly absorbed plenty. On the other hand, by the time he first worked with all of us (Mutations, 1998), we were all around 28 years old, experienced, and plenty ripe with our own ideas. So I'm sure there has been a modicum of "takeaway" from us to him over time.

    We all use the same monitor speakers that he turned us on to years ago, that I will tell you. :) (Acoustic Energy AE1 Classics). And no one uses reverb in more creative ways than Nigel. No one.

    I've spoken on this many times, but sometimes, we'd mix songs with all hands on the console. And put it down to half inch the same day we recorded it (Mutations, Sea Change). Other times, we've labored over tracks in ProTools for weeks (The Information). It's been a wild ride.

    I look forward to the chance to work with Nigel again, for sure.

  3. Jespoc


    Sep 19, 2013
    Great Justin. Thanks again.

    I've always wondered about how a producer is tells someone that an idea's not so strong or not great/cliched/etc. That human element and navigating that territory is pretty intimidating to me. Being a good dude without being a "yes man" at the same time.

    Truth be told, I'm someone who has made music by myself for a long time. But learning technical things has always seemed less daunting than developing the people skills. And serving what someone else is trying to do while also being critical in a constructive way.

    For example, you seemed to bring something different out of Anthony Gonzalez. And it sounds like you (both) ended up at a really tight, particular vision. Getting there (to that resulting vision), learning how to articulate that stuff to the person you're working with is probably most of what I'm interested in learning from conventional studios. Probably the only thing (aside from a nice acoustic space) that really makes me consider interning.
  4. jmjbassplayer

    jmjbassplayer Justin Meldal-Johnsen Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 25, 2005
    People skills...the human element. Vague territory. I know, I hear you.

    The Anthony/me relationship is something that we didn't predict at all, we just gave it a try, and it worked. Good thing too, because we went through some considerable trouble moving him and all his stuff out here from France. ;) Sometimes, the natural symbiosis happens, and you get lucky. Sometimes, it's really really hard. I've definitely experienced both extremes in my short 5-7 year run as a producer thus far. Part of learning the ropes for me has been to gradually be less and less self-critical when those relationships don't go the way you hope they will. It's rarely someone's fault, just the nature of teaming up with people creatively as you lock yourselves in a box for months.

  5. Jespoc


    Sep 19, 2013
    Being less self-critical is certainly one thing I've tried to consciously work on. Very tough at times, even if I have the best intentions.

    Another random question: on the records you've done lately, do you still mix by hand (one-pass, everybody-on-the-faders)? Or has automation (DAW or console) kind of taken over most of those big emotional moves? Do you think doing a manual mix has a massive benefit?

    Just starting to ride the entire song myself lately. I like some things, but I'm still practicing I guess.
  6. jmjbassplayer

    jmjbassplayer Justin Meldal-Johnsen Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 25, 2005
    No, all my mixes are automated. There's just too strong of a need to do recalls these days...swiftly and perfectly.
  7. Jespoc


    Sep 19, 2013
    Hey Justin. Thanks again.

    You mentioned Nigel's excellent tracking fundamentals. As a musician who's come into the producer's role, did you have to develop an engineering side, as you would with bass playing, or do you separate that part out to someone else?

    Like, with a guitar amp or something, do you just stick a mic in front of it, go with the feeling and that's it? Or, from having worked on some meticulous recordings, did you pick up a specific way of going about things? Levels when tracking, phase, etc.

    (Not to say that there's always a method or things are always fast and loose.)

    One thing about Nigel's productions seem to be that the texture of stuff is really preserved well. Quality, distinctive sounds even with all the EQ, compression and effects going on. Especially on those Beck and Air albums.
  8. jmjbassplayer

    jmjbassplayer Justin Meldal-Johnsen Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 25, 2005
    No, I never really "had" to develop an engineering side, but I did anyway, and over time it's become more and more essential. Engineering is my weakness...particularly when it comes to the big events: tracking drums, and tracking strings. I think that at this point, if I just had an engineer helping me out for those two parts of a record (if strings are even needed), I would be fine to have everything else well in hand. So I've always separated out engineering to someone else when I could afford it.

    Another good reason for me to not be the full-time engineer is that it sometimes buys me extra time during the day to do some other important things in the other room: work with the artist on certain things (lyrics, sounds, parts, etc), put on headphones and make beats or program synths, or to do logistical planning or admin.

    But every time I go through a process of a record, I do more and more of the engineering. I find it less daunting over time, less arcane, less exclusive.

    Part of the problem is that in my past like many people's past, there have always been a certain number of engineers I've run across who have deliberately made it seem hard. They seemed to like to make their knowledge and skill belong in an ivory tower, and frowned on the idea of sharing that hat with a "non-engineer".

    Nowadays, knowledge of engineering is more egalitarian, and the days of "men in white lab coats" is further and further behind us in the rearview. However: I'm always going to be one to suggest that it's all about using the right tool for the job. Meaning, if someone you can hire is better adapted to a task, why not utilize their training and skill to help get a better result, if you can afford it?

    But to answer your question more specifically regarding the guitar amp example: no, I'm not quite that haphazard. I know what mics and pres work best for what amps, and I know where to place them to get the sounds I want. But that's just something that came over time, just like anybody.

    JFOC likes this.
  9. dirtgroove


    Jan 10, 2003
    Taipei, Taiwan
    Great thread Jespoc! Thanks Justin- this is really interesting.
  10. Jespoc


    Sep 19, 2013
    Hey Justin. Hope the touring and playing's been going well.

    Just wanted to say thanks again for your responses. You've been super generous with knowledge over the years. Means a lot. There are so many interviews, videos, etc. with musicians and producers but it's not often that you hear from someone who has 1) played on all different types of stuff and 2) has taste for days in each of those different contexts.
  11. jmjbassplayer

    jmjbassplayer Justin Meldal-Johnsen Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 25, 2005
    Well thank you very much! It's a pleasure to help and/or share.
  12. Jespoc


    Sep 19, 2013
    Hey Justin.

    This one is a more prying, kind of Gearslutz-y type of question, but do you remember or know of Nigel's approach to the 2-Buss / Master buss on Sea Change, Mutations, the Air albums, etc.? Or if he imparted any insights to you about how to manage the final 2 track on the console with compression and EQ?

    I understand if it's something that can't be revealed for some reason or another. Treating the final 2-track is something I've been thinking about lately, working for clients. I'm always trying to find an approach to have all the music move together but keep things open and unchoked at the same time.
  13. jmjbassplayer

    jmjbassplayer Justin Meldal-Johnsen Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 25, 2005
    I have no clear recollection, honestly. I think it might have simply been some SSL comp or Smart C2 type thing. Really basic.
  14. Jespoc


    Sep 19, 2013
    Hi Justin. Caught you on tour with Beck and it was shagging rad. Also love seeing you and Juan talk about pedals every once in a while. (Two bass heroes of mine...)

    Back with more broad questions and musings. I'm gonna apologize in advance for the novel.

    Was listening to Morning Phase the other day. Then a couple days later some Blake Mills stuff...and man, there is something about the crews that get together to record at Ocean Way. You and the rest of the Beck satellite world: Darrell Thorp, Jon Brion, Nigel, etc. As a listener, there is a sense of mystery to the recordings. An opulence to that stuff. Not just the resources put into the albums but an opulence of ideas. Married to some kind of synergy / liveness between the musicians. Even on The Information. The right level of risk vs. structure. To me at least.

    I feel like I'm hearing musicians who can steer away from played-out harmonies, progressions, rhythms, aesthetics but still with a reverence for the past. Pastiche without feeling cheap. And definitely capable of some alien stuff that no one has ever heard before.

    That's the type of stuff I think about when I think of great production/direction.

    As you've known each other and developed trust over the years (you and Beck, Nigel, the Air guys, Roger, Joey, Smokey, James, Darrell, Jason, etc.), how much of that is innate (to a man, just having good taste) versus working and rehearsing and being super critical of all the choices?

    And how do Beck and Nigel preserve spontaneity and surprises while also constructing an intelligent arc for a song? If they even talk about this at all.

    You hear/read stories about both Beck and Radiohead having tons and tons of versions of songs that are just not "right" to them. Knowing when it's magic and when it's just not quite there and being ruthless in those expectations...Honestly, I'm just wondering what that's like when those two are producing albums and they reach a point where it's like, "shag, this might not be working right now." How they respond to that moment and how they bring out the best in people and create a space for them to rebound.

    The other day I saw video of Thom Yorke recording to an early version of Idioteque from Kid A. And he brings the energy and all, but you can tell the song's not even close to what it ultimately became. And it made me think: sometimes you need the right kind of agony when you're trying to get the song down. But you have to do it without killing the song and getting too attached to this one good moment here or that one cool idea there. And then again, sometimes it's just immediately dope. How do we keep perspective in all of this?

    I'm wondering if you guys ever rely on each other to say, "Hey man. You might not believe it now, but this is a truly great track and it would be a shame if it was kept from the world."

    One other thing I've also been wondering: when you say you guys all had hands on the faders during Sea Change (and Mutations?), did Nigel cut together the songs in sections as you were going along or was it usually all just one big pass that everyone had to get right?

    Anyway. I think it's pretty clear I'm obsessed with those records (Beck, Air, etc.). Not just the sounds but the mentality going into them. There's a lot that seems deliberate and a lot that seems fresh and alive. I struggle with balancing that myself. But thanks for reading this. I'm happy to hear whatever insights you've got into why you think those albums and songs are so special. And why you think those guys (Beck's Mutations/Sea Change/Morning Phase crew and Nigel) are special.
  15. jmjbassplayer

    jmjbassplayer Justin Meldal-Johnsen Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 25, 2005
    Where do I begin? Doing a record with an intense deadline right now, will try to get to some of this soon....
  16. jmjbassplayer

    jmjbassplayer Justin Meldal-Johnsen Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 25, 2005
    Thank you for your kind thoughts and words.

    Myself and the rest of that crew mostly work from an innate, self-generated standpoint. By now, everyone's a producer, and we've all been through the gauntlet together. There is guidance/requests/discussion from the artist and producer always. But it's done in a way that allows us to internalize, then reinterpret.

    And sure, we have been in the position before to say: "this needs to be left as is - it's right" and then that advice is either taken, or the ultimate version of the song is something that arrived after two, three or four entirely different work-ups. Morning Phase was both scenarios, depending on the song. There is no static to this, it's always variable. Sometimes I have been a very strident voice about things like this, but sometimes I also ease up and let "nature" run its course. But regardless of what iteration a song ends up being, there is almost always a core of live playing, multiple guys in a room, interpreting together.

    I'm not sure if I'm answering your questions. There's nothing particularly new in what any of us are doing. If anything, it's a throwback. Commit, play with intention and heart, take risks as circumstances dictate, and listen.

    GregC likes this.

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