Neil Weir on Minneapolis's legendary small room, Old Blackberry Way
This month, Behind the Boards visits Neil Weir, who has recorded bands from around the Midwest at his Old Blackberry Way studio for almost ten years. If you recognize the name, it's because the studio, which opened in 1971, was where Twin/Tone Records was born and grew. Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum and the Replacements all recorded there early in their careers. In more recent years, groups like Is/Is and Flavor Crystals have recorded there, and several new local releases due out in 2013 started in the small Dinkytown building.
In fact, while a broken foot has slowed Weir down, this is shaping up to be a landmark year for Old Blackberry Way. Gospel Gossip's long-awaited new album, out this month, is being co-released by Old Blackberry Way and Guilt Ridden Pop, and other recordings by Pony Trash and Heavy Deeds are helping to establish the studio's distinctive sound.
Gimme Noise: How has the studio changed during your tenure?
Neil Weir: The actual physical layout hasn't changed. I've made minor modifications and slowly acquired better equipment. I put an absorptive ceiling in the tracking room to create the illusion of a slightly bigger space -- the idea is that the sound will go up and not come back down.
I started working here with Bruce Templeton, who is not exclusively a mastering engineer, working with Dave Gardener at Magneto. I had worked at Pachyderm from '97 to '01 and met him there. He played in bands and came to recording that way. I came to it as a record collector and a music nerd but I got to the point of working in a studio first, so I was an assistant engineer when he was interning there.
We found we had a like-minded view of music and the process of making it, and we got along very well. His internship ended a couple months before I left, and there was a time where I was doing freelance work while Bruce and I would get together for coffee and talk about creating a studio. We wanted to record the music we liked and keep it affordable.
That was the problem: I loved big studios, but a lot of the bands that I liked the most didn't have the money for that. It was cost-prohibitive for the stuff we wanted to do. When [Blackberry Way] became available we pooled our equipment together. I had a lot of microphones and he has a DAW, Pro-Tools, an interface and a couple outboard compressors.
Bruce recorded the last Sickbay record here. Another one was the last Signal to Trust record, which we worked on together. He moved towards mastering, although he'll occasionally do stuff here.
I think we both figured out what we were good at through the process of working together. He masters a lot of the stuff I work on, and he's really attuned to that end of the process. I'm more attuned to working in broader strokes, getting good takes and a good sound going in. I don't have the patience to fiddle with stuff at that end.
Was it just good luck that Blackberry Way happened to become available when Alex Oana decided to move to California?
Yeah, we had talked about things like setting up a mix room in a building with practice space in it, or converting a garage. It was good timing that this space became available and fit into our budget, just barely. And it was nice starting out with an awareness of what we were doing out there more quickly.
What's the difference between working and recording in a large setting like Pachyderm and a small one like Old Blackberry Way?
The difference is subjective. Having that kind of space and a room that sounds extraordinary allows you to easily capture performances. At the same time it is very cost-prohibitive. Also, it depends on the people who are playing. Some bands feel that a smaller room is more comfortable. It's closer to the dynamic they're used to -- playing together in a practice room or on a small stage. It may be easy to get good sounds, but the performance may suffer. Myself, I like studios so I don't feel that in the physical sense.
And I am also a freelance engineer, so I work in a lot of spaces. Different projects call for different approaches and different rooms. The big room is nice when you're recording a loud rock band and you want to have space and depth around the instruments. If you want something lo-fi, or psych-folk, a room like that may sound too clean. It's project-dependent.
At Pachyderm, the sessions where I felt like everyone was working together were the ones I enjoyed the most. There were other situations where someone was telling the band what they were doing needed to change, and I didn't agree. The way a band plays together is a special thing, even if it's not technically perfect, that's what is unique about them. I saw a lot records being made that captured that, and also a lot of records being made that didn't play to a band's unique strengths.
It was interesting to watch records being made, but be detached from it. A lot of times a record in the rough mix stage was more interesting than when it was finished. I prefer records that are made and mixed in a way that doesn't tell you how to feel. For instance there's the mainstream way of making records where the vocal is very bright and forward, and the music is just instrumental accompaniment. Everything falls into a familiar format, vocals then the snare, and so on.
It goes along with trying to sell a personality, almost like a bad Hollywood movie that tells you how to feel about everything that happens, rather than, say, a Robert Altman film where the story is presented to the audience but they're not told how to react or process it.
Here I track a lot in Pro-Tools so we can be mixing as we go, making those decisions. Then, when we go to create the finished mix it's not a feeling of tearing everything apart and putting it back together. That can be interesting sometimes, but it doesn't always work.
Part of the reason I work efficiently is that I don't approach it through that process. I have a lot of respect for what is already there and assume the decisions the band has already made are legitimate. There's no sense in making things complex for the sake of being complex when the simplest process has proven potential.
I've seen a lot of over-mixing, and it's really easy to lose the life and personality when you do that, and end with something that feels like a mix rather than a performance. I enjoy the feeling that I'm listening to something that happened in a real physical space and in real time.
We've seen Old Blackberry Way release a couple records as a label now. Is this a new direction for the studio?
The people I work with regularly have felt it would give an identity and focus to what we're doing, especially outside of Minneapolis. Gospel Gossip, Pony Trash, Heavy Deeds -- We're not playing the same style of music but there's stylistic similarities. We share band members. We wanted a way to put things out where we control the pacing, the artwork, the pressing.
The first Old Blackberry Way release was the Pony Trash album, and the second was that co-released single with Guilt Ridden Pop, the Gospel Gossip single from the new album. The third will be that album, and after that a Heavy Deed EP and a Velveteens 7" that hasn't been recorded yet.
It's practical. These are short runs so were not going into debt. We wanted to help connect the dots that this is what we're doing, and we're seeing in reviews for the Gospel Gossip 7" that people are recognizing that.
Does your reputation bring new projects into the studio?
It comes and goes. There are times it gets so busy I'm stressed out, and times it's so slow I'm stressed out. People come to me because of records I worked on that they've liked and that's good because there's an aesthetic understanding from the beginning. The likelihood of that being a smooth process with a good end result is very high. They've wanted to record with me, rather than just to record in a competent studio that's inexpensive. I put work into every project here, but those are the ones that work the best.
Tell us about the people who work on projects with you. What are they learning from their experience in your studio?
Casey Holmgren has been helping a lot lately since I broke my foot. He's studying in the sound arts program at MCTC. And there are other people like Lisa Urman, or Scott Watson, who works sound at the Turf Club, who help out, usually with full band tracking sessions.
I think it's important for people who are interested in the technical side of recording to get more experience in the process of running a session smoothly, but also to understand the psychology of doing it well. Anybody can plug in a good microphone and have a basic understanding of gain staging and get a good sound, but what's more important is the process of making people comfortable, and you can't get that from a school environment or when you're recording your own band, where you're working with an established set of dynamics in terms of the personalities involved. When you're recording people day in and day out that cast of characters changes. The people who work with me here get a lot out of observing how that works.
Is it ever hard to imagine someone listening to your latest project through laptop speakers or an iPod, after all the work that went into the engineering?
I can tell a good recording or a bad recording through anything. Think about the height of great recordings, which in my mind is the late '60 and early '70s. At this high point of the way records sounded people listened to them through cardboard speakers in their cars that were mono, and they didn't sound any worse than on a laptop. You heard a Steppenwolf record and it sounded good.
What is the role for a professional studio in an age of digital media and home recording?
I have mixed feelings about it of course. The work I do here can bounce back and forth between spaces, and that's why I've chosen to use standard software, for instance. A bad can come in with a limited budget and track stuff to get a sound that requires good microphones and a good room, and then take their time with overdubs. They could set up a microphone in a non-ideal location with a pre amp and possibly a compressor, and take as long as they want with the vocals, for example.
In some ways it allows me to keep a fresher perspective, because I haven't listened to the songs over and over when they bring them back to mix. This happens fairly often. I try to make the process as simple as possible.
Other time people bring in things they've already tracked and I love working on that too, but one thing that drives me nuts is when there was a problem that could have been solved with a simple solution if someone there had the experience to suggest, say, moving a microphone. We're realizing the strengths and weaknesses of home recording, and for performance-based music there's always going to be a demand for the experience of a professional studio.
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