The Blind Shake's Mike Blaha: The microphone can't hear you look cool
Photo by Milena Sivertson
Our ongoing series Behind the Boards has led Gimme Noise to visit the Twin Cities' most distinguished studios and talk with the engineers responsible for recording some of our favorite albums.
This week we met with the Blind Shake's Mike Blaha, already a unique figure for adopting the fairly uncommon baritone guitar with the group he and brother Jim founded with Dave Roper. Blaha is the first free-range engineer we've met with, recording bands in basements and practice spaces on a classic Tascam reel to reel machine. He is semi-officially Banana Tone Studio.
The conversation left our head spinning. After all, the Blind Shake provide listeners with kinetic proof of the law of conservation of energy. Their latest LP, Seriousness, ran the range from surf rock to punk rock without wasting a moment for breath. It bursts out of a turntable with such force a listener is compelled to move. Blaha's other recording projects have the same intensity, so Gimme Noise set out to how he captures it so well.
Gimme Noise: How much of Seriousness did you record?
Mike Blaha: We did half of that album with Neil Weir at Old Blackberry Way. A lot of the bigger-sounding songs, like "Hurracan" were recorded there. The other half was recorded in different basements where I lived -- one in Stillwater, one in Highland Park. Wherever I've been, that's where the studio has been
Lately it's been our practice space. That's where we did -- I can't ever think of our song names, but I know the music. [Air guitars] The third one.
Where the handclaps come in?
No, that's the second one. ["Man Leaves House"] The one I'm thinking of is "Out of Work." [Actually the fifth song on Seriousness] -- that was a practice space song. We put the drums in the hallway, and set up at eight in the morning, so there wouldn't be anything like a metal band practicing. They don't get in that early.
We mic-ed up the drums and we all played live at the same time. That's one where the baritone guitar was recorded through a four-track's pre and then into the eight-track, so it sounds like it's recorded on a four-track. Some things you want recorded with a cassette four track, to get that beat-up sound. Other things you want to sound bigger, so you record the first one through the pre-amp. If you really hit the tape hard it will kind of squish it all and make it sound glued together. For our recording I use a Tascam 388 half-inch reel to reel.
I think the best thing is to get an awesome drum sound. Guitar is easier, since it's always possible to make it sound a certain way. If you can get the drums to sound interesting or cool in some way, then your recording won't sound so demo-y.
Do decisions like that make the recording harder to mix?
It's specific to the Blind Shake, I wouldn't do that with a recording for someone else. We just do things over and over until we feel like it's already done. We had our recording and Neil's recording complete, and then went back in the studio and wrote more songs. We wrote "I am Not an Animal" and did it in the hallway of the practice space.
Right when the recording process is over, that's when you have two really cool ideas. I know for Jim and I, the new idea is the true idea. This drives Dave nuts, but whatever is newest is the best. Our next album finished up in the same way, recording three brand new songs just as we had thought we'd be done. I recorded, I think, six of the thirteen new songs.
When you record yourself you don't really get an outside perspective while you're working. There's not someone who can make those tough observations without hurting feelings.
Yeah, but because the baritone guitar is already a hard instrument to record, being an in-between thing, it gets sacrificed first when there's any doubt. And since I'm the guy pushing the buttons, nobody's going to cry about it because it's not their part. I think that's worked well.
I feel like this is where Dave Gardner and Magneto Mastering comes in, too. It's like when in college when you had a paper due and you didn't want to turn it in, so you slide it under your professor's door. Jim and I talk about that when we bring a project to Dave, sliding it under the door. He's always gotten it right.
You're giving him a digital master?
I mix down onto CD-R, which is 16 bit. Dave and Neil really want me to start going to 24 bit and use the computer but I trust the way I'm doing it because I can see the burner. I can see the levels. You can hit it a little bit hard and get this extra distortion. That doesn't work in a nicer setting. The worse the environment the more you can get away with the no-headroom stuff where you're moving the fader all the way to the top, to squish it together. It seems like it's already finished.
They always accuse me of putting my CD-Rs on a spindle of sandpaper because they're so carved up. And CD-Rs do seem worthless, so I think they want me to get away from that and move towards using the computer. I worry that's a gateway drug to using Pro Tools.
And that's not for you?
I've seen Pro Tools and I know it's useful. A lot of our work has hit Pro Tools one way or another, and our masters are digital. They use a lot of great outboard gear at Magneto, but at some point the recording will hit digital unless we were to do what STNNNG did and go to England for an analog master.
Or Mother of Fire, their albums were never digitalized.
Yeah, and ironically their album is one of my favorites on my mp3 player. I guess I understand the desire for a vintage approach, or a salute to the past. Or a Unabomber concept where technology is bad. But tape is technology, too. It's all technology and I don't fear it. What I don't like about Pro Tools is that you're working at a computer and the buttons are so small.
In every mix, I'm kind of playing too, managing the tracks. For certain parts the snare came up, and in the next mix-down I wasn't feeling it and didn't do that. I'll do maybe forty mixes of a song to get the best "performance" engineer-wise and then run it by Jim and Dave. It ends up being more work than learning all those little buttons in Pro Tools, but I find it so disheartening to look at that little screen and see just a bunch of things to click on.
Ones and zeroes.
It is, yeah. And once I'm doing that, I'd say, "just pay the money and go to a studio." It becomes just another expense. Blind Shake records its stuff for zero dollars. All the tape I use is used tape. I have maybe twenty or twenty-five reels of used tape and a food dehydrator. You put on a tray in there and cook them at 135° to 145° for about four hours, flipping them every half hour. It will make the glue kind of open up again and then re-form, making it kind of like new. I'll record over those tapes and we're ready to go.
And that's where Banana Tone Studio comes from?
One time we left for tour and I didn't have a lot of money, so I was going to make some fruit snacks to keep from stopping at the gas stations. I had a bunch of banana chips in the bottom two trays of the food dehydrator, but I forgot to take them along. After the tour I had a tape baking and as I'm took it out I found the completely charred bananas.
"Garbage on Glue" and "Go with 78" were recorded on that tape. [These were released on a 7" by Sweet Rot Records in March] A buddy I recorded with in Brooklyn, John Airis, told me I ought to call it Banana Tone Studio.
Is there a project you recorded that you though was especially successful?
There's a release on Asian Man Records that I was really happy with called Maguma Taishi. I think it means 'Space Giants' in Japanese. It's Mike Park, who runs the label out in California, Hideo [Takahashi] & Matthew [Kazama] from Birthday Suits, and Paddy [Costello] from Dillinger Four. All four of them were crowded into that practice space. They recorded eight songs for one seven-inch. They're all like thirty-five second songs they wrote right there. It's awesome, and I'm super proud of it.
The Porch Knights recorded a great disc with you, Barrel Housin'. Where did you do this?
That was in the practice space in City Sound. We put Ryan Bandy in the same hallway for some of the songs. I was coaching ninth-grade football at the time. I had to be there at three, so we'd record until then. After practice I'd go back and mix things, or check how they sounded. It was non-stop Porch Knights and coaching for a little while.
You can hear the big kick drum sound on "Ball and Chain." We mic-ed it kind of far away and let it develop. We did one close and one far. One problem you have when you record in a hallway is that you get the great reverberation, but you don't get any forgiveness from the cymbals. You better mean it. You can't hit bullshit cymbals around, something you can count on Ryan not doing. A lot of drummers hit a cymbal because they bought it and they have to give it some playing time, so they hit this cymbal over here and then another over there. Why two cymbals on one hit?
Most of what we used with Ryan was on three tracks, with an overhead ribbon mic, called "the shiny box microphone." Its my most expensive microphone and it has an incredible sense of space, of where things really are, but it doesn't take cymbals really well. Then the kick drum was recorded to an AKG, a typical kick drum mic you'd find in a venue. Some of the hallway stuff had a condenser way back, just to catch the reverb. So it wasn't added reverb, it was real sound.
They have a pretty dynamic performance style. Does that make it harder to record in a setting like that?
They do sit still when they're recording! The microphone can't hear you look cool. I mean if you're going to smash your guitar, the only thing the microphone will hear is a thud and then it will go out. There's no sound for awesome moves, and if there were everyone would leave the studio sweatin' like crazy.
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