Feb 192008
 

RTH: How did you come about producing The Undertones‘ first 3 records? What were their strengths when you first met them? What did they know best about themselves? What areas did feel you would most need to help them develop?

RB: Seymour Stein called me and asked if I would meet with them. I did, and liked them straight away. Their manager wanted them to be a bit more accessible and radio friendly, which is kind of the road I took them down. They were terribly naive, and had never worked at that level before. I think they were a bit overwhelmed at first. I basically pointed the way for them.


RTH: Do you have a favorite experience recording The Undertones?

RB: They were great fun to work with. I think the first two albums were the most fun. The last was a bit of a struggle, for various reasons.

RTH: One of the things I loved about The Undertones is how fast they developed over the course of those first three albums. Did they express new directions and developments they wanted to take before making each album, or did you make it up with them as you went along?

RB: I liked trying new things, seeing which way it could go, and John and Damian as writers always explored new ideas. They were a great team.

RTH: As a producer, how did you manage their rapid development. On a practical level, was there a concern that they’d too quickly outgrow their initial audience? By the time of Positive Touch, they’ve got little of the visceral appeal that must have been their calling card on their first two albums.

RB: They wanted the third album to be quite a departure from the first two. The dynamic within the band was changing and there was a measure of distrust and paranoia…..Working in Holland was perhaps not a help.


RTH: What was the connection to the studio in Holland, where you also recorded Costello’s Get Happy!!? Was it all about the tulips?

RB: I first went there at the suggestion of Dave Robinson, the owner of Stiff. He was getting a discount because of his deal with Polygram, so I set off with Lene Lovich to record her second album. I just liked it there so brought about three more projects to the studios.

He suggested an approach that might work, he stepped up to the mic, and the rest is history!

RTH: Costello and the band have told the story of them reshaping songs for Get Happy!! following old soul records. They said they wanted to consciously move away from repeating their work on Armed Forces. Despite all the obvious ’60s soul influences, there’s also an underlying psychedelic vibe to that album – the unusual placement of reverb and echo, the dubby bass and hi-hats… Was this something you consciously added to the mix, or was it just the drugs I was taking when I first bought the album?

RB: No it wasn’t the drugs!! I deliberately used that approach. The album was recorded in a format I had not used before, which had a bearing on the overall sound. I also mixed most of that album at The Who‘s old London studio, and they had a totally different set of reverb options which helped push me further in that direction.

RTH: Are there distinctive elements of your production that you could point to as The Roger Bechirian Sound? I’ve always liked your compressed drums and the bass sound on your records. Are there any tricks you’re most proud of on your recordings?

RB: I actually used very little compression on drums when recording to tape. It was all in the mic placement and tape compression. I did compress the overall mix, and would play around further at the mastering session. I use more compression on drums now, than I ever did then! Bass I did compress very heavily. My “sound” is pretty well defined, but quite homogenized; sometimes I like to take things to the point of blurring the picture. The only trick is getting it right – ha, ha!

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  35 Responses to “He Was a Pub Rocker, I Was a Hippy! Producer Roger Bechirian on Stiffs, Monkees, and More!”

  1. Awesome job, Mr Mod!

    I’m glad he addressed the “soloing” issue. I’ll have to print that out so next time I ask to hear a track by itself, you won’t give me or chickenfrank that hippie-ethic crap of only listening to it holistically with everything.

  2. saturnismine

    ahhh…

    listening to a track solo is useful for finding things out about a track.

    but when mixing, hearing it with everything else is what it’s all about. it will eventually live with everything else.

    you’re both right.

  3. saturnismine

    more importantly….

    it was a GREAT interview, mod. i thought his comments about the Undertones were very interesting. i never had a feel for the wherefores of “positive touch”, and he casts it in a very unromantic, earthy light that explains it pretty well.

    thanks for this….Art

  4. Great job Mr. Mod. As a fellow long-time fan of his work with EC, Squeeze and The Undertones, this was fascinating to read and Bechirian came across as very cordial and honest (scathingly so when necessary).

  5. That was swell.

  6. sammymaudlin

    Wow. This was so cool.

  7. hrrundivbakshi

    Yes, kudos to you, Mod, for a GREAT interview.

    Now, Sat, where are those comments on the Seeg track?

  8. Mr. Moderator

    As an aside, I love how the randomly assigned images in our banner sometimes coincide with content. Right now, I just clicked on, with Roger Bechirian’s interview looking me in the face and an image of The Monkees in the sand up in the banner. Earlier, after clicking on HVB’s G.E. Smith Exposee, the banner showed HVB’s hero of his classic Guitar Tone presenttation at our first and, to date, only LIVE RTH program. There’s an element of wizardry coming from The Back Office!

  9. An excellent interview–maybe the best yet, in fact.

  10. alexmagic

    I hate to admit that the part of this I’m most curious about now is his experience with Davy Jones. Has there been a dark side to that “7A!” studio chatter before “Daydream Believer” all these years? I may need to rethink my Monkee rankings from a previous Dugout Chatter now if Davy’s an even bigger jerk than Dolenz.

  11. saturnismine

    HVB!

    don’t worry…i’m gettin’ to it…!!!

    i know…while you’re young, while you’re young.

    it’ll happen within the next 24 hrs.

    i’m just pleased to see that the whole solo vs. in context debate hasn’t gotten out of control. as i say, they’re both important. i think B’s comments suggest that, too.

  12. Awesome. If he works with Springsteen, he said he’d record N.H. next. We’re going to Holland.

    (what if he records Marah?)

  13. I’m not fooled by this “going to Holland” slang. Don’t think I don’t know what you guys are talking about. I remember when andyr “went to Holland” about twenty times a week, minimum.

  14. Great interview!

  15. saturnismine

    a few things:

    hvb, my response to bob seger’s “white whatever” (i kid, i kid…it aint bad!) is posted. forgive me for arriving at the party, ready to whoop it up, at about 4am when everyone else had left (except for the one guy who’s sinking deeper into the couch) and the hosts wanted to go to bed.

    mr. mod…i keep thinking about this solo vs. in context thing. sorry. i can’t help it. i record alot.

    and i must say, i really sympathize with you, having to deal with those knuckleheads who keep asking you to tweak while the track is solo’d (a front man and a bassist in a garage band developing engineering theories? puh-leez). and it strikes me that while it IS a useful practice for finding basic things out about a track, the people who actually DO alot of recording (like US), know that ultimately, what a track sounds like when it’s solo’d DON’T MEAN DICK. so the more tweaking you do in context, the more you’re *really* learning about where that track will live.

    HOWEVER, in sympathy with the knuckleheads, i must also urge: do not be afraid to *really* have at those knobs. the frustrations of your somewhat dim bandmates may come from having to crane their necks after only a subtle push of the fader, only to wonder whether they’re really hearing a change, or if they’re imagining it.

    in other words, don’t fuck with the poor lads, too much, okay? humor them. solo the track every now and then and let them play around.

  16. Mr. Moderator

    Sat,

    Your support and tact are highly appreciated. Thanks!

  17. BigSteve

    Is there anyone who thinks that soloing a track is anything more than a starting point? Ultimately you obviously have to tweak in context, but the starting point will always be instruments that sound good on their own. Then when you throw them together you start notching and boosting etc.

  18. hrrundivbakshi

    In ever-so-slight defense of Andyr and Chickenfrank — it is true that once you tweak sounds “in the mix” *too much*, you may have a hell of a time reproducing those sounds live.

    But, in general, you are right and they are wrong. Having said that, I find it helps to decide on an instrument or two that will be the “living room couches” in a song, i.e., the things you love just as they are, that will largely remain untweaked, around which other things need to fit. But it’s madness to try to make *all* your individual instruments sound perfect on their own, and expect your overall mix to sound good. But you knew this already, I am sure.

  19. Those who don’t solo an instrument live in fear! Very common for engineers. They are afraid that someone will hear a squeak or a slightly muffed note that they want to re-do. The re-do, the bane of the engineer. So, engineers play it all together and hope you don’t hear those notes with “personality” over the thunderous drums.

  20. BigSteve

    Yes, I was going to say that one reason to solo a track is to see if there are any problems, like squeaks, with it that are being masked by the other instruments in the mix, but then I realized that if the problem is masked in the mix there’s no point in worrying about it.

  21. hrrundivbakshi

    Chickenfrank, we hardly knew ye! You’re the last person I would expect to obsess over squeaks and farts in a backing track. My rule of thumb is: if the only person insisting on listening to a particular track is the person who played on it, don’t let ’em! Corollary: if the only person who hears something “wrong” on a particular voice *in the mix* is the person responsible for that voice, ignore them!

    Come on, Chicken, submit to the will of the collective! You’re a BAND MEMBER! Sheezus!

    (Mind you, if this is camouflage for Mod getting to mix everything the way *he* wants, then all bets are off.)

  22. HVB, I feel the camaraderie of your entreaty, and I agree with everything you’ve written except when it applies to me.
    What seems to be “buried” in the mix has a funny way of being really in the face of the musician that played it when the final track is completed. Conservatively estimating that me alone is somewhere between 7% and 10% of the entire audience that ever hears my recorded “work”, I’d say I’m a pretty important listener. I won’t let that 10% of my audience down with a disruptively noisy track! Come on engineers, leave your ivory towers. Listen to a track in the trenches.

  23. Production values class war!

  24. general slocum

    chickenfrank fusses:
    The re-do, the bane of the engineer.

    I say:
    Of *course* it’s the bane of the engineer. And the producer watching the clock and the wallet. And the rest of the band who wants the diva rhythm guitarist to politely realize he muffs notes much more often than he is aware of.
    Listen to Chuck Berry’s “Come On” when the guitar solo comes in. He’s got a bad cord, and it crackles and buzzes through the whole solo. I always loved that song and was charmed by the fact that no one thought they needed to stop the song and fix it. They went ahead and released it as a single. Or Willie Dixon’s “Can’t Judge a Book By It’s Cover” when the bass goes to the four at the wrong time, and it’s pretty jarring, but the whole song sounds great, so they went with it. I think “Could You, Would You” or one of those songs by Them has a similar gaffe. I am, I think, notorious for being ok with a fair amount of this stuff, partly because such mistakes are part of a typical performance for me and mine. I will go back over an inoffensive track to get more energy or a better feel before I’ll go back to fix a blip.
    When Big Mess did that Beefheart cover for that compilation a while back, the producer of the record insisted on coming in to mix with us. Right about the third measure, he wanted to move a bass drum attack so it would line up better with the horns. I told him to think about the name of the band, and the fact that with 32 tracks of stereo and four minutes to get through, he would have to readjust his definition of “acceptable.”
    I have spent a lot of time in the musical trenches, and at the board, and don’t change my views with my seat. It isn’t a class war, unless “anal diva” is a class!

  25. Mr. Moderator

    I’m truly astonished at the passions that have arisen over this To Solo Or Not To Solo topic. As you’ve now surmised, the entire point of this interview was to settle a dispute I’ve been having with my bandmates:) I figured that Bechirian had the final word on the matter, tactfully giving consideration to the soloing contingent while ultimately coming down on the side of what’s right, right alongside me! Your passion for this topic tells me that all are not convinced, and that’s fine.

    What Chickenfrank and BigSteve suspect, that as an engineer I don’t want to be confronted with a blemish that no one’s going to hear in context, IS part of my beef. A larger part, however, involves a bandmate who has wisely stayed on the sidelines during this subthread of Roger Bechirian’s excellent time spent with us. Said bandmate will ask me to solo each track, asking for “more treble, more bass” until all 4 mics on that musician’s instrument is hogging the entire spectrum of recorded sound. I say, Less options! Work within limitations!

    The other thing, for us, that’s in issue is that the way our board is configured (I don’t know if this is the same for the solo buttons on all boards or not), when I hit “Solo” we hear the track without any of the effects that we’ve already been listening to in context. Certainly soloing is good and necessary for checking that there’s no digital clipping, for instance, and generally checking the tone of each track, but when we’re in the mixing process (even rough mixing) and hearing tracks in context, with effects, etc, I find it more useful to hear how the track is working in context. For instance, I could make each instrument sound “ideal” by itself. Put them altogether, though, and the highs, lows, and mids are stepping all over each other. Sometimes I purposely do something like cut a lot of low end from one guitar relative to the other one. Now, the guy with the thin-sounding guitar is never going to be happy hearing his guitar soloed, but in the mix, he may dig his axe’s Mick Ronson-like ability to cut!

    Andyr and I had a long heart to heart on this the other night. He now understands that I’m not as opposed to muting all the other tracks to hear a particular track as I am to soloing the same track. I think this interview with Mr. Bechirian has gone a long way toward settling our differences. I hope that Chickenfrank agrees as well. I hope that each of your and your bandmates find similar healing through what we’ve been discussing.

    Once again, thanks to Roger for making time with us. The experience continues to brighten my days.

  26. I want to comment on what HVB said. I agree with what Chickenfrank wrote in that I do think it is very important for the musician to be comfortable with their performance on a track.

    I know I am much harder on my vocal performances than Mr Mod or Chickenfrank are. I’d say more than half the time, they think a take is great, then I go home, listen to it, and think it is total shite. And after I redo them to my satisfaction, they always then hear the difference and agree. So there!

  27. Yes, I was going to say that one reason to solo a track is to see if there are any problems, like squeaks, with it that are being masked by the other instruments in the mix, but then I realized that if the problem is masked in the mix there’s no point in worrying about it.

    Right. You solo a track because you ALREADY hear a squeak or a buzz of some kind, and you’re not sure which track it’s on. Don’t go looking for trouble.

    I’m no slouch when it comes to recording my part a thousand times (or, for that matter, needing to), but a flub that you not only can’t hear in context but didn’t notice when you were actually playing it? How bad can it be?

    Said bandmate will ask me to solo each track, asking for “more treble, more bass” until all 4 mics on that musician’s instrument is hogging the entire spectrum of recorded sound.

    Reminiscent of house soundmen who spend half an hour on the kick drum and realize they have about 30 seconds for the rest of the band.

  28. All those examples of band’s leaving in mistakes were perpetrated by whom? Oh yeah, Awesome bands! When you’re one of the names you listed, you allowed to leaving in a “charming” misstep. Those bands overcome those brilliant mistakes with the rest of their playing.

    When you’re not in that class, it’s just a mistake.
    I know all you guys are in the Engineers union.

  29. general slocum

    chickenfrank grasps:
    All those examples of band’s leaving in mistakes were perpetrated by whom? Oh yeah, Awesome bands!

    I tut tut:
    Now, Chicken, be realistic. You and I were not excluded from the Great Recordings of Our Time by the fret buzz on the second chorus. A great song cannot be sunk by a moderate glitch, nor can an adequate song rise to greatness by its lack. So keep your jewelers’ lens focussed on the bass track if you wish, by I’m bellying up to the Get On With It bar, before the barmaid stops giving me the band discount on Bud Light in plastic cups. (Don’t start a beer thread on me, now, anyone.)

  30. Not all mistakes are the same degree of mistaken, obviously. Isn’t the issue how big a glitch the glitch is? So how big a glitch are we talking about here?

  31. BigSteve

    Recordings made for Chess Records are not good points of comparison. To state the obvious, they were made in an era when you could not solo a track the way we’ve been talking about. Also, for all we know the Chuck Berry or Willie Dixon may have wanted a retake and Marshall Chess couldn’t be arsed. Or they might have been too drunk to notice. Can we be sure they wouldn’t have done it differently, if they had the time and the access to technology we do today?

    To be honest I think it’s condescending to suggest that black musicians have some secret ‘feel’ that we would do well to imitate, if only we could learn to make the right mistakes.

  32. Mr. Moderator

    BigSteve wrote:

    Can we be sure they wouldn’t have done it differently, if they had the time and the access to technology we do today?

    Sure they would have fixed stuff. As the works of many artists prove over time and “advanced” recording techniques, their music risks losing something the more they can fiddle. Black, white, yellow, and green artists from the ’50s suffered when mics were shoved up Evans Hydraulic Heads on their ’70s recordings.

  33. general slocum

    Big Steve implies something?:
    To be honest I think it’s condescending to suggest that black musicians have some secret ‘feel’ that we would do well to imitate, if only we could learn to make the right mistakes.

    I wonder:
    Are you suggesting this was my drift? Let’s keep this thread away from narrow-mindedness and bigotry, and keep it focussed on the mindless preening self-adoration of players and the money-grubbing philistinism of myopic tone-deaf producers. It’s true, the folks I was mentioning are black, but I certainly didn’t suggest any racial/note-flub algorythm! No, I was just hankering for a view where the totality of the song succeeds regardless of a flub or a noise. And, while it’s true, they might have changed the results had various things been different, the song lives on half a century later as is. I was only suggesting that whether any of the jokers on this list have songs kicking around the ether in 2060, it won’t be because of a few glitches more or less.

  34. […] For instance, I wish I could hear a few more albums produced by Elvis Costello, who somehow made both clear and extremely simple the clutter of The Specials‘ debut. He also produced the only (in my opinion) fully enjoyable Squeeze album, East Side Story, which was engineered by Friend of the Hall Roger Bechirian. […]

  35. […] may recall our excellent interview with producer/engineer Roger Bechirian (Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, The Undertones, Dave Edmunds, Graham Parker, and the rest of the core […]

 
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