Apr 8, 2012

An interview with Marc Urselli - the engineer of Hikashu's "Uragoe"

3 Grammy Awards winner, Marc Urselli is the man who recorded and mixed Hikashu's brand new album, Uragoe. In this interview with yours truly, Mr. Urselli talks about the band, the recording, and himself, including various projects of his own. He could be reached via web http://www.marcurselli.com.

First of all, how you came to work with Hikashu? You recorded a Ikue Mori's session for Tzadik in 2010. Is it that when you met Makigami for the first time?

That's correct. Ikue was working on her new DVD "Kibyoshi (黄表紙)" for John Zorn's Tzadik records. I record and mix all of Zorn's studio albums and a lot of the Tzadik releases by New York artists, so Ikue came to my studio EastSide Sound to record with Maki. We pretty much hit it off right away. Maki san is a great guy, very smart and interesting and talented, and I enjoy working with people like that a lot!

Last year you saw the band playing at Japan Society. How's your impression of the performance?

I loved it. I wasn't sure what to expect but it was a great evening and it was great to see Makigami do his thing with vocals, theremin etc… His facial expressions are amazing too! So much vision and so much sound in their performance!

Then you worked with them in studio. You guys spent two days together and recorded an album, and the members enjoyed working with you very much. They have been raving about you ever since the session. How did you feel working them in studio?

It was an amazing two days. When people are cool and musicians are great things can only go well in a recording studio. The guys were really nice and I did my best to make them feel at home. There was of course some issues with communicating because unfortunately I do not speak Japanese but Makigami's english is great and Masami-san speaks English and even German (which I do speak a bit) and so we were speaking three languages at times! But the truth is, language was not a big barrier because the music was doing all the talking and there was a great vibe in the studio, very creative, very fun. Everyone was so relaxed that we even went out to lunch both days… usually that doesn't happen because there is the pressure of time in the studio, but we were all having a blast and took lunch breaks to go check out some amazing NYC restaurants.

They also praised the studio, EastSide Sound. The atmosphere was nice, and the gear was all impressive. For example, Sato-san, the drummer, asked a vintage Rogers kit from your gear list beforehand, and he was very glad of seeing the actual kit because not only it sounded great but the condition was superb. Makigami-san used a brand new microphone from Latvia, and that sounded very nice, too. I can understand the importance of procuring good instruments for recording, but obviously the studio has access to a lot of exceptionally great gear. In the blog, you said the Eastside sound is your favorite workplace. Could you tell us something about the place?

Yes! In my humble opinion EastSide Sound is the best studio in New York City and one of the best studios I have worked at, in the world. Sure, there are bigger studios and amazing locations but EastSide Sound has incredible gear, a uniquely versatile layout and an owner that cares! Lou Holtzman opened the original EastSide Sound in 1972 and 40 years later the studio is still around and making great records. Lou is a great guy (he's like a father to me!) and he is a collector and restorer of vintage drum kits so Sato-san was in luck when he asked for a Rogers drum kit. Lou keeps all his drums in great condition and the studio has two vintage Rogers drums sets available to all musicians.

EastSide Sound has 6 iso booths around the live room and therefore it is possible to record up to 7 musicians completely isolated. Every musician gets a headphone mixer so they can do their own mix and they can look at each other through glass windows to maintain eye contact during performances. This is pretty unique… I've been to many studios and the most booths I have seen is 4, while EastSide has 6! I helped design the new live room so I am very proud of how flexible and versatile EastSide Sound is. As you mentioned the atmosphere is very nice, relaxed and chill, but it is a top notch world class recording facility that some of the greatest musicians in the world enjoy recording at on a daily basis. We have an amazing array of vintage and modern gear and the owner has a great collection of microphones from the 1940's to this year! For Makigami-san I used my own Black Hole microphone by JZ Microphones, a new company from Latvia which I endorse with pride. I love their mics and the Black Hole is my favorite one! It is a large diaphragm condenser with a hole in the middle (hence the name) and it has depth and warmth that few other microphones have.

Another incredible feature of EastSide Sound is the Harrison Series Ten B console. It is an 100% analog console with total recall and digitally controlled automation on every single knob, fader and switch. There are 96 channels and you can automate faders, Aux sends, EQs, compression, gates etc and it all comes back when you want to recall a mix. All of this while keeping the warmth of the analog sound (no AD/DA conversion takes place!). This was extremely important when mixing Hikashu's record because after coming up with my mix I would send the guys files to listen to and they would write back comments via email. I then re-opened the mix, tweaked the mix and sent them a new file to listen to… Total recall made this very easy and quick!

How's your opinion about the album? Right now I have listened to it only once and was surprised that's pretty rocking, more fierce than ever. Raw and wild in a good sense. And the rhythm section is extremely tight. It's incredible you guys took only two days for recording that.

I listened to it once only as well… no no just kidding! ;-) The album is great fun! There are many layers of things happening even though the instrumentation is the same and there aren't really many overdubs. Almost everything you hear was recorded live in the studio and you can feel the energy of the performance in these takes. It is not a doctored album created in the computer like many albums today, it is a bunch of guys playing their asses off, together, to each other, as it should be. I love this energy and this approach and I love that the band was eager to play everything and to put it all to tape as it happened. As you say, it is pretty rocking and so it's a fun ride and you can't do anything but going along for the ride! ;-) I wish I spoke Japanese so I could hear what the lyrics are about…

You also did the mixing on the album. On all recent Hikashu releases, Sakaide, the bass player, had been doing it singlehandedly. So when I was told that he asked you for mixing this time, I just saw how he really thinks highly of you. How's your approach for mixing the album?

I was honored to hear that Sakaide wanted to me to mix the album. This shows great trust and respect and I wanted to make sure that they were 100% happy with my mixes. I started by mixing two songs, one of the heaviest and one of the quietest ones so that I could come up with two general directions for the sound. I sent them those two mixes and asked them to comment on the general sound. They liked the direction right away and so I knew we were on the same page about things. I just went ahead and mixed all the other songs. My approach to mixing the album was similar to that of many other mixes that I did. I record instruments pretty much flat and I pay close attention to using the right microphone in the right position and with the right pre-amp. Once I have good sounds on the recording mixing becomes much easier. I stay true to the original sounds and I just do a little bit of EQing and compression where needed. For EQs I use the board EQs from the Harrison board and for compression I mostly use the McDSP G Channel compression. During the recording I might use some hardware compressors like the 1176 or the LA-2, but during mixing I usually stick to the McDSP plugins.

There's a very interesting episode that Sakaide recently told me about recording. According to him, musicians tend to have images of sound in mind when playing, but it's very hard to capture that thing on tape. Merely recording a performance makes a different sound on recording, and to record it properly you have to figure out some way. And you just did that, succeeding to reproduce the exact sound in his mind, and that's quite an accomplishment, he said. When I was told this for the first time, I just thought that's great. But after a while, I began to wonder how such thing can be achieved, because it sounds like mind-reading or something like that. Being no musician, I just don't get what he really meant. What do you think of his remark? Are you conscious of such kind of thing while working with them?

This is the fist time I heard this actually, he never told me this thing he told you, so I cannot say I was conscious of this during the recording. I think subconsciously we were all on the same page so things didn't really need to get explained much. The fact that there was great synergy probably helped me achieve the vision he had. I just did what I usually do to get the best sounds I can at EastSide Sound and once I knew they were happy with the sounds I knew we were going to have a great album. My concern during the recording was more about what might get lost in translation or might gone unsaid. Westerners tend to think that Japanese people don't always say 'no' or don't always clearly say what they think and so I was afraid that maybe the band would not let me know if they didn't like something I was doing. But once I met the rest of the band I knew it would be an easy collaboration and I trusted that they would let me know if they didn't like something.

They also told me that it was a pleasant surprise for them to find out their name on the console, in Japanese. It made them relax and feel like being at home. They clearly sensed you're really caring, and that made them very happy. Apparently you know how to treat musicians nicely.

Well I certainly try to do my best. A professional recording studio is like a hotel, you have to make your guests feel like they are at home and they can do whatever they want. I wanted them to feel welcome and to feel relaxed so that they could focus on the music and the creativity. Usually when I work with artists from Japan I prepare labels for all the channels of the headphone mixers in japanese characters (instead of writing "guitar" I write "ギター"). Although I love Japan and I have always wanted to learn, unfortunately I don't speak Japanese so to do this I simply go to Google Translate (http://translate.google.com/) and I translate the names of the instruments that are going to be used in the session so that the Japanese musicians can feel at home and not have to worry about anything.

The first time I did this was for an album of Teiji Ito music called "Watermill" (Tzadik). Ito's daughter was on the record but I didn't know who else would be on it so I prepared for a session of all non-english speaking Japanese musicians… It turned out that most of them were American and spoke perfect english… However it didn't matter. The idea is you always prepare for the worst case scenario and then you go from there, it can only get better ;-)

I also have business cards with Japanese translations for when I go to Japan and people seem to love to receive them from me!

Let's talk about yourself. Having read the biography on your site and the long interview on brutalism.com, we came to know a lot about your background. Particularly we find very interesting that you were pretty motivated from the very early stage of your career.

Yes, I've always had a marked entrepreneurial spirit and an eagerness to try new things, learn, evolve and experience life. I started very early (when I was 12 or so) to play with bands and when I was 15-16 I was playing with people twice my age. Most of my friends were much older than me too. When I was 17 I opened my first recording studio after an internship in a local recording studio to learn the basics. I am good at what I do and I am lucky to have met such incredible musicians and artists in my life. I am now 35 and still have a lot to learn and time to get better! I better get to work! ;-)

I'll translate both documents into Japanese and would like to introduce you to people in the country. They're very educational, especially for aspiring youth. By the way, there's one thing not covered by them - could tell us your latest venture, Stridulation Records? It must be important thing for you because it surely takes lots of time and you look like being very busy.

Yes I am extremely busy and I never have enough time for all my projects and ideas. Time and money are the enemies! Stridulation Records is one of my latest projects. I've always wanted to start a record label because I felt the urge to support the scene that has supported me. It is time to give back to the community that has given me so much and I decided to do it in the form of a label. Because I don't have enough time to do everything alone I partnered up with two great guys from Norway and from Italy. Eirik Havnes is a festival organizer and electronic musician, very smart and cool guy in Trondheim. Fabrizio "Fabban" Giannese is a black metal musician (founder of the band Aborym) whom I've known for years and lives in Rome. Together we plan to release very few but very special albums in extremely unique, beautiful and limited editions.

I also plan to start two concert series in New York, one at my apartment and one at EastSide Sound.

Another new project I have is a taiko-metal band with drummer Tim Wyskida from Blind Idiot God and Khanate and taiko player Kaoru Watanabe from Kodo. I play distorted 12 string bass. We are currently rehearsing and writing songs for our first album and hopefully a tour in Japan if we can find somebody to help us get over there!

It seems that you have some knowledge about Japanese language. Where you learn that? Have you worked with other Japanese artists? Or have you been in Japan? Anything to say to people in Japan?

I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE Japan. I would love to move to Tokyo for a few years but (un?-)fortunately I have too much work in NYC to leave. I have been to Japan 3 times and can't wait to go back. I have worked with some Japanese artists in the past (Akiko Yano, Chihiro Yamanaka, Sayuri Goto and I still often work with Ikue Mori, Kaoru Watanabe and others from the downtown scene) but unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, I don't speak any Japanese except for a few random words (Domo, Konnichiwa, Sayonara, Sumimasen, Mizu and Matcha Ice Cream o-kudasai!!!).

Any comment to the band, their fans, or just anything you'd like to.

Hikashu mo!
I would love to work more with Hikashu in the future.
I would actually love to do more work with and for Japanese artists in general as well. If there are any artists based in Japan who would like to work with me I will gladly come to record in Japan and/or mix their album at EastSide Sound!

Thank you very much for taking the time!

No comments:

Post a Comment