For my latest interview I decided to step into a genre that whilst I occasionally listen to, isn’t my regular cup of tea. I find that roots music has its gems, but as over-compressed pop, rock and EDM gain more real estate in today’s culture, it’s hard to come across names that can capture the attention of the masses. Not everyone can be Norah Jones. But since I fancy myself some Norah Jones from time to time, I thought to have a sit-down with the producer of her 2000 album “New York City” and ask him about his music work. Enter Peter Malick.
Hi Peter. Thanks for making time to chat with me. Can you tell me about your experience and what kind of music you work with?
My history is in blues and roots music, but I’m currently working on a variety of things, such as with a hip-hop artist in Australia, as well as a classically trained violinist who lives in Canada. In the past, I’ve recorded a mariachi band for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, as well as different singer-songwriters. So I’m all over the map, and I like that.
Your music experience stretches to the 60’s, correct?
Yes, I started to play guitar at the age of 12, and was playing out in nightclubs by 15. I fell in love with Chicago Blues in particular, and was lucky enough to get to play back-up for some of my idols like John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton. I played with Muddy Waters a bit too, though not in his band specifically. For a time, I was living with his piano player, Otis Spann, who played on all of the Muddy Waters stuff that came out of Chess Records. So I was immersed in that scene very quickly and loved it.
What did you learn in terms of music production and live show performance from touring with such big blues artists?
Well, it was a very different time, and some of what I miss was that those people were so fully immersed in who they were as artists. It wasn’t about trying to sell a commercial to a big company or “if we get these stage lights, it’ll be a better show, and we can charge more money”. It was just about them expressing themselves as artists. Someone like Muddy Waters who had such a regal presence, was just himself. That’s something that I’m grateful to have experienced, since there’s not much of that nowadays.
As someone who’s been rooted in this type of music for decades, can you tell me what the typical songwriting/production process or workflow is for blues music?
As far as the history of Chicago Blues goes, there was this famous harmonica player called Junior Wells. He recorded an album called “Hoodoo Man Blues” in 1965, which is cited as the first Chicago blues album. This is because people back then would just go into the studio and say “I have a new song. Let’s record it.”, and that was it. The concept of making an album as a body of work didn’t happen until the mid 60s, so the production style of the artists back then was to just go into the studio and play.
As far as workflow goes, I have a story I can tell: In 1969, I was still in high school, and had just started to play with Otis Spann. I had hitch-hiked down to New York City, and saw that he was playing at a famous place called Cafe Au Go Go, long since gone. It was an amazing slice of time, because everyone I idolized from Chicago was in New York, like Howling Wolf and Big Mama Thornton. During that time, I met this woman called Victoria Spivey, who called herself the Queen Of The Blues. She had been a star from the age of 18, and she was 60 when we met. She had a record label of her own, and put together a bunch of people to do a record, which consisted of myself, Otis Spann, Luther “Snake Boy” Johnson, and SP Leary, who was a phenomenal drummer who played with the likes of Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters. She took us into a place called Nola Penthouse Studios, which was on top of a skyscraper in mid-town Manhattan. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a famous studio that many iconic jazz records had been made at. The most advanced technology that they had at the time was a 3-track tape machine, but Victoria didn’t have the budget for neither that nor the 2-track machine. So we went straight to mono, and recorded the album in 4 hours. I was on guitar with Luther Johnson. Half-way through the recording, Victoria tripped over Luther’s guitar cord and broke it (it was a pretty flimsy cord). As a result, I was the only guitar player for the 2nd half of the album. So to answer your question about workflow, you can imagine how it was.
Yeah, sounds like a very spur-of-the-moment kind of method for making music. But moving forward in time, the dawn of the 21st century came around, and you produced an album for yourself and Norah Jones, which is an artist that today’s generation is likely to recognize. Where there any things that you had to be mindful of when working with her on “New York City”?
That process came about very organically. I had been living in New York, and had been writing songs for my own band, trying to make it as a vocalist. But I finally came to the realization that it wasn’t going to happen. So I went looking for a vocalist that would be willing to work with me on handling the singing and song-writing aspect. I walked into a club and heard the last half a song of Norah’s set, and was like “whoa”. That’s how the relationship began.
What I learned from working with her was that she had a whole different interface to music than I did. My history as a blues player was about going for the moment, but Norah liked to pull back and be introspective. She didn’t want things to be heavy-handed in any way. So it was a big learning experience for me.
Did you do any mixing at that point?
No. That album was recorded in 2000, and I got my first reasonable recording rig in 2003. I had made an effort to put together a PC-based recording rig in 2000, and failed abysmally. But then I got a Pro Tools system in 2003, and started to attempting to learn. The more I got to know, the more I realized that I didn’t know. So it was a process, and it took some time for me to get to a place where I felt like I understood how to do it.
One of the things that I think contrasts music of the 20th century from the music of today is how the mix-downs of today place an emphasis on transients and up-front sounds that are loud and attention-grabbing, whereas music from the 90’s and prior seems have a certain ambience to it that allows for there to be more space and depth between the listener and the sound. What do you think about that?
It depends on the artist and what’s right for the project. A lot of albums that were recorded prior to Pro Tools taking over were subject to the technology. You aren’t going to have the kind of sharp transients that you hear in today’s pop music on a tape recording. It’s just not possible. I’ve heard Dave Pensado discuss how he listens to the new mixers of today and says “Wow, this is something new. We need to up our game“. I agree with him. Today’s sounds are birthed out of the available technology, which as it gets better will give us more capabilities to make our mixes sound more sonically dramatic. That didn’t exist in the same way when we were on tape. But at the same time, imagine this: if you didn’t eat anything sugary for a long time, due to a certain diet for example, even food that was only slightly sweet would be very noticeable to your taste. So when you solely listen to records from the 70s, 80s, or 90s, everything becomes relative, and the smaller things become bigger. But if you play a Skrillex record and a Muddy Waters record back-to-back, the Muddy Waters one will sound dull.
Interesting. So if you were given a record that was clearly influenced by Muddy Waters, would you adhere to mixing principles from 40 years ago, or would you aim to make it sound as modern as possible?
I think something like that should be infused by things from the past, but being in the present also matters. I’m recording a friend of mine who is a phenomenal musician called Jeff Turmes. He’s very old-school. Sometimes when he sits with me to mix, we’ll pull up a track, and he’ll say, “We don’t need to do anything to that“. I get that, and it’s fine. For other things, I’ll say, “Why don’t we do this?” to which he’ll usually say “Ah, that’s cool“. So a lot of it is a dance, because you’re never mixing in a vacuum. So you have to honor what the artist is about, and nudge him a bit if you have to push the mix in order make it better.
When I listen to blues music, it feels like the mix is trying to recreate what the music would have sounded like in a live setting, as opposed to pop or electronic music, which may as well exist in a vacuum at times. Is there any truth to that? If so, how much of your effort is split between getting the desired source recording and tweaking the mix-down to achieve that?
I think there’s a value in creating a certain space around your music. It doesn’t even have to be a real hall or room. Just to have music that thrives on the space between the notes is valuable.
When you have people playing acoustic instruments, capturing the right vibe has a lot to do with the performance For example, knowing how to tune a drum-set is huge. It’s more critical than microphone placement, in my opinion. Stick one mic in front of a well-tuned drum-kit, and you have something that’s potentially very powerful. As far as the mix goes, you can have a idea of where things should go, and try your best to bring that to reality.
Another thing I noticed about blues music is that it accommodates a lot of imperfection, in contrast to pop music, which seeks to be quantized, in-tune and mechanical at times. Even non-blues acts from the past, like Nirvana for example, didn’t seem to mind singing out of tune, or playing off-key guitar solos, as long as that ended up being what was so characteristic about their music. So when you’re mixing your music, how do you tow the line between fixing what’s technically in-correct and leaving it the way it is to preserve the vibe of the music?
That’s a fine line that you have to walk. A lot of things that could fly in the 90s, or even 10 years ago, wouldn’t work today. People expect in-tune vocals and quantized beats. I mixed something recently that was very expressive and raw, but there were pitch issues that were unacceptable, so I had to figure out how to balance it. But there’s no stock answer for this if you have something naked-sounding like a Norah Jones record. For the “New York City” album, we only tuned on note, just because we could. We didn’t even have to do it. But if I’m recording someone that aspires to have that pop-vibe, it has to be spot on, and I’d tweak it because I had to.
Speaking of tweaking, let’s talk about your tools. What kind of studio setup do you have at home?
I have a bunch of outboard gear, such as mics, pre-amps and compressors, but I’ve experimented with doing certain projects 100% in-the-box, and it’s totally doable. You don’t need to send a vocal to a piece of outboard gear. But at the same time, that outboard gear does things that the plugin won’t, though it’s not necessarily “better”. I love the Tube-tech CL1A, which sounds great on vocals, though I use it on a lot of different things. I recently got a copy of the Softube plugin version, and it’s excellent. But it’s not the hardware, and conversely, the hardware isn’t the software either.
Let me ask about what some of your favorite tools are:
Mic for vocals:
There’s a guy called Klaus Heyne who does radical mods of famous mics, and he has done a famous mod of the neumman U87. That mic on it’s own isn’t my favorite, but Heyne’s version is a beautiful one. I recently got to use a Bock 5-ZERO-7, made by David Bock. It’s the most stunning vocal mic I’ve heard, and destined to be a classic. It’s expensive though, at almost $8000.
Compressor for Drums:
DBX. I have a DBX 165 that I love for kicks, and a DBX 160x that I love for snares. For my drum buss I would say the McDsp MC2000.
EQ for Guitars:
Phoenix Verb, which was made by Michael Carnes, the guy who programmed for Lexicon.
Native Instruments Transient Master
What do you have in the works and the future? Will there ever be another Norah Jones collab?
You never know, but I tend to think probably not. I haven’t spoken to her in a while, though I’d love to work with her still. I try to stay in touch with everyone I work with, and never try to force people to come back. Some people still come back, which is great. But I think everyone should have their path and what comes your way is supposed to. But I’m currently working with an Asian band that’s doing very well right now, and they happened to find their way to me, so I might be producing their new album. So I feel like that’s the way it works best for me.