Interview: Electro-Vox Studios' Michael Harris on Engineering as Art & Science

Michael Harris (2019). Header photos by: Kate Kornberg.

A record is a study of a moment and time. A document for us to mull over, cite, love, or forget. To engineer Michael Harris, a recording session is more than operating tape machines or Pro Tools. It's collaborating with artists, experimenting with new techniques, and remaining engaged.

Michael Harris. All photos by Kate Kornberg.

Cutting his teeth at a studio called Black Iris, his past seven years at Electro-Vox Recording Studios have been both inspiring and liberating. Electro-Vox has the luxuries of space, top-notch equipment, and talented clientele. Nestled near Paramount Studios in Hollywood, the studio also has its fair share of history (stretching back to Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole) and an enviable amount of gear.

The studio was purchased by Woody Jackson—the composer/producer/musician behind the musical scores for video games like the Red Dead Redemption series, along with many other projects—a few years after he played a session in Studio A and realized its potential as a recording destination.

During our walkthrough at the studio, Harris considers the keys to a great session, engineering as both art and science, and "what [he] can add to the painted picture going on in the live room."

Click these links to visit the websites for Electro-Vox and Woody Jackson. Or follow @electrovoxrecordingstudios and @higherprotocol (Michael Harris) on Instagram.

What are a few favorite records to come out of Electro-Vox, not necessarily ones you've worked on?

Lately, I've been listening to these albums again: Joanna Newsom's Divers, Arctic Monkeys' Tranquility Base, Grizzly Bear's Painted Ruins, Angel Olsen's My Woman and Phases, Hamilton Leithauser's Black Hours, Wires On Fire's, Woody Jackson's Dos Manos, Vampire Weekend's Vampires of the City and Father of the Bride, and Kamasi Washington's Harmony of Difference and Heaven and Earth.

I remember one of the Kamasi sessions that ended up becoming "Agents of the Multiverse" on The Choice [the hidden record included in the packaging of Heaven and Earth]. At the end of a pretty long day, Kamasi had [drummer] Chris Dave come down and build up one of his miraculous solo works. It was one of the more magical things I've witnessed go down in real-time. He built up, over the course of a few hours, about five percussion pieces that all ran into each other. He must have pulled every piece of percussion in the building into the C Room. By the end, we couldn't even walk in [the room], but he used all of it.

We ran 'til about five in the morning and I didn't know what it would end up becoming until about six months later, when Kamasi came back in. He first listened to each section for a long time, wove in noise and melody, and re-voiced harmony when he felt it.

When I listen to the recording, I hear that moment in time. It's on pause for me. Listen to it on headphones. Kamasi and Chris divined that and Russ [Elevado] mixed the infinite into it. That piece still sounds unlike anything I've ever heard.

What makes a great session?

Maybe when someone's sound, arrangement, aesthetic, and artistic vision come together in a way that's entirely new to all the people making it? That's a lot to ask, but those are the best to me.

Having honest and earnest communication, too. Being able to navigate in a fluid way with everyone you're around; to connect to their person and not just to their art. That makes for a great session.

It may not even need to be said, but the studio is an incredibly isolated environment. Feelings and personalities start to get wrapped up in each other, especially when working together for a long time. The more everyone is able to feed off of each other's creative junk the better. Lastly, the best sessions feel timeless. Even years after, they feel tangible.

To you, which records encapsulate their moment in time?

Captain Beefheart's Safe As Milk, recorded early 1967 at RCA Studios in Los Angeles by Hank Cicalo. Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, recorded March 1959 at "The Church" Columbia 30th Street Studio by Robert Waller.

My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, February 1989–July 1991 at many studios but primarily Protocol in Holloway with engineer Alan Moulder. The Red Crayola's The Parable of Arable Land, recorded March 1967 at Andrus Studio in Texas by Walt Andrus. And Gang Of Four's Solid Gold, recorded January 1981 at Abbey Road Studios by Jimmy Douglass.

Which recording engineers do you admire? What about engineer-musician pairings?

There's obviously a lot of overlap, but I admire Jack Nitzsche, Gary Marker, Norman Smith, Peggy McCreary, Rick Walton, Wendy Carlos, and Hugh Padgham.

Don Zientara worked on most of the bands on legendary D.C. label Dischord Records. Rudy Van Gelder and John Coltrane; Geoff Emerick and The Beatles; Steve Albini and Nirvana/The Breeders/Jesus Lizard, or Mary Shipman Howard and Glenn Miller/Charles Ives.

Do you have principles regarding how you make suggestions to artists?

I guess it's hard to see what it is from the inside but yeah… having the sensibility and ability to read the subtleties of a room are, in my mind, among the two most important traits you can have as an engineer.

If you can understand the dynamics around the particular people in session with you, then your ideas and opinions turn into nothing more than a conversation with those people. If those ideas aren't coming from a self-satisfying place, then that conversation just keeps going.

I've always thought that being vigilant and sensitive without reservation is key. Everyone needs space to hash out hard ideas, especially when those ideas start to really generate traction in a session. Almost no one can realize those ideas without some sort of mirror; a kind of amplifier of ideas.

Interview continues after lesson
Mic Placements Make the Drum Sound

While setting up a 1970s Camco set once owned by Jim Gordon (and now by Electro-Vox) for a session, Harris shares a few of his techniques on mic placement and treatment. While every session is different, he's learned over time to experiment by trying certain arrangements. Getting low to the ground or standing on a stool to listen to drum and cymbal resonance are just a few of his tactics.

"I'll literally crawl around on the ground and listen to the 'zones': areas that sound good. I'll try to find a balance between a bunch of mics, not just one." With the gentle squeaking of the Starbird boom stand wheels, Michael begins to piece together the kit and microphones.

He says the goal is to find a "balance of things where I can hear its detail but also the interesting quality of each instrument. Instead of isolating the drums, I try to isolate the mics."

While discussing overhead cymbals, Harris confesses, "I don't hate the idea of overheads, I just haven't been satisfied with the ways I've tried to do it. I feel like they 'fill' and that's about it. What I like to do instead is use 'knee-high' mics." At that height, he says, they sound good when close to the kit. By placing a figure-eight ribbon mic down low and inward toward the kick and not at the head, the side address comes to the fore.

"Though this setup looks complete, I know it won't sound complete: that's why I scatter mics around the live room."

These mics feed into preamps that behave like mixers and into a beautiful Neve-8028 console. One of only a handful ever built, it was painstakingly rewired and refurbished to its former glory through months of intensive work.

Do you think engineering is an art or a science?

I love the overlap of the two. At this point in my life, engineering is obviously both. Both sides of engineering require a deep curiosity [of] the unknown and ultimately an enormous amount of experimentation.

My twin brother has turned me on to a lot of stuff in my life, but lately he's got me on this kick with Autechre. There's so much going on in their music. They're pushing so many boundaries sonically.

I'm sure it didn't start with them, using Max/MSP [visual programming language for music and multimedia] exclusively makes audio sound entirely new to me! If you look under the hood, Max essentially looks like math "lite," patches upon patches of "fuck-with-able" jargon. It's really great and very "science."

"If you know the science more, it seems to me, you can push the art of engineering a whole lot further."

There's no removing science from the art of engineering. It was born from science. Take the "phonautograph": it's considered to be the first recording/playback device invented. It etched waveforms onto smoked paper wrapped around a drum. It's certainly imaginative and its inventor, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, was fascinated by the mechanical means of transcribing vocal sounds. I guess he came across drawings of the auditory anatomy and was trying to mimic their workings in a mechanical device.

If you know the science [of recording] more, it seems to me, you can push the art of engineering a whole lot further. They're definitely both always present in the process. Manipulating the physical world with the things that science has made to create sound in the first place is evidence that engineering wouldn't exist without both traits.

As an engineer, what do you believe is your role in the final listening experience?

I always seem to change my mind on this. Currently, I think about enhancing the emotions already there. Our real job should be to, beyond all the technical stuff, attach our attention to those feelings and ideas and illuminate them.

For instance, the delay on "Where There's Woman" (I can't even imagine it without it) or the closeness and level of gain on Leonard Cohen's voice on "Avalanche." They change how those records are heard and felt. Someone behind the glass was paying close attention to what those songs were doing to them. Painting with the right set of tools in the right moment—that has a huge effect on people's final listening experience. That is also our job.

Going back to the question of what makes a great session, more and more I find myself living through the emotional narrative of a record while I'm working on it. The process of listening to the story that is told and trying to absorb as much of the emotions wrapped up in the music starts to feel like character acting on my part.

I think that's the most important role and engineer can play: To be inside the emotions of a song and close to the people who made it, because it draws you closer to the process and the art. Also, if it's done right, you find yourself driving on exactly the same highway at exactly the same speed as the people they're working with and the piece they're working on.

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