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Volume 2, Number 2, March 2004
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Analog Dialog: Charlie Clouser’s Outing with Helmet

Charlie Clouser
I’ve had the pleasure of calling Charlie Clouser my friend since 1986 when we met at my first NAMM show. Charlie is one of the funniest, wittiest people I know and can easily keep me in stitches during a one-hour phone call. He has a wonderful enthusiasm for music and for the tools he uses to create it.

I went to see Kraftwerk perform in San Francisco in 1998 and spent the entire following day calling everyone I knew in LA to tell them to go that night. I called Charlie’s pager about four times and later found out that he was already on a plane from New Orleans to LA to see the show. When we finally spoke about the show, we both blurted out at the same time, “I saw God and it was a synthesizer!” Recently we were talking about how much we loved the Led Zeppelin Live DVD and Charlie admitted that he had purchased the John Bonham re-issue drum set. It is so nice to encounter musicians who are still fans.

Charlie grew up on the East Coast and went to New York after college. His big break was working for composer Cameron Allan on his weekly soundtracks for “The Equalizer” TV show. They both relocated to LA, and Charlie was making music for a living. Along came an offer to be the keyboard player in Nine Inch Nails and Charlie was off to make records in New Orleans and tour the world. The thing about Charlie is that he’s not your typical party monster road warrior. Lucky for him, his bandmates were pretty smart guys and touring with David Bowie wasn’t bad either.

My favorite works of Charlie's are his remixes of NIN from the album "Further Down the Spiral" as well as "El Phantasmo and the Chicken-Run Blast-O-Rama (Wine, Women and Song mix)" and "Real Solutions #9 (Mambo Mania Mix)" his remixes on the White Zombie's "Supersexy Swingin' Sounds" album.

Charlie left NIN about three years ago, but he’s still known as ‘the NIN keyboard player’, despite the fact that he has been very prolific since moving back to Los Angeles. Besides scoring several TV shows with Cameron Allan, Charlie is scoring the TV show “Las Vegas”, scored the independent film “Saw”, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this January, and his biggest project; producing an album for Helmet on Interscope Records.

For the Helmet album, Charlie recently purchased one of the first 2-1176 Twin Vintage Limiting Amplifiers, a 6176 Channel Strip and the UA TDM Compressor Plug-In bundle. Charlie put the hardware to the test immediately while tracking the Helmet album at LA’s Cello Studios (formerly Western). They later edited and completed the recording at Charlie’s home studio, a postmodern house in the Hollywood Hills. Charlie graciously took the time to answer some questions.

Did you always want to have a career in music?
I always hoped to be able to pull it off, but for a while I wasn't sure if my role would be mainly creative or technical, and so I went to recording engineering school at the same time as I was getting a liberal arts degree in electronic music. This has let me straddle some fences, like on this Helmet record, where I've co-written and arranged some songs, played some bass, and done more producer-type things, but also did a fair bit of "getting the sound" in the traditional engineering sense.

Do you prefer recording to playing live? If so, why?
Performing with Nine Inch Nails is, for me, about as good as that type of thing can get, so I may be a little biased, but I still enjoy the studio immensely. That's where the core of my musical creativity comes from, learning and experimenting on a variety of instruments in the studio. Live performing is sort of the way you celebrate triumphs in the studio, I guess.

Are there any classic recordings that have a sound that you like to emulate?
Too many of my favorite recordings, things like The Beach Boys, are outside of the genres in which I generally work, and I love not knowing how they made those sounds. I think I'd rather it be a mystery. But for sonic influences that I can make direct use of, I love the sound of Led Zeppelin, especially "Physical Graffiti" and "Presence", and Public Image Ltd.'s "Metal Box", as well as David Byrne and Brian Eno's "My Life In The Bush of Ghosts", and Byrne's "The Catherine Wheel", two of my all-time favorites. I've always admired the talent and craftsmanship behind Queen, King Crimson, The Cars, Devo, of course Talking Heads. Of recent records, I really liked a couple of Big Wreck albums, which seemed to get really loose and crashing, really great.

Do you wear different hats when you are doing soundtrack work as opposed to pop/rock work?
Working on records is totally different from soundtrack work, but some of the tools and techniques are similar. I describe it like this: Producing or writing a rock song these days is like being an artist hired to paint the portrait of the Chairman of the Board to hang in the corporate lobby. You've got to make him look younger than he actually is, make him look friendly when he's really an evil bastard, get his nose just right, etc. Soundtrack work is like being Pollock one minute, Rothko the next. You might go from painting a single blue dot to scrawling a 40 by 40 foot psychedelic scribble, all in the same day, sometimes in the same piece of music. So it's not hard to see why that's attractive to me.

What was the best thing you got out of the NIN experience?
It's been great to be involved in NIN for all these years, and probably the best thing I can take from that experience is the knowledge that comes from watching a completely alternate approach for constructing songs and arrangements. Trent puts things together sideways, ass-backwards, upside-down, and they still fly, often better than anything else. He always wrings the absolute maximum emotional expression from each element of his musical ideas, and that is definitely something to be envied.
Page Hamilton lays down guitar with engineer Chris Holmes

Can you describe your signal chain for each part of the Helmet record?
On the Helmet record, we recorded basic tracks at Cello, using their Neve console's mic preamps and EQs. For drums, I came out of the console, through Cello's silver and black 1176's on room mics and toms, my new stereo 2-1176 on overheads, and a Distressor on the snare into Pro Tools HD3 XL at 96k. No surprise that the original silver-face 1176's that have been in Cello's racks since they were new sounded great on drums out in the Bill Putnam-designed room, and the new 2-1176 fit right in.

We then took the basic tracks back to my place for replacement bass and guitars. For bass, I wound up recording four separate signals. We used an Ampeg SVT-Classic with two mics: an old Neumann FET 47 through the 6176 Channel Strip, with a little EQ and lots of squash, blended with a little Sennheiser MD-441 through a Neve 1073 and 2-1176, for one channel. The other three were the outputs of my SansAmp PSA-21, SansAmp RBI, and API mic pre used as a DI. On guitars, it was usually a Shure SM-57 and/or Sennheiser MD-441 through the Neve 1073, usually with no compression, although I used a vintage LA-2A on tracking a few times when sounds were a bit uneven.

The drum sound on the Helmet record is a combination of what we recorded at Cello, mixed with additional layers that I created at my place using stacked and chained compressors and plug-ins, including the new UA TDM Classic Compressors, as well as my UA hardware pieces, and an Alan Smart C2 and Empirical Labs Distressors and Fatso. I kind of did a "premix-remix", where I built up this stacked sound behind John Tempesta's performance, combining elements and piling on the squeeze until I got a stack that I liked, which I would then print to be used as is in the final mix.

All but two verses of the vocals on the new Helmet record were recorded through the same signal chain, with the same settings, which were never changed. After a quick shootout of vintage and new mics, we chose a Klaus Heyne modified vintage Telefunken ELA M251 with a very hyped and compress-y sound that complemented Page's voice nicely. This went through a vintage Neve 1073 mic pre, EQ out, and into one side of the 2-1176. Using Jim Scott's recommended "Dr. Pepper" settings (attack at 10 o’clock, release at 2 o’clock, and 4:1 ratio) with tons of input level on the 1176 resulted in a thickly compressed vocal with tons of texture, and a gain structure that allowed Page to go from light harmonies to full metal blast with no adjustments to mic pre or record level. It was a "set and forget" vocal sound for the whole album! The only time we had to use another vocal chain was for some whispery verses, on which we switched to the Fairchild 670 compressor, which definitely has gobs of warm creamy gain and sustain, and soaks up whatever hits it.

Do you have UA hardware tips and techniques to share?
Everybody knows them already, but.... use this one if you must... it's really a thinly disguised sales pitch.

It certainly is convenient having two 1176 compressors in a single box, since occasionally I like to go through two compressors in series, one on hard and fast, the other on soft and slow, using one more like a limiter, to catch the attacks, and one to even out levels. With the 2-1176, you can simply go through one side and then the other, saving a bit of rack space and making things nice and clean.

The Helmet album, as yet untitled, is scheduled for release in June 2004. It was recorded by Ryan Boesch, Chris Holmes, and Charlie Clouser, at Cello as well as Charlie's personal studio, and produced by Page Hamilton and Charlie Clouser.

-Marsha Vdovin

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