I sat down with the wonderful Michael Beinhorn to talk about his involvement with perhaps thee most iconic rock song of the ’90s. Everything from the drum sounds, guitar sounds, vocals, and songwriting is unbelievable! The track, of course, is “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden, which Michael produced and engineered.
Throughout his career, Michael has worked with artists like Herbie Hancock, The Violent Femmes, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soul Asylum, Hole, Ozzy Osbourne, Courtney Love, Marilyn Manson, Social Distortion, Korn, Golden Palominos, and Mew.
The albums he’s been involved with have a combined worldwide sales of more than 45 million! He is also one of a select few producers to have two albums debut in Billboard’s Top Ten in the same week: Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals (#1) and Hole’s Celebrity Skin (#9). This achievement earned him a 1998 GRAMMY nomination for Producer of the Year.
Having the chance to meet with Michael and break down one of the most recognized rock songs ever made was nothing short of incredible.
Please enjoy our whole conversation:
“Black Hole Sun” is the third single off Soundgarden’s 1994 juggernaut, Superunknown.
The seminal Superunknown was Soundgarden’s breakout record and a tremendous commercial success. It debuted at #1 on the charts and closed the year at 2x Platinum, also earning a GRAMMY nomination for Best Rock Album in 1995. Since its release it’s gone an amazing 12x Platinum and remains one of the best alternative rock/grunge albums ever made.
“Black Hole Sun” is the band’s most well known song and remains so to this day. After its release it spent a total of seven weeks at #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. Even after peaking at #2 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart, “Black Hole Sun” still finished as the #1 song of 1994 for that chart.
Frontman Chris Cornell wrote the song in about 15 minutes.
In a 2014 interview, the late Cornell recalled “Black Hole Sun’s” origins:
“I wrote it in my head driving home from Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville, a 35-40 minute drive from Seattle. It sparked from something a news anchor said on TV and I heard wrong. I heard ‘blah blah blah black hole sun blah blah blah’. I thought that would make an amazing song title, but what would it sound like? It all came together, pretty much the whole arrangement including the guitar solo that’s played beneath the riff.
“I spent a lot of time spinning those melodies in my head so I wouldn’t forget them. I got home and whistled it into a Dictaphone. The next day I brought it into the real world, assigning a couple of key changes in the verse to make the melodies more interesting. Then I wrote the lyrics and that was similar, a stream of consciousness based on the feeling I got from the chorus and title.”
After the initial spark of inspiration, Cornell sat down with a Gretsch guitar through a Leslie speaker cabinet. The Leslie gave the song a “Beatlesque” and distinctive sound. Cornell wrote the song despite “thinking the band wouldn’t like it,” and it ended up becoming one of their most famous tracks!
“Black Hole Sun” was recorded at Bad Animals Studio X in Seattle.
The studio was owned by the band Heart at the time, who were out on tour. The Superunknown sessions were the first time the studio had been rented out to clients.
Studio X was a separate facility which Bad Animals had expanded to include at the time. Studio X split from Bad Animals in 1997, but its legacy had already been cemented under the Bad Animals umbrella. When Studio X was a part of the facility bands like R.E.M., Johnny Cash, Nirvana, Heart, Danny Elfman, and of course Soundgarden all frequented the spot.
Michael initially had some misgivings about the studio itself, but after he heard the drum sound he could get, he was sold! The combination of a phenomenal drummer in Matt Cameron and the room at Bad Animals gave the drums their distinct quality. Remarkably, the unmixed stems don’t differ much from the finished mix, which is a testament to Michael’s skill!
Beinhorn was heavily influenced by electronic music while making the record.
The sense of hyperreality you can get from an electronic song full of synths and samples shaped how Michael approached the sounds on “Black Hole Sun” and Superunknown. With electronic music, you have extreme control over every mix element and are able to manipulate sounds the way you want.
Michael approached Soundgarden with these principles in mind. While it seems counterintuitive to the rock aesthetic of a bunch of guys jamming in a room live, it’s this departure from a traditional rock approach that made Superunknown what it was! Bringing out the tiny details, like the rattling of a snare drum, was a goal for Michael while producing the record.
This approach seemed to work out, with “Black Hole Sun”/Superunknown being one of the most iconic pieces of work to come out of the rock/grunge era of the ’90s.
Complete Interview Transcription
Warren Huart: Hello everybody. Hope you’re doing marvellously well. I’m sitting here with the rather wonderful Mr. Michael Beinhorn. How are you?
Michael: Fine, thanks. How are you?
Warren Huart: I’m good. I’m very excited. We’re about to talk about what could quite easily be the most iconic song of the 90s. How about that? That’s a big statement, isn’t it?
Michael: That’s a big statement.
Warren Huart: Especially for anybody that loves rock music. This … everything about this song, the drum sounds, the guitar sounds, most importantly the songwriting and the vocal on this is unbelievably. It is, of course, Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun.
Warren Huart: I’ve got a billion questions. I just sound like a little kid fan here.
Michael: Bring it on.
Warren Huart: I mean, is that the bell brass, on the snare?
Michael: That is Gregg Keplinger.
Warren Huart: Keplinger?
Michael: The eight inch pipe.
Warren Huart: It’s just like, wow. What we have here with the stems is a separate snare mic, actually. Not everything’s separated, but you can hear it and wow, that is one of the … This has got more personality than frickin’ five comedians.
Warren Huart: One thing I will say, and this speaks to your recording, is the mix and the individual elements, pretty darn close. This is what we talk a lot about as a consistent theme, is commitment to sound. Getting the sound and committing it and going, “That’s the sound.” Because, here’s the final mix.
Warren Huart: Here’s the elements. Unmixed, just stemmed.
Warren Huart: I mean, I played like three seconds of it, so I didn’t give people enough opportunity, but the reality is like … So look, I’ve got a million questions. I don’t know where to start really. I mean-
Michael: I’m sorry.
Warren Huart: I don’t know where to start it, because I’ve got a million questions. First of all … Actually I didn’t Wiki this before … I should have, shouldn’t I … Which studio? Where did you do this?
Michael: We did all the recording at Bad Animals/Studio X, which was Lawson Sound Productions in Seattle.
Warren Huart: Oh wow.
Michael: Yeah. The studio was owned by Heart, and I think ours was the first project that they kind of rented it out, because they were on tour, or something like that. I think I initially had misgivings, then when I heard a drum kit in the room, I was like, “Man, it’s gonna work.”
Warren Huart: It sounds phenomenal.
Michael: It’s a great room but of course, you have a great drummer.
Warren Huart: Right. Absolutely.
Michael: Kind of an important ingredient someone who knows how to hit.
Warren Huart: Definitely. What kit is it? Do you remember what kit it was?
Michael: I think it was mainly DW. As I said, it was that Keplinger eight-inch pipe, which I think was the first time that that instrument had been recorded. I think it was kind of an experiment for him. Cut this enormous piece of pipe and use it as a snare. I’m pretty sure the cymbals are Zildjian K’s. That’s about it. I think it was a DW kit.
Warren Huart: Here’s the elements together.
Warren Huart: One of the things that I love about these sounds, is that they’re really big. I know it sounds really obvious. They’re like big, big sounds, but I’m not hearing, and I’m not seeing lobs of compression. I’m hearing … you know what I mean?
Michael: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Warren Huart: Because it’s easy to get a big sound if a kick is this big, you know what I mean?
Michael: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Warren Huart: It’s just overly compressed and all this kind of stuff. I mean, I wish I could have been a fly over your shoulder, just to see what you guys were doing to get these tones.
Michael: Well, it’s real simple. It’s basically Mike Dupree. In some cases there’s a really short signal chain. I am not a fan, except in certain rare instances, of using any kind of compression when taking drums to whatever you’re recording medium is. Really I didn’t have a whole lot of that. I will go crazy processing drums though if I have to. Like kick, just to kind of pull out articulation.
Michael: I find compression may make a sound more exciting when it’s being recorded, but you tend to lose specificity, articulation, density, depth. Some of that stuff tends to go away when there’s an actual performance happening, so I like to leave the kit as unadulterated in that way as possible, so that people can concentrate on detail. Things that actually make the instruments pop and give them personality, so the performer actually comes through. That’s really what I was going for on this recording. There was a tremendous conflict about how the record was going to be recorded. Pardon me.
Michael: I think the band really wanted to do something a little bit faster. They kind of saw this as more, “Get in, get out”, kind of a thing. I had a different feeling of about it. I was like, “This really should be a statement.” I felt a lot of work had to go into making the record sound the way it did. I had a wonderful engineer to work with–Jason Corsaro. Sadly, no longer with us. His earlier work is phenomenal. I mean, definitely someone worth researching. We worked very hard to get that specific type of sound.
Michael: I’ll be very honest and say that I was heavily influenced at the time that we were making this, by electronic music. That was one of the things that influenced me the most.
Warren Huart: Really?
Warren Huart: How do you think it shaped the way that you recorded this?
Michael: Well …
Warren Huart: The way you produced it?
Michael: One of the things that I like about electronics is that it’s all synths. There’s a … Well sample synth. There’s a sense of hyper-reality because the sounds are so … They’re so isolated and you can do anything that you want to an individual sound. Having that kind of flexibility over component parts, working on a rock record like this, it’s sort of like an out there … Or wasn’t out there kind of thing, because it sort of goes against the aesthetic of, “Oh bunch of guys playing in the room and this is rock music,” type thing. I’d like to create something a little different that moves away from that. That’ its own. That it kind of represents its own aesthetic. That has its own personality. That’s what this is really about.
Michael: Techno music was influencing me. The directness, the cleanness of the sounds and that was … While using sounds sometimes that are pretty hairy. I wanted to kind of have that. I was thinking to myself, “I’d like to have so much detail on sounds, that you can actually feel the space, like, right underneath the snare drum where the snares are rattling.” Just these little tiny bits of detailing to try and make that come out as much as possible. It just seemed really exciting like, “How do we do this.” Well that makes it more fun. It kind of creates more of a palette to kind of express what the artist is trying to do.
Warren Huart: What was the console in Heart’s studio?
Michael: That’s a G with automation.
Warren Huart: Okay. Were you using…? I know from our previous talk, I know that you own a lot of really vintage early Neves, were you tracking with those Neves?
Warren: Oh you were?
Michael: Yeah. Everything. That whole drum kit went straight through those 1057s. That’s a sound right there. Except the metal bits. Like hi-hats, things like that. We didn’t really do much close miking on the cymbals. A lot of what we got cymbal wise was a pair of 67’s overhead. Jason had this thing, I think I can’t remember exactly how he position them, I think that there was … I don’t think he had them quite in face, but he had them like straight over the cymbals. I was like, “No, no, no. Pull back.”, because I wanted them to pick up more impact from the rest of the kit. We brought them so that they were kind of right over the snare.
Michael: I mean, I tend to find 67’s to be a really nice impact microphone, as well as having that great coloration if you’re far enough away from the source. I think we’ve picked it up really nicely. The 67’s really helped with the sound a lot in that regard. But all that stuff went through the 1057. Yeah.
Warren Huart: We’ve got what’s called overheads here, but we just listened off camera for a second, it definitely has some rooms in it, but still fun to listen to. It’s pretty amazing.
Warren Huart: So this would be the 67’s obviously blended with some rooms.
Michael: Yeah. You can hear the directness of the 67’s. I don’t remember what we used for rooms. To be honest with you, I think by the time we got down to mix, we weren’t really featuring too much. I mean, really, we were dealing with ambient bleed, and mics. I found the more I added stuff, I don’t like washed to begin with. Obviously mid range is horrible, because there’s so much energy in the mids. The more instruments we’re adding the more nonspecific things we’re getting and I just kept bringing the rooms back further and further.
Warren Huart: One pair or …
Miachal: At one point we had two pair and we wound up with … I think we just stuck with one.
Michael: Right. I mean, we actually had a set of far rooms, and it was like, “Oh, no. No, no, no, no.” Too much pre-delays off that. You know how it is when you’re dealing with that kind of thing. Plus when you want things direct and you’ve got like even … How many milliseconds of timing lost between the kick and the snare hitting the firewall the room it’s like … That kind of stuff just puts me to sleep.
Warren Huart: It’s a good segue, because this is done on tape, so it’s not like you could go, “We’ll just nudge it forward.”
Michael: That’s correct. There was no nudging forward.
Warren Huart: No nudging, no changing of the position of the transients .
Michael: No. None.
Warren Huart: Do you know what tape machine they had? Was it a Studer?
Michael: Yeah. 827.
Warren Huart: 827.
Michael: That’s right, a pair of 827’s. We cut the drum 16, and everything else was 24.
Warren Huart: Oh, wow. That’s amazing. It’s amazing.
Warren Huart: I mean, the performance as you’re saying is absolutely incredible. Presume it was cut to a click?
Michael: As I am recalling, I think Matt would start with counting off of the click.
Warren Huart: Oh wow.
Michael: I’m pretty sure that he stopped and he would just … and start playing like that. I don’t think that he played straight through with the click.
Warren Huart: Matt’s got that feel of playing super tight, without ever feeling like he’s like a machine. There’s some guys that have groove, but are super, super tight and he’s that guy. I think him and Steve Jordan have that thing where you just … Feels like they’re swinging, but they’re also really insanely in time. It’s a piece of magic that …
Michael: It is. It is. Understanding where the one is, and recognizing that from the time you get from one to two, there’s like a universe of possibilities.
Warren Huart: I love that analogy.
Michael: It’s beautiful. It’s incredible. It’s like the entire world, the history of the world exists between the downbeat, and the next downbeat, you can do anything. Really that space, that’s what defines who the drummer is.
Warren Huart: That’s beautiful.
Michael: It’s true.
Warren Huart: I want to spend some time on the guitar as a guitar player. But let’s, while we’re here, the logical way would be to go to the bass.
Warren Huart: That’s a big bass sound.
Michael: Good bleed too. I don’t remember that much.
Warren Huart: Were they cutting live in a room and then maybe fixing? What was the sort of process?
Michael: Well, we tried that, didn’t work.
Warren Huart: Okay.
Michael: Everything was overdubbed individually.
Warren Huart: Oh wow. Wow.
Michael: Yeah, it just, and sad to say, I prefer that aesthetic. I’ve never had good luck with that. I’ve never had good luck with a bunch of people who … Part of the reason is, that the best way I think to record like that, is to make sure that the amps are turned down relatively low, and everyone can hear themselves and you’re probably better off without headphones. I just like big sounds that fill a room up and make the room go … That are really compelling, and you can’t … I had a lot of trouble unless you’re talking about a record like Raw Poweror something like that. Or Fun House. Where they’re in the room, everything’s blasting, and no one cares.
Michael: I’ve just never had good luck working with people that way. It’s never worked out. This seems to always work better. I can focus on the individual instrument. Sorry, I remember when we were tracking a couple of these songs, and I’d listened to the performances, and it’d just be like …The drums would be fine, because he’s listening to himself. He’s not really … Fortunately, Matt is very capable of not having to follow anybody. I like a drummer who leads, and is paying attention, but is really solid. Matt’s definitely that kind of guy.
Michael: But listening to the other instruments I’d hear mistakes and places where people are dragging, and be like, “Oh, this really isn’t helping”. The whole aesthetic of the band playing live, wasn’t happening.
Warren Huart: For me, I know, it worked really well, I would say the difference probably is, is that you have a very clear idea about what you want. You can get a performance … I’m just being honest. Then you can work with the musician, and get that performance out of them I think what sometimes works in both environments, with the band playing live together, is that they’re working off each other, and that creates a certain dynamic.
Warren Huart: But if you’ve got a very clear vision about what you want, especially when you started off by saying that they want to do this as a more up-tempo song. You know what you want. You’re guiding them maybe initially until it obviously started come together. Maybe initially against their will a little bit. Not fully understanding that dynamic, but what I mean is having a clear vision. You know what you want. That’s not necessarily true of all of us that we get into those kinds of situations. I think it speaks more to you as a producer.
Michael: That’s kind of you to say. I think that the dynamic of a band playing together works well, when you have a certain chemistry. That’s something that people want to hear as well. At that point, if you’re going to try and translate, and try and transform instruments like that into an idiom where like, “Okay, you’ll set up the way I say. You’ll record the way I say. You’ll do everything separate.” In that case, a person who wants to do that should get smacked in the head for the troubles.
Michael: But in situations like this, where people have become used to doing this stuff, separately, I found over time that musicians like that, enjoy two things. One is hearing themselves in the headphones sound good, and then if it comes time for them to record to something that’s already recorded, hearing something come back over the speakers that sounds amazing that they’re going to be playing with. Which I’m sure you’ve seen as well.
Warren Huart: Yeah, absolutely.
Michael: It’s a really good psychological-
Warren Huart: It’s inspiring.
Michael: Exactly. It inspires. It boosts people’s confidence, and they’re like, “Wow. This is awesome. I’m going to do some great shit on this.”
Warren Huart: Do you have any recollection … Just going back to the bass for second, any of the technical stuff like the bass or the bass amp.
Michael: I think he was playing a Jazz. I think it was actually kind of a relatively newer Jazz. I don’t remember what amp we were using, I have to be honest. But I do recall, we had recorded … We cut the drums with subwoofers to try and amplify low end a little bit in the room, which is something that I do like to do. Although we didn’t have a particularly large setup, so in the end, it didn’t really hit the room that much. It’s very subtle, I think. But we were like, “Hey, let’s put that subwoofer in the bass rig. And while we’re at it, we’ve got this DBX 120X-DS.” Remember that?
Warren Huart: Oh, yeah.
Michael: Yeah. So there’s a little bit of that.
Warren Huart: That’s what I was wondering. Because remember, the first time I played I said, “Wow, that’s a big bass sound.” I mean, it’s-
Michael: Well, we’re just trying to throw everything we can at it at that point.
Warren Huart: I mean, yeah, that’s … It adds to the kind of ominousness. Ominousness, is that a real word?
Michael: You made it…
Warren Huart: I just made it up. Because it’s just that huge kind of … I mean, I remember the first time I heard the song. It does. It’s like this huge foreboding, almost like this massive vessel kind of like just coming at you in the water, you can’t stop it. It’s enormous, you know what I mean ?
Warren Huart: I mean, it’s foreboding.
Michael: Yeah, I mean, you’ll notice that … Personally, from my perspective, that bass tone really stands away from what a lot of other people were doing at that time. In fact, I was feeling that people were making records that sounded too thin.
Warren Huart: Right.
Michael: One of the things that I always liked listening to were R&B records, or at least records that were done from that perspective, because people understood drum and bass relationships, and that guitars didn’t necessarily need to be the loudest thing in the mix. If you wanted to make them loud, you could position them properly so they’d sit right.
Michael: If you listen to a Led Zeppelin record for example … This isn’t necessarily true with all them, but for the most part, if you’re really paying attention, you’ll notice the bass and drums have this humongous wedge, at the bottom of everything. The guitar is really sitting up here. It’s in a lot of cases, it’s not that loud. It just has a really nice presence, and it interacts well with everything. The basis …The basis for this bass sound, is actually dub music.
Warren Huart: No. It’s fantastic.
Michael: Because the long held note, because a lot of times if you hold a note on the wrong amp, the bass is just going to … just go away really quickly. I wanted to have a long note so that the tone would hang there for a long time, so it would support everything, and give it that feeling that you’re talking about.
Warren Huart: Like a … foreboding.
Warren Huart: I like that. You just talked about Zeppelin, there’s a great quote … Paraphrasing, I’m going to get it right. Jimmy Page said something like … Somebody interviewed him asked him about heavy rock bands and he said, “Heavy rock bands? 75% of our music was acoustic guitars.” But it sort of speaks to the same thing. You’ve got this massive bottom drums. You got this incredible, John Paul Jones basslines, and then you’re right. Little amps, little guitar amps. Acoustic guitars.
Michael: Yes. That occupy the right space?
Warren Huart: Yeah. Now we’re going to get on to, I think probably one of the most iconic guitar intros ever.
Warren Huart: I don’t know if I ever noticed as much of that trem going into it. Just because it’s right underneath the drum…
Michael: That’s a Gretsch.
Warren Huart: So that was a Gretsch?
Michael: That’s a Gretsch, yeah. Most of this song was cut on a … I think, yeah it was a Silver Jet. I’m pretty sure it’s a Silver Jet.
Warren Huart: Wow.
Michael: It’s an original. I mean, that guitar is magic. It just … It’s gorgeous sounding guitar, this instrument. I made such a big deal about having him play heavier strings. He was like, “Oh all right, fine.” He just gave in after a while, but it really helped the tone a lot.
Michael: But what you just played me from a musical standpoint, is really important, because when I first heard this song, and the story about how the song came about is interesting enough. Because I mean, should I relate it?
Warren Huart: Please, I’d love to hear it.
Michael: Okay. Over the course of time that we’re working on creating songs or that … Well, I didn’t write anything, so I shouldn’t … The word ‘we’ is a little bit misused here. Helping, perhaps ‘shepherding’ if you’d like. I was noticing that we were starting to get kind of off the rails a little bit. That kind of culminated in receiving a demo tape that had about 11 or 12 songs on them. All from Chris, because he was sending me stuff periodically. I realized that out of all of them, there wasn’t one thing here that would actually be right for a record. I started to get really nervous, I was like, “Oh, shit, we’re still kind of a ways away from having what we need.” I realized I had to speak with Chris about it. We had to kind of come to an understanding about what we were going to do with this record.
Michael: I got on the phone with him. I started to realize where he was coming from, with the writing he was doing. He was really trying to write for Soundgarden, and I was like, “Now, why would you do that? You don’t know who these people are. You have no idea what they’re looking for. Why would you try and please people whose lives you don’t have any connection with? Do you know why they’re listening to you? They’re listening to you because of what you’re giving them, not what they’re getting out of your music, not because you’re giving them what they expect. It’s completely the opposite thing. They’re along with the ride for you. It’s not like you have to create the ride for them. It’s like, no, no, no, they’re following. Do something that’s amazing, and they’ll follow. Music that really means something to you.” It was something that was completely off his radar, which was interesting to me. I was like, “Really?”
Warren Huart: Isn’t that artists though? The self-doubt. They start second guessing.
Michael: It happens a lot. I think Chris was somewhat self-conscious at any rate. A lot of thought had gone into the process to begin with, but I think this really threw him because he wasn’t really prepared for it. I was really suggesting to him, “Please yourself. Please yourself first. Do something that makes you feel right, and people who want to hear that’s all that’s going to matter.” I was like, “What music do you like?” and he said, “Beatles and Cream”, and I was like, “All right. Well, write a song that sounds like the Beatles and Cream then.” He was like, “But what if…”, which is really funny considering what would wind up coming out of this. And he said, “What if it doesn’t sound like Soundgarden?” I was like, “Chris, you are Soundgarden, you and your band are Soundgarden. When you play this song it will sound like Soundgarden, because you’re playing it. It’s very simple.”
Michael: Obviously hypothetical, because I don’t even know what we’re talking about song wise. Three weeks later, I get this cassette tape in the mail. First song on the cassette is “Fell on Black Days.” Then the two in the middle which are fantastic. The last song on the disc. The very first thing I heard, “doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo.” From the very first few notes of those arpeggios. I’m like, “What am I listening to?” I’d never heard anything like it.
Michael: What’s really fascinating about it, it didn’t occur to me until much later on, what this song represents, because it’s really kind of like, it’s an interesting moment in song composition. I don’t think that Chris was even aware of it when he was writing it. It’s kind of antithetical to the way people compose songs now, because I’m sure you know, everything now is about hooks. It’s constant release. It’s all about giving it up, giving it up, giving it up. This has almost none of that. This is all about tension. It’s one quality that people don’t really put in music these days, but it’s absolutely essential. You can’t have really good listenable music, that takes people on a journey without tension, without the counter of tension and release working together all the time.
Michael: This song is, I’d say like, it’s almost 90 to 95% tension, because he never quite let’s you go. But you’re kind of on for the ride the whole time. The second to last, when you listen to it again. It’s kind of like, “Oh my god.” There’s so much tension in that, and you’re expecting a full release after that kind of.
Michael: But he kind of winds it up …
Michael: He doesn’t quite wind it up. You’re still kind of at the edge of the cliff. He’s not really … It’s kind of like a metaphor for how he’s playing with the listener, in a way. But it’s really amazing how he creates such incredible tension that makes you want to hang on, and it makes you want to go along for the ride with him. He continues on too.
Warren Huart: I’m going to play a little bit of a …Solo, because I’ve never listened to this in solo before.
Warren Huart: So that’s through the Leslie?
Michale: That is a Fender 16. Have you ever seen one of those?
Warren Huart: Never seen a Fender 16, no.
Michael: Actually it’s a Leslie … It came in two varieties.
Warren Huart: Yeah.
Michael: There’s a Leslie Cabinet version, that I believe that … I should know I’ve got one. It says Leslie on it. What it is, it’s not a rotating horn. It’s a rotating speaker inside the cabinet.
Warren Huart: Oh wow.
Michael: It’s got a weird configuration, so non-stereophonically creates the effect of a Leslie, and it’s actually much more intense than a lot of like 122 cabinets would be. It’s a cabinet that won’t operate by itself. It needs an amplifier stage.
Warren Huart: What’s this on?
Michael: Well, as I said that was his Gretsch.
Warren Huart: Gretsch, yeah.
Michael: What we had for that was a JMP 50 watt slant, like a half stack and a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier.
Warren Huart: Oh, wow.
Michael: I’m pretty sure was a straight cab. It was an interesting configuration. Yeah, actually, like two amps that couldn’t sound more different from one another.
Warren Huart: And you blended them?
Michael: Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. We did an A-B split. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the technology to not load the amps down properly, so they’re loaded. But you know, we did the best we could with what we had. I never was a fan of the Mesa, but paired with that Marshall it just did something beautiful.
Warren Huart: Well you got … I would never guess that was two amps. The phase is absolutely perfect.
Michael: It’s two mics per amp.
Warren Huart: Two mics?
Warren Huart: Of course. Cut it out. Well this is good.
Michael: I’m always happy to share a very simple setup, actually. What’s on each rig was a 57 and an RCA BK5.
Warren Huart: You know that’s Jack’s … One of Jack’s favorite mics. Is this like a New York thing? The RCA BK5’s. Yeah?
Michael: It’s a really good mic.
Warren Huart: A really good mic.
Michael: I love those mics.
Warren Huart: I’ve completely forgotten about it, and you said that to me. We were trying to find this one when we were making a record together a couple of years ago. Because that was like, he said it’s a secret weapon.
Michael: I think you can still find them on eBay.
Warren Huart: Maybe not after this interview.
Michael: I don’t know, man. Well last time-
Warren Huart: With this guitar sound?
Michael: I ain’t shopping for mics these days, but last time I checked I saw a whole bunch. It’s a great mic. I mean, you have definitely have to check the ribbons on them because they go. But one thing that’s really cool about them apart from the the sound, the tone, which is phenomenal. They can handle more SPL. The ribbon can handle much higher SPL than I think any other ribbon mic that RCA made.
Warren Huart: Right.
Warren Huart: Two cabs. Two sets of mics.
Michael: Yeah. That’s all Cameron’s.
Warren Huart: It’s unbelievable. It sounds like one, crystal clear, really unbelievable.
Michael: Those are Germanium pres too.
Warren Huart: Yeah. Got the Leslie in. Here it goes.
Michael: How he came up with that, I have no idea. Again, getting back to composition. What he’s drawing on is, I doubt very much that he was even aware … This is almost like non-imitative polyphony in classical music. It’s a round basic … It’s gorgeous. He’s doing all these crazy things with the composition that they shouldn’t work. That is a criminal faux pas in some cases, but it sounds so good.
Warren Huart: Just enough blue there. Just enough blues in there to go for that minor with the major and just like …
Michael: But if you listen to it together, it’s hard to say … I don’t know what you call that.
Michael: I mean, that’s crazy. And then he … Oh man.
Michael: It’s just this this ride that he takes you on. You don’t want to let go. That’s what a song is supposed to do. It’s supposed to take you on a ride. It’s supposed to be something that takes you out of the temporal world into a completely different place, and alters reality. makes you want to buy into it for three or four minutes or something like that. He did it. He did it.
Michael: When I heard this demo for the first time … I know I’ve gone on and on about this. But I played it 15 times in a row. I couldn’t stop listening to it. I was like, this is incredible. Absolutely incredible. I called him up. And I was like, “You’re a goddamn genius. Let’s go make a record right now.”
Warren Huart: That’s amazing.
Michael: Yeah. One of the funniest things about this, I remember when I first played it …You know what it’s like when you get a demo from someone, like it starts. And you’re like, “Okay, this isn’t bad”, but you’re waiting. In the back of your mind there’s always like this thing, you’re just waiting for something to go wrong. Because no one can sustain this indefinitely. It’s like, anyway, I’m going to have to do my job at some point. I may as well be prepared for the worst.
Michael: I’m sitting there listening to this song, and the worst never comes. It just gets better and better. He actually sustains my interest, which, frankly, as a listener, let alone as a music producer, I’m not used to this. I’m not used to someone presenting me with a song where I listened to it, I don’t want to pay attention to anything else, and when I’m done with it, I feel different than I felt when I started. I almost feel refreshed and I want to go back and hear it again. That’s like the Trier Quadra factor, whatever it is, right there. It was perfection. Amazing.
Warren Huart: Tell me a little bit about the sound though, because okay, the part is phenomenal, but the sound is also phenomenal. The stereo imagery is insane. Is it stereo amped? What is creating this?
Warren Huart: I couldn’t guess. I mean, I could think of 15 ways of trying to make it sound like that, but what was the actual way you did it?
Michael: If it’s stereo, and I don’t recall. Sadly, I do not recall …All that sound is coming out of a speaker about that big. Yeah, it’s like it … It’s coming out of a 12 inch speaker. One 12 inch speaker. If we got stereo, he must have put a mic on either side of the speaker, because that’s the only way that you’re going to get any kind of stereo imaging.
Warren Huart: Because it’s spinning.
Michael: It’s spinning inside the enclosure.
Warren Huart: Right. That’s amazing. I mean, I hear …
Warren Huart: There’s movement there.
Michael: This is the same kind of rig that I think Stevie Ray Vaughan used. I think this is the kind of Leslie that he would use.
Warren Huart: It’s phenomenal.
Michael: Yeah, it’s one of the best Leslie sounds ever. I love these. It’s nice, because it really occupies its own space. While it’s got a very noteworthy tonal signature, that I mean, other Leslie’s … Don’t get me … I love Leslie guitar. I mean, just about anything through a Leslie is going to sound good. But they take up different space. Sometimes-
Warren Huart: Yeah, because I find when I do Leslie stuff, it’s not this. It’s doesn’t have the mid range.
Warren Huart: It’s kind of … and …
Warren Huart: The mid range is what you create with those two elements. This is just pure mid range. If I, gun to my head, before hearing these separate elements, I would have gone with the Rotary Vibe. I’d have been like, “You they created it with the Rotary Vibe and they used two amps and they figured out some weird stereo thing.” That’s what I thought. That’s what I always thought it was.
Michael: Interesting. Okay. Yeah, it was that Leslie.
Warren Huart: Is this back to the Gretsch?
Michael: Pretty sure. But there’s a Leslie in there too.
Warren Huart: Wow.
Michael: You can kind of hear it, but there is a Leslie mixed in with the heavy guitar.
Michael: But it’s a slow speed.
Warren Huart: Right.
Michael: He slowed it down.
Michael: That’s kind of what gives it that shimmery quality as well.
Warren Huart: There’s such a toughness to this guitar sound. Like it sounds like it’s got all the right low mids. You know how like, low mids are for most of us-
Michael: Dicey. Very dicey.
Warren Huart: Just say dicey. 3, 4, 5, 6 hundred on the vocal. It’s like [uggh].
Michael: Makes the flesh crawl.
Warren Huart: Yeah, it could just be horrible. I mean, look at my console. There’s like a 350 cut pretty much.
Michael: Hey, look at that.
Warren Huart: It’s like 350 cut. 350 cut. It’s ugly in rock.
Michael: Yeah, it is.
Warren Huart: I don’t know what you did on this, because it has all the weight. Like it’s got girth. I mean, this guitar, listen to it again.
Warren Huart: There’s girth there, but it never sounds like mud.
Michael: There’s a little luck, and also isolating the right mid frequencies. One thing about the [Neve] 1058 is that it’s a little less specific than the 1057. It’s sweepable on the top and the low bands. And you’ve got about five or six, I think five mid range positions to choose … six mid range positions to choose from.
Warren Huart: You really got stuck in there and did some detail work on this?
Michael: Again, I’m not going to take credit for that. You always give it where it’s due. That’s Jason. I mean, I was definitely working with him. But thank goodness he knew where to go. And how much … Well sometimes there’s a little bit of me kind of going, “Come on.”
Warren Huart: That’s your job. Yeah.
Michael: You know us producers. God.
Michael: It’s the release right there. So funny, that’s like one of the few places in the song where you go like … and you realize that it’s let you hang for a moment, and it’s actually resolved. Isn’t that funny?
Warren Huart: How’re you getting that kind of distorted telephony kind of idea there?
Michael: Chris or Benny I think, brought in this old PA. I think a Sunn PA or something like that? Like it was old, beat to hell and I think we did most of the distorted vocals on the records through that thing.
Warren Huart: Oh, nice.
Michael: I think we actually miked the PA system up with these little columns. It was really kind of cheap kind of system. I mean, it had actually a great time. We used it on Ben’s song, ‘Head Down,’ as well. All the vocals on that were through that as well. Yeah, anything that had distortion and pretty much we used that.
Warren Huart: That’s a really cool way of doing it.
Warren Huart: I never would have guessed that. I’m just going to go fishing for some other parts.
Warren Huart: So this solo is just like, “What were you thinking?” Kind of thing. That’s what I love about it. But my favorite guitar players, and to be honest they’re probably most people’s favorite guitar players, I’m not going to break down any barriers here with … But Jeff Beck always comes up as a guitar player. We all sort of love Jeff Beck because you’re like, “I never would have thought of that.” That’s why we like it. This is one of those kind of guitar parts. Where it’s like, “I never would have thought of that.”
Warren Huart: And that’s what … You pointed this out that, and I know we started by talking about this, every moment of this song is a signature. Like everything has a signature sound, a signature part. There’s not like, I don’t hear like, “Oh, yeah well, the chorus is coming in. Let’s do some stereo rakes.” You know what I mean?
Warren Huart: There’s the downbeat of the chorus, let’s just add an extra cymbal. Let’s do a reverse here. I mean, there’s no … Not that those things are problems we have all done, don’t get me wrong, but this song, everything … It’s back to what we were talking about in the interview. It’s a piece of art. Everything has a place and it has a reason to exist. There’s nothing that feels superfluous in this. I don’t listen to it and go, “I don’t really liked that part.” There’s none of that, everything makes sense.
Warren Huart: It has a sense of deliberateness without sounding deliberate, if that makes sense. It doesn’t sound contrived, that’s the word I’m looking for. It sounds natural.
Michael: I think you put it very well actually.
Warren Huart: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s why it’s one of those songs. This guitar part is …
Warren Huart: It’s like a Jackson Pollock painting, you know what I mean?
Michael: I like that reference.
Warren Huart: It’s like … It’s like …
Michael: That’s a composite actually. It’s two guitars.
Warren Huart: Oh it is?
Michael: Yeah. The composite, it’s pretty random. It’s basically what Brendan did when he mixed.
Warren Huart: Really?
Michael: Yeah. In a sense, he’s somewhat responsible for a compositional element of that. I think he picked the right moments, but no that’s Kim. That’s two tracks of Kim just going ballistic.
Warren Huart: It really suits having seen Soundgarden live a bunch of times, I always sort of feel … I always thought of Kim as like kind of a huge Tony Iommi fan. It always sort of felt like he was playing like Sabbath, this kind of stuff. But that’s, like, it’s a whole different animal. That’s like a different personality.
Michael: Yeah, that I mean, to me, that is where Kim was best that. He played these really cool leads. One of the few leads on this record, but definitely very, very significant.
Warren Huart: Unbelievable.
Warren Huart: The intensity of the vocal is just unbelievable here.
Warren Huart: What is that? What is that craziness going on?
Michael: With the harmony that he’s doing?
Warren Huart: Yeah, play…
Michael: Oh … that bit?
Warren Huart: Yeah. It’s so good.
Michael: Yeah. Every bit of it. One of the things on the vocal, Chris has obviously so many unique qualities in his voice, but there’s one thing that always got me about his voice. He’d do this thing, because he’s really strong guy. I mean, he lifted weights, he was really fit. But he’d do this like exhale kind of thing at the end of some of his lines. You hear going … like that. It was really forceful.
Michael: I notice this. I listened to some of his earlier records. I was like, “Man, that is such an amazing quality. I have to get as much of that as I can on this.” When we’re getting vocal sounds, I actually went through about like 30 or 40 mics to find the best one. And initially, we settled on two. One was the 67, the other was like a Klaus Heyne modified U47 FET, which we wound up using on three songs in that configuration. I just liked them for different things. I couldn’t find one mic that fit the bill.
Michael: We experimented with a bunch of different recording configurations. Eventually, I decided that he sang better when he didn’t have an audience. I set him up in the control room and let him record his own vocals without headphones on, the speakers out of phase. All the sessions he’s running tape machine all by himself from both switching channels.
Warren Huart: Really?
Michael: Yeah, so he could do his overdubs, I was like this is more personal for him. He can really lock in and he can really put himself into the right place he needs to get into emotionally without having to feel like he’s a performing monkey for the rest of us. The funniest thing of all is that after all these mics…Neumann U87.
Warren Huart: That’s an 87?
Michael: That’s an 87. But 70% of the vocals on the record–87. Just, it worked. All these other microphones, they had weird peaks someplace, so he couldn’t hit it hard. This mic captured everything. Didn’t peek out in the wrong places. The only problem is that you’re talking about a very delicate condenser microphone, with a very sensitive diaphragm, so I am somewhat bemused to say that he managed to fry five 87s… Well yeah, he destroyed a whole bunch of … Five mics were destroyed in the making of this record.
Michael: But that’s how powerful his voice was. He would sing for hours. He just, he’d stopped when he couldn’t physically, like, stand up anymore. You can hear it on those tracks. There’s so much power and he felt so free being in the room by himself. No one to kind of look over his shoulder, feel like he’s, you know, watching the gears and their brains moving, like, criticizing him or something like that.
Warren Huart: What about the comp thing? Did he self-comp?
Michael: No. Our deal was you sit down here, do as many passes on the song as you want, six to eight was normal. When you’re done, come get me. I’ve been alone, being bored. I will come up and will comp your vocal. I’ll play it back to you, and we’ll see what you think.
Michael: I started with Jason, having him comp, and I realized it was going too slow. You know how it gets, we were talking before about this how like, “Now, now, now, that, no, that, that, that, do it.” And I was like “You, out”. I basically did my own comps on the record. I mean you can hear a couple little flubs here and there but it’s analog tape. I actually had cut out some syllables in a few places. Like there were some really like…
Warren Huart: Yeah. Those were the days
Michael: Those were the days. I got very good at that. It was fun, actually.
Warren Huart: But there was always this thing when you were like comping between takes, it never seemed to be like … You try and do that in digital, and it’s like harsh. It was always a forgiving nature of tape where when the head engaged. It just seemed to sort of do its own thing.
Michael: It worked. It would naturally work. That vocal, the lead vocal is the end result of … Actually, I think he did eight passes on that particular day. Most of that is from two or three. He did one full day on the song before … I will never forget this. He did one full day. I came in and I comp the song, he came back and listened to it, and he said, “This is shit.” He said we have to do it again. I was amazed. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a vocalist say something disparaging about his own handiwork. I mean he was right. It wasn’t anywhere near as good as what he could do. But he knew, especially in this song. It just had to be as good as it could possibly be. And he came back and he nailed it.
Warren Huart: It’s amazing.
Warren Huart: How did these doubles get to be so tight? Just punch after punch?
Michael: Nope. The mystery of the ages. Remember I told you that we did two straight days of vocals on this, and one got jettisoned. Well, all I had to do when it came time to double anything, was to go back to whatever I had stockpiled. None of this, not one track of singing that you’ve listened to so far was done with him trying to sing to anything else. These are from individual passes of him singing this song.
Warren Huart: That’s insane. There’s a guy that could come in and reproduce himself like nobody else.
Michael: He just sang the song and when it came time for me to double, I just went back dropped it in. For the most part they generally … Once in a while I’d have an issue and it worked perfectly.
Warren Huart: Amazing.
Michael: Didn’t have to tune anything. Of course we didn’t really have the technology back then, so I would have had to do a re-sing, but it all just worked.
Warren Huart: Unbelievable. Unbelievable. I just want to listen to what’s going on this mystery track here.
Warren Huart: Those voicings there are pretty crazy.
Warren Huart: Yeah.
Michael: They are.
Warren Huart: I love them.
Michael: It’s my favorite part of the song.
Warren Huart: That’s amazing. That extended ending isn’t obviously on the original, on the single.
Michael: Well, I think that’s how they would enjoy themselves at the end of … Overdubbing, we just have to keep the tape rolling because, you know.
Warren Huart: I mean this as the single form is probably one of the best endings to a song ever. I mean, it’s ridiculous.
Warren Huart: Yeah. I just want to … an absolute superb way to end a song.
Warren Huart: Thank you ever so much. That was unbelievable.
Michael: It’s my pleasure.
Warren Huart: Unbelievable.
Warren Huart: Please, everybody leave a whole bunch of comments and questions below. Maybe I’ll hit up Michael and see if he can answer them. I shouldn’t have said that, it’s going to be like … but …
Michael: Well, it’s too late now. You said it and it’s just fine.
Warren Huart: Marvellous. Thank you ever so much.