Alanis Morissette

Apr 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Matt Hurwitz

Lyrical Mistress Adds Another Recording to Her Time Capsule


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“I can be an asshole of the grandest kind,” Alanis Morissette sings as she walks across a cavernous green-screen soundstage at Hollywood's historic Raleigh Studios, filming her latest music video for “Everything.” This is hardly the sentiment one expects from the diminutive, yet powerfully voiced singer — especially not as a song to launch her new release with. Yet Morissette's latest album, So-Called Chaos (Maverick), is filled with such characteristically frank and introspective lyrics; her legion of fans would expect nothing less of her. Bringing the songs to life turned out to be a complex and time-consuming task that took up nearly half of 2003.

In late spring of last year, the singer contacted former Ringo Starr engineer Scott Gordon, with whom she had recorded “Still,” her contribution to the 1999 Dogma film soundtrack. “She asked me to put together some drum loops,” a frequent writing tool used by the singer, Gordon tells Mix. Working at Gordon's Atlanta Studios in Los Angeles, the engineer worked with Morissette's drummer, Blair Sinta, to compile a large library of loops. “Being her drummer, he knows the kind of vibe she likes and what turns her on,” says Gordon.

Sinta typically would play for 15 minutes at a time, with Gordon tracking the simple recordings (generally two mics: a kick and an overhead or two) on his Pro Tools rig, where he would edit the rhythms into loops. “We'd take that, and we'd process it with cheap distortion pedals, filters, delays and phasers — whatever we could think of to take the sound and f*** it up.” After about 10 days' work, the two had compiled more than 300 loops, an ample selection for Morissette to choose from.

Once completed, Gordon, Morissette and Tim Thorney, her longtime collaborator, assembled in Jackson Browne's quiet, out-of-the-way Groove Masters Studio in Santa Monica, Calif., to begin the song-writing process. “It was all about finding a studio that was enough off the radar, where there weren't tons of people walking around or peeking their head in,” Morissette says. “For me to feel really safe and inspired, I want it to be very contained.” Morissette and company were also impressed with the technical prowess of studio manager Ed Wong and his team and with the large collection of vintage gear. “Tim and Scott were just drooling over it all!” she says with a laugh.

Morissette used the venue to churn out a dozen powerful, yet personal, new songs, using the drum loops as inspiration. “Sometimes, I'll write a song just out of thin air, and then other times, loops pull something out of me,” she says. Gordon would play her a number of loops until one stirred her into action. Once selected, Gordon set up the loop in Pro Tools to play repeatedly for an hour or so, while Morissette sat at a keyboard (or a guitar) in the live room, playing (while Gordon recorded on Pro Tools) until an element of her song emerged. “At a certain point, she'd say, ‘Okay, I think I have a verse,’ and she'd play and sing the verse,” explains Gordon. The process continued until verses, choruses and bridges were written, along with some lyrics. “She would then tell me, ‘Okay, this is the order that I want — this is the song structure.’ I then took the chunks of recording that she indicated and assembled, essentially, a road map of the song in the order she laid out.”

“If a song took longer than 30 minutes to write, then I would just stop writing it, 'cause, to me, that meant that it didn't want to be written,” Morissette says. “I was ruthless this time. Rather than writing 25 songs and picking from them, I wrote 12 and picked from them.” Even then, just 10 songs made the album, while two others, “Wounded Leading Wounded” and “Finally, Acknowledgement,” were left behind.

The writing process took place not only at Groove Masters, but at two other venues — West L.A.'s Village Recorder and Hollywood's Sage and Sound — all during a period from April to October 2003. Throughout the process, Morissette began tracking the recordings to create what ended up as demos from which to launch a second phase of recording. The artist worked with members of her touring band and others, including guitarists David Levita, Jason Orm and Joel Shearer, drummer Sinta, bassists Eric Avery and Paul Bushnell, and keyboardists Zac Rae and Jamie Muhoberac.

Surprisingly, Morissette also recorded her lead vocals early on in the process. “After we were done assembling the basic arrangement, she'd go out and sing,” Gordon explains. “This might be anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours after she picked the drum loop.” “I'd say a good 60 percent of the vocals are those initial vocals,” Morissette adds. Gordon recorded those vocals using an AKG C 12, Morissette's mic of choice, with a string of compression tools, which he brought with him from studio to studio. “She likes a lot of compression,” he says. “I'd run it through a Neve 1073 preamp, through an ADL compressor and a BSS DPR-404. She also likes to hear compression on playback, which I'd do using compression plug-ins within Pro Tools.”

By fall, the process was considered complete, and Gordon prepared mixes for the 10 songs. It was then that Maverick Records executives Guy Oseary and Danny Strick suggested that Morissette allow producer John Shanks to try his hand on a few of the recordings. “It's very atypical of me to open up to the vulnerability of the songs when they're in this ‘being made’ mode, let alone open it to someone else's interpretation,” Morissette comments. “But I really did get to the point where I didn't want to overfunction as a producer or as a human being.” Though she was unfamiliar with Shanks' work, she took the suggestion and liked the results. “What John did was so intuitive and so aligned with where I was coming from, it was great,” she says. Notes Shanks, “My job as a producer is, a lot of times, like a blind date. You come in and you're trying to gain someone's trust.”

Starting in late September, Shanks, working at his permanent base in Studio C at Henson Studios in Hollywood, spent a total of five to six weeks (spread over a nine-week period) building the tracks in his customary fashion. Shanks initially worked on four songs (“Eighty Easy Steps,” “Out Is Through,” “Everything” and “Not All Me”), restructuring the recordings, adding programming elements and recording additional parts. “I took the hard drive and just started going through it,” he says. Morissette, at the time, was in South America, and when she returned, she was so pleased with the results that she asked Shanks to continue bringing the rest of the songs to the next level. “He's just really great at cleaning everything up and presenting it,” she says. “It's like taking a little girl and putting her in some pretty fantastic Sunday clothes when she showed up in sweatpants!”

Shanks' lair at Henson, where he's been settled for the past two-and-a-half years, is loaded with vintage gear — everything from amps to guitars to processors — which he happily shows off like a man in his garage proudly displaying his coolest tools. His amp collection includes matching gray-top '63 Vox AC-30s (used to a great degree on this album), Divided By 13s, Marshall cabinets with a variety of speaker combinations and others. Inside the control room are stacks of more amp heads: a Diezel VH4, a '68 Marshall 50W Plexi, an early Matchless Clubman and a solid-state amp designed by Dweezil Zappa, which looks like the dashboard of an Aston Martin. “That's very Dweezil,” Shanks says.

Prized, though, is a board-mounted collection of pedals, 20 in all, located in the control room, which Shanks thoughtfully uses as part of his chain to craft his guitar sounds (nearly all of which are played by the producer on the record). “The great thing is, since it's my room, everything's always set up. We can always switch very quickly.” The guitar chain feeds signals first to the pedal board, which, for some units last in the chain, produces a stereo output. That output is then often fed to a pair of amps, which are miked before going to the preamps. The system allows an incredible amount of control and an incredible amount of choice. “We can easily switch amps, switch effects, switch guitars because everything's already set up. You don't have to go out and stop the session and go mike something,” he says.

For Morissette's album, besides adding layers of guitar (and sometimes bass) himself and new programming, Shanks brought in drummer Kenny Aronoff, and called on bassist Bushnell and keyboardist Muhoberac. The final result, drum-wise, is a skillful combination of drum loop programming and live drumming. “It's a blend, and Kenny's great at that. He really can mix well with loops.”

The final backing track, on many cuts, is a combination of items from Gordon's initial sessions with Shanks' new recordings. “In some cases, it's almost a re-recording, but in others, it's really a morph between the two,” Shanks says. “There are aspects of the recordings with her band that I really liked. If there's a great guitar part that's key to the song, I'm not going to change it. That would be ridiculous.”

Besides instrumentation, Shanks did re-record some new vocal lines with Morissette, including harmonies, something at which she excels. “Some restructuring and rearranging of songs and changing chords and dynamics required it. And she was a champ,” Shanks says. The vocal mic was an AKG C 12, run through a similar chain as before, through a Neve preamp, Pultec and LA-2A.

Once the recording was completed, Shanks brought the four tracks to frequent collaborator Chris Lord-Alge at Image Recording, just two blocks from Henson, to try his hand at mixing. Explains Shanks, “I was doing some rough mixes for her and she liked them. And I said, ‘Well, if you love mine, I think you should have Chris mix some of these songs.’ Once those first few were done, it all fit together and clicked.” Lord-Alge completed mixes for the remainder of the disc.

Like Shanks, Lord-Alge keeps a battery of vintage analog gear ready. “We're mixing rock 'n' roll music, and that's what it really boils down to,” he says. “We use Pultec EQP-1S3s, Neve Model 2264X compressors, old UREI 1176s. And I have an SSL G Plus console. That's my little combination that I feel is the best. And we mix to half-inch.” Typically, he preps recording for mixing by transferring the Pro Tools recordings to a Sony 3348 48-track, carefully reducing some tracks in preparation for the final mix. “It's all about compiling vocals from Pro Tools and moving the levels around as they go to tape, before we even move a fader. It gives us that flexibility to be able to get her that in-your-face-clear and intelligible. 'Cause with Alanis, her lyrics are everything.”

“He's very intuitive, and it's a very artistic process, his way of mixing,” says Morissette of Lord-Alge. “He very much goes with his gut, as opposed to some people who very much stay in their head.”

The finished album, says Shanks, is “lean and mean. I like that it's 10 songs — just 40 minutes. It's like those albums we all grew up with, where you finish the record and you want to hear it again.” Each of the songs, he notes, are like mini-movies. “It really is a time capsule that's this year in her life.”

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