Stephen Fearing answers the age-old question:
"How many microphones does it take to record a folk musician?"
by Jan Vanderhorst
All right, so you're a singer-songwriter with four solo recordings to your credit, and another two releases as part of an award-winning trio. You want to record a live album featuring just you and your guitar. After all, that's how you perform in concert and to some folks there's too much difference between your produced "studio" work and your live shows. All of this presents you with the age-old question: How many microphones does it take to record a folk musician? Ask Stephen Fearing and he'll tell you he used sixteen to record his live album "So Many Miles" for True North Records.
"Rather than just make a straight document of the night", he says, "we wanted to try and come up with different textures sonically. But how do you do that with one guy and a guitar? We had a lot of different inputs from me. It's kind of 'techie-speak', but if you think of guitar and voice, that's one input for the voice and one input for the guitar. Well we had sixteen inputs! There was a stereo pair of mics at the very back of the room, a stereo pair close to the front, plus taking the two signals from my guitar and splitting them for post-effects. We also had two different stations set up on stage, one was standing and one was sitting, and each of them had different microphones. You switch guitars, you switch microphones and you get different textures and sounds. So what producer Colin Linden did was to try to mix those inputs to come up with the most interesting sonic sounds."
What was important for Stephen was to keep the integrity of the original performance.
"You're still getting the same performance, but from a different perspective in the room. So some of the songs sound very intimate, some sound like you're in a club where you can hear people around you. There's a real mix of that. But all the recording was done on the two nights and it was just a matter of 'what are we editing out, what signals are we going to keep and what talk and songs make it to the final cut?' So it was mostly trying to make a mix of the sound in the room, plus the sound of the guitar and all that."
Nowhere is this mixing or "playing" the room like another instrument more evident than on "The Bells of Morning". During this moving tribute to victims of the so-called "Montreal Massacre" the microphones used for Stephen's vocals are mixed further away with each verse. By the time he gets to the quiet middle of the song, you're listening to Stephen from the back of the room, giving the song an added element of poignancy you wouldn't get at the concert. The added challenge of making a live recording is choosing which songs make
the final release.
"One of the interesting things about doing a live record", Stephen says, "is when you sit down and listen to the stuff after it's done. It becomes really clear which songs still have life in them, which songs are still valid. Songs I had intended to be on the record like 'Beguiling Eyes' or 'Blind Horses', when we listened to them, they just didn't have any energy left in
them that was good enough to make the tape. People say 'Oh we want a live recording of you', but if you gave somebody something that was just a couple of mics stuck up in front of you, and you recorded an hour and put it on tape, it would be an awful recording. Because they're not in the room, they're not watching you play, they don't have the lights. Because all those elements are gone, and it's just your ears that get to work, you have to massage the recording to make it work in that medium."
Once you've figured out what songs you're going to perform and how they're going to be taped, the next question is: Do you tell the audience what you're doing?
"There's two ways you can approach a live recording. One is to not let the audience know that you're recording it. Just record 20 shows and pick the best songs. Or you can deliberately go with the intention of recording it with the audiences knowledge. We decided there was no point in being coy. We really wanted people to know this was a recording and let the audience in on it. There was a lot of dummy stuff on the stage too. We had old reel-to-reels, I had an old gramophone and we tried to cover the stage in equipment so it was really obvious what we were doing. Also there's a real difference between recording gear you would use in a studio and live equipment you would use for a gig. The microphones are very different. A lot of microphones you would only find in a studio, we brought onto the stage. So we had a lot of vintage tube gear. If you look at the cover of the album, there's a big Neumann U-47 in front of me and those aren't typically mics you see on a live set, but they have a lovely sound to them and they record to tape very well. We had to have a microphone that went to the house PA system and a mic that went to tape, so there are two vocal mics in front of me right away. Therefore there's this mass of wires and chrome and all that."
What makes a live recording like "So Many Miles" logistically easier than, say, 10 or 20 years ago are the advances in technology that made it possible for the recording to be right on stage with Stephen. In fact, on the one night of recording Colin quipped that the only thing he couldn't do was pick up the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game on TV!
"The microphones I'm singing into are older than I am", Stephen related, "these are microphones you would have seen on a Frank Sinatra record. They're the same mics pretty much. But the equipment we were recording to were digital tapes, so they look like little VCRs and are not that exciting-looking. Instead of having a massive truck behind the venue with 2-inch reel-to-reel machines going, we recorded everything on ADATs, which are
basically 8-track digital tapes."
With the release of "Too Many Roads", Stephen is faced with yet another challenge: What do you do with this new recording?
"I'm going to tour it like a studio recording", he says, "but differently in the sense this isn't something you can go to radio with. They're not interested in a live recording in the same way as a studio recording. We'll find some slightly different ways of letting people know it's out there, but mostly it'll be touring. I'm anticipating this will end up being a record I could really sell off the stage. People will walk out of the venue to the merchant's table and say 'Which CD do I buy? Oh this is the live one'. I think it'll probably end up being the best seller in a live venue and the worst seller from stores. Bernie Finkelstein, my manager and head of True North Records, said an interesting thing when we finished. He said 'I wish Bruce Cockburn, who's on the same label, had done this earlier in his career'. Bruce does have a live record out now, but it's more "Bruce-modern, Bruce-with a band". Bernie's sense was it would have been nice to have a recording of Bruce when he was playing the coffeehouses.
There was a sense too, that we wanted to capture a little of what I'm doing at this point in my career. Who knows what I'll be doing, I might be driving a cab in 10 years time, but hopefully not. Hopefully the career will have moved on and this will be a document of it."
As a performer, Stephen Fearing is in an enviable position. His career as a singer-songwriter is well-established in Canada, plus he's making significant in-roads into the States. Since 1996 he's been a member of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, with Colin Linden and Tom Wilson of Junkhouse. This singer-songwriter roots-rock band has released two award-winning albums,
also for True North Records, to critical acclaim.
"That's the other side of the equation", says Stephen, "in some ways Blackie allows me to really go after my inner folkie. Plus it's going to be harder for people to peg me, 'Oh Stephen Fearing's a folk musician, except that he's in this loud crazy band a well'. I love that! That makes it easier to really focus on the folk elements of my solo career. I get to be both things now, which is wonderful."
"It's been interesting going down to the States", he adds, "I've been working there fairly steadily for the last three years. More so than I had before, because I've got an American agent now. So you go into these new venues, new cities. I did a gig an Arlington, Virginia. I hadn't played there before, but I had played in Washington D.C. Now Blackie & the Rodeo Kings has never played south of the border, we've never had an album released south of the border and we've never tried to do any publicity down there. I looked at the venue's
newsletter of what's coming this month and it said 'Stephen Fearing of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings'. Which told me the band already has crossed the border. As far as potential audiences are concerned, they might recognize Blackie & the Rodeo Kings before they recognize me! I'm not sure how I feel about that, I guess I feel good about it. But I think the band has the potential to reach a wider audience than I do as a solo artist. The three of us in 'Blackie' realize that all that's going to do is enhance our solo work and our solo work enhances the band. So we end up playing venues and for some people I would never see at my solo gig. Some of them are fans of mine, some of my fans won't come to a Blackie & the Rodeo Kings show, but I think after you add up all the attendance figures, there's more people coming to the shows in total now, which is good."
If you'd like more information on Stephen Fearing or Blackie & the Rodeo Kings,
you can e-mail True North Records at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jan Vanderhorst can be reached at email@example.com