John Siket (middle, facing camera) backstage at Phish’s Clifford Ball festival in Plattsburgh, New York, circa 1996.
Photo by Danny Clinch / Courtesy of Phish
What does Trey do for getting guitar sounds in the studio?
At the beginning of Billy Breathes Trey said, “I need to find a new sound.” He brought up vintage guitars and amplifiers and he started using them. But then he was like, “This isn’t me.” He just used his custom Paul Languedoc guitar and his homemade cabinets. And it’s true, that’s his sound. It’s a very distinctive sound.
His rig is stereo, so when he played through his rig I recorded him in stereo. I used a pair of Sennheiser 409s or a pair of [Shure] SM57s. I probably used a little bit of compression with him and not a lot of EQ. His sound is very sculptured, to my ear, already.
Can you talk about The Siket Disc a little bit? What’s it like having an album named after you?
Oh man, that. Well, it felt good, actually [laughs]. The genesis of that project was that Trey told Steve Lillywhite, “We’ve been off the road now for 20-some weeks. We should really be making a record while we’re mid-tour, not when we’re sitting around for 20 weeks. During the first substantial break we have on our next tour, fly to that area and we’ll go into the studio and record.” Trey came up with this idea where Steve would pick songs—we had a Doors song, we had a really obscure Bill Withers song—and Steve played just a snippet of that in their headphones. They would learn it. Then they would morph a jam from it until you couldn’t recognize it any more.
We did a lot of that in Seattle. But we didn’t end up keeping any of it, which I was really surprised about. Later on, Trey approached me and said, “I want to go into the studio and we’re not going to have any plan. We’re just going to go in and play and see what comes out.” We went to Bearsville. We rented out some studio time and The Siket Disc is that. It’s pure improvisation. I don’t think anybody came in with anything written down. I was mixing it live basically. That was my monitor mix. I recorded it to DAT. It went to multitrack, but it went live to 2-track as well. About 80 percent of that record is mixed live, too. We did one or two songs over in the studio again. It was kind of live on my side and on their side. But if anybody can pull it off, it’s those guys. A lot of people really like that record. It’s all instrumentals. But it’s concise, at least. And it goes by and it’s like, “Hey. That was cool. Let’s hear it again.”
You did a lot of work with Sonic Youth, including producing the Washing Machine album. Tell us about recording a 20-minute opus like “The Diamond Sea.”
We were staying in a hotel in downtown Memphis. Within walking distance from our hotel was a pawnshop, and in the window of the pawnshop there was a big guitar pedal made by Ludwig [the Phase II Synthesizer]. It had a control on it that said “animation.” I was a rabid gear hound at the time and I had never heard of a Ludwig pedal. I told Thurston [Moore], “You’ve got to see this. It looks so outrageous.” It looked like an elongated lunch box and it had a latch. You opened the latch and the thing folded down and here was the pedal, with all these controls. Thurston saw it and bought it instantly. He used it that day on “The Diamond Sea.” I thought it was really ballsy that he got this thing—and here’s this big flagship song on the record—and he plugged it in and made it part of the sound.
That was one thing about those guys: They didn’t try to baby their guitars, they really tortured them. To get their guitars into some of those tunings wasn’t the greatest thing for the guitar. Lee [Ranaldo] told me, “They’re tools, man. We don’t care. We’re not trying to walk around with museum pieces. They are devices that allow us to express ourselves.” They didn’t abuse their guitars per se, but they didn’t look babied.
They looked loved.
Yeah. I mean, Thurston played through a Peavey amp. He could have had any amp he wanted, but that was the amp he wanted. It wasn’t an amp that he just ended up with. He liked it for some particular reason.
Were they particular about using the studio space or did you just close-mic the amps?
No, I didn’t tight-mic the amplifiers at all. I went a couple of feet out. Somebody told me how Television was recording their guitars around that time [for Television, 1992]. For some reason they weren’t putting the mics right up on the grills, they were using two condenser mics a few feet back. I liked their guitar sound, so I decided to try a more ambient approach. Anybody can jam a 57 up in front of the speaker, that’s not new. We were working at Sear Sound for Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, and they had a lot of RCA ribbon mics there that were in really great shape. I put both a RCA ribbon and a Neumann U 47 a few feet back from the amps. I used the faders to combine, make a mix of the two mics, and send it to one track. I did a variation of that in Memphis.
When recording great guitar sounds, is it more important to get a great sound to tape or do you prefer to EQ it after the fact?
I used to be of the school where I told the guitar player, “Don’t add any delay or reverb, I’ve got better delays and reverbs than you do. I’ll add them later.” I learned the hard way that people play to their sound better than if I’m trying to approximate it later. I try to get the most finished sound I can at the recording, though I’m not above adding something later.
Lately I’ve been taking a raw direct from the guitar, in case I want to embellish it later. I like to use directs. Sometimes I’ll fold them into the guitar sound. I typically record them without compression so they are as dynamic as can be and then when I’m mixing them down, I’ll compress them. I’ll blend them in a little bit to the amp sound, just to fill it out. I don’t necessarily have to put another layer of distortion on it or something like that, but I’ll push that fader into the amp sound to fill it out. A direct is often such an alien sound from the amp, it’s so different—the amp just doesn’t seem to have any of those frequencies. I take a direct—pre effects—and record it straight. One box I’m really fond of is the Roger Linn AdrenaLinn. It’s probably one of my favorite amp simulators, if I had to have one.
How about acoustics?
Sometimes I’ll do a double track and I’ll Varispeed it down so when the doubled track plays back at normal speed it plays back a little bit brighter and a little bit sharper. Just a very tiny amount though.
When you started out everyone recorded to 2-inch tape. The world is completely different now. How do you adapt?
I made the transition from tape to digital kind of gradually. I went from a completely tape-based workflow to a dedicated hard disk system called RADAR, which stands for Random Access Digital Audio Recorder. And they were dedicated machines. Although they were computers recording to hard disk, they didn’t do anything else. They were specialized. I really like that system. I used it for as long as I possibly could, probably a bit longer. It sounded fantastic and it reminded me of tape. The auto locator looked like a multitrack reel-to-reel locator, so I didn’t feel like I had to use a screen if I didn’t want to.
I like the sound of tape, but you can’t go back. If I had my druthers, I would record to 16-track, 2-inch and then bounce it into Pro Tools and do the edits in there. Because I do like the sound of a tape machine that is well maintained. But I don’t run into those scenarios very often. I haven’t used multitrack tape in probably six years. It’s been a little while.
Do you use Pro Tools now? You’re not using RADAR anymore?
Just Pro Tools now.
Do you still use the console when you do the mix?
Yeah. But it’s more about the freedom to do something—to reach over and grab an EQ and then reach over and grab a different EQ. On Pro Tools you’ve got to open one channel, pull it down, fiddle with it, close it, then go grab the other one. It reminds me of accounting [laughs]. Whereas on a console, you’re like, “Oh yeah, I feel like turning up a reverb or adding some treble.” I go around like a bumblebee and touch certain knobs, and the mix starts to come together. I do have a tactile controller though. I have 24 physical faders, 24 physical pan knobs, physical mute switches, and so that takes a little bit of the sting out of it.
It seems like the old way is much more organic.
I mean, we’re here now and I’ve just had to accept it. I still rehearse a lot. I rehearse with bands a lot before we go into the studio. I look at the arrangements. We talk about tempos and the right key for this or that. I go and see the band play live. So a lot of the other things are still in place and are just as valid as they always were. But now instead of lugging four big reels into the studio, I put the hard disk into my briefcase and walk home with it. But I’m not one of those people who will just zoom in on the molecular level and manipulate music until it’s perfect. That’s not fun. That was the thing about Pro Tools that put me off about it. It’s really just a glorified editor. It’s not a miracle machine.
Exactly. I can make it sound like you play better than you do, but I don’t want to. I want you to play well. I want to coax you to play well. I want to inspire you to play well. You want to play well.