1982 - David Byrne in the Studio Print
Written by Marc Silag   

From: Musician, April 1982

The prime mover of the Talking Heads describes his
use of the studio, including his most recent technique
of creatively layering and stripping tracks.

David Byrne established a formidable stall in the
marketplace early on in his career. Since the release
of the first Talking Heads album in 1977 he has served
as a perfect specimen for the critics employed by this
and other reputable publications, who enjoy their task
of psychoanalytic dissection of the pop artiste. Though
producer cum technoids might or might not savor the
opportunity to view the back sheets Byrne and his studio
cohorts might mark up in the course of a studio project,
we were interested in Byrne's relationship to the studio
and his work as a musician and producer in the studio
environment. His articulation of the various approaches
in producing or co-producing Talking Heads, the B-52s and
Brian Eno, to name some, was impressive and revealing in
the use of multi-track technology as part of the creative
process of composition and studio production. 

In an unassuming and at times cautious tone of voice
Byrne discussed some of the methods he's used in his
work. Lately he's been leaning toward an enthralling
process of layering and stripping tracks, perhaps best
described as trial and error - though his ratio of
success belies the conventional terminology. "It seems
I'm most comfortable," he began, "working with something
I've never done before.The band is like that too. By
taking a different approach to the recording of each
album, the material benefits because, though the process
is rooted in something we've done before, it's different
each time - it stays exciting.

"There are two obvious ways to record pop records. One
is where the material is ready and the band comes in
and plays it and the engineer and the producer get the
sound of the bass and drums and they just tape it they
don't worry about leakage or anything." Byrne speaks as
though recounting some distant memory, his serious
expression abetted by the calm, deliberate manner of
his speech. "The other method is to record and you worry
about leakage, with the idea being that later you'll
change it some parts might get rearranged fixed up or
added on". It's becoming apparent that Byrne has respect
and admiration for the machinery that allows the
juxtaposition of sounds he creates. His tone becomes
more earnest and his face begins to soften with
conversation.

"Our first album was done in the traditional way: we
had plenty of material and we taped it pretty much as
we had been playing it live, although we embellished
here and there of course I was aware before the sessions
that the studio was different. But I figured the huge
guitar chord you hit at home or in rehearsal would be
there in the studio. No way! That took some getting
used to. But we weren't stupid. We picked up on the
studio as we went along and began using the studio
more on the second album, doing more things in the mix.
On the third album, Fear of Music, some of the material
had a whole song structure - here's the verse section
the chorus section the middle-eight tag at the end all
that - no words, but everybody knew where to play. We
recorded at Chris and Tina's and the Record Plant truck
came out and we ran the cables through the window and
did the basic backs in two days - which is pretty fast"
(Byrne seems to be partial to understatement).

"On other tunes we had nothing written - we would just
play a groove or jam - Chris would play drums, someone
else would play percussion or bass and when it clicked
we'd record that for awhile and then we'd have a couple
of riffs that fit the same groove and we'd start to
record those over everything we already had. We used
this approach a lot on Remain in Light. We'd fill the
backs with things that fit."

We wondered about the redundant effect in laying down
the initial groove - with no distinct parts - how could
Byrne and the band "compose" the piece? "Butch Jones,
an engineer we've working with, once said that disco
music couldn't have been made were it not for the digital
tape counters on 24-track machines. It was essential the
same groove played over and over and the counter was the
only way you could reference the tape for overdubbing.
On some of the things on the fourth album we'd record two
and a half, three minutes of groove and then through
editing. we'd expand it to say, five minutes or so and
then play over that. We figured it would be more efficient
and economical. When it came time to overdub, you didn't
have to play through eight minutes every time. We'd just
break it into parts and work them one against the other
until the song or piece or whatever you want to call it
would begin to have some shape, some identity of its own.

"Once we have the basic tracks - well there would be a
number of instruments on the basics and then Brian Eno
or somebody would start to play along randomly searching
through different kinds of parts and sounds and all
kinds of stuff until something started to click, so
if Brian was playing something that worked I'd be in
the control room saying 'Yeah, yeah! That's it that's
the way to go with it forget the other stuff and follow
that!" This would go back and forth we'd all switch
roles and the random parts and noises would gradually
evolve into something that worked or felt right."

Byrne has no compunctions about the apparent happenstance
nature of this recording technique. Admitting that
neither he nor the band necessarily knows in advance
what instrument or effect will produce the desired
result he implies that it all happens rather quickly,
without a great deal of complication or consternation.
"Sometimes you don't get to where you want to go, but
you do get somewhere. We add to what we've got taking
stuff away that gets in the way of a new part, or
something that fits better.

Does this ever lead to a situation where the original
idea, the groove itself, the bass line for example,
disappears completely? Byrne answers glibly. "Yeah
that's happened a few time. Sometimes it's kind of
dramatic throwing out what you started with but it's
necessary because you can get bogged down with the
original idea. I imagine a lot of people record this
way though I think that's the way the Bee Gees did
Saturday Night Fever and I imagine the Stones do the
same thing"

We inquired as to the source of such dexterity and
Byrne quickly points out that neither he nor Eno nor
anyone in the band are engineers. "I can get my way
around a studio to a point. I don't know the patch
bays, but I know what should get patched into what
so I get exactly what I want. Learning about the
equipment was a process of osmosis; you get curious
about a certain piece of equipment and at the end
of the day you say, 'Let me hear what this does.'
I'm comfortable in the studio having spent a lot
of time there in the last few years, but I think
maybe now I'd like to reverse the process - sitting
at home working with a guitar or a piano, but", he
adds with a laugh, "I haven't been too successful
getting back to it"

The discussion revealed that Byrne and his collaborators
also practice a fair amount of mainstream studio technique
during their sessions, I like the idea of multiple bass
tracks, each with a distinct sound I'll combine them, use
one track here and switch to the other somewhere else. I
do take advantage of the studio it frees your imagination.
If you play something you've got it on tape; if you like
it you keep it if you don't you try for something else.
You might not know the metric relationship of what you
play from one track to the next, but you can go back later
and figure it out if you have to."

Byrne acknowledges his allegiance to the 24-track format
proposing the likelihood that given the tracks, most bands
can fill them easily, although he feels that eight-track
recording would be a severe limitation on his studio
technique. He's also quite candid about his modus operandi
with regard to the expansive outboard effects available in
the studio. As new sounds and effects are developed Byrne
experiments. attempting to fit unique sounds into a
composition. "When we find something we like, we ask
ourselves what part it can play in the overall piece.
Before I went into the studio to do Catherine Wheel
(Twyla Tharp's dance piece for Broadway), I spent a lot of
time at home programming sounds into a synthesizer, sort
of an ongoing research project - I had no idea where or
how I'd use them."

We assumed that Eno had been a technical influence on
Byrne and wondered how David influences he artists he
produces. "Eno has a very spare approach to his technical
direction in the studio. He has more experience than I
do in the studio but we're on about the same level of
technical abilities. We listen to our engineers a lot
and don't necessarily use a sound or an effect just
because it's there." Byrne's implication is that both
he and Eno share a common sensibility when I comes down
to producing. "Assuming you get along with everybody,
there are a number of roles a producer can play. One,
he is an arranger, suggesting other parts or instruments
- nodding when something sounds good and shaking your
head when it doesn't. If a band has all the material
together it's easier, I suppose, although it's harder
when the band is recording its first album. Looking
back at our first album, I can see what a rough position
it is for a producer of a band that has never recorded
in the studio before, because you have musicians who
are really wary of having their material or their
precious sound tampered with. That's natural - they've
worked on this material for years, they've got their
recording contract and now there's some guy sitting
in he control room checkin' out some part that the
kids in the audience always liked it's a really hairy
position to be in, but it's good in that the producer
can provide perspective and some level or technical
advice"

Although he's aware of the great mass of technology
responsible for the pursuit of his studio exploits,
Byrne is hesitant to endorse new technology outside
of speculation. He does acknowledge the great strides
in store as digital encoding becomes a more common
method of signal processing and storage. "It comes
down to that piece of plastic you go out and buy -
there's a limit to how good it will sound! With 24
track tape in the studio you hear a lot of hiss and
noise that'll never show up on a record - at least
not to the average ear. I've only heard a couple of
digital records and noticed they had a nice spatial
effect. Once digital encoding gets beyond the
recording unit some great things will happen, I'm
sure I've thought about digital equalisers and
imagined the ultimate Harmonizer where the shape or
the sound can be physically changed it seems inevitable,
I suppose but I'm not preoccupied with it. We've just
started to use automation for the first time. We mixed
the live record on the computer, writing it when it
sounded good and touching it up later. It saves time,
though we don't spend months in the studio working on
one project."

Byrne explained the live album as a mixture of live
shows that had been taped as far back as '77. This
caused one or two problems as Byrne explains it "We
had to fix one entire track that had a horrible buzz
on the clavinet so we fixed that but there was a tape
from 1977 and I had to fix some sour notes on a vocal
back - I mean sour! That took a lot of punches because
my voice had changed". Obviously Byrne has no misgivings
about "fixing" a live album - another example of Byrne's
outspoken honesty with the material and the recording
process from this view.

We concluded the evening's conversation with some
inquiries about Bryne's work and business habits.
Does Byrne address these factors as a producer? "Yup.
I figure it's something to be dealt with. Rather than
have the record company just pay the bills and then
deduct them from our royalties, we deliver the product
to our company, Sire Records. If a band doesn't see
the bills, they're likely not to care about the cost.
If we go over the budget then it's on us! We try to
be smart about it - we've thought about doing our
own studio, getting semi-portable stuff so we can
use it on the road and in the studio too but we
realized it would require a bit of maintenance
and we weren't ready to foot the expense. The bare
bones of the studio cost not much more than the average
recording budget, but the thought of a studio in my home
makes me think I'd never get anything done - I'd just
piddle around all the time. When we so into the studio,
we get right to work - I think I requires a lot of
concentration."

In the end Byrne's pragmatic approach is fuelled by
a love for his work. "I'm a natural worker, but
sometimes I have to tell myself to do something,
to get it done. On the whole it doesn't bother me,
though" he says laughing. "It's a good job". And

a job well done.