Sufjan Stevens is awesome and punk.
You might not know it by listening to his albums — they're feats of orchestration, arrangement and craft that have the power to sweep you right the eff up in a majestic way, but he's a total recording rebel, Tape Op style. Both of his "Fifty States Project" albums, Michigan and Illinois, sound incredible — and both were made using ghetto-style techniques that most (if not all) recordists would be crippled by, — doing all your mixing on headphones, tracking an entire record with Shure SM57s and an AKG C 1000, recording your album at 32 kHz, tracking on a cheap digital 8-track and dumping it into Pro Tools two tracks at a time thru the 1/8" jack and lining them up by sight. Yow! Talking with Sufjan about his recording process really reinforced a few key things in my head — the core reasons why I believe in Tape Op magazine and what it stands for (to me, at least) — that there is no right way to record, that the most important thing are the ideas and songs and performances, that you can work with whatever you have and make something incredible, that gear is truly secondary, maybe tertiary. Is it raw material/technique/ equipment, in that order? So yeah, Sufjan's records sound so good to my ears — and he was mic'ing the kick with a freakin' C 1000 and recording it at 32 kHz. WTF?
So was the recorder was your first instrument?
Yeah, the recorder. I played it at Waldorf School. I still have the recorder. I've used it on almost every record.
Do you have a bunch of recorders now?
Yeah. I have a tenor, alto and soprano — a little tiny one. From recorder you are usually able to transfer to flute or oboe. I think my affinity for woodwinds started when I started playing the oboe. That was my first real band instrument.
Where did you go from the oboe?
Piano. The piano was kind of an accident because my parents bought an upright piano so that my older sister could take lessons. She was taking lessons and then she would come home and practice and I would sit in the kitchen listening to her kind of clumsily struggling through these simplified versions of Bach minuets. When she left I would go to the piano and I would try to play what she had played, just from listening.
Did you learn how to identify chord voicings by ear?
I didn't know theory. I learned visually on the piano. With the piano you see everything laid out, so I was learning through the visuals. But I didn't know or understand what I was doing. I would just go by how it sounded. After a year I was pretty comfortable on the piano.
So you've got the recorder, the oboe and the piano...
How did I get to the guitar? Because songwriting started when I started playing the guitar. Before that if I was writing songs on the piano, they were very ambiguous. They weren't clear, conservative pop songs. There wasn't singing. There were all these flourishes. It was kind of pseudo-classical...but there were pop elements. I was just sort of making stuff up. It wasn't until I learned the guitar that I actually started writing songs. I was writing songs on the piano but never for me. I would write stuff and then a friend who was a singer (it was always a girl) would say, "Oh, that's really pretty. Maybe I could sing over it?" So I was always pairing up with different up-and- coming divas.
Ha! One of which, people should know, was Missy Elliott.
Missy Elliott — she played the viola, too.
At what point did recording come into your life?
It was the exact time that I was learning guitar, the summer before my second year in college. I was nineteen or twenty. My friend was going down to Florida to stay with his mom for the summer, and he couldn't fit everything in his car. So he left one of those Ovation nylon string guitars with the plastic in the back. That same week I went out and bought a Tascam Portastudio [cassette] 4-track. I wanted to write songs and sing. I had been in this college band that I had started with some friends. I was playing the recorder!
Was it the Marzuki band?
Yeah. Shannon [Stephens] was singing and writing the songs. She was playing guitar and we had a cellist. I was playing the recorder because it was all I could do. It was really bad ethnic folk-pop music. I had long hair, wore Birkenstocks and I owned a Hacky Sack — that's where I was coming from. I wanted to learn to play guitar because it seemed like if I was going to get anywhere in this band, I had to play guitar. It was 95 degrees all summer and I would come home after work, sit in my room for five hours, sweat and strum the guitar — strum E major over and over.
And then the first Sufjan record that you made was A Sun Came?
That was mostly done with the 4-track. My last year in college I took a Pro Tools class. So what I was able to do with the 4-track was I would dump into Pro Tools and edit it in Pro Tools. That was my first experience.
That has been a lasting method that is still with you.
I guess I haven't really changed it. The Pro Tools computer was in a studio, so I could go into the studio and use an 8-track version. So I had four [tracks] going in and I had four left over. If the song wasn't finished, I'd record in that studio right into Pro Tools. But most of it was done on the 4-track.
So when you were done with that record, what was the next thing that you did?
I didn't do anything! I graduated from school and I went to New York to writing school. I went to The New School. I wanted to be a writer — I kind of gave up doing music. I was working at Penguin/Putnam [publishers]... as a graphic designer. That's when they had those new, teal green [Mac] G3s. I was an aspiring writer and I had a great job, but I wasn't writing any music. I was on the computer all day. At night I'd be in class, then I would go home and write on the computer. Some of these guys who worked in the tech department at Penguin who were total geeks gave me [Propellerhead's] ReBirth software.
Yeah! ReBirth was one of the first good drum and synthesizer software programs for me too.
In my spare time at work, I started making beats on the computer. That's when I started making the beats that would become the basis of Enjoy Your Rabbit. Lowell [Brams] sent me a [Roland] VS-880EX. I still had my cassette 4-track, but I wasn't really using it. It was such a leap to go from the sound of tape — the cassette — to this weird interface where you were pressing buttons. It was very unnatural and very mechanical. I think that's why I decided to do the record Enjoy Your Rabbit, because I couldn't figure out how to get a warm sound out of the VS-880. So I just decided to make the most mechanical sounding record that I could. I dumped all the beats from ReBirth onto the machine and then started overdubbing oboe and piano. I would put those into the computer and try to make those real instruments sound like digital sounds. I was doing all of it at Penguin. I didn't buy my own computer until I knew I was quitting my job. That was when those old G3s had a 1/8" jack input. I was doing all of my transferring through the 1/8" in jack.
So would you put two tracks in at a time and line them up?
I actually still do that because my VS-880 only has two outputs.
When you're doing drums, are you just sending in a drum mix? Or do you do overheads, kick and snare and then line those up?
If I'm having a drummer do the drum parts — not me — then usually there are four or five mics and I line them up. Why don't they have something where you can just transfer everything?!
Well, they do now!
Yeah. Which is why I'm getting rid of that thing! I'm going to get a new thing.
When that one breaks I bet you'll buy a new one on eBay!
[sighing] I get teased so much! I actually have two of those at my house. I almost bought a third one!
I could probably show you a trick to get more than two outputs at a time. It probably has a monitor output and it probably has an effects send...
You're telling me this seven years later! I could have been done with these records so much faster!
There's a lot of distortion on that record (Enjoy Your Rabbit). Most of the elements are pretty crunchy.
It's a lot of using internal effects on the VS-880 or in Pro Tools — slowing things down, speeding things up, reversing it and using whatever plug-ins were free. Just making it sound like something it wasn't.
After Enjoy Your Rabbit, is that when you did Liz Janes' record Done Gone Fire?
Michael Kaufmann introduced me to her. She came into town and had her guitar and some songs. I had two mics — two SM57s. One was on her guitar and one was on her voice. The whole record was recorded with two SM57s. The drums on that record are always two mics.
Recorded with an SM57? I think that her voice on that record sounds so amazing!
She was about five inches from the microphone and we didn't use a pop filter. So when she would hit it — PFT! — I would have to go into Pro Tools and quickly drop the thing. I did that all manually. Once in a while you can still hear a punch. I didn't know about pop filters. I didn't know you weren't supposed to use SM57s for your voice. I do it all the time, but everyone's telling me, "No, it's for the snare drum..."
Tell 'em to take a hike.
We recorded as much as we could that day and then she came by again a couple of weeks later and we did another round of just her and the guitar. She wasn't living in New York. Then I spent a couple weeks overdubbing. I did the drums afterward — and her tempos go all over the place. There's a song where she actually adds a beat in the measure for no reason. It took me forever to figure that out. I pretty much limited myself to 8-tracks after she had done her part.
Was that the first project you'd done with someone else?
You mean Liz's album? Yeah. I got to know her through that project. We only did everything once. We just recorded the songs. The only song we recorded twice was "Jerusalem", and that was because the first time we recorded it, I was so into it that I was shaking a shaker in the corner of the room and I was saying, "Yes! Awesome!" To save tracks I was going to add the shaker while she was playing, but then I listened back to it and it was totally out of tempo and it was the loudest thing.
What you have to do is go back and overdub another shaker, but perfectly out of phase. Cancels out the sound of the 1st one....
Would that get rid of it? See, I don't know about this stuff. This is where you come in.
No, you can't do that. I'm just kidding.
Okay. I don't know!
It's a recording joke.
I don't know about these jokes. That's funny. The way I recorded Liz is how I did A Sun Came. I did the guitar and piano first and then drums later.
Then later you have this big epiphany — "Wait! You do the drums first and then the guitars — it sounds way tighter!"
Which I didn't start doing until Illinois. Michigan is all guitar and piano first.
But the stuff on Michigan doesn't feel herky-jerky at all. Did you use a click track on it at all for your guitars and pianos?
Yeah. The VS-880 has a built-in click track. I didn't use the click track for Enjoy Your Rabbit because it was all digital drums. But most of Michigan is click tracked.
How long was there between finishing Done Gone Fire and starting Michigan?
I feel like they were kind of simultaneous. I didn't really start working on Michigan until I was done with graduate school, or around the same time. Michigan wasn't a concept album from the start. I didn't think, "I'm writing songs about Michigan." It was just stuff that I had been assembling kind of randomly with no thought behind any of it. The only difference between Michigan and Enjoy Your Rabbit is that Michigan was all live, acoustic instruments.
And you tracked it all on your VS-880?
Yeah. I think a lot of it had nothing to do with my recording, because I never recorded in the studio. I hardly even recorded at home, honestly, because it was so loud at home. I would bring this upstate or to Massachusetts where my brother lived. He worked at a Quaker school there. They had a room with a piano and his apartment was quiet. I would record up there sometimes on the weekends.
Everyone talks about how you play thirty-two thousand instruments on that record!
Which isn't true at all. There's piano, guitar and woodwinds. And I play the drums of course, but I'm not very good at it. I can't even say that I really play the drums. I was just overdubbing it all. This is how it would work — I would figure out that there was this kind of instrument available, so I would take my 8- track over to where it was. At my brother's school there was a vibraphone that was there for a while, so I went up there and did the vibraphone.
Was it still with the 57s, or did you have your AKG C 1000 by then?
I had the C 1000 in the very beginning, but I couldn't get it to work.
Because of phantom power?
It's not phantom power. The VS-880 only has all 1/4" jacks and the C 1000 has an XLR. I had an XLR to 1/4" adapter cord and it never worked. I sent it to AKG and I said, "This is broken." And they said, "It works fine for us." They sent it back. I was talking to the guy on the phone and he asked, "Are you going from XLR to XLR?" I said, "No. I'm XLR to 1/4"." He said, "You need to get an XLR cord and then put an adapter to 1/4"." I did that and then it started working. So about midway through working on Michigan, I suddenly had three mics. I had two SM57s, and the C 1000. I hated the way the C 1000 sounded. It's the worst mic in the entire universe. I'd put it inside the kick drum. I had two overheads for the drums and I'd have a kick. Before, if I wanted a stereo sound for the drums I would record the drums all separately.
Where does that exist on your records?
Michigan has some of the drums done two times, because I didn't have enough mics to do it all live. Instead of playing the kick I would just step on the floor. Then I would set up the mic for the kick and actually play the kick. I think the drum parts on Michigan are a little bit weird because of that. Even though I used a click track, I would always lay the instruments down first and then the drums would come later. On Illinois we did the drums first, so I feel like the drums are more present. I feel like Michigan is more of an accomplishment for me because I was doing everything myself, and doing a lot of things for the first time — like writing these polyrhythmic songs for the first time and overdubbing my voice like instruments. That was kind of a new thing for me. I think that Illinois is the fullest realization of those ideas. I was frustrated with Michigan because I felt like my performances weren't as good as they could have been.
I would NEVER have guessed that Michigan was done with two SM57s and a C 1000.
This is all I had. I never had any other microphones. I didn't even go through any preamps or anything. What I started to realize when I was working on Michigan is that it's really important that the sound I was making was the sound that I wanted. I don't really believe in technology beyond just capturing a pure form that is perfect on its own. Just write good music and do whatever you want. I really don't think it matters. I never thought that much about my voice, but James [McAllister], my drummer, thought that I used tons of compression on my voice on my records. He said, "It's always present, even though it's very quiet." The first time he heard me sing live he realized that it just sounded that way.
I heard you recorded all of Michigan at 32 kHz [sampling rate, as opposed to 44.1 kHz]!
I did! I didn't know! The only thing I knew is there was a switch on here on the VS-880. If you opened up a file at 32 kHz it doubled your space. I had all this stuff on the hard drive, so I was running out of space. I just started recording everything at 32 kHz and then transferring it out via the RCA jack into my computer. I was just losing quality left and right. I didn't know that it was lower quality until after the fact. Somebody said, "Obviously it's lower quality if it created more space." I don't think it sounds lo-fi. I think its sonic range is probably less than Illinois. It sounds more midrange, because I think that [the] SM57 is midrange-y. I think I compensated for it by putting bass guitar in there. I also think the record is pretty successful because it was mastered by Alan Douches at West West Side [Tape Op #31]. He was putting it through this really old, weird preamp that he had. There are only two of them on the planet or something. So he was running it through really old, old, old equipment to master it. I think that was very, very helpful. [Actually Alan confirmed it was a custom prototype Pendulum Audio 6386 with some Fairchild parts! -ed.]
I imagine that he probably added a little bit of top end.
A little bottom and maybe a little in the middle! I think I'm growing out of this VS-880. I did Illinois on this as well, and the only difference is I used a lot of different microphones. I got rid of the SM57s for Illinois. I think I used the SM57 on the snare and that was it. It's because I was laughed at! Whenever I told people what I used for Michigan they said, "You're ridiculous. Why are you doing that?"
I think the only response you can have to that is a raised middle finger!
I don't think you should put the 32 kHz in the story.
You should be proud of it. It drives home the point that it's about the music.
Well, with Illinois I said, "We're going to do everything as high resolution as possible. It's not even that much different than Michigan in the way that I recorded it, except that I used better microphones, started with the drums and then moved up. I did everything in the right order. I did vocals last. I used a vocal mic. I used a pop filter.
Did you use a preamp?
For some of it. I used an Altec [1592b] — that old solid- state green thing. I don't know what it's called, but it was just there.
I think it's a tube mic preamp, like a mic mixer.
Mine was solid-state. It just had a couple inputs and one output. That's all it had. It had little windows, little knobs. I was just told to stay out of the red.
That has tubes in it, I think.
You think it's tubes? All this stuff was at The Buddy Project.
All of a sudden you have a friend, Kieran [Kelly, owner of The Buddy Project] who, says, "I have this little studio that I built and you can use it."
Basically Kieran was what I like to call the "invisible engineer" on that record because he would call me and ask when I was coming into the studio and what I was doing. I'd say, "We're coming in tonight and Craig [Montoro] is going to do some trumpet." He would sometimes leave a microphone out, plugged into a preamp hooked up to a stand. Kieran wouldn't be there. He was very careful to stay out of my way. Or he would say, "Maybe you should try the Blue Bottle thing." I don't even know the names of the microphones. He's the one who left that Altec thing out. There was all sorts of stuff coming in and out of there. Sometimes it was just random — I would find a microphone and use it — but usually it was based on other people's suggestions. If nothing was left out, the first thing I reached for was the SM57 and then I would say, "No. You're not going to use that!" I would slap my hand. I like SM57s because you just plug it in. It's so simple. You don't have to put power through it or anything. When we did those drums, James [McAllister] went through that mic cabinet and he was pulling out stuff I never even knew was there. He's worked in a studio and knows all about microphones. So he set up the mics for the drums. I can't even say I engineered the drums.
Even the newest album (Illinois) was still kind of by the seat of your pants.
We did all the drum parts in two or three days. James had never even heard the songs before. The week before he came I wrote some of those weirder, polyrhythmic songs. Some of them had time signature changes every other bar. I wondered if he could play them. I was trying to trick him. He learned the songs and he charted it out. He'd come up with a part and I'd say, "No, I don't like that. I think it should be busier." We did it all in two or three days and then he flew home with an enormous headache. He called me the next day and said, "I'm totally willing to redo all that stuff. When I think back it just sounds like I was just doing a drum fill for 45 minutes." I said, "Exactly. That's what I want."
Do you already have the singing and melodies and lyrics finished for these songs when you're tracking drums and stuff?
Oh no. I have no idea. I think it's a lot of just doing something and then responding to what you did. I think overdubbing is interacting with yourself. You have to suffer momentary multiple personality disorder while you're doing it. You need to have the capacity to imagine what's going to happen in the song, but still consider what has already happened, while you're doing what you're doing. While I'm writing these scratch parts out, I'm already thinking about the rhythm of the drums. Abstractly, in the back of my mind, I can already hear how I'm going to arrange it. I already know that there's going to be horns, because I like the trumpet. Then I can hear the woodwinds, and usually there's going to be some kind of guitar in there as well. I like to utilize everything that's possible and just lay it all on to the song. I do it part by part, and each part creates a space for or triggers another part... In a band you're writing these parts together, interacting with other people. I think when you're writing independently in an isolated environment and you're doing all the parts yourself, you have to take on different roles, take on different characters.
Yeah — when you're overdubbing, be somebody else.
I think you need to be. It's total multiple personality disorder. That's what I like about it. Each instrument has a character — it has its own disposition. I think you really need to honor that and understand that and be willing to accommodate that particular character. That's what I love about a studio cluttered with different instruments. They're like different people surrounding you. I never get tired or lonely when I'm working in the studio. I feel like I'm constantly interacting and socializing with these instruments. I feel like when I play the bass I'm kind of a thug. When I play the oboe I'm that constipated, uptight old man whose been married and divorced five times.
Ha! So who are you when you're singing?
When I'm singing? [laughing] I am myself. I think when I'm singing I am my id. I don't know-what am I? I don't know! I think when I'm singing is when I have to be myself as completely as I can be, which is nearly impossible, of course. Myself singing should resemble myself as closely as possible.
When you record your voice, how many tracks do you record of it?
I'm trying to just do one voice now. Usually the song starts out with one voice and then it goes to the chorus. I try not to harmonize with myself as much anymore — I have the girls do the harmonies. I try not to double my voice because I feel like it's cheating, like I'm hiding behind something. When I do my vocals now, I just sing it through two or three times and then create the best vocal. I find that the first take is usually the best. Some of the songs on Illinois aren't really written naturally for me. My voice is singing out of my range, so I had to do a lot of editing. And this is something else I've learned to do, is to demo songs. Usually I demo the quieter songs, like "Casimir Pulaski Day" and "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." I recorded those songs three or four times before I actually recorded them for the record, which is very unusual for me.
With them changing, or just for the performance?
For the performance — a little bit of changing lyrics and vocal lines, but usually I had the song written. I would record it three times and then I would say, "Okay, now I know..." That's something that I'm trying to do more [of]. I'm starting to realize that maybe I can do better if I rehearse it a few times. Now that I've been touring more and singing live more, I realize that playing something over and over again changes the song completely.
You've told me you wanted to maybe make a record with Steve Albini.
If I were to think of any engineer I wanted to work with, I'd pick him because I feel like I try to do in the digital world what he just does.
Which is to document sounds and performances?
I really feel like I struggle with doing that, but everything I do is so affected because it's digital and because I'm still struggling as a songwriter. I feel like I'm going to come to a point where I have material that I'm confident enough to bring to someone like Steve Albini, go into Electrical Audio, and just do it all live. I don't want to do any overdubs. I want to see what that's like to have a band and record everything live. I want to record an album on which I don't do any of the engineering. I want to record a record in mono because I feel like I am indulging myself with stereo. Then I want to go back to drum programming and make intelligent dance music. I want to do something that is all on a drum-based sequencer. I kind of stopped doing that with Enjoy Your Rabbit because I had a version of ReBirth and it totally conked out on me. I don't have a drum and bass program, and I want to get one to do more of that stuff.
Do you get friends to play on your records or do you seek people out?
They're mostly friends, or friends of friends. Vito [Auito] and Monique [Auito] are friends, and they sing on it. And then with Illinois, it was different. I was looking for a drummer. James [McAllister] had been drumming for me on tour, so he was the first major element that changed my position on that — when I decided that I was no longer going to just hire my friends, I was going to be using real musicians. I didn't know Craig [Montoro].
He's the trumpet player?
Yeah — I heard that he could play. Shara [Worden, My Brightest Diamond] is a full-time singer. I knew that having her sing with me would be professional sounding. And the back-up singers are professional singers.
Like Liz [Janes] and Bridget [DeCook]? Both of them have great voices. They sing so well together. Do you do your final mixing at home?
What are you listening on?
On these [the AKG K 240 DF headphones around his neck].
On your headphones?! Do you have speakers?
I don't have monitors. My friend left her stereo at my house, so what I do is I just run my headphone jack into the stereo when I'm feeling like it's been too much in my headphones. I've never owned a pair of monitors, ever. I don't even own a stereo... I think you can tell when you listen to it that it's a record that was made on headphones. When I'm working on a song and I'm mixing it, it's a continuous process. I record the eight tracks, I dump it in and I listen to it on my headphones and mix it. I do that several times until I have thirty-two tracks. And then at the very end when you mix the whole thing together, by the time you get ready to master it, I will have listened to it on my headphones about 500 times. I definitely pay close attention.
So you've done all of your recording, engineering, producing and most of the playing (so far) on your albums all by yourself?
Yeah. But I don't believe in the word "producing."
Well, making decisions.
With all the attention that Illinois has received, it seems like that would open up a lot of possibilities for you to work with any number of producers.
Rick Rubin called me. He just left a message. You know I don't answer my phone. Then he called me again. So finally I called him back. But it was just his assistant or something. Then he called me back and left a message.
Phone tag with Rick Rubin...
I think he just wanted to borrow some money.
That would be awesome.
What do you think, should I call him back? r www.sufjan.com, www.asthmatickitty.com
Rafter Roberts was profiled in Tape Op #28 and runs Singing Serpent in San Diego. www.singingserpent.com