Try to write about Scott Solter and you will struggle. You will have numerous conversations with the man. Those conversations will span a number of years. You will talk about tape machines. You will talk about Christopher Hitchens and Tchad Blake [Tape Op #16], Noam Chomsky and Jay-Z. You will talk about idealistic San Francisco and pastoral North Carolina. You will pelt the guy with 10,000 questions in the name of Tape Op. The how, the when, the who and the all-important why. You will know what to write, only to find yourself writing utter trash. Finally, when all else has failed, you will heed the very words of your subject. He of the expansive mind, he of the subverted machine, he of the composition turned inside out, its cellular structure violently altered, its guts left in a pile, its soul glistening clean from your earlobes. His words? Work by parameters. They are your only hope. So you delete thousands of old words and set out to chunk what's left — the raw content — into chapters. You do it in hopes that Solter — he of the prescription, he of the construct — would approve.
Impulses Are Good. They Tell You What Not To Do
Scott develops what he calls "prescriptions" for his projects. He describes them like this: "They're ways of getting into a piece without the confusion of too many choices. The approach can be as literal as limiting the types of equipment or selecting certain colors and images to get at a theme. This really started when John Vanderslice asked me to remix his Cellar Door record, which became MGM Endings. I simply needed a way of approaching each piece without becoming consumed with too many "what ifs." Around this time I felt like I was just shooting from the hip and repeating weaknesses I wanted to move away from. For me, the only way to do that was to move against my impulses. I decided on prescription #1: if it seems strange, keep doing it. It was a healthy change. Pulling up faders can lead you anywhere, so what if you only allow yourself to pull up two and execute every possible manipulation before advancing on the remaining faders?" I ask Scott if such a deliberate approach blurs the lines between "engineer" and "producer." He responds that it doesn't much matter and, above all else, he is simply someone who is intrigued by sound.
Solter tells another insightful tale. He was setting up for a tracking session with John Vanderslice and listening to Vanderslice strum what was to become "Trance Manual" from Pixel Revolt. Believing the song wanted to be more than an acoustic strumming affair, Solter began hearing a clock-like quality in Vanderslice's playing. The clock motif soon grew into bells (the kind played by gloved people in church). Solter contacted a local church and arranged to have some bells available for the next session.
"I Am Deathly Afraid Of Being Dull"
Central to understanding Scott is understanding the difference between rules and parameters. Parameters form an artistic architecture that gives a project shape and direction. "Rules," on the other hand, are the domain of how-to books. I mention it mostly for this simple reason: Scott is not afraid to use exaggerated EQ during tracking. "I make things sound bright," he says without a trace of shame. "I make sure there's 5 and 6 kHz on everything. I EQ everything all the time. The virtue is not in being a 'purist.' The virtue is in the fact that you heard the need for something to happen and you made it sound fucking awesome." When I register my disbelief at his nose thumbing at the trend of recording flat, he scoffs. "I got an email from a Japanese kid who lost his virginity to the Lazarus record," referring to 2004's Like Trees We Grow Up to Be Satellites (The Backwards America). "That's more important to me than recording flat." The whole conversation ties back to one of Solter's prime motivators: hatred of dull sounds. It seems simple and maybe even obvious, but it's a thought that bears itself out beautifully throughout his body of work. Many of our great sonic architects have signatures, whether deliberate or not. Scott's defining characteristic might be that he's a thrill-seeker, constantly looking for ways to surprise himself.
Water Is Gear
I wonder aloud how Solter orchestrated something as sublime as "Fade Out to Little Arrow," one of the crowning tracks from the Court and Spark's Bless You CD. I wonder if the crystalline, liquid sound came from the mic preamps, the microphones themselves or maybe the mixer or the tape machine. Turns out it wasn't so much the microphones. Or the preamps. Or the tape machine. So what was it? Water. When Scott says "water," he's talking both about the idea of water and the actual physical presence of water. For him, the conceptual plane must be adaptable to the real world of getting sound to tape (maybe the simplest way to say this comes from Solter himself when he says, "I'm a very literal person!") When a song's operative word is "water," does it mean you simply picture water during tracking? No. It means you get a water jug and you hold it between guitar amp and mic,...