There used to be a television show called What's My Line, wherein panelists interviewed a contestant and had to guess his or her occupation. Michael Beinhorn would have been an ideal contestant. The producer behind some of rock music's heaviest artists could easily pass as a college literature professor or a reclusive novelist. From his early days as keyboardist and co-founder of the seminal New York band Material, and his work with Bill Laswell on Herbie Hancock's groundbreaking Future Shock album, Beinhorn has gone on to produce career-breakthrough recordings for artists like Soundgarden (their acclaimed "Black Hole Sun"), Korn, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Marilyn Manson, Fuel (their Beinhorn-produced Natural Selection garnered him a 2004 Grammy nomination), Ozzy Osbourne and Hole. In an age when dynamics and sonic quality have become almost an afterthought in rock music, Beinhorn's recordings exude a tonal and dynamic range that sets them apart from most of today's formulaic rock productions. It's no coincidence that several artists can look back at Beinhorn-produced albums as turning points in their musical careers. I caught up with Beinhorn at a studio in Southern California, where he was putting the finishing touches on Hole's Nobody's Daughter.
Let's talk about your early days as a musician.
I bought my first synth when I was about 14 — a Micromoog. It was one of the first "affordable" synths. This was around 1974, and people still had this image of synthesizers as big machines with lots of patch cords.
So this was pre-MIDI, obviously.
It was pre-MIDI, and before samplers and drum machines, except maybe those old Korg rhythm boxes. I was never much of a technician as a keyboardist — my interest was more in programming, creating cool sounds and textures. Of course, it was kind of limited in those days, because you needed a lot of money to get a synth with more than one oscillator. The Micromoog has this square wave function to alter the waveform, and I'd play with that and the LFO. I used to go into Sam Ash and play with the ARP 2600 until they'd kick me out. It was amazing how tolerant they were, to let this kid just come in and play with this expensive synth for hours.
You grew up in New York?
Yeah, I grew up in Forest Hills [a section of Queens]. Everyone in my high school was into prog rock, myself included. A friend of mine, Fred Maher, was a drummer who later went on to become a pretty successful producer himself — he worked with Lou Reed, Matthew Sweet, Lloyd Cole and bunch of other folks. Around 1978 we met Bill Laswell, who was rehearsing out of a space in Manhattan owned by this guy named Giorgio Gomelsky [issue #62]. Giorgio was something of a musical impresario at the time — he had produced the Yardbirds, moved to New York and put together this space called the Zu Club, where they were showcasing prog bands like Gong and Henry Cow. Fred, Bill, myself, [guitarist] Cliff Cultreri and another keyboard player formed a band and started rehearsing in the Zu Club's basement. We did our first few gigs as The Zu Band. Then around '79 we hooked up with (former Gong singer) Daevid Allen, and went on tour with a bunch of other prog bands in an old school bus with most of the seats torn out.
So eventually prog rock evolved into....
Yeah, the nature of what we were doing began to change radically right after that tour, around '79 or '80. We were down to the four of us — Bill, Fred, myself and Cliff — and we were listening to a lot of Eno, punk, Kraftwerk, Miles Davis and all the nascent new wave bands like Magazine and XTC. We changed the name of the band to Material and started getting gigs around town. It happened relatively quickly. Over the course of a year or so, we were playing at a lot of the best clubs. Bill was a great networker — good at chatting people up.
There was a pretty heavy scene already happening in New York — Blondie, Television and Talking Heads.
We were just behind that big wave. Blondie and Television had already come through — Debbie Harry was a big celebrity by then. But we still had to prove ourselves, which we did, repeatedly. We started bringing in this revolving circle of guest singers and players, and Material started evolving into more of a network than a band, per se. Looking back, as a live band we were pretty amateur. I'd never been on stage before our first gig, and it was a pretty harrowing experience. In fairness, Bill was a fantastic bass player. His technical ability was a big draw, and he and Fred were a great rhythm section.
You all worked on Brian Eno and David Byrne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts around that time. How did that come about?
Bill was the only one from Material who actually played on it. After that Eno began working on a new project with Bill, Fred and Bob Quine, who played guitar with Richard Hell. They moved to our studio in Brooklyn, which led to Eno asking me if I wanted to get involved.
Material's recordings were so eclectic. Were you a band with an identity crisis?
Yeah, those three albums in particular definitely had a personality crisis, even within each album. I think one of the problems with Material was that we were trying to please these small circles of people in the community who knew us. So we'd do an electronic, experimental EP; then we'd do a record for Bruce Lundvall's label [Elektra/Musician] that had a lot of elements of free jazz; then another record for Elektra that was heavily R&B. So we drew from a lot of ideas, but it never really coalesced. It was interesting, though. Even though we weren't the right people to pull it off, it was interesting to see how far you could actually push a bunch of different musical ideas within the context of an artistic endeavor, rather than box ourselves in to one theme or sound. Of course we had a lot more freedom back then — the industry wasn't so corporate. And it was interesting working with a guy like Bruce, who really pushed for that artistic freedom.
So Material had the artistic freedom to evolve as a "producers' band," so to speak.
Very much so. Most of what we were doing was basically Bill, myself and Martin Bisi [Tape Op # 51] (after Fred left) collaborating with a series of other musicians.
And it was around that time you hooked up with Herbie Hancock?
That was in '83. I didn't actually meet Herbie until we'd done most of the principal recording for "Rockit," and Bill and I were in L.A. to put Herbie's parts on the track.
When did you and Bill start pursuing separate paths?
In 1983, shortly after we'd completed "Rockit." After a certain point, we both just felt it wasn't working anymore. I began to work on stuff myself, and I faced that vast landscape of "what does a person do who has never done this before?" — especially since I'd gone from youth to relative adulthood without any real sense of standing on my own two feet. Being inside an organization like Material, I hadn't really had a chance to stand on my own and be assessed by others. It was a challenge, because people had associated Bill as the main guy in Material, and the main guy behind Herbie's record. It took me a while to move past that. Eventually I met someone at EMI who told me about this band he had called Red Hot Chili Peppers. Even back then, those guys were really pushing the envelope, but they still hadn't really defined what they were doing. They hadn't really combined all the elements yet, and it was still unfocused. They had done a record with Andy Gill [issue #71], which played into the punk element, and a record with George Clinton, who imparted a lot of funk influence, but that didn't really take them where they needed to go. We spent months working on demos for the record. There was a lot of drama, but eventually we got into Capitol Studio's Studio B and made a really good record.
So that record [The Uplift Mofo Party Plan] was your first major label production?
It was my first U.S. project. I had done two Canadian records, but this was my first solo U.S. project. It was a lot of work, but in the end it was worth all the work to see these guys come out of it stronger. We made another record [Mother's Milk] that was a turning point in their careers, and brought them to mainstream awareness.
You were instrumental in creating the Ultra Analog format, running eight tracks on 2-inch tape. Where did that come from?
One of the things I always liked about tape was that if you used it in a certain way, it could become a tone modification device as opposed to a storage medium — compression, but also the way it changes the tone of a recording. The idea itself came more from the conceptual perspective — I'm not a very technical guy. I figured if 24-track analog sounded good and 16- track sounded better, what would happen if someone decreased the amount of tracks, but kept the size of the tape head? I got in touch with John French at JRF Magnetics, and had him design us an 8-track headstack. What made it unique was how he was able to integrate a time code track. He made a tiny center track between tracks four and five.
What machine were you using it on?
It was a modified Studer A800. The first one we got was anactual8-track-aMKI-andIhaditkittedout with MK III electronics, which was a job in itself. The first time we used it, we had it shipped out to Paris to work with Ozzy [Osbourne]. I'll never forget when we played back that first recording. It's always an amazing thing when what you hear going in is breathtaking, but then what you hear coming out has the potential to stop your internal organs from functioning — it just doesn't sound like anything you've ever heard before. Everyone's jaw hit the ground. It was literally amazing. All of a sudden there was this phenomenal low-end extension. Physics dictated that it shouldn't happen. You could listen to drums on [Yamaha] NS10s, and everyone would swear there was a sub in the room. NS10s were actually reproducing low end comfortably. I was running it at 7 1/2 ips. French had said it should sound good at 15. Since it was a MK I, the speeds were 7 1/2 and 15, and I figured, "Well, I always run 16 tracks at 15 rather than 30, so 7 1/2 would probably sound better with eight tracks." We did a comparison, and 15 ips sounded beautiful — definitely better in the highs. But when we went down to 7 1/2, something happened sonically that was just uncanny. Things like that are what I love about this work. That sense of discovery — feeling that you're in uncharted territory. And it feeds on everything everyone else does. It's exciting, and it inspires others to raise the bar.
You mentioned that you've now started working more in the digital realm.
To a certain extent it's just unavoidable. Maintaining an analog studio in this day and age is kind of akin to keeping up a vintage car. Parts are expensive and hard to find, and it begins to get to a point where you're spending more time keeping things repaired than making music. I still have my misgivings about digital, but it's definitely come a long way since the early days.
What are you using?
I'm working mainly in Logic, Nuendo and Pro Tools, as well as [using] tons of analog gear. I'm playing around with lots of different plug-ins, and it's interesting to hear different people's approaches to emulating classic analog gear. I like a lot of the Universal Audio [UAD] stuff and some of the Waves plug-ins.
How has having the ability to fix a performance affected the way you work? Do you intentionally avoid it and use a DAW like a tape deck, or do you get into splicing performances and moving notes around?
To me, all that stuff is a matter of expediency. It's a judgment call on what's best for each individual record. I haven't adopted a blanket tolerance for fixing things, moving kick drums around and stuff, but sometimes it's just easier and faster to fix something. These tools exist, and I'm not opposed to them on general principle. That said, I definitely prefer to make records where the artist is working at performing their music and there's less editing involved.
You mean with people playing together in the same room?
I've never made a record that way.
Really. I've only done one recording that way. I always found that people played so much better, and gave performances that were more compelling, when they were able to focus exclusively on what they were doing. Even down to tracking bass and drums together — I try, but we usually end up replacing one or the other.
A lot of people argue that there's no point in pursuing sonic perfection anymore, since most recordings are compressed down to MP3s and heard on earbuds.
I've never used that argument. It doesn't matter about the format. People don't just hear sonics, they hear the intention behind the songs. They feel it. That's what makes a record sound good. You could spend hours placing mics on things, and if you weren't doing it to make yourself and everyone working on it happy, and to ultimately create something that will raise the consciousness of the people listening to it, it's all for nothing.
How do you view your role as a producer?
I think "producer" has become such an overused, generic term, and it's really difficult to quantify. There are some people whose idea of production is being able to make a couple of phone calls from their house. Others do total immersion — eat, breathe and sleep with the band. For me it's really down to what each project needs. Some artists need to be guided more than others. They may even be resentful of that, but still aware that they need it. It's not like a parental figure. Ultimately they want the final word. I try to create a parity with them. It's all part of establishing trust, being vulnerable with the artist. I'm fine with going out in the room, jumping up and down with them and looking crazy. I did that with the Chili Peppers, and Chad [Smith] was laughing so hard while he was playing [that] it brought a certain excitement and exuberance to his performance.
What do you look at in a prospective project?
For me, I'm more interested in people than in a specific style of music. What people do on an artistic level is, for me, a pleasure to be involved in. It has to be about the artist's vision. If I have a vision at all, it's a vision that incorporates them completely. I'm not necessarily in the vision, but it's my duty to support that vision, to bring it to fruition as completely and fully as I can, by whatever means necessary. I also think it's important to consider what a record can do for the greater community of artists overall. What can we contribute that can be of value? And it's essential for me to work with people who are open, who are at a place in their lives and their careers where they're able to hear certain things, willing to take a big step toward something else. That's really what keeps it fresh. When people are open like that, no one knows what you're going to get. The potential for an exciting, wonderful end result makes it so worthwhile.
Your reputation is mainly as a heavy rock guy. Do you feel you've been pigeonholed?
I've mainly worked with rock music, because with the exception of a couple of brief periods, there's typically been an acceptance within the genre to embrace other forms of music. It's more closed now, but there's still potential for it to open up again. I think artists would like to break out and be more expressive again. A lot of musicians are realizing that this sense of being stylistically compartmentalized isn't really getting them anywhere. I think we're seeing a whole new movement of indie bands, and a lot of them sound really different.
Given the changes in the music industry and in technology, many artists now choose to produce their own recordings. Is traditional record production becoming obsolete?
I think that as the record industry has become increasingly corporate, the role of a good producer has definitely become conspicuous in its absence. With the ubiquity of digital audio gear, more and more artists are recording at least part, if not all of their records. The artist has become more empowered in their ability to make a good recording, but without the financial backing of a record label, the services of a producer are usually out of reach. Most experienced producers come to the table with some degree of technical and musical knowledge — from song structure, arrangement and performance to engineering, mixing and the proper use of effects — and the ability to help bridge those worlds in the studio. For many artists, navigating those technical and musical issues, while at the same time working to evolve their artistic vision, can distract from both goals.
So there's a price to pay for that artistic freedom.
I think it redefines what freedom is. Freedom used to be having a big budget. Budgets are tighter now, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Restrictions can be inspiring. Having the resources to do a record properly is important, but if you don't have focus, it doesn't matter how much time and budget you have to work with. Unless there's a consistent awareness of what's going on, being present in the moment and not operating on tangents, you end up with a record that's got no focus, no purpose. You can hear that in the record. We can give people the technical methodology to make a recording, but not the inner methodology. If you don't have that core to operate from, your results will fall short.
So what do you see as the role of a record producer in tomorrow's record industry?
To a certain extent I think it calls for a more traditional approach toward making a record. Years ago, producers were more tied into the whole traditional A&R approach — working with the artist to develop not just their music, but their whole identity and persona, preparing them for making a record. It calls for more time and attention before the artist sets foot in the studio. Part of that is simply pre-production — examining the arrangements and song structures, mapping out basic recording strategies and work schedules and such. But it goes much deeper than that. It's got to be about more than just making this particular record. It's about getting to know the artist — evaluating not just their material, but their essence and their artistic vision, helping them develop that self-awareness, and a strong sense of who they are and where they're going.
Now that the web has made music disposable to a whole generation, can we commoditize it to them? How can the artist make a living without that?
We can't. Obviously everyone who's involved in the business of making music needs to revisit their paradigm and their business model. It's not going to change. As to re-commoditizing it, I've got a few ideas, but I don't have the answers. The one thing I'm sure of is, if artists make a serious, concerted effort to make music that's vital, personal and expressive in its own unique way, not based on formulas... it's a big "if," but it's really the only way things will change. Artists have to listen to what's inside and discover what's unique about what they're doing, rather than trying to be like someone else. Everyone has influences, but if an artist is willing to take the time to funnel that into their own personal experience and expression, then I think we can see a gradual return to excellence. What people want from music is to be able to exist vicariously through the artist's visions. That's what art is. It reconnects you with the experience of life. That's what inspires people. However mundane someone's life may appear, when touched by real creative expression, they're able to experience life on a much deeper level. And it helps them to realize their lives are just as important as those of other people. That's what it's meant to do.