Neil Weir on Minneapolis's legendary small room, Old Blackberry Way
This month, Behind the Boards visits Neil Weir, who has recorded bands from around the Midwest at his Old Blackberry Way studio for almost ten years. If you recognize the name, it's because the studio, which opened in 1971, was where Twin/Tone Records was born and grew. Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum and the Replacements all recorded there early in their careers. In more recent years, groups like Is/Is and Flavor Crystals have recorded there, and several new local releases due out in 2013 started in the small Dinkytown building.
In fact, while a broken foot has slowed Weir down, this is shaping up to be a landmark year for Old Blackberry Way. Gospel Gossip's long-awaited new album, out this month, is being co-released by Old Blackberry Way and Guilt Ridden Pop, and other recordings by Pony Trash and Heavy Deeds are helping to establish the studio's distinctive sound.
Gimme Noise: How has the studio changed during your tenure?
Neil Weir: The actual physical layout hasn't changed. I've made minor modifications and slowly acquired better equipment. I put an absorptive ceiling in the tracking room to create the illusion of a slightly bigger space -- the idea is that the sound will go up and not come back down.
I started working here with Bruce Templeton, who is not exclusively a mastering engineer, working with Dave Gardener at Magneto. I had worked at Pachyderm from '97 to '01 and met him there. He played in bands and came to recording that way. I came to it as a record collector and a music nerd but I got to the point of working in a studio first, so I was an assistant engineer when he was interning there.
We found we had a like-minded view of music and the process of making it, and we got along very well. His internship ended a couple months before I left, and there was a time where I was doing freelance work while Bruce and I would get together for coffee and talk about creating a studio. We wanted to record the music we liked and keep it affordable.
That was the problem: I loved big studios, but a lot of the bands that I liked the most didn't have the money for that. It was cost-prohibitive for the stuff we wanted to do. When [Blackberry Way] became available we pooled our equipment together. I had a lot of microphones and he has a DAW, Pro-Tools, an interface and a couple outboard compressors.
Bruce recorded the last Sickbay record here. Another one was the last Signal to Trust record, which we worked on together. He moved towards mastering, although he'll occasionally do stuff here.
I think we both figured out what we were good at through the process of working together. He masters a lot of the stuff I work on, and he's really attuned to that end of the process. I'm more attuned to working in broader strokes, getting good takes and a good sound going in. I don't have the patience to fiddle with stuff at that end.
Was it just good luck that Blackberry Way happened to become available when Alex Oana decided to move to California?
Yeah, we had talked about things like setting up a mix room in a building with practice space in it, or converting a garage. It was good timing that this space became available and fit into our budget, just barely. And it was nice starting out with an awareness of what we were doing out there more quickly.
What's the difference between working and recording in a large setting like Pachyderm and a small one like Old Blackberry Way?
The difference is subjective. Having that kind of space and a room that sounds extraordinary allows you to easily capture performances. At the same time it is very cost-prohibitive. Also, it depends on the people who are playing. Some bands feel that a smaller room is more comfortable. It's closer to the dynamic they're used to -- playing together in a practice room or on a small stage. It may be easy to get good sounds, but the performance may suffer. Myself, I like studios so I don't feel that in the physical sense.
And I am also a freelance engineer, so I work in a lot of spaces. Different projects call for different approaches and different rooms. The big room is nice when you're recording a loud rock band and you want to have space and depth around the instruments. If you want something lo-fi, or psych-folk, a room like that may sound too clean. It's project-dependent.
At Pachyderm, the sessions where I felt like everyone was working together were the ones I enjoyed the most. There were other situations where someone was telling the band what they were doing needed to change, and I didn't agree. The way a band plays together is a special thing, even if it's not technically perfect, that's what is unique about them. I saw a lot records being made that captured that, and also a lot of records being made that didn't play to a band's unique strengths.
It was interesting to watch records being made, but be detached from it. A lot of times a record in the rough mix stage was more interesting than when it was finished. I prefer records that are made and mixed in a way that doesn't tell you how to feel. For instance there's the mainstream way of making records where the vocal is very bright and forward, and the music is just instrumental accompaniment. Everything falls into a familiar format, vocals then the snare, and so on.
It goes along with trying to sell a personality, almost like a bad Hollywood movie that tells you how to feel about everything that happens, rather than, say, a Robert Altman film where the story is presented to the audience but they're not told how to react or process it.
Here I track a lot in Pro-Tools so we can be mixing as we go, making those decisions. Then, when we go to create the finished mix it's not a feeling of tearing everything apart and putting it back together. That can be interesting sometimes, but it doesn't always work.
Part of the reason I work efficiently is that I don't approach it through that process. I have a lot of respect for what is already there and assume the decisions the band has already made are legitimate. There's no sense in making things complex for the sake of being complex when the simplest process has proven potential.
I've seen a lot of over-mixing, and it's really easy to lose the life and personality when you do that, and end with something that feels like a mix rather than a performance. I enjoy the feeling that I'm listening to something that happened in a real physical space and in real time.