An interview that ran in TAPE OP: ROBERT POSS
Interview by Heather Mount
I briefly met Robert Poss back in the fall of 1993 when Band of Susans performed in Bratislava at the U Club, an amazing underground bunker that had once been used as a bomb shelter by the local Slovak powers. I next caught up with him in the fall of 1996, at a Lincoln Center performance of works by Nicolas Collins and Alvin Lucier. My first impressions were that this was a guy both whip smart and off the wall. He skated saucily through life's mires, taking jovial punches at politics (sexual and otherwise), the state of music appreciation and depreciation, and the pitfalls of what he likes to call showbiz. A that time, Robert was threatening to leave music for a career with the U.S. Postal Service. (Glad he didn't make that choice!) It became clear that underneath the unpretentious, playful chat, this was a guy who really knew music. Getting to know Robert could not happen without also getting to know his music. Robert began playing electric bass as a young lad of 12 and soon drifted over to blues/rock guitar, continuing through college (at Wesleyan). He was in some blues bands early on, and later embraced the punk and post-punk aesthetic in bands like Tot Rocket and Western Eyes. He then cofounded Band of Susans, an influential art-rock/guitar wall band that cut its teeth in the mid '80s. Although outnumbered by splendiferous Susans in the band, Robert was the driving force of the guitar-writing, with other cofounder Susan Stenger sharing the singing, songwriting, and the all-over sound and fury of the band. Band of Susans developed quite a name for themselves, and put records out on such labels as Blast First, Rough Trade Germany and Restless. Disbanding due to basic life stuff, Susan and Robert continue to collaborate on projects both here in NYC and in England. Robert Poss' interest in recording goes way back into his teens growing up, and through the days with BoS. Gleaning techniques from various engineers with whom BoS worked during the '80s, Robert learned what he liked and what he didn't like. He produced all of Band of Susans releases except for their Peel Sessions. In 1995, he started acquiring gear for serious home recording. Since then, the obsession and fascination with recording has grown as has his studio and its potential; Robert has begun recording various indie bands (Nickel Hex, Combine, the Croutons, Skulpey, Tone), and recently teamed with ex-BoS member Page Hamilton (Helmet) to do a major label remix for the infamous Skeleton Key. Poss has been impressing audiences with his live solo shows. He is working on a variety of new material, embracing his own brand of electronica, fractured rock and densely textured guitar minimalism.
During the years you've been in bands you have been constantly busy playing, touring and recording. Recently, you had a solo-guitar performance at the Cooler, which blasted my socks off. What else have you been up to over the 2+ years?
In 1996 I spent quite a bit of time in the Netherlands, working on solo guitar and electronics material in Amsterdam at the STEIM music think-tank, performing a few solo shows, working with Nicolas Collins, and also working in an ensemble with composer David Dramm. David, myself, and two wonderful Dutch percussionists had a residency in Utrecht, working on David's song cycle, "All Lit Up." I did the live electronic processing -- with distortion, resonant filters, various kinds of delays. I did things like put heavily gated contact mics on the vibes and hi hats, and run them through heavy distortion, or have them key-trigger gates on other instruments. I got a great deal of use out of my Peavey Spectrum Analog Filter. In the fall of 1996 I went to London and performed at the South Bank Centre as part of The Brood -- a group comprised of Susan Stenger (from Band of Susans), Justine Frischmann from Elastica, Sonic Boom from Spaceman Three, Robert Grey (Gotobed) from Wire, and me. We performed pieces by LaMonte Young, Phill Niblock and Rhys Chatham. Panasonic also performed; they're really fine. BoS did a cool show with them at the Knitting Factory in '95. The Aphex Twin, Bruce Gilbert (from Wire) and Caspar Brotzmann/F.M. Enheit were also on the bill. In 1996, Susan Stenger, Bruce Gilbert and I also performed in London and Manchester as a trio, so-called GilbertPossStenger. I had a solo show at Roulette in 1997, and did some record engineering/producing: Tone (for Dischord/Independent Project), Seth Josel (for O.O. Disk), local bands the Negatones, and Nickel Hex, another called Mold, and Skulpey. Several months ago I did a remix in my home studio of a Skeleton Key song with Page Hamilton. That was cool, because we ended up working with only 8 tracks out of a 48 (two slaved 2-inches), and I did things like run the percussion track through a Rat and a Dunlop tremelo pedal, and looping one measure of the bass guitar track on the hard drive and running it through two cascading digital delays -- a Korg SDD-2000 and the ultra wacky Ursa Major MSP-126 -- to make a rhythmic overlay. We did that remix on my Akai DR4d's. I guess I also worked a bit with composer Phill Niblock -- recording Jim O'Rourke and David First for him -- and performed his guitar piece a number of times. The rest of the time I've been getting my home studio together and doing day job work (I do location video sound for television, mostly for the BBC). The thing I'm just finally getting to now is recording some new material on my own. I've been in foreplay mode on that for almost three years, it seems. I just hope I won't hate myself in the morning.
You really seek the cutting edge in the equipment aspect of studio recording, obviously committed to constantly improving your studio's production capacity. As you have tried out tons of different models, what are some pieces of outboard effectry that you have found less satisfying than their reputation would have them seem?
Some of the real low budget stuff that is cheap, you expect it to be halfway decent, but it is absolute crap. I put the Alesis 3630 compressor in this category, as well as some of the current cheaper DBX stuff. Yuck! For under $200, you can go out and buy an RN1773 (the Really Nice Compressor) from a guy in Texas, I have two of them, and you get an astonishingly good piece of gear. There are times when the RNC sounds better on a given instrument or pair of tracks than my Joe Meek optical compressor, which is a unit that costs ten times as much. The AKG C3000 microphone has been a disappointment to me. I used it one night on my guitar amp in Germany in '95, and was very impressed. I bought one when they became available in the US and haven't ended up using it very much at all. I guess I should have known better, since I've never really liked the AKG 414, which is the mic that the C3000 is ostensibly patterned after. Now that they've cut its list price in half, the C3000 isn't such a bad deal, though.
At what point did you really dig in to furnishing your own equipped home studio?
I never really wanted to have a home studio, because I felt that I had been "spoiled" by working with all of the great gear at places like Baby Monster. I always wrote and demoed songs on four-track cassette, and loved the sound of it. In fact, I still think some of the four track demos have better guitar sounds in places than some of the BoS records we released. Maybe it has something to do with the in-line impedance transformers I used, and the input stages of the Tascam or Fostex. I loved to pack the level on. Meters be damned! It had long occurred to me that it would be wonderful to do stuff in my apartment that was spontaneous but a bit higher fidelity than the 4-track cassette stuff. In 1995, I started getting more interested in getting a home studio together. I bought two Akai DR4d's (stand alone hard drive machine) because I had heard such horror stories about ADAT transports. The first things that were done at the studio, that were released, were the last BoS tracks we ever recorded, two cuts for two Wire tribute CDs. Part of what made the studio possible was that I was given some fine equipment from my brother-in-law, who had decided to dismantle his own home multimedia studio. So I ended up with wonderful stuff I never could have afforded: a Bryston 4B power amp, two Westlake BBSM-6 monitors, a Lexicon PCM-70.... It snowballed from there, and I realized that my pathological equipment lust had a purpose. I could learn a lot by actually owning the gear because I would have time to experiment and really learn the engineering stuff that I had never had a chance to learn while we were paying by the hour.
What are some of the main things that you have learned in general about the recording process? What advice would you give to recordees, as they approach the notion of recording music in a studio?
A studio makes most musicians self-conscious. The easiest parts and riffs suddenly seem difficult, the grooves that were so effortlessly attained in rehearsal seem stiff and stilted. The problem is that in the studio, most people think too much and concentrate too hard. And there's time pressure and money pressure and a sense that the work is going to be permanent -- a statement of sorts. Ideally, one should book enough time so that there's time to get acclimated, to make mistakes, to fool around a little without losing focus. In my best recording situations, that nervousness and sense of expectation was channeled into an intensity, an urgency that meant that the performances were one of a kind. I seem to recall vodka and whiskey also playing a role here. I guess a certain amount of preparation is important, if you do music that requires such things. With BoS, basic parts had to be learned and perfected beforehand, because our sound relied on a great deal of precision. I would also spend a great deal of time in the session auditioning and choosing guitars, and various permutations of amps, speaker and mics. I was very hands-on when it came to mixing those BoS records; the engineer would usually leave the room for awhile and just let me do my thing, and then return and be horrified by how upfront the guitars were. Don't always settle for the speaker close-mic'ed with a Shure 57. Experiment, but always have a sonic goal in mind. Otherwise it can become aimless, self-indulgent and costly. I've always thought that live performances and studio recordings were ocmpletely different types of events. A gig is like a play. Making a record is like shooting a film. There's a level of artifice and manipulation permissible in a session that is analogous to the way a film narrative is structured through direction and editing. A play or concert on the other hand, exists in real time and has a whole different sort of aura. So, I've never been obsessed with things being "live" in the studio.
What has become of BoS recordings? Any thoughts on remixes?
I still have all of the the 2" masters. We've always owned our own publishing, and I think the rights to our recording have reverted or are in the process of reverting back to us. It's a little complicated, since we were on Restless in the US, Rough Trade Germany World Service in Europe, and Blast First in the UK. I sometimes think about dumping some 2" masters down to 16 tracks of ADAT (sacrificing some of the tracks, in other words) and doing some remixes in my apartment. It would be great fun, and I know so much more about engineering than I did when I did those records. On the other hand, the mixes on those records are very extreme, and when I go back and listen to them I find flaws, but I also marvel at how gutsy we were to have the guitars so loud. At the time, everyone seemed to be in a "guitar band," but most of those bands had very loud vocals and drums. We were truly guitar heavy, and we were involved with approaches to overtones and textures and drones that only became popular in the last few years. In the late '80s we used to talk to writers from Melody Maker and Spin about LaMonte Young and ALvin Lucier and Phill Niblock and Tony Conrad and they didn't know who the hell we were talking about.
You now play and record your own solo works, which generally involve multiple guitars, and amplifiers ranging in power from 1 to 200 watts -- your sound is a rich, loud swirl... how do you plan to record this stuff?
The core of my live sound is a signal chain that I devised early on, I guess in 1986 and 1987. You take a G&L SC-1 -- the world's finest guitar with the world's finest guitar pickup -- and run it through a Tube Screamer, a Rat, a DBX 463x noise gate, an original Yamaha SPX-90 (used primarily for gain stages) and then into a clean, high-powered Park or Marshall tube amp. With BoS live I would run a 100-watt non-master volume tube Park head and a 100-watt Marshall Dual Reverb head through the four twelves in my Marshall (or later Laney) speaker cab. Of course, the Park had to be green and the Marshall had to be purple. Since the cab was stereo, I could use one bottom with two heads. The Park took the processed signal, and the Marshall took the straight guitar signal. I would also usually run another small combo amp across the other side of the stage for stereo dispersion. The gain out of my system was so high, that even playing outside of the Roskilde festival in Denmark, I never ran the Park head volume more than about 2 out of 10. It all has to do with cascading gain stages, and being able to control feedback so that a shift in position will cause precise overtones to sound. I generally used MesaBoogie tubes in my amps, even though I hate the sound of their guitar amps generally. Of course now with my solo stuff, and playing in small clubs, I use multiple small amps -- Fender, Laney, Ampeg, Crate, Traynor -- and split the signal in various ways. I also make use of a Gibson ES-135 hollow body, a Yamaha hollow body with Gretsch Filtertron pickups, a Fender Stratocaster 12-string that I have in a bizarre tuning with metal koto-like bridges placed under the strings along the neck, and my other old standbys, two aluminum-bodied semi-hollow Tokai Talbo Blazing Fire guitars in various odd tunings I've devised. I use two Lexicon JamMans and a Boomerang for live looping. Of course BoS started back in 1986 with me using three old digital delays to do looping, so I'm pretty familiar with all that stuff. Playing in a band is great but it has all the blessings and curses of being in a cult. But after all the intensity of collaboration, I'm finding it liberating to be on my own just now. No band meetings, no arguments, no explanations. Just me and my big fat ego. I've also been getting back into pure electronic music which is something I've been involved with since the mid-1970s, using oscillators and filters and those sorts of things. I'd like to release a solo record or two, maybe something like BoS with a beat and something also purely electronic/noise.
We could do a whole interview based on the wonders of different kinds of mics, and mic techniques. Which of the mics that you use these days do you find to be high both in performance and versatility? What are your picks for vocals and snare?
Even though most engineers obsess over the snare, I generally just stick a 57 on it and vary the timbre by mic positioning and adjusting/tuning the snare itself. Then a whole range of stuff can be done with it in mixdown. For kick, the important thing is distance and placement, determined as always by educated guesses and refined by trial and error. Electro-Voice RE-20's and the standard Beyer or AKG kick mics tend to work well. For guitars, I use a wide variety of mics. I very much like the Audix D3. I like the SM-58 rather than the 57. I'm fond of the Sennheiser 441 (one of my favorite dynamic mics) and of course the Coles 4038, a mic that I fell in love with when I first used one in London in 1988. I like using the Langevin CR3A, sometimes placing it behind and above the speaker cabinet to get resonance and bass. I think omnidirectional dynamic mics are great, like the EV-635. And I've used Beyer ribbon mics (the M260) since 1989. I have a pair on semipermanent loan from Nicolas Collins and recently had them re-ribboned at Beyer. I have a few other old ribbon and dynamic mics kicing around as well.... And a few oddball condensers, though I can't afford the old classic ones. For vocals, almost anything will work. It depends on the situation, and what sort of timbre and response you're looking for. I'm partial to the Shure SM-7, the RE-20, the CR3A, the AudioTechnica C-87 MKII, and the 441.
The issue of tubes came up the other day, and you led me to check out out a cool book on the history of tubes and tube amplifiers called THE TUBE AMP BOOK, written by Aspen Pittman of Groove Tubes fame. What tubes do you use in your mics and amps?
I grew up in the era of monophonic sound and of tubes. When we would go to the record store, the records came in two flavors, stereo and mono. My earliest musical memories are of listening to music through a mono tube hi-fi set played through a 15-inch JBL D-130 speaker that my father had rigged for the living room using the basement staircase as a infinite reflex speaker cabinet; he cut a hole in the wall, in other words. A well-designed tube circuit with the proper transformers and plate voltages sounds fabulous. A well designed discrete Class A solid state circuit (like API) can sound just as good. Luckily the fad (which became a movement) for vintage and tube recording gear has meant that more companies are making tubes, and tube-based equipment. Some of the circuits sound terrible, but some sound just great. There's also some great solid state stuff out there. I love the EL-8 Distressor.
We were getting some buzz the other day, which occurred on the bass track of the recording that we were working on. You were quiet for a couple of minutes, they jumped up, started to wire up your Stro-Lion to sample the buzz, and to create a phase shift great enough to cancel most of the buzz. We were very impressed. What other noise reducing tricks have you found to work?
The Roland SN-550 and SN-770 do an amazing job on hum and hiss reduction in real time. They're very sophisticated, and somewhat expensive. The Stro-Lion n'hummer can sometimes work wonders by nulling the hum through adjustable phase cancellation in the sidechain. Downward expansion gates, like the 463x, can also work wonders. I never understand why so many guitarists settle for loud hum in the spaces between their playing. Gating is so simple, and something like the Behringer Intelligate, which can be made frequency selective, is quite fast, cheap, and simple to use. If it's done right, gating can be totally invisible and unobtrusive.
Tell us about that beautiful purple-knobbed Avalon monotrack processor....
I like the Avalon, Joe Meek, and API stuff that is currently being made quite a bit, and some of the TL Audio stuff (even if it's not purist tube stuff) can be useful. The Avalon VT-737 (which is a bit extravagant, I know) will probably hold its value for a long time. It is very well made, and very highly thought of. So, when I need to sell it, I'll get a fair amount of money. A lot of midrange equipment has virtually no resale value, so it often pays to buy very cheap or reasonably expensive stuff, and avoid the midrange stuff for the long haul. By the same token, I'm always on the lookout for old, cheap stuff made by companies like Altec. Of course, room mikes can still be squashed effectively with a $70 Alesis MicroLimiter, and I love doing perverse things like using an old multiband passive architectural EQ made by Altec to process bass guitar, or using dirty White 4001 room EQ's -- highly resonant -- on kick and snare. I love the response and ballistics of old VU meters, and classic old equipment just looks so fine. It instills confidence even when it's broken. Of course, as we all know, the most important thing in audio is how the equipment looks. The rest is easy.