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RSR038 – Ian Brennan – How Music Dies (Or Lives)

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RSR007 - David Glenn - The Mix Academy

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RSR038 - Ian Brennan - How Music Dies (Or Lives)

My guest today is Ian Brennan a recording artist, producer, concert promoter, activist, and author. He is a GRAMMY-winning producer with four GRAMMY-nominated records for Best World Music, and Best Traditional Folk.

Ian has many interesting tales to tell. Whether performing a weekly show in a San Francisco laundromat for five straight years, or producing records in the recording studio, or promoting concerts for crowds of thousands, or traveling the world recording some of the most fascinating music you might hear, Ian Brennan is always creating, recording, and writing about it. And as a result, has an intimate understanding of music.

He has written a fascinating book called “How Music Dies (Or Lives): Field Recording And the Battle for Democracy in the Arts” that shares his deep understanding of music, culture, and recording. He helps us look beyond what the world recognizes as music through popular recordings, and into the core of what music really means to us as human beings.

It is an ear opening journey around the world with the intent of preventing us from deafley stumbling toward the end of music through innocent global homogenization of culture, by guiding us to a better understanding of what music really sounds like when it matters the most.

Ian has had a long career of recording his own music and producing other’s music, both in the studio and outside of the studio. His client list is loaded with names that you might recognize like Kyp Malone & Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio), Flea, Lucinda Williams, David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), Nels Cline (Wilco), DJ Bonebrake & John Doe (X, the Knitters), Bill Frisell, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Jonathan Richman, Richard Thompson, and many more.

But it’s the names that you wouldn’t necessarily recognize that tell a truly remarkable story of Ian’s recording career. Projects from around the world like the Malawi Mouse Boys, The Zomba Prison Project, Hanoi Masters, and Italy’s Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino are recordings that Ian passionately writes about in his new book.

Here are the three main labels where most of the releases can be found...

"In the USA last year they estimated over 100,000 [music] releases, yet most countries in the world didn’t have a single release internationally of popular music"

-Ian Brennan

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Sainkho Namtchylak

She’s virtuosic, has a 5 oct range. The last record  she collaborated with rhythm section from Tinariwen. It was more song oriented with instant composition, for the most part they wrote songs on the spot. We recorded a double album literally in 5.5 hours in one afternoon. We didn’t release all of it, but that type of singer gives new meaning to what it is to be a vocalist. Somebody who not only has that range but somebody who has a range in terms of tone you know where they can literally sound like other people and even like other species, mirroring the sounds of the environment (water & wind).

Malawi Mouse Boys

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. The Malawi boys have been singing together since they were small children in their village with no electricity, radio, tv, or running water, and they have built all their own instruments. Music is a part of their daily lives and they literally learned to sing together so they’ve never sung apart. I think when you stumble upon that, any mic that's within six feet of them is going to capture something potentially cool. The depth of the musicality is so profound because they’re not viewing it in a consumeristic way, they’re viewing it in a very natural way. They don’t feel that it's in limited supply. And one of the most incredible things about their group is the ability to adapt instantly. So if they feel like it, one of them might switch and sing lead on another song without ever having done it before and without planning and rehearsing it

Zomba Prison Project

We went into the maximum security prison from Malawi and worked for almost two weeks with the men and women there on songwriting and recording. We recorded over six hours worth of music which is a lot because it involved 60 people and most songs were recorded just once. From that we released a record and much to everyone’s surprise it received a grammy nomination at the end of 2015. That became a big story internationally. The individuals involved were age 27-70. With the men, we recorded in their little rehearsal area, with the women, we recorded in the dirt courtyard of the prison. As far as the EQ area, I always turn mixes over to better engineers such as John Golden of Golden Mastering. 

Ian Brennan
Learning to Use Your Own Voice

I think it’s fine to have influence but it's fairly consumeristic and can be somewhat indulgent and there's nothing wrong with that either I think for a lot of artists it’s good to purge themselves, abstain from listening deliberately to recorded music and to try to listen instead to things that are more random. There's not silence. There’s no such thing as silence, but the sounds that they are surrounded by. That’s one aspect and I think that it's often times good for people to go to the other extreme and really to embrace something is an obsessive compulsive way. Something that might really move them it might be a single song or a single performance and that's kind of an ancient traditionally musically technique sometimes to literally play the same song until you drop for days at a time. Learning to forget, where it becomes so deeply embedded that you’re able to then move on to the level of expert, where it’s all forgotten… get into the zone and do things that no one can consciously produce

Jam Session 

Q - What was holding you back at the start?
A - I think it's always fear that holds people back. You know, I think rather than trying to deny fear which is often times people's goal, I think to acknowledge it and then to proceed is usually the better course. When I began equipment was so hard to come by I mean this is before the Tascam Portastudio, so it's been brilliant to see the accessibility of recording for people that doesn’t require that pressure to go outside their own home and spend huge amounts of money, that they can develop more organically and build up to something bigger.

Q- What was some of the best advice you got early on?

A- Some of the best advice I ever received was make sure musicians are standing up and moving when they’re recording. More specifically, I would refine that to make sure that people are doing whatever they normally do. So if they normally play guitar and sing, they should play guitar and sing and not track a guitar and try and sing to it. Everybody’s different.

“If everyone’s happy you’ve hit some kind of compromise medium that lacks point of view” -Ian Brennan

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Q- Share with us a recording tip, hack, or secret sauce.

A - Again I think it comes back to the point we were just talking about, record in the manner people are comfortable recording. Meet them where they are at. So if they’re a night person, record at night. If they’re a morning person, record in the morning. I really believe in recording somewhere that has meaning to the individual so that it does have a sense of time and place even if it's not outdoors.

Q - Share a favorite hardware tool for the studio
When I’m recording outdoors I use battery operated recording devices: Tascam is kind of the origin of home recording, Zoom. Outdoors the sounds that present the most problems are wind and transient sounds. But otherwise with proximity, when the mics are close, that’s all you tend to hear.

“When [artists] surrender to who they truly are, they are embraced” -Ian Brennan

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Q - Share a favorite software tool for the studio

A - I think that any noise reduction is going to be invaluable. This is the thing about the digital era that is so incredible to be able to do things today that we couldn't do two years ago, let alone five years ago. iZotope, Waves, Cedars, it's a miracle what can be done. I’m sure they’re going to become more plentiful in the next coming years

Q -Share with us a tip for the business side of the recording studio

A - is a great resource, its about live recording but I think its a way of learning anecdotically about how the business works. They put out the equivalent of billboard for the live music industry. Even though I’m not very concerned with the commercially aspects of the business, it can be very fascinating to see the changes. One of the big misconceptions that people have is that the music industry is dying and the music industry is in fact growing. They are making more money every year, it's pretty stable. They are making more of it from live rather than recordings, and they’re making it from fewer people which is a sad trend.

“I think all recordings are field recordings” - Ian Brennan 

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Q - If you had to start over what gear would you need? How would you find people to record? And how would you make ends meet while you got started?

A - I think knowing that you don’t need so much equipment as much as people might believe and that the relationships are going to be what's important is something that can lead to contacts. If you’ve got a Tascam 680 and a VRE20 and a lavaliere can always come in handy and a couple of 57s and 58s and AKG 451’s, and ideally a couple of those sound device preamps but even without those, I think you can record just about anything quite well. As far as meeting people and going about it, I believe hugely in volunteering and giving people a sample. It better to be proactive and active then to sit back passively and wait for someone. I’d much rather go out there and just agree to record someone for free!

Q - What are some things you need for recording and traveling?

A - Duct tape. Duct tape is about all you need. If you've got duct tape, you’ll find a place to put the mic. In most cases there’s going to be chairs around, just tape it to a chair. If you’re outside, you tape it to a tree. It’s not ideal, but necessity is the mother of invention. There’s usually a way to make it work. Also I really believe in laying microphones on the ground that you can get really good sound that way. Particular if you are talking about specifically foot taps or wanting to get more of a mono sound of a single solo performer, it can sound really great! That’s the only place there’s going to be any reflection if you are outdoors.

“Necessity is the mother of invention” - Ian Brennan 

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Q - What is the single most important thing a listener can do to become a rockstar of the recording studio?

A Tell the truth. It means, have integrity, be direct with people, but also in the music itself try to find the truth of the experience and again there's no right or wrong way to do things but i think that when people share a genuine experience people value that almost more than anything else. You know people are starved for attention, but people are also starved for honesty. People that are very nice and social and try to too hard and ultimately are maybe being artificial sometimes have less success socially than people that can be quite blunt and I think we should be empathic with people and sensitive and care, but at the same times, it's amazing how a bit of candor can go so far with people because it does eliminate fear ultimately. They realize they’re with someone who's going to tell them the truth and they don’t have to guess and doubt and I can take it or leave it.


Big Thanks to Tyler Cuidon & Merissa Marx for this week's episode!!