Digital tools, analog rules
Pat Metheny is no stranger to innovation and technology. The 17-time Grammy Award winner is known for stretching musical boundaries and using creative techniques to reach uncharted musical destinations. He was among the first to adopt digital technology, and continues to incorporate cutting-edge tools into his repertoire—he has even commissioned custom instruments such as the 42-string Picasso guitar. Metheny’s work has won widespread commercial success and critical claim, as well as respect from guitarists and countless other musicians.
After dozens of studio albums and thousands of live performances, Metheny is still breaking new creative ground—he recently composed a 68-minute piece titled “The Way Up,” scored entirely with Sibelius 5 notation software. This summer, he’s touring with The Pat Metheny Trio, featuring Christian McBride on bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums. Metheny and his sound engineer depend on a variety of M-Audio gear—including the Pulsar II microphone—for accurate sound night after night.
Your older recordings on ECM Records were recorded, mixed and mastered in just a few days. Today it’s common to spend several months in the studio producing an album. How does the amount of time spent affect the end result of the project?
For me, it really depends on what kind of story you want to tell. Yes, those early records were all done very quickly, but even some of my recent albums were recorded using that same quick style of production. With some projects, what you really want is a document of a musical event. You want to capture the way that people play together and focus on the performance. But there are other times when the goal is different—you want to create something like a Steven Spielberg movie, where the story has a scale and a drama that is enhanced by the research and experimentation that time offers.
In the early days, I had to either compromise the results or design projects that would fit into that mold. Now I feel lucky to be able to approach projects in a variety of ways. I can make a decision about how to proceed on a production level that follows the needs of the music, rather than the limitations of a strict one-size-fits-all mentality.
Your experience with computer technology goes back several decades—how have you incorporated digital tools into your music production?
My personal connection to modern computer technology and music goes back to the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I was an early user of an instrument called the Synclavier, made by New England Digital. The instrument did most of the things that later became commonplace—including sequencing and sampling—a number of years before the advent of MIDI. In particular, the Synclav was a total-recall, self-contained unit. You could store a project and it would come back exactly where you left it, internal sounds intact. It was a very exciting time, and I stayed pretty deeply involved with that instrument well into the late ‘90s.
But advances in sequencing environments were ultimately just too attractive to miss, so I switched over to Digital Performer. As I learned Performer, I started to use M-Audio products and worked them into my rig, where they offered new kinds of sounds and creativity. As the new Macs have gotten more powerful, using M-Audio software synths has gotten me back to where I was with the Syclav. I can hit store and then come back to a project months later and find it exactly where I left it—but with a power and sonic dimension that leaves early technology in the dust. And now, it’s amazing that the bus-powered Oxygen keyboard, which fits into a laptop case, has features that dwarf the Synclavier at its peak. You can just throw it over your shoulder and set it up in your hotel room in about two minutes—it’s just unbelievable.
Can you describe how you used the M-Audio Black Box on the Metheny/Mehldau Quartet record?
Every now and then, a piece of gear comes along that allows you to make a sound that you didn’t know you could make, which often inspires a piece of music. That’s what happened with the Black Box. The whole idea of locking the modulation of a processing device to a tempo was something I had experimented with in software, but never really experienced with a guitar-based device. It generated a great effect and led to the tune “Towards the Light” on the Metheny/Mehldau Quartet record.
What impact does technology have on your creative process?
I really try to keep my eye on the music itself. The truth is, whether you have access to powerful technology or you are stuck on a desert island with nothing but a toy piano, the elements needed to make great music—melody, harmony and rhythm—are still the same.
That being said, we have the chance to create music with an efficiency that is unprecedented. We can take an idea from inception to completion in record time. But let’s think about the standards J.S. Bach set using the technology of his time—a pen (no eraser!) and paper. That standard remains in place as a gauge of success in music, and will likely stand for quite some time. Ultimately it’s about the ideas and the quality of the notes—and most importantly, the spirit of the musician.
For more info on Pat Metheny, including upcoming releases and tour dates, visit patmethenygroup.com
David Oakes—Live Sound Production with Pulsar II
As Pat Metheny’s longtime live sound engineer, David Oakes is responsible for ensuring that every nuance of the performance translates to the audience. He relies on the M-Audio Pulsar II condenser mics to capture drums and percussion with exceptional precision. “My goal in mixing live jazz is to accurately capture the sound and dynamics of the acoustic instruments being played,” he says.
“I’ve been lucky to get to work with many of the great jazz drummers and to hear the differences of not just their techniques, but of their sound. Billy Higgins, Roy Haynes and Jack DeJohnette are all great but they play and sound completely different. I mic the drum kit as one instrument—not as a bunch of separate drums and cymbals that I EQ, gate, compress and mix into my image of what the kit should sound like,” he explains. “If you’re fortunate enough to hear any of these guys play, you should be allowed to hear what they hear. I achieve this by setting up a stereo field, generally behind them, to pick up what they are hearing—their dynamics and the balance of drums and cymbals. Depending on the drummer, the band and the gig, I will often set up some spot mics to help focus the image or incorporate specific effects. “Since I’m not just miking the cymbals, many traditional ‘overhead’ mics don’t work for me. I find them unnaturally hyped in the top end. I don’t like bright overheads because unless you heavily EQ the mic, you tend to miss the depth and richness of sound that a cymbal can have. I’ve used Pulsar II mics for the past six months with the Pat Metheny Trio and plan to use them again on our summer tour. Their response and reliability help me meet my goal for capturing the drums live. The microphones are solidly built and totally dependable.”