On Daniel Lanois’ Soul Mining

by Thomas Brett

“Letting something you don’t understand come to fruition is an intelligence in itself.”

It’s not that often that a renowned record producer/engineer/musician/composer shares his thoughts on the creative process–from the nuts and bolts of technical things all the way out the mystical side of how to carefully, mindfully mine one’s life and create meaning in addition to hit records. In his book Soul Mining (2010), Canadian producer Daniel Lanois lets us in his musical life and we learn many fascinating things. Lanois has worked with some of the biggest names in popular music, from U2 and Peter Gabriel to the Neville Brothers, Brian Eno, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and Bob Dylan.   Many of these artists found Lanois either through his sound or through his recognized ability to connect with artists in the recording studio.  Having a distinctive recorded sound is no small feat, especially considering there are virtually limitless ways to get a sound by using recording equipment such as microphones and mixers in particular ways.   It is equally difficult to extract incredible performances from the musicians you are recording by capturing those precious moments “flying by, those molecular pieces looking for congregation.”  It’s about having a Voice and Connecting–not just wires, but people to one another, and to a time and a place.

Some of Lanois’ techniques are low-tech.  For instance, he explains the value of One-Point Source recording, where several sounds are recorded by a single microphone. This technique, by the way, was used to make the earliest records, where instrumentalists would position themselves in the studio, gathered around a single recording horn, according to which instruments would be foreground and which ones background
(vocalist up front, etc.).  One-Point Source recording may seem antiquated today, when every sound usually gets its own track in the digital domain, but it does have a particular kind of blended, unified sound.   As Lanois observes: “Get your source right, and your end will be right.”  For Lanois, “record makers are illusionists” in the sense that recordings are artificial things that must conjure through strong performances, a clean recording, and artful use of sound processing.

One of the most valuable insights Lanois offers concerns the philosophy behind some of his working methods.   One high-tech technique concerns how to build what Lanois calls a “fifth dimension” to the recorded sound by using sampling machines (tape machines back in the day, digital recording devices today) to record bits of the songs and then amplify them somehow.  Imagine taking a photo of a Persian rug, zooming in on a section, then repeating the motif by cutting and pasting it.  While the new creation might look unrecognizable, it will have a DNA connection to the original rug.  Lanois describes his process:

“I use sampling machines to catch fragments with the view of spinning them back into the song with a new texture.   This technique allows me to build an orchestra of sounds that relate to the song because they come from it (…) I’ve spent hours sampling, enhancing, and spinning these kinds of samples back into songs so that artists can have a beautiful custom sonic orchestra at their disposal.   It has taken me twenty years to master this technique.  The Zen of it appeals to me.  The results are unique and original.”

If you’re curious about how this technique can sound, take a listen to a recent Lanois-produced recording by Neil Young called Le Noise (2010). If you listen closely, you can hear guitar parts doubled octaves below to make a booming bassline, Young’s voice doubled and echoed, among other sound that contribute to the overall feel of the recording:

In the video below, Lanois describes how he recorded Young and processed his sound using a technique he calls “black dubs” (a reference to Jamaican dub mixing?) to produce ever-changing, fifth-dimension
textures.  Says Lanois (4:19): “I’m trying to find ways to enter the future with sonics…I want to build new sounds for the future…”: