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Pierre Marchand: Producing Sarah McLachlan, on Land and on Sea

Pierre Marchand calls his approach to production "disorganized" and "chaotic," but his results sound the exact opposite. He is the producer who has made

Pierre Marchand calls his approach to production “disorganized” and “chaotic,” but his results sound the exact opposite. He is the producer who has made the difference on pristine recordings by singer/songwriters such as the McGarrigle sisters (Heartbeats Accelerating, 1990) and Sarah McLachlan, with whom he worked on five albums: Solace (1991), Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1993), The Freedom Sessions (1994), Rarities, B-sides, and Other Stuff (1996), and Surfacing (1997).

During the past few years McLachlan’s albums have been amassing bucketsful of critical and commercial success-huge album sales, lots of industry awards and a high media profile. Surfacing and Fumbling Towards Ecstasy went triple-Platinum in the U.S. and Canada. There have been songs for movies (for Better Than Chocolate, Toy Story and Toy Story 2, and City of Angels), and there’s even a Sarah McLachlan cookbook. It’s a bit surprising, therefore, that the man who has been instrumental in helping create her music has remained virtually anonymous.

So, let’s give credit where credit is due: Pierre Marchand plays many of the instruments, including bass, keyboards and drum programming, on McLachlan’s studio albums. He also records, mixes and produces all her material and co-writes some of her songs.

Almost all of McLachlan’s material is recorded at Marchand’s studio, Wild Sky, in beautiful, forest-covered hills an hour’s drive from Montreal (see sidebar on page 90 for more on the studio). But getting a hold of him there proved difficult, and the reason quickly became clear. Unlike many other producers who appear to have an eight-days-a-week attitude toward their work, Marchand spent some of his royalties on a 47-foot sailboat a couple of years ago, and he spends a fair amount of time sailing. “It gets very cold up here in Quebec,” he explains, “and after eight years here I had enough of freezing. Also, I burnt out at the end of Surfacing. I was going to turn 40, I had dreams of world travel and of pursuing my interests in visual arts. I ended up in California, found a boat and installed a small studio and a dark room in it. The idea was to get more creative, but being on a ship is just not conducive to writing. It’s too easy to just swim!”

Meanwhile, Marchand handed the running of Wild Sky Studios to two brothers, Dominique and Silvain Grand, who keep the studio running as a commercial facility. When I finally caught Marchand on the phone at Wild Sky in late 1999, he was back at the studio for a few months, because, he says, “At one point, vacation life gets a little boring. I wanted a little culture, and I’m considering doing some studio work again.”

An Early StartBorn in Montreal, Marchand’s first language is French, but he told his musical history in accent-free American English. “I started playing the piano at age 12. By age 15, I had a big rack of synths, and in the ’80s, I also had a 286 IBM-compatible PC with Sequencer Plus software. Playing with my racks and sequencer was all I did with my days. I played in a rock band for three years but didn’t like it very much. I discovered that I get much more of a kick in the studio, sculpting away at a piece of music for hours on end. I don’t get a rush from the presence of an audience. I guess I am a bit of a hermit. So during my 20s, I did a lot of theater and film music. When I was 30, I showed my music to Daniel Lanois, who suggested that I play it to a record company. They liked it, and they also happened to have Kate and Anna McGarrigle under contract. The record company and Daniel suggested I produce them, and so I did Heartbeats Accelerating with them.”

Although Heartbeats Accelerating was widely acclaimed, the phone didn’t start ringing, and Marchand carried on doing theater and film music. Then in 1991, McLachlan was looking for a producer to help with her second album, and Marchand was one of several her record company approached. McLachlan remembered in a November 1997 Keyboard interview: “Pierre was given to me in a list of producers, but the different thing was that he sent a tape of his own compositions, which was wonderful. I can’t say enough good things about Pierre. He’s just so awesome.”

SHIVERS UP THE SPINEMarchand helped set the singer on a very fruitful course, with the modern technology-influenced folk-rock that started to find form on her second album, Solace. McLachlan’s third album, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, followed two years later and is still widely regarded as her magnum opus. A marvelous mixture of drum machines and synths with all manner of acoustic instruments, it stands as one of the classic albums of the ’90s. Her most recent offering, the Grammy-winning Surfacing, is a starker, purer, more acoustic album, with a powerful melancholy streak.

“I have definitely been influenced by trip hop folks like Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky, and that has found its way into my work,” Marchand says. “The drum machines and synths and dance music influences are really me having fun with the technology. Sarah doesn’t really like drum machines. I used the sounds of an 808 on a few tracks on Fumbling, like the title track and ‘Mary,’ and Sarah told me afterward, ‘I don’t like the 808.’ That was very funny. She must have realized this after the record was done, because she certainly does not keep her opinions away from me. But I do believe Fumbling Towards Ecstasy was our best album. I was determined to make the best record ever-in my book, of course-and I think ‘Fear’ was my highest achievement. The end result still sends shivers up my spine.

“The approach to Surfacing was a reaction to Fumbling,” he continues. “We all thought we could never do another Fumbling, and I thought we should make a simpler, less ethereal record. I think we achieved this. I love Surfacing. There was a conscious decision to just go with the song, simply make them what they are. ‘I Love You,’ for example, was a romantic song with violins, and we decided to go all the way. No need for the big drums and the three-second reverb on the heavy big snare that you’ll get in big ballads. Instead, I added a hypnotic sub-bass feel-using a sine wave from an E-mu IV sampler-and drum machine to the string arrangement, to keep it away from a Hollywood sound. By contrast, on Fumbling, we always tried to go in nonobvious directions, like with the song ‘Hold On,’ which was a very slow, jazzy, dark, quiet song. I tried to offset that with a rocking rhythm on the drum machine, taking the feel in a completely different direction.”

So, while Fumbling is complex and technology-oriented, with a central place for the drum machine, Surfacing is more acoustic, organic and straightforward. On one song on Surfacing, in fact, the stripped-down arrangement consists of just an acoustic piano and acoustic bass, and on many others the only players are McLachlan, drummer Ash Sood and Marchand.

RECORDING FROM THE DRUMS UPAll of the albums that Marchand recorded with McLachlan after Solace were recorded at Wild Sky studio, following a similar approach. They begin with a lengthy pre-production process, with just Marchand and McLachlan sitting down and mapping out the songs.

“We get a mood and a direction for the songs, and the musicians later tap into that,” Marchand says. “Usually, we develop ideas that Sarah brings in, sometimes we write songs together. ‘Building A Mystery,’ for example, was a combination of some chords that Sarah played that fitted with a chorus melody line and some words that I had written. For Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, we enjoyed the first week of pre-production so much that we thought we could just stop there and put out a record. You can hear some of that stuff on The Freedom Sessions album, which was released two years after Fumbling. Some of the tracks on it are the result of that first week of experimentation. The rest is the live band improvising completely new versions of older songs.

“Once Sarah and I have the structure for the song,” he continues, “my drum machine, the Akai MPC60, is my starting point for the arrangements. I’ve used the MPC60 for all the albums. The 808 on Fumbling was sampled into the MPC60, because you can do many more things with the sounds in the MPC60. I try to find a rhythm that goes with the song and take it from there-I find it easier to create original drum rhythms that way. Drummers have their set of drum beats, and to play the kick drum in an unusual place may be unnatural for them. Ash Sood is really open to creating unusual things. He doesn’t mind stealing from what I come up with on the drum machine, or me editing the things he does in the RADAR. He may improvise for four minutes, and I may find one fragment of that, loop it and use it as the basis for a song.”

Marchand’s drum-centered approach manages to offer continuously fresh perspectives that don’t distract from the essence of the songs. And his methods can be original. “For Fumbling I also hired a local drummer who is legendary in Montreal, called Guy Nadon,” he says. “He’s very eccentric and funny, and a fast player. I asked him to play some rhythms, but it was sounding too much like a jazz big band, and I was afraid I could not loop any of his playing for Sarah’s songs. So I got a whole bunch of CDs, randomly chose one from the pile, gave Guy a five-second taste of a rhythm, and asked him to do something similar. He would ask to hear more, but I refused, because my idea was that he wouldn’t play exactly like the example, but just a similar tempo, feel and beat. I created three different loops in the E-mu IV from three dozen different beats, and one was used on the track ‘Ice Cream.'”

Technology and PerformanceMarchand has stated that he’s “not big on sound,” and it seems true that the engineering side of the recordings is secondary to Marchand’s focus on production and performance. But the sumptuous sound of McLachlan’s recordings clearly does owe quite a bit to the technical end. Technology, Marchand feels, not only gives him the ability to manipulate sounds, it increases his ability to get great performances out of McLachlan and her band.

During pre-production, Marchand and McLachlan do a lot of experimenting with vocals and instruments as well as rhythms. “I will sometimes record as many as 20 tracks of backup vocals,” he says. “The advantage of working here in Wild Sky is that I can record her well from the start. Most of those early vocals are retained. We still try to get better vocals later on, but it seems that when there’s little on tape, the vocal is more focused. If you record a vocal to a finished backing track, it often doesn’t work. Moreover, this way of working means that everybody in the band plays to the vocal, which helps to keep them focused.”

Marchand says that one of the tools that allows him to get strong performances is his Otari RADAR system. “When I started producing,” he recalls, “I would tell a band exactly what to play. I was like a master dictator. This was in the days on analog, when it was much harder to play around with the performances after they were done. Solace was done on the 3M machine, Fumbling on a Studer 827, and Surfacing was all done on a RADAR. I love that machine. I can’t live without it. It’s made by some Vancouverites. I saw an about six months before it came out, and called them and said that I’d like to try one as soon as they had one. I wanted to be a guinea pig because of all the editing I can do with it. Flying things around, creating loops, offsetting the timing. It’s practical and great fun.

“I managed to do edits with analog multitracks, as well, using two multitracks and the 4-track Akai D4, to have slave reels and fly things in,” he continues. “But it often was a nightmare. Now I find that when the band or individual musicians come in, saying nothing is the best thing. I allow myself to get surprised by what they do. I simply put the mics up, press Record, and if they’re good musicians, they’ll come up with something interesting. I tell them that it doesn’t matter if they make mistakes. I just want them to get comfortable and play and enjoy themselves. If you saw the floor of the studio here, you’d understand that it’s not about playing things right. It’s a very cozy and fun place to work with a floor full of paint and wires, and that’s what I like. It’s like, ‘Do whatever you want, and I can fix it later in the RADAR.’ If a drum fill doesn’t work, I can just take it out or put it somewhere else. This is where technology has opened up new creative possibilities.”

Hard disk editing gives Marchand the same control over “real” audio that MIDI sequencing once gave him over synths and samplers. For Surfacing, he used the MPC60 purely for drum loops, whereas keyboards and samplers (Kurzweil K2000 and E-mu IV) were sequenced in Logic Audio for the PC, using an Aardvark 20/20 sound card. In his floating studio, he’s now using PCs with Nemesis’ Gigasampler software, “which is convenient because it takes a second instead of 30 seconds to load a bunch of sounds,” he says, “and you can have a piano sound that uses one GB of memory, and so have every note fully sampled. I have an MPC2000 and an Ensoniq Paris system on the boat, as well.”

Microphones and Beyond”I think microphones are a matter of experience and listening carefully,” Marchand says. “I get mics that I’m told are good, try them all out on an instrument, and choose the one that sounds best. I spend the next three minutes with the headphones on loudly, moving the mic around the instrument until it sounds right and leave it there. Next I get a decent recording level, and that’s where I stop. I don’t add EQ or compression or effects, although I do compress vocals when recording because they’re too dynamic.

“In Sarah’s case, I recorded her [vocal] with a Neumann U47 until Surfacing, and then switched to Neumann 149, which has a sweeter top end-I don’t have to EQ it later in the mix,” he continues. “I compress her voice a little with the Tube-Tech CL1, just minimum compression, fast attack, medium release. I have also noticed that, as time passed, I started moving the microphones farther away from the source, because I found that the more room sound I got, the more interesting or natural the results were. When I first started with acoustic instruments, I made the mistake of recording everything with the microphones right up close, and I then had to do a lot of fixing at the mix. Although sometimes close-miking can sound excellent, and I still end up with microphones in the strangest places. There are no rules, although when I asked Daniel Lanois for advice on how to get a good acoustic guitar sound, his answer was, ‘First get a good-sounding acoustic guitar.’ I suppose that’s a rule that goes for almost everything you record.”

Marchand also gets a very beautiful piano sound, which starts with a 19th-century Steinway Concert B grand piano, recorded with two Neumann 150 microphones placed right above the strings. But Marchand says that microphone placement and selection are not the areas that really turn him on. Sonic experimentation is his passion-for example, the moving soundscape behind the track ‘Black & White,’ which is “a sweeping filter pad out of the K2000. I like putting these sounds through an amp. It gives them a new life, a bit of crunch, injecting some organic feeling.”

Marchand also created an exquisite effect on “Sweet Surrender.” The rhythmic sound at the beginning that resembles a hooting car is actually bassist Brian Minato going haywire with feedback on an electric guitar. Marchand says, “I asked him to put the amp at 11 and just go for it. He learned the chords as he went along, and he filled the track up with feedback. Later, I went through it with the RADAR and found bits of feedback that fitted with the chords, and put them in places that worked. I then created a rhythm using the mutes on the Helios, and to get this idea perfectly in rhythm I programmed the sequencer and keyed a noise gate with it.”

The MixUnlike many engineers, Marchand says he actually loves to “fix it in the mix.” “I spend four days per song mixing,” he says, “because that is when I make most of the decisions. There’ll be a lot of EQ’ing going on, and I’ll add effects and edit, and there may even be some additional overdubbing. Even the song structure may still change at this stage. A song may be six minutes long, and I’ll have all sorts of ideas on tape, and then during the mix I’ll narrow things down and select all the best moments. The song may get shorter and more condensed.

“I actually really like doing things like finding the good 30 seconds of music in 15 takes,” he continues. “I like selecting the best bits and then comping them together. And, of course, I have a safeguard in Sarah. When I start a mix, I’ll simply put up the faders and try to make everything fit. Once it starts sounding like a song, I start looking at making musical changes, like edits or overdubs. Sarah is fully involved at this stage, but she will let me work alone for long periods of time, and when I’ve achieved something, she’ll come in with fresh ears to make decisions.” Another effect that’s added in the mix is tremolo. “If you hear tremolo on any CD I have produced, it’s actually board automation and a fast wrist,” he says.

Although Marchand records most sounds dry, he sometimes prints effects on a separate track to help create a mood for a song during recording. But at the mixing stage, these effects usually get erased. He then starts again from scratch to create a coherent soundscape. His favorite effects boxes include the Eventide H3000, Lexicon PCM 90 and PCM 80 reverbs, delays, echo, flanging, and most of all, the RADAR. “The solo in ‘Building A Mystery’ was created in the RADAR,” he says. “I borrowed chords from the song and placed them in a different order, and Sarah’s guitar solo, as well as her ‘oooohs,’ go into a multitude of reverse and forward modes. This took me a few hours of twiddling knobs before I was happy with this musical break. There were quite a few lucky mistakes involved. I love the fact that there’s an Undo mode. This means that when I cut and paste, I can be deliberately careless. I’m always hoping that a mistake will turn out brilliant.”