Martin Bisi: Producing Music from the Belly of the Brooklyn Beast

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PARK SLOPE, BROOKLYN: Despite its neighborly demeanor, it’s known that Park Slope has an industrial backbone. Step off the R train at the Union Street stop, walk a few blocks down, and suddenly you’re in something like no-man’s land. Welcome to BC Studio.

Right this way...Bisi bids you descend into his audio heaven. (Photo: David Weiss)

Martin Bisi will see you know. The administrator of this otherworldly recording warren since 1979, one of New York City’s most progressive music producer/engineers is steadily advancing his craft. Today he’s recording strictly when and with whom he chooses, a meditative phase for a man who’s discography includes many of music’s no-holds-barred risk takers: Brian Eno, Bill Laswell, Herbie Hancock, John Zorn, Afrika Bambaataa, The Golden Palominos, Sonic Youth, Iggy Pop, Cop Shoot Cop, Ginger Baker, Bootsy Collins, Swans, Alice Donut, Helmet, Cibo Matto. More.

Things continue to sound very interesting to Bisi, as is evident from his current projects. Experience the noxiously charged drag of Woman, the marching ska punk of The Stumblebum Brass Band, and the huge drums he recorded for Boston epic experimentalist rockers Face of the Sun. Or why not check out the man himself? He records plenty of his own tense, heady music with guest stars like the Dresden Dolls’ Brian Viglione.

Explore the massive live spaces of his studio – the inner walls of some chambers date back to the 1840’s birth of this former warehouse – then sit down with him, the glowing controls of his early 1970’s MCI board close at hand. And buckle your seat belts, because when the topic is music, Martin Bisi’s mind moves fast.

You seem to have an uncomplicated philosophy about recording.
What I say is, “Ears over gear.” What that means is that I use ears as the guide and the actual tool. I’ve found that for either beginning engineers, or engineers that aren’t very good, the actual issue isn’t skill so much – the issue is hearing.

Seeing what I do versus what other people do, that’s really the way I’ve begun to understand it more. It’s hard for me to explain to you what role the board has versus the electronics of the tape machine, or the monitoring, or the carpeting in the room. Until you actually start comparing variables back to back, you don’t really know.

For instance, I’m afraid of changing the color scheme in here. Because God forbid I do and something’s off, and I can’t think in the same way. That goes for a lot of things in music: engineering, production, bands in general. You don’t understand the chemistry that’s there. People come here, get a certain result with me, and they think they know why – maybe it’s me, the gear, or something else.

Then they try it in a different context and – surprise! – it’s different and they don’t know why. People may say then that there’s a problem with the other engineer on their project, so I’ll talk to that engineer and I find out they don’t think there’s a problem. That’s the problem. Because if the engineer thought there was an issue with the gear or the converters, he’d do everything it takes to fix it.

When I think I know what the problem is, I just start trying shit to fix it – the qualities of the gear don’t have to dictate the results. So that’s why I say “ears over gear”. It’s about having a sonic vision in mind. If that sonic vision isn’t there, you’re kind of lost a little. Within that, however, a reference point is important. That’s why I’ve kept NS10’s since the 80’s in addition to other monitors, and I’m generally afraid of changing monitors. Something has to be an absolute.

Martin sez: Think about it.

Sometimes I kind of have a sonic vision, and I just start trying different things. I move the mic a little bit, and I’m constantly surprised at how it sounds. It’s a big room here, there’s 300 places you can put an amp, and so far I’m only up to #200. When I’m mixing, people will say, “What are you doing?” and I’ll say, “I’m just fishing around.” I’ll try a hundred things in three minutes. Sometimes I know what I’m looking for, sometimes I don’t – I just know when something starts clicking for me.

For example, I don’t say, “Everyone who records here will get the same drum sound!” although my ears obviously often take me to a point that I like, and sometimes I get similar results. Ironically, I’m actually not proud of the fact that there’s a signature drum sound that I get, but you can hear it on projects like Face of the Sun.

But if musicians have a distinctive sound, doesn’t it make sense that engineers and producers would as well?
Naturally, we’d all like to be specialists AND jacks-of-all-trades. But that’s not how things work. To quote Dirty Harry, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Actually, I think a lot of professionals realize that they start working well in a niche, a specialty. I think there’s a lot of things I can do, but the places I’m going to shine and add something a little indispensable are in small niches. I’ve discovered that I’m not that exceptional with quiet music – not that I like it or dislike it. And some of these things take decades to understand the chemistry of what’s going on – you spend your whole life trying to understand why that is.

What’s a recent example of how your own approach shows up in the music that you work on?
How I affect the sensibility can be heard in my work with the band Face of the Sun. The drum sounds do sound like me – a vibe, a social thing, happens there. The guitarist and drummer came from Boston, and they wanted to work with me, and maybe there was a same-page situation thing happening. We got tuned into a sort of sound, and maybe that informed the overall quality of the project a little bit.

It’s another example of how it’s hard to know why things turn out the way that they do, but it’s definitely not just the gear. I roll my eyes when people say, “I want to record on your MCI board to get the Philly sound.” Forget it! It’s surprising to me that people think that if you work on certain gear, you’ll get a certain sound. It also comes down to the musicians: Jimi Hendrix always sounded like Jimi Hendrix. He was famous for taking guitars off the rack in music stores and sounding 100% like himself on instruments he’d never touched before.

Your collaborations include some of the most eclectic, pioneering and successful names in modern Western music: Brian Eno, Bill Laswell, Herbie Hancock, to name a few. How did you get on the same page with these hard-to-classify pioneers?
I think that musically, I’m not a purist – that’s a very common thread between me and those names you just mentioned. It’s a big deal: There’s really a big separation between purists and non-purists.

I’m very much in the Sgt. Pepper tradition. The recording is a piece of art, and the engineer should screw around and experiment in the studio. So I generally tend not to do projects, or draw projects to me, that involve a lot of just capturing a performance. That to me sounds average.

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  • The (OA) Can Factory

    nice article.

    two facts to correct:

    1. Martin’s studio is in Gowanus, not Park Slope, and 2. the building dates back to 1885, not 1840.

  • Great article!

  • This is a fantastic article! I loved hearing about BC studios, and the tip “ears over gears” is something I always try to keep in mind

  • Dancoleman2

    In the tradition of Sgt Pepper? Is he kidding? That one Cibo Matto record was nice but Bisi is no Ken Scott or John Anthony or Dave Hentschell.

    Maybe Dr. Pepper.