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INTERVIEW: Recording engineer Howard Bilerman

Andrew Low
INTERVIEW: Recording engineer Howard Bilerman

You may know Howard Bilerman from his engineering and drumming on Arcade Fire’s critically acclaimed debut album Funeral, but you may be interested to know that he has also recorded over 300 albums for the likes of Wolf Parade, British Sea Power, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Basia Bulat, Vic Chesnutt and The Dears.
Despite the success of Funeral, Bilerman left the band to concentrate on engineering at Hotel2Tango, the Montreal studio that he co-owns with Efrim and Thierry of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Radwan Moumneh, in addition to working for Banff Centre’s Indie Band Residency in 2008 and 09. He has stayed connected to his roots and aspires to work with bands  that inspire him creatively.

Do you see yourself as a diehard analog fanatic?

I love working on tape, but it’s more about the thoughtful process it makes you engage in. I think I’m more comfortable with the term ‘limitations advocate’. Even though I’ve come to embrace some of the bells and whistles computers have to offer, I still find that 24 tracks make the band –­ and me for that matter – focus much more on what is really essential in terms of takes and overdubs, and I think the records benefit in turn. I find everyone far more connected to the process when we’re working to tape.

Was the analog gear in your studio chosen for its sonic quality?
No. In fact, I sometimes think sonic quality is last on the list. For me, it’s really a question of process and that is something I still try to adhere to if I’m asked to work on a computer. Recording to tape is front-end loaded on performance, and I think that makes better records. Plus, two-inch tape is cost-prohibitive in terms of indulgence.

While we are on the subject of sonic quality, I have to be honest with you, it’s not something I can say is more important to me than a good song. Case in point, I can listen to on oldies AM radio station (mono, nothing over 5khz) all day, while I don’t think I’d last five minutes listening to a crappy song on a $100,000 hi-fi. In terms of things I record, I don’t want people to respond to how something sounds, I want them to respond to the music. I know those two things go hand in hand, but If the production overshadows the music, that is a failure to me.

Did recording Funeral open up many new doors?
That is a tricky question. I had been recording for 15 years prior to doing that record, so some doors were already opening as a natural extension of that. I’ll say this though, in terms of bands that approached me solely because I recorded that album, most of those sessions were very frustrating. There is this misconception that one band can make a record very similar to another band’s, simply by engaging the same producer/engineer, in the same studio, which is simply not true. There is no ‘magic dust’ at the studio and the quality of the record you leave with is directly affected by the quality of songs you come to the table with.
Can you list some favourite outboard racks and effects?
When you have good players playing good songs, all of that stuff is irrelevant. You need to manipulate less when you are recording good players. I mixed the last Wolf Parade record with a Fulltone  tape echo and a UA LA2a, both of which I love dearly. Arlen (Wolf Parade’s drummer) was shocked at how bare the outboard patchbay was. As far as other pieces of gear, the Empircal Labs Distressor is an excellent flexible device, anything that Urei made is equally ‘go-to’ and I’d cry if our spring reverbs disappeared.

What drew you to the Neotek console? How has it performed?
Steve Albini is a big Neotek advocate, so we were drawn to it because he owns two and my partners had just come back from working with him at Electrical. Albini has always inspired me in terms of his work ethic, his approach and his respect for the bands he works with.  His way of working has put a lot into perspective for me, as are the things he’s been vocal about in terms of music recording. When he gets behind a piece of equipment, the endorsement carries a lot of weight. The board feels really solid and has served us quite well. I really like the eq.

How about some underrated microphones?
The Avantone CR-14 ribbon mic. Also, the old AKG 414B-ULS takes a lot of crap for being dull sounding, but it has gotten me out of many jams when recording glassy sounding things like strings or cymbal-pounding drummers. Audio Technica AT450s are great for toms, and I have been liking Shure’s VP88 for drum overheads. Lawson and Peluso make great mics for the money.

How do you ask a band to prepare for a session?
I am not a huge advocate for writing in the studio, especially with bands that have limited time due to budgets. I tell the band to come to the studio with songs that they love playing, rehearsed and completed enough that they could be played in front of an audience. That doesn’t mean we’ll record everything live off the floor – I have done records one instrument at a time – it simply means that the actual song ‘exists’, and everyone in the band has felt what it is like to be inside of it. 

Many years ago I went to an album launch of something that I recorded. Something happened that taught me a lot and I try to remember it. The band played one of the songs we recorded, and their version of it totally smoked. It was miles better than the version we recorded, which was essentially written in the studio and figured out within hours of being captured on tape.

It was the last ...

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their set, and as the audience was leaving, they lined up at the merchandise table to buy a record, some even humming the chorus of the song in question. I knew in my heart that the performance they had just seen was superior to the record they were buying, and it was an incredibly frustrating feeling. It could have been avoided if the band spent more time with the song before recording it.To that extent, when a band offers to send me demos, I insist they send me it recorded with one mic in their jamspace.

How involved do you get on the production side?
It was only when people started hiring me – and there was talk of money – that the notion of ‘are you a producer or are you an engineer?’ even came up. I still don’t have a good answer for that question. People can call me whatever they like and I will show up in the exact same way. I record people’s records. I am confident that I am the only person, other than the band, who needs to be involved in the process, which starts at recording and ends at mixing. Then again, I’m not in the habit of taking on sessions with bands that can’t play and don’t have a strong sense of themselves.

I have read that you are not interested in fame and you do not want to record major label bands for the money. How do you turn a profit at your studio?

I certainly am not interested in fame as it presents itself most often, which is incredibly shallow, temporal and fleeting. The pursuit of fame in itself is not a goal of mine. If fame came as a result of hard work and treating people fairly, then so be it. I want to do good work. I want to do interesting work. I’d prefer not to make the same record over and over again, or participate in proliferating derivative music. And to me, if ‘fame’ was brokered on having to do boring carbon copies of the same two or three records people associate with me, then no, I am not interested in fame.

Closing comments?
I miss Vic Chesnutt and lhasa de Sela. I’m happy to have seen Odetta perform before she left this earth. John Simon, Bob Johnston, and Leonard Cohen are all incredibly inspiring individuals. Levon Helm’s book This Wheel’s on Fire is by far the best read I’ve had in the past few years. The Rolling Stones over The Beatles, without question.

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