Interview:1998/07 Sean Beavan Interview - Analog Abuse & Digital Depravity

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Analog Abuse & Digital Depravity
Interview with Sean Beavan
Date July, 1998
Source EQ

Sean Beavan has vivid memories of the last Marilyn Manson tour:

"You opened up one of the bays on the tour bus and there were all these prosthetic limbs. It was kind of surprising for people who looked in there. Kind of disturbing, sometimes. But then we got to a point where we were bringing our studio rack out on the road, and we had to have room for it. So we had to get rid of the prosthetic limbs." Beavan doesn't look like a ghoul (what audio engineer does), but he has created some of the most horrific, extreme, and unsettling sounds ever heard on disc. It's all in a day's work when you're studio engineer, co-producer, and live sound mixer for rock's two current reigning bogeymen: Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor and the aforementioned Marilyn Manson.

Trained in psychology, Beavan worked with mental patients before he got into engineering. So he's uniquely qualified for his present job. He did live sound for industrial music pioneer Jim Thirlwell (Foetus) before hooking up with Reznor in time to work on one of the most influential youth cult albums of the '90's: Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral. When Reznor started Nothing Records, his own lnterscope-distributed label, Marilyn Manson was among his first signings. With Reznor as executive producer and Beavan mixing and co-producing, Manson's shock rock debut, Portrait of an American Family, came into this world. Beavan worked on the band's subsequent releases, Smells Like Children and Antichrist Superstar; while also collaborating with Reznor on a slew of Downward Spiral remix discs, as well as remixes for Megadeth, Rasputina, Prick, and the Golden Palominos, among others. He's currently at work on new albums from Kidney Thieves and Marilyn Manson.

The latter project got started at Manson's house up in the Hollywood Hills before moving to a studio in the heart of town, prosthetic limbs and all. It will be the band's first record without Reznor as producer. (Michael Beinhorn's in the big chair.) There are rumors that the much anticipated album will be a major departure for the always-surprising Mr. Manson. He and his whole ghastly crew have been holed up in the studio for quite some time. But Sean Beavan recently took a morning off, venturing into the L.A. sunlight for coffee and a chat.

EQ: You and Trent Reznor have forged a sonic aesthetic all your own. You've made it nearly impossible to listen to those mediocre industrial records with unimaginative fuzztone vocals. You've upped the ante.
Sean Beavan: That's part of what Trent set out to do, in a way. We heard the textural tones of what was going on in industrial music and loved it. But where was the song that made you feel something? You think of Soft Cell, a song like "Tainted Love" - his vocal was tearing your heart out. Or something like "No Hate, No Fear, No Broken Hearts" by Annie Lennox. Those vocals kill. That emotion. And the textures that industrial music has can enable you to bring out so many more emotions.

You guys meticulously crafted what were previously thought of as completely undesirable sounds.
And made them into a thing of beauty, yeah. I think a song like "Hurt" or "A Warm Place" [from The Downward Spiral] takes you to a place in your life that Whitney Houston doesn't come close to. Life isn't a Mariah Carey song. I don't always necessarily want to explore dark and depraved things, but there's a pure beauty in the ugly emotions you have. 

You've been involved with Marilyn Manson since the beginning of the band's recording career.
Yeah. Trent and I were working in Miami, and Manson brought us his demo tape. We listened to it on the way back from Miami to New Orleans [where Reznor is headquarted]. We really liked it and thought it would be cool to sign him, which is what Trent did as soon as he finished his deal to have his own label and sign people.

How has Manson's approach in the changed and evolved?
Obviously, he's gotten more savvy about equipment and sounds. But he's always had a very direct and clear vision of what he wanted to do. And it's different on every record. He has dif- ferent ideas, and he tends to conceive things in very visual terms. And very well-defined terms. With him, it's more a process of figuring out what he wants to do next. Once he finds it, he gets into the character of it, and things are very easy. 

Antichrist Superstar sounds a little more programmed than the earlier work.
It was. And that was a direct reflection of where Trent wanted to go at the time. It came as a series of demos on a 4-track that were very much played live, except for a drum machine. Trent just took it and made it a lot more precise and programmed. 

But on the new Manson record you're going back to more of a live sound?
Very organic. This record's more like a cyborg, whereas the other records had no living tissue. Antichrist was Completely stripped of any emotion. It was completely amoral and antiseptic in a way, but full of anger. So this time, Manson's gone completely the other way. The songs and lyrics are all full of emotion, and the music is very organic, although with a hint of what we've always done with computers and synths. We tracked this record so that we could come up with the most creative parts we could, and then go back later and play live guitars and bass over the top of that to get a whole performance. So it's not all chop, cut, and paste. It flows and there's a lot of dynamics.

You started up at Manson's house?
Yeah, we began working there and then moved down to Conway.

Are you recording to hard disk?
Yes, using Pro Tools. We recorded everything to hard disk at the house. We had a 32-voice Pro Tools rig and a bunch of drum machines. We just bought every drum machine we could think of real FM-sounding drums, old DMXs, and LINNs. But the whole idea while we were doing it was that we would eventually take this up to the studio and replace some of the programmed drums with real drums. But we've also retained some of the programmed drums. So there are hy- brids, like programmed drums in the verses and live drums in the choruses. Every thing is done with the idea of what the song's about, how the lyrics go, and what Manson's trying to bring out in the song. 

Do you sample all those old drum machines?
No, buy 'em. [Laughs.] I mean, we do sample the ones we don't have MIDI for. But, if at all possible, we try not to sample them. Because you loose a lot of the texture. Especially since we're going into the studio with the idea of working on 15 ips,16-track, 2-inch, we wanted to make sure we had as many things running in the analog domain as we could, so we wouldn't lose-ultra-high harmonics that you lose because of sampling. And the ultra lows.

So you're running a MIDI system as well everything else.
Yes, right now in the control room we've got 2 16-track, 2-inch Studers, one Sony HR 24-bit digital machine, a Pro Tools 24-bit rig, and a Pro Tools 16-bit rig.

What kind of sequencer?
We're using Studio Vision.

But just the MIDI sequencing, not the audio facilities, right?
No, were using the audio, too. The Pro Tools 16-bit rig is run through studio Vision because we did everything on 16-bit at the house. But then we got the 24-bit rig when we went to Conway. We used it to capture and loop drums, vocals, and things like that.

I've heard you've got something like 40 songs in the can.
It's more like 27 or 28. But we're working on 15 for the record, and we'll probably only use 12 or 13 of those. So we still have plenty for soundtracks or maybe an EP with a couple of new songs.

Does Manson always work like that? Does he always have twice as many songs as he's going to use?
Yeah. On Antichrist we had probably 18 songs [16 of which appeared on the album]. We hit a super creative period where it was like a song a day. Then we went into Westlake Audio to do vocal tracks, so we wouldn't be as distracted. We were just doing the rough vocals for songs, and we wrote five songs while we were there. Manson would then pick and choose songs as he developed his idea of what he wanted the album to do. So it's not that songs were weeded out because they weren't very good. They were weeded out more because they didn't fit the emotional mood of the record. They didn't fit in with the grand scheme. Manson can't help but do a rock opera kind of thing. Everything ties together. Portrait of an American Family was almost the same as Antichrist in that respect. I don't think he can help that. He's like a novelist. Each song is another chapter. 

Tell me about your approach to guitar sounds.
It's pretty multifaceted. Personally, I love direct guitar sounds. But I like to attenuate them through a speaker simulator. I do love amplifiers too. It's just a matter of what seems to fit the song. My favorite thing in the world is just running a guitar through every pedal you can get into the room ans stressing them all to the max and seeing what the guitar does. I'm not a purist at all in my approach. Whatever fits. What I used. to love a bout Led Zeppelin records as a kid was that, on songs like "Black Dog," it was just a guitar plugged into the board, turned up. No one else was doing that. And the tone was so cool. I can't stand records that get a great guitar and it's the same sound through the whole record. There's nothing wrong with a great drum sound. But when it's the same drum sound on every song, those records make me bored. I loved Queen records growing up, and The Beatles's white album, where every song was completely different, sonically I have the white album in my car pretty much every day. 

What's involved in getting that "Nothing Records' Guitar sound": that signature industrial distorted rhythm chunk? It's really full frequency: big bottomed, yet it goes all the way up the spectrum.
That's analog. The way we do this is track a bunch of guitars. We always track them at 30 ips with the guitarist play the part and octave high, twice as fast - and then slow the tape down to 15 ips. That's how you get the huge guitar in "Physical":20 tracks of 30 ips slowed down to 15. It's so weird how it mutates the frequency band. And analog gets that high breadth that you cant get from digital. But then we also track guitars then throw them into Turbo Synth and screw around with them. At the lowest volume, we can get it sounding like your boom box is being ripped to shreds. Trent's whole idea when we were working on Broken [NIN's 1993 EP] was, "I just want it to sound really loud, quiet. How do we do that?" I just figured it out. 

So as many as 20 tracks of guitar? Wow.
Oh yeah. On the song "Antichrist Superstar" we had I think it was 29 tracks of guitar. And then they were all sampled back, so we could do the stops to make them sound like they were cutting off almost like a key trigger[i.e., on a noise gate]. But, then again, some sounds are just a single guitar, or two guitars, without a lot of gain stage on the amp. So they're lightly gained and then distorted by turning the amp way up all the way[i.e., power stage distortion] and letting the amp blow up. We've blown up quite a few amplifiers. On this record here I think we've blown up six Marshalls, two Ampeg SVT's... It's so loud. We were working on the one bass track and Seal was working in the studio across the way, and he had to stop singing his vocals Because you could hear the low end from our stuff. We had two Ampeg SVT amps and a full Electro Tech subwoofer rig blowing into the room. It was the most loud, low-end extravaganza you've ever heard. 

How do you mic something like that?
What we do is double mic the cabinets, usually with something like a FET 47 or an MD421 or SM57, and then just let the low end from the sub fill the room. It actually compresses the room. So all of a sudden you get a really tight, full, low bass sound without even using compression. It's so cool: physical compression 

Do you ambient mic the room as well?
Yes. We usually ambient mic the room with Neuman CMV-3, an old Hitler mic, placed really low to the floor. So you maintain the resonance from the floor. They're these mics from the 20's and 30's that you always saw on the podium with Hitler. Totally amazing sounding. 

Do you do the tape saturation thing when you're tracking guitars?
On some occasions. I'll take some brittleness off and give the guitars a great gloss. But, on other guitars, we want to maintain that brittle edge. I look at analog tape as a processing device. It's just like running something through a Neve mic pre for that high-end distortion that you can't get any other way, running something through Pro Tools or an Experience pedal is a similar thing. You have to think about the unique properties of the medium you're running the signal through and consider both the benefits and disadvantages. Digital cuts off those super-high harmonics, so you have to create interest using some kind old EQ or compression that will take the place of the interest created by those harmonics. 

But why 16-track analog?
With 16 track 2-inch you get the wider track width. So you get so much more low end and so much more high end its that whole thing about the more space on tape, the better it sounds. And it does. I mean 16-track is a pain because you have to lock up more machines. But once you get it together, it works out great. 

I heard Billy Corgan [of the Smashing Pumpkins] was working with Marilyn Manson for awhile.
Billy and Manson became really good friends. They met backstage at one of billy's shows and just really got along great. Billy's a fan and supporter, and Manson's a fan of Billy. I think Billy helped Manson get up the gumption to try and do something musically more interesting on the new album. Manson's always been amazing at coming up with the sloganeering, but he wanted to do something more emotional musically on this record, and I think Billy really helped formulate some of those ideas. They talked a lot, and there was talk about Billy producing, but he was working on his own record and couldn't get way to do anything else. There was also talk about the Dust Brothers, but none of that seemed to pan out. Then the idea of using Michael Beinhorn came up and it seemed like a perfect choice. Manson wanted to explore things texturally and sonically, the way Michael stuff is. Manson is a big fan of Soundgarden's Superunknown album. 

One thing that Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails records have in common is that there's a lot of foreground information. The guitars are really in your face. The vocals are screaming. Mix-wise how do you fit all that in?
That's the bane of my existence. I work a lot in the midrange frequencies. I'm not a afraid of them. I don't yank them out. I'll do little tiny tweeks at 1k or 700hz or 1.5k to delineate certain things. I spend a lot of time over the distortion. I'll go for a Neve [mic pre] to get the distortion or a Demeter [mic pre] for another kind of distortion because I want the texture of that distortion to come through. It's hard when you're working with that much distortion. All of a sudden you're getting masking all over the place. So I try to find what it is that I like the most about particular distortion sound and just accentuate that frequency a little more resonate. Hopefully that will start delineating this guitar form that guitar, and this vocal from these guitars. It also depends on what EQ I'm using. Certain EQ's work for certain things. Sometimes I'll bring an API in. Other times I'll use an old Neve. For other things I'll use the SSL E Series EQ or G Series EQ. Or even the EQ on a Mackie board, which I used for some of the drum sounds on the Marilyn Manson live video. I'd start messing with those mixes in hotel rooms on the road using a Mackie, and I found I just couldn't get those sounds with any other EQ. 

Both Trent and Manson do a lot of whispering as part of their vocal styles. It must be really hard to make the cut.
Yeah. Normally with Trent it's not as premeditated as Manson. Manson's like an actor, he'll think of term of what voice he should use for different parts of the songs. He'll experiment with the or four voices for each part. So he'll say "On this part I'm going to be really breathy and quiet," and I'll just adjust the EQ or the compression. Mainly the compression. It's either going to be an 1176 or an LA2A. For me, the LA2A is really great for the breathy vocals. It gets all the cool nuances in of his throat. And, for Trent, the chain is always Neve 1073 [mic pre] and almost always a LA2A. "Hurt" was all done like that, in single takes. He's just really good at working the mic - especially a '58. He sang all of "Piggy" curled up underneath the consol with a '58 into a 1073 through a LA2A. When he screamed, he pulled back; and when he was whispering he got exactly in the right kind of proximity because he listens for the tones as he's doing it. Manson's that way, too. So you have to have a headphone mix where they can hear. That's a big deal. It has to happen instantly or else they're mad. 

So you use a lot of live performances mics, like '58.
Yeah. Trent loves the Beta 58. Manson normally likes to do scratch vocal tracking with the '58, because it makes him really comfortable. But he loves to sing through a 251 or an SM7, or a 47 for the real take. Those mics work really well with him. He likes to get that big thick low end because his voice is so low. Trent's voice is more midrange. But Manson's has so much richness in the low register. And that's what he loves to hear. On stage, our monitor engineer, Maxi Williams, was just freaking out about him because normally you so a 3k boost,so people hear that high-mid intelligibility, and they love that. Manson hates it. He end sup up clicking the horns back to almost nothing. His voice is all lower frequencies in the monitors. He hears that's and it makes him feel more powerful. You know how when you scream your ears compress? The ear actually physically starts to close up and you hear mostly high end. Well, when Manson screams, then he thinks he's sounding thin because his ears a re clogging up. That's why if you give him lots of low end and no high end, he'll still feel the low end resonating through his bones, and that makes him confident when he sings. It's one of those physical things. 

So what do you like for distorting vocals?
My favorite is the Neve 1073 mic pre. Just crank that mic gain. It does so many cool things when it distorts the upper harmonics. There's nothing like it. Another thing that's amazing for distorted vocals is to get a chain of LA4's and you just crank them 100 percent into each other. 

Really? How many?
Four of them. Trent's vocal on "Get down, Make love" was done that way: four LA4's with a Drawmer gate between each one. So when he starts screaming, they all open up and the whole room becomes your palette. Then it shrinks back to nothing again when the gates close. It's really so cool because it's almost beyond-infinity limiting. 

So you like that style of distortion better then cheap fuzztones for vocals.
Yes. Vocal wise, I rarely use pedals for distortion. Sometimes I'll use an Ibanez TubeScreamer or an Electro Harmonix Scream'n Bird. Running a vocal through and Extreme pedal is kind of cool. It has sort of the effect as if you take a Neve [1073] and crank it up all the way. The Neve will start breaking up and it will self-gate, and the Extreme pedal has some kind of gating mechanism in there and it does a similar thing. But frequency-wise, it makes the signal small, which is great for some things, but I think the width and body of the 1073 are better in most cases. I like older gear distorting more then I like newer distorting. Like cranking something up and running it through an old Pultec [EQ]: Even if you bypass the EQ, it sounds cool just running a signal through that circuitry. It's probably because all the classic rock records you're used to listening to all used that gear, so it just sounds like a record. The way those harmonics are affected are a huge deal 

There's one vocal effect I must ask you about. How did you get that distressed tremolo quality on the vocal in the Manson remix of Rasputina's "Transylvanian Concubine"? It sounds like digital quantization noise, what the hell is that? 
It actual is a quantization noise. We did a lot of time compression and expansion. What I did to get it to sound more screwed up was I time-expanded it twice as long as I needed it to be, and then I retime compressed it to where I wanted it. So it got double the [digital] artifacts. It's just a feature in Studio Vision that allow you to time stretch or time compress audio to fit a certain tempo. So I can figure, "Well, I can do it as a triplet, and then bring it down to here and I'll get this many artifacts." And it gets that weird tone. That's one way to get that sound. You can also get something like that using DINR [Digital Intelligent Noise Reduction System], too. If you use DINR too much, it gets a real cool sound, but it doesn't get a crunchy tone. It's more smooth. If you want something real crunchy, do that and then lo-fi it. The sound on that "Transylvanian Concubine" record was done with quantization and a Zoom patch. I love Zooms. The 9050 and the 9030 are really cool. Tonally, they're very different, even through they do the same type of thing. If you want something crunchy, I'll use the 9030. If you want something with more fullness in the lower midrange, I'll the 9050. 

There's a similar kind of "broken up" vocal sound on NIN's "All the Pigs, All Lined Up" remix.
That's an old Electro-Harmonix ring modulator. It does the same kind of thing. It introduces weird artifacts. It sounds almost like you're singing through a fan - that super-fast tremolo, but it adds these tones that make it all weird. It's almost like adding a sythesis on the voice. It adds tones and the tones screw with the voice. The voice becomes a square wave here and a triangle wave there. 

But that's not a digital piece, that ring modulator?
No. That's an old analog pedal. The background vocals on David Bowie's "Scary Monsters" all that ring mod. 

So you can achieve that kid of sound in the analog domain.
Oh yeah. There's an old Electro-Harmonix pedal called a Pulse Modulator. If you ever see one, buy it. The vocal on "Dried Up [Tied Up and Dead to the World," from Antichrist Superstar] is that sound. There's nothing I've ever heard that quite sounds like that. 

There's on other specific sound I just have to ask you about: On Nine Inch Nails' "Closer to God" remix, the way the whole track just starts to break up as it goes into the fade. How did you do that?
[Laughs] When we finished the mix, I took the whole thing and ran it through two Neve 1073's. I just kept clicking the outputs up. So it got way louder, obviously. But I kept clicking it up and we recorded into Pro Tools like that. And then I assembled it back in the Pro Tools, using Sound Designer. I just adjusted the volume down, so it would maintain the same volume but get more and more broken up. The Neve 1073's I used were the ones that were giving me problems in the studio. They were screwed up, so as they got more distorted, they didn't get more washy; they got more glitchy. I wouldn't say anybody doing that could probably get that sound. You have to find the right 1073, one that's broken in just the right way. I think that's one of my favorite things ever. That's one of the sounds I'm most proud of. 

So does Manson bring props with him into the studio?
Oh yeah [laughs]. It's crazy. We've had mannequins and all kinds of stuff. It looks like we might get a Real Doll. Do you know those? I think they're made out of silicon. They're actual replica of a real woman. Like and inflatable doll, but made of silicon with a skeletal structure and everything. It's so horrifying. It's on the Internet under I was at my friend's house and he had it on his web site. I printed it all up and brought it into the studio to show everybody because it was so weird, and they said, "We gotta get one of those." 

So this is a sex product?
Exactly. They're like five grand a piece. 

He had one of his jewel-encrusted monkey skulls on the night table when I interviewed him in Cleveland.
Oh yeah, he's starting as pretty amazing collection of stuffed animals. [Manson keyboardist] Pogo, though has the greatest thing. We were in Mexico, in some weird little market, and he found a parrot skeleton. Still had a little bit of feathers on it. And he clipped it to the jacket of his German uniform. So there's this parrot skeleton sitting on his should. It was so disturbing. Pogo's head would be rocking back are forth with this parrot next to it. 

Have they ever actually, really frightened you?

Maybe that was a dumb question.
I've known them for so long. They are who they are, and they're pretty crazy. But I don't think I've ever been afraid. There are times when I've gone, "This is so wrong." There's been times I've been afraid for them, but they always seem to pull it off.