Snakes Alive! The S&V Interview With Alex Lifeson of Rush

The guitar guru on how he and his co-mixer Richard Chycki worked the 5.1 mix for the legendary Canadian trio's "Snakes & Arrows Live" Blu-ray Disc.

By Mike Mettler, Sound&, July 2, 2009

So I've been diving into the Blu-ray Disc of Snakes & Arrows Live (Zoe/Anthem), and I'm impressed with both the look and the sound.

Well, thank you. It really came out well, I thought. It looks great, the camera angles are great, and having 2 days [to shoot two shows] really made a big difference in terms of the variety of shots that we had to work with.

You and [surround co-mixer] Richard Chycki really seem to be in tune in how you approach mixing your material.

Rich is very settled in with the way that he hears the band, which certainly helps. Actually, he just moved into my home studio, Lerxst Sound, back in May. We just did a big renovation there; we redid the control room. Now we're all set to do some serious work out of there. Well, more serious work.

So there are other things in the works?

Yeah, I hope so! I mean, I've got some time off [chuckles]. I've been a little bit unmotivated lately, since we've been working so much over the last 7 or 8 years. But the things that we've done physically in the studio have been inspiring, so we're planning to do a bunch of things. Rich has a number of projects, including some Rush stuff, that he'll be continuing to work on at the studio. [Just what some of those projects might be will be covered in an interview I did with Chycki that will post in the fall.]

Did you have it in mind from the outset that you were going to do concurrent DVD and Blu-ray releases of Snakes & Arrows Live?

I think we all assumed from the beginning that since we were shooting the shows in HD that we were going to make it available on Blu-ray as well, yeah. I got myself a Panasonic DMP-BD30 Blu-ray Disc player a while back, and I find it's hard to go back and even watch anything that's not Blu-ray. It's remarkable, it really is.

What sold you on Blu-ray as a format?

The first Blu-ray collection I watched was the fantastic Planet Earth series. The clarity of detail was astounding, and I sat there shaking my head in disbelief. Not too long ago, I watched The Dark Knight, and that was quite impressive as well.

And watching Snakes & Arrows on Blu-ray, boy, you see everything - the saturation, the color, the depth, the perspective. We had some really great camera angles that lent themselves to such an intense experience.

The direction from the Lamoreux Brothers [Pierre and Francois] was marvelous. They employed different camera angles as the set went on; it wasn't always the same cut-to. There really seemed to be a shift in how it unfolded.

That's the advantage of having the 2 days at AHOY [the venue in Rotterdam, Netherlands]. As a band, we're pretty solid in terms of time and tempo. If we wanted to insert a song from the second night into the first night, it wasn't a problem at all - we were able to set up for a completely different shoot on the following day, even for different crane shots over the audience. It was great to have that flexibility.

So I have to ask you, after having watched this on Blu-ray, will you play "Stairway to Heaven"?

[chuckles] Who wrote that?

It was on one of the Post-It notes that your female Barbie fan club had in their hands down in front of your pedalboard. During one of the crane shoots that swoops down when you're standing in front of the board, I could read three of them completely backwards through the back of the notes. Early on in the set, there was a shot taken toward the board where I could read the "Stairway" one directly. One of the other ones said "You're hot"?

Yeah - "My Mom thinks you're hot."

As an editor, I do have to say "you're" was spelled wrong there, but I'm willing to let it go.

I noticed that too! I had words with Bucky [Alex's guitar tech, Bobby Huck] about his grammar.

I also like the one about the smells - "If I smells bad, don't eat it."

Right! [chuckles again] I'd say that you've been able to read as many as you should!

The other one I could read completely was, "Why when we 'do it' you always yell 'a shot and a goal.'"

Ah yes, a Canadian reference...

So Bucky wrote out all of these notes?

Well, it started out with just him, and we did it for the whole first half of the tour. And then he'd get help from other guys in the crew, and they would come up with different things every night. He'd have to write a half-dozen or so of these notes every night to try to be different.

So I figure you probably didn't get to see any of them until you got onstage each night.

Exactly. But we kept them all! We have every single one of them. We should put them in a little booklet or something.

Is there one that was your absolute favorite out of all of them?

Well, "My Mom thinks your're hot" was hilarious.

I have to agree. Okay, on to the sonics. It seems like you made a very conscious decision that Geddy [Lee]'s vocals came across as if the viewer were in an arena setting the entire time. From the first note of "Limelight," I felt I was at a show, and not in some "artificial" live setting.

Well, that's always the goal.

Did you have to experiment with placements at all?

That's the direction we've been going. I think with the Rush in Rio DVD, it was a little more about the spectacle of that specific event - it was our first time in that country, it was a big crowd?

...with all those "YYZ" singers...

Yeah, that whole amazing moment with the audience. [On the Rio DVD, the audience sings along with the melody line of the all-instrumental "YYZ," which is even more powerful when you hear it in surround.] It was really about that. At the same time, a live disc has to be representative of what the live show is, so we try to keep that in mind always.

On Rio, the crowd was really part of the show and you could hear them a lot, whereas with Snakes, the crowd came into play where it made sense; they weren't as dominant.

You can see that the way this show is cut is that it's really about us playing, and I think it really comes across that way; it's a really good marriage of the audio and the video.

Did you make suggestions about any of the visual cuts?

Geddy gets involved at that end through his brother Allan [Weinrib, producer]. We actually work separately on these two areas of production, so I don't know for sure. But the Lamoreux Brothers do a great job with us. They have a great understanding of us and about the dynamic of the band. And I think they really set out to capture something that they had planned for.

That's a good way of putting it - each of you were the stars where it made the most sense.


Another interesting visual detail I noticed on Blu-ray: on your fretting index finger, there was a blood blister under your nail throughout the show. Any time there was a closeup on your hands, you could see it develop throughout the show. Was that something you felt at all or were aware of?

Yeah! You know, I don't know how I got that blister, but I remember having it. You know, those things last until your nails grow out. But I can't recall how I got it.

Audiowise, did you go back and forth on the mix? How long did you work on it?

Rich did a lot of preliminary stuff - creating the stems and getting a lot of the housekeeping done in the earlier part of the year. There wasn't any real urgency because we were so far off from the editing that he could take his time with it. We started in earnest in May [2008], just when we were going back on the road. He would send me stuff as he was mixing, and I would go in the studio on my weeks off at home and get caught up. Then in the fall, after the tour had ended, we spent more time together, reviewing it all. That's the great thing in working in ProTools and having the recall on everything - you can just go in to fix one little thing, and it's done in seconds.

The show had to be regimented to some degree, but were you able to mix things up a bit, like at the end of "Secret Touch" where you're all jamming together?

The weird thing about us is that we make room for the improvisational stuff, and then we do it once and that becomes "the part," and we play it over again! But the end of "Secret Touch" has always been pretty loose. We have a little bit more fun with it, and it is pretty fun to do that stuff. I don't know why we don't do it more often.

You gotta sprinkle it throughout the set some more next time.

Yeah, I think so too.

I saw a few shows on the 2008 tour, including Milwaukee, a really special show. I was glad to see you added "Ghost of a Chance" to the setlist.

When we bring back these old songs, it's so refreshing because it's with a whole new sonic approach and a new arrangement. I'd like to do that more often because it was really very satisfying to play that song every night.

Who brought "Ghost" to the table?

Well, we wanted to mix up the second half of the tour a little bit, and because we had "Entre Nous" and "Circumstances" in there, we wanted to come up with something that was a little more obscure, and that one seemed to be a pretty good candidate. I think Geddy brought it up. And we all went, "Oh! Well, I hadn't thought of that. Let's try that." We all spent our own individual time relearning it and getting comfortable with it, and then we went in to rehearse, and the very first time we played it we went, "Yeahhh! This is fun!"

It's always been one of my personal favorite tracks.

It's so nicely dynamic. The parts are quite different from each other, and it's a nice solo to play. [Geddy Lee had high praise for Alex's work on "Ghost of a Chance," as he told me in Toronto when the song first came out on Roll the Bones back in 1991: "It's one of my favorite guitar songs on the record. That song's solo and outro are among the best things Alex has ever played. It's just very expressive guitar playing."]

It's cool that "Ghost" appears in the "Oh, Atlanta!" bonus section of the Blu-ray release. [It's on Disc 3 of the DVD release.] Was that always the plan to include the four "extra" songs?

Yeah. Once we got into the tour, it seemed to be a bit of a problem to create something that was on the level of the recording from Rotterdam, so we thought, "Let's do it a little more guerrilla, let's have a simple setup, and just do these few songs representing the entire tour." So there's more of a bootleg feel to things there.

If you don't mind, I'd like to backtrack a bit to discuss what you did with the studio record of Snakes & Arrows (2007; Anthem/Atlantic) - specifically, the surround mix. I want to find out how you felt about how that mix turned out, because that's the first studio effort you had your hand in, surroundwise.

It's a different environment to be in. Again, Rich and I work really well together. He gets a basic feel of what we three are hearing in our heads. So it's just a matter of sitting in and getting a sense of the placement of everything. I think the important thing with 5.1 is not to get too fancy-schmancy with it, but to create this full-room sound environment rather than tricking it up with stuff "whipping" all around, and that sort of thing.

We've talked about that before. Some people like to do gimmicky mixes: "Look, I've got something cool in the rear channels!"

Yeah, exactly. And it's understandable because, you know, when you're in that mode, you want to make it something special. But when you switch from a stereo mix to a surround mix, it fills the room, and ideally, I think that's what you want to capture.

I think the Arrows studio 5.1 mix works really well in that regard. A lot of people err on the side of hard center-channel vocal mixes, and you didn't do that. What I think was key was that you gave a sense of space to the vocals so that Geddy was in the middle of everything.

Right! We're very sensitive to that. There's a lot of program that goes on in the center, and you can't just completely separate it. Otherwise, it tends to be a little "pasted" on top.

A lot of times, Neil [Peart]'s drumwork was also well "placed" - if we can use that word - and that seems to stem from the working rhythm that you and Rich have established with each other. Did you guys have different challenges since this was the first studio project you did?

No, not really, because we already had a couple of [DVD] surround projects under our collective belts. A lot of feeling each other out had happened much earlier with those previous projects. We already have a sensibility that we share when we go in and work together. He knows what I want to hear, and I've come to know what I expect in what he's going to put together as a starting point. He's got such a great sense of basic sound that you're caught up in the quality of the mix itself.

How did Geddy and Neil react to the mix? Were they reticent about doing a studio-project surround mix initially? Did you have to convince them?

I think they were up for it, but not too opinionated one way or the other. There's a great deal of trust between all of us.