Recording

Bob Clearmountain

In person, Bob Clearmountain looks much too youthful to have been engineering for more than 25 years. 3/01/2004 7:00 AM Eastern

In person, Bob Clearmountain looks much too youthful to have been engineering for more than 25 years. One of the first superstar engineers, Clearmountain's fame was key to elevating the role of mixer from obscurity to center stage, and his work, a seemingly effortless combination of technique and feel, inspired and influenced a generation of engineers.

In the 1980s, New York's Power Station Studios (now Avatar Studios) was Mecca for the recording industry. A phenomenon that spawned hit after hit, Power Station records featured unique and innovative sounds, many of them spearheaded by “Bad Bob.” His lengthy discography extends from that era through to the present and is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Overflowing with classics, it includes Chic's “Good Times,” Sister Sledge's “We Are Family,” Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA and “Streets of Philadelphia,” Roxy Music's Avalon, Crowded House's Woodface, the Rolling Stones' Tattoo You and “Miss You,” and Bryan Adams' Number One worldwide smash, “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You,” from the Robin Hood soundtrack. More recently, it also includes hits by Shawn Colvin, Five For Fighting, Bon Jovi, Shelby Lynne, Ricky Martin and American Idols Clay Aiken and Kelly Clarkson. And that's just a few of the tunes on the BC roster — the list goes on and on.

A lot of people in the music business who achieve great success get pretty full of themselves. Not so with the 10-time TEC Award — winning Clearmountain. Three things you always hear about BC are that he's lightning-fast, has a wickedly iconoclastic sense of humor and he's a really nice guy. That nice guy part is borne out of the long-term friendships he's maintained with many of the artists he works with.

Ten years ago, he built a studio in his Los Angeles home, which was designed by Brett Thoeny of Boto Design. And although he can still be prevailed upon to travel for work, you'll usually find him ensconced in front of his hot-rodded SSL 4000 G+ (with E Series EQ) console. When I visited him there, he was in the middle of mixes for a new Lisa Loeb album. He took a break and, accompanied by two dogs and a cat, relaxed for a bit as we delved into some questions about his career, his philosophy and his techniques.

How did you know that you wanted to be an engineer?

Growing up in Connecticut, I was a bass player. I was also always the guy in the band with the tape recorder recording rehearsals and gigs. And I remember listening to Hendrix records, hearing the panning and flanging, and thinking, “Somebody's responsible for this; it's not just Jimi! Maybe that's what I should be doing.” Ironically, Eddie Kramer, who actually is that guy, came over the other day and cooked us dinner!

And your first engineering job?

The last band I was in, after high school, had a lead singer who knew an engineer at Mediasound in New York. We went in with him one weekend to record some demos. It was a cheesy studio at the time, but for me — first time ever in a recording studio — it was, “Whoa! This is cool. I could just stay here!”

That band split up — I think because the lead singer's girlfriend was sleeping with the guitar player. Every one of my bands had broken up because of some stupid reason like that, and I finally started thinking, “This is never going to happen. I can't be depending on these idiots for my career.” So I started hanging around Mediasound, telling them they should hire me. I actually moved to New York one summer and went there twice a week. Finally, they told me to come back in September because a guy was quitting.

I figured I was hired as a runner. I got there, went out on a couple of deliveries and when I came back after the second one, the studio manager said, “Are you that Clearmountain guy? Where have you been? You're not a runner! You were hired to be an assistant! Get down to Studio A.” I walked into Studio A and it was a Duke Ellington session — my first day on the job! I was the “second” assistant following the assistant around, learning the ropes.

At the time, Mediasound did mostly jingles, music for Sesame Street, things like that during the day. At night, they did R&B: Ben E. King, the early Sister Sledge records and a bunch of disco stuff. A few months in, I did a night session for Kool & The Gang. The engineer was a jingle guy — records were just a waste of time for him — so he gave me the session. They came back six months later and Tony Bongiovi, who was supposed to be the engineer, was sick, so I got to work with them again. That time, out of the songs we cut, they had a Number 6 and a Number 40: “Funky Stuff” and “Hollywood Swinging.”

In '77, you helped start Power Station, working with Nile Rodgers and Chic.

Actually, they were Power Station clients before the studio was even ready to use. The first few sessions we did were downtown at Electric Lady. When they did come in, there was plywood where the control room window was to be and a little iso booth off to the side where we did vocals. They were broke then — they hadn't made it yet — but we had so much fun. They were incredibly brilliant, and Nile is one of the funniest guys I've ever come across. I still miss those days.

I remember after recording the basic track for “Good Times,” saying to [the late] Bernard Edwards, “How the hell did you come up with that amazing bass line?” He said, “What? You like that?” I said, “Like that? That's one of the coolest bass lines I've ever heard!” Those guys were so humble.

Were you always naturally speedy or was it the jingle training?

I got used to doing things quickly. With jingles, you'd have a rhythm section and a percussion section come in and you'd have to be ready to go within 10 minutes. As soon as they'd read through the chart a couple of times, it was, “Okay, let's do a take.”

Immediately after, the horn section would come in — for 20 minutes! Then the string section, the backing vocals and you'd mix. In three hours, it was finished. At the end of the day, you'd have done two or three jingles. Then you'd go home and have a really big drink!

But I don't consciously try to mix quickly. When I get inspired during a mix, it tends to go fast. It becomes, “Oh, I know what to do here. I know what to do with this or that.” Before you know it, you have it together. It takes longer if you're not inspired and you belabor it.

Maybe that explains why your mixes have so much feel. Because you get excited and work fast, you keep the excitement of the rough mixes while still getting a more polished sound.

That's probably a good description. I do it kind of rough. Unfortunately, I make mistakes that way! [Laughs] I can't be bothered with soloing each channel all the way through. That's too boring. I'll just push the faders up and, as things hit me, I'll reach for them. I listen to it as an overall picture. Whatever sticks out as not fitting, I'll work on to make better. Usually, I do eventually catch the mistakes as well.

What were your musical influences?

Growing up in Connecticut, I had this rock affinity. I also always liked Motown and the Philly R&B stuff I heard on the radio. So my rock and R&B sensibilities got mixed together. Working at Mediasound in the '70s, I learned about the importance of bass, drums and feel in the rhythm track, and I applied the things I learned about R&B to making rock records.

Do you think you have a “sound”?

No, I don't think I personally have a sound. The sound of a record, to me, should come from the artist. I want to know what they're thinking about and where they want to go with the song. I try to make my sound their sound. Also, there's a certain clarity I try to go for. Although sometimes, of course, it's the opposite. If it's a noisy grunge record, it shouldn't be clear. Hopefully, what I do is just make things enjoyable to listen to.

Your mixes have an element of production in them, in that you find the strong point of the artist or the song and bring that out.

I'm glad to hear you say that because that's what I try to do. I hope I'm successful. I did produce something like 30 albums.

But you don't produce much anymore.

I do for some artists that I feel strongly about, but not that much. Mainly, I think, because I'm not very vocal. I'm also not much of a psychologist. Producers have to be able to get people to do certain things, and I'm not that good at giving direction. For me, it's not about getting people to do stuff, it's about getting the sound to do things.

Do you try a lot of new gear?

I usually have to be shown, or convinced, before I'll try something. Occasionally, a piece of gear comes along that fills a certain need that I have. An example is the BSS dynamic equalizer. I always wanted a box that would compress or limit certain frequencies, so when a frequency gets harsh, it will be sensitive to just that. Finally, BSS came up with it and it's brilliant: a 4-band equalizer that doesn't do anything until that frequency hits a threshold that you set. It was exactly what I'd been wanting. But that's rare. Otherwise, I stick to things like the old Pultec EQs because they're fantastic-sounding. I don't have a lot of exotic gear; just Yamaha reverbs, Distressors, 1178s, a lot of Apogee converters…

Well, yeah! [Ed. note: Clearmountain's wife, Betty Bennett, owns Apogee Electronics.]

People are always telling me I should try this or that, but basically, I have what I need. Playing around with some new piece of gear tends to be more of a distraction and a time- waster than anything else. Most of the new stuff is just variations on what we already have; how many variations of a compressor do you really need?

I see you still have a lot of LA-3s with the Bob Clearmountain mod, right?

No, the Ed Evans mod. I would never take credit for what he came up with. But yeah, it made them usable. It doesn't change the sound; it just makes them quieter. For some reason, maybe for radio, only a very small percentage of the available gain was actually being used and the signal was way down into the noise floor. The mod is a pad that forces you to turn the input level up two or three times over what it would be normally without affecting the threshold.

What do you use them on?

They're very transparent for a vocal. Unless you really hit them hard, you can hardly tell that there's compression. It evens everything out in a very usable way that's complimentary to most voices. I like that it doesn't sound like there's a piece of gear on the vocal. I go back and forth between them and the [UREI] 1178s, which are just two 1176s. The 1178s really pump. They have a sound, and that can be good, too, especially on modern music.

Why do you prefer the 1178s to 1176s?

Because I can fit two channels in my rack in the space where I could fit one 1176!

The only disadvantage is that the attack and release times are the same for both channels; you can't separate them. But typically, I'll have a snare and a bass drum in one, and I'll put two vocals or two guitars in another. I'll put in similar items, not a vocal and a snare drum. Or I'll use them in stereo with the Stereo Link switch, which is also a nice little feature for compressing drums.

Do you use the Pultecs a lot on vocals?

Almost never. Mostly on drums, guitars or piano.

Okay, I've been subtly trying to find out how you get that cool, raspy edge on vocals. It's not the LA-3, which you like because it's transparent. It's not the Pultec, which you don't use on vocals…

I dunno. The only EQ I really use are the SSLs. And I don't use much. It's more dipping than boosting. It's probably more about making room in the mix so the voice sounds closer to the listener.

I assume songs come to you on Pro Tools. Do you provide guidelines to people for what you want them to send?

I don't, but it's true that we often have to do quite a bit of cleanup on what we get. I have the tracks transferred to the Sony 3348HR, which is what I work off of. My assistant, Kevin Harp, goes through and fixes all the bad edits, puts in crossfades where they left them out, et cetera. Once he's got it sounding decent, he'll transfer it to the 3348 and I'll start mixing while he continues to work. If, once in a while, I need to replace a bass drum or something, he can be doing that on headphones while I continue to mix.

For vocal tuning — which, of course, we never do [Laughs], but if for some reason we were to ever do it — I don't, er, I mean I wouldn't use Auto-Tune. I don't like the mechanical way it sounds and it's often not accurate. When it has to track the existing tuning of a vocal, it sometimes picks up harmonics, which can actually put the vocal out of tune. We'll make a clone of the vocal track on the 3348, and I punch in any retuning through the Eventide DSP 4000 Ultraharmonizer. I go in and out of the Eventide through its AES ports, so there's no audio compromise. It only takes me 20 to 30 minutes to tune a vocal. I do it by ear, because not everything should be in tune. I don't like to depend on a machine to tell me what sounds right.

What do you mix to?

[Steinberg's] Nuendo, because it sounds good, it's good for editing and I'm always mixing eight tracks: stereo and surround. I mix through Apogees, which, every time they come out with a new box, changes. They just keep getting better. At the moment, it's a Rosetta 800, which is unbelievable.

You used to be a surround skeptic. It sounds like you've become a convert.

I think it's still a novelty. Don't get me wrong, I love it. Mixing and listening in surround is so much fun. But very few people — except engineers — even know what it is. Most people think it's just for movies. I was in a record store two days ago and I asked where the DVD-Audio/SACD section was. The clerks just looked at each other. They thought they had one, but they weren't sure where it was.

It's frustrating. And most people who buy surround systems don't know how to set them up. I've heard all these stories, like people lining all the speakers up in a row in front. Then you've got manufacturers making silly little satellite speakers with a subwoofer — it's like, “Hello, what about the midrange?” You spend all this time getting the midrange right, and they sell these lame, crunchy-sounding systems that deaf critics rave about, which actually sound horrendous. Also, they tend to add a bunch of DSP crap to their systems that can't possibly help the sound. If there was supposed to be more reverb on the mix, it would already be there! Too bad the hi-fi manufacturers seem to be so clueless; they just want to be able to list as many features as possible to sell their crap to brain-dead consumers! But don't get me started. I just do the best surround mixes I can and have a good time while I'm doing them. The rest of the world can take 'em or leave 'em. Too bad they don't know what they're missing!

You generally do both stereo and surround mixes at the same time?

While I'm doing the stereo mix, I'll assign things to the surround buses, which are actually a group of the SSL's multitrack buses. I don't do a lot of fancy panning. When I'm done with stereo, I'll go through the surround a couple of times to make sure everything sounds balanced. Because I have a console mod that gives me extra aux sends, I don't need the small faders for sends. I use the small fader as a post-fader send to the surround buses, kind of a static trim between the stereo mix and the surround. So the surround, to start off with, has exactly the same mix, same EQ and level rides. When I want to pan something, if I have extra faders, I'll just usually mult the track to a few of them to do it. Of course, it's different if I'm actually doing a dedicated surround mix, like with Roxy Music's Avalon, which Rhett Davies and I remixed last year. And which you should definitely get. I'm really pleased with it.

For your studio monitors, I see KRK E8s with a subwoofer, Yamaha NS-10M Studios and what are those little Apple speakers?

My favorite speakers. Unfortunately, Apple stopped making them years ago. They're much better than Auratones; they're not all midrange-y, and they have a nice, punchy bottom end.

What other gear of yours are you really fond of lately?

The Yamaha D5000 is the best digital delay ever made, which nobody seems to know about. It's really easy to work, and it does so much stuff. It's got six delays and panning. I think Yamaha emulated the Roland SDE3000, which is fantastic, because it's got everything right in front of you, and improved it. The D5000 sounds a little better and it does more.

I see an Ursa Major Space Station. Do you use that a lot?

I do, but I also use the new version designed by Chris Moore quite a bit. It has the same sounds but it's cleaner. The old one is better for really grungy, dirty sounds. I think of it as the “basement guitar sound.” It sounds like a rock club. The new one is nice for vocals.

What other reverb and effects do you use?

I've got two little live echo chambers that I built out of what was originally a wine cellar. Its walls are half concrete-block foundation and half drywall with epoxy paint. We put a second layer of wall and a second ceiling above it because we're right under the kitchen and the dishwasher. I use it all the time. They're identical and both mono, so I use them left and right in stereo. Currently, the mics are AKG 460s and the speakers are Mackie HR824s that Greg Mackie gave me when he came over for dinner one evening. But, I occasionally change the components for different characters. Because the rooms have two parallel walls, they get a little boomy, but I filter the bottom out and they work fine. They're bright and short, kind of like the old '60s Motown reverb.

But the most important piece of gear in the studio is, of course, the Funk Logic Valvecaster 960, with its proprietary “Teleknobic Preampulator” circuitry. I use it on just about everything — very transparent. [For more information, visit the Funk Logic Website at www.funklogic.com.]

Your success has brought you work with many great artists.

Well, yeah, I get to work with Bruce Springsteen, who I've learned a lot from, and the Stones, but a lot of unknown artists are great, too.

What did you learn from Springsteen?

He has a very clear vision of getting his point across, and he taught me that the song and its central character are always the most important. Everything in the mix needs to complement that. Most of Bruce's songs are about someone's tribulations or joys of life. The connection between the character — as portrayed by the singer — and the listener can never be broken. Everything needs to add to the connection and not take away from it. From a mixing standpoint, that means you have to connect with the song first before you even start.

How do you do that?

Usually, it's by listening to the vocal. I'll put up a rough and listen to the vocal, then go through and solo things to see what the contribution of each instrument or vocal is. It's kind of like a play or a movie: Each instrument is a character. The main character is the lead vocal, the main subcharacters are the backing vocals and it goes on from there. In some songs, say some pop tunes or a dance record where the lyric isn't really about anything, it can be other things. If it's a dance record, then it's the groove that's got to come through and nothing else can get in the way of that.

Do you relate to your mixes visually?

I tend to, which is why if you listen to my mixes, you won't find a lot of stereo instruments. A lot of guitar players will record their guitar with a nice stereo effect. I'll usually make it mono and put it on one side so it's like, “This is the guitar player here, that is the keyboard player over there.”

You've been pretty much an idol to many engineers. How do you feel about that?

Selected Discography

The best thing about being recognized is that I can walk into just about any recording studio on the planet and they know who I am. That's nice, because I really feel at home in recording studios. People go, “Come on in, check out our room!” Whereas, I remember years ago trying to get into the Sausalito Record Plant and they wouldn't let me in. “I just want a little tour; can't I see your rooms?” “Go away!”

Other than that, I was never interested in being famous. For one thing, back when I was in bands, I had terrible stage fright! The thought of people recognizing me walking down the street always freaked me out. I've always been most comfortable working behind the scenes. Honestly? I wouldn't trade places with some big rock star for all the money in the world.

P = producer; E = engineer; M = mixer

Bryan Adams: Cuts Like a Knife (P/M, 1983), Reckless (P/M, 1984), Into the Fire (P/M, 1987)

Clay Aiken: “This Is the Night” (M, 2003), “Invisible” (M, 2003)

Jonatha Brooke: Steady Pull (P/M, 2001)

Shawn Colvin: “Sunny Came Home” (M, 1996)

INXS: Kick (M, 1987)

Five for Fighting: “Superman” (M, 2000)

Aimee Mann: Whatever (M, 1993)

Paul McCartney: Tripping the Live Fantastic (P/M, 1990)

The Pretenders: Get Close (P/M, 1986)

Rolling Stones: “Miss You” (M, 1978), Tattoo You (M, 1981)

Roxy Music: Avalon (M, 1982), Avalon 5.1 Surround SACD (M, 2003)

Simple Minds: Once Upon a Time (P/M, 1985)

Bruce Springsteen: Born in the USA (M, 1984), Tunnel of Love (M, 1987), “Streets of Philadelphia” (M, 1993)

Various Artists: The Concert for New York (P/M, 2001)