Bob Clearmountain - Mixonline

Bob Clearmountain

In person, Bob Clearmountain looks much too youthful to have been engineering for more than 25 years.
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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!

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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)