MEMOIRS OF A FAMILY MANThese days, you hear David Thoener’s mixes everywhere. There’s Santana’s “Smooth,” of course, the blockbuster single that spent 12 consecutive weeks at Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 and propelled sales of the Supernatural album to 13-times Platinum. Then there’s Matchbox Twenty’s “Bent,” the Number One most played song in the U.S. for more than eight weeks; and the left-field “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus, a Top 10 single on the Alternative chart.
You’ve heard a lot of Thoener’s other mixes, too, from Aerosmith’s 1998 smash, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” to Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” John Waite’s classic “Missing You,” John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” and “Authority Song,” and AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock.” And don’t forget those tracks he did way back as a young whippersnapper: the J. Geils Band’s “Freeze Frame,” “Centerfold” and “Love Stinks.”
Wait, there’s more: Thoener has mixed records for Billy Squier, Kiss, Sammy Hagar and Billy Joel, and he has recorded and mixed country artists, including Brooks & Dunn, Rodney Crowell, Travis Tritt and Ronnie Milsap. He’s also known for his live recording and mixing with Aerosmith, Shawn Colvin, the Neville Brothers, Woodstock ’94 and ’99, Bob Dylan’s 30th Annivarsary Concert Celebration and the double CD Concert for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
And all of that is just a partial discography. It’s obvious that Thoener has what many engineers aspire to, but few achieve: a career that has both diversity and longevity.
He rarely does interviews, but it quickly became obvious that he has plenty to say and a vast stockpile of great stories. It was also readily apparent that with Thoener, as with a great musician, it was best just to place the mic, roll tape and get out of the way. So that’s what we did. Now, heeeere’s Dave, taking it from the top.
I started at the [New York] Record Plant on April 4, 1974. I remember going for my interview in platform shoes, huge bell-bottom pants, and, of course, a psychedelic polyester shirt. Ed Germano [now owner of New York’s Hit Factory] was the manager. When I left, I didn’t think I had the job. But as soon as I got home, the phone rang; he wanted me to start the next day!
Just the atmosphere of Record Plant at that time was enough to excite you. The carpets were shag; the walls in Studio B had a weird map that looked like Bullwinkle. Records by Jimi Hendrix, Yes, Jackson Browne, Grand Funk Railroad, Don McLean, The Raspberries, John Lennon, etc., lined the walls.
The year before, I’d worked for a demo studio on Seventh Avenue where I’d learned disc mastering and engineering, but Ed G. started me out as a tape copier anyway. I remained in the copy room for about three months. The turning point came when I was asked to take a piece of music and make a cassette where it repeated over and over. I guess management expected me to record, rewind and record again, but I had a different plan.
I went into Studio C, took several mic stands, then created a huge loop that went from the copy room down the hall, past the restrooms and back. When (Record Plant owner) Roy Cicala went to the restroom, he had to pass my loop! The next day, Roy called me into his office. I thought I was getting fired, but instead I was made an assistant.
Lucky for you, Roy appreciated initiative – and attitude.
Jimmy Iovine and I were assistants at the same time, and Roy made Jimmy his personal assistant. The chief engineer was Shelly Yakus, and since Roy had Jimmy, Shelly took me. That was great, because Shelly was one of the hottest engineers in New York. I got to work on some amazing projects. One of the first was The Raspberries with Jimmy Ienner producing. Then there was Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, Rick Derringer, Chick Corea, Blue Oyster Cult and John Lennon, just to name a few. As time passed, Shelly would let me do some overdub engineering. He had me do the piano interludes with Chick Corea on “Where Have I Known You Before.” I was only 21 at the time, so this was really great!
Then Jimmy got the chance to engineer Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album. I remember him coming to me after a session, telling me the news and asking me to assist him. Of course, I said, “Yes!” All of the staff at Record Plant, especially the assistants, were very close, and we were happy when one of us got a break. One funny story that I hope Jimmy doesn’t mind me telling was the night we were recording the lead vocal on “Jungleland.” Jimmy had been working late for many days, and that night he fell asleep; he had his legs up on the console and he just dozed off. Jon Landau and Mike Appel were producing, and Bruce was ready to sing. They looked at me and said, “Dave, you can do this, right?” I said, “Sure,” picked Jimmy’s legs up, slid him over to the end of the console and recorded Bruce’s vocal. It was an incredible performance; sitting in the control room watching Bruce deliver that vocal was a moment I’ll never forget.
Soon Jimmy started giving me gigs – sometimes full recording and sometimes overdubs. I was very grateful to get anything. Not long after that, Jimmy started producing with Shelly engineering, and the rest is music biz history.
Now you were on your own.
I started getting booked with outside engineers because the management knew I could engineer, or at least explain how things worked to a visiting engineer. One was Martin Birch, and I did Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow Rising album with him. Then I worked with Harry Maslin on David Bowie’s Young Americans. But the engineer who introduced me to the band that would change my life was Bill Szymczyk. We worked on an album called Hotline by J. Geils in 1975. Then in ’76, Bill was busy with The Eagles, so the Geils band called Roy Cicala to engineer, and he booked me as his assistant.
On the first day of recording I set up the band and set the console so Roy would just have to come in, sit down and hit the Record button. As the band started recording the first song, Roy looked at me and said, “I’ll be in my office if you need me.” Then he got up and walked out of the control room! I’m standing by the multitrack, like the assistant is supposed to, and I’m thinking he’s joking, that he’ll be coming back in to see if I’m cocky enough to sit down.
At the end of the first take, the band looks in the control room and asks if it was a good take. By this time I’ve worked on a lot of albums, so I give the typical producer response: “I think you should try it again!” They look at me, then at each other, and Stephen Jo Bladd, the drummer, counts off for another take! And I can’t believe what’s happening!
We recorded two more takes and the band walked in the control room to listen. They asked where Roy was, and I answered, “He’s in his office, do you want me to get him?” They said, “No, you’ll do just fine.”
That’s a “Glory Days” kind of story.
That album was Monkey Island, with a hit called “I Do.” I thought I’d arrived. But that was my first album, and there weren’t any bands lining up for me to do another. The management of Record Plant decided to put me on an assisting gig, but by this point my ego was too inflated, so when J. Geils asked me to go on tour with them, I quit the Plant and went on the road.
Well, that’s a different perspective.
The road is a very good way to realize what’s important. Example: At a show, the first priority is monitors. The band has to hear themselves and be happy with their monitors if they’re to perform. Second is the FOH. Sometimes, as FOH guy, I was able to get a rehearsal and sometimes, if we were the opening act, I didn’t. “How can you get great sounds without hearing the band?” you might ask. The answer: You wing it. From previous shows you have a good idea of what the survival EQ should be – the EQ that can get you started.
Okay, we know every show is different, but how about an example of what survival EQ might be.
For drums, maybe, roll-off some low bottom, roll out a few dB at approximately 500 on the kick and toms, and add some 4.5 to 5k on the snare. You might roll out a few dB of 200 on overheads, roll out 200 to 300 Hz on hi-hat, and on the vocal roll out between 300 and 800 Hz. Just a few dB, nothing radical. I’m more likely to take out than add. If something isn’t bright enough, rather than adding top end, I’ll find out what’s making it cloudy and take that away.
Then you see where everything else sits. The most important fader is the lead vocal. If the drums are a little muddy, there isn’t enough bass, or the guitar EQ isn’t just right, they can wait as long as the lead vocal is heard. You can buy, like, three minutes, which is your first song. You better get it right by the end of the first song, where the enthusiasm of the band going onstage with all the screaming will help cover the fact that you’re making the mix better. FOH guys have it down to a science. I have enormous respect for them, because I know first-hand how hard it is. That’s why I don’t do it anymore! In fact, I quit after the first leg of the Geils show, because I thought they should use a more qualified person. I felt I needed to go back to the studio where I belonged.
But that experience paved the way for the live recording work you later got into.
The live recording engineer gets even less time than FOH. If the FOH guy needs time to get his mix together, his needs take priority. Sometimes, while he’s getting his sounds, you can get yours. But if he needs to focus on a problem area, you may run out of time before you get your EQ together. How does an engineer get great live sounds if there’s no soundcheck? Same answer as before, you wing it. Along with your knowledge of survival EQ, the most important focus is to make sure everything’s going to tape!
It’s always best to EQ on the monitor side of a live recording. Make sure everything is going to tape clean and at a proper level. It doesn’t matter whether you’re recording analog or digital; you need to maximize level to get the best signal on tape, and you need to make sure no distortion is coming from your side of the equation. As with FOH, it’s best to get your act together in the first three minutes. That means EQ, compression, balance, effects. If you’re doing a live broadcast like when I did Woodstock 2 and 3, the pressure is even greater. Your instant mix is going out to millions of people who have no idea what you’re up against. Some of the Woodstock performances happened so quickly, many of us in the recording trucks only got a line check – you know, when a roadie goes out onstage and scratches the mics so you know they’re live. Sometimes I’ve lost a mic just before the band goes onstage. Talk about heart failure! The only thing you can do is have your stage engineer try to locate the problem and switch out the mic, or the cable, and to do it between the time the lights go down and the band walks on! It has happened to me, and we’ve fixed it before the first note played. It’s a stressful gig, to say the least, but it’s also a tremendous thrill when it’s all going down. You get an adrenaline rush – probably the best high I’ve ever experienced. And when it’s over, the relief is just as strong.
Meanwhile, back at the studio…Right. Well, after being on the road with J. Geils, I went back to Record Plant with my head hung low and asked for my job back. To my great surprise, they gave it to me. It was back to assisting, temporarily.
But soon, David Johannsen, who now goes by the name Buster Poindexter, asked me to do his album. It was called Funky But Chic. You might remember it? It got a bunch of airplay in New York, as David was in the New York Dolls, a kind of a cult N.Y. band at the time. After that, some more albums came along, and suddenly it was the next year and Geils was ready to record Sanctuary.
This was the first of three albums we recorded at Longview Farms in Worcester, Mass. Longview presented a few challenges. It was a house, not the kind of acoustically designed place I was used to. We all lived on the premises, which was good because I didn’t have to wait for the band to arrive, but bad because they also didn’t have to leave. There were many long nights.
But that’s a part of recording, and I love recording so much that it was more fun than pain. Also, the band treated me like a bandmember; I traveled with them, ate with them, partied with them. We were a family. I had great admiration for them, and they trusted and respected me and what I had to say about the work we did. I always tried to push the envelope sonically.
Like back at Record Plant when we were doing Monkey Island, we’d experimented with putting Stephen Jo Bladd out in the back of Studio A. It had a great sound because the walls were stone, and it was very live. The only problem for Stephen was that the garbage was stored there. We couldn’t record there in the day because the sound would travel all over the building. So we started at night, when the garbage from all the offices was piled around him. Boy, did it smell! But it sounded great!
Sanctuary turned out well, but when Love Stinks started, I took it to the next level. Sanctuary was recorded in the house, which was the way the place was designed to work. When we started Love Stinks, we recorded in the barn. Now, I say barn, and it was, but it was split into two areas. The barn with the animals was on the top of a hill, and the place where the band stayed was next to it. The barn sounded great, but it had a very old Angus console and was meant to do demos and such. We loved the sound of the room, so I would bring the instruments up the mic pre’s of the Angus and send them over line level to the MCI console in the house, which had the multitrack and the monitors. I couldn’t see the band at all; I could only hear them. Every once in a while, I’d have to run over to the barn, which was three or four hundred feet away, and check a mic or explain something to the band that I couldn’t explain without seeing them.
I remember putting a new mic that had just come out called a PZM [pressure zone mic] on the ceiling, experimenting with ambient drum sounds. I was to find out there was someone else experimenting at the same time. I remember driving up to Longview to finish overdubs, hearing what Hugh Padgham had done on Phil Collins’ “Something in the Air,” and thinking, “Damn, someone’s beat me to it!”
Obviously, we weren’t the first. Led Zeppelin had incredible ambient drum sounds in the late ’60s. But the sounds had changed in the ’70s; disco and dead drum sounds were in. Engineers put drums in drum booths – anything to suck up the ambience and create a dead snare, kick and tom. This was my attempt to bring back the live sound. I didn’t have a castle to do it in, so it took some thought and experimentation.
Our guitars were also recorded in the barn, but in the part the animals stayed in. They would go out to pasture in the morning, so we would set up in the afternoon and record power chords full out. I had some of the mics in omni, and sometimes we’d hear a cow mooing over the guitar overdubs, especially at the end of a long, sustained note, and we’d have to go back in and punch in to fix it.
At night, we would put plastic baggies over the mics so the bird droppings wouldn’t go on the capsules. J. Geils, the guitar player, and his amp head were set up in the house with me, and we ran a speaker cable to the barn. Since there was a driveway people had to use, we hung the speaker cable in the air from the house to the barn. In the morning, you would see a hundred birds perched on the speaker cable. What a sight!
Speaking of guitars, can we talk a little about how you get all those great guitar sounds you’re known for?
I initially learned my guitar technique from the engineers I worked with. That was to first go out and listen to the amp, listen for the sound the guitar player was going for. Then, with your experience with different types of mics, you pick one that will come as close to accomplishing getting that sound as you can – flat, no EQ, no compression. Sometimes it takes a combination of mics, sometimes two up close, sometimes one close and one back. There is no rule, no easy answer. Just listen to the amp, think about the song, and try to create a guitar sound that captures the spirit of the part. When I worked with Mutt Lange on AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock,” I learned a few tricks. Mutt got guitar sounds like I had never heard before, and I was lucky to work with him and experience his philosophy and approach.
You’re not going to tell us what you learned from Mutt, are you? What is it about that guy? No one will ever talk!
Well, I will say it has a lot to do with the perspective of the vocal against the track. It works great for rock songs, but I’m not always recording or mixing rock. So, as an engineer who works on different formats, the basic idea is to create a guitar sound that works best for the music you’re working on. All of the sounds you record should be focused on trying to turn the artist’s and producer’s ideas into reality. Listen to the song. Hopefully, there’s a demo, or sometimes, as with country, the artist gets out his acoustic guitar, plays the song, and you use your imagination along with the guitar player’s ideas of what the song needs. Together you create a sound that fits the part.
If you’re mixing, it’s the same concept, except the recording engineer has already established, to some degree, the sound to be used. Your job as a mixer is to take that sound and use it in the mix to make the song happen. EQ, compression and effects are all a part of that journey. You are responsible to make sure the song is maximized. If a guitar moment, a fill, solo or whatever, is pushed, it should make that moment in the song mean something.
What’s a typical Dave Thoener guitar starter setup? Please don’t say Pro Tools and Amp Farm!
No, it’s not Pro Tools. I’m an organic guy. First, I go out and listen to the guitar sound the player’s got going. Sometimes, he might make a suggestion of a mic he’s heard on his amp that sounds great to him. I’ll check that out first. I’ll almost always put a 57 on the amp, and I like Royers a lot. If he’s got a thin sound and he likes it like that out of the amp, I might choose a fatter mic if it fits better in the song, like an 87 or 67 tube. Sometimes you’re very lucky and the guitar player is incredible, like Carlos Santana. Tell us about recording “Smooth.”
The “Smooth” session was a live approach. I went into Fantasy studios in the San Francisco Bay Area a day early and met with my assistant. He’d worked on some of the material Carlos had already recorded, and I asked how the band set up. He showed me the way they’d worked on previous sessions, and I set up the same way. It helps to talk with engineers who have worked in the room if you’re in it for the first time or haven’t been there in a while. They can help with some of the best locations for drums, etc., and this will cut down the time you might use in experimenting.
With Santana, I needed to do two things. One, make the band as comfortable as possible, and two, get right into recording. I knew there was no time to waste. If I took time to move things around, they might get bored or tired, and this would slow the energy level, something you don’t want to happen on an uptempo song.
I went for my usual mic setup; I knew when the band arrived they wanted to sit down, run it through a few times and record it. [Producer] Matt Serletic also wanted me to be ready to go when he felt they were ready. We recorded about five takes and we had it.
What is that usual mic setup of yours?
Kick: D112 outside, 47 FET inside. Outside, build a tunnel with mic stands and blankets to keep cymbal leakage to a minimum. Snare: 57 top and bottom, bottom mic gated so I don’t get the kick rattling the snares. Toms: 421s. Sometimes I might throw a mic on the bottom head of the lowest tom for low lows. Hi-hat: KM84. Cymbals: 421s. Room: C-12s. Percussion: 57s and 451s, sometimes an overhead 87. On bass: a Demeter DI, and on the bass amp an RE-20. Also on bass: dbx 160s with light compression, 1 dB or so at 2 to 1.
How did you record Carlos?
Carlos has his pedal that shifts sound from one amp to another with two different sounds on each, and he controls that, naturally. I put a 57, a 421 and an 87 about three feet back on both amps. Light compression with 1176s. I usually put the mics on different tracks, so that as the song takes shape I can alter the guitar sound slightly to work with the new overdubs.
What did you record to?
Pro Tools – Mark Dobson is our Pro Tools genius. We also used Apogee Special Edition 8000 converters. Matt Serletic owns his own Pro Tools system – actually the equivalent of three complete 64-voice rigs. He also brings all his own cables; it’s Monster Cable on every microphone, and everything else going into the console. Every guitar cable is his own too, the kind by Monster Cable with arrows pointing the direction of signal.
Did you edit between takes?
Yes, we cut between performances, always taking the entire band performance of each section that we used.
Was Rob [Thomas] recording his vocal live with the tracks?
So you recorded the basic track on the first day, and then…
The second day Rob came in and fixed a few vocal spots, and Carlos fine-tuned his solo. The third day, we did the horns and little extras. We flew to L.A. the fourth day and went to Record Plant. It was in the mixing stage that Matt decided to effect Rob’s verse vocal with a setting from the plug-in called Amp Farm.
You mixed from Pro Tools to…
We mixed off Pro Tools locked to Sony 3348 HR through an SSL 9000, and we mixed through a 96k/24-bit dB Technologies encoder to a Genex MO.
There are a lot of parts on “Smooth.” Did you have to use a lot of compression to keep everything in place?
I used compression, not a lot – just enough to keep things retaining their natural dynamic but able to work within the framework of the entire mix. I like the Neve 33609 as an overall compressor, but again just a little. I don’t want the balance to shift when I get to mastering, so I try to do what I can to master as flat as possible. I generally don’t use a lot of equipment. I try to capture a performance as true to the natural sounds as possible, and then I try not to f – it up in the mix.
You mixed “Smooth” pretty quickly.
We mixed it in a day and sent a copy to Clive Davis to comment on. We got Clive’s comments the next day and finished the mix, doing a few vocal level option mixes. Then we tore that mix down at about 11 p.m. and at midnight started a basic track on another project. We’d booked the musicians for that day, not thinking the mix would take long to close out. But things always take longer than expected, so we just kept going and finished around 5 a.m.
So much for having more regular hours after you get successful!
Success has nothing to do with schedules. Record companies have deadlines, and a lot of the time you’re forced to finish a mix or record a song because you’re told it has to be done by a certain date. Then [laughs] you turn it in on time and they sit with it for weeks.
You’re originally from New York state, and you travel a lot for your projects. Yet, you’ve chosen to make Nashville your home, and you also do a lot of your work there.
It has been a wonderful experience living and working in the Nashville community. The pool of talent is enormous. For me, the recording process in Nashville is exciting as well. It’s not uncommon to record eight musicians at one time, and you’ve got about an hour to get it together. Not only EQ, levels and compression, but headsets, effects, the whole nine yards.
The producer wants to hear it as a finished record from the first downbeat. If the session is booked as a 10 a.m. start, the musicians get in about nine-ish, and at 10 a.m., the producer is running the song down. It’s not unusual for the first take to be the master, so you’ve got to work hard and make it right the first time.
Your recurring themes seem to be that you like to work with live musicians in situations where there is excitement and energy, and that, after all you’ve done, you still like to work hard! Any final thoughts?
A big item on my agenda is to thank my wife, Linda, for her emotional support and faith in me. It’s a very hard job being the wife of an engineer, and she’s one of the best. I also have to thank my daughter, Austin, for her understanding and love, which constantly fuels my creativity.
And, thanks to all of the very talented engineers and producers I’ve had the great fortune to work with over the years; I draw from the experiences with them often. Roy Cicala, who gave me my start, Shelly Yakus, Jack Douglas, Jay Messina, Jimmy Iovine, Mutt Lange, Matt Serletic, Martin Birch, Ed Germano and the great J. Geils Band, who took a 22-year-old kid from Yonkers, N.Y., let him sit in the driver’s seat and made him a part of their family for six of the best years in my life.
For me, there’s nothing that compares with getting a talented band in the studio and watching the magic happen between bandmembers. That spontaneous creativity is as exciting as it gets. The great part for me is the luck I have to sit and watch all this come together. Recordmaking is a team effort, and, when you’re successful, the whole team is responsible.
Wheatus: Wheatus, including “Teenage Dirtbag” (Columbia, 2000)
Matchbox Twenty: Mad Season, including “Bent” (Atlantic, 2000)
Santana: “Smooth,” featuring Rob Thomas (Arista, 2000)
Aerosmith: “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” and “What Kind of Love Are You On” from Armageddon soundtrack (Columbia, 1998)
John Mellencamp: Uh-Huh (Mercury, 1983) and John Mellencamp (Columbia, 1998)
Rod Stewart: “Faith of the Heart” from Patch Adams soundtrack (Warner Bros., 1998)
AC/DC: For Those About to Rock We Salute You (Atlantic, 1981)
Cher: Cher (Geffen, 1987) and Love Hurts (Geffen, 1991)
J. Geils Band: Monkey Island (Atlantic, 1977), Sanctuary (EMI, 1978) Love Stinks (EMI, 1980) and Freeze Frame (EMI, 1981)
The Hooters: One Way Home (Columbia, 1987)
Billy Squier: Enough is Enough (Capitol, 1986)
Meat Loaf: Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell (MCA, 1993)
Bon Jovi: 7800 Farenheit (Mercury, 1985)
The Fixx: Calm Animals (RCA, 1988)
Brooks & Dunn: Two tracks from Tight Rope, including “You’ll Always Be Loved By Me” (Arista Nashville, 1999)
Beth Nielsen Chapman: Sand and Water (Warner Bros., 1997)