Mike Shipley’s work is practically a fixture on the Billboard charts. His credits include a wide range of successful artists, such as Def Leppard, The Cars, Shania Twain, Joni Mitchell, Aerosmith, Shawn Colvin, Lene Lovich, the Black Crowes, Tom Petty and Green Day. Although his engineering style cuts across the board, and he’s equally at home with rock, alternative, punk, pop and country, one of Shipley’s defining traits is surely that he’s a master of The Big Hook-and the big sound-a talent that translates well to a variety of music. The week that this interview took place, Shipley had four “most addeds” in Radio & Records: Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much” at AC and CHR/Pop; the Black Crowes’ “Only a Fool” on Adult Alternative, Blondie’s “Maria” on Hot AC and Sponge’s “Live Here Without You” on Alternative.
In the past, Shipley has worked on legendary albums that took legendary amounts of time to record and mix, and although he still signs on with Mutt Lange for those impeccably crafted Shania blockbusters, lately he’s being called upon more and more to put that big-hook talent to work on singles for both established artists and up-and-comers.
At this stage of his game, you’d expect that he’d be taking it a bit easy, but the youthful Shipley is a true workhorse of an engineer, and these days he’s busier than ever. Mix hooked up with him at L.A.’s Record Plant, where he’d been at home in SSL One for a month, working on as many as three albums at a time with producer Patrick Leonard, among others. Getting him to sit down and chat wasn’t easy, but I finally dragged him away from the console, where he was finishing a mix for new Sony artist Nikki Hall. We settled into the lounge, and I attempted to pry from this very down-to-earth fellow the secrets of his success.
You’re a bit of a mystery, I think. At least there’s not much information to be found about you in the audio trades.
I’ve tended to avoid interviews, because I don’t think that I have that much to say. I’m just sort of a back-room boy.
We’d better begin at the beginning—how you started in the business.
I got started by walking into a studio. I’m Australian, but my family went to England with my dad’s business for a couple of years. One of my teachers at grammar school there was a musician who asked me to come down and sing on a record he was making. I walked into this thing called the recording studio, and it just blew my mind. It was, “This is home,” and I knew instantly and from that point on that all I wanted to do was to work there.
I went back to Australia and finished high school, all the time knowing that I wanted to go back to England and work in studios. My favorite bands were mostly English. At that stage in Australia, you’d listen to records that were being made there and know that something was horribly wrong with both the production and the sound. So, after a pretense at art school, I just packed up a bag and went. I could get an English passport because my dad was English, so I could go back there and work, and, naive as I was, I figured I’d just knock on the doors of recording studios and see what happened.
I ended up, fortunately for me, at a place called Wessex, which, without me really knowing about it, was one of the hottest places in town. It was in London, in an old church hall, and a lot of records were being done there that I really liked, Queen and so forth.
You got lucky.
It’s one of those things. Really, it’s the most unqualified business to get into. The studio manageress liked my voice, so I got the job, as opposed to someone who was probably in some way or other more qualified than me. And, in those days, you’d get thrown in the deep end. It wasn’t a matter of being a runner for a couple of years while they tentatively show you how to work the room. It was, “Okay you’re in.” You’d get a brief excursion ’round the studio, and you’d be on a session.
The first session I worked on was a Sex Pistols record. I got thrown straight in on this punk scene, which wasn’t even a concept yet in Australia, so I was pretty green. I wasn’t there for the start of that record, which took quite a long time and went through lots of permutations to become Never Mind the Bollocks, but at the time I started at Wessex it was the Sex Pistols in one studio and Queen in the other. You had this incredible dichotomy of the young tear-aways, with safety pins in their noses and gobbing on the floor in the front room, and Roy Thomas Baker and the absolute studio wizards in the other room.
It was a pretty incredible time. The Pretenders did their first records there; there were Clash records, all this really pivotal punk stuff. There was a full-on scene happening, because Bill Price, one of the house engineers, did a lot of work for Chris Thomas, and we got known for being a punk-oriented studio. A lot of the bands don’t mean that much now, but at the time it was just incredibly, incredibly exciting.
That’s where I met Mutt Lange, who was a relatively newish producer on the scene, carving out his name producing interesting younger bands.
So you were thrown into the session to do what? Be a tea boy?
No, we had tea ladies. Sometimes you’d make the tea, but mostly it was figuring out straightaway how to run the tape machines. If you couldn’t hack the pace you were out of there, so you had to be able to get it really quick. It was incredibly fast-paced and really inventive, and there was great rivalry about who could get onto the best sessions.
You had to be able to punch.
Yes. On all records you had to punch. These days, it seems mostly the engineer takes care of it from what I can see, but in those days the assistant was very involved. Running the machines, doing the editing. You had to get up and hack the tape-no Pro Tools, of course. It was just mighty good fun.
I jumped in and learned, assisted for a while, then started engineering pretty quickly. One of the engineers on a record I was assisting was getting drunk, so I was next in line to take over. It was one of those things. After a relatively few months assisting, I was engineering on bits and pieces-fly by the seat of your pants and somehow get through it.
Working in England at that time and at that studio, you could get taught by the most amazing people. Tim Friese-Greene was Mutt’s engineer at the time; I assisted him, and there was such inventive engineering. It was a great foundation, and you learned the ropes really well.
I remember at that time there was a sort of mystique about the “English sound.” English engineers, English consoles, English artists-somehow it just seemed to be a bigger, more exciting, sexier scene.
I remember when I first came out to L.A. to work, everything in recording was much more natural-people had perfect textbook ways of miking things, and it was more about being a purist. In England the approach was different; it was more about giving the sound more or different character. It was almost a matter of messing with it as much as you could. Especially with certain producers, the idea was to be as unnatural as you could and to not be afraid to screw the crap out of the EQ-to do things that were as “unpurist” as you could get. Also at that time, everyone was into SSL consoles over there, and over here they were frowned upon because they were not a pure signal path.
What kind of consoles were at Wessex?
They were by a company called Cadac. They never really got over in this country [in the recording industry] but they were actually fantastic consoles. So we had Cadac until we got SSL.
I was still pretty much a kid and flying by the seat of my pants when Mutt asked me to come and help him setup Battery Studios. I remember we were looking at consoles and his manager wanted to get something cheap and cheerful like an MCI, a good workhorse. I’d read in a magazine about a Solid State Logic console, so I got Colin Sanders to bring a module down. He brought in a Safeway shopping bag with the module hanging out the bottom of the bag. It was the prototype for a console that had these things on it like parametric EQ and noise gates and compressors, and I was like, “Oh my goodness, this is what we’ve got to have!” So I convinced them to spend a lot more money than what they’d intended. It was one of the first SSL consoles in the country, and the investment paid off pretty quick.
Do you think there’s a “Mike Shipley” sound?
I don’t really know. There was a sound of the records in the Def Leppard era that was conceptualized between Mutt and myself. We’d have to invent types of drum sounds, because his thing was always, “Let’s do something different. It can’t ever be the same, it can’t ever be just a boring drum sound, it has to be Star Wars! Everyone is watching Star Wars films and seeing things that are very three dimensional, so let’s not just have this little honky drum sound that everyone goes for. Let’s make it big, different, larger than life.”
Larger than life is the definition of those records. It seems impossible that anybody could get so much top, so much bottom, so many effects, so many parts-so much of everything-crammed onto a piece of tape.
Mutt was just brilliant. There’s so much depth of field to the way he produced those records in terms of the parts. The concept of how to make the drums sound and how to make the guitars sound and how to stack up hundreds of tracks of backgrounds. There were so many layers-it would take huge amounts of time to be as experimental as you could possibly be and then to start again and try a different approach altogether, let alone the time it would take to mix!
You were some of the first people experimenting with sampled drums. On Hysteria those huge drums were all samples, played in a Fairlight.
Lots of people didn’t know that. They were always asking me how I miked up such great drums! Pyromania was done the same way, on cheesy 8-bit Fairlight technology where we had to figure out how to record everything at half speed into the Fairlight to make it sound like it had some tone to it, and we’d be stacking up a bunch of snares and bass drums.
I remember at the beginning of Pyromania there was no idea of how we were going to do the drums. All Mutt was saying was that we’d have to figure out some way to do the drums in the end. The drums would be one of the last things to get done, so it was, “Wonder how we’re gonna do them. I’m sure we’ll figure out something.”
A very simple drumbeat would go down at the beginning, but at the time, there wasn’t any way of locking multitracks up with drum machines. There was no way to sync the Fairlights up to SMPTE. So we had to figure out how to do that because we had to be able to change the parts. You could put a drum machine part down and work to it, but there was just that Linn drum code, and it didn’t run anything but itself, so we had to figure out, with the help of some pretty smart technical people, how to get a system together to sync to tape.
The main reason the drums were done that way was because, at that point, the songs and the arrangements would be changing all the time. If you had a performance and Mutt and the band decided to rewrite the chorus, whatever the guy had been playing became irrelevant. So the best way was for them to keep working on the songs, rearranging them and changing them all the time, and then to worry about what the drums should do afterwards.
It seems like these projects took on a life of their own, almost like they couldn’t be controlled.
It was never out of control with Mutt, but because he’s so involved in the whole process, he’d get to a stage where you had a song finished, we thought-we’d busted our balls, spending days on guitar sounds, days on vocal sounds-and he’d change the chorus.
But see, there’s no sense having an attitude or ever thinking for even a second that having an attitude is going to do anything but make the process really hard for anybody else. All having an attitude will do is get in the way of what the rest of the process is supposed to be, which is people like Mutt and whoever is in the band getting what they want. It’s my job to have no attitude and say, “No problem. I’ll figure out how to do it,” and then to do it.
You first came to the U.S. to mix Heartbeat City for The Cars. Mutt had produced it, but he didn’t come out for the mix.
No, I came out on my own to do that with the band; Mutt just needed a break. It was a bit of a struggle getting that record mixed. It was taking a long time. It can get to where when you push the fader up, even though it will be the same bass drum on tape that you’ve heard for the last six months, you’ll wish to heck it was something different.
We’d spent some time mixing it at Battery, but it was a record that had gotten quite experimental in how it was made, and we actually needed a bigger console to mix on than it was possible to get in England. Electric Lady purported to have a big new console, so Mutt suggested we go there, and they said, “Sure, come right over,” and I jumped on a plane. On Wednesday we decided to pull the plug, and I was on the plane on Friday. I walked into Electric Lady, saying, “Show me the studio. I’d better get started,” and the studio manager’s going, “Let’s go out to lunch.” I just wanted to get in the studio and get a feel for it, but it was “No, no, come out to lunch.” So eventually I got to look at the studio, and you could see the sky; there were no modules in the console, no speakers in the wall, and I had to hang out there for a couple of weeks while they finished off the studio.
How did you come to work with Joni Mitchell?
Elliot Roberts, who looked after The Cars, also looked after Joni Mitchell. I’m the biggest fan you can imagine. When he asked me if I wanted to work on a Joni record it was, “I’ll do anything to work on a Joni Mitchell record.”
So I came to L.A. and worked on several records with her over a period of time, which was a big departure from working on rock stuff, and it was great. In England, in those days anyway, you wouldn’t get bagged as being one kind of mixer or engineer so much. It was more across the board because music would change so fast there, whereas here they are much keener to bag you as having a certain sound.
Some people end up being stylized as being rock engineers or R&B engineers. I don’t really see what difference it makes. It’s just music, and it seems to me if you’ve got an affinity for music, you can work on pretty much any type of music. That’s why, to me, it’s so much fun bouncing around.
You worked intensely and pretty nonstop for how many years before you took a break?
Since I first started working, really-15, 16 years. Those were 18-hour days, seven-day weeks, and if you had Christmas day off you’re lucky. And then all of a sudden music changed and the grunge thing came in, and then guys like me were, like, too big, too polished. Even though it was big because that’s what was asked of me! And, at the same time as I was doing Def Leppard stuff that was big and over the top, I was also doing Joni Mitchell records. But, you see, you get labeled by the biggest thing that you do.
So I was labeled by the whole backlash of the rock thing turning to the grunge thing. Here I am, I just love working on music, and people were telling me that I was never going to work again! It really depressed me, because I was hitting this brick wall-all these people rebelling, quite rightly, of course, like everyone, in cycles, does rebel, against the kind of rock I’d been working on. But here’s poor me, just into music, any kind of music, being told because I was involved in records like this I should never mention their name again.
So I went away for a while, and went to live in Hawaii, just to kind of get out of the scene. I spent some time trying to figure out what I was going to do and decided I didn’t want to do anything else.
Then, something changed again. I started getting calls from bands whose first record they ever bought was Pyromania, so instead of having to duck at the mention of Def Leppard, saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do it!” I found myself working again, and for the last few years it’s been nonstop.
You always mix on SSL consoles.
Always. I love working on a 9000 if I can, that’s my favorite console of all time. It’s just a matter of getting onto them these days; they’re so highly booked up. At the same time, I love all SSL consoles, the G Pluses that they have here at Record Plant are equally great.
What gear do you always have to have on a mix?
Well of course I like to have a roomful of gear. A bunch of 1176s and LA-2As. Distressors, and DPR dynamic equalizers, made by Brooke-Siren, which are quite amazing, for vocals especially. You can put in a really fine bandwidth, and whatever certain character you want out of a vocal, whenever it hits that frequency it’ll duck it out for you. I’m used to that because with Mutt we always have programmable equalizers where we can EQ every word, SSL equalizers where we can automate every consonant of every word if we want-literally, every part of every word.
Wait a minute, how do you do that?
Its a package of automatable equalizers for G and E consoles that you can buy from SSL.
How did you do that kind of thing before you had the programmable EQ?
In the early days, I’d sit there as we were mixing the Def Leppard vocals with a 32-band parametric in my lap, and we’d rehearse the moves. I had to pull out certain frequencies as we mixed, so I’d be doing that as well doing other moves.
What format do you mix to?
I always mix down to the 24-bit Apogee; the AD-8000 bit splits to eight tracks of the DA-88. I also go to half-inch, then we choose what sounds better in mastering; it depends on the type of music and the kind of bottom end.
I see you’re using ProAc near-field speakers.
Always, for the last eight years or so. Like everyone, I’ve been an NS-10 person since they first came out, and I’ve got no problem with saying I still use them an awful lot and everything comes out fine. But the ProAcs I love; they’re my favorite speakers. I also use the self-powered V8 KRKs.
You’re an expert at balancing lots of parts.
It’s one of those things, having spent so many years working with people such as Mutt whose whole thing is depth of field and whose whole concept is layering, so that even if something is just subtly audible, it’s adding depth of field. You have to carve out space for things with EQ; you have to spend a lot of time making a place for everything to sit.
Is the console EQ the first thing you reach for?
No, not necessarily. It will be part of it, and I’ll use the console as the de-esser every time and then I’ll often use the Brooke-Siren 902. Quite often, what I’ll do is parallel the vocal up in half a dozen or more channels and EQ it for different parts of the song.
Do you compress those channels before you split them, or all individually?
Individually, and some of them wouldn’t be compressed at all, depending on what it needs. There would never be one rule that works for everything. Even in a verse there will be some lines that don’t need de-essing and some lines that don’t need compressing and some lines that need different EQ, so I’ll just parallel stuff up. To me it’s just a matter of making the voice sit in the right place, and if it takes ten channels to do it with different EQ for different parts of the song, then that’s what it takes.
What compressors do you like for vocals?
The good old LA-2 and 1176s; I also like to use a little bit of the console compressor sometimes.
Say on Shania Twain’s “Still the One,” when you get to the mix, how many tracks of those backgrounds of Mutt and Shania are you working with?
I think on that probably 12 tracks, maybe six pairs.
They really are gorgeous, the way they lift up the record.
It’s one of the characteristic things Mutt does, and he does it really fast, just bashes through them; he sets the mic up in the control room, hammers down 20 or 30 tracks, or whatever’s needed of each part.
It’s amazing that with so many tracks the backgrounds still stay so clear and understandable.
[Laughs] It’s massive amounts of equalization. As much as anything else, it’s a matter of hollowing it out so that it sits in the track; you take out whatever frequencies you need to, sometimes on a very fine “Q,” taking out large amounts of middle so that the breathy thing is there and they just sit in the right place in the track. With him EQ is nothing to be scared of, for sure.
Do you have some favorite reverbs?
I like Yamaha: the 1000s, 990s, REV5s, all those. I also like the new TC M3000, the Lexicon 480 and EMT plates.
Your drums always sound both bright and fat, like on Blondie’s new single “Maria.” Are there particular compressors that you use to make them that way?
No, not really. With “Maria,” there are samples mixed in, so a lot of it is additive. I never replace; I just add to it. I take as long as needed to cut and paste a new bass drum and snare that work both tuning and soundwise with whatever’s existing so that they blend in and sound like what’s on tape, but with more focus. For “Maria,” I just hunted through my collection and found a bass drum and snare, then worked it in so that it was locked exactly in time. We copied all the fills so that it doesn’t sound like a sample but just adds weight to what’s there already.
Do you trigger with that antique Forat I see there?
No, that’s just got a lot of my sounds stored in it. To cut and cut and paste I’ll either use Pro Tools or the good old Roland SDE-3000 trigger box.
What do you think is your biggest strength as an engineer?
I guess I’d say it’s being able to get what the client wants and to give them more than they expect. And I know how to make space for things; I know that much for sure!
With all you’ve done already, why are you still working so hard?
Because it’s too much fun to stop! I do take reasonably large amounts of time off each year. It took a long time to learn to do that, but in this job it’s important to realize when you’re overdoing it because it can creep up on you. But I feel so lucky to be offered records and songs that I want to work on. I always like to get sent something to listen to, to decide if I can do something for the project; I’ll pop it in my CD or cassette and I’ll hear some piece of music, and I’ll just get excited about it and want to do it. That’s never stopped for me since day one.
Sponge”Live Here Without You”
The Black Crowes”Only a Fool”
Neve”It’s Over Now”
SplendorHalfway Down the Sky
BlondieNo Exit (several tracks)
Shania TwainCome on Over
Aerosmith”I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”
GusterGoldfly (four tracks
Green DayFoot in Mouth(five tracks)
Joni MitchellNight Ride Home, Dog Eat Dog, Chalkmark in a Rainstorm
Def LeppardAdrenalize, Hysteria, Pyromania
The CarsHeartbeat City
Tom PettyLet Me Up, I’ve Had Enough
Shawn Colvin”Tennessee,” “Orion in the Sky”