Bob Clearmountain Interview

The Prince of Mixers
Thursday 25 March 2010
by  James B. Cote, Marc Salama, Pier Alessandri
popularity : 100%

The first session I ever did was actually about three or four months after I started, I was working with an engineer whose specialty was doing commercials and it was a recording date session with him, it was a mixing session with a band called "Kool and the Gang" and he didn’t like to do records, that it took too long, it was too slow, and so he preffered to sit in a corner and read the paper and he said why don’t you just do the session and Ron Bell the leader of "Kool and the Gang" was such a nice guy, so easy going that he didn’t mind working with me at all, you know, he accepted me right away and, I sat down and I did some synthetizers overdubs and we did two or three mixes in one night

San Francisco, October 1992, interviewed by Marc Salama, Patrick Coutin & James B. Cote

Literal transcription

- Q1 : What made you a sound engineer and a producer
- Q2 : So you became an assistant ?
- Q3 : How long does it take to be a sound engineer ?
- Q4 : You were twenty years old ?
- Q5 : What is the main difference between work as an engineer and work as a producer ?
- Q6 : Do you think your work as a producer is a natural extension of your work as a sound engineer ?
- Q7 : When you’re producing, you always engineered ?
- Q8 : Do you prefer the recording part of an album or the mixing part, because you’re very well-known for your work on mixing ?
- Q9 : You use a sampling machine a lot. What is your favorite sampling machine ?
- Q10 : And do you have, don’t you have any trouble with the timing ?
- Q11 : Since you’ve been doing a big samples’ library and you’ve been recording a lot of drums. could you tell us what kind of mics you use ?
- Q12 : What kind of microphones do you use for ambiance ?
- Q13 : What do you think about this 3d sound ? ..?what is your position about that ?
- Q14 : Is there a special gear you carry with you in studios, do you know what I mean, do you have a special instrument ?
- Q15 :Do you use pro tools ?
- Q16 : What is your position about this whole discussion about analogue and digital, I mean some people say analogue is much better and some say digital is so fantastic ?
- Q17 : What is your philosophy about the use of effects in music, there’s more and more effects in the studios, do you use them quite a lot ?
- Q18 : What are you trying to reach with your work ?
- Q19 : You would like to be invisible ?
- Q20 : What is your opinion about the development of home studio ?
- Q21 : Do you think that you will have a studio of your own one day ?
- Q22 : Do you think you will be able to work on a new sort of digital desk ?
- Q23 :I didn’t ask too many questions about your work with singers and stuff like that because it seems to me you don’t want to speak too much about the people you’re working with.
- Q24 : the thing that I would have liked to know is that you’ve been working with great stars like the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen a lot with springsteen. I would like to know who is the artist you take the more intensively, the more...
- Q25 :He just did one take...
- Q26 :It looks like bruce springsteen takes a longer time in the studio... takes sometime
- Q27 : So you have a lot and after you decide,..just to have a consequent album. you mixed the two last albums of springsteen and the sound is quite different. you wanted to achieve two different tasks ?one year.


Q1 What made you a sound engineer and a producer?

- Well, I think it’s something I was probably born with, one of my earliest memories before is my father bringing home a tape recorder, he bought a tape, it must have been in 1959 or 1960 something like that, and er maybe a little later than that actually because my mother was an english grammar teacher and she wanted something, someway of recording her students and playing back how badly they spoke so that they could work on their speech and I saw that thing, you know, and was intrigued immediatly and I started recording my friends ? And myself and anything I could, I could record and it just became a fascinating toy for me. and then my brother was a, my older brother, eight years older, was a musician he played guitar and sang. And so I always enjoyed listening to him singing and playing and I eventually learn to play the guitar a little bit. I became a bass player, that’s what happened when I was about thirteen years old, fourteen, my dad bought me a bass guitar and so I was always into music, and into recording, electronic, I used to be, play around, I used to take things apart and build electronic circuits and things, I got very basic things when I was young. And so I think the obvious progression when I was a senior in high school, or a junior in high school, I discovered the professional recording engineer and I think my girl friend’s dad had a copy of db magazine, I don’t know why, I think he sold parts to audio manufactures. and they just fascinated me, you know, multI track recording I just thought this is the greatest thing I ever heard of, absolutely fascinating. Besides the fact that I was a big record fan I was into Jimmy Hendrix’ records and Led Zeppelin and things like that. And I figured to do is there must be someone responsible for creating these sounds, you know, other than the musicians er, and so I thought yeah this is what I want to do, so the last rock band that I was in, we were doing a demo at a studio called media sound in New York, it was the first studio that i’d ever been in. And immediatly when Iwalked in into this place I thought yes I could spend the rest of my life in a place like this. And shortly after the band split up for various reasons and I started hanging around the, the studio until they hired me, and then that was that.

Bob ClearmountainQ2 So you became an assistant?

- Became an assistant, yeah, they originaly hired me as a delivery boy. And I did two deliveries and it turned out that, there was a mix-up and they actually didn’t need a delivery boy, they needed an assistant right away and so they sent me into, into the studio and the first session I assisted I was, was for Duke Ellington, I was nineteen years old and I had never met anyone famous before, you know, and I thought waoh this is really something.

Q3 How long does it take to be a sound engineer?

- Well, the first session I ever did was actually about three or four months after I started, I was working with an engineer whose specialty was doing commercials and it was a recording date session with er, it was a mixing session with a band called "Kool and the Gang" and he didn’t like to do records, that it took too long, it was too slow, and so he preffered to sit in a corner and read the paper and he said why don’t you just do the session and Ron Bell the leader of "Kool and the Gang" was such a nice guy, so easy going that he didn’t mind working with me at all, you know, he accepted me right away and I sat down and I did some synthetizers overdubs and we did two, two or three mixes in one night.

Q4 You were twenty years old?

- 
I was twenty, yeah and then about six months later, I was working with another engineer who got sick and it was the same band kool and the gang, and they were doing, they were working on their next album, they were doing basic rhythm tracks for two songs called, I don’t know if anyone will remember this, you’re older, you would remember a song called "highly swinging" and another song called "funky stuff" and I recorded, he didn’t show up and so I recorded those two songs and it went really well, I never got any credit for it but I didn’t mind, I was just thrilled when they came, the songs came on the radio, they were pretty big hits... in the states anyway. and it was a big thrill for me, I hadn’t even been doing it for a year. but then, I mean, I often had assisted, did some engineering for the next two or three years and then, and then after about three or four years I became an engineer full-time.

Q5 What is the main difference between work as an engineer and work as a producer ?

- 
Well, the way I produce, I mean. Different producers have different approaches towards producing, I mean people come out from different points of view. I was always coming from the engineering so, there’s people that come out from people that are involved in radio, people from a&r, arrangers, probably the best producers are musicians and arrangers, I would think.
- For myself I felt that I had an advantage cos I was a musician, so I did know quite a bit of music, I’had, I’ve a very musical ear, I think anyway. and so I was able to get good sounds like with engineering my own sessions, I was able to deal with all that and didn’t have to depend on an engineer to get sounds for me, plus I could, I could give the musicians a fair amount of direction and suggestions as far as their music went. So, not only that way but I spent so much time in the studio, I mean every day for years and years that I knew a lot about what went on in a studio, and how to pace the session and how to make musicians and the artists feel comfortable cos I’d seen it done many times working with other producers, I’d seen the good ways to do it, and ways that worked and ways that didn’t work. You know I’ve worked with a lot of producers that, that could really upset the artists and the musicians, you know, and I knew what not to do so I think I was, it was an advantage that way.

Q6 Do you think your work as a producer is a natural extension of your work as a sound engineer?

- 
Absolutely!

Q7 When you’re producing, you always engineered?

- 
 I always, always have, except for one album the pretender’s "get close" album, were the guy that engineered it Bruce Lambcock was an assistant of mine for about a year and a half previous to that. And I decided that I wanted to step back from engineering. I still made the album but I had him engineering it, I thought he did a wonderful job too. You see it’s a little easier, I found if I could find someone that could engineer the way I do and thought the way I do, it was easier cos I don’t have to think about that part of it. But most of the time, if I have to tell somebody, constantly tell somebody what to do on that side of it, I found it easier just to do it myself, it’s faster.

Q8 Do you prefer the recording part of an album or the mixing part, because you’re very well-known for your work on mixing?

- I prefer the mixing part. In fact, I mean I don’t engineer, I don’t record for, for anyone else, I only engineer for products, projects that I produced. and I haven’t really produced anything in a few years because I’ve been so busy mixing that I haven’t really had a chance to produce and I really prefer mixing to producing.

Q9 You use a sampling machine a lot. What is your favorite sampling machine?

- There’s a few that I use, I use the eventide h3000 with the sampling card, I use the ams, and er there’s a delay made by roland the sde 3000 that er, you can get a, a sampling modification for it and makes it, turns it into a sampler. all these samplers that are...none, none of them are midI based at all, you know, they’re all audio samplers that trigger off tape. So I have a lot of techniques that involve the SSL quite a bit for a... maintaining dynamics and so what I do is I replay sounds on a tape or augment sounds very often with, with samples for my cd and for my personal sample library.

Q10 And do you have, don’t you have any trouble with the timing?

- That’s right. Well,there’s different ways to get around that, on an analogue tape machine you can tape the, the trigger signal off the record head and that advances it by sixty nano seconds and then redelayed it to get it in time. On the 3348, the Sony 3348 which I use most of the time now, it has an option to be able to bounce a track to another track and at seconds ahead. it’s called an advance features. It’s, it’s really designed for using digital consoles which you can be using for that. and that gives you enough five, seconds gives you enough time to get the samplers in time.

Q11 Since you’ve been doing a big samples’ library and you’ve been recording a lot of drums. could you tell us what kind of mics you use?

- 
Oh sure! Well, it depends, I mean I change it around a lot. I don’t always use the same mics but generaly I use a girl fashion shure sm 57 on snare drum, and a akg 451 but like a combination of those two...both on the top. Because the 451 is very bright, has a very crisp bright top end and the 57 has kind of, like a mid-ranging attack sound and they combine, they tend to complement each other. I usually use er, sennheiser 421 and tom-toms, akg 460’s and cymbals and akg D12 on bass drum. Yeah, or sometimes a neumann U47 sometimes on bass drum or a sennheiser.

Q12 What kind of microphones do you use for ambiance?

- Well it depends, I’ve used a lot of different mics, you know, Neuman, u87s, u47s, sometimes I’ve used a c24 stereo mic akg, you know, lots of different mics, I’m doing a new sample cd where I used a, I don’t even know what it was called but it was a, it’s sort of an ambisonic type of mic, it’s one of those dummy head mics. I don’t think it actually was ambisonic but it was made by some other company, but it was quite interesting.

Q13 What do you think about this 3D sound? ..? What is your position about that?

- 
Well, i’ve used the Q sound system quite a bit. And I enjoy using a lot, I haven’t used the roland system or any of the other ones but er, I really do enjoy using the q sound system. The problem I found with it and with all those systems is that for any of them to work properly, the playback system has to be set up properly, the speakers have to be in a certain position, you have to kind of be in the sweets spot between the speakers. and when you do that, it’s a tremondous addition I think, you know, I mean you actually get the illusion of, of sounds coming out from other places besides the speakers or between the speakers, from outside of the field of speakers and I enjoy it quite a bit; in a way I usually use it fairly thoroughly where most of the mix will be stereo and then just there’ll be an occasional thing that will appear in an other place, and so it doesn’t sound like it’s been washed and I think it works quite well that way, the latest Michael Paton record I used it a few times, I think three or four tracks and I think it’s quite effective actually.

Q14 Is there a special gear you carry with you in studios, do you know what I mean, do you have a special instrument?

- 
Yeah, well I have a, I have a rack equipment that I bring in the studio with me and it has three of the roland sde 3000 delays with the sample, sampling modification, it’s got an se 3000, er eventide, an ams, it’s got a thing called the spanner which is an auto-made by a company that went out of business years ago in england, electro space technologies, it’s pretty rare, I mean they didn’t make many of them, it wasn’t very popular... I have a thing made by bss in london called dynamic equalizer which is very good for problem vocal tracks cos it, you can, it will smooth out harshness and...it does all kind of interesting things. er, I also got a very old cheesy piece of digital equipment called a ursa major space station which is...it was part...it came out around 1979 or 1980, it was one of the first digital reverbs, I mean it’s a horrible sounding thing on its own. but used suddenly combined with other effects is quite effective, and the springsteen’s "tunnel of love" album i’ve used it quite a bit on vocals and guitars. I have two modified er, ureI la3a limitors or compressors actually that I use on vocals quite a bit, I have a bank of four mxr flangers and phasers, two flangers and two phasers which are all from the seventies and you can’t, you can’t really find them anymore. And,plus I have a rack with a macintosh quadra 700 with pro tools digidesign ?

Q15 Do you use ProTools?

- 
Oh yeah, I use it just to do edits, you know when somebody wants to cut something down. And then the most important thing is that I have apogee digital converters cos I always mix to dat and i, I always use the apogee converters because they, because of their consistency and they, they just, they sound, there’s no coloration, you know it really makes digital sound like analogue.

Q16 What is your position about this whole discussion about analogue and digital, I mean some people say analogue is much better and some say digital is so fantastic?

- I use a lot of digital, I only use sony3348, and 3324 and I prefer digital because of the creative aspects, because of the digital editing and...er, the fact that it always comes back the way you recorded it, i, I really enjoy that. I was always frustrated with analogue, I know there’s a lot of people nowadays that enjoy what analogue does to their sound that they record on it and it comes back and sounds a little warmer, pushes the bottom together a bit. er, I don’t like that, i’m always disappointed if it comes back different than the way it went down. the digital machine is very acurate nowadays. The sonys, the new sonys are, are excellent, the converters are really good. I found that it comes back a lot surer and it doesn’t degrade over time, you know analogue tape the more you play the tape then you start to lose the top end a little bit. And that always was a big frustration for me so I certainly like digital.

Q17 What is your philosophy about the use of effects in music, there’s more and more effects in the studios, do you use them quite a lot?

- 
I think it all depends on the program material and the music that you’re dealing with, I think some music requires more effects and can take that and other, other types of music don’t. you know, I don’t have a solid opinion either way about that, you know, cos I mean I’ll find some mixes, I’ll have racks and racks of delays and reverbs, and you know, and everything you can think of, every fader on the board, having some kind of thing going on and then there’s other, other records that I mix where, you know, I hardly, just practically nothing, nothing’s going on, you know, it’s just the sound on the tape.

Q18 What are you trying to reach with your work?

- Well, basically what I’m trying to do is just, to the mix interpret the song and the character and the space that the artist’s invisions, you know, or maybe not necessarely what he inventions but something that makes the artist feels that it’s, the sound is representative of what he’s trying to g et across in his music, you know I mean, I’m not trying to, I don’t want people to listen to the mix, I don’t want people to sit there and go, go waoh! this is, what an interesting mix! you know, I want them to think, I like this song, you know I want them to, to remember the song or the artist or the performance, you know, I don’t... you know, I don’t think it’s a...showcase for what I do you know. I’m just trying to help... what, what the artist does, really, you know. I wanna be really invisible.

Q19 You would like to be invisible?

- 
Well, yeah! because, because I don’t think it’s my...I’m not the star you know,I’m not, I’m not the xxxxxxxxxx

Q20 What is your opinion about the development of home studio?

- 
Well...I think it’s inevitable, home studios. I think people spend, are spending more and more time on their records and budgets are getting smaller and smaller and I think it’s a shame that. Artists want to spend more time because they want to give people their money’s worth, they want to be as good as they can be and if they were forced to use commercial studios as think nowadays, I mean not for all music but for a lot of music. and...so this gives them the opportunity to really spend time without having to look at the clock all the time. And the thing is that to record a band...you know drums and guitars and things like that, it’s usually easier to do basic tracks, it saves the all band from playing live, it’s going to be easier for them to go into a commercial studio than take it home and do their over-dubs in their home studio and bring it back to the commercial studio to mix. because the amount of equipment that’s necessary to do a proper mix, it’s a, you know, it’s too expensive to have in a home studio and it’s, it’s just a waste cos they’ll only use it once every album and so I think, I think the home studio and the commercial studio, there’s room for both, you know, and I don’t think that the home studios are a threat to the commercial studios, you know, I don’t think there’s a problem.

Q21 Do you think that you will have a studio of your own one day?

- 
I think I will. yeah I think probably just a mixing room. I hope to someday, I mean not in the near future but...yeah I would like to do that.

Q22 Do you think you will be able to work on a new sort of digital desk?

- 
Yeah, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. you know I mean I think that you’d have to have a limited number of channel strips because it’s nice to be able just re? and grab something, you know, when you hear, oh that guitar looks ? you just want reach it, you know when I have to scrawl through menus and things like that but I think you can get away with a twenty-four channel, physically 24 channels that actually controls a lot more channels you know, which you can do in a digital, digital format.

Q23 I didn’t ask too many questions about your work with singers and stuff like that because it seems to me you don’t want to speak too much about the people you’re working with.

- 
Well you try me, i’ll tell you what I want to say.

Q24 The thing that I would have liked to know is that you’ve been working with great stars like the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen a lot with springsteen. I would like to know who is the artist you take the more intensively, the more.....

- 
Well, Bruce definetely, yeah. I really enjoy working with bruce. I enjoy his songs, his lyrics and his attitude about his music, he’s very serious about it and he’s very...emotional, his music is very emotional, that appeals to me. I enjoy working with brian adams because he’s a very close friend and we have a great, just a good time together you know, I mean we’re friends outside the studio too. er..I was really fascinated working with david bowie, I think he’s probably the best singer i’ve ever worked with, david and chrissie hynde are the best singers i’ve ever worked with. yeah, yeah...and brian is pretty up there too, brian adams, you know. david is pretty, is very unique because of all his characters that he draws from. when we were... I recorded and mixed, the last, it was actually the last record I ever engineered and produced was "let’s dance". and I was pretty amazed, he came in the studio to do the song "modern love", I don’t know if people remember that but he started singing it and he sang it like, down, down the octave in that sort of awful newly voice of his, you know, and he sang a verse and chorus chorus and he stopped and said let me listen to that he listened back and goes oh no that’s not it at all, he says give me a minute and he stood there for a few seconds and thought about it, and goes ok let’s try it again and then he sang it just the way you hear it on the record now which is completely different, totally different character, different... as if somebody else walked in the room you know. he did it amazingly, you know he didn’t even, he just did one take and then that was it.

Q25 He just did one take...

- Yeah! and I was just, I was in awe, you know I was just amazed, how versatile this man was, you know.

Q26 It looks like bruce springsteen takes a longer time in the studio... takes sometime one year.

- That’s right. well, what that is.... He doesn’t spend a lot of time on each thing like he wants to be there and do a guitar over-dub for four days like some people would do... He writes a lot of songs and so what takes him so much time is to figure out exactly what the album is about, you know when he is doing an album like he zooms in on which, first of all, which songs he’s going to record and you know just what the overall attitude is gonna be. And so... it’s different than a lot of people that get their group of songs and then just work on each part for ever, you know, bruce doesn’t do that at all. he does things very spontaneously actually.

Q27 So you have a lot and after you decide,..just to have a consequent album. you mixed the two last albums of springsteen and the sound is quite different. you wanted to achieve two different tasks?

- 
Right! well the first one which was "human touch" which we recorded before he did " lucky towns" it was more a sort of normal springsteen album, you know, there’s a big variety, there’s actually quite a variety of sounds in that record and of environments and...you know some, some of the songs are very basic, some of the songs are full-band and when he did "lucky town" he wrote all those songs in a very small amount of time and recorded them in a very...other about two weeks I think. and when I came out to mix that, I went over to his house and he played me rough mixes of the whole album and he said listen i, I really want this to be very raw sounding and very demo like, and I don’t want it to sound polished and I said great, I said I mean maybe...he didn’t have to say that, that’s the vib I got from listening to the music, this the way it should be. so we agreed on it totally, so yeah it was consciously different you know, and it was meant to be that way, you know they’re two completely different albums. not completely different, but two kinds of feeling...the other one is an early morning record. well, thank you very much.

Interviewed by James B. Cote, Marc Salama & Patrick Coutin


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