Studio Legends: John Siket
From sessions with Steve Lillywhite, to pawnshop trolling for soundmakers with Thurston Moore, to making improv records with Phish, Siket is a creature of the console.
John Siket’s musical footprint is massive. As a producer and engineer, his resume reads like a who’s who of cool, influential, and creative musicians. Bands as disparate as Sonic Youth, Phish, Dave Matthews Band, moe., and Helmet have recorded with him. He’s worked with legendary producers like Butch Vig (Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Helmet, Garbage) and Steve Lillywhite (U2, Peter Gabriel, the Rolling Stones). And he may be the only producer/engineer to have an album named after him (Phish’s The Siket Disc).
Siket’s first serious gig was a summer internship in the mid 1980s at Bearsville Studios in upstate New York. “I was relegated to the shop,” he said. “I got to solder miles and miles of cable. But it was fun. I was in the studio, technically.” After a short stint substitute teaching and painting houses, Siket landed a job at Water Music in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1988. “I think they hired me because I knew how to solder really well,” he said. “I didn’t care. I was in a studio and I just had that fever.” He worked his way up the ranks, from assistant to house engineer, and cut his teeth recording acts like Yo La Tango, Freedy Johnston, and Fountains of Wayne.
But New York City was calling. “Engineers came over from New York and displayed cool studio wizardry that we knew nothing about,” he said. “I decided that I needed to see that firsthand.” He got a job as assistant engineer at midtown’s Sound on Sound in 1992. It was a commercial studio— elite, state-of-the-art, high-pressure, and corporate—that recorded jingles and worked with New York’s first-call session players, arrangers, and producers.
Siket made it his business to be at work when Butch Vig came to check out Sound on Sound for Sonic Youth. “At that point, Butch was the hottest producer in the country,” Siket recalls. Vig had just produced Nirvana’s Nevermind. “I told him, ‘We’re the greatest. You have to record here.’” Siket worked those sessions with Vig (for Sonic Youth’s Dirty) and continued to work with him on Freedy Johnston’s critically acclaimed This Perfect World, Sonic Youth’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star; Helmet’s Betty; and many others.
That was just the beginning. Siket went on to build a diverse and extensive discography doing sessions with Steve Lillywhite, Phish, moe., and a small army of festival headliners, and also started teaching at New York’s School of Audio Engineering. He’s still at it. “One thing I always dreaded was waking up and seeing a recording console,” he says, referring to the small studio that currently doubles as his Manhattan apartment. “I spend 12-14 hours a day looking at one now, anyway. I see it all day long.”
Premier Guitar spoke with Siket about working with great producers, Phish’s unorthodox approach to the studio, the death of tape, the pros and cons of digital recording, capturing great guitar tones, and window-shopping with Thurston Moore.
You’re sometimes credited as either the engineer, mixer, or producer. How do you define those different responsibilities?
An engineer is the guy who gets the sounds. He or she sets up and chooses microphones, employs equalization, compression, delay and reverb—and basically does the recording. The mixer balances the final recording to two tracks, consolidates all the tracks, whether it’s 4-track, 8-track, 16-track, 24-track, 48-track—or now in the digital age, unlimited, ad nauseam tracks—to a stereo file or an analog 2-track. The producer is responsible for how a record comes out. He or she hires the engineer, decides to work with a band or gets hired by a band, and chooses the songs. How involved producers are varies. Sometimes they cowrite and change a lot of stuff. Sometimes they don’t. They hopefully coax a great performance. They choose the takes. They can be hands-on in the mixing. I’ve had producers push me aside, grab the EQ, and say, “No, no, no. Do it like this.” Others don’t touch the console, they are there just as an objective ear. Producers are also responsible for keeping it on budget, perhaps hiring session musicians, choosing the studio, and they are the liaison with the record company. But basically, the producer is responsible for how the record turns out.
Let’s talk about some of the different producers you worked with. What are some things you learned from working with Butch Vig?
I knew how to edit tape, but he showed me tape editing on a whole other level. If the drummer was dragging, we could somehow take the late snare drums and pull them up into time, just from taking out minute slivers in the tape.
Manually, with a razor blade?
Yeah, but you had to be late. If you were early we couldn’t do anything about it because you can always take time out, but you can’t put anything in [laughs]. I learned a lot from Rob Grenoble [from Water Music in Hoboken] about the importance of finding the right tempo. I learned a lot about editing from Rob, too. But Butch took editing—and especially fixing things in post-production—to another level. Like tuning vocals with the Eventide Harmonizer. We didn’t have Auto-Tune back then. We would use the Eventide Harmonizer, bounce vocals through it, sharpen or flatten them to get them into tune, and reference them to a Peterson Strobe Tuner. We had to figure out how to set the harmonizer, how many cents flat or sharp, in order to get it into tune. And that was real grueling, laborious, syllable-by-syllable work—depending on how heavy it had to be—but at the end you could transform a performance pitch-wise. It sounded really good, but it took a while.
I really absorbed editing and I got so good at it. I took that skill with me and used it until we weren’t using tape anymore. But I apply some aspects to how we do it now. It wasn’t just the skill of editing, it was the art of editing. For example, I did a record two weeks ago and listening down I liked all the verses from one take and the rest of the song from another take. I didn’t have to do a test edit—it was just that sense of tempo—I made the edit and the band was flabbergasted. I was 95 percent sure it was going to work.
John Siket with the band Phish at Bearsville Studios in October of 1997. Photo by Sofi Dillof / Courtesy of Phish
Can you talk about working with Steve Lillywhite and the Dave Matthews Band on 1996’s Crash?
We had just finished the Soul Asylum record I did with Butch [Let Your Dim Light Shine, 1995]. I got a call from RCA, they wanted me to work with this band called the Dave Matthews Band. I hadn’t really heard them. But I asked, “Who’s producing?” They said, “Steve Lillywhite.” And I was in. His name was on so many records that I owned. I just said, “Oh man, I’ve got to work with this guy.” That’s where I learned a lot more about coaxing a good performance out of the band, making them feel at ease in the studio, and mixing as you go.
What does “mixing as you go” mean?
Don’t put off decisions until the mix. Make as many decisions in the moment as you can. We would print effects. Anything we could do that would shape the track toward [Lillywhite’s] final vision, we would do right there on the spot. Every time we did an overdub, we did a mix. By the time we were done overdubbing we had rough-mixed the song so much that it wasn’t a problem. We did our last mix because there was nothing left to record. I used to view recording and mixing as two separate processes. He taught me to view them as the same process.
So he did everything in the moment?
Yeah. It’s a very English way of doing things. I think English engineers are a lot less conservative than American engineers. They’re very apt to print effects. They probably use a lot more compression and EQ going to tape than American engineers do.
At first I was resistant. He said, “You should be able to mix three or four songs a day by the time we are done with this project.” To me, it took a day to mix a song—that was just so ingrained in my head. I said, “Name me a song that you’ve mixed in a short amount of time.” He said, “‘New Year’s Day.’ Do you know that song? I’ll tell you how it goes: I was doing vocals with Bono and he said, ‘I’m not really happy with these lyrics.’ I said, ‘Take 30 minutes and sort out your lyrics.’ We sat around for 15 minutes and did nothing. And then I said, ‘Let’s mix ‘New Year’s Day.’’” They had 30 minutes, they didn’t do anything for the first 15 minutes, and then it occurred to him, “Let’s just mix ‘New Year’s Day.’ Why not?” And they did it in two passes.
Every rough mix that we did, we took it very seriously—we acted like it was a big deal. So think of it: If you mix a song 10 times that way, you’re going to remember a lot of what happened. It takes the fear out of mixing. Steve’s sitting there, you’re sitting there, you’ve seen each other do the same thing 10 times before, you’re just going to try to do it a little bit better—but you try to do that every time—and you’ve got everything recorded. So it’s just another exercise. It’s very smart and it’s kind of obvious when I look at it in retrospect. It’s really just a good way to work.
He would also play rough mixes for Dave Matthews’ friends when they came by the studio. He would pay close attention to what they responded to. One day I asked him, “How come you’re always playing rough mixes for everybody?” And he said, “How am I going to know if they’re any good?” That stunned me. He was completely serious.
How did he get the band to relax and give a good performance?
He played a lot of ping-pong with them. He set up a ping-pong table in the live room. The band would get wound up and play ping-pong. There was a ragged, old yellow shirt that the leading ping-pong player wore. It was called, “the Yellow Jersey.” “Who’s going to get the Yellow Jersey?” [Laughs.] He did that a lot. He distracted them.
You’ve done a lot of work with Phish—Billy Breathes, The Story of the Ghost, Farmhouse, Slip Stitch and Pass, The Siket Disc—how did they distinguish between live and in the studio?
When I met those guys, they were basically tired of a producer telling them what to do. They wanted an engineer who could make producer decisions, but remain an engineer unless asked to do so. That was me. We were in the studio for nine weeks.
I learned a lot from those guys. One thing they asked me to do was, “Take a blank reel of tape, roll halfway in, and then one of us is going to play one note, another person is going to play one note, and then another one.” But that didn’t last too long, it soon turned into one person would play something—a short phrase—and he could play any instrument. For example, Trey [Anastasio] played drums at 4:37, Mike [Gordon] played violin at 2:07. You had all these little patches. Then someone would say, “I liked what you did on drums. I’m going to add a bass part to that.” Then they changed the rules a little bit. Instead of recording something, you could erase something, and you could erase somebody else’s part. You had this constant, “I am going to record or I am going to erase.” A couple of songs started to come out of these little things. There’s a segue called “Steep” on Billy Breathes that’s part of that.
Those guys rehearse like crazy, too. To this day they take rehearsals very seriously—you can’t call in sick to rehearsal, you’ve got to be there—but each one of those guys loves music so much that it’s okay. I saw them two years ago at Madison Square Garden and they sounded better than ever to me and they just looked like they were having a great time. Simultaneously being really serious about it but enjoying themselves, too.
John Siket (middle, facing camera) backstage at Phish’s Clifford Ball festival in Plattsburgh, New York, circa 1996.
Photo by Danny Clinch / Courtesy of Phish
What does Trey do for getting guitar sounds in the studio?
At the beginning of Billy Breathes Trey said, “I need to find a new sound.” He brought up vintage guitars and amplifiers and he started using them. But then he was like, “This isn’t me.” He just used his custom Paul Languedoc guitar and his homemade cabinets. And it’s true, that’s his sound. It’s a very distinctive sound.
His rig is stereo, so when he played through his rig I recorded him in stereo. I used a pair of Sennheiser 409s or a pair of [Shure] SM57s. I probably used a little bit of compression with him and not a lot of EQ. His sound is very sculptured, to my ear, already.
Can you talk about The Siket Disc a little bit? What’s it like having an album named after you?
Oh man, that. Well, it felt good, actually [laughs]. The genesis of that project was that Trey told Steve Lillywhite, “We’ve been off the road now for 20-some weeks. We should really be making a record while we’re mid-tour, not when we’re sitting around for 20 weeks. During the first substantial break we have on our next tour, fly to that area and we’ll go into the studio and record.” Trey came up with this idea where Steve would pick songs—we had a Doors song, we had a really obscure Bill Withers song—and Steve played just a snippet of that in their headphones. They would learn it. Then they would morph a jam from it until you couldn’t recognize it any more.
We did a lot of that in Seattle. But we didn’t end up keeping any of it, which I was really surprised about. Later on, Trey approached me and said, “I want to go into the studio and we’re not going to have any plan. We’re just going to go in and play and see what comes out.” We went to Bearsville. We rented out some studio time and The Siket Disc is that. It’s pure improvisation. I don’t think anybody came in with anything written down. I was mixing it live basically. That was my monitor mix. I recorded it to DAT. It went to multitrack, but it went live to 2-track as well. About 80 percent of that record is mixed live, too. We did one or two songs over in the studio again. It was kind of live on my side and on their side. But if anybody can pull it off, it’s those guys. A lot of people really like that record. It’s all instrumentals. But it’s concise, at least. And it goes by and it’s like, “Hey. That was cool. Let’s hear it again.”
tape than American engineers do.”
You did a lot of work with Sonic Youth, including producing the Washing Machine album. Tell us about recording a 20-minute opus like “The Diamond Sea.”
We were staying in a hotel in downtown Memphis. Within walking distance from our hotel was a pawnshop, and in the window of the pawnshop there was a big guitar pedal made by Ludwig [the Phase II Synthesizer]. It had a control on it that said “animation.” I was a rabid gear hound at the time and I had never heard of a Ludwig pedal. I told Thurston [Moore], “You’ve got to see this. It looks so outrageous.” It looked like an elongated lunch box and it had a latch. You opened the latch and the thing folded down and here was the pedal, with all these controls. Thurston saw it and bought it instantly. He used it that day on “The Diamond Sea.” I thought it was really ballsy that he got this thing—and here’s this big flagship song on the record—and he plugged it in and made it part of the sound.
That was one thing about those guys: They didn’t try to baby their guitars, they really tortured them. To get their guitars into some of those tunings wasn’t the greatest thing for the guitar. Lee [Ranaldo] told me, “They’re tools, man. We don’t care. We’re not trying to walk around with museum pieces. They are devices that allow us to express ourselves.” They didn’t abuse their guitars per se, but they didn’t look babied.
They looked loved.
Yeah. I mean, Thurston played through a Peavey amp. He could have had any amp he wanted, but that was the amp he wanted. It wasn’t an amp that he just ended up with. He liked it for some particular reason.
Were they particular about using the studio space or did you just close-mic the amps?
No, I didn’t tight-mic the amplifiers at all. I went a couple of feet out. Somebody told me how Television was recording their guitars around that time [for Television, 1992]. For some reason they weren’t putting the mics right up on the grills, they were using two condenser mics a few feet back. I liked their guitar sound, so I decided to try a more ambient approach. Anybody can jam a 57 up in front of the speaker, that’s not new. We were working at Sear Sound for Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, and they had a lot of RCA ribbon mics there that were in really great shape. I put both a RCA ribbon and a Neumann U 47 a few feet back from the amps. I used the faders to combine, make a mix of the two mics, and send it to one track. I did a variation of that in Memphis.
When recording great guitar sounds, is it more important to get a great sound to tape or do you prefer to EQ it after the fact?
I used to be of the school where I told the guitar player, “Don’t add any delay or reverb, I’ve got better delays and reverbs than you do. I’ll add them later.” I learned the hard way that people play to their sound better than if I’m trying to approximate it later. I try to get the most finished sound I can at the recording, though I’m not above adding something later.
Lately I’ve been taking a raw direct from the guitar, in case I want to embellish it later. I like to use directs. Sometimes I’ll fold them into the guitar sound. I typically record them without compression so they are as dynamic as can be and then when I’m mixing them down, I’ll compress them. I’ll blend them in a little bit to the amp sound, just to fill it out. I don’t necessarily have to put another layer of distortion on it or something like that, but I’ll push that fader into the amp sound to fill it out. A direct is often such an alien sound from the amp, it’s so different—the amp just doesn’t seem to have any of those frequencies. I take a direct—pre effects—and record it straight. One box I’m really fond of is the Roger Linn AdrenaLinn. It’s probably one of my favorite amp simulators, if I had to have one.
How about acoustics?
Sometimes I’ll do a double track and I’ll Varispeed it down so when the doubled track plays back at normal speed it plays back a little bit brighter and a little bit sharper. Just a very tiny amount though.
When you started out everyone recorded to 2-inch tape. The world is completely different now. How do you adapt?
I made the transition from tape to digital kind of gradually. I went from a completely tape-based workflow to a dedicated hard disk system called RADAR, which stands for Random Access Digital Audio Recorder. And they were dedicated machines. Although they were computers recording to hard disk, they didn’t do anything else. They were specialized. I really like that system. I used it for as long as I possibly could, probably a bit longer. It sounded fantastic and it reminded me of tape. The auto locator looked like a multitrack reel-to-reel locator, so I didn’t feel like I had to use a screen if I didn’t want to.
I like the sound of tape, but you can’t go back. If I had my druthers, I would record to 16-track, 2-inch and then bounce it into Pro Tools and do the edits in there. Because I do like the sound of a tape machine that is well maintained. But I don’t run into those scenarios very often. I haven’t used multitrack tape in probably six years. It’s been a little while.
Do you use Pro Tools now? You’re not using RADAR anymore?
Just Pro Tools now.
Do you still use the console when you do the mix?
Yeah. But it’s more about the freedom to do something—to reach over and grab an EQ and then reach over and grab a different EQ. On Pro Tools you’ve got to open one channel, pull it down, fiddle with it, close it, then go grab the other one. It reminds me of accounting [laughs]. Whereas on a console, you’re like, “Oh yeah, I feel like turning up a reverb or adding some treble.” I go around like a bumblebee and touch certain knobs, and the mix starts to come together. I do have a tactile controller though. I have 24 physical faders, 24 physical pan knobs, physical mute switches, and so that takes a little bit of the sting out of it.
It seems like the old way is much more organic.
I mean, we’re here now and I’ve just had to accept it. I still rehearse a lot. I rehearse with bands a lot before we go into the studio. I look at the arrangements. We talk about tempos and the right key for this or that. I go and see the band play live. So a lot of the other things are still in place and are just as valid as they always were. But now instead of lugging four big reels into the studio, I put the hard disk into my briefcase and walk home with it. But I’m not one of those people who will just zoom in on the molecular level and manipulate music until it’s perfect. That’s not fun. That was the thing about Pro Tools that put me off about it. It’s really just a glorified editor. It’s not a miracle machine.
Exactly. I can make it sound like you play better than you do, but I don’t want to. I want you to play well. I want to coax you to play well. I want to inspire you to play well. You want to play well.
Essential Listening: Selected John Siket Discography
This Perfect World, Freedy Johnston
Siket engineered this 1994 release, which cemented his relationship with producer Butch Vig. “I remember I was sitting in my crappy little apartment in Hoboken and the phone rang. It was Butch Vig and he said, “Freedy Johnston. Would you like to engineer?” I said, “Heck yeah.” Then Butch said, “Well, it’s not going to happen for a couple of months, but I’m supposed to record a couple of tracks with Helmet. Do you want to do that?”
Washing Machine, Sonic Youth
Siket produced this album in 1995. He also worked on the band’s previous releases, Dirty and Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. Washing Machine includes the noise-guitar opus, “The Diamond Sea.” According to Siket, the final mix features layered multiple takes. “One [take] is backwards, sort of underneath the forward version. There’s the forward 20 minutes and then somewhere in that 20 minutes you hear a backwards 2-track live mix, as well.”
Crash, Dave Matthews Band
This was Siket’s first time working with legendary producer Steve Lillywhite. The album peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 200, and the track “So Much to Say” won a Grammy.
The Siket Disc, Phish
Siket reveals that most of this instrumental album was recorded and simultaneously mixed live to 2-track.
On The Late Show, Louis Cato Steps to the Front
The self-described “utility knife” played drums with John Scofield and Marcus Miller and spent time in the studio with Q-Tip before landing on Stephen Colbert’s show as a multi-instrumentalist member of the house band. Now, he’s taken over as the show’s guitar-wielding bandleader and is making his mark.
It’s a classic old-school-show-biz move: Bring out the band, introduce them one by one, and build up the song to its explosive beginning. It’s fun, dramatic, audiences love it, and that’s how every The Late Show with Stephen Colbert taping starts.
By this time, us audience members have been sitting in Manhattan’s chilly Ed Sullivan Theater for about 90 minutes. We’ve gotten our seats, had a bathroom break after getting settled, and had some fun with warm-up comic Paul Mecurio. The first musician summoned by announcer Jen Spyra is drummer Joe Saylor. Wearing his trademark cowboy hat, he jogs out, gets behind the kit, and kicks off an up-tempo second-line groove. Next comes upright bassist Endea Owens and percussionist Nêgah Santos. The band’s trumpeter, Jon Lampley, is introduced, and he’s brought along his bandmates in the Huntertones as guests, so saxophonist Dan White and trombonist Chris Ott come out as well.
Louis Cato feat. Stay Human "Look Within"
The multitalented Louis Cato leads the Stay Human band through a special rooftop performance of his song “Look Within,” from his album, Starting Now.
The audience is now on its feet, the band’s pocket is thick, and the energy is building. When bandleader Louis Cato charges onstage, he reaches his mic on the bandstand and shouts, “I feel good today!” with explosive enthusiasm and a big grin, and the band launches into Jon Batiste’s “I’m from Kenner.” Cato sings the catchy and gleeful refrain: “I feel good, I feel free, I feel fine just being me / I feel good today.” And the audience is feeling the love. Almost everyone is bouncing and clapping along.
A couple minutes in, when it seems like the song has reached its super-positive-vibe, high-energy climax, Cato shouts into his mic, “How do you feel today, Stephen?” And with that, Colbert comes running out from the middle of the set. Cato leaps from the bandstand toward the host as the crowd explodes. The two grab hold of each other and attempt to spin around, but the bandleader, holding his black-sparkle Tuttle T-style, loses his grip and goes sliding across the shiny stage. There’s a second where both are comically stunned—Kevin McCallister Home Alone-expressions on both of their faces—but Cato quickly jumps to his feet, both he and his guitar unharmed, and runs back to the bandstand, where he keeps the song moving along with his bandmates, who haven’t missed a beat.
All this excitement isn’t even for the TV audience! Colbert is coming out for the un-televised pre-show Q&A. In a few minutes, they’ll do a new taped intro that looks more like what we see every night. But they’ve gotten the crowd energized, and we need to keep it up. They need our energy to do their jobs.
The Late Show Band welcomes a lot of guests up on the bandstand. Here, Cato and Joe Walsh boogie down.
Photo by Scott Kowalchyk
As Cato sees it, that’s what his role as bandleader is all about: keeping the audience engaged and amplifying the drama and action of the show. “That translates to the energy that the viewers get at home,” he explains. “For all of us here, we’re able to feed off that energy and do the best possible show that we all can.”
Colbert agrees with that job description and adds that the bandleader himself has the same contagious effect on his players. “Louis is an extraordinarily gifted multi-instrumentalist,” he says, “whose spirit of creativity and collaboration not only elevates everything the band does musically but inspires me to be better at my job.” He adds, “I’m so happy to call him my friend.”
Beyond his infectious energy and charisma, there are a lot of ways Cato keeps the Late Show Band invigorated from night to night. For one, he keeps the music fresh by tackling a new cover song every day. That doesn’t mean running down rote note-for-note charts. Cato and the band take a reconstructionist approach that fans of his work—whether from his collaborations with artists such as the Huntertones, Scary Pockets, or Vulfpeck, or from his regular Instagram cover-song posts—will recognize.
“Louis is an extraordinarily gifted multi-instrumentalist whose spirit of creativity and collaboration not only elevates everything the band does musically but inspires me to be better at my job.”—Stephen Colbert
On this evening, the band runs through a host of multi-genre reinterpretations during the two-episode taping, including a slow-burning and soulful “Smokestack Lightning,” a New Orleans-style “Down by the Riverside,” and a fingerpicked, acoustic-led take of Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” that gets Colbert lip syncing along off camera. On a horn-driven arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” there’s a re-worked bridge that creates a generous feature spot for the guest horn players.
Every arrangement brings a new and unique perspective to a classic track, to ensure the band is “not just a wedding band doing a cover of a song on the radio.” Cato adds, “We’re arranging it and making it our own—because that’s the sonic fingerprint of our show.”
St. Vincent jams with Louis and crew.
Photo by Scott Kowalchyk
A Lifelong Path
Listening to the story of Cato’s musical life, it seems that this job—with its demand for a blend of careful strategizing and on-the-fly creative thinking, as well as effortless instrumental skills and charismatic showmanship—is what he’s been training for since the beginning.
On the morning of the taping I attended, I meet Cato in his dressing room. Painted with sky-blue walls and a cloud mural on the ceiling, it’s a comfortable place to hang. The bandleader is wearing slim-fit floral pants, a hoodie over a black T-shirt, and a long necklace. He sits across from me on his couch, next to a guitar stand that holds a few instruments—including his Tuttle, a Jesse Stern-built baritone acoustic, and his Univox LP-style—and a ’65 Deluxe Reverb reissue with a Universal Audio Dream ’65 pedal plugged into it.
“There’s not a time in my brain when I was not making music in some way or form,” Cato says. His mother, a pianist in the Church of God in Christ, bought her son a Diamond drum kit that he recalls having paper heads when he was just 2 years old, and she started teaching the toddler to accompany her. “I marvel at my mom,” he laughs. “Like, who buys their 2-year-old a drum kit?” After playing those drums every day for a year, he started accompanying her at services.
The family moved around a lot. Cato’s father was in the Air Force, and Louis was born on a base in Lisbon, Portugal, before moving to Dayton, Ohio. Not long after he started playing in church there, they moved again to Washington, D.C., and when Louis was 5 they settled in Albemarle, North Carolina. A few years later, Louis started playing guitar on a “little burgundy sunburst acoustic. Eventually, I busted a string and busted another string and just kept playing with four strings. I delved more into bass from playing bass lines on the acoustic guitar. So, for my 9th birthday, my dad bought me a 4-string bass.”
“I’d show up to Tip’s and we’d do a week of writing sessions with John Legend or have André 3000 in the studio for a couple of weeks.”
While it was strictly pragmatic reasons that initially drew him to the bass, he says his biggest inspiration was the bass player he knew best: his mother’s left hand. Her playing, rooted in the COGIC (Church of God in Christ) style, “involves heavy left-hand bass. I wasn’t as psyched to play bass in church since the way my mom plays is very defined. But eventually I kind of had to learn how she plays. It was always just her and me playing. And I had to learn to move with that and follow that. She’s a great bass player.”
Along the way, Cato picked up more instruments. By the time he headed to Berklee, he was playing drums, guitar, and bass as well as tuba, trombone, and euphonium. “I was going from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a large pond of super-talented people who had heard oodles of music I had never dreamed of,” he recalls. So, he decided to focus his studies on the instrument he’d played the longest.
Louis Cato's Gear
A glimpse at Cato’s pedals and amp, which mostly live outside of the camera’s eye, behind his stage monitor.
- Univox LP-style
- Tuttle Custom Hollow T
- 1961 Gibson SG reissue
- Martin OM-28
- ’65 Fender Princeton Reverb reissue
- Boss FV-500H Volume Pedal
- Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner
- Dunlop Cry Baby
- 3 Leaf Audio Octabvre
- J. Rockett Archer
- Truetone Jekyll & Hyde
- Xotic RC Booster
- MXR Carbon Copy
Strings and Picks
- D’Addario EJ16 (.012-.053)
- D’Addario EXL110 (.010-.046)
- Dunlop Max Grip .88 mm
Cato completed just two semesters—fall ’03 and spring ’04—before deciding to concentrate on playing the gigs that were paying his bills. “My rationale was, much to my parents’ chagrin, here’s an opportunity where I can keep learning on the job and be working my way out of the debt I went into in this year.”
Gigging with wedding and church bands gave the multi-instrumentalist an opportunity to keep all his instrumental and vocal skills alive. “My oldest daughter was born soon after that,” he recalls, “so I felt really, really aware of how lucky I was, how lucky any of us are, to make a living and support a family as a musician.” Cato spent five years in Boston, playing various instruments in gigging bands, and he frequented local institution Wally’s Cafe Jazz Club, just two blocks down the street from Berklee, “for self-education and inspiration. When that felt like I hit a ceiling, I looked at where I could go to continue my inspiration and working on the kind of projects I wanted to be working on, and that led me here.”
By that time, Cato’s friend Meghan Stabile, had moved to New York and created the promotion and production company Revive Music, which was dedicated to the kinds of jazz and hip-hop collaborations he wanted to pursue. Cato moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn, with his band Six Figures— “There were six of us; we did not make six figures!”—and would head back to Boston each weekend for the gigs that were paying his bills. Eager to soak up the New York scene, he’d return to New York on Sunday nights and go directly to jam sessions.
All that time back and forth on the Northeast Corridor paid off. A self-described musical “utility knife,” Cato’s multi-instrumentalism, as well as his talents as a songwriter, arranger, producer, and engineer, made him a major asset as a collaborator, and the New York scene took notice. Soon, he established essential connections that would affect his career, forming “an instantaneous brotherhood that continues to this day” with producer Kamaal Fareed, aka Q-Tip. “Through that, I ended up really delving into a lot of relationships and credits.”
The two artists worked on high-level collaborations that not only bolstered Cato’s reputation but served as a major piece of his education. “I’d show up to Tip’s,” he explains, “and we’d do a week of writing sessions with John Legend or have André 3000 in the studio for a couple of weeks. Sometimes things would come from it, and sometimes nothing would come from it. But being in the creative process on that level in a trusted space was invaluable for me. I learned so much.”
Outside of Q-Tip’s studio, Cato was learning from plenty of masters, mostly from behind the kit. “It’s really special when you find yourself learning things you connect to,” he says about his work alongside artists such as bassist Marcus Miller, keyboardist George Duke, and guitarist John Scofield. “And I learned so much about myself from connecting to some of these people.”
Back in 2015, Cato received a phone call from pianist Jon Batiste. The two had never met, but Batiste rang him up about a mysterious project—a theme song for a TV show that he couldn’t disclose. “I had a wisdom tooth appointment back in Boston, and I got a random call,” Cato remembers. “I think his exact words were, ‘I’d love to have your ears on it.’ And I followed my gut, rescheduled my trip, stayed in New York an extra day with an abscessed wisdom tooth.”
The two got together to co-write and produce “Humanism,” which would become the theme song for the Stephen Colbert-hosted Late Show. Batiste played piano, Cato played the guitar, bass, and drum parts and “put on my editing hat.” They brought in Joe Saylor—who would become the show’s drummer—to play tambourine, as well as saxophonist Eddie Barbash. “After the session,” Cato remembers, “I went back, got my wisdom tooth out, and went back on the road with John Scofield.”
Three of the four go-to guitars Cato uses on The Late Show: a black Tuttle T-style, a cherry-red Gibson SG, and a Martin OM-28.
At first, Cato played the multi-instrumental role of his dreams, attempting to surround himself with every instrument he could play. “That lasted about three days before reality set in,” he laughs. “Slowly, one by one, things started disappearing—a floor tom going away here, a Pro Tools setup going offstage there. Eventually, as the band formed out, I moved around to what was needed. I was the utility guy—played a lot of kazoo, a lot of cowbell.”
While on the road drumming with Sco’, Cato got the invite from Batiste to join the show’s band, Stay Human. “It was a huge life shift for me,” Cato explains. “I was making really good money on the road with really good musicians, which was really fulfilling. And I took a chance. I loved the idea of being a part of something creatively from its inception.”
Eventually, Cato settled into a more consistent electric bass role, until Batiste brought in upright player Endea Owens, and he moved to guitar, where he’s mostly stayed. When Batiste left the show last year, Cato took over as bandleader—officially starting this season, back in September—and decided he’d lead from his role as guitarist. “Of all the places I occupied,” he says, “guitar was the easiest and most natural to me to lead the band, in the energy. From behind the drums, it’s a different thing, and we’ve done it when Joe was out. But it just was a really natural progression.”
Same Show, New Job
In just a few months, Cato’s new role as bandleader has had an impact on the show. The renamed Late Show Band’s engine seems to be burning on a new kind of fuel. And it feels as though that energy is coming directly from Cato.
When we talk, the guitarist is deeply engaged, in a kind of hyper-focused way that is not intense but more casually un-distractable. He brings that same focus to the show. While Colbert delivers monologues, Cato is zoomed in on the host, listening to every word, often riffing around on his guitar to contribute musical commentary. During interviews, he’s taking cues and following the tone of the conversation, looking for ways to adapt.
The bandleader gig requires loads of big-picture improvisation, but also lots of prep. Cato explains that each week he makes a set list, but the band will react and make changes in the moment. “My job ends up being a lot of judgement calls that affect the flow of the show,” he says. “We have a group of compositions we wrote for the show that can complement different moments. If there’s a major energy shift in an interview that takes a turn or something happens in the day, like a tragedy, we’ll call one of the songs we wrote for the show for a moment such as that. Recently, we had a guest on that started improvising a song. So, I have on our in-ear mic and call out the key and start playing, and we all jump in, and now we’re doing this instead.”
Cato poses with his black-sparkle chambered T-style, made by Tuttle. “When I’m checking off core priorities in sound,” he says, “if I’m going for rhythmic things, I go to the Tele.”
Photo by Scott Kowalchyk
Watching the Late Show Band in person, I see this play out as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen explains the steps the U.S. can take to avoid a recession. It’s a heavy and heady conversation, and, frankly, it’s anything but fun. Cato knows he’ll need to pick the audience back up. As he watches from the bandstand, he gives tempo cues to the band, who nod along, so they can effectively shift the energy and get the audience re-focused for the next guest, actor/director Sarah Polley.
As a guitar player, Cato says he sticks to playing things that feel most natural to him so he can concentrate on his bandleading duties. He adds that he considers himself more a rhythm guitarist than a lead guitarist. (It’s worth noting that his delineation is more conceptual than musical: Cato is an inspired and dynamic melodic lead player, but his deeply rooted phrasing and feel is at the forefront of everything he plays, so the rhythm-first thing applies to it all.) “This is not a space as a guitar player where I’m jumping out of the box trying any and everything and exploring,” he explains. “You get to some of those places. But for me, it always has to start from something I can do while leading the band and reading the energy and making judgement calls.”
“We’re arranging it and making it our own—because that’s the sonic fingerprint of our show.”
That rooted, pragmatic ethos applies to the gear he chooses as well. “I never was a big gear person,” he admits. Luckily, he has Late Show Band tech and informed gearhead Matt Mead to help him keep his pedalboard well-stocked. “There’s so many things I’m learning about the job and trying to keep straight in my head that this ends up getting the short end of the stick, and it wouldn’t work if there was not a Matt Mead to make up the rest of that stick and make it sound good.”
“The show throws a lot of curveballs,” Mead points out. “He steers the boat as far as the tones he’s looking for and if there’s a particular sound he’s looking for. Sometimes, I’ll recommend stuff and say, ‘Hey I notice you’re doing this, maybe we should try this.’”
Cato’s collaboratively curated pedalboard is pretty simple at its core: It starts with a Boss FV-500H volume pedal, a Boss TU-3, a Dunlop Cry Baby, and 3 Leaf Audio Octabvre. Cato shows me how he uses the latter for more traditional, Hendrix-style playing, but he points out that the band plays a lot of montunoes, and he tends to use the octave pedal for those. For drive, he uses a J. Rockett Archer and a Truetone Jekyll & Hyde, which are followed by an Xotic RC Booster and an MXR Carbon Copy, all into a Fender ’65 Princeton Reverb reissue, and powered by a Voodoo Labs Pedal Power Plus.
In live performances outside of The Late Show, Cato uses various guitars, but says that the studio’s cold temperature doesn’t do many favors for instruments such as his Gibson Luther Dickinson ES-335 or some of his acoustics, so he’s careful when selecting which guitars come on stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater. The three guitars that most commonly appear on the show are his black Tuttle Custom Hollow T, a cherry red Gibson SG 1961 Reissue, and a Martin OM-28.
Another guitar that sometimes appears on the Late Show is his LP-style Univox, which I ask Cato about in his dressing room. “If I need to be altogether comfortable,” he explains, “I pull out the Univox, because it’s my earliest guitar. I’ve had this since high school.”
Cory Wong "Lunchtime" - The Late Show's Commercial Breakdown
When musical guests visit The Late Show, they get the full-band treatment from Cato and company. Here, Cory Wong sits in for a rhythm guitar showdown of the highest level.
Back when he first got the guitar, Cato remembers, it was in rough shape, desperately in need of wiring and pickup repairs and a new set of tuners. It stayed that way until he was in Boston. When he picked up a wedding band gig playing trombone and guitar, he was lucky enough to have a roommate who could get the Univox performance-ready by replacing the original tuners with locking units, cleaning out the electronics, and swapping the pickups for a pair of Seymour Duncans.
“I didn’t even know there was a such thing as a professional musician.”
But Cato says that even before those repairs, he’s always “loved it because it’s all I had. I remember I was playing a little Vox amp, and this guitar had a feeling out of that amp. This guitar just became home base and felt super natural to my fingers. If I need to just not be thinking at all, this is home.”
Did he ever dream he’d be on television every night, holding this Univox and chumming with a late-night host? “Never! Not once!” he says. “It was just a product of my nurture growing up in a small town. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a professional musician.” And yet, Cato pursued music as fully and single-mindedly as he could. “I just knew that I liked it and felt connected to it.”
Studio Legends: Andrew Scheps
Engineer/producer Andrew Scheps mixes Black Sabbath’s return to the top of the charts.
Andrew Scheps earned his spot in the center of the control room the old-fashioned way: by doing whatever job needed doing for some of music’s biggest artists—and doing it well.
After starting his career as a technician for New England Digital (creators of the Synclavier, one of the first digital audio workstations/synthesizers/samplers), Scheps went on to do synthesizer programming, drum loops, Pro Tools editing, and more for artists ranging from Michael Jackson and Jay-Z to Earth, Wind & Fire and Iggy Pop. Along the way he made a connection with mega-producer Rick Rubin (Johnny Cash, Slayer, Run-D.M.C., Metallica, Tom Petty, Eminem, Adele, and many more) and began engineering many of his projects. The latest of these is Black Sabbath’s 13, the band’s first studio album since 1995, and the first full studio album featuring Ozzy Osbourne since 1978’s Never Say Die! The comeback album reached #1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 charts, debuted at #1 in Canada, and became the first chart-topping album for Sabbath in the U.K. since 1970’s Paranoid.
What was it like mixing the iconic founders of the heavy metal genre? “What was great about it,” says Scheps, “was being able to pull up faders and have it be Black Sabbath, as opposed to a band trying to sound like Black Sabbath. Nobody else plays like that.”
As a mix engineer, do you have input on how things are tracked, or does it only come to you after the tracking is finished?
Usually it’s at the end of the tracking process. That’s when they start thinking, “Hey, who should we get to mix the record?” But there have been a few records where from the beginning they’ve said, “We can’t afford you for the whole project, but we know we’re going to want you to mix. Do you want to come and hang out during the tracking or just be involved a little bit?” That can be great, though I never want to step on the toes of the person who’s actually recording. The last thing any engineer wants is someone else coming in the room and saying, “No man, you should do it that way.”
When you get the tracks, do they also send you a rough mix that was made during tracking?
Almost always. With the way Pro Tools is now, and people working in the box, the rough mixes are usually not terribly rough. They’re quite involved. I always want to get a picture of why they thought the stuff was ready to be mixed.
Is the rough mix the first thing you listen to, or do you put the tracks up first?
Usually I listen to the rough mix. There’s a lot of prep, laying the session out to get it ready to mix. So I do that while listening to the rough mix.
What’s your prep process?
A lot of it is just organizing the Pro Tools session. I mix on a console, so I split things out over multiple outputs, usually 32 to 40. I try to lay things out the same for every mix. The lead vocal is always on fader 24, and the drums always start down on fader 1 and get eight to 12 faders. Next comes bass, then guitars, then keyboards, and above fader 24 is percussion. Once I start mixing I no longer have to think about where stuff is. Color-coding is a big part of my process. The drums are always a very dark blue, the bass is a brighter blue, guitars are always green. If there are a ton of guitars, dark green is the most distorted, and light green is the most clean or acoustic. I can glance at the screen and get a fast snapshot of what’s coming up and how the arrangement plays.
How much of the process is in Pro Tools and how much is in the console?
Most of it is in the console, but there are lots of things that get mixed together in Pro Tools before they come up on the console. If someone has tracked all the guitars but hasn’t yet combined all the microphones, then that gets done in Pro Tools. The last thing I want to think about is five microphones or two different amps when it’s a single guitar performance. That guitar performance gets one fader. Most of the actual mixing happens on the console with outboard gear, but every once in a while I reach for a plug-in just because it’s a different thing.
After the prep, how do you start the mix?
Once I’ve got it all laid out and I’ve listened to the rough mix, the first 70% of mixing is getting a balance. While I’m getting the balance I’m also EQing, compressing, setting up effects, and things like that. I spend a very long time just trying to get a balance where the song plays itself. There was a reason people chose that performance of the song to mix, so presumably there’s some point with the faders all just sitting there when the balance is right, it’s exciting, and you feel why they chose that take.
Some mixers always start with the vocal. Some start with a kick drum. Do you have a process like that?
No, things come up all at once. At the very beginning, I do start with the drums, and usually the kick drum first. But I want to make the drums act like one instrument, not many tracks. I want to think about drums as drums. So I go through and make the drum kit a single instrument the same way I would if I had, say, five tracks of guitar that make up one performance. But outside of that, all the tracks have got to be in. I work my way through the instruments to discover what’s there and fix any sonic problems, but it really is everything all at once as soon as I’ve got the instruments acting as instruments.
Scheps hanging out with the Hives' Nicholaus Arson, Vigilante Carlstroem, Dr. Matt Destruction, and Chris Dangerous Photo by C. Villano
Do you view each song individually, or as part of an album?
I don’t worry about how stuff goes together. It’s almost never a problem because an album usually has common threads. The songwriting. The vocalist. A lot of times the drums have all been tracked at once. There are enough common threads that it’s almost better to find what is amazing about each song, and to discover what will be super-cool for it. It keeps the album fresh as you go. If you worry about trying to make it consistent, all that happens is you end up with a slightly more boring record.
So you start each song completely from scratch?
In terms of the source tracks and EQing, absolutely. But the outboard gear I use for parallel compression, reverb, or delay is always there. What changes is what gets sent to it on each song. I’ve got a couple of stereo things that usually work on drums. I’ve got some stuff that usually works on vocals. Sometimes I add bass to the one that’s on the vocal or … well, that’s the part that changes every time.
Most people working in home studios are working in the box. Is there any essential gear for them?
I think a control surface is essential. If you’ve never mixed with multiple faders in front of you, you’re really missing out on something awesome about mixing: being able to ride a bunch of things simultaneously and really feel how you can change the balance going into the chorus and stuff like that. In terms of audio gear, I really don’t think there’s anything essential. The stuff that Tchad Blake [engineer for Peter Gabriel, The Black Keys, Sheryl Crow, and many more] is doing completely in the box sounds so amazing that you can’t argue that you absolutely need to have an analog bus compressor or anything like that. It’s just not true.
If someone wants to put together a great home studio, what’s most important to focus on?
Well, the drag is that it is a chain of gear and then acoustics, and the weakest link is the weakest link. You don’t want to have any weak links. The speakers are critically important, as is your listening environment. If either of those is terrible, then it doesn’t matter what else you’ve got going on. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a professionally treated room. My control room is not professionally treated. It looks like a big living room, and I love that.
How do you decide when a mix is done?
That’s a really hard question! But I always know. As I work on a mix, the one thing I want is for it to hit me emotionally. Until it’s doing that, I’m not done. I also build up a mental to-do list, whether it’s building vocal effects in the chorus, making sure the downbeat of the bridge is a big deal, or doing some panning moves. Until I’ve ticked off everything on that list I’m obviously not done. But really, I just want to hit play at the beginning of the song and be engrossed all the way to the end and think it’s awesome and want to hear it again. If I get to that point, then I’m done.
Let’s talk about 13. It’s been said that Rick Rubin wanted to recapture the vibe of the first few Sabbath records. Did you get simple sessions, as those early albums would have been, or did you get tons of tracks?
For most of the album, it’s the live tracking band plus one guitar overdub and vocals, and that’s it. I never had conversations with the band or Rick about this, but I assume he wanted to recapture the way they made their first few records really fast. As far as I know, they made the first record in two days. They just were a great band. They jammed, and that’s what was awesome about them. Obviously the vibe and lyrics and stage show were big parts of it, but they were also just a great band. Rick wanted the album to feel like those guys playing together. The arrangements absolutely speak to that. Tony [Iommi] did a bunch of overdubs. There were extra guitars and keyboards and some really cool sound effects and things. But those were always meant to sound like overdubs. They weren’t meant to finish the songs. The band tracks finish the songs. That made it really easy in some ways and really difficult in others. When you’ve got a nine-minute song where 150 things come and go, all you need to do is make sure everybody can hear all those things. When you have a nine-minute song with only bass, drums, two guitars, and vocal, you’ve got to keep everybody’s interest. It can actually end up being a little bit trickier to mix.
A Mixer’s Glossary
Automation. Using a computer to record and play back fader moves and control changes during a mix.
Bounce. To re-record a track or tracks to a new track, including any plug-ins or effects used on the original tracks.
In the box. Working entirely within a computer, using plug-ins and software tools rather than hardware processors and outboard gear.
Mixing. According to Andrew Scheps: “The mixer is the guy who gets all those performances that have already been recorded and has to make it into a stereo thing that you can put on a CD or iTunes.”
Out of the box. Using external hardware processors and mixers rather than software in a computer.
Parallel compression. A technique where uncompressed signal is mixed with a compressed version of the same signal.
Ride. To move faders while the song is playing to adjust the mix.
Rough mix. An impromptu reference mix created during the course of tracking.
Solo. To play back a track in isolation, with all other tracks muted.
Tracking. According to Andrew Scheps: “Tracking is setting up microphones and recording the performances.”
Andrew Scheps often consolidates tracks within Pro Tools so that instruments always appear on the same mixing board faders.
All the songs are quite long. Did you mix them section by section?
No, you have to do it all at once, because there’s no way to know whether it’s going to work otherwise. If I really had to change something drastically, I could automate that change in Pro Tools so that what coming up on the faders would change. For a lot of my mixing, once I turn the automation on, I start at the beginning of the song and ride a few things together all the way through. I don’t say, “Okay, now I’m going to ride this guitar in each chorus.” I like to treat it like you’re mixing front-of-house [live sound]. I sometimes overdo things and refine them later. But it gives you a great sense of the shape of the song and how it’s going to work.
The album has big guitars, often doubled, which could have made it difficult to hear the bass. But on “End of the Beginning,” for example, the bass part is active, and you can hear all the notes. How did you achieve that?
To be honest, a huge part of that is the guys’ playing, because their tones are amazing, the dynamics within their performances are amazing, and their rigs are amazing. Also, Greg Fidelman, who is a fantastic engineer, tracked the record. The tracks were great when I got them. It was just a matter of making sure that some things didn’t step on other things. Let’s say it’s two guitars going for most of the song, one hard left and one hard right, and the bass is in the middle. Immediately you’ve given yourself some room. Then finding EQs—the good thing is that the EQ where all of the notes live on a guitar is an octave up from that same spot on the bass. So you can use EQ to bring out frequencies on those instruments that don’t necessarily interfere with each other. Also, there are a lot of subtle fader moves over the course of a nine-minute song. When a bass riff appears for the first time, it’s a little louder than the second, third, and fourth times, because it’s already established, and you’ll hear it if you want to. There’s always a main instrument, whether the solo or the vocal or sometimes the bass or drums. The idea is to let those ideas be small so that you don’t necessarily think, “Wow, the bass got loud for a bar.” You just think, “Oh my God, what an awesome bass line,” then “Hey, wait, that riff was ridiculous,” then “Oh, now Ozzy sounds incredible.”
Shifting focus is a great tool. Well, it’s not really a “tool”—it’s just what everybody does when they ride faders. It’s one of the reasons I love the console. It isn’t just about turning the bass up—I might turn the guitars down a little bit to make room. But they’re very subtle moves, and they’re usually not very long.
A Selected Andrew Scheps Discography
Johnny Cash, Unearthed
Black Sabbath, 13
Josh Groban, Illuminations
Red Hot Chili Peppers, I’m with You, Stadium Arcadium
Jay-Z, The Black Album, Collision Course (with Linkin Park)
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
The Hives, Lex Hives
Metallica, Death Magnetic
The Mars Volta, Frances the Mute
Weezer, Weezer (Red Album)
Another problem with dense mixes is getting the vocal to come through. Is there special processing involved?
First of all, Ozzy sounds amazing on this record. When I got the vocal tracks I was so excited. He has an amazing voice that works with guitars. All of the great rock singers have that. Chris Cornell is the same way. There’s something in his voice that is aggressive and that carries a lot of power but just cuts right through drums and guitars so it’s easy to hear. Singers do a lot of the work for you when they’re good. The vocal probably had a bit more effect on it than I would normally use, because that’s part of Ozzy’s sound. There’s some doubling, some slap delay, that kind of thing. I also use parallel compressors. I have one compressor that’s fairly aggressive so I can add a little bit more aggressiveness to the vocal when I need to. But a lot of it is just finding that static balance at the beginning, and then all of my rides work from that balance. Whatever the balance is before the faders start moving, you can hear everything. Then it’s just a matter of, what do I want to draw your attention to? What should be featured?
Was the band involved with the mixes?
Well, it’s not finished until they like it. [Laughs.] The band didn’t attend the mixes, but they were very involved in all the mixes. They all had comments. We worked together until Rick and the band were happy with everything.
You’ve mixed everyone from the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines to Adele, Metallica to Neil Diamond, Red Hot Chili Peppers to Jay-Z, and now Sabbath. Do you use the same approach in all those different styles?
I think my approach really is the same. Obviously, there are differences in terms of how aggressive to make certain things sound, what you do in terms of vocal effects, and stuff like that. But in general I think of myself as kind of a rock guy, and I mix everything like a rock record. I’m trying to make everything exciting, and I’m just trying to make the emotion come out. The core of what I do is trying to get the emotion of the song out of the speakers. That’s it. The gear can change, but it’s always about the performance and the song.
Studio Legends: Michael Wagener
Engineer/producer Michael Wagener recalls the heyday of recording hard-rock and metal titans acts like Metallica and Megadeth, as wells as how to find your speaker cab’s sweet spot and make your mix sound huge.
Michael Wagener keeps busy making records and teaching workshops in his Nashville-area studio.
For those who like their rock with flash—both technical and visual—the ’80s were a watershed moment in guitar history. If there’s praise/blame to award any single player for starting the whole trend, it probably goes to Edward Van Halen and his game-changing 1978 debut of “Eruption.” It took a couple years for players to figure out his approach en masse, but it’s safe to say that without Edward there likely never would’ve been bona fide shred masters like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani—nor the legions of players who had the hair and the “super strat” but far less-memorable chops and songwriting savvy.
In the studio, the man who helped many of the decade’s more excellent shredding guitarists get their tones was engineer and producer Michael Wagener. A guitarist himself, Wagener was a founding member of German metal band Accept until an army draft notice interrupted his musical career. When he later returned to the field, he decided to sit on the other side of the recording console.
Wagener relocated to Los Angeles at the behest of his friend, Don Dokken, and began making history with an incredible list of ’80s hard rock and metal clients: Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, Megadeth, Skid Row, Mötley Crüe, Extreme, his friends in Dokken and Accept, and many more benefitted from Wagener’s ears and talents. But Wagener wasn’t just a headbanger. He also worked with some of the decade’s most successful mainstream acts—including Janet Jackson and Queen—as well as a variety of more melodically dynamic artists, such as King’s X, Badi Assad, and Muriel Anderson.
With more than 94 million records sold, Wagener has certainly earned the right to kick back and relax. But instead you’ll find him at his studio, WireWorld, just outside of Nashville, making records and teaching the next generation how to record with his weeklong workshops.
First off, can you walk us through your journey from founding Accept to ending up behind the glass in the studio?
I grew up with Udo [Dirkschneider], Accept's singer. We went to school together from when we were 6 years old. When I was 12, Udo and I formed a band called Band X. We went through a lot of member changes. When I turned 19 I was drafted to the army, and I was stationed 350 miles away from home—which made practicing with the band very hard. Udo and I then came up with the name “Accept,” but shortly after I left because the distance made it impossible to keep things together.
After my time in the army, I got a job at STRAMP [Strueven Amplification] in Hamburg, Germany, where we built Marshall-like guitar amps. Our clients were Rory Gallagher, Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, Leslie West, and so on. During my time at STRAMP, I got my degree in electronics, and in the mid ’70s we started designing studio gear—mixers, one of the first digital delays, etc. We also started importing tape machines from Otari and other studio gear. After a while, we set up a small studio so we could demonstrate our gear. It was there that I realized that working creatively with the gear was much more fun than building it. In 1979, I built a studio in Hamburg called Tennessee Tonstudio—weird, huh? Since there were hardly any clients in the beginning, I had a lot of time to learn how to work with and use the gear in the studio. We originally had a 2", 16-track Studer tape machine, a Sound Workshop console, and a bunch of outboard gear—plenty of stuff to practice with. Around the end of 1979, I met Don Dokken at that studio. Don invited me to L.A., and since I always wanted to go to the USA, I accepted his invitation. I spent three weeks in L.A. around Christmas in 1979, and I decided that was the place for me to be. In 1980, I moved to L.A. with the intention to stay.
How did you get your career started there?
L.A. was the place back then—the music scene was awesome and I was really into the style of music being created at that time. I lived in a house with Dokken, [Ratt drummer] Bobby Blotzer, and Alan Niven, who later became the manager for Great White and Guns N’ Roses. That’s when I worked with Mick Mars' original band, Vendetta—which is how I got to mix Mötley Crüe's first album in 1981. Unfortunately, the economy was not the best in the mid ’80s, so I moved back to Germany. In the following years, I travelled back and forth between the U.S. and Germany, working with bands here and there—Accept, Malice, Great White, Dokken, 45 Grave. In 1984, Tom Zutaut, then executive at Elektra A&R, called me to come over and do a single [1985’s Ain’t Love Grand] with the band X. Things fell into place and I’m still here.
Michael Wagener’s recording career spans more than three decades and includes an incredible number of hit records. Here are a few that he produced, recorded, and mixed to check out:
Alice Cooper, Constrictor
Dokken, Breaking the Chains and Under Lock and Key
Great White, Great White
King’s X, Ogre Tones and XV
Ozzy Osbourne, Live and Loud
Skid Row, Skid Row and Slave to the Grind
White Lion, Pride and Big Game
X , Ain’t Love Grand
Wagener is also in demand for mixing other producers’ projects, including:
Accept, Balls to the Wall
Badi Assad, Rhythms of the World
Dokken, Tooth and Nail
Janet Jackson, Black Cat
Megadeth, So Far, So Good … So What!
Metallica, Master of Puppets
Mötley Crüe, Too Fast for Love
Ozzy Osbourne, No More Tears
Queen, Stone Cold Crazy
You worked on a lot of seminal metal and hard-rock albums in the ’80s. What was the process like for those recordings?
The ’80s were great for making rock albums, because there were substantial budgets. I would get a demo from a band, work on it at home, go into preproduction at the band's rehearsal room for a couple of weeks, then let the band rehearse the changes to the songs for a week or two, and then go into a cool studio to record and mix the album. A lot of gear was rented to get just the right tones for every track. The musicians practiced their music before they went in to track. A lot of time, effort, and money were spent to get everything right and create a sound for that band.
How involved were you in crafting each band’s sound—did they come up with it on their own or were you guiding them?
Back then, the musicians were not as involved in studio gear, etc., but it was also always a common decision between the band and me—everybody had to agree to the plan.
Did you have a standard procedure for recording guitars in those days?
Not really. I was still experimenting myself, trying to listen to what was important for the sound. I tried everything from using just one microphone on one speaker to using 16 microphones and running everything through a Fostex 4-track tape recorder. It was also the beginning of digital tape machines, which I loved from day one.
What was it that you loved about digital recorders?
Even with all the problems in the beginning, to me the digital tape came back with the same punch as the original. Analog tape always rounded off the edges a bit. We did tests with some great ears in the room—like [Steely Dan engineer/producer] Roger Nichols—using different tape stock and different machines and heads. We messed around with biasing for days, but never ever did a kick drum or snare come back with the same punch it went in with. Digital tape always had that punch.
How has your recording process changed since then?
The recording process is still the same. The digital age offers a lot of conveniences—like the undo button and immense editing capabilities, which sometimes get used to enable not-so-capable musicians to make records—but I still believe music should be performed by musicians, not typists. If it wasn’t a great take, do it again! Auto-Tune and Beat Detective basically don't exist for me. We are selling emotions—there are no emotions in a grid!
Back in the ’80s, many guitar solos were very technically demanding. Could most of the guitarists come in and play them in a couple of takes, or did it take a lot of tries—or did you have to edit parts of various takes together?
In general, the players practiced until they could play the whole solo in one take. I remember Vito Bratta [White Lion] playing the solo to "Wait" while we were tracking the drums. We never replaced it, it was just great. There was some comping on some albums, but not to the extent it’s done today. You would maybe have a first half and a second half of a solo, which you comped together.
Since moving to Nashville, you've worked on projects in a wide variety of styles. Is your approach different for each style?
Each artist and each record deserves its own style, so yes, I approach different styles with different recording and mixing methods. The basics stay the same: I track with [Steinberg] Nuendo and mix through an SSL console using a ton of analog outboard gear, but the mics and setup are going to change with every artist.
You've got a huge collection of guitars and amps. How do you choose the one you want for a particular part?
Normally the musicians bring their own guitars and basses, but just in case those don't work for a particular part, I just might have an instrument that works. Over the years, I learned the sound of my own instruments very well and know which ones could work for certain parts. I have a Creation Audio Labs switching system—the Sentinel—and I can compare 20 amps and cabs in a few seconds. That makes the selection process very easy. I’m also using the Kemper Profiling Amp a lot. It has a lot of my amps stored in it and it sounds awesome.
“Normally the musicians bring their own guitars and basses,” recording guru Wagener says regarding the use of his expansive gear collection. “But just in case those don’t work for a particular part, I just might have an instrument that works.”
Do you record the Kemper direct or do you run it to a cabinet and mic it?
My profiles already include the amp, cab, mics, preamps, etc., so I normally use it direct. When I profile a sound, I have maybe one, two, or three amps going to a few cabs with different speakers and a bunch of microphones, which in turn are going through different mic preamps. All the mics are mixed together to one mono track, and then I profile that sound.
Other than having such easy access to all those tones, what’s your approach to recording guitar like today?
I use mainly Royer R-121 ribbon mics in combination with Royer R-101s or condenser mics like the Lauten Audio Horizon, the Miktek C7, or one of the cool Mojave Audio mics. The mics get placed very close, sometimes inside the speaker.
Do you have tricks for finding the best spot to place the mic on the speaker?
Yes—listen! [Laughs.] I re-amp a DI guitar track at low level back through the amp and use headphones to find the sweet spot. If you move the mic around in front of the speaker, you can clearly hear where the placement for the best sound is.
What Is Re-Amping?
Re-amping is a studio technique that allows the sound of an electric guitar to be changed after it has been recorded. Typically, you play your part through an amp, just like normal—but the amp’s sound is not recorded. Instead, the dry sound of the exact same electric-guitar part is simultaneously recorded through a direct box before it hits the amp. Later, the dry guitar track is played back through a re-amping box, which is sort of like a direct box in reverse: The output from the re-amping box is sent into an amp, which is mic’d up and recorded.
The advantage of re-amping is that you can try numerous different amps and effects and experiment with tones until you find exactly what is right for the track. Wagener’s tool of choice for re-amping is the Creation Audio Labs MW1, but other options are available from Radial Engineering, ART, Reamp, Millennia Media, and others.
“When I’m mixing, I go away into Wagener Land for a few hours … It requires high concentration and I don’t want to be disturbed by anybody or anything in the control room—even opening a peanut will throw me off the track!”
Do you only use close mics, or do you also use room or distant mics?
I mainly use close mics, about an inch or two or three away from the speaker's center. Sometimes I use "Fritz" [a Neumann KU-100 head-shaped dummy with binaural stereo mics in its ears] for a room sound, especially on cleaner tones.
Do you prefer recording in a small or large space?
I would say medium for guitars. Since most of the ribbon mics have a figure-8 pickup pattern [which picks up sound from the front and back of the mic capsule], the reflections of a small room might get in the way. In general, medium-sized, sound-treated rooms are easier to control.
You developed the Creation Audio Labs MW1 direct-injection rack unit as a tool for recording guitar. What is it and how did it come about?
I met Sarge [Gistinger] from Creation Audio Labs at a NAMM show and he asked me, “If you could have any piece of gear for your studio, what would it be?” I was always looking for something that could match impedances and levels between studio gear and instruments, so we collaborated for nine months and the MW1 was born. It’s the brainchild of Alex Welti at Creation Audio Labs. I gave him some suggestions for different features, but Alex came up with a piece of gear way past my wildest imagination. It’s a studio Swiss Army knife that can help you solve a lot of little problems in getting a great guitar tone—I wouldn’t record bass or guitar without the MW1 in the chain.
What tricks have you found for making a rock mix sound big?
It's a matter of mixing each instrument to its fullest potential. In modern mixes, sometimes compressors get put on each track and all the instruments are always loud and in front. But I think creating dynamics—putting the right instrument in the front at the right point in the song—creates that bigness.
But how do you get guitars to sound huge when you also have huge drums and bass and a powerful vocalist?
The secret lies in mixing the important instrument up when it’s needed. That is a constant process that cannot be done by an automated or plug-in process—it's hands-on, all the time. When I’m mixing, I go away into Wagener Land for a few hours, because one move on a fader requires another one down the line. It requires high concentration and I don't want to be disturbed by anybody or anything in the control room—even opening a peanut will throw me off the track!
Tell us about the workshops you teach at your studio, WireWorld.
I do production workshops that go for seven days. We have a live band and go from pre-production to mastered product during that time. It's a hands-on experience for all the workshop guests. We compare mics, preamps, compressors, EQs, etc., talk about room acoustics, little tricks of the trade, and I try to answer any question the students might have. I have people coming from all over the world, so besides learning from me, they learn from each other. It's a great experience.
You’ve also recently started your Ears-4-Hire workshops. How are those different?
Those are more personal—I come to your studio and we work on your equipment to mix or record a song. I will point out weak spots in your studio and show you workarounds if you don't have the expensive gear.
Do you have advice for guitarists making their own recordings at home?
The most important thing is to find your own sound. In this time of plug-ins and presets, it's very important to create an individual sound. If you don't have enough space or can't crank your amp, record a good DI track with a great direct box and rent a big studio for a day to re-amp guitar tones—or use a re-amp service to get your tones.
Wagener’s Top Five Guitar Mics
Michael Wagener’s WireWorld studio is packed to the rafters with an amazing collection of recording and guitar gear. Here are some of his favorite microphones for capturing guitar amps. Wagener places the mics very close to the speaker, one to three inches away from its center.
Royer R-121 (ribbon), $1,295 street, royerlabs.com
Royer R-101 (ribbon), $799 street, royerlabs.com
Miktek C7 (large-diaphragm condenser), $899 street, miktekaudio.com
Lauten Audio Horizon LT-321 (large-diaphragm tube condenser), $1,099 street, lautenaudio.com
Mojave Audio MA-200 (large-diaphragm tube condenser), $,1095 street, mojaveaudio.com
Studio Legends: Bil VornDick
Engineer/Producer Bil VornDick, the master of recording acoustic guitar, shares his secrets.
Experienced acoustic musicians know that when it comes to making stellar recordings, there are only a few engineer/producers who get the call, and Nashville legend Bil VornDick is at the very top of the list. He’s worked on more than 40 Grammy-nominated projects and eight have been Grammy winners—to say nothing of the dozens of other awards his recordings have won. Starting as a guitar player in Virginia, he was encouraged by Chet Atkins to relocate to Nashville, where he found his calling as a recording engineer and producer. Though he is especially renowned for his ability to capture incredibly natural, lifelike, and detailed performances on acoustic instruments—with a particular love for acoustic guitar—VornDick can and does record every style.
He’s also well known for giving back to the music community, with his involvement in organizations such as the AES (Audio Engineering Society), the All Star Guitar Night charity concerts, the Audio Masters Benefit Golf Tournament, and many more. VornDick recalls how he went from his teenage rock band to taking advice from Chet Atkins, who introduced him to Nashville’s Belmont University, his alma mater and a place where he now mentors the next generation of engineers and producers through teaching.
You started as a musician in your teens?
Yes, I was in a rock ’n’ roll band. I was in the 7th grade playing lead guitar with a bunch of guys that were seniors, and then just kept playing. The bass player was Harry Dailey, who was the first guy Jimmy Buffett hired for the Coral Reefer Band. He wrote some songs with Jimmy.
How did you go from being in a Virginia rock band to connecting
with Chet Atkins?
A friend of mine, Frank Grist, worked for RCA in the mid-Atlantic area, out of Washington, D.C. Chet was coming to the Stardust Lounge in Waldorf, Maryland, and I got to have dinner with him. Then Grist brought me to Nashville and I signed some songs to Cedarwood Publishing Company. Chet always invited me to stop by, to say hi when I was in town. He was the one who told me about Belmont [University]. He helped me get into Belmont, and shortly after I graduated I became Marty Robbins’ chief engineer.
How did you make that connection?
I used to hang out at CBS Studios when I was going to Belmont and many of those engineers knew me. Marty was looking for a chief engineer and he came in one day when I was doing demos for Loretta Lynn’s publishing company in his studio and asked me if I could meet with him the next day. I had no idea what it was about. He asked me to be his chief engineer. He was the best guy I ever worked for. Great sense of humor. A stylist … I mean, when you count the unique voices of the world, you’ve got your toes on your feet and your fingers on your hand and then everybody else kind of copies those.
How did you start to branch out to other artists?
When I was in college I used to go to bluegrass festivals in the mid- Atlantic area and I would get in for free and get cheeseburgers and French fries and Cokes if I did the sound. I figured, what a deal! The guy who had the sound company was [renowned bluegrass banjoist] Eddie Adcock, so I had pretty deep roots in bluegrass because of all of those festivals and meeting so many musicians. I loved the music because it was one form of music where everybody could play and sing or they didn’t work, unlike some of the other forms of music.
[Dobro player] Jerry Douglas and [banjo player] Béla Fleck were old friends, and when Marty passed, I guess around ’83, I built and was chief engineer for what is now Curb Studios on 16th Avenue. I helped with the construction of that and the design, and started working with Béla Fleck and continued through most of the Flecktone records, then Jerry Douglas, Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, Claire Lynch, and some of the prominent names of bluegrass. It was not as lucrative as country music, but it sure was a whole lot of fun!
The session crew for David Holt’s Grandfather’s Greatest Hits. Back (L to R): Mark O’Connor, Duane Eddy, Jerry Douglas, Larry Paxton, Steve Turner, Doc Watson. Front (L to R): Steve Heller, Chet Atkins, David Holt, Bil VornDick.
Bluegrass was your primary area early on,
but you branched out to jazz, country,
Celtic, and rock.
Well, I’m doing a lot of pop music now, with artists from the past that were established on major labels. I’m working on Jon Pousette-Dart’s new album right now. He was on Capital for all those years. Tomorrow I go into pre-production with Lynn Anderson, who had “I Beg Your Pardon, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.”
But I guess we’re talking about guitar players ... I worked with Bryan Sutton early on, when he was doing his first album. And the tribute album for Merle Travis on Shanachie Records with Chet and Thom Bresh, who is Merle Travis’ son. They sent in Merle Travis’ guitars from L.A., from the vault, for the sessions, so anybody could pick up those guitars and play them on the session. I also recorded many albums with Doc Watson, and I’m very fortunate to have engineered an album [On Praying Ground, 1990] that won a Grammy for Doc. I will miss Doc a whole lot. He was such a kind man and I sort of started playing the guitar by listening to his albums when I was young.
When you’re working with an artist like
that, who has a very established style, do
you see yourself more in the engineer role
or more as the producer?
A producer to me is a mediator. In the case of the Merle Travis thing, I was the producer and engineer. But with Doc Watson, [bassist] Michael Coleman was the producer—he’d been on the road with Doc for years. As an engineer you try and make everyone sound like they want to be heard. I’ve always felt that the producer was the person who could answer the question, “What do you think?” correctly … or as correctly as you can, within the political compound that you’re in.
As a producer or engineer who’s been
hired for a project, do you start in pre-production
or do things start for you
when the project comes into the studio?
As an engineer, I’ve always been involved in the pre-production. As a producer, of course, you’re in it for months beforehand finding songs, going to meetings, and then helping the artist do the arrangements. And then trying to find the theme of the album, not so that all the songs are necessarily about the same thing, but so that the album has a motif—like a painter painting a picture where all the different elements come together.
How much, as a producer, do you have to
draw performances out of artists?
A lot. Every artist is different and unique. Everybody has their good day, and everybody has their bad day, from musician to engineer to producer. Many of those artists come in and knock it right out. That’s one thing good about Nashville: There are so many great musicians and guitar players. But there are times when a producer needs to show the artist how to become the song—get inside of it and project it in their performance. That’s hard to explain, but when the artist gets there in emotion, and it comes out, that is when the hair goes up on the back of your neck.
You’re a big fan of guitar.
I love guitar so much that I volunteer to be the stage manager at the All Star Guitar Night at [Summer] NAMM. I guess I have for about 10 years. I do it to raise money so that children can get instruments, and that’s very important to me. I don’t charge; I let them beat me up on their scheduling for weeks ahead of time, “I want my soundcheck here.” Stage managing is mediating, but we all do it for the children with dreams of playing music.
The 3:1 Rule
Bil VornDick always uses the 3:1 Rule when mic’ing instruments in stereo. Here’s how it works: If your two microphones are each one unit— for example, 1'—away from the instrument, then there should be three units (3' in this example) between the two microphones. VornDick also recommends keeping the two microphones between 90 and 120 degrees of each other.
Following the 3:1 Rule ensures that your recordings will be in phase, without danger of cancellation problems later in the mixing process.
Let’s talk specifics. How do you mic up
Béla Fleck’s banjo?
I use a 3:1 mic’ing technique normally on Béla [see sidebar, “The 3:1 Rule”]. As to which mics I use, it really depends on what banjo he’s playing. It depends on the timbre of the instrument. With Earl Scruggs, I’d normally used a [Neumann] KM 84 and a [Neumann] U 87. I used the KM 84 on the high side and the U 87 on the low side. That’s what he liked. But every banjo is different. If it was a very mellow banjo, then I would probably put a Milab DC-96B on the low side or a Sony ECM-33P on the low side and a KM 84 or a Miktek C5 on the high—I’m using that one a lot. But you really have to listen to the instrument first before you just stick mics up.
How important is the room that you’re
recording in to the final result you get?
Very important. I have the musician move around in the room to find the spot that translates best for the overtones of the instrument. The bass is very particular to axial modes [resonances caused by sound bouncing between two parallel surfaces] in the room, where the guitar wouldn’t be as much. So if I’m going into a new room, I’ll have the musician walk around and play, sit, and then move around some more. Find where the instrument sounds like the instrument to them, then the rest of it’s easy.
Do you mic acoustic guitar the same
way that you do banjo, using two
Yes, I do. Because I hear in three dimensions and you can’t get three dimensions with one mic.
Do you have go-to acoustic guitar mics?
Yeah, I have a pair of [Neumann] KM 54s that I like a lot. Then the Miktek C5s—I’m using those a lot more than the KM 84s. I used to use KM 84s all the time, but the C5, I really believe in that mic.
That’s great to hear because that mic is
fairly affordable compared to the others
When it comes down to it, it’s the performance. You could record it on a Shure SM57, and if you’ve got the performance, that’s what the people driving down the road are going for. A lot of people use SM81s. The KSM141s, the new mics by Shure, a lot of people are using those. It depends on the budget that you have.
How far away do you place the two mics
when you’re recording acoustic guitar?
They’re about 8" off. If you’re sitting with the guitar in your lap, there’s one coming in to where the curve reaches the neck; it’s not faced toward the hole. And the other one is off the player’s shoulder, the right shoulder coming down. If you look at the symmetry and the angles, they’re facing to the back of the hole on the guitar, which is where the sound comes resonating from.
You’re trying to capture the sound of
the whole body of the instrument, not
just getting the surface of it?
So you place the mics fairly close up?
It depends … if it’s a solo guitar, I move them back. But if it’s in an ensemble, with a bunch of people sitting around, it’s usually about 8" or so.
I use the 3:1 rule, then move the mics around with the artist playing the instrument. If you’re going to mic in stereo, put the headphones on and make sure that the left mic is left and the right mic is right and then move them around, and ask the player, “Does this sound like your guitar?”
You’d be amazed, if you move a microphone just a little bit in, a little bit to the left, a little bit to the right, what a difference that will make, depending on the overtone series of the instrument and the key that it’s in. And the instrument, of course, is going to resonate in different keys.
Do you end up panning those two
microphones across the stereo field or
do you bring them pretty close together?
I bring them to 9 and 3 o’clock. If you pan them all the way left and right, once it gets to a transmitter on a radio station you could have phase cancellation. I’m still old school, making records for radio. But if I were stacking a couple of guitars, I wouldn’t have them both panned that way. I’d have one at 8 o’clock and 1 o’clock and the other one at 10 o’clock and 4 o’clock.
Do you worry about bleed between the
instruments when you record multiple
musicians at the same time?
If you get your angles and your positioning of your microphones, and you have them pretty much out of phase with the mics on the other players, then there really isn’t that much problem if you’re in a cardioid pattern. A good example: I had Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, and Earl Scruggs sitting within three feet of each other on one of Jerry’s recent albums, and I was able to punch some stuff in fine.
You’ve been involved with some very interesting
projects for Fishman, creating the
guitar images for the Aura system, and also
the new Retro series guitars for Martin.
The idea was that you took guitars into
the studio and recorded “images” of them,
which are then embedded in the guitar
electronics. Were those guitars recorded in
a tightly controlled room?
Yes, I had them in an environment where there was a baffle behind the guitar, so I wasn’t receiving any environment in the signal path. All you were hearing was the guitar.
How did you get involved in the
I got a call from Larry [Fishman], who said that Martin wanted to put out a series of the old famous Martins: the D-18, the D-28, the D-45, and the OM. He said, “They’re going to bring down the guitars from the [Martin] museum and we’re going to image them and try to get the new guitars—when someone plugs in with the Aura—to sound like the old guitars.”
We really didn’t know what was going to happen until Larry processed some of the signal into an Aura and actually plugged it in, to see if it would work. We were both amazed.
That’s a fun project!
It took a couple of days. They came to the studio here at the house and unloaded a million dollars worth of Martins. [Laughs.] Then I went out and got a slew of microphones—an Electro-Voice 639, I got that from RCA Studio B. It was one of [legendary Nashville producer] Owen Bradley’s microphones. I got a Telefunken ELA M251 from there, and Wes Dooley let me use some of his ribbon mics.
So you didn’t just use the original vintage
guitars, you also used original vintage
Yes, because there are a lot of traditional players that want—but can’t afford—an old vintage Martin, but they want it to sound like it would have sounded in the ’30s, ’40s, or ’50s. That’s how we were able to accomplish it.
How much does the rest of the gear that
you use—the preamps, EQs, compressors—factor into the sounds that you get?
Quite a bit. On [the Retro series], I was shooting four microphones at one time and I went through APIs [mic preamps]. I needed a defined and uncolored sound on them, so that’s what we used.
What about when you’re recording someone
like Jerry Douglas or Béla Fleck?
The Great River [MEQ-1NV preamp] and a pair of [Neumann] U 67s are normally what I use on Jerry. On Béla it would vary depending on the banjo. I use Neve preamps a lot or APIs.
How much equalization did you end up
doing once you capture those sounds?
Mainly just high passing. It would be very good for the people who are reading this to know that they need to know the frequency range and the lowest note on the instrument that they are recording. Once you put that high-pass filter in, the instrument will feel like it is lifting itself out of the speakers.
Other than that, there’s no EQ?
No, not much, if any.
What about when you’re making a record?
Sometimes there are different hot spots in some guitars. The older guitars usually have a boom between 160 and 240 Hz that you have to taper a little bit. But usually that’s about it. It depends on what key they’re in.
It can vary from song to song?
Right. The key of the song is very important. It’s like tuning a vocal. If you don’t know what key the vocal is in, you could be searching all day for the right notes.
What advice do you have for someone
who’s trying to record acoustic instruments
at home, who doesn’t have an ideal
Base it all on performance.
Don’t stress about the sound quality?
Well, sound quality is good, but the people that are driving down the road, I think they’re more interested in the performance than they are in, “Whoa, what microphone did you use on that?” I don’t know of anybody driving down the road listening to the radio calling anybody and asking them, “What mic are you using?” Well, I do get those calls, I guess. [Laughs.]
It’s all about the song.
It is about the song. The main thing is, if it’s not happening, walk away. Get something to eat, make sure your blood sugar’s right, and go in and try again. The hardest thing for most artists is knowing when to stop and walk away. In all the decades I’ve been doing this, usually when I have an artist who’s getting frustrated because they can’t play exactly what they’re hearing in their head and their fingers aren’t working with their mind, if you get them away for 10 or 15 minutes, they’ll go right back in and knock it right out.
That’s the psychologist part of being a
producer … knowing when to have the
artist step back.
What’s the hardest instrument to record?
Probably the hardest instrument to mic is the hammered dulcimer because of the overtone series it generates. The mics have to be perfectly in phase. I normally use KM 84s. I’m getting ready to do my 88th album on Craig Duncan soon.
Wow, 88 albums?
He does instrumental albums for the gift markets and tourist places that sell a lot of product. You’d be amazed how many people want to listen to the melody, but they don’t want somebody screaming at them. And pretty much in music today, it’s how loud can you make it and how compressed is the vocal? A lot of people say, “Why are they screaming at me?” So listening to instrumental music is pleasing and relaxing.
It’s an industry perception, rather than a
listener perception, that a recording has
to be made that loud.
I learned that a long time ago. My daughter had a birthday party and the girls found my collection of vinyl. They had never seen vinyl records before, so I showed them how to set the needle down. What I noticed was that when they put the needle down, they turned it up and listened to it. Then later, I came down, you know, delivering the pizzas and the Cokes and stuff, and they had the CD player out and they were playing a CD, pushing play and then turning it down. That told me a whole lot.
When you mic the hammered dulcimer,
do you mic that in stereo?
Yes, in stereo, using the 3:1 rule. But I keep the mics up and away because the hammers are moving so fast that he doesn’t have a chance to hit any of the mics.
What about upright bass?
I usually mic it with a C5 up on the top and usually one of my Neumann U 47s on the low end. If we’re going more “organic,” I’ll use an RCA 77DX. The new Shure KSM353 is really nice, and the A440 from AEA, if you’re looking for a traditional thing. But on [jazz bassist] Charlie Haden’s album [Rambling Boy], I used a [Telefunken] 460 on the top end and a U 47 on the low side and ran them through two [Neve] 1073 preamps. Charlie [recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2013 Grammys] was in seventh heaven, which made me very happy that he was happy. Half of it is making the instrument sound like the instrument when the musician comes into the control room.
Have you done much bluegrass recording
where you record everything with one
In the old days, but we still would address the bass, because the bass is usually nondescript back there. I did one artist … I was still going to Belmont, I guess, working on the weekends at the studios in Hendersonville that the Oak Ridge Boys owned. And a very prominent bluegrass artist came in. I think it took me 45 minutes to record that album. We went straight to 2-track. It was nice because the studio paid me for the day. [Laughs.] By the time I had the 1/4" tape edited and the box written on with all the information, it was probably 20 minutes after 11. We started at 10.
People don’t make albums like that
I did an album like that with Richard Greene, a fiddle player. It was fun because I mixed it as we went.
If somebody’s putting together a home
studio, where should they put their dollars?
What should be the priority?
Interface and word clock. The word clock runs everything, and your audio interface is your converter. If you have some really good mic preamps—you’d be amazed what an SM57 and an SM58 sound like with a really good mic pre. If you’re a guitar player, save up and get the microphones that will last you a lifetime instead of just buying something that’s going to get you by. The same thing with mic preamps. I usually tell my students, have a good stereo signal path—mics and mic preamps—and then for vocals, have a good mic preamp and a couple of mic choices.
A lot of people still cut their tracks in the bigger studios. Most of your time is going to be spent overdubbing.
So keep the focus there rather than trying
to set up a home studio where you can
track a whole band all at once and have to
sacrifice the quality of the gear to do it?
Exactly, because it’s cheaper in the long run to go in to a bigger room. Be prepared, be rehearsed. The Beatles went in and did their first album in 11 hours, something like that. If you’re prepared, you can go into a studio and rent it for a day for less than it would cost to buy a half-decent microphone.
Then you can take the tracks home and
spend the time there working on the
details and overdubs.
Exactly. What’s so funny is that I work with a lot of artists that should be just artists, but they also want to be engineers, and they don’t realize that there are two hats. The artist will waste a lot of time and their creativity trying to figure out how the computer works or the interface works or plug-ins work or what to use, instead of being creative. It happens with songwriters. A songwriter will write a hit song, then they’ll go out and buy a bunch of gear and have a studio in their house and then they stop writing songs. The same thing with artists—they stop singing or a guitar player will stop spending time practicing. For the hours of figuring out how to hook up a microphone and get the best signal, why not have somebody who actually knows how to do that and spend your time practicing and working toward that moment when you’ll be working with that engineer? You have to figure out what you want to be in life. Do you want to be an artist or do you want to be someone that has a really steep learning curve to become an engineer?
Have you noticed that lately with artists?
Are they not able to knock it out in one
or two takes?
No, normally they can knock it out. There’s a group that I work with called MilkDrive. They’re like a new New Grass Revival out of Austin. They can come in and they just knock it out.
Because they’re focusing on being artists.
Yes, they all have their Pro Tools 002s and 003s and they play around to get their ideas and their demos down, but not a master recording for release.
The Hillbenders is another group out of Missouri. They all go down live—vocals, everything. There are still groups out there that can do it.
Selected Bil VornDick Discography
Alison Krauss and Union Station, I’ve Got That Old Feeling
Rhonda Vincent, Taken
Charlie Haden and Family, Rambling Boy
Ralph Stanley, Clinch Mountain Country (featuring Bob Dylan, Vince Gill, Dwight Yoakam, Kentucky Headhunters, Diamond Rio, Marty Stuart, Ricky Skaggs, and many more)
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, Tales from the Acoustic Planet, and many more solo and with the Flecktones
Mark O’Connor, The New Nashville Cats
Doc Watson, On Praying Ground and many more
Shawn Lane, Power of Ten
Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg, and Edgar Meyer, Skip, Hop & Wobble
Jerry Douglas, Slide Rule and many more
Marty Robbins, Legend and many more