Studio Legends: Keith Olsen
Keith Olsen on recording countless chart-toppers from the 1970s, ''80s, and ''90s.
Recording at Paul Bonrud’s studio in Seattle. Photo courtesy Keith Olsen
With over 200 album-engineering and/or production credits to his name—and 39 of them have been certified gold, 24 went platinum, and 14 went multiplatinum—it’s no stretch to say Keith Olsen has helped define the sound of modern music. On top of that, he’s won six Grammy awards, sold more than 110 million records, become a trustee of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the Grammy people), designed music gear, written books, and worked as a recording and touring musician.
Born in South Dakota and raised in the Minneapolis area, Olsen started his career as a musician but before long was hired as an independent staff producer for music-industry mogul Clive Davis (who, among others, was responsible for signing acts as huge as Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, and Earth, Wind & Fire). Olsen went on to become a major force in recorded music in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, recording with everyone from Fleetwood Mac to Foreigner, Whitesnake, Pat Benatar, Joe Walsh, Santana, the Grateful Dead, and Ozzy Osbourne. He also achieved incredible success in the film world, producing soundtracks for the hits Footloose, Top Gun, Flashdance, and Tron.
What’s your background as a musician—you’re primarily a
I was actually a cellist. I was a bad acoustic guitar player, a bad piano player, a bad bass player … anything I could get my hands on that I could play and learn a little bit about. But I knew that I liked music. I liked the theoretical aspects of it.
Did you have formal training?
Yes, kind of. I took private lessons from this guy who was just a stunningly good concert pianist who taught me a lot about theory and had me really going into the classics as a place to draw from. Then I became a music-ed major at the University of Minnesota, but I got drawn by the road—“C’mon, go out and play!”
While you were playing in folk bands, you rubbed elbows with
people who went on to big things—for example, sharing bills
with future members of the Mamas & the Papas and the Lovin’
Spoonful—and then you switched over to a rock band called the
Music Machine. How did you end up moving into the production
side of things?
While I was in the Music Machine, I kept finding these bands that were opening for us. I found this band called Eternity’s Children and we recorded their stuff. I was the producer and arranger and engineer. We had a hit called “Mrs. Bluebird.”
How did you meet your future producing partner Curt
Boettcher and connect with Clive Davis?
I met Curt back at the University of Minnesota. He told me, “Hey I got this deal with this guy and I can go into the studio anytime I want.” My eyes lit up and I said, “Hey, why don’t we do stuff together?” So we went in and worked on “Along Comes Mary” and “Cherish” [with folk-rock band the Association], and we worked with Tommy Roe on “Sweet Pea” and “Hoorah for Hazel” [which became Top 40 hits in 1968].
Then Clive started hearing all this stuff by these two kids that were doing things differently, twisting knobs. A lot of record producers back then were “stopwatchers” and budget minders, period. Clive was interested in people who wanted to push the envelope. We met with him and he said, “I want you to be my independent staff producers,” because if we kept our independent status we could go to other studios. We weren’t tied into the CBS union contract that the studios had with the IBEW [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers].
We did the Millennium album [1968’s Begin]—the first 16-track recording ever. We had to figure out how to lock two 8-track tape machines together to do it. It was kind of a turntable hit. Jerry Wexler from Atlantic gave me a shot at mixing a record with Aretha Franklin—her live album that was recorded out at a church in Watts. From there I got work with Mac Rebennack—Dr. John—and then started doing other things.
How did you find Lindsey Buckingham
and Stevie Nicks?
They were in a band and their booking agent called all the A-list producers, and none of them wanted to go to San Jose to see this band named Fritz. He called the B-list producers. He called the C-list guys. Then he called the D-list guys, which was me and a couple of other guys, and I said, “A free trip to San Jose? Sure! I’ll go up and see them.”
I was picked up by Lindsey and their drummer in a van that had no seats in it. I sat in the back with the drum kit and the amps. When we got out of the van, he turned to me and said, “Well, help us set up!” [Laughs.] It was Lindsey and Stevie singing, and Lindsey was the bass player. The next weekend, I got them in the studio to cut a demo and I realized all the [other] members of the band were just average and Lindsey and Stevie were so special. So I said, “Let’s try to do a duo.” And they said, “No, no, no, we want to be a band, we want to be a band.”
Then Lindsey got mononucleosis and Fritz broke up because he was flat on his back for three or four months. So he started playing acoustic guitar, but he didn’t have enough energy to strum it. He could only lay his arm on it and do that flamenco kind of shot. Now think about the style that Lindsey plays—that’s how it happened.
Keith Olsen with Ozzy Osbourne at Goodnight L.A. Studios in Los Angeles during the cutting of No Rest for the Wicked. Photo courtesy Keith Olsen
How did that lead to Lindsey joining
I had signed on to co-produce with Fleetwood Mac and engineer their album after Bare Trees. How I made the deal to do it was I played [Mick Fleetwood] three tracks of the finished Buckingham-Nicks record, one off an Emitt Rhodes record, and one thing from Aretha Franklin. He said, “Wow, this is really great.” So we made a deal to do it. Then I got a call on New Year’s Eve, and Mick says, “I’ve had some bad news. Bob Welch just decided to leave the band. So, that fellow in that band you played me—would you see if that guy would like to join my band?” And I said, “Well, they’re going to come as a set. Because they’re very much into their own thing, and the only chance of getting them to drop that would be to bring them both on.” And he says, “Well, maybe that will work. Can you see if you can convince them to join my band?”
So I drop what I was going to do on that New Year’s Eve, take my date, and we drive over to Stevie and Lindsey’s house. I said, “Hey, Happy New Year” and all of this—I brought over the obligatory bottle of bad champagne—and I said, “Can we talk? Mick Fleetwood would like you to join Fleetwood Mac.” Immediately, Lindsey said, “Oh, no, no—I couldn’t possibly play anything as good as Peter Green did. How am I supposed to get up there and play ‘The Green Manalishi’?” Finally I get them, by the end of the night, to try it on a trial basis for eight weeks.
They started rehearsing with Mick and John and Christine [McVie], and they found they had a really neat sound together. Then when we got into the studio, it was totally unique. It was not like Bare Trees—it was not like anything else Fleetwood Mac had done. In fact, John came up to me and said, “Keith, you know, we used to be a blues band.” [I said,] “Yeah, I know, John. But it’s a lot shorter drive down to this bank.” [Laughs.] Because he knew we were commercial. But it was unique—it was the right thing—and halfway through that album, we knew. We knew.
Let’s talk about your approach to
Get a great guitar player, get a great-sounding amp, turn it up. [Laughs.] If you’re recording electric guitar, find that point on one of the speakers where you get the highest frequency, and place the mic there. [See the sidebar “Olsen’s ‘Shavering’ Cab-Mic’ing Technique” on p.148 for more on this.] I was doing a seminar once with guys from Shure, and I said, “Okay, put the mic where you think it should go on that 4x12 out there.” Then I had the guy play guitar. I said, “Okay, play a riff. You got the riff? Record it. Okay, now, don’t change anything. Just unplug your guitar from the amp.” I walked out in the room with headphones on and just moved the mic about an inch and a half by listening to the hiss coming back as the mic moved from the edge of the cone [whistles an ascending pitch], right around where the edge of the voice coil was. Then I moved it around the voice coil and I heard it change to the highest hiss. I just put a little X on that speaker and I put the ’57 right there. Then I said, “Don’t change any settings anywhere, inside or outside. Now just plug in and play the same riff.” He played the same riff and we went back to back, A to B, and I’ve never seen so many mouths drop open at the same time like that.
Keith Olsen at Sammy Hagar’s house on the first day of rehearsal for Standing Hampton. Photo courtesy Keith Olsen
Recording electric guitar is really easy, because you don’t want to use EQ if you don’t have to—you can just use the tone controls on the amp. Once you get the sound you want, just get it from the speaker into the console. The mic that I use all the time is the [Shure] SM57. You can’t really record a snare drum or an electric guitar without a ’57. You can use other mics along with it, mic’ing distant and this, that, and the other thing. But make sure you have one real close where the speaker is, where you’re right at the face of the piston instead of off that voice coil—because there you’re getting all that cone distortion, because the cone bends in different ways at different frequencies. Sometimes it’s pretty ugly distortion, sometimes it’s good distortion. It’s not even, so you want to be in a place where the distortion is all from the motor—a speaker is a motor, so you want to record it at the header instead of after the muffler. [Laughs.]
You mentioned using additional mics and
distant mics. Do you ever do that kind of
thing, or do you rely on just the SM57
Remember “Still of the Night” or “Here I Go Again” [from Whitesnake’s self-titled 1987 album]? That guitar sound is two mics: It’s a ’57 on one EVM 12L [speaker], and then an AKG C 451 with a 10 dB pad on it on the next one over—also an EVM 12L—in a 2x12 Marshall combo with an open back.
If you want to get room ambience, then you put an AKG C 12 or a C 414 up at probably four or five feet off the ground, facing directly at the amp about six feet away—because remember, six feet away is about six milliseconds. As soon as you get past 10 feet away, then you start getting slap delay. You want ambience, not delay. The other thing I always do [for ambience] is decouple the speakers from the floor. I always get it off the floor and then tip it back a little bit so it’s aiming off to some wall. The angle of incidence—the angle of reflection—will send it around the room so you can start generating all of that room ambience. That’s how we did most of those parts.
Do you prefer doing that in a large room
or a small room?
At Goodnight L.A. [Olsen’s own studio], the guitar room was probably 10 feet by 14 feet— it was fairly dead. And when I say “fairly dead,” I mean if I’d stuffed any more fiberglass in there, it would have become an anechoic chamber. [Laughs.] It was fairly dead. But when I was doing leads and stuff like that, I would bring the amps out of the guitar room and put them in a fairly live, open room.
Any other thoughts on capturing great
Yeah. You can get a great guitar, a great amp, great mics, a great speaker, and have really cool stuff everywhere, but if the guitar player isn’t happy, you’re not going to get it. If the guitar player needs to hear it screaming loud, put him out there in the room and that’ll do it. A lead guitar player has to have enough volume so that there is that feedback to the strings. That only happens at a certain volume level, so you just gotta deal with it.
What about your approach to acoustic
First, get a really good acoustic guitar. Then, all I can say is you’ve got to use your ears. It’s an acoustic instrument. You’ve got to hear what the mic hears. The mic doesn’t differentiate between wanted and unwanted sounds. So you’ve got to really use your ears and just mess with it.
I don’t particularly like putting mics up on the fretboard—I don’t think it’s necessary and it never really comes off. If it’s a really good-sounding guitar, the amount of squeaking and natural movement of the hand will be amplified all the way down the strings [to the mic near the soundhole and soundboard] and it will be part of the overall sound.
Occasionally, I record acoustic guitars in stereo, but then what do you do with it? As you’re starting things, you’ve got to look at the big picture. Because if you have a kit of drums, you’re going to have snare drum and kick drum in the middle. If you’ve got a lead singer, he’s going to be in the middle. Then there’s that guy who plays bass—he’s got to be in the middle. And then, if you’ve got an acoustic guitar player, well gee, you recorded him in stereo— it’s just going to sound like it’s in the middle. There’s all this stuff that ends up being in the middle. Certain things sound great in stereo, other things you don’t get as much phase shift and you get a better image in the end [with one mic] and just pan it.
Is there a particular mic you rely on
I’ve used Neumanns. I like using smallcapsule condensers if the guitar has a lot of boominess in it—you don’t want to use a large- or a medium-sized capsule. There is an Audio-Technica mic that is stunning on acoustic guitars—the AT4033. It uses a different alloy on the capsule—I think it’s silver instead of gold. It’s really great. I just found that by accident.
That’s not an expensive mic, either.
That’s not an expensive mic, no. I’m drawing a blank on artists right now, but there are a couple of singers that won’t sing a lead vocal without that mic. It has that edge to it.
What’s your approach to recording
Get a really good transformer DI [direct box], get a good-sounding amp, and this time don’t “shaver” the mic—because you want to just get the poof of air from the speaker. Just mix that in and make sure you get it in phase.
What mic would you put on the bass
amp to do that?
I’ve used Electro-Voice RE20s, I’ve used RCA [Type] 77-DXs, I’ve used a Royer ribbon, and I’ve used a Neumann U 47 FET. Because it’s such a small part of the sound that gets to the mix, just about anything works. You’re really just looking to move air—you’re using maybe 25 percent of it and 75 or 85 percent of the DI [signal]. The only other thing to do is to make sure that when you want to compress, be sure you link the compressors [on the DI and the mic] so that when you compress the DI, you’re compressing the same amount on the speakers and it stays balanced and stays the same color.
A lot of Premier Guitar readers record at
home. How much of a difference do you
think the gear really makes in the results
they can get?
Oh boy, that’s a loaded question. [Laughs.] If you have a great song and a great performance of that song, it doesn’t matter where it’s recorded or how it’s recorded. You could record it in your bathroom on a wire recorder that you got from your grandfather—it’s still a great song. Gear, equipment, it makes some difference. Really high-end gear makes a difference. Is the stuff that you can buy at Sweetwater or Guitar Center good enough? Sure it is! You can get that piece of software that PreSonus makes, and their I/O box, and you can record really great-sounding stuff. It’s really good. But, you have to buy the gear, own the gear, learn how to use the gear really well. And then you have to learn how to play again—because you haven’t been practicing because you’ve been learning how to use all this gear!
How many bands are on MySpace and have a page on Facebook? You’ve got to do everything you can to get a leg up. One of the things that gives you a leg up is if you have a great song. And if you’re capable of a great performance, then don’t let technology get in the way: Pay a guy and go into a real studio where you can be an artist and you can work on getting a great performance of that great song instead of saying, “Huh, I wonder what this equalizer plug-in does?”
Yes, you can get good stuff at home. Most of the time, the issue at home is acoustics—what you’re hearing [in the room]—not the quality of the gear. The A-to-D [analog-to-digital] converters in that PreSonus box that sells for $299 are really good. Are they good enough? Well yeah, probably. But there again, what is more important, a great sound on the kick drum or a great song?