In 1977, with the release of Cheap Trick’s In Color, I felt I was beginning to feel comfortable with my job, that I had earned a measure of respect in the music community, and that I was no longer banging my head against the wall at Epic. I was pretty happy with In Color. The Cheap Trick recording experience was really a pleasure. Every day, I was delighted to return to the studio to hear more of their music and to enjoy their humor. This project saw the development of a production process that became comfortable for me, and that I continued to depend on for most of my projects:
The selection of songs was (I swear) a democratic process, and a consensus of band, label A&R, producer, and to some extent, management. We’d pick about 14 tunes to record, and then when things got down to the wire and threatened to bust the budget, we’d discard the two or three least promising tracks. Frankly, as the project wore on and it became evident to all of us which were the most promising candidates for single release, I’d try to spend most of our time and money on those two or three cuts. Yes, there are band members who have claimed in print that I “refused” to do a song, or that I wouldn’t allow the band to cut a particular tune. This is sheer fantasy. The label had the last word, period. In the case of the Krokus record, we were literally assigned material to record, and the VP of Business Affairs had lyric approval on the whole album. I kid you not.
This was my least favorite part of any project. I would prefer to have entered the studio and allowed the songs to develop naturally, but I considered it somewhat irresponsible to skip rehearsal of any sort – so I would listen to demos of the songs and make notes regarding structural and dynamic changes. We’d try them out in rehearsal; some would work and some wouldn’t. After the new arrangement was familiar enough, I’d zero in on the bass guitar / kick drum combination. Sometimes we’d change the kick-drum pattern in certain sections of the song, and do the same with the cymbals. I always told the drummer and the bass player that I thought the John McVie – Mick Fleetwood combination was about the tightest rhythm section in rock music. They felt like one big rhythm machine.
Then we’d spend some time on rhythm guitar dynamics, and leave the lead guitar and vocals completely alone until we were in the studio. Usually, pre-production lasted five days. Managers worried. A&R asked questions. I tried to assure them that this was good for the material, and that if you rehearsed the songs too much, they would become wooden. Sometimes they agreed, sometimes not.
Load-in & Set-Up
The initial phase of recording (the basic tracks – drums, bass and rhythm guitar) almost always required a large room for flexibility. The drummers of that era all seemed to have Bonham fixations, and we would always have at least a pair of distant room mikes set up to capture the “size” of the room. I’d try to find a studio that had at least 2 isolation booths off the main room, so that the main room itself was devoted to drums alone. At this point, the bass and rhythm guitars were essentially “dummy” tracks, just playing for feel.
After we got the keeper drum performance, we’d usually set up the bass and guitar amps in the big room as well, and re-record them one at a time. If the budget allowed, we’d stay at the same studio for the whole recording, employing different rooms for different tasks, but to “lock out” most of the top-line studios in LA, one had to pay about $3000 per day, and in order to save money, we’d frequently move to a smaller “overdub” studio after we had the basic tracks. After all, for individual instruments and vocals, you usually didn’t need more than a room the size of a large closet.
Virtually every band I produced wanted to record live. Initially, I tried to explain that the beauty of the studio was that it facilitated isolation for ideal sound and performance, and that this flexibility far outweighed the live feeling that they were looking for. This wasn’t always a winning argument, so eventually I set them up to record live, and after we had a decent take, I’d call them into the control booth for a listen. The clarity and sensitivity of the studio microphones then revealed what the human ear couldn’t hear, and the band usually understood quickly that perfecting individual performances was the way to go. Still, some albums sounded more “studio” than others, depending on what the band wanted.
I always explained up front that I was simply a hired hand, paid by the band to help them realize their musical vision. I told them I’d try to convince them to do things the way I thought they should be done, but in the final analysis, I was working for them and they had the final decision. Nine times out of ten, though, they lacked the experience and knowledge to feel confident about insisting that we do things their way, rather than mine. In many cases, we’d work out a compromise, but there really weren’t enough differences of opinion to present a problem.
After the rhythm guitars were down and there was a little flesh on the rhythmic skeleton, the singer would do a dummy vocal track, so that the musicians would understand and hear exactly where the vocal was and what it was doing, and they would hopefully be able to reinforce it or complement it, rather than interfering with it or obscuring it. This was of particular importance for the lead guitar track. The lead guitar solo was important, of course, but I was pretty particular about having tasty guitar fills, as well. The fills were helpful in creating a shape to the song, and to help the song build to a climax. I always tried to have the musical energy ebb and flow, and to “tease” the listener; the song couldn’t blow its wad too soon, or there would be nothing left to say after that; in the same way, after the song reached a high point, it was usually time to repeat the chorus and say goodbye.
Just before or after the lead guitar, I’d record the keyboard instruments. This was always a lot of fun for me, because I’d be sitting there hearing the same material over and over, and after a few days additional parts would start appearing in my head. This is how I’d come up with backing vocal and keyboard arrangements – with repeated exposures, I’d simply start hearing things, and find myself singing the parts that would become keyboard accompaniment or backing vocals. I had my favorite keyboard players, and they’d set up their electronic keyboards in the control booth, or play the piano or organ in the studio. Since I don’t read or write music, I’d just sing them the parts I wanted. I found that a Hammond B3 organ through a Leslie speaker cabinet on 10 (a la Deep Purple) was particularly effective in providing a complement to distorted guitar power chords.
Again, the more we worked together, the better the results. Jai Winding was one of the best, and could play a variety of keyboards. We would do an entire album’s worth of keyboards in one day, and have a good time doing it. I also had my favorite backing vocalists, usually anchored by my friend Tom Kelly, who wrote the music to many hits (“True Colors,” “Like A Virgin,” “Fire & Ice,” “Alone”). Sometimes I’d join the backing singers and add a part of my own.
On each project, I’d offer to do the percussion for no charge, and if the band didn’t like it, I told them we would hire a studio percussionist. Every band I worked with was happy with my percussion. We did hire some studio guys for things like conga drum, which I couldn’t play that well. Incidentally, Keith Forsey, who produced a lot of Billy Idol records, does a killer job playing congas on “I Don’t Need A Gun,” and the part was perfect for the record.
Mixing was a different animal, and I came to enjoy the Conway Studios mixing experience. Conway was a state of the art studio, with beautifully landscaped grounds and an individual lounge for each studio. These lounges were located in the main building (separate from the studio building) off of the central kitchen. There was pool and ping pong, TV and stereo, and always an interesting clientele. This was good for me, because I let the engineer set up each mix, and I’d go in and out of the studio 20 or 30 times a day, trying to keep my ears fresh, rather than sitting in the control room for twenty minutes while the engineer honed in on the perfect sound for a pounding kick drum. This way, I could spend a half hour out of the studio, and then walk in and immediately hear what was good or bad about the mix at that point. Conway also had some good gofers, who could run out to Astroburger or Fatburger on a moment’s notice.
When the mix got to a certain point, I’d sit down at the console with the engineer, and we’d make some final tweaks. We always tried to arrange things so that we could leave a mix set up overnight, and come in with fresh ears the next day. We’d make a few alternate mixes for safety (usually one with the vocal a little louder, one with the guit ar a little louder, and one with the bass a little louder). The mix may have sounded perfect in the studio, but in your car or on your home stereo, it could sound quite different.
Once the mixes were done properly (and this could take several weeks with input from the label), all that was left was the mastering process. This was something I hadn’t known much about, but it can be a critical step in the process. I found George Marino at Sterling Sound in New York, and he mastered almost every one of my 60+ albums. On the plane to New York, I’d listen a couple of times to the mixes and make final notes about levels, equalization, and all the little moves we didn’t quite catch in the mix that I thought we could catch in the mastering process.
George was usually up to the task. In the mastering studio, George would play the “flat” master tape, and then switch on his eq and compression and limiting with one toggle switch, and it would sound as if someone had snatched a blanket from in front of the speakers. Guitars would sparkle, vocals would cut, the bass would fill out, and drums would snap. Passages that had sounded too quiet would become louder, and things that had sounded too loud would settle into the track. It was stunning to hear, and it was exciting to walk out of there with an album of music that was twice as potent as what I had walked in with.
Before I had ever heard any of my productions on the radio, I was certain that all other producers knew something that I didn’t, because I’d listen to my records on stereo headphones and they’d sound good, but then I’d listen to other people’s records on stereo FM radio and they’d sound so much more dynamic, so much more….just well done.
Then one day I was listening to WNEW FM in New York and I heard “Stranglehold” from the Nugent album. I was shocked. It sounded threatening. It sounded as though it was done by a professional. It sounded GREAT! That’s when I discovered compression. In those days, FM stations compressed everything so severely that the songs actually sounded as though they were breathing. You could almost hear the compressors pumping up and squashing down the record at the same time. All mastering engineers used a modicum of compression, but when it got to the radio station, they’d literally squash it with compression. The result was very sonically attractive — almost juicy.
A postscript to Popdose Readers:
In reviewing the readers’ letters, I only recently came across a spirited defense of Matthew Bolin’s initial piece on me by a Popdose writer named Dw Dunphy, among whose other comments about me is “your street cred out here is godawful.”
At the risk of sounding like an ingenue, I sincerely would like to ask Mr. Dunphy on what this candid evaluation is based. As far as I know (and apparently that may not be too far), Mr. Bolin’s piece was the first wholly negative review I’ve suffered. If there are others, you’d be helping me out by referencing them.
Once again, I find it curious and telling that not one of my detractors (Mr. Sixx of Motley Crue, Mr. Snider of Twisted Sister and Mr. Nielsen of Cheap Trick) had a contrary word to say during the entire time I worked with them, or for that matter, for at least a decade afterward. In fact, each seemed to be quite pleased with the results of our collaboration, and it should be noted that with the Crue and Cheap Trick, this working relationship lasted over five years. Consider that – five years of positive results, ten years of intervening silence, and then suddenly a variety of complaints about my demeanor, judgment and work ethic – principally from a heroin addict under the influence – and from this I have earned a godawful” street cred?
Now, I do agree with Mr. Dunphy that a timely defense is important. I’ll continue to write about my saga here, but I do feel compelled (forced?) at this point to underscore the fact that of all the hit acts I worked with (Ted Nugent, Cheap Trick, Molly Hatchet, Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, Poison, Kix and LA Guns), only Motley Crue released a bigger-selling album after I stopped working with them (and that was their only one). For the other 7 of these 8 acts, I produced their biggest-selling record, and when they worked with a different producer, they stopped having big hit records. So, assuming we still give points for album sales, popularity and radio exposure, I’ll go out on a limb and say my production approach seems to have been pretty effective, overall. So I’m puzzled by the “street cred” issue…. Anybody? Bueller?