Some comments from
the world-famous veteran engineer right as his latest Michael Jackson
album, HIStory, hits the streets.
Reprinted from the October 1995 Interview in Recording
by Nick Batzdorf
Do you have a systematic
working procedure when you mix? It’s never the same twice. But I’m a
firm believer in computerized mixing. What I’ve done in the
last few years in my work with Michael, Quincy, and a lot of people
when I start a project is store the balance levels of the tracking
session in the computer—for emotional reasons, not a technical
The reason is that’s the first time I react
instictively to the music and I want that not to be thought out
at all– I want it to be purely instinctive. It’s amazing
as a recording progresses and you begin to improve it, how that
so-called improvement can be a problem. I always store that first
tracking date. It’s very important.
How often might you
refer back to it? Almost always. On Michael’s new album, the
live sessions that we did in New York with the orchestra, I stored
all those things and that’s almost verbatim what went on the
How did you record
the orchestra? I have 14 ASC Tube Traps that I use in a variety
of situations. On Michael’s new album, I used them recording
the two big orchestral pieces (actually there are more than just
two, but the two that feature the orchestra). I used all 14 spaced
around the studio mainly for dispersion, not for absorption. There
was a slight edginess that I heard in the room, and I wanted a very
wide open and very smooth, silky string sound.
I went back to a set-up I used recording the Chicago
Symphony with a lot of Mahler stuff that I did. It was a pretty
large string section; the whole orchestra must been at least 60
or 70 pieces. So I used my two Neumann M-50s above the conductor
and then the first and second violins are set up to his left and
right. This is a bit of a departure from a normal orchestra. Some
composers specify that set-up; it seems to fit the music so well
with a big string orchestra.
There are two songs on the new album. One is ‘Have
you seen my childhood’ and the other is ‘Smile,’
the Charlie Chaplin piece of music. They’re set up in that
manner, a very classical set-up, a straight-ahead session; Michael
even sang with the orchestra. Of course we went back and patched
up some of the vocal lines, but a lot of what we used was sung live
with the orchestra.
And I used the tube traps spaced kind of indiscriminately
around the room at different places. The orchestra rehearsed and
I walked around and listened for live spots—hot spots—with
the string section. I think when you hear these two recordings,
anybody reading this would get the idea of what I was looking for.
It’s a very big, very smooth orchestral sound.
Do you bring the Tube
Traps with you when you mix? I have. Actually in my own studio that I had in
California, there was a door that went outside, parallel to the
wall to my right, and it produced a sharp reflection. So I put three
or four Tube Traps in a little semi-circle in front of the door,
and it just knocked it totally out of there. Very dramatic. And
sometimes those reflections can be very distracting. They’re
kind of midrangey.
What about the claims
that you can create a room to record in pretty much anywhere? That’s pretty fair to say; I’ve not
used them for that application; what I’ve used them for is
to improve an already good acoustical situation or to mould that
acoustical situation to my liking. On Michael’s new album,
all his vocals are recorded with seven tube traps around him; every
vocal sound on there is done in that manner. It adds a clarity to
the vocals that would be hard to get otherwise.
Using the dead end
of the traps? Yeah. Where they really work for me is more for
dispersion than anything else.
I visited your studio
a couple of years ago and you talked about an unusual stereo miking
technique that uses two omnis in X-Y instead of cardiods. Yes. I’m a really lucky guy in that my career
started at the end of the big band era. I also was fortunate that
I spent a lot of time in Chicago doing classical music with the
Chicago Symphony and various classical techniques. I learned a lot
about mic technique that a lot of young people today don’t
have a chance to experiment with. It was my distinct privilege to
learn mic technique with Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
That was the beginning of the interest in stereo
and so on, and these bandleaders were absolutely enthralled with
the recording process, as was Fritz Reiner, conductor of the Chicago
Symphony. So it gave me a chance to experiment and learn a lot about
stereo miking that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
But that technique is no trick; it’s a pure
X-Y system. There are two mics that it works spectacularly well
with. One would be the Neumann M-50 and the other would be the M-49.
A quick example: from the Bad album, the song ‘Man in the
Mirror’—the Andre Crouch choir sings that recording.
This is something that anybody can listen to. The choir is recorded
with two Neumann M-49s, one above the other in omni, with the choir
in about a 30-foot diameter circle around the mics. So you adjust
the choir in and out to get the acoustic perspective that you want
and then sit back and roll the tape and let the room do all the
What happens is that the arrival times of the sound
at the two capsules is very, very close in time. It’s what
I guess you would call highly stereo-coherent—the resultant
image makes excellent mono broadcast, but it also has a very spacious
feel. The only thing you’d have to say is that there’s
no left-right intensity difference. It’s very centered, but
it’s wide. If you have that CD, just listen to it and it becomes
That’s recorded in Westlake Studio D on Santa
Monica Boulevard, an absolutely perfect room for that type of work.
The only mixing that’s taking place is purely acoustic. I
go through my Neve 1085 preamps.
We just had some articles
on wiring and interconnections. Do you have a strong religious preference? Yeah, although there are places where esoteric wire
seems to be more dramatic than others. It’s very important
for me to have it between the output of the desk and the 2-track
to eliminate all the wiring in the wall or the studio wiring, that
bad reactive trouble. That’s where I really hear a difference.
When I start a mix, I’ll have the technicians totally isolate
the output of the desk and then I’ll run a Monster Cable snake
from the jackfield into the 2-track.
During that visit
to your studio, you talked about ending up with a stack of masters
in all different formats for the Michael Jackson album you’d
just finished. Just about each song was in a different format. I still do that. Although on the new album, I had
a chance to experiment earlier on and figured out what format I
would use. I generally use analog for multitrack recording with
Dolby SR, but I’ll use different formats for mixdown media.
Anything from ½” to ¼” analog to ¼”
analog over ½” analog? It sounds very very different—1/4” is
warmer. And I’ll very often select a different recording speed
to suit the music. The low end is so much fatter at 15 ips. Very
What’s the difference
between what you can do in a “professional” studio and
what musicians can do in their own studios? To be honest with you, I’ve made hit records
in some pretty ratty-ass studios that would not qualify as high-tech;
I’ve been in some very high-tech beautiful studios that weren’t
very inspiring; I’ve been in some bedroom studios that are
I have a feeling that it kind of depends on the
situation. For instance, my friend Rod Temperton (the guy who wrote
‘Thriller’ and ‘Rock With You’ and did all
the Heatwave stuff), he’s got a home studio; it’s the
weirdest combination of speakers and room parameters that I’ve
ever seen in my life, and it sounds absolutely fabulous.
Is that because of
the room or the combination of equipment? I think it’s an accident—just luck because
I don’t think acoustics in control room design is really a
science. There are just a handful of people who know what they’re
doing with control room and studio design. Not to mention any names,
but there’s a few people, a handful, that I’m very impressed
with what they’ve done—and others whose stuff is not
that impressive. Physical appearance is often very misleading, which
is where the snake oil comes in.
And how much of a
difference to the final product does the engineer make, in your
opinion? I think what an engineer (like myself, for instance)
brings is an aural concept that gets away from reality. Frankly,
many engineers today seem to have a highly technical approach to
what they do. They seem to feel that hit records are made by the
buttons and the knobs, and they’re not. Memorable recordings
that people want to play over and over again start with purely emotional
values. I’ve never heard anyone leave the record store humming
And on the other side of the coin, of course
it would be good for a lot of musical people to learn as much technical
information as they can. That will bring a certain ease of reality,
a realization to their musical promise. If you don’t have
the technical chops to put together a viable listening medium, all
the good ideas in the world won’t get on tape. You know, there’s
a happy medium.