Make Your Mark With Eric Valentine

Life is good for Eric Valentine. It's a sunny day in Topanga Canyon, as the famed engineer and producer sits alongside his wife, Grace Potter, and their brand new baby boy, Sagan. He can't help but unleash a toothy smile while watching his newborn stumble through his first lesson in hiccups.

What has Sagan's arrival meant for Eric? For starters, more time at home. The man at the helm of million-selling albums from Smash Mouth and Third Eye Blind has spent time preparing a mixing space a few steps away from his beautiful house. Outfitted with gear from his own brand, UnderTone Audio, and a few other essentials, Valentine is able to keep up with his work schedule while also tending to his son and wife.  

Throughout the course of our visit, we talked with Eric about his intro to the world of recording, his experience in the band T-Ride and the recording process for Smash Mouth and Third Eye Blind's debut records. Watch our two-part Make Your Mark below and continue on afterward for an extended interview that details Eric's love of The Monkees, his drum miking set-up and advice for young engineers looking to get into the industry.

What’s your first memory of music?
The first significant event I had with music was when I was really young. I was into The Monkees. I was about four or five-years-old and that’s when I realized I really loved music. I wanted to be a drummer, I wanted to be Micky Dolenz. At my parent’s house, we had this beautiful old redwood tree. A friend of ours was getting married and they wanted to get married under the redwood tree in front of our house.

I was a four-year-old running around causing trouble, getting in the way of this marriage ceremony that was happening. My mom put me inside the house to keep me out of trouble. I was in there for five minutes and then made my way over to my little record player and put on the first Monkees record, full blast right in the middle of the wedding. My mom ran inside and snapped the record in half right in front of me. The thing I remember most about it is how hard it was to break the record. They’re very difficult to break.

When did you actually get into playing the drums?
I was just insistent on being a drummer and was relentless with my parents about it. First, they got me one of these toy drum sets that you’d get from Sears with paper heads. They lasted probably 30 minutes. All the heads were broken. It was hard for me to convince them to get another kit. It took a couple of years.

I was riding home from school one day and someone was having a garage sale. There was a red sparkle three piece drum set made by Crest. When I got home, I was like “Mom, mom, mom, there’s a drum set! Blah! Blah!” I was just relentless again and she went and got the drum set before my dad got home. That was important. Once my dad got home, there would have been no more drum sets.

That was the beginning of it for me. It wasn’t really high quality, but it was a real drum set. It had Remo heads, you could tune it. I started taking drum lessons shortly after when I was nine and it’s all I did. My brother started playing guitar right around the same time. There was a cut off time on drums when my dad would get home from work, and after that, if my brother wasn’t playing guitar, I’d be playing that too. I just loved playing music.

My brother and I played in bands at school dances together, back when bands used to play at high school dances. Apparently, it’s just DJs now, but we played at my junior high and my high school. Ultimately, we started doing original songs and we had a couple different names for the band, including Illusion, Crossfire and some more unfortunate names that we explored throughout our youth.

You created your own tape recording set-up when you were around 11. What inspired you to figure out how to bounce tracks and record your own songs?
I don’t know. I was just trying to figure it out. I didn’t have any instructions or guidance. My dad was an aerospace engineer and we always had lots of technical stuff around. He’d always take us to the places that he worked at and it was a wonderland of electronics, buttons and devices. There were incredible meters, dials and scopes everywhere. I think that was always fun and inspiring to me. His area of expertise was aerospace communication so he worked with audio all day long.

That was always the path for me. I never really did the whole “I’m going to go intern at another studio and someone will show me how to do this” thing. I got my own four-track and figured out the techniques for that. Later on, I got a garage, turned it into a studio and got a 16-track. I’d just listen to records and try to imagine how they got the sounds on those records.

What were the records you were listening to at the time for inspiration in the studio?
I went through a lot of phases musically early on. There is a very early period where I had a Led Zeppelin moment. It was like Led Zeppelin and AC/DC and that came right after Kiss. That was when I was nine or 10 when Kiss was amazing. It was like rock music and Japanese monster movie. That’s when there were bands like UFO, Michael Schenker and the Scorpions. After that, that’s when I got into Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

On the drumming side things, as I got into my teens, it got more advanced. My drum teachers were trying to get me further and further down that road. I got into jazz fusion stuff like Weather Report, Bill Bruford and a bunch of that kind of drum stuff. Once I got serious about recording, it still was always Led Zeppelin. Those recordings had the most surreal quality to them. They lived in a space that didn’t exist anywhere else. It was only Led Zeppelin that existed in that acoustic universe.

Once you were in your band T-Ride and decided to put money into building out your own recording studio, how did you inform yourself on what gear you should buy?
I was reading Mix Magazine and interviews with people who had done recordings that I loved like Roy Thomas Baker, Glyn Johns and Andy Johns. Really just any information that I could mine. There were a few things that would come up like “Class A is really important.” I had no idea what that meant. We just knew we wanted really big, warm, powerful recordings that weren’t harsh to listen to. That’s what I sought out, things that had tubes or that were Class A.

I did have the opportunity through Wally Buck, who worked at Fantasy Studios, to check out their SSL room and their Neve room. At this point, we still only had an MCI 24-track and a little Sound Workshop console. He had free time in these rooms and he said, “I’m going to give you a day to mix on the Neve console and a day to mix on the SSL console and you can see what you like.” I did exactly that and it was incredible.

This was not an 80 Series Class A Neve, it was an 81 Series, which people usually hate. Even with that though, when I sat at that console and EQ’d that vocal, I could instantly get to something that I liked. It was like that with everything, the drum EQ. It just all fell into place. That was really the first time that was like “Neve is the thing and there is something very musical about this console.”

We had our 80 Series console for a long time. We recorded the first T-Ride record on there, the first Smashmouth record on it, the first Third Eye Blind record.

What's your favorite instrument to record?
I love recording drums, everything from the really stripped down set-up where you are just trying to pull all the drums through one mic, which I’ve been doing more of lately, to the more extravagant set-ups I’ve used like on the Third Eye Blind record. There was a very specific combination of miking that I did on everything at that time. It would probably take up 10 to 14 tracks on an analog master. I love recording drums. It’s my favorite.

Talk about some of your different drum mic set-ups.
There really has been different eras of set-ups. The Third Eye Blind era, I put two mics on the snare drum, a 57 and then some sort of condenser. On a lot of Third Eye Blind stuff, there was a 67 on the snare or this Beyer 740 that I really liked. I had this KM54 I really liked to put on hi-hat. Love C12As on toms, so I’d put a C12A on the rack tom and the floor toms. I’d also have a mic on the bottom of them, usually a FET 47. A lot of times, I’d just blend those together and put them to one track. For kick drum at the time, I was blending two microphones a lot. There was an Audio-Technica ATM25 I was using and a 47 FET. That would be my main kick drum sound.

I always rented a pair of C12s from a buddy of mine, Stephen Jarvis, that I would use for the drum overheads. I’d always use a Coles 4038 and I’d find a spot for a mono overall drum kit sound. There’d be a pair of room mics, those would be either 87s or sometimes I’d use dynamics. I like the sound of 441s just far away from the kit. The room sound on “Graduate” are 441s. I would always have one other mono room mic that I would use for the low end of the kick drum. I’d search around the room for a place that just felt really punchy. I would use that to blend with the close mic of the kick drum so it didn’t sound like a click with some low end attached to it.

There was an era where I got into these things called underheads. I was bored with the overhead thing and putting them way up here, where it was mostly cymbals and snare, and not getting enough of the toms. So I started doing this thing where I’d encourage the drummers to get their cymbals up higher and stick a Coles ribbon mic in between the cymbals and the drum kit. You could get an equal mix of the tom, the hi-hat, the snare and the crash cymbal up above it. You gotta reach up a bit for the cymbals, but it's a really cool sound. I did that on the Lost Prophets record and on that record there are no tom mics. Those underheads are what captured the toms.

More recently, I’ve gotten into much more minimal drum miking. I’m working with drummers who are much better at handling the internal dynamics of the drum set and doing the things you have to do if you're not close miking everything. You gotta play the cymbals soft, you gotta hit the snares and the toms medium hard and you gotta hit the kick drum a lot harder. If you do that, it will all come out balanced.

When I was in my teenage years obsessed with Led Zeppelin, just trying to figure out how to get things to sound like John Bonham, I used to practice along to Led Zeppelin songs with just one microphone in front of the kit. I’d listen to that back and say, “This should sound like John Bonham, he basically just has a mic in the room.” His miking set-ups were more involved than that, but there was always a sound to his drum set and I wanted to get that sound no matter where the mic was. I was working on tuning the drums, how to hit them and that’s how I came up with my internal dynamics as a drummer.

I work with a lot of drummers now that are capable of doing that. It’s so easy to get a drum sound. Some of the latest stuff I’ve done, it’s just been a kick drum mic, overheads and that’s it. There’s no close mic on the snare or toms. I love the way it sounds. It just sounds like drums. No one listens to snare drums with their ear one inch from the drum. It’s stupid.

What would you tell someone who was looking to become a recording or mix engineer?
There was a time in the 60s, 70s and a little into the 80s, where things were a little more conformed. No matter what type of music you were making, whether it was classical music, a jazz record, a rock album or a 70s funk record, you’re going to record it on a tape machine and console and those are the tools that you’ll use.

It’s not like that anymore. It depends on what musical genre interests you. I had a realization in my life at a certain point. I spent a good portion of time recording just rap music. It was a great opportunity for me and I worked with this rapper named Paris. He had a lot of business to bring in and I worked on rap almost exclusively from 1994 to 1996.

At a certain point, I realized that this is not music I was passionate about. I was curious about it. I wanted to be good at it. It was interesting for me to learn the textures and the techniques, especially the way they shape the low end. That was cool to me, but when I left the studio I didn’t listen to rap music. I listened to rock music, I listened to Led Zeppelin. Those are the things that truly speak to my soul.

That was a decision I had to make and I told Paris that “I’m very grateful to be working with you, but you should be working with somebody that loves, eats, breathes rap music all the time. I’m never going to be Dr. Dre.” I made that decision and cut off working on rap music and it was a really, really difficult time for me. That was the era I was living off gas station burritos, but it opened up the opportunity for me to cross paths with Smashmouth and Third Eye Blind. That wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t get proactive and say, “What can I do every day and not think that it’s work.” That was making rock music.

That’s the most important thing for someone to figure out. What genre of music do you really connect with? The techniques involved in creating a great classic rock recording versus a very intimate recording versus an EDM recording are so wildly different. I’m sure it is possible to be good at all of those things, but the people you’re competing with that are the best at making EDM music, that’s all they do. They do it all day, every day, and you need to do that if you’re really going to succeed.

If you want to chase EDM, you gotta know every single software synth, every sample library, every element, every sound that goes into that music. Your world and your life is creating and designing sounds, samplers, keyboards, all of those things. If you love rock music, you gotta get your hands on the tools that are used to make that music. Those paths are wildly different, but the most important thing is about being honest with yourself about what path to walk down.

Check out some of Eric Valentine's work in the studio by listening to these tracks from Smashmouth, Third Eye Blind and Queens of the Stone Age.

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