In the four-plus years I've worked at Vintage King, there hasn't been much I enjoy more than talking to our company's co-founder Mike Nehra about his thoughts on recording music. The man has an encyclopedic knowledge of methods for recording guitar, how to get the perfect snare sound, what compressors to use on vocals, the particular sounds of vintage consoles and so much more. He is a literal walking, talking version of the best Tape Op interview or Sound on Sound article you've ever read.
Seeing as though we've been celebrating our 25th Anniversary throughout 2018, we decided that it was time to sit Mike down and have him take part in our 20 Questions series for the blog. Continue reading below for our conversation with Mike and learn more about what got him interested in music, the best venues he's ever played, his favorite pieces of gear to come to Vintage King and his ideal fishing spot.
1. I feel like I’ve asked so many people this question in my life, but never you. What inspired you to become interested in recording music?
Listening to early Led Zeppelin, Bowie's Aladdin Sane, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Prince's Dirty Mind, The Beatles' Let It Be, The White Album and Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon. When I was playing guitar as a teenager, these albums stood out and made me curious about inventive record making.
2. When did you start really buying gear and recording on your own?
I was 16 when I made my first pro audio purchase. I saved money from cutting lawns and house painting to buy a Teac 3340s four-track tape machine and Teac 12-channel console. They were limited in regards to features, but it forced me to learn comping and bouncing since there were only four tracks.
I also learned how to use really inexpensive mics creatively. Your playing and tones needed to be on the money and it forced you to commit to tones, track choices and elements of final mixing early on in the process. When I look back, I loved this simple workflow.
3. Who did you look to for learning about recording? Who were your idols when it came to making records?
I learned a lot of great techniques when I was in a couple bands on Columbia and EMI Records in my 20s. We worked with various engineers, producers and mixers such as Ed Stasium, Ron St Germaine, Ben Grosse, Chris Lord Alge, Pete Solley, George Massenburg, etc. I’d listen and watch what they were doing and ask why they used certain mics and outboard gear. I'd pay attention to how they used room miking to create depth. I'd see how hard they would hit tape as an effect. I also used to go to the Detroit Public Library and read old Recording Engineer Producer magazine articles about 1960s and 70s production techniques.
4. How did the White Room Studio come about?
I initially built the White Room Studio in my parents' basement when I was 16 or 17. It evolved from a four-track to 16-track 1/2” studio with a 24 channel Allen and Heath console.
My brother Andrew, Al Sutton (who's having great success currently with Greta Van Fleet) and I partnered up and rebuilt White Room in a cool former dance studio space in downtown Detroit. It was an amazing setting with excellent natural acoustics due to its hardwood floors and 11-foot ceilings. We would use gobos to tighten up the ambience when needed.
Within the space, we built a two-room studio, eventually using 2” 16-track and 24-track tape machines with a vintage API console, a Helios 32-channel console and Neve BCM10 and Telefunken tube sidecars at various points. We had a lot of crazy, cool vintage outboard and vintage mics over that 10-year period, many of which were on loan from Vintage King.
5. You had a lot of success playing in and producing Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise. Talk about discovering Robert and the development of the band. What was it like working on those records back in the day?
The first album was pure magic. We met Robert on the street busking for money and convinced him to record some of his songs in our studio. He came down one day and recorded 11 songs with just him singing and playing acoustic guitar live. From that demo, my brother and I got him signed to RCA records within 30 days. We built a band around him and my brother and I began producing and engineering the record.
Several of those acoustic demo tracks were so strong that we simply overdubbed the band around them. Some songs we co-wrote and recorded within hours of writing. It was a fast exciting process with tons of creativity and we tracked to 16-track 2" tape machine thru a tube Telefunken 50s console, some 1073s and APIs and mixing thru our vintage API console. NO PRO TOOLS. The second album was cut using Pro Tools, a much slower and arduous process that took way too long!
6. What’s something that happened during your time on tour that you’ll never forget?
It probably was a Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise show at Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colorado. My brother Andrew, our drummer Jeff Folkes and I brought our motorcycles on tour with us and we would ride from town to town, while the rest of the band and crew traveled in a bus and trailer.
When riding from a show in Colorado Springs to Boulder on a beautiful summer day, we hit a huge snowstorm on Loveland Pass around 7 PM. We trudged our way thru the storm on winding switchback roads, pulling up to the theatre at the very moment the show was scheduled to start. We had frozen stiff fingers, but the show still went on and on time.
7. What’s a favorite venue or favorite show that you’ve played?
Red Rock in Colorado and The Gorge in Washington state for their beautiful settings. My favorite show was opening for the Allman Brothers at an outdoor shed in New Jersey. Gregg watched our show and he and Dickie Betts told us how much they liked it and spoke about "hitting the one."
For jam bands like the Allmans and RBBS, this was when a group is jamming instrumentally and hitting a peak collectively as a unit. That magic period in the tune where all players are entirely in sync both in soul and spirit. That's “hitting the one.” We hit the one a lot on tour that summer playing with them. They were SO inspirational.
8. What’s your favorite console that you’ve ever worked on and why?
For tone, not features, it would be an old Telefunken 16 channel tube console that we once had at White Room studios. It was loaded with Tele V77 tube pres. It was amazing sounding! It had a wide open euphonic tone without an overbearing top end. I also love the punchiness of classic APIs and the open natural "realness" of classic Helios. There are so many great ones.
9. If you could have worked with anyone from throughout the history of music, who would it be?
Hands down, Jimmy Page. As a songwriter, guitar player and producer, he was an amazing talent. I love his phase referring to miking technique - “Distance equals Depth.” So true and influential to many of us. The tones he created on so many levels were so interesting. I would have also loved to work with Mick Ronson, incredible guitar tone and an incredible producer.
I really wish I had worked on Sly and The Family Stone’s Dance to the Music. That album is a Top 10 of mine and reeks of creativity, raw energy, super badass playing, singing and great tones. Also, the T-Rex album, Electric Warrior, so many hits on that thing and Aerosmith's Get Your Wings. One last person, I would have loved to work with is Merle Haggard. I feel like that would have been something else altogether.
10. You can only use one microphone for the rest of your life on vocals, instruments, etc. What do you choose and why?
Without a doubt, a vintage Neumann or Telefunken U47. A great one adds such a euphonic, bigger than life sound to lead vocals, especially when singing within close proximity. I love them on drums when recording with the Glyn Johns set-up, acoustic guitars, etc. I have used many with M7 or k47 capsules that sound great.
11. You’ve always been a strong proponent of the Glyn Johns miking method for drums, but what’s another miking method that you are a big fan that maybe some people don’t know about?
Nothing earth shattering, just basic stuff: I'm a big fan of vintage AKG dynamic mics (D12, D20, D25, D30, D36, D45). All of these use a very similar dynamic element and capture the natural snap and woody thud of a kick. I would use it in combination with a Neumann FET 47 out in front about 6”-12” in front of the kick. It adds the extended lows and highs the AKG misses. Play with the phase relationship between the two to find the most low end and phase consistency.
While the drummer is playing, have a friend moving around each mic until the perfect location is found. Experiment with different size kick drums, different drum head materials, try a front head with and without a hole, deadening materials, blankets around the front of the drum to create a tunnel cocoon over the mic. All of this depends on the genre of music, size and deadness v.s. openness you desire from the kick drum your recording.
12. You have a couple pretty cool classic cars. What’s your dream car that you haven’t bought yet?
Restoring classic cars has always been a passion alongside gear and music. I have a 70’ Dodge Hemi Challenger that I personally restored to full concours level and an old Porsche 911T that I’ve hot rodded. Someday I’d love to get an old VW Westfalia to tour around the country and head out west camping with my young kids.
13. You're also an avid fisherman. Where is your favorite place to go fishing?
I go once a year with friends to the Nipigon River where it enters the top of Lake Superior in Northern Ontario. It’s a magical spot where you might see one or two other humans during a week on the water. There’s no civilization and it's likely the closest thing to Alaska that I can get to quickly near Michigan. I also love the Les Cheneaux Islands area of Cedarville, MI.
14. Vintage King has officially turned 25 years old. What’s a favorite memory of yours from the early years of the company?
In the early 2000s, we bought about $300,000 worth of EMI South Africa's TGI mastering consoles, Neve recording consoles and about 100 spare modules from EMI TGI mastering consoles. Seeing all of that come in our door was super memorable.
When we opened the single enormous crate loaded with all 100 modules, we came to find they had ZERO packaging materials!! Just a huge pile of modules simple placed ad hoc within the crate. It blew our minds when we powered them up and discovered every one of them worked! Crazy.
15. So many amazing pieces of vintage gear have come through the Vintage King Tech Shop throughout the past 25 years, which piece made your jaw drop and just say “Wow, I can’t believe this is here”?
There is just so much of it, where do I even start. The EMI TGI wraparound 40-channel console from EMI studios, the Island Helios desk and any vintage Decca compressors. The original curvebender EQ now owned by John Mcbride. The 1000s of amazing vintage tube mics to come thru our tech shop. I’ve been able to personally hear so much of this gear. It’s been an awesome ride for 25 years!
16. Why was the Vintage King Tech Shop such an important part of your vision for Vintage King? Talk a little a bit about what it means to you.
Funny thing is we didn't have a vision for having a tech shop. It was born from necessity. Being that we only sold vintage gear initially and we wanted to provide great customer service, it was natural to hire talented technicians to service all of the great vintage gear that came thru our door and provide it with a 1-year warranty and return policy.
17. What’s one studio secret that you’re willing to bestow upon Vintage King blog readers?
I don’t think I have anything earth-shattering to offer. What I do know is having fun, creating a vibe that sets the tone for solid creativity in recording sessions leads to the best results. What's the point otherwise?
18. You’re known around the office for your spartan/healthy snacking. What’s your favorite snack food of all time?
Nuts are my favorite snack and they just happen to be healthy!
19. Is your dog JJ/Jethro named after Jethro Tull, JJ Cale or am I way off base?
Jethro just looked like a Jethro and I gave him the name as a result. J.J. his nickname stands for Jealous Jethro because he can’t stand when all the attention isn’t on him.
20. If you and Andy hadn’t decided to start Vintage King, where do you think you’d be right now?
I would definitely be restoring and hot rodding cars and wood boats in a pole barn on a farm in Northern Michigan. Up on the second floor of the building, there would be a chilled small studio with a nice live room, small classic console and a great set of mics to record local music I love free of charge.
Check out both Mike Nehra's playing and production work on some choice cuts from Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise below: