In our new series, Five Sound With..., we talk with world-renowned engineers and producers about how they got five sounds from your favorite records.
Mitch Easter is an acclaimed producer and engineer, best known for his work on R.E.M.’s first three albums, including 1983’s critically acclaimed Murmur. He's also a talented musician in his own right, whether releasing solo records or as the frontman and lead songwriter for Let’s Active.
When it comes to recording Mitch built his first studio in the garage of his parents’ house. In 1980, he opened the aptly named Drive-In Studio. It was here where he cut the demo for R.E.M's “Radio Free Europe” and launched his career. His innovative approach to recording finds Mitch using a combination of classic vintage gear and esoteric budget mics to capture a one-of-a-kind sound.
Check out our conversation with Mitch below to learn how he nailed Michael Stipe’s classic vocal sound, his signal chain for tracking Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and his experimental approach to recording his own music.
“Radio Free Europe” by R.E.M.
"There are two versions of that song. R.E.M. were one of the first bands I recorded when I started my own studio. There’s a version that we did in my garage that came out as a 7-inch back then. When they got signed, we had to record the 'professional version' of the song. Of course, the one on the album sounds a lot better, but it was slowed down quite a bit. I’ve always wished there was a version in between the two, that had the sort of punkiness of the garage version and the fidelity of the studio version.
I think we recorded that song in 1981, right at the beginning of what was seen as “the new era music.” Anything to do with the ‘70s was very out of fashion. All bands disparaged Fleetwood Mac, they wanted to get away from that sound. And yet, Murmur has kind of a ‘70s sound in a lot of ways.
When the band signed to IRS Records, the label insisted that they record in a 'proper studio,' which to them meant a studio with a 24-track tape machine. I only had 16. So we went to this place called Reflection, which was this really nice studio in Charlotte, North Carolina. Reflection had an MCI 600 console, an MCI JH24 tape machine, and a lot of great microphones.
For the vocals, we used a Neumann U47 FET, and I think a lot of the selection was made by Michael Stipe. He saw the mic sitting there with its perfectly spherical windscreen and said, “That’s cute, let’s use that one.” It just so happened that the U47 was the perfect microphone for his voice. The u47 has a bit of a lift in the upper mids, which brought out the gravelly sound of his voice really well.
The rest of it was really straight-forward. Back then, no one used outboard mic pres. You had an expensive professional console and that’s why you had it. So we just used the MCI console preamp with an 1176 to compress it on the way in.
We tried to come up with a signature vocal sound for that record, which was done by adding an EXR Exciter coming back off the tape. The EXR was sort of an Aphex Exciter copy. We also used these DeltaLab delays, not the blue Effectrons that people remember, but these black DL1 delays that cost more and had XLR connections. It had these two toggle switches that would adjust the delay times in tiny increments; the max delay was like 128 ms. It had two channels so you could set two short delays, which we dialed in to be THE Michael Stipe sound.
If there was any reverb it would have been an EMT 140. The studio had Lexicon 224s and all the new digital stuff, but we thought the 140 sounded better. We used the digital units as special effects for a splatter on the snare drum or something, which was very fashionable at the time. It was all a very late ‘70s kind of approach."
“Summerteeth" by Wilco
I did two songs on that record. Wilco was on tour at the time and whenever they would have a few days off they would stop in a studio and lay down some tracks, which is a very romantic thing to do in my mind. My studio at the time was in my house. The front room was the control room and the rest of the house was the studio. It was a big two-story house from the 1870s with this massive staircase. The problem with old Victorian houses is that all the rooms are the same size, so there wasn’t a lot of space to record downstairs and most of the band recorded on the second floor.
Jeff Tweedy had been presented with an old microphone by Turner or someone, which was probably originally used for a school principal to make announcements, and he wanted to use it to record vocals. Jeff liked to record live with the band so we set this thing up at the bottom of the staircase, right outside the control room.
At the time, I was using this Universal Audio 175 compressor a lot, which is kind of the precursor to the 1176, but it’s got tubes and fixed attack and release times. I would run the mic through my Neve 53 Series console, through the 175, and back into the desk for a little more compression with the 2254. I think I was using a 3M M79 24-track tape machine back then. That was the best vocal chain. I did that for years until the 175 broke and nobody could fix it. I tried getting it repaired several times, but it never sounded right again.
"Erica's Word" by Game Theory
That was done at my old garage studio that I had for about 13 years. That was a really good session with a really good batch of songs. Like a lot of those old records, when I listen to them now I’m like, 'Wow, there’s nothing on that, but it sounds great!' I kind of miss those days where you just had to deal with a guitar, bass, keyboard, and vocal, maybe an acoustic guitar on the chorus, but that’s it. Game Theory had such great songwriting that you never felt like anything was missing.
I was still using my first tape machine back then, a 3M M56, which was just a wonderful piece of equipment. I also had an Amek Angela console, which I’m told was either the first or second one in the US. We used an AKG C-414 for the vocals, with an Alison Gain Brain for a tracking compressor. I love the Gain Brain, they’re really cool! You don’t see them too much anymore, but that whole world of Paul Buff stuff is all great.
By then, I had an Ecoplate reverb made by Jim Cunningham in Chicago, which we also used. I also had a Lexicon 200, so I was kind of duplicating what they had at Reflection; I had a weird-sounding digital reverb and a good-sounding plate. I loved going between those two for different uses.
"Hold Me Up" by Velvet Crush
We did that record at Reflection in Charlotte. We set up the drums in their drum room and used a somewhat minimal miking setup. I think we did a mono overhead, a bass drum microphone, something down low to catch the floor tom and snare bottom, and probably another mic on the hi-hat. It was a really simple setup with nice mics like the Neumann U47 and U87. They wanted this mid-to-late ‘70s kind of sound, so there’s not much ambiance.
We finished that record up at my place when I was still in the garage. We used an Electro-Voice RE2000 for Paul Chastain’s lead vocals, which is a completely forgotten yet wonderful microphone. This microphone is utterly unlike their popular RE20. The RE2000 was an expensive condenser mic with a built-in heater.
One of the problems with high-end condenser mics is that after people sing into them for a while, moisture builds up on the capsule and they start to sound different. The RE2000 uses the heater to keep the capsule at 100 degrees, which boils off any humidity and keeps it sounding consistent.
“Sudden Crown Drop” by Mitch Easter
I don’t exactly have a set way of doing things. In fact, I think it’s bad if you keep doing the same thing all the time. When I was recording this song, I had just picked up a Neumann / Gefell UM 57, which is a lovely large diaphragm tube microphone and I wanted to see what it could do. This is when I had my studio in my house, and I overdubbed every instrument by myself.
I used the UM 57 on absolutely everything I possibly could. I used it on the drums with the UM 57 on the kick and something else for an overhead. I sang into it, I did the bass with it, I did the electric and acoustic guitars with it. It gave me a good chance to see what that mic was like.
I mainly record other people, but when you’re recording yourself, you can really experiment with things. What happens if I play really loud? Will I start to hear it squish down? Or does it sound better? You can’t really waste other people’s time in a session getting them to experiment on your behalf. That was a really fun way for me to check out the UM 57, but since I was doing everything myself in that giant Victorian house, all the tracks had a bunch of wasted tape at the beginning because I had to press record in the control room and run all the way upstairs to play the instruments. But sometimes I think these obstacles do something good in the end.