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What do Bryan Adams, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Roxy Music, The Pretenders, and Crowded House have in common? These are just some of the artists whose work has passed through the very capable hands of GRAMMY award-winning mixing engineer/producer Bob Clearmountain.
Sitting in front of the trusty SSL 4000 G-series console that has been at the heart of his studio for over 25 years, he chatted with us about his historic career, his relationship with Vintage King, and how he sees studios evolving to adapt to the workflow of the ever-changing music industry.
Tell us about your vision for your studio, Mix This!, when you were setting it up in the mid-90s.
I was doing work at Record Plant, A&M, and a few other places around town at the time, which are all great studios and I loved working there, but I found that I was wasting a lot of time driving from studio to studio. The other thing was, because they weren't my rooms, it would take a couple of hours just to get the room set up to the point where I could start working and I wasn't always aware if there were maintenance problems, especially if I was going back and forth between a few different studios, so I wanted to try to eliminate all that.
When my wife [Apogee co-founder and CEO Betty Bennett] and I bought this house, I thought, “Maybe I could just build my own studio so I can avoid all that stuff”. It's been great and not only that, it meant I wouldn't have to lug my own rack of gear around town all the time. It solved a whole lot of problems and then I could get more gear–I could spend more money at Vintage King. [Laughs]
Yeah, it’s been great. I've always worked in commercial studios and a lot of them are great but they all have problems that I've become aware of: things like, for example, having a couch in the back of the room. Almost always, it would be on the floor, behind the rack, and up against the wall; it didn't sound good back there and that's always where the artist sits. The band, the A&R guy, the manager sits there and they're not part of the session–that's just wrong. I had worked in a studio called Bearsville in New York State, where the couch was really high up at the back of the room so they were kind of overlooking the session, and that made a lot more sense to me, so I thought, “I’m going to make my studio like that”. I told the architect, “If it doesn't sound good when I'm sitting on that couch, I'm not paying you.” [Laughs] He's a really good acoustician so he made sure it turned out great–that was the first time he’d ever had that request. I think about everyone who is going to be in the room, they have to hear the mix too!
Another thing I always noticed with other studios was that the distance between the console and the rack would be really narrow and that's what my architect wanted to do as well. I said, “Look, I spend my entire life in this little space, so I want some room.” And he said, “Yeah, but don't you want to be able to get to the gear and the rack really quickly?” I said, “I don't know if you know about this, but these chairs have wheels on them now! It’s not that big of a problem.” [Laughs]
It’s little things like that, plus the fact that in a lot of control rooms, designers will make concrete bunkers because they’re so worried about isolation. Well, that should be a consideration, however, what you should focus on is where the bass is going to go when you're trying to mix something. You’re going to end up with standing waves, you're going to have to build bass traps to get rid of that and it's going to make the room smaller, so why not just have stud walls? I learned that from Tony Bongiovi, who designed Power Station Studios–design the walls so the bass can go through. So it’s things like that, really obvious stuff to design a good mix room–it's not that hard.
How did you first become aware of Vintage King and what was your first experience working with us?
Oh wow, I don't know, it goes back a long way! I can't remember the first thing that I got–some microphones, probably.
What are some of your favorite pieces of gear that you have purchased from Vintage King?
I bought a couple of Pultec EQs made by Steve Jackson, who’s actually a friend of mine. I’ve always used Pultecs and Steve Jackson took over the company and has continued the legacy. They are such great equalizers so I bought two from Vintage King instead of just getting them from Steve, which I could have done, but I thought, “Well, let me go through Vintage King.” That makes more sense because then if there's any servicing or anything like that…and also, they're just really great people to deal with. That is just one example of products I have bought over the years.
How has Vintage King helped you with gear selection, purchasing, and servicing in the past?
They’ve really helped me out, like just the other day–this is a little thing, but I have an AKG C24, which is a great vintage microphone that I bought from someone, a private sale, I forget who I got it from, but I didn't have a shock mount for it and it's really hard to find a shock mount for a rare piece like that. I called the guys at Vintage King, and they figured out the right one and they got it for me.
I had tried looking on the Internet, searched everywhere for this thing, and Vintage King was able to get it for me within a week! That's really good because a couple of times I almost damaged the thing because I had an inferior shock mount. It’s a $20,000 microphone and you have to be really careful with it, so that really helped out a lot. They’re always just really helpful, that's what I like about Vintage King.
What sets Vintage King apart from other pro audio gear companies?
These guys know the gear really well and they know how people use it. That's the thing you want from a company like that; you want to be able to call them up and have a personal relationship with them and they totally get that. Don, a former Apogee employee, works at VK, and he is really great.
Especially with the older gear–maintenance can be a problem if you have vintage equipment like an old microphone or something like that–they're great because you call them up and they'll service it or if they can't service it, they'll find somebody who can and that’s really important. Also, they're helpful with some of the computer stuff as well, they're not just all vintage, which is great.
How has the industry changed and how have you adapted to these changes?
There were two big changes: the first was digital. In the early days, it just seemed like there was so much more you could do with digital but the trouble was it sounded really harsh in the beginning because the companies that built the gear didn't really understand anti-aliasing filters and how that affects the actual sound. Luckily, Apogee Electronics came along and they figured out the main problem was the shape of the anti-aliasing filter and jitter and a few other problems and then it started to get great, so that was a big change for me. I had problems with analog, I didn't really like the fact that I'd record something, and when I played it back, it sounded slightly different than when we were recording; it didn't sound as present. I know a lot of people that really liked that, but I didn't and I was hoping something better would come along and finally it did.
The other change was immersive audio, which is the next big thing. Dolby Atmos is a huge change and it's interesting because almost all the labels now require Atmos mixes. For me it was easy because I've been mixing 5.1 for over 20 years so it was just about adding to that and then figuring out how the Dolby Renderer works. The technical part of it is a little tricky, but luckily I have a good guy who helps me out with that.
When I first started doing 5.1–it was actually my wife, Betty, who said I should be doing it because it was going to be the next thing–the thing I was most worried about was the compression, because I kind of depend on the compressor in the console and I wanted to keep that sound. So with some help from the Apogee guys, we expanded the stereo compressor to a 5.1 compressor, which is actually pretty easy on the SSL, there were some extra VCAs that we were able to slave. Then Atmos came along and I said, “Okay, now what am I going to do?” and we figured out a way to expand it to a 16-channel analog compressor that’s based on the SSL compressor. So that was the biggest obstacle, figuring out how I was going to deal with that. I was lucky enough that I happened to buy the right console at the time and it became very easy to change that and make that work.
Obviously, there's a lot of controversy about how to mix Atmos properly and it's going to take a while–it’s like the early days of stereo when there were people that weren't sure what to do with it and that's what we're going through right now; I think eventually it'll be great. There are companies that are trying to work on lower-priced systems for the home and for cars and that's going to make a big difference; I really think over the next year, you're going to see a lot of that. To me, there is some kind of thing that happens in headphones, but it's not really like listening to it in my room here–of course, I have some pretty good speakers in this room–but having a home system where you actually have speakers behind you and above you will be great.
You've worked with so many iconic artists in your career–is there a type of artist that you find you’re drawn to working with?
I'm an old rocker, you know, so I like rock music–I love anything with guitars! And just good songs–that's really what it's about more than anything for me. It's the great songs–a great melody, a great lyric, and something that feels like it means something. That's one of the things that I like about Bruce Springsteen–he usually has something to say and he writes in really fascinating metaphors quite a bit, so sometimes you have to figure out exactly what he's talking about, but usually there's some kind of a good message there and I just love music like that.
I’ve always loved Crowded House; I was a big fan of them before I ever got a chance to work with them and Neil Finn is just such a brilliant songwriter. When that type of music comes along, it's great. It doesn't have to be heavy rock, even if it's all keyboards it's fine, but if the songs are good, that's the important thing for me.
It’s a very human experience–you get a sense of the person through songs like that.
Yeah, that's why I'm worried about AI and I hope it doesn't take over. I like things that are written and performed by humans. [Laughs]
Looking back on the last 30 years, what are you most proud of or excited about in terms of your history and your time in the music business?
Oh boy, that's a tough one. The Bryan Adams records that I co-produced; Crowded House, David Bowie, Howard Jones, and of course, Springsteen, that's a pretty big deal. I’m quite proud of Roxy Music and the first two Aimee Mann records–I thought they were really interesting songs and Jon Brion, who produced the first one, did an amazing job. As far as recent things go, the Joe Bonamassa record Time Clocks, produced by Kevin Shirley, that I mixed a couple of years ago is the second thing I ever mixed in Atmos; it’s a great record and I'm quite proud of the way that turned out. I'm sure I'm leaving something out and somebody is going to be angry with me for it. [Laughs] I'm mixing a new Duran Duran record at the moment, which I think, especially in Atmos, is really cool.
Have there been any moments where you look around and can’t believe you’re in the middle of that kind of musical experience?
Absolutely! The benefit concert for Taylor Hawkins that we did in September 2022 was one of those great moments. I was involved in Live Aid, the concert for Nelson Mandela in Britain, and many others, like the concert after Hurricane Sandy, and the post-9/11 concert in New York for the police and fire department, but the Taylor Hawkins show was pretty unique because it was an almost six-hour show with no breaks and so many incredibly talented people–Foo Fighters, Queen, Chrissie Hynde, Paul McCartney and a few British bands that I wasn't really aware of. It was a live stream so I was mixing for nearly six hours straight without a break! We had ten full sets of drums for various artists; that opening to We Will Rock You is four sets of drums all at once! It was a monumental project and it was really fun for me. Everyone involved was just incredible; nobody complained about anything. There was so much going on, it was so complicated, and there wasn't one insurmountable problem. And everybody worked: the stage crews were just unbelievable, and the people in the recording truck were amazing. It was one of those moments, just like you said, where I looked around and thought, “I can't believe this, this is amazing!” It was incredibly difficult, but in a good way; it was a great, wonderful challenge.
Then we did it again at the Forum here in L.A., which was equally fun for me. Unfortunately, nobody really heard it other than the crowd there–it was a smaller crowd of 18,000 people compared to Wembley but it was still a great show. We recorded and remixed parts of the show; hopefully one day we will receive a call and be told they are going to use it or put it out. The concert should be seen in movie theaters or Atmos theaters at Soho House, it’s truly an experience you won’t forget. You honestly feel as if you are in the stadium (with great sound). Dave Grohl, if you’re reading this, let’s do something with this because it's amazing and people want to hear it!
Looking forward, how do you see studios evolving to fit the landscape of the industry? People are mixing in the box and even making records in their bedrooms.
I actually heard about a few new studios being built lately, which surprises me but I think that's going to happen more and more because people want to get out of their bedrooms. It is really cool that you can be like Billie Eilish and make a record in your bedroom; that's fantastic but I think people kind of get bored with that. They've heard about these amazing sessions and studios and they think, “Hey, let's put the band together and have the whole band playing all at once.” Now that would be unique, wouldn’t it? [Laughs]
I certainly didn't get into the business to make money; I thought if I could just have a little apartment somewhere, that would be fine. I just wanted to be in the studio and make records; I wanted to be there when this stuff happens because it's exciting, especially when you get a whole group of musicians playing together. It's a lot more fun than one person sitting there with a mouse and a computer, you know? There’s nothing wrong with that, all I'm saying is, it is definitely more fun when you have a room full of musicians and a real studio. It’s a different energy and I think, more and more, it seems like people want to go back to that. So you can go record your basic tracks and then go into your bedroom and do your overdubs. That combination works and I think that's happening more and more, and it’s great!
Want to hear more from Bob? Watch his Make Your Mark video below: