INTERVIEW WITH TIM PALMER, PRODUCER FOR OZZY, U2, PEARL JAM, THE CURE
Herb: Ozzy, U2, Pearl Jam, The Cure. Our guest has done it all. We have a brand new ITL. We have some programming notes. You better believe it. You’re at the place. It’s Pensado’s Place.
Herb: Great job from the interns in terms of suggesting it, and even better job in snaring this incredibly diverse guest that we have who has, just the names I mentioned at the top of the show. My gosh. Tim Palmer. Thanks man.
Tim Palmer: Hey. Great to be here.
Herb: Please. We had been talking for awhile to get you, talking to folks who you work with, and the scheduling worked out. We’ve just been sort of giddy ever since, correct?
Dave: Yeah. Tim and I exchanged some emails about, what, eight or nine months ago?
Tim: Yes, that’s true.
Dave: A long time ago.
Tim: We did that interview together. Ever since then . . .
Herb: Is that right? Oh, cool. When were you going to start, Dave? You had a quote?
Dave: Yeah. You can move on and evolve, but you can’t change your haircut in your high school album. I got several Tim Palmer quotes, but that’s my favorite. It’s so indicative of how you approach records, you know what I’m saying. You have a little bit of the past, but not enough to make you think it’s retro. You know it’s a modern record, but you always respect the past. Can you expand on that quote? I love it. It’s one of my favorites of yours.
Tim: As you said, it sort of encompasses a sort of theory just about the idea that when you make a record you’re reacting to that moment, and everything you’re hearing on the radio and everything that has come before you, and you respond to it and you make the story play out as best you can. But you can’t over think it. Sometimes if you’re part of a genre or a time period like the ’80s or whatever, you make decisions bassd upon that, and later, and I know that from my own thinking, you look back at some albums that you do and you think, “Oh, dear, what was I doing there?”
But the fact is you can’t go back and change these things. Those decisions were correct at that moment, or at least you feel they were, and I think it’s silly to sort of bass your life around that concept of trying to always go back and change things. You have to let it go and move on and do something else that’s better.
Dave: You have to keep moving forward, don’t you?
Tim: That quote, as you had probably guessed, for awhile some of the guys from Pearl Jam after we made Ten, which was probably one of the most successful albums I did, they said, “We wish that it had been less reverb-y or less delays,” and I thought, “Well, you know. This is an album we made together. That was what we did, and it did pretty well,” I thought.
Dave: I would say it did okay.
Tim: And you can’t go back and just constantly think, “Oh, well, let’s just do it again in another way,” because you’re messing with it and I don’t think you need to do that.
Dave: Yeah, I think that hind sight is not always 20/20. Sometimes it bogs you down. If you don’t sometimes disconnect the cerebral side and just follow the intuition side, that’s when you find those moments.
Tim: Exactly, and as I said they are marked very much for the time period. That record, when we made that record, it was a very interestingly transition. We were leaving the ’80s hair bands. The sound on the radio was big, powerful rock records. Suddenly a band like Pearl Jam came into the fold and Mike played very traditional solos, which was acceptable to rock radio. They loved it, because here is a band that’s new, but they still have some old. And then the way the record sounded it was still a big sounding record. It still had a lot of depth. It was, like, a stepping stone over. If we had gone hard in with the Nirvana dry thing it would have been a lot harder to accept. This was a nice way of walking over, I think, into the new era.
Herb: That record defined the Seattle grunge sound. Probably a little more so than the Nirvana record. I know people are going to flame me for that, but I think it actually defined the sound a little more. Don’t you think? 14 million copies had to do something.
Tim: It’s one of those things where we did a song everyday. The band came in in the morning, we made the changes that was required, we were working very instinctively. We didn’t over think it. The fact that there were no expectations for the record was a massive part of it because we weren’t second guessing every move. We’re like, “Okay, that sounds great. Let’s do this, let’s do that. Move on.” When you get the second album it’s probably a whole different story.
Dave: It was harder.
Tim: They expected small sales. That wasn’t in the plan.
Herb: Where did you mix that record?
Tim: I mixed that on a big old [nave], a studio called Rich Farm, which was in the countryside in Surrey. They all flew over from Seattle and it was great.
Tim: It was great. It was one of those ’70s get your head together in the country. The band are all in one place. You all eat dinner together.
Herb: Exactly. The good old days. I remember those days.
Dave: Tell me about your home situation now. Your project studio.
Tim: Well, the project studio now is bassd in Austin, as you can tell from my accent.
Dave: Of course.
Tim: I’m a Texan now. I’m very happy to be a Texan. It’s a wonderful place to live in Austin. The people have been super nice. There are some great engineers that I work with, and it’s just a great situation. My studio was built out of the fact, I’ll be honest, of the way the music industry changed. I hate the idea of compromising and having to sort of cut short my thought process because of a budget, as everybody does. We’re all in the same situation. So having my own studio gave me the opportunity to say, “Okay, I’ll take that budget and I will be able to spend as long as I want on a mix to get it right.”
Herb: And the way that you want to.
Tim: And the way that I want to, rather than if I spend another couple of days in the studio. There’s probably going to be nothing left for anybody else.
So I built this room, which is a separate structure in my house. I don’t have too much gear, but I have the right combination, I feel, of a sort of hybrid. Everything goes through an analog chain. My signal path is very important that it goes through the analog chain, but at the same time it’s very recallable, because obviously being remote in Texas, if I’m dealing with Larry Kline in LA I have to be able to get back to a mix and make those adjustments and have it be right. So my faders control the pro tools. Everything goes through the analog chain. I have some GML and stuff like that as our board, but I’m doing a lot of stuff within pro tools, and I can’t say that I don’t like it, because I really do like it.
Herb: In terms of your process and the way you work, obviously things are different now than they were. Philosophically, what has changed about the process now? Is it more creative, more freeing in terms of how you make records now?
Tim: I think it’s a little bit of everything. I find that the internet sort of gave with one hand and took away with another Obviously it destroyed a source of revenue through CDs because everyone got the music for free, but at the same time it gave us the ability to send music. I’m working with music now from all over the world which I could have never done before and is simple to do, and the pro tools; obviously, the technology has given us that.
Yeah. It has changed quite dramatically. When I started out the role of the producer was everything. It was right from hearing the songs saying, “Look, I think we need to look on the arrangement of this,” preproduction recordings, setting the mics up right through to the mixing, and now we have so many subsets.
Herb: There are specialists for everything.
Tim: Yeah. You have guys that just do vocals, guys that do loops, and it’s a whole different way of making music nowadays. Now, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It’s just different, and I’m not the sort of person who romanticizes heavily in the past, although I have a lot of tools in my arsenal that I learnt from going through that analogue phase.
Herb: I can imagine your high school album photo wasn’t that good, so I can see why you wouldn’t go back to the past.
Tim: We used to have one of those cameras. You know the cameras that move around slowly? We used to have one guy who started at one end, and as soon as his picture was gone he would run around and appear on the other end, so he would be on both sides of this photo. I love those.
Herb: I like that idea.
Tim: But I think we’re in the good place. Because of the smaller budgets producers now, I find, are not necessarily able to spend the time that we did back in the 80s, so as a mixer now I find my role is often doing way more than just mixing and I don’t mind that, because I find it actually really fun. You will get a session in and you’ll think, “Okay, well, maybe if I could just grab this guitar and maybe double it quietly, or add some percussion here,” and then the bands are very open to that because all they care about is making a great record.
I say to them up ahead, “Look, if you don’t like what I’ve added there’s a mute button.” You can shut it down. But they’re happy that somebody is prepared to take that extra time, and you can do that now. Of course, back in our day doing musical changes, moving stuff around, was very difficult to do and very expensive to do. Now you can make huge changes.
Herb: Blue October, seventh album, Sway, Bleed Out. I want to discuss that song and I want you guys to check it out. Not right now. Because I think it embodies pretty much everything I like about what you do condensed into one song and mix and production. Pretty spectacular job.
Herb: I don’t think anybody does this better than you, but I love the way you took keyboards and guitars. Rock guitars tend to not be enhanced by adding keyboards, but you do it in such a way that make the guitars bigger, especially when that chorus comes in. I’m like, “Oh my gosh.” I saw stars when the chorus came in. Break that down for me. I know it’s a conscious thing on your part.
Tim: It’s very nice of you to say so. I tend to sort of think of all the parts of the song as the jigsaw puzzle, and it’s irrelevant to me whether it’s a guitar or a keyboard. Like us all, the first thing I do when I’m presented with a song to mix is I try to figure out what is the redeeming quality of what I’m trying to achieve here? Is it a groove thing? Is it a vocal performance? Is it a lyric? And that really sets the tone, I think, to how you approach that mix.
In that particular song’s case, like you said, the chorus was very dense. So I actually for that particular song to get the most from the equipment I started at the chorus because I wanted everything to peak at that point. Then I did the verse after, which is not something I usually do, but I knew that if I had started at the verse by the time I got everything to lift the way like you said, then I would have had no headroom left.
So I started at the chorus, and a lot of it was making choices because they had recorded a lot of stuff. It was recorded by David Kastell and he had done a great job, but there was plenty of choice for me, and maybe sometimes I had to think, “Okay, I won’t use that just yet. I’m going to start with just these elements and then bring them in.” So there was some selection there.
The bass on that chorus was very important because it had a very [sixteens] fast feel. It was quite a task to figure out in the stereo image where everything was going to lie, and a lot of that is literally spending the time to say, “I’m trying this here. No, that doesn’t work because that’s answering that particular rhythmical aspect. I’ll try at this side,” and just fiddling around until you find how the hell this is all going to mesh together without sounding too dirge-y. It was a program bass, so it had a very strong low end. That left a lot of space between the two things.
Herb: So that sequencer part I’m hearing in the hooks, that’s the bass part?
Tim: No, that’s program. The chorus. You see? It goes from a play part to a program part, and the play part was interesting, actually, because a little trick that I’m sure Dave knows, but I often use now with stuff is when you’re given a bass that doesn’t seem to fit in the way that you want it you bring it up twice, knock the phase out and fade it up until it disappears completely so you have no signal, and then you put your EQ in and then you just select one frequency only and you queue out, and only that frequency will appear. You know this one.
Tim: I was able to rebuild the bass in the verse to tally up to the chorus part.
Herb: There’s no other bass in the hook besides that sequencer bass?
Tim: I don’t think so. I can’t remember exactly. A lot of it was very dry.
Herb: I love that sequencer part.
Tim: It’s cool and it’s distortion on end and it’s a soft synth.
Herb: Yeah, it reminded me of Eminence Front. You know what I’m saying? Rock songs shouldn’t have sequencers in it, but when you heard Eminence Front you’re like, “Okay, I guess they can.”
Tim: But that’s the great thing about these soft synths, isn’t it? You open up the session, it’s there, so if you want to give it a little bit more edge you can just adjust the actual part itself.
Herb: There are some echo throes. It’s near the end of the first verse. They sound kind of radio-y. They just leap into this little space that you left. Do you remember what you did? Was it sound toys?
Tim: I don’t remember exactly. I’m your worse person for all this. I love all that. I play around with that stuff forever; delays, reverb on delays, distortions, things like that. That’s what I really enjoy to do and sometimes probably do it too much. But getting that three dimensional thing of getting some moving delays and stuff, I often start with the whole vocal track and then just go through and listen, make some notes and think, “This place, this place and this place were cool,” and then just do it like that, just selecting the parts that are cool. Distortion I use a lot on vocals underneath just to bring out that harmonic overload. It’s an old trick.
Dave: What do you use?
Tim: Basically I use any sort of thing in the box that’s just like a guitar distortion unit and often nudge it back a little bit so that it’s not phasing. I prefer it so you hear the clarity of the vocal and then you hear the edge and the harmonics after. So I’ll nudge the distortion behind it.
Herb: A lot of people think that the power in a rock song, or some types of songs, comes from the guitars, but you use the vocals to get a sense of power, and you can take a song that probably wouldn’t be considered a hard, hard song, but because of what you do with the vocal you make it hard, much like Robert Plant could just take a mandolin and make a heavy metal song with a mandolin. One of the techniques you’re using to do that, is that this distortion that you’re adding back in?
Tim: I tend to be one of those people. In the ’70s and ’80s people put an effect on a vocal and left it, and that was the way it is. I tend to see the song very much as separate pieces of the puzzle, so I might treat the vocal and the verse completely different to what I do in the chorus. I know a lot of this is not rocket science, but that’s definitely the way I think of things.
Herb: Oh, it is rocket science.
Tim: I will very categorically say, “The chorus needs to be angry, distorted. Let’s tug the distortion in. Let’s have this particular slap on it,” and then the verse may be a completely different chain, channel, compressor, everything. I find it works so much better to tell the story that way of the song.
Herb: Got you. Are you double compressing the vocals to keep them in your face?
Tim: Well, I mean, every song is different depending on what the source material is like. But I often do, yeah. Nine times out of ten I’ll have one of the [inaudible 00:26:48] tape simulators on there, and then I’ll have that.
Herb: Is that first in your chain?
Tim: No, it’s a slight second. I’ll start off with the SSL channel strip, which I love, with some faster tact just getting rid of the sort of extremes, a little bit of EQ and then a tape simulator. Then I will often, that chain goes through my system. I have my own separate vocal channel, which has a Tonelux EQ on that. I love the Tonelux system and I use the Tonelux EQ for the high end, and then I also have a Tonelux compressor and that has the blend on it so you can hammer it.
Herb: So basically you’re paralleling.
Tim: Yeah. So you’re hammering it on one side and just making the blend.
Herb: The compressor in the SSL you’re just kissing it, like a ratio of two to one DBs?
Tim: Yeah, not much. A couple of DBs. Something like that.
Herb: So you’re just trying to make the Tonelux compressor happy. So you just keep it from having to work so much.
Tim: You know what it’s like. It’s like playing around. I mean, I’ll tell you what I do a lot of now since that new update of Pro Tools. Being able to control the wave forms and cut in and move things up; I do a lot of work where I will run through the track and I will look at what’s been recorded, and so the compressors are working more consistently. I will do a lot of the donkey work by raising the wave forms.
Herb: The clip gain.
Tim: Yeah, the clip gain. Exactly. It makes a massive difference. Sometimes the compressor isn’t screaming for mercy because you can back it off.
Herb: That’s cool that you say that. I kind of think in terms of them being live people and making them happy. I’m always trying to say, “Make them happy.” But screaming for mercy, that’s some Monty Python stuff there.
Dave: Given your attention to detail, is there a preference you have between mixing and producing?
Tim: Recently I have just really enjoyed mixing because I have so much control over it. As I said, people can send me stuff and I can play on it and help them. Obviously that doesn’t apply across the board. Some of the artists I work with I wouldn’t touch. I have just been working with Larry Kline on a couple of projects, and the way he has been working on these particular projects is surrounding the artist with the most amazing musicians like Booker T. Jones and Dean Parks and classic musicians. When it comes to mix those you have to employ a whole different . . .
Dave: It’s a different mindset, correct?
Tim: Yeah. I’m actually thinking, “No, I can’t boost things up on the mouse because it’s too jagged.” So I’m really going back to using the faders, and it has been really fun, you know. You have to approach it in a completely different way, but very enjoyable.
Dave: You and I talk about this all the time. When somebody’s passion is that evident you feel it in the record, don’t you? You care about this. It shows. It’s great. I think it’s hard to be disconnected and get passion into a record. You have to have passion to inject passion.
Tim: I think the people you work with sense that, and I think that for young people who are starting out doing this as a career, more than ever now the concept of doing a great job, your repeat clients are where it’s all about. If people see that you really put in the extra effort and do a great job they will come back to you, because it’s not so much about the old school ways of A and R men with their favorite people. This is another world that we’re in now, and you have to be prepared to go the whole nine yards.
Herb: And you also have to not let technology get in your way. You can’t have that remove the part of you that’s human. There are so many tools now that you have to see through that and then bring yourself to that, and have the tools enhance that. Do you agree?
Tim: Absolutely. I totally agree.
Herb: I like the way you said the song will tell you what it needs. You don’t have to do a whole lot of thinking. Just listen to the song. They will tell you what gear to use, what to do with that gear and how to enhance the song.
Another thing I love about what you do is your guitars always sound big. Some of them are recorded that way. Some of them aren’t. We’ll talk about the H.I.M. song No Love, and I love the guitars on that. The guitars on Bleed Out, were they stacked?
Tim: Yeah. There are a lot of stacked things they had recorded, arpeggios and different octaves and things like that.
Herb: The hook guitar is what I’m talking about.
Tim: Yeah, in the chorus. On the H.I.M. record it’s a whole different approach altogether.
Herb: Let’s talk about Bleed Out and then go straight to No Love, because I love No Love too. On Bleed Out the main rhythm guitars and the hook, how are they stacked? Like through a marshal or something like that? One pass and then another pass a little cleaner and you use a virtual amp on?
Tim: There’s a combination, usually, of about two or three things. They’re not a metal-y sort of rock band, so there’s no big power rocking rifts. It’s not that sort of thing. There’s usually arpeggiated melodies they are going through that are played, and there’s delay on them and chorus on them, and they’re sitting in certain spots. And then Justin, who is the singer of the band, he plays guitar as well. So he provides a sort of glue to it all.
He plays a lot of octave stuff, and it’s sort of dirty and you can sit that in the middle. But it’s just about playing around with it until it makes some sort of sense. You can open things out very wide in the core. I tend to back them more central in the verses.
Dave: You mean panning wise?
Tim: Yeah, panning wise, and then let the keyboards be wider in the verses and then bring the choruses, I’ll bring the guitars back wide again.
Herb: That’s interesting. I would have probably done the opposite, but I like the way yours sounds. I’m going to have to steal that from you.
Tim: Yeah. Well, it’s funny, isn’t it? The obvious thing was always with guitar bands and stuff is to kick the big ambient drum room in on the choruses and that, and I found sort of the opposite works so much better.
You’re in the verses where it’s open. That’s where you use your room mics, and you shut them off completely in the choruses because you want all that space that’s taken up by rooms being the guitar with all that energy right into the front of the speaker.
Herb: Oh. Is that what you did on Bleed Out?
Tim: Well, I do that sort of on a long of things, actually.
Herb: Why didn’t I think of that?
Tim: I’m sure you did.
Herb: We’re friends, man. You should have shared that with me a long time ago. I could have been somebody.
Dave: Well, I guarantee you he’s going to use it, so just pay attention to his records.
Herb: Oh, I’m leaving in about five minutes.
Dave: I know. Exactly.
Herb: On No Love, what a great job you did on that.
Tim: Great track.
Herb: Great track. When you got that track how were the guitars recorded on that, because I love the guitar sound. Take me through the mix process.
Tim: This is a band once more like Blue October that I have worked with for many years; I worked with him first on an album called Love Metal. That name sort of describes their genre.
Herb: They kind of made that genre with that name.
Tim: And Vile, the singer, who is a big fan of the show, he actually told me about the show before.
Herb: Tell him we said hello.
Dave: We like him too.
Herb: He’s from Finland, right?
Tim: Yeah. The other producer in Finland is a guy called Hiili, and between the two of us we go back and forth. I’ll make an album, he’ll make an album, I’ll mix it. We did one album together. This particular album, Hiili recorded it, and they spent a lot of time on those guitar turns playing with all sorts of old amps and whatever.
So that was a case of when we mixed it it was about really looking at what they had done. We’re not adding anything or doing anything particularly clever with soft synths and things. You were really working with that they got.
So the first thing Ville did was he said to me, “I don’t want you to work in your own studio,” which was bizarre. He said, “I know you’re really comfortable in that room and you know the monitoring and you know how to make things sound good, so let’s go somewhere else.”
Herb: That’s so cool.
Tim: So he wanted to take you out of your comfort zone. So we went over to London, which was nice for me, getting to see the family. We worked at Alan Moulder and Floods studio, which was fabulous. It was strange, actually, because for so long now I’ve worked on my room going back and sitting behind a huge SSL board. We worked pretty fast on that.
What we tended to do, actually, which is strange, is when we got close to being correct or we thought was correct, then we would sit there and keep turning the guitars up louder and louder until we went, “Well, that’s silly,” and then go back one. So we would finish it and then turn the guitars up. It was weird. So that’s why the guitars are pretty up there on that stuff.
Dave: They’re perfect.
Tim: The concept was making a massive sort of Black Sabbath-y type of wall of sound, but at the same time, as Ozzy always used to say to me when I worked with him, “Rock and roll is about the bass guitar, man. Turn the bass up.” So the bass is never left behind because that really, with a lot of rock records it’s about the bass. You can forget it. But it’s all about cranking the guitars when you need that low end to go on with that.
Dave: I’m not sure I agree with that. Give me a second here. Herb, help me out. I love bass, no doubt about it. Listen to my records. They’re always there.
Tim: Remember there was, somebody did a survey many years ago about the way that men and women set up their car stereos. Did you guys read this?
Dave: Yeah, I read that.
Tim: Women boost the low end and men boost the high end, which just makes sense, right? I used to tend to do that and still do. So if you want the women to like the album as well you can’t let them go short on the bass, right?
Dave: Well, that’s reason enough.
Tim: There you go. So if you want to cross over all the genres you can’t leave the bass behind, man.
Herb: I need to check your mix later tonight.
Tim: I always check with bass and they say, “Nobody listens to the bass anyway.”
Dave: On a song like No Love you turn up the bass and you get all kinds of train wrecks, though. Everything is so dovetailed and just fits together so perfectly. I’m going to have to think about that one for a minute.
Maybe what’s throwing me off is, I would say, put it where it needs to be.
Tim: Well, of course. I know what you’re trying to say.
Dave: Okay. I will let that go.
Tim: Thanks, Dave.
Dave: It’s my show.
Herb: Such a gracious guest, isn’t he?
Dave: Here again the way you can combine powerful guitars and synthesizers is a textbook in mixing right there alone. That verse synth is just so beautiful. Do you remember what that was?
Tim: I don’t, Dave. I’ll be honest.
Dave: Probably when you got them it was already done, but it was just . . .
Tim: I think the ’80s was a great learning time for synths, and then when the guitars all came back you had to figure out a way of making it all work together. I did a lot of alternative goth-y type bands in the ’80s like Gene Loves Jezebel and the mission and the house of love. It was very layered and very textured, and we started to add keyboards in as it went along further and further. It was a good learning experience for me, as is any of these sort of situations compared to just getting in and making records with all different types of musicians and genres.
I mean, we’re students forever, right? Every time you work on an album you learn something new.
Dave: You learn something new. Speaking of that, the regionally in which you’ve recorded and produced and mixed, London and LA and Austin, has that provided you sort of different learning curves? Has it just been the times?
Tim: Moving to America was very different, of course.
Dave: That’s a big step.
Tim: Just because of the type of people. I felt a very positive energy around the music business when I moved here 15 years ago. Moving to Texas, the only thing I miss about my set up is, I do miss having a chat like we are now. When you’re mixing things it was always fun when there were people in the room and you could tell a few stories and have a love.
Dave: It’s social.
Tim: And you get things done like that. Nowadays a lot of the time you never meet the artist at all, and I find that really weird. I mean, I did a record last year with the Polyphonic Spree, and they allowed me to add quite a lot to their music. It was a wonderful experience, and the first time I got to meet them was, I rang up the singer Tim and I said, “You know the guitar parts I play. Can I get up and play with you guys?”
They said, “Sure.” So the first time I met them I got on stage, put the long robe on, because they always wear these robes, and played what I’d played on the record. It was so weird, but that’s the way things are going. You don’t meet these people.
Dave: We have a lot of that, right? We just don’t meet clients.
Herb: We’re pretty good at Skyping. We at least get a picture of the artist or something.
Dave: We’re used to a conversation, at least, just so there’s some connection.
Tim: We can find pictures of you, Dave.
Herb: No, a picture of the artist.
Dave: It’s amazing how a picture will kind of give you help in deciphering how the mix should go. I’m a big believer, like you are, that the song dictates what it needs.
Tim: The song is everything.
Dave: Female artists, a lot of times, I like looking at the picture because it kind of helps me.
Dave: No, if they got a lot of piercings.
Herb: Just step back. Let him fall right in it.
Dave: Come on, guys. If they have a lot of piercings and stuff you mix it one way.
Tim: I find with music that sometimes I hear a song on the radio and I absolutely love it, and then I see the video and I don’t like it anymore. I don’t want to see what people look like sometimes. It’s funny.
Dave: There’s a little too much dependence, I think, on a visual and its relation to a song. When we grew up the song was just in your head and you put your own visual to it, and it lasted forever.
Tim: It’s like a movie and a book, isn’t it? You read a book and you know what the leading character looks like, and you see the movie and it will let you down.
Herb: Absolutely. Now other people take that away from you and they interject something, so it’s a different way of thinking.
Dave: One of the neat things about the no love record is, I came to that project, especially the new record, Tears on Tape. I came to that thinking of them, I don’t know why, but as a metal band. It might have been metal love or something. But then when I heard this song in particular, it was a single, I’m halfway through it and I’m thinking, “This is a pretty cool metal band. They have a lot of melodies going on. They have a lot of harmonies.”
Then I started realizing the way you mixed it, did you intentionally try to confuse me? It’s a metal band, but nothing in the song sounds metal. The drums don’t have that high tic on the kick drum. The guitars don’t have that real boosted presence that metal likes.
Tim: I think it’s just that that band has a very signature sound. They do that thing and they do it extraordinarily well, I think. I know we talked about this before, but when I was mixing that particular song, and this is something that happens to me often when you’re making a record is you start thinking, “I’m killing it on this song. This is great. I think they’re going to love it. I’m really happy with the way this is going,” and then you realize, well, actually it’s a great track. It’s a great performance.
And suddenly you realize that’s really what you’re responding to, it’s because this is one of the great tracks. And when you’re working on whatever song it is, if you’re working and suddenly you come across that key song that often takes the band to the next level, suddenly you find that you have so much more creativity with that song because it’s great anyway. So it’s great with the drums loud. It’s great with the guitars loud, and it gives you a tremendous opportunity to do something special. Sometimes a song that isn’t so great is actually defined by the fact that, “Oh, well, it sounds great.” But that doesn’t really mean much.
Dave: Yeah. That doesn’t mean it’s a great song.
Tim: But if it’s a great song, a lot of my favorite songs don’t actually sound that good anyway. You know?
Herb: I love your quote, “The best cure for a bad mix is a good song.”
Tim: It’s true. It is though, isn’t it? You know what I mean, Dave.
Dave: Yeah, of course. We don’t elaborate on that.
Herb: So let me ask you a question, sir. How is your arm? Is it loose?
Dave: It is very loose.
Herb: its bandage box time. Can you pitch a few our way?
Dave: I don’t remember where I put it, Herb. Oh, there we go.
Herb: There we go. Tim, you’ll be fine. Just round the bass. Just keep going. Throw out the first pitch. Let’s make it happen.
Tim: I love SN 57s and 421s.
Herb: There we go.
Tim: Vocals, SM58.
Dave: Give me a plug in.
Tim: A plug in for vocals? I often keep going back to that SSL channel strip.
Dave: Okay. Overheads?
Tim: Overheads, 87. U 87s.
Tim: Reverb? Well, either plug in or the real thing, of course. I love the EMT plates and the 480 Lexicon.
Tim: Snares? Well, once again I’m going with the 57. It’s the classic.
Dave: Okay. So that doesn’t count for your island gear. Give me your one piece of gear you would take on an island by yourself.
Tim: This is on the assumption that you’re mixing on the island, right?
Herb: Aren’t we all?
Tim: If we were not mixing I would take a big sound panel and sleep on it, or a razor blade for when we used to chop tape there to cut some fruit. No, if we’re thinking of mixing, I love those tape simulators like the DAD tape head simulator. I use that all over mixes. I think it’s the most valuable plug in I use.
Tim: My favorite bass are a precision or a jazz.
Dave: Give me a plug in for bass.
Tim: A plug in for bass? There’s a particular plug in that I read, believe it or not, on Frank Filipetti’s Facebook. It’s a frequency responsive EQ that tracks the notes of the bass, and I forget the name of it, but it is phenomenal. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Dave: Yeah, I do. I just told Cole about it.
Tim: You can actually see the notes that are playing. It registers them, and if you find that frequency there’s a little bit sort of cloudy, it will track it and it’s amazing.
Dave: It’s fairly new. It just came out. A good one. Cheapest gear you ever used on a hit record?
Tim: Well, can I change it for most expensive?
Tim: Many years ago when I was working with the singer for Kajagoogoo, it shows you how old I am, the key percussion player on the session was a guy called Martin Ditcham. He was very good friends with Mitch Mitchell from Jimmy Hendrix, and he said, “Oh, Mitch has Jimmy’s strap at the house. I can bring it down.” So he brought it down to the studio and we all had a go, and we put a couple of cords on just because you had to.
Dave: Sure, you had to.
Tim: He left the session with all his percussion and left the guitar behind, and we literally had to ring him up and say, “Martin, you’ve left Jimmy’s strap.” And that’s the same strap that was eventually sold by Mitch, and it eventually went to the CEO of Microsoft. He allegedly paid two million for it. For a strap. That’s a pretty good strap.
Dave: That’s amazing.
Herb: I changed my mind. You can’t do that, dock him for that one.
Dave: I’ll cheat on your behalf.
Herb: Guitar pedal.
Tim: Memory man.
Dave: Oh wow. Synth.
Dave: Okay. Here we go. Last one. Stereo bust?
Tim: Stereo bust? I always have the GML stereo EQ.
Tim: 8200, and a little bit of SSL compression.
Am I allowed two?
Dave: Like [inaudible 00:45:56] or the . . .
Herb: Cool. Did great.
Dave: No, wait a minute. You have to subtract for the most expensive one.
Herb: I did.
Dave: And he still beat me?
Tim: I didn’t beat you.
Herb: Well, the beginning was solid Louisville slugger stuff, and then he switched to aluminum bat halfway through.
Tim: I thought I transitioned to it nicely.
Herb: Remember Dave, I am the judges. So there’s no way to [inaudible 00:46:19]. By the way, speaking of judges, let’s introduce our man in the corner office. Chongor Goncz, my late night strategist.
Chongor: How is it going, man?
Herb: My late night strategist. How are you?
Chongor: Very, very good. We definitely have those late night sessions.
Herb: You have some questions?
Chongor: Yeah, we have a bunch of them. This first one is from Acuba Milechco. “With U2’s all you can’t leave behind, how was the work process and where was the most time spent in those two years?”
Tim: Well, I was only involved in the mix stage. So I can’t say that I know everything about what went on before I got involved, but I spent a long time working on those mixes, and it was a fascinating process to be surrounded by all these people that I have admired from Daniel Anwar and Ino and Steve Lillywhite and the whole massive amount of people you’re working with.
I started in LA at Larrabee, actually. It was quite interesting, because the first song I mixed I think was Stuck in a Moment, and it surprised me because they send a mono track of drums, okay, and I thought, “Wow, what do you do here?” It was very important for me to get this first mix sort of right because I might not get to mix any more. As you know, when you’re mixer you don’t know what your parameters how, or how far you can push it. I wondered why they had only recorded a mono track, especially with the technology we have today, because you can record a lot of stuff and don’t use it and hide it.
But anyway, I was faced with this mono track. So I immediately added some shakers left and right to give it some sort of stereo image, and then in the chorus I added tambourines and things like that. Then I fiddled around with some mutes and stuff. This was just the beginning of the process. They were excited by what I had done, but then it was, “Okay, now can you come to Dublin and we’ll carry on?” So I had already done a couple of days.
It’s a long process, and for them, you see, listening to a mix is just a way of finding out how well they’re doing at this point. Often you can mix a song for a week and they will go, “That’s what we need to do.” You will hear them downstairs and they’re recutting the song. That’s just the way they work, and it’s amazing. I have never met more of a hard working bunch; more hard than I would ever want to work. I would say it’s too much for me.
Chongor: Or a bunch with a bigger budget.
Tim: It was a wonderful experience.
Dave: Chongor, hold on a second. The mono drum track, was it recorded with one microphone or was it bounced down mono?
Tim: Well, I can’t tell you that. It was just on one track. But it sounded like one mic.
Dave: Really? One mix on all the drums?
Herb: Chongor, what you got?
Chongor: Darren James. “What’s your philosophy on compression?”
Tim: We touched on that earlier. Compression, you can use it as a leveling tool or you can use it as an effect. There’s no doubt about it. A lot of the records that we’ve made in the last few years have been overly compressed, in my opinion. Depending on the type of music that you’re doing, if it’s a rock song and you need that voice right in your face then you can go to town on it, have two or three compressors if necessary.
Other songs where you want a natural performance like the stuff I have been doing recently with Larry, they have a great tone, there’s a lot of dynamics in the music, so it allows the dynamic in the vocal. I think this is something that we forget about with music; leaving the room for the singer. With auto tune when everything is brought to this thin line of perfection in tuning in every instrument, when the vocalist goes to sing, if he goes a little sharp it sounds awful. In the old days whenever everything was a bit looser and a little bit less tuned the line for him to sing on was this wide.
Dave: It just felt like character.
Tim: So when he sang and he went sharp it was cool. If he went flat it was a little cool because he had a thick line to work with. When we draw everything to this thin line I think it loses and it’s the same thing with compression. Every song is different.
Dave: Chongor, one more please.
Chongor: Jonathan Evans. “When you receive a song in a mix, what’s your work flow and what elements do you start with first?”
Tim: Once again, it’s different every time. The first thing you generally do is get a cup of tea and listen to the rough and make notes. I think that time that you spend coming up with your sonic vision or whatever it is, or how you feel the song is, is very important when you’re fresh. It’s like when you listen to demos for the first time I always think, “Write notes the first time you hear it.” You start to like it for all the wrong reasons if you’re not careful. So that’s the workflow. Start with that.
Then, as I said, if it’s a vocally driven song it might be important to get the vocal sound right. Who knows? If it’s a rock song you often start with the drums and the bass. I mean, it changes every time. The key to it is to not allow yourself to have a method that draws you to the same conclusion every time. It’s to let yourself do different things, I think.
Dave: Two questions for you from me. One, we’re in some discussions about coming down to Texas and doing something. If we come your way would you join us in what we’re going to do?
Tim: I would love to. It would be great.
Dave: We tend to draw a pretty good crowd.
Tim: Austin would welcome you.
Herb: Yeah. We sort of avoided South by Southwest because it’s so crazy, but we think coming at another time . . .
Tim: I think that’s a really smart idea.
Herb: . . . getting some people.
Herb: You would be great to be on the panel with us. Wouldn’t he? It would be fabulous.
Dave: Heck yeah.
Tim: I’d love to.
Herb: Second thing too is, Dave and I, we don’t tell this publicly, but generally the partners that we have, the sponsors, we tend to sit with them as people to make sure they are the kind of people that we want our audience to meet and they have the kind of integrity and stuff.
We’ve recently, and I have spent a lot of time, gotten involved with Recording Connection, and we’re enamored with the guys. The peer to peer teaching philosophy that they have, who they are as people and their vision and stuff. You know them well.
Tim: I do.
Herb: Give us your sense.
Tim: My sense of it is that I’ve known Brian for quite a long time, and he called me and told me about his idea for schooling. To be honest, a lot of the recording schools, I find, are very expensive and teach you a lot of stuff that isn’t very necessary and also don’t give you a lot of the tools that you require. And Brian’s concept of being a mentor based school, where you’re actually with the people who are making the music, watching Dave on the phone dealing with a client is something they’re not teaching you in school from a textbook.
Herb: It’s invaluable. That’s right.
Tim: And those sort of things are part of our jobs as mixers.
Herb: That’s right.
Tim: Knowing how to run a session and seeing for yourself really what it’s all about one on one is invaluable, and that’s why I like the school, because they offer that to the students.
Herb: For Jimmy and Brian, who we have gotten to know pretty well, the boxes that they checked off for us was the fact that you didn’t have to necessarily go any place from where you are to go learn. You could learn almost in your home town or relatively close, that their pricing was reasonable, that their placement effort was significant, and then they just passed the gut check stuff for you and I.
We’re pretty careful about that kind of stuff. So guys, let me just tell you this. We’re going to get you and teach you some more about Recording Connection. Get to their website. It’s brand new. These are people we like and we sanction a bunch. We have some big plans in the future. They actually made sure we could do the national thing. I’m glad you’re involved with them, and I’m so glad you did our show, Tim.
Tim: Oh, thank you very much for having me.
Herb: Did you have a good time?
Tim: I had a good time.
Herb: It goes fast, bud.
Tim: Thank you. It really does.
Herb: Thank you. Absolutely. Dave, take us home.
Dave: Okay. Whew. All right. I’m going to go watch this episode as quick as I can. I know you guys are going to learn a lot. Tim is someone I have admired for a long, long time, and borrowed quite a few things from him. So it was great to see him in person. We’ll see you next week.