Music Production: Simple Sounds Best
Music production should be about the music and the performance. Don’t worry about the little imperfections and mistakes – often that’s what makes a great performance and a great record.
When I worked as an engineer at The Village Recorder – this is 1973 I think – there was a guy, Ron Malo, who worked at Chess Records. Malo came down because the guy that was managing The Village Recorder used to work with Chess Records’ Dick LaPalm. He invited Malo down to visit, and he happened to be the guy that worked with the Rolling Stones when they recorded their stuff with Chess. So we had a lot to talk about. That was interesting because the Stones did 19 songs in two days and mixed them to four-track. Then, they went out in the parking lot and burned the half inch four-track tape so that Decca Records couldn’t remix them later.
What was interesting, Malo said to me “When we used to do the old Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf records and all that stuff that was done at Chess, what we used to do is set the band up in the room and have a microphone in front of the vocalist. We’d be in the control room and we would turn on that one microphone and we’d have the band play. Whatever we didn’t hear enough of, that’s where we would put the other two mics.”
I’m 22 years old, I’m an engineer that’s using – in my early recordings – 20 + microphones on the recording, and he makes that statement. It goes right over my head. I did not understand for a second what he’s talking about, and I was too embarrassed to ask what he meant, and so I didn’t say anything, but I never forgot it.
Recording with Keith Richards and Hubert Sumlin
What happened, we were doing this Hubert Sumlin record – this is now the year 2000– and Keith Richards was going to play on this record. Hubert came to Keith’s house and we did a rehearsal in Keith’s basement. It’s a finished basement. There were a couple of rooms down there, and one room had a pool table in it and that’s the room we’re setup in.
Imagine a pool table in the middle of the room and then on the far end, if you’re standing on one end of the pool table looking across the pool table, on that far wall was where they were set up. There were four of them – Keith, Hubert, George Recile, the drummer, and Blondie Chaplin, who was playing bass. I stuck a stereo mic on the side of the pool table where I was standing, not the side that they were on. It was about 12 feet from them or so, and I recorded it onto a DAT machine.
We were just doing this to work out the arrangements of the song and stuff – it wasn’t a recording thing – it was strictly a rehearsal thing. We listened back to the recording and all looked at each other and said, “Holy shit! Listen to that. Listen how great that sounds.”
We were all amazed. We could localize everything and we could hear the positioning and everything. We really thought it sounded fantastic. Then that story I told you that came from 25 years before came into my mind and I started to think about it. I started to think about what he said. I thought, “Wait a second. I’m getting it now.”
Keith said, “Geez. This sounds great down here.” When he was building the house, we went down there and I reached up on my toes and I was able to touch the ceiling. He looks at me and I look at him and, as geniuses, we looked at each other and said, “The ceiling is too low. We can never record down here.” So we left it at that, and we never thought of recording down there. But then this particular day, we did this rehearsal.
Anyway, what ended up happening was we realized that it sounded great, and so we started recording down there. What I did was I gradually started to add microphones based on that same story – like looking through the glass and saying, “I don’t hear enough of this or that,” and putting a microphone near those things. If I didn’t hear enough piano or whatever instrument, I’d set up a couple of other mics. Now we just had a stereo mic and these two other mics, and now I’m at three mics, just like Ron Malo said when he was telling me about what happened to Chess.
Better sounding music production in less time
I’ll be darned. I started working that way, and I’ve come full circle. That’s how I make records nowadays. I’ve been making records with five mics, four mics, or six mics, but never a bunch of microphones.
With all this stuff that’s going on in recording, if you start to look at this, you start to realize it’s all being driven by equipment manufacturers. Everybody’s saying to you “You need this, you need that, you got to do stuff this way, you got to do stuff that way.” But, I’m here to say, you don’t need it.
Simplifying your production goes much faster and the recordings sound so much better. You know why I said it’s so much faster? It takes so much less time in terms of the work that you put into it. The focus goes on to the music instead of onto the recording. You’re really thinking more about the music than you are about the recording, and that’s a good thing.
The conversation with Ron Malo ran in my head for 25 years. It’s just the fact that I remembered it because I didn’t understand it. Then, I started to understand it’s about the music and the performance. It’s comes full circle.