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First Hand News

11/1/2007

Fleetwood Mac had soldiered through years of mid-level success as a powerful ’60s blues outfit lead by guitarist Peter Green and his “magical” Gibson Les Paul, until hitting ups and downs with various lineups and a tsunami of drinking, drugs, and mental illness. Although the band did chart a few bona fide hits and radio-play favorites (“Black Magic Woman,” “Albatross,” “The Green Manalishi,” “Hynoptized”), its constant career stalls and infighting had made it sort of a commercial, ahem, albatross by 1975. Few would have expected that a combination of good luck, fortuitous meetings, and renewed creative energies would not only change the veteran band’s fortunes, but also transform it into one of the most successful rock acts of all time.

While the big bang was drummer Mick Fleetwood discovering Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham by sheer chance—and having the insight to invite them to join his band—the event also brought the duo’s friend, engineer Richard Dashut, into the fold. Dashut went from mixing live sound for the band’s 1975 Fleetwood Mac tour to co-producing 1977’s Rumours—a record that spent six months atop the U.S. record charts, won the Grammy for Album of the Year, and went on to sell 30 million copies worldwide.

You started in this business from ground zero. How did that happen?
I got my first studio job around 1971, at Crystal Sound in Hollywood. I was a janitor, basically. At the time, people like Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Carole King—a lot of really huge stars—were recording there. So here I am—this little punk kid, 20 years old with his eyes wide open—more than happy to answer phones and sweep floors just to be around it. I really wanted to be in the movie business, but after hanging out there, I decided this was for me.

I was let go from Crystal—although they tried to hire me back two weeks later. When Dave Devore and Keith Olsen—who I met when they were mastering a record at Crystal—found out I’d been let go, they got me a job at Sound City, which is where they did all of their recording. My first job there was as an assistant maintenance man. But when the head maintenance engineer asked me for a resistor, and I said I didn’t burn my draft card, he quickly realized I wasn’t suited for electronics. So Keith made me his second engineer, and I got to go into the control room and operate the tape machines. We had Ampex MM1100 and MM1200 tape machines that had to be aligned every day. I had to have the tape heads cleaned, the board cleaned, and the room cleaned and prepared. We were working 18-hour days, doing a lot of commercials—string sessions where I had to set up all the seats and headphone boxes—but, inevitably, one of the string players would plug in their crystal headset and short out the whole system.

We had some great sessions. People like Jerry Wexler worked there. We did Elton John sessions, and we overdubbed the Tower of Power horn section. You could absorb so much. I had to keep myself occupied in those long sessions, so I would listen intently to the music, and think like a producer would. If someone made a mistake, would I stop the machine? What would I do? What ideas would I have? I learned that way—as well as by paying attention to what the engineers and producers were doing.

Didn’t you meet Lindsey Buckingham at Sound City?
Yes. On my second or third day, I was relegated to painting the control room ceiling in Studio A. There were a few other people helping me—in particular a gentleman and a young lady who was trying to paint the ceiling, but kept getting more paint on her hair.  I grabbed the paint roller out of her hand and showed her how to do it. That lady turned out to be Stevie Nicks, and the gentleman was her boyfriend, Lindsey Buckingham. Within two hours, we had already decided we were going to get a place together.

They were living with Keith Olsen at the time, and were in a band called Fritz. Fritz had broken up, and they had gone on their own as Buckingham-Nicks. Lindsey took me into the maintenance room and played me his demos, and the first time I heard them, I fell in love with the music. “Monday Morning” was on there, as was “I’m So Afraid,” “Frozen Love”—a bunch of stuff. That’s where my real music education started—with Lindsey Buckingham.

When you met Buckingham and Nicks, you were on your way to a good career as a studio engineer, but then you tossed it aside to go on the road with Fleetwood Mac. Why?
The Buckingham-Nicks album didn’t do so well, and they got dropped from the label. We decided to take matters into our own hands, and [Sound City owners] Joe Godfried and Tom Skeeter offered us studio time to produce our own record—which was very generous of them. We were in the middle of that when Mick Fleetwood came along. Keith was demoing the studio for him as a place to record, and he was using the Buckingham-Nicks album to show Mick how great the room sounded. Mick took one listen, and basically asked them to join. That was the good news! The bad news was that we had to stop doing the second Buckingham-Nicks record. But “I’m So Afraid,” “Monday Morning,” and “Blue Letter”—which we had started developing—went on the first Fleetwood Mac record they did together.

I had parted with Keith Olsen, and had left Sound City by the time they started recording Fleetwood Mac. But they were getting ready to go on the road, so Lindsey called and asked if I’d mix the live sound for the tour. Because I was young, and had a tremendous sense of adventure and curiosity at the time—and also because of the girls and the money—I decided to say “yes” [laughs].

Was going from studio to stage a difficult transition?
It was not easy. In the studio, you have everything under control, and you can spend time getting things perfect. But, on the road, you have to deal with the elements—the audience, the room acoustics, the capacity of the room. We didn’t have sophisticated equipment back then, either. You just had to work by the seat of your pants, and strictly by ear. It was great, because it taught me the basic sensibilities of layering and mixing. And when you have to get things together in a timely manner—like by the end of the first song—you get very adept at mixing on the fly.

Roadie magazine voted you “Best Live Mixer”—or something to that effect. What would you attribute that to?
My mixing style was different. A lot of people in a live situation would just mix and hold—just get it under control, and then leave it. For me, every song was different. I was a dynamic mixer—but not a proper one. If you want to hear the absolute perfect mix, you can go home and listen to the record. To me, mixing live was an emotional thing. It was about a show—about getting an emotional response out of an audience. I would ride lead guitars and drum parts when I wanted to make a point, and then to drive home the point, I’d mix them a lot louder than most people are used to hearing them. It was a way to get people off their feet, and create an emotional experience.

I took a lot of that experience with me into the studio—especially before automation, when the mixing itself was a performance. You had to remember how you had it the time before, you’re relying on two or three other people—“hands across the board” as we used to call it—and you would all be riding levels, and what one person did affected the other. That’s why we had grease markers. We’d draw a line and didn’t dare go above it! But mistakes often made the best mixes. For instance, at the end of “Go Your Own Way,” the kick drum was way too loud—to the point where it would start hitting the compression on the radio. If you listen to the guitar solo at the end, the compressor would pump the guitar in rhythm to the kick, and it added to the whole drive of the song. That was a lucky mistake. It wouldn’t have happened if we were using automation. The mix was half emotional/half technical, and when you got to the end of a great mix, it was like the ending of a great show.

When the band asked you to produce Rumours you brought out engineer Ken Caillat. How did you meet, and what made you two such a good team?
I had just been on the road with the band for about a year, and we went in after the tour to do a remix at Wally Heider Studios in Los Angeles, where Ken was working. We probably smoked a joint together—who knows [laughs]. Things went so well with that remix, that when it came time to do Rumours, I asked him to come work with us. He ended up doing most of the engineering, and I worked more with Lindsey in developing the band’s music.

Someone else was supposed to produce Rumours, and they wanted to put strings on the record. That turned the band off, so they decided against using him. When we were remixing “Rhiannon,” Mick brought me out to the parking lot, and said, “Dashut. You’re co-producing the next record with us.” I was an engineer, not a producer! Who wanted to be responsible? I just wanted to get my sounds [laughs].

What made Ken and I such a great team was that we had great communication between us, and not much overlap. We both had our specialties. Ken loved fooling with the knobs and tweaking things, and I loved working with the band and the music, and being the interface between the technical and the creative sides. But I did a lot of engineering, too. I even tuned all the drums. But somebody had to be behind the talkback, and somebody had to sit behind the board, and I found myself mostly behind the talkback.

I was way over my head. But living with Lindsey was educational. We’d play Motown, the Beach Boys, The Beatles, the Stones, and other records, and he’d show me what frequencies to listen for, and how to layer instruments. We would have a session in front of the record player, and then put what we learned into practice at the studio.

Critics praised your—and Ken’s—“attention to acoustical detail.” What methods did you employ to accomplish such great sounds? 
It was the endless pursuit for the perfect sound. Once, we spent ten hours getting kick drums sounds in The Record Plant’s Studio B, and then ended up moving to Studio A, and building a special drum platform to get what we wanted.  Mick had a very light foot, so we had to try especially hard to get the right kick-drum sounds. We nicknamed him “featherfoot” [laughs]. He was also known as the shuffle king, because he had one of the most amazing right hands in the business. His talent was in his right hand and snare feel, and the bass drum would follow that.
Anyway, he used his road kit on some songs—which had a very large kick drum—and it was hard to get a good, tight sound out of it. We shoved a Shure SM57 about four inches from where the beater struck the drum head to pick up the attack of the drum head, and then put an Electro-Voice RE20 a foot away from the outside head to get the sound of the kick. Because Mick didn’t hit hard, we weren’t getting the bottom end from his kick drum. The bottom end on that album came from John McVie’s bass. So we opted for the combination of midrange presence and low-midrange punch that those two mics provided.

Still, we had no set technique. We just tried to match the sound of the song. On some songs, we wanted a more ambient-sounding kick—which the RE20 was good for—and other songs needed the drier, deader sound that the SM57 captured. We would record the kick in stereo, and then combine the two tracks, mixing one mic louder than the other, depending on the song. We definitely came up with a bigger sound than we would have gotten with just one mic.

Did you apply this recording philosophy to other instruments on Rumours?
Oh, yeah. We recorded most of the instruments in stereo, and then blended the tracks to get huge sounds. For example, the electric guitar on “Dreams” was composed of four signals: a direct signal, a miked signal, a signal running from the output of the amp head, and another direct signal from a volume pedal. Then, we’d pan it all in stereo so parts would sweep from left to right in a very majestic way. It was always about choosing the right mics with the right space for the right song, and that has to be done with one’s ear, and with a high degree of sensitivity to the music.

It sounds fun, but it was probably a bit nerve wracking approaching the mix for each song individually, instead of just settling on a basic sonic blueprint for the album.
I remember going through nine pianos at the Record Plant in Sausalito. Of course, we were probably more whacked out than the pianos [laughs]. Rumours took a year to record, and Tusk took about a year and a half. Fleetwood Mac didn’t believe in pre-production, and that’s good and bad. The bad news is that the album cost a million dollars—which was a ridiculous amount of money back then. The good news is that because we went in with a totally open mind—not preconceived in any way—we came up with things where the sum of the parts were far greater than they could have been if we had worked everything out beforehand. A lot of the songs were written in the studio. A lot of the lyrics were written in the studio. It was a trying, but very exhilarating process.

I understand there were some serious issues with the 24-track tape that resulted in many more hours being spent in the studio.
When you drag analog tape across the tape heads, you’re basically wearing it out. After about six or eight months, you can really wear the tape out, and it’s the high end that goes first. It’s subtle, so you don’t notice it until the day you listen to your tracks, and realize “My God—these drums are dull. Where are the cymbals?” This is what happened to us, and we were freaking out because we didn’t know how to get our high end back. We were starting to see daylight where the tracks were! And we were scared, because Warner Bros. was waiting for the album. Thank God, we had done a set of safety copies after we cut the master track. Even though the safeties were second-generation backups, they still had all the high end, and we overlaid all of the overdubs to those tapes. This was before SMPTE synchronization, so we had to get two 24-track machines, and sync the machines by ear. Ken would put on headphones, and we’d pull up the drum overhead tracks on both the original master and the safety master, and then we’d listen to the phasing between the cymbals. Ken would have to turn the VSO control until the phasing would start to go out to time sync the machines. And, of course, it would go out too far, and then you would have to stop and punch in sections. It was an 18-hour process to do three or four songs. But we pulled it off, and when you listen to Rumours, those are the safeties you’re hearing!

When you were recording basic tracks, did the band record together?
The guitar solos and drums on “The Chain” were played together. Other than that, I don’t think any of the instruments were actually played together. Everything was overdubbed. It took an intense amount of work to get everything to sound natural, but when the parts are right, it’s going to sound like they were never overdubbed. When you’re working with a group of people as talented as Fleetwood Mac—and you have that kind of time and budget—you have the freedom to experiment and work by your gut instincts.

Considering that you learned your craft before the digital age, how have the new tools changed your approach to recording?
Pro Tools and other computer-based recording systems have changed everything. These systems have really given us the ability to change songs after the fact—not just correct them. I find myself relying more on that. You try not to, but you do.

At the same time, you have to be very conscious about getting most of what you need out of the performance. Take the auto tuning of vocals. It used to require 40 takes to get a performance that right. The singer would be so tired, they would just give it up [laughs]. I feel we miss a lot of that these days. There’s no question that technology vastly improves your ability to do things, but, in the ’70s, we really had to rely on the song. The reason you’re recording in the first place is because of the song. Today, the method has become almost as important as the reason for doing it, and that can be dangerous.

Performance Mixing

Dashut reveals that his experience working the board for Fleetwood Mac’s live shows inspired the “performance mixing” approach that he and co-producer/engineer Ken Caillat employed in the studio to energize the sound of Rumours. As Dashut details, back in the days before reliable automation, it was the engineer—and as many able hands as he or she could recruit—that moved faders, fiddled with outboard effects, twisted pan knobs, and assembled the mix landscape in real time as the tape was running. The head engineer would often have to command the tangle of hands hovering over the console like a field marshall under fire, yelling things such as “mute channel 16 now” and “fade in the second rhythm guitar on the next downbeat.”

It was, as Dashut describes, a process of emotion and technique, and it was often as frustrating as it was exhilarating, because there was no “undo” command. If you screwed the last fade, you’d have to start the mix all over again from the top, or mix the fade separately, then cut tape and edit in the desired section.

However, at its best, performance mixing captured sonic and spectral arrangements that were just as inspired and impassioned as a guitarist hitting a transcendent solo, or a vocalist locking into the perfect blend of tone and phrasing. Like all the best musical moments of the pre-digital era, the mix was a real-time performance, rather than a DAW operation that can be edited, refined, and saved as countless recallable versions for eons forward. Think about that.

If you feel this type of energy and vitality is missing in your home-studio productions, consider cutting loose the safety nets of the digital age for a mix or two. (Of course, you can still return to DAW mixing if you don’t dig the results, so taking a chance isn’t really a risk at all.)  Tank automation. Completely. Pretend it doesn’t exist. And that means for everything—effects, panning, bus assignments, and so on. From now on, every mix move will be done by your own hands in real time—win, lose, or draw.

When you’re done, compare your performance mix with a conventional DAW mix that you tweaked, edited, and worried over for days (or weeks). Determine if the “p-mix” delivers a sense of impact, drive, and drama that the “d-mix” lacks. If not, then technological advances have clearly enhanced your production style. But if your p-mix does possess more vibe, take the lesson to heart. In the end—as Dashut warns—it’s not the method, it’s the music.
—Michael Molenda

 

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