Bob Clearmountain: Mixer with the Midas Touch

(July 1998)Bob Clearmountain shares insights on his mixing techniques.

This article originally appeared in the July 1998 issue of Electronic Musician.

If you take a look at some of the liner notes in your CD collection, I can almost guarantee you''ll come across Bob Clearmountain''s name. With a long and distinguished career as a recording engineer, producer, and mix engineer, Clearmountain has a discography that reads like a rock ''n'' roll encyclopedia: Bryan Adams, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Robbie Robertson, and the Rolling Stones, to name a few.

A seven-time recipient of Mix magazine''s TEC Award and recent Grammy nominee for his work on John Fogerty''s Blue Moon Swamp, Clearmountain has earned the respect of engineers worldwide and secured a place for himself among the elite few who have entries in the audio history books. In addition to session work, he recently entered the world of product development by designing Apogee''s studio management software, Session-Tools. In the midst of his busy schedule, Clearmountain was gracious enough to spend some time with EM, discussing his mixing techniques, his studio, and the music industry in general.

It seems like your name appears on an album every other week. What does your daily schedule look like?
Mixing, mixing, mixing! My mix room, Mix This!, is in my house, so around ten in the morning I wander downstairs and start. The artist and/or producer I''m working with comes over at about eleven; we''ll finish up a mix that was left up overnight, and then they''ll brief me on the next song. Then they''ll either go away or sit out by the pool for a few hours while I get the mix together. When they come back, they''ll tell me either it needs a few minor changes here and there, or it''s simply total garbage, and I''ve missed the point altogether. We usually have dinner about 6:30, then work on the mix until about nine or ten, run copies, and finish it in the morning.

What console and multitrack are you working with these days?
I have a custom-built, 72-input SSL G+ with Total Recall. I use a bunch of multi-tracks: a Sony PCM 3348, a Sony PCM 3324, a Studer A800, and the obligatory Alesis ADAT and Tascam DA-88. I also have a Digidesign Pro Tools 24 system, which I use strictly for editing.

How about your mixdown format?
I''m now mixing 24-bit through an Apogee AD-8000 8-channel A/D—which I helped design—to a Tascam DA-88 and a DA-38 for backup. The AD-8000''s TDIF card bit-splits the 24-bit word, putting the extra 8 bits for each channel on a separate track of the 16-bit TASCAM machine. It sounds pretty amazing! It''ll work the same way with the AES/EBU and ADAT interface cards. I''m also using the AD-8000 as the analog and digital front end for the Pro Tools system. With the Digi-8 card, the AD-8000 plugs directly into the Digidesign I/O. The AD-8000 also makes digital transfers between formats a breeze.

How do you feel about the current craze of computer-based recording?
I''m not the guy to ask; I only use them for editing, not for recording. I don''t actually trust hard disks, although Lisa Loeb''s album Firecracker was recorded in Pro Tools, and I thought the tracks sounded great.

What outboard gear is in your current collection?
As far as the old stuff goes, I have three Pultec EQP-1A3 EQs, three UREI LA-3A compressors, a UREI 1178 limiter, two MXR Flangers and two Phasers, an Ursa Major Space Station, a Roland Space Echo tape-delay box, and an ancient RCA limiter, which sounds awful but looks great.

Other good boxes include three Yamaha SPX990s; a Yamaha D5000 digital delay—the best one going at the moment, in my opinion; a Focusrite Red 3 compressor; three Roland SDE-3000s; an Eventide H3000, two H3500s, and a DSP4000; two Lexicon PCM 70s; a pair of Distressors; a BSS DPR-901 Dynamic Equalizer, which, on a vocal, is like cheating; an old AMS Reverb and DDL; an SSL compressor; and lots of Drawmer gates and dbx 901 de-essers.

My favorite pieces of outboard gear are my two live chambers. Another new thing I''d like to mention are the KRK E7 monitors—absolutely amazing! They''re self-powered and biamped. They''re not "hypey" at all but fun to listen to. Great for mixing—and parties!

How do you approach a mix?
I think of the mix as an environment with the elements appearing in different places, almost like the characters in a play on a stage: some are in the front, some are in the back, the center, the left, etc., and some are more important than others at different times.

For a pop record mix—basically anything with vocals—the most important element is, of course, the lead vocal. My starting point is usually a quick vocal-heavy rough mix to give me an idea of what the song is about.

Do you ever have a preconceived idea of what the mix should sound like?
Never, unless the artist or producer has given me one to work with. Either way, I try to let my ideas develop as I work. It''s really all dependent on the material.

Your mixes are pretty identifiable. What constitutes the signature Bob Clearmountain Mix?
Hopefully, there is no "signature Bob Clearmountain Mix," only that it is enjoyable to listen to. I believe each mix should sound like the artist had mixed it themselves—a true reflection of how they want to sound—possibly with a bit of extra commercial potential thrown in.

How about a brief tutorial on mixing—Clearmountain-style?
I mix at various monitoring levels, through different speaker systems, in a somewhat random order. I also use a bit of overall compression and, of course, make the important things louder and the not-so-important ones quieter. I''ve found a good, generally useful technique is to make sure there''s no unwanted extra low end coming from instruments other than the bass and kick drum. Doing this will almost always make the bass sound better, louder, and clearer.

How do you feel about radio-specific mixes?
Unfortunately, radio seems to have developed a severe case of tunnel vision over the years, categorizing records into specific "formats." In fact, just today I mixed a very nice pop record that happened to contain a steel guitar. We had to mix a special version without the steel guitar because there are a lot of Top 40 stations that won''t go near anything that remotely sounds like a country record, and the steel is a signature of country music. I''ve been asked to remove all guitars from some pop/rock records so they can be played on Adult Contemporary stations.

Let''s talk about automation for a minute. How often do you use it, and how do you approach automating a mix?
I use it for every mix I do. I really believe in it. Whoever invented that "manual mixing" thing was really full of it! If there are a lot of mutes to be done, I''ll do them first and work in Play Cuts Only mode on the computer. If not, I''ll leave the computer off and get a reasonable static mix happening. Once it sounds decent, I''ll start from the top, with the computer in Absolute or Play Cuts Only mode, working on each section of the song—paying attention to all the tracks but mainly dealing with the vocals.

In the next pass, I may work on drums, guitars, or whatever seems to need the most attention. I''ll then keep doing more passes, catching whatever I hear that seems to be out of place, possibly adding a tricky effect or two if it''s called for, until I can listen to the whole thing without rewinding and riding any levels. Then I''ll take a break, go out for a walk or something, come back, listen again, and inevitably ride a few more things or change an EQ.

You''ve mixed quite a few live albums. Do you find these types of projects to be a challenge?
It depends on how good or bad the performance and recording is. If both are good, it can be really easy. The big trick is using the ambience from the audience mics and blending them with whatever artificial effects you''re using to achieve a realistic impression of a live performance, while keeping it all sounding good.

How does your technique differ from working on studio-recorded tracks?
Well, live stuff is generally a lot more straightforward than studio recordings because there are usually no overdubs. As far as how my technique differs, I think it actually differs for everything I mix, depending on what''s recorded. So no different than anything else, except having to ride the audience mics and always muting vocal mics when no one''s singing.

I mixed a live Bryan Adams track the other day that was interesting because it was being used for a movie soundtrack: Hope Floats on Twentieth Century Fox. The producers, of course, wanted it to sound like a studio track, so I had to completely eliminate the audience, which was hard because at the end of the song the audience was leaking into practically every mic. Luckily, the last chord of the song was held by a real string section that was miked with contact mics, so I was able to mute everything else, letting the strings hold that chord where the audience would normally have been roaring.

Paul McCartney''s Tripping the Live Fantastic is, in my opinion, one of the best-sounding live albums to date.

Was this a difficult project to mix? How clean was the location audio?
It was very good, although the guy who recorded it was sitting next to the monitor mixer while wearing headphones and couldn''t hear the cymbals clipping occasionally. There were 80 shows on digital tape, so we had plenty to pick from. They didn''t replace anything, although I did do a few electronic repairs, like taking a solo from one show and putting it on another—things like that.

David Bowie has a reputation for using innovative recording techniques. What was it like being a part of that process?
The Let''s Dance album took a total of fifteen 8-hour sessions to record and mix. It went by so fast I hardly remember it! His most prevalent technique was the "first take" method. He and Chrissie Hynde are probably the best singers I''ve had the pleasure of recording. Unfortunately, on Let''s Dance he didn''t use any of those innovative techniques he''s supposedly known for, unless they went by so fast I didn''t notice them!

What is the most challenging project you''ve worked on?
Probably the first two Robbie Robertson albums. The first one because most of the songs were recorded with absolutely no arrangement in mind, so it all had to be created in the mix. I must add that this made it one of the most interesting and fun albums to mix, despite being difficult. Also, Robbie tends to have a new mix or edit idea every 30 seconds or so, and they''re mostly pretty good.

The producer on the second album, Storyville, left the project after about a year. He had recorded it on Dash 24-track and made slaves for Robbie to do his vocals and guitar on. It turns out that they did quite a number of digital edits on the slaves before they were finished recording on them. Besides not duplicating the edits on the masters, no one thought to keep notes on where the edits were done or what edits were done, for that matter. When I came in to mix it, the producer was long gone. Robbie told me we had to bounce the slaves back onto the unedited master tapes to tracks 25 through 48, and there were just one or two edits to match on the masters. No problem!

I soon discovered it was more like fifteen or twenty edits, and I barely had enough time to mix the album, much less duplicate massive edits, before I had to start my next project. I remember transferring the tapes and Robbie saying, “Hey, wait a minute, the vocal and guitars are playing the second verse, and the drums and bass are still on the first chorus! Oh yeah, I guess I forgot about that one too.…” This went on for more than a week. Of course, the edits had to be matched exactly, otherwise everything after the edit would have been out of time.

What do you think is the best mix you''ve ever done?
There isn''t just one, but if I have to narrow it down, there''s "Into Temptation" by Crowded House, not because the mix is all that great, but because it''s one of the most incredible songs I''ve ever worked on; there''s "Ghost" by Altered State because it''s a real fun, "effecty," over-the-top mix; "Satisfied" by Squeeze and "Victim of Love" by Bryan Adams because they''re both great songs and pretty good mixes; there''s Aimee Mann''s entire first solo album, Whatever, because it''s amazing and unusual sounding; and, probably most of all, Jonatha Brooke''s album Ten Cent Wings because the songs are so good I just can''t stop listening to it.

How about a mix that someone else has done?
It could be "Tempted," by Squeeze, because it simply sounds perfect. In fact, the whole thing—the song, performance, recording, and mix—is absolutely perfect, no matter where I hear it. Hats off to Squeeze, Elvis Costello, and Roger Bechirian! Also it could be "Street Fightin'' Man" by the Rolling Stones.

Tell me about your involvement with the development of SessionTools.
It started when I became tired of not being able to read DAT and cassette J-cards that assistant engineers had scrawled on. I got turned on to Claris FileMaker Pro by someone at A&M Studios, and I started printing them myself. When I opened Mix This! I needed a system of work orders and invoices that was quick and easy because I was doing it all myself. So, having taught myself FileMaker, I created some layouts. I also needed a client database and an efficient way of logging tapes. It turned out the same program was well suited for all these things.

In 1994 I hired Ryan Freeland as my assistant engineer, and he expanded the J-card section to include many other formats—sticky labels, floppy-disk labels, track sheets, and outboard-gear recall layouts. Last year, after a few clients with their own studios asked for copies of the program, my wife, Betty Bennett [president of Apogee Electronics], suggested that Apogee market the whole thing as a stand-alone program. Ryan and I then spent about eight months trying to get it to the point where the general public would be able to use it.

So what projects are next for you?
I''m doing a new Paul Westerberg album, a live Counting Crows project, and more work for the soundtrack of Hope Floats, which I''m producing with Don Was. Aside from that, I''m trying to engineer a couple of days off. I''ve worked pretty much seven days a week for my entire career, and I recently discovered that there indeed is a world outside the recording studio—and it''s actually pretty cool!

To sum it all up, what do you think is the key to a great mix?
I really have no idea. When you find out, please let me know!