An Evening With Mark Linett

Like a lot of us, engineer/mixer Mark Linett ( always wanted to be in showbiz. And he started early. Forming his own lighting company in high school that provided psychedelic backdrops for many of the biggest acts of the late ’60s, Linett parlayed the connections he made into live sound reinforcement eventually landing a gig as live engineer for Frank Zappa, ELO, and Earth, Wind and Fire. Leaving the road for the studio, he became a staff engineer at Sunset Sound before moving to Warner Records’ Amigo Studios where he worked with numerous artists including Randy Newman, Los Lobos, Jane’s Addiction, and Ricky Lee Jones. From the road to his state of the art home studio Your Place or Mine, Mark has immersed himself in countless recordings, including the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Surf’s Up to 5.1 surround — while also managing to earn Grammy nomination for Best Engineering in 2005 for Wilson’s Smile.

Linett has teamed up with a remarkable variety of artists in recent times, with one of the more notable endeavors being his role as head engineer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ double-disc Stadium Arcadium, for which Linett cut all but one of the basic tracks at producer Rick Rubin’s home. Acclaimed for his ability to turn out incredibly clean recordings, and for his old-school philosophy, Linett has secured himself as one of the field’s leading engineer/mixers, and he sat down for an EQ exclusive to discuss the ins and outs of his process. So crack open a cold one if you will, and your notebook while you’re at it, and join us for…An Evening With Mark Linett.
When I went back to do the Good Vibrations box set, Capitol couldn’t find the tape. So for the Pet Sounds box, the ultimate mono-stereo reissue, we’ve had to master from an original analog tape copy, which really doesn’t sound good. But recently Capitol did a search in their library and discovered a tape that I thought had been destroyed, which was the original flat digital transfer we had done of the original mono master prior to working on it in Sonic; it was 16-bit, 44.1 transfer. We put it up and it sounded incredible. So I remastered the album from that, and I think finally the mono album sounds on CD the way Brian Wilson originally intended; it stands up against the stereo mix that I did in ’96 quite well. I wish I’d had this version to reference, because I would’ve done the stereo a little different. Having this kind of sonic quality to compare to, in the balances, I hear reverbs and stuff that I could never hear before.

EQ: It sounds like it would be incredibly complicated taking that old material apart and mixing it in stereo.

ML: Technically it’s not that bad, as the most you’re ever dealing with is 10 or so tracks. The surround mix was problematic on some songs where I only had five tracks to work with. The biggest challenge is preserving the same feeling and attitude. It’s about not doing too much to it.

When I was working on the stereo and the surround mixes, we first had to manually sync up two or more tapes in order to have all the discrete parts to mix from, because in those days to get more tracks they would bounce generations. And so when Brian mixed it originally, he had a mono instrument track, which he’d mixed from the four-track of the tracking date onto either another four-track or an eight-track, and the remaining tracks were used for vocals. So to get back to a stereo band mix, I had to go back to the original session four-track, transfer that to digital, and then manually sync the other tapes for each song to the track.

The album is really a study in technology. It was recorded on four- and eight-track analog 40 years ago, cut on vinyl, and since then it’s been in every format known to man. The first time I stereo-mixed it, to get it all lined up I did it with two 16-bit Sony Dash machines. For the surround mix, we used 96kHz/24-bit in a workstation, so it was a lot easier, and the quality increased. Now for the 40th anniversary we’re remastering the album again, and releasing both the mono and stereo mixes.

EQ: Any time you’re attempting to do a stereo mix of a mono recording, you have to make some big decisions. Because mono happens to have its own personality, you must have some philosophy in approaching it. You must have had an extensive discussion with Brian about what you were trying to achieve.

ML: He had an old-school philosophy about mono, shared by his mentor Phil Spector, and not because Brian’s deaf in one ear, but because as a producer he wanted to present the record exactly the way he heard it. And especially early stereo nobody set up right. You could have one speaker behind the couch, out of phase. Who knows what they were hearing? Brian was making singles for AM radio, and that’s all mono. It was pretty clear that when we were going to do stereo that I try to keep the same exact vibe as the mono mix. On some of the early albums he would let Capitol do quickie stereo mixes — one band and two vocal tracks. Starting in 1965, Brian began to cut the band tracks in three-track, spread them out a bit, and then Brian would immediately mix them down to mono. Because of this, you can put up the original three-track (left, center, and right) and you’ll get the same sound, but in stereo. A lot of other early rock stuff needed the mono to make it all come together, but Brian’s productions don’t seem that way. You have balance issues, but it’s easier to keep the feel. The biggest problem we have are songs that can’t be mixed in stereo, because one thing that he did was, if he had just one more overdub, he didn’t make another tape and then overdub on the third track and then mix — he mixed it and did the overdub live while mixing to mono! So “Help Me Rhonda” had three or four overdubs tracked while mixing; Brian doubling his lead vocal as it was being mixed. No punch-ins!

Another problem we had with the stereo mix of Pet Sounds is that Brian cut an awful lot of vocals, and in some cases he went back to pieces of earlier mixes, like the bridge of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” with Mike Love singing — parts that aren’t on the eight-track anymore; Brian sings all the way through when you listen to the eight-track master. But in ’66 he went back and edited in the bridge from a mix where Mike sang.

EQ: When doing the stereo mix, is Brian saying, “I’ve always hated that part, I want to get it out”?

ML: Well, for example, on “Here Today” there’s talking in the solo section; they didn’t key out a track, and some listeners feel that it’s part of the record. When we did the stereo mix, we discussed it with Brian, and he decided to take it out. So nobody would get too annoyed, I included the talking as a ghost track at the end of the disc. But this time around, I could’ve easily taken it out of the mono mix, because rather than use what’s on the quarter-inch tape, which of course is another generation down, I’d go back to the eight-track and pull just the intro off, just the band track, and I can use that clean. I could have done that for parts of “Here Today” but in that case I’m trying to present the nearest thing to the original, and it’s always a rough decision.

EQ: It can be difficult adjusting to changes in a remix, because the balance you know is almost like muscle memory. Your satisfaction comes in hearing things just so. . . .

ML: When we were doing the Pet Sounds surround DVD-A, and remastered both the mono and stereo from the analog at 24/96, I’d always thought that the original done at 44/16 was pretty good. But when we got in the studio and started A/B’ing the two, the difference was just astonishing. Our ears are very adaptive — that’s why you can listen to a 78 and still get something out of it, but when you start comparing two versions of the same thing, then you can really tell what the difference is. And I was really shocked to compare those two formats; I mean, same mastering studio, same tape sources. . . .

I’ve never believed in remixing something “just because.” At one point with the Pet Sounds mono master missing, we considered remixing in mono. We could’ve tried. We could’ve gotten close, but I don’t know whether it really would have been better than using the old analog copy.

EQ: How verbal and hands-on is Brian? Is it mostly a matter of you doing the work and then presenting him with your mixes?

ML: Mostly. For one, he’s not 20 and he doesn’t have the patience to sit around for hours while I mix. He never liked mixing, that’s clear. He came from a school where you did most of your mixing while you were recording. The larger mixing process was never something that appealed to him, and certainly not these days, where we can line up all these tracks to deal with. For the most part he’ll come in after there’s something complete and suggest changes. I actually like to work like that anyway.

I think the most effective way to work as an engineer with a producer is get the mix into what you think is pretty decent shape then give him the whole picture and let him say, “Okay, that’s good, but. . . .”

EQ: You worked on that great, underrated ’88 solo album of his. Do you remember if there was a lot of discussion about miking when you cut tracks for Brian?

ML: With Smile there was a conscious decision to cut the album much like how he had recorded in the ’60s, albeit multi-tracked — put everybody in the same room and let the sounds bleed into different mics. I think that’s so much a part of that great sound on Smile and Pet Sounds, and I guess someone noticed because I got a Grammy nomination for engineering Smile. Of course, Brian’s gotten into overdubbing heavily in the last 20-odd years, and he’s made a lot of great records that way, but to me so much of his original sound was what Phil Spector did: Let the natural sound of a band playing together in the same room bleed into the other mics. It makes it . . . bigger.

Guys like Tom Dowd, when eight-track appeared, liked the medium because they had more control over the performance afterward; it wasn’t so they could isolate the bass and overdub it later. When people started doing that, then these wonderful live acoustic spaces had to suddenly become really dead, because you didn’t want to hear that “good bleed” anymore. Then everybody started wearing headphones. Then people started making different kinds of records because of this — good records were made because of the technology but, at the same time, 14 guys didn’t have to go out there and play it right. . . .

EQ: There’s something very musical about the bleed between bass and drums. What has changed about the way the two are recorded? It seems, at a point, that everyone started building things around the drums.

ML: That was a big change. A lot of what we do now is in putting up room mics to try and get some of that ambience back in, especially from the bass mic. On those old records, they would put the bass right by the drums, and if you wanted a little more drum intensity, you’d bring in a drum mic, but it wasn’t always necessary. Nowadays we try to do it the other way. And before I knew any better I would do bands like that; separate them all across the room.

EQ: Music whose characteristic sound derives from being mixed in the air of the room is fascinating. That was the way they recorded Indian film music orchestras — massive orchestras recorded with one mic.

ML: It’s not hard, because they’re balancing themselves. In some ways recording an orchestra can be the easiest thing, because they’re doing all the work.

I ended up cutting all the tracks on the last Red Hot Chili Peppers record after Rick Rubin and Anthony Kiedis heard Smile and approached me wondering how it had been recorded. They had decided to cut their record with everyone playing in the same room, as opposed to what they’d done before, which was to put the drums in one room and all the amps downstairs. They used headphones, but it definitely had an effect. We even set Anthony up in an iso booth in the room so he could do his vocals in a live setting. We had Chad in the middle of the room with some basic baffling, Flea to his right and John Frusciante to his left. On the fourth day or so, John wanted more control, so we moved his amps about 10 feet into an isolated room — but it really was a “live-in-the-studio” type of record.

We tracked in a decent-sized ballroom with a fairly low ceiling, maybe 10 feet or so, with a huge American flag hanging which softened it a bit, but a good sounding room nonetheless.

One of the problems was that it was a bit hard to tell what was happening with the low end, because there was so much radiating into the control room. So we’d get the balance during the playbacks and stick with that. Normally when I cut basic tracks I want to be able to bring some ambience in with room mics, but in this case the trick was to use fewer mics. In the end they wanted to have more room ambience to use in the mix, which was not what we originally went for — the few dynamic room mics put up were hardly even monitored. The very first session we tried some Neumann M-50s in the room, but they picked up way too much trash and they were gone in 10 minutes.

EQ: The initial idea was to get a live sound, but what the room mics were getting was too live?

ML: The idea was to record everybody in the same room, but you had Flea’s entire concert stack blasting! And that’s what you heard in the M-50s.

I found the best way to capture the whole drum kit was with two Sony C-37s, one over Chad’s left shoulder, one back off the floor tom, and then kick and snare mics. The strategy was to get the majority of the kit in an ambient sense, but also to reduce the number of mics picking up too much slush. I found, with the C-37s and the snare mic placement, that we couldn’t mic right on top of the snare — it had to be about 6–8" back so that, when fed in with the C-37s, it would fit. The snare had a 57 and the kick was usually a 421, or sometimes an AKG D-12 paired with a U-47 FET. The toms were miked with Beyer M-500 ribbons, which most often were not monitored. There were also some songs where we altered the drum sound by using dynamic mics for overheads to get a more direct sound, but the basic setup stayed the same.

Rick was very specific; he gave me a general idea going in of how he wanted to track and then got more in-depth during the session about the sounds and then quickly settling into which mics he wanted to use. For Flea, we used the Evil Twin DI and an Electro-Voice RE-20 for one setup. The bass sound would change more than anything, because he was always changing his settings, and his setup. John, on the other hand, has a very basic setup; he knows exactly how to get his sound: “Put a 57 here, a 57 here, and an ambient Reslo here” and that’s it.

Recording the Peppers was always a bit tricky. They’d start to run through a new song, and the first time they played it was just as likely to be a keeper, or at least played back, as anything else, so I had to be very careful about making any changes while they’re running down the song.

EQ: I gather you were recording to 24-track analog?

ML: Yes, and that was a challenge, as Quantegy had gone bankrupt two months before we started. But we called all over the country and managed to find about 100 reels of GP-9, and also a lot of 456 just in case we ran out.

EQ: You obviously have an old school ethos. How has the actual process of recording changed for you in regards to the tools you utilize?

ML: I’ve always done a lot of live recording. I used to have a 16-track two-inch that I would drive around, then a 24. Now it’s always 48-track digital on a Genex 9048 hard disk recorder, but I still find it exciting. I bought a digital console to do my live on-site mixes, a Mackie Digital X Bus 200, which I like a lot. It’s small, powerful, and it mimics an analog console, which I like. Ultimately when manufacturers wisen up, we’ll see more touch-screen control, as opposed to, say, the Icon. You don’t need a million knobs and buttons; you need to be able to get to it all.

EQ: You’ve said in the past that you like to approach Pro Tools as a tape recorder. Do you have a basic setup you like to work with?

ML: At this point, if I had to, I think I could try and do all my work on a digital console, but I much prefer mixing on my analog API. I’ve done all-digital projects, and while that worked fine and sounded okay, it never had quite the same vibe musically: It never seemed to quite stick together the way it did taking it out into an analog console. For me, Pro Tools has just made life easier and more convenient. It’s a tool, and as such can be used for good or evil.

To go back to just the tape recorder wouldn’t bother me. But I must have spent at least half my life waiting for tape to rewind, and that’s not something I miss.