MY NAME IS DAVE RAT & YOU’RE HERE WITH ME NOW

Dave Rat was born in Alabama, grew up in California, and has done a few things: tested games for Mattel, tested missiles for Hughes Aircraft, and tested the outer parameters of sonic savagery with his Rat Sound dealio. Sound engineer, sound equipment designer, developer of the Micro Wedge (ratsound.com), and provider of concert touring sound for Black Flag, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against The Machine, REM, Jimmy Eat World, Bad Religion, The Bangles, Blink 182, Beck, The Cult, The Foo Fighters . . . is that enough? Cause there are a hell of a lot more names I could drop . . . damn, you guys are starting to piss me off.
Author:
Publish date:

Anyways, he’s got this funny way of answering the phone: both warm and with a hint of warning, like if you’re a telemarketer or any other variety of ass clown you better watch out cause you picked the wrong guy on the wrong day. Lucky for me Dave doesn’t know yet what a total punk I can be so we had a fine old chat, and I present it now to you my loyal servants.

Dave Rat: Is this article about whether or not women wearing clothes affects the sound quality at a strip club differently then if she were, say, wearing more clothing at a different kind of club?

EQ: Yes, of course that is exactly what this is about! So what are your feelings on the subject?

DR: As much as possible.

EQ: As much clothing?

DR: (Laughing) No, no, as much feeling!

EQ: Let me be serious for a moment: How’d you get started in the sound game?

DR: I was hanging around a lot of punk bands at a place called The Church in Hermosa Beach. Bands like Black Flag and Red Cross would rehearse there, SST records was basically started there. So I would record bands with two microphones and a cassette deck, in exchange the bands would get me into the clubs. That was around 1979 I think. Then from one band I would meet another and so on until I was doing backyard parties and even building my own speakers.

I mean I had just bought a four-track recorder and I was on my way to record a friend’s band, and there was this guy, Tom, that lived below the studio and he said he had some gear I could check out. I walked into his place and he had a PA set up in the living room! It was so cool. He then told me he was building some monitors to go along with the PA and asked would I like to help? He built four and I built four, and that was what I used for my first PA and also how I learned to build speaker cabinets.

EQ: You are a man of many talents. I understand at one point you were repairing mics for a living?

DR: Rat Sound had grown as a PA company and we were doing more and more shows, and even some installations. Then we got robbed at gunpoint, they tied us up and loaded all our stuff into my van and drove away. So we didn’t have any PA gear to make any money, and my partner Brian and I had quit our real jobs at Hughes Aircraft and so Rat Sound almost went under.

So I started repairing amps and mics to support myself. I would maintain the sound systems of various Hollywood clubs as well. Also, I would go to all of the rehearsal halls and recording studios and convince them to let me work on their boxes of broken mics. I mean every studio had one. I would make a deal: two for one — for every two mics I fix I get to keep one of equal value. ‰

EQ: They would go for that?

DR: Of course, it didn’t really cost them anything and in the end they had working mics that they’d written off as dead. Also, I would keep all the broken parts for later use. When I was done I would take the mics that I had earned and sell them. I was able to fix up to 20 to 30 mics a day on some days, and getting between $100 and $500 per mic. So it turned out to be pretty good money.

EQ: So then you funneled the money back into Rat Sound to keep it afloat?

DR: (Laughing) No I funneled it into my belly so I could eat, but that kept me alive and that helped me restart the business.

EQ: What about recording live shows? It can be so difficult for a multitude of reasons, what’s your approach about?

DR: There seems to be two trains of thought when it comes to live recordings. One is to try and capture the absolute best sound you can to tape. That comes more from the studio-recording point of view. The other, which I think is far more applicable to live shows, is to capture the most accurate snapshot of your subject that you possibly can. When you have the raw but accurate snapshot, you can then begin to manipulate it any way you want. That way you may not be getting the best sound, but it is UNdoctored so at least you know you’re not making any steps in the wrong direction. Even when I was doing the Chili Peppers or mixing Rage Against the Machine or any band that I have done live multi tracks with, I could take the output of the tape machines, play the show from the night before and plug them back into the mic preamps, and use the exact same settings I use live except for the gain stage on the front end and it will sound like the band is right there back onstage. I can actually sound check a band without the band being there, using tape inputs: It’s the same mics, the same input levels, the same compression, etc. So my opinion is this: Go as close to direct microphone to tape, undoctored, and no EQ, though occasionally I would introduce peak limiting or some kind of protection mechanism, just to make sure we don’t go over.

EQ: Which mics do you favor?

DR: I put together my optimum mic package for what I need. I can listen to a guitar rig and know what a SM 57 or Audix D3 will sound like on that rig. At this point in my career I pretty much know what most instrument/mic combinations will sound like once I hear the instrument, so I choose mics from that perspective.

But when I’m building my mic chart I take two things into account. One is the mic instrument combination that I consider optimum. Two is safety/versatility, for example I currently use an SM/Beta 91 and Audix D6. Both have assets, and I could get away with either. I use the combination of the two to be versatile, so I can alter the sound from song to song just by using a fader rather than EQ and also as safety: If one mic goes down I can just dial the other one up. Having a single-mic kick drum go down is catastrophic to a show.

Same theory on the snare: On top I use an SM/Beta 98 and on the bottom an SM 57 or Audix i5, depending on the drum. I really like what Audix’s done with the capsule that’s in the OM7, the D3, and a similar version, which is in the I5, as well as the D6 kick drum mic. That whole series that uses what I believe they call the VLM transducer sounds great. Anyway on the toms and hi-hats you will see a lot of SM/Beta 98s as part of my set up, I love them, those mics are just great and I have not found anything that could replace them yet. I find the mics I use for live shows are convenient as well, nothing too big and I don’t use any mic stands on a drum kit everything is clamped.

EQ: Why?

DR: It looks good! And it’s easier to set up because the mics don’t move as much so they stay in position. I can’t begin to understand why a touring band would still have mic stands for drums. Clamps are much lighter, much smaller. The only thing that people might think is strange in this is that I clamp under the cymbals, but for live I think the difference between the sound above the cymbal and below the cymbal is irrelevant. Drum mics should be heard, not seen.

EQ: Hey, wait a minute, you helped develop the OM7, right?

DR: Well, when the OM7 was initially released, they came by the old Rat Shop and showed it to us. We try to be open to new products. We listened to it and it was a good-sounding mic. It had a flat top grille on it, instead of a round grille, it kinda looked like an oversized Beta 87ish grille. The mic had excellent feedback rejection but I knew that most bands I worked with would never use it. The feel of the shape of the mic on their lips is as important as the weight, feel, and sound of the mic. The threads were the same, so we started using the mics but with different grilles from another one of their mics. We ordered so many of them and started selling them to so many bands that Audix eventually sent us seven mics with different low-frequency tunings and the grille selection that we requested. We picked the one we felt was best, and with some minor adjustments, that is the OM7 that you see today.

EQ: OK, what do you do when a musician is being an ass clown, like the guitar player can’t tune his guitar but is blaming his sucking on you?

DR: (Laughs) How I deal with it now is very different than how I dealt with it in the old days.

EQ: Gimme a good one, new or old!

DR: Okay, once upon a time there was this up-and-coming band, the house was packed, there was no monitor engineer, I was mixing front of house and monitors from the back. The singer had broken the top off the grille of an SM58 but I didn’t know it at the time, as I couldn’t see the stage. All of a sudden I hear the singer of this cheesy rock band in a whiny voice say . . . ”oh Mr. Soundman? We have half a microphone here . . .” He was being a real . . . umm. . . .

EQ: Dick?

DR: (Laughs) Yeah, he was less than friendly. I’m thinking, “half a microphone what does that even mean?” I get up to the stage, put the new mic on the cable, and hand it to him. Before I am five feet away he starts to taunt me again . . .” Thank you Mr. Soundman . . . about time, Mr. Soundman and on and on.” By now I’m furious. He broke the mic, it hadn’t stopped working, and he’s abusing me as I plow through the over-packed room to help fix things.

Well, that was just around the time that SPX 90s had come out, and as soon as they started the next song I switched over to 100 percent octave-up pitch on the vocals. This was through the house only, so he wouldn’t hear it. He played the next few songs singing like Minnie Mouse. I was trying to keep a straight face but it was so funny.

At this point in my career I introduce myself to the band, make sure they know who I am, and what I plan to do. At this point I wouldn’t work with anyone who was abusive. The bands know that there’s someone out there who’s going to work his hardest to make them sound good but it’s an ‘I respect you, you respect me’ kind of deal. And if anyone is acting overly unprofessional muting the mic is always an option.

EQ: OK, Dave, let’s say I’m a new engineer and I finally feel ready to buy some gear. I don’t want to make a mistake, I just want to have good utilitarian workhorse mics. What do you suggest? This is a four-piece touring rock band with five thousand dollars.

DR: Alright, first you gotta buy an SM 91 and a D6 for the kick drum. For the snare top, maybe a 98 or 57. You gotta have four SM57s cause everybody’s gonna want ‘em and they’re great utility mics. Tom mics, three SM98s would be my choice. Vocal mics, love the OM7s. Gonna buy three of those because they can get loud and they don’t feed back nearly as much as other mics. I will also use those on guitars at times. Bass guitar mic, I again would use an SM98 (the best bass mic I have ever used!). I don’t buy into the expensive tube DI’s, except for looks and if it makes the bass player happy. Sound-wise though, come on! Throw in two or three other mics that make you happy just to have some diversity and any condenser whose model number is not a multiple of the number nine and you should be fine. All told you could put together a fantastic mic package like this for around $4,000.