Production Values

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Superstar of the '70s. Songwriter to the stars. Head of Ringo's production team. With a resume like that, you'd expect someone like Mark Hudson to be unapproachable-hey most people in this industry are. But not Hudson. He's a genuinely nice guy who, through years of hard work, has created a place for himself in rock's encyclopedia.

Hudson began his show-biz career almost three decades ago as a member of the memorable Hudson Brothers musical troupe. From there he has forged a career as a respected musician, producer, and composer, writing songs for Celine Dion ("Reason") and Aerosmith ("Living on the Edge"), among others.

Recently he has been working with a variety of legendary artists. In fact, in producing Ringo Starr's Vertical Man, Hudson's collaborators included George Harrison, Steve Dudas, Joe Walsh, Steve Cropper, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, Steven Tyler, Paul McCartney, Timothy B. Schmidt, Brian Wilson, Alanis Morissette, Scott Weiland, Ozzy Osbourne, and George Martin. Now that's what I call an all-star session.

As a producer, Mark Hudson is known for his reluctance to let technology and money shape the way music is made. Vertical Man, for example, was recorded in a makeshift studio set up in a converted office above a Thai restaurant in West Los Angeles. The Ozzy Osbourne record he recently produced was done not with the typical SSL G-Series/Studer A880 combination but actually using a 4-track Tascam Portastudio. Anyone who can convince Ozzy Osbourne to record his album on a cassette 4-track is a hero in my book. To Hudson, it's all about the vibe, not the gear.

Hudson was gracious enough to spend some time with us talking about his studio philosophy, his thoughts on technology, and his approach to writing and producing music.

Let's talk first about your office/studio. How did it evolve?
As a songwriter, I needed a facility to work in. I also wanted to offer it to acts that were in town looking for a place to record high-quality demos-a place where they didn't have to worry about staying up late or making too much noise. And it needed to have a cool vibe.

Vibe is very important to me in making records. Back in the old days, rooms for recording would have a lot of vibe. Places like Wally Heider's and the Record Plant had more than just great equipment-there was something else there, an ambience. Then people got better at the craft of recording, and bands like Boston and Steely Dan emerged doing all sorts of weird things. The sound really became the emphasis of production and replaced that ambience.

So I decided to make this little place with a "vibe of doom." It's got a wonderful feel to it. I put up cool lighting and some great memorabilia-something signed by a Beatle or a picture of Steven Tyler naked-and suddenly my demos started sounding amazing. I didn't know why this was happening, because my equipment is somewhat antiquated. I don't have Pro Tools or any of the fancy stuff, just microphones stretched out to where the noise is so that it gets on tape.

What equipment do you currently have in the studio?
I have Tascam DA-88s, a Mackie 24-8, and lots of vintage gear, like Masteroom's Echoplate from 1972. My microphones range from Radio Shack-quality to an AKG C 12. I also have Brian Wilson's Wurlitzer and a Hammond B3. I do have things like E-mu's Vintage Keys sound module, but for the most part I go from the ground up and record instruments the way God intended them to sound.

I might have to upgrade from the Mackie, though, because I'm using four DA-88s. When you start having to route tape returns through the top half of the board, you compromise quality: half of your record sounds really cool, but the half that you put up top on the board has a different feel.

What was the first full-length album you recorded there?
Aerosmith was the first band to use the room for material that ended up transferred over to record. Steven Tyler and Joe Perry love what they call the "stank" in my studio. That was when everyone began saying, "Wow, you gotta check out this cool room."

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For the Vertical Man sessions, people were invited in to socialize and even play on the record. One drop-in collaborator was Alanis Morissette, shown here with Ringo and some of Hudson's guitars.

When I started working with Ringo, the first thing he said was, "I love this room; it's like a little cupboard." It's not set up like a normal studio: it's L-shaped, it has low ceilings, and there are all sorts of things sticking out of the walls. So it wasn't like I brought in Bob Clearmountain to say, "Your subwoofer isn't oscillating. Tilt your room to a 45-degree angle." [Laughs.] It's just a room with stuff in it, and I make records in there. Everyone else has great equipment; I have a great-sounding room. I don't quite understand it, but it's kind of like Neil Young's solo on "Woodstock"-he plays this thing that I could never figure out, but I'm jealous that he played it so brilliantly. It's just sloppy, heartfelt rock 'n' roll. To me, that's what it's all about.

When I finished the demo with Ringo, I thought he was going to go to another studio to record the album. So I said, "Ringo, when you do this for real, you'll probably go to A&M or someplace like that, right?" And he said, "What do you mean? This is for real! I like the cupboard. I'm only doing this once, and you're the producer." I was floored.

Ringo liked the freedom we had in my studio. There is no glass partition; everyone is in the same room together. Now, you've got to imagine this sonically: Ringo was bashing away at the drums, while in the same room Steven Tyler was playing harmonica, and three other guys were also playing. It was crowded and loud.

You were tracking everything live?

How did you maintain isolation?
We didn't, really. If we wanted isolation, someone would stand in the other room and close the door. But everyone wanted to be part of the emotional experience. It was very similar to the way the Beatles records were made: we were talking and laughing while tracks were being recorded. That's the fun part-getting the performance at the moment-and then the mixdown is when you get really meticulous. First, of course, you have to write the great song, but then it's a matter of how much fun you can have recording it. Honestly, after doing records like this, I don't think I could go back to working any other way, except that I would consider getting an analog tape machine.

That leads me to my next question: what are your thoughts on the issue of analog versus digital?
There's no question-I'm still an analog guy, although I like the DA-88s. Even when I work digitally, I'm still running stuff through equipment that makes it sound pretty noisy. As [drummer] Jim Keltner said-and I kind of agree: "In digital, you never hear the sound coming and you never hear it going." The signal sort of hits you immediately.

That's an interesting way of putting it. Was it Geoff Emerick that mixed Vertical Man?
Yeah. That was a lesson for me. If every engineer in the industry watched Geoff Emerick for a day, they'd either quit or completely change their way of thinking.

For instance, when mixing the Ringo record, he did stuff like turn the high end all the way up and get rid of the bass completely. It sounded crazy. Then he put the bass back in, after compressing it heavily with two Fairchilds, and it became unbelievable. He tweaks the high end first and gives each instrument its own sonic world. I learned a lot from watching him work.

When I talked to Paul [McCartney] about the Beatles, he told me that they would just turn knobs until everything sounded good. It doesn't matter if you can read a chart and know that you're down 4 dB at 9 kHz. What difference does that really make if it sounds beautiful? I'm not trying to rag on technology, though, because we certainly need it.

Technology makes things easier for us.
It does, especially for collaboration between studios. When I can be in London working with a vocal track that Tom Petty recorded in L.A., and it's all going to the same tape, it's a beautiful thing.

But in general, I think that there are a lot of engineers who don't know how to do the simple things, like miking instruments. A lot of production today is based on computers. I was trained by Phil Ramone and learned a lot from him about miking and ambient recording. I haven't seen that style of production since the days I stopped working with him. We've moved away from that, because the technology is too accessible.

Have you been close-miking most of the instruments in your studio?
This is going to sound weird. I just try different mics, and I point a microphone toward the noise. I wish I could say something brilliant, but that's really what goes on. A magazine called me up wanting to know how I got this one great guitar sound on the Ringo record. I told them that the mic cord was 14 feet long, and the amp was 17 feet away, so I just stretched the cord as far as I could and pointed it at the noise. They laughed, but I told them I was serious.

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Steven Tyler is just one of the many artists Hudson worked with during the recording of Vertical Man.

So it was pretty much the guitar signal transmitted through RF?
Oh yeah, and it was great. Now, I'm not really that dangerous-there are miking techniques that I do end up using, especially with a kit like Ringo 's. Geoff Emerick suggested that we use a heavily compressed ribbon mic, because often when you do that, you only need one mic on a drum kit.

Overall, I think miking is very important. But I also think that you need to get the sound you want from the instrument, not from the board. I love running through a Neve preamp for the warmth-but still, you have to put your head in front of the speaker and make it sound good. I've also got that John Lennon thing going with the tape slap. I love that effect.

Are you really using tape echo?
Yes, I have two TEAC machines, and I run them like it was done in the old days. And I have this other piece of equipment that I speak very highly of, the Alesis Midiverb Ill. There's a tape-echo preset in it that is dead-on. We all just say, "Give me more 51," because when you go to preset 51 you become Elvis or John Lennon. You don't have to make the delay time later or earlier, you just pull it up and you're ready to roll. Go to 52 and you're Robert Plant singing "Whole Lotta Love."

I wish we could do away with setting so many parameters on this equipment. I just want to press a button and get the "Whiter Shade of Pale" sort of sound, you know? Because you've really got to know your stuff in order to replicate sounds by tweaking parameters. And as soon as you have to spend time doing that...

The vibe is lost.
That's right. I could go to lunch and come back by the time the guys figure out how to set the oscillator! It's funny, you can get Midiverbs really cheaply now. I was amazed that people thought I was crazy when I sold my Yamaha DX7 for a B3 organ when everyone was in love with the DX7. What that tells me is, don't throw away your old shoes, because they'll come back in style.

I guess it comes down to personal taste and what you're doing. For instance, I love drum loops, even though I've been saying analog this and analog that. I think that putting a real drummer on top of a loop is heaven. Then you just pick your poison. But to me, there's nothing better than a guy in the room playing. And leakage is cool. You know, we never got into separation until music got screwed up anyway. In the big-band days, you'd set up and make your record.

Even the early Beatles records were made like that. I took a trip to Abbey Road recently just to get the vibe of the place. Even though Abbey Road is a big facility, the area where the Beatles recorded is literally the corner of a room-20 feet by 20 feet. So leakage wasn't even an issue then. Once we became concerned about things like isolation, the fun started to go away.

That's why a lot of bands don't like to go into the studio anymore. It's just not fun.
This is where we started our conversation. If I could make my place into a killer studio, that would be ideal. Ringo started this idea that I love. He said, "Anyone who wants to come over can come over. Anyone who can play an instrument will be on the record." So the studio has almost a FawIty Towers quality, where anyone who walks in off the street can hang out. In fact, my landlord wound up playing cello on the title track of Vertical Man!

I'm working now with a band called Colony, a new group. As much as I enjoy working with the really successful people, I also love working with the new guys. It's so aggressive and energetic. They can be a lot more innovative. One guy will start singing into a cup, and I'll say, "Why don't you all sing the backgrounds that way?" They're up for stuff like that. I think that the younger generation is finding out that vibe is cool. You have to sound good, but you also have to feel good.

On the other hand, as a producer, you have to accommodate the band. That's another thing that we've gotten away from. Producers have become too big, and engineers are often bigger than the producers. We're sitting in an industry where you can spend $300,000 just on the people behind the scenes.

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Besides recording well-known artists. Hudson enjoys working with up-and-comers, such as Star (shown here tracking vocals with Hudson), because of their fresh energy and appetite for innovation.

Now, I don't mean that those people don't count. I truly believe that the entire production is a team effort. I just feel that too much credit is given to too many people. I'm only as good as the people I'm working with. However, you do need a "general" to run the show; making a record socialistically just doesn't work. Most of the great records, from the Doors to the Police, had one person who kept it together, even though the other people were part of it. (I always call that person Captain Kirk.)

And, you know, I sometimes knock heads with my engineer, Scott Gordon, because I want to do stuff sonically that breaks the mold. For instance, I want to record strings out in the hallway, because I love the natural ambience. But my hall is only about four feet wide, and there's a huge stairwell, and I want to do a 25-piece orchestra in there. And Scott will say, "Well, how am I gonna mic this?"

One of the songs I wrote for Aerosmith is called "Living on the Edge"-and that's what I do. I would rather be hung from the highest tree for being dangerous than be sitting in a hot tub with 57 other guys who all do everything the same way. I think experimentation is what makes this industry rock. Like when rap first came in, it was a bunch of urban kids' slant on what they thought was cool.

I didn't know how to mic Brian Wilson. He came to sing on the Vertical Man sessions. But he sings really soft, and I didn't know what to do. He triple-tracks vocals, so when it's built it sounds large. But the C 12 was too sensitive, and you could hear him breathing and everything. So I tried a Shure SM57, but that went too far the other way. I ended up using an AKG C 14; it was crispy and had a cool high end, which was perfect for Brian's voice.

I write all this stuff down because then I can look back and remember how we did things-especially when I was working with Geoff Emerick. He has so many cool tricks, like making a Leslie slow down or miking the orchestra through a toilet-paper roll. I always thought that I was groovy and different, and that guy just took me to lunch!

So you kept a diary throughout the sessions?
Oh sure. I think it's a good thing to do. I learned that trick from an early record I had-I can't quite remember which one-that said on the album cover what mics had been used and how the producer had miked everything. When I saw that, I thought it was so cool, because now and then, with the body of work that I've done, I often say things like, "I'd love to get a sound like we got when we did those hand claps." I can go back to my notes and see that, oh yeah, we brought some plywood down and we all wore wooden shoes and stamped our feet at the same time that we were clapping our hands.

A diary becomes a stock item in your studio. I think that a lot of producers and engineers should journalize their work, because when you get a sound that you think is magic, that sound could make you famous. Remember, all of those people who wrote the book on sound were just experimenting themselves. God bless them for turning that knob.

What do you think is the best album you've worked on?
Wow. [Long pause.] I'll have to split it up as a tie. From the perspective of my career as an artist, it would have to be the Hudson Brothers album Baja. With that album the songs were in place, we started getting outside acceptance from our peers, and we started working with other people like the Beach Boys. Sonically it represents the Hudson Brothers more than anything else that we did-from orchestration to rock 'n' roll, with all of our pop sensibility as well as our Beatles-ish longings.

And, as a producer...I think that Vertical Man is, as Geoff Emerick put it, almost like a pack of singles. But to Ringo it was his Sgt. Pepper. And Ringo really trusted me-he let me do what I do.

If you could work on any project-as producer, player, arranger, whatever-what would it be?
I would love to produce Paul McCartney. I think—and I don't mean to sound pretentious—that there's a John Lennon element in me. I don't mean talentwise, but I believe I have some of his spirit, which I think Paul is missing: the darker, cynical rock thing.

Right next door to that, I'd like to produce a Steven Tyler solo album. He also has that John Lennon spirit. But the list goes on and on. I'd love to produce Gladys Knight or Madonna; I love all kinds of music. Because of my Beatles influence, I would love to have produced Elvis.

It's truly unfortunate that, as times change, we start changing our thinking. Sometimes if it ain't broke, don't fix it. That doesn't mean that you can't have a contemporary drum sound or whatever. But some of these bands come back and try to reconstruct their world so far away from the things we loved, and it turns the audience off.

When I did this Ringo record, which was basically a Beatles album without John, everyone rocked. The older guys were just as hip as the young guys, and the younger guys were just as groovy as the old guys.

I keep talking about emotion, because I think emotion translates into sound. When you hear "Good Lovin'" by the Young Rascals, you know they were in a room kicking ass. And that, to me, comes out sonically. When it becomes too much of a business, we're in trouble. I do it for free. Yeah, I love making a living-but at the same time, I still do it for nothing. If I go to my studio today and I don't have job, I'll still be doing the same thing. That's the love of the art.