Perhaps what Endino is best known for is the mammoth guitar sounds he consistently gets from the bands he works with and in. By adhering to a “less is more” ethos — focusing more on capturing inspiring performances and translating the artist’s true intent to tape instead of being too heavy-handed with production trickery — Endino as a producer has become synonymous with pure rock. Catching up with Endino at his home in Seattle, we decided to pick his brain about the tried-and-true production techniques he’s employed throughout the years to achieve some of the greatest guitar sounds for some of the most important rock albums of recent years.
EQ: What is/has been your philosophy on recording, and how has it developed over the years?
Jack Endino: When I was starting out, I tried really hard to make my records reach what this idea I thought “professional” sounded like. I went thru all the pitfalls you go through as an up-and-coming engineer — I totally drank the Kool-Aid. Compressing the crap out of everything, click tracks, noise reduction, automation, renting tons of fancy gear, blah, blah, blah. I made some records in three months, some in three weeks, and some in three days. Finally it dawned on me that the “three month records” weren’t really the best ones, and that began a long process of unlearning and rethinking. I guess you could call me an anti-perfectionist now. I believe you should make the best record you can, so I don’t like lo-fi sloppiness for its own sake, but it comes down to what you really mean by “best.” I realized that if records are too slick or too perfect, you just get tired of listening to them sooner. The “soul” lives in the little imperfections. Think of the albums made by the Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, James Brown — even Motorhead for that matter; records that are slightly raw but still sound good are the ones we keep listening to decades later. The big Seattle grunge bands knew this instinctively. . . .
EQ: The rough edges are what define many great recordings.
JE: It’s like I have a sterility meter in my head. I want to make rock records that are honest, sound good, and will stand the test of time. My position now is this: There’s no compelling reason whatsoever to waste days and days in the studio putting a rock band on a grid with a click track, auto-tuning the vocals, and replacing all the live drums with samples. None of that has anything to do with music.
EQ: So what sort of techniques, specifically, did you use in those early days but no longer bother with?
JE: I used click tracks for rock bands a few times, and now I just refuse to. I might start the song with a click just to make sure the band is in the right ballpark, but then I take it out of their headphones. My feeling is that recording music to a perfect grid is a huge killer of soul. The natural variations contain the most emotion and expression; remove those and one entire dimension of the music is gone. And that push-pull thing drummers do against click tracks literally makes me cringe. Click tracks have one purpose and one purpose only, and that’s to make it easier to use certain production techniques. It’s changing the music to fit a production methodology instead of the other way around. But almost anything you once needed a click track for, you can do now without one, with only slightly more work involved. I recommend a little gadget called a Beat Bug [www.luglock.com] for drummers or producers who are worried about tempo. If the drummer’s good enough to play convincingly to a click, he probably doesn’t need the click.
Another thing I avoid like the plague is console automation. Never liked it. It slows me down too much. I’m glad I held out because Pro Tools renders it 100% obsolete. The last record I mixed on an SSL, I never even turned the automation on, just the snapshot thing. Ninety-five percent of the records in my discography were recorded without click tracks or samples, and mixed without automation . . . and for the vast majority I used no compression on the stereo bus either. Mixing without bus compression forces you to work harder on getting your mixes right.
EQ: You’re known for the guitar sounds you manage to get on the records you produce. How do you recommend guitarists prepare for a session?
JE: Change the strings the day before the session, so they have a chance to stretch and settle in. I tell drummers the same thing about drumheads: If you change them at the studio, you’re wasting studio time, plus we will have to keep retuning them every five minutes until they stretch.
EQ: Your recordings have been described as having the quintessential big rock guitar sound. What are some of your choice techniques for achieving enormous-sounding guitar tracks?
JE: Well, less is more. When doubling rhythms, I like one left and one right — that’s it. If you start layering too much of the same performance, playing the same part, you get mush. The character of any performance, the humanity, is contained in all the tiny imperfections and timing differences. Too much layering averages all those little imperfections out. Instead of perfection, you end up with a sort of smeared statistical cloud of guitar with no personality or groove. And trying to make the performances “perfect” so they’ll line up exactly when tripled or quadrupled is just a waste of studio time. One or two killer performances, recorded well and mixed loud, will always sound way more massive than ten almost identical performances layered together. Look, it may have been 20 years ago at the start of my career, but most of Nirvana’s Bleach album has one guitar track, that’s it. We had eight tracks and they had no money, but it worked because the performances were good.
Classic AC/DC and Van Halen are other good examples. A much better way to get a thick sound is to “Y” the guitar out to two or more amps with completely different distortion characteristics, and use different mics, like a [Shure] Beta 58 on one and a [Sennheiser] 421 on another. For instance, a Fender Bassman with a ProCo RAT pedal, and a Marshall with only its internal distortion, can combine and get a huge sound. You can nudge one of ’em in Pro Tools until they are exactly phase aligned. Pan those and you can get an extremely stereo sound from a single performance . . . or combine them on one side, and then double it, maybe trying a different amp combo. You do have to watch for polarity issues, though, as often one amp’s output will be 180º out from another, depending on how many tube stages the signal is going through in each amp.
Now, if you just use two different speaker cabs with the same amp, the stereo difference is almost not worth bothering with. And using micro-delay tricks to “split” the sound left and right is a total waste of time unless you are doing it on purpose as a gimmick. It never combines to mono very well.
EQ: Since you put more stock in the performance than the production technique, do you tend to push guitarists to do hundreds of takes?
JE: Screw that! There’s a bell curve to performing: It gets better for a while, and then it just gets sterile. I’m extremely sensitive to finding the top of that curve, which just might be the key to my whole career. Absolute perfection is boring. Sometimes I think you should get to the point where there is one tiny imperfection left that no one else can hear, and then stop. But often I lose that argument, we do 15 more takes, and pretty soon I’m ready to kill myself. My advice is: If you sense that the players are getting into a rut, move on to something else and come back to it fresh.
EQ: What to you are the defining aspects of a great guitar sound?
JE: The player. Amateur guitarists don’t know when they are out of tune; they use too many effects — too much reverb or distortion. Sometimes they’ll want to put the mic too far away, or think a “room sound” is important when they haven’t even gotten a decent close-up sound yet. Worst of all, amateurs may not realize when they have a crappy, shrill guitar tone with too much 2.5kHz (what I call the “pain” frequency). And I’m sorry; amp simulators are nice for not bothering the neighbors, but nothing beats actual air moving.
EQ: So how do you deal with an amateur guitarist?
JE: That’s easy: Get them a great guitar sound and a great mix to play along with, and then start telling them stories about some of the other bad guitarists I’ve made great records for. Get them to play a few takes, whack together a quick composite track of the best bits, play it back and watch them smile as they realize it just doesn’t have to be that hard. And remind them that it’s just rock — not rocket science.