Session Notes: A Discussion with Engineer Paul Ericksen

I first met engineer/mixer Paul Ericksen when I was shooting a short video with producer Peter Wolf at his studio in Malibu. I interviewed and recorded Wolf at the piano, with his vintage Telefunken ELA-M 250 going directly into my Panasonic DVX-100 camera. Unfortunately, I overdrove the mic, but Ericksen was able to make everything sound perfect by routing the signal through his gear (which included the BIAS SoundSoap plugin). I was impressed.

Ericksen has been at his gig now for more than 30 years. He has recorded Weather Report, Joe Zawinul, Carlos Santana, Chicago, and others, as well as Wolf, whom he has worked with for 25 years. Much of Ericksen’s time is now spent in Wolf’s impeccable home studio—which features a rare, vintage Neve console (one of only five manufactured)— tracking major artists and film and television projects.

When did you decide to become an engineer?

In 1978, when after graduating from high school, I decided to go to college and enroll in a two-year course in the recording arts. Evan Williams was my teacher, and the course used The Recording Studio Handbook by John Woram. Our classroom studio had a 16-track 2" MCI tape machine, a Neve 8016 console, and some good mics and outboard gear—such as an Eventide 910 Harmonizer, a Lexicon Prime Time, KEPEX noise gates, and LA-3A Limiters. It was all cool stuff to learn with. Later, at Soundcastle Recording Studios in Los Angeles, I learned a lot from Bill Bottrell, who was the studio’s chief engineer in the early ’80s.

What was the name of the first song you recorded?

“Man of The North.” My best friend, who also took the recording class, had a good band called Byron. They got a great demo for free out of the deal.

What was your first professional paying gig?

At Soundcastle. I worked there from 1980 to 1986, and they paid me a salary as an assistant. All the first engineers were independent, and they were paid by either a record label, an artist, or a producer. The first time I got a check from a record company was for a Weather Report album for CBS. That was my transition from second engineer to first engineer. It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes, it was a trial by fire.

When did you feel you had “made it”?

There are always different levels of making it. The first time was just getting a job at a studio. Then getting an engineering credit on a record seemed like making it. Then it was being a first engineer and mixing an album. Whatever is your goal is what leads to “making it.” Sometimes we can forget our next goal if we get distracted with the current situation we are in.

What have you learned from Peter?

How to work and enjoy life at the same time! Well, also to use the best equipment, and to hire the best musicians whenever possible.

What was it like working with Joe Zawinul?

Fascinating. He was a master musician and a great human being. I first met him when I was an assistant at Soundcastle. In the beginning, I was getting his lunch, but while assisting on Weather Report’s This Is This! in 1986, Joe asked me if I had any problem mixing the album. I said, ‘No problem!’ Everything he composed and recorded was originally improvised. Then he would transcribe his improvisations, and record them again with all the instruments. After finishing a tune with all the overdubs and production, you could go back to the original demo, and the phrasing would be identical in both versions. He was amazing.

Who are your engineer heroes?

When I was starting out, I really looked up to Bill Bottrell at Soundcastle. My other engineer heroes are Tom Dowd, Bruce Swedien, George Massenberg, Bill Schnee, Alan Parsons, Geoff Emerick, Bob Clearmountain, Tom Lord Alge, Michael Brauer, Tchad Blake, and Steve Albini.

What are your favorite new recording tools?

We recently started using an awesome new mic preamp built by Carl Johnson of CRS Industries in Ventura, California. It’s called a DM 2412, and it’s incredibly transparent and quiet with a detail I have never heard before. I can’t wait to try it on everything we record. Also, Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere synth plug-in is really cool. The textures and rhythm patterns are really useful.

Do you have a favorite vocal mic?

The Telefunken ELA-M 250 and AKG C 12.

How do you record Peter Wolf’s Boesendorfer Imperiale?

With two AKG C 12s through the new DM 2412 mic preamp. We used to use Neve 1073 mic preamps, which we liked, but this new sound is better.

When you are recording music for film—especially overseas—how do you deliver the material?

Lately, we have switched to, which is great. It’s fast and cheap compared to using ISDN. Sometimes, we use FTP or SFTP sites, which also work okay.

What makes a great producer?

Great musicians.