Walking The Line: Bob Mould Strikes Precarious Balances in Dense Mixes

After writing hundreds of songs over the course of three decades, most songwriters would burn out of fresh ideas. Not Bob Mould. This year marks the 30th anniversary since he formed the seminal post-punk band Hüsker Dü, as well as the 20th anniversary of his first solo album, Workbook. But his latest, Life and Times [Anti-], proves he can still write catchy songs with emotional punch. For Mould, it was all about putting lyrics first and thinking last.

“Let’s say I have 60 lines of text,” he says. “None of them rhyme, and none of them are in the same meter. I sit down with a guitar—perhaps with a capo on the second fret—and strum, like, an E5 chord. My eyes will fix on a line, and I just go. When it’s over, I really have no idea how the song happened. It’s not something I should think about, and nobody should think about it. That’s the problem. People are thinking too much about writing.”

While Mould leaves songwriting to the unconscious muse, the recording process is more concrete. He recorded and mixed everything but the drums (which were played by Jon Wurster of Superchunk, and recorded with help from Mould’s live sound engineer, Frank Marchand). For a second opinion, Mould sent his mixes to mastering engineer Jim Wilson before doing final mixdowns.

“Jim would say things like, ‘You are so close, but lighten up on the compression. I’m losing the bass right here.’ So I would just go back and recompress the bass, or tighten down whatever was loose. Then, I’ll send it back to him, and he would be like, ‘Yep, that’s it.’”

Some years ago, Mould also learned a valuable lesson from mastering engineer Howie Weinberg to help him avoid bass buildup in his tracks.

“He would hone in right around at 165Hz on a recording, look at what was happening in that area, and, a lot of times, he would find a build-up of low energy that was unnecessary,” says Mould. “It might sound good when you hear it on a snare drum and bass guitar, but when you start to get that additive effect when there’s so much information in that area, the mix will get really puffy and indistinct. So when I’m going through tracks, I click on a RNDigital Labs Inspector spectrum analyzer, and if I see too many things competing for that area, I have to make some decisions about what goes there to make the entire mix push just right.”

Back in the ’80s and ’90s when Mould’s bands Hüsker Dü and Sugar were recording, labels had big recording budgets, and Mould cared more about purist production methods. Now, it’s about the quickness of setup, and getting out ideas efficiently.

“Sadly, I’ve gotten really good at getting guitar tones out of boxes—such as Line 6 Pods, Tech 21 SansAmp pedals, and an Aphex 1404 Punch Factory Optical Compressor,” he says. “I know the purists get really crazy about it. But I’m not recording to tape, and I don’t have a big room to mic a big wall of amps from 34 feet away. But, you know, if you see a really nice late-’60s Mustang tearing down the street, you think, ‘Wow, that’s a really great car. I would love to have a car like that.’ You don’t go, ‘I can see one spoke in the hubcap that is not original—it’s new.’ But that’s exactly what those purist guys do—and that’s okay because somebody has got to do that—but the average person only cares about how the song resonates in his or her head, and how it makes them feel at the end of it. They’re not trying to determine if the guitar amps are miked or modeled.”

Although Mould uses soft synths such as Propellerhead Reason for supporting sounds, his mid-’80s Fender American Standard Strat Plus, 1929 Gibson acoustic, and Line 6 Variax Acoustic are the focus of his productions.

“I like guitars to be very upfront and present and sitting pretty far on the edges of the mix,” he says. “Then, if you’re going toward the center, there’s the drum imaging, and then other secondary events such as strings and things like that. Vocal and bass are center. Sometimes, I’ll shift the bass guitar and bass drum slightly off center because it tends to open up a lot of space.”

That space is opened for Mould’s alternately smooth and raspy voice, sung through an AKG C414 B-TL II mic and a Joemeek twinQ preamp/EQ/compressor. Occasionally, he’ll sing only an inch from the mic (as on “The Breach”).

“When engineers hear that vocal sound, they cringe,” Mould says. “But, on occasion, I like it as an effect. I’m trying to make it sound as if I were whispering in someone’s ear.”

Meanwhile, Mould keeps background vocals away from the lead by panning them wide, thinning them out, and adding subtle chorus and heavy compression.

“I tend to thin out the body of them—shelving at 180Hz—so there’s no depth,” he says. “I let the lead vocal take all the density of the chest voice, and the background vocals are more like they’re coming out of the sky.”

Once in a while, Mould gets a little carried away with overdubbing parts. One song that teetered on the edge was “City Lights,” which includes multiple guitars, xylophone, synth pads, vibes, drums, and a busy bass line. But he knows when he’s gone too far.

“When I’m up to my 11th version of the mix, then I’ve sort of wrecked it,” he admits. “I shouldn’t have to fight that hard to balance out things to get the point across. So I go back to the original guitar and voice, listen to it with all the other stuff gone, and I think, ‘What am I really missing here?’ Sometimes, it’s just going back in order of how you created things, and you can see the moment when you put one too many things on.”

Mould’s Fave Plug-Ins

PSP VintageWarmer
URS 1970 and 1980 Series
Abbey Road TG12413 Limiter