Tag Archives: Mitchell Froom

Bob Clearmountain, mix engineer

The idea of “mix engineer” and “tracking engineer” never used to be different job titles. Before Bob Clearmountain, the only guy I can think of to be known as a prominent mixer but not a tracking engineer was Tom Moulton, the pioneer of the 12-inch disco mix. Clearmountain is a line in the sand, the guy who was hired just as much for the rep he had as a hitmaker as for his mixing skills. It’s not much of an overstatement to say that mixing engineer and tracking engineer become different job titles begins with Clearmountain. Many others – the Lord-Alge brothers, Andy Wallace, Michael Brauer, Ron Saint Germain, Rich Costey, Tom Elmhirst, Mark Stent, Andy Sneap – have, for better or worse, followed.

Making his name with his work on records by Kool & the Gang, Chic, Roxy Music, Springsteen and the Rolling Stones (who sought him out to mix Miss You and have kept him on board more or less ever since), Clearmountain was soon all over the radio, mixing records by many of the biggest names of the era: David Bowie (Let’s Dance), Huey Lewis & the News (Picture This, Sports, Fore), Meat Loaf (Dead Ringer), Hall & Oates (Big Bam Boom, Ooh Yeah) and Bryan Adams (Cuts Like a Knife, Reckless), as well as continuing his association with the Boss (the apogee of which was, of course, Born in the USA).

But Clearmountain’s years of big bam booming mixes aren’t what I want to talk about here today. They do their work with total efficiency, but they can be brash and overbearing, like many of the artists in whose service they were employed. And, interestingly, Clearmountain, when asked in 1999 by Sound on Sound which work he considered his finest up to that moment in his career, pointed at his work with Aimee Mann and with Neil Finn’s Crowded House.

These records (with the exception of the first Crowded House album, which is fairly of its time sonically – the mix of Don’t Dream it’s Over, for example, is needlessly grandiose) give us a Clearmountain who, while still all about vocal and rhythm section, is also much more intimate and subtle than might be suggested by his reputation as the ultimate hitmaker.

Let’s examine some individual songs and techniques.

When I say he’s all about vocal and rhythm section, what do I mean? Let’s take Four Seasons in One Day by Crowded House from Woodface. The mix is noticeably uncluttered, even as it builds. The main rhythm guitar, placed centrally and presumably played by Neil Finn, is way, way quieter than most contemporary mix engineers would have it, which gives plenty of space to the Finn brothers’ vocals, and ensures that when the drums enter, they have plenty of space and punch. The piano that enters on the word “domain” is panned right, the shaker entirely left. In the second verse, an electric piano enters on the left, and Tim Finn’s voice joins in centrally, as does the “choir” vocal. In the chorus, you get drums (stereo), a mandolin on the right and what sounds like a Mellotron on the left, which drop out again for the harpsichord solo and final mini verse, before coming back in for the last chorus.

Of course, any great record is a product of many people’s labour. Nick Seymour’s bass playing is superb, and Paul Hester resists giving the drum track an arena-sized performance. Finn and producer Mitchell Froom deserve great credit for the arrangement. But still, Clearmountain’s mix is extremely lucid and spare, so that the details that are included (the counterpoint harpsichord, the choir, the mandolin) make that much more impact. And, it should be stressed again, part of the reason there is so much space to fill with these important touches is because Clearmountain didn’t make the rhythm guitar, which provides the song’s harmonic and rhythmic glue, very prominent. The same is equally true of his mix on Fall at Your Feet, which is another masterclass in these techniques.

Mixing acoustic guitars against drums is far harder than you might think, particularly if the performance isn’t hugely tight; I hear many mixers resort to ludicrous levels of compression so that neither instrument has any attack left, purely in an effort to prevent distracting flams where the snare drum and guitar strum aren’t in sync; an example of a cure that’s much worse than the disease. Of course, a good performance on both instruments by players who can work with each other’s feel will help, but the noughties fashion, which still continues (and which is so prevalent it filters down to open mics and small club shows), of having a simple, bare-bones strummed guitar right up at the forefront of the mix is needless and completely antithetical to good-feeling rock music, which is, was and ever shall be about the drums first.

At the other end of the decade, Clearmountain worked with Aimee Mann on two projects – the Magnolia soundtrack and studio album Bachelor No. 2 – which have so far proved to be their final collaboration. The two records share several songs, so let’s look at one that’s on both: You Do.

The first thing to say is that You Do is not built on a live drum track, but a loop. Working with loops rather than live drums changes things within a mix, within a production, quite substantially. A live drum track, whether recorded with a whole band or separately as part of an overdub process, creates a sort of dynamic roadmap for a song, wherein this bit gets louder, this bit gets quieter, this bit builds in intensity by the use of crash cymbals rather than ride cymbal, this bit pulls back by replacing open snare hits with cross-stick, and so on.

Now, you can program loops to mimic this kind of thing, but no programmed loop ever has the moment-to-moment interaction with other musicians that a genuinely live off-the-floor take has, or even an overdubbed performance from a drummer who genuinely knows and feels the song. It’s not uncommon to hear tracks that attempt to present programmed drums as live performances, but it’s extremely uncommon to find it done well enough to fool a drummer or anyone with a good ear.

Mann, the song’s writer and producer, and her manager and former bandmate in Til Tuesday Michael Hausman (a drummer), wisely decide not to try to make the loop sound like a real kit. There are no fills, no cymbals and no frills at all except for a ritardando at the end of the song. This creates its own issues though, particularly for the mix engineer. With the drum loop playing over and again at the same intensity, do you use volume rides or heavier compression or something to create a difference at different points of the song? Do you, maybe, ride the reverb return to make the loop “bigger”? Adjust the balances of the other instruments?

All these issues faced Clearmountain when mixing You Do. So the main skeleton of the mix is as follows: bass, drum loop, vibes, lead vocal in the middle. Main rhythm guitar (acoustic) on the left (hard left) and electric lead hard on the right. In the chorus we have an added piano on the left, a keyboard on the right, Chamberlin (Mellotron) strings on the right and a couple of electric guitars playing a lead riff, one right and one left, plus added vocals in the middle. Again, Clearmountain is creating space in the middle for those vocals by keeping everything else out of the way (the key advantage of bold LCR panning, but something many neophyte mixers are frightened of – mainly because if the arrangement is itself unbalanced it will create an unbalanced LCR mix). This time the acoustic guitar is quite prominent, but it’s panned out of the centre, so the overall effect (creating space for vocals and lead instruments) is the same as it was for the Crowded House track looked at earlier. The sparser, more ambient, third verse, has some beautiful effects – I love the electric guitar tone, the squiggly synth line at about 2.42 and the single-note guitar (?) that floats from the right to the centre and back again between the line “Baby, anyone can change” and the first line of the final chorus “And you do”. In the midst of a fairly dry and organic presentation, there’s some subtle but very effective time-domain effects on these things, which may have come from the players or Clearmountain. Either way, it’s great stuff.

Bob Clearmountain’s work speaks loudly of quality and big-budget luxury (does anything in popular music sound bigger or grander than More than This by Roxy Music from Avalon?), yet he’s adaptable, soulful and alive to the artistic as well as commercial possibilities of the music he mixes.

bob clearmountain

A rough demo of a new song:

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Sulky Girl – Elvis Costello & the Attractions

It doesn’t sound like an oldies band. I couldn’t believe it when they cranked up behind me.

Elvis Costello

Sulky Girl was the UK single from Brutal Youth, the 1994 Elvis Costello album that reunited him with the Attractions, drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve and, rather surprisingly, bassist Bruce Thomas (surprisingly because Bruce and Elvis had famously not got along for some years by this point, with Thomas’s 1990 memoir and its unflattering portrait of Costello a key source of friction). Fans were delighted, critics were split on its merits (too long, said many) but, significantly, it got Costello back in the public eye in a way he hadn’t been for some time. He’d had a heavily bearded wilderness period around the time of 1991’s Mighty Like a Rose, and 1993’s collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters, hadn’t exactly thrilled a lot of old fans of his spleen-venting late seventies output either. In an era when lots of mainstream music was relatively raw and unvarnished and a significant majority of bands openly looked to the past for their inspiration, younger listeners were potentially receptive to veteran artists if they could make a record that sounded alive and vital. With Sulky Girl making number 22 (his first top 30 single in 10 years), Costello even got back on Top of the Pops, singing a spirited live vocal over a pre-recorded radio edit while the band mimed dutifully along.

I was one of those young listeners, having never previously given a thought to Elvis Costello one way or another in my 12 years. I’m sure I knew who he was, may have known a song or two other than Oliver’s Army (Watching the Detectives, possibly), but he wasn’t on the radio all that much, he wasn’t someone either of my parents liked, so I didn’t know anything about him. But he was right in his assessment – this didn’t sound like an oldies band. The compilation album I had with Sulky Girl on it contained nothing else with as much energy, not even from the youngsters (Blur, Oasis, Suede – this was 1994, after all).

Sulky Girl has most of the hallmarks of a classic Elvis Costello tune, both the good and the bad. Starting with the bad, the lyric is considered but perhaps not quite as clever as it would like – ‘He’ll pay for the distance between cruelty and beauty’ is a terrible way to close the final verse, contorting both the previously established rhythm of the line and the natural cadence of the word ‘beauty’. Hard to know what he was thinking with that one. And while the sulky girl does come off better than other women in EC tunes – she is unambiguously portrayed as the intellectual and moral superior of men she encounters, and of her family too – Costello can’t resist a final section, telling her that, unlike everyone else, he sees through her.

Still, Costello is usually at his best when he’s telling someone else what they’ve done wrong, and the band do everything possible to drive him along, to wind him up further. Pete Thomas, a real drummer’s drummer, plays a particular blinder in this respect. His verse groove (half-time feel, tom on the backbeat, filtered/distorted by Mitchell Froom – or possibly the groove is the combination of a loop and some live drums from Thomas) is nicely atmospheric and ominous, promising an explosion, which duly comes with an eighth-note build-up on snare and floor tom under the final line of the verse, taking us into the chorus.

Thomas’s snare drum, as it is on most of the album, is undamped and ringy (this same snare sound is beloved by fans of reggae and hated by fans of Metallica). It’s never going to be appropriate for everything but that unruly sound is perfect for Sulky Girl and adds another dimension to Thomas’s energetic fills, which are a career highlight, particularly the ones in the first bridge: ‘It’s like money in the bank [good fill] Your expression is blank [great fill] But when the chance appears [really great fill]…

Thomas has a fantastic feel throughout the song, animating even the sections when he’s merely playing two and four in a supporting role. He’s right in the middle of the beat, powerful and authoritative, never sounding rushed and never sounding lazy either. What’s really impressive though is that he can do this on any song, at pretty serious tempos, when other drummers would lose their form and get inconsistent. His explanation of his practice regime in Drum! magazine gives a clue as to how he does it:

I play eighth-notes with each hand for 20 minutes in unison. I like the idea of being balanced and ambidextrous even though I never actually do it. I do eighths counted out to 100. Then I do a shuffle in unison. Then I play double paraddidles, triple paradiddles, then triplets – three on each hand. Then single-stroke rolls, another 100. If I have a demo of the song I am going to record, I set the metronome to the song’s tempo and practice everything at that tempo. Then when it comes to fills in the session I don’t rush. It makes me more confident.

I also use that as a warm-up exercise, three times a day: when I awake, at lunch, and before the show. I don’t always want to do it, but when I hit the stage I don’t get that awful feeling, like, ‘My arm doesn’t want to play this!’ I hate that worse than anything. With Elvis it’s one song quickly into the next, often five fast ones in a row, so I can’t have any cramping.

While he is well known for busy playing and some iconic fills (Watching the Detectives; I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea, with its Mitch Mitchell quotes; Radio Radio), it’s Thomas’s backbeat placement that’s key to his greatness, and a major part of what I think made the song stand out to me as a kid. He was on similarly solid form on Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 (Junk Bond Trader, Can’t Make a Sound, and my favourite, Wouldn’t Mama be Proud), which is where I first had the opportunity really to study him, and became aware – listening to the difference between Smiths sketchy playing on, say, LA and Thomas on Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud – of what difference a great drummer can make when they simply play for the song. But when I want to hear Thomas show off a little bit, Sulky Girl is what I put on.

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Pete Thomas