Bob Clearmountain Interview: Scaling the Heights

It’s one of our biggest ever studio engineer interviews . We speak to Bob Clearmountain about mixing some of the most iconic artists of our time…

It’s traditional in this kind of interview to open up with a ‘xxx has worked with some of the biggest names of our time’ quote, but with Bob Clearmountain you get the impression that such a throwaway line wouldn’t be doing the man justice. Besides, it might be easier to list the people he hasn’t worked with, such is the length of the man’s CV and the time that he has been working in a recording studio environment.

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Bob started working as an engineer in the early 70s at New York’s Media Sound Studios, before becoming chief engineer at the iconic PowerStation Studios. Since the 80s, he has worked as an independent engineer with artists including The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Bryan Adams, Chic, Simple Minds, The Pretenders, Hall & Oates, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Ferry, Robbie Williams, Elton John, The Kinks… the list really does go on.

He’s also worked on such high-profile productions as Live Aid and The Concert For New York City. He runs one of the finest studios money can buy – as you will see from some of the shots accompanying this interview – with one of the most extensive kit lists. There’s plenty to talk about then, so let’s get straight to it…

MusicTech: Tell us about the early years and how you started your career…

Bob Clearmountain: I was a bass player in a band that was doing a demo at a studio called Media Sound in New York. Right in the middle of it, the band split up and I started hanging around at the studio and ended up making some friends there. After several months, I convinced them to hire me as a runner, but it turned out they didn’t need runners.

On my first day, I was out on an errand and when I came back they sent me down to Studio A, where there was a Duke Ellington session going on. So I was kind of thrown in at the deep end!

I was always the guy in the band that was recording the gigs – I had a little tape recorder, I used to record my friends in their basements with a little two-track studio, so the first time I walked into the studio I thought ‘I could just live in this place!’ and I still do after 40-something years.

MT: Tell us about the time when you first became aware of being successful in the studio…

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BC: I worked at Media Sound for five years, and then one of the engineers, Tony Bon Jovi (yes, Jon’s cousin!) – who had some big hits with the disco version of Star Wars – asked me to be part of his studio, and that was PowerStation in New York.

I was the first guy he asked to be involved. So we started that studio and we co-produced some punk-rock bands. Our first client was actually Chic, who became a huge disco band. I had recorded and mixed Le Freak, which was the biggest record Atlantic Records had ever had at that point. We did 12 inches, long versions, dance versions and things like that. Someone at Atlantic – they had The Rolling Stones – wanted a dance version of a Stones song called Miss You.

So I was working with Jagger, and I mixed the dance version and the single version. That led to Roxy Music, and then I co-produced Bryan Adams’ second album, and that became a big thing. The next album of his I produced was Cuts Like A Knife, and that was a pretty big album, too. It kind of went on from there: the 80s were non-stop and there was always something going on. It was either INXS or Hall & Oates, and then Springsteen… on and on!

MT: Tell us about some of your early experiences with studio technology…

BC: Early in the 90s, I was doing a lot of live album mixing and video things for live concerts. There was always the problem that sometimes people’s monitors weren’t right (this was before in-ear monitors) and sometimes people played a little out of time.

It always bugged me if the bass was out of time with the drums. I was trying to find some way of easily fixing that without actually flying in bits of half-inch tape. There were a few digital editing systems that I tried.

SSL had one, there was an AMS one that I used a bit on a Crowded House record. My wife was friends with the Pro Tools guys before it was Pro Tools. I think it was called something like Sound Design, so I went up to try it out. I tried it and hated it! But they said they were throwing in these things called Pro Edit and Pro DAC for free and I should try them. They weren’t really pushing it, it was just something one of their guys had come up with.

I hated the Sound Designer thing, but Pro Edit did exactly what I wanted. It was great for editing singles. There was always that problem where doing a single edit meant cutting up the original tape, and it was the same for instrumentals, TV tracks, different vocal levels and so on. I found that in Pro Edit I could record them all into the system with timecode and edit them all at once. I still do it basically the same way as that. Eventually, it became Pro Tools instead of two separate programs.

Clearmountain’s ‘Rolling’ rack

It was amazing because I could do things so quickly and easily and not have to sit there with a razor blade and cut things up over and over again. You could do edits with it that you could never do with tape, like a five-second crossfade. This was around ’91 and it was four-track, there was no real multitracking.

I never used their interfaces, I always used Apogee stuff and went in digitally. I was one of the first people ever to use Pro Tools in a professional capacity. I’ve tried other things – Logic is excellent – but the editing is more instinctive in Pro Tools, plus most people use it.

Now I have several rigs: I have a multitrack rig that has 80 channels, and a 72-input SSL. Also, an eight-channel rig that I mix to. Regarding updates,

I tend to wait until all the bugs have been ironed out. I have too much going on to worry about being a beta tester. I’m on PT11 now, and will probably move to 12. I’ve worked with Avid recently on ideas for their S6 control surfaces, and some things on there are my suggestions, so I’ll need PT12 to take advantage of them. I think that Avid has got much better lately at listening to users and taking on board their ideas.

The “Machine Room”

MT: How has technology changed what you do?

BC: For me, things haven’t changed so much. I’m still mixing on an analogue desk, I don’t mix in the box or use many plug-ins. The tools have changed, but what I do really hasn’t much. I use these surround convolution reverbs, like Altiverb, that I really like.

I enjoy anything that’s as close to reality as I can get. I used to have to try to create these things. I had two echo chambers in the basement, they used to be a wine cellar. I ended up taking impulse responses of the echo chambers using Altiverb, and gradually they ended up going back to being storage spaces! The responses sound pretty much identical to what the chambers sounded like.

The ‘Travel Rack”

MT: And carrying on from that, technology really has levelled the playing field in terms of how anyone can now buy these plug-ins. Is that a good thing overall for music?

BC: That’s a really good question. There’s probably a lot of people making records whose talents could be put to better use through other avenues. There’s a lot of awful records being made, as well as the good ones! It might sound like an elitist thing to say, but me and my friends worked really hard to get where we are. We’d spend 15, 18 hours every day in the studio honing our craft and learning what we do.

At Media Sound, we would go in at the weekend and we’d try every mic and every instrument we could find. We’d make mistakes and we’d produce our own little demos, and learned how to do it.

Nowadays, I get emails that say ‘I have my PC and I spent $200 on my software and I have all these plug-ins. How come my records don’t sound as good as yours? I’ve been at this for four months!’ And I say, ‘well I HOPE they don’t!’.

When I started, we didn’t have plug-ins. If you wanted phasing, you had to figure out how to do it with a tape machine. Or three tape machines. To me, it was a lot more fun. I was lucky that we had to figure out how to create these things for ourselves.

I actually feel bad for people these days because they probably don’t really understand what things are. They just click a few things on something that looks like a spaceship on their screen. To me, that’s just boring.

I started in ’72, and I remember working on a Stones record. A producer called Glyn Johns stopped by, he was one of the reasons I got into the business – I wanted to be like him. He came in and looked at this SSL (at PowerStation), looked at the 48 channels and said, “what do you need all those channels for? Do you realise what I used to make records on?” And he was right! He’d have maybe eight channels or less to work with, but if you listen to those records now, they’re still unbelievable.

Clearmountain in Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock

MT: Tell us a little bit about your current studio setup…

BC: I have two Pro Tools rigs, and it’s all Apogee conversion. I have Dynaudio BM15A speakers, which are discontinued, and NS10s. All the stuff I like isn’t made anymore! A bunch of distressors, Lexicon PCM70s, two Pultecs, some Eventide stuff. Avalon EQ, a bunch of DBX902 de-essers, Neve compressors, a bunch of Apogee DACs and preamps; two old Roland and Yamaha digital delays, and an old DAT machine I don’t use anymore.

MT: What studio technology do you rate?

BC: I use the Apogee Symphony I/Os and the Ensemble – a studio in a box: it has a talkback mic, two headphone outputs. You can re-record, it has eight extremely high-quality mic preamps and, of course, Apogee conversion. It just does so much, and if you compare it in price to some similar products it’s amazing what you get.

I’m really into the re-amping feature. They gave me the prototype to play with and I was really impressed with how easy and powerful it is to use. I just bought a new Mac Pro.

I’d actually been using a Mac Mini for my print rig! But the reason I got it is that the Mac Mini only has one Thunderbolt port, and because I’m using an Avid Sync HD I needed more Thunderbolt ports. When I’m working on TV shows, I need to have a second monitor. The Ensemble has two Thunderbolt ports and the Thunderbridge (the company’s interface) has a through, so you can plug a monitor into that.

The main rack at Clearmountain’s studio

MT: Tell us about some of the projects you’re working on at the moment…

BC: A lot of the stuff I do is live concert video, like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and things like that, and Music Cares. I really enjoy doing those things, even though there’s no credit involved. There’s usually a bunch of really good artists, and I enjoy mixing to a picture, seeing what I’m mixing. I’ve also just finished a live Van Halen record with David Lee Roth singing – it was really fun working with those guys. I had a Lenny Kravitz record come out recently, and last year I was able to do surround mixes of Bob Marley’s Greatest Hits album. I can’t even tell you how much fun it was to mix the Legend album.

It’s out on Blu-Ray, and very few people know about it, so it would be great to tell more people about it! There’s only one song where the original analogue master had suffered prior to digitisation. Buffalo Soldier had an incredible amount of distortion, obviously something had happened to the tape, so we had to put it through a whole bunch of plug-ins to clean it up. But the rest were really good.

Unfortunately, a few masters had been lost and one track had to be re-processed from the stereo, but most of them were an absolute pleasure to mix, I have to say.

The modified SSL 4072 G+

MT: What are your thoughts on the current state of the music business?

BC: The internet has obviously changed everything, in this and other businesses. I’d be just as happy if they just unplugged the internet – it’s destroyed a lot of businesses, including the record business. Obviously, it’s useful, but I don’t know if that outweighs the bad sides. In terms of advice for anyone looking to get into the industry, the first thing I’d say is don’t expect to make any money.

If you’re looking at it as a way to become a rich superstar, that happens to .0000001 per cent of the people in the business. There are incredibly talented singers and musicians who nobody ever hears about. They’re just lost, and you have to be lucky enough to be Taylor Swift. But making music is still a wonderful thing, and if you actually believe you have talent you should go with it.

When I started out, people told me I should be a producer. I tried it, but actually hated it! Not only did I not like it, but I wasn’t that good at it. I was mixing every day with producers who were great at it, and eventually I thought ‘why am I doing this?’, I’d rather listen to what good producers do.

So if you’re trying your hardest and your music still isn’t that good, don’t do it! There are other careers where you can make a whole lot more money. Don’t do music to become a celebrity, do it because you like the music. I love mixing records – I can’t write songs and I’m a mediocre producer. I can’t sing, but I realised I can mix records. It was more by people telling me I was really good at it that I realised it was the thing I enjoyed the most. Do what you’re good at, that’s the best advice

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