RICHARD MULLEN LIST MEMBER INTERVIEW - EricJohnson.com

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Richard Mullen is an engineer who has worked with Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Omar and the Howlers among others. His expertise can be heard on studio recordings and during live shows. The following interview is from questions submitted by the EJ mailing list and transferred to Richard via Park Street, EJ Internet Major Domo.

Park Street: How did you get that really nice tight sound on the kick-drum/bass relationship on "Battle We Have Won"? What kind of mic, settings, compression, eq, etc?

Richard Mullen: Having good players usually helps but on that song Tommy used a very small kick drum. I've found that sometimes a small kick nets a big tight sound. There's usually a sweet spot on tuning a kick pitch-wise and the big kicks have a tendency to be too subsonic. Too low of a frequency to be audible on most systems. The size of the kick being smaller gives a tighter sound. As far as what I used to mic the kick, I've got a mic I've always been very fond of for kick. It's a funny mic that Beyer put out in the mid 70's. It was, I guess, supposed to be cheap version of a Senn 421. It was called a "Beyer Soundstar". It does require a lot of EQ to make it work but you just dip out the 250 to 400 Hz range, boost the highs and it sounds great. Also for a pre-amp I used what I always use which is a 512 API pre-amp with an API 560 graphic EQ. Generally, during mix down I'm not much of a fan of compression unless used for effect. In this particular case, I did run all of the drums and the bass through a SSL Quad compressor to give the drums and bass a little more punch.

As far as the bass is concerned there's not much different in the equipment used. We used an API for a pre-amp and EQ. To mic the amp we use an AKG 414 and used a Countryman D.I. During the mix down we also ran the bass through the SSL Quad compressor with the drums to keep the drum and bass pumping together. I can't say I remember what bass Kyle used but I'm sure it was a Fender Jazz. He mimicked a stick bass on that part. I'm not sure how he did it. You'll have to ask him.

PS: Where does your crystal ball (an educated guess is fine, of course) see Eric musically and commercially five years from now? Ten years?

RM: I think it would be pretty difficult to say where Eric will be in five or ten years, although I know that Eric has desires to put together a mixture of different sounds and directions. The possibilities range from an acoustic guitar CD, to jazz and/or jam CD's along with more song oriented keyboard/guitar CD's and of course his more traditional melodic pop tunes and instrumentals. I think along with different instrumental directions, Eric would also like to focus on songwriting and how to incorporate his guitar styles with some great song writing. Eric has so many things that he can do, the direction will be more of a toss of the coin as to what feels right at the time.

PS: First off, thanks to Park and Richard for doing this interview with questions from the public. 1) Besides a good recording medium, and effects, what are 3 pieces of gear that Richard thinks would benefit a hard drive based home recording set up?(not looking for brand names, just type of gear) 2) Do you have any tips on getting a good mix. i.e. tricks you have learned about where certain sounds go and how to get the best sound to tape? 3) What do you do to get yourself out of a rut when in the studio, going over the same tapes and takes?

RM: 1. Well, there are so many things that benefit a studio's ability that just coming up with three things would be difficult. The obvious things to focus on pertaining to recording are microphones, pre-amps and equalizers. Especially with the new digital recording formats that are pretty transparent, the necessity for good musical sounding gear is important. The word transparent is good in some applications. Once you have a sound you want, you'll want your gear not to affect it or degrade it in any way.

Good mics and good pre-amps are the key to getting musical sound transferred to whatever medium that you're recording on. Some older pre-amps have transformers and circuitry that have a tendency to saturate and create sounds that are more musical than the newer transparent pre-amps. People have used analog tape machines for years and have become used to the saturation that one gets recording to them. Now with digital, you no longer get that musical saturation from tape so it's even more important to have musical sounding pre-amps and equalizers.

When your talking about the digital medium, it's important to realize its strong points and its weak points. The ability to manipulate and edit on digital is its strong point. Sonically, it's still not going to stand up to a great 2" 16 track analog machine. If digital is your choice of medium to record to, them remember that a good sounding recording will require all the help you can get in the mic to pre to EQ route to your hard drive. Old tube pre-amps, old Neve and API pre-amps are my favorite things to use to get musical recordings. We even use a funky cheap console called a Ramsa by Panasonic that has a lot of color for Eric's guitar sounds.

2. Well, mixing is a creative talent much like painting a picture. You either have a clue or you don't. There is no substituting instruction for talent. Providing you have a clue, there are things that I do to keep myself from making mistakes.

The hardest thing to do in creating a good mix is having good reality. The speakers you're using to mix on to the room you're in while mixing are the genesis of that reality. You could create a great mix in a room but if the room isn't accurate all you've done is created a mix that sounds good only in that room.

When getting the proper amount of bottom, top and balance in the midrange, it's important to have some reference to what's real. Two ways I accomplish this: Use a real time analyzer. I use Pro Audio Analyzer and it gives me a reference to what's going on as far as frequency response. It can tell me what speakers sometimes can't such as overemphasizing certain frequencies. It's good to know that your subsonic's aren't out of control and that the highs aren't to extended. Look at your favorite recordings and see what they look like on an analyzer and that way you have a reference to what works and what doesn't.

The other thing I do is I've found two different pair of headphones that I like that have good flat response and take the room acoustics out of the picture. The headphones I've found that I think work great are Beyer 160DT's and Grayco Series One headphones.

3. There is no trick that I've found to not get a little numb to what you're working on. It's part of the nature of recording. When I played in bands back in the 70's and we did our first record, we had a producer that I really respected and he had done a bunch of records I liked. The first time I went to his house, I looked through his record collection and noticed that he didn't have anything there that he had done. I asked him why and all he said was "You'll find out".

The process of recording a record can be very tedious and the ability to enjoy what you've created is even more difficult to appreciate after it's all said and done. Sometimes it can take years after doing a record that I can go back and listen and actually enjoy it. There is no way I know of to get out of a rut except to keep yourself as detached from other music as much as possible. You can't spend all day recording music and then go home and listen to music. It's just too much musical input. I do think that one way not to get into too much of a rut is to mix up the process. Every part of the process of recording music has its fun parts and its difficult parts.

In the things that Eric and I have done in the past, we'd get to bogged down on a certain part of the process. We might do all the rhythm parts, then all the leads and then all the vocals. We did this thinking we were being efficient. We actually burned ourselves out. It's more fun to record in smaller segments. We have, of late, found it's more fun to do a couple of songs at a time. That way you get from point A to point B a lot quicker and there is something to show for your efforts.

PS: Richard, what are the usual working hours in the studio? Does it vary, or do you find that Eric (and yourself) have peak creative/productive times? Many musicians (and producers) seem to be more creative very late at night. I was curious as to your particular angle on this.

RM: Eric and I have a tendency to prefer the later hours. We usually start around 4PM and work till 12AM and sometimes and late as 2AM. Every time we think we'll start going in earlier, we always end up right back at our normal schedule. I personally like the later hours because there is too much business that goes on during the day so your constantly being interrupted by business calls during the daytime hours. I like it later. Less interruptions.

PS: My first couple of questions regard mixing Eric's material - Is there a goal to preserve the guitar tone and sonic space? Is there EQ applied to the guitar tracks during mixdown? I'm curious because EJ is so well known for how hard he works at creating and capturing his guitar tone, it would seem like he wouldn't want to alter it during mixdown.

RM: There's always going to be a little EQ put on the guitar tracks during mixdown. Because Eric's vision of the tone for a song needs to fit the track he's playing too, he'll basically get the tone he wants at the amp and then I'll fit it to the track. I add a little EQ while cutting, usually just a little between 5 to 10K, to brighten it to match the sonic envelope of what's already there.

During mixdown, we add the reverb and echo and further EQ to match the track. Most of the EQ used is usually adjusting the highs and the lows to fit into the track. I generally like to leave the midrange alone.

PS: I noticed a major difference in the overall sound of ALC - Live and Beyond compared to EJ: Venus Isle - the low-end is more meaty, the kick drum 'slap' is nice and prominent, and there is more meat from the bass guitar (as opposed to ALC which didn't have strong overall low-end). However, on the ALC disc there is still not much definition to the bass. Was it a goal to have more meat on the ALC record or was it more of a function of the material or the live recording process itself? Is there a certain Bass sound you were after or is it more using it in other ways within the song (I'm trying to be polite, put another way - It seems like the bass guitar parts are not allowed to 'intrude' into the guitar parts, is this strictly intentional or just a function of other factors?)

RM: Well, the obvious difference between the two CD's is because one is a studio record with a lot of overdubs leaving less space for everything. The other is a live CD done as a three piece band. The live record has a little more room for things to be meaty but at the same time being recorded in a small club there is a lot of room bleed into all of the microphones which tends to get muddy. Yes, there is a little focus on these being guitar records. The guitars come first. We don't intentionally lose anything but it sometimes happens.

PS: Eric has been attributed to stating a preference for 16-bit ProTools vs. 24-bit ProTools. I thought the major distinction between the two was the input converters and not anything internal to the software itself. That said - I read that the ALC disk was recorded to 3 or 4 (?) ADATs. Were the internal A/D converters on the ADATs used? If not, what external converters were used? What bit-depth/sampling frequency etc. was used during the recording? Any idea were the story regarding EJ's ProTools preference originated? Can you corroborate?

RM: The stated preference of 16-bit vs. 24-bit basically comes from the horse's mouth. Eric and I had purchased a 16-bit system and really liked what we heard. Digidesign became interested in us because we were using their gear and offered us a 24-bit system, which we gladly accepted. After a couple of days of working on the 24-bit system, both Eric and I felt that we had made a mistake. We were much happier with the 16-bit system sonically. At that point, we did some pretty extensive comparison checking and things pretty much held with our original feeling. For what we liked to hear, and not to say anything derogatory about the 24-bit system, we just prefer the sound of the 16-bit system as opposed to the 24-bit system. Everyone has an opinion but ours is that the Pro Tools III system 16-bit was the first digital system that Eric and I liked. We don't like the sound of the 24-bit system for our needs. Obviously, the 24-bit system has a more open high end but that's where its advantage ends for our taste. We felt the 16-bit system was warmer and more analogue sounding.

As for the high end, we just EQ in a little at 10K to 16K and we feel that it even sounds better in the high end too. It just needs a little compensation for its' 2 to 4 db lack of highs but once EQ'd up it sounds sweeter than the 24-bit. The simplest way I can put it without getting technical is 16-bit sounds more analog and the 24-bit sounds more digital with a hard edge. I would agree that it's not the 888's that is the problem. I've used the 888's with the 16-bit system and they sound fine. We believe, and of course have no way of backing it up with technical facts, that it's the internal cards in the computer that seem to be where what we hear goes south. I'm sure we'll get a lot of flak for our beliefs, but personally I don't care. I like what I like and I love the 16-bit system and I love Pro tools software. We still record 70 percent of everything on 2" analogue 16-track and then transfer over to Pro Tools after that. Everything stays on digital from that point on.

In the case of the live record, it was recorded on 3 Tascam DA-88's then transferred to Pro Tools via the analog path at 48K through the Pro Tools 888's, 16-bit.

PS: Has EJ's venture into digital audio started a whole new cycle of testing what works best for capturing his guitar tone? Explain (I'm hoping to get some elaboration, not trying to sound like a H.S. History test).

RM: Not really, we still record 98% of his guitar on 2" analog 16 track. We use the digital more for the incredible editing possibilities. Digital makes our comps and construction of the guitar parts a lot easier, plus we can keep a lot of the takes we do for later listening. You never have to lose anything you do.

We pretty much have a standard way of recording our guitars and even though we have recorded directly to digital on occasion. It's still our preference to record the guitars analog.

PS: One thing I noticed about the ALC disk is that it appears You and EJ didn't want to participate in the CD loudness wars, the ALC disk is noticeably quieter than other current releases (which I applaud!) and the overall sound quality is much better for it as well. How involved are you and EJ in the mastering process? Did you have to assert yourselves much to keep the Mastering Engineer from over-compressing or limiting the material? Or is the Mastering Engineer relieved he doesn't have to crush the material to death to make it as loud as the next artist?

RM: Bernie Grundman does our mastering and he gets a lot of pressure from the record companies to make these CD's as loud as possible. I mentioned earlier in this interview that if you were to look at the sine wave of a mix after mastering it's amazing on how much it looks like a flat top haircut. We felt that we lost a little of the sweetness to our sound and Eric was not happy with the sound of the guitar either.

We asked Bernie to lighten up on the compression. He informed us that he was not a fan of the compression either but there is a lot of pressure to get all CD's to have maximum level. We cut several CD's with different amounts of compression and decided to go with a setting that was sort of in the middle ground. You'd think in these days of remotes and such that who would care about getting maximum level. Just use your remote and turn it up if it's not loud enough. I do like just a little of the compression to bring up some of the soft spots but I hate it when the rock stuff just gets hammered compression-wise. We do go for a little compromise in the compression setting and we don't care if it's a little softer. We want to maintain the quality of the guitar sound. Maximum compression just doesn't help.

PS: Where do you see new technology taking the recording industry? Do you think computer software programs will change the industry to the point that multi-million dollar studios will become less of an item and open the door for many home studios for people who are looking for record deals? Do you think the big commercial record labels will see this as a good way to bring new artists in without huge overheads in recording, resulting in more profit?

RM: It's pretty much already happening. Anybody with a $100,000 dollars can put together a pretty great digital studio. The equipment has really come down in price. Unfortunately, there still is the reality that most of these studios don't have very good acoustics but a lot of these people doing these kind of studios get lucky, and even a pretty mediocre studio in design, can still sound just fine. Certainly in terms of sonically, the noise floor is not an issue with these studios being digital. If you have some great mics, some great Pre's and some EQ's then you've got a great start to be competitive with the big studios.

There's still nothing like recording in a real pro studio but there are just as many state of the art recording studios that are very expensive and just don't work that great. A lot of money spent for a mediocre sound. I've been in a few and I won't mention names. Sometimes a little home studio can just sound great. There sometimes is no rhyme or reason why things work. A lot of the little digital work stations can work just as good as a big expensive studio. I personally like to record in a lot of different environments so using different studios that way can be nice. It's like the differences in sonic qualities between studios can create different colors of sound. It's like using different pre-amps and different rooms to have a multiple of sound textures.

In closing, with all the different cheap studios around, artists are more capable of handing in a much more sophisticated demo and can also end up using their demo for their real CD.