My previous blog post was initially going to be about a life lesson that I learned when I first worked with Robben Ford. Instead I took a tangent and wrote about the serendipitous chain of events that led to meeting him. Cool story, but I never got around to the life lesson. Without further ado, here’s the intended story.
On second thought, let’s roll with a little bit more ado to set up the story.
Around Y2K, or the Millennium that was going to crash the world’s financial institutions, I had a room at Goodnight LA, formerly Keith Olsen’s studio featured in Dave Grohl’s Sound City documentary film. By then, both facilities were well beyond their heyday, but there was still vibrant music being recorded in the compound.
I chose the word “compound” because the two buildings shared a parking lot and were situated such that they reminded me of a fortress. The compound was an outpost of vital rock music in a sunbleached industrial area known for a scuttled brewery garden and a Ford dealership large enough to justify having its own cafeteria.
Sheltered from the outside world, but cloistered in “studio dusk”, I had a daily ritual of taking a “daylight break” in the late afternoon. I’d occasionally run into producer Ross Robinson, who was recording Slipknot’s Iowa. We’d shoot the shit for a while before returning to our respective sessions. One day Ross looked dazed, so I asked if he was doing well. He said, “I don’t know…today I threw a potted plant at my band.” When I asked why, he said it was the only way he could get the guys to play with feeling.
I’ve deployed some unusual techniques to inspire a sublime performance, but I have yet to hurl flora, fauna or insults at a drummer. I did, however, allow a singer (Dusty from Siezure Salad, who introduced me to L7) to duct tape headphones to his noggin. I could have talked some sense into him, but he was so far off his game that a major “pattern interruption” was indicated. The guy transformed from the “I’m flailing” dude to the “Look at me and my long hair and my duct tape!”, life of the party, superhero. His band and I cheered him on, with complete disregard for the fact that Dusty would eventually have to remove the industrial strength sticky stuff FROM HIS HAIR! He became a cartoon character and proceeded to sing his ass off.
Five epic songs later he pulled a bunch of hair out of his scalp, and he may have also lost an eyebrow if I recall correctly.
Although I personally wouldn’t respond well to flying plants or adhesive headphones, I do appreciate the fact that a change of perspective can be a powerful tool. We all tend to engage autopilot mode when we remain in comfortable familiar environments too long. A new stimulus at the right time can be a catalyst for growth.
My comfort zone was for a short period Goodnight LA. Ironically, I couldn’t stand the way the control room sounded. The mixing console was an extremely rare Trident Di-An, a digitally controlled analog mixing desk. Because it had very few control knobs to diffuse the early reflections off its large surface, it contributed to sonic havoc. It worked for Keith Olsen, but not for me.
Rather than being a martyr, I decided to change my environment to gain some fresh perspective and, hopefully, inspiration. I liked the sound of the live room, so I moved all of my producer racks from the control room to the live room. (In case you don’t know, a producer rack is typically a portable road case containing specialized pro audio recording equipment that supplements a studio’s in-house gear.) I added a groovy writing desk, a bank of faders, a comfy sofa and some speakers on stands, and all of a sudden had a terrific control room! I recall thinking how funny it was to set up guitar amps, drum kits and expensive German tube microphones in the relatively cramped space in front of the Trident desk, while I enjoyed an expansive posh environment designed exactly for the opposite of what I was doing.
I quickly adjusted to my new surroundings, and began thriving. My ears were good and my confidence was high. I was the king of my castle.
One day Robben Ford came by to listen to the first mix I ever did for him. Little did I know that four sentences, with a total of seventeen words, would become game changers for me.
I greet Robben in the reception area and walk him past the control room, into the studio’s live room. He wasn’t expecting that, but he embraced the unorthodox setup. Upon seeing six 20-space racks filled with coveted and storied boutique analog outboard gear, Robben turns to me with a smile, and says sentence number one: “Nice axe!”
Axe is a common euphemism among musicians for instrument. My immediate reaction was to think, “Wait…what? My guitars and amps are on the other side of the room.” Fortunately that thought remained holstered, courtesy of my inside voice, and the only word that made it past my lips was, “Thanks.”
I quickly understood that Robben’s perception of me was as a mix engineer, not as a guitarist. He didn’t need a guitarist — he is, after all, Robben Ford, one of the most revered guitarists of all time. But he did need a mixer, so that’s who I was in his mind.
Lesson #1: no matter who we believe we are, we are to others the person they perceive us to be.
Like it or not, that’s just the way it is, so be aware of it and make it work for you.
After geeking out on gear, we listened to my mix of an early version of Riley B King, a song that later surfaced as a duet with Keb Mo. I love that song. It was a tribute and love letter to BB King. There were many layers upon layers of guitars and keyboards. Somehow I managed to fit everything into the mix. I knew that I knocked it out of the park.
I’m standing behind Robben as he listens, and I see him sway in time with the music. The mix is moving him, quite literally. This is a very good sign! He turns around with a big Cheshire cat smile, and asks, “May I hear it again? Can we turn it up?” Of course we can!
We listen to the playback at a nice loud volume, and Robben is clearly into the mix. He’s rocking, nodding his head, turning around and flashing a grin of pleasure every few moments. I’m very excited about this, especially given that he is one of my favorite recording artists of all time. I feel great about making him feel great!
The song ends and he turns around, with his huge charismatic and warm smile, and says, “Wow, it’s so clear. I can hear everything.”
My brain momentarily paused there, basking in the afterglow of hitting a walk off home run. And then…I realized he was still talking. The full statement was. “Wow, it’s so clear. I can hear everything. I don’t know what to listen to.”
Uh oh. Brain.Must.Process. What just happened?!
Fortunately, as a pro I’ve learned that you can’t please everyone, all the time. Rather than panic, I simply and matter-of-factly asked if he could tell me a little bit more about his thoughts so that I could decode them and give him a mix that he would love. He said, “I forgot I played all those parts, so my ears are attracted to them instead of the important stars of the show: my singing and my guitar soloing.”
I responded, “Let’s start by simply making those two elements a little bit louder, and take a listen.” I turned them both up just one decibel, and Robben enthusiastically approved the mix. His words: “There it is! We’re good to go. Thank you.”
Lesson #2: no matter what we know to be true, our definition of true is not always the same as someone else’s.
In this case, I had previously thought that the definition of a good mix was one in which you could hear everything clearly. The instant that I heard Robben say that he didn’t know what to listen to, was the moment of a major paradigm shift. My approach to mixing immediately shifted from technical aesthetic considerations (“it’s punchy and I can hear everything!) to visceral emotional resonance (“This song makes me feel something!”)
The rules of the game had officially changed, and the goalpost had been irreversibly moved. Never again would I mix to impress my engineer friends; I would only mix to make my artists feel whatever they wanted their listeners to feel. That was the catalyst that made my career as a mix engineer take off.
So there you have it. Seventeen little words changed the way that I approached my interactions with other people. See things from their perspective, not just mine. One can learn a lot by crawling into someone else’s head.
As a related parting thought, I’ll share some of the best advice that my attorney gave me before entering an important meeting with a major label president: “There’s a reason that God gave you two ears, but only one mouth.” Think about it…a lot!