Over the years the engineer/producer Ed Cherney, who sadly passed away recently, contributed mightily to many of my books and podcast. You probably know this already, but Ed had deservedly great credits as he recorded and mixed projects for The Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, Was, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Bob Seger, Roy Orbison, and John Mayer as well as many others. Ed also recorded and mixed the multiple Grammy-winning Nick of Time and Luck of the Draw CD’s for Bonnie Raitt as well as engineered the Grammy-winning “Tears in Heaven” track for the Eric Clapton scored film, Rush.
One of the best stories that he told (and there were many) was when he and producer Don Was flew to Paris to record The Stones. As the band was setting up in the studio, he and Don got down behind the console so they couldn’t see and started pinching each other going, “Is that really the Stones out there? Can you believe that we’re here?” He had already won Grammy’s with Bonnie by this time, but he always remained humble no matter who he was working with.
Every interview we did was memorable and every one made me laugh. Here’s one from the Recording Engineer’s Handbook, as well as a link to a podcast he did with me. Here’s the excerpt from the interview that we did about 10 years ago about his approach to recording.
Bobby O: Do you use the same setup every time when you track?
Ed Cherney: Yes and no. It’s evolved over the years. You have favorites for the moment and for the style of music that you’re doing. For standard rock stuff, lately I’m doing it the same way, at least for a starting point.
What is that starting point?
For overheads left and right I’ll start with a couple of Coles. Then for toms I’ve been using the Audio Technica ATM-25’s. They’re good for speed. You just set them up and go; you don’t usually even have to EQ them. On the kick I’ve been using a 421 inside fairly close for snap and a FET 47 about 2 or 3 feet out. On the snare bottom I’ve been using a 441 and for the top an ATM-23HE.
Are you miking the hat?
Yeah, with a B&K 4011. Then typically I’ll put up an 87 in omni about 10 feet in front of the drums and maybe about 6 feet high as a room mic just to have a listen to things to get it going. That’s to start. It doesn’t mean it will end up anything like that, but it will enable me to get things going as quickly as we can.
How long does it take you to tweak things?
About 10 minutes. I find that when I do it faster it works better. I get the drummer to play a little time, but not wear him out, and if it’s not right you know it right away, and sometimes you go ahead and cut the song anyway. When you have a listen, good musicians will go, “Oh yeah, my snare’s too dark,” or something like that.
When you’re placing the overheads, are you using them more like cymbal mikes or trying to capture the whole kit?
It depends. If it’s a gentle song and the drums are being atmospheric, I’m going to spot mic cymbals and rides and swells. With a rock kit I’ll try to get a pretty good balance with the overheads, yet still get the cymbals without them ripping your head off.
Is anything different from the way you started to the way it is now?
In a lot of ways it’s exactly the same and in a lot of ways it couldn’t be more different. For example, at one time you would cut a drum kit, you would have to get the sounds down when you tracked. For certain kinds of music it was really difficult to replace snare drums and kick drums. You could do it, but it wasn’t easy, so you were going for overall sound and feel. Now, a lot of times when you record drums, you’re just printing triggers. I still try to get the best sound that I can on tape, then if something isn’t right you can certainly add to it.
When you’re tracking, do you go just for a good drum track or do you try to get as much as you can?
I try to get as much as I can. I think it’s musically a lot better that way. Also, I don’t isolate a lot of instruments that much any more. I did the Rolling Stones and the amps were in the room with just a little bit of baffling, but basically open so that they could hear them. Everything was leaking into everything, but that just gave it that glue, especially when it was played well.
So leakage doesn’t bother you?
It depends on the band and what you’re trying to do. If you know that everything is going to be swinging with the drums, then you’re going to try to get it. Otherwise, you’re just laying down a template so you have to isolate things as good as you can if you know you’re going to be layering guitars and that kind of stuff.
What are you using on guitar amps?
Like pretty much everybody else, I’ve used 57’s forever, but lately I’ve been using Royer R-121’s. I’ve been liking those and the musicians I’ve been working with have been liking them too. It’s pretty much just put the fader up and they capture what’s going on with the amp. They’ve got a very sweet character.
Do you only use one mic on the cabinet?
Usually, unless it’s in stereo. Sometimes I’ll use a 414 or a large diaphragm condenser back off the cabinet if we want the room sound, but typically I’ve been putting up a 121 in front of the cabinet.
What are you using for mic preamps? How much does it matter to you?
It matters a lot. I’m still using as much Class A as I can. I’ve got a bunch of 1073’s that I use in critical situations, although I’ve used the pres on an [SSL] 9K and was really surprised how good they sounded.
Do you take bass direct or do you use an amp as well?
Again it depends, but I try to do both. If you don’t have a lot of space and you don’t have any isolation, I’ll go with a direct, depending on the player, but usually I’ll go with both with a FET 47, or something like that on the cabinet, and a DI. I like using the Groove Tube DI, but then again it depends. If it’s an active bass, then you might want to use a DI with transformer in front of it.
Do you EQ when you record?
Heck yeah, but dipping more than anything. If something is a little dark, then it might be because 200 or 300 is building up, so you dip a little of that out and maybe add a little top. If you’re going to tape, then you might want to add a little top anyway. If you’re going to Pro Tools, then you might want to dip a little 2, 3, 4K to take the edge off it.
Are you compressing going to tape?
Not too much. Vocals, obviously. I’ll do a little peak limiting on the direct of the bass to protect the input, but not with the mic on the cabinet because usually that will relate pretty well, so I’m really not compressing a lot. I’m trying to get it as fat and clear on tape as I can.
Do you always record to tape first?
Not always. When I say tape I mean hard disc or whatever the storage medium happens to be. I just really try to fill the meters and get it on there fat and good.
What’s the hardest thing for you to record?
The human voice, because every one is different. You know what to expect from a drum kit or a guitar amp or piano, but the human voice is so personal. Even if you have a microphone that works 90% of the time, you’re always looking and you’re always guessing. And it’s the most dynamic instrument too, so it’s the most difficult instrument because it has the most variables.
Do you have a signal chain that you start with for the vocal?
It depends, because a lot of times I’ll be tracking bands where the vocalist will be out in the room with the drums. Then I’ll get stuck with that performance with a few fixes, but that means I’ll end up with an SM-7 or an RE-20 for the project.
For rock vocals I’ll use dynamic mics a lot of times like an RE-20 or SM-7. A lot of times a C-12 sounds good for a female voice. Jagger loves it too but he sounds about the same on any mic he uses. 47’s usually sound good. I’ve used the Audio Technica 4050 and I kinda like that. That’s a pretty good place to start.
You need to start somewhere just to get something going instead of scratching your head. Get something up and get people playing music, then you hear it back, see what it sounds like, and adjust from there.
Are you trying to make it fit in the track or trying to make it sound as good as possible by itself?
Pretty much fit in the track.
How concerned are you with the headphone mix? Do you do it yourself or relegate it to the assistant?
It’s critical. I’m really concerned with it so I do it myself. What I typically do is feed what I’m hearing [the stereo buss] to the headphones, and if I’m lucky enough to have a headphone mixer I’ll add some kick, snare and bass and vocal and whoever else needs more “me.” A lot of times I’ll even add the stereo buss to the stereo cue mix so I can be additive, so I’ll have the stereo buss coming up and on the console I’ll also add some kick and snare, because you have to get it up over the sound that’s in the room. I’ll sweeten the drums and that’s where I’ll usually start.
The idea is to be making music quickly with everybody hearing themselves. If I’m hearing them, then they’re hearing it. I just don’t want to spend any more time getting sounds than I have to before people are playing together with the red lights on.
Do you send a lot of effects to the phones?
I start simple. Maybe I’ll have a couple of reverbs; something short and bright and something a little longer. I might have a delay sitting there ready to go, but typically I’ll start it out pretty dry since most rock tracks are like that now anyway. If I add something, the stereo buss is feeding the headphones so they’ll get what I’m hearing. Sometimes that can be inspiring and musicians will react to it.
Was it any different recording the Stones from anyone else?
It’s a rock gig, but there’s five guys there that have been around and know what they want to hear. You’re really not allowed to screw up. Some younger guys might let you get away with something, but you’ve got to be on top of your game more so than with anyone else.
How did you approach Charlie’s drums?
It’s just a straight-ahead rock kit. The less you do the better off you are. You put some mics up and try to capture the drum kit like it’s one instrument rather than separate drums. You just get out in the room, have a listen and try to recreate that but there’s not a lot of work involved. The work is in the perception and not in the knob twisting.
How did you determine where to place everyone in the room?
I think I sat there for a day and half before I did it. I’d go out and sing a song, clap my hands and stomp around and try to create a space where everyone can see each other. I tried to get some things off-axis yet keep the room kind of open and live so people weren’t just relying on their headphones and could hear their amps and have that interplay. I tried to make sure that the line of sight was intimate, yet keep some separation. Also, I’ll ask the assistant where they usually set everything up (laughs).
Do you have a philosophy of recording?
I want to get the sounds to tape as quickly as possible, then play it back so you can talk about it. It’s real at that point. “That’s too bright. That’s too dull. That should be louder. That should be a different part. That should be a different snare drum.” It’s easy to modify once you can hear it. I’ve been in places where you dick around a lot before you play any music and the session doesn’t move forward. You just can’t make music that way.