With a who’s who list of credits such as Queen, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, Electric Light Orchestra, Rory Gallagher, Sparks, Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer, Billy Squire, and Extreme, the producer/engineer who goes simply by the name Mack has made his living making superstars sound great. Having recorded so many big hits that have become the fabric of our listening history, Mack’s engineering approach is steeped in European classical technique coupled with just the right amount of rock & roll attitude. Here’s an excerpt from an interview that we did for my Recording Engineer’s Handbook.
Do you have a philosophy about recording?
Yeah, to get the most “meat” or the biggest possible frequency spectrum from each instrument because you only have that chance once. You can always screw the sound up later after you’ve recorded it (laughs). Sure, you can say “OK, this requires a small sounding piano” or something like that, but you’re confining yourself and you can’t change your mind later.
That goes for multitrack recording, which in the old days, if you had to put a band down on an 8 track machine then you’d record them on two tracks and have 6 left for overdubs. So you had to have a precise image of what the balance needed to be when you started recording.
I try to get the biggest, pristine sound that I can so it can be bent in any direction later. Something small and tiny is really hard to make bigger.
Do you use your overheads as the basic sound of the drums or just as cymbal mics?
The basic drum setup would be bass drum and overheads. My favorite would be B&K’s but I like to use Schoeps if it’s not a hard drummer. Then I really know what the kit sounds like. Everything else is there to augment that sound.
Do you put the overheads over the drummers’ head in an X/Y configuration?
No, as an A-B. I try to make sure that they’re an equal distance from the snare. It does depend on the room. In a huge room I might use an X/Y thing but the rooms for rock stuff are usually on the smaller side so I use an A-B.
Are they pointing straight down or at the snare drum?
They’re pointing directly at the snare drum.
What do you do with the kick?
I use two mics – a close one and one far away. I use something like a D12 up close but a little off axis angled downward, depending upon if you have a front skin or no front skin. I use a U47 for the far mic about 3 feet away but very close to the floor.
Apart from the close kick mic, which is a dynamic, everything else that I use are condensers. For example, I use 67’s or 87’s for the toms and something like a KM84 or a AKG 224 for the hat. Probably what’s really different, because I haven’t seen anyone doing it except really old guys, is I put the snare drum mic exactly parallel to the drum.
Pointing at the side of the drum or pointing across the top?
No, pointing directly at the drum. That’s a very old fashioned, classical drum recording technique.
You’ve done so many great guitar bands with great guitar players, what is your approach to electric guitar?
Just leave enough distance from the amp so you get a bit of room reflection to it. I used to do the thing where you crank the amp so it’s noisy, then put on headphones and move the mic around until you find the sweet spot. I usually use 2 mics (which is sort of contrary to my beliefs because you get a lot of phase stuff) because you get a natural EQ if you move the second one around. If you can remember what the hiss sounded like when you had a good guitar sound then half the battle is won.
One of my big things is not to use EQ, or as little as possible, and not to add any but find what’s offensive and get rid of that as opposed to cranking other stuff to compensate.
The most simple thing is what translates – It’s kind of like when you’re frying eggs, the whole house immediately knows it. But if you have a French chef with a lot of ingredients you know that somebody’s cooking something up but you don’t know what it is.
So mics do you use on guitar then?
I like a KM84 and an SM58. One is straight on axis and one is off to the side.
Does it matter where the amp is in the room?
Yes, that matters very much. It’s the same philosophy as with a monitor speaker. If you pull it away from the wall by a foot or two then your whole system sounds different and the same thing applies to guitar amps. Little things like tilting it a bit or changing it around. For some reason amps are usually put in place by somebody like a roadie and nobody ever moves it after that. But moving it around a little and angling it can really make the sound change a lot.
How do you record vocals?
I like 47’s. Just for the heck of it, I once had 10 new 414’s set up against one another with a willing singer, which is usually a problem because if you have too much of a Christmas tree set up people get intimidated. It was unbelievable. It sounded like you were putting in various filters from one mic to the next. They were all supposed to be the same. I found that experience shocking so from that point on I always carried one mic for vocals that was not used for anything else.
Do you use it for every vocalist?
Yes. I just got a new one that’s a TLM147 which was a fluke. I got it really cheap but when we put it up against the other one it was actually better.
Are you using the Millennia for vocals as well?
Always. I always use the HD3C Millennia with the built-in Apogee converter. I’ve had it for about 8 years. I come straight out digitally to whatever I’m recording onto. I use a Manley Vari-Mu for a compressor.
When you were doing all the layered harmonies with Queen, where you doing that all on 24 track? Did you use a slave real to put them together?
It was all 24 track. The drums had 4 or 5 tracks, and there’d be a bass track, guitar track and maybe a piano track. There might be a quick guitar overdub if Brian had a sound he liked. That left maybe 10 or 12 tracks available for vocals. So we’d do 6 vocal tracks and bounce them down until we ended up with a stereo pair, which was really nice because everything was done then.
Where those vocals all the same part or did they sing in harmony with it doubled or tripled?
They would sing all unison for one part and we’d build up the harmonies then bounce it. Once we had all the parts together then we’d make a stereo pair out of that.
Was Freddie doing all the vocals?
No, they all did the vocals. That’s what made the sound because Brian was thin and piercing while Roger was like a raspy soul type thing and Freddie was the body.
All the ELO stuff was done on 16 track and there’d be a lot more bouncing going on. I came up with this idea of bouncing while you were recording. That way I’d save a generation. You always had to play it right but that made them sound better as opposed to double bouncing them.
The ELO stuff was always so squashed, even back then. But that’s Jeff Lynn’s sound, isn’t it.
Yeah, he always liked any compressor that was used set to “stun” and he still does that today. And he didn’t want any reverb or effects. You always had to sneak some stuff in to make it a little more roomy.
You can read more from Mac, The Recording Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.