by Johnny Martin
The best musicians in Portland have been trusting their sessions and mixes to this man for more than twenty years. There isn’t a local engineer or producer that doesn’t know his work. And “work” is a fitting word. He does it at a high level and with great skill. He comes across as a very genuine person with years of experience to back up his decisions.
I found his understated manner, depth of music theory, and respect for song-craft to be a “perfect mix”.
Thanks for meeting me Bob.
And congratulations on your Latin Grammy Nomination. (mastering)
Oh, Vayo’s “Tango Legends”- thanks.
Now, this is called Big Trees?
It’s kinda of an interesting situation. My company is Big Trees Music, and I’ve located all my gear here at Kung Fu Bakery. So the facility is Kung Fu Bakery but my personal business is Big Trees Music.
Now, was Big Trees somewhere else before?
Big Trees used to be a combination of myself and Jeff Leonard. We parted ways on friendly terms and we still work together a lot.
Jeff Leonard the bass player?
How long have you been making Big Trees services available?
Oh, it’s going on ten years now. I’ve been doing my own thing here at Kung Fu Bakery since Nov. 2000.
What is the goal of your studio?
To work on good music always.
Do you ever listen to your first demos?
Oh yeah. I think a lot of it is that I’ll go back and listen to the music I enjoyed.
So you find “the song” maybe bringing you back?
Exactly. It’s more about the song.
What do you mix down to?
Right now I’m mixing to the hard drive thru Lavry converters.
Preferred would be ¼” at 30ips with Dolby SR.
Do you have time for experimentation?
Not as much as I’d like. But I’m working on McKinley’s next album and we’re experimenting with filtering noises and creating drum sounds with stuff from the garbage etc. I want to do more of that stuff on my own time and build to my bag of tricks.
Are you saying create a Bob Stark effects library?
Well, sort of. There are ambient things I do which show up on people’s recordings and they don’t complain.
Ambient things. Are those things that you brought from the outside in or is that an effect that you do in mixing?
Combination of that.
Do you have a morning routine?
I wake up when my wife wakes up, watch a bit of CNBC, get a shower, eat breakfast and head to the studio.
A session prep routine?
A lot of times I just walk in and work. If I’m working on a mix, it’s just turn on the computer- go. The session prep for yesterday was get in here and meet the drummer to get the gear in, and while the drum tech is working, get the drum mics set up. Just basically be ready for what’s going to happen that day.
So in terms of the drums, that takes more time. Is the drum tech yours or his?
Just someone hired for the session. He’ll tune the drums and make them sound really great. This is a Portland casualty- there are not a lot of drummers in town that know how to tune their drums. There is only a couple guys in town I know and trust.
You know their names might be useful to Buko readers…
OK. Greg Williams is one, Mike Snyder is another. These guys make the drum-kit work for each tune. They don’t get just one drum sound that you live with for the whole session, whether it’s appropriate or not.
How long have you been recording, since you were a kid?
If you want to get back to the earliest part of it- probably in high school, me doing demos for my band. Not recording as an engineer, but as a player. Budgets were really limited, and an eight track studio back then costs what a full-blown facility costs now! So the bang for the buck has definitely increased over the years.
But maybe you’ve been recording for 20 years?
As an engineer, ’83…so we’re coming up on 25 years now.
Twenty-five years, and are you still learning something on every session?
Probably not on every session. I have learned deeper and deeper patience.
(laughter) OK I think I know where you’re going with that…
I think one unfortunate thing, and I’m hoping some bands will prove me wrong- is that there’s been deteriorating musicianship. Now when I’m getting young bands in, they really don’t have a very large musical vocabulary. I feel odd, and it may be just an age thing, because I’ve done so much music, but I can write their tunes out as they’re playing them.
You have a sense of the cord structure, and they may not even know what they’re playing?
Yeah. I think the song writing HAS notched up over the years, But the musicianship has deteriorated. I think computers have helped with that, because “oh now we can tune- now we can slide things…and we used to have to play it. I love when a young band comes in and they can play.
Do you find yourself wanting to help bands like that, or wanting to?
Wanting to. I think the biggest band I’ve been involved with in town lately is Intervision.
What drew me to them was that they could actually play their instruments and they have good song writing. Paul and Tony, the guitarist and vocalist are just fabulous songwriters.
What type of music have you yet to record?
Done grunge, metal, pop, jazz, classical, funk, hip-hop, chamber, string quartets, big band… You know what I haven’t done, but I enjoy doing on the side is electronic music.
You mean dance- like rave?
Um, chill. It’s music that people usually do on their own so it’s not like somebody’s gonna come to me and go, “produce my chill album”.
What do you like to monitor on- speaker wise?
Focal. Secondary set is the NS-10’s. I’ve worked on them for over twenty years.
So there’s a known entity there. What do you look for on each?
On the Focals I look for detail in the upper-mids. There’s a crossover point between the woofer and tweeter, and the Focals are the first monitors that I don’t hear that on. The transition from lows to highs is very smooth so it allows me to hear a lot of details on the mids and upper-mids, and for me that’s very critical to get separation happening.
And that’s a main area that will distort a speaker right?
Yeah. And on the NS-10’s, I’m kind listening for punch. Unlike a lot of people, I turn the NS-10’s up and I want to feel it hit me. They’re harsh and everything and I can’t be on them for more than ten-fifteen minutes at a pop.
Now which one do you turn down?
Let’s just say I’m turned down most of the time.
You usually mix quietly?
Yeah. 65 to 70db.
Can you share a moment that elevated your engineering skills?
In an oddball way, when I was working on some mixes for McKinley up in Seattle and David Torn was the producer. Torn is deaf in one ear and he was pretty amazing to me because he would look at the console, and see how I had things panned and laid out… He’d be essentially listening in mono, and making incredible changes like “ try this- make this really pop out…” and now when I go back and listen to that album, I know I took a lot away from that session because now my sense is to always make some event popping out- something for the listener to listen to. Something new for them to hear each time.
Wow, that’s an interesting approach.
I had a sense of staging a mix before , but working with him really pushed that envelope.
Which part of your studio are you hoping to upgrade soon?
Console. I’m using Sony DMXR100, and I’m thinking there are three consoles in the running. A Neve 5088, an SSL AWS900, and Digidesign Icon- which is probably the least likely. This is a mid-term goal- end of this year to three year range. One of my favorite engineers in town, Dean Baskerville, is a very SSL competent guy, and has expressed an interest in doing more work in this room. So that would get me out of the studio a little bit and still generate a bit of income. Everybody’s dream…FREE MONEY! (laughter) It’s not saying I want to engineer less, just more places other than here.
You’d like to be more selective, and pick better projects?
Are there a few engineers that you hold in esteem?
George Massenburg and Bob Clearmountain.
With Bob what is it, clarity?
Not so much clarity. It’s like how dense he’s able to make a mix and not make it sound dense. There’s a lot going on! Listening to Jonatha Brooke’s “Careful what you wish for”, the title cut on that sounds like a Queen tune. So he handles that really well. And the stuff he did with David Bowie is beautiful sounding.
So is it a depth thing?
It’s a punch thing. Like that thing where I said you go to the NS-10’s and you turn them up and suddenly every kick drum is moving the speaker in a controlled way and it hits you, but it doesn’t fight everything else that’s going on. And interestingly enough, to me, the bass is pretty low in a lot of his mixes, but you still hear every single note. Two of my favorite albums that he’s done are Lisa Loeb’s “Firecracker” and Duncan Shiek’s “Humming”.
And Massenburg, going back to earth Wind and Fire, all that stuff sounds incredible. But what I really liked was when he got into the producer role, like Lyle Lovett’s “Joshua Judges Ruth”. To me that’s something to really shoot for sonically.
Name a few OLD recordings that still kill you?
Strawberry Fields Forever. Cornelius Brother’s and Sweet Sister Rose. Early Paul Simon, like the first solo Paul Simon album- that album is amazing to me. There’s a song on there called Armistice Day that just rocks!
How did you arrive at Kung Fu? Was it a happy accident?
Jeff and I were going to build a studio and realized it was going to be too hard to do. We located it at my house which is a stressful place to have your business. I knew that Tim was putting this place together and he contacted me so, happy accident- yes, but I’ve known Tim for years so “planned” happy accident.
Can you name 2 pieces of gear you’ve got your eye on?
Sure. I would love to obtain a real Pultec EQP1-A. I picked up the Manley Massive Passive which is a fabulous EQ, but it’s not quite it. There’s just a sound they have when you turn up 3k on a kick drum…”oh THAT’s the sound”. And I’d like to get maybe the four channel API pre or another four channel GML. I love that preamp.
That’s more of a clean class A circuitry type?
Yeah. I’m not one of these guys that thinks everything has to be tubes. I think people would be amazed at how much stuff that’s perceived as vintage, doesn’t have tubes.
Can you recommend some websites for info & reviews?
TapeOp online. Gearslutz.com. The Womb.
Any favorite publications you enjoy besides Buko?
Buko’s the only one. (laughter) No- I’ll pick up TapeOp and Mix. I get Electronic Musician and I get EQ, but I zip thru those.
What’s your headphone mix system?
A custom deal. Tim and I wanted musicians to be able to create their own mix as opposed to creating it at the console. We have 8 channels we can send out discretely to musicians.
What’s your oldest piece of gear?
Do instruments count? I have a kalimba I got when I was a kid, when I was into Earth Wind and Fire.
Is there a mic that you reach for quite often?
I’ll have to say not really. Everything is dependent on what the source is. If there were one mic that would work on pretty much anything it’d be a U67. A lot of people are gun shy about the TLM103, personally I like them a lot. They have a nice openness and they are a very quiet microphone.
Did you apprentice anywhere?
Sound Impressions as they opened their doors. In the very early eighties, and it didn’t become a known entity until about ’86 or so. Started out as 4 track reel to reel.
What made you want to be an engineer?
I was playing in a fusion band. We had a couple albums recorded, and I didn’t like how they were produced. It made me want to get on the other side of the glass. So if I ever worked myself into the position of producing, I’d approach it with the ethic that “I wanna get the sound the band or artist wants” as opposed to “ I wanna put my thumbprint on how things sound”.
What’s your basic drum mic’ing set up?
I have 3 set ups. Number 1: to individually mic everything and have some overheads and room mics. Number 2: the 3 mic Glyn Johns set up. Number 3: I’ll take 2 B&K 4011 mics, left and right, equi-distance from the snare about 3ft off the ground. And then put an overhead mic ( U67 or U47) not close but in the room, so you get a nice stereo picture without close-miking.
That’s your ambient and everything, you’re not squashing the overhead?
No. You have to use it with drummers who know how to balance their kit.
What do you use for comparative listening? Certain CD’s?
I’m doing this all the time. A lot of times I’m looking how this song hits me.
There a Jack Joseph Puig mix of Athenaeum that I really like. Catie Curtis. A lot of the older Joe Jackson stuff. Lisa Loeb’s “The way it really is”, I use that a lot. John Mayer’s first album “Room for squares”. I could go on and on. It’s not really matching the genre- it’s more of hitting me on an emotional level.
What’s your current back-up system?
Multiple hard drives. Western Digital has good drives. LaCie is fine. I’m a LaCie “D2” guy. I’m a Otherworld Computing “Mercury Elte” guy. I know they work and I know they don’t fail (knocks on wood).
IS there a preferred EQ that you use a lot?
On the computer I like the Sonnex EQ, which is a derivative of the Sony Oxford. Outboard- I love the Manley Massive Passive. It’s a chunk of change and it’s been worth every penny of it.
Are there times when you compress going in?
Lots of times. If I’m doing a vocal that I know, in the end I’m going to compress, I’ll do it going in. Because I know I can get more character out of a distressor going down that I can out of any of the computer stuff. A lot of times, I’ll commit to a sound, because if I’m committed to a sound I’m not going to have to work on it later on- just the levels. I really hate having options when it comes time to mix.
A lot of those choices should have been made earlier and you’re trying to make them…
And character helps the mix right? And you’re not shy about getting that going in?
Right. And I’ll commit to delays, I’ll commit to reverbs…
When you say “commit” you’re printing them right with the original source track?
I’m saying “ here’s the guitar with it’s (amp) reverb, to a track.
Well, that takes some experience.
A lot of times you can a character out of a spring reverb on an amp, that people hear on a gig etc. I have no problem committing to that. Why would I want to try to recreate a spring reverb sound from a dry guitar later on?
Is that something you tell the client ahead of time?
Oh yeah, absolutely. They are usually aware that we’re committing to sounds. It comes from working for years in tape where you don’t have 90 tracks, and that ethic has paid off working in digital, because decisions get made and then when we’re mixing- we’re mixing.
How are you currently approaching compression on drums? Is it a safety thing or an early commit-to-a-sound thing?
In reality I don’t do a lot of compression on drums. Or, as much as I used to. Now I find myself really trying to keep dynamic range intact. I’ll do some compression when I mix.
Do you do much ambient mic’ing?
With drums, yes. With guitars, yes. With bass, usually not. Vocal, sometimes a room mic.
Are you squashing the crap out of it with a distressor?
I’m really liking the new Neve 5043 (portico). Not only ambient but I’m liking that a lot on bass, both amp and D.I.
What’s your computer, operating system and recording software?
Mac platform, OSX. Protools, Logic Pro, Digital Performer and all the peripheral stuff that goes with it like Reason, Ableton Live. And Garageband. Ya gotta use Garageband!
Any favorite plug-ins?
I really don’t have one. I find them all to be tools.
What’s your best sounding mic pre?
I wouldn’t have bought them if I didn’t think they were great sounding. I almost said as a gut reaction- GML.
Ok Bob, you can leave with one pre and one mic…
Yeah the GML and I’d probably grab the TLM103. Unlike the U67, the 103 is fairly bullet-proof. I could pretty much use it on anything, you know- it’s care of placement.
Any approaches you take to mixing?
I’m a “start with the vocal” guy. Find the song. A lot of times it’s vocal/piano or vocal/guitar. Make those sound like they could be printed and be the song, and build around that.
What signs tell you that you’ve been mixing too long?
I’m pretty disciplined about trying to stay in the studio no longer than ten hours.
How do you like to take your breaks?
I’ll work for a couple of hours, get some coffee, work a couple more hours and get out of the studio for lunch. Never eat lunch in the studio. I think it’s really critical to walk away from the studio. That whole thing of leaving and coming back- you get a fresh perspective every time you come back, and things happen very quickly when you first sit down. A lot of new things get accomplished at that moment.
Any mixes you’d like to have back?
All of them. (laughter)
Do you recall a favorite project?
Can I mention two? The last Intervision Project “Shades of Neptune”. they kinda gave me free rein on that. And I was working more as producer and less as an engineer. So we hired Dean Baskerville to engineer the tracking sessions, and I mixed the album. It was great to be listening and evaluating in a producer’s role, and I think it paid off in the end. The album is a really interesting album to listen to.
The other album I enjoyed working on was more because of the songwriting. My absolute favorite voice in town is McKinley. She gave me a little bit of free rein and as I describe it now- I was probably too careful on that album. (Goner) She has an incredible voice, her pitch is always on. She’s a joy to work with, and both of these albums I was instantly able to listen to them as music. And that hardly ever happens with anything I work on. On the jazz side, any album I worked on with Dan Balmer.
Can you recommend any books to would-be-engineers?
Yes. Behind the Glass by Howard Massey and the Recording Engineers Handbook. It’s like an encyclopedia, a very large book.
Can you mention a piece of low-cost gear that surprised you?
Yeah the Audix I-5’s. There really is a replacement for the 57.
What kind of hospitality do you offer here?
I’m a nice guy. (laughter) We have a bathroom.
Any advice for young engineers in bedroom studios?
Take a music theory class. It’s one of the advantages I have over other engineers. It’s really important as an engineer and as a producer- to be able to communicate with the musicians and to be able to help them through problems that come up with their writing, arranging and whatever. All they need to know is that I can help them. having that tool puts me three steps ahead of other engineers. Also, have people skills. It’s not the gear- it’s the guy running it.
Be patient and learn. We all had to empty the trash at some point…oh- we still do!