by Johnny Martin
I should take a second and thank my readers. Like myself, many of you are interested in recording and engineering and enjoy picking up small tips and interesting perspectives from the column. Some of you are just starting. Some record for fun, and others are making their own records. It can be an isolated existence, and it’s always good to network and share info with each other. I learn a lot every time I sit down with my peers. Just like today with Rich Haugen (pronounced “Hogan” ) from Super Natural Sound. If ever a guy had the right to own a bumper-sticker that read “Got Gear?” this is the dude! Tube-tech, Helios, Alan Smart, Neve, Daking…somebody stop me! Did I mention the most beautiful API Legacy console you ever saw in your life? Yeah, baby! Anyway, the room is big with natural light, the grand piano finely tuned, and the engineer knows his stuff…
How long have been making your services available?
We’ve been here 17 years at this studio and had an earlier studio called DAT SOUND in SW Portland for 3 years or so. I’ve been in the business 20 years.
Did you come out of a school?
I did the PCC program and from then on it’s mostly been just studying it, watching it and building up our rig.
How about the studio- you built this yourself?
I had a framer help me actually nail it together. There are certain “ Golden Ratios” that you use when designing a room that eliminate room modes to the greatest degree possible. The honest truth is rooms are works in progress a lot of times. Sonic treatments can solve lots of problems and greatly improve the sound of most rooms. This one is fundamentally great, and to be honest I got fairly lucky with it- it had such a great inherent sound.
When we put the wood floor in seven years ago, I could hear the sound of the room change as I was laying the floor down. When I was finished the tone of the room was remarkably better. Every engineer who had used the big room earlier commented on the improvement. Wood just sounds great that’s why they make instruments out of it and that’s why it’s a big part of the acoustic treatments I design and build.
And so you funded the whole thing yourself?
Yes, basically this is my 401k; as I’ve made money over the years I have continually invested in it.
You don’t pick up this kind of gear overnight.
It’s been a process for sure.
It takes a long time to research and find it and…
And pay for it! (laughter)
Now, are you buying mostly new?
It’s a mix. I’d say 50/50. New and used. If I buy it on Ebay and I’m confident about the seller, I’ll always do that. Some gear has just come out and is very difficult to find used. The best stuff is rarely discounted significantly, so the warranty and certainty involved in buying new product outweighs the additional cost.
When you buy the used is it generally already refurbished or you’re thinking “ it doesn’t matter- I’m going to have it done” or…
Sometimes- it depends how bad I want it. For example, that AMS RMS-16 over there- it came from a guy who was a tech so I was very confident it was going to be in excellent shape. That reverb is over 20 years old- it sounds as good or better than the 480L. It was sort of the British 480L that came out, and it’s the bomb! I love old reverb sounds. I have a great plate reverb in the tracking room that weighs most of a ton. Probably more of that goes on records mixed here in terms of the amount of gain than any other reverb I have just because producers love that sound.
It’s an EMT?
It’s an Echoplate.
Is that 4 X 8?
It’s 4X8 yeah.
And that came out of the states, or overseas?
It came out of a studio in town. The thing about big stuff like that is, when people have to sell it- they really have to sell it! You can’t just put it in your car.
Did you have a goal when you built the place?
It’s interesting you ask that question. I always just wanted to have the best room I could have. I’ve made lots of changes. We’ve changed consoles in here a number of times up until this one. And I won’t be changing this one. I won’t be changing it again- that’s not going to happen.
And I should mention, it’s an API Legacy Plus console.
Yes with flying faders automation. It’s one of about 13 in the world. They’re basically like a custom motorcycle- they’re hand built to the specs of the original guy who buys it. We did a radical thing. It was originally built with a double wide left hand tt bay and I really wanted a right-hand patch bay because my trough is on the right side. So my main tech, Alan Garren and I removed the two buckets on the left and consolidated this full double wide patch bay into a single one, which hadn’t been done on a 48 channel Legacy Plus. It’s far and away the finest console I’ve ever had.
It looks like you could cut an entire album with just those pre’s.
That’s what folks want.
So that was you’re goal- just to have a great sounding room?
Just to continually improve the room. The industry you know, is going through an enormous change. It’s been brutal. Most studios this size have closed, particularly in Nashville and Los Angeles. Portland’s been spared- mainly because studios here have had to live on nothing for decades. Rates haven’t gone up in 20 years. It’s just a weird Portland thing, a lot of people want to do studios here. The quality of rooms available to people has improved dramatically in spite of the industry downturn.
The scene has improved then?
Right. There’s no nice rooms that are closing that I’ve heard of. Which is really unusual. Hopefully things will continue to improve here in Portland. What’s really driven the national decline is the death of the CD market. CD sales were how record labels made all their money, and there really hasn’t been anything to replace it. Consequently, I’ve made the most fundamental change in my perspective since I first got into the business. Up to now I have continually been working on improving the sound of the rooms and the gearlist; the room now is pretty much where I want it to be, though there’s always more mics and other cool stuff that comes along. My energies now will be concentrated on Rainmaker Music Group. Has Nick Moon told you about Rainmaker?
No, tell me about Rainmaker.
It’s a fairly new company that we started. It’s a full service production house that is fully integrated with Toneproper Mastering and CD Forge. We will be negotiating production deals with artists we like which will involve making and selling records, producing shows and assisting our artists with all other aspects of a successful music career. Our aim is to find, develop and retain the most promising bands and singer/songwriters and in doing this, craft better and deeper artistic and business relationships with them. In that way it’s like a label, but our model requires that we do live sound exceptionally well. To this end we have put together a fabulous rig that we can use in any venue that seats less than 2500 or so people. We will have Neumann mics, a full 10 space api 500 rack, a bunch of great Avalon Design comps and eq’s, an Alan Smart c2, a pair of Universal Audio1176’s and any of the other essentials for making great tone. This will be routed thru a Midas console and EAW mains and subs- it will sound better than any club-sized PA in town. I’ve always felt that the final frontier in audio is live sound. While some of the most successful bands do this exceptionally well, it’s rare that artists and audiences at the club level get to experience it. Concerts are seen as money makers for the band and typically most of the effort spent on bigger amps and cabinets and less attention and money spent on the quality of the signal that is fed to them; we all know about the garbage in-garbage out principle. We will set up our live sound as if we’re tracking a record- and many times we will be. A sweet front end that begins with a great sounding instrument is how great sounding tones and mixes are achieved.
It’ll have that attention to detail that you’re talking about.
It’ll have basically a really quality signal path that gets you the sound. There’s kind of an artificial distinction that’s been made between live sound and studio sound. What I found when applying studio principles of using drum sub-mixes and other things to live sound that it just works magic. The vocals will be sweeter, you can hear everything that’s being said or sung. That’s my goal for live sound, to make it sound like a record.
It’s called Rainmaker?
It’s called Rainmaker Music Group. It’s Nick Moon, Steve Murray and I. Rose Allen has been helping us, and she’s going to be a big part of it.
Let me ask you about the room. Your reverb time is about where you want it ?
The room sounds great!
How high’s your ceiling?
It’s about 17ft at it’s peak and slopes down to about 14ft.
You have a drum booth, do you ever pull drums out and do them in the big room?
Most of the drums are done in the big room because producers are after the room sound on the kit. Its a room reverb like any other you might dial up on a digital reverb except that its real and not a simulation. The best reverb sounds are usually real rooms and chambers. Thats how they did it back in the day before the digital boxes were invented in the late seventies.
Often times the drum sound is the sound of the record…
Exactly. I can’t tell you what a holy grail the Led Zeppelin drum sound is. An amazing number of artists will come in here and that will be the fight- did the engineer really achieve that? It’s a little silly just because that’s a specific room and kit and mic setup, but there are ways to approach that, to get that type of sound.
And a way to play too, from what I understand.
And tune your drums etc.
Do you ever listen to your early demo reels- your very early stuff?
I put it on occasionally. A lot of stuff we did earliest was the band I was playing in.
What band was that?
It was called the Hartatax. This was ’88-90. Most of it was done on a ½” 16 track at DAT Sound. Mixing is a blend of instinct and experience. When I set up I just try to get the best tones essentially, that’s the process you go thru- I always try to get and print the tone. Then once you’re in the mix phase, you sort of go at it again, and unless it’s just perfect, then you’re going to think about what EQ or compressor is going to flatter that sound the most, relative to the rest of the mix.
Do you have time for experimentation, or is that up to the client?
It just depends, we are a relatively expensive studio for this town and budgets are tight so what people will say is “we’re going to mix the whole thing in 2 days…” so they’ll pound until 4 in the morning and usually fall short. I would say that most people do some. There is a lot of really cool stuff you can do as far as re-amping guitars. I’ve seen a number of projects with small drum sounds actually run those drums thru speakers and mic the room up so they can print the Super-Natural sound. It’s amazingly effective!
Like running drums thru a PA?
Yeah. I have a pair of Tannoy active speakers that Joe (Chiccarelli) loves and mixes thru, that we can set up in the room there, like 15ft away or so you set up a pair of stereo mics; just bus the drums down there and that’s what you’ve got.
Are you going for the body then or cymbals and everything?
Sometimes the engineer will send down the cymbals with the kit, sometimes not. It basically puts the drums in that space.
Speaking of the upheaval in the recording industry and studio world, are guys coming here just to get drums?
Absolutely. I have people come here just for drums, I have people come here just for mix. The API Legacy, for rock records, it’s the best mixer in the world. Most people would agree with that. SSL 9000’s and old 80 series Neves are really fine as well.
What type of music have you yet to record?
We haven’t done a lot of hip-hop.
You said you’re one of the more expensive studios. Is there a flat rate?
The rate here is $600 a day. But a lot is going to be changing. Ultimately what we’d like to see is our own Rainmaker Music Group productions filling up the studio.
You’re bringing in clients under Rainmaker?
Yeah, we’re in the record business. And not just records, but live sound, merchandise, events, tickets, concessions and all that stuff. The business has changed so much, the bottom has fallen out of the CD market. It’s crushed studios. It’s crushed labels. We have a lot to offer artists in terms of the institutional knowledge and gear. The industry buzzword for our approach is “vertically integrated”. Essentially we will be partnering with artists and attempting to make a much bigger and better pie so that we all can make a living doing what we love.
Distribution, are you working with local?
We’re going to rent distribution until we have enough critical mass to get it in a more formal way, the way labels have it. We made a great blues record called FIREWATER! It’s amazing how well it worked. It’s a compilation that was released it at the Waterfront Blues Festival. It got a lot of airplay on a number of stations and great reviews. We’re going to be doing more of that kind of thing, we’ll be doing a jazz record soon thru Rainmaker, and a number of other ones- it’s just a great way to meet the artists.
That will be recorded here?
Yeah. We had 10 different blues artists come in over three days to track it. We had a great sounding kit so our drums sounds were very consistent and excellent, as well as everything else.
I know preamps are all subjective, but is there a pre that you’re using constantly since you got it?
The API preamps in many respects are just the best sounding for a lot of applications. All mic pre’s have different flavors and different ones work better or worse at different times on different instruments. But I love the Neves, I love the Daking, I love the Helios 69’s. The Quad-8’s are fantastic!
Now you have a Yamaha C7, a beautiful piano. What pre are you…?
What’s my piano signal path?. The one I like the best is probably a pair of Neve 1084’s, the Chandler compressor, and the blue bottle mics with the B6 capsules. That’s just a glory piano sound.
That sounds like a pretty impressive signal path.
That Chandler compressor is modeled after the mix compressor on the old EMI consoles that the Beatles used. Its very articulate yet very squishy sounding. The sparkly detail in the high end comes through even when you use lots of gain reduction at high ratio’s. A lot of times lesser units tend to dull it- they don’t give you the detail. This thing is crazy, especially if you have it on the limit function.
So you’re getting the notes to sing and ring?
It just creates a track that sits really nicely in the mix. That’s probably my favorite piano set up.
Those are large diaphragms and you’re using two.
Stereo pair, yes.
What do you monitor on?
We have Adam S3A’s, we have NS-10s that have a sub on them as well. And the Westlake HR-1’s. Those speakers weigh 500 pounds each and have a very cool pedigree. They were originally installed in Pink Floyd’s Britannia Row A room in the mid-80s. Following that they spent some time at Bernie Becker Mastering when a number of the later Neil Diamond records were made.
What do you listen for on each of these?
The Westlakes will show you details such as reverb tails and other aspects of your sound and tones that you can’t get anywhere else. And they also are very critical when your mix is done- it should sound great on these. If it doesn’t it will show you in the mids where you messed up. The Adams are great; they’re not as fatiguing because they have a ribbon tweeter. They also show you the low mids in a way that nothing else does.
So you’re after clarity there?
Yeah. Essentially if there is something muddy going on down at 300hz, it’s going to show you that in spades so you can solve it. If people are mixing for long periods at a time they use them.
Which one do you turndown super quiet for that low-volume leveling?
You know, a lot of guys do that. I tend to mix up my levels quite a bit.
Primarily, I want to hear what my mix is doing when it’s 95db or so. I also hook a boom-box up sometimes and have that be my fourth set of monitors. Sometimes you want to hear what it’s going to sound like on a crappy stereo.
So are you slapping heavy compression on the stereo buss to get a feel for how it might sound on the radio?
You know, there’s always mastering after this anyway. My opinion is that you just want the best sounding mix you can come up with. It’s not a CD-ready song because it hasn’t gone thru mastering. The better mix you give the mastering engineer, the better it’s going to be.
But are you using compression and limiting as a “look-ahead”?
Well we absolutely use mix-buss compression and EQ on any record. We usually use the GML 8200and the API 2500 or the Tube-Tech Multi-band.
Do you take it off before giving it to mastering, or do you leave it on and say “this is where I’m headed”?
That’s it, absolutely. You don’t want a completely squashed main mix. Then you’ve given the mastering engineer nothing to work with. You want to account for 2 or 3 db of compression that he may want to use to bring out aspects of the record that’s compelling. You compare the original mix to the mastered and it should sound better- that’s what their job is!
Can you share a moment that elevated your engineering skills?
The biggest moments were when I lobbied the folks that were buying equipment for live rigs. I told them we really need a class-A mix compression and EQ on this. We put Avalon 747 on left / right and 737 in the center. Immediately, it started to sound much more like a record. Prior to this the venue had a Behringer multicom on left, center, right and sub right before the amps. It was peaking at around -25db at the levels normally used in the building and it just murdered their sound.
Which part of the studio are you hoping to upgade?
We’re doing a B room right now. The studios are fairly complete, equipment wise. The biggest upgrade will be the live sound rig. We’re going to be a full-service music production company. That’s the revolution that’s happening, because frankly, the business model for studios doesn’t exist anymore. If all you’re doing is selling studio time, I don’t know how you can make money. ProTools rigs have gone into everyone’s bedroom, and at the same time the recording industry is a quarter of the size it was in 2000 because the CD market has been in a 20% decline annually for years.
So, you still have to make the music, but there needs to be a change of reference mentally, that’s why we’re looking into forming partnerships with the artists that we believe in. We intend to shine a positive light on them, and likewise they’ll be shining a positive light on Rainmaker, Supernatural Sound and Tone Proper Mastering. So I think ultimately that’s how the corner’s going to be turned in the industry.
Can you name a few engineers you hold in esteem?
(without pausing) Chiccarelli! His chops are legendary. He’s done Zappa, Elton John, Tori Amos, Beck, U2. He’s as big a guy as there is in the business. He’s excellent. I think Portland in general has some outstanding talent. Nick Moon is a fantastic engineer that gets superior tones and mixes very quickly. Jordan Richter, Sean Flora, Rob Bartleson, Dean Baskerville, Tony Lash, Jeff Saltzmann and Gabe Wilson are all outstanding talents who have each made a number of great sounding records here. Other stellar talents that have worked here include Larry Crane, Tucker Martine, Reid Shippen, and TJ Doherty.
Name two pieces of gear you have your eye on.
I’ve always wanted a long-body U47 or U48. I lusted after that Tube-Tech multi-band compressor for a number of years until I found one on Ebay. I’ve never had a compressor that I could dive into and really make any two-track source sound better no matter what.
Wow- pretty valuable huh?
It really is. It’s as much of an EQ as a compressor. The audio quality is amazing!
Speaking of mics- do you have any Klaus Heyne mods?
I don’t. I’ve got a couple I want Klaus to work on though. He’s a guru.
And that’s really what it’s about. The guys that build really good gear are artists. Like Rupert Neve, he invented the electronics of great preamps, EQ’s and consoles such that when you put music in it just sounds better coming out the other end.
Because of 2nd and 3rd harmonics and things like that?
Yeah. For example, an API 550b EQ. You can leave it flat and run some audio thru it, and most of the time it sounds better coming out the other side. It’s not bypassed, but all the bands are flat. If you want to know the nature of a piece of gear, listen to it flat and see what it’s doing to your source.
How young were you when you started recording?
I really got started when I found out how expensive recording studios were, and started my own rig. I didn’t want to pay the freight, but I sure wished I would’ve, cause you can’t get that music back.
So it happened to you, and it’s happening to other people. You can drop ten grand easily on a record.
The way to make the best record for the money is to use a big studio like this that has a great sounding room to track with so you get your print basics tracks properly. Be well rehearsed and do it as fast as you can. Then you take it home for editing and overdubs, where most of the time is spent. Following this, bring it back to a big studio and you use all the outboard and great summing on the console, and that’s how you make the record.
That’s the cost-effective way to do it?
That’s the cost-effective way to do it. If you’re a band like the Shins, that have a relatively big budget, you can do most of the overdubs and editing in house like they did here.
Do you have a Rich Haugen basic drum mic set-up?
My basic set-up for drums for drums would start with an AKG D20 on kick. There are a number of ways to get kick. Sometimes a condenser a yard away will get aspects that you want to put in. Snare-wise I love the Sennheiser 441 top and bottom and maybe a condenser, a KM84 or Octava taped to the top mic to squash and blend in. On toms I like Sennheiser 421’s usually about an inch and a half away from the head at a 30 degree angle. For rooms, the Blue Bottles are impossible to beat. For overheads KM84’s and I love Audio-technica 4041’s. They’re very sweet sounding.
They’re really quick, and you like the top on them?
Yeah it’s a really warm, rich-sounding mic.
You’re bottle mics for room- what are they, 10ft high?
You want to make the room mic’s equi-distant from the snare. Get out your measuring tape. That will give you a coherent snare sound. There’s a sweet spot for kick drum that Wes the drum tech from the Shins session found by walking around the room hitting the kick with a beater.
How are you checking for phase. Are you looking at waveforms or using a clicker?
The rough way to check phase is just to push the phase button on the console and listen to what is happening. The real about phase is it’s not just 180 or zero, there are phase relationships all along the spectrum. So most of the time, the way you’re going to solve your phase issue is to position your mics differently and get them as close to one of those 180 poles as you can, and have the phase button in whatever position it needs to be.
Naturally room mics are going to be out of phase because of the distance?
That’s the whole point of having your mics equi-distant from the snare.
You measure because you want that wave to arrive exactly at the same time, but there’s going to different phase relationships in there as well with the toms etc.
Do you tend to use your overheads and bring in the close mics?
It depends on the tune. Sometimes the overheads sound the best and sometimes the room. You can have all or none or any ratio in between.
It’s all subjective, tempo, type of song etc.
It’s all art.
What’s your current back-up system?
Now days it’s so easy cause drives are dirt cheap. Back-up is the responsibility of the independent (producer) if there is one, otherwise we back up to two drives, you always want two copies in different places.
If a band wants to use tape do they stay tape the whole way?
No. They usually track basics and almost always go into Protools.
Comparative listening CD’s- what do you use?
I have a list I listen to a lot. I listen to Neil Young, Dylan, Tom Petty, the Dead, the Beatles as well as some more contemporary records.
You use Tone Proper for mastering now that you’re in association, but did you have luck with any mastering houses in town?
A number of projects went to Freq or Superdigital. A lot of times it’s not my decision. Most of the time it’s not. It’s up to the artist or the label.
Back to the comparative listening CD. If you were to walk into a room, generally what would you play.
Tom Petty Wildflowers, some Stones, and Dire Straits. Whatever is going to give me the most information about whatever rig I’m listening to.
How do you approach compression on drums? Do you sometimes compress when you’re tracking?
Oh yeah. My basic philosophy is print the tones you want. I know some guys just want to do the straight mic pre to tape thing, and to me that’s just a way of avoiding decisions. I want the best sound printed.
So kick, snare, toms going to tape?
Is that mainly getting the hit, the punch, and is protecting your levels part of that too?
You have to realize that compressors are as much about tone as volume regulation. The reason for this is that they magnify the quieter aspects of your signal. A lot of things, especially vocals, the loudest parts of the vocal are maybe not what you want to hear as much. Where as the quieter aspects, or harmonic aspects of that sound that make it sparkle. The name of the game is to sort of modulate the envelope of that so that the better aspects of the tone are brought down relative to the other ones.
And that’s the tone- not necessarily the singer’s dynamic- the whispering etc?
All singers are going to have their own sound. Hopefully they have good vocal technique. I don’t really like it when a singer moves back and forth on the mic too much.
It changes the tone.
It really does. You get proximity effect etc, but vocalists do it. If you’ve got a good compressor on it, they’ll do it less. Because they’ll hear that working.
Oh, so you’ll have that in their fold-back?
Oh yeah! Our headphone system is the 16 channel Furman, and basically you just open up the pipe and the band solves their own problems.
What are you’re best sounding pre’s. Is there a “desert island pre”?
You know- if I had a pair of Fearns I’d probably say yes. All the pre’s I have in here I love. Whether it’s the Helios or the Quad8 or the Daking or the API. They’re just all really good- they’re just different flavors.
The ones I have the most of- the API, if you’re doing a mic pre shoot-out they’re going to win a lot of the time.
Really. The details there…
In a sense API has a very hi-fi, almost rubbery quality to it, that is really musically pleasing especially for rock. In a lot of ways they are less colored than a Neve or Daking. So if the question was what mic pre I really ought to get, it might be a Grace or Millennia or something known for transparency.
How do you approach a mix?
I start with drums. I want to get them to where they need to be, to be the foundation for the rhythm section. My first big job is to get the rhythm section right. We’ll almost always add in Alan Smart on the sub-mix, usually just the drums, sometimes the room, rarely the cymbals. You bring that back on a couple faders and that just makes the drums pop. There are certain pieces that I just couldn’t do audio without.
And Alan Smart is one of them.
For sub-mixing drums?
Yes, though sometimes put we put it on the whole record. What I found in listening is what I’m really using the Alan Smart compressor for is to get the snare kick and toms to pop. I found that I usually dont like what it does to the cymbals. But there are no fixed rules.
When you’re squashing your room mics for drums are you using the Distressors?
I’ve seen them used for that. They’re typically used on kick and snare.
A favorite set of overhead compressors are Spectra-Sonics 610’s . They’re a late 60’s early 70’s design and only they do what they do.
So you’re saying if you’re API pre into Alan Smart, it makes your job easier because you’re going for that punch and trying to glue the kit together. Then you leave your overheads nice and airy and separate from the sub-mix.
Yes. When I get independents in here, and they’re most of my business by far, I pay close attention to their signal chains and their mix set-up. If there is something really compelling about what they are trying to do I’ll have a chat with them about it- if it’s appropriate, And that’s just the process of learning more about the alchemy of sound.
Are you flipping overheads out of phase with the rest of the kit?
You need to just position the mics on the kit in such a way that they’re not causing you any phase problems.
So you measure?
You listen more than anything.
Are you a 3:1 rule guy?
The 3:1 rule that I would mention is that the mic pre has three times as much impact on the quality of a tone than does the microphone. What I mean is you’re way better off with a better mic pre and a less expensive mic than the other way around. Every record ever made has got Shure 57’s on it, often with a mic pre that costs 20 times as much. The mic preamplifier is the circuit whereby a mic level signal becomes line-level so a console can work with it.
Any books that you could recommend to would-be-engineers?
The kind of bible of sound is Modern Recording Techniques. The author of it is David Miles Huber, he’s been down here a couple of times, a really nice guy who knows as much about the business and audio as anyone.
What’s your ratio between guys that just track and guys that just mix with you?
I would say about a third of them do the whole thing here. A third of them track here and a third of them mix here. It kind of depends where people are at in their project and what their mind-set is. A lot of people just have to have the drum sound, and once they get that they’re fine in the box. Audio is totally cumulative. Every step along the chain that you can make an improvement, it’s going to translate to the over-all output at the end of the line.
Thanks again Rich. Any advice for would-be-engineers?
Use your ears. That’s your number one resource. Have a persistent and relentless work ethic. Always make the best record you can for the artist.
Contact Rich at Super Natural Sound 503.631.7909