JONATHA BROOKE AND BOB CLEARMOUNTAIN TEAMING UP FOR “STEADY PULL”

Mar 1, 2001 12:00 PM, Gary Eskow

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Bob Clearmountain's success as a mix engineer through the years has led to a string of plum production assignments. By the early ’90s, he'd earned production points with The Pretenders, Hall & Oates, Bryan Adams and about two dozen other high-profile acts. But the artistic and financial rewards didn't balance out the hassles, and so Clearmountain decided to stick to mixing. Until he heard the music of singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke, who had made her initial splash as co-leader, with Jennifer Kimball, of The Story.

Brooke enlisted Clearmountain to work on 10¢ Wings, the album preceding her current release, Steady Pull. “The record had been mixed,” says Brooke, “but it wasn't popping out of the speakers. After Bob worked on it, every single word of the vocals could be heard, the record had bottom end for days, and it all fit together.”

Mixing involves more than knowing how much reverb to apply to a snare. His musicality is what made Brooke eager to work with Clearmountain. “Bob has a great ability to weed out extraneous material. We had a song on the earlier album called ‘Secrets and Lies,’ which featured an accordion part in the chorus. I kept wondering if it was corny, but Bob immediately went to that part, pulled it up in the mix and weeded something else out of the mix that was getting in its way.” Brooke's desire to work with Clearmountain was later reciprocated. When she had enough material for another album, she dropped in at Mix This!, Clearmountain's home studio, to let him have a listen. What made Clearmountain, who has his pick of high-paying mix assignments, decide to co-produce Steady Pull on spec?

“Jonatha's an amazing songwriter,” he says. “She's like Aimee Mann, in that instead of writing a song and leaving it at that, she keeps working, taking her pieces several steps further. She'll come up with a good lyric and changes and ask herself what can be done to take things further.”

Her writing may not fit snugly into radio playlist formats, though. Occasionally compared to the young Joni Mitchell, Brooke's work is part pop but part art song, as well. Structures evolve rather than repeat, literally. Even choruses may appear with different numbers of bars. All of her songs are anchored by Brooke's first-rate guitar work, which often draws on tunings of her own devising. “Jonatha's tunings are very unique,” says Clearmountain. “They make for unusual inversions, and she uses her remarkable voice to lay melodies over her guitar parts in unusual ways.”

Brooke and Clearmountain wanted Steady Pull to have a live feel, so they set up a drum kit in the lounge area of Mix This! and tracked guitars, guide vocals and drums in a single pass on many of the songs. “The first thing we did on each track was work the vocal,” says Clearmountain. “We would never record an overdub without listening to her vocal and making sure that parts would complement her singing. When you're working with a singer/songwriter like Jonatha, it's important to remember that all of the writing revolves around the voice, and that the mixer's most important job is to keep things out of its way. Anything that conflicts, or clouds over the singing, I dip frequencies on or take out completely. It's easier to make those kinds of decisions when you're co-producing a record rather than simply mixing it.”

Brooke says that Clearmountain's ability to get great sounds quickly is one of the most enjoyable aspects of his talent. “We wanted to keep the live feel of what band performances are like, playing rather than refining parts ’til the end of time. Sure, you know that drum sounds will be worked on in the mix. But Bob would bring up the drums in a matter of minutes while we were rehearsing, and they sounded great! The sound inspired us to play our best.”

Contrapuntal compliments seem to be in order when either Brooke or Clearmountain is asked about the other. “Let me give you another example of just how extraordinary Jonatha is,” says Clearmountain. “She speaks French and thought that recording French vocals on some of the tunes would be fun and might help sales in Canada and Europe. She came in one afternoon and sang all of the lead and background vocals in French on four songs, nearly perfectly. She's got an amazing control over all of her techniques; writing, singing and playing.”

Mix This! revolves around Clearmountain's SSL G+ console. “It's a 72-input board that's been customized quite a bit,” he says. “Lots of little things, mostly. I put in an in-place solo system for the VCA group faders and added some bus features that make mixing a little easier. We've got an extra stereo cue send and a rotary master fader, which I find easier to use than a standard fader.”

What new toys is Bob Clearmountain using these days? “The coolest thing I can see these days is the Apogee stereo mic pre. It sounds unbelievable. It has a slot on the back where you can put an 8-channel D/A, which lets you use it as a front end to Pro Tools, ADAT or DA-88. The mic pre sounds gorgeous. We recorded all of Jonatha's vocals through it. The Avalon M5 mic pre is also excellent, as is their U5 direct box, which we used a lot on this record. But I keep coming back to the Apogee converters. Everyone's looking for warmth in their digital recordings, and we're getting a lot of comments that Steady Pull is a very warm-sounding record, even though it was recorded entirely in the digital realm. A lot of that has to do with the Apogee converters.”

Surround mixing is all the rage, but Clearmountain approaches multiple speaker setups with caution: “We mixed the record in surround, using five KRK E7s.” Five speakers? Where's the .1? “I don't use a subwoofer,” he says. “I'm nervous about putting things into it. I'd use a sub if there were explosions on the record; that's about it! You don't know how people are going to be hearing the work once you start getting into these frequency areas. Suppose someone has just watched a Schwartzenegger movie on their surround system and has cranked up the sub to get juiced by all of the sound effects. Then they put on our record. It would sound terrible! I feel that I have more control and can be more certain that the listener will hear the music the way we intended it to be heard. I leave out the sub.”

Project studio mixers take heart. Like you, Bob Clearmountain runs out of faders. “Working in surround requires more faders,” he notes. “The surrounds are separate and in addition to the stereo mix. I use the small faders on the G Series as sends to the surround matrix. In the past, I've normally used them for echo returns, which means that I run out of echo returns real quick. We solved the problem by bringing in an O2R, simply to be used as a static mixer.

“The interesting thing about surround sound — which I think a lot of people don't realize — is that there isn't one way to go about handling it. Effective use of surround depends on the type of music you're working on, the specific song and having a clear understanding of the effect you're trying to achieve. Tricks may be fun to play with in your studio, but are they advancing the idea behind the music?”

Clearmountain exploited surround mixing on one track in particular, Brooke's “How Deep Is Your Love.” “Jonatha recorded multiple vocal passes, and we decided to treat them like an amusement park ride,” he says. “The backgrounds bounce all over the surround matrix. Maybe we took things over the top a little, but it's fun to listen to. That's what listening to records is all about to me.” In general, though, less is more is the advice Clearmountain would give his colleagues when it comes to surround mixing. “Creating ambience, using reverb to expand the field; that's great. Possibly using room mics on the drums and mixing them a little wider, that's also good. To tell you the truth, though, I haven't mixed that much in surround. Lots of times we'll start out thinking surround. Then I'll go back to the stereo mix and find that I like it better. I ask myself, ‘What's the point?’ Again, any time you make any decision as a mixer, the question is, did it enhance the song? That's not to say that there aren't situations where surround is perfect. If I was mixing a Pink Floyd record, I'd go heavily into surround. But I wouldn't if I was mixing a Bruce Springsteen record. Wait a minute — I am mixing a Springsteen record now in surround! But that's different. It's a live record, and we're simply sending the hall into the back speakers. I'm not using a subwoofer on that one, either. The only time I've used a subwoofer to date was on a live Bryan Adams record, a concert at Slane Castle in Ireland, and the only reason we used the sub was that there were fireworks at the end of the show!”

When we spoke, both Clearmountain and Brooke were looking forward to the release of Steady Pull on Mad Dog Records, scheduled for February 2001. Meanwhile, Clearmountain is dealing with a welter of high-profile mix assignments, while Jonatha Brooke is allowing herself a moment to enjoy the taste of artistic fulfillment. What's next for her? “I don't know what will come out next,” she says. “I haven't been in a writing mode lately. As a side project, I'd like to explore ambient music, using weird, unidentifiable sounds. I'd also like to make a chamber record, using a string quartet to accompany all of the waltzes I've written over the years — not traditional waltzes, but pieces in three. Right now I'm loving this record!”

Those interested in finding out more about Bob Clearmountain and his studio are invited to visit his Web site at www.mixthis.com.






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