Art of Sound: A Conversation with Bob  Marlette

A Conversation with Bob Marlette—One of Rock Music’s Most Versatile and Prolific Producers

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By Barry M Rivman

There was a time when those who were aspiring to be in the music industry were advised to decide which side of the control room glass they wanted to be on—recording artist or recording engineer—because it took an equal amount of time and effort to become one or the other. In essence, musicians were told that becoming a recording engineer was not an inside track to becoming a recording artist, and conversely, being an engineer was not a way to break into the music business as an artist.

Then you have people like producer extraordinaire, Bob Marlette, who proves the old wisdom wrong. Bob’s super power is that he can leap tall control-room windows in single bound, equally comfortable with any and every aspect music production—whether it’s composing, performing, engineering, mixing, and of course, producing—and he does it all with a warm, embracing manner and graciousness that’s extremely rare in this, or any other business.

The proverbial man behind the curtain, Bob has amassed an impressive list of credits on both sides of the glass, from his tasteful keyboard work with Al Stewart, Tracy Chapman, and Cheryl Crow, to his hard-rockin’ records with Neil Schon, Rob Zombie, and Shinedown (and many, many more).

We at The HUB have been given the privilege to pull back the curtain and let you meet the wizard who has influenced the sound of popular music for nearly four decades—and continues to do so with unwavering passion and creativity.

THE INTERVIEW

The HUB: How did you get started in music and what led you to producing?

Bob Marlette: I’m from Lincoln Nebraska, and as a kid I started out primarily as a keyboard player. I was always the kid in the band who didn’t just know my part, but everybody else’s parts too. (Laughs) I suppose the “control freak” started way back when. My parents were really into music. My mom played a little piano, and my father was a professor. I just grew up really loving music and gravitated towards piano.

There was a band that came through town when I was around 17 or 18, which was a couple of the guys from Quiet Riot; Rudy Sarzo and Frankie Banali. They saw me playing in a club and said, “Hey, let’s put a band together.” So, the band that took me out of Lincoln, NB to Chicago was sort of an early version of Quiet Riot. I was in that band for about two or three years touring, playing lots of gigs, and then we moved to L.A.—somewhere around 1977.

Almost immediately after landing in L.A. I realized that even though I loved being in bands and being onstage, there was so much more I wanted to do. Then I got lucky and got my first big break, which was playing piano for Al Stewart (Year Of The Cat, Time Passages), and that led me into session work in the late ’70s. In the early to mid ’80s I was doing lots of sessions, writing for other artists, and doing people’s demos. I did a couple of demos for a producer by the name of David Kirshenbaum, who had produced Cat Stevens, Joe Jackson, Tracy Chapman, and Duran Duran. So he sort of picked me up and I started doing co-productions with him. He’s the one that really pulled me up out of the mêlée and brought me into the fold, so to speak. He gave me the opportunity to co-produce and work on some big records. That’s how I ended up playing on Tracy Chapman’s first two records.

As I said, I was doing lots of sessions and writing with people—that’s how I ended up writing and working with Cheryl Crow, Wilson Phillips—all sorts of things. That brings us through the mid to late eighties. Then I got a call from a couple of guys from Journey, which is how I ended up doing Neal Schon’s solo record, and then working with that band, The Storm, which was three of the other guys from Journey (Greg Rolie, Russ Valory, Steve Smith).

After that . . . (laughs), the thing is, after all these years I’ve made so many records . . . sometimes it’s kind of tough when somebody will come up to me and go, “Dude, you made this record, I love this record. . .” and I’m like, damn, I can’t even remember that record.” I was figuring it out the other day: I made my first record in 1974, so it’s been 40 years that I’ve been doing this—pretty crazy.

The HUB: But you still love it, right?

Bob Marlette: Oh my god, I love it. It’s crazy, I was just doing a session yesterday: my son was engineering for this artist and called me with a technical question. So I went over to the studio and I started hanging with the artist and my son, Chris, and 10 minutes into it, I’m helping produce. It’s funny, that’s really what it’s all about; after all these years I just love like I did when I first started doing it when I was a kid. I think that’s just the way I’m wired—I’d do this no matter what—I still love it, yes.

The HUB: I understand you were at the cutting edge of digital recording technology.

Bob Marlette: It’s funny, but for me, I just loved trying new things. And I think that’s why at age 58, I’m still on the leading edge of everything—I love the idea of, what’s the new sound, what’s the next thing, what’s the coolest new piece of gear? I’ve always been that way from day one. I was one of the first guys in America working on the first digital stuff coming out, figuring out how to apply it to music. [Ed’s note: Bob is too modest to say he was a consultant with the original Pro Tools design team.] That was always the thing, because the guys developing the technology . . . they were techno-dudes, they were just saying, “well here it is,” and then it was up to us to implement that in a practical musical environment. That was one of the things I was into early on, figuring out how to apply that technology to music. I guess part of it came from being a keyboard player and also an engineer, as well as all the other things.

Truthfully—and it sounds kind of weird—I never really set out to be an engineer. The engineering was literally a byproduct of making music. For example, if something sounded awful in a session, I’d be thinking, “what’s the problem here?” and I would just sit down and start turning things until I went, “oh, there you go, that’s what we want.” And that’s exactly how I learned how to engineer.

Remember, when I first started to engineer, there weren’t any schools for this. We were making it up as we went along. That was the beauty of the whole thing; we’d be in a session and somebody would say, “I wonder if we could figure out how to get this to do that,” and somebody would figure it out. That was what was so much fun about the old days. There truly weren’t any rules to how we went about doing this.

The HUB: It seems now that we have DAWs that can do anything in terms of creative options, music seems to be less creative than the old days. Do you think those limitations helped you be more creative?

Bob Marlette: I don’t actually totally agree with that. I think more than anything what’s happened is with the level of technology today, what’s really been sacrificed is some of the musicianship. In my opinion, creativity is creativity. I’m hearing records nowadays that are pretty amazing. There’s good, cool stuff coming out, and it’s really up to the individual. I really feel that we’re in a time period where there really aren’t very many rules in terms of what we can and cannot do creatively.

In the ’60s and ’70s there was a freedom that happened. Because there wasn’t any playbook, we simply went and did it and had fun. In the ’80s though, and I made a lot of records in the eighties, there were quite a few rules. We started writing the rulebook in the ’80s, when all a sudden there were hair bands, this kind of band and that kind of band, and I had to follow a certain kind of sound. The record companies started dictating what they wanted and then we went through the eighties, nineties, and 2k, living within that set of rules. Then we got to 2009-10, and younger artists were saying, “Well, f@#k the rulebook, I’m going to put a crazy amount of reverb on this vocal,” and all of a sudden, everybody says, “wow, that’s really cool-sounding,” so we had sort of a new freshness.

I just literally finished this record, a band called, Smashing Satellites from Canada, and it was like being free again. I had so much fun. It’s such a cool, clever record, not unlike the new Rob Zombie record I did last year—it was the same kind of deal; they freed you.

Yes, in some degree, there is a lessening of creativity, but I think there are more opportunities to be free if we allow ourselves to conceive the idea.

The HUB: My perception was more about the attitude of young musicians; that since you can fix anything in Pro Tools, they don’t feel the need to practice as much, so the music is suffering.

Bob Marlette: I totally agree with what you’re saying there. That’s what I meant when I said that musicianship has declined. I’ll get that, where an artist will come in and play one take, and say, “You’ll fix that, right?” And I’ll, say, “Okay, yeah, I could fix it, but you really haven’t given me anything that’s enlightened or special.” What I’m only going to be able to do is just make it okay. So yes, I totally agree with you that there is definitely a decline.

What I’m talking more about is conceptually and creatively—from that standpoint—not in terms of the physicality of performance, because yes, that has lessened over the years. I see that all the time; when you get players in there and you go, “Dude, did you not practice?”

Bob Marlette in Studio

Bob’s Pro Tools rig, outboard preamps, compressors, summing mixers, and monitors

The HUB: How do you handle a musician in a session who just isn’t bringing it?

Bob Marlette: My job as a producer is to help musicians get to places they didn’t think they could get to. What I really love to do is to help their evolution as musicians—showing them ways to play a part that can turn a light on in their minds and help them get better than they thought they could be. And that’s what I really love: the teaching aspect. Sometimes it’s pretty tough, technique-wise, but I also play a lot of guitar and bass on records, so I have the advantage of being able to show them physically what I’m looking for, and let them go off and figure it out. Hopefully, a light will go on in their head and they’ll get it.

The HUB: Regarding teaching, I see are a lot of books teaching engineering techniques, but not a whole lot on how to actually record as a musician. I would think that 90% of the battle in recording is the music.

Bob Marlette: Absolutely. There’s a joke I tell to every band I work with, and the reason tell this joke is because it is so relevant. The joke is: “What is the cure for a sh!tty snare drum sound?” And everybody goes, “Uh, duct tape . . . uh, new snare . . .”

The HUB: dbx 160 . . .

Bob Marlette: Yeah, exactly (chuckles). And I answer: “The true cure for a sh!tty snare drum sound . . . is a hit song, because who the f#%k cares what the snare drum sounds like if it’s a hit song.” I say that to everybody because that helps to adjust what you’re focusing on. A lot of times, bands will come in and say, “Man, can you give me the snare sound you had on such-and-such record.” Or, “What guitar did you use on this record and that record . . .” And I’ll say, “You know, if you’re a great (actually Bob used a different word there; think the initials of Musician’s Friend) player, it’s amazing how great all of a sudden your sound will be. And if you are really writing amazing songs, it’s really magical how quickly it sounds phenomenal.”

It’s all in understanding the process of making a record. It begins in the fundamentals of pre-production and arrangement of the song. One of the gifts that I have is that I “see” the song. I visualize what needs to happen in the development of the song from a writing standpoint all the way through the arrangement and bringing it to fruition.

Recording the song is usually much easier because of all of the pre-production work that goes into it. Those are the things that really help the process more than anything. And you’re very right about that, in the sense of people only wanting engineering techniques. I’m asked all the time, “Could you do videos on all of the things you do to make those records?” But it isn’t about how many dB of 100 Hertz I put on something. That stuff, if you’re musically cool, is already built into the song—you know, the coolness and all the vibe. Yes, I’m a big, big believer in all the other (musical) stuff.

The HUB: Apropos of that, I’ve heard an alarming number of people say, “I want to be a producer; do I have to know anything about music?”

Bob Marlette: (Laughs) yeah . . .

The HUB: Yeah, well, I want to be a surgeon; do I have to go through that whole medical school thing?

Bob Marlette: That’s exactly the analogy, that’s exactly it. Here’s the thing though. Along the way, we got confused about the job title, “producer.” What happened was that engineers started calling themselves producers. And that was the problem, because a musician would look at that record and say, “Wow, that record sounds amazing!” and then they’d hire that engineer and find out he didn’t know poopie (No, Bob didn’t say, “poopie.” You’ll get it), because it was the producer who was the brains behind everything. And conversely, you’d hire a producer and then realize that all he really did was get coffee for everybody—it was the engineer who was the brains behind everything.

I’ve always said, a truly great producer doesn’t have to engineer. Ultimately, the true job of producer is to facilitate the making of great records—whatever that takes.

You look at Rick Rubin. People can say what they say about Rick, “Well, he doesn’t do this, he doesn’t do that . . .” but you know what? He still makes great records, so he’s obviously doing something right.

The HUB: What key elements or abilities do you think someone who wants to be a producer should have?

Bob Marlette at the analog desk
Bob at the analog desk

Bob Marlette: In my opinion, the most important aspect of producing is having the skills, be it people skills or awareness skills. For example, you walk into a room and you see a band and you go, this would sound amazing if we had this kind of sound: if the drums were a little roomier, the guitars were a little dirty, and the bass had distortion. Or conversely, you think, wow, this would really be cool if we had super-tight electronic drums, and you put the “fairy dust” on top of it. It’s having the vision to see what needs to be done.

In regard to your question, when people ask me about all the records I’ve done, from Tracy Chapman to Black Sabbath, Cheryl Crow to Rob Zombie—you know, whoever—I tell them it’s all the same. It’s all music. Just figuring out what it is and what you need to do to get that to work. For instance, in the case of Rick Rubin, from what I know about Rick, not actually having worked with him, he figures that out, and then he’ll say something like, “You guys would really benefit from using this engineer.” Or, “This song is really not killin’ it. You gotta work on this song.” And he gets very specific in terms of what needs to happen in the song. He doesn’t write it, but he knows how to develop the song and get you to maximize it.

In my case, what I love is getting my hands dirty and doing the stuff physically myself. That’s why I wrote and arranged and played and engineered, because I love the entire process of making records. I don’t have the kind of personality to just sit on the couch and point at people. I just don’t have that. That’s not who I am. I love to roll up my sleeves and get in there and do it. That’s the fun for me.

Today, there are so many different kinds of producers. If you’re an artist looking for a producer, it’s really about whether you as an artist are ready for someone like Rick Rubin; you have your act together, you know what’s up, you know how to go in and make that record, so really what you need is his vision to help you through it. Or, maybe you’re another kind of band that needs another “fifth Beatle.”

Editor’s note: Beatles producer, Sir George Martin, was often referred to as “The Fifth Beatle,” despite disc jockey, Murray The K claiming the title as his own.

The HUB: So basically, as a producer, you’re all about the big picture.

Bob Marlette: Yes, at the end of the day, the producer’s job ultimately is the big picture. It doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you do. The audience doesn’t care how many mixes or overdubs Steely Dan did. They only care about the final record. It doesn’t matter what’s happening behind the curtain, only that when you get it out there, it’s amazing.

For me, as I was saying before, the reason I learned how to do everything was so I never felt naked in the studio, that I couldn’t save the day no matter what happened.

The HUB: Speaking of different approaches to production, there are those who rule with an iron fist, while others are hands-off and let the band do their thing no matter what. I get the impression that your approach is more of a wait-and-see, and then try to get people to rise to the occasion.

Bob Marlette: Yes. That’s exactly what I do. I would so much rather have it be organic and come from a place of them doing it, ’cause there’s nothing better than the band feeling like they overcame, rose together as a team, and delivered. Listen, it’s not fun telling the drummer, “Dude, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but you can’t play on your own freakin’ record. That’s no fun, I hate doing that, and I try to do everything in my power to not let that happen. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t situations where you don’t have a choice. That, unfortunately, comes with the job too. There are times you have to pull the trigger on the really hard decisions. I have to watch out for the greater good, which is the quality of the product.

At the end of the day, more people will be happy if you make a great record. You can’t sacrifice the quality of the record because one or two guys can’t cut it. That is a difficult scenario, but that’s part of my job description.

Bob Marlette Blue Room bird of happiness
Bob and the Blue Room bird of happiness

The HUB: So being a diplomat figures in with all the other skills.

Bob Marlette: Oh, absolutely: diplomat, therapist, all of those things. Sometimes it’s therapy in the sense that the artist can actually do it, he’s just paralyzed with fear or insecurity; any number of things that stop him from playing better. That’s sometimes my job, which is to help them break through that and see the light at the end of the tunnel—hopefully it’s not a train comin’ at you.

The HUB: I get the impression that working with you would have to be fun and relaxed.

Bob Marlette: Totally. I need to create an environment where everybody can flourish. Some producers think that people do better in crazy-stressed environments. The truth is, that I have to read the dynamic of the band, and I know that some bands function like that: I need to speak to the singer as if we were gonna’ go to blows at any second, but the guitar player, I have to put my arm around him and walk him over to the guitar rig. So, it’s being able to understand the dynamic for each artist.

The HUB: Has there ever been a situation where you’ve called irreconcilable differences and walked away from the project?

Bob Marlette: Knock on wood, that’s never actually happened. That doesn’t mean that all records go smooth and swimmingly—that’s definitely not the case. But no, I’ve never done that because my father, being a professor, always said that you don’t walk away from people or situations. Your job is to educate. Your job is to help them. That was ingrained in me from youth; you stick with it. You do whatever it takes to make it right even though it can be painful and pretty rough. Part of my job is to have shoulders broad enough so that I can carry the weight of it.

There was an occasion—and I’m not going to say the name of the band—but there was a case where we had done a few tracks and turned them into the record label the next day. The record label rep calls the next day, saying, “Dude, it’s sh!t, I f@#king hate it, this is not what I want, you’re ruining this record . . .” And I said, “Really? I’m not sure I agree with you on this.” So he says this to the artist, and the artist goes into a downward spiral, drunken frenzy, the whole bit. A couple of days later, the A&R rep calls back and says, “You know what? I was playing this for some friends. This is pretty f’in good. I think we might have a hit on our hands.” Those same songs that I played for him—that record went on to sell two million copies—and it almost destroyed the artist. He nearly self-destructed because the A&R guy didn’t know what he was doing.

What I’m getting at with this story is that’s okay for the record guy to tell me. He’s always free to say that to me. I can take that. This is the business. This is what we do. I wouldn’t necessarily word it like that, but he can tell me that and I can take it. The biggest problem in this scenario was that he said it to the artist. So what he did was to completely deflate the artist—took all the wind out of his sails. Then we had to spend two weeks building him back up, getting his energy to the right place.

The HUB: Don’t get me started about executives . . .

Bob Marlette: Having said that, let me tell you one thing from the other side of that perspective. In around 2001, Island Def Jam gave me my own label. And all of a sudden, here I was, after spending all those years only on the music side, and there was my first glimpse into the other world. It was the first time I got to stick my head into the enemy camp. What that did more than anything, was this massive, eye-opening experience, where for the first time, I was privy to how ugly it is on that side. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean how tough it is to have a band as an A&R person that you’ve signed, and then you’ve got to go into that boardroom and fight for them with board full of guys who don’t want your act, they want their act.

I came out of that experience—by the way, it didn’t last very long ’cause I realized that this was pretty brutal—with such an education. That really changed the way I spoke and communicated with A&R guys, because I then had an appreciation for what it’s like going over to the dark side, and realizing, “Wow, you guys got it tough.”

The HUB: Well, as far as I know, there is no job in between A&R rep and waiter.

Bob Marlette: Yeah, (laughs) and there have been a few good jokes about that over the years.

The HUB: I know they’re under a lot of pressure and it’s easy to dump on executives, but you’re right, everyone does have their perspective. Given that so many artists have prescription-grade insecurities, has that experience made you more protective of artists in your dealings with label execs?

Bob Marlette: I’ve always been protective of the artist. Starting out on that side of the fence, I always was sensitive to those issues. I saw how crushing that was to the spirit. That’s why I said earlier that my desire was not to fire anybody out of the band. My mission is not to side with anybody. It’s to protect everybody’s psyche, if you will. A lot of times, I’m also the advocate for the A&R guy. Remember, I’ve been doing this for so many years, and I’ve been blessed enough to have a successful career, so that allows me a certain . . . I’d like to say, privilege, to be heard a little bit more, so I can speak to the bigger picture with record companies.

There’s a comfort factor after having done this for so many years. I know that I’m going to end up making a great record. That’s what I do. The record’s going to be great, it’s just all that stuff around the record that gets to be so tough: is this song the one that’s going to be the hit? Is this the right way to go about selling this record? You know, the perennial questions that go with making a record. So, I’m afforded a certain measure of audience after all these years, but that’s not to say that I’m always heard. There are sometimes it doesn’t matter what I say; that door is closed.

Bob Marlette and Sebastian Bach

Bob Marlette and Sebastian Bach at NRG studio B’s vintage Neve 8078 console

The HUB: Bob, can we switch gears and talk a little bit about the technical side of things?

Bob Marlette: You betcha.

The HUB: Let’s start with tracking. Do you start with a live rhythm section or build one track at a time to create the groove of a song?

Bob Marlette: Always a per-case basis. For instance, last I year I did the new Lynyrd Skynyrd record. We tracked a lot of it live, and then we’d go back and just fix or change anything we wanted to. Conversely, both the Filter and Zombie (Rob) records, those records were all done by building one component at a time. We’d start with finding the perfect sampled kick drum and the perfect snare. Then you’d get your groove, and then build the house on top of that from the ground up. It’s literally a per-case bases relative to the song.

Like Black Stone Cherry, we tracked live until we had the drum track we loved. Then, we would evaluate each performance, and perhaps decide we wanted a different bass sound a go recut the bass.

A lot of times, we’ll go in and do pre-lays, where we say, okay, let’s go in and do a dummy guitar and bass track, and the drummer will cut a track to just the guitar and bass. We do it more like that simply because that seems to be the most effective—again, relating to what we were talking about before—the lessening of musicianship. That tends to be the case. There are not a lot of bands anymore that really have the chops to go into that room and cut the tape live—doesn’t happen a lot.

The HUB: Does that make it more difficult to make it feel is though the song is being performed live?

Bob Marlette: No, I don’t think so, because at the end of the day, I know what I’m looking for. I know what needs to happen in that drum performance, and I know the energy I’m looking for that has to happen. It’s just noodling until you get it right. That’s a big word that I use all the time, “noodle.” We just noodle with it until we get it to the point where we go, wow, that sounds great, don’t touch it . . . done.

Bob tracking Anvil at NRG’s studio B

Bob tracking Anvil at NRG’s studio B

The HUB: Speaking of recording live, is there a live room you prefer to record in?

Bob Marlette: For years and years I recorded at Henson Studio [Ed’s note: Formerly Herb Alpert’s A&M Studio on La Brea Ave in L.A. purchased in 2000 by Jim Henson Company]. I love Henson, primarily studio B and D. I wasn’t such a big fan of (studio) A. I thought A was just a little too open and it just didn’t the kind of energy that both B and D did. Those were two rooms I really liked. Also Cello and Oceanway when they were studios. That’s the problem, some of my favorite rooms are now apartment complexes. Townhouse 2 was one of my favorite rooms in London.

Now, I’ve perfected my home environment—it’s the Blue Room here in Woodland Hills (CA). I’m truly blessed because my wife, who is the most spectacular wife ever . . . well, I accidently discovered that my dining room sounds f’ing amazing, because we have really high ceilings, hardwood, and brick. I put the drums in there one day and we recorded some stuff, and we were like, “Oh my god, that sounds amazing.” So that’s our world now.

The HUB: Speaking of drums, do you rely mainly on the room for ambience, or do you also use reverbs?

Bob Marlette: I use reverbs, but generally what I’ll do is put reverb on the ambient track. I’ll put aux sends on the actual room track. What I’m doing is colorizing the room that’s there. I always try to make every record sound different. There was never a point where I wanted Shinedown to sound like Seether, or Seether to sound like Saliva, or Black Sabbath to sound like Marilyn Manson. I want every record make to have its own colorization—you know, not having Lynyrd Skynyrd sound like Filter. They were completely different landscapes—like there’s no way you’d go, “Wow, that’s the same producer.”

It’s not about my brush strokes. I want my brush strokes to be invisible. I want the individual sonic landscape to take precedence every time.

The HUB: That leads nicely to my next question, which I’d like to tie into guitar record. How did a nice keyboard player from Lincoln NE starting out in soft rock projects find his way to producing so many hard rock records?

Bob Marlette: The truth is, you make a bunch of big records, they sell a lot of records, and your phone rings. And that’s essentially what happened. I made a whole string of big rock records and everybody thinks, “Oh, that’s what he does.” I love making rock records, and I’ve had an amazing run making rock records, but at this point I really want to diversify and do some things that are just more fun for me. But I want people understand that I’m very careful never to bite the hand that feeds me. I was very, very blessed to make all those rock records and I’ve got a natural affinity for it—I know how to make things rock. Partly because I have that sort of energy in me: “F**k-yeah, let’s rock!”

But when you look at me as a musician, you realize that I’ve done all this other stuff—and that’s really what I want to do for the rest of my career, which is diversify and have fun making all sorts of different records.

I’ve got my bucket list. One of the things I want to do now is make an absolutely amazing hit pop record—you know, full-on pop. I want to make a full-on country record, a full-on rap/hip hop record. I just love doing everything and I want to make sure my bucket list is checked off.

The HUB: Would you consider going out and finding that pop band to make that hit record with?

Bob Marlette: As we speak, that’s what’s happening, because I realized that I couldn’t sit around and wait for the phone to ring. I can’t wait for Beyoncé to give me a call, as much as I would love that. The truth is that what I really have to do is find the next Beyoncé, or find the next whoever and build it from its inception.

The HUB: Do you see that as a trend coming in the industry, where producers and people in your position will take it upon themselves to find the next big thing?

Bob Marlette: I think that’s most definitely what’s happening now because the business model has changed so much. Ten, fifteen years ago, I was getting over two hundred thousand dollars a record. Now, the average record is anywhere between fifty and one hundred thousand. The business model has really changed and because of that, we look at things differently. I can’t just sit around and wait for another big record to come my way.

I’ve talked to other producer friends and we’re all looking at it the same way. We have to be captains of our own destiny and make it happen. It’s not like ten years ago where I could just sit around and my phone rang all day long.

Yes I’m blessed beyond belief that my phone still rings, but it’s a different world. And by the way, one of the things that people don’t realize is that the transition happened in the ’80s with program music. In the ’70s, we listened album-oriented FM radio. In any given hour you could have a playlist that would give you Fleetwood Mac, then Led Zeppelin, then Pink Floyd, then Frank Sinatra, or whatever—it was this hugely varied playlist.

Then there was a guy who came in the ’80s, I don’t remember his name, who had this “brilliant” idea: How about we get advertisers who are looking just for this demographic and we play only that kind of music on this station? So, this station is only known for this kind of thing and we specifically target our advertising demographic. Now what you see in those programmed channels is that this station only plays this and that station only plays that. Essentially we segregated our music and the problem is that segregates the audience. For example, this guy only listens to heavy metal, so he’s not getting a cool variety of music, because he only wants metal. Basically, we cut off our own nose to spite our face, so to speak. In trying to be so specific about how we sell this, we’ve stifled our audience’s ability to listen to varied music. Sorry, I got up on my soapbox there.

The HUB: Again, there’s that fear the suits have of not increasing the bottom line. It’s like targeted marketing in retail. If I have a studio and buy E-Rings for my drum kit, all I’ll get are drum catalogs in the mail, even though I’m not a drummer, and as a studio owner, I buy everything. That said, we’re counting on you to put some variety back in our music, since the choices are so limited.

Bob Marlette: I concur. You know, it’s funny, because I’ve had this conversation with a lot of people, and when someone asks whose fault it is, my response is that we’re all guilty of this. For example the artists try to follow something else that’s successful so they can get successful and make money. The producer gets the call because his last record was a hit, and it sounded just like that, and everybody says, “Can you make me another version of that, so I can sell a bunch of records?” And the record company executive, he’s just trying to make sure that whatever it is he does sells, so he can keep his job.

So, if you look at it, we’re all equally guilty in the process. It’s not just one person in the process. I have to accept my share of the blame in this scenario, because if the phone rings and the executive says, “We’re going to give you a sh!t-ton of money to make the same damn thing over again . . .” “Uh, yeah, okay, I guess I’ll do it.”

I admit that and I understand it, but at this point in my life and my career, it’s time for me to put back into the well that I’ve taken from so sweetly. And that’s what I’m trying to do now; develop new artists. You know, do what we were talking about earlier; bring new things, new artists, and new sounds to the marketplace. That is important, and that’s what I’m trying to do now.

The HUB: As much as I’d like to stay on this topic, I’m pretty sure there’s a firing squad waiting for me if I don’t ask you about equipment. Can we talk about production techniques—if I throw out a word, maybe you could say what equipment comes to mind? For example, lead vocals.

Bob Marlette: There’s a guy here in the San Fernando Valley, Dave Pearlman, who makes Pearlman Microphones . . .

The HUB: The TM-1?

Bob Marlette: Yeah. He built me what is essentially a tube 47 (Neumann U47). It’s like a brand-new 47 with the brightness you’d have expected from a 47 in the ’60s if it came right out of the box. It’s got brightness, but it still has that cool, fat, tube-y energy to it. That goes into a Neve 1073* preamp, out of the 1073 into either an LA-2A (UA/Teletronix) double-compressed into an 1176 (UA 1176LN), then Pro Tools. Depending on the artist, if I want it a little more brutal and edgy, I’ll take the LA-2A out of the loop and use two 1176s.

Editor’s note: The 1073s that Bob uses were originally taken from vintage Neve consoles and repackaged. The modular version of the Heritage Audio 1073 is an exact replica of those found in vintage Neve consoles. Requires a Heritage Audio Rack 2 to operate.

Bob and Texas Hippie Coalition’s Big Rich

Bob and Texas Hippie Coalition’s “Big Rich” taking a break from cutting vocals

The HUB: Do you use one for trimming peaks and one for level control?

Bob Marlette: Yes and no. It’s about making a personal choice for colorization: do you want it to be tubier and squishier, or do want it to be more brutal, and then it’s just about making subtle tweaks. Part of the theory is not making one compressor work too hard. It’s splitting them up so each is doing its job but not too hard.

Sometimes you get a singer that’s just brutal, so you look over and your 1176 is just pinned, and you also get the negative effects of that. Sometimes it gets a little cloudy and tight feeling, as opposed to breathing. I find that two compressors is a way of getting over that.

The HUB: Do you use any sidechaining?

Bob Marlette: No.

The HUB: Okay, acoustic guitar.

Bob Marlette: That depends. Generally what I’ll do is a combination of a 451 (AKG) or a KM84 (Neumann), combined with either a 47 FET (Neumann), or something with a little more depth and body combined with the 451 or KM84. Even the Schoeps (CMC6 MK4) is pretty good for that.

The HUB: Piano.

Bob Marlette: You know what sounds pretty cool sometimes, the AKG C12A. It’s like a C12 but it looks like a C414 with a C12 capsule. Sometimes I’ll do two of those and sometimes I’ll put a FET (U47) on the low end to get a little bit more body out of it. Or, if you have the lid up, I’ll take either the C12As or something of that nature and pull them back. It depends on how tight you want your piano sound, whether you want it in your face bright for rock or pop piano, or a little darker and not in your face for quirkier alternative sounds.

The HUB: Do you have a favorite keyboard for hard rock or metal?

Bob Marlette: These days I don’t use keyboards. It’s all soft synths, great programs like Sylenth (Lennar Digital), Massive (NI), FM8 (NI), Omnisphere (Spectrasonics), any of those things. In my studio, I have a whole secondary workstation with every Ableton and every soft synth known to man. I have digital lines out of that workstation into Pro Tools, so I’ll do sound design at that station and feed into Pro Tools. Once it’s in Pro Tools, I may chop it and manipulate it, but it usually starts over in the soft-synth world.

The HUB: Bass.

Bob Marlette: Generally, I use the Avalon U5 DI; I have a really cool, badass vintage (Ampeg) SVT head and 8x10 cab. On the SVT I’ll run a 47 FET and an SM57. I also run a SansAmp, as well as a Marshall half-stack. The object is to be able to have all these different energies coming from the bass and then in the mix I can choose to blend how much I need of each component.

Bob Marlette with some of his best friends

Bob hanging out with some of his best friends

The HUB: Electric guitar.

Bob Marlette: For electric guitar, that’s one of the things that makes The Blue Room everybody’s favorite place. I have a guitar rig that’s pretty monstrous. I have a second building outside the studio where I have twelve 4x12 cabinet bays built in; a bunch of Marshalls, Bogners, and old Fender Tonemaster 4x12; Vox, Twin Reverb, Deville, Mesa; everything you ever dreamed of. The cabinets are all pre-miked. They all have an SM57 and some have a Royer (R-121) along with it. Like on the Vox, I’ll have a 57 and a 609 (Sennheiser e609 Silver).

I have a giant rack in the corner with patchbays, so all the speaker cabinets are on the patchbay. And then in the control room there are stacks of heads on patchbay, so you can take any head and patch it into any cabinet. The cool thing I did with the Vox was take the brains out of the box, left the cabinet in the room—you know with the cool blue-back speakers, the old guys—and moved the head into the control room.

So, you have all the cool heads in the control room; the Bogner, the Diamond, Mesa Boogie, three Marshalls; pretty much every amp you’ve ever dreamed of. I can sit and tweak the tone in the room, and all of the mics show up on the patchbay on the console side. Then I choose which mic pres I want.

I have a Bogner Ecstacy Classic, which is one of my go-amps. My go-to configuration is the Bogner, a Marshall, a Diamond, and then I’ll add this custom amp that was built for me. You know about Dumble amps?

The HUB: Yes, I do.

Bob Marlette: It’s kind of like a Dumble but you know, less than forty grand.

The HUB: And you didn’t have to wait six years for it . . .

Bob Marlette: Exactly, yeah. I didn’t have to stand in the alley with a paper bag waiting for my Dumble amp. Anyway, this custom amp is just an amazing thing. It’s kind of like the mid-Queen thing (Ed’s note: The midrange guitar sound of Queen’s Brian May). I have the Radial box (JD7 Injector), which allows me to run seven or eight amps going at one time. All the mic pres are brought up on a Dangerous audio rack mixer (Ed’s note: The Dangerous Audio Mixer was discontinued). It’s a pristine mixer that doesn’t colorize the sound—you know, spectacular. But the cool thing is that all of this is right there, so I’m getting the most outrageously cool guitar tones in minutes.

Everything is built for speed so that I can spend my time perfecting the performance and the energy of the playing, versus having to spend hours getting a tone; by the time you get the tone, everybody is sound asleep. I want to be able get to that monstrous tone in minutes so that everybody is super excited to hear a tone that badass, and that affects their playing, ’cause then their sails are full of wind and they get to rock.

The HUB: In a multi-mic guitar amp situation do you blend everything to one channel or do you like to keep your options open.

Bob Marlette: Nine times out of ten . . . well, ten times out of ten, I put it all down to one track. Part of the deal is having done it for so many years; I know what I want it to sound like. I know what appeals to me, so I find that sound for the left side, and then I colorize a new sound for the right side so it really has the maximum amount of width, coolness and color. And I’m never opposed to doing four and six tracks of heavy rhythms. Whatever it takes, it doesn’t matter. There are no rules.

The HUB: I’ve heard some people say that the more you layer guitars, the smaller it gets . . .

Bob Marlette: Bullsh!t.

The HUB: That’s what I thought—I didn’t buy that.

Bob Marlette: Yeah, that’s BS. You have to know what you’re doing. That is true if you’re simply recording six of the same thing. If you record six tracks of the same guitar, same sound, it doesn’t get any bigger. The key is that every track we do, it’s a different guitar, a different configuration of amps, some are way dirtier, some a much cleaner—it’s about contrast.

The HUB: Moving on. How about overhead mics?

Bob Marlette: I fell in love with the Schoeps. I forgot the model number, but they’re pencil condensers. They sound spectacular. There’s width for days on them. [Ed’s note: Most likely it’s the CMC6 pencil amplifier with the MK4 cardiod capsule, which resembles the vintage Neumann KM84, a very popular overhead mic.] But in my studio it’s always a per-case basis. Sometimes I’ll throw up a pair of 414s (AKG C414). I’ve even used a pair of U47 FETs as overheads.

It’s all personal choice, man. A guy who knows what he’s doing can put up a pair of 57s and make it sound badass. Yes I have a ton of gear, but that doesn’t mean you need all that stuff. If you know what you’re doing, you can make a whole record with an SM57 and an 1176. The problem with some people is technology gets in the way of making great records.

Bob Marlette with Duff McKagan

Bob Marlette with Guns N’ Roses bassist and founding member, Duff McKagan

The HUB: How about your snare chain?

Bob Marlette: 57 (chuckles). 57, 1073, usually tape (Shure SM57 to Neve 1073). That’s it. That simple. That’s for recording. What happens later, yes, there’s a lot of stuff that happens. But as far as recording, I almost never put compression on it. Sometimes I’ll split the signal and have one side go through a Distressor (Empirical Labs) to give a little bit more energy to it. Surprisingly simple, but I’ll usually put a 57 or 451 on the bottom and then I’ll also add another mic, like a 451 taped to the 57, or a 609 on top. I always have two tops, one bottom. I usually prefer the 609 over the 451. I like the sound of the 451 but I find that it doesn’t have the durability. Even with a 20dB pad on it, it usually doesn’t make it through the first song. I’ll use it if I have a drummer that doesn’t hit as hard.

The HUB: Do you also use the AKG 541 on hi-hat?

Bob Marlette: Yes, either that or a KM84—something of that nature.

The HUB: What do you have on your stereo bus?

Bob Marlette: Alan Smart C1. I used to have the SSL, but I felt at times it was too squishy. [Ed’s note: Alan Smart C1 is a boutique version of the classic SSL G384 bus compressor.] With the Alan Smart I find that it really holds the imaging well, I really like it a lot. I’ll add an L1 (Waves Ultramaximizer limiter plug-in) to the output of the Alan Smart when I burn CDs for bands, or tracks to email to the bands and managers so the level is slamming, but then I take it off when I mix and send to mastering. That’s one of my pet peeves, is that people don’t realize how much distortion we now have daily that we aren’t aware of. Stuff has gotten so loud that we’re literally delivering product that’s so distorted. We’ve adjusted our ears to hearing singers that have Melodyne one their voices versus an organic, natural vocal. Nowadays, unprocessed vocal doesn’t sound right to us.

The HUB: I think that’s part of the reason people stopped buying CDs.

Bob Marlette: Yeah, that’s part of it. The problem is, nowadays, that the way music is delivered to the audience is computers, ear buds, or cars. This is somewhat frustrating to me because I sit there for hours and hours making it sound as amazing as I can, realizing that really what I need to be doing is mixing to ear buds. I actually have computer speakers that are part of my monitor selection.

The HUB: The modern-day Auratone, I imagine.

Bob Marlette: Yeah, it’s a little disheartening.

The HUB: Actually, a lot. George Massenburg had done a demonstration with MP3s showing people that an MP3 was 25% distortion.

Bob Marlette: Yeah.

The HUB: And he asked if somebody offered you a product, saying, “Here, buy this thing, it’s 25% distorted, are you cool with that?”

Bob Marlette: And it’s true, because I was actually one of first people in the UK, years and years ago when they first introduced MP3 technology, with my friend Hugh Padgham, a great engineer. He did The Police, Sting’s solo records, Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates, massively great, talented engineer-producer. Anyway, we were invited to Sony demonstrating the first MP3s. We were all in this room listening, and saying, “Is it me, or does this stuff sound distorted?” We realized the technology was just bad. It fills in the gaps (from data compression) with stuff that isn’t supposed to be there.

The HUB: Speaking of media that compresses, do you record to analog tape and fly it into Pro Tools, or go all digital?

Bob Marlette: I used to do that for many years, but I’ve decided it just isn’t worth it. You know the band Airborne? I did their first album, and they decided that they wanted to record to analog tape. So we did blind a shootout between 2-inch and Pro Tools. Everybody was like, “Oh dude, we want that sound. That rocks. It’s harder and edgier—that’s gotta be the 2-inch. They all picked Pro Tools, hands down.

Here’s my philosophy on that: It’s my job to engineer it to sound a certain way. So with my Neves and compressors and other things, I build in what I want it to sound like. I then don’t want it to be altered by my storage medium. Whether I’m recording to analog tape or digital, that’s my storage medium. All I want it to do take the sound that I’ve got and just store it the way I put it in. And I find that with today’s technology, we’re at that place where it comes back exactly what I put in. Another thing that people forget is that every time tape passes over that head, it loses quality. Once Pro Tools got to that place of sonic equality, to me there’s no reason to go back. I’ll record to analog if the band really has their heart set on it, but I really don’t see it as necessary in today’s environment.

The HUB: Okay, back on track, so to speak: Mixing. Inside the box or outside?

Bob Marlette: Actually a little bit of both. I use the Dangerous Audio summing mixer—and I’m a huge fan of Dangerous—but 99% of my processing is done inside the box. In fact, with Pro Tools 11’s sixty-four-bit architecture, I’m almost to the point where I might even be getting rid of the Dangerous. It’s almost like, “Dude, just stay in the box, quit bitchin’, it is what it is, you know, it’s all good—cause I’m hearing stuff that sounds amazing, so why even look back?

The HUB: It’s also got to be a lot more convenient if you’re doing a complicated mix.

Bob Marlette: Uh, yeah . . . Dude, some of the last records I’ve been doing had 160 tracks. If I’m doing 160 tracks, the last thing I need is any outboard gear. Especially if the artist calls up and says, “Hey, in that second verse, can we raise the breath before the second, ‘ah?’” Trust me, if you have to do a recall like that, you’d better not have a lot of outboard to deal with.

Truth is, I’m a big fan of “in-the-box.” And philosophically, I came up through the old days and I’ve evolved. If I feel that if something is that beneficial from using old gear, I’ll use old gear, but not just because it’s old. I don’t operate like that. I know what makes a difference and what doesn’t, and I’m not going to use old gear because somebody thinks it’s cool.

The HUB: We’ve gone way past the legal limit on time here, so I’m going to ask one last question. What advice do you have for someone who wants to become a producer?

Bob Marlette: Number one, you say yes to everything. You do every gig that comes your way. Even if you’re not sure you know what you’re doing, say yes to it—make that an experience. You get good by doing this every single day. You can’t sit around and wait until you’re perfect. Dude, I’ve been doing this for 40 years, there is no perfect. The way you get good is every single day, you just go out and practice your craft—say yes to everything, do everything. And to get into a cool room (studio), if you’ve got the clean the toilet, then clean the f’in toilet. What’s valuable beyond anything is getting into an environment where you’re with people who are making the cool records.

The HUB: Okay, I lied. A couple of quickies: Favorite album you didn’t produce?

Bob Marlette: That I didn’t produce. You know, it’s funny, I want to do a Coldplay record. I would kill to do a Coldplay record. They just do a lot of the things I like. You know, keyboard player, piano player, I just love his voice, a love a lot of the music they make, plus they have electronics—that or a Steely Dan record.

The HUB: I know this puts you on the spot politically, so you can pass if you like, but do you have a favorite album you did produce?

Bob Marlette: Uh, yes. The next record I’m about to produce. Part of what drives me is that I’m going to get it right on the next record. No matter how great the record sounds, no matter how many it sells, you always go, “God, I wish I had done this, or that. There is no perfect record, so it’s really all about the next record I do.

The HUB: Okay, maybe we can talk Coldplay into being that next record. Hey Coldplay, you feelin’ us, dawgs?

The HUB: Bob, I’m enjoying the hell out of myself and I could keep talking indefinitely, but I think I’d better let you go do some producing.

Bob Marlette: Thank you very much. It was definitely a pleasure on my side.

Tags: Recording

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