With his mile-long roster of A-list artist credits and decades spent developing a studio tan, Tom talks about the factors that make for great sound in the studio and onstage.
By Marty Paule
Regardless of what music genres you’re into, there’s a good chance Tom Size has had a hand in creating the iconic recordings which define that music. His discography is astonishing. From tracking and mixing platinum-selling rock acts to some of the most celebrated artists in jazz, classical and world music, Tom has helped shape the most important music of our time.
Blessed with an uncanny set of ears and the ability to understand and help realize the artist’s intention, Size is also versatile. Aside from recording and mixing projects, he also does a lot of mastering work. He also antidotes his studio tan as an FOH guy; Size loves getting out on the road mixing sound in realtime at some of the world’s most storied venues.
We spoke to Tom at Tomland—his home-based studio.
The HUB: Here’s that inevitable first question: what led you into audio production?
Tom Size: Dark Side of the Moon.
The HUB: That album did it for you huh?
Tom Size: It did. I was 14 years old when I heard it and it took my breath away. How could this sound so good—you know—what’s the deal? So I just started diving into all aspects of it.
The HUB: Practically speaking, how did you go about that?
Tom Size: I would do anything to record anything, anyone. Doing live sound too. So I kind of just dove in any way possible. If somebody had a band, I’d figure out how to record them. In ‘75 I bought what was basically a four-track recording studio for my house. It had 20 inputs. I started recording bands in my house, learning all about it. Miking techniques—all of it. I would read Mix magazine cover to cover; it was a blast.
The HUB: I understand you spent seven years behind the board at Fantasy Studios and I wondered if you have any particular war stories or aha! moments that went down there.
Tom Size: We don’t have that much time, do we? [Laughs] I did get to work with some incredible people there. Aerosmith, David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar, Bonnie Raitt, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Pass...the list goes on.
The HUB: Just the really juicy ones.
Tom Size: I was working at this other studio—Music Annex—in Menlo Park. One of the engineers from Fantasy came down there to do a demo with Eddie and the Tide, who were signed to Atlantic Records, and he asked me if I’d come up to Fantasy and be his assistant. He basically brought me in and stole me away from Music Annex.
The first big record I worked on at Fantasy was Sammy Hagar’s VOA—it had “I Can’t Drive 55” on it. Ted Templeman was the producer and Jeff Hendrickson was the chief engineer. Being thrown into a situation like that, I was all eyes and all ears.
The HUB: What did your role consist of? Did you put up mics or go get the coffee or…?
Tom Size: I did it all. The assistant engineer, depending on your experience level, you either sit in the back of the room and shut up or you do all the punching in—it was analog days, you know—and set up all the microphones. I made some really killer coffee too! I used to get digs at Fantasy because my coffee was so rockin’. It’s not a bad thing to have in your back pocket.
The HUB: You’ve worked alongside some really iconic figures—people like Tom Dowd—any particular insights or techniques you’ve picked up from them along the way?
Tom Size: Tom was an interesting character. When I was working with him—he was the producer on that particular record, and like Ted Templeman, he knew how to get inside the tune and fix the things that weren’t working. Dowd was a good engineer and a really great producer. I think the easiest way to make a song sound great is with production, not just engineering.
In the control room at Fantasy Studios—the site of some of Tom’s biggest projects.
In the control room at Fantasy Studios—the site of some of Tom’s biggest projects.
The HUB: With the changing way records get made today, and because you wear both producer and engineer hats, what do you see as the key differences in those roles? Or are there differences these days?
Tom Size: As a producer, you definitely need more music background. Being the producer-engineer can be a tricky role because you need to have a good musical ear and a sense of arrangement as well the engineering skills. Thankfully I have both.
The HUB: When I read your discography, I was blown away by the breadth and depth of the artists you’ve worked with. It spans everything from pop and rock to jazz, blues and world music. Do you find you need to get into a particular emotional/mental space that matches the genre, or when it comes down to it, is tracking a tabla pretty much the same thing as tracking a floor tom?
Tom Size: No, not at all. You have to get into the heads and hearts of the artists, but you also have to get into the heart of the instrument. If I make a kick drum sound like a surdo, then I’m not understanding the music. It’s really about understanding the instruments and what the artists are looking for too.
The HUB: With so many projects nowadays being tracked in home and project studios, do you see a pattern in terms of recurring problems that you’re confronted with when mixing and mastering?
Tom Size: Yeah, there’s a lot of really bad recording going on out there! [laughter]. I think poor choices of microphones is big. Also, a lot of times people recording in their home studios are just not aware of environmental noises, buzzes or just bad-sounding rooms. There’s nothing worse than getting a vocal that was recorded in an empty room with sheetrock on the walls—it sounds awful and there’s no real way to clean it up. Or sometimes you get a vocal that sounds like it was recorded in the closet and it’s completely dead.
The HUB: I noticed you offer training. How do you teach somebody to have critical ears that pick up the resonances and noises that’ll ruin your sound?
Tom Size: Once [a client] brings a project to me or sends me stuff along the way, we’ll discuss things: How are you miking this. What if you tried that approach? It’s a learn as you go thing for these people.
The HUB: Do you do incremental coaching where…
Tom Size: Yeah, a lot of people will call me and ask ‘What mic should I use?’ or ‘How do you do that?.’ Of course it’s sometimes hard to do it on the phone without actually hearing the instruments. But I’ve got some basic rules that’ll get them pointed in the right direction.
The HUB: It must be frustrating, sort of like trying to help somebody tune their car when you can’t get actual hands on the tools and engine.
Tom Size: Yeah. The best and easiest mixes that I’ve done have been the stuff that I’ve recorded. I record it like I hear it, so it’s not that big a deal to mix it. A lot of time when I get these mixes that people have recorded elsewhere, it turns into a fixing session for perhaps the first six hours. Then you start mixing—creating sounds. I try to record like that from the get-go.
The HUB: One of the challenges I expect you face is the fact that with mobile rigs artists are recording bits and pieces of their projects in very different acoustic spaces. As a mix and mastering engineer how do you try to add cohesiveness?
Tom Size: You can use a ton of plug-ins but you also can’t be afraid to edit the performance to make it feel better. There’s nothing like just getting a band in the room and just hashing it out—it just has a certain feel to it. When it’s piecemealed together, it’s sometimes a little tough. But for some tunes it works like that.
I did a project with a band called Thought Chamber—a prog rock band. An amazing record. No one saw each other during this whole project—guitars were done in one place, bass in another, drums in another. When you listen to it, it all works. I think it’s a matter of the player’s ability and the way it was all mixed that gives it a certain feel.
The HUB: How do you coax a great performance out of an artist when maybe they’ve written a piece of music that is beyond their chops?
Tom Size: The talk-back button. You just keep pressing it, ‘You know that’s just not right…’ I encourage them to try a different approach. I’ve even sent people back home saying, ‘These lyrics just aren’t good enough. You’ve got a great track here but lyrically it’s not telling the story. Go home and come up with something different.’
The HUB: It’s that kind of educated critique and honesty that I think is a big piece of why you hire a producer.
Tom Size: There’s nothing worse than trying to prop up a bad tune whether it’s bad lyrics, a bad melody—it just doesn’t work. All the effects and plug-ins in the world aren’t going to fix that.
The HUB: At Musician’s Friend we have a pretty large contingent of newbies who are very interested in getting their music out there in the world. They don’t have the budgets to go out to a professional, at least not right off. What advice would you give to that person as far as where to focus their small budget—mics, preamps, interfaces, rack effects or…
Tom Size: Microphones of course. More interfaces and preamps these days rather than mixers. A good vocal mic, a couple of good instrument mics; you need decent preamps so you’re not shooting yourself in the foot. As far as plug-ins—stuff you need to be creative, but if you can afford to hand [your project] off to someone to mix it, then less focus there. It depends on your song though. If you’re playing acoustic guitar and singing, you don’t need a lot of stuff. You need to realize what you’re going after.
The HUB: There are a lot of competing DAWs out there. Do you think people should just man up and get straight into Pro Tools, or are there some interim steps for artists just getting their feet wet?
Tom Size: It depends on what you want to do. Pro Tools is great—it’s the universal standard. I’m also a big fan of Cubase Nuendo. I mix on Nuendo almost all the time. It’s been my thing for the last 15 years. Logic is great. I don’t think the DAW should limit the music that you produce.
The HUB: Once you’ve settled on a DAW, is there any particular approach you recommend to learning it—or just dive in and start trying stuff?
Tom Size: Just keep using it. They’re all kind of scary when you first crack ‘em open, but once you get the flow of it you’ll get it, just like any piece of software or gear. There’s always a learning curve.
The HUB: Because of the capabilities of these modern DAWs, there’s sometimes a tendency to settle for less than ideal performances figuring issues can be addressed later. What’s your take?
Tom Size: There are certain things you can do to edit and I don’t mind that. Certainly if you have to do that though, don’t edit the life out of it. Don’t over-quantize things—put everything on the beat—it’s got to breathe a little bit. And the whole AutoTuning thing—I’m okay with it as long as I never hear it. If I can hear the artifacts of it, or if something sounds incredibly in-tune all the time, that's just not real. You need a little bit of tension in there. A note doesn’t always hit right on the note. It’s going to be a little flat and then come up to the note or have a little attack on it then settle into the note. You have to be mindful of whether it sounds musical or like a computer.
The HUB: When you said you never want to hear AutoTune, the analogy that came to mind is a film score. Effective scores add impact to films, even when the audience is unconscious of them.
Tom Size: Absolutely. Another thing, using AutoTune as an effect as they did with Cher—I think it’s cool for what it is. They’re not trying to hide anything other than maybe that she can’t sing that well. [Laughter.] But it was also a very effective thing. But it’s been overused. It’s like reverbs on snares back in the ‘80s. It became the overused snare effect. Finally people started leaving it off and you could hear the snares again.
The HUB: You can actually hear the drum rather than all the artifacts.
Tom Size: You put on an ‘80s record and it sounds dated. You wish you could press a button and make all that stuff go away. Not the music—just the effects.
The HUB: How do you shift the dynamic in the studio during the tracking process to focus less on the technology and put it on the performance and on the fleshing out and tweaking of good songs?
Tom Size: I try to be proficient enough with the software and gear that it becomes transparent to the performance. I wouldn’t want to stall out a session saying, ‘This just isn’t the right mic—we’ll come back tomorrow with something else.’ You’ve lost the moment.
Another thing: I’m not a big MIDI guy. The moment they turn MIDI on in a session, it grinds to a halt. It’s so much easier to just get people to play stuff. People are like ‘Oh man, can we sequence this?’ And I’m saying ‘Naaah.’ Give it a real percussion player, you know?
The HUB: Getting a real human to lag that beat a little is way preferable to some beat-sequenced machine.
Tom Size: Another thing is getting lost in the caves, looking for MIDI sounds. This could be a couple of hours. Meanwhile, the idea, the inspiration gone. For those guys who are way into that, great, but that’s not me.
The HUB: The same argument can be made about DAWs. You can get so caught up in all their byways and tributaries that you lose track of what you started to do in the first place—which was to a record yourself singing accompanied with your acoustic guitar.
Tom Size: The same with Beat Detective and straighten it up, line it up and cut it up. Now it just doesn’t feel like the tune anymore. We’ve lost the groove.
The HUB: Well, having said all that about the beauty of natural performance and so on, I did want you talk about the go-to technology you depend on these days: The mics, preamps, effects etc. that you use on your guitars, vocals, bass, drums, keys—the works.
Tom Size: I’m a real big fan of Gefell and Neumann microphones. It depends on what I’m doing. If I’m doing electric stuff, I’ve got my go-to things for electric guitar. I like the original Beta 57 microphone from Shure. Not the new Beta 57A, but the older, original one. I like the combination of a Royer 122 with a Sennheiser e906 on a guitar amp. If you use all three it’s awesome. You usually have to do some time alignment with the Royer microphone because you can’t get it as close as the e906. But you know, it’s not a problem; in software you just drag it into position. It’s a huge sound if you can get those mics working together.
The HUB: What about guitar amps, what do you like to use?
Tom Size: It depends on what I’m working on, whether it’s a bluesy thing or a rocky thing. I’m a big Fender fan. I like Boogie stuff. I like Diezel amplifiers; it depends on the player really. Amps are like guitars, each one is unique. Speaker cabinets too.
The HUB: Do you have an inventory of amps or do your artists bring in their own?
Tom Size: No they bring their own rather than have me force my stuff on them. I’ll certainly make suggestions, but it’s a personal thing for them. They’re going for a certain sound. The kind of people I work with, they pretty much know their sound, so there’s not a lot of searching involved. It’s just record it right, you know?
The HUB: In terms of drum sound, any particular go-to techniques you care to talk about? I recognize that’s genre-dependent too but…
Tom Size: I do a fair amount of rock stuff, and I kind of have my go-to setup. I use a Beta 52 on kick, the Beta 56 on top of the snare, a regular 57 on the underside of the snare. On hi-hat it depends on the part. I’ll actually use a 57 on a hi-hat if I want a kind of dirty sound. If it’s more of a jazzy thing, it may be an AKG 451, a Neumann KM 184, I’ve even used Neumann U87s. So it depends on the detail in the hi-hat part. What do I need to get out of it?
On toms I’m a big fan of [Sennheiser MD] 421s in the studio. Also on the floor tom, sometimes you can’t get enough presence with the 421—you get lots of snap but no low-end presence. A (AKG D )112 will change your life in that situation.
On overheads I’m a Gefell fan. The Gefell 930s, which have a large-diaphragm but are a relatively small microphone, sound just fabulous on overheads.
For room mics I use Royer 122s. I will use a Yamaha SubKick—the little drum-looking thing—those are awesome. It depends on the room, it depends on the parts. How open do you want that kick drum. Maybe I’ll put a large-diaphragm mic about six inches out from the kick to capture that. Also when I’m miking the room, I don’t tend to mic too high. I tend to focus on the tom level on down. You get a lot of chunk down there. You don’t really need to hear the cymbals splashing all over the room. I want to feel the drum kit and a lot of the tone that happens in the last four feet of a drum kit. When placing room mics you’ll see me crawling around on the floor listening for the sweet spot with the drummer playing. It looks a little crazy, but it works great. Use your ears!
The HUB: I gather you do quite a lot of live sound these days. How do you go about getting good drum sound in those settings?
Tom Size: Obviously I don’t have all the room mics, but I do use the 52 and the 56 instead of the 421s on the toms just because they’re large and in the way. The [Sennheiser] e604s are an awesome change for that; they don’t sound that different from the 421s. You know, most of the people I work with have great-sounding drum kits. If you’ve got someone who knows how tune them, getting a great sound is easy.
The HUB: When you’re doing live sound, aside from the obvious stuff like setting levels and ringing out the room during sound check, what are you paying attention to?
Tom Size: If I’m getting the signal properly to the board. I almost don’t care that much about the mix that happens in the house because first of all, you have an empty house. It’s going to sound really different when you get bodies in it. So it’s a matter of asking yourself, ‘Is this working; do I have this sound or vocal or whatever in control?’ If I do, then I’ll mix the show.
The HUB: Is most of your FOH work local or do you tour?
Tom Size: I’m kind of all over the world. It’s fun. I probably do two-thirds of my time doing studio work and a third out on the road.
The HUB: With all the different hats you wear, what’s the stuff you’d like to do best if you had your druthers or do you prefer keeping it mixed up?
Tom Size: I love keeping it mixed up. I love the excitement of doing shows but I also love the creativity that happens in the studio. Obviously, when you’re in show mode, it’s not terribly creative—you’re not building anything—it’s a given song or piece of material and you’ve just got to bring out the best sound for what’s happening.
The HUB: When you’re recording live, do you typically use a lot of ambient mics to get the audience’s involvement?
Tom Size: I’ll typically have at least a couple of mics coming off the stage and a couple of mics in the back of the house. It depends on where it is. I’m just finishing up a DVD that was recorded at the Budokan in Tokyo. And there are 10 ambient microphones in that recording. When you’re mixing in 5.1, it sounds like you’re sitting in the middle of the Budokan hearing the show. It’s awesome to have that kind of control.
The HUB: When clients come to you for mastering, do you typically get involved in track sequencing, or do they usually have that sorted out already?
Tom Size: It kind of happens per project. I’ve had it both ways. Some people need a little help, other clients come in ready to go; they’ve got their IRSC codes.
The HUB: Do you do any tracking at all these days with tape?
Tom Size: Gosh, I haven’t done that in years.
The HUB: There are still a few diehards out there…
Tom Size: It sounds wonderful as long as you get it off the tape as soon as possible. When we used to do big studio projects, right after you recorded a track you’d play it back and it sounded awesome. But by the time you get down to mixing it, you’re, ‘Geez, what happened to our big punchy tracks?’ You wind up using more and more EQ trying to get it back. So the key would be to get it off the analog tape as soon as possible.
The HUB: Do you tend to mix exclusively inside the box these days?
Tom Size: I would say yes. Especially for the stuff I do at home for serving my clients. I get a lot of projects from all over the world, so there are a lot of email conversations. I can be working on one tune while they’re listening to another. I think I’ve been almost exclusively in the box for five or six years now.
The HUB: Getting back to tape for a moment, are there any tape-emulation plug-ins you like?
Tom Size: I’ve been using the UAD Studer machine. They also have the [Ampex] ATR-102 which is also pretty spectacular. And recently I’ve been getting into the Slate Digital stuff—their virtual tape machine is quite nice as well.
The HUB: Any other plug-ins you find yourself going to on a regular basis?
Tom Size: I’m a huge fan of the UAD stuff. I think the way they build their stuff is pretty spectacular. I love what Slate is doing with all his stuff. The FG-X, the Virtual Mix Rack, and things like that. Eventide has come out with some great plug-ins like the UltraChannel. I was also a huge fan of the TC Electronic PowerCore, but two things: They’ve stopped supporting it and mine stopped working. I was like, ‘Oh geez, what am I gonna do?” So I had to come up with a new bag of tricks. Thankfully, the Eventide UltraReverb is a good replacement for a lot of those reverbs that TC was doing.
The HUB: That raises an interesting question. I recently edited a story about when is the right time to plunge into a new technology. The writer’s opinion was to wait a while to see that it’s gaining some traction, but don’t necessarily wait for it to be perfected. His underlying advice was to make the investment if you can see a way to make some money using the new technology. Would you concur with that?
Tom Size: It’s a little tricky sometimes. I get involved in projects that can get strung out over a year, and technology changes in the middle of that. How are you going to support those songs you’ve been working on? I recently had to do that with the loss of the TC stuff. I called up the mix and went, ‘Oh boy. This will be a little different.’ Sometimes the computer forces you to do it. I’ve had computer crashes and lost some stuff that I’ve got lots of gray hair over.
The HUB: But ultimately it’s like music itself, you’ve just gotta learn how to improvise when something weird goes down.
Tom Size: Yeah. You’ve gotta mix in the moment or live in the moment. You can’t get too upset once it’s gone; you just have to carry on.
The HUB: Do you do most of your work these days in your own studio, or are there other rooms you like tracking in?
Tom Size: I do about 75 percent in my studio. There are a couple of good rooms in the area that I really enjoy. I’m still a big fan of Fantasy Studios; Prairie Sun Studios up in Cotati is just a great drum room. It’s got an old Neve console in it—I think it’s a 1081 or something. And a big old barn that you do the drums in with cement floors. It just has that sound that when I mix those tracks, I don’t even have to use reverb on the drums.
At legendary Ocean Way Studios; dozens of iconic albums were tracked here.
The HUB: I’m intrigued by that. Having watched the documentary Sound City, it makes clear that this LA studio became known for its great drum sound even though they didn’t go about getting that intentionally. On paper it probably shouldn’t have sounded so good. How often do you think great rooms come about just as the luck of the draw?
Tom Size: I had the pleasure of working in that room on a couple of projects and it was a great room. The console was the same model as up at Prairie Sun. The control room was not very good. Shag carpeting on the walls—it might have been okay in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but it wasn’t a very nice control room. The room itself—there was nothing gorgeous about it all. But linoleum tile on cement has a certain sound to it—I’ve seen it at Sound City, I’ve seen it at Ocean Way. It just has this certain thing to it—it’s bright but not brittle. It has some kind of warmth to it that makes it the charm. People don’t build rooms like that anymore.
The HUB: Do you have a bucket list of artists or genres or projects you’d still like to work on?
Tom Size: I would still like to do a Journey record. I’ve done one—I worked on Generations.
But I didn’t get to track, I worked on overdubs, stuff like that. They’re great musicians and good friends of mine. That’s one project I’d love to do and do it justice. Another one would be Zac Brown Band...they are just plain cool. A great mix between country and rock. I’m into that.
The HUB: Are there prospects for them (Journey) getting back into the studio?
Tom Size: They’re back in there right now as we speak. But they’re rehearsing for some live shows that are coming up. I can’t speak for them necessarily, but for a lot of these older bands, the new music doesn’t sell as much as the old stuff. The other band I work with, Y&T, their studio records do okay, but the fans still want to hear the old stuff. It’s really more of a nostalgia band. So it’s really hard to push the new stuff.
The HUB: What are you currently working on?
Tom Size: The Mr. Big DVD Live from the Budokan. I’m going to ship that off today. I’m also completing a record with a band from the UK, The Jokers, who just changed drummers, and I’ve got live shows coming up over the weekend. I’ve got some bluegrass things happening in the middle of next month.
Tom runs the board at an FOH gig in Tokyo.
The HUB: Speaking of bluegrass, I go to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park every year, and am usually blown away by how fast the sound guys set up those stages for feedback-prone acoustic instruments between acts. I was curious if you’ve done that shindig.
Tom Size: Yeah, I mixed Laurie Lewis out there. They have things set up well. Of course, we always do a tech thing where we tell them what we need. Those instruments aren’t so different—a fiddle is a fiddle, a mandolin acts the same, an acoustic guitar—all of that stuff—most of the time nothing’s plugged in. Just before Laurie Lewis, there was an act that just gathered around a big Shure large-capsule condenser set up in the middle of the stage and played.
The HUB: I love that approach. Band’s like Del McCoury’s do that old-fashioned thing.
Tom Size: It sounded amazing. The mixer obviously didn’t have to do anything—they were mixing themselves. When it’s time for a solo, step up to the mic.
The HUB: These guys are pros and they know how to work the mic. Which gets us back to the top of the conversation—that it’s ultimately about the performance. Getting a group of guys who can lock into each other is really the ideal.
Tom Size: You don’t need monitors; obviously it’s easier with acoustic music—you can’t do that with electric music. In working with bands live, I try to impress on them to get their stage sound together so it doesn’t just sound like loud amplifiers and bashing drums. The problem with everybody having their in-ears [monitors] is that they get into their own little world and forget about how all of this is connecting. It can sound so much better if you lose the plugs and all that stuff. It just sounds more musical. Then the playing gets easier and it gets easier for me to mix out front when that’s happening. But when you’re fighting a guitar player who’s turned his amp up way too loud or the drummer’s overplaying the room, it’s just a struggle.
The HUB: And you think in-ear monitors are a big culprit in that?
Tom Size: It certainly adds to it. Then again, the guys in one of the bands I work with are deaf from too much loud music. They would have monitors in front of them that were louder than the front-of-house PA. They’d all shove ear plugs in then want the monitors turned up louder! So finally I got them on in-ears and it makes my job a little easier though that balance thing gets a little askew sometimes.
The HUB: So in an ideal world, wedges with modest volume are the way to go?
Tom Size: Not necessarily. I think just being mindful of your stage volume—if you’ve got in-ears, you don’t need to go over there to turn it up because you can just turn up the mix. Or turn up your instrument. If your instrument is sounding fine, it has the right tone, then go back to the monitors. Or have the monitor guy turn it up.
The HUB: Are there any new developments on the studio side that have you excited?
Tom Size: I like these 500 series racks they’re coming out with now. I think some of the modules are spectacular. It just puts a whole bunch of different sounds in people’s hands. I’ve had fun with a lot of those. And some of the old companies are embracing it like Neve and Eventide. It’s kind of a fun way for people to build studios without the huge commitment of an API console or anything like that. You get a couple of modules of an API, a couple of modules of a Neve and get some really flexible sounds.
The HUB: It also seems like as a business proposition embracing new platforms may be essential. Same thing with UA and their moving into the plug-in business.
Tom Size: As I said, I’m a huge fan of the UA stuff. They bring what was a real piece of gear to the table for a fraction of the cost. I’ve used the heck out of the EMT 250 [reverb plug-in]. Back in the day those things were next to impossible to buy, they weighed a ton and they heated up your studio.
Check out Tom Size’s Tomland Studio here. Connect with Tom on Facebook.