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RE/P Files: An Interview With Bob Clearmountain
An icon of the recording industry shares stories and techniques that established his career.
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From the December 1984 issue of the late, great Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P) magazine, Mel Lambert and Sam Borgerson interview an icon of the industry. Bob Clearmountain’s resume includes projects for Hall & Oates, Roxy Music, Huey Lewis and the News, Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams, and many more…

Drawing on a rare combination of keen intuition, refined musical sensibility and patient perfectionism Bob Clearmountain has quickly advanced to one of this industry’s leading mixing engineers.

In 1984 alone his mixing and co- production credits read like a Who’s-Who of rock royalty: Hall & Oates, Bryan Adams, Bruce Springsteen, Huey Lewis and the News, Mick Jagger, Ian Hunter, and Little Steven (Steve Van Zandt).

In between his album mixing projects, he has somehow found time to handle a premix of music for film (The Rolling Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together); HBO Video Specials; and live King Biscuit Flower Hour con - cert radio broadcasts for DIR. By sheer weight of albums sold (not to mention widespread critical acclaim), Clear- mountain is shaping the sound of rock’n'roll in the Eighties. Not a bad showing considering that, in the early Seventies, he was a struggling bass player for several now -defunct Connecticut bar bands.

Re/p (Mel Lambert): Did you have any technical training before you entered the recording industry?

Bob Clearmountain: No, except I had been playing with tape recorders ever since I can remember. My mother was an English teacher, and would record her students. I can remember back when I was about five years old, she would bring the recorder home. “Hey, lemme see that! What is this thing here ?” I’ve been intrigued by recording all my life, so it seemed the obvious thing to explore the studio scene. I had dabbled in electronics, and I was definitely into music.

We were in the process of doing some demos at Media Sound when the band I was in finally broke up, so I started hanging out there. Michael Delugg, the engineer there, was real nice to me, and he gave me a good plug to the owners. I just kept coming in and annoying them until they hired me! I worked as a go-fer for an hour and a half; I did two deliveries. After I came back they said: “Where have you been? You’re not a go-fer, you’re an assistant engineer. You’re supposed to be down in studio A.”

I’m 19 years old, I walk in, and it’s a Duke Ellington session! This engineer I don’t know is telling me to go out there and move microphones around.

Re/p (Sam Borgerson): Had you done any engineering or mixing before that time?

Bob Clearmountain: No, except with my own bands, and with friends. I had a little Radio Shack four-channel mixer; one of those little boxes with four knobs on it. But I got pretty sophisticated with it. I actually rigged up a little talkback into the other room. But it was pretty basic; we didn’t even know how to edit. So I was amazed when my band was being recorded at a real studio and, when we made a mistake, the engineer said, “Okay, just take it from the bridge.” I had no idea what he was going to do. Then I saw him cut the tape and splice it together. I thought it was a miracle, of course. I immediately went home and started recording everything off the radio and chopping it up, making the announcers say stupid things! I got into it instantly.

Re/p (SB): How long did you work as an assistant at Media Sound. New York?

BC: It’s hard to say. I assisted for about three years, but there were a lot of sessions where I served as first engineer. They were pretty generous to me. Actually, about two months after I started at Media I was assisting on a session for Kool and the Gang and, for some reason, the engineer wasn’t particularly into it. He was a jingle guy, and just got booked on it. So he let me go for it. I mixed one song, and did a whole bunch of the overdubs. This was after two months, so I was really nervous.

Re/p (ML): Did somebody at Media Sound run you through the board’s features, to get you started?

BC: Oh yeah. It’s one of those situations where, if you don’t ask questions, nobody’s going to tell you anything. They tell you what they want you to do, but not what it all means. So I used to ask a lot of questions. Also, because Media was primarily a jingle house, the engineers weren’t all that concerned about experimenting with new sounds. They got good sounds, but were more concerned with speed and efficiency.

So, as an assistant, I would always be setting up different mikes to see how they would sound. Eventually I would start suggesting things to the first engineers like, “Why don’t you try a little 12k on the strings ?” and some of the engineers who were nice guys would say, “Oh all right, I’ll try it.”

Of course now that I’m doing the records, I suppose I’d be upset if somebody switched mikes on me. But I do take suggestions; I like an assistant to ask me to try something. The assistant might have worked with somebody and picked up a good tip. I find it good to stay open to ideas. When I go into a studio that I’m not familiar with, I’ll usually ask the assistant what works in the room . . . where do you put the drums? I’ll go with what the assistant is used to first, and if that doesn’t sound the way I want it, try something else.

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