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RE/P Files: Interview With Grammy Award Winning Engineer/Producer Bones Howe
Recording techniques, approaches and philosophies from the man behind the "sunshine sound" of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including most of the hits of The 5th Dimension and The Association. The interview originally appeared in the June/July 1970 issue of RE/P.
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What are your attitudes towards equalization, limiting, and compression?

I think they’re all useful tools, and they’‘re tools that should never be used just for the sake of using them. To limit a record just for the sake of limiting doesn’t mean anything, unless your intention is to compress the dynamic range, which is what it’s there for. I use limiters on all the vocals, and that’s the only thing I ever use it on. Occasionally on a record - let’s say a record like “Windy,” which starts off very soft and ends up with everybody rocking and rolling - that record required about 3 dB limiting. That’s not a lot of limiting.

You have to know that the station that plays the record will actually compress. KHJ (a Los Angeles Top 40 radio station at that time) uses, on some of their records, 10 to 20 dB compression. Everything’s loud. It comes on loud and it stays loud the whole time it’s on. Guys run those pots really hot, and as a result, there’s a tremendous amount of squashing in broadcasting.

The difference between KHJ and a lot of other stations around the country is that it’s a wealthy station and they maintain their equipment so the sound is clean. It’s squashed, but it’s clean. A lot of stations don’t have the maintenance, so when they squash it they also distort it. So you’re dealing with a lot of uncontrollable variables as far as the sound is concerned, and I think you have to be careful about how much equalization you use, how much limiting you use.

For instance, if you limit a record a lot, the station’s also going to limit it and you can end up with a record that sounds like a fuzz tone, if it gets through bad equipment. Equalization is a matter of taste, and what your ear wants to hear. It’s a subjective thing, and if the record sounds right to me on the little speaker, I know it’s gonna sound right on the radio.

Would you say specifically how you mike a rhythm section?

Sure. I’m up to six mikes on the drums. A lot of guys mike the snare drum on the bottom, but I believe what you get on the bottom of the drum is really mostly the buzz of the snare. If you mike it from the top you get the impact of the stick against the drum head and the rim. You get that directly. The bass drum I mike from the front. As it turns out, the pedal makes some noise and the impact of the bass drum beater against the head really makes a sound that needs to be colored by the sound of the drum itself. The first time I added a mike on the snare drum was when we cut “Up Up And Away ” with the 5th Dimension. I wanted to get that echo thing and the click, and I liked the sound so much that I continued using an extra mike for the snare drum.

RE/P Logo, circa 1970

Prior to that I had tried miking the high-hat and the snare together, and from underneath and several other ways. It was early rock drum miking. Now when Hal Blaine’s drum set got bigger. the miking got bigger because the set encompasses more space physically, and it became necessary in order to get the same amount of presence on each one of those drums, you had to add mikes. So I added them. Drums on my records are very important.

How do you do the bass?

The bass itself I put through the board now. It’s just a much cleaner sound, and you don’t get a lot of other stuff into the bass channel. The bass channel is just pure bass.

How about piano?

Two mikes on the piano. I put a mike down near the hammers over the strings for the lower register, and another mike, which is kind of an overall thing, up near the top end.

When you use the RMI or the B3, you do what?

I use two mikes on the Hammond (B3), one on top and one on the bottom, because actually the highs come out of one part of that Leslie speaker and the lows come out of another. So in order to get all the sound you have to have two mikes, and then inside you can make a decision whether you want all the low garbage or not. Depends on what you’re after. With the RMI monster, it has two amplifiers with it sometimes, and you just have to mike both amplifiers, because one is for each manual, and although it’s all the same keyboard, they have two different manual sounds, and you have to mike those two amps separately. I sometimes take the RMI direct. It just depends on which RMI I get. Some of them sound like a popcorn machine and you have to take them direct.

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