J. Geils Band Archives - Recording Studio Rockstars

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RSR042 – David Thoener – ACDC For Those About To Rock

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RSR007 - David Glenn - The Mix Academy

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RSR042 – David Thoener - ACDC For Those About To Rock

My guest today is David Thoener, a multi Grammy winning producer, engineer, and mixer with a true rockstar list of credits to his discography. In fact David made many of the records that I grew up with that help define rock music for me.

David started his career in 1974 as an assistant engineer at the Record Plant in New York City, and learned his craft creating Aerosmith "Toys In The Attic," Bruce Springsteen "Born To Run," David Bowie "Young Americans," John Lennon "Walls and Bridges," Electric Light Orchestra "Face The Music" and Richie Blackmore "Rainbow Rising."

David then moved on to engineering and mixing records in 1976, and has since enjoyed a thirty year run of hit records including classic records for AC/DC "For Those About To Rock”, John Mellencamp "Little Pink Houses", John Waite "Missing You", all the hits from the J. Geils Band, Matchbox 20 and many others.

In 2000, David won two Grammys -- Record of the Year and Album of the Year -- for recording and mixing "Smooth" by Santana featuring Rob Thomas.

David has mixed hit records for Jason Mraz, Faith Hill, and Sugarland, and has made records all over including South Africa, Sweden, Australia, Mexico, and Japan to list a few.

I am very lucky to be able to have this interview in person since he lives right here in Nashville TN. Please welcome David Thoener to Recording Studio Rockstars.

There are no rules, it's whatever sounds good. The way that you create something, there are no rules on that. It might be the most crazy idea in the world, but if it sounds great and it works... then it works.

David Thoener

Thoughts on Recording Schools Today..

​With all these schools now, a lot of guys that are going to these schools think that they are going to walk out of school, and going to sit behind the board, and going to be working with Jack White on his next record, and that’s just not going to happen. It never has happened that way! Every place that I would go when I would deliver these packages, I would fill out an employment form... I’ll clean the toilet for you, I’ll do whatever. Persistence and luck. And I have to say 50% of being successful in the music business and especially as an engineer is luck. It’s being at the right place at the right time, or some musician that you’ve worked with in the past, that just happens to say to another musician, “Hey, you’ve got to work with this guy. He’s really good, I think you’ll like him.” Then all of a sudden, it happens. It’s getting those relationships together. I want the listeners to realize that you just don’t walk out of school and walk into an amazing job.

Do you see similarities for music releases now vs back then?

Acetates in those days were not to be used for manufacturing purposes, they were just used to take your record around, because every A&R guy and every label had a record player. They didn’t necessarily have a tape player. Acetate was the medium they would play your music on. So I would cut acetate discs of a couple of songs for artists and I would make tape copies. They would take those acetate discs and tape copies around to different places like RCA and CBS. It was hitting the pavement and walking around and trying to make appointments with A&R guys, and sitting down, and they would put your record on, and then give you the thumbs up or thumbs down. And then you’d walk out of there and go to the next place!

Really the consumer is the winner now-a-days. As opposed to an artist or the people that are in the position of making the record, because you have iTunes now, and iTunes takes a fairly decent percentage of the sale of your single. I don't even know what some of the sites like Spotify and Pandora pay. I mean you're paid pennies, to my knowledge, on the amount of records downloaded.

I think there are more one hit wonders these days. There are a lot of bands that I listen to on some of these streaming mediums that I think ‘man that’s a really great song!’ I’ll check out the record and I’ll find several songs that I like a lot. And I would normally become a fan of this band, but a year goes by and they’re gone. I find that more these days. I guess it’s a combination of being able to go in and do a record way, way less expensive than it used to cost, so the bar is lowered. 

“Believe in yourself. You really do have to believe that you can make a difference" - David Thoener

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This J Geils Sound is sort of an introduction to the 80s sound. It seems like there were more effects happening on those records?

I have to credit Seth Justman, the keyboard player. He took over the production reigns on a lot of those records and Seth was into interesting sounds. He had a keyboard with a pitch bend on it, one of the first ones. We were more into delays than reverbs. 

Recording and Mixing AC/CD's
For Those About to Rock 

The drums were cut at the rolling stones rehearsal cavern. It was 20 min outside Paris. We used mobile 1 as the record truck because it was a big empty stone room.The drums were recorded by Mark Dearnley. He ran out of time. He had another commitment to another producer, so they called me up to finish the record. So I came in and finished guitars: rhythms, leads and vocals.

To get the most amazing guitar sounds (they weren’t into layering) we used Neumann's 87’s with a pad so close that they were almost kissing the cloth. That was the mic that got the tone they were looking for.

The AMS-RMX for mixing For Those About To Rock. AMS gave me a prototype of that unit. That’s part of the snare sound, the other part was taking the eventide pitch control and it had a feedback. So we would take the snare down an octave and turn the feedback up.

What advice do you have for us about mixing vocals?

It's the exact thing I’ve been doing for 42 years, I do exactly the same way now as I did back then. Every singer sounds different, right? So, some people say the Telefunken 251 Elam is my favorite vocal mic and I record everyone on that. But one size does not fit all. So what I’ve done since the very beginning, unless you've worked with the artist before and know what they sound good on, I get four different microphones that I have an intuitive from listening to them sing acoustically in a room I’ll choose four that I think will be most appropriate.

If I have an opportunity to use a 251, I’ll put that up, if I have the opportunity to use a Neuman 67, I’ll put that up. I’ll usually use some sort of Audio Technica, sometimes something like an SM7, sometimes a 414. I mostly lean in the condenser direction as opposed to the choice between dynamic, condenser, or ribbon. Ribbon might work for certain sounds, but it's a little bit darker and fuller.

So I’ll have them all lined up and all coming through the board flat. I’ll go through and get gain structure, no compression, very simple. I’ll have the singer sing the first verse and the chorus because naturally the chorus is going to be harder sung than the verses. They’ll try mic one, mic two, mic three, and mic four. And I’ll invite them into the control room to listen to the four mics, I want them to have a say. If it makes you really happy, then we know which mic to go with and clear the other three.

“Manual mixing. You had to use a console like you would a keyboard” - David Thoener

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What are great go-to strategies to make our mix come together if you’re in the box?

There are some great plugins out there and I’ve been mixing in the box since about 2007. Analog tape retains a signal and has a bump around 60 cycles in addition to a saturation quality. But aside from the bump and roll off that you get from a tape machine, it’s supposed to just faithfully playback what was put into it.

I really just want ProTools to play exactly what I put into it, and that’s what it does! The Opticom XLA3 that was offered by Plugin Alliance. I downloaded the trial and put it in to level match to other plugin I was using. Theres a quality to it that I really dug. It has a swtich that you can go fast, normal, or slow for compression times. The drums just felt like they were alive.

I like a lot of the new slate stuff. If I have to get a quick rough mix together, I’ll throw that on between the equalizers and the compressors. You can go through and get things ball-parked really quick. I love the McDSP stuff. The equalizer is like a multi-band compressor but it’s a multi-band equalizer, works just like a multi-band compressor.

Last thing I want to mention is that new Abbey Road Plates that came out about 4 or 5 months ago. Download the trial and try out reverbs have always been the hardest things to try to get to sound (in the digital domain) like they’re in the analog domain. Their echo chambers and rooms sound real. The Oceanway emulation sounds amazing too. P2 audio has a convolution reverb that has different theaters. Try all the trials! See if you believe it's something that can help you.

“When I go into making a record, I go in 150%”  - David Thoener

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Jam Session 

Q - What was holding you back at the start?
A - Really nothing held me back, I knew what I wanted to do. I had a mission. I just had the focus in mind of getting there as fast as possible, whatever that took.

Q- What was some of the best advice you got early on?

A- Back when I came into this business and was assisting some amazing engineers, nobody gave me any advice. They were all very guarded about how and why they did stuff. Honestly, I got no advice. Possibly some bad advice even.

I was thinking about buying some gear back in the 80s. Especially when Record Plant went out of business in ‘89, there were some amazing gear that was going for like nothing. They were telling me, don’t buy the 670 fairchild for like $1,000 because if I’m paying you, then don’t think I’m going to pay for your gear as well.

“I’m always trying to record the end result at any moment” - David Thoener

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Q- Share with us a recording tip, hack, or secret sauce.
A -  1 .Research the band. If they don’t have a record out, go to some live shows and get an idea of what they’re all about. If they have records out research the previous records and make yourself familiar with everything about them

2. Always check your mix in mono! I realize everything's in stereo, but there are phase issues that you won’t necessarily hear in stereo, but you will hear in mono. So every once in awhile hit the mono button and see how your mix folds down into mono.

3. Another cool trick, especially for expressive rock stuff. I personally like to pan my guitars. With your two rhythm guitars, pan one left and one right. I’m looking to get them in balance in the mix. I’ll balance them in stereo and monitor them in mono. Naturally they are going to drop down a level around 3 DB or so, while in mono I’ll raise them to where they are balanced with the drums and the bass. When you go back to stereo, they are kicking your ass.

4. Unless you’re using compression for an effect, I would use compression on the record side to control the guitar, the bass, or the vocal but not to a degree where you can hear it. Pop it in bypass, in and out, and if you can see that the compressor is doing its jobs without hearing it when you pop it in bypass and then back in the circuit then you’ve reached a good spot to stop right there because when you get into the mix mode you can always compress more.

5. As far as getting the low end right on a mix, know your speakers. Take records that you’ve done prior, and when you’re trying to get your bass sounds, you can always use a reference song to see if your mix is close to that. I use a lot of high pass filters a lot of times even on bass, even if it's just taking out 25 cycles. I always try to get my kick and bass to work together so that my kick drum is accenting all the notes the bass is playing together.

“I mix in a DAW all the time now” - David Thoener

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Q - Share a favorite hardware tool for the studio
 If I’ve got one, an ELAM 251 Telefunkin microphone, which is very hard to get.

Q - Share a favorite software tool for the studio

A - I think going back to what I already covered the Opticom, the new Slate stuff, the new McDSP stuff, new Abbey Road Plates.

Q -Share with us a tip for the business side of the recording studio

A - For all the rockstars out there, it's very, very important to save your money because this business is feast or famine. At one time you’re the hottest guy in town and you have one gig after another and you think, ‘man I’ve arrived. This is my life for the next 30 or 40 years. I’m just going to do every great record out there.’

Don't ever think like that. Even the best artists, the best engineers, the best producers, the best mixers will have ups and downs, this is 42 years for me and I can think back to the 80s where I would be off for two months and I’d think oh shit it's over, but I was always saving. So even when I’d hit those periods of 2, 3, 4, or 5 months where I would not get called, I never had to worry about paying my rent. I didn't live a high lifestyle, I kept it and I knew every month if money was coming in or not, I could pay my rent and bills.

“A great record is a great record. It doesn’t really matter what medium its recorded on.” - David Thoener

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Q - If you had to start over what gear would you need? How would you find people to record? And how would you make ends meet while you got started?

A - It’s almost like that desert island question. I’m a huge believer that a lot of the gear doesn’t necessarily matter. If I was in a situation where I had 10 57s and Altec mixer and a two track tape recorder, I’d make it work. So your imagination is the guide for that one. Finding musicians. It has to do with relationships.

Go out to clubs and try the best you can to meet the guys after the shows over. If you’re able to get access to a studio you can mention to them you’d like to go in at their convenience you’d like to go in and record. That’s hard to do because even recording digitally costs money.

Q - What is the single most important thing a listener can do to become a rockstar of the recording studio?

A - Listen to other bands and other genres as much as possible. As much as I kinda hate the concept of Spotify and Pandora, I hate the fact the artist and people involved in those records aren’t seeing the money that they once saw. At the same time, these different streaming means have become great for the public. It allows me to listen to things my peers have done or a lot of amazing new bands I can find. There’s so many great sounds, they’re inspiring! It gives me ideas, so when a mix comes up I can draw from something I’ve been a fan of. 


Big Thanks to Tyler Cuidon & Merissa Marx for this week's episode!!