Unfortunately Mike Shipley passed away far too soon in 2013, but we are honored to present his final print interview from that year courtesy of our contributor Jake Brown. -LC
"Mutt's whole thing was, ‘Kids these days don't want to hear honky little snare drums. They're all out watching Star Wars and having visual experiences, so let's make records like that. Rather than going the natural route, let's make something larger than life!'"
Famed engineer/mixer Mike Shipley recalls the moment when legendary record producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange first expressed his vision for Def Leppard's 1983 album, Pyromania. To date, one can still shake their head thinking back about how cinematic and epic the record's sound was for the time. Shipley explains how he was the right-hand man to Mutt Lange, and how he helmed many mixes and albums on his own.
From Pyromania to Hysteria to Paper Airplane by Jake Brown | Justin Cortelyou and Thomas Dolby interviews by Larry Crane
You and Mutt were trying something truly revolutionary, compared to the way rock drums were being recorded at that time.
The previous Def Leppard record, High ‘n' Dry , was recorded with real drums. On Pyromania  Mutt wanted to be experimental and leave the drums to the very end. He would keep changing the arrangements, so therefore the drum parts would need to keep changing. We had to figure out how to sync that up. It was on the cutting edge, but somehow we managed to put it all together. Take "Photograph," for example. Like all the other songs on the record, the song's drums were all samples from the Fairlight [CMI (computer musical instrument) sampler]. There are no real drums. The cymbals are played, but the bass drum, snare, and toms are all machine. We had all kinds of drums in there, and I sampled them into the Fairlight and detuned them. We'd sample them in at half-speed, thinking that we'd get a better sound, because that's when Fairlight was at 8 bits – you had to get around that part of it. We sampled [Ludwig] Black Beauty snares, other snares, and all kinds of bass drums. We ended up with something that Mutt liked that we could detune a little bit. When we were sampling in the sounds, we used [Neumann] KM 84s and we used [Shure SM]58s. There were so many mics. The toms were primarily Simmons toms back then, which were electronic. We experimented, EQ'd, and mangled the sound up a little bit to come up with the drum sound. It was pretty unnatural, but that was kind of the point.
The Fairlight seems like it basically became like another member of the band. What kind of role did it play as you got near the end of tracking?
We were recording Pyromania on 24-track, and we spent a lot of months on that record. By the time it came to mixing, the tape was peeling off in 2-inch pieces. It became clear from the intensity of working on a record like that, going over and over and over, blocking out backgrounds, changing arrangements, and all that. I'm surprised we ever got it finished, because the tape literally fell to pieces. It was experimental; we were using a Fairlight, trying to sync that whole thing up and work like that, and we hadn't figured out ‘til the end how we were going to do the drums. So even when "Photograph" was about to be mixed, Mutt decided to change the chorus. Songs would evolve, and he wanted to have control until the last minute of what the feel was going to be. Rather than commit to the drums, and have to re-cut them and re-cut them, he thought this was a better way to do it. I don't think anyone had done it before, but we decided to give it a shot – scary as it was – and we just went on blind faith. It was more about being able to change the arrangements at the last minute, which was very important to him.
You're a drummer. How has being a musician helped inform your process as an engineer/producer, and who were some of the players who shaped your sonic preferences for recording and mixing drums?
I was always intrigued by drum sounds. Back in the day, I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan. I was a fan of The Who, The Kinks, and early King Crimson; those more progressive-type rock bands. The mainstay back then were English rock bands. I was a fan of Andy and Glyn Johns [Tape Op #39, #109], Ken Scott [#52], and all those amazing English, out-of-the-box, record makers. I was very much into rhythm – drums and bass – and drum sounds, in a big way. Everything else is great too, but drum sounds have always been a really important and impressive thing to me.
Mutt Lange invented the "layers upon layers" approach to recording walls of guitar and vocal tracks stacked throughout that album. What was that construction process like in the studio?
Because of the nature of the way that band played, and the inversions they used, it was very hard to get the right – what Mutt had in his head as – "commercial distortion." We had hundreds of amps and cabinets in that studio; from AC/DC amps, to little combos, to big stacks. Everything you could think of. We spent weeks and weeks trying to get a commercial sound for those inversions, rather than the [raw] crunchy, distorted sound. I'm pretty sure we ended up with just a little Marshall combo amp after we'd tried everything. It's funny, because after a while you get so fatigued that nothing ever sounds good enough. But we had to start recording at a certain point, so we found a good combination that worked, and used condenser mics, [Neumann U] 87s and [Neumann U] 67s, on the amplifiers.
What do you remember that process being like for the guys in Def Leppard?
There were certain points where it got very hard, because Steve Clark [guitar] and those guys were used to going in and just laying it down. But Mutt's brilliant as a diplomat, which worked as a strength for him at certain points because of the length of time involved. It was hard for Joe [Elliott, vocals] because of how much Mutt would work on the vocals, but they understood he had a vision and that everything was coming out great. It was tough for them, at the same time as being great for them. Mutt was very, very hardcore about the lead vocal. We'd spend the longest time on the vocals; Joe would get frustrated about it at certain points, but he was an excellent sport. He'd have terrible headaches because Mutt was just relentless about it. We used a [Neumann U] 67 pretty much for everything vocally on Pyromania. Mutt always had specific ideas about delays, and we just had to figure out how to create them. We used all kinds of delay lengths on Joe's lead vocals; they might have been created by a tape machine, because there wasn't that much "long delay" outboard gear out back then. The reverbs were usually regular EMT 140 plate reverbs, which we had four of at that studio in a plate room. After that record was out, the AMS [RMX-16 digital reverberator] came out. We also used to use a lot of the old, original Lexicon delays; I remember this huge box. The other delays we'd use would be multitrack delays, where we'd make up the delay length by going into different channels in [record on the] multitrack to get different delay amounts. We also used a flanger, and a couple of 2-track tape delays. We didn't use [outboard] mic preamps; we just used what was in the SSL [console]. When we were recording harmony vocals, in order to keep the distinction away from the lead vocals, the backgrounds were usually Mutt and Rick Savage [bass]. They would do 20 or 40 tracks of one part, then dump down 20 tracks onto one track, then do 20 more tracks and dump them down onto another track to make up a stereo pair. Then they'd add the backgrounds to that part, bounce them down two tracks, and then hand-sync them back into the choruses. We'd EQ them, bounce them onto a 2-track machine, and then I'd have to get the timing right, hit the play button, keep going until we got the timing right, and slide them in.
When I listened to a new Def Leppard album back in the ‘80s, it always felt like listening to a futuristic experience. What was Mutt paying most attention to in mixing to achieve that sound?
Whenever we were mixing, regardless of the band or style of genre, we went for what seemed to be the right thing to do. We'd listen to the song and say, "Okay, this is what it needs to be like," and go for that. It's always been a gut thing, as well as a technical thing. Not really worrying about any rules or regulations about EQ, what backgrounds should sound like, or what drums should sound like. It's about carving out the space so things could be intentionally soft but still very audible, because it's still about depth of field as well as everything being in your face. We'd just need to carve out the right space for the instrument. That's something Mutt taught me how to do, and I'd end up doing it by second nature. It was one of those things that was experimental, but he'd find a place for it. He'd have a sound in his head, and make it work. We were working 18 hour days, seven days a week, for that whole record. This kind of commitment was necessary, because Mutt wanted big, larger than life on everything. They were all very lengthy records to mix. A lot of time was taken, more than what most people would think, especially later on, in terms of records like Hysteria. We spent a long time, and if it wasn't working we'd just start again. Given those machine sounds, it was really quite difficult – we were so lost in the process. We had an end vision in sight, and I would work, and work, and work. Mutt wanted to make things as 3-dimensional as possible, sonically.
From Pyromania you went to The Cars' Heartbeat City LP. What drew you to that project?
I had actually moved back to Australia at that point, for family reasons. Mutt had started mixing that album and spent quite a few weeks trying to work on certain songs, but he was not well. Nigel Green, the engineer who had been working with him, was not that well either, because they'd both been working so hard. The band was getting a little frustrated, so I came over to England to work on it with Mutt. We again spent a certain amount of time trying to mix the songs, and Mutt kept asking, "Is there a console big enough in this country to mix this record on? I think the only place big enough to mix this record on is in New York. Today's Thursday, so Friday can you get on a plane, fly to New York, and mix it at Electric Lady Studios?" I got on a plane with these multi-tracks and arrived at the studio thinking they had this large console. When I turned up to the studio, the owner was going to lunch, and I wanted to go upstairs and get a look at the console. He says, "No, it's all good. Come out to lunch with us." I told him I wasn't hungry; I'd just gotten off the plane and I wanted see where I was going to be working, but I begrudgingly went to lunch with the owner. Well, we came back, went up to the studio, and it was not as described to Mutt on the phone by the studio owner. I had to wait in New York for two and a half weeks while they built the control room to Mutt's specifications. That was a hard record to mix, because the control room wasn't set up correctly. What I was hearing wasn't really what was happening. I had a very funky version of a new Neve console that didn't work anywhere near as creatively as an SSL, so I was painted into a corner. We basically ended up where Ric [Ocasek] and the band said, "Listen, you've got to slash through this stuff. We're used to working fast." I set up the best that I could. I spent a day and a half per song, where Mutt would have spent two or three weeks per song. I would get it done fast and do the best that I could.
After The Cars, the saga of making Def Leppard's Hysteria began. The record took three years to make, and put the band $4 million in debt to their label, due in part to drummer Rick Allen losing his left arm in an auto accident. Would you consider drums to be the most experimental part of production you worked on from that album?
All of the guitars and vocals were already tracked with the album's other engineer, Nigel Green, before I got there, but there were no drums and bass. It was just a very basic LinnDrum 16th-note hi-hat guide drum part. The drums and bass were all written in the mix. It was all done as part of the mix process, and therefore that meant getting the sounds. It was quite difficult, because Mutt had been listening for quite some time to just guitars and maybe a rough bass, but no real drum or bass parts at all. He'd been concentrating on the guitars, vocals, and arrangements, so it was very difficult. To put in the drums – to do that very last of all – and do the bass was a very monumental task. The drums were in the Fairlight, so I had the ability to mess around with the tuning of the snare. We wanted something fat and different, so once I had the sample I could experiment with detuning. I found a nice fat sound that worked for Mutt once we'd EQ'd it, and it was [pitched] down quite a lot from the original snare sample. Over the snare, there were different samples that we layered: a white noise sample, an ambient sample, a Simmons sample, and a sample of the [Eventide] Harmonizer with the feedback full up. That added length to the note. The same with the bass drum; we'd find some [sample] we liked and detune that. We used multiple tricks to try and get a unique drum sound. I remember we had the biggest console we could get in those days, which was a 64-input SSL; the first one they ever built! We'd always been on the cutting edge of consoles, so with every SSL console we'd be guinea pigs. Mutt put the studio in his house, so we had no distractions. I think it took nine or ten months to mix Hysteria, because we'd be redoing parts and the whole drums and bass thing. We'd spend months on songs sometimes, and then redo it.
What kind of outboard gear was at play in the production of the "Pour Some Sugar on Me" drum sound?
I was working on the new version of the Fairlight, and I brought samples I had sampled in Los Angeles – and had also sampled in Mutt's studio in England – to come up with a drum sound. The basis of the bass samples I used were from a friend in L.A. I was tuning them and adding synthesizer to the bass to give it a bit of a different sound. For "Pour Some Sugar on Me" specifically, the samples all started out dry, and then we'd get pretty detailed about gated reverbs and different kinds of effects, whether it was hard-gated AMS [reverbs] or gated tapes. We'd use various amounts, having triggers for length in the Harmonizer. There'd always be a delay on the snare that would come from a unit that could put out fast reflections, like 20 delays to different increments – just to give an interesting perspective that would add to the width of the snare. The hi-hat and cymbals were samples as well. Mutt would leave me for four or five days and say, "I'm going off for a few days. Come up with a drum sound, figure some stuff out, and come up with something unique and different." I learned to experiment and figure out how to add to his tracks for the drums to make it different. You can hear huge handclaps going on in "Pour Some Sugar on Me." Those are actually 100 tracks of handclaps detuned and EQ'd. That ended up sounding like ambience in a way, and definitely had a unique sound. He'd say, "I'll come back in a few days, see where you are, and we'll go from there." That's how it worked out.
Is it true you guys recorded all of the guitars for the album on a [Scholz R&D] Rockman [guitar headphone amplifier]?
Yes! All those guitars are from a Rockman! Not amps, because that's the only way we could get that kind of distortion. There might have been a couple passes of clean guitar through a small amp, but most all of it was recorded through a Rockman. That meant an awful lot of EQ'ing and processing. All the clean sounds, all the jangly parts, and all the distorted guitars were Rockman. It would get a bit irritating, because we'd try everything and just keep going until we found something that worked. Because we did it for so long, it never was that satisfying; we'd just look at each other after weeks of working on it and just go, "I guess this is the best we could do," and that was it.
What kinds of effects were you applying to Joe Elliot's voice on Hysteria?
As far as vocal effects, I can't even begin to recall how many AMS reverbs we used. There were harmonizers, delays, reverbs, and EQs for every different section. There were so many effects going on in the background: long delays, short delays, backwards reverbs, and ones you could barely even hear, just to add to the depth of field. The kitchen sink; really everything we could think of. Mutt wanted to keep Joe's lead vocal distinct, so as we'd done with Pyromania, on Hysteria the harmonies would be a combination of Mutt, Rick Savage, and Phil Collen [guitar]. They would work up a blend, and Mutt would dictate somewhat how the words would be or what the parts were. But those guys were excellent singers, so the three of them together would create the sound, and Mutt would do some on his own as well.
Can you describe how you were feeling as the team neared the end of production?
It was incredibly taxing and very intense. It would be song by song; but with that kind of process, because we'd spend so long, it was not like doing a song in a day and a half. When you work that long you're so overfamiliar with the sound, and you're so done with the sound, that it was very hard. We'd work away and almost abandon it, at a certain point. We'd spend as long as we could spend, and there had to be a point where we'd put it down; a point where we'd messed around with every permutation of what it could possibly be, be it delays, treatments, bounces for the guitars, or vocals. Because of the process it's a hard thing to explain, but there just came a point where it wasn't like, "Oh, yeah, man. We rocked this one," but more like, "I guess we've done the best we can. We better put it down." It's like, "What else can you do?" We knew that the song was great, but the mixing process was really, really hard. We would spend weeks on a mix, and obviously the time involved would be a whole lot longer, because we were inventing drum and bass sounds at the same time. But we'd get a mix to a point where Mutt would say, "Okay, let's take it." And then he would hear something and go, "I think we need to zero the board, start again, and see what we can do." Sometimes the mixes would end up being four to six weeks per song, because he wanted something different and wouldn't settle for anything better than the best we could get. It was one of those albums that had such a particular sound to it, that we had to stay that course until Mutt felt it was as perfect as it could be. In comparison to the way they make records today, we were very, very lucky back then to be able to experiment a whole lot. I'm definitely proud of that record.
Mutt was notorious for keeping the label out of his creative process during recording and mixing. After so long of working on this record, what was the reaction once you handed it in to Mercury?
There was no involvement from the label at all in the making of that record. They didn't listen to one note. Mutt wouldn't allow it. He didn't like involvement from people; he just wanted to do his own thing. And I remember when A&R heard it for the first time, they said, "What the fuck is this? You can't hear the vocals. It's all weird sounding. What have you done?" Everyone was kind of surprised. At the time, it freaked both me and Mutt out. As we finished that record, and as the tape degraded, so did the sonics to certain parts. The first time we mastered Pyromania, we mastered it in England, and the mastering engineer sent it back saying, "Mutt, this record is unmasterable." And Mutt looked at me with this look, like, "Oh, my god. What have we done?" Then we sent it off to Bob Ludwig [Tape Op #105] and he said, "This is groundbreaking, amazing, and brilliant." Fortunately, we went from, "This record is terrible and unmasterable," to Bob being able to master it. It is what it is.
When did it first hit you that Hysteria was
on its way to becoming the phenomenon it did?
I'd come to Los Angeles after that to work on a completely different project with Joni Mitchell [on Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm], of all people. I was walking one morning down a boardwalk in Santa Monica in the summertime, and coming out of every frickin' boom box on the beach was "Pour Some Sugar on Me." It was like, "Holy shit! This doesn't sound too bad, from a distance. I'm not sure I could listen to it through a set of speakers again." I came over to the States and it was just everywhere!
What did mean for your career in the aftermath of its release? Did you find yourself being typecast as a metal mixer?
I definitely didn't want to be tarred and feathered by it. Certain people will think of you as being that kind of producer. After that, when the whole cliché grunge thing came in, I was painted as a "rock" guy, even when that's not who I am. That's just what we created at the time. We did what we needed to do for that record. Up to that point I'd done punk bands, and all kinds of different styles, but on the bigger ones, like Hysteria, one can get labeled as "that's your sound." You do get pigeonholed, because people like to put you in a corner – in a box – and say, "That's what Shipley does," or, "That's what Mutt does." That's why after that I went and did the record with Joni Mitchell, and worked with Shania Twain [Come on Over], Alison Krauss, and other projects that were completely different. I took my career out of that box.
Outside the realm of Mutt Lange and Def Leppard, what album are you most proud of in your catalog?
One of my favorite ones, that was a complete surprise to me, was when Alison Krauss asked me to do Paper Airplane. She's an artist who I've always been a huge fan of. To spend the time that we did with that particular band [Union Station] – who, to me, are the most awesome players in the world – was absolutely fantastic. She liked some of the vocal sounds we'd gotten before, and I was like, "Where do I sign?" We spent quite some time doing that record. I hadn't engineered a record in ten years – I'd been mixing all the time. While it's something you never forget, I went for a deliberately sloppy, wider sound, versus everything being mono. I stereo mic'd everything, and had some fun with that. It was primarily tracked live. It was an unbelievably good-sounding record; and to win a Grammy Award for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical in 2012 was a complete surprise, and a fantastic honor. That was a wonderful experience for me, so that one is definitely a highlight.
Speaking of highlights, you worked with the Sex Pistols on their legendary debut, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, before you started working with Mutt.
It's not like it is these days, where you can be a runner for x amount of years before you get into the studio. In those days you were basically given a couple of weeks to learn the ropes, and then you were in the session. In England there were lots of tea boys, but luckily at Wessex [Sound Studios], we had Betty [Edwards], the tea lady, so it was brilliant. She was an absolute character, and every band loved her. So that's how Bill Price ran the studio. I got to learn the ropes and went straight in. The first record I got thrown into was the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks… working with [producer] Chris Thomas. It was a lengthy, involved record. It stopped and started, and went on for quite some time. For me, being more of a rock head, it was like, "What is this?" It really was the first of that type of music, and it was just a staggering and incredible experience. Getting chased from the pub by Hells Angels, and all kinds of funny stuff. Sid [Vicious] was in and out of the studio, because he was in the hospital a couple times when he got ill. While Glen Matlock played a lot of the bass, Sid was around too. Sid was a very simple player, but he was musical. The whole band was sort of learning as they went, with the help of Chris Thomas.
Aerosmith pops up on your résumé too. I understand that was a guerilla recording experience, for you and the band?
John Kalodner [A&R] had asked me to work on that record [Just Push Play]. The band didn't want to go into the city and spend insane amounts of time waiting around in hotel rooms, so they tracked in Joe [Perry]'s house, primarily. We set up a studio in the living room of this small, old farmhouse outside of Boston. We had the most unbelievable technical problems doing that record. The sound of the console would change daily, with levels changing and EQs being different, just because of the heat. We did it in the middle of summer. But it was something different to do from the traditional studio, so we did it that way, and it was fun nonetheless. I love those guys, and it was a lot of fun.
What still gets you excited about sitting down behind a console?
I know it sounds crazy, but every day that I can walk into the control room, I feel like a kid. It's like, "Oh, my god, I can do this again? This is unbelievable." I'm glad to have done the work with Mutt, Alison, and some of the records I've done with Joni. Everything's been a highlight, and there's always a redeeming factor in everything because it was all so different; that's what's so great about it. There are lots of things I'm proud of, and they were really good experiences. I had a lot to learn, and so many of them were fantastic musical experiences. I've been lucky enough to work with some of my favorite artists of all time. I can walk into the studio, and it's exciting every day. I'll just come sit in the control room sometimes when I'm not even working, just to be in here. It's all been great!