"I did everything I did against the grain and in spite of people's opinions. All those supposedly great songs were done with no 'No's' — I don't think I could have done it any better doing it the 'right' way."
Years ago a reader wrote in asking if we'd ever thought of interviewing a producer/engineer known simply as "Mack." Apparently this man had engineered a majority of the Electric Light Orchestra albums, co-produced some of Queen's best-known work, produced Billy Squier's biggest hits, as well as working with Sparks, Black Sabbath, T. Rex and many others. At the time I could not find this "Mack," and was unsure whether or not he was still in his native Germany. As years went by, I heard nothing. Then, one day, a member of the band Shazam (Jeremy Asbrock) claimed to be working with Reinhold Mack on a new album. He pointed me towards Mack; eventually I found myself sitting in a room full of platinum records and recording equipment chatting for several hours with a man who quietly changed the sound of modern pop records without making much of a fuss about it himself. You'll see...
Things you've worked on are fantastic. It's very wide reaching.
Your work is sonically influential, yet it's impossible to find out information about you. Why are you the invisible man?
No reason. It's probably because I'm not an extrovert. I don't tell everyone how fantastic everything [I do] is. There are people who can't live a minute without telling everyone how great everything is. I think if you can handle your tools, you should just do so and do the best you can. The tap dancing is usually a sign of insecurity to me. Either you know what you're doing or you're using a cover.
So, you think someone who's using a bit more bluster is covering up for something?
Yeah, or maybe it's just a mentality, "I'm working with cool people and everyone should know about it!" It's probably not the best way to promote oneself. [laughter]
It doesn't seem like it would hurt any!
I don't know. I've picked up most jobs at bars, at shows or on tour. Whenever I've had a manager, I haven't worked as much. If you're on a list it's very tricky unless you're in the top three.
How did you get your start in recording studios? I traced you back to MusicLand Studios in Munich. What were you doing before that?
I was in school and then the army. I didn't like that at all! I wasn't good at school — I was more of a bully then. In Germany, if you're not enrolled in college there's an automatic draft. You get your number and your rifle and off you go. Before that I was playing a bit in a band.
Guitar. I originally learned nine years of classical piano training. I also played clarinet and a little bit of straightforward Spanish guitar. What I really wanted to do after getting out of the army was get into a band again. My parents had a business selling musical instruments, so I'd wait until their store closed to practice. I'd go into the stock room, pick out my amps and whatnot. Because of that, I had fairly decent equipment. When I got back from the army, it turned out my mom had taken it upon herself to sell all of my stuff! I had no future income and that made it hard to start up again. I figured out probably the best way to get started wasifIwasinastudio-thenI'dbeclosebyand I could say, "Hey, I can do that." I looked in the phone book for recording studios — it took me about five months to land a job. At the very bottom [of the phone book listing] was Union Studios. A guy said I could come by the studio; he introduced me to the engineers and it became a real possibility that I could work there. What I didn't know at the time was that the studio manager had just started a couple of months before me. He paid me in advance for three months work. I became friends with the chief engineer there.
He was a classical guy. He was very impressed that I could remember and do things in the studio, because I learned by watching him. I parroted what I saw and heard him do — I charted everything down and set things up the way he would have. Then I had another extremely lucky break for me when the German Krautrock started. Amon Düül... a lot of these names I can't even remember. The engineer was working with a band and they had a huge argument. They were bringing in albums and they'd say, "I want it to sound like this. I want it to sound like that." "Why can't you do it like...?"
And that's coming from the Krautrock bands asking for a different kind of recording?
Yeah. A lot of it was really standardized. "You don't put expensive mics close to the drum kit." The usual crap. He said, "Look, I don't have to do this job. I'm a qualified brain surgeon" and left! So, there I was. The band looked at me and said, "Can you do it?" And I said, "Sure." I excused myself, called the studio manager and let him know the previous producer had run out of the session. He said, "Have a coffee break and discuss the situation. I'll come by." He put in a bunch of compressors and said, "Just run the tape. Once you're done ask for a second take. Do that a couple of times and the day will be gone in no time." The guys sort of bought it. I was really sweating it — I was shaking. When you're tape op-ing or getting tea, stuff sounds normal. It makes sense. But when you're sitting in the producer's chair, everything sounds like crap. Everything falls to bits and pieces — you realize that you're in charge. This is the end of the line and it's got to be right. For one reason or another, the band didn't mind. I had to mix it — it was on 8-track. The band quite liked it. The record company liked it. It was a small label, they had a bunch of these bands before you knew it, and I was the flavor of the month.
What was the name of that first band you did?
I think it was Ihre Kinder. From Nuremberg.
So, was there a label involved?
I've seen that label.
It was quite famous for a while. Also the top of the line German pop culture came through: Udo Jürgens, Ivan Rebroff (doing these big Russian schmaltzy things) and Peter Alexander. They were all million sellers. There was another guy, Ralph Siegel; his dad was a founding member of GEMA, like ASCAP over here. That guy was already completely loaded because they copped a small royalty off of every royalty and they made hundreds of billions every year. That guy ended up being one of the biggest German, schmaltz-type composers. He sort of always insisted that I work for him. I did a ton of sessions, basically starting at 9 in the morning with a camera commercial. Then a cigarette commercial and then, in the afternoon, he'd do something for Muzak — elevator stuff. Those were three-hour sessions and I had to work really quick. It helped me a lot. It's practice. Eventually I actually learned what all the stuff did in the studio. I jumped in the deep end. I knew what people did, but I didn't know why they did it. I got away with stuff, never making any real mistakes. I did that for two years. Then Giorgio Moroder came in. He had a tape — the singer was Lulu [Kennedy-Cairns] — and he said, "Can you mix it for me?" I said, "No problem." Then he came back and said, "Look, I want to build a studio. Do you want to come and build a studio with me and work for me?" And I said, "Sure! I can do that!" I thought, "By now I know that an XLR has a 1, 2 and a 3. It can't be all that hard" So, he had a studio in the Arabella House in Munich — a very, very big quarter-mile long building, 25 floors high — hotel, apartments, a clinic and a pool. It was actually a pretty good location for bands coming in, staying and throwing TVs out of the 25th floor onto the parking lot, trying to hit the most expensive car. Deep Purple was very well known for that.
Oh, dear! Was Giorgio a well-known producer?
At the time he just had one or two hits. With the money he made off of that, he figured he might as well open his own studio. He had a small studio in the basement, next to the heating unit of this enormous place. It was always like 105 degrees in there, with nothing turned on. After about half a year or more, I finally said, "I'm dying down here. This is impossible." He co-wrote a track called "Son of My Father" [recorded by Chicory Tip]. It was a pretty big hit. He got a whole bunch of money and we built an addition. We got the first basement and that's where MusicLand Studios comes in. It was just concrete and a couple of old walls. One day this guy comes in, Marc Bolan, from T. Rex. He had a gig in Munich. All of the sudden he was standing in the doorway saying, "Oh, so this is going to be the studio. That looks nice. I guess you'll be done in a couple of months?" At that time the English tax law stated that whatever you do in a year's time outside of England, the proceeds were tax-free. So, people would go on road tours. People would go to the Bahamas for vacation, then tour Scandinavia, Holland or Germany, do an album for a couple of months and then go home. Conceived, written and recorded in Scandinavia meant tax-free income for the person who wrote it.
And the taxes in the U.K. were very high.
Exactly! That's why everyone would take off. Exile on Main Street - all that stuff. I actually managed to wire the studio. It was my third year. I had no proper idea of grounding, headphone amps or all the stuff that goes with it. Eventually I got some expert advice from Paul Ford at Westlake Audio. First we had this Helios console — Dick Swettenham [from Helios] helped out a lot. With this British- made board the bands were, "Oh yeah, we like that." It was Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, T. Rex, Rainbow and then ELO.
This would be early '70s?
From 1973 on.
And you're engineering all these bands?
Not in the beginning. Deep Purple was Martin Birch. But the good thing was The Rolling Stones were there with Glyn Johns. I could look, "What do these guys do?"
That's a good school! [laughter]
Exactly! Not everybody has a chance to see the inner workings. Eventually I got a pretty good grip on what people liked and how to get whatever it was. Led Zeppelin's Presence, for instance, I did engineering on that. Unfortunately I didn't get a credit on that. And then I got ELO.
That's big. You did quite a few records with Jeff Lynne and the group.
And some of the biggest hits. How many had they done before working with you?
They did four. The previous one was called Eldorado. They sort of just came in. "You're doing this?" There was nobody else around, so, "I guess I'll do that." We did Face The Music and that did really well for them. They kept coming back. I had a really good love/hate relationship with Jeff.
He seems to know what he wants, in a certain way.
Absolutely! He was like the typical English person — in the morning he's never met you and doesn't know who you are. After fourteen pints of beer we're sitting in each other's lap, kissing each other on the cheek and singing songs. The next day we would start all over again. How can I put this? While he tried to work something out, he'd ask for a big sound or a tiny, tiny, small sound. I was fiddling around trying anything: feeding stuff backwards, throwing a chair down a concrete staircase and recording it and chopping it up. Things like that.
You hear a real progression in the sound of those records — really working and experimenting in the studio to create that.
Yeah! He really dreaded reverb. He still does. He really doesn't want reverb. He doesn't mind it too much on other people's records, but definitely not on his. So, I always had to sneak in a little. You know, small room- type things, because otherwise you couldn't do it. It was a lot of real-room sounds because of this labyrinth they had down there. This one corridor was 250 yards long. You could really run, put a speaker up there, and since we were in the basement, no one would really mind. Or put drum kit in there. Just make use of everything that was there. I think it worked really great.
With a lot of the orchestral stuff with ELO, were the orchestras created through overdubs, or were you doing small sections?
No. In the beginning it was the London Symphony Orchestra and then the Munich Symphony Orchestra.
Would you have to go do a remote recording, or could you bring some players in?
I think the first couple of albums, I think that was done in London because a fear that something bad might happen. Then the trust was established once they realized I wasn't going to screw up on big sessions.
So, did they take basic tracks and take the reels back to London and finish off the records?
No, they would overdub the strings and then come back. Then we'd do vocals and stuff. Vocals were always the very last thing. Nobody except Jeff knew what the deal was.
Because they'd never heard a guide vocal?
No, nothing. He wouldn't tell. You could probably sit in a corner humming something or occasionally shouting. It could be anything. Once we went to Bavaria Studios, a film studio for scores and stuff, and we tried 54 strings and a 38-piece choir. I realized in Munich we didn't have to pay any union fees. In this big studio I couldn't get a sound to save my life. It's like everything was gone. It wasn't this compact string sound like what we wanted. I was on pretty good terms; it always pays to be nice to people. Those string players did lots of sessions, back in Union Studios days, and I was always on the mark. I did my thing and always helped everybody. I said, "Look guys, this is not working for me and I'll be in deep shit here. It needs to work. Can you grab a chair and come over to MusicLand?" Because we had probably eight chairs to match 54 people, plus the choir. Then the choir stands up and the studio is nowhere near that size. We had people lined up against the wall and playing in the lobby. Kind of put a microphone in the middle.
How would you even get headphones or playback?
I gave headphones to the lead guy; all the good ones who I knew could actually play.
So, you're recording an orchestra at MusicLand and putting them all over the place to do this tracking?
Yeah, everywhere there was space.
So you could get a drier, controlled sound?
Yeah. And that worked really well.
Those albums are very sonic. Was Jeff asking for things and pushing you to look for new sounds?
Yeah, we had this thing going. We had a huge grand piano and I'd do something with a bunch of microphones close and far. Also compression and some EQ. So I get what I think is a really brilliant, spacey piano sound — very outside the speakers. Then Jeff says, "Okay, that sounds great. Can you screw it up?" I said, "What the fuck? I could have screwed it up in two minutes." He says, "Yeah, well sometimes it's better if you try it both ways." He'd say, "Do this" and I'd say, "For what purpose?" Probably still, to this day, he would go straight through the roof. But it gave me that thing later on, because I could never really keep my mouth shut about doing something that wasn't really me. If I liked it, I fought for it. Obviously the totally wrong approach for an engineer! But, I wanted to do something that would be a step ahead of people, certainly musicians, so they couldn't really bring in their own ideas. Mine were just better. I gradually came into production.
Right. Because on the ELO records, you're an engineer.
Ah, not really. I sort of advanced as far as the percentage.
That's a number of records. You mentioned right at the beginning that you and Jeff could be contentious with each other, but you worked together on eight albums. There must have been a respect and a really good rapport.
There was sort of complete trust. I knew he could always come up with something, or had something stashed away. What most people do is say, "Oh yeah, I just made this up" when really they've been working on it for four years. "Oh, my god! You're a real genius." [laughter] But, it didn't matter in that setup, at least from my angle. We got along great. I could do pretty much whatever I wanted. He could ask me for just about anything and I could make it happen.
How long did Out of the Blue take to record? Do you remember?
Out of the Blue was the longest. That took, I still have the time sheet, and it took 1,200 or 1,300 hours. It was from May to September , or something. It got to the extent where people were trying to kill each other. There were hardly any days off. We would be in 12 to 14 hours every day. We would always end up pretty much the same... drunk. "Oh, it's 6 o'clock somewhere in the world!"
Was there strain within the band too?
No. Jeff and Bev [Bev Bevan, drums] had a fifty-fifty thing. Basically it was Jeff and I just doing what we liked doing best! My biggest claim to fame with ELO, probably, is that I instigated "Don't Bring Me Down."
The whole song?
It was like, "What do we do next?" Probably the best thing, for once, was doing away with all the violins and the choirs and just do straightforward, boogie, rock and roll.
That album, Discovery, is much more drum and rhythm heavy. There's a tailored, large, distinct drum sound going on in that. Is that something you envisioned?
No. I think it ended up that way because, on the albums before, all the drums were always double-tracked. Basically backing tracks were done, if went well, in a day or a day and a half. The fun part was the overdubs. We did drums in the studio and then overdubbed another drum kit in the live room. The double track was doing the same thing.
Did they sound very different?
It was the toilet of MusicLand. [laughter] On Discovery we figured it was much easier to do the snare instead of the cymbals and the whole kit. It got a lot more condensed and tight. I think we ended up basically just doing the bass drum and the snare drum in the big room, where the toilet was, so you could control it. That's why that became much tighter. The "Don't Bring Me Down" thing: Bev didn't really want to "experiment," as he called it. He didn't want to play for hours on end.
He's a drummer, so why would you ask him to play for hours on end? But I made a drum loop-I started that demon — and treated it a bit in tempo. I put three grand pianos playing the same thing. Just kept layering it. Jeff wasn't too either/or as to whether or not the idea was working. Bev didn't want any of that. Jeff was always, "Okay, I've got the piano. What next?" "How about a little bass, a little guitar." It ended up that "Don't Bring Me Down" was originally "Don't Bring Me Down, Bruce." The plan was originally to go to Australia and start a tour there. If we recorded it that way, we couldn't really leave it because of connotations and people. So, in Germany you say, "Grüß Gott" for "Hello." And "Don't Bring Me Down, Gruss" sounds a lot like Bruce. That's how that thing came about.
So when you built the loop, you said you had Bev play something and you cut a piece out?
Oh, I just ran the tape from a different song — from where the tape was parked. I just soloed like three or four tracks. I believe a lot in "doctor chance." Sometimes you put a tape up and whatever the board was — if it wasn't zeroed out — you play something and go, "That sounds interesting." You might have a teensy EQ'd bass drum and this huge hi-hat. A totally weird combination, but you probably could use that for something.
It might open up a door.
Right. Because you wouldn't do it — you can't really think of it. It's just obscure. Lots of things happen that way.
One thing I hear during that period with your producing, leading up to the ELO sessions and the engineering, is getting a sense of more control over the sound. We just talked about that with Discovery. I guess 24-tracks were coming out in the mid-seventies.
Yeah, in the beginning, it was 16 and then it became 24. I think I sort of became really artistic in using little bits of tape in between to record something on there. In between bass drum beats, for instance. Whenever something wasn't happening, I'd record something else on it. It made mixing hell.
There was another really nutty thing in the middle of New World Record. Giorgio and I decided to get a Harrison console. You know, with British-style consoles you've got your masters and monitoring, you've got to patch lines in and this and that. Paul Ford was just touring through and we did the front wall of the studio — we got Westlake monitors. We had Cadac dual 18-inch speakers with a horn in the middle. The idea behind them was really good, but they weighed like 350 kilograms. They had real power and headroom. I figured we needed the decent gear to work.
So, you got the Westlake monitors in there?
Westlake monitors were built in. My question was, "Now I need a board. I want to be able to push a button to six 2-track machines, two 4-track machines, two 16-tracks and two 24. I want monitoring to be there, I don't want to do this [patching]." Harrison came up with a matrix in each channel, with diodes in order to have switching. You had faders, which were VCAs, and you had the monitor in there. You could flip the whole thing down so your path was basically from the preamp. Then you could have either EQ in or out, if you wanted. Then you had your "fix" button that went straight to tape. Then, through the tape, you went through your fader and the monitor. You had the cleanest and shortest signal path. I thought it was pretty fabulous.
Nothing before the tape.
Exactly, yeah. You could monitor two 4-track machines, things that could come up on speakers. It was a convenience thing. The solo in place and pre-fader listening was absolutely super. This is basically how I still use it today. I have the microphone, I have the preamp and I go into converter these days. A lot of times I still do backing tracks on tape — preferably on 16-track. Then I put them back into Pro Tools. So, in the middle of New World Record, this Harrison console shows up. Over the weekend I said, "I can wire that in."
You did, did you? [laughter]
Not really! But, I got the recording side to work, with Jeff constantly breathing down my neck. "Can we do something? Can we do something?" "Yeah, we can record. But we can't really hear it too well." We actually did record that night. Into the early morning, until 3 a.m., I was still soldering away with one guy to help me. But we got it done.
That's one of my most favorite ELO records. I really think it's an interesting batch of songs, and it includes some of the really grand stuff.
At the beginning of "Telephone Line," it's probably not a widely known, but it's a little sample and hold- type thing, a Minimoog. And, as these things go, each one is different. In the beginning, I had oodles of tracks. Then the band would come in and Jeff would say, "I don't know. Maybe you should give it another shot." I don't know why, but it had to be on that track and because the way stuff started there was no way to really edit it, if we wanted the flow of the whole thing. The end sound, it does this little thing before it goes into the song, it was just a bad dropout because I was panicking! [laughter] It was all going and I could see this thing coming up. I made myself a little mark on the tape. So it happened and stayed like that.
Vocoders start showing up on those records around then. Was there a constant quest for new sounds?
Yeah. Actually the vocoder was one of Giorgio's. His vocal performance, singing wasn't really too...
he wasn't Freddie Mercury, let's put it like that. So I was looking for ways of doing something that worked for him. You know, these days, we would be, "Auto-Tune." Jeff was always like, "Oh, what's that one do?" There were these children's records, Sparky's Magic Piano. A talking piano [using the Sonovox talk box device]. So it was, "Oh, it does Sparky! Let's try that." Everything which could be put through was put though.
To see what it could do.
Yeah, like the end of one of the sides of Out Of The Blue is "Please Turn Me Over." Things like that.
That's a whole parallel career with the studio. Giorgio was working on things and he must have bought some early synthesizers.
Giorgio bought everything that was new. The Roland Juno, Oberheim and all these things came out. Giorgio had the balls, if not necessarily the taste, to just order all of that. He'd just say, "Oh, that sounds great. Let's do something with that" and he'd just use it, just stock sounds. Which was okay. It worked for him. With synths, when you're the first, you're like the "cool" flavor. I was always into, "Can we change that sound to something else?"
You worked on some of the Donna Summer stuff. Those tracks really seemed to have come from the future, at that point in time. People are still emulating that.
I didn't do too much on that. Jürgen Koppers did a lot of the mixing and things for Giorgio. I did backing tracks and stuff like that. Giorgio called me up and said, "Look, I need the best drum sounds in the world. Can you come over?" I said, "Look, Giorgio. It's Saturday night. It's 11." "Yeah, but only 10 minutes!" "Yeah, but I can't get the best drum sound in only ten minutes!" He promised I'd be back by midnight. [laughter] "I Feel Love" was the big Moog — in four cabinets. And we got that and we had to trigger a rectangular wave from track 16. I marked the tape where we lined it up and we started; hoping the damn thing would run all the way through. The square wave would go through the compressor and the EQ, and we'd EQ it so it's all in sync. The 16th pulse going through that was triggering everything.
So that was triggering filters and sequencers?
Right. So we always went back into the Moog.
Is there really a multitrack for that?
No. We had to start the multitrack for each track. We had track 16 and then we found the pulse. And then we did the bass.
I see. In order to get something sequenced and in time...
You had to start from the top and hope for the best. We started 20 to 25 times, just to get it in. The track was like 3:50 and at 3:40 you'd get a dropout. "Fuck!" You couldn't punch in. You always had to hold down the key [on the Moog]. It was pretty wacky, but it came out pretty good!
Yeah, I think so! You can hear a lot of the cut-off filter.
The whole thing is, in a way, a live performance. We had a sync generator and nowadays you could do that easy. It wouldn't be the same though.
Part of it is the journey of getting there and the difficulty that makes it a different piece of work. The dance element of it is really interesting too. It's hypnotic.
Giorgio was never afraid to be really basic, four-on-floor, all the way though. He made his own aesthetics. You know, it worked. One of the worst editing jobs I ever did was "MacArthur Park" for Donna Summer. Because the song is actually 18 minutes long. Giorgio said, "Do you want to make $1,000?" I said, "Yeah, but what do I have to do?" He said, "Just a couple of edits for a single of 'Macarthur Park.' I've already started, so you just need to finish up." He did one edit, about forty seconds in. I did about 600, from there on! This was planned as eighteen minutes, so he used an arranger. There're so many edits. It's so ridiculous!
It's not a simple chord progression. Jimmy Webb songs can be complex. Yeah! You know, at first you think, "That's no problem."
And then I realize, "Ack! They've got me again!"
Where you don't have a chord stepping to the next one to do a proper change?
Yeah. With ELO, there were brutal edits in "Living Thing;" the worst edits in there. That took me quite awhile to overcome. Jeff said, "You've got to make that a lot shorter," but he'd always say that it sounded like shit. You just have to take it as artistic expression at that point.
These days we're able to edit so easily with the computer. You started working more as a producer. What were some of the first things you actually produced?
The first were a couple of German bands. That was so I had the possibility to say I produced something. Somebody would ask, "Well, what did you do?" And I'd name one of the German bands.
So, you got something on the resumé!
Exactly! The first thing really was [Queen's] "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." I was fiddling around in L.A. with guitarist Gary Moore, doing demos and trying to figure something out. Giorgio said, "What are you doing here? Queen's in Munich. You should be doing them. They asked for you." So I called up and said, "What's the deal?" "Ah, nothing." A couple of days later Giorgio said, "You're still here?" So I called again, "Yeah, I think they're coming in but nobody asked for you." It was too weird. I looked at my wallet and thought, "Well, there might be enough for a plane ticket." I got on the plane. I stumbled into the studio, jet lagged. Then I was like, "Whoa. I've never seen that much equipment in my life." Fourteen drum kits! They came from Japan, jet- lagged to death as well. Drum kits, amps, 40 [Vox] AC-30s! Road cases and road cases. "Ratty" [Peter Hince], their key roadie at the time, said, "So, where do you want this stuff?" I said, "Put the drums here.
Put the guitars here." I hooked up some mics and did just a basic set up. I asked, "Is anybody coming in?" and he said, "I don't know. Maybe, maybe not! Maybe they've gone to Hawaii." They didn't stay in the same hotels and they had all their own agendas. They were quite big at the time. Then the doors fly open and Freddie Mercury comes in and says, "Hello!"
Had you met before?
No. He came in and asked me, "Why are you here?" And I said, "I heard I should be recording whatever you're planning to do." He said, "Oh no. Darling, we just came back from Japan and we have two more weeks to spend before we can go back into England because of the tax laws. But what can we do here in this town?" I said, "Let's go down to the English Garden and get a beer." It was such a low-key, modest thing to get a pint of beer and smoke a cigarette. There were 60 people following behind! Drivers, cooks, wardrobe people, makeup artists, people tuning guitars, a convoy of cars and bodyguards. Freddie and I walked arm and arm to the pub. Meanwhile, Roger [Taylor] and [John] Deacon had come down. Freddie said, "Can we do this real quick? I just have an idea I want to get down as a reference so I don't forget it. Don't worry, I can't play guitar!" I put him in a little booth right next to the control room and, since I had everything else set up, he asked if we could go for sounds. I said, "Just put it down. It'll be alright." He said, "We've never done that." I said, "It doesn't matter. Trust me, it will work!" We put a track down and, being good musicians as they are, that is the track you hear! Freddie said, "Let's do this real quick, before Brian [May] comes. Otherwise it will take weeks to get it done." So, we had the basic structure [to "Crazy Little Thing Called Love"]. The next thing was a couple of overdubs. Freddie said, "Wait, mark my words; when Brian comes in, before he even hears it, he will say, 'I don't like it.'" Brian comes two days later. "Hey, you been doing anything?" I said, "Yeah. We've been putting down ideas. I think it's come out pretty good." "Well, I don't like it." I think he's holding that against me to this day! I said, "This is the sort of part. Can you play a Fender Telecaster? Because it's a take off of a rockabilly kind of thing." He did it, in about eight takes. Being sort of to the point, I kept recording over it. I didn't have eight tracks. He said, "Let me do it again. Let's see what we've got so we can comp something together." I said, "You're going to have to listen back real close! The one you hear is the one you've got. The other ones are underneath, in the oxide!" He did an interview in Melody Maker and went on for a page and a half about the "incident." He didn't like that too much. But overall the track came out pretty good.
It was a hit song!
It was number one. We did a bunch more, and "Another One Bites the Dust" came out of that.
That's a very unique song. We were just talking about drum loops. How did that song get built?
Yeah, that's a drum loop. That was built out of boredom, from my side, because nobody would show up in the studio. [laughter] I started this loop and, in order not to step on anybody's toes, I put in these ominous, backwards piano notes. It's just a different piece of tape turned over. Things you can do when you're playing by yourself in the control room. Deaky [John Deacon] said, "I've got some notes for this." Freddie said he had some lyrics; he didn't have them written down, but had them memorized. "It's called, 'Another One Bites The Dust.' The bits before and after? I didn't get to those." He didn't have any! He had a phrase. The riff, which is really, to an extent, the Chic thing [Chic's "Good Times"] with a couple of alterations, was put down and it started taking shape. We did some drum rolls and little cymbal crashes. For instance, that percussion thing in the middle section is some weird mistake going down. That was the Infernal Machine [a digital processing unit] that I had on loan from Publison — the French manufacturer. I tried to mute something; my finger hit the knob and it turned up and went through the Machine — it sounded good! [laughter] Even the end has a mistake. John told me months and months later, "It's number one, but it's still not perfect." I asked why, but he went, "I won't tell you." Finally he said, "Well, at the very end [mimics drum roll] there's a hi-hat going 'chhh" that should have been muted." But nobody has written in or complained.
So, you brought a lot to the table on that session, and you did get co-producer credit with the band on that album [The Game] and continued to work with them. When you get to Queen's Hot Space album... We were talking earlier about controlling sound, and Hot Space is mostly not a rock band banging it out in the room. What brought about working that way?
Freddie going to discos all the time! He just liked disco. Still, to this day, I think ["Body Language"] could have been huge. It was just six months too early.
Because we had Olivia Newton John's "Let's Get Physical" and it was "body this" and "body that." It was just too early for that song.
It's interesting, because this was ostensibly a rock band. As you move along, especially the records you did with them, it starts to really become something different.
Obviously, from that one you can't tell how many people are attending the session. Anything Brian had to do with would involve crunchy guitars. A lot of the drumming things would be Roger's. That was really fun to make.
It sounds like you're working with a band that's comprised of four completely different people.
Yeah. There was a lot of breaking up and not breaking up. "Do we have to do this?" "We should be a rock band." "No, we must be modern." You always want to push the envelope, so there were all these arguments going on.
I know you mentioned before that Brian would have great ideas, but then start to nitpick about details.
Yeah, the first two minutes were always great... But then, "Hmmm, maybe." Then eight hours later, and a couple of vodka tonics, it was a really bad idea that we actually got in here. He would be starting to second-guess. The worst thing was a loss of concentration. With mixing, the author of the song had final say of the mix. So with Freddie, I'd call him and say, "Look, I'm done." "Is it good?" And I'd say, "Yes. I guess so." He'd say, "Yeah, if it's good then put it in the box." He wouldn't even listen to it or come in. Whereas Brian would stay until the bitter end. I'm not giving much away, but there were times where the band was called in to listen to a mix that Brian did and people would say, "Yeah, it's all very good, but where's the lead vocal?" "Oh. Did we forget that?" Loss of concentration and focusing on bits and pieces that didn't really matter.
I've worked with people like that — it's frustrating.
It could be a blip of sorts, which literally nobody could detect if you didn't know what to listen for. But all of a sudden it would be earth shattering for him. I can give you one more anecdote: "I Want To Break Free," that song... We were two months in L.A. at Record Plant Studios and the accounting people come in and say, "We've never seen anybody go through so much money." We spent a million dollars or something. There were 18 rental cars. "The Bentley back there. That's mine." Gear out of your ass — pardon the expression. Nobody seemed to have a grip on it. So eventually it was like, "Oh, yeah. We'd better get something together. We've got to present something to Capitol." So I'm on "I Want To Break Free." I've got to do this fucking solo. It'll never get done. The bigwigs were coming down in a half an hour and we had to present an album-type thing, even if it wasn't mixed. They want to hear something they can sell. Fred Mandel, who did all the keyboards, just put the solo there with the [Roland] Jupiter-8; that's the solo that's still there. It was a placeholder. "Let's just do it and get a mix together." We did the rough mixes of all the tracks we had, and Brian would grandiosely explain what all the tracks were. Then this thing came up. Deacon was hiding in the corner and I was like, "Man, I really gotta get some beers" and ran out of the room three beats before the solo came up.
Because Brian was going to hear it?
Yeah. At first he didn't have a clue; thinking, "This is the part where I had to put some solo stuff in," not knowing that a solo would come in. It stayed like that, because there's nothing wrong with it. It's pretty good. But he's still pissed off at the idea that people think it's him doing something with a weird guitar synthesizer. But it doesn't matter.
I mean, as long as the song works.
Yeah. I think it was number one in 21 countries. This is not a measure for good or bad. I always loathe the idea of monetary gain over artistic grandness.
Well, you want to make great records whether they're heard or not.
Yeah, sure. From all the things I've worked on, it's over one hundred million albums out there that have my name on them, in one capacity or another. And if I had all the royalties, I'd be extremely happy.
Are you seeing checks?
Yeah. I am lucky because most of the bigger ones do their own accounting. Because they are their own company; like Queen Productions, they always have their own lawyers and accountants going through it. They figure out they've got everything, and I get my bit from there. It's lucky. The same with [Billy] Squier. He doesn't have his own company, but it's direct through an accounting firm that audits for him. He's very stingy. He's a nice guy, but...
He wants to get paid!
You were brought in to co-produce his breakthrough second album, Don't Say No.
Yeah! I was with Queen on tour. Completely over- judging my abilities, I did some live sound. I did a world tour with ELO for about a year.
Doing front of house sound? Did you have to run tapes?
Yeah. We had intro tapes and outro tapes, but the band stuff was real.
What album were they touring for?
Out of the Blue.
So later you went on tour with Queen. Yeah, just for a little bit. Everything was totally big time,
as usual. Of course you start to grow a liking to these things. They'd use a [Boeing] 707 for ten people. I was at some bar and Billy Squier introduced himself to me. He said, "I'm planning on doing an album." This was in October. "Can I hear something?" He came to my motel room and played me some stuff and explained what he wanted to do. He said, "I have this song, 'The Stroke.' It should sound like rowing." I said, "Yeah, we can jump off that bridge when we get to it." He said, "I'll do it, on one condition. I need to be home at Christmas." [laughter] So, lo and behold, I had a plane ticket and Power Station was booked. We just did it. For monetary reasons, I think we started to record from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. For me, it wasn't too bad because I was still jet lagged. That went pretty simple. It wasn't a big stretch. The songs were there, pretty much. Once we were done, I went home and told Billy, "The Power Station is a good studio, but I don't think I can mix there. Why don't you come over with the tapes to Munich and we can mix here?" So, he came over. He always writes stuff down and had these notes, "We need something on 'The Stroke.'" "What could that be?" "I dunno." I said, "We're co-producing this together, so you should know 50 percent of that."
On "The Stroke" there's that backwards, signature snare sound.
Yep, that's what he wanted! He wanted it to sound like rowing. You just do something really quick, which impresses people; such as turning over the tape...
...and then you just lay a snare down along with it?
Yep. To [drummer] Bobby Chouinard, I said, "You're gonna hear it backwards and, as soon as you know, grab the beat and just keep hitting the snare." Then you're done.
It's a really effective sonic signature.
Exactly. That's probably one of the secrets for most hits. Get something simple and recognizable.
I feel your productions led the way for where Mutt Lange took the Def Leppard records with the big drums and samples. Do you hear it that way?
Yeah... I think I met Mutt once. I like what he does. Especially with Shania Twain. He analyzes what needs to be done, and figures out the best possible way to do it without hurting too many people. That could be an underlying thing.
There's definitely a big goal in mind, for stuff like that. Taking something and building it up to a certain point.
It doesn't really just come by itself.
You did Black Sabbath with Ronnie James Dio — Dehumanizer.
How was that experience? Was that a fun record to work on?
Yes. That was great. I think Rob Cavallo started it. He's a good guy, but he didn't have the ability to work with these English guys from the Midlands.
A different world.
From Birmingham and the surrounding areas [where ELO were also from]. I'd had plenty of experience! The practical jokes, the general nastiness and the drunkenness didn't faze me at all. We got along really great. I knew Ronnie [James Dio] way back with Rainbow. I did live gigs with them at Budokan and stuff like that. For me, that was absolutely no problem. The only problem was Tony [Iommi] had a bit of a difficult time remembering riffs. You'd record constantly 'cause he'd be noodling and you'd be, "That one's great."
You kind of had to help keep him focused?
Just like memory and bits of things.
You worked with Sparks on a couple of records. Was that fun working with those guys?
Yeah. We're still good friends.
Were they interesting records to work on?
Yeah. They pretty much went along with anything. Silly, fun loops. No problems whatsoever. "Why don't you try this?" Not every song lends itself to manipulation. Then you have some composers, like Freddie Mercury. He'd do something and you think it probably needs arranging, but you can't. The bastard wrote it, and you don't even realize how many changes are in there, chord-wise. So, you can't take stuff out because it would never work.
Right! Like editing "MacArthur Park." I know one of the reasons we were able to talk was because I was talking to the band Shazam.
Yeah, Hans [Rotenberry] kept pestering me for about a year. Eventually I asked him to send me some stuff. I asked what he wanted me to do with it. Hans is very nice and talented. He has really good ideas. He wanted me to mix, but to still go with the guy who'd previously recorded them. He sent me all the tracks and it was all very neat, tidy and wonderful; but I didn't think it would be a good idea. I had to be honest and tell him he was going to get screwed. If anything big happened with this, the guy who recorded them would be getting points, I'd be getting something, and he [Hans] wouldn't get paid! The best option was to just do it over. I started mixing a few of the songs, and he was completely over the moon from what he'd had before.
I know on the final record you did a lot of editing, six weeks or so, at home. What kind of editing were you doing?
Actually, I didn't do that. Julian [Mack] did that, to be fair. Cleaning up all the instruments, each bass drum beat, each snare beat, each drumbeat.
Like erasing and inserting silence in between?
Yeah. Doing fadeouts. In all fairness to everybody, we recorded most of the backing tracks at Sage and Sound Recording in about five days. No money! It was quite endearing that they were willing to endure such hardship. We had to do the work afterwards, to clean it up. We had to make it sound real. I mean, it is all real, but we had to clean it up and do some rearranging. We had to reconstruct a few things out of other bits, while still using the original elements.
Are people searching you out for jobs?
I don't think people can find me. I don't have management or anything.
Do you want to be found?
What other projects have you had in the last few years?
Really it was just a lot of different projects. In 1999 I transferred my company, Nightjar, to my sons Felix and Julian. I thought DVDs would be a cool thing for Felix to work on, since he was always really into computers, Photoshop and that sort of thing. From that point on the focus kind of shifted, because who I talked to and had contact with changed. So the jobs coming in were more in a post-production than strictly music.
So you have a mixing studio set up at your house? Did you custom build the house to have a studio in it?
No, this was formerly two bedrooms. In '94, after the Los Angeles earthquake, they had to put T-bars all the way to the end and lift it up because it had gone down 12 inches. After that I made it one decent sized room. As you can see, the equipment is on but you don't hear anything. No fans, no computers. Nothing.
It's got the Tannoy [monitors] with the Doug Sax Mastering Lab crossovers.
Those are very well known. It looks like you can mix in surround.
Exactly. That was the main idea. I thought it would be cool. I could remix all these old things — especially ELO. Things that are 500 tracks, but you can only hear two. I got into surround sound because of DVD — I am always looking for new ways to make stuff cooler; three extra speakers and a sub seemed to fit the bill. What basically happened was I made a demo [surround] mix of one of Freddie Mercury's songs and of a Sparks tune. It took a while, but some guys from DTS heard the Freddie mix and eventually we mixed Megadeth's Peace Sells... for DVD-Audio. Meanwhile, Julian and Felix were both working a lot with anime companies here in L.A., and we remixed literally hundreds of episodes for their DVD releases. Pioneer also released Billy Squier's Live in the Dark [1981 concert on DVD] concert I mixed here. I was in Poland in 2004 for two weeks to record [New Century for] the first band I ever recorded solo, SBB, 30 years previously. We've also done several 5.1 music mixes for European movies and Japanese DVD releases. I just like working in my studio and not being bothered. It might seem weird that I re-mastered around 50 CDs worth of anime soundtracks. But why not?
Any final thoughts on making records?
I'd still like to do a good one, one of these days!
You don't think you've done one yet?
Some of them have been pretty decent! We're talking about doing another one with Shazam again. I had a thought: The idea is to go back about 40 years and record a band as a band, add a couple of overdubs and a little trickery, and not go multitrack with 16 guitars and a couple of hi-hats. Your hands are tied. I've been thinking about that a lot. If I do it I'll do it with a safety net, out of respect for the guys. No, "Guess what, I screwed up." It must be possible to get the essence of a Sgt. Pepper/Rubber Soul-type thing. Shazam's stuff lends itself to that direction.
There's something to be said for putting limitations on things.
I find it the most annoying thing in this day and age. If you listen closely enough, you can identify almost every element down to the pedals the band is using. It makes a person's sound stock. You can buy a certain person's "sound" and people just go in and plug in. People who have been at it a long time have put their lives into making and preserving music, like Keith Richards. It's a piece of art.
You can't say, "What mic did you use on Freddie Mercury," and expect that it's going to make someone sound like him.
No one is going to sound like Freddie Mercury. That's the stuff that really creeps me out, like when you've got a plug-in that gives you different microphones. It doesn't work! It's not like a Star Trek replicator!
Thanks to the group Shazam and Julian Mack for making this interview possible.
Track down the "Invisible Man" at www.nightjarco.com/mack Visit Shazam at www.theshazam.com