Their latest album saw Aerosmith return to their roots, with Jack Douglas in the producer's chair. But it wasn't all retro...
Aerosmith's Music From Another Dimension, released in November, is their first album of new music since 2001's Just Push Play, and the result of a particularly long gestation process; the first sessions apparently date as far back as 2006. Big-name producers like Rick Rubin and Brendan O'Brien were name-checked, but nothing emerged until the band decided to go back to basics with the legendary Jack Douglas, who produced the band's best-selling albums Get Your Wings (1974), Toys In The Attic (1975), Rocks (1976) and Draw The Line (1977), as well as their more recent album of blues covers, Honkin' On Bobo (2004).
On the phone from his home in New York, Douglas recalls: "The band had not been together for some time, and before I got involved there was a long time when it didn't look like this album was going to happen. So yeah, there were some problems, and some animosity — the usual stuff — and a lot of laundry that needed to be aired. But during the process the guys realised that they are pretty much a family and that they really like each other when they work together! Because I have a history with them, it's hard for them to pull tricks on me, because I know them well and can give them one look and go: 'Come on, that's BS!' It's a producer's job to keep everything on track, whether I have to be a priest or a shrink or a dad, whatever it takes. We were honest with each other, and pretty soon we were all going out for dinner and hanging out in each other's houses and working together as a band.”
Both Honkin' On Bobo and Music From Another Dimension have been hailed as Aerosmith's best in years, and "proof that Aerosmith can still rock”. For Douglas, the secret lay in getting the five band members to work and play together again, and in harking back sonically to the rawness of the records he made with the band in the '70s. Music From Another Dimension also saw them do much more writing together as a band than had previously been the case. Work on the album began in the summer of 2011 at the band's Boston headquarters, where they have a large recording studio called Pandora's Box.
"I had a small office in Aerosmith's studio/office complex, and the guys would come in with ideas, either by giving me a file or, for most of the time, they'd play me a riff on an acoustic guitar. I'd collect all these ideas, and pretty soon we'd start to develop them and put them together, and once it sounded like there was something there, it would go up on the chalkboard behind me. We'd then take these ideas into a conference room where we had some small amplifiers and electronic drums and a keyboard, and we'd jam and would record that into my laptop. Lyrics were not important at this stage, as long as Steven felt comfortable singing some kind of phonetic melody. After jamming for a day or two, we'd go right into the studio to record. It was such a luxury to be able to do this, to move from room to room to room, and see if what you're working on works. The reason we called this a more old-fashioned record was that for the most part everybody was in the same room at the same time when recording, even if we did not keep everything.”
Douglas asked British producer and engineer Warren Huart to engineer and mix the album. "I stopped engineering many years ago,” says Douglas, "so I use guys like Jay Messina or Warren. That gives me time to do what I have to do, which is to be with the artist, and concentrate on the performances, picking up an instrument to show them a part, co-write, be a cheerleader, whatever is needed. I don't get involved in engineering, but I can talk in specifics, like ask for a certain amount of dBs more of a specific frequency, or suggest a microphone to use and where to place it. Ambience, tone and compression are things we talk about before we start a project, and whatever my suggestions are, Jay or Warren will then put their own spin in them and make them even better. I also like to use guys because they have a foot in both the analogue culture of the '60s and '70s and the digital culture of the '90s and the 21st Century. I like to have the ability to move backwards and forwards between these, using both outboard and plug-ins, for example.”
Born in 1969 in Hampshire, Huart moved to the US in 1995 as the guitarist of the band Star 69. He's always had a keen interest in sound and production ("I was that annoying guy in the band who would always lean over the engineer and ask him what he was doing”) and he has worked his way up to become one of the Los Angeles area's most in-demand engineers and producers, with credits including the Fray, Augustana, James Blunt, Korn, and many others. Huart also writes and mixes film and TV music and co-owns Swing House Studios, one of LA's top facilities, with two recording studios and five rehearsal rooms. Douglas and Huart met when the former was working at Swing House a couple of years ago, producing an album for Michael Monroe (Sensory Overdrive, 2011). Today, following extensive work with Aerosmith at Swing House, Douglas stores all his gear at the studio.
"I produce most of the stuff I work on these days,” says Huart, "but I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to work with Aerosmith and Jack Douglas! So when Jack asked me to engineer the album for him, I immediately agreed. He then suggested that I listen to Rocks. I did, and I asked him what room he recorded that album in. He laughed, and said: 'That's the reason I wanted you to listen to it. I want to make a record again that sounds like a band in a room.' So we recorded a lot of the material off the floor, live in the studio, and would then later fix things or overdub parts. We did three months at Pandora's Box, and also spent some time at [guitarist] Joe Perry's studio, Boneyard, and at Steven's studio, Briar Patch. Then the band went on tour to Japan and South America, and after that we spent another five months recording at both studios in Swing House.
"The main reason we were in LA was because of Steven's American Idol commitments. I cannot exaggerate how hard this guy works. For a couple of days a week he'd do American Idol all day and then come in early evening, around 7.30pm, and work until 2am. The rest of the week he'd come in in the morning and would also work till 2am. In fact, all members of the band have the energy of 25-year olds. Many younger bands I work with can't match them for energy and creativity. It's not just that they're older and wiser, it's also that they have grown up with tape and with recording real performances. When you buy their records you won't be listening to Auto-Tuned vocals, perfectly timed guitars or gridded and sampled drums. Each of them has their own identity and style on their instruments, whereas in today's records this is really lacking.”
The "digital culture” is evident in the Pro Tools session for the album's lead single 'Legendary Child', which contains no fewer than 270 tracks! Closer inspection, however, reveals that the number of actual musical elements is much smaller: Douglas and Huart recorded each part with a whole posse of different microphones, and chose not to submix these in Pro Tools.
"I love using many different mics and blending them to create one sound,” asserts Douglas. "I've been doing that for such a long time. I love to go out and place myself in front of a really loud guitar amplifier, and be just off-axis to it, so it doesn't hurt me. I then fiddle with the EQ and the gain of the amp, and as soon as I have the sound I want, I also know what kind of microphone can go on it. I may suggest three mics on a cabinet, like the Cascade Fathead ribbon, which takes a huge amount of pressure well, is not expensive and sounds great, or a powered Royer, or a Shure ribbon, or different variations of SM57s or Sennheisers. There would also be a DI, which you can manipulate with plug-ins, plus we may have room mics. If you have three mics on a cabinet you have to go out and get the phase right, which means moving microphones a fraction of an inch. It's like tuning or getting the EQ together. It takes a bit of work. I'll be looking at Warren for feedback while moving the mics around. You can do it yourself with headphones on, but if you have two people who understand what phase sounds like, you're OK.”
"We set up everything in Pandora's Box, and also in Swing House, as though the band was playing in the room,” adds Huart. "There are several room microphones capturing the ambience, and when it came to doing overdubs, I kept these open. We wanted to be sure that we always maintained the integrity of the sound of a band playing in a room. It's hard to think that way when you're working in Pro Tools, but it was Jack's modus operandi right from the word go because he wanted the album to sound like Rocks. So we were recording the ambience at all times, and we recorded all the mics on separate tracks to have the ability to blend things during the mix. This is an advantage of working in Pro Tools, of course, because you can have 100-plus tracks. But there aren't actually that many parts. I don't subscribe to the '50 guitar overdubs' philosophy; instead I like variation in sound, and being able to blend stuff. I get stuff to mix that has 192 different parts, where people have been overdubbing for the sake of overdubbing. This usually results in unfocused pieces of music that sound like a big mess. We were simply going for creating sounds, with slightly adjusted guitar tones, all of them layered, to get something quite huge. But if you look carefully, you'll see that there generally are only two or three guitar parts playing at the same time.”
Huart's drum recordings constitute 35 tracks of the 'Legendary Child' session. "For drums, I had a combination of AKG D112 on the inside of the kick, and on the outside, the Sontronics DM1B, a large-diaphragm condenser that sounds similar to the Neumann FET47. We also had a kick tunnel with a resonator on it, on which I had a Brauner mic. There was a Shure SM57 on the snare top and snare bottom, the toms were recorded with Sennheiser 421s, and the overheads were a pair of Peluso 67s. The Peluso mics are ridiculously good and in the $1500 price range, which, for top-quality Neumann clones, is unbelievably cheap. For the room sounds we had Shure and Lewitt mics, which also sounded pretty phenomenal and are not expensive. When I was a kid I thought that you needed a million dollars to record anything, but if you are a creative you can make great-sounding records with Sontronics and Lewitt mics, which are a fraction of the cost of vintage mics. We also put the kick, snare and toms through a PA at Pandora, because Jack had done this on Rocks. I recorded the PA with three Royer ribbon mics, one against the left wall, one against the right wall, and one in the middle of the room, and I blended these in different ways, depending on the track. These ribbons were recorded through Neve Portico 5012 mic pres that Rupert had given Jack.
"We made some changes when we recorded at Joe's studio, Boneyard. The gear there is phenomenal. He has a Neve 8028 with 24 channels of 1073 [preamps], and a Studer A800 and more than 30 pieces of outboard, including things like LA2A, LA3A, Urei 1176, Dbx 160, and so on. It has a small live room, so we recorded tight-sounding drums in there, as well as guitar overdubs. Steven also has a great studio, with a live room shaped like a square box, with mirrors on the back wall, so it's super-bright. We also recorded drums there, and at that studio I used the Neumann CMV563, the lollipop mic, on the outside kick, a [Neumann] KM56 on the rack tom and an [AKG] C12a on the floor tom, and a pair of Shure ribbons as overheads. Steve also has a bunch of Neve 1073s, and we used those as mic pres. At Joe's studio and Pandora's Box, we used mainly the console inputs as mic pres.
"The bass was recorded in multiple ways. There always was a DI — I used a Demeter DI in LA and for clean DI I always use a Radial Pro D2, the stereo one. I love that thing. I've done shoot-outs, and it always turns out to be the cleanest and the fattest sounding. I then had the Sontronics DM1B on the cabinet, and I also like to mic a 15-inch cab up with another 15-inch cab [ie. a speaker used as a mic]. That's the 'Taxman' bass sound — though Geoff Emerick used an 18-inch cab to record the bass on that song.
"We recorded many guitar amplifiers at once. We'd have three or four amplifiers for both Brad and Joe, and they were placed in isolation boxes in the live room. The guitars were recorded with the new red Shure KSM313 ribbon, which we used a lot, and the Royer 122V, a tube version of the 122 ribbon. That mic is phenomenal. It gives a beautiful low-mid lift to the sound, which is great on guitars. At Swing House, the 122V became a constant during our recordings there, often combined with the BAE 1028 mic pre, which is a pretty amazing piece of kit. We also often had the Shure SM57 on the guitar cabinets, which we also sent to a 1028, and then my Retro 176. The thing about the 176 is that it has a high-pass filter, which I'd set to 250 or 300Hz and I'd let all the bottom end go through. I'd only compress the top end. I also used the 176 on Steve's vocal, which was recorded almost exclusively with a Neumann U48.”
The lead single of Music From Another Dimension, 'Legendary Child' was originally written in 1991 for Aerosmith's Get A Grip album, but never released, and was reworked for Music From Another Dimension. It is also notable for being the only song on the album with three mixers credited. The other 14 songs were mixed by Huart (four songs), Avron (six), Chris Lord-Alge (three) and Al Schmitt (one).
Douglas explains: "I was present at every mix for the song, supervising the mixes. I would have liked to have seen Warren mix more songs, because he's a really good mixer, but the label [Columbia], wanted to see what they consider a 'name' mixer. It's funny, because I've mixed 100 albums, but because I don't call myself a mixer, I'm not supposed to mix any more. Suddenly there are all these rules. But I'm fine with that. Warren and I first mixed 'Legendary Child', and the band and I thought we were on the right track, but the label wasn't happy, and Warren suggested Neal. So Neal mixed Warren's mix, and when he was done Steven said, 'You know, Neal's mix is really good, but it is missing some of the stuff where you pushed things too far, which was really cool.' I thought that what Neal had done sounded great, so Warren and I took his stems and remixed them, so we could do some of the pushes that had excited Steven and Joe so much.
"When I refer to 'pushes', I'm mainly talking levels. When I mix, even when using Flying Faders, I like to leave four or five faders unautomated so we can do whatever we're feeling at a given moment. There are many albums out there that may make a technician go: 'The guitar solo is too loud!' or 'That drum fill is pushed up too much!' But as a listener, you never would say that. You accept it as it is. It's how the portrait was painted, and that can be cool. How many Stones songs are there with the vocals a little flat or the guitar out of tune or something that's too loud? But you accept it for what it is. It's cool. I like that. I like for things to have an identity and not to conform to a formula. So we did some more extreme moves to Neal's stems, and he was very open, because after that, having seen what the direction was and how we like to push things, he got into the spirit. He was also really great in that he allowed Warren, Steven, Joe and I in the room while he mixed, to make suggestions and even being hands on when we felt like we could push things a little.”
Huart continues: "The reason why 'Legendary Child' received so much attention was because it was not only the lead single, it was also the first song for the album that we mixed. We were creating the blueprint for the sound of the album, and we had to get it right. Jack, Joe, Steven, Neal and I learned so much about how to mix this album from tweaking this song. Mixing the first song for an album always takes longer, it can take two days, and then the rest of the album you can do one or even two songs per day. My final mixes were a combination of building on my monitor mixes and starting again from scratch. During tracking I'd be doing monitor mixes, of course, but they were done on the Neve or API desks I was working on. When I then laid a mix out over an SSL, it was a different process.
"I don't actually use tons of plug-ins while tracking or mixing. I grew up wanting to make records the old way, which was that you record things the way you want them to sound. I don't have 25 DIs with Sansamp, Eleven and Amp Farm plug-ins. I don't tie myself in a knot when doing roughs, because as soon as I lay it out over an SSL console, it's going to sound bigger. It just does. It's the reason why I have an SSL 4000 G in my own studio, Spitfire, which is in a house in the garden of my house in Laurel Canyon. But the SSL gives me an electricity bill the size of the Peruvian national debt! I have to run two air conditioners all the time, one for the studio and one just to cool the SSL power supply! It's a challenge keeping an SSL.
"I actually did the initial mix of 'Legendary Child' at Glenwood Studios, also on an SSL. In terms of the effects I used, we had so many tracks with ambience on all instruments that I barely had to add any reverb. We had that extra kick and snare ambience from the PA, as well as the ambience from the Lewitt and Shure ribbon mics. In most cases, the blends of different sounds that made up one part were summed in Pro Tools and then came up on one channel on the SSL. Most of my mix consisted of adding EQ and compression on the console, in the case of the drums, often taking off a little bit of the lows and low mids. You want to keep the additional bottom end you get from tape, but pull out what you don't want. I also sent the kick through a Dbx sub-harmonic synthesizer, to give me some 40-60Hz frequencies, and the return from that came up on an auxiliary channel on the console. I summed the kick and the snare tracks in Pro Tools and added some compression and gating where necessary. Noise gates are so controllable in Pro Tools. When the kick and snare come up on the console, I do like using SSL expanders and gates as well.
"On the bass, I used the Retro Sta-Level, as well as a rebuilt Flickinger compressor/limiter, which Jack had used on Rocks, plus, of course, desk EQ and compression. For the guitars, I did the usual trick of panning the room to the opposite side of the guitar. Joe's guitar would be on the right, and his room ambience mainly on the left, and with Brad the other way round. That helped to push the guitars out in front and to set them apart from each other. I compressed the guitars with the Retro 176 and printed that. I also used the Pulse Techniques EQ. The keyboards had some Retro stereo EQ and a bit of SSL desk compression and EQ. Steven's vocals went through an Echoplex, giving an eighth-note slap, an effect that was printed. I also used some Lexicon PCM42 delays, and a hardware Eventide H3000, adjusting the vocals plus and minus a few cents, so it's slightly out of tune up and down, and then I recorded three or four of those, all at slightly different settings. That really fattens up the vocals, and I printed that as well. In the box I had the [Waves] Renaissance Vox on his vocals, which is a pretty nice compressor, it brings the vocals really close, and some Waves or Digi de-essing. I like to put these at the front and the end of the vocal chain. Believe it or not, I also had some regular Digidesign plate [reverb] on the vocals. I actually really like their plate simulation. But there wasn't a lot of reverb on his vocals; the sense of space mainly came from the delays. Neal then remixed my mix. He told me that he kept all my blends.”
Douglas: "Neal laid things out over his SSL G+ desk, and his mix gave it the stamp of approval that the label wanted. I particularly liked that he didn't over-process the drums. They sounded like the drums that we had recorded. Other mixers impose their own samples on your drums, in which case you might as well have somebody go out there and bang pencils on the tin can. It doesn't make any sense to spend more than five minutes getting a drum sound if they are going to be substituted with a mixer's samples. But Neal was respectful of the sounds that we did have. We were happy with him, the guys were happy with him, and the label was happy with him. We asked Neal to do stems of all his mixes, and in the case of 'Legendary Child' we then took these stems to Spitfire, which is in Warren's back yard, and did the rest of the mix work there. There also were times during the mastering process when we used stems to tinker with stuff.”
Huart: "There were drum, percussion, bass, baritone guitars, lead and backwards guitars, rhythm guitars, keyboards, lead vocals and backing vocals stems. There also was an edit, which you see in the top half of the stem session screenshot. We worked on the unedited version. We laid the stem session out over my SSL, and what we did was mostly a matter of adding a bit more drama with volume rides and adding some SSL compression and EQ adjustments. The volume rides on the stems that didn't get SSL compression were done in Pro Tools, the ones that did were done on the desk. The session was in 24/48, and we mixed back into the stem session, going via my Lavry Blue A-D converter, and I also added some Vertigo VSC2 bus compression and Pulse Techniques EQ on the stereo mix.”
Douglas concludes: "The album was mastered by Steve Marcussen of Marcussen Mastering. Steve is terrific. He will take it to the limit, and a little past the limit, and will then be happy to take it down a bit if I ask him. The first time he gave it to me I thought the album was 1.5dB too loud. That's not much. We went back a couple of times until we were all happy, including Steven. We also did a vinyl version of the album, which sounds great. We made a vinyl double album, so that it would sound nice and loud!”
Jack Douglas and Warren Huart's old-meets-new approach led them to employ Endless Analog's CLASP system at both Pandora's Box and Swing House, to combine the sonic benefits of tape with the flexibility of Pro Tools.
"Jay Messina and I built the desk at Pandora's Box,” explained Douglas, "and it's called the 'Frankenstein' console. It has 24 inputs from a Neve 3340 desk, eight channels of API mic pres, and eight channels of an old Focusrite, and then 36 channels of monitoring through API line amps. I just love the sound of those. We also used a lot of my gear from Pulse Techniques, Retro — like their 176s and Sta-Levels — my Ampex tube mic pres, and several mics, like my Peluso mics, and so on. The studio also has two Studer A800s — one with a 16-track head set, running at 15ips, and the other had a 24-track head set and was running at 30ips. We ran those with two CLASP systems. The CLASP system isn't right for all projects, but it was perfect for this Aerosmith record. It doesn't really affect the workflow, and using it allowed us to have the sound of analogue tape, yet we could edit things and use plug-ins and be as fast and competitive as anyone else. I'm not at all a purist about this.
"In 1998, I was playing in a band called Disappointment Incorporated, and we recorded an album with producer David Jerden, who used both two-inch tape and Pro Tools to record us. Pro Tools felt revolutionary, and I needed to find out what it was. People like to bash Pro Tools, but for me as a guitarist it made perfect sense. MIDI drives me insane; by contrast, Pro Tools is designed for a guitar-player's brain. Many of the best Pro Tools engineers that I know are guitar players. Keyboard players tend to quantise things, whereas guitar players will push and pull things until they feel good. It's a different mind set. But I like the sound of tape, especially tape compression, and the warmth you get in the lows as well as the silky, smooth top end it gives. In using the CLASP system, we could have that, and still edit in Pro Tools, without any of the drawbacks of working with both media. Normally when you record to tape first, you spend days transferring everything to Pro Tools and then trying to make sense of what you recorded two weeks beforehand.
"The thing with CLASP is that the music goes straight off the repro heads into Pro Tools, so you are working as if you are in Pro Tools. We had two tape recorders running to be able to record 40 tracks at once. The 16-track had all the drums and one bass input, and the 24-track another bass input, all the guitars and keyboards and the vocals. There were a few things that we recorded directly into Pro Tools — but almost everything, including the vocals, and the overdubs, went via the CLASP system. I'd say that anyone in their right mind would enjoy using CLASP to record vocals. The only reason some people may not want to use it is because of speed. Working with CLASP and Pro Tools is 99.9 percent the same as working with just Pro Tools, but people have a different degree of patience these days, and that 0.01 percent appears to make a difference for some people. It sounds really stupid, but when you are dealing with a band of 21-year olds, they're not used anymore to have to wait a couple of seconds for the tape to get up to speed between each drop-in! Of course, with the Aerosmith guys this was not an issue at all.”
Jack Douglas is one of the all-time legends of the American music industry, whose credits include the Who, John Lennon, Cheap Trick, Yoko Ono, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, Blue Öyster Cult, Patti Smith, Slash, Supertramp and — as recounted in December 2009's Classic Tracks feature (/sos/dec09/articles/classictracks_1209.htm) — the New York Dolls.
Douglas worked as an engineer on Lennon's Imagine album (1971), and produced his 1980 comeback album Double Fantasy, which Douglas still considers the biggest achievement of his own career. "John was the easiest artist I ever produced. When he stepped out to the microphone, he was in your hands and gave it over to you. He would do a performance, and would look to me to decide whether that was the one, or whether he needed to do it again. I had no problem with him doing five vocals, and then telling him to take a walk while I comped it. He let me do the arrangements without him being there, and easily took suggestions, but also had the most tremendous input on things. It was incredible to work with him.”