Janet Angus and Mark Dearnley discuss various facets of the recording industry including his production work with AC/DC.
Mark Dearnley's young face belies over ten years of engineering and producing many top albums for as many top artists, in an industry where success usually takes a heavy toll on its maker. His accomplishments include albums for AC/DC, Def Leppard, Joan Armatrading, Uriah Heep, XTC and Jim Capaldi, to name but a few.
In more recent years his talents have stretched out in the region of production, from his engineering chair, and credits include Heavy Pettin' Rock Ain't Dead, singles with Robin George, Bronz Taken By Storm album and some tracks on Haircut 100's Paint and Paint album.
Tape oping took place at Lansdowne Studios: a complex which is well known in the audio industry for training and producing excellent people. His teachers were Adrian Kerridge and John Maxswith from whom he learned the classical recording techniques which provide the foundation for all future experimenting. 'You aim to achieve certain sounds in the studio and then use natural microphone technique for recording it such as Blumlein stereo and all that nonsense, distance miking, being aware of the phase differences between microphones.'
With a keyboard playing skill tucked away in his distant past he has the musical qualification necessary for anyone wishing to dabble in production, or even, as is often the case, engineering. 'As an engineer it is not enough to apply your technical knowledge, you should also input musically. For me the musician, engineer, producer progression was a natural one.'
Two recent projects, very different in nature and in recording techniques, are AC/DC's Fly on the Wall album which Mark recorded with the band producing, and Heavy Pettin's second album Rock Ain't Dead which he produced and which was released in July.
The AC/DC project took place in Mountain Studios in Switzerland. The band had come across the studio and asked Mark to go and take a look, before they actually booked in. Situated in Montreux the studio makes use of a large octagonal live room which is in fact part of the casino which is used for the Montreux Jazz Festival. 'It is an enormous, superb live room and it is ideal for a good Rock 'n' Roll band who can play together at once. They are a great band for playing all together. After working with drum machines and all those things it is great to be able to forget about machinery and click tracks. I have done three albums with them now; everybody knows their job and they just get on with it.'
Because the hall is not strictly speaking part of the studio complex, the control room does not overlook it and therefore visual communication must be via CCTV, but this did not prove to be problematical. The hall's superb live sound is not created by wonderful wooden surfaces as one would naturally assume but rather concrete. 'It had a very strange acoustic, it was octagonal and you can walk all the way round and basically nothing changed. The acoustic was very even.'
Mark's natural miking techniques (ie. getting the sound right at source) came into their own in such a hall.
'The drum sound was based around a stereo mic held above the kit, reinforced with close microphones, with the natural sound of the room in the high stereo microphone. This method doesn't work for everything. If the kit is balanced and the drummer is good, then it will work. AC/DC don't used a terribly large kit - single bass drum, four or five toms. I used a KN84 about 9" from the snare drum, lightly gated and triggered by a C-Ducer contact microphone on the skin. Bass drum had an Electrovoice RE20 and a Neumann 47 placed at a distance of 1 metre, again lightly gated and triggered by a C-Ducer C-Tape contact microphone. Overheads were AKG stereo - I think it's a C24; hi-hat KM84; tom toms - dynamic microphones, 58s or an RE20, and overall stereo mic an AKG C24. I used two very distant mics because it was an octagonal hall - they were Schoeps with an omni capsule to pick up the room sound. It was a very nice acoustic for drums. But then we had difficulty with the separation, so we built some isolation booths out of screens and, I think it was simulated sheepskin carpets for the guitars! The bass guitar was DI'd and miked up in another room.
'We split the hall halfway with screens and the drums were set up in the middle of one half with screens in front so that the drummer had half of it with the ambience mics behind. The two booths were to the right and left of the other half of the hall for the guitars. The bass player was sitting open because he was DI'd, so it didn't matter.'
For vocals, Mark will always use a 'dummy' microphone, ie. the one which the vocalist is holding not the one actually recording his voice and going to tape. It is however feeding into the singer's headphones so that he can relate to what he is hearing and not get confused. The dummy mic, an SM58, is used because some people like to have something to hold and throw around and I feed that into the cans. Then I have a C24 on omni about half a metre from his normal singing position angled between mouth and chest, a lot of singers like to hold a microphone, and they like to relate to what they hear. If they didn't have a mic to hold they would tend to move closer and closer to the other one if, for example, they wanted more level in their cans; they could just ask for it but they don't, they just tend to move closer and closer. So it is best to use a dummy.'
'We are not normally dealing with trained singers - I'm not talking about AC/DC now, I must say because Brian is a fantastic singer. But an untrained singer doesn't know about the right microphone techniques for studio work; if they know any at all it will be for the stage. If you try to teach them when they are in the studio where they are in a very high pressure situation - it's harder than playing a musical instrument because at least now and again you can switch off and just play on automatic; the voice is a very personal thing. You may give pointers like, when you have Ps it's better if you turn your head a little, but that's all. Your are dealing with people who have got great voices but they need to learn about studio techniques. So you can give pointers but you mustn't overdo it or you will just freak the guy out and immediately any feeling you had for the song will go out the window.'
'I don't find much difference between recording male or female vocalists. Girls may tend to be a bit more sibilant on occasions, that's all. I go for a natural voice sound coming out of the person which you can then modify; you won't have committed yourself to one sound. I do compress vocals, ideally using a Teletronics LA2 valve compressor which is not always available, failing that I do slight peak limiting with a DBX followed by LA4 or LA3 Teletronics. But none of the compressors overworking - I wait for the mix before I do the heavy compressing. At this stage it is just to hold back peaks.'
'For the guitars I used two SM58s or 57s, going through each guitar cab and finding the best speakers, which I must admit takes a bit of time. I usually have a variety of other microphones set up as well; I will pick the local engineers' brains - you can often discover a new microphone that works just as well or better than your usual choice. That's how I ended up using those ambience mics in the position they were in - the local engineer told me what he normally did; because he knew the area and the location it seemed obvious to ask him.'
'So the guitar mics were positioned pretty close to the speaker. I always get the assistant to stand and move the microphone across the speaker for the best balance. It doesn't always work, but you try to get an even balance through the whole guitar. Ambience mics (one for each guitar) were 87s, these I generally route to other tracks. With AC/DC guitar sounds you have to do very little - they all know their instruments inside out. Very often you find that if you have good musicians then you really have to try pretty hard to make it sound bad!'
'For the lead guitar overdubs, Angus had a Schaeffer radio pickup which he uses on stage so he used that playing in the control room using the hall as ambience with the speakers wired up downstairs. We ended up with a very complicated sound due to the nature of the radio microphone - it was a very interesting sound.
The backing tracks were recorded with the whole band playing together, guitar solos and vocals being overdubbed afterwards along with one or two bits of reinforcement on the guitar parts, and practically nothing on the backing tracks was replaced. 'It is all down to feel. The band enjoy playing together as a band and they do it very well, so they get the best feel that way.'
On previous albums, working with other producers, it was more usual to record all the backing tracks and then overdub. This time however they decided to work on two tracks at a time, giving Brian's lead vocal a chance to breath. 'It's better not to make the singer do everything all at once, it's too much. It was more aggravation on the recording side, but it got a better product at the end of the day. I think it is wrong to leave all the vocals to the end and then the guy has to sing everything all at once and it is terrible; it is very demanding. This way the band is happier and that's the important thing after all. You get good sounds and create an atmosphere in which the musicians can play happily. That is much more important than getting your ideal sound. The music is what we're here for, particularly in rock music this is what's important. With disco music, where a lot of it is programming machines and things it is still important, of course, to make everybody feel happy, but with rock music it is especially so. With a rock band that can play well together you get better results if you go for the music. Every band has to be treated differently. You can't apply the same techniques to everyone. It is important to get to know the band - if they are not happy with the result then you won't be either.'
'With AC/DC, they are a real Rock 'n' Roll band who, I feel, are best at what they do - it is all there in the performances, and I love the way they record.'
In contrast to the comparatively straightforward work in Switzerland, Heavy Pettin's Rock Ain't Dead was recorded all over the place: Angel in Islington, with its Neve console, then Red bus (MCI), Maison Rouge (SSL) and mixed at the Roundhouse (SSL) where Mark is normally based and where this interview took place.
The different locations were due simply to the fact that no one studio was free for a complete run at that particular time. Mark's engineering versatility came to the fore as he happily worked with the many different types of equipment and, although he is used to his SSL and 3M digital set-up at the Roundhouse (where he is 'loosely called the studio manager, although I can't be when I'm working somewhere else can I!') he quite enjoyed using other things.
'I love SSL for mixing because it gives you a chance to get it wrong and come back! The computer is a very useful tool for getting rid of all the nuts and bolts of mixing allowing you to get on with the music. Record companies like them of course because they can remix and get the same as it was then make the changes. As far as the engineer is concerned it is very, well, friendly. Its computer is much better than most, and of course it has total recall. In the mixing stage I am very pro SSL. For recording it is sometimes nice, and then sometimes it is nice to get other sounds, because desks do sound different.
'But if you have half an idea what you are up to you can get a good sound in somebody's front room with a portastudio. SSL just lets you have a second go. Somebody once said you never really finish making a record, you just have to call a halt somewhere, and it's so true. SSL has extended the limits even more - you can just keep going. On an old steam desk you can do lots of takes and get some things right and some things wrong and then go for a mix that feels right. With SSL there is a danger that you won't do that. You can just go on and on getting it more and more technically perfect. You have got to be careful not to just try and get everything very technically right instead of the feel.'
The Heavy Pettin' album was an intricate affair with a lot of gadgetry and experimenting. Snare and bass drum were sampled on to ¼" tape; the drummer then triggered this with contact mics and this was mixed with the natural sound of the snare he was playing. The resulting sound was an unusual combination of natural and electronic noise. No tom toms were recorded on the original backing track, although they were later added, double tracking natural toms with Simmons toms, along with various cymbal overdubs. Mark confessed that he tends to get through rather a lot of the C-Tape C-Ducer contact microphones sticking them on to drums, so if you have thoughts of following in his footsteps you had better check that your financial resources are up to it!
For the bass drum they built a tunnel, like an organ pipe, which they stuck on to it. 'We just experimented, getting different sounds.'
Cymbals were recorded with a stereo Schoeps, tom toms with Electrovoice RE20s doubled up with Simmons drums, hi-hat was an 84 although (confession time again), he very often doesn't use the hi-hat in the balance because he has got enough of it coming up on everything else! 'I very, very rarely end up using it.'
'Bass is DI'd (active if possible) together with a miked amp. Generally at the end of the day I will use one or the other to avoid phase difficulties, so I take both and then erase one of them later.'
'For guitars: two 58s. I do always try other ones, but end up with them! Ambience mics with guitars will depend on the acoustic. You can cheat a lot with ambience with delay lines and AMS reverbs - all these clever toys we've got. Harmoniser on rhythm guitar is often nice. Effects, in the way of repeats - if I am producing myself I will always record them as we go along. If it is with the voice I will put it on a separate track. I think it is important to record them so that the other instruments reflect it and react to it properly. You can't always do that when somebody else is producing, it just depends.
'I generally use dull short delays on lead voices together with compression which gives an impression of being fat without too much level. I've started using the AMS reverb chorus on voices which is quite a nice effect. Effects are such a varied thing. When I set up a mix I set up everything in the room and try different things. Generally I have to use a de-esser on voice (I like the EMT 260 which is incredibly expensive and often not available). Others include AMS delay as a full bandwidth device, AMS and Lexicon reverb; I like to have a variety of delays, lots more than I will end up using - not necessarily full bandwidth, some of the cheaper ones will do - the first generation of DDLs, do give a fatter sound.'
'On the desk side, I write in echo sends and spin sends at the earliest possible stage. I also set up an early mix and do the balance from there - the computer does all the early donkey work. I feed the early mix into the cans so that the artists are getting a good idea of what's happening and you can also tell what is working and if something isn't.
'I can't really tell you precisely everything I did - so much of it would have been done on a whim. I keep notes of everything I do and then if I think someone can play it better than they have, but maybe not today, then we can come back to it if I have kept notes. It does help to go back, but of course it never sounds exactly the same.'
The only piece of equipment Mark seems to feel particularly strongly about is his nearfield (reference) monitor speaker which are his own and are B&W DM12s. These he takes everywhere with him and he expresses a degree of surprise that more engineers are not using them.
'Any good loudspeaker system is the one you get used to I suppose, but I really think the B&Ws are good and they are under-used in studios. I find them more accurate and less hard and bright compared with the Yamaha NS10s which everybody is using. The B&W is a natural sounding speaker and reflects what you have on tape.
'I also use a tiny cheap radio speaker for mono, it's invaluable for balancing. So between the good stereo, radio and then the big monsters you can get a really good sound. People are tending to use the big monitors less and less, unless they are trying to impress somebody who has just walked into the room!
'There are really very few control rooms that you should write off as diabolical. If you are a good engineer you can get used to anything and adjust your techniques accordingly. The people are sometimes as important as the equipment.'
When working with a producer Mark will want to contribute his own ideas, and sees this as being an integral part of the engineer's role.
'I can't just sit there and set the controls. It is important for the engineer to contribute, but you have to be careful how you do it. You should always do it through the producer or you can cause diplomacy problems. You are answerable first to the producer. I couldn't just sit there though if I had an idea, I would have to say it. That's what a good working relationship is all about. Once I was sitting there with a producer trying to record a keyboard player: the keyboard player couldn't get playing the chords together and I couldn't get the fade in right, so in the end we just swapped - I played the keyboard and he did the fading in!
'I do like to get involved in the musical arrangement as a producer. If in the final stages we have to do some editing for a single, I can perhaps get involved then with what sounds best and what works best. As an engineer you have to be pretty diplomatic about what, where and to whom you say things. You are not there to create tensions.'
Experimenting with your basic recording techniques can often be inspired by the bands you work with. 'I learnt most about strange ways of recording from the Beat - they had so many off the wall ideas which we had the time to try; all these stupid ideas, there were so many that at least 10% of them were actually wonderful. It was quite an important part of my learning process.' This was on the I just Can't Stop It, Whappen and Special Beat Services albums.
Mark's discography is diverse indeed showing a versatility which many an engineer would be proud of. It is however at the end of the day the projects with the highest sales figures that make your reputation and he is most well known for his rock work, 'But it is not my be all and end all.'
Interview by Janet Angus
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!