"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Tape Op NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2011 - by Jonathan Saxon
Dave Jerden has engineered, produced and mixed some of the most cutting-edge, ground breaking records in studios all around the world. Just take a listen to his engineering and mixing of Brian Eno and David Byrne's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, Talking Heads' Remain In Light and Herbie Hancock's Future Shock. As an engineer, he has worked with some of modern music's greatest producers such as Bill Laswell, Michael Beinhorn, Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite. Jerden is a technical master, unconstrained by conventional thinking and confident yet humble. As a producer he has helped artists like Public Image Limited, Jane's Addiction, Alice in Chains, Social Distortion and The Offspring make stunning records. Currently, he co-owns Tranzformer Studios in Burbank, California, with his long time engineer Bryan Carlstrom. The studio is managed by Annette Cisneros (who has also engineered alongside Jerden and Carlstrom for many years) with assistant engineer duties going to John Nuss. Dave Jerden and I sat in the patio lounge at Tranzformer Studios for a pleasant conversation covering a multitude of topics.
What was it like working with Spinal Tap? Were they funny in the studio?
Yes they were.
Yeah, they'd go into character.
Do they really?
Yeah, they would do that. All three of them are really smart guys. And they could play. Christopher is a good guitar player.
ON LISTENING TO HIS OWN WORK
You know I don't listen to the albums that I've done because when I was working on them I heard them a thousand times. When I got done mixing them it was like, "It's done." I'm not somebody that sits around and listens to my records. There are a lot of reasons for that. You know, you spend five hundred to a thousand hours on an album and after that you're done with it.
It's like when you're done writing a book you don't go back and read it.
Yeah. It's exactly the same thing. Once I get done mixing [and] it's turned over to the record company, the artist or whomever, it's theirs - and [when] it becomes the public's, it's the public's.
We always like to try something new, something fun, or fall back on something that really worked years ago. But I never try to copy myself. Because on records where I have to have a lot of input it becomes a Dave Jerden record... and that's not the point. I'm not the artist. What I'm trying to do is enhance the artist or bring out of the artist what they've got and not touch a thing. It's not about me, it's not about Bryan, it's not about Annette. We are here to facilitate the artist to bring out the best that they've got. What we need are good artists. What I'm looking for are artists that are doing something different instead of just copying and sounding like somebody else. Yeah, I can make those records, but what I would become is called a "hack." I make enough money that I don't have to work, so it's not about the money. I don't care. I got all my investments. I even have an oil well. I get good royalties and everything. I'm not super rich or anything like that, but I don't have to work. If I work it's going to be because I find someone fun to work with.
How do you find an artist?
That's the problem now! See, artists used to be vetted through the record company. And now the producer has to find artists and either out of his own pocket pay for the demos, or find artists that have money. There's an inverse thing that I find happening now. The really talented people don't have money and the people that have money suck.
What do you do in the studio when ground issues come up?
Well, grounding in a studio is everything. I learned all about grounding. Doug Parry and I at our studio, Smoketree, we had a grounding problem. I had a friend who designed the phased array radar for Hughes Aircraft that they use on like F-15 jets. He brought in some guys from Hughes Aircraft on a Sunday [and we] bought them some beer. They actually took the ground lines from the console, tape machine and the main power ground and they brought copper and a burner (blowtorch) and they made [a] dirt [pile] out in the back. They put the wires into the dirt and poured copper on it.
That grounded it and the buzz went away.
I bet. I might have to do that at home with the hum I'm getting with my stereo system right now!
I loved working at Power Station Studios because the grounds are under the console. All the grounds come to this big copper plate. Grounding is everything. One thing that you can do if you're having grounding problems, is you can call the power company if you think that it's their problem. If you think it's coming in from the electricity, from other buildings, or whatever. They'll have a guy sit down for eight hours a day. He comes in every day with his lunch and he just sits there and looks at the meter. He does that for a week. If he determines [a problem] they will put in for free a new transformer for you. A separate transformer. There was a studio on Cahuenga Boulevard called Britannia in the '70s and they had a huge grounding problem. They couldn't figure out where it was coming from. They found out that the city had put in cables underground and they ran sixty cycle current to keep the sheath of the cables from corroding. So sixty cycles was going through everything all down the street. So the city had to come out and change that.
So sometimes you have to look beyond the studio for the problem.
I've been through grounding hell. Grounding is everything in a studio. On Pro Tools you can see it. You can just run Pro Tools, put it in record and if you see a line way at the bottom, that's a grounding problem.
Do you use The Lucas Deceiver to solve these types of ground problems?
For one guitar sound with two or three amps you're going to get a grounding problem. So, what it does is it's got ground lifts on it. It's made by Terry Manning. It cost us five hundred dollars. We bought three of them. It's got ground lifts on it, plus it's active. It's got Neve op amps in it. You can plug in your guitars and put grounds on them so the grounding problem goes away.
ON READING REVIEWS
I don't read reviews. I stopped reading reviews years ago. The good reviews I would just, no big deal, gloss over. The bad reviews would just kill me. So you learn not to read reviews. I've read reviews on albums of mine that first came out, they said their album was horrible and then later on they were one of the top hundred albums of all times or whatever. I do the best I can on every record. Like in Tape Op Bob Ezrin said you can't listen to the first two Jane's Addiction records. He thinks they're horrible. But my thing with Jane's Addiction was if I recorded them and made them sound just like a standard ordinary rock band, they wouldn't have done anything. It would have been like selling out. The first time I ever heard a record that really turned me around was "You Really Got Me" by the Kinks. You know the Jimmy Page guitar sound, that distortion? He got that by cutting slices into a fifteen inch speaker with a razor blade. They didn't have distortion boxes. It created an emotion. That really flipped me out on that record. When I got to do Nothing's Shocking I wanted it to be grating, you know, just wrong. [laughs] Because Jane's Addiction was totally coming from a different place.
I don't know if another rock producer would have understood that, because you had already come from working with Eno, David Byrne and Laswell and understood that experimental vibe.
The way I look at it is raw nerves exposed. If you listen to Dirt [Alice In Chains] that's a totally different production. When you listen to all my records they have a different production thing to them. I try to fit the production to what the band is all about. The Offspring records I did are totally different than the Alice In Chains records and their totally different than the Social Distortion records and their totally different from the Jane's Addiction records. That lineage goes all the way back to Brian Eno, Frank Zappa, and working with Bill Laswell.
What is your philosophy as far as how to manage time in the studio when recording an album?
Well, I always start at noon. My knockoff time is about nine. Six days a week. Structure. I've done so many sessions where it's like burn yourself out and then the hours get later and later when you come in. What happens is the artists get burned out.
And they don't realise it necessarily.
No they don't. They're all excited, but they get burned out.
Link Wray was a huge influence. In fact, the first record I ever bought was Link Wray. So, I'm old enough [where] my influences go way back. A lot of kids think that it started with Led Zeppelin or The Beatles. When I was working with Mick Jagger at Air Studios in London - Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend and Paul McCartney and I'd all take tea breaks with George Martin at four o'clock. Paul, Pete and Mick would just talk about the old times and their influences. Talking to Ronnie Wood when I was with the Stones and his influences, and Keith Richards about his influences - their influences go waaaayyyyy back. You know, they go back into show tunes and jazz and old blues. They can give a flying fuck less about what's happening with the rock bands happening [now]. They really don't care. They're influenced by something else. Today the kids are influenced by the rock that came before them, which means it's just a watered down version of what was originally done with the old influences that had feel.
Which speaks to the importance of understanding history.
You see my big influence that started with me was George Gershwin. Gershwin changed everything - he really did. He's the one that brought the blues into the mainstream. And Louis Armstrong is the thread through the whole jazz thing. Lester Young who changed everything with chords on the sax, who influenced Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Jimi Hendrix who had all those influences and he brought that out on the guitar. The sounds of the city. There's a pace - which George Gershwin did. When you live in your times and your culture, especially today, there's a lot of things going on and there's certain people that can get the pulse of that and put that into music and all of a sudden it becomes mainstream because it makes sense, it puts a context on everything. Those are the important artists.
How far back do the samples go in your sample library?
My sample library actually started when I bought a Forat. There was this guy Ben Forat who made these things called Forat Machines [F-9000/F-16]. They were a dedicated drum sampler and I bought one of these. A lot of engineers had them. What you could do is sample a drum and it also had pitch on it where you could pitch up and down. On the movie Reality Bites I was hired to remix The Knack's My Sharona. I knew the lead singer [Doug Fieger]. I get the tracks and I go, "What am I going to do with this" because it was great to start with. So, listening to the kick drum [taps out the main riff of the verse] he was actually playing that on the kick drum, but some of the hits were strong and some of the hits were off. So, I went in on the first version, it was on Digital Performer, and cleaned up all those hits. Then I put samples into my F-16 and redid the kick drum and made it sound bigger and stronger. And then the snare is all double hit flams. I had eight channels. Four of them I used for one hit of the snare. I broke that up. And the others I used for the other hit of the snare.
Great way to do flams.
Yeah. Instead of having just one hit triggered that wouldn't get flammed. Another thing is when they actually recorded My Sharona I went to MCA Recording Studios and actually saw their mix setup that Mike Chapman had and he had two of the first digital reverbs. They looked like robots. EMT 250 Digital Reverb. What I did is I found a company that had a couple of those and I rented them and I used that for the reverb, so I had the same reverb. By happenstance I had seen what he had used. So when the lead singer came in and listened to it I hit play, and he said, "You did it!" I didn't change it. I love the original. All I did was I just used modern technology to make it bigger or whatever. That's on the soundtrack to Reality Bites and it's in the movie. And I used my own samples for the snare flams and the kick drum, but I used sounds like what was being done. I didn't use totally different snare sounds or totally different kick drum sounds. I knew my library and I used sounds for that. You know?
How do you archive your samples?
It's on our hard drive. The sounds that I use, a lot of them are samples I made myself and I know them so well - I know what combinations to put together. We probably have a hundred-and-fifty-thousand samples, but I use the same ones over and over again for my drum sounds. I always use live snare in there. Live snare is where you get your transients - you don't get any transients off of samples. I'll use a sample, for instance, that will give it a little bit of [makes a crashing sound] reverb, or whatever you want to call it, white noise. I'll use a sample that will add to the bottom and give it more depth. But the snap always comes from the live snare because of the transient response. When I record drums it's not like, "Well, anything will work as a drum sound because I'm going to use samples." I always use really good drum sets that are tuned well. Tuning is everything. Get a really good live drum sound and then work from there.
Do you record samples for your library from every session you do?
Yes. I've got samples that have reverb on them, don't have reverb on them, [with] the room sound. I use stereo samples for more ambiance on the snare. So when we do a sample we first do a whack. And then a lighter hit. Then we do a whack with the room sounds. We do several samples of the same sounds and then catalog them. I've gotten sounds from other people that have made up sounds. A lot of samples, because they don't have transients, they sound small and boring. I don't like that.