World renowned mixer/producer Chris Lord-Alge granted Audiofanzine an exclusive interview. The man behind Green Day, Paramore, Deftones, Madonna, Tina Turner, James Brown, among others, shared his working methods and ethics from his studio in Tarzana. Let’s see what the master has to say.
AF : Hi Chris, can you tell us what are you currently working on at the moment?
CLA : What I am currently working on right now is finishing up an album by a band called Shinedown, just wrapping that up. The single is already out to radio and then the record comes out. Just before I finished Shinedown, I just finished mixing Bruce Springsteen. I kinda co-mixed that with Bob Clearmountain. Bob mixed it himself and then Bruce wanted me to mix a few songs. I literally just had dinner with Clearmountain last night and we were definitely having some good laughs about it.
There’s a good partnership between engineers! I’d like to go back to the beginning of your career, and just to know a little bit more about how you started and the reasons for why you do this job today? What pushed you to become a sound engineer? Specifically, a mixing engineer…
It started with my mom having a band. My mom is a Jazz musician and a professor of music theory. She’d have her trio set up at my house, so here I am 12 years old and there are musicians rehearsing every day at my house, with tape recorders, a small board and a few microphones. Every chance I could get, when they would leave to go do a gig, I would take the gear down into my basement and let the experiments begin there.
So it’s a family thing?
Yes, absolutely, my mom is a musician, I’m a musician, it was just what I wanted to do since I was young, and by having some gear to tinker around with it was fun to start there. I already had my own band when I was 12, I just used that gear to start recording it. At that point I played keyboards, and then I moved to drums; I kind of filled in where the weaknesses in the band were.
Is there any personality or mentor who showed you the path or took you under his wing? Showed you some tricks, who gave you the will to do this, someone apart from your family?
Yes, of course! So what had happened was that my mom had realized that I really wanted to do this, so she took me to a studio to interview for a job. I got a job at H&L Records under the mentorship of Steve Jerome(GrandMaster Flash, Bobby O, Pet Shop Boys, NDA). They had hired me for $50 a week to be a runner, an assistant. I started with the toilets, to the tea, to the coffee, to the track sheets, until I finally became an assistant and then Steve Jerome had trained me and showed me how he’d like me to do it. He was in essence, my mentor at that time. When I was at a young age 13/14, he showed me the ropes, all the disciplinary moves that became embedded in my life.
So then I read that you’ve been working at Unique Sound Studios?
Well, let’s not cut to that straight away. I put in a bunch of years right there with Steve with Hugo and Luigi, and that studio ended up being taken over by Sugar Hill Records, which in essence was the birth of rap. So I was right at the beginning of rap, with Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”, GrandMaster Flash’s “The Message” and “White Lines”; all the big initial rap records were all done under that roof with Steve or with Eric Thorngren. So I was there for all of that.
What a period! So then Unique Sound Studios came later on?
At that point I started to work in New York freelancing with a few artists, and then I actually apprenticed to get a job. I went back down the food chain to be an assistant at Unique because I saw it as the cutting edge hip studio that was happening at New York at the time, at 82’- 83’. It kind of ended around 87’- 88’. I became an assistant and then staff, basically kind of took over, had a few reasonable hits, and then I just kind of took over working there. Just doing what I wanted.
So it was kind of the normal evolution : you started as a runner, then an assistant, and then as an engineer, very naturally.
Exactly. But you can always go back from an engineer back to an assistant, it helps put you in your place.
Part 4: The Bernard Pivot Style
What’s your favorite memory from mixing an album or working on an album?
My favorite memories would probably be from records I produced. They are all favorite memories, it is hard to say “this was the best”. I think the ones I got the most laughs on were albums I produced by Tina Turner, or John Miles or Rick Price or Joe Cocker, where being the producer, it was basically tweaking your last rough mix, with the artist in there and having some laughs and some fun with it. Knowing that you are playing on it and you’re producing it… And it came out great and you are excited. Rather than, mixing something that you didn’t produce. Of course, working on “American Idiot”, which went by so fast… It was exciting because the songs were so good and you didn’t really realize it at the time. But the best memories are definitely the ones I produced because there is more at stake because you are a producer. Human wise, because you are artistic about it, you play parts of it, there is more “blood” on the tape, than you just mixing someone else’s record.
You mean that this job is 60, 70% human aspect?
It’s 100% human. It’s not a business at all. It’s a personal, emotional business, that unless your heart is into the song, you’d might as well go back into the car and go home. You have to be emotionally attached to the music or there is no point in doing it.
Your worst memories/moments from mixing of all time?
There have definitely been some moments, I am not going to name the bands, but that had full-on fights in here internally with the band mates. No one agrees with what you are doing. Each guy leaves the room and comes back with a different idea. It makes it really difficult when the band doesn’t get along. There have been a couple where the band is breaking up or fighting at the time you are mixing it, or completely unsure of what you are doing. It’s not you, it’s them, and that’s what makes it difficult. A lot of the best records I ever mixed are when nobody is here but me, and I say this to them. Sometimes, they are their own worst enemy. It’s not their fault. They are really better off coming toward the end. When they want to come in here and do battle with it, sometimes they can unglue some of the magic that you’ve put into it by isolating their favorite parts.
Which artist would you still like to work with and why?
I want to work with Paul McCartney, I want to work with Coldplay; I want to actually mix a full fledged U2 album, not just one or two songs like I have done in the past, I want to be in the room with the band. I’d like to mix a new Rolling Stones record with the whole band in here. I want to go after the last of the mohicans, the biggest guns that are left while they still have something. It’s more the absolute legends of rock and roll that I prefer to be working with. Of course, I want to work with Muse and Foo Fighters and all the newer bands, but still they have some time. I want to get the old guys while they still got some action. I want to get it while there is a chance.
You’re engaged to mix an album for an artist you love but the requirements are : less is more. You have to pick only 5 pieces of your equipment. Which do you choose and why?
If I can pick only 5 pieces of equipment, I’d pick my favorite vocal limiter, I’d pick my favorite vocal reverb, drum reverb, that’s three…
It would be my Urei Blue1176, my original EMT246, my Sony DRE 2000, then it would be a pair of Pultecs on my bus, and my Focusrite Red. The Pultecs I say they are one piece of gear cause they are a pair.
You are cheating! (Laughs)
They come as a pair. With those 5 pieces of gear in a rack, I can go anywhere !
Just to finish up this interview, do you have any leitmotiv or quote/catch phrase about music that you like to use?
One of the things we say in the studio is “Don’t try this at home”! (Laughs) Everything I have here is not going to work at home. It’s really meant to be in the proper facility, in a temple of sound. Not your garage. For me it doesn’t work!