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The producer with the golden touch
After playing 385 headlining shows and gigs opening for bands like No Doubt and the Sex Pistols in 1996 with his band Goldfinger (and earning his way into the Guinness Book of World Records in the process), the stage was once John Feldmann's home away from home. But shortly after that record-setting run, Feldmann sought out the comfort and relatively stable environment of the recording studio instead.
Feldmann had previously done production and engineering work on Goldfinger's first two albums, but the catalyst for his future as a producer was the demo he produced in 1998 for his friends in the Chicago punk pop band Showoff, which resulted in the band getting signed to Maverick Records. Feldmann also produced Showoff's debut album, and soon he was hired to produce and engineer records for bands and artists like The Used, Good Charlotte, Atreyu, Story of the Year, Ashlee Simpson, and Panic! At The Disco.
"When I produced that demo for Showoff I still wanted to be in a band and go on tour," he says. "But I was always interested in producing, too. Before I formed Goldfinger I was in a band called the Electric Love Hogs that made a record with Mark Dodson. I remember giving Mark my list of notes when he was mixing the record. I had more interest in the record's sonic landscape than the other guys in my band did. My eventual role as a producer came about because I always cared about
what gear and what kind of mics the engineers used in the studio."
While Goldfinger is still an active band—they've released six studio albums and three live albums, including 2008's Hello Destiny—Feldmann currently devotes most of his time to producing records, writing songs and developing new talent as an A&R representative for Warner Bros. Completely self-taught, Feldmann still has a voracious appetite for learning everything he can about the art and science of record production and engineering.
"I've made mistakes," he admits, "but I've always learned from them. I'll listen to records I've done and realize that I went too far on certain sounds or frequencies. Chris Lord-Alge mixed a record of mine about five years ago, and I asked him every question I could think of. I did the same thing with (producer) Jerry Finn. I met him at a party and I cornered him in a room, asking him questions like, ‘What do you use for a buss compressor? What's your favorite microphone?' I recently met Dave Sardy and did the same thing with him, even though he wouldn't tell me anything [laughs]. I'm still a student of the whole recording process."
Feldmann used two-inch tape to record that first album he produced for Showoff, but at the same time he also bought his first Pro Tools rig. "I almost bought the tape machine," he admits. "Back then there was this big war between analog and digital, and people still believed in things like analog warmth. Fortunately I got the Pro Tools rig instead. For me, the deciding factor was the transparency of the sound of digital recording. Whatever I put into the computer sounded the same when I played it back. With analog the sound was always colored in some way when I played it back. I would never have been able to make the kind of records I produce with two-inch tape, even though I had never even turned on a computer before then. After working with Showoff I signed the band Mest to Maverick and recorded their whole album using Pro Tools. I had been on the road when the whole computer revolution happened, but I learned everything I needed to know pretty quickly. I started off with just one Pro Tools Mix card, but now I have a complete Pro Tools HD Accel rig."
While Feldmann appreciated the sound of tape compression, the biggest advantage that inspired him to choose Pro Tools was its ability to manipulate audio in numerous unique and powerful ways. "The first time I got into Pro Tools it opened my mind to the endless possibilities of what I could do with sounds," he says. "It was so empowering to have that much control over everything. I could go into detail and drill as deep down as I wanted to, controlling things like how much the hi-hat could bleed into a snare. I could strip out things I didn't want and place sounds anywhere that I wanted them on the grid, like the way Beat Detective does. I really got into the idea of looking at waveforms and shaping sounds. If I wanted that analog sound I could always add it with Crane Song Phoenix or any other analog tape modeling plug-in, but tape could never give me that transparent digital sound."
When asked to name his favorite advantages that working with Pro Tools offers compared to working with tape, Feldmann doesn't hesitate to think of his answers. "You don't have to wait for tape to rewind," he says. "You can just click and go, so your work flow is much faster. Tape machines need to be cleaned and calibrated every morning before you work with them. I hated having to get out the Q-Tips and alcohol when I could have been outside taking my dog for a walk instead. Outboard gear takes up a lot of space in the studio, but you can add as many plug-ins as you want without taking up any physical space at all. But probably my favorite advantage is being able to fix a few imperfect notes in a performance that has the perfect attitude and vibe, which is what a good recording is all about. Instead of recording another take that may have perfect notes but loses that attitude and vibe, I can keep the performance and fix the little details."
Pro Tools' editing and digital audio manipulation capabilities have certainly made Feldmann's job easier, but he also believes that audio engineers should strive to get sounds as close to the final product as possible from the beginning. As a result, he's amassed a small but impressive collection of microphones, mic preamps and classic outboard gear that helps him create pristine sounds before they enter the digital domain. One of his favorite mics is a vintage AKG C12 that he calls his "vibey-est mic." The C12 or a Manley Gold Reference multi-pattern mic is his first choice for recording vocals, which he runs into a Universal Audio 1176 limiter before hitting the A/D converters.
"I use an SSL XLogic G Series compressor as my buss compressor," says Feldmann. "I tried using a bunch of different compressor plug-ins as buss compressors, but for some reason it just sounds better to go outside the box and use an outboard compressor instead. I also love the Neve 1073, Vintech X73 and Chandler TG Channel MkII mic preamp/EQs. But almost all of my other processing is done inside the box. The gear I've ended up buying and use to record definitely reflects what my ears like to hear. The microphones in particular are especially important."
While the equipment in Feldmann's studio is undeniably top notch, he feels that expensive, high-end gear isn't always essential for making a great recording. In fact, he admits that he often enjoys working with studio setups that are much more low budget than his standard studio setup, particularly portable rigs that allow him to make recordings in unusual locations.
"I like to take a break around the halfway point of a recording project to see if we can write some new songs and top what we've already done," he explains. "We'll drive up the California coast from L.A. to some random small town in the middle of nowhere like Cambria or San Simeon. I'll bring along my laptop, an MBox and an SM7 mic and record songs on the beach with the singer. I did that with Bert (McCracken, singer) from The Used. We tracked two full songs—"Sound Effects and Overdramatics" and "Smother Me"—with vocals on the beach with elephant seals sleeping in front of us and the full moon lighting up the ocean. It was so awesome to have that freedom.
"Brendon (Urie) from Panic! At The Disco uses his computer to record demos," Feldmann continues. "It's easy to take keyboard parts that he has recorded at home and throw them into Pro Tools sessions at my studio. Probably 10 to 15 percent of their new record, which I've just finished working on, was actually recorded at Brendon's house because the raw keyboard sounds that he got worked perfectly for a lot of the songs."
Even with all the advantages that today's high-tech equipment provides musicians and aspiring recording engineers, Feldmann still feels that the song is the most important element of the entire creative process. He admits that he'll spend hours or even days obsessing over details such as the sound of a tambourine or each individual drum in the kit, but he emphasizes that those details are meaningless if the song can't already stand on its own. Before recording even begins, he often sits down with the band members and has them refine their songs while accompanying themselves only with acoustic guitars.
"I try to make each song sound as good as the Beatles using only acoustic guitars from beginning to end," says Feldmann. "Nothing is more important than the basic arrangement, which has to be great before you record. Once we add all the other instruments and elements of production the song becomes even better, but even the best production won't turn a bad song into a good one. The song and the arrangement have to be good from the moment you start recording, so we work all that out with acoustic guitars before we record the first track."
As an A&R representative, Feldmann often has the advantage of being able to pick and choose recording projects that he really believes in. "I have to be passionate about a project," he says. "I'm often hired by bands to facilitate whatever their vision is for how they want their record to sound. If they want to record in a different city or in a different way, I'll do that as long as I'm into that idea. It's not about making money—that's how producers turn into dinosaurs. I try to push the whole songwriting and sonic landscaping experience for a band because then it's always a win. You're going to end up making a great record that's going to change the way people look at music."