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Unlike many of his contemporaries, who also became recording engineers in the Seventies and producers in the Eighties, Mike Clink's list of credits does not consist of seemingly endless pages containing hundreds of artists. But Clink's credits are equally if not more impressive for the quality of the projects he's worked, rather than the quantity. As an engineer at Hollywood's legendary Record Plant Studios, he worked on several albums that still influence many musicians, particularly guitarists, to this day, like UFO's Obsession and Strangers in the Night, Heart's eponymous debut and Metallica's And Justice for All.
Clink earned his wings as a producer right from the start by producing the 1987 debut album by Guns N' Roses, Appetite for Destruction, which topped the Billboard 200 album chart and is currently the 11th best selling album of all time in the US with 18x Platinum certification (not bad for a first production endeavor). He got the gig partly because Slash was a big fan of his work on those two UFO albums and also because he had the patience needed to focus the creative energy of one of L.A.'s most notoriously rowdy and rebellious bands.
"A producer needs to become a mediator, if necessary," says Clink. "A band can be a very fragile collaboration within itself. There may be strife between the guitar player and the vocalist or the bass player and the drummer that plays out. A producer needs to be able to work through all those issues without taking sides to help get the project accomplished more easily."
Even though Guns N' Roses was going through interpersonal turbulence almost from the beginning, Clink had developed such a great relationship with the band that he went on to produce another four albums with them, Use Your Illusion 1 and 2, G N' R Lies and The Spaghetti Incident. Other best-selling and influential albums he's produced include Whitesnake's Slip of the Tongue (featuring Steve Vai on guitar) and Megadeth's Rust in Peace, as well as albums by Mötley Cr?e, Sammy Hagar, Sister Hazel and Grammy-nominated performer Sarah Kelly.
Clink is joining forces with Slash for another recording project once again, but this time you may be the artist he's producing. Guitar Center's "Your Next Record with Slash" contest is a groundbreaking unsigned band competition that will give one lucky winning artist the opportunity to record a three-song EP with Mike Clink behind the board and collaborate with Slash, who will help the winner write the single and perform on the recording.
"Slash and I have a mutual respect for each other," says Mike. "He understands that I have his best interest at heart, and he knew that if he brought me into this project it was going to be something of quality. We really have fun working together, and there are never any problems. I've received such positive feedback from people across the country who think this is a very exciting opportunity for a lot of musicians. It's as if you're getting a major label deal."
Clink says that he isn't looking for any style of music in particular and he encourages competitors to focus primarily on quality: "The winner is going to have to be something that Slash, his management company and I can get behind. I will be listening to the songs first and foremost, and then I'll be listening for intriguing performances. This is really a great opportunity that could be the way of the future. It's almost like a mini-American Idol. These days you've got to look outside of the box for opportunities and other ways to make records. This is one of those opportunities."
Mike is eager to give up-and-coming talent a foot in the door because he was given a similar opportunity when he was first starting out. With the goal of one day becoming a record producer, he sought work at the Record Plant in Los Angeles. Although the studio didn't have any openings for recording engineers, they offered him a job answering phones. After his shift was finished he often spent his evenings listening to multitrack tapes and learning how to operate the mixing console.
"If I made mistakes I'd call in the maintenance people and they would help me," he recalls. "Once I was familiar with equipment in the studio, I was tutored by one of the assistant engineers. I would sit behind him during sessions. I learned from some of the best in the business, but I also taught myself a lot."
Even though Clink started out as a musician—he played violin, trumpet and guitar—he quickly developed a fascination with the way records were made: "I loved the records that the Allman Brothers, the Eagles, the Raspberries, the Who and Andrew Gold made. I was also into the Beatles and the Doors, of course. I read the back of every album cover to find out who had made them. I really aspired to be like Ted Templeman (the Doobie Brothers, Carly Simon, Captain Beefheart, Van Halen) because he worked with a lot of different artists and wasn't pigeonholed into doing one particular genre of music. I also enjoyed the work of Peter Asher (Linda Rondstadt, James Taylor), who produced a lot of the California rock records, and Bill Szymczyk (Eagles, Joe Walsh, B.B. King)."
In addition to developing the psychology skills that made him a great producer, Clink also learned to approach each artist and band as an individual project to help them develop their own sound. "The huge success of Guns N' Roses was great," he says, "but one of the most frustrating things that I had to overcome was assuring bands that they wouldn't end up sounding like Guns N' Roses. I would ask, ‘Do you sound like Guns N' Roses now?' When they'd answer no I'd say, ‘Why do you think my end production is going to sound like them?' Sarah Kelly does not sound like Guns N' Roses. Neither does Whitesnake. I take time to help develop an artist's sound. Some bands may sound similar, but there is no ‘Mike Clink sound' other than what I bring to the table to make a record as good as it can be."
While Mike is a big fan of Digidesign Pro Tools, he does express concerns that it has caused many performers to become a bit lazy. "New bands aren't the only ones that rely heavily on technology," he says. "Even some of the bigger bands will ask me to fix things in Pro Tools if they can't get a performance right after a couple of takes. It's frustrating when someone asks me to complete a performance for them. Part of the craft of being a musician is being good at your instrument, but people like Steve Vai who lock themselves in a room to practice for eight hours just so they can have total control of their instruments are few and far between."
At the same time, Clink is concerned that many artists have forgotten that the performance is often more important than perfection: "Some of my favorite albums have mistakes on them. They're a little pitchy. I love that. Once you start fixing something you start finding all of these other things that you want to fix. You become like a cat chasing its tail. Sometimes it's just better to leave the blemishes alone and let the art stand on its own."
Clink has worked with both established artists and newcomers, but lately he prefers to work with new talent that seeks him out. Part of the reason he's so enthusiastic about the "Your Next Record with Slash" contest is that it will give him an opportunity to help polish a diamond in the rough and share his experience with someone that will really appreciate it.
"New bands are more open to ideas," Clink explains. "People hire me for my experience, but new bands really want to take advantage of that more than established bands. They're not jaded, and they don't walk into the studio and go, ‘Here is my guitar sound. This is how I do it.' I can always teach someone a new trick if they're willing to let me do that. And I'm always learning from bands that I work with. I learn new things on every project. I take those experiences and what I've learned from one band to the next.
"The producer's role changes from act to act," he continues. "It's not a cookie cutter process and it never should be. Different bands need different problems solved, whether it's help with the songwriting or help with the arrangements. Some bands only need a little encouragement. I start with the songs by making sure that they're in their proper form and then I go from there. That doesn't change no matter who I'm working with. The producer's role is a very important one. People often ask me if a producer is really necessary. I think it's crucial to work with someone who can give you an objective opinion."
Because so many big commercial recording studios have closed shop in recent years, Clink worries that up and coming engineers may not get the experience they need. While Pro Tools and low cost microphones, preamps and processors have made very powerful, high performance tools available to even the most modest home studio, he thinks that the sound of many of today's recordings is suffering because few aspiring engineers and producers really take the time to hone their craft.
"You can make a good record in your garage or at a friend's house," he says. "But if you want to become a serious producer or engineer, it's important that you first get as much knowledgeable experience as possible. There's something to be said for learning good miking techniques and knowing various shortcuts that can help a vocalist sound better. You can't learn those things when you're blindly inserting plug-ins and you don't even know what they do. I learned all the subtleties of mic placement. I always write down all of the amp settings that I use on the guitars and give them to the band after the project is done. Inevitably they will try to duplicate those sounds but they can't, and they'll call me. It's all about knowing the subtleties and being able to listen."
Clink also recommends hooking up with an artist or band who is also starting out in their career: "Pick an act that you can work with closely so you can help each other develop by piggy-backing on each other's success and learning together. It's invaluable to build your career from the ground up."