His resume is one of the most impressive in rock. He brought the world Green Day and gave the word “Dookie” new meaning. His records have sold nearly 200 million copies and Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews, My Chemical Romance, Kid Rock, Avril Lavigne, Fleetwood Mac, The Goo Goo Dolls, David Cook, Paramore, Hot Hot Heat, [...]
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Dave Mustaine joined us for Guitar Center Sessions recently in Los Angeles along with 2,000 screaming Megadeth fans and musicians. Only 300 lucky souls made it in to share an intimate evening of insight and dialogue with this metal master. Below Dave takes us through Megadeth’s “Holy Wars”, stopping along the way to share [...]
MAY 2009: Many producers develop signature sounds that have caused them to become nearly as famous as the artists that they work with. Rob Cavallo, in contrast, has become a famous producer by helping artists sound like themselves instead of branding each project with his sonic imprint. As a result he’s become one of the most in-demand producers of the last two decades, working with a diverse group of artists, including Green Day, Eric Clapton, the Goo Goo Dolls, the Dave Matthews Band, Kid Rock, and Alanis Morissette. Currently on his plate are projects with Paramore and Meatloaf – two artists representing very different spectrums of rock’s vast sonic rainbow.
A multi-instrumentalist, Cavallo has a well-developed ear for the elements that go into a recording. But despite having considerable talents as a player, he’s never aspired to sit anyplace but the producer’s chair. "I’ve always loved making great music and going in the studio,” says Cavallo. "I always wanted to know how to make a song sound great and to make songs that could change the world. That’s what I live for. I’m not comfortable being a performer – that’s not in my DNA. But I was built to talk with great artists about their songs and why they are great. I was built to foster music and make it grow.”
Rob shared many of the secrets behind his success and how those secrets translate to success for the artists he produces with Guitar Center. While Cavallo may not offer aspiring engineers and producers any "by the numbers” approaches for making recordings (he rarely uses the same approach twice himself), his advice will certainly help you make better sounding recordings that capture the spirit of any project you’re working on.
Guitar Center: Tell me how you ended up in the producer’s seat.
Rob Cavallo: I got a stack of Beatles records when I was 11. I had to know how they were making those sounds, and it made me so insane. I learned how to play their entire catalog on every instrument the way they did. I learned how to play the guitar, bass, drums, piano, and everything. I became a student of musical production and sonics. Then I did the same thing with the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, and every hit from the last 50 years. When I was 14 I joined a cover band, and I actually wrote down the settings for each guitar amp so they would sound right. We would play the song and then turn around and look at a grid that I had made. Whenever we wanted to play a song, the grid told us how to set the amps to get the right tones. I was insane but the other guys in the band were happy about it because we sounded so much like the records.
GC: When did you start recording?
RC: Shortly after that. I got a Teac A3340S four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I would play everything and remake songs. I would take a song by someone like the Beatles or Prince and cut it in a different style. I ended up doing a lot of punk rock versions, even though I really didn’t know what punk was at that point. My instinct was to go hard and fast and play the guitars and drums faster than they were on the records. My vocals were a lot screechier too, so I ended up with a punk rock version of the song.
GC: The records you produced sounded great from the very beginning, especially Green Day’s Dookie, which was only the second album you produced.
RC: I think it’s because I was a student of sound and tone. The studio is a big tool. If the band was making a certain kind of sound I could use the studio to present that sound to their satisfaction. I try to make a band sound like themselves. The studio can either help or hurt that process. I’ve always tried to make the studio help the band sound like who they are.
GC: You work in a lot of different studios. What items of gear do you consider essential?
RC: I have my own Pro Tools rig, which is essentially the biggest, baddest Pro Tools rig you can have. Every card slot is filled, and it has every imaginable plug-in. I spare no expense when it comes to keeping my Pro Tools setup up to date. The computer is as fast and as powerful as possible.
GC: Do you do all of your mixing in the box or do you still rely on outboard gear?
RC: We do a lot in the box, but we do a lot outside the box too. I’m not sure what the percentage is. It’s probably 60 percent in the box and 40 percent outboard.
GC: What are some of your favorite plug-ins and outboard processors?
RC: The right mic pre is my favorite outboard device as well as the right EQ to go with it. I like my Neve, Pultec, and API mic preamps – all the standard stuff. We have old RCA compressors, and I really like the Universal Audio BL-40 modulimiter. I like my Chandler gear, and I’m really a big fan of all of the Eventide processors. The right microphone is important, too. I like a lot of Shure microphones, the Neumanns and AKGs. I still have my classic blue rackmount MXR flanger, and I still love my old Electro-Harmonix Memory Man delay. It’s fantastic. I really like the best of the old and the new. As far as my plug-ins go, I can’t even remember. I just go in there and search for stuff. It’s all great. Everything is great if it’s appropriate for the song I’m working on.
GC: You’re an A&R veteran who has listened to demos by a lot of new acts. What advice do you offer to aspiring artists?
RC: The first thing is to really believe in yourself. Second, I would recommend that you really practice whatever it is that you’re trying to do. Make sure your show and songs are great. Throw yourself into it one thousand percent. That’s the only way you will have a chance. If you can put three to ten songs together for a demo tape or play a gig in your local community and present your sound to the world, it will get noticed if it’s good.
GC: What starting setup do you recommend for an aspiring artist who wants to make great sounding demos?
RC: You need to find the rig that speaks to you and that you think you can use. Being able to get around easily and create things is all that matters. Use whatever you like and feel comfortable with.
GC: You always seem to get great performances out of vocalists. How do you do it?
RC: The real trick is to have the right vibe in the studio. I like to have a lot of fun when I make records. When everybody is having a good time it creates a positive vibe. There’s excitement about what is going to happen next. When it’s time to lay down the vocals, I want the singer to feel that I’m there to support him or her. When I’m excited about what they’re doing, they’re going to do their best. I always stay involved in the now – not the future or the past, but how the singer is feeling right now. We’ll talk about the lyrics and why the song is important and why he wrote that song so when he sings it he knows why he’s singing it. He’s connected to what the song means to him. When you get that connection there’s a purity that enables the song to really communicate effectively. Often the really great vocals happen in the early takes because that is when the singer is feeling the most strongly connected. After ten takes they’re starting to think about other things, like getting lunch, dinner or drinks.
GC: Do you have any standard setups for recording vocals?
RC: We almost always use the classics. We use an old mic preamp and an old mic, like an AKG C12, Telefunken 251, or whatever else we have. Sometimes we’ll use a Shure SM7 if the singer prefers to hold the mic. Most of the time it’s a large diaphragm condenser mic in a traditional vocal booth setting. With today’s EQ technology if the singer is comfortable looking at the mic and it sounds like you are hearing him or her accurately through your speakers it’s going to work. The only thing you have to look out for is using the wrong mic with the wrong singer. You don’t want to use a really dark sounding mic on a singer whose voice doesn’t have much highs or presence.
GC: You’ve recorded several great guitarists like Eric Clapton and Lindsey Buckingham as well as players with unique rhythm styles like Dave Matthews and Billie Joe Armstrong. How do you vary your approach between different players?
RC: I always listen to who I’m recording and determine what their strengths are. Then I use the studio and its technology to really complement the artist’s style. I like to align myself with what the guitar player is doing. I don’t change it. Eric Clapton wanted to play an acoustic guitar solo on one song that was a mostly acoustic R&B track, so I put a stereo close mic on him. Then I placed another mic about four or five feet away from him and cranked up the compression on it, adding it in to the close mic sound to give the recording a sense of size. The combination of the close mic and the room mic gives listeners the perspective of sitting in a living room watching Eric Clapton play and blowing your mind. Also sonically it’s nice to have a little bit of natural delay and a little bit of room sound that is compressed so it makes things last a little longer and accentuates the nuances.
GC: Dave Matthews has a very dynamic guitar playing style that is very rhythmic and percussive. How did you record him?
RC: I approach everything on a song-by-song basis. He has many different types of guitars that he plays, like a 12-string Veillette Griffon that has a direct output on it that I would blend with the mic sometimes. Other times I’d use different large or small room sounds and different mics on the room. Sometimes I’d run the DI through an amplifier and mic that. There are so many things you can do, but ultimately it comes down to why you are doing it. My goal is to support the song and the singer. If I were to fall into any "formula” it would be to do whatever is right for the artist. I don’t want to have a signature sound. I want my sound to be the sound of the band. I think if you look over my history you can say that the records I made with Green Day do not sound like what I’ve done with Kid Rock, who does not sound like Goo Goo Dolls who does not sound like My Chemical Romance. The records I’ve made with the Dave Matthews Band, Eric Clapton, Alanis Morissette, and Avril Lavigne all sound different.