By Maureen Droney
I once heard a group of established engineers debate who was the best all-around engineer. It should have been a difficult question, given the opinionated nature of the average audio professional. But in a few minutes, they were in agreement: Elliot Scheiner.
Another story: Not long ago, three producer/engineer/owners of a studio who had just completed installing a new 5.1 mix suite were giving me a tour. As we walked into the new room, the maintenance technician and assistant were setting up for the day’s mix session. To check the positioning and balances of the multiple speakers, they were playing back a DVD of Hell Freezes Over, The Eagles’ live video recording. There were six people in the room, all longtime recording studio veterans, with the requisite jaded tastes, but, when the first notes of “Hotel California” rang out, we all stopped what we were doing, jostled for a place in the sweet spot and settled in to listen. Everyone in the room was rapt, listening for the pure enjoyment of it. It was one of those memorable moments. Y’all should have been there, because the only word to describe that recording’s sound is “gorgeous.”
The man behind the board for those sessions was, of course, producer/engineer Elliot Scheiner, someone long-known for making recordings that are somehow both pristine and soulful. Since his early days with Van Morrison and notorious taskmasters Steely Dan, he’s worked with Toto, Jimmy Buffett, Bruce Hornsby, Rickie Lee Jones, Smokey Robinson, David Sanborn and many others, garnering five Grammy Awards and 10 additional nominations. He’s also been the recipient of two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Mixing and three TEC Award nominations. His recent pioneering work in 5.1 surround mixing has made him in demand in the genre; besides The Eagles, he has done projects for Faith Hill, Sting, Beck, Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and the current surround pièce de résistance, Queen’s A Night At the Opera.
Scheiner started his career in New York at A&R Studios, working under legendary producer/engineer Phil Ramone. For many years, he’s done much of his work in Los Angeles, but his heart remains on the East Coast. He makes his home in Connecticut, choosing to work in Manhattan whenever possible or at Connecticut’s Presence Studio. I spoke with him by phone one autumn morning as he was preparing R.E.M.’s Document for a 5.1 mix.
Just a few questions about your career beginnings, please. How did you know that you wanted to be an engineer?
I didn’t. I was a musician, a drummer. I beat around in a lot of rock ‘n’ roll bands; nobody that really made it. And I realized, after being on the road in a bus and doing these horrible tours, that it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
At the time, my uncle, Chauncey Welsch, was a studio musician in New York, an “A” player. I said, “I can’t do this. But I want to be in the music business; I want to make records.” He took me over to A&R Studios, because he was doing a date there, and introduced me to Phil Ramone. We talked for about five minutes, and Phil said, “When can you start?” I said, “Now.” And that was it. I was on the payroll.
Just being in a control room and watching Phil work was so awe inspiring; I was just so taken by all that was happening. It was only a jingle, but seeing what was going on — the interaction of Phil with the musicians and the arranger and the composer, and the agency people, even — it was so electric. I knew right then and there that that was what I wanted to do.
Did you spend some years at A&R working your way up?
You’ve got to remember, this was 1967. So the technology wasn’t archaic, but it was minimal. Phil taught me the same way he was taught by Tom Dowd and Bill Schwartau. You were given a room to work in and you had to know what the room was about. You had to understand the acoustics of it, where to put certain instruments, what mics to use on them and how to place a microphone.
Given all of these variables, sometimes you put up a mic, and when you listened in the control room, you’d say, “This doesn’t sound right.” We were taught that when that happened, something was different in the room. There were more people or fewer people, or whatever, and that made it sound different. So you went and moved the mic until you got it right, because there was no EQ or compression in the console; the room that we worked in had two Pultec EQs and two Fairchilds. That was that. You were very selective about what you used.
So there really wasn’t that much trouble you could get into.
[Laughs] That’s absolutely true. You had to know how to mike an instrument and where to place it. That was all there was to recording. You had to be able to mix because it was pretty much live. It was only 4-track, so if you were doing a big orchestra in the room, you pretty much had to put your rhythm section on one track. You put the strings and horns on the other track. That left two tracks open for lead vocal and background. Since you had to mix [all of the instruments] to two tracks, you had to be able to hear what it should sound like. You had to have some kind of instinct about what it was going to be.
For a long time, there has been a trend toward “fix it in the mix.” But I think it’s becoming important again to people to get things sounding right when they’re recording, because then it’s easier to just mix inside your workstation.
It depends on who’s recording it. For the guys from my era, that’s always been the case. We always made sure we recorded it correctly going in because we felt that there was no going back. We’re still of that mind, whereas the younger guys, you know, “We’ll just get it in there. I can fix it once it’s in. We can move it, we can slide it, we can take out any distortion, we can add distortion, we can put amps on it. We can do anything.”
So, I’m not sure that everyone is getting on the page where they think that they have to record it better going in. I’ve seen too many files lately that have no care put into them. Actually, the tracks that I get on analog are often better. For instance, I just mixed Beck’s latest record [Sea Change] in 5.1. It’s with a band, and most of the vocals are live, and it was very well-recorded. Not only did Nigel Godrich record it beautifully, but he also put the effects on tape. He was totally committed to it, and it was just awesome to put up the faders and mix it like that.
Didn’t it used to be a goal to have a “straight-line mix?”
You knew that you were a good engineer if you recorded it so that whoever was mixing could put all the faders at zero and it was a mix. [Laughs] I don’t ever think that I got that.
In your career, you’ve worked with many people who were very sonically conscious.
Well, that was primarily Steely. I’ve never worked with anyone else who was into it to that degree.
Here’s a quote about Steely Dan and Aja: “It was the record that took their obsession with sonic detail to new heights.”
That would probably be pretty accurate.
Were you that obsessive also?
No. They just liked what I did on certain things. Like I would end up doing the tracking and mixing and nothing in between. They liked the way that I record a track. It had the sonic structure that they liked, that’s all.
Have you consistently used the same microphones throughout your career or are you using completely different ones than you did in the beginning?
The funny thing is that a lot of it has come full circle. When I started, all we had were really great tube microphones and, obviously, the classic list of dynamics. But as the newer microphones started to come in, everything was about, “Let’s try this new thing.” It seems like that’s how it was right up until about 10 years ago. Now, people are looking back and going, “Wait a second, these records that were made 30, 40, 50 years ago really sound better than anything today.”
I use a lot of the old tube mics, but I use a lot of new mics, as well. The one thing that has maintained a constant for me over the years is the snare drum mic. I’ve used the same one since the first day I recorded, right up till now.
And that would be?
A [Shure] SM57. And I don’t use a bottom mic; I only use the one mic on top.
If you were tracking today, what other drum mics would you likely use?
I’m pretty consistent about the drums. For the toms, I always use [Audio-Technica] ATM-25s. I love those mics for toms. They take a beating, they really do. You can slam those mics and they’re fine. They sound great flat; I never have to EQ them. So not only do they take an enormous amount of sound pressure level, but they’re just great-sounding.
How about for bass drum?
Through the years, it’s changed. That was flavor-of-the-day. We were always searching for the best bass drum sound. When I started with Phil as an assistant, he used the [AKG] D-12 on the kick. Most guys used either the D-12 or the [E-V] 666. I used those for quite a long time, and then the [E-V] RE-20 showed up. After the RE-20 was the Sennheiser 421, and I used that for a long time. Now I never touch that mic. The only mic that I really use for kick right now is the [AKG] D-112. I will sometimes use an RE-20 also, but most of the time, it’s a D-112.
Where do you tend to put the mic on the kick drum?
Assuming that there’s a hole in the skin, I put it just a little bit past the hole, just ever so slightly inside. There have been so many trends. I remember when they wanted to take the whole head off. When I started, you basically put a mic on the beater side or on the other side. Most guys put it on the front side of the drum. At A&R, we put it on the beater side. But you know, if you listen to earlier records, the bass drum sounds weren’t that great.
So, once there was a hole in the front head, or no front head, you didn’t continue to mike the beater side — you didn’t need to. And the bass drum sounded infinitely better that way. Then, of course, we started stuffing things in them.
Blankets, bricks, sandbags…
We did all sorts of stuff. Shelly Yakus worked at A&R also; he and I started on the same day. And I remember walking into his session one day and he’d rigged this thing on the house bass drum where he took the head off but left the screws on. Then he took bungie-style cords and a tape reel hub, attached the bungies to the hub and hung it right in the middle of the drum.
Right. Then he put eyebolts in to secure an SM57 to the middle of the hub. It was the best-looking thing. You know, a lot of times we do things because they look great.
In this case, the idea was, how loud can you be? So, Shelly did this thing, and it sounded pretty good. I tried it, but I could never get it to sound good.
What’s something you did because it looked great?
I did a date once with an Australian artist. We were working in a smaller room and it was two guitars, bass and drums. They were using an enormous amount of amps and they were worried about the leakage. I knew it would be a problem no matter what, so I figured I’d do something a little weird. I set up scaffolding in the studio, and I put all of the amps at the top of the room.
You had to carry them up on a ladder?
Actually, we had guys who could do that. They set up ladders and carried them up to the scaffolding. We put the mics up there, and we did the whole record that way. I don’t know if it made any difference or not, because we’d never heard the amps down on the floor! But I’ve got to tell you, when the band walked in, they were frantic with excitement. It was definitely a vibe.
Right then, back to drums. Overhead mics?
I try to stay with tubes most of the time. I would use AKG C-12s, I’d use [Neumann] U67s or [Telefunken] 250s.
You prefer warmer rather than brighter for overheads.
Well, the C-12s are pretty bright. I’ve used those and the C-12A. I’ve even used — as far as new mics go — these AT-4060s. Those are tubes, and they’re pretty nice-sounding, as well.
Do you generally use room mics?
I always put up room mics, but I never used them all that much. Actually, I’m using them more now than I have in the past.
Because of surround?
Yes, and also even for stereo. Like with Steely, we recorded room mics on the new album, and in the mix, I’m using a fair amount of them, which is different for us.
Where did you record that project?
Sear Sound in New York. All analog.
That’s a change for you.
No, that’s a change for [Steely Dan]. I always try to record analog. That’s my primary choice. I talked them into it. It was funny the way that it worked. They did one song there [at Sear] that was for a tribute to Joni Mitchell. They have unbelievable mics there, and when you walk in the door, all of a sudden, it’s 1974. It’s wild. There are even beads on the entryway. So there’s this vibe. And when we got into the studio, I looked at Walter [Becker] and said, “Can we do this in analog?”
You just kind of casually slipped that in, because you were in that vintage environment?
Yeah. And he said, “This is a tribute, let’s do it.” So we did it analog, and they were amazed; they’d forgotten how good analog sounds. Because of that, when we started the new record about two months later, they said, “Let’s do it analog.” And we did. The basic tracks are all analog; all of the overdubs were done in a workstation.
How about mixing?
Analog and digital. Just last week we finished off a couple of mixes, and Walter said, “Maybe it’s time to A/B the analog and digital and see what we’re going to use.” So I set it up to A/B, almost perfectly, and the analog killed it. And we were using the 24-bit, 96kHz digital.
It was so far beyond it that they weren’t convinced. They said, “Let’s take it to a mastering room.” So we did and did the same process, and the analog still killed the digital on a completely different machine.
Very few people have actually had the opportunity to do that kind of accurate A/B comparison, listening to the same program material in the different multitrack formats, side by side.
I’ve found that when I do a seminar at Berklee, the kids want to know, “How can we get our hands on analog?” They want it, but it’s not around. That’s becoming a problem. And I think this is so cyclical — eventually, it will come back. I’m thinking about buying the 2-inch 8-track machine, because when I mix in surround, that’s what I use.
But you also use a digital workstation.
If I’m working with old product and obviously the old tape can’t be used. You bake them and you make a transfer, and that’s that. I dump them into [Steinberg] Nuendo, and I work off of that. Nuendo is my multitrack. I use a lot of the EQ and processing in there. When I’m working at home, I have the Yamaha DM2000 digital console and Nuendo, and I make full use of it.
I’m a big fan of how the guitars on your records sound. Do you still use a Shure SM81 for strumming rhythm parts?
I don’t stray much from that. For strumming rhythm parts on guitars, the SM81 is the best as far as I’m concerned. It’s so impacting, so powerful, and it doesn’t distort. It’s great for that. I’ve never used it for anything else.
If you’re going to compress a rhythm guitar, what would you use?
Well, I was using the Summit — the TLA-100 — because it would really slam down on the acoustic and sound great. I’ve recently been using the 160-SL, the new dbx — the blue-faced one. It’s an incredible-sounding compressor. But like the TLAs, if you don’t really slam it hard, it will eat up the top end. When I hit it a little harder, it sounds more even to me.
You like a tube U47 for picking guitar parts. What else might you use on them?
Nothing? Just leave it alone, no compression?
No, the only time I put compression on a guitar is on the acoustic strum part. I don’t use much compression at all. Like I said earlier, I grew up not having compressors, so with Phil, I’d say, “What do you do here?” Then he’d say, “You use your hand on the fader.”
You used your hand, you rode a fader and you acted as a compressor. I’ve gotten used to doing that. I watch guys come in, throw on a compressor, throw on an EQ and then never touch the fader again. Everything is predetermined.
For me, part of it is that I feel, as an engineer, you are as much a part of the performance — especially when you are doing a live band — as any member of the band. And you’re interpreting what they’re doing and your hand rides dictate that. It’s not a constant compression where everything is safe, everything is slammed and everything is at a certain level. A lot of times, the dynamics are totally missing when people do that. It’s like when some guys are digitizing stuff, they maximize it and there are no dynamics. A lot of the problem with music today is the lack of dynamics.
You use an SM57 for electric guitars, and you’ve said you put it on the best speaker in the stack. How do you find the best one?
Usually the guitar player can tell you.
I guess I should have known that.
I always rely on guitar players: “Where on this bottom?” And they will point out, “Right here.” They know exactly where. For the guys that don’t know, you just mess with it.
In your career, you seem to be very flexible in going with changes in technology. You’re very adamant about certain things, but it’s more about how the finished product should be rather than about what you use to get there.
That’s true. Like having a home studio. That’s something I thought I would never do. I’m a big proponent of commercial studios, and I think everyone should make records in commercial studios and not in their home. But right now, there are certain projects that wouldn’t be done at all — smaller records that just don’t have the budget to do that. The attitude is, if we can’t do it for a certain amount, we can’t do it. And especially for 5.1, for an emerging format, there needs to be more selection, more titles.
So I’m glad to do it. But I still definitely try to work in major studios for almost everything.
What advice would you offer to someone starting out?
There is no one way right now because of all the different technology, but I would say that finding a mentor, like I did with Phil Ramone, can be very important — find someone you really respect. And apprentice; try to gain as much knowledge as you can from that person, and also from all of the other people in the industry that you come in contact with.
You have to be respectful of everyone in the industry. Every day is a learning experience, and everybody has something important to offer.
Maureen Droney is Mix’s Los Angeles editor. This interview and 26 others appear in Mix Masters, her new book coming this month from Berklee Press, www.berkleepress.com.
P=producer, M=mixer, E=engineer
America: Homecoming DVD (2001, P/E/M), Human Nature (1998, P/M)
Dave Grusin: Two For the Road: The Music of Henry Mancini (1996, E)
Donald Fagen: The Nightfly (1982, M)
The Eagles: Selected Works: 1972-1999 (2000, P/E/M), Hell Freezes Over (1994, P/E/M)
Fleetwood Mac: Very Best of Fleetwood Mac (2002, P), The Dance (1997, P/E/M)
Glenn Frey: Best of Glenn Frey (2002, P/M), Classic Glenn Frey (2001, P/M), 20th Century Masters (2000, P),Strange Weather (1992, P/E/M), Soul Searchin’ (1998, P/E)
Jimmy Buffett: Boats, Beaches, Bars & Ballads (1992, P), Feeding Frenzy (1990, E/M), Off to See the Lizard (1989, P/E)
Natalie Cole: Ask a Woman Who Knows (2002, E), Stardust (1996, E)
Steely Dan: Two Against Nature (2000, E), Citizen Steely Dan (1993, E), Gaucho (1980, E), Aja (1977, E)
Toto: Mindfields (1999, P/E/M), Tambu (1995, P/E/M)
Van Morrison: Moondance surround mixes, Moondance (1970, E)