Ross Hogarth On New Van Halen Album: 'The Band On Fire'

artist: Ross Hogarth date: 07/11/2011 category: interviews
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Ross Hogarth On New Van Halen Album: 'The Band On Fire'
Gov't Mule, Roger Waters, The Black Crowes, DevilDriver, John Mellencamp, R.E.M.and Motley Crue are some of the artists producer and engineer and mixer Ross Hogarth has had the joy of working with over his two-plus decades in the recording studio. Ross' wide varied experience and taste opened up all creative doors and usual and unusual possibilities. He's never allowed himself to be pigeonholed or trapped in any one musical genre as his studio work runs the gamut from Coal Chamber to John Fogerty. In UG's continuing "Producer and Engineer" series, Ross Hogarth took time out from the studio where he is currently working on the new Van Halen album, to speak to Joe Matera about his career, his secret to capturing great guitar tones and the digital vs. analog world of recording technology. UG: Can you briefly discuss your background and how you came to having a production and engineering career? Ross Hogarth: I was a musician before I was anything else. I played guitar in bands and my musical styles and listening interests were, and have always been, diverse. As a kid, I played drums first and then I played most stringed instruments because my circle of family friends were comprised of mostly music people. One of my mother's best friends was Pete Seeger. So I grew up around people like Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger learning not only acoustic guitar flatpicking but mandolin and 5-string banjo. Then later on, I was inspired by rock and roll and Jimmy Page to start playing electric guitar. Then punk music came into my life which became for me, my real outlet in playing with bands. Eventually I made a wise and educated choice and ended up going to work in the other side of music, being a roadie and that got me into production on the road and mixing sound. I was working for what was called the mellow mafia, artists like Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Fleetwood Mac and Little Feat. So I got totally in there with a lot of high level musicians. That led me to a studio gig with Rumbo Studios which was owned by The Captain and Tennille and was at the time, home to the metal and rock bands of the San Fernando Valley. It was here where Ratt made their first couple of records and Dio made his Sacred Heart album. There was a producer who worked a lot out of that studio - Don Gehman - who was John Mellencamp's producer. He and I got along really well and he became my mentor. He took me to Indiana where I got my lucky break working with him on John Mellencamp's record [Scarecrow], which led to REM's Life's Rich Pagaent and onward. I also did Motley Crue's Girls Girls Girls record at Rumbo too. Tom Werman produced Girls, Girls, Girls, so what was it like to be working on that record with Motley Crue? It was great working with Motley at that point in their career, as they were still on the steep upward climb to the top. I know Nikki's story talks about drug addiction and all that stuff, but honestly, I never saw that in the studio, per se. I saw guys that were honestly really focused on music. And Tommy was with Heather Locklear and they were really excited about making music. And working with Tom Werman was great as he had made a ton of records and knew the dynamics of a band like Motley Crue. He knew how to get them to show up to make music. There wasn't all this crazy debauchery and lines of blow on mirrors going on in the studio. We were all about music and motorcyles back then.

"The whole Van Halen record has been recorded and we're all excited. We have just started mixing the record."

As a producer how do you approach working with a band once they asked you to produce their album? The first thing I'm really interested in, are the songs and performances, and what I can do and what I can bring to the table. And whether I am even right for the project or how I can see myself helping this band doing something that maybe, we wouldn't have otherwise achieved without some input of mine. And I have to be excited about it, and feel that it is something I want to roll up my sleeves and get into. And I ask myself, do we have chemistry together? I feel if a band is willing to take suggestions and a producer is willing to listen to what the band wants, then that team can make a really good record. As an engineer, how do you go about capturing great guitar tones? As far back as the Motley Crue record, I've been using ribbon mics my whole career alongside the dynamic mic. I find ribbon mics have a certain harmonic distortion that really captures electric guitars well. In the mid-1990s a company called Royer started to develop ribbon microphones and, I have been influential with Royer from the get go on their ribbon mic designs and capturing guitar sounds. I tend to blend the ribbon and a dynamic mic, a Shure SM-57 or Sennheiser 421 with the Royer ribbons. The Royers add a mid-range and a body and low end that you can't get out of any other microphones. On the Motley record we were blowing up RCA 44s and 77s pretty regularly since they couldn't take the sound pressure level! But the Royers don't blow up and that's the great thing about them. They can take a serious low end and punch and don't collapse. If you listen to a song like Row Boat' on Coal Chamber's Dark Days record, that is a really good example of big guitars, tuned way down being captured by Royer ribbon mics. A lot of producers and engineers tend to get pigeon holed into one genre, but you've done so many different genres, how important is to be versatile as a producer and engineer? It is really important to me as that is my personality. In wanting to stay current at any point in my life, I look at music as music and not as any one genre, so if I get asked to work on a Coal Chamber record or a Ziggy Marley record or Melissa Etheridge or DevilDriver, to me its all about this; do I like the music? Do I like the people I'm working with? Is this something I'm going to have a good time doing or do I like the music but the people are really a nose bleed and I don't want to be in the studio with them fourteen hours a day? And trying to be diverse makes its harder because if you're known for one type of genre, bands will come to you for that, like Joe Barresi who does a lot of rock records. While when people mention my name, they go, he is killer at what he does, but what does he do, he kind of does everything?' So it's harder when you're not pigeon holed to get specific gigs. Who have been some of the best metal bands you've worked with? Besides Ratt, Dio and Crue? I have to say the Coal Chamber [Dark Days] record was a challenging record but at the same time, that led to DevilDriver. Dez and I became very bonded and Dez created the concept for DevilDriver. Initially it had an upright bass but he changed that. The first record was interesting because I co-wrote a lot of the songs and a lot of the riffs with the band on that record. We went into a rehearsal studio and the band was brand new and had never done anything before, so I had to not only help them in what they were doing, but also, how they were going to do it. I got to pull out my guitar and got my playing chops back together on that record. And have there been any, for want of a better word, bad moments' in the studio with bands? Let me preface this with the fact that hindsight is 20/20 and I cannot ever change what was, only learn from it. I have to say the first DevilDriver record had its highs and lows because we felt all along that the bass player was not really going to cut it, and eventually he didn't and they had to replace him. But Dez was very committed to having him initially. Because Dez is a very head strong and strong willed person, I decided as a producer to go with the flow instead of fighting it, knowing that it would have to change. I've learned over my career, I have to pick my battles wisely, and that at times when things are difficult, that anything I resist will persist. You mentioned earlier working with Ronnie James Dio, what memories do you have of Ronnie? That he was such a sweet guy, and such amazing sweet man. He'd make pasta and tomato sauce for us on any given night and give it to everybody in the studio. How important is the mix in today's loudness is important' climate? This is really a shame, because somewhere along the way, record company executives got used to, being given very loud CDs by mixers and mastering engineers. And because of certain digital plug-ins and digital limiting where you can make a CD literally hotter than a production CD should actually be, you're now pushing the limits of distortion. I think A & R guys started to decide what was a good mix by how loud it was, not by how good the mix was. If you take any of the great LPs ever made, like a Beatles record or a Led Zeppelin record, you could only get a LP so hot before it would cause distortion in the stylus or the pre-amp. We weren't so concerned about that when those records were being cut by the mastering engineers. People were used to leaning in and turning their stereo up and down and you had to literally physically change your record. But we're now in the era of CD changers and singles or whatever. We've gotten into this place where it's not about how good it sounds, but by how loud it is. And loud isn't necessarily better in audio, and is usually more distorted.

"Ronnie Dio was such a sweet guy, and such amazing sweet man. He'd make pasta and tomato sauce for us on any given night and give it to everybody in the studio."

What do you think of the digital meets analog recording world? A lot of people are now wanting to, put their digital recordings through a tape machine to capture that old school feel. There is definitely something to be said for tape but I think we've gotten to the point now in the world of technology, where most artists want to do multiple takes. And because they want to combine them, and they want to comp them together, for speed and accuracy of putting takes together and doing the things we need to do, and to make competitive records, in general tape has fallen by the wayside, even though there are technologies now where you go through a tape machine. In my mind its either you use digital or you use tape. The concept of printing through a tape machine is a bit of a wank to be honest. Some of the magic of tape was printing to tape. Putting a newly recorded reel of tape in the box and setting it aside for a few days so that when you come back to it, magically the electrons had glued themselves together and you had this sound of tape. But to just go through tape and then transfer directly to Pro Tools, you are actually not really getting the sound of tape, you're getting the sound of going through tape, so you're not getting the sound of what we really know as tape'. You're currently working with Van Halen on their new record? The whole Van Halen record has been recorded and we're all excited. We have just started mixing the record. I'm really stoked about it, as it is the original band, Eddie and Alex with Wolf playing bass, and David Lee Roth singing, it's the killing side of Van Halen at the top of their game again with Diamond Dave, and the band on fire. What other projects have you recently done? I did a semi-acoustic EP with Sick Puppies at the beginning of this year that I think is absolutely gorgeous. I am also proud of the Doobies Bros record I did last year, which I engineered and mixed. I am always mixing new artists and projects out of my private studio, Boogiemotel. Due to the internet, it has made long distance mixing a great new way to make records. I am also constantly working as part of a killer production team called Rock Mafia, with a single right now on the charts called Big Bang. I must admit that I may not be as prolific here in 2011 due to the time and love and focus spent on the new Van Halen record, but when the Van Halen record is done I know it will have been worth it. But I do put a lot of time and energy into each of my projects and am quite proud and excited about each project. I am grateful to keep rocking and I look forward to whatever is next and whatever works! Interview by Joe Matera Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2011
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