Randy Staub is one of the most prolific rock mixers of the last decade who has worked with some of the biggest names in music, mixing tracks for artists such as Nickelback, Metallica, Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, Nickelback, U2, H.I.M, Coheed And Cambria, Hinder and many others. Staub began his career when he was offered a job at A&M studios before producer Bob Rock offered Staub a job engineering a project he was working on. After the project was finished, Rock asked Staub to come work with him full time at his Vancouver studio, but Staub declined as he was already scheduled to go to LA. Rock persisted and finally Staub conceded and the Rock & Staub duo formed, leading to a long string of rock masterworks that include Motley Crue's Dr. Feelgood and Metallica's Black Album. Recently Staub who recently mixed the new Evanescene and Nickelback records took a break from his hectic schedule to chat to Joe Matera to discuss his career and approach in the recording and mixing process, for the latest installment of Ultimate-Guitar's "The Producers And Engineers" series.
UG: Producer Bob Rock's job offer to join him secured you a career in engineering and mixing, can you tell us little about the events prior to that career defining moment?
Randy Staub: I wasn't too long out of high school when I decided to take a recording course one summer at a music school in New York. After that, I went back home to West Canada and got myself a job doing live sound for bands on the road and in clubs. One of those bands I was working live sound for, ended up getting a deal and headed to Toronto to record their record. So I went along to help out in the studio and when the record was done, I stayed in the studio as they gave me a job as an assistant. During the course of my job as assistant there, I assisted Bob Rock for a few days. At the time Bob was still Bruce Fairbairn's engineer but he was slowing moving onto doing more production. Then when he left, Bob offered me a job and asked me to come to Vancouver to work with him. But in the meantime I had already been offered, and accepted, a job at A & M Studios in LA. So I worked there for a few years but Bob continued to call me on several occasions, until finally one day I took up his offer. And the first record we did together was Motley Crue's Dr. Feelgood.
That relationship between yourself and Bob Rock became a partnership that went on to make some of the biggest rock records. How important was that working relationship for you when it came to crafting a great record?
Working with Bob has been invaluable. He has been a mentor and because you spend so many hours sitting in a studio room without any windows, beside someone, you obviously will become really close friends. And he is one of a small handful of top notch producers in the world and a fantastic engineer as well, so it was nothing but the best possible education I could get. It is a great working environment and its fantastic making great records together. It is a lot of work but it is all good.
Going back to Dr. Feelgood, how did you go about capturing that sound on that album?
At the time, the band and Tommy Lee, who in particular is a really great drummer with an already big sounding drum sound, had this idea for Dr. Feelgood which was that they wanted the drums bigger than life. So we used a method, which I don't think we pioneered, as it was probably something going on elsewhere as well, but it was a method where we took sub-woofers that you normally used for live sound application, and put them in the room with the drums; in the recording room, and behind Tommy Lee, so that every time he hit the kick drum, it'd trigger through the sub-woofer giving Tommy this feeling of his ass being moved by these big sub woofers. But doing it this way, would always place a huge amount of bottom end into the room itself, so you'd capture that too and it became part of the sound, and part of trying to get this bigger than life rock sound. That method was the defining idea and that's what we went with for the entire album.
You obviously took that Dr. Feelgood drum approach to the next level on the next album you worked on, which was Metallica's Black album.
That's correct, but I know Lars and a couple of the other guys had listened to the Dr. Feelgood record and Lars in particular, really loved that drum sound. So he wanted something along those lines as well. And that was one of the first reasons why Bob Rock's name came up as producer. So when we started to make the Black album, that same ideal was the driving force for the record, which was again about getting a drum sound that was as big as possible and as huge and open as possible too. Lars had a specific idea on how he wanted the drums to sound, which involved a lot of attack and lot of top end and a very particular tone. So it was a marrying of the two. I do recall that in the studio in North Hollywood called One On One, where we did the Black album, they had these huge sub-woofers in their recording room already. They were huge about 36 inch speakers or something so we used those in the same way as we previously did on Dr. Feelgood. But we spent a lot of time, hours turned into days and days turned into weeks getting a very specific drum sound and a long time getting the sound that Lars wanted exactly.
What about when it came to capturing guitar tones? What is your approach with that?
You've got to have a really, really good player first and foremost and really good equipment. There's no real big secret, except that you have to just find a good sounding cabinet and head and have a great sounding player. If you have really good equipment it will naturally sound good. Then you can take it to the next level with the mic placement, the room it is in and not over eq-ing it. If the source is really good, it will sound good in the end. For example, with Metallica's stuff, like James' guitar sound, it is a huge sound, as there is lots of bottom end, so it is a very particular sound. But if Kirk Hammett was to pick up James' guitar and play - which has done on occasion - it will sound nothing like it does when James plays it. Which is odd, but the way a person plays dictates a lot of how it is going to sound. Nowadays, I don't do as much engineering anymore, as it more just mixing.
A distinct trademark of yours is the full yet spacious guitar mix. Working with bands like Nickelback where they have low tuned guitars and bass, and with those bottom end frequencies are all vying for that sonic space, how do you approach keeping it full, spacious and not muddy?
You simply use your ear. For example, if you are going to have a few samples of the drums, then you only want it on the kick drum. And for a good sounding bass, you're better of using a D-I. I mean you can EQ frequencies really low like 30 Hz kind of stuff, but depending on the song I will try to have either the kick drum below the bass, or the bass below the kick drum, one or the other, so they don't completely operate in the same frequency area. And with the guitars, because they're off to the side, hopefully they won't interfere too much. But with a lot of rock stuff, it seems that the bass is playing the same part as the guitar part more or less, so the idea would be not to treat them separately but to treat them together, almost as the one thing. This way the bottom end of the bass and the guitars, since they are not separated from each other, becomes overall the bottom end of the track.
"Working with Bob has been invaluable. And he is one of a small handful of top notch producers in the world and a fantastic engineer as well."
How do you tackle the stereo imaging of guitars, if the bass and guitars are treated together?
I will share a little secret with you on how I do this. I stumbled upon this approach a number of years ago when I was listening to something on my computer. One day I noticed what I was listening to on my computer, didn't sound too good, yet the track seemed super wide in the stereo image. I decided to examine it further. I had a Mac at the time and there was this audio thing in there, some software they were using for playback and made by a company called SRS Labs. This audio device called the Wow Thing was like an almost 3D, spatial, left and right kind of thing, so I went to their website where they sold this little box for $20 and bought one. It was designed for people to listen to music on their headphones, and it had this bottom end EQ. So I started using that thing on guitars to spread them out in the stereo image and that's what I've been using for years and years.
When it comes to mixing what elements do you look for in putting together a mix?
I first talk to the artist and producer to find out what is their vision of it. And it can be anything from just making it sound good to being specific on how the guitars are to sound, and how big or how the drums are to sound whether they are going to be big or dry or wet. This type of information from the artist and producer is critical. And from there I sort of apply what they've given me, and hopefully what they've given me to begin with, is in line with what they want.
Finally, do you primarily work with the digital realm or utilize both digital and analog?
I mix on an analog console, a SSL 4000 which is a mid 1990s vintage model, and which has been the predominant rock mixing console in the world for a long time. It has a very punchy rock character to it. All the material comes to me on Pro Tools now and the sending of the files is done via hard drives. After this, I will mix digitally back into another Pro Tools unit, with Apogee converters and will primarily mix at 44.100 Khz and 24-bit unless there is some other specific request.
Interview by Joe Matera
"We spent a lot of time, hours turned into days and days turned into weeks getting a very specific drum sound and a long time getting the sound that Lars wanted exactly."