Steenbergen Interview

DBy Maurice Steenbergen

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Maurice Steenbergen is a music producer from The Netherlands.


Meet multi-platinum recording engineer Barry Rudolph, who has worked with: The Corrs , Enrique Iglesias, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Robbie Nevil, Hall and Oates, Rod Stewart and a whole lot more. He's got more practical information on his website than what's featured in expensive books, he's been recording before I was born and he hasn't touched a tape recorder in 5 years.

Q: When did you first start out engineering professionally?

A: I started in 1969 as an assistant/toilet technician at a studio near my parent's house in Orange County, California about 40 miles south of Los Angeles. 'Professionally,' I probably made about $5 an hour if the owner, Hank Quinn, had the money to pay me that week.

Q: Which artist do you consider to have been your breakthrough in the business?

A: I'm sure that it was in 1972 and Al Wilson with his big number 1 hit "Show and Tell." Up until then I was a staff engineer at Larrabee Sound in West Hollywood, CA. making records about half the time and recording and mixing demos the other half. After recording and mixing that record, I went freelance and could charge more money. At that time for Larrabee that record, along with Cher's "Half Breed", were consecutive number 1s for two months running. I'd say both those records established me, Larrabee and Cher's engineer Lenny Roberts.

"You watched and always tried to anticipate the needs of the first engineer, producer and artist. You have to ask a lot of questions, make mistakes, grovel and beg for another chance if you must."

Q: Did you have any education or training in electronics or audio engineering?

A: I have two college degrees, both in Electronics Engineering. I worked my way through college at night as a digital electronic test technician for NASA-contracted aerospace companies. Upon graduation, I expected to be transferred into the engineering department where you wear a suit and design electronics for space shots. My very last job like that was testing data multiplexers at a mini-computer company when, instead of a promotion to engineering, I was laid off! That's when I decided to become a recording engineer. I have never attended any recording engineering schools...they didn't exist when I was coming up. Like my contemporaries, we all learned from others; some became our mentors. You watched and always tried to anticipate the needs of the first engineer, producer and artist. You have to ask a lot of questions, make mistakes, grovel if you had to and beg for another chance.

Q: People outside the recording industry often don't know who's doing what in the control room; I always compare it to "the movies" because most people understand that better. I tell them that the Audio Engineer is like the Director of Photography, trying to capture the scene as good as he can, and I describe the Record Producer as like the Director, the one who has the vision of the entire film and directs all actors and artists to perform in a way that would create that "perfect picture." Is this the way it works in a real session?

A: Yes, that's an oft-used analogy. Filmmaking is a very collaborative process and within a film crew a very defined hierarchy exists. It starts with the director and film's producer(s) and the "chain of command" flows down through the lead actors, screen writer, DP, art director, effects supervisor etc. and then to all the various craft persons. The recording process has become much more collaborative since the days when I first is more vertically integrated: jobs cross over more often. Many times the producer will do engineering jobs while the engineer tends to other tasks like running Pro Tools or just listening while the producer plays guitar or tweaks sounds. Sure, the producer is SUPPOSED to have a vision but he/she may be still searching a little and a good musical engineer with ears is very valuable. Yes, the producer has final say about things and democracy, (taking a vote of everyone's opinion) I have found, doesn't work well in the studio. The best records come out of sessions where the producer and artist have a clear idea... knowing what you want and knowing how to get it from your crew. When I engineered for Hall and Oates, those guys knew which song was the first hit single, the second hit single BEFORE they recorded note one. They were terrible at predicting the future but they had an excellent and successful game plan.

"I'm lucky: I like most music and even in the stuff I don't care about, I find an element or part of it I do like."

Q: Who were/are your big examples in music production and/or audio engineering?

A: I won't cite specific records.... there are so many great-sounding recordings. Suffice it to say that I grew up in the '60s in Southern California with the surf (I played drums in a surf band), the Beatles and the British Invasion bands, Jimi Hendrix, (saw him play twice in one weekend), psychedelia, the Doors, San Francisco bands, hippies, James Brown, and Motown. I'd say those records from then because I came of age with them.

In the '70s, I got into Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd, but I also liked American Rock like Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Eagles and then I was also into Funk and R&B bands like Parliament/Funkadelic and Hall and Oates...

In the '80s, all American bands and artists like Jackson Browne, Aerosmith, Van Halen...

In the '90s, synth Pop and drum machines took over but I thought Paula Abdul's first album was brilliantly written and produced mostly by my friend Oliver Leiber.

I'm lucky: I like most music and even in the stuff I don't care about, I find an element or part of it I do like. I might like the drum sounds or guitar production and sound. As an engineer you'll work on a lot of stuff you may not love, so I've figured out how to get into it in a real way. I would just focus on sounds and make them the best they can be even though the singer is terrible and the songs stink.

I learned engineering at a time when the Holy Grail for engineers was high fidelity: to faithfully record vocals and instruments...make big, beautiful (and since I'm now from Hollywood) glamorous records. Bass drums like cannons, bass sounds so mighty you could build houses on them, powerfully aggressive guitars and vocals that seduce you. I started with this philosophical platform but over the years, I've never tried to force a sonic direction or, for that matter, any other particular style or trend. Because I begin from a truthful/realistic place, my recording style is completely malleable...adaptable by the producer and artist to fit their styles and the song, lyrical idea or 'vibe'.

"Professionalism, by definition, is a certain warm attitude that exudes confidence without snobbery and expertise without condescension."

Q: On your website you tell a lot of stories about recording sessions with major artists, which was your favorite and why?

A: I guess from a "tragicomedy" point of view, it would be the Keith Moon story. That page also gets the most "hits" too. Keith was the epitome of a rock star...he explored the absolute extremes of the good and bad excesses of stardom.

Me and Andrea
Barry Rudolph and Andrea Corr, lead singer of the Corrs taken during the making of "Talk On Corners".
Q: I've noticed that a lot of music professionals have a really relaxed attitude and are very warm and helpful. Do I just happen to know some of the good ones, or is this the general attitude of music producers and audio engineers?

A: Well you just might be lucky not to have caught them in bad moods! You know Maurice! You come off very open, friendly and hard working even via the "flat" confines of all the e-mail exchanges we've had. People pick up on that and usually return it. Professionalism, by definition, is a certain warm attitude that exudes confidence without snobbery and expertise without condescension. Pros seldom have anything to prove and, don't forget that being an engineer or producer is a service-oriented gig and being helpful is a big part of it. You service the artist, music and the song...without any of these; there is no need of studios, equipment or YOU.

Q: I've learned that there are two main approaches to a mixdown: mixing for separation (being able to distinguish all instruments), or attempting to make everything sound like a whole ... which do you prefer, and are there exceptions where you would choose the "other" method?

A: I have always been a clarity freak. I just think if you take the trouble to record a lot of overdubs, why not try to hear them all? However that doesn't always work out since many decisions along the way have to be made for what is best for the record and the song. You can record a lot of tracks and loads of vocals but I remember from my 4, 8 or 16 track analog days: every time you add a track, you have to REDUCE the level of the existing set of tracks by the amount of space you decide that new track should take up. You start with 100% space and you cannot defy physics and get anymore! You have to sacrifice for the greater good.

If I can digress: Surround mixing is interesting for the additional space you get with the six speakers/channels. However, I think it is a primal human instinct to be troubled by important sounds coming from behind you. Our primordial ancestors were always on the lookout for predators so a big sound from behind pulls you away from focus on music coming from the front. For me, right now, that's a distraction calling attention to the surround format. I like it for movies where you are a captive audience sitting in a chair, on the "X", with the speakers all around you. But I like to move around when I listen to music...who sits on the "X"? (Well, when I was young, I used to sit or lie on the "X", smoke a lot of weed and check out my latest fave albums) End of digression.

"Don't ever expect you'll make a lot of money right off the bat. You have to have a 'love' for this career."

Q: Are you constantly aware of psychoacoustics or is it something that comes naturally in a mixdown session?

A: Hearing things like pitch correctness (intonation), musical timing or all the notes in a chord I learned long ago. As an engineer you learn to hear other things like phase coherence, distortion products, effect levels and treatments, how live or dead a room is when you walk into it, the effects of objects in your physical space (the control room), the difference in signal paths like tubes vs. solid-state. When mixing I notice all that stuff and sometimes it can be a problem that I have to understand and deal with in order to stay into the music!

Q: What is your advice to starting music producers and audio engineers?

A: Don't ever expect you'll make a lot of money right off the bat. You have to have a 'love' for this career. Develop your own personal style but be open to criticism and change. A good artist lives for an audience and is always on the watch for everyone's reaction. For producers and engineers, a good foundation in electronics, music and art appreciation is mandatory. Scholarship is always good...get that degree or graduate from school FIRST!!!

Me and Robbie
Guitarist Tim Pierce (back), Barry Rudolph (left) and Robbie Nevil on the right, working hard on the big API console at LAFX Studios in North Hollywood.

Q: You told me about your friend Robbie Nevil, who was a great recording artist in the late 80's and has grown into a very successful producer, to me this is like actors growing into directing their own movies, do you think that artists that produce themselves make more convincing records because they also know the artist's perspective or is there another reason that artists feel the need to start producing.

A: A lot of people think that an artist can be their own worst enemy when they self-produce. I think truly great artists will make good records--whether they produce it or not...they'll just be different records. A lot of great artists like to be more, mixing, everything. They'll know right away if they suck at one of these jobs and hire someone (hopefully me!) to help them out. The producer/artist relationship is so much about trust, friendship, and respect. Mutual's a partnership like a marriage. Some artists have trouble with partnerships involving their music and go it alone.

"I think it is hard to make 44.1kHz CDs sound very good. They just never really sound very good...never have since they were invented."

Q: You obviously are from the old school of engineering, do you still rely on a lot of vintage gear, or do you have a mixture of analog and digital like most music producers and engineers.

A: I come from a time when what is now called vintage was all there was. I am NOT that enamored with most 'vintage' gear. There are a lot of great pieces that sell for totally outrageous prices and I like the usual favorite things: Neve 1073s and 1081s, API pres and EQs, UREI gear and a few old tube units. Unless you own equipment that you can take with you, it is not wise to rely on certain pieces too much. (Speaking as a freelancer) If you work at studio without your favorite toys, whadda gonna do?? There is a lot of great new gear and as the saying goes: "It's not the gear, it's the engineer." Learn to get the most out of whatever you've got!

Me and Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd: the left photo shows guitarist (L) Steve Gaines and drummer (R) Artimus Pyle and unknown roadie. The right photo shows guitarist Gary Rossington (L), singer Ronnie Van-Zant (C) wearing a Waylon Jennings t-shirt Barry gave him and SteveGaines again.
As far as the digital vs. analog, I like both. The final format is digital (CD) so you gotta make it sound like you want it and I think it is hard to make 44.1kHz CDs sound very good. They just never really sound very good...never have since they were invented. They suck and have always sucked--they eternally suck. They "pre-suck" which means they sucked before they were invented. I'm pulling for Super Audio CD SACD to take over. I understand the Rolling Stones' re-issue in SACD is remarkable. I can't wait to buy a SACD/Combi player!

Q: SSL or Neve?

A: I like to track on the Neve and mix on an SSL

Q: Tubes or Chips?

A: Chips are everywhere--get over it. Put some tubes in the sound and it'll be better.

Q: Tapes or Drives?

A: I have NOT used a tape recorder in five years. What do you think? One exception: Mixing to one-inch or 1/2-inch analog is a good because you can master later to whatever digital format is currently required.

Q: Vinyl or CD?

A: The 1994 Northridge earthquake (about three miles away from me) launched my highly tweezed turntable across my living room into a pile of rubble, so since then I listen to CDs. It's what I do: make small round plastic toys that I hope kids buy.

Q: Get it good now, or fix it later?

A: Get it perfect all the time...never get lazy. Don't take shortcuts. Get it sounding great now when you are recording. It is much more inspiring to work on a track that when you boot it up, it blows you right away every time the moment you touch the space bar. Beyond that, make it even more stellar in the mix!

Q: Obviously, mastering studios have enhanced, but definitely also destroyed great recordings. Did you ever make that perfect recording that didn't turn out the way it should've on LP/CD because of the "Mastering people"?

A: Yes, but worse is when another mixer comes in, gets paid and makes your mix 'lowest common denominator' sounding: overly bright, squashed-to-death, distorted and obnoxious sounding...funny thing is sometimes it becomes an overly bright, squashed-to-death, distorted and obnoxious sounding hit record!!! Life is like that!

Q: If a mastering engineer totally destroys the sound you intended, how do you deal with that?

A: I have always been philosophical about the mastering or mixing of my recordings. Until you are placed in a position of control over this part, you gotta just go with it. Make your feelings known but then get over it quickly and move on. It's part of the gig to be a team player. None of my work is high art...maybe not even low art. None of it is precious either. Over serious=no fun!

Q: Would you prefer to master your own recordings, or let a 3rd party take care of it?

A: I always take it to a good mastering guy. There are too many issues to deal with that I don't do everyday. I empathize with those guys who sit in a room all day long trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ass. I try to bring them something they really get into and will do their best work on! As the "producer" of the mastering session, I may have certain requests. If I have the budget, I'll do many iterations and dial it right in! After that, if the mastering still isn't great it's usually because my mix blows chunks and I have to go back and work a little harder on the it.

Q: You've worked with many people, but which bands or artists are still on your wish list?

A: I'd like to work with some of the newer bands like Korn or maybe Tool. I'd like to work with Sheryl Crow too.

Q: Sheryl Crow and Tool, those are quite opposite styles. Can I assume that you would produce anything as long as it's music and there's some kind of challenge in there?

A: Not exactly! I like so much different GOOD music! All studio work is a challenge and I like to work with strong, confident artists and producers who know what they want and can explain what they want and know instantly when they hear it OR NOT. From what I've heard from friends, these two are strong artists who have a plan. There is nothing (IMHO) worse than working with someone who is unsure and looks to you to make their decisions and then goes about second guessing your decision-making! I am totally into experimentation but at the same time you have a goal to achieve and you have to know when you've got it as best as it can be or if not, be ready to abandon the whole exercise and write-off the time and money you spent experimenting.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to share with the readers?

A: I hope someone reading this profits by my experiences. In a larger sense, interviews like yours and exploring information on my Web site are ways of mentoring. There is plenty at my site relating to everything I've talked about. I have no problem with sharing my tradecraft and I love trying to answer every concise e-mail that addresses a specific issue or question.

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