ProRec Interview: Paul Mahern

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in August 1999, contributed by then Contributing Editor Bob Lichty. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

Paul Mahern is a bit of a legend to us “Hoosiers” in this business. He has steadily been turning out very well produced, great sounding albums from right here in the heartland for close to twenty years.

Paul started with Indie-Rock bands like Antenna and The Blake Babies. He worked his way up to bands like the Judybats, The Mysteries Of Life, and the solo releases from Lisa Germano (best known as John Mellencamp’s fiddle player). Just last year Paul achieved Indiana nirvana by working on John Mellencamp’s most critically acclaimed album in years (his self-titled release and his first for Sony).

I caught up with Paul while he was mixing a project on which I had done some playing, arranging and producing. We were in Culver, Indiana at the Storyk Designed Galt Studios taking a break sitting out by the nearby lake. That’s when I started the tape rolling.

So, how did you get started in this business?

When I was in high school I was in a band called The Zero Boys and we went to record a little EP in 1979 in some guy’s basement. When I saw all the equipment and knobs I decided it would be a good job. (We both kind of chuckle at the naiveté of this notion.) About a year later our band went in to do a new recording in a “professional” studio in Indianapolis called Keystone Recording. When we finished that album I started an apprenticeship at Keystone.

And what exactly was your role as an apprentice?

Well, I did have to run and get lunches and clean and things, but not as much as a lot of people. I was real anxious to get started, and I knew a lot of the local bands in Indianapolis. A lot of the bands hadn’t really been doing a lot of recording then, so I was able to tell them about the studio and get them in the door. So since I had clients right away, I was able to start learning from the chief engineer right away. He would actually do the sessions, but I would stand and watch and learn from what he was doing. After a year or so he quit recording, closed the studio and went to work in a “real job” for GE or somebody like that. (We both laugh.)

You are both a producer and an engineer. What do you consider to be the chief differences between those roles and how do you handle those differences when in session?

It’s very hard to be a producer and an engineer at the exact same moment. In fact, I think it’s impossible to be the producer and the engineer at the exact same moment. I think that you can fluctuate between the two: think like a producer at one moment, then an engineer the next, but it is hard. Sometimes it takes more time.

When the guitar player asks, “what do you think of this progression to lead into the bridge” while you’re listening to the snare drum sound (we laugh) you have to totally change gears. So the way I deal with it most often with the bands I work with is to get the most pre-production in that I can. Not to the point that it’s so scripted that there’s not a creative vibe, but at least enough that there’s enough questions answered beforehand that I’m freed up for the initial tracking to be more of an engineer. I do most of my producing outside of the studio time working with arrangements and individual parts.

Do you ever bring in additional engineers on your projects or do you prefer not to?

I prefer to work with good people. A lot of the projects I do have smaller budgets so I would have a hard time hiring an engineer with my experience for what I could afford to pay them. But there are a lot of good engineers around here that, as long as the budget allowed, I would certainly use.

The John Mellencamp record must have had a real budget with it. Where does that extra money tend to go?

It’s in time. When you’re dealing with John he records all his stuff at Belmont, his own studio, and while it’s nice it’s certainly not state of the art. You know, it’s a Trident, not an SSL, but then time is on your side because you can afford to spend as long as it takes to get it right.

You are one of those rare guys who is a true freelancer. You don’t really have your own room, per se. Is that tough on you? Is it a challenge you like? How do you deal with that?

It certainly makes it more challenging, but it’s also more fun. I mean, it’s really rewarding when you can make a situation work when theoretically it shouldn’t. But I do kind of have my own room at Echo Park in Bloomington. The B Room there was kind of designed around my mid-level band sessions.

How do you decide where you will take a project?

There are so many factors. Where they want to be, where they are from, is there a studio in their area, do they want to come to Indiana? Of course there’s budget concerns. At Echo Park you can record on 16 track 1-inch or 2-inch 24 track, and the B Room without an engineer can be as little as $250 day. And if there’s not a big session going on in the A Room you can have access to all the cool mics and gear. So it’s really set up so you can get a decent record for a relatively small budget. Because again, it’s more about time spent than about the gear being used. If you can offer a room super cheap and work on a 1-inch 16 track, it’s not my preferred format, but if it buys me three extra days of time then I’m fine with it.

And what is your preferred format?

2-inch 24 track. Really my absolutely preferred format is 16 track 2-inch, either 30 or 15 ips depending upon the sound, whether it’s something aggressive and grungy or clean and airy. I think that the 2-inch 16 track is a great format. But, as an engineer your job becomes a lot harder because you have to do a lot of bouncing and blending and it slows sessions down. But sonically I think it’s a notch above 2-inch 24 track.

So what is your opinion regarding digital recording?

Well, first of all let me say that it’s real easy for an engineer to get inside all these decisions about equipment and make them seem like big decisions. But the bottom line is the equipment that you’re using is not near as important as the material you’re recording. And as I’ve said, equipment isn’t as important as the time you have, or the musicianship of the client. So, if I’m forced as an engineer to work in a situation that’s not great for me as an engineer, but is benefiting the project in other ways, then sometimes I just have to do that.

So, I don’t have a real problem with digital. I know that I don’t like the sound of a DAT compared to a ½” analog mix. I don’t particularly like the sound of ADATs either, but I’ve made a couple records on ADAT that are still some of my favorite records. I don’t listen to them and say “ew, it’s on ADAT.” I listen to them and say, “oh, I like this song.” The one thing I will say is that at any point, once you go digital, you should keep it there. I have a hard time seeing a benefit in going through a bunch of A to Ds.

You and I have different production experiences, in that most of mine has been with solo artists while you have dealt mostly with bands. What is your process in producing a record with a band?

The first thing is who’s paying for it. (We both laugh.) Really though, because whoever is paying for it is ultimately who’s in charge. And that is my client. And that is sometimes quite unfortunate.

It’s a tricky situation if it’s a major label paying for it, because I really feel most dedicated to the artist. But when it’s a major label saying “We want this” and the artist is saying “we want that” and the label is paying for it and they can’t come to terms and they try to stick you in the middle of it then it becomes a very tricky situation. If the band is paying for it, or it’s on an indie where the pressure isn’t as high, then it comes down to what are the results we want? Do we want college radio play? Do we want a demo to get to a bigger label? Once I know those things, then I can get in the proper mindset.

There’s a billion ways to make records, so once you know what the final goal is, then you can start discussing the different ways it can be tracked. Do we want to cut rhythm tracks at this place because it has a great drum sound, then move to another place to finish tracks? Or do we want to camp out somewhere and do a song a day or every two days to completion, which is my preferred format.

Then once you figure out all the logistics and nail the budget, then you go into a rehearsal situation and you work the arrangements with the band. You look for strengths and weaknesses and you try to immediately focus on those. You need to be honest and forthright with the musicians about what the problems are. Then you do pre-production, and if you need to beat the band up about what they are doing you do that then. You get them completely prepared for what’s going to happen. Then you take a little time off and go make a record. (We both laugh.)

Who are some of your favorite producers?

People are surprised to hear me say that I think Chuck-D is brilliant. I also think Tchad Blake gets some of the coolest sounds of anybody. Brian Eno, of course, to me is one of the best ever, so then I like the stuff Daniel Lanois does as well.

How hard is it for you being here in Indiana? I mean, we’re not exactly the recording Mecca of the world. Have you ever thought about leaving?

I’ve definitely thought about leaving. I have a son that’s in a really good school system in Indiana. So until he’s done with school I don’t think I’ll be leaving. Sure, if I were in Nashville or New York or L.A. I might have “bigger, better” sessions, but that’s not what life is really about. I get enough satisfaction from making records for smaller artists, because to me I feel like a large part of my job is education.

I’m not a great musician, I’m a pretty good engineer, but I’m a great observer. I remember things that have happened in other sessions. So a lot of my technique is remembering stuff from before, and trying to impart on the musicians these things so they can then become better. Simple things like making the drummer come in early on tracking days, knowing the tempo of the song, and feeding him the click for an hour and a half. So he’s been jamming for an hour and a half before the band shows up. Once the band shows, you can turn off the click because he’s got it in his head. Simple things like that.

Like headphone technique, or headphone mixes that make it easier for the singer. Tune your guitar after you put the capo on. (We both laugh.) If I come out of a session where I feel like I’ve imparted a lot of information and everyone’s excited about that, and if it all went well, then that’s as much a part of my job as anything else.

On the new Mellencamp record, one of my favorite cuts is Positively Crazy.

You wouldn’t believe where that came from. That whole thing was a demo, done on a 4 track reel to reel at a house. The claves are a drum machine, and there were just acoustic guitars and this drum machine. It kind of came in at the last minute, and was just this incredibly long meandering demo. John decided he wanted to produce it out a bit, so we went to transfer it to two-inch. At some point in the process of this album, John decided he didn’t want to do any digital editing, so we’re making the arrangement of this tune while transferring from 4 track to two-inch, and I’m razor blading this two-inch tape as we go. It was a bit harrowing, but it did become a cool little moody song.

What else can you say about working with John?

Mellencamp is a very intense artist, person and worker. He’s got a great attention to detail. Nothing goes by him. Every moment in the studio can prove an interesting anecdote, but I have to be careful, after all, I like working with the guy. (We both laugh.)

It is safe to say he makes records in a unique way, and he makes records for real. He doesn’t enter the studio to mess around for a second. Not that it’s not fun, but it’s all about getting the job done and being really honest. I think that John recognizes that we, as musicians, tend to be lazy and glad-handing, but we have a responsibility to try to make stuff that’s really good, and timeless and priceless. Not to just do what everyone else is doing, going through the motions. John knows we can’t lie to ourselves. Every song is a hit in the studio and we all sit around and say, “oh, we’re great, that’s so cool.” I mean, musicians tend to do that all the time, but that’s not necessarily productive. (We both laugh.)

So what would be a limited discography of yours that you would feel pretty proud of?

Well, I started doing punk rock records in the early ’80’s. Bands with names like Sloppy Seconds and Articles Of Faith. Then I did some jingle work. Then when I moved from Indianapolis to Bloomington I started to get into larger indie records like Antenna, the Brake Babies. Then I engineered a Lisa Germano record called On The Way Down From The Moon Palace that turned out really good. Then I co-produced and engineered another record for her called Excerpts From The Love Circus that I’m really proud of. In fact, I’m really proud of both those records.

Those are great albums. Really dark, but really good.

Super dark, but it is what it is. I mean, that’s what she does, but she does it very well. Then the Judybats record came, then a Kim Fox record for Dreamworks that’s a great album that didn’t sell so well. Then I did two Mysteries Of Life albums for RCA. And lots of little stuff in between.

I engineered the latest Why Store record that hasn’t been released yet, but it’s by far their best project yet. Mike Wonchik (Mellencamp’s guitar player) produced it. And then I got called to do one song for Mellencamp’s Best Of… CD. We did a cover of a Terry Reid song called “Without Expression.” That was the first time I worked with John. Then I did an acoustic album for John that’s still in the can. It’s an incredible record. It’s his greatest hits but it’s an all-new, kind of Desire-era-Bob-Dylan approach to the tunes. I had to work really hard, because he really wanted it to sound like one of those records. And those records, when you listen to them from an engineering perspective, just sound like butt. (We both laugh.)

But he REALLY wanted it to sound that way. So we got a really good vibe on that record. And then he gave me the new album, his first one for Sony. But the first time I worked for John, on the Best Of record, he came in and told me, I had never met him before mind you, that we were going to track the song and mix it that day. He was not planning on returning to the song, or going to any other studios to mix or any of that other engineering bullshit. (We both laugh as he continues) We ought to be able to make this one damn song in one day and mix it. So this made me very nervous. I mean, I’d never even been in this studio before, and here’s my big chance with this Trident console.

So you did it?

Well, I was sweating bullets. 10 o’clock at night and I still didn’t have a mix I liked. I’d been there all day, so I was burned. So eventually he came and said I could finish it the next day, as long as it was by noon. But pushing like that is good. He came in the next day and said, “wow, it sounds better than I thought it would.” The next day Bob Ludwig had it and a month later it was on the radio so I’m not going to complain.

You seem to have a very levelheaded approach to the dreaded marathon sessions.

I’m definitely NOT a big fan of marathon sessions. I’ve done enough of them in my life. If I have to I’ll be the last man standing if it’s absolutely necessary. But who really wants to do that? Why should you live your life 14 hours a day in the studio? It just starts to get weird. The musicians start to get weird. You can do that once or twice, but the third day, 8 hours in everybody gets agitated.

I prefer to work 8 hours. I think engineers should do what everyone else in the working world does and that is work for 8 hours at a particular rate and then on the 9th hour double your rate. That’s the quickest way to get musicians and record companies and producers to give you a break and let you work a normal day like everyone else. The job is hard enough anyway. If you structure it like that you’ll find people don’t want to go 12 hours. (We start laughing.) Maybe you double your rate at 9 hours then triple it at 11 so next thing you know you’re making $400 hour, hey, people will stop then. (We’re pretty much rolling at this point.)

Any advice for young engineers out there? You and I came up in the era when internships were still a possibility. The studio I interned in is now a dentist office. How can these guys learn?

I think that if I were 16 or 17 today and just as interested in getting into this I would just get my own gear. It’s so affordable these days. I’d just mess around and learn that way. Study as much as I could and intern with somebody.

Don’t intern with a studio, intern with people. I think a lot of people make that mistake. For the first time I’m taking an intern this semester. It just makes so much more sense. If you’re in a facility you’re going to be getting coffee, emptying ashtrays and all that stuff. If you’re with a person, while there may be some of that, the little grunt work is going to be typing budgets or tuning drums or sampling, doing things that are audio related. If I were up and coming I’d get one of those Roland VS1680s or something and a few mics and find somebody to let me record them. I’d just start recording that way. I’d keep the day job at Hardee’s and become a producer in my spare time.

It’s all about ideas and perspective and you’re either good at it and you have good ideas or you don’t. It’s not that you can’t develop it. But if you already have the desire, then that desire is usually based on some reality of something you can do, especially if you put your mind to it. If you put your mind to it, you can really do anything.

Paul Mahern recently finished engineering the latest release from The Why Store. He also finished mixing the latest release of kids music from The Schricker Family, an album on which Bob played some instruments, did some arranging, and did some recording too.

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