An engineer, producer and musician, Mike Exeter’s audio career started when he attended a short audio course in London, which led him to pursuing a degree at Full Sail in Florida. From there he went to work as a midi specialist in a commercial studio and has since worked with chart topping rock acts from UB40 to Cradle Of Filth, Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. Here, he tells AMI about his career highlights and offers recording tips for both new and established engineers.
What was an early highlight in your career?
Working on an album that had Steve Gadd and Tony Levin as the rhythm section - both massive heroes.
What is a recent highlight?
Helping a young rock band from Lancashire (Massive Wagons) get a UK chart placing (No.16) and No.1 in the Rock Charts.
How did you start working with Cradle Of Filth?
They were looking to work on a new album in Birmingham for some reason and DEP (UB40’s studio where I was head engineer) was the best studio around. I engineered some and played keyboards on that record, followed by production on the following along with one other EP.
How did you start working with Black Sabbath and could you tell us about those various sessions, studios you recorded in, choice of microphones, choice of outboard etc?
Black Sabbath came after a relatively long association with Tony Iommi. During the final stretch of that first Cradle Of Filth record (Dusk And Her Embrace), the producer (Kit Woolven) brought Tony in for some mixing which turned into a solo project. Kit was unable to be part of that due to previous commitments so the responsibility fell on me to complete it.
Obviously Tony is the one constant in Black Sabbath, so when projects came up he asked me to do them. The first Black Sabbath credit was for a retrospective with Ronnie James Dio, which needed some new songs to be produced. This was all done in Tony’s home studio.
The Dio album (The Devil You Know - Mk2 Black Sabbath under the name Heaven and Hell) was written in England and Los Angeles at Tony and Ronnie’s respective studios. Recorded at Rockfield Studios and mixed in LA. Rockfield had some pretty nice mics, which I mostly put through the gorgeous MCI console. Ronnie was comfortable on a U87 (he liked seeing it in front of him) therefore we used that - a little 1176 and LA2A to tools.
Sabbath’s 13 record was written across an 18-month period at Tony’s home, Ozzy’s home and Angelic Studios (Northampton). When we finally started recording at Shangri La in Malibu (owned by our producer Rick Rubin), I dropped into the “liaison” engineer role as it were - translating what needed to be translated between the various guys and working to make everyone feel comfortable while recording. When you work with an artist long enough, your session shorthand is invaluable for keeping their “flow”. Final guitar and keyboards (played by me) were completed back in the UK where Tony felt extremely comfortable in his own room.
What advice would you give to someone looking to become a sound engineer?
I would say there are a couple or routes in. College or specialist school can provide a good initial technical grounding, but look for places that have good industry ties. I spend some time in the year doing masterclasses and workshops at these places giving students an idea of the real world experiences I have had, and I think it’s important to temper the technical with psychology, be it dealing with artists, or fellow crew members.
If you are interested in the mixing process I would look at local clubs and theatres and try to align yourself with the house staff. Live mixing is mixing at its purest - there really is no “mouse and menu” approach here. It is all about letting the audience hear every aspect of the performance as clearly and musically as possible. Focus on becoming as comfortable as possible around the environment and people in studios, make it the norm to be in a creative environment. Don’t always be in awe of the situation - we have a job to do and need to have our bases covered. After that is all done enjoy being around the most wonderful music and creativity that few people ever get to experience.
Above all, realise that it is you that people will want to work with first and foremost. Being the quickest is no substitute for being a people person. I would learn my toolset and make it second nature, then you are prepared for the other 98% of what it takes to eventually succeed.
What are your top tips, or techniques to incorporate when recording a metal or hard rock band, for each of the following instruments:
Let me start by saying, across the board: Set up the instruments. Make sure they are tuned and intonated correctly with new consumables (strings and drum heads) before you even choose a position for them or a microphone.
Drums: Listen to them in the room and see where they “speak” best. Put the mics on the kit where the drums sound best. Cover as many bases as possible even if you don’t think you’ll need them - with modern DAWs, tracks are free - so use them. Position the mics and check phase against each element of the kit. Top and bottom mics on toms are a no-brainer for me. They just work and the spill rejection is massive due to the phase reversal between the two mics. Cover all the cymbals with spots and don’t worry if it seems overkill. You aren’t being charged per channel.
Guitars: Always capture a DI (again it’s free). The track is useful on so many levels. Multiple mics on a cab can get an expansive sound if you spend time finding the best speaker within a cab (or avoiding the worst) and moving the mics to get the best combination. All of this combines to capture full sounds that can take EQ and compression in a mix without causing horrible phase issues.
Bass: Get a great DI and capture the performance. Give the bass player what he needs in the cans - but generally It’s difficult to know how that will sit in a mix, so the DI allows you to craft the sound around the guitars later using amps or simulators.
Vocals: Out of all the performers - make them relaxed and ensure they feel “special“. The entire song can be sold on the lyrics and melody of the story being told. Use whatever mic makes them feel most comfortable and, if you maybe don’t agree, put a separate one up and record that too. Many times it’s a combination of what they are used to seeing in front of them and hearing that puts them in their “zone”. Make sure the headphone mix is as good as possible for them. I work most of the time on headphones when producing vocals so I know exactly what the singer is hearing. It’s most important to get them where they give their best performance, and that can only come from the artist being in the right place emotionally.
Keys: Spend a little time discussing parts and don’t always go for L/R panned sounds for every overdub. Panned mono instruments fit in a dense mix much better.
What sessions have you been on where things have gone particularly wrong, but you were able to fix it?
Things haven’t necessarily gone wrong as much as some people have just been bloody miserable and that pulls everybody down with them. It then just takes immense work to be the positive guy that gets the first smile happening again.
My worst mistake was punching in over all 24 tracks on tape for half a second. Nothing to be done but get them to play along and “gang punch” over the mistake. It was one of my early sessions and I never made that mistake again.
Pulling the drummer off the producer because he wanted to kill him and slash the tape because the producer hadn’t got a clue what the band needed was quite funny. We ended up having a paper airplane dogfight to settle the argument - needless to say the producer lost!
What is your favourite piece of audio equipment and why?
Console style automation with real faders - whether in a DAW or on a console - because static mixes suck. I look up massively to Andy Wallace, Bob Clearmountain and the Lord Alge brothers because of the way their mixes work. They move faders. You don’t look at a screen to move a single fader, then another, then back to the previous ad infinitum. You listen and react to what you are hearing, you balance and rebalance the music according to what it sounds like, not what it looks like.
What does your current studio set up look like?
For Mixing: Digidesign C24 control surface and a well-chosen set of plugins to emulate a console workflow. Unity Pebbles and Bam Bams, Auratones and Pure Radio for monitoring, plus Focal Clear Pro headphones.
For Tracking: SSL Duality or AWS and a good headphone system for the artist with the ability to hear each person’s foldback mix. Studio monitors I can trust. Good basic mic collection, nothing fancy required, although I bring some of my own because I know what they sound like.
What is the ideal studio for tracking drums in your opinion?
One that does no harm. A room that can sound expansive but not uncontrollable, I don’t want to hear the walls and especially not in my close mics.
What do you think are the most common mistakes that are made when engineers are tracking live instruments?
Fear of letting instruments breathe in the same room. I have no problem recording everything in the same room if everyone is rehearsed and the arrangements are set in stone. It can take all day to set up an entire band to the point they are happy to perform - it can then take two hours to record four songs.