“Being a producer is 95 percent psychology and the other 5 percent is talent and knowing where you’re going sound-wise.”
Nashville, TN (August xx, 2022) — Robert Venable is one of those multi-hyphen mavens that other music professionals want to be. An Emmy and Dove Award-winning producer, recording engineer, sound mixer, and accomplished rock drummer, his early career saw him running the Pro Tools rig for metal superstars Megadeth. He currently mixes for The Kelly Clarkson Show on NBC. Between those bookends, he has worked on records for multi-platinum and Grammy-winning artists including Clarkson, MuteMath, Twenty One Pilots, and more. His sound-for-picture clients include Sony, Saturday Night Live, and Pixar. In this interview, he details how he uses Audix microphones on a variety of sources, namely i5s, SCX25As, and a whole lot of D6s in a possibly surprising application. He also offers priceless stories and advice.
Let’s begin at the beginning: your point of entry into music production.
As a drummer, I played in everything from ska-punk to hard rock bands and realized the touring life isn’t my thing. I’m 6-foot-5, and I don’t fit into a tour bus bunk so well! I figured, let’s stick with music but move to the other side of the glass. There’s the opportunity to be creative, but also responsibility there, which appealed to me. I put myself on a waiting list for the Conservatory of Arts and Sciences out in Arizona. They said it might take a year or two for me to get a spot. A couple of months passed, and they said they had an immediate opening if I was able to get there in a week! Somebody had dropped off the waiting list, so I went.
Is there anything you’d describe as an early “big break” moment?
The school kind of broke their own rules in allowing me to take a job while I was still a student. The president approached me and said, “Would you like to do this big project?” It ended up being the Megadeth record The System Has Failed. I interned on that and also got do some background vocals, screaming alongside Dave Mustaine.
They asked if I knew Pro Tools, I looked them straight in the eye and said, “Of course.” Then I went home that night and downloaded the instruction manual! YouTube videos weren’t a thing yet, so I’m studying and memorizing commands like crazy. The next day I went in there and found myself running Pro Tools for Megadeth.
That’s throwing yourself into the deep end of the pool!
Looking back, maybe it wasn’t a good decision. But from there, word of mouth spread quickly and I got into the hip-hop scene in Arizona. This was the early 2000s and I got to work with such artists as DMX and Ruff Ryders. But I found I didn’t want to be around some aspects of the scene, such as some people carrying drugs or guns. So, I jumped from that to working at a studio in North Scottsdale that catered to a lot of Blink 182 wannabe type bands at the time.
You now own FIVE Studios just south of Nashville, where your services are in high demand. How did you make that journey?
In Scottsdale, the gear was great, but a lot of the bands were rich kids using their parents’ money. So, I moved to Nashville in 2009 to become a small fish in a very big pond. I partnered with my friend Lester Estelle — who is now Kelly Clarkson’s drummer — and we hustled at first, bringing in our own clients. He played drums and I recorded. He’s not just a player — he’s a musician. That grew, and eventually bands like Twenty-One Pilots and MuteMath were calling for me, then I got hooked up with the Kelly Clarkson camp.
How did the studio business grow at first?
It kind of lines itself up as long as you’re consistent. A lot of times, the most talented person is not who gets the job. It’s the person who can relate to and converse with the band members and label people and producers. It’s the person who can do the hang and anticipate their needs.
How did you first discover Audix mics with a lot of bigger brands being much more popular in the studios?
I think it was mainly my friendship with Lester Estelle, who is a real audiophile. One day he was like, “Here, try these.” I kind of looked down my nose at them at first, because I didn’t think anything that affordable could be that good when I was using other mics that might cost two or three times more. But I tried them, and I’ve never doubted Lester since. I think my first Audix purchase was a drum mic pack of some sort. Now I have a stack of them.
How do you use them on The Kelly Clarkson Show?
The Kelly stage is one of the biggest on the lot for shooting a TV show. But there can be a lot of open mics in small areas, such as for the audience and the huddles and so forth. Lester and I have always paid a lot of attention to our drum sounds. Kelly is a pop singer and she can sing loud, so we want the instruments to stand up to that and not sound muted. At the same time, we don’t want them to bleed into those other mics I mentioned and make them sound boxy or phasey. The big thing we learned was to use D6 mics on all the toms, from the ten-inchers all the way to 22-inch gong drums.
That’s interesting, because a lot of users and even Audix itself sees the D6 as mainly a kick drum mic, with the D2 or D4 being more for toms.
I know, but trust me, there’s something about the D6 that just sounds right. Something about the way that capsule vibrates, maybe. Compared to using anything else, I find I have to do a lot less tweaking on the back end to get the sound I’m looking for. I now carry a backpack of D6s to every session I go to, and I’ll swap them in for the tom mics unless for some reason I’m not allowed to — like if there’s video and the artist endorses another brand.
Do you like Audix mics on sources other than drums?
Absolutely. One of my favorite miking techniques for acoustic guitar is to place a mic about ten inches off the fretboard at the 12th fret, aimed at the sound hole. I love the SCX25A — the “lollipop” mic — in this application. For a more focused, in-your-face sound, I’ll reach for a small-diaphragm condenser such as the SCX1. I’ve found both these mics more than capable of giving me a full acoustic guitar sound, without the need for a second mic.
How about electric guitar or amp cabinets in general?
I do a lot of pop and rock music, and I’ve been defaulting to the i5 on electric guitar cabs to begin the foundation for a wall of sound. I start with it right on the grille, not touching it, but dang close, centered on the cone of the speaker. To give it a little flavor in the mix, I add SCX25As in spaced pair or X/Y configuration, on the other side of the room for some serious space. Then, compress to taste!
Also, everyone knows I love the D6 on toms, but it sounds just as punchy and robust on a bass cabinet. It naturally pulls some of the mud out of the sound and opens up the top end to capture that funky slap when the bassist throws it at you.
Would you share an “oh s***” moment in your career where at the end, you were okay anyway?
One time I flew to New York City to work with a pop singer. I had a two-track bounce of the tracks with me, and the singer recorded over this in a private studio. This was all on their dime —my flights and hotel and wining and dining. I get back to Nashville and pull up the session, and I realized I’d recorded at the wrong bit depth and sample rate, so it did not sync properly to my multitracks. So, nothing lined up. I eventually was able to export, convert, and re-import everything but it was just a nightmare.
Sometimes experiences like that are our best teachers. Does that translate into how you work with artists in your role as a producer?
Oh yes. The studio is stressful and everything costs money. So, being a producer is probably 95 percent psychology and the other 5 percent is talent and knowing where you’re going sound-wise. Knowing how to talk to an artist who may have an ego, or just may be new. I remember one session where a grown man who has been behind the mic for years was on the floor of the booth in a fetal position, weeping. Maybe I’d pushed him a little too hard, because he was talking about how he’d never be good enough and should have listened to his mom. I was like, “Oh, man, what have I done?” I had to turn that energy around and tell him he was good enough and he was crying because he knew he had more inside him. The next take, I got the performance I was looking for.
Now, those are some people skills. On that subject, what are the top three things you’d like talent to know about working in the studio.
First, you hired the team that you hired for a reason. You are trusting them to get a sound you like based on their previous works. When I or anyone on the team comes up with ideas, trust the process. Go in knowing that things are going to change. “Demo-itis” is real — being too in love with the demos you spent the last year recording in GarageBand or on your phone.
Next, understand that changes I might suggest depend on the goal. I’m open to your ideas as well. I’m not a god. I’m not one of those producers whom the industry follows. Instead, I try to follow the industry and apply the best practices for the goal. If that’s a top-40 radio record or something that’s going to catch on iTunes, yeah, we may have to cut down the guitar solo. We may have to turn the acoustic down and the vocals up.
Third, please know your parts. It’s frustrating to be in a session where three out of four band members have them locked in, but there’s one who never finished writing or deciding on a part. Then, we’re on the clock basically still writing the song.
Is there a project on which you played drums that you’re especially proud of?
A couple producer friends of mine used to play in a band called We As Human. They broke up, and Jake Jones and Justin Forshaw asked if I would be their drummer. We formed a new band called As We Ascend — this was about five years ago in Nashville. We wrote that record [Farewell to Midnight], recorded, mixed, and mastered it ourselves, and got it out within a 30-day period. It was fun for the three of us to be creative with no rules. We weren’t writing for radio or streaming, so if we wanted an extended guitar solo or a long intro, we put one in!
Did you use Audix on that project?
Yes, for the songs on which we used real drums. On others, we used the Toontrack plug-in Superior Drummer, which I programmed. Good luck telling which are which — that was my goal!
What is it like to work with Kelly Clarkson?
Kelly is 100 percent how Kelly seems, if you’ve seen the TV show or any interviews with her. She’s a Texas gal through and through — she loves Mexican food and doesn’t like long hours because she wants to go home and see her kids. She has every right to be a prima donna but she’s absolutely the opposite of that. She’ll hug a stranger or give someone the coat off her back. The best part is, she’s a true musician. She knows what she wants. She’s not going to say “more echo” when she means “more reverb.” She’s a great communicator and a rare combination of talent and down-to-earthness.
What advice would you give to someone who aspires to your path as a producer?
When you start off, leave your ego at the door. I’m still learning, every day. I’d empty a trash can if I saw it full, even though it technically wasn’t my job. As an assistant, I was the first one in the studio and the last one to leave. If I thought the band even might do vocals that day, I’d have a few different vocal chains set up and ready to go for the engineer. Again, anticipating needs and being a good hang is how you grow your work. Don’t be too eager to touch faders on your first day in the studio. Wait to be asked.
But once you’ve got some time and reputation in, don’t undervalue your work. I was once about ready to throw in the towel. I couldn’t get any gigs though I kept lowering my prices. A mentor told me, “If you go to a Ferrari dealer and one car there is only $50,000, you’re going to wonder what’s wrong with it. Double your rates and don’t take anything less.” I followed his advice, and they’ve been rising.
Finally, just be humble and listen. You may be the best mixer in the world, but if you have to tell people that, it won’t matter. Let other people talk about you.
(Find out more about Robert Venable at robertvenable.com.)