Freelance writer Alison Richter interviewed Ross Hogarth, who played an integral part in the recording of Van Halen’s A Different Kind Of Truth. All the Van Halen content is below. (For the entire interview, see Examiner.com).
Grammy-winning producer and engineer Ross Hogarth has a simple yet effective philosophy about recording: “Whatever works.” It served him well during his years as a guitar tech, on the road with the likes of David Lindley, Ry Cooder and Fleetwood Mac, and in the studio, recording everyone from Ziggy Marley to Motley Crue. Hogarth applied his theory to Van Halen’s A Different Kind Of Truth, bringing a wealth of engineering experience and techniques to the band’s long-awaited album. A Different Kind Of Truth took him to Eddie Van Halen’s 5150 studio, where he was hands-on when the band prepped to record the album and again when it was time to mix the tracks.
How did you become involved with A Different Kind Of Truth?
Eddie, Alex and Wolfgang were working on music at 5150 in early 2010 and they needed somebody. When we connected in 2010, there were a few things in my favor. The first was that I’m a veteran and I’m flexible. I’ve been in and out of many different diverse situations. I went to 5150 and started working with them. I got along with the guys because I was, “What do you need me to do?” You can throw me in a studio like 5150 and I can figure it out in an hour. I went up there and immediately got involved with them, started moving forward and created a relationship built in the now — what needs to happen now. I jumped into where they were. They were going through the library of all the songs that they were going to eventually put on the record. We were just recording songs. Part of it was like rehearsing, too — recording, rehearsals, everything — so that they were not only honing and fine-tuning themselves as a band, but they were also working up the songs that they would eventually make the record with.
This was your first time working at 5150. What was the experience like for you?
It goes back to assessing situations. My studio, Boogie Motel, is mainly a mixing room, so I always have to go outside of my studio to record bands. There’s such a historical value to where the band has been making records for onward of 30 years, and you’re in someone’s comfort zone. I know there are all kinds of producer methods for getting bands out of comfort zones, but when someone invites you into their world, it’s like telling a chef to cook somewhere else.
The very least of what I do is fulfill the function of why I was brought there. A day or two in, you think you can upgrade something or offer possibility. I’m not too shy, that’s not my personality, and part of what I am is someone who offers an opinion. You come into a situation, assess it and move forward. I’ve been working as the sole engineer in many famous artists’ private studios for the bulk of my career, so I understood the opportunity to work in Ed’s studio was awesome and a privilege.
As the work progressed and the songs came together, at what point did you realize that this was going to be the album that Van Halen fans had been waiting for?
The first hour. The first ten minutes I heard them playing, I was so blown away that it was like, “Oh my god, Van Halen is back! Or maybe they never left!” But man, the first five minutes, my thought process was, If this ever sees the light of day, people are going to be blown away. This is “Oh my god!” And I’ve got to tell you: maybe this is something they sensed in me, too — I have been there. I’m not saying this like some kind of cocky bullshit. I’ve been there, done that.
No, I hadn’t made a record with Van Halen yet, but I’ve worked with most of my heroes, and some of them at a very young age. I remember being on the road, hearing Christine McVie singing my favorite Fleetwood Mac songs, and thinking, Oh my god, I’m here and getting paid for this. I worked with a lot of people. I’ve been around a lot of rock stars, and if you treat rock stars like rock stars, they don’t want you around. That’s ridiculous. It’s not something you do intentionally, but I was desensitized at a very young age because I was brought up with a dad who was a rock star artist. I would go places with him where they kissed his ass. You’ve got to understand that my dad is one of the most famous illustrators of the last century. In the cartoonist world, he’s revered. They call him the Michelangelo of comic art. He’s been shown in the Louvre. So I’ve been with him where he was treated like a rock star and it would just drive him crazy.
People would revere every word that came out of his mouth, and he’d say, “This is ridiculous. Find me someone who’s real, please, someone who is not going to treat me that way.” You have to be sensitive to that. These people are just people, aside from problems that you and I will never have, which are champagne problems like, “Where do I put my extra millions?” or whatever. We’re all human beings, so the first thing you do is deal with people on a personal level and you don’t get so caught up in being a fan. So as far as the band, Dave is not the first lead singer I’ve ever dealt with, Alex is not the first drummer I ever worked with, Eddie’s not the first guitar player I ever worked with, and Wolfie is not the first kid I ever worked with. You deal with them on their level, in the moment, in the now. You assess what you need to do and then it goes back to my motto: Whatever works. Form fits function. I enjoy being a Swiss Army knife. I really do.
Do you have any thoughts on today’s culture and how that relates to why Van Halen and other bands from the 1980s, as well as the 1970s and 1960s, continue to thrive?
We’re in the fast food age. Fast food didn’t really exist when I was a kid. Now we’re in the age of ADD, which also didn’t exist as a term, really, when I was a kid. Now it’s a term that easily flows out of the mouths of parents. We’re in the fast food, short attention span culture in general. I’m not demeaning the universe. You just can’t deny it. Television commercials and movies are edit, cut, edit, cut, cut and it’s over. You get a movie and you’re now surprised if there’s a story and nothing explodes. Let’s go into music. A lot of what’s out there isn’t about the song. It’s about the show and dancing and American Idol. Those kids sing for a minute and 30 seconds and the audience judges on that. They’re judging fast food and attention deficit disorder.
If you go back to the concept of what it takes to become great, whoever said the “10,000 hours” concept was pretty spot-on. In that paradigm, you’ve got to learn your craft, go on the road, put your time in. Now we’re in a day and age where that’s been kind of thrown out the window. It’s about going viral on one thing. It’s about a single. It’s not about making a record with ten songs. Forget it. The concept is “Give me one single,” and how old are you? There’s serious ageism now. When a 16-year-old is considered really great — what amount of experience does a 16-year-old have? So it’s going to be harder and harder to find the next great musician unless that person has somehow avoided the traps that are already set for them in our culture. Will the next big artist be a singer or guitarist? Maybe not. Maybe he’s going to be a scratcher or a hip-hopper or whatever.
We’re in a different day and age. I’m not trying to judge culture against culture, but we live in this world of fast food and fast-paced, quick-cut lack of story. Where does someone come out of that and become a great filmmaker or artist? There are a lot of kids shooting video with handheld cameras on their phones. You don’t need an expensive 16mm camera anymore or an expensive studio. But you still have to have the creativity, and some element of unique and important creativity. Where the outlet is for it, I’m not sure.
I think there’s something about any music or art that stands out head and shoulders above everything. I think when you go back into the history of painting, there was a reason why Monet or Degas stood out head and shoulders, but there was still a B-team back then. In any time and place there are going to be people who stand out. Eminem stands out head and shoulders above every rapper still and there’s a reason. There’s a reason why Jay Z stands out, why Nas stands out, but as far as where that’s going to rank, time is the only thing that tells. The Beatles made such an incredible mark on music and culture, they’re iconic individuals, and 40 years later you can’t deny that ripple in the water of the history of music. The same with Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen, so time will only tell whether Jay Z or Eminem or NWA or the Beastie Boys have made a ripple.
Time will tell whether someone from our modern culture is going to show up down the road, but when you ask me that question, I don’t know who to name, and the people I named are not doing the same craft. It’s hard to judge art or creativity. I do know that when Eminem pops on, it’s instantaneous: two words come out of his mouth and you know it’s him. Sometimes it’s cultural and musical. Bob Marley changed the face of the planet and made his mark in a way that’s not only musical, same as the Beatles, so that’s something that holds its own.
I think Eddie Van Halen changed the face of how someone plays. He literally did something that no one had ever done before him, and you can’t deny that. He’s the most influential guitarist of the last 35 years. Just looking at technique and how someone plays guitar, it’s transformative. And when you’re next to it and it’s going down, I have to say that it’s amazing because it’s so effortless.
As a guitar player, if I were the kind of person that never wanted to pick up a guitar again after watching people like that, that would have been a moment for me, because I’ve watched a lot of guys do stuff so effortlessly, but he’s one in a million. So it’s a tough question to ask how or why and it’s almost like a rhetorical question. You can’t logically answer how or why, but as a fact, Van Halen is out there again and is back stronger than ever.
How did your musical background come into play with A Different Kind of Truth? It is a diverse album. Did you draw from your vocabulary while engineering?
Musically, people place Van Halen in a category and call it heavy metal, which I think is absolutely, completely misplaced. Their essence, if you take the stylistic influences of the members of Van Halen, inclusive of David Lee Roth, there’s such incredible classic influences, considering that Ed and Al were brought up as classical piano players and some of their favorite music is Led Zeppelin or Eric Clapton or classic blues. And then you take Dave, where he comes from musically. So for me, being brought into a Van Halen record was in a lot of ways a comfortable musical bed to lie in because there was no part of this record that felt foreign on any level. Like you say, there are so many influences and elements that go from heavy hard rock and prog to classic music, and Dave’s quirky tongue-in-cheek lyrics, like the intro to “Stay Frosty” or whatever. There’s so much that I could make a meal out of, and that’s an amazing place to be as an engineer and a mixer and a person that loves what I do. To have a project that I could literally make a huge meal out of was like Thanksgiving dinner, so there was nothing foreign to me about working on this music.
And it’s your classic three-piece rock band, too — the concept of making instruments big and not have to fight through a zillion overdubs to figure out where to place stuff. It’s like, how do you give each element of the band a voice of their own? That’s the thing that’s always made Van Halen, and on this record, the goal was the upgrade of certain elements — giving Wolfie his own voice as a bass player, giving the bass a voice or sound that people go, “Wow, haven’t heard that before, haven’t heard that on a Van Halen record before,” but not to the point that they say, “That doesn’t sound like Van Halen.” The intention was to give each member of the band the voice they have, and from a mix standpoint, don’t take the familiar away from the listener, but don’t make it sound so familiar that it sounds like you’re trying to emulate something from the past. Do something that sounds effortless. I’m not blowing my own horn. I’m talking about the intention. I’m not one to judge the result. I’m talking about coming into something as an intention. This is a classic band that’s in the DNA of the world’s music. You can’t deny that, so when you’re living into that legacy, the whole intention has to be, “What can I do here not to screw it up? What can I do to embellish it?” It was a pleasant and incredible challenge on a good level. This amazing groove, this great guitar player, you’ve got Dave singing great lyrics, he’s hilarious, he’s deep. Every time I heard the songs, I would find a new lyric. Like “The Trouble With Never,” just the title — how many people talk about never? Never going to do that again. Never see me there again. Never going to talk to him again. “That’s the trouble with never” — just the concept of never. Then he gets into “selective amnesia” and that whole breakdown. How do you take it and make it sound cool and not too campy? How much delay do I make swim around everything? How Twilight Zone/Rod Serling do I make his voice? That’s fun, that’s a blast — give me that any day of the week.
Does your background growing up as the son of an artist affect how you produce or engineer in any way?
It’s about imagery. My dad brought me up around a lot of art. He walked me around museums around the world when we were fortunate enough to have people pay for family trips to have him go sign books in Italy and in Paris. He was an incredible art historian and he’d explain to me what was in the paintings, so I’m very visual as an engineer/mixer/music-maker. I like to close my eyes and just push “play.” I like to close my eyes, period, and make sure that I can see inside the mix and see inside the songs. So this was a blast because of the three dimensions of music that are occurring with this all the time. Van Halen is a very three-dimensional band. There are incredible dimensions to each and every aspect of the instruments, the people, the dynamics and the history. There are all these dimensions and you have to live inside of them. It’s not a simple task of “go mix a record.”
Starting with the sonics, Alex loves John Bonham’s drums and wants his to sound like Led Zeppelin, but Led Zeppelin never had the amount of distortion and the amount of size and the guitars that Eddie has, so right off the bat, just getting the guitars to fit into a drum sound that sounds like John Bonham — because we all know that Alex is like the torch that John Bonham left, and there’s an element to Alex that’s like a mixture between Keith Moon, John Bonham and Elvin Jones or some jazz kind of thing. They’re coming from the same place. He plays a double-headed, 26-inch kick drum, and that’s a lot of resonance, so how do you get that to speak through heavy guitars but still not sound like heavy metal, where all you hear is the front attack of the beater? When we listen to modern, heavy rock music, kick drums are like the sound of tack-tack-tack, and that’s not Van Halen. So you have to have an articulation in the sound, and that’s a challenge. Anytime there’s a double kick drum, that’s a challenge to get it to speak, and to record it and to mix it. It’s a challenge to record rock guitars, heavy rock guitars, and have low end but not too much low end, and have mid-range. These are always challenges, period, as an engineer, so to get those things captured and have the band’s opinion, when someone specifically says, “I want it to sound this way,” you have to live within the confines of what can and can’t be done. John Bonham’s literal drum sound would never work with Van Halen because of the size of the guitar, the size of the bass, the amount of distortion on the bass. John Paul Jones never had that amount of distortion. So those are interesting challenges.
How did you work to give each musician a voice?
With Ed, two heads and two cabinets. The Royer ribbon mics were a big part of it for low end. I love the Royers. I love what they do on the mixture of low end and midrange that I cannot get out of a dynamic mic. I’ve used ribbon mics for my whole career. I was fortunate when I started recording that there were good RCA and Beyer ribbon mics in the mic cabinets, particularly at Rumbo, the Captain and Tennille’s studio, one of the first studios I had a staff engineering position in. I’m on record as saying that with Motley Crue we were blowing up the ribbon mics on a daily basis. I brought them into the picture on their Girls, Girls, Girls album. The ribbon mics do something that dynamics mics don’t do: they have harmonic distortion that they create by the ribbon vibrating, so on electric guitars they’re particularly amazing, but they can’t be used on heavy guitars because you blow them up. Most older ribbon mics you can’t put next to a Shure SM57 — you end up blowing them up, so you have to put them farther back and then they’re out of phase. Royer came up with a microphone and a ribbon that can be put right in phase with a 57 and you don’t blow up the microphone, you’re not stretching the ribbons out. I brought those to the party with Ed and they did something that he hadn’t yet done because he’d never made a record with those microphones on his cabinets.
Which Royers did you use?
The 122V, which is the tube ribbon they have. It’s the same system as the 121 and 122 ribbons. They took that same design — the difference in those two mics is phantom power is applied to the 122 — and they decided that they could upgrade the 122v to a tube. It’s a great concept because now you have a tube amplifier and it gives it a whole other level of detail and it can be put on a rock cabinet. I brought that to the table, and I brought a certain upgrade to the bass sound just by virtue of wanting to be part of helping it as far as understanding distortion on bass and how important it is.
Could you elaborate?
Eddie and Wolfie were definitely working on the bass sound together when I arrived, as far as a Marshall or an EVH, and what they were using and how they were distorting it. When you have a lot of distortion, sometimes you don’t have low end, and you have to capture low end too. As an engineer, I brought my experience in making all kinds of records, particularly as far as the bass. I did a fair amount of really hard rock and heavy metal in the last decade, producing Coal Chamber and Devil Driver, and when you’re into low tuning, you’ve got to have a lot of distortion on the bass to cut through. Being a drummer and having classic rock ears, when Alex is telling me what he wants out of the drums, I totally get it. Now, how do we capture it? There are probably a thousand guys out there that might be the right guy for the gig. I’m just the guy that got called. Call it fate or good luck for me. I have to say, man, what a pleasure. I started in early 2010 and they brought me back at the end of March 2011. I was on it until I finished mixing it, and in late fall we finished mastering at Bernie Grundman’s.
What was involved in engineering/mixing this album?
One of the things I’m most proud of is the guitar and bass on the record. I feel I had a lot of involvement in both of those areas, particularly bringing out Eddie’s width, the stereo, how wide his guitar sound is, but it’s still one performance. I’m super-proud of working on that with him and getting something that I hope he really likes. I think he does. At one point in recording, it was, “We don’t want the guitar on the left with the reverb going on the right, like it always was.” It may be urban legend and not a totally historic story. But as the story goes, somewhere after the first record came out, they were listening to the record and someone’s left speaker was not working. The main guitar was panned left, so there was no guitar. They were listening to the record with no guitar and Eddie was freaked out. How many people don’t have a left-side speaker? But if the guitar is only panned to the left and the speaker is broken, you’re not going to have any guitars, so he never wanted that again. There were things that they didn’t want, or wanted, and one of the things that Alex said was, “If the guitar is going to be mono, I don’t want it just coming down the middle too. I want it to have dimension.” It was sort of like, “Where’s the happy medium?” So Ed, throughout his career, had worked with how to split his sound with delays and harmonizers.
I came in and I had a different concept. I said, “Let’s use two heads and two cabinets and let’s try these ribbon mics, which I don’t think you’ve ever used.” I came in with a concept of something to try. If it didn’t work, he would have said he didn’t like it. I wouldn’t have been the guy saying, “You’ve got to use it.” I came in, created an atmosphere of open-mindedness and I tried something, and we worked and honed it to the point that he was really pleased with it. Because Ed’s not going to do anything that he doesn’t like. He can make his own records; he doesn’t need me or anybody, really. Ed is a brilliant engineer and producer with amazing instincts. I’m not so unique as to say that I’m the only guy on the planet who can make a Van Halen record that Eddie’s happy with. Eddie Van Halen can make his own records. He doesn’t need anybody. He’s brilliant. But I came in and I brought something to the table that he liked.
And then Wolfie said, “I want more low end out of the bass.” I said, “OK. You’re using this one amp, but if we use that amp and we mic a port on the back end, flip it out of phase and try that, you’re going to get the sub low that you don’t ever get.” We tried that and he thought it was cool. So that’s my gig: to assess a situation and not rip it up and start over, but to build on what they had in my own way with, “Let’s try this and let’s try that.” So the thing I’m really proud of is that relationship. That was awesome. It has been one of the high points of my whole life to work with one of the most influential bands, for me, just as far as music I like, as far as considering Ed one of the greatest guitar players ever to be born on this planet. I believe him to be, without waxing too poetically, whether it be the Mozart, the Beethoven, the whatever of our day and age. He has done things that no one ever did before he ever showed up. To work with someone like that, and also he’s a sweet and great and cool human being, man, that’s like having my cake and eating it too. Alex is an amazing talent, as a drummer and a brilliant person. He’s an incredible conversationalist and always has something fresh to talk about every time I talk to him. Alex and Ed so amazingly complement each other, and then there’s Wolfie, and man, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. That kid is an amazing drummer, an amazing guitar player, a terrific singer and an amazing bass player. He absolutely is a very crucial part of the band now. His musical vocabulary at that young age is incredible, and to go into that situation with those guys … . Then you add into the mix this record coming out with David Lee Roth for the first time in that many years — my whole attitude was, “What do I do to keep this successful? What do I do to keep this moving forward?”
What did you do to keep it moving forward?
Show up. Take everything in stride and take nothing personally. Literally, you show up and you talk straight, act straight, and you look people in the eye. These guys see through bullshit. There’s a side of the Van Halens, and Dave, that has been there and done that and they can see that. You show up, and you don’t show up when you’re not needed. Don’t put yourself somewhere you don’t need to be, don’t put yourself inside conversations when you don’t need to be there, and don’t overstep your bounds when you don’t need to. I didn’t go up there and say, “This is what you need to do.” You do it bit by bit and time and place. You’ve got to know your situation.
When you began producing and engineering, people listened on home stereos and in their cars. Now they listen on mobile phones, computers and through earbuds. Has this changed the way you mix? Do you mix for different mediums?
I mixed A Different Kind Of Truth back to Pro Tools at the higher sample rate, which is 96k, even though the record was recorded at 44.1/24, so I tried to capture the mix at a higher sample rate, which is better, regardless, through a good Burl converter. It’s got kind of a fat transformer sound. I like the Crane Song also. I use that at my studio, but the Burl seemed to be a good choice, it’s highly recommended, a lot of people think it’s cool, so I tried it and it sounded good and we were happy with it. So we did 96k and you have to reduce it to 44.1/16 — those are CDs. That’s where we’re at; we got stuck there a long time ago by the video guys who all decided that music sound should be at 44.1/16 bit, and now they’ve changed their minds and they’re using 48.1/24 bit and we’re still stuck at 44.1/16. It sucks because it’s definitely already bit reduced, and if you buy on iTunes, you’re buying it at 256 AAC or MP3. It used to be 192 MP3or AAC, which sounds a little better, but if you’re on a PC, you can’t play AAC, so you’re stuck with MP3’s. And so what am I mixing for? Am I mixing for the lowest common denominator or the highest common denominator or somewhere in between? It’s definitely a problem these days. I honestly do not have an answer. It’s like, what am I actually doing here? Am I mixing for people with earbuds? For people with home stereo? There’s still people who have 5.1’s, so what’s going to happen when my stereo mix gets derived into a 5.1 mix? So I try to just mix for the most solid stereo high-resolution sound, knowing that when I bring it to mastering, he’s going to put level on it and not crush it to the nth degree so that it completely changes the mix and it sounds like your mastering engineer mixed your record for you. You want it to stay and sound like music until the end result, but I have to say that no one will ever hear a record like it was mixed and recorded these days unless you have vinyl. When it was just vinyl, we knew what vinyl was going to do, so you could always cut a vinyl ref and know exactly what it was going to do. For the most part, the world is listening on their computers and earbuds and little speakers, so you have to make sure that something translates down into that world, but if we’re just mixing for the lowest common denominator, then I might as well throw half my engineering skills out the window and say, “Forget it. Why should I even care if it sounds good?” because the compressed sound of MP3’s is pretty bizarre. Or can be pretty bizarre. It can take a lot of size and dimension away from a mix, so you definitely have to know what’s going to happen when it does that, but if you’re just mixing for that, then I think you’re still missing the boat too. It’s a tough one.
How long have you worked with Bernie Grundman? Was he your choice, a band choice or both?
This was definitely a band decision because Bernie and Chris Bellman, who is one of Bernie’s engineers, did the Van Halen catalog a few years back. The band had experience with them. Bernie’s an incredible veteran. His catalog speaks for itself, so when we came to the point of needing to master the record, the band was asking me but telling me, like, “How do you feel?” and I said, “He’s great.” He hasn’t mastered a ton of my stuff, but he’s mastered a fair amount, just like a bunch of guys that I feel totally comfortable with because there’s quality control there.
Do you have any simple philosophies or insights on mixing?
When you’re mixing a recording that you feel good about, make sure that you work quickly to at least get some sort of balance together. Mixing, for me, is about finding the DNA of the song, whatever it might be. If it’s instrumental music, what’s the lead instrument? If it’s a vocal, how are the instruments going to affect the vocal, and what is the type of style, too. So when you mix a record, make sure you find the DNA of whatever it is.
With Van Halen, there’s lots of DNA. It’s Eddie’s guitar, it’s Alex’s snare and kick, it’s Dave’s vocal. Dave has to be loud enough that you hear his lyrics, but not so loud that he’s overpowering the track. You have to put him in a place with whatever kind of reverb and delay you do so that it doesn’t sound overt, because there’s a classic Van Halen sound with Ted Templeman and Donn Landee that has a really long plate on it, and we didn’t want to recreate that same thing. It wasn’t something we felt was going to make or break the record, like if you don’t have that really long plate reverb, there are going to be people who miss it. Finding the right placement of Dave’s vocal was very important. I play with a lot with different delay settings and reverb settings throughout the course of a mix. I create different scene changes so that it captures the ebb and flow of the emotions of a song. You have to be in touch with that.
Alison Richter interviews artists, producers, engineers and other music industry professionals for print and online publications. Read more of her interviews right here.
Visit Ross Hogarth’s website here.