How did you get started in the business and how come you ended up behind the console as opposed to on stage?
This is a long story, my father Jack Richardson was a record producer too. He produced The Guess Who, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger and Badfinger, to name a few. So from a young age of five, I was hanging around my dad in the studio. My first second engineer’s job at the age of 15 was Bob Seger’s “Night Moves”. I was also the janitor at Jack’s Studio “Nimbus 9/Soundstage”. I got to sit in on the first Peter Gabriel solo record, I hung out with the Bay City Rollers, John Denver and Tim Curry. I would sleep in school all day. Then I would go down and clean the office and studio so I could sit in on all the great records that were being made there. My plan was to be a musician, I learned to play the French Horn in school. The reason why I did not join a band was, no one wanted a French Horn player in their band. You never saw a girl trying to date a French Horn player, so I ended up behind the glass with people like Bob Ezrin, Michael Wagener etc. Making records was logical place to go, this is my forty-forth year doing it.
There are tons of engineers and producers out there doing records with mid-sized bands, but only a handful of go-to, A-level guys producing the bulk of what’s topping the metal scene. You’re definitely one of them. Is there a specific moment or project that helped push you on to the next level?
My first big break was Michael Wagener bringing me to Los Angeles in 1985. I had worked with him in Toronto at Phase One Studios. He asked me to fly down. I was only going to be there for six weeks. It turned out to be twelve years. I did whatever it took. My first three years in L.A., the only day I took off was Christmas Day. Anyone that wanted to record I would say yes. I did not care about the money, I only wanted to make music. My first big break as a engineer was Mother’s Milk by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which led the way for me to producing the first Rage Against the Machine Record. It was being in the right place at the right time. I took a big risk making that record. I had a full concert PA system in the live room at Sound City, I did not want to bring them into a studio and handcuff them. I needed to capture the band that was so intense. It was like a live record in a studio. Brad was the only one wearing headphones. His drums were behind the PA. The rest were in front, it was like a live show. Tom and Tim’s amps were in side rooms and we pumped them back through the PA system. Zack had a Shure SM58 and was standing in front of the PA. I got asked many times about the bleed. My answer was as long as they all played the same song, we would be fine. That was a very powerful moment in my career.
If you weren’t producing records, what would you do?
I’m a HUGE hockey fan. I think I would’ve become an NHL referee or a park ranger, haha.
In a mix, where do you usually start: the drums, guitars, vocals or something else?
This is a great question. I have been asked this a lot of times. The mix (from a producer’s side) start when you first talk to the band, the kick drum sound you go after, the tempo, telling bands when not to play, the colors, the shape of the song. No one wins if they finish first. It’s like building a house. Mixing engineers were once called balancing engineers. A great engineer would always have the monitor faders at 0 and as you got sounds and levels, you were mixing as you tracked. They called it pencil mixing. You would take your pencil and push as many faders as you could with the pencil to 0 on your faders. On the Mudvayne record “L.D.-50”, it took us four days to get that bass sound. We had to get it right so we could build from the bottom up. We ended up with a DI, two amps, one clean and one dirty, we used a shot gun mic and recorded the sound of his fingers hitting the strings as he played. Well worth the four days of pain I put Ryan through. Still one of my favorite sounding metal records I have been a part of. Now I get to go off here. All my producer/engineer friends will love this rant. Here we go, all you young whippersnappers out there. You need to learn a word: “Commit”. This means, don’t put four mics for one sound on four tracks! Commit to the balance to one track. Label your tracks. Don’t label them “audio 1”, “audio 2”, “audio 3” etc. It takes three seconds to label your tracks. My hands would’ve been slapped. My dad would have slapped the back of my head, he did many times. He once told me to keep my left eye on him, my right eye on the engineer and my third eye on the band. I started to count my eyes and only come up with two, his hand hit the back of my head. He said “use your ears, they should always be on and aware of what’s going on in the session. Be a pro, care about your work. I have seen mixing engineers send session back to be cleaned up… We the pros, we need to rather start charging a “fix it” fee than a “mix it” fee. It’s getting out of hand. There are few mentors left to teach these skills. You must clear out all of the unwanted audio. If you have a sound that you love in your session, bounce it to a new track so when it gets to the mix, it’s what you want. Not everyone has the same plugins as you. Sending a session to a mixer is like going into your home. You don’t leave food on the floor. The shape of your session is a huge reflection of you. Own it. It is not up to the mixer to make decisions for you. I could go on. I hope you see my point here.
Is there any instrument you generally struggle with more than any other in a mix?
The most important instrument is the vocal. I always struggle with the vocals. That is the #1 most important thing in a mix. Unless you are doing a Kenny G record. I always tell bands that I am working with: “I went to see Bon Jovi at an 80,000 concert, they were singing “Living on a Prayer” and when the band stopped at the key change, 80,000 people were singing the bass line”. The band then say “no way”…and I say “no they were singing the VOCALS”. When mixing other people’s records, it’s always hard to get the vocals to sit. I spend so much time as a producer making sure everyone is playing as a team and nothing gets in the way of the singer.
What are your thoughts on Superior Drummer 3?
I am an old school guy, the way we used to fix a bad snare drum was to put a speaker on top of a snare drum in the live room and feed the bad snare drum through the speaker and gate the snare. We would place a mic underneath the snare and blend in the new sound. We were mad scientist in the day. Then Superior Drummer 3 came along and saved our lives. Changing sound at the drop of a hat is a game-changer. And in my opinion having one of the top engineer/producers George Massenberg is insane. He has ears of gold. I have been a fan of his work for years. You would be a fool to not have this going into a mix. This is a game-changer. Being able to alter your drum sounds as you mix is insane.
What was it like working with bands like Rage Against the Machine and Chevelle?
They changed my life. Rage was intense, because we recorded that record in thirty days. We worked from 10 AM in the morning until 4 AM every day. That record is still relevant today. Chevelle was a very cool record to make. The band were three brothers home schooled. Three very strong personality with a lot of drive. Pete was a great songwriter. I’m still very proud of those records.
Name a few all-time favorite albums that you did not work on where performance, sound and feel all come together in perfect balance.
The record that made me cry was the latest Peter Gabriel record he did, it was a cover record. Intense, his voice. A must. Humble Pie “Rocking The Fillmore” is a must. And Steely Dan records are a must. Fleetwood Mac “Rumours” is a must. Too many to post here. As long as it makes you feel, it a great record.
Tell us about Nimbus School of Recording and how that got started?
Nimbus School of Recording and Media is based on Numbus 9 productions in Toronto. It was my dad’s company. If you worked there, you were very lucky. You got trained by the best. Second place was last place at Nimbus. My father trained Bob Ezrin and Bob trained me (he kicked the crap out of me, because my dad did the same to him). Nimbus School of recording and media started ten years ago, I had just fired my forty-fifth kid from schools here in Canada. I called Bob Ezrin on the phone and told him what was going on. We both agreed we need to open Nimbus and train the youth on how we were trained. Our mandate is to turn them into decent human beings and get them ready for the real world. Nimbus is all about being excellent. Our staff are still working in the industry. I often use our staff when I’m working on a record.
If you produced an album that you couldn’t mix yourself, who’d be the first name on your list for the gig
Andy Wallace, Randy Staub, Joe Barresi, Mike Fraser. Not in any order. They are all great mixers, hands down.
Best studio moment ever?
That’s a tough one. So many. Here are a few. Was in London England working with Bob Ezrin at Air Studios, I came to find Bob and he was talking to Sir George Martin. Bob asked me if I had met Sir George. I said no and he introduced himself to me. “Hi, I’m George Martin”. The first time in my whole life I had no idea what to say, I was speechless. I am a huge Beatles fan and to meet the mastermind behind the “Fab 4” was a highlight in my life.
Worst studio moment ever?
I again was working in London with Biffy Clyro at RAK Studios (Mikey Most’s studio). As I opened the front door, Robert Plant was walking out. I said hi and we had a small chat, I went back to my room to work. The next day I got to the studio and was walking down the hallway and heard a person talking beside me. I looked and saw it was Jimmy Page, I ran to my studio and called the studio manager on the house phone and asked “can I tell anyone that Led Zeppelin was recording in the same studio as me”. She said NO please don’t. That was the worst moment not being able to tell anyone that I was in the same studio as Led Zeppelin. Another worst day. I was doing my first tape edit for my father. Like a young know-it-all kid, I said I can do that edit with my eyes closed. Well I messed it up so bad. Every chance, my father would bring it up, right up until his last days on earth, he would rub it in. I never did a bad edit again. I never beat him at ping pong either.
Finally, any tips to those looking to make a career in music production/engineering?
This is a great question. When I was young man, I told my father I wanted to follow him in his footsteps. He tried many times to keep me out of the business, then one day he said “we should have a talk about how to make it into the music business”. I grabbed a pad of paper and a pencil (never a pen, he would slap your hand, when writing on track sheets, if you used a pen). I was ready for a four-hour dissertation on how to make it in the music business. He said “ready”, I said “yes”. My pen and ear were ready. He walked up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said “good songs sell, bad songs don’t” and he walked out of the room. Another point, remember we are dealing with people, not machines. Music is about capturing a feeling, telling a story. Our job is to inspire humans, not a laptop. Knocking down walls of a singer so he or she feels safe to show the world how they feel. Never forget this. At the end of the day, this is a 9 AM to 5 AM job. No wait, it’s a lifestyle. Take risks, care, don’t do it for the money, the money will come. Think outside the box, yes outside your Pro Tools! It is all about the song. A great song will get you through a thousand doors, a bad song won’t open up the first door. And don’t tell me it looks good on the screen, close your eyes and make sure your sounds and production moves you. Music must make you feel. Just think how bad it would be if you went to a movie and no soundtrack, to a hockey game and between the play, no music. Turn on a radio and everyone is talking and no music. Do you see the power that music has, we need to to treat it with respect.