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INTERVIEW: Producer and engineer, Mark Needham

Andrew Low
INTERVIEW: Producer and engineer, Mark Needham

In the unlikely event that an Audio Pro reader has delved deep enough into my prior ramblings to realise that the following is a near word-for-word repetition, I apologise for my geriatric-like reportage. However, should they exist, said reader(s) may recall that I have a cheap yet pleasingly effective pair of off-the-peg KRK monitors in my lounge-come-studio that I am rather proud of on account of their impressive sonic quality, relative to what I stumped up for them.

Tempted as I am to further explain the extent of my fondness for these loudspeakers, I realise that this feature is, in fact, supposed to be about LA-based engineer and producer Mark Needham, whose own Genelec 1032s and Yamaha NS10s would make them look (and sound) like an oversized iPod dock, so I’ll get to the point.

They [the KRKs], residing where they do in the ‘living room’, attract a fair amount of attention from my musical friends. Of course, I am only too happy to entertain their enthusiasm and play for them, at very high volumes and much to the chagrin of my girlfriend, my ‘test’ record – the live MTV Unplugged recording of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game – a rather wimpy song, the metal brutes among them sometimes remark, but one that undeniably lets these inexpensive monitors sing, demonstrating a remarkable transparency; a rare victory for the cash-strapped audio prosumer. Like the original, this song was recorded and mixed by Mark Needham.

So what is it about this track that sounds so wonderful? Well, it’s beautifully dynamic, in a way that, when cranked, is at first nerve-wracking and then immediately reassuring. Softer notes find such a presence that you begin to think an unrestrained plosive might at once cause damage to the speakers and your ears. But, almost as if the sound waves are feathering the brakes a little as they approach the side of your head, this never happens. Neither does the full power of Isaak’s upper register or the twang of his top E string sound underwhelming as a result; quite the opposite in fact. And to say every sound has its own space in the mix would be like saying that people in the Outer Hebrides have their own gardens.

You can imagine my excitement then, when I got the opportunity to explain this to Needham and gauge his reaction. I hoped and really expected that he would confirm it as one of his proudest moments. But instead, to my surprise (and slight dismay, initially) it went somewhat the other way.

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“Oh man, that MTV Unplugged one was a nightmare. I was at Sony studios in New York and I’m doing the recording and also running a live mix for the TV broadcast. I had an engineer in the other room and I asked him never stop the tape recorder. We had two tape recorders for the multitrack and I asked him to always have them running. Anyway, what did he do? He stopped the multitrack. And the worst thing was that he didn’t tell anybody, so it wasn’t until I got back to the studio to do the mix that I found out the multitracks were blank. At least four of the tunes for the album had to come from the live mix that I did for the broadcast. I went into it with the thought that I would have the chance to go back and fix some things. I would really have liked to have had another shot at that mix.”

At first I was a little disappointed that what I considered to be a really well mixed track was perhaps not quite as good as I thought. But then Needham acknowledged that, happily, the live mix had actually turned out to be a lot better than expected and I realised that, just because it was done live, in one take and recorded straight to a stereo track, didn’t necessarily mean that the end result couldn’t stand up to something that had been poured over in a mix room for days on end, far from it. And then I thought of all the times I’d heard rough mixes turn out to be the best of the lot.

Recalling his work with The Killers, Needham adds some credence to this idea: “Mr Brightside was recorded in just a few hours. I did some re-arrangement stuff and mixed it on a little 12-channel Neve in about 40 minutes and that’s what ended up on the album. It was done incredibly quickly, yet it was probably the biggest-selling song off [the band’s multi-platinum-selling album] Hot Fuss.”

Despite this, Needham is quick to point out that there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to how much time should be invested in a mix in order for it to blossom – that one track might require lengthy periods of concentration that could possibly spoil another.

“Usually, if you work something to death – over work it or over think it – it doesn’t come together. But there’s really nothing written in stone, it’s not always the case. I’ve had some songs that I’ve worked on for months and re-invented in a bunch of different ways and, in the end, they came out awesome. The studio version of Wicked Game was a perfect example of this. I spent a lot of time on that song and it was only something that started to come to fruition about month or two into it.”

This begs the question: how do you know how much time and effort to put into a mix? How do you know when to stop, when it’s as good as it can be, or when to keep working because those last few tweaks might just make it?

“That can be a dark hole because it’s always tough to know when to quit or when to keep on going. Are you just going to continue to travel down a dark hole or are you going to see some light at the end? It’s always a hard decision – to either keep going and maybe waste more time or scrap it and start again with a new direction, or even move onto something new altogether. That’s a very hard call to make. I’ll usually know when it’s right but knowing when it’s wrong is much more difficult.

“There’s a certain point when I think I’ve exhausted a lot of opportunities and none of them are working that I know that I have to go back and figure out what it is that’s wrong with the arrangement or the parts that’s making the thing not work. It’s tough to throw in the towel on something. But I know when something strikes me as right.

“I know intuitively and fairly quickly when something is really working. If its not, I’ll go straight back to the start and find out why.”
www.markneedham.com

Tags: elton john, the killers, chris isaak, mark needham

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