Michael Patterson [Producer/Mixer]

Having enjoyed the soundtrack for The Social Network movie, I tracked down the guy who mixed the record, Michael Patterson. But I would later find out that he also mixed “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” soundtrack, as well as albums by Limp Bizkit’sNine Inch Nails, and several Bad Boy records from the 90s. After some months of writing back and forth, we met up at Ocean Way Studios for an interview about his career and music background.

Hi Michael. Let’s talk about your beginnings. How much did coming from Memphis affect your musical upbringing? 

A lot. My parents owned a head shop at the time, so there were always interesting types hanging around. Even when I go back now, I find twenty different clubs playing interesting music. One of the interesting things about Memphis is the presence of tension (and love) between black and white cultures. Elvis, who was basically an RnB artist in his day, was an example of that. There was a similar kind of tension between black and white music in the city when I was growing up, which made it a very interesting time for me.

With regards to my first experiences with audio, I was taken to a party by my parents when I was nine or ten. The home owner lived in an old Victorian house, and he had an amazing studio on his top-floor. When I saw the multiple vocal booths, the big console and tons of gear, I was like “This is really cool “. Then at age thirteen, I was given a book called “Making Music“, which was edited by George Martin. Inside was a picture of an SSL board, and upon seeing it I thought, “That’s what I want to do “. 

Were there any experiences that threw you into the profession of mixing or producing?

It’s all been an accident. Funnily enough, most things happen as they should, without much effort from me.

When I was fifteen, my cousin was in a popular band in high school. His keyboard player ended up quitting, and I convinced my dad to buy me a new keyboard so I could replace him and get the girls. I read Keyboard magazine every month and was up to date on what was happening in that world, so while other kids looked up to Michael Jordan, I looked up to guys like Jeff Bova, Jimmy Bralower, and Michael Boddicker. My dad said I could choose between Yamaha DX7 and the Ensoniq ESQ-1. Had I gotten the DX7, I’d wouldn’t be where I am today. But I chose the ESQ-1, which was one of the only keyboards with a built-in sequencer, allowing me to record my synth parts.

Following that, something coincidental happened. Because my parents owned a head shop and advertised on the rock radio stations a lot, the station decide to give them a trip to China as a way of saying “thanks”. During the flight, my mom sat next to the music supervisor of the TV show “Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous“. She mentioned that I made music. He was like, “Cool, why don’t you send me some music from your son’s band? “. I wasn’t in a band at the time, so I watched the show for a few weeks, wrote a bunch of stuff that sounded like the show’s music and recorded it on my sequencer. But since I had to send the music in on quarter-inch tape, I booked time at a studio called Easley McCain Recording, a great place where artists like The White Stripes and Wilco later made records at. I went in and recorded the sounds from my keyboard to tape and sent in to the music supervisor for the show. He loved it and asked me to keep sending him music to use in the show, and that’s how I got my start.

You also ended up getting involved with different music camps, such as Puffy’s Bad Boy and Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails. Which one of those came first?

Bad Boy came first. Arnold Hennings and I had been working on a record for a local artist, and Theophilus Glass from the group Highland Place Mobsters was with us, singing background vocals on some songs. He took a cassette down to Atlanta and played it for Dallas Austin, who liked it, and he suggested Arnold move to Atlanta to work with him. Arnold took me along, and we moved in 1991.

Clive Davis had given Dallas a label, Rowdy Records, and the first two artists he signed were Muzza Chunka, a punk band from LA, and Illegal, a hardcore rap duo. Clive was like, “What the are you doing? I gave you this deal to make urban hits! ”, and basically shut Dallas down until he did the “Miss Thang” album with Monica. So I ended up in Dallas’ camp, making tracks with Arnold. We started working with 112 before they got their record deal, and once they were signed to Bad Boy, Arnold and I went up to New York for a month to work on more tracks for them. That’s how I first met Puffy. His studio, Daddy’s House, had just opened and we were some of the first people to use it, working in the SSL room for a month. At the end of the month Puffy said to me, “Arnold is going to sign with me as a producer. I normally have three different guys do the engineering, programming, and mixing, but since you know how to do all of that, why don’t you just move up here and do all my records? “. So that’s how it started.

(photo of Michael by Debe Arlook)

Did Diddy fire the other three guys once you came on board?

No. There was so much work going on that it wouldn’t have affected them. At their busiest, Puffy had six studios around town filled with rental gear and engineers. Keep in mind that in the 90s, you have to rent a studio space with a 24-track that looped the beat whilst the rappers wrote their lyrics. So you’d have to spend $5000 a day just for a guy to write a song, which was crazy. But at that point Puffy had gotten his Arista Records deal with a $20 million dollar advance. In fact, I think he renegotiated his deal three times in the first year because he just kept having more hits.

You have credits on TLC and Jay Z albums from that period, as well as Beck’s “Midnite Vultures“. How did you end up on those?

TLC’s “Crazysexycool album was being produced by Dallas Austin, and since Arnold and I were in that camp, we worked on tracks for it. Puffy was producing some stuff on Jay Z’s “Vol 1as well. Most hip-hop projects from that period were Puffy-related in some way. Even the Beck album, which I did in 1999, was Puffy-related. He called me at 8pm one day and was like, “Hey, meet me at the studio. We’re driving to Philly to see a Beck show “. So we drive there, and arrived about halfway through the show. Afterwards, we were backstage and everyone was talking, and Puffy said to me, “Can you find us a studio? We’re going to make a track “. I was like, “Okaaay. But tt’s 12am in Philadelphia though…”. But I called Studio 4, which was a famous studio that belonged to the Butcher Bros, and said, “I have a bizarre thing to ask. Can you connect me to the studio manager? “. The guy on the phone was like, “SorryI’m just an intern here. I don’t can’t reach him this late “. I said, “I have Puffy and Beck here, and they need a studio right now, so we need to find a way to make this work”, and he was like “Why don’t you just show up and we can figure it out in the morning?”. So we show up, and the intern was the only one there. He sort of knew how to use the Euphonix console, so we let him man the desk. Deric Angelettie, aka Tha Mad Rapper, was with us and he started working with Beck on some ideas and beats. Around 5 am, we were ready to track the idea they came up with when the intern hit the wrong button on the Euphonix and wiped all my EQ and routing settings. So we spent the next hour getting it all back and then tracked the music to tape. At 10 am the next day we went over to Boys II Men’s studio to finish it and do another one. Unfortunately, those tracks never came out, though I’d love to hear the them again sometime.

A year later I got a call from Beck: “Hey, why don’t you come out to LA and try mixing a couple of songs? “, and I said “Okay“. So I flew out and mixed three songs on the “Midnite Vultures” album. They liked it, and so I came back three weeks later to mix the entire album. I was getting more involved with Bad Boy at this time, which was great, but it wasn’t where my focus was at, and so I decided to move to LA just after I finished the Beck record. I told Puffy, “I’m going to work in LA for two weeks, then I’ll come back to New York and work on your stuff for two weeks, and alternate like that “. But of course, the second I moved to LA, I got involved with a project that would take three months. At the time, I felt the only way for me to make my own path was to get out of the Puffy world. Also, that was a time period when artists like Linkin Park were looking to the urban scene in New York for inspiration, so the Beck album was a transition for me between hip-hop and alternative music, and the timing was perfect.

So working on alternative music is what led to you mixing records on Limp Bizkit’s album?

For the first Limp Bizkit album, I was living in LA. Fred Durst called me and said he liked what I was doing, so I ended up mixing a single at Conway Recording Studios. They had a Neve VR console, which oddly enough was a console I fell in love with at Puffy’s studio, after hating on it for so long.

How does working on an album like “Chocolate Starfish” affect your career as a mixer and producer, when it goes on to sell 20+ million copies?

Well, I got paid a fee for my mix and I also got a point on the record, so I’m very happy that the album did well. But financially, if you look at what I made for mixing just one record on that album, which was a nice royalty cheque, you can imagine what Andy Wallace made, who mixed the entire album. He probably made a million or so off that album. But beyond the money, I got to work on a cool record with Fred Durst, who is much like Puffy in his work ethic and vision.

In what way did working on 90s hip-hop improve your mixing abilities? Were there specific things you learned from that?

It’s interesting, because I didn’t really know what I was doing back then, technically speaking, and I still don’t, because I was never anybody’s assistant. If you’re a mix assistant, you learn the main guys tricks and techniques. For me, I’m still learning how my peers do what they do. But because I didn’t know that much, I wasn’t afraid to push the limits of certain things. But to answer the question, the most important thing I learned was to go with your gut. When I was working in New York, I would get the mix 90% finished, and then Puffy would come in and do his thing, which was magic. It’s hard to quantify what he does. The reason Puffy is Puffy is because there’s something about his gut feeling that’s different than everyone else. He would come in the room and say, “No, let’s do it this way. Change this sound and push that sound up in the mix “, and you would be tempted to say he was crazy, but it would work every time. I can’t think of a single time where he was wrong about anything on the console. He might not technically know everything about how it works, but he knows what he wants it to do. I’d always be shy with things, and then he’d push them, which led to me learning how to do that myself. Plus, I had amazing people in New York, like Paul Logus, Tony Maserati, Rich Travali, and Prince Charles Alexander to learn from. I used to go in their rooms when they weren’t around and study how they set up their consoles and what they were doing for each mix by studying their recall sheets – then I’d steal their ideas. Sorry guys…

Once you went on to do alternative music in LA, how did you compensate for the lack of Puffy’s gut feelings for finishing records?

When I was in Memphis, the level of music I was making was the equivalent of my college education. Working with Dallas Austin was my Masters program, and life with Puffy was the PhD program of making records and learning the music business. The thing about hip-hop is, the guy who made the beat usually isn’t around after he tracks it. At that point, it’s people like Puffy and the engineers who are working on the record. So working with them was like a finishing school of knowing what makes a good record. When I moved to LA, I had already learned from the best, so my instincts were pretty good at that point.

In LA, I got to work with people like Beck, and he had very definite ideas about what we wanted to do, musically. He’d say, “If something sounds crazy and out of place in the mix, make it louder“, and the end result would always sound great.

And at what point did Trent Reznor come into the equation?

For starters, I was a long-time fan of his. There was only one time in my life, at age 22, where I wrote down the things I really wanted to do. They were, “Work with Trent Reznor “, and, “Run Geffen Records “. Now I’ve done one of them, maybe it’s time to do the other (laughs)?

I had mixed a record for a band called Ringside, who Fred Durst had signed. By the way, Fred has amazing A&R ears; he’s like the Puffy of A&R. Anyway, someone else had mixed the record but Ringside didn’t like it, so Fred brought me on to do it. In the middle of the session, he brings over a band who he was about to sign, called She Wants Revenge, and I ended up worked on their debut album, which is one of my favorite music projects. One of the band members, Justin Warfield, had worked with Atticus Ross on various things and they were friends. He introduced me to him, and I mixed some of Atticus’ remixes, like the Grace Jones “Corporate Cannibal” remix. So after hanging out with him for a while, he asked me if I want to test mix a project he was working on. He sent over a cue and I mixed it, and then he sent over another one, and I did that too. Then he invited me to Trent’s place, where they were working on “The Social Network” soundtrack. That was in 2009, and my work with Trent developed from there.

When you’re mixing a score that has no vocals, how do you compensate for the lack of that?

Well, my background is in sound design, so no matter what, if there’s an interesting melody or sound, that would go to the forefront. Regardless of what type of music I’m dealing with, I focus on highlighting the melodic elements. In the world of movie scores, a lot of things are about texture and mood. The priorities there are different than for a soundtrack full of licensed music or recorded songs. For “The Social Network”, we spent about two weeks after the score had been completed to add songs for the final soundtrack. But with the score, when you’re mixing to picture, which happens often, you’re aiming to highlight the things happening on screen.

How did you go about mixing the low-end on “The Social Network” score?

Sonically, the music was already in the place it needed to be when it got to me, so most of the credit goes to Atticus and Trent; they’re building their mixes as they go along. The main thing for me was to not mess it up. In terms of low-end, they’re also masters of the modular synth, which naturally produces a much richer, fuller low-end than other synths. After that, it’s all about controlling it so that it doesn’t become dissonant unless we want it to.

Let’s talk about your studio setup. How have you adjusted to the digital revolution in audio, in terms of creating a hybrid setup?

I kind of work the same way Tony Maserati does. I have a Dangerous 2-Bus that goes to a master compressor, and then to my Inward Connections EQs, and back into Pro Tools. I have all my analog gear on inserts, and can print things as I want. I also have some smaller mixers that sum back into the Dangerous 2-Bus for different sounds that I want.

I pretty much use Pro Tools as a storage medium and do all my processing using analog gear. My vocals might run through an LA3A and a Ward Beck EQ, and then I’ll print it so I don’t have to recall settings on the gear later. Ideally, by the time all my tracks have been run through my analog gear and printed, the mix is nearly where I want it. Also, the combination of digital and analog gives me a super-console of sorts. If I want all my channels to run through an API EQ into a Lucas Compressor, into a Ward Beck EQ and then my Inward Connections gear, I can do that with every single channel, whereas in the old days you’d have to commit your gear to one audio source each.

I do think there’s some further variant of the analog-digital hybrid setup to be created, though I’m not sure exactly what it will be. The introduction of automation is what defined the modern mixer, since it allowed us to change things automatically as the song progressed, instead of having an engineer ask his assistant to grab some faders and pull them up or down at certain points. When the technology evolved to the point where you could rewind a song, adjust the mix, then move to another point and adjust it further, things changed. Bob Clearmountain was the first mixer to really take make a name for himself doing that, and now that everyone in the world has access to that technology, I think we might be entering a Golden Age of mixing.

Let me ask about some of your favorite tools for mixing certain things:

Digital EQ for high-end frequencies: DMG Equilibrium. Equilibrium is the best overall EQ around. What it can do is incredible.

Any EQ for Low-end: You can’t go wrong with a Pultec, or the UAD Harrison 32C or McDSP’s Filterbank. When I’m dealing with a lot of low or high end, I’ll run it through analog gear first, and then use plugins for cutting and boosting mid-range frequencies, which I’ll do with the Waves C6 or the McDSP ML4000, since they’re multi-band compressors that work great for ducking certain frequencies that you don’t want removed altogether.

Drum group compression: I’ll go from the Soundtoys Decapitator, into the TG1 Limiter, into the ML4000 and then into the Sonnox Inflator. I’ll use a Distressor and the Inward Connections Vac Rac for parallel processing as well. But the more compression I do on the groups, the less I can do on the stereo bus.

Reverb: Valhalla. They make the most interesting reverbs out there. Vahalla reverbs are all over “The Social Network” soundtrack, by the way.

Master Buss: The signal goes from the Dangerous 2-Bus into the Vac Rac, and then into the Inward Connnections DEQ-1 for some low and high-end boost, and then into Thermionic’s Culture The Phoenix. The UAD Ampex ATR does something similar to tape, so I use it for that effect. For dynamic EQing I’ll use the ML4000, and send it into the Sonnox Inflator and a few other things.

I don’t use all that stuff for dynamics, but rather for character. I don’t EQ much on the stereo buss either, but if I do, I’ll mostly use the DMG Equilibrium.

Awesome. Can I end by asking what are you’re working on currently?

I’m producing a band with Nic Jodoin called Saybia, who are an amazing band from Denmark. I recently did more soundtrack stuff with Atticus as well as with another composer I love, Rob Simonsen, as well as mixing a record for a band called The Bots. I also recently mixed a Danish artist called , who’s doing really well right now and has a great album. I’m also mixing some songs for an artist I love, called Malea, and did I some live work with Nine Inch Nails over the last year, mixing the broadcast feed at their festivals gigs all over the world. So there’s a lot keeping me busy these days.