Interview: Mixer/Producer – Michael Patterson

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(photo by Debe Arlook)

Being such an avid fan of the Social Network soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, I tracked down the guy who mixed the record, Michael Patterson, only to find out that he also mixed "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" soundtrack, some of Limp Bizkit's best-selling albums, Nine Inch Nails material and was involved in a whole lot of 90s Bad Boy albums, from Jay Z's to Biggie's, and Lil Kim'sWith production and engineering for bands like Duran Duran and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, there's no shortage of diversity on his resume. After some months of back and forth we met up at Ocean Way Studios for an interview.

Hi Michael. Thanks for having me over to chat. Let's start by talking about your beginnings. Did hailing from Memphis, Tennessee, play a part in your musical upbringing? Also, what were some of your early pro audio experiences at that time?

Absolutely. My parents owned a head shop and waterbed stores at the time, so there were always creative types hanging around. Even when I go back now, I find 20 different clubs playing music and an amazing art scene. There was definitely a down period where Beale Street was dead, but there’s been a resurgence over the last 15 that’s turned it into a mini-New Orleans of sorts. It’s a music town for sure, and one of the interesting things about it is the presence of tension (and love) between black and white cultures. Elvis, who was basically an RnB artist in his day, is an example of that. There was a similar kind of tension between urban and white Memphis music when I was growing up which made it a very interesting time in Memphis history. As far as my first experiences with pro audio, I was taken to a party with my parents when I was 9 or 10. 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 13, I was given a book called "Making Music" that was edited by George Martin. In it was a picture of the center of an SSL board, and upon seeing it I though, "That’s what I want to do". So since I was 12, music and the studio was always in the back of my head.

Was there any particular set of experiences that threw you into the profession of mixing or producing after your interest had been piqued? Or was it a deliberate move on your part to get involved in this line of work?

It’s all been an accident. Most things happen as they should, without much effort by me, funnily enough. There was a time when my cousin was in a popular band in high school; he was 17 and I was 15. I convinced my dad to buy me a keyboard because my cousin’s keyboard player had quit, and I wanted to replace him so I could get the girls. I had a cheap Casio from the mall up until then but because I read keyboard magazine every month I was pretty up on everything going on in the synth world. I think at that time I knew the name of every synth programmer who was working. While other kids looked up to Jordan I looked up to Jeff Bova, Jimmy Bralower, and Michael Boddicker. I had to choose between a Yamaha DX7 or the Ensoniq ESQ-1. Had I gotten the DX7, I would not be doing this today. I’d be doing something else in an alternate life. But I chose the ESQ-1, which was one of the only keyboards with a built-in sequencer. So I was able to record things with that.

Following that, something coincidental happened. Because my parents owned a head shop and advertised on the rock radio station a lot, they were given a trip to China by the station. 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 of his band’s music?". I wasn't in a band at the time so watched the show for a few weeks, wrote a bunch of music that sounded like what was on the show, 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 Recording, a great place that’s not around anymore, 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.

You also ended up getting involved with different music camps, such as Diddy's Bad Boy and Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nail. 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 Chip from the group Highland Place Mobsters was with us, singing background vocals on a song or two.  So he took a cassette down to Atlanta and played it for Dallas Austin, He liked it, and suggested Arnold move to Atlanta to work with him and Arnold took me along, which we did in 1991. I had been going to goth clubs and night and going urban in the studio in the days so I think the sound we came up with was kind of an urban/industrial hybrid which is what I think attracted Dallas as he is basically a skate punk who likes the same things I do.

Clive Davis had given Dallas a label, Rowdy Records. The first two things he signed was Muzza Chunka, a punk band from LA, and Illegal, a hardcore teen rap duo. Clive was like “What the are you doing? I gave you this deal to make urban hits”, and basically shut him down until he did the Monica album. Keep in mind that during this time I think Dallas wanted to sign Beck from Motherload (Muzza Chunka was a band Dallas got from Motherload) and Clive shut him down. Oh well. So I was in that camp working on tracks with Arnold. During this time we started working with the group 112 who were unsigned at the time, after they got signed to Bad Boy, Arnold and I went up there for a month to work on tracks for them which is when I first met Puffy. His studio, “Daddy’s House”, had just opened up so we were some of the first people to use it. We stayed in the SSL room for the month. It’s still my favorite room and board anywhere in the world.  At the end of the month Puffy said to me, "Arnold is going to sign to me as a producer and I normally have three different guys do the engineering, programming, and mixing but you can do all of that. Why don’t you just move up here and do all my records ?". So that’s how it started.

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 the busiest times had 6 rooms around town filled with rental gear and engineers. Whereas today they might sit in a room or office with an M-Box and loop a beat for a rapper to pen lyrics to, back then you’d have to rent a studio space and have 24-track tapes looping. So you’d have to spend $5000 a day just for a guy to write lyrics, which is crazy. But at that point Puffy had erupted his Arista Records deal with a $20 million dollar advance. In fact, I think he renegotiated his deal 3 times in the first year because he just kept having hits. For the first 6 months or so I would go between Atlanta and NYC until I was sure it would work out and then Kristina and I moved to NYC and got in deep, because there’s no other world than Puffy-world when you’re involved in his projects. It’s all-encompassing in the best way possible.

You have credits on TLC and Jay Z albums from that period, as well as Beck's "Midnite Vultures". Can you talk about that work came about?

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, and Puffy was producing some stuff on Jay Z’s "Vol 1". Most hip-hop projects from that period were Puffy-related in some way.

Even Beck, 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 going to drive to Philly and see Beck". So we drive there, and get there about halfway through the show and it was amazing. 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, “Okaaaaay. It’s 12am in Philadelphia though…”. 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, "I can’t. I’m just an intern. I don’t know how to do it this late". I said "I have Puffy and Beck here, and we need to use a studio right now, so we need 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 he was the only one there and sort of knew how to use the Euphonix so we went with it. Deric Angelettie, "D Dot", was with us and he started working with Beck on some ideas and beats. Around 5am 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, so we spent the next hour getting levels, EQ and routing again, and then tracked it to tape. At 10am the next day we went over to Boys II Men’s studio to finish it, and do another one. Those tracks never came out, but I would love to hear the them again.

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 “ok“. I flew out and mixed 3 songs on the "Midnite Vultures" album, and they liked it, so I came back 3 weeks later to mix the entire album. During this time I was also getting more involved with Bad Boy, which was great, but it wasn’t where my head was at so I decided to move to LA just after the Beck record finished. I told Puffy, "I’ll be working in LA for two weeks, then I can come back to New York for 2 weeks and work on your stuff and alternate very two weeks", but of course the second I moved to LA, I got a record that would take 3 months. At the time I felt the only way for me to make my own way was to get out of the Puffy world and then come back later once I’d done that. Also, that was a time period where Linkin Park and alternative music was looking to the urban scene in NYC for inspiration, so the Beck album was the transition for me between hip-hop and alternative music, so the timing was perfect.

So working on alternative music is what led to mixing records on the Limp Bizkit 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 the single at Conway Recording Studios, which had a Neve VR console which oddly enough was a console I fell in love with a Puffy’s studio after hating on it for so long.

When you work on an album like Limp Bizkit's "Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water", which went on to sell 20+ million copies, how does that affect your career as a mixer/producer?

Well, I got paid a fee for my mix, and I got a point for mixing it. 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. Beyond the money I got to work on a cool record with Fred who is much like Puffy in his work ethic and vision.

Given your background in mixing music 20 years ago, as well as mixing music today, what were some of the things that you learned about working on 90s hip-hop that improved your mixing abilities?

It’s interesting, because I didn’t really know what I was doing back then, and I still don’t. Part of the reason for that is I never was an assistant. If you’re an assistant to a mixer, you learned their techniques and tricks. For me, I’m still learning how my peers do what they do. So 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 to the average person. The reason why he is who he is 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 that and push that sound up", 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 for myself. Plus in NYC I had amazing people like Paul Logus, Tony Maserati, Rich Travali, and Prince Charles Alexander to learn from. I used to go in their rooms when they were not around and study how they had their console set up and what they were doing for each mix. I used to study recall sheets and steal their ideas. Sorry guys!

And once you went on to do alternative music in LA, leaving behind Bad Boy, how did you compensate for the lack of Puffy's gut feelings for finishing records?

When I was in Memphis, I was making music that could be considered my college education. Working with Dallas 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 that the guy who made the beat, or the producer, usually isn’t around after he tracks the beat. 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 for the best so my instincts were pretty good at that point.

In LA I got to work with people like Beck, he had very definite ideas as the people who are true artist do about their music. Everyone who’s great does. He’d say, "If something sounds crazy and out of place, make it loud. I hear things like that, don’t worry about it". And it would sound great.

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

I was a long-time fan of his, for starters. I’ve only really ever written down things I wanted to do in my life and that was when I was 22, 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?

There was a record I mixed for a band called Ringside, which had come about because of Fred Durst, who had signed them. 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. In the middle of the mix, he brings over a band who he was about to sign, called She Wants Revenge. One of the my favorite records that I’ve worked on is their first self-titled album. Back in the day, one of the guys from the band, 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 asks me if I want to do a  test mixing a project he was working on. So he sent over a cue, and I mixed it, and then he sent over another one, and I did that too, after which he invited me to Trent’s place, where they were working on The Social Network soundtrack. So I go over in 2009 and meet Trent and away we went.

Another engineer and mixer, Steve Duda, once said in an interview that when the average person listens to music, his brain separates sounds into the realm of "vocals" and "everything else", implying that most people listen to music passively. Using that as a basis, 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 priority there is different than that for a soundtrack where other artist’s songs are used. For “The Social Network”, we spent about 2 weeks after the score had been completed to add musical elements with a soundtrack. But with the score, when you’re mixing to picture, which happens often, you’re aiming to highlight the things happening on screen.

Speaking of "The Social Network", I have to ask how you went about mixing the low-end on that score. It's massive.

Most of the credit for that goes to Atticus and Trent. Sonically, it was already in the place it needed to be. The main thing for me was to try to not mess it up. They’re building their mixes as they go along. 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 which for that score happened when needed.

In keeping with the theme of mixing, let's talk about your studio setup. How have you gone about accommodating the digital revolution in audio, in terms of creating a hybrid setup of analog and digital?

I kind of work the same way Tony Maserati does. I have a Dangerous 2-Bus that goes to a compressor on the stereo buss, and then to my Inward Connections EQs back into Pro Tools. I have all my analog gear on inserts, and can print things as I want. I sum so I can run various compressors and EQs in parallel. I also have some funky smaller mixers that sum back into the Dangerous for different sounds. 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 Ward Beck EQ, and once I print it, it’s not going anywhere and I don’t have to recall setting. So 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 War Beck EQ and then my TSL, 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, or ask the band members to play a certain way for dynamic effect. When you could rewind a song, adjust mix, move to another point and adjust it further, things changed, and Bob Clearmountain was the first to really take make a name for doing that. And now that everyone in the world has access to the technology that would make them a mixer, 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.

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 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 TSL for parallel processing as well. The TG1 is a new one for me. I’ve been compressing more than I ever have. But the more I do on the groups, the less I can do on the stereo bus.

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

Master Buss: Dangerous 2-Bus, into the TSL, into the Vac Rac EQ for low and high-end boost, then into The Phoenix. The UAD Ampex ATR does something similar to tape so I use it for that. For dynamic EQing I’ll use the ML400, and send it into the Inflator which goes into a few other things.

I don’t use all that stuff for levels, but rather for character. I don’t EQ much on the stereo buss, but if I do, I’ll use the EQ plugin is the DMG Audio Equilibrium.

Awesome. Well, that makes for a pretty long talk about your work. Can I end by asking what are your 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 mixed a record for a band called The Bots. I also recently mixed a Danish artist called , whose doing really well right now and has a great album. I also am mixing some songs for an artist I love, Malea. I also did some live work with Nine Inch Nails over the last year mixing the broadcast feed for festivals all over the world. There’s a lot keeping me busy these days.

SamInterview: Mixer/Producer – Michael Patterson

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