THE BLUE Q&A SESSION with Thom Russo (Michael Jackson, Janet
Jackson, Diana Ross, Cher, Babyface, Prince...)
Early in his career, Thom Russo experienced sessions with some
of the giants in pop and R&B…Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Diana
Ross, Cher, Babyface and Prince to name a few. Then in 1997 he worked on his
first Grammy-winning track, Eric Clapton’s “Change the World,”
which won for both Record and Song of the Year. Johnny Cash’s “Man
Comes Around” also snagged a Grammy nomination for Thom, while his work
with Juanes has secured four awards overall at the Latin Grammys. These days
you can never tell where Thom might leave his mark: on a rock supergroup (Audioslave),
on a soundtrack for the biggest movie ever (Sum 41’s cut on “Spider-Man”)
or on a bona fide pop music AND pop culture phenomenon (Jay-Z’s “99
BLUE: We often start off by weighing different miking approaches for different
genres -- how do you approach making the choices you do with such diverse projects?
THOM RUSSO: Well, every project has its own unique way of working and creating
its own personal sonic space and environment. Think about it: every rock band
sounds a bit different, and even pop divas have a bit of a different technique.
Therefore, you have to approach everyone and everything differently. What's
best is to have all your knowledge and tools ready and at hand, and then approach
each artist or project openly, prepared to use whatever you find the most applicable.
BLUE: How often do you actually track with EQ and compression?
THOM: Again, it really depends on the project. I would say on an overall basis,
though, a slight amount of both is commonly used -- sometimes to correct, which
is more surgically related, or sometimes to enhance, which has more to do with
the creative. And sometimes, of course, to thwart. Sometimes there's nothing
more creative than unique compression usage...it can be the most musical thing.
BLUE: In a broad sense, and then perhaps in a little more detail, how do you
go about choosing microphones?
THOM: In broadest terms, [I choose] whatever brings out the most musical and
desirable aspects of the tone. That could mean so much: that little raspy quirk
from a female voice, or that ripping midrange from a Marshall 4x12. And it really
depends...mics are obviously just like instruments. Each has its own unique
vibe and character, its own unique curve, its own unique personality.
In specifics, let's just address vocals, for example: again, each voice reacts
to all mics differently, but I try to choose one that complements the whole
spectrum of the singer. If there's a ton of 200hz on the voice, then the mix
needs to be something that is very even in that range. For vox in general, it
should be something not TOO edgy or present, believe it or not (as a lot of
mics these days are trying to do), but not too murky, either -- just a beautiful
sonic relationship is what you should always be looking for.
BLUE: We like to ask about happy accidents in the studio…
THOM: I can sight one that happened recently, and it wasn't from an instrument
at all, actually. Listen to this: I was mixing a record and had a stereo pair
of compressors patched into the console. Some way or another, my assistant threw
a bad patch, and the compressors' outputs were routed to themselves, causing
a feedback. But this was the most unique feedback I had EVER heard, and was
unbelievable when I began to tweak it.
Basically, I started to control the level of its own output that it was receiving
to feed itself back by riding the faders of the compressor returns, and the
feedback would actually CHANGE and morph into INSANELY cool tones as I moved
the faders up and down -- changing pitch, changing tone, changing mayhem. It
was simply indescribable, and something that was certainly serendipity at its
best. I used it on that record, and sampled it for future use, too. Those kinds
of things you have to capture and store/freeze, because you'll never see it
BLUE: When have you consciously tried something out-of-the-ordinary that also
THOM: Well this one's pretty simple, but still cool. On the new Audioslave record
that's just been released, we were working on vocals, and Chris Cornell wanted
a unique, ripped-up radio sound for some trippy vocal parts. We were working
at Cello Studios in LA, and we tried a couple of really crappy old condensers,
hand-helds, etc. that were lying around. Nothing was really working, and I happened
to have an old piece of equipment sitting around that is quite mind-boggling:
it's an antique Meisner portable recordable phonograph. This thing is pretty
nuts -- basically made in the late ‘40s or early ‘50s, it was a
portable cutter. It has two arms, one for the "recording" (i.e. cutting)
and one for playback. It uses old blank vinyls, and of course is only one-time
record. It's an absolute gem. Well, we ended up running some of the vocals through
that beast, and especially dug the sound of the old crystal mic that came with
phonograph. Lo-fi beyond lo-fi!
BLUE: Anything to report that seemed like a good idea at the time, but…
THOM: That one's tough, but I would have to say probably [there was] some guitar
part or guitar solo that sounded insanely cool and weird and completely unique
at the time we recorded it, but come the next day it revealed its own self-indulgent,
ego-wanking “blah” factor. You’ve gotta be careful, that can
BLUE: Have you ever tried something crazy that ended up really great but totally
different than you expected?
THOM: There was one piece of music/montage that may be the weirdest and coolest
thing I've ever created and worked on, and it was actually on a major label
release. On Macy Gray's second album "The Id," the last track on the
record is called "Forgiveness." Well, if you don't know [about Macy],
she is certainly one of the most experimental artists I've ever worked with,
and digs trying all sorts of weird stuff. She wanted that song's ending to be
something never heard before; she described it as “something that kinda
sounds like God hanging out on a space ship, thinking about new stuff.”
Well, that was our license to go absolutely nuts, and we made the trippiest
"sound collage" you could ever imagine. Feeding-back delays, strange
drum outtakes patched through guitar pedals, and even small pieces of tracks
from her previous records were cut in and tossed around in pure "Sgt. Pepper's"
manner. Really, we never expected it to work, or for anyone at the label to
ever let it get on the record. But lo and behold, everyone dug it a lot, and
it’s still something I love to check out and try to figure out what exactly
we did, and how we did it!!
BLUE: You seem to have worked with legends from almost every genre of music;
is it hard to come up with a “most memorable experience?”
THOM: Well, I have to say that my most memorable experiences are certainly
not ones that are related to issues I may be facing; they're more about the
incredible honor of working and being in the presence of amazing musicians and
artists. From hearing Eric Clapton work up a guitar part, to Johnny Cash singing
a vocal take, to Tom Morello figuring out an approach to a guitar solo, to Billy
Preston cranking out a B3 riff -- these are the most memorable experiences,
and the ones that make you realize that after all the tech talk, all the tweaking,
and all the adjusting, the only thing that really matters is THE MUSIC.
(For more information on Thom Russo, please contact Alia Fahlborg at Nettwerk
Producer Management, 310.855.0668.)