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  • 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 Problems”).

    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 again.

    BLUE: When have you consciously tried something out-of-the-ordinary that also worked?
    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 the
    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 happen easily.

    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.)


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