A native of Hamilton, ON, Mark Howard has enjoyed a legendary studio career. Often working as a team with producer Daniel Lanois, Howard has engineered classic albums by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Waits, REM, U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Willie Nelson, The Tragically Hip, Lucinda Williams, and many more.
PS: Do you consider yourself to have a signature sound and, if so, how do you get it?
Mark Howard: I definitely have created my own sound because the way I mix, it’s about depth of field. A lot of records are mixed with a lot of compression and everything is pushed right to the front. With mine, you’ll have things panned to the right with a lot of reverb and it almost sounds really far away. It’s like you can put your hand into there and grab stuff. There’s depth with some things up close and some things far away. That’s why, for example, Time Out of Mind sounds like that. Some things are really sort of ambient and with other things, [Bob Dylan’s] voice is really in your face. That carried on with the Tom Waits record and so on.
So, I’ve definitely got my own sound and some people love it and some people hate it. I’ve never swerved from it. Making all those records with Dan [Lanois] and everybody, nobody has ever told me, like, ‘Put this kind of reverb on my voice’ or ‘make it sound like this’ or ‘compress it.’ I’ve always done it my way, but some of these younger bands are like, ‘Put the compressor on this track and do that.’
You know, I am kind of anti-compression. I am the compressor. So, when I mix it, things are dynamic and I bring this up and down and back and in and out. It’s me doing it, whereas with a compressor, it’s at the top and everything is squished and that is kind of the sound that people are familiar with on all these modern records. But that’s just the way I like to make [records].
I also like to record live-off-the-floor with a band and no headphones and everyone listens to the speakers and it’s really loud. What happens is, if you’re singing along to the speakers, you’re getting sound pressure, but if you have headphones on, suddenly your pitch is a bit funny because the sound is in your ears. So, I use a lot of handheld [Shure] Beta 58s for vocals and stuff.
PS: When accepting the 1998 Grammy Award for Album of the Year for Time Out of Mind, Bob Dylan said from the stage, “Mark Howard – can’t forget that; we got a particular type of sound on this record, which you don’t get every day.” But you’ve actually said you weren’t thrilled with the sound on that record. So how did you get that album’s sound and what didn’t you like about it?
MH: At the Teatro [the studio Howard built in an abandoned 1920s theatre] there was this amazing sound. It was incredible. Bob would just go to the piano and sing and it would just come back magical. Whereas when we got back to [the studio in] Miami, we had like 15 people in the room, and it was spitty and boomy and almost bombastic. So, I had to work out a way to control it. I was working with two drummers playing at the same time and we were working on a 24-track tape recorder, so you’re limited to tracking. I had to use just a stereo mic between the two drum sets and then just mic each kick drum. That’s the drum sound.
Then Bob wouldn’t wear headphones so I had to have speakers in front of him so he could hear himself. I had this thing called the vocal amp. I invented this sound for that record where I would take the vocal mic and pump it through like a little [Ibanez] Tube Screamer guitar pedal and then that would go into a tweed amp. So, you’d have this distorted voice in there. I would have Bob’s clean voice on a channel and then I’d have the amp vocal on a channel.
We came back into listen in Miami and he goes, "What’s the percentage of amp to clean vocal?" I said, "It’s 50/50." He goes, "Make it 60/40." He wanted it dirtier over cleaner. So, when you listen to that record, the vocal is pretty cool sounding. You know, it started a trend of people overdriving the vocal and next thing you know, everybody’s doing it [laughs].