BOB CLEARMOUNTAIN: Master Mixer
Interview | Producer
Legendary US record producer Bob Clearmountain undoubtedly has his name on more hit records than anyone else in the history of popular music. Dave Lockwood asks the man who invented the role of ‘specialist hit mixer’ to reveal the secrets of his success.
Bob Clearmountain has a career credits list that reads like a Who’s Who of rock music since the mid-’70s. Starting out as an assistant engineer, he soon followed the logical career progression to engineer and then to the producer’s chair, before becoming perhaps the record industry’s first acknowledged specialist mixing engineer. Clearmountain obviously settled very comfortably into the role – he readily admits that he enjoys the mixing stage far more than doing the whole producer’s job – turning out a seemingly endless string of hits through the ’80s and ’90s. Indeed, there was a time when it almost seemed as if nobody but Bob Clearmountain could mix rock albums that would become international best sellers, and I would guess that there are few record buyers with collections running to three figures who don’t actually possess something with his name on it.
Despite the prominence of his work, however, for much of his career, he has seemed something of a reclusive figure, rarely interviewed, and photographed still less. I have to admit, I always imagined that this was a cultivated image, maintaining an air of mystery to perpetuate the idea of the golden-eared hit maker with the magic touch on the faders. The reality, sitting across the table from me, dispels the myth immediately. Clearmountain is quietly spoken, disarmingly frank about his apprehension at the prospect of being interviewed, but above all he comes across as entirely without pretension – almost humble in the way he speaks of his own achievements.
He is happy to talk about his mixing techniques, however, despite seeming genuinely surprised at the idea that anybody might be interested in his views on the matter! On the surface, the ‘method that launched a thousand hits’ appears to amount to no more than: mix quickly; don’t listen to any part in isolation for too long; mix quietly on small speakers; and take a break now and again! It’s typically Clearmountain that he should want to so understate his contribution. The reality is that the true artistry in his work lies in his ability to get inside a song, a lyric, an artist, to bring out everything that needs to be there and nothing that doesn’t, thereby allowing the work to properly communicate to the listener whatever it is that it has to offer. And not just once, not just with a small clique of people that he happens to connect with, but time after time, with a succession of different artists encompassing an extraordinary range of musical genres. That, I believe, takes a rare sensitivity and a quite unique talent.