The Sound of Music
David Thoener works at Ocean Way Recording Studios of Nashville, Tennessee. Image-- courtesy of Mr. David Thoener.
As a master recording studio engineer, the work of David Thoener has produced countless hit songs for a wide variety of artists and performers throughout a career that has spanned from 1973 to the present. His work has earned him three Grammy-Awards and the respect of his peers. It has also earned him critical acclaim. But, the sound of David Thoener was forged during the mid to late-1970s while learning techniques from the master engineers of the 1950s and 1960s, working with the J.Geils Band on a number of innovative-sounding projects, and through his work with pioneering rock and pop producers such as Robert “Mutt: Lange. His work with the J. Geils Band perhaps gave us the formative sounds of the fun pop music of the 1980s, while his pioneering work on the AC/DC album, For Those About to Rock, may have also helped to generate the new sounds of the harder and edgier style of rock of the decade. From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, it was the big ballad sound of David Thoener’s engineering which both resurrected the careers of artists and dominated the airwaves. His work at the dawn of a new century would give Aerosmith its only number-one single of its long and storied career as an iconic and beloved American musical act, while his work on the album Supernatural with Santana and in particular, featuring Rob Thomas on the hit single “Smooth,” would bring popular music into a new century and win him the critical acclaim as a master recording studio engineer that he had long deserved.
The sound of David Thoener comes from his work in the recording studio. Through interviews, articles, and working with him on a pair of recording sessions, I am going to make the attempt to shed some light on how this phenomenal engineer has created the sounds that generations of music lovers have come to listen to and to cherish. In a separate article, I explore what it is like to work with David Thoener in the recording studio environment. In this feature, I am going to give you an inside glimpse into the great recordings of his career and some of his favorite microphones and gear that he has used throughout his career as a legendary master recording studio engineer.
Above: David Thoener mixed the J. Geils Band album, Monkey Island in 1976 on the Trident TSM console at the Record Plant in New York City. Image-- courtesy of Mr. David Thoener.
Below: David Thoener mixed the ground-breaking J. Geils Band album, Freeze Frame in 1980 and took advantage of the vast array of outboard gear that was available at the Record Plant in New York City to create the revolutionary sounds that can be heard on the record. In the picture is the keyboard player and the producer of the J. Geils Band, Seth Justman. Image-- courtesy of Mr. David Thoener.
The powerful, but clean— drum, electric guitar, and vocal sounds, along with the fun-loving keyboard sounds, that would characterize both the pop and rock music of the 1980s, had their true genesis with the work of David Thoener and other engineers who were also experimenting with live drum and edgier guitar sounds in the late 1970s. His work with the J. Geils Band and AC/DC came at a time when disco reigned supreme in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As the J. Geils Band transformed its sound during the period, David Thoener was their groundbreaking engineer each step of the way. The first collaboration between the J. Geils Band and David Thoener was the successful album Monkey Island which was released in 1976. To obtain the revolutionary sounds of the period, David Thoener, would have to make clever use of differing locations and acoustic environments to track their projects. Even in 1976, he was challenging convention during the era of disco by recording the drums in a live room with stone walls in the back of Studio A at the Record Plant.
The success of their first collaborative effort led to working in a new recording environment, as Sanctuary would be the first of three album projects that were recorded at Longview Farms near Worcester, Massachusetts. While recording on location provided for unique challenges, including recording some of the basic tracks in a barn, the long hours of work also gave him the opportunity to push the sonic envelope as a young engineer and to develop what were distinctive new sounds.
The albums for the J Geils Band would be mixed by David Thoener at the Record Plant in New York City. While mixing their records, he would often take advantage of the ability to have access to the vast array of outboard gear that the studio facility had to offer. During the process of mixing the ground-breaking album, Freeze Frame, he brought in more than thirty pieces of outboard gear and had two twenty-four track analog machines locked together to create the fun and revolutionary sounds that you would hear on that record-- including on both of the hit singles that would appear on the album, the title track, "Freeze Frame," and "Centerfold."At the same time that British engineer and producer, Hugh Padgham, was recording pioneering drum sounds with Phil Collins, David Thoener, was also pioneering new sounds that would break the mold of the sound of the era of disco and introduce us to the harder and edgier sounds of the 1980s.
After his pioneering work with the J. Geils Band, he was asked to complete the recordings for another pioneering band, AC/DC and their album project, For Those About to Rock, for a ground-breaking producer, Robert “Mutt” Lange in 1980. While the basic drum tracks had already been recorded, David Thoener would step in and complete the recordings of the guitars and vocals. It is with AC/DC, that he would introduce us to the pioneering sounds of the electric guitars and to the (God of Thunder) drum sounds that would define the hard edge of the rock music of the 1980s. The electric guitars had a hard edge and a sizzle to them that was innovative. But, the snare drum had a bite to it that had never really been heard before until now and it drives the thunderous drum sounds of the project. This was accomplished through the use of a prototype and pioneering reverb unit, the AMS-RMX 16, which was one of the first true digital reverb units, an Eventide pitch shifter, and of course, equalization and compression during the mixing process at Battery Studios in London, in the United Kingdom.
David Thoener mixing the AC/DC album, For Those About to Rock at Battery Recording Studios in London, in the United Kingdom in 1980. Image-- courtesy of Mr. David Thoener.
In 1987, he mixed a pair of classic ballads that re-energized the careers of both Cher and Dan Hill, but, it was his work with Aerosmith that resulted in one of the classic songs in the history of popular music— “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” for the soundtrack of the film, Armageddon in 1998. For Cher, the 1987 hit classic single, “I Found Someone,” debuted David Thoener mixing a power ballad that introduced us to his ability use the ominous keyboard sounds, powerful and edgy electric guitars, and drums that had a bite and a zest to them which served to drive and support the narrative that is put forward by the lyrics of the song. A few months later, he mixed another hit song, “Can’t We Try?” for Dan Hill which was a duet with Vonda Shephard. In this song, he uses compression in a masterful way to lift the vocals, and showcases his uncanny ability to use panning, equalization and reverb to smoothen the tracks and connote a sense of time and place for the listener. But it is his work on the classic hit song, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” for Aerosmith which produced a classic hit song that is timeless.
David Thoener mixed the song, "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," for Aerosmith that would appear on the soundtrack for the popular feature film, Armageddon. Image-- courtesy of Mr. David Thoener.
The song, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” begins with the classical elements of the film score and then transitions into the Aerosmith performance, while retaining the orchestrations from the film score. It is an engineering masterpiece, in terms of the mixing performance by David Thoener. The song is a master course in how to use compression on the drums, electric guitars, piano, and vocals— it is a dynamic performance that is incomparably smooth and easy to find yourself in the midst of the story of the song. In order to do this, the song also gives us the proper sense of both balance with the instrumentation, but it is also a masterwork in another area of mix engineering that is quite often overlooked. It is a masterful use of reverb to connote a sense of time, place, and emotion in the song— or from an engineering standpoint, it is the use of reverb and compression that give us the ability to step into the story that is being told by the lyrics. A perfect example of this is when you hear the lyrics to the opening of the second verse of the song which says—
Lying close to you feeling your heart beating
As a listener, you can hear the kick drum and it is perfectly modeled after a subtle heartbeat— which is achieved through both subtle equalization and compression. The piano and the drum kit drive you through the song in a very dynamic and vibrant manner, while the electric guitars are cleverly woven together through panning, compression and reverb into the tapestry of the mix with the classical strings. But it is Steven Tyler’s dynamic vocal performance and the use of compression and reverb by David Thoener on it, which propel the narrative of the song and give it a distinctive flavor. It is a shame that we often look at experimental songs which may feature new sounds that have been created in the studio as masterworks of engineering, but it is the memorable songs that we cherish as listeners and consumers of popular culture that perhaps should have more analysis and acclaim for how each are able to make such a profound connection that has stood the test of time. Such a masterwork can only come from the dedication and creativity of a master engineer.
For David Thoener, the mixing process is the challenge of taking all of the recorded tracks and using his imagination to create a sonic field, so that the instruments can complement one another. During the mixing process, there were effects and reverb applied to the vocals and all of the instrumentation for sure, but it is the use of compression once again that should be emphasized to those who love the process of music recording. Along with equalization, compression is used sparingly to smoothen throughout the mix. He uses compression as a tool rather than as an effect, but he never applies it so that it will take away from the dynamics of the song. His use of panning for rhythm guitars is famed. As far as equipment is concerned, he does like to use the Neve 33609 which is a stereo and or master buss compressor/limiter, but overall, he does not like to use a lot of equipment during the mixing process because he is so efficient and effective at using microphones and select pieces of gear during the tracking process. He loves working behind any great console and has worked in studios with Neve, Trident, API, and SSL consoles. After 2000, he has spent most of his time mixing and working through the use of Pro-Tools and software-based plug-ins. He has developed a healthy appreciation for the ability of software plug-ins to be able to capture the sound of the old analog gear through which he had done so much of his work throughout his career.
David Thoener mixes a client in Pro-Tools on an SSL console. He is a master engineer who has transitioned over time from working in an analog world to using digital audio workstations and software plug-ins. Image-- courtesy of Mr. David Thoener.
He is a perfectionist. He loves to listen to his mixes on a variety of mediums— his car, his iPhone (while going for a stroll), or even on four differing monitor systems. He will listen to the song on the differing systems, make notes on a notepad and if he is not satisfied, will go back into the studio to continue working on it until he has a finished product for the artist and the producer. He will send them multiple versions and let them choose which one they prefer and it is what becomes the master version of a particular song. It is only at this point that he can let it go.
In 1999, he tracked and mixed one of the truly great songs that would close the decade and open a new century, “Smooth,” which was a classic hit song on the critically acclaimed album, Supernatural, by Santana, which featured Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty singing the lead vocals. For his work on Supernatural, he would earn a nomination for and would win a pair of Grammy-Awards in 2000. The project was tracked at Fantasy Recording Studios in San Francisco, and then mixed at the Record Plant on the SSL 9000J console in Los Angeles, California. Though the song was started on a Sony 48-track digital machine, during the mixing process a verse vocal effect was added, and this meant that additional tracks would be needed. In order to complete the mixing process, he would have to work with Pro-Tools locked to a Sony 48-track digital machine. But, it would take less than a week to complete and is an absolute masterpiece of engineering work.
David Thoener would engineer the album, Supernatural, for Santana. His would win two Grammy-Awards for his work. Image-- courtesy of Mr. David Thoener.
Pictured here mixing on an SSL console, David Thoener, is a maestro behind any console in any recording studio facility where great music is being made. Image-- courtesy of Mr. David Thoener.
We must remember that with David Thoener, as with any great engineer, an amazing recording does not only start with selecting the right microphones for a recording task, but also in placing them so that they capture the sounds that you want to record. In his Mix Magazine interview in 2001, he detailed his microphone set-up for recording the song, “Smooth,” for the album Supernatural and in having worked with him on a tracking session, the two set-ups were actually quite similar. I will detail his set-up on a variety of instruments from our session at Seventeen Grand Recording Studios in Nashville, Tennessee, which was recorded on 24-track analog. The project with Santana, featuring Rob Thomas, was recorded into Pro-Tools. The signal chains for the recording process for his work with Santana on the song, “Smooth” were both organic and pure. Below, I will detail how he set-up for recording our session at Seventeen Grand Recording Studios in 1998.
For tracking the drums, his set-up involved the following microphones— an AKG D112 and a Neumann FET 47 on the kick drum; a Shure SM 57 on both the top and the bottom of the snare drum; (four) Sennheiser 421 microphones on the top of the toms; a Neumann KM-84 on the hi-hat; (during our session) a pair of AKG 414 microphones on the overheads; and a pair of vintage AKG C-12 microphones as room microphones to capture the entire image of the drum kit. For the drum kit, he is very measured in his microphone placement— for him, it was an exact science. For the bass, on our session, he went direct using a Countryman DI and we did not mic the amp. With electric and steel guitars, he placed Shure SM 57 microphones on the amps. In his microphone placement, he will listen to an amp and the musician and then place the microphones— and he has it down to an art. In fact, in other interviews he has detailed how he uses a variety of different microphones, and some in combination to record the fabled electric guitar sounds for which he has become famous— these microphones may include the following: Shure SM 57s, Sennheiser 421s, Neumann U87s, and even a Neumann U67. On acoustic guitar he used an Audio-Technica 4033 for our session. On the vocals for our session, we used a vocal chain that had already been prescribed by our producer which was a Manley Gold Reference tube microphone, a John Hardy M-1 preamp and a TubeTech CL-1N compressor/limiter However, in a later interview David Thoener laid out that he liked to use tube microphones such as the Telefunken ELAM 251 or the Neumann U67 on a vocalist, but, of course, as he does with every source that he puts a microphone on to record, it all depends on which microphone is the best fit for the particular performer and what he has the access to be able to use on a session.
His microphone placement is a work of art and it is the point of origin for him to be able to record tracks that sound amazing. As I have noted earlier, he does not use a lot of gear while tracking or mixing, but he does like to use the DBX 160 compressor and the UREI 1176 compressor/limiter, if he has access to these units on both bass and electric guitar tracks. He loves to use vintage Neve gear and while working with him in 1998, he carried this small rack with him to use in his sessions. In his early recording session work, he would often work with two 24-track analog machines locked together using SMPTE time code, but, in the new century he would spend most of his time working in Pro-Tools.
The sound of David Thoener comes from the following crucial elements that each aspiring recording studio engineer must master in order to cut great tracks, develop critically acclaimed mixes, or as David Thoener has done, have a career as a legendary recording studio engineer for more than forty years of making great music that people have come to listen to and to love and to cherish. It starts with his immense knowledge and experience in how to use and apply microphones and outboard gear. He is a master at placing and using microphones and he loves to share his knowledge and expertise with others. He is a master at using preamps, equalization and compression, so much so, that you do not even notice that he is using them at all— but you will love hearing the results. While mixing, he is legendary for his use of equalization and compression, but he is also a master at balancing— the art of placing instruments in their proper place in the stereo field of a mix. In mixing, he is also a master at using reverb to give the listener a sense of time and place, so that the instrumentation and the lyrics of the song can work in perfect tandem with one another. He is a maestro behind any console.
Pictured here mixing an album for John Parr in London, in the United Kingdom, in 1980, David Thoener is a legendary recording studio engineer who has created many of the pioneering sounds of popular music. Image-- courtesy of Mr. David Thoener.
If there is an underrated quality that sets him apart from other master engineers, it is his ability to listen and his desire to constantly learn and to improve. But one does not become a legendary recording studio engineer just by being able to craft amazing songs in the studio and the control room from start to finish, it also takes the ability to forge great relationships with producers, artists, musicians, assistant engineers, and technicians, too, and he has done this successfully throughout his entire career. He is a person of tremendous character who is a joy to work with and at heart, he is an excellent teacher who loves sharing his vast knowledge and expertise with others. The sound of David Thoener is the sound of the great music that he has been able to skillfully shape, sculpt, and construct throughout his amazing career as a legendary recording studio engineer.
In this picture, David Thoener is working at Ocean Way Recording Studios-- the Church, in Nashville, Tennessee in 2011. He is an engineer whose character and leadership inspire those who work with him to give their very best every moment of each recording session when he is behind the console. Image-- courtesy of Mr. David Thoener.
Enjoy the Music from the Articles About the Life and Career of Legendary Recording Studio Engineer
With our Apple Music, Spotify or YouTube playlists, you can listen to the music from the groups and artists who were listed in the articles that have been written about the life and career of the legendary recording studio engineer, David Thoener. From 1973- to the present, he has engineered some of the greatest and most memorable songs in the history of popular music. This playlist features the songs that were discussed in the articles about his life and career as a legendary recording studio engineer and producer. On the Engineering Legend webpage, there is a much more extensive playlist on Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube that was composed by David Thoener himself for you to check-out and enjoy.