Paul Leary

Recording/Mix Engineer Sublime, U2, Butthole Surfers, Meat Puppets, Passafire


Interview with Will Kahn for Burl Audio 2012

We found Paul through the band The Expendibles. I saw them at the Vans Warped Tour and was telling them about Burl and that we would like to help them record in Santa Cruz. Once we learned that Paul was working with them, and we heard that he used the UA 2192 (also designed by Rich Williams) , we were excited to reach out to him. I read through his credits and saw many albums that I listened to in high school. In particular “Sublime” which we still listen to the LP at our offices. Rich also was deeply influenced by Paul’s work on “Sublime” and also recorded the Expendibles for their first albums.

You started out playing guitar with the Butthole Surfers. How did you get started in becoming a producer/mixer?

Well, with the Butthole Surfers, we didn’t have money to record. The first couple records we recorded were at the cheapest studio in the world. You know, just incredibly cheap. And I kept my eyes open to try to watch what was going on. You know, I thought that this Trident board we had was like a spaceship… Just getting to figure all that stuff out… And then as we started buying all our own recording equipment, I was the guy in the band who really took the time to figure it out and use it. So I just ended up recording the Butthole Surfers. And then I recorded this bluegrass band we had in town, named the Bad Livers and I really liked them a lot and I wanted to produce them. And I got the job producing them by fronting the money to rent the studio.

And then the Meat Puppets were going to record To High To Die, and they knew that we had worked with John Paul Jones. And they wanted to see if we would pass their demo to him to see if he would be interested in producing them. And I had been playing the Meat Puppets for John Paul Jones a lot, and sent him the music and he passed on it, which really kind of surprised me. And so I told the Meat Puppets and then they asked if I was interested.

And I said “sure” and they told me they liked the bluegrass record by the Bad Livers enough to give me a try. And that’s where I got my first label production job. And then I got really lucky with that. It went gold and had a radio hit.

Then I was working with the Meat Puppets on their next record, I was in Phoenix. I was driving along in a rental car and this AM radio station was playing “Date Rape” by Sublime like 100 times a day. And at the end of that session I got a call by my agent seeing if I was interested in working with this band called Sublime. And I was all freaked out about it cause I love that song and it turns out that they love the Meat Puppets. And so that’s how that all unwound.

Sublime had been working with David Kahne. Then they decided that they wanted something a little more live sounding- like what they sounded like live, and that’s where they got the idea to call me.

Right on! So why did Sublime contact you when they decided they wanted a live sound?

It’s because they liked the Meat Puppets album. And the Meat Puppets liked the bluegrass album that I paid to produce. So that was a really good investment for me.

OK! I’m taking notes! That’s great. And then I see U2 on  here. What was your gig with them?

Oh I was a mix engineer for a remix of a song called Elevation. The remix was produced by Chris Vrenna, who used to be the drummer for Nine Inch Nails. And he does a whole lot of remix and all kind of other stuff these days. I was the mix engineer for the remix. And when he does a remix, he does a lot of re-recording of guitars and drums and things. And the band liked what he did but they wanted to do it themselves. So the band flew out to Los Angeles, and we rented time at Trident Studios with them and recorded them the new parts of the song, and then sat there and mixed it on the spot and it was used in the movie Tomb Raider, I think that was the name of that movie…. It was just a one song deal.

Yes. I’ve heard people say that U2 was the best show they’ve ever seen. I just was watching some footage of them in the 90s. Fucking awesome, actually.

Yeah, they’re players. They can do it. I got to witness! I mean, they didn’t need lots of takes or anything.

Now it seems that you have bands like Pepper, the Expendibles, Slightly Stoopid, and then again Sublime with Rome. It seems that there is still a lot of bands in the “Sublime” vein that seek you out for your work. You are still in demand for the genre that Sublime ignited, maybe

I’d say there’s a lot of that, but the band I’ve worked with most recently is the band Passafire.  That record came out pretty good.

Yes, I’m hearing a similar Reggae/Rock takeoff of Jamaican reggae, but in a new way. To me, Sublime didn’t just try to play Jamaican Reggae, they were ska, rock, punk and all these things in between. Wouldn’t you say that Passafire is in that same vein?

Yeah, absolutely.

Well you got a good thing going.

Well, I have to admit that there was a long period of time where I feel like I was transitioning from the silent movies to the talkies. Because my early success was on 2″ tape. And then working with Pro Tools there was a lot of struggling. And that’s really one of the reasons that I’m so excited about the Mothership. Because now it feels like a lot of that struggle has just been taken away.

So you used to work with 2″ tape? Can you talk a little more about that?

Well in the old days, before Pro Tools, you set it up and did it, and punching was a scary thing to do because it was destructive. And vocal comping, and stuff like that, you know, you were lucky if you had 2 or 3 tracks left over on a multi-track reel to do vocals. But I was lucky to work with a lot of good musicians. Like the Sublime record, a lot of that stuff was tracked live, even the vocals. It was hard to get them to overdub stuff. And that was the beauty of that.

And you used to dream of Pro Tools. And then it came, and then you had to work and struggle to make it sound right. And then people started playing worse than they used to. You know, they play it a couple of times and then you can put it together. And, the way Pro Tools sounds, and why it wasn’t working for Rich, and why he did what he did, I had a 192 in my home room. And I had a mix that I in my room when I got the Mothership and I just stuck the Mothership in there, so I had 2 identical mixes, except for the converter, and it took less than 2 measures to hear the difference. OH MAN!

And it kind of came on in phases. At first, it was the top end. The hi hat doesn’t bother me and the ride doesn’t sound like sticking an ice pick in my ear. It was smooth and pleasing. It had characteristics like 2192 had that I liked so much, but it was amplified because of the outputs. You know, previously I was using my 2192 to bring my analog mix back into Pro Tools. And that was a really great sounding but the Mothership is just like, the whole thing in one neat package.

And after I got over the high end, and how pleasing and musical it was, i started noticing the low end. I always hated working with the low end in Pro Tools… It always felt lumpy and ill defined. And then all of a sudden the low end came into better focus, and now I didn’t have to struggle as much.

And then I started feeling some love on the mid range as well. It’s just a good sounding unit, and it reminds me of tape. It just lifts a weight off me.

And that’s the goal for sure. If you just use the right stuff, it sounds good! We still think that the 2″ machines just have something extra. If we really do a recording seriously in our studio, we record to 2″ (Studer A800 MKIII) and transfer into the Mothership. It’s just the best sounding digital recording we have found. But still, we never tell people that it doesn’t sound exactly like tape…. But it’s very similar.

Exactly… You know,  but tape still has it’s quirks, and if you’re using it you’ve gotta spend time doing transfers, and just getting the right tape… I haven’t bough tape lately, but what’s it called? Is it ATR that makes tape now?

You know, we actually recycle a lot of our old tape…

Yeah, sometimes you buy a reel of tape and you bias it, and by the end of the tape the bias is wack. And sometimes you just can’t align those tapes, it might be a bad batch or whatever. The important part is just sounding good to the ear. You know, whatever it is that you did that just makes it sound musical, and that low end that all of a sudden makes more sense. And that’s just wonderful. To me that is the main stuff about tape that I missed.

Well part of it is phase response. Rich has figured out a way to make it sound right. It feels right. I can’t describe it, but it took a while to get it right… but the lows, the mids, the highs… They all hit you at the right time.

Well, I don’t understand the technicalities, but that makes sense from what it sounds like cause my new thing has been so much quicker and so much fun. It just feels more glued together, like it hasn’t been taken apart.

Rich used to record on a Studer and a Neve. And when the band came back in to listen, it already sounded like an album. Then digital came in, and you had to do all this fixing. And there is the element that you brought up that musicians aren’t as good anymore. I’ve literally had vocalists in the middle of a take say:”Can’t you just loop that?” We really love live musicians who can play, then you get it sounding good, and move on.

Yeah! Move on! And you know the more you work on it, it doesn’t help at all! That’s why you like first takes.

Well, we are thrilled to have you loving the Mothership and using it. What kind of board do you use?

At home I have one of those Inward Connections 16 channel summing devices. One thing that I always liked, is that Sublime album was recorded on an old class A Neve. Then we overdubbed and mixed on an old API and I really got used to how it sounded on the monitor side of the API which didn’t have faders or EQs or any of that stuff… and then you switch over to the other side of the board when you mix and you hear a little degradation of the audio just because it’s going through more stuff in it’s circuitry. So I always admired the monitor side of the API, and I figure the Inner Connection was the closest I could get to the API, and it’s really worked out well for me.

I do a hybrid stem-style of mixing. I have a bunch of cool analog gear that I love, and so I just bring it out, run through the analog, then through the Inward Connections and back in.

Do you do a lot of big studio work still?

Oh yeah, a place I’ve been working out of a lot lately is in west Texas, called Sonic Ranch.  We did the Sublime with Rome album earlier this year.  And after that I did the Passafire album.  And I’m getting ready to go back out there next week with the Madden brothers, for a band called Good Charlotte… And I love working there. He’s got 3 great boards in his different rooms, and it’s a great place to work. I’m excited to get the owner of Sonic Ranch excited on Burl. I’d love to see him put some Motherships in there.

Yes! The Motherships are really made for those big rooms… of course also users such as yourself use it and love it. But it’s great to see it go to work in big rooms with real analog consoles. In those rooms, there’s just a feeling. We are really into that feeling that you can’t describe. Hardware gives you a certain feeling.

Yeah, I have 16 channel summing device, so I basically do the same thing to all my mixes, so I know what’s going to happen. I have a lot of tubes in my setup.

We have our go to pieces of equipment for sure… On another note, do you mix most of the things you produce?

Well, I do it all different ways. Like the Sublime with Rome I pretty much recorded it and then sent it off to Mario Caldato Jr. to mix. And then the Passafire record we recorded and mixed in 20 days over there at Sonic Ranch, on some ridiculous sized 80 channel Neve one of those A/B class boards, one of the last hand wired boards that they made. But after I recorded I turned half the console off and reduced it down to as few channels as I could put in there and did my usual thing.

It sounds like you don’t bring your own mic pre’s if you have a board like that…

No, just get me somewhere with a Neve…

Well, you can do a lot worse than that!

Yeah, if you’re gonna track drums or something, it’s always good to start with an old Neve…

Well, I think the Mothership is the coolest thing since sliced bread. Period. It’s the one thing in my life, I mean, I love all my analog gear, I love everything I own, but considering how long I’ve felt’s like I’ve struggled with Pro Tools since it came out, it’s just the most revolutionary thing, period. I think it’s going to go great…

At Burl, we don’t have a fancy marketing ploy, we just let the sound speak for it’s self.

Well, I think that’s going to take it far. I mean once you hear it, and once you hear about it; you know, I bought the thing sound unheard just knowing how much I loved the 2192. And it’s been better for me than I was hoping it would be….

When Rich started Burl, he had previously made the 2192 for UA. And when he started at UA, he took that very seriously. He said to himself “I need to make the next 1176”. He worked his ass off… went way above and beyond to make sure that the quality was top notch.  And when he started Burl Audio, he had to spend a few years really eating shit to get this company off the ground, before it had the type of acceptance we have today. And I’ve told Rich all the time,  “Man, I’m just FUCKED, because I can’t go back now…

There is NO going back. It actually really inspired me. After I started listening to it, I decided to get rid of all my ported monitors, and I got me a set of those Barefoots, and I’m just having more fun than I’ve ever had in my life. And every time I put a mix up it’s not a struggle anymore, it’s all fun part now.

Well that’s really great to hear!

I think it’s good for the business, because, man, I don’t know about you, but listening to music these days isn’t always fun.

Yeah, I’m with you 100%

It’s all about the quality of music and how it sounds that I find almost offensive. And I think that the Mothership is going to become the studio standard. And there will probably be imitators and all that before it’s over, but it’s hopefully going to restore some of the joy back into music. It’s beyond inventing an 1176, it’s way beyond that!

Well, I think when he said that, that’s the level he was talking about the quality and level of dedication Bill Putnam Sr. put into his products…

It’s just a home run. I think you’re on to something that’s really going to change things. You know, I want every studio I work in to have one of these things.

That is certainly our goal, and Rich will be stoked to hear your response to his product.

Well that’s flattering to hear. Just hope that I get me some multi-platinum records! That would vindicate everything I say! (Laughter)

Well, there’s a lot of stuff that you have in your back pocket that you haven’t thought of for a while, that for my generation, back in the 90s when we were in high school… That was a real rich time back in the 90s.

Yes, the 90s was a strange journey. It was particularly strange for me. You know, I started out in the early 80s, you know, the Butthole Surfers started in ’81. And I was just pissed off that I didn’t have a job, and I thought, I’m going to make the worst music in the world, then. Next thing you know, the way stuff unwinds, it doesn’t make sense and I don’t have any idea how it all came down, and I never even wanted to be a musician, you know, I just wanted to be a stock broker, I just wasn’t any good at it. (Laughter)

Well, I’m glad you are here doing what you are doing…

Thanks to Paul Leary for his time and his kind words. Paul Leary is Burly!