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Ed Cherney: A UA Favorite Shares His Secrets on the Art of Engineering, and Making the New Spinal Tap Record

Ed Cherney
Engineer Ed Cherney

GRAMMY® and TEC award-winning producer/engineer Ed Cherney is one of funniest people you could ever meet. He’s also one of the most talented. For those who don’t already know, Cherney is one of the great rock engineers of all time, with credits that include the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and now, Spinal Tap. Highly respected by his peers, Cherney has already amassed six GRAMMY® nominations and three wins. Most notably, he garnered a statue for engineering Eric Clapton's 1992 Record of the Year, "Tears in Heaven." In 1994, he took home the coveted Best Engineered Album award for Bonnie Raitt's Longing in Their Hearts, a year in which he, remarkably, recorded and mixed three out of the five albums nominated in that category. I spoke to him about his work on the new Spinal Tap record, Back From the Dead and his background, mentors, and use of Universal Audio gear.

Tell me about your background. How did you became an engineer? Where did you grow up?

Well, actually, I became an engineer because I knew how to drive a truck. Isn't that how everybody started? [Laughs.] I grew up in Chicago, being a big fan of R&B music. I had always studied music--piano, guitar, and stuff like that. But I really was never a great musician, and never thought that that would be a viable career--except in my imagination.

When I went to college, I didn't know what I was going to be. I think I was going to go to law school—my parents wanted me to do that. But my senior year in college, when I came home, I had some friends who had a band. They were going on a tour, and asked me if I would drive their truck. I knew how to drive a truck because I put myself through school driving a truck in the summers for my uncle. So I started driving their truck and humping their gear.

The Dimension D is one of my favorite plug-ins in the arsenal. You couldn't make a Spinal Tap record without a Dimension D. You just can't get that bass sound without some Dimension D on it.

In those days, sound systems were fairly rudimentary, and I just kind of took an interest in it. I think their mixer had quit, or was drunk and didn't show up one night. I was setting up the gear, and all of a sudden I was elected to mix the show that night. I really didn't know what I was doing, but I did it, and I was able to somehow get good balances. I guess I just had a natural affinity for it, so I started doing it more and more. At the end of the summer they went into the studio to record some demos and invited me down. I didn't even know studios existed. It just didn't even dawn on me. Then, when I walked into the studio, it was like a lightbulb went off. I knew that that's what I was supposed to be doing with my life.

You changed direction at that point?

Yeah, instead of going to law school, I enrolled in DeVry, [laughs] learned electronics, learned electricity, learned Ohm's Law, algebra. And while I was going to DeVry, I continued working with different bands. I got hired by a local P.A. company in Chicago, and I started humping their P.A. and doing monitors, and front of house for different bands that were coming through town. In the meantime I was making the rounds of all the studios, looking for a job. There weren't a lot of studios in those days. It took me a couple years, but once a month I would make the rounds of all the studios in Chicago, without a lot of luck. Getting a job in a studio was probably harder than it is today--and it's impossible today.

In the meantime, I happened to read somewhere--I think I was looking at Mix magazine, or one of those--and there was an ad for a recording course in Chicago that was being taught by Bruce Swedien. I didn't know who the hell he was, but I signed up for this recording class they had in a studio in Chicago. I paid my money, and I went, and Bruce Swedien was teaching it, talking about what he had done. I was pretty impressed. We kind of hit it off and became friends. I took the course, and I started carrying his briefcase around to different sessions in Chicago, and I'd see him all over the place. Basically, I really made a pest of myself on him.

Then one day, probably a year later, on my monthly studio rounds, I stopped at a place called Paragon Studios. I think the day before someone had quit or gotten fired, and I went in, and Bruce Swedien happened to be working there that day. They gave me a test to take and I didn't know any of the answers. But Bruce kept coming down from the studio, and he saw me. So I said, "Bruce, what's the answer to this?" And he'd give me an answer, and kind of laugh while stroking his mustache, then go back in the studio. So I put down his answer. And all the answers he gave me were wrong! [Laughs.] He was just messing with me. Anyway, I got hired that day. I got hired as an apprentice engineer at Paragon Studios in Chicago. I worked there for about three years. I started by cleaning toilets, just started at the bottom.

Ed Cherney & Spinal Tap
In the studio with Spinal Tap. Left to right: guitar tech Brett Allen,
producer/keyboards CJ Vanston, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean,
Christopher Guest, engineer Ed Cherney, assistant engineer Chris Owens
And worked your way up.

Eventually, I started to help set up for sessions in the studio, and then making tape transfers, and things like that. It was the kind of studio that really trained you. The owner of the studio was a man named Marty Feldman, and he took a great interest in the kids that he hired. It was literally an apprenticeship. You started at the very bottom, but you really learned how a studio worked, and how to set up sessions and how to record music. They were doing the Ohio Players records, and Tyrone Davis, and the Chi-Lites, and people like that. So I got to work on a lot of my favorite stuff. But they were also doing rock and roll, and they were also doing jingles every day. You might record a polka band one day, and an operatic thing the next, a rock track, an R&B track, then banjo music the next day. You really got a background in recording lots of different styles of music. And they had a really good policy there: If you fucked up, you got fired. [Laughs.] If you got through to the end of their program, you really came out knowing your stuff. I really loved being in the studio, and they couldn’t get me to leave. I preferred being in the studio to sleeping and eating, but after a couple of years of not going home, I may have got kind of burned out. I was working literally a hundred hours a week, and I think maybe I was making two dollars and change an hour. I had heard a record, it was the group Boston, and I'd never heard guitar sounds like that. I heard it and it was done at a studio in California, and I really wanted to be part of that.

So you moved out to LA?

My girlfriend and I, we just loaded up the car, and whatever didn't fit in it we left on the curb, and drove to California. When we got to Los Angeles, I went and got the Billboard Studio Directory, and started at the Ws, looking for a job in a studio. The first one I went to was Westlake. And they hired me that day. The next day, I was working as an assistant at Westlake. I think the first one I was an assistant engineer on was a tracking date on a George Duke session. Tommy Vicari was the engineer and I was just blown away by how great it sounded and how great the musicianship was and what a fabulous engineer he was (and still is). To this day I still use things I saw (and heard) him do. About a month in, who comes in and starts working? Bruce Swedien and Quincy Jones! And they were doing Michael Jackson's Off the Wall record. I became their assistant, just coincidentally. I knew that Bruce had moved out to California, but I hadn't called him. All of a sudden, it was like, hey, here I am. And I was their assistant engineer. I ended up being their assistant for about six years. On The Dude, and Lena Horne, and on Rufus and Chaka Khan, and Patti Austin, and James Ingram, among many others. They just about owned the music business in those great years, and I was their assistant on those records. I was in heaven, and Quincy changed my name to Big Julie … a story for another time.

What did you learn from Bruce?

Oh, I was a human sponge sitting next to him. And you know with Michael [Jackson] passing away, it makes it even more poignant for me, because I’ve been reliving those times in my mind, sitting behind Bruce and Quincy. It really reminded me of the opportunities I’ve had, what I got to witness from a front row seat. Any kind of success I’ve had, there's a straight line to the gift of sitting behind those guys.

I got a lot from Bruce. I think the most important gift that I got from him, and from Quincy, is a sonic perspective of what a great recording sounds like, and more importantly, of what a great performance feels like. I got that. Bruce was really, really generous with information. He shared everything he was doing. And in all those sessions, I was over his shoulder, you know? If he turned a knob, my mind and ear were there with him turning that knob. So I got that.

Another thing I got from Bruce: He always taught me and reminded me that you have to run your career like a business. You have to be a businessman. You're running a business. You're not just in there smoking reefers and recording music. You're running a business. You save your money, pay your taxes, act responsibly and have integrity. Oh, and show up on time and be ready and prepared to go.

And other things, like studio etiquette, that you can't find anywhere else, unless you're sitting behind a guy like that. And like I said, he was absolutely, totally generous, and open and giving with sharing what he knew with me.

That's what Bruce says about Bill Putnam, Sr.

Yeah. So there's a direct line going there. Did you ever meet Bill Putnam?

I sure did. Yeah, I met him at Universal, when I'd go hang out with Bruce.

Bill Putnam was a hero. I knew what he was doing. I was using his gear all the time. I really didn't appreciate what he had done 'til later, until after he had passed away. Then it really kind of dawned on me, especially as my ear got more sophisticated, and got to hear what the things that he invented really did to music, and how much better they made music, and what great tools they were. He set the bar really high. He really set the standard for all of us. And I was also very aware of what Bruce got from Bill, and totally aware of what I got from Bruce.

CJ Vanston & Ed Cherney
Producer CJ Vanston and engineer Ed Cherney at The Village Studios.
Photo by David Goggin
So you just did the new Spinal Tap record.

I did. It’s called Back from the Dead.

And you used UAD Powered Plug-Ins on it?

You know I did. That's all I use! Well, not all, but a lot.

The dilemma while cutting this album was, should it sound like 1975, or should it sound like now? We kind of decided that we wanted to use the best things about modern production, but we still wanted to use the best things of what I guess we would call "legacy" production.

I was really trying to make it sound vintage, but with some of the loudness of today. Still, for me, you cannot get a guitar sound without an 1176LN. That's just an integral part of getting Nigel's guitar to sound right. And having a digital studio, relying on 1176s, the UAD 1176s, got me through it, without a doubt. As a matter of fact, I used 1176s on all the guitars. I use an 1176 as part of my signal chain on basically on all my channels.

You cannot make a classic rock record, in my mind's ear, without an 1176 on the snare drum. I call it "thwacking the snare." Can't do it without an 1176. Well, I guess you could, but I would prefer not to. There's something that it does to the harmonics. You can adjust the attack and you can pull the harmonics up, and it brings it forward, and adds a life to it that I can't get any other way. I can't make a rock record without an 1176.

And having a small digital room, I don't have racks of 1176’s. But I do in the box! I know what they sound like, and I know what the UAD plug-in does. It's a very close representation.

While tracking, did you use any UA hardware?

I did. Though I recorded without using much hardware. We recorded through a newer Neve at The Village Studio D, plus I was using class A mic pres and I was using some 1176’s, like on the snare drum and ambient mics. Oh, and on the bass amp. But just enough compression to protect the recording medium, not to get into overs. I didn't want to lock myself in yet. I really waited 'til mixing to do that.

And you tracked at the Village, in LA?

We tracked in one of the big rooms at the Village. Then mixed in my personal room there, Studio Ed.

What other plug-ins did you use?

I did use the SPL plug-in, it really helps the snare drum and ambient mics.

Ed Cherney, Matt Ward and Elliot Scheiner
Engineer Ed Cherney, Universal Audio President Matt Ward
and engineer Elliot Scheiner
That’s the SPL Transient Designer?

Yeah. It’s really good on a snare drum, especially if you have a dead one. It just livens it up. Using it on the ambient microphones is really great as well, to pull the harmonics out--pull them forward or back and adjust the amount of attack versus envelope.

I actually have the hardware versions, too, and I've had them side by side and compared them, and it's very close. So I ended up using the plug-ins for recall-ability.

But I also gotta say that part of that vintage sound are the LA-2A’s and LA-3A’s. I use those, too.

There are two other things that were a very, very important elements of the sound. Not having a Plate in my studio, I used the UAD EMT 140 plug-in. It was really the main reverb that I used. I actually used two of them: one for a short and bright presence, and one with a little longer tail and a pre delay, for guitars and vocals. It sounds spectacular.

And I also have to say that the Dimension D is one of my favorite plug-ins in the arsenal. You couldn't make a Spinal Tap record without a Dimension D. You just can't get that bass sound without some Dimension D on it. And I certainly use it on background vocals, and a little bit on guitars here and there, too.

You know what else I really like is the Neve 33609.

People overlook that one. What did you use that on?

Oh, the 33609 is great, I love it on lead vocals. It’s also an excellent buss limiter/compressor.

You know what else is really good? The 1073. I've put it up against the hardware 1073s I have, and I end up using the plug-ins.


Yeah. Because again, recall-ability. I can recall a mix, and it comes up just like it was. With the real one, you're kind of guessing, and a little goes a long way with those things. And yours are quieter.

The Precision Maximizer is another one that I've been using a lot of that's real good.

You're using that on your stereo mix?

Actually, I've been using it on individual tracks. It works really well on vocals, especially when you need to stand a vocal up over loud guitar tracks.

What kind of engineer are you?

The best kind. [Laughs.] I think I'm a really well rounded engineer. I'm fluent in a lot of different kinds of genres of music, if it’s music, I can usually get it feeling right, and I’ve done a lot of film and TV work, too. I’m also a pit-bull kind of engineer. I will absolutely not give up until it feels great.

It seems like you really have a handle on both the technical and the musical.

Well, the truth is that I try to make the technical as invisible as possible. For the most part, I work from the heart and not the head. That's something I absolutely learned from Bruce.

His mantra was always "listen with your heart, not with your ears."

— Marsha Vdovin

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