Robert Venable on Megadeth, Kelly Clarkson & Audix Mics: “I didn’t think anything that affordable could be that good”

An Emmy and Dove Award-winning producer, recording engineer, sound mixer, and accomplished rock drummer, there’s not much that Robert Venable hasn’t done. His early career saw him running the Pro Tools rig for metal superstars Megadeth, and he currently mixes for The Kelly Clarkson Show on NBC. Between those bookends, he has worked on records for multi-platinum and Grammy-winning artists including Clarkson, MuteMath, Twenty One Pilots, and more, while his sound-for-picture clients include Sony, Saturday Night Live and Pixar. He reflects on some career highlights and explains how he uses Audix microphones on a variety of sources, including a lot of D6s in a surprising application...

What music were you into growing up?

Growing up, I listened to a lot of what my parents were into. I fell in love with bands like Chicago, The Beach Boys, Earth Wind and Fire, Jim Croce, Journey… anything with a catchy melody and harmonies.

What was the first music you bought with your own money?

It was a Boyz II Men album… and I wore it out!

What was the first gig you went to without your parents?

I believe it was a Counting Crows show. Fiona Apple opened for them, and the entire experience was memorable.

What was your point of entry into music production?

As a drummer, I played in everything from ska-punk to hard rock bands and realised the touring life isn’t my thing. I’m 6 ft 5, and I don’t fit into a tour bus bunk so well!

I figured, let’s stick with music but move to the other side of the glass. There’s the opportunity to be creative, but also responsibility there, which appealed to me. I put myself on a waiting list for the Conservatory of Arts and Sciences out in Arizona.

They said it might take a year or two for me to get a spot. A couple of months passed, and they said they had an immediate opening if I was able to get there in a week! Somebody had dropped off the waiting list, so I went.

I was thrown to the wolves with Megadeth's The System Has Failed album!

What was your big break?

The school kind of broke their own rules in allowing me to take a job while I was still a student. The president approached me and said, “Would you like to do this big project?” It ended up being the Megadeth record, The System Has Failed. I interned on that and also got to do some background vocals, screaming alongside Dave Mustaine.

They asked if I knew Pro Tools, I looked them straight in the eye and said, “Of course”. Then I went home that night and downloaded the instruction manual! YouTube videos weren’t a thing yet, so I’m studying and memorising commands like crazy. The next day I went in there and found myself running Pro Tools for Megadeth.

So it was a happy accident?

A complete fluke! Of course I said yes and was thrown to the wolves with The System Has Failed album, which was primarily just Dave Mustaine in the studio, so that’s where I met him.

But then, a few years later, I became the head engineer at a recording studio in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Megadeth bassist, Dave Ellefson, lived in the neighbourhood and I got to know him pretty well, hiring him for random session work. Both of them are incredible musicians, and they were the nicest people.

What happened from there?

Looking back, maybe it wasn’t a good decision. But from there, word of mouth spread quickly and I got into the hip-hop scene in Arizona. This was the early 2000s and I got to work with such artists as DMX and Ruff Ryders.

But I found I didn’t want to be around some aspects of the scene, such as some people carrying drugs or guns. So, I jumped from that to working at a studio in North Scottsdale that catered to a lot of Blink 182 wannabe type bands at the time.

You now own FIVE Studios just south of Nashville, where your services are in high demand. How did you make that journey?

In Scottsdale, the gear was great, but a lot of the bands were rich kids using their parents’ money. So, I moved to Nashville in 2009 to become a small fish in a very big pond. I partnered with my friend Lester Estelle – who is now Kelly Clarkson’s drummer – and we hustled at first, bringing in our own clients.

He played drums and I recorded. He’s not just a player, he’s a musician. That grew, and eventually bands like Twenty-One Pilots and MuteMath were calling for me, then I got hooked up with the Kelly Clarkson camp.

How did the studio business grow at first?

It kind of lines itself up as long as you’re consistent. A lot of the time, the most talented person is not who gets the job. It’s the person who can relate to and converse with the band members and label people and producers. It’s the person who can do the hang and anticipate their needs.

I looked down my nose at Audix mics at first, because I didn’t think anything that affordable could be that good!

When you first used Audix mics; what was your immediate reaction? What struck you about their sound?

I was completely surprised and impressed. I was dead sceptical because of the price point, and I was under the impression they were just cheap mics for live shows… I was so wrong.

How did you first discover Audix mics with a lot of bigger brands being much more popular in the studios?

I think it was mainly my friendship with Lester Estelle, who is a real audiophile. One day he was like, “Here, try these.” I kind of looked down my nose at them at first, because I didn’t think anything that affordable could be that good when I was using other mics that might cost two or three times more. 

But I tried them, and I’ve never doubted Lester since. I think my first Audix purchase was a drum mic pack of some sort. Now I have a stack of them.

How do you use them on The Kelly Clarkson Show?

The Kelly stage is one of the biggest on the lot for shooting a TV show. But there can be a lot of open mics in small areas, such as for the audience and the huddles and so forth. Lester and I have always paid a lot of attention to our drum sounds.

Kelly is a pop singer and she can sing loud, so we want the instruments to stand up to that and not sound muted. At the same time, we don’t want them to bleed into those other mics I mentioned and make them sound boxy or phasey.

The big thing we learned was to use D6 mics on all the toms, from the 10-inchers all the way to 22-inch gong drums.

That’s interesting, because a lot of users and even Audix itself sees the D6 as mainly a kick drum mic, with the D2 or D4 being more for toms…

I know, but trust me, there’s something about the D6 that just sounds right. Something about the way that capsule vibrates, maybe. Compared to using anything else, I find I have to do a lot less tweaking on the back end to get the sound I’m looking for.

I now carry a backpack of D6s to every session I go to, and I’ll swap them in for the tom mics unless for some reason I’m not allowed to — like if there’s video and the artist endorses another brand.

Demo-itis is real: being too in love with the demos you spent the last year recording

Do you like Audix mics on sources other than drums?

Absolutely. One of my favourite miking techniques for acoustic guitar is to place a mic about ten inches off the fretboard at the 12th fret, aimed at the sound hole. I love the SCX25A – the ‘lollipop’ mic – in this application.

For a more focused, in-your-face sound, I’ll reach for a small-diaphragm condenser such as the SCX1. I’ve found both these mics more than capable of giving me a full acoustic guitar sound, without the need for a second mic.

How about electric guitar or amp cabinets in general?

I do a lot of pop and rock music, and I’ve been defaulting to the i5 on electric guitar cabs to begin the foundation for a wall of sound. I start with it right on the grille, not touching it, but dang close, centred on the cone of the speaker.

To give it a little flavour in the mix, I add SCX25As in spaced pair or X/Y configuration, on the other side of the room for some serious space. Then, compress to taste!

Also, everyone knows I love the D6 on toms, but it sounds just as punchy and robust on a bass cabinet. 

It naturally pulls some of the mud out of the sound and opens up the top end to capture that funky slap when the bassist throws it at you.

What is a typical day of work like on the Kelly Clarkson show?

They’re long days, 10-14 hours, but here’s why: my day is broken into two ‘jobs’ - if you want to call it that. 

Part one consists of me getting to the lot around 6am, turning on my gear and setting up a session on the console and in Pro Tools, getting familiar with the rundown for the day’s shows (we tape two a day), and wrapping my head around a game plan.

The audio team and I do a line check on all mics (instruments, vocal mics, backups, and lavs for interviews), and I make sure everything is hitting the console and Pro Tools properly.

I make sure all mics are placed where I want them, checking that nothing has been bumped. Later in the morning, the band comes down and runs through the music for the day, and I start my mix, getting basic levels, and set tempos for delays, find appropriate reverbs, etc.

The ‘A-Show’ takes about two hours to tape, we break for lunch, shoot the ‘B-Show’ and wrap at about 4pm. At that point, I switch to remix mode and clean up any spots that my “live” mixes may need a touch up.

The most important part happens next: I mix the Kellyoke (the part of every episode where Kelly sings her rendition of a popular song). I polish it up, write in automation and mix the songs to sound clean but still live. 

I get out of there around 8pm on average… long days, but I love every minute of it.

Kelly is a great communicator and a rare combination of talent and down-to-earthness

There must sometimes be some interesting unscripted moments on her show; can you share any interesting stories and if and how you had to adapt to them?

There have been a handful of times when we have a musical guest on the show and our script rundown doesn’t have any notes about how the interview with said artist may play out… mainly if they might whip out a guitar and sing on a whim.

We, as the audio team, have to be prepared for that. Our monitor guy has to have a monitor mix prepped, our audience FOH mixer has to jockey faders so it doesn’t feedback but the crowd and host can still hear, and the audio mixer and I (music mixer) work REALLY closely together to figure out how to blend/cut the instrument mic, DI, vocal handheld and lav mics.

There are so many open mics, so bleed and phasing happens, and we work out a plan on how to blend all of that seamlessly. Sometimes, they sing a line, talk, and sing again spontaneously. It’s a challenge, but that’s what keeps things fresh.

What is it like to work with Kelly Clarkson?

Kelly is 100% how Kelly seems, if you’ve seen the TV show or any interviews with her. She’s a Texas gal through and through: she loves Mexican food and doesn’t like long hours because she wants to go home and see her kids.

She has every right to be a prima donna but she’s absolutely the opposite of that. She’ll hug a stranger or give someone the coat off her back. The best part is, she’s a true musician. She knows what she wants.

She’s not going to say “more echo” when she means “more reverb.” She’s a great communicator and a rare combination of talent and down-to-earthness.

Being a producer is probably 95% psychology and the other 5% is talent

Would you share an “oh s***” moment in your career where at the end, you were okay anyway?

One time I flew to New York City to work with a pop singer. I had a two-track bounce of the tracks with me, and the singer recorded over this in a private studio. This was all on their dime – my flights and hotel and wining and dining.

I get back to Nashville and pull up the session, and I realised I’d recorded at the wrong bit depth and sample rate, so it did not sync properly to my multitracks.

So, nothing lined up. I eventually was able to export, convert, and re-import everything but it was just a nightmare.

Sometimes experiences like that are our best teachers. Does that translate into how you work with artists in your role as a producer?

Oh yes. The studio is stressful and everything costs money. So, being a producer is probably 95% psychology and the other 5% is talent and knowing where you’re going sound-wise.

Also, knowing how to talk to an artist who may have an ego, or just may be new. I remember one session where a grown man who has been behind the mic for years was on the floor of the booth in a foetal position, weeping.

Maybe I’d pushed him a little too hard, because he was talking about how he’d never be good enough and should have listened to his mum. I was like, “Oh, man, what have I done?” 

I had to turn that energy around and tell him he was good enough and he was crying because he knew he had more inside him. The next take, I got the performance I was looking for.

When you start off, leave your ego at the door

What are the top three things you’d like talent to know about working in the studio?

First, you hired the team that you hired for a reason. You are trusting them to get a sound you like based on their previous works. When I or anyone on the team comes up with ideas, trust the process. 

Go in knowing that things are going to change. Demo-itis is real – being too in love with the demos you spent the last year recording in GarageBand or on your phone.

Next, understand that changes I might suggest depend on the goal. I’m open to your ideas as well. I’m not a god. I’m not one of those producers whom the industry follows. Instead, I try to follow the industry and apply the best practices for the goal. 

If that’s a top-40 radio record or something that’s going to catch on iTunes, yeah, we may have to cut down the guitar solo. We may have to turn the acoustic down and the vocals up.

Third, please know your parts. It’s frustrating to be in a session where three out of four band members have them locked in, but there’s one who never finished writing or deciding on a part. Then, we’re on the clock basically still writing the song.

Is there a project on which you played drums that you’re especially proud of?

A couple producer friends of mine used to play in a band called We As Human. They broke up, and Jake Jones and Justin Forshaw asked if I would be their drummer. We formed a new band called As We Ascend – this was about five years ago in Nashville.

We wrote that record [Farewell to Midnight], recorded, mixed, and mastered it ourselves, and got it out within a 30-day period. It was fun for the three of us to be creative with no rules. We weren’t writing for radio or streaming, so if we wanted an extended guitar solo or a long intro, we put one in!

Did you use Audix on that project?

Yes, for the songs on which we used real drums. On others, we used the Toontrack plugin Superior Drummer, which I programmed. Good luck telling which are which, that was my goal!

Be humble and listen. You may be the best mixer in the world, but if you have to tell people that, it won’t matter

What advice would you give to someone who aspires to your path as a producer?

When you start off, leave your ego at the door. I’m still learning, every day. I’d empty a trash can if I saw it full, even though it technically wasn’t my job. As an assistant, I was the first one in the studio and the last one to leave.

If I thought the band even might do vocals that day, I’d have a few different vocal chains set up and ready to go for the engineer. Again, anticipating needs and being a good hang is how you grow your work. Don’t be too eager to touch faders on your first day in the studio. Wait to be asked.

But once you’ve got some time and reputation in, don’t undervalue your work. I was once about ready to throw in the towel.

I couldn’t get any gigs though I kept lowering my prices. A mentor told me, “If you go to a Ferrari dealer and one car there is only $50,000, you’re going to wonder what’s wrong with it. Double your rates and don’t take anything less.” I followed his advice, and they’ve been rising

Finally, just be humble and listen. You may be the best mixer in the world, but if you have to tell people that, it won’t matter. Let other people talk about you.

If you could work with anyone, who would it be?

Do you have a way to bring Michael Jackson back to life? If not, Justin Timberlake or Jimmy Eat World, please!