Bob Clearmountain in his Los Angeles recording studio.
David Bowie, Nile Rodgers and Bob Clearmountain were working in 1982 on Mr. Bowie's album "Let's Dance." Stevie Ray Vaughan dropped by to play guitar solos on a few songs, including "China Girl," a tune he'd only heard once before. The amount of time for the first solo was shorter than the guitarist had anticipated, and he blasted through where it was supposed to end, finishing on a note that didn't quite fit.
"I could see the wince on his face," Mr. Clearmountain recalled. "I said, 'I'll fix it,' but David jumped in and said, 'Don't touch it. It's perfect.' We looked at each other, but David insisted. He loved the spontaneity." Mr. Clearmountain toyed with the mix to minimize the misstep, though it can still be detected.
For many of the great rock and pop albums of the past three decades, Bob Clearmountain has been the last man standing between the music and the listener. He is a master music mixer. Producers send recordings to his Mix This! studio in Pacific Palisades, Calif., so that he can bring together and highlight the most alluring elements of each song. He's worked with John Legend, has just completed mixing Ziggy Marley's forthcoming album and is working on tracks for garage band Spanking Charlene as well as Michael Grimm, a winner of NBC's "America's Got Talent."
Setting up in a soft chair on casters behind his huge, old-school SSL4000G+ mixing console, with its array of faders, knobs and cables, the thin, youthful 58-year-old takes digital files recorded elsewhere and gets to work altering the sound of instruments, including voice, across an entire performance or only for a beat or a bar. Soon a final product emerges, the result, he said, more of taste and transparent communication than technical wizardry. "If it's a great record, it's already great before I get to it," he said. "I'm just revealing what's there. I shine it up a bit."
When you listen to a Clearmountain mix what's most striking is the absence of conflict: Every tone seems to have its place, and there's a warmth that doesn't sacrifice crispness. The lead vocalist's voice is the focal point. "This is something I learned from Bruce Springsteen," said Mr. Clearmountain. "There can never be anything between the narrative and the listener."
But Mr. Clearmountain doesn't aim for sterility. When he produced Paul McCartney's 1990 live album "Tripping the Light Fantastic," he left the ragged edge to the vocal harmonies because they captured the frenetic nature of a live performance. Mr. McCartney gave him free rein, checking in no more than once a week.
Seemingly minor tweaks can make a huge difference. In his entrance on the Rolling Stones' single "Start Me Up," Charlie Watts whacks the snare not on the downbeat but on the one. To emphasize the choice, Mr. Clearmountain removed all echo from the sound, a subtle touch that registers as a curiosity to the listener. On the live Paul McCartney disk, Mr. Clearmountain pushed support player Robbie McIntosh's guitar solos to the forefront, preventing the listeners' attention from flagging when the singers go silent.
Once he finishes what he hopes will be his final mix, Bob Clearmountain listens to it in his car, a BMW M3 with a Harmon Kardon CD player. One problem: The left front speaker buzzes, so he set the stereo to play music only in the rear.
He consults with artists and producers throughout the mixing process. Some musicians come to his studio, like Mick Jagger, who worked with Mr. Clearmountain at Mix This! when they put together the new "Exile on Main Street" package released in 2010. When Bruce Springsteen is at his home in New Jersey, Mr. Clearmountain communicates with him via an ISDN video link and iChat.
On occasion, a part will have to be redone. Rather than return to the original recording studio, musicians will recut their part at Mix This! For the Stones' live "Shine a Light" film soundtrack and album, guitarist Ronnie Wood redid four seconds of one of his solos. When a bass part is off, Mr. Clearmountain may repair it by playing the right part himself.
Modern recording studios can look like high-tech bunkers, but Mix This! is awash in natural light. Old, cushy sofas line the back row of the studio and an adjacent area that's as comfortable as a living room. The studio is his home, which is a short drive from the Pacific Ocean. Outside, a pool, bar and kitchen are ready to welcome musicians.
Unlike most producers and mixers, Mr. Clearmountain prefers equipment that might be considered antiquated. "I don't like to sit in front of a computer," he said, gesturing to the console he acquired in 1994. Bookcase speakers, the kind that came with good stereo systems in the '70s, sit atop the console, but even those are too high-end for his final mixes. Most listeners have modest audio equipment at home, hear music in the car or use MP3 earbuds, so Mr. Clearmountain wants to know what their experience will be like. He signs off on his mixes only after tweaking them while he listens to two Apple computer speakers, a kind the company discontinued years ago.
But Mr. Clearmountain enjoys the flexibility of digital recording, with its almost endless supply of space for artists to fill with sounds he can manipulate. "Bon Jovi is a great example," he said. "They'll send me hundreds of tracks of stuff—guitar parts, synth parts. You've got a lot to work with."
"I was never that happy with analog recording," he added. "On tape, it sounded distant. Digital sounds live."
Fatigue can set in while he works, he said. "Quite often, I'll start a mix and I'll play something over and over again. Then I'm over my head." A nap or a walk with his dogs Sherman and Hayley will usually clear his mind.
Most casual fans are unaware of Mr. Clearmountain's contribution to popular music. Even he struggles to find an easy explanation for what he does. He compares himself to a lighting designer for a theatrical play. "It's about emphasis and creating an environment."
Clips of songs mixed by Bob Clearmountain include:
* "China Girl" by David Bowie
* "Start Me Up" by The Rolling Stones
* "Convince Me" by Lucinda Williams