Mike Shipley on the Making of Def Leppard’s Pyromania & Hysteria

Here’s a great interview with engineer / producer Mike Shipley that is in this month’s issue of Tape Op. The interview was conducted several years ago as Shipley passed away in 2013, but his work will continue to inspire for generations. In 2012, he won a Grammy for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical category for his joint work on Paper Airplane, by Alison Krauss and Union Station. He also worked with bands like the Sex Pistols, Maroon 5, Barenaked Ladies, 5 Seconds to Mars, Nickelback, Green Day, RATT, Cheap Trick and countless others, but he will most likely always be remembered more for working alongside producer Mutt Lange and Def Leppard. Shipley worked with Def Leppard from High n’ Dry to Pyromania to Hysteria to Adrenalize. Here are some excerpts from the interview:

You and Mutt were trying something truly revolutionary, compared to the way rock drums were being recorded at that time.

The previous Def Leppard record, High ‘n’ Dry [1981], was recorded with real drums. On Pyromania [1983] Mutt wanted to be experimental and leave the drums to the very end. He would keep changing the arrangements, so therefore the drum parts would need to keep changing. We had to figure out how to sync that up. It was on the cutting edge, but somehow we managed to put it all together. Take “Photograph,” for example. Like all the other songs on the record, the song’s drums were all samples from the Fairlight [CMI (computer musical instrument) sampler]. There are no real drums. The cymbals are played, but the bass drum, snare, and toms are all machine. We had all kinds of drums in there, and I sampled them into the Fairlight and detuned them. We’d sample them in at half-speed, thinking that we’d get a better sound, because that’s when Fairlight was at 8 bits – you had to get around that part of it. We sampled [Ludwig] Black Beauty snares, other snares, and all kinds of bass drums. We ended up with something that Mutt liked that we could detune a little bit. When we were sampling in the sounds, we used [Neumann] KM 84s and we used [Shure SM]58s. There were so many mics. The toms were primarily Simmons toms back then, which were electronic. We experimented, EQ’d, and mangled the sound up a little bit to come up with the drum sound. It was pretty unnatural, but that was kind of the point.

The Fairlight seems like it basically became like another member of the band. What kind of role did it play as you got near the end of tracking?

We were recording Pyromania on 24-track, and we spent a lot of months on that record. By the time it came to mixing, the tape was peeling off in 2-inch pieces. It became clear from the intensity of working on a record like that, going over and over and over, blocking out backgrounds, changing arrangements, and all that. I’m surprised we ever got it finished, because the tape literally fell to pieces. It was experimental; we were using a Fairlight, trying to sync that whole thing up and work like that, and we hadn’t figured out ‘til the end how we were going to do the drums. So even when “Photograph” was about to be mixed, Mutt decided to change the chorus. Songs would evolve, and he wanted to have control until the last minute of what the feel was going to be. Rather than commit to the drums, and have to re-cut them and re-cut them, he thought this was a better way to do it. I don’t think anyone had done it before, but we decided to give it a shot – scary as it was – and we just went on blind faith. It was more about being able to change the arrangements at the last minute, which was very important to him.

Mutt Lange invented the “layers upon layers” approach to recording walls of guitar and vocal tracks stacked throughout that album. What was that construction process like in the studio?

Because of the nature of the way that band played, and the inversions they used, it was very hard to get the right – what Mutt had in his head as – “commercial distortion.” We had hundreds of amps and cabinets in that studio; from AC/DC amps, to little combos, to big stacks. Everything you could think of. We spent weeks and weeks trying to get a commercial sound for those inversions, rather than the [raw] crunchy, distorted sound. I’m pretty sure we ended up with just a little Marshall combo amp after we’d tried everything. It’s funny, because after a while you get so fatigued that nothing ever sounds good enough. But we had to start recording at a certain point, so we found a good combination that worked, and used condenser mics, [Neumann U] 87s and [Neumann U] 67s, on the amplifiers.

What do you remember that process being like for the guys in Def Leppard?

There were certain points where it got very hard, because Steve Clark [guitar] and those guys were used to going in and just laying it down. But Mutt’s brilliant as a diplomat, which worked as a strength for him at certain points because of the length of time involved. It was hard for Joe [Elliott, vocals] because of how much Mutt would work on the vocals, but they understood he had a vision and that everything was coming out great. It was tough for them, at the same time as being great for them. Mutt was very, very hardcore about the lead vocal. We’d spend the longest time on the vocals; Joe would get frustrated about it at certain points, but he was an excellent sport. He’d have terrible headaches because Mutt was just relentless about it. We used a [Neumann U] 67 pretty much for everything vocally on Pyromania. Mutt always had specific ideas about delays, and we just had to figure out how to create them. We used all kinds of delay lengths on Joe’s lead vocals; they might have been created by a tape machine, because there wasn’t that much “long delay” outboard gear out back then. The reverbs were usually regular EMT 140 plate reverbs, which we had four of at that studio in a plate room. After that record was out, the AMS [RMX-16 digital reverberator] came out. We also used to use a lot of the old, original Lexicon delays; I remember this huge box. The other delays we’d use would be multitrack delays, where we’d make up the delay length by going into different channels in [record on the] multitrack to get different delay amounts. We also used a flanger, and a couple of 2-track tape delays. We didn’t use [outboard] mic preamps; we just used what was in the SSL [console]. When we were recording harmony vocals, in order to keep the distinction away from the lead vocals, the backgrounds were usually Mutt and Rick Savage [bass]. They would do 20 or 40 tracks of one part, then dump down 20 tracks onto one track, then do 20 more tracks and dump them down onto another track to make up a stereo pair. Then they’d add the backgrounds to that part, bounce them down two tracks, and then hand-sync them back into the choruses. We’d EQ them, bounce them onto a 2-track machine, and then I’d have to get the timing right, hit the play button, keep going until we got the timing right, and slide them in.

When I listened to a new Def Leppard album back in the ‘80s, it always felt like listening to a futuristic experience. What was Mutt paying most attention to in mixing to achieve that sound?

Whenever we were mixing, regardless of the band or style of genre, we went for what seemed to be the right thing to do. We’d listen to the song and say, “Okay, this is what it needs to be like,” and go for that. It’s always been a gut thing, as well as a technical thing. Not really worrying about any rules or regulations about EQ, what backgrounds should sound like, or what drums should sound like. It’s about carving out the space so things could be intentionally soft but still very audible, because it’s still about depth of field as well as everything being in your face. We’d just need to carve out the right space for the instrument. That’s something Mutt taught me how to do, and I’d end up doing it by second nature. It was one of those things that was experimental, but he’d find a place for it. He’d have a sound in his head, and make it work. We were working 18 hour days, seven days a week, for that whole record. This kind of commitment was necessary, because Mutt wanted big, larger than life on everything. They were all very lengthy records to mix. A lot of time was taken, more than what most people would think, especially later on, in terms of records like Hysteria. We spent a long time, and if it wasn’t working we’d just start again. Given those machine sounds, it was really quite difficult – we were so lost in the process. We had an end vision in sight, and I would work, and work, and work. Mutt wanted to make things as 3-dimensional as possible, sonically.

After The Cars, the saga of making Def Leppard’s Hysteria began. The record took three years to make, and put the band $4 million in debt to their label, due in part to drummer Rick Allen losing his left arm in an auto accident. Would you consider drums to be the most experimental part of production you worked on from that album?

All of the guitars and vocals were already tracked with the album’s other engineer, Nigel Green, before I got there, but there were no drums and bass. It was just a very basic LinnDrum 16th-note hi-hat guide drum part. The drums and bass were all written in the mix. It was all done as part of the mix process, and therefore that meant getting the sounds. It was quite difficult, because Mutt had been listening for quite some time to just guitars and maybe a rough bass, but no real drum or bass parts at all. He’d been concentrating on the guitars, vocals, and arrangements, so it was very difficult. To put in the drums – to do that very last of all – and do the bass was a very monumental task. The drums were in the Fairlight, so I had the ability to mess around with the tuning of the snare. We wanted something fat and different, so once I had the sample I could experiment with detuning. I found a nice fat sound that worked for Mutt once we’d EQ’d it, and it was [pitched] down quite a lot from the original snare sample. Over the snare, there were different samples that we layered: a white noise sample, an ambient sample, a Simmons sample, and a sample of the [Eventide] Harmonizer with the feedback full up. That added length to the note. The same with the bass drum; we’d find some [sample] we liked and detune that. We used multiple tricks to try and get a unique drum sound. I remember we had the biggest console we could get in those days, which was a 64-input SSL; the first one they ever built! We’d always been on the cutting edge of consoles, so with every SSL console we’d be guinea pigs. Mutt put the studio in his house, so we had no distractions. I think it took nine or ten months to mix Hysteria, because we’d be redoing parts and the whole drums and bass thing. We’d spend months on songs sometimes, and then redo it.

What kind of outboard gear was at play in the production of the “Pour Some Sugar on Me” drum sound?

I was working on the new version of the Fairlight, and I brought samples I had sampled in Los Angeles – and had also sampled in Mutt’s studio in England – to come up with a drum sound. The basis of the bass samples I used were from a friend in L.A. I was tuning them and adding synthesizer to the bass to give it a bit of a different sound. For “Pour Some Sugar on Me” specifically, the samples all started out dry, and then we’d get pretty detailed about gated reverbs and different kinds of effects, whether it was hard-gated AMS [reverbs] or gated tapes. We’d use various amounts, having triggers for length in the Harmonizer. There’d always be a delay on the snare that would come from a unit that could put out fast reflections, like 20 delays to different increments – just to give an interesting perspective that would add to the width of the snare. The hi-hat and cymbals were samples as well. Mutt would leave me for four or five days and say, “I’m going off for a few days. Come up with a drum sound, figure some stuff out, and come up with something unique and different.” I learned to experiment and figure out how to add to his tracks for the drums to make it different. You can hear huge handclaps going on in “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Those are actually 100 tracks of handclaps detuned and EQ’d. That ended up sounding like ambience in a way, and definitely had a unique sound. He’d say, “I’ll come back in a few days, see where you are, and we’ll go from there.” That’s how it worked out.

Is it true you guys recorded all of the guitars for the album on a [Scholz R&D] Rockman [guitar headphone amplifier]?

Yes! All those guitars are from a Rockman! Not amps, because that’s the only way we could get that kind of distortion. There might have been a couple passes of clean guitar through a small amp, but most all of it was recorded through a Rockman. That meant an awful lot of EQ’ing and processing. All the clean sounds, all the jangly parts, and all the distorted guitars were Rockman. It would get a bit irritating, because we’d try everything and just keep going until we found something that worked. Because we did it for so long, it never was that satisfying; we’d just look at each other after weeks of working on it and just go, “I guess this is the best we could do,” and that was it.

What kinds of effects were you applying to Joe Elliot’s voice on Hysteria?

As far as vocal effects, I can’t even begin to recall how many AMS reverbs we used. There were harmonizers, delays, reverbs, and EQs for every different section. There were so many effects going on in the background: long delays, short delays, backwards reverbs, and ones you could barely even hear, just to add to the depth of field. The kitchen sink; really everything we could think of. Mutt wanted to keep Joe’s lead vocal distinct, so as we’d done with Pyromania, on Hysteria the harmonies would be a combination of Mutt, Rick Savage, and Phil Collen [guitar]. They would work up a blend, and Mutt would dictate somewhat how the words would be or what the parts were. But those guys were excellent singers, so the three of them together would create the sound, and Mutt would do some on his own as well.

Read the entire interview at this location.

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