They say you should never meet your idols, but recording and mixing engineer Bruce Sugar would surely disagree.
Growing up near Atlantic City, Sugar was a bright-eyed kid who was introduced to music early on and spent his childhood practicing piano. Then, one day in 1964, he heard a sound like no other on The Ed Sullivan Show and was captivated. The Beatles had journeyed stateside, conquering late night television.
Of course, there’s no way a starstruck young Bruce Sugar could have ever predicted that he would one day travel across the country and end up in the studio with two of Liverpool’s finest.
Even audio engineering itself wasn’t exactly part of Sugar’s original plan. He had attended the University of Colorado Boulder where he studied Environmental Conservation and City Planning. But music reared its irresistible head again and he took his first audio gig right out of college. In a mobile recording studio that an electrical engineer friend built and operated, Sugar learned his craft one live-recording pit stop at a time.
Then, in the early ‘80s, following what was supposed to be a “quick” trip to Tennessee, Sugar ended up working at Quad Studios Nashville, located on Music Row. Five years later, he made his final move to Los Angeles where he met a longtime studio executive named Rose Mann and was offered an assistant engineering role at Baby’O Recorders, an opportunity that eventually led him to become the independent engineer he is today.
Eventually, he found himself working with some of his heroes from a younger age: Ringo Starr, Joe Walsh, Paul McCartney, Ozzy Osbourne, Elton John, and credits them with his continued growth as an engineer.
“I [learned] a lot when I started with Ringo and Joe Walsh about the importance and magic of spontaneity,” he tells me. “Before I was working with them, I was a little more on the side of someone who would struggle to find perfection. When you realize that doesn’t exist, I think it frees you a bit. There is no perfection; you’ve just got to trust your instincts.”
Below, find out more about Sugar’s decision to mix Ringo Starr’s new album Give More Love completely in-the-box, the re-recording of the classic “Back Off Boogaloo,” and how he discovered one of his favorite vocal mics.
You’re still based in LA, right?
I am, yeah. I’ve worked out of here since ’85. When I first got here, there [was] a tremendous amount of professional studios in Los Angeles and the home studio thing was just a dream in some people’s minds. Over the years, things have progressed to where everyone has a home studio. Some are better than others.
I have a little mix room—just a spare bedroom in my house—that I’ve outfitted with a full Pro Tools system. I’m pretty much in-the-box, but I have a few pieces of outboard that I use. I’ve got some Retro Instruments stuff and Lexicon outboard. Ringo has his own home studio that we built. It’s just easier for him to get out of bed and walk over to the studio rather than drive around LA.
Is Ringo’s studio pretty close to where you are?
I’m in Hollywood Hills and Ringo is in Beverly Hills so I just go over there. It’s very unassuming. His studio is in one of his guest houses. His drums are in a bedroom. [Laughs]
I noticed that setup in the Ringo Rama documentary from a while back. It doesn’t seem like a typical live room. What was behind the decision to have the drums in there?
It wasn’t much of a creative decision or technical decision. It was more of that was the only place to put them in that particular situation. Once we put all of the mics up and start recording them, they sounded great. If there were some problems, I probably would’ve done some treatment to the room, but it sounded really good.
The thing about Ringo that maybe a lot of people don’t know is, when he started out they only had one or two mics [recording his drums]—three at the most—so his internal balance is the best I’ve worked with.
I put up some Neumann U 87s as room mics and it sounds amazing. Then, I just fill it in with some kick and snare. You don’t need much because, like I said, some drummers’ internal balance is so bad you need mics everywhere to rebalance it, but Ringo’s balance is so great that it just seems to work in that room. He could probably play anywhere and it’ll sound good.
Absolutely. Maybe this is just a rumor but is it true that Ringo only likes to do three takes at most?
That’s pretty much true nowadays. He’s been doing it so long that he knows what he wants to do. I think he appreciates the magic of spontaneity, which a lot of people brush aside, but he’s a big believer of that, as am I.
Sometimes the first or second go at it has that magic because you’re not thinking about things too much—you’re acting emotionally—which really is what it’s about.
Given the editing capabilities we have today, if there’s one little thing wrong, it’s easy to fix now. If he does a great take and he misses a beat here or there, it’s easy to fix, so it’s true he’ll only do one or two takes usually.
Most legendary artists seem like they have enough experience to not overcomplicate the process.
Some people are more perfectionists than others—or, at least, in their minds they are. Generally, most people with a long career in this business don’t really need to get too crazy with multiple takes and stuff. But I’ve heard from others that some people will work you to death.
That’s one of my rubs with today’s music: Everything needs to be so perfect. Some of the emotion gets filtered out of a performance when you time and pitch correct everything. I do a bit of it too, it’s a part of modern production technology. But I think there’s a line where you have to let certain things slide in the name of humanity. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect. [Laughs]
Very true. So, when it comes to the type of gear you routinely use, has it changed album to album over the years?
It depends on the situation and the environment. If I’m in a home studio and they only have a limited amount of mics, then I’ll work with that situation. If I’m at Capital or EastWest, they’ve got every mic known to man.
Sometimes I’ll put up a lot of mics, especially for ambient stuff. I like to create space with microphones. In a big studio, I’ll normally put up quite a few room mics to capture the ambience of the room. That’s what you’re paying for.
Today, with unlimited tracks, it doesn’t really matter. You just put some mics up and you either use them or lose them. It really depends on the situation, the type of music, and a lot of other factors.
I pretty much go with gear that I know works: The tried-and-true 421s, 57s, 414s, 187s, 1176s, LA-2As, etc. There’s a reason every studio has those—because they work. [Laughs] There’s a lot of great boutique stuff out there too.