Audeze interviews producer and engineer Dave O'Donnell

Dave O'Donnell is a Grammy winning producer, mixer, and engineer. He's worked in many studios over the years, with a lot of great musicians, including James Taylor, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow and many others. "That still happens often and I always enjoy tracking a band in great studios, but like everyone I also do a lot of work at my own studio nowadays."

 Dave O'Donnell in his studio with Audeze LCD-X headphones

"I like using the LCD-X for checking the low end, and the panning. You get a real sense of the soundstage with these phones, and can zero in on placement." - Dave O'Donnell
Here's our chat with Dave:
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?

Of more recent projects…

Before This World album by James Taylor... the music, the production and the sound I’m very happy with.
Threads by Sheryl Crow, great songs and performances by Sheryl and friends, who just happen to be… legends.
Crosseyed Heart by Keith Richards… amazing guitarist that astounds when you witness it first-hand. Being a life-long fan it was enjoyable to see his approach to recording; an energy and vigor of letting the music lead the way, with the experience of having done it so much and being open to any ideas.

Mixing the Heart version of Stairway To Heaven, which Ann and Nancy Wilson performed (with Jason Bonham on drums) in front of Led Zeppelin at the Kennedy Center Honors. An emotional evening, and you can feel the energy in the room coming through. It was to honor the music, but the added weight of playing the song with the band in the audience watching amplified the drama.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

It depends on the project, and the roles can overlap. When producing I’m often the engineer and the mixer, though I welcome working with another engineer. I’m fully invested and into choosing songs and players, an overall style for the production, and a sound for the record. There’s a lot of planning, and then there’s the work of getting great performances. On other projects I’m the recording engineer or mixer and enjoy that very much also. Every record is always a team, with everyone contributing what they are best at.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

I started by playing trumpet in grade school, and took piano lessons as a teenager. I’ve always loved music, and grew up listening to the radio and to vinyl albums. There was a lot of classic rock, and I then got into the blues, becoming a fan along with my brother. At some point I started listening to more alternative and progressive music while still a teenager. I was always a fan of ‘classical’ music but was not really steeped in it. As I got older I listened and studied it some on my own; there is no end to its greatness. Eventually you listen to more and more styles and like what you like, which for me is pretty much anything that is GOOD.

Can you name any factors you feel majorly influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

Hmm... early on, playing concerts in grade school was exciting. The concert evening was very different from all the school day rehearsals; you felt the true excitement of performing, even though you’re just part of a school band. Being at SUNY Fredonia with Dave Moulton as a teacher; he infused us with his sense of wonder at making and recording music. I interned at a studio in NYC called The Workshoppe, owned and run by Kevin Kelly, and it was a great initiation into the no-nonsense business of making records. The techniques, the day to day work, and the personal side of it too. I then went to work at Power Station studios in the 1980s, and there was a real zeitgeist happening at the time. The amount of records being made in those days was ridiculous; they had three rooms and it was two sessions a day in each of the rooms; this was before people were doing lockouts. The engineering and maintenance staff was exceptional, and everyone shared their knowledge and skills and trained those who were new. I learned from everyone, the engineers, the musicians, the producers.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

Well a continually frustrating thing is the ongoing ‘level wars’, which has worked its way into the recording process too. It does affect the music and the production, some genres more than others. I’ll often receive rough mixes from people that exceed what a final master level would be; I can’t listen to them.

Some of my friends think the ‘level match’ or normalization software will take care of that, on platforms like Apple Music and Spotify, but I don’t think so. Many artists (or producers and engineers) aren’t caught up in it, but it’s definitely part of the mastering process. I don’t know maybe it’s like they can make a car that can go two hundred miles an hour, but it doesn’t mean you should. The digital tools are impressive but dangerous. At least in the analog world a hotter level meant less low end, so you had to make choices and sacrifices.

Discerning listeners (such as those who use your headphones) will be aware and turned off by things that are extremely loud, but in general people listening on computers or phones are not aware of it. So the audience is not gonna resolve it, it’s up to the producers and engineers. I guess we just need to keep talking about it.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

The Neve 80 series console has always been my favorite for recording, the mic pres and the signal path. Kind of a no-brainer and it’s what was at the Power Station that made the work simple and great sounding. But I’ve used other consoles, recently an API in Studio B at Sound Emporium Nashville that sounded wonderful. When recording it’s the microphone and the mic pre, a little compression, and quality A/D converters. When mixing it’s the console and outboard and the reverbs and the monitoring.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

Do what you love, and learn to play an instrument. Learn the basic science behind everything, and learn techniques from as many people as you can, but also spend a lot of time experimenting on your own.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I spent a LOT of time as a teenager listening on headphones… all the time. Used to have a pair from Radio Shack that I loved. Headphones allow you to just completely live in the music and block out the outside world. They also allow you to listen late at night an not keep anyone else awake! They definitely added to my sense of wonder about the sound of records, and how they got to be that way, which eventually put me on the path to where I am today.

In sessions I use them to set the headphone mixes, to hear what the musicians are hearing. I’ll use them for mixing when I’m getting ‘stuck’ on a mix while listening to speakers. And I’ll use them when traveling to do editing or simple 'in the box' rough mixes. I recently did do two great hours of editing while on a return flight home, having just left a session for the airport while everything was still fresh in my mind. That was very satisfying... I didn’t want the flight to end! Well, you know what I mean.

Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?

I consider myself very lucky to be where I am and to have had the experiences I did. I got in under the wire, and learned analog recording practices before everything turned to digital. It really was essential to know, and you develop a way of working that carries on through your career. I was lucky to be part of great studio environments and to learn from very giving people who came before me, or were learning with me. That particular opportunity isn't as common today, though there are still many options. You need to be driven, but it was a combination of things beyond any one person’s control.

Every project is a team project, from the artist and musicians down to everyone involved, including whoever's running around setting up. It all matters, it all makes things work. Nowadays with a lot of work being done in private studios, things are different… you lose some of the interaction with people, though that can be maintained with a telephone etc., and... one person is often doing everything. There’s some good in that, but it also makes for a distraction from doing what you’re best at.

I fully believe that whatever's happening 'in the room' is what comes across in the music. Whatever is going on emotionally, then that’s what you’re getting. Recording is just capturing a moment in time, for everyone to listen to and partake of. If you're attuned to it, you can literally feel when the music, the performances, all of it, is right.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?

I’ve been using the LCD-X and liking them a lot. I prefer to use them with the Reveal software; it’s simple to setup and has options I like. You can dial in the amount of Latency (handy if you’re switching between sources) and also the ‘Preset Amount”. I’ll typically set that from 50-65%; I find that on different material I like different settings.

I’ve also been using the LCD-1. I’ve done some recording with a singer in my control room and prefer using the LCD-1s for that. Though they’re open back I don’t listen too loud, and can still hear live in the room. That’s also the case if I do a remote session with software like Audiomovers… my phone is on speaker for communication, so headphones are needed for listening. Having them open back helps there, no need to keep taking the headphones on and off.

Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?

Recently finished a record with Danielia Cotton, titled Good Day. Danielia’s a great singer from NYC. It’s a rockin’ soulful record with a lot of parts. I like using the LCD-X for checking the low end, and the panning. You get a real sense of the soundstage with these phones, and can zero in on placement.

Also produced a few songs for new artist Stella Katherine Cole (titled Invincible and Fine). A simpler production, but a full-range, beautiful sound. I like using the phones, again to check the low-end and the panning, and to also hear the depth of the ambience.