Mike Pepe is a writer, producer and mix engineer based in LA at the legendary Barefoot Studios. Known for production and mix work with Taking Back Sunday, Silverstein, Emarosa, Sundressed, Hearts Like Lions and writing and various work with members of Queens of The Stone Age, Haim, Holychild, Sugar Ray, My Chemical Romance and more, Mike has produced and mixed several Billboard charted songs and is a leading producer in the rock genre.
Mike created a pack of 50 Wet Reverberator settings he uses daily on his clients’ mixes and productions that you can download for free at our download page.
We sat down with Mike to discuss starting a career producing music, his thoughts on recording guitar and the ways the Wet Reverberator plug-in has enhanced his productions and mixes.
Right about 2 years. I had come in and out of here to do sessions, but my home base has been here for the last 2.
Obviously Barefoot has a legendary gear list and history, if there’s one thing that makes home at Barefoot special to you, is it a piece of gear, is it a room, what is that for you?
To me, that’s a great question because I want to say a piece of gear, but I think when you come into this place there’s a creative force that’s existed here for a long time. This place has been a studio since the early 70s. This was where Stevie Wonder made “Songs in the Key of Life”, This is where "ABC123" by Jackson 5 was made. There have been so many important records made here, that my favorite part is that I think this studio makes you hold yourself to a different standard of excellence. You’re surrounded by this history of excellence and it forces you into being better every day.
Mike in Room A at Barefoot Recording
What’s your favorite guitar tone? When you put on a record because you want to listen to guitar what do you put on?
Definitely a good question, I can go a couple ways with that. I want to cheat and say there’s a 2 tier system here that I want to go to. On one side there’s the me that wants the rock and roll, heavy fucking tone and the other me that is such a huge The Cure fan, even when they were at their heaviest there was this background of ambience that I always respected about them. So I’ll say this: "American Idiot" for balls out guitar tone that’s just insane. How does this guitar sound so big? For like the more delicate sound that’s the opposite of "American Idiot", would be the Cure album “Bloodflowers”, specifically a song called, “The Loudest Sound”. There’s a lead guitar on that song that I go to any time I’m cutting a lead guitar because it sits on top of the song, it’s not distorted at all, not overdriven at all, it’s incredibly clean and chorus-y, but it’s so detailed that you can hear Robert’s every movement of the strings, it feels like he’s playing in front of you. Every little thing he’s doing is so hi-fi that I often wonder how they created that tone, but it’s absolutely perfect. It’s not fair.
What is your favorite guitar tone that you’ve produced?
There is a song on the Taking Back Sunday “Tidal Wave” Record called "You Can’t Look Back" and there’s two parts of that song that are both my favorite that I’ve done. One is the intro guitar is this really overdrive-y almost bluesy tone to it. It’s a great old school tube head into a 2x12” cab from a custom company called Oldfield that we used at the time. I had put some mics on the cab, and there’s the bathroom in the studio that sounds really good and I would open the door to the restroom and someone would be playing guitar in the other room and I thought the guitar sounds really good in here, so I put a pair of microphones in the bathroom for that and everyone thinks it’s a plugin or something but it’s actually those bathroom microphones and a little bit of the amp and that’s the guitar tone as if you’re listening to him across the studio.
The other thing on that same song, John Nolan and I did this thing where we didn’t want it to be an acoustic sound but we wanted it to be stringy, so we took his hollow body Fender Telecaster and we mic’d up the hollow body and the string noise and recorded it like that. It got this super hollow sound that you know isn’t an acoustic but isn’t electric because it’s not plugged in. Those two felt incredibly creative. I look back and think, “Man, those were fun days to be creative.”
I’m scared to ask this, but favorite mic for recording electric guitar?
You should be scared of the answer, because I don’t record only one mic source on a guitar amp. It’s hard for me to pare down my favorite one, but on a 4x12” I’ll mic each speaker of the cabinet because I’ve always been a big believer in the idea that each speaker is in the cabinet for a reason, they each bring character to the cabinet itself. I’ll start with the SM7b without the pop filter on because the filter starts to roll off 10k which can be fine for a vocal but for guitar you want that crunch. So, SM7b no pop filter, an m201 by Beyerdynamics which for guitar is basically a better version of an SM57, a Telefunken M81 which is really great for low-mid and then an MD 421. I’ll do the Sm7b first and blend and pick out which ones I like the best from there.
When those 4 are up, often the SM7b will end up being the main tone and we blend in the rest from there. It takes me an easy hour sometimes to get all 4 working in phase, but it always pays off.
When I listen to a Mike Pepe record what am I going to notice? What makes your approach and sound unique?
I’ve been very lucky to assist and study under many producers in my career; I’m a firm believer that everything’s been done, but it’s a process of learning to find the things you like to pull out of performances and find the things that you want to turn into what your guitar or drum or bass sound is. So for me it would probably be wide and modern. I’m usually producing rock bands and rock bands usually want to sound big, that’s generally a characteristic of the genre, so when I’m producing I want to sound big and I want to sound punchy. Hopefully when you turn on something I’ve produced I hope that the stereo image will tell you that I worked on it, really separating elements left to right and finding where things should sit in a production. That starts in the production phase, finding what elements should be placed in a song. You have to be very aware about what you’re putting into your productions to make sure you have enough information but not too much. That sounds like a mix thing, but it’s not, I’m working to pick the right things so it all fits together whether I’m mixing or sending it off to someone else.
How do you balance things being wide, but still hitting hard? Is that challenging?
It can be, but in rock we have kind of an arrangement of typically drums, bass, guitars, some keyboards, vocals. We’re dealing with instruments that have a dedicated frequency range. I put a lot of guitars to the sides, cymbals to the sides but in a different manner where they’re more sparkly and guitars are really punchy. You have the opportunity to pare down what’s in the song so you’re able to define, the guitars are taking up 500-5k, the bass is taking up 70-200, cymbals are taking up 8k-10k, the vocals are going to sit here in the middle. You have the opportunity to define what role each instrument in the song plays so that when we’re blending them together we can arrange them so that each instrument is sitting in its own frequency range.
Eric Valentine who owns Barefoot Recording has really got me in the last 3-4 years obsessed with M/S processing which is mid-side processing which is essentially EQing and compressing the information between left and right differently than the center. What that does is tricks your ears into thinking things are wider than it is because you are getting a different compression ratio on the sides than the center so you’re perceiving it as being wider than it actually is.
You said you prioritize your productions being wide and modern, can you expand on that idea of a modern sound? What makes a record sound modern to you?
I’m of the belief that if your low end is modern, in other words, I’m going to say modern low end is more subby and out front. Even with natural bass guitars, capturing frequency range all the way down to 70hz and learning how to do that not on a sub-bass but an actual bass guitar. I’m of the belief if you have a modern, subby, out front low end that you can put almost anything else on top of thatand it’ll sound modern. If you listen to a lot of records through the eras, the thing that defines records through the eras is typically the low end of the era. How the bass and kick drum relationship works.
In the 70s it wasn’t very important, so that era is defined by the lack of emphasis on low end and more focus on guitars, snare drums and extremely, extremely out front vocals. In the 80s you start to get to the point where low end becomes the kick drum and low end-y snare drums that have lots of reverb, not a lot of top end, but low thumpy snares. The 90s often times the low end was distorted, Nirvana and Soundgarden, it wasn’t like the 80s, it wasn’t clean, it wasn’t apparent. Then you move into the 2000s, pop music starts to become much more obvious, you have NSync and Britney Spears and keyboard starts to become very much the era, thick low end and more subbiness starts to come into modern music. You get into the mid-2000s and 2010 where rock bands were charting but they were using low-end subby elements in their songs. They had taken the best of the 90s and 2000s and marry those. That’s where you get My Chemical Romance and the Fall Out Boy records. This era was defined by 90s music with 2000s low end.
Now we’re getting to a point where low end sounds like 808s aren’t being replicated accurately on normal systems, where you actually have to have an extended range stereo system to hear some of the low that’s actually happening, but it’s almost like when people listen on an iPhone to something that has that super extended low end, what happens is it gets distorted and weird and that’s actually become the sound of this era. If I distort a subby bass guitar and kick drum I can put almost anything on top of it and I can make it sound like it’s 2020.