Metal Heroes: A Candid Conversation with Big Mick Hughes and Pooch Van Druten

When we started to work on this piece, the idea was to call it “Two Generations of Metal.” And Big Mick Hughes and Ken “Pooch” Van Druten are far enough apart in age—about a dozen years—that we could legitimately say that. But as we sat and talked it became obvious that this is not a generational story.

What we have here are two of the best and most sought-after engineers in the biz. Both are known for mixing “heavy” music. Big Mick has been at the faders for Metallica for 31 years, in which time he has missed a total of two shows. Pooch is best known for his going on a decade with Linkin Park.

But neither is a one-trick pony. “I used to mix reggae bands, pop bands, Haircut 100,” says Big Mick. And Pooch has done everything from rockers like GnR and System of a Down to… monitors for Whitney Houston. These guys both have real range. And when someone needs a really good hired gun, they often get the call. In the last year or two, Pooch has sat in on Alice In Chains and Motley Crue gigs and when Led Zeppelin did their one and only reunion gig at the O2 in London, it was Big Mick behind the board.

We lucked out here. They were both in Las Vegas for the inaugural Rock In Rio event here a couple of months ago and both had the night before their shows free. We got everyone together at a sushi place way off the Strip, set up a couple of cameras and talked while we ate. You can see some of that in the videos. Each of the images to the left links to a different video. (Word of warning: This was a really candid and wide open conversation and when road guys get together for food and war stories, there tends to be some language that some may find offensive. And that is very much the case here. I stopped counting F bombs at about 100. So if you find that kind of language offensive, you may want to move along…)

The thing that really came across as we talked was that, while they have a lot in common their approaches are totally different. Pooch has a recording studio background as an engineer and producer before he started mixing live. Big Mick started as a roadie for Judas Priest and later bought a bunch of lights which he hired out to punk bands and tacked himself on as the sound engineer. But both are driven by and out to accomplish the same thing. Mixes with big impact.

Another word about the videos. We have six here. But they are all from the last 45 mins of the conversation. And the conversation went for almost three hours. But that time period was the only really usable audio. Long story involving two camera with two mics, one erroneous camera mic setting and a backup mic on the table recording to a mac but we blew through the entire Mac battery and lost that audio before it could get saved. We will continue to try to save more of the audio and release new videos if we can do that. For now… Some of the highlights

On the Value of a Great System Engineer

Pooch: I have walked into situations where someone has tuned the PA to have a sweet spot at 122 dB. So the first thing I am doing is grabbing the outputs on the lake and dialing it back to minus 8.

Big Mick: Some of the gain structures…. You will walk into a place and the system is just wide open. And you ask where the gain is coming from and they just look at you. And I say, “Trust me. There is gain coming from SOMEWHERE. That meter reading does not normally play that loud.” And then you have the other side of the coin where it sounds like the PA has a 10 dB pad on it.

Pooch: It’s weird. In this time and with this technology and SMAART and all of the tools we have, we should be able to go around the world and spec a PA that we have seen a hundred times and show up and have it sound the same as every other system of the same spec. But it doesn’t happen. Because you have system engineers out there who just really do not know what they are doing. And they put it all together and…

Big Mick: But Don’t you think that is a whole new job?

Pooch: Absolutely. It Is.

Big Mick: It never really existed before.

Pooch: It’s a whole different skill set.

Big Mick: The problem I see is that most of the guys doing systems, they don’t want to be the guy looking after the PA, they want to be the guy with hands on faders. And trust me,. if you are the system engineer sitting behind the mix engineer and coveting his job, that doesn’t work either. Trust me, you’re not fooling anyone. Real system engineer is a brand new job and they better be dead good. Dead good with the equipment and dead good with the measurement stuff. And the politics are, just be honest with me about what you are doing with the system. As we go one, there will be some guys who just want to be the system engineer because they are mad about speaker systems.

Rev. Bill: I know one guy. ONE GUY. Here in Vegas that really just wants to be a system engineer and would rather do that than mix.

Pooch: Those guys are few and far between. And the best situation for us is when we find that guy. Yeah, you hold on to that guy. Because it really is a different skill set and if both guys are really hitting on all cylinders? When the two of you gel? That is when people walk out off shows saying “That show was unbelievable.”

Big Mick: They have to really pay attention and understand what your vision of the sound is. And it is a really hard job. And when you get someone who has done all of that and you trust them, then when they say “Do you think there is a little bit too much 160 in the system?” Or they say “Up in that area up there, the 200 Hz is a little much.” And when they have your trust, you just say, “take it out.” But if they are just a guy who really wants your job, then you have to check it out yourself. The yin and yang thing with the system guy is SO important. If you want a guaranteed job on the road and on big tours, learn the systems and the measurement tools and be f&$%ing good at using them.

Pooch: I’m really lucky. The last three guys i have had are guys who, when I do rehearsal with near fields, they are in the room checking out my sh&$ so that when he is in an arena up in the nosebleed seats with his wireless tablet, he knows what i want it to sound like up there.

Big Mick: It is a younger man’s job. I would not want to walk all over a huge stadium and i would be remiss in my real job if i did that. I’ll make it sound like I ant it to sound at front of house and you make it sound like that everywhere else. A good system engineer can make out jobs really great. Or they can make it really shite.

Old Dogs CAN Learn New Tricks

(talking about the record business and music biz in general…)

Big Mick: It has all changed. I’m not quite sure where it goes…

Pooch: Me either…

Rev. Bill: I used to try to make predictions about five years in the future. I don’t even try to predict tomorrow any more.

Pooch: I know that, luckily, there will always be live shows and people will always want to experience live music so i don’t think our jobs are going away any time soon.

Big Mick: Yeah, i would agree. I’m fortunate. I’m 57 years old. I’m three years off 60. I don’t know when i will retire. But I look out there and—unless you are into EDM—you look and say, “Where are the new bands?” (To Pooch) Do you ever have opening bands that make you sit up and really take notice?

Pooch: Few and far between…

Big Mick: I mean, where’s the New Guard. Punk came in and swept away the back Sabbaths and the Priests and kind of cleansed the palate. But what comes next for us now?

Rev. Bill: I think it’s EDM. They do Electric Daisy out here and get nearly triple the attendance per day as is going to be at Rock In Rio.

Big Mick: Have you ever been to one of those EDM shows?

Rev. Bill: You couldn’t pay me enough…

Big Mick: I have witnessed it…

Pooch: So have I

Big Mick: And let me tell you it is pretty f%&^ing special. Its a spectacle. It’s a huge, humongous spectacle. They can create more dynamics than either of us can with our bands. We had Skrillex come on after us at a festival and i stood and watched it. i was f%&^ing amazed. It was brilliant.

Pooch: Yeah, it is very exciting. I can understand why the kids are all into it.

Big Mick: It is like the biggest special with every band you have ever worked with, every gag and stunt all at the same time all the time. That’s why i love it. It is very exciting.The only thing is that it can be a bit relentless. There is no break. At least with a band you get a bit of a break. maybe they talk to you for a minute. Or there is a bit of a quiet song and you get a breather. But with EDM there is not breather. But the people going to those shows are young, they don’t need a breather. It’s us old guys who need a breather. And they could very rightfully turn to us and say, “If it’s too much, you’re too old.” Just like we used to say. If it’s too loud you’re too old.

Pooch: Well what happens is we turn into our own fathers. So my dad who was yelling at me when i was a kid and listening to punk rock and had a mohawk…

Rev. Bill: Wait. You had a mohawk?

Pooch: (pulls out his phone) Let me find the picture…

Big Mick: Wow…

Pooch: That was my punk rock band…

Big Mick: I used to mix GBH and the Exploited

Pooch: I used to listen to GBH and the Exploited. They were two of my favorite bands…

Maybe it is generational after all…