"Balancing Act"
By: Lucas Aykroyd

The Inside (Issue 16, Summer 2000)

Would you rather fly the space shuttle or engineer a Van Halen album? While these are both exciting, technically challenging assignments, the choice is a no-brainer for rock fans who grew up on Eddie Van Halen's dive bombs and David Lee Roth's aerodynamic leaps off the drum riser. Mike Plotnikoff live out the dream of man a Halen gearhead by working as the second engineer on Van Halen's multi-platinum 1995 record Balance. A dark, tension-laden effort, Balance spawned such hit singles as "Don't Tell Me (What Love Can Do)" and "Can't Stop Lovin' You." And Plotnikoff was inpressed by the way his friend and mentor, producer Bruce Fairbairn, pushed Van Halen to lay down amazing music in the twilight of the Sammy Hagar era.

Plotnikoff spoke about this experience with The Inside on December 16, 1999 at Bryan Adams's Warehouse Studio in Vancouver, Canada. The elaborate control room, replete with hockey banners and state-of-the-art recording eqiupment, belies the three-story building's red brick exterior, which dates to the late 1800's.

Sporting blond spikes reminiscent of Eddie's 'do during Balance, the soft-spoken Plotnikoff often lapsed into the present tense unconsciously when referring to Fairbairn, who died at age 49 on May 17, 1999 from undetermined causes. It's not surprising Plotnikoff would feel as if Fairbairn were still alive. Together, the two men worked on several of the biggest hard rock albums in history. Balance, which rocketed to #1 on the charts upon its release in January 1995, is a tribute to Fairbairn's enduring legacy.

The Inside: Mike, how did you get involved with recording Balance?

Mike Plotnikoff: Bruce Fairbairn was the producer and I'd worked with Bruce since 1990. He used me on all the records that he produced. So when Van Halen hired Bruce to do the record, I was in.

The Inside: There were a lot of producers knocking on Van Halen's door to do that record. How did Bruce nail down the gig?

MP: When he met with Van Halen, they really like what he had to say and where he wanted to take the project, so they decided to go with him after all the interviews.

The Inside: How about some background on yourself?

MP: I'm from Vancouver and I'm 30 years old. I started engineering when I was almost 19. I worked at Little Mountain Sound as an assistant engineer. I was in the right spot at the right time. I worked on somg big, big records when I finally got my chance around 24 or 25 to start engineering, which is pretty young in this business.

The Inside: Did you have any formal training in engineering?

MP: No formal training at all. I learned on the job.

The Inside: How much of a Van Halen were you before you did Balance?

MP: I was a big Van Halen fan when I was growing up. The earlier Van Halen, like Van Halen I, is what I like. When they went off with the Sammy stuff, I wasn't a big fan. I was more a Dave fan.

The Inside: Where did your first meeting with Van Halen take place?

MP: Just at Ed's house when we started working on the record.

The Inside: Did you see Valerie or Wolfgang?

MP: Definitely. While we were doing the record, every day we'd see them up at the studio. Wolfgang would always be playing Asteroids or some racing game. He'd be with Val or the housekeeper.

The Inside: While you did most of the record in L.A., you also recorded some of the vocals here in Vancouver?

MP: Yeah, we did some vocals at Bryan Adams's house. I think we spent about three weeks here in 1994.

The Inside: What kind of hours did you put in when you were working on the album?

MP: It was pretty easy actually. We'd start anywhere between 12 and 1 and we were usually done by 9 at night. We took most weekends off. Sundays for sure.

The Inside: What was the routine in terms of recording each element of the songs?

MP: Pretty standard. We started out with the bed tracks, getting good bass and drum tracks first and then adding the guitars. The came vocals, backing vocals, and whatever percussion was needed.

The Inside: Ed has been known to use a demo as the starting point, like with the keyboard songs on 5150.

MP: That's true. For some of the stuff, we did use demos and Alex played along to the demos. Most of the stuf was redone from scratch.

The Inside: What was the difference between your responsibilities as second engineer and Erwin Musper's role as first engineer?

MP: Erwin had much more say in what was going on the record. As the second engineer, though, I did a lot of the recording and I did all the editing, a lot of the rough mixes and stuff like that.

The Inside: How much creative input did you and Erwin have, compared to Bruce?

MP: We had a different kind of input. Our creative focus was getting the sounds right, whereas Bruce was more the musical guy, determining what parts the band should play, what melody should be. Those areas didn't overlap. The music is totally Bruce.

The Inside: How intimidating was it for you to work with Van Halen, given that they're considered "living rock legends"?

MP: Honestly, I'd already worked with so many good bands that it's all the same. Bands like Aerosmith, for Get A Grip, and AC/DC, for The Razor's Edge. So by 1995, "intimidating" ceased to be a factor. To do my job, I had to look at them as just another band, even if they are legends. And one thing that was easy about Van Halen was they were super-nice guys with no egos or attitudes about them. They were one of the nicest bands I've ever worked with.

The Inside: What are some of your favorite memories?

MP: This happened a little later, but I got to go out on the road with them and record some of their lives shows. I worked on mixing the pay-per-view show they did in Toronto for MTV and MuchMusic during the Balance tour, so I lived in one of Eddie's guest houses to do that for about four months in summer 1995. Later on, we had to do some fix-ups on the PPV, but the band was out on the road, so we had to work around their schedule. We met Sammy in San Francisco to redo some of his vocals, because he had mics crapping out on him on stage, things like that. In terms of what happened during the recording of Balance, I remember going golfing every Sunday with Eddie at his private country club. It was great.

The Inside: When you started Balance, what kind of guidelines did the band give you about the sound they wanted to achieve?

MP: Basically, they wanted to keep the distinctive Van Halen sound: Alex's snare, Eddie's guitar. They made it easy for the engineers. They get their sound themselves, and all you have to do is put up a mic. They were big on making sure it sounded the say way it does in the room.

The Inside: The previous Van Halen album, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, seemed to overcompensate in terms of cranking up the rhythm section. Did they talk about getting away from that trend?

MP: I don't think they were really happy with Carnal Knowledge, or the working environment for it. That's why they switched producers instead of sticking with Andy Johns. They didn't really get into the detalis, but I don't think they were into the direction that Johns was pushing on that record. Sonically, that wasn't a great record.

The Inside: Let's talk about individual band members. What impression of Eddie Van Halen did you get?

MP: Very nice guy, very easy-going. Always in a good mood. Very happy all the time. It was fun to work with him. I was shocked to see him with short hair though! [laughs]

The Inside: What impressed you most about Eddie's playing?

MP: What an amazing player! Actually, they all are. Alex is a very underrated drummer. I was surprised by how good he is. But when you watch Ed play guitar, he make it look so easy. He never makes a mistake. Everything is great. He'll be recording a guitar solo and he'll play three totally different solos and all of them are amazing. He doesn't like to piece his solos together from different takes, but he has so much to choose from. Bruce Fairbairn often made him use the first solo because it had the most spirit or magic. Musicians always think they can do better than the first take, but that's not necessarily the case. I mean, you can try again, but if you don't beat it after two more tries, you're not gonna get there.

The Inside: What did you do to capture Alex's drum sound so well?

MP: I can't take credit for that, actually. Mike Fraser was originally slated to do the record, but he had other commitments and couldn't make it. However, he helped to set up the drum kit and was involved with getting the basic sounds. He ended up mixing the record instead of engineering.

The Inside: How would you describe Michael Anthony's role in the studio?

MP: Fairly low-key. He came in and did his thing. He didn't say that much, just did what he had to do. Eddie has a lot to do with what Michael does on bass. He'd coach him on how to play certain parts, in terms of the feel and stuff.

The Inside: What are the challenges in recording a singer like Sammy Hagar?

MP: Well, Sammy would only come in between 3 and 5, and he had dinner reservations at 6, so you had to get what you could out of him in that amount of time, and that was it. He doesn't like to work. He'd rather go out. That's just Sammy. I think that was why Eddie and Sammy weren't getting along. Ed would get so frustrated because Sammy wouldn't want to work, whereas Ed is a workaholic. He was the first one in the studio and the last one out every day, whether he was doing his parts or not. So things started going south in terms of Eddie and Sammy's relationship.

The Inside: And obviously Balance was the last studio album Van Halen did with Sammy. What other tensions did you notice?

MP: Mainly in the writing. Ed wanted Sammy to put more into it. I don't know everything about it, or how far back the problem went. But Ed was often unhappy with Sammy's lyrics, as you may know.

The Inside: What was the most difficult song on the album to record?

MP: I think "Amsterdam" was the hardest one. Eddie wrote this great track, and again, he wasn't happy with the lyrics. He felt they didn't do the music justice. He kept going back and trying to get Sammy to write something better, but Sammy couldn't come up with anything else. Still, musically the track was always there. I don't recall any songs where the band had a hard time performing its parts.

The Inside: What was the secret behind achieving that clean but huge guitar sound on "Can't Stop Lovin' You?"

MP: You know, it has so much to do with Eddie. Because Bruce Fairbairn played guitar too, and I remember one time we were going back to fix one of Eddie's guitar parts. So Bruce asked me to recall the sound for the song, and I did. Bruce said, "Well, let's just see if the sound matches." So he started playing along with the track, and it was this totally different guitar sound. I said, "That's impossible! I'm sure I documented this correctly." I double-checked all my mics. So it turned out to be right, but it sounded completely different. Then Ed came in later and said, "Yeah, you got the set-up, that's what I use." And he played it again, a perfect match. The difference between the two players is unbelievable. It's all in Eddie's fingers and his picking--how he gets his sound. On that song, I believe the dirty sounds was straight Marshalls, and the clean sound was just a direct input through the console. He has a magic touch.

The Inside: Who asked Alex if he needed a click on "Big Fat Money?"

MP: That would have to be Bruce. We were doing basic overdubs for the drum track. I'm sure Alex did ude a click track on some songs to keep tempo. I wish I remembered more about the individual tracks, but it's been over five years.

The Inside: Which track on Balance stands out as your personal favorite?

MP: I like "The Seventh Seal." Liked it right from the get-go. The groove, the lyrics, everything.

The Inside: Do you remember anything about the songs that were recorded but didn't make the final cut?

MP: There were a couple that Ed used later. One was the "shuffle" that turned into "Can't Get This Stuff No More" on the greatest hits album. He rewrote it and changed some parts around, and Dave sang a new melody on top. During the Balance sessions, they couldn't get the right lyrics for that one. Same old situation with Sammy. We didn't want more than twelve songs on the record, and at that point, everyone was happy with the ones we had, so we focused on finishing them off properly.

The Inside: Let's talk about Bruce Fairbairn. How long did you know Bruce, and what was your working relationship like?

MP: I first met him in '89. We had a great working relationship. We ended up almost like being best friends. We hung around together even when we weren't working. We were very close.

The Inside: What was Bruce's greatest musical strength as a producer?

MP: He was a very musical guy. He was a trumpet player and he could play losts of other instruments, and he was a great singer and vocal coach. He knew all the elements of a hit song. He was alos very good at getting the best out of a band. Even though he was in so much control, he could make the band feel like it was all coming from them. He was a good "people person," a communicator. He was like a teacher in some ways. It didn't ,atter what band I was working with him on: when he walked into the studio everybody quieted down and went to their positions, just like they were in school. It was like "No fooling around now, get to work." Bruce was a small guy, maybe 5-6 and 140 pounds. But the band would always call him "the little man with the big stick." He meant business, and he was so confident and knowledgeable that people respected him. Bruce wouldn't work long hours, but with him, you'd get more done in 8 hours than you would in 14 or 15 with most other producers.

The Inside: Where does Balance rank among the albums you've engineered?

MP: It's definitely up there with my favorites. I like hard rock, but with a pop edge. You know, Van Halen, Aerosmith, INXS. I did records with all of those people, and they were all great. Balance was one of the biggest sellers I worked on, though the Cranberries records and the Aerosmith record sold more.

The Inside: What are your thoughts on Van Halen 3 and Gary Cherone's stint with Van Halen?

MP: I didn't like it, sonically or musically. I hoped they would get Dave back in 1996. From an engineering standpoint, my friend Robbes Stieglitz said it was quite a mess when they called him in to work on the album.

The Inside: What would you say if Van Halen asked you to do another record with them? What are your future plans?

MP: I would say yes, but I don't think it's going to happen. I haven't been in contact with Van Halen for a few years. Right now, I'm working on a number of different things. I finished mixing the last Yes album after Bruce passed away. Lately I recorded live stuff for the Cranberries in Paris, and I'm doing a project with one of the guys from Delerium. I have done some producing, but engineering is my forte and it's really where I want to stay.

Interview 2000 The Inside Magazine