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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Mark ‘Spike’ Stent

Inside Track: Muse 'The Resistance'

Technique : Recording / Mixing

Britain's biggest name in mixing, Mark 'Spike' Stent has achieved international success in almost every genre. With Muse's latest album, The Resistance, he was dealing with rock at its most epic.

Paul Tingen

Mark 'Spike' Stent is the most successful British mixer of the last two decades, and one of very few non‑American engineers to have become a big name in the hip‑hop/R&B genre. In so doing, Stent has clocked up more than 700 credits and worked with the likes of Madonna, Beyoncé, Björk, Lily Allen, Depeche Mode, Massive Attack, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Oasis, U2, Usher, Lady Gaga, and so on — and on.

Stent grew up in Hampshire, close to the then‑famous Jacobs Studios, where he made the regular tea‑boy‑to‑engineer transition. Following a stint at Trident, he went freelance in 1987, and soon afterwards made his name with his pioneering mixes of the KLF. Stent's nickname was given to him the same year by Wayne Hussey of the Mission, who for some reason couldn't remember the name of the then 22‑year old spikey‑haired engineer who was recording the band's album Children. Since then, Stent has worked in an unusually varied array of musical genres, but in all cases he brings a signature approach to his work: ultra‑clear, ultra‑tight and hard‑hitting.

Going To California

Stent rarely gives interviews, but SOS has been on his trail ever since the inception of the Inside Track series, and his work on Muse's recent album The Resistance and its lead single 'Uprising' gave us the perfect opportunity to get the low‑down on his mixing methods. When I speak to him, he is in the UK mixing Goldfrapp's forthcoming album, but explains that he is mainly based in the US these days.

"My family and I have lived in LA for two and a half years now. We went there in the summer of 2007 for a six‑week project, and decided to stay. My work in the US had exploded, and with 60 percent of it being there, I wanted to have a life and be around my family, so we all moved there.

"It was a big challenge for me, because I went from being a bigger fish in a small pond to a minnow in shark‑infested waters! I had done a lot of work in America and people knew me, but I still had a point to prove. Moving out there gave me a big kick up the bottom, so to speak. In my own mind that was good, because change is good and I was maybe not exactly resting on my laurels in the UK, but I had gotten into the habit of doing things a certain way.”

One result of Stent's move across the big pond was that he started listening to American records with new ears. "Going there made me understand the sonics of American records,” notes Stent. "I thought I did, because I obviously had listened to them for decades, but it turns out that I didn't. It's a completely different approach there, and it was a real watershed for me. I learned very quickly in my first few months in the US how to go about making urban records. The bottom end is different, the kick drum, the whole rhythm track is completely different to what you do in England. It's not about using specific plug‑ins or effects, but more about the depth and punchiness of the bottom end. It's to do with the placement of the drums and the vocals, the guitars, everything. In American records, especially urban records, the bottom end is very prominent, with the kick very forward and the bass quite thin to make room for the kick, while the snare or clap are further back. The kick is truly pummelling you in the chest.”

Getting Back In The Box

Another development in part furthered by Stent's move to the US was that he had to change his working methods to suit today's technology, music, working methods and budgets. After 25 years of swearing by mixing on an SSL, Stent decided to adapt to the current in‑the‑box method. He is coy when prompted for specifics, but does explain "I mix most urban and pop records in the box now, while rock and acoustic records are usually done via the G‑series desk. I like the way that the guitars and real drums are affected by the sound of the desk, and while I've been doing a combination of mixing in and out of the box for the last six years, last summer when coming back to England after mixing the Muse album, my assistant, Matty Green, and I had some time on our hands and really got the microscope out to make sure we could get that same sound in the box as from the desk. I had some time on my hands to experiment and really managed to dial that in.”

"Moving to mixing in the box wasn't a watershed moment, more of a natural progression. Computer processing has become more powerful, and plug‑ins are so much better than they were. I normally use shitloads of Waves plug‑ins, the E‑Channel SSL bundle, I like the Chris Lord‑Alge plug‑ins, the Waves PuigChild, I use the R‑Bass a lot, [Metric Halo] Channel Strip is an old favourite, for delays I use [Sound Toys] Echoboy a lot, and for colouring things I think the [Tech 21] Sansamp is great. I also like some of the Pro Tools 8 plug‑ins, even though I'm still using 7.4 — I'm waiting until 8 stabilises. I learned very early on that not jumping straight in with new software was the best strategy. In addition, producers, record companies, and artists are used now to the fact that they can call you, even two months after your mix, and request a change, and you just bring up the Session and five or 10 minutes later the change is made. So mixing in the box is about time and being flexible, and of course it also saves on the budget.”

Underground Sound

The Resistance was not, however, mixed in the box, nor at either of Stent's regular studios. Instead, he and Green went to the band's private studio near Lake Como in Italy, which is entirely located underground (there are some interesting video clips of the band recording there on YouTube). It turned out that many of Stent's above‑described working methods and gear were indeed used when he worked there. "They told my wife and manager Tracy that they were very keen for me to work there,” recalls the mixer. "I was a bit sceptical, so she asked for an equipment list. When they sent it, I was shocked, because it was pretty much my setup! They have the same SSL G‑series console, they have GML outboard, NS10s with Brynston 9000B amps, SSL compressors, four Distressors, Lexicon 480, the Standard Audio Lever, which sits in an API rack and which is brilliant, 902 De‑Esser, LA2A, my favourite blackface 1176 Special Edition, and a Pro Tools system with a shitload of plug‑ins. Plus their room sounded great. Their studio is purpose‑built, located in an amazing location, and they're lovely people, so Matty and I had a thoroughly enjoyable time.”

There was another ingredient in the mixing sessions for The Resistance that improved Stent's 'joie de mixage' even more, namely the way that Briton Adrian Bushby (Foo Fighters, Maximo Park, Placebo, Feeder, Gomez) had engineered the album. Having recorded two albums with John Leckie and two with Rich Costey, the band had taken the production helm themselves, creating huge arrangements of multi‑layered tracks, with drums, vocals, synths and other instruments, including classical orchestras, all fighting for space.

"Adrian did an amazing job in recording this album,” states Stent. "The Sessions for The Resistance contained probably among the best recordings I have ever worked on, and that's a credit to Adrian and the band. The way Adrian had tracked everything made my job very easy. The new album is slightly different for the band, and the fact that they produced it entirely themselves says a lot. The classical elements on the album didn't make any difference to my approach, though obviously I gave particular attention to the Queen harmonies in 'United States Of Eurasia', making sure the balance was right. The boys were very particular about that. Whatever it is that you're mixing, you obviously need to get the band's or the artist's vision across. You do that together with the band, artist, and/or producer.”

Starting Points

Stent went out to Italy with a few choice pieces of his own equipment, among them his Lavry Gold A‑D converters, his KRK 9000 monitors, and a batch of plug‑ins and iLoks, and found it extremely easy to settle into working at Muse's studio, with equipment that was familiar to him and Sessions that were organised in a way he liked, which didn't need much organising or cleaning up. "The Sessions and the board were pretty much flat, as far as I remember, and most of the plug‑ins were added by me, so I did pretty much my own thing. Normally speaking, before I mix a track or a project, I'll ask to hear the roughs or maybe the demos, so I can get a sense of what needs to be done, where there are problems, and so on. The rough will give me an idea of what the A&R, the artist and/or the producer think is good, even though the sonics may be wrong or something in the balance isn't coming across. I then put the roughs in the Session, so I always have a reference and I can A/B them with what's going on.

"In general, when I start work on a file, Matty will clean everything up and organise it the way I want it. Particularly if I'm working in the box, I'll often add kick and snare samples, and if I'm dealing with a live kick drum, we'll clean the tom tracks, so there is no spill from them, because tom microphones ring round, and if you have them really loud in the mix you have a lot of ringing going on. Sometimes I add samples to the toms, because I want them to be really loud and punching through, but again without spill. If the drum track needs redoing I may bring in a programmer to work on it — in LA I use a guy called Spider a lot. Vocals are cleaned, with breaths taken down and any de‑essing dealt with. If I'm really compressing the shit out of vocals to get a vibe, it's particularly important that the breaths are taken down and the ends of lines cleaned up if there's spill on the vocal mics, or if it was recorded with a handheld mic and you're hearing lots of extraneous noise. The whole Session is cleaned up and organised in a very methodical way. I'm very particular about this, because it makes the whole mix process easier and quicker. But again, there was very little to do in this respect on the Muse Sessions, and in the case of 'Uprising' I didn't add any samples.”


Written by Matt Bellamy

Produced by Muse

The Pro Tools Session for 'Uprising' is huge, with 80‑plus audio tracks — including 35 drum tracks, five bass tracks, and 20‑odd vocal tracks — plus a number of effect, subgroup and volume tracks. The drum section features no fewer than four kick‑drum mics, four snare mics, three overhead tracks, six room‑microphone tracks, and nine tom overdubs, seven of which are the same part but picked up by different room mics. Many of these elements are submixed to aux tracks, which, explains Stent, is at the heart of his way of working. It should also be noted that the Session was done in Pro Tools 7.4 (at 24‑bit/96kHz), but that Muse have since upgraded to version 8, so when studio engineer Tomasso Colliva recently pulled up the Session to take the accompanying screenshots, it showed in version 8. As Muse don't have the same plug‑ins on their system as Stent, not all of the plug‑ins he used are shown.

Spike Stent: "It is indeed quite a big Session, drum‑wise. The way it's put together is very interesting and very clever, with, for instance, all the different kick and snare-drum mics. All the drums were brilliantly recorded, which is why I didn't need to add any samples. The session starts at 19'30” because they had done a few different versions of the song, and recorded them sequentially. This is how they managed the Session — people often work like this. In many respects, the 'Uprising' Session is completely typical of me, with four kick drums being subgrouped to one track and the same with the snare, and so on, and that's then sent to the console. I even subgroup when I'm working in the box, with sub‑compression on these groups, while at the same time having individual plug‑ins on each individual drum track.

"When I mix a track, I normally start with the drums, and then the bass, and once I've got the rhythm section rocking and I have a good feel, I'll get the vocals in and then other key hook elements. I may then take the vocals out again and start dialling in all the parts and fine‑tuning the guitar parts and so on. With this particular track I tried to keep the bottom end tight and very defined and absolutely rocking. This track was about the power of the rhythm track, but at the same time you need to make sure that you get the emotion of it right and that the vocals can be heard. It's a hard balance. Record companies always want the vocal louder than God, but you need to keep the power in the track as well.”

Drums: Waves SSL Channel, desk EQ & dynamics, Metric Halo Channel Strip, Chandler EMI TG12413 (plug‑in) & TG1 (hardware). The entire 'Uprising' Session is far too big to print or even view on a single screen! Here are some of the drum tracks, including tom overdubs (lower half of screen) added by the band in Devon.As well as mixing on his favoured SSL G‑series desk, Stent also made extensive use of Waves' SSL E and G Channel plug‑ins. These are the settings he used on the SM7 bass drum mic.The Chandler/EMI TG12413 limiter was used to get the room mics to pump.

"There's a kick master, which is a subgroup of the four kick tracks, and which came up on the desk. But I also would have had some of the individual tracks come up on the board. The same with the snare. The stereo subgroups for the toms, overheads and room mics would each have come up on two channels on the SSL, but in these cases no individual tracks were sent to the desk.

"I had the Waves SSL Channel on the first kick, which was recorded with a Shure SM7. Why did I use a plug‑in and not the desk? Good question. No idea. It's what I do. I don't think about it too much. Does the SSL Channel sound like the real thing? Let's say that I like what it does and I have used them for years. I had the SSL Channel on three of the four kick-drum mics, and the 'D' on the other one [indicating the use of a plug‑in on that channel] is something dynamic. I will have used tons more EQ and compression on the SSL, all to get it to colour and punch right. I'm EQ'ing for accuracy and getting that bottom end tight. I hate flappy, untight bottom end. I like subby low, but I don't want it to sound like chaos. On this track it was tricky, because there's a lot of rumbling going on, so I had to manage the bottom end really precisely.

"What I often do is have my main drum sound under the main drum faders at the left of the console, and then I'll send stuff out via the small faders to a pair of groups and then to outboard EQ and compression, and it will come back up on separate channels. With the more powerful and punchy things like kick and snare I'll probably EQ this very toppy and subby, and will then mix that in underneath the main sound. Different section of the songs may have more or less of that submixed compression and EQ. You try to find the right thing for each section of the song. I have done this process for years. I also have the SSL Channel on the snare top and snare bottom mics, and the greyed out plug‑in 'C' is probably the [Metric Halo] Channel Strip [see screen on previous page]. I will also have added lots of board EQ and compression to the snare, and nothing else, because all the space comes from the room sound mics. I did the same with the claps, the toms, and the overheads: Waves SSL plug‑in on the subgroup and EQ and compression on the board. I don't compress things to death, but I do use heavy compression.

"I blended the six room mics together and automated them in the box for different sections of the song. On the console I will then have ridden them a lot for the major sections. All these different room mics are the result of the way Adrian tracks, which was brilliant, because it gave me a lot of options. I had a Chandler EMI TG12413 limiter on one of the room mics, because I'm hyping the room, making it pump a bit. Over the inserts on the channels on the console I would have had a TG1 outboard as well. Underneath the rooms subgroup track are the toms overdubs, in total nine tracks. Seven of them are the same part but with different room sounds, so it gave me a lot of colours to work with. They're subgrouped and go to tracks 13‑14 on the console. The SSL Channel helps to make the toms more accurate. The band also rehearsed and recorded in a house in Devon, and five tracks of overdubs from that are in this session; 'ETSO' is the subgroup that went to the board.

"Dom [Dominic Howard] is very particular about his drums, and wants to ascertain that every drum fill comes through. So I spent quite a bit of time making sure all his toms tonally were correct and fills were exaggerated. Dom is an incredible drummer and he knows exactly what he wants. In fact, Muse are an extremely tight band and incredible musicians, and everyone was very clear on where they were going. By the way, I would have checked every single one of these drums and room tracks for phase and then I would have checked the groups against the kick and the snare. I'll check whether the kick and snare tracks all line up, and so on. I'm flipping phase all the time. I'm anal about that, because it is essential for getting a really tight mix which sounds big on radio, cars, laptop, and so on.”

Bass: Waves SSL Channel, Tech 21 Sansamp, Purple Audio MC77, Sound Toys Filter Freak. Much plug‑in processing was applied to the 'top end bass' track, from Waves' SSL G Channel, Tech 21's Sansamp distortion and Purple Audio's MC77 compressor.

"The way the band and Adrian had tracked the bass was incredible. Chris [Wolstenholme] has a great bass sound, and I think he used several different pedals and amps and stuff. It was definitely an eye‑opener to me and resulted in a fantastic bass sound. Adrian recorded five bass tracks: a bass synth, a DI, a bass sub, and two tracks of bass effects that are subgrouped to 'bassFX', which comes up on channel 15 on the console. There's again a Waves SSL Channel on the top bass, plus a Sansamp, which was automated for sections. The Purple MC77 limiter is just holding that track into place. The Sound Toys Filter Freak plug‑in on the remaining four bass tracks was automated to come in and out in certain sections.”

Guitars: Sound Toys Filter Freak & Echoboy, Empirical Labs Distressor.Given the number of tracks in the Session, it's perhaps surprising that there are only five guitar tracks: the three highlighted in the centre of the screen, plus 'HIGT' and 'GTR1' (the solo) further down.

"There were five guitar tracks, split over two different places in the Session. It's the way the Session came, and because it was so well‑organised I simply worked with it as it was. The main rhythm guitar was sent to channel 22 on the board, the 'guitarchops' to 23‑24, the 'hi guitar' to 28 and the solo to 29. I had a Filter Freak on one of the 'guitarchops' and the rest was done on the board.

"I would have added a delay plug‑in, probably Echoboy or Waves H‑Delay. It's rare that I use reverb. I prefer to use plug‑in delays these days, because you can really automate them, and I love the way you can be very creative with them and yet the sound always comes back the same. I'll now only use an outboard delay if I want a certain sound from a delay, like the AMS, or the [Eventide] H3000, or the [Roland] Space Echo or any of the tape delays I still have lying around. But I use them less and less for mixing. They only tend to come out while I'm tracking a band. On the desk I sent the guitars to a subgroup and that would have gone through outboard compression and EQ and then mixed back in. What outboard? Probably some Distressors.”

Synths: Waves SSL Channel & Mondo Mod, Digidesign Revibe.A rare example of a reverb in a 'Spike' Stent mix! Here, Digidesign's Revibe is being used as an insert on one of the synth parts.

"There were half a dozen synth tracks and they sounded great, so I didn't add many effects, other than a reverb that Matt wanted, and which I can't tell you about. There's an SSL Channel on one of the synth lines, and a Trim Adjuster on some others, probably because I wanted to change the timing on them. The Revibe was a reverb, of course, and the Mondo Mod added some sort of chorus effect. On the desk the synths were fairly straight.”

Vocals: Waves De‑esser & SSL Channel, Dbx 902, Teletronix LA2A, Universal Audio 1176, Standard Audio Leveler, desk EQ & dynamics, Tech 21 Sansamp, Sound Toys Echo Boy.

"The lead vocal tracks are called 'ALT VRS 1' for the verse and 'ALTCH1' for the chorus.Some lead ('ALT VRS 1' and 'ALTCH1 tn') and backing vocal parts from the Session. Stent makes widespread use of de‑esser plug‑ins, but always takes care to tailor the settings to the track in question. I had Waves' De‑esser and SSL Channel on both. There would have been standard EQ and I would have automated the SSL plug‑in for different sections of the song. Do you see the '25+' marking in the I/O section? [See screenshot at bottom of page.] That means that the lead vocals went to channels 25, 26 and 27 on the board, and I had different chains on each. On channel 25 I would have had the Dbx 902 de‑esser, going into an LA2A, on channel 26 again the 902 but going into a blackface 1176 Special Edition, and on channel 27 the Standard Audio Leveler, which I love. It's great for colouring the sound and adding warmth and distortion. I would have mixed these in, again checking the phase. Why both the Waves and the Dbx de‑essers? I'll go in hard with scooping things out with the Waves, and the Dbx is just a general de‑esser that's just tickling the signal. My mixes are quite bright, so I really need to make sure that I keep these esses under control, depending on the vocalist and the song. The LA2A and the 1176 offer different sounds. I probably compressed the vocals quite a lot, and also would have EQ'ed them on the board.

"At the bottom of the Session I had a number of effect tracks, to which I sent the lead vocals via busses 51‑56. Several aux tracks with different effect chains were created for the vocals. On this one, a Sansamp distortion feeds Sound Toys' Echoboy delay.On 51‑52 was the Sansamp, with a bit of distortion, probably only for certain sections. The Sansamp was going into an Echoboy, which was again automated for sections. Then 53‑54 and 55‑56 also had the Echoboy, with eighth‑note and quarter‑note delays. All these vocal effects are coming up on channels 39‑40 on the console, where they probably had some compression and gating.

"There are quite a lot of backing vocals, on which I again used the Waves De‑esser, and had compression and EQ on the desk. The de‑essers would have been individually tweaked for each track. I don't just slap on a de‑esser and hope, even if it is the same vocalist. His performance and/or the microphone may be different. You can see that one de‑esser on the backing vocals affects 4326Hz [see left]; the other [is set to] 4362, which is a minimal difference, but it's there.”

End Mix

"Matt really wanted me to mix to half‑inch, so I mixed to that and back into Pro Tools. The band has an ATR100 tape machine which I used for this. I don't normally mix to tape any more, because tape batches are so unreliable these days. I'd also brought my Lavry Gold A‑D converters for going back into Pro Tools. For going to the desk we used the regular 192 D‑A converters, but I'm very particular about what I mix through, and I love that Lavry. Muse also have one of them, I can't remember which one we used, theirs or mine. They're fantastic musicians and I really enjoyed working on this album.” .

The Only SSL In Salisbury

"When I'm in LA I work in Studio G in Chalice Recording Studios, where they have my favourite board, the SSL G‑series,” says Mark 'Spike' Stent. "I had my own room at Olympic Studios in London for 11 years, and five years ago my family and I wanted to move to the countryside, so I built another fully blown studio in our house here in Salisbury [UK]. I owned all the equipment in my room at Olympic, and when that closed in 2009 I moved everything over here and duplicated my Olympic room here. I now have lots of gear all around the house, but I did manage to sell the console I previously had here, and installed my magic desk, the SSL G‑series, that I had at Olympic. I also had my room here acoustically designed according to the specifications at Olympic. I think it sounds better now than my room at Olympic ever did. You can have the best equipment in the world in your control room, but if the room sounds like shit, you're onto a hiding to nothing.”

Naturally, Stent does not only have a good‑sounding room, but also "the best equipment in the world,” including four Pro Tools rigs, loaded with "shitloads” of plug‑ins, endless arrays of outboard, his beloved Lavry Gold A‑D converters, his "magic” SSL G‑series, and his favourite Yamaha NS10 and KRK 9000 monitors. "I'm used to them, so I know exactly what I'm listening to.”    

Friday, June 26, 2015

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Humberto Gatica

Inside Track: Michael Bublé ‘You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You’

People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

In a rare interview, legendary engineer and producer Humberto Gatica explains how he and singer Michael Bublé breathed new life into big‑band swing music — with stunning results.

Paul Tingen

Humberto Gatica at the Euphonix desk in his own studio in Los Angeles.

Humberto Gatica at the Euphonix desk in his own studio in Los Angeles.Humberto Gatica at the Euphonix desk in his own studio in Los Angeles.Photo: Mr Bonzai

Still only 34, singer Michael Bublé has almost single‑handedly made swing and big‑band music fashionable again, with well over 20 million album sales to date. The Canadian broke through to the mainstream in 2003 with an eponymously titled album, and followed it with It's Time (2005), the Grammy‑winning Call Me Irresponsible (2007) and Crazy Love (2009). The latter reached number one in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and many other countries. In addition, Bublé won a second Grammy this year in the category Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, with the live Bublé Meets Madison Square Garden.

As the old saying goes, behind every great singer there's a great production team, and Bublé's team is spearheaded by two living legends of the American music industry. Canadian David Foster and Chilean Humberto Gatica were both instrumental in helping the singer update swing and big‑band music for the 21st Century. Foster is the 15‑time Grammy‑winning writer of megahits such as 'Love Theme from St Elmo's Fire', Chicago's 'Hard To Say I'm Sorry' and Celine Dion's 'The Power Of The Dream', and has also produced the likes of Dion, Whitney Houston and Barbra Streisand. Foster discovered Bublé in 2000, signed him to his label, 143 Records, and produced large parts of the four above‑mentioned albums.

Meanwhile, Humberto Gatica's 35‑year career has seen him work with almost every big‑name American artist, from Michael Jackson to Barbra Streisand, Madonna to Mariah Carey, in the process collecting no fewer than 16 Grammy awards. Gatica worked as a producer, engineer and mixer on all of Bublé's albums.

Three producers worked on Crazy Love. Foster produced half of the 14 songs, Bob Rock five, and Gatica two: the big‑band track 'You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You' and the barbershop‑inspired vocal swing of 'Stardust'. Gatica engineered the tracks he produced, and together with Jochem van der Saag (interviewed in SOS April 2009) he engineered all the Foster‑produced tracks. Gatica also mixed all of the tracks, apart from the first single, 'Haven't Met You Yet', which fell to Chris Lord‑Alge. In this article, we'll be looking in detail at Gatica's work on 'You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You'.

Crazy Stuff

Gatica's small rack of vital outboard equipment. At the top is the custom‑made Eduardo Fayed preamp he uses on Michael Bublé's vocals; beneath that are Lang and GML equalisers, Neve 33609 stereo compressor, AMS RMX16 reverb and two humble Yamaha SPX990 multi‑effects units.

Gatica's small rack of vital outboard equipment. At the top is the custom‑made Eduardo Fayed preamp he uses on Michael Bublé's vocals; beneath that are Lang and GML equalisers, Neve 33609 stereo compressor, AMS RMX16 reverb and two humble Yamaha SPX990 multi‑effects units.Gatica's small rack of vital outboard equipment. At the top is the custom‑made Eduardo Fayed preamp he uses on Michael Bublé's vocals; beneath that are Lang and GML equalisers, Neve 33609 stereo compressor, AMS RMX16 reverb and two humble Yamaha SPX990 multi‑effects units.

At the time of the interview, Humberto Gatica is juggling several projects, amongst them an album of orchestral arrangements of Diane Warren songs and work with Quincy Jones on the 'We Are The World 2010' benefit single for Haiti. In between all this, from his brand‑new studio in Los Angeles, Gatica elaborates on his work on Michael Bublé's Crazy Love, and on how both this album and his work in general aim to combine the best of the old and the new.

"I'm so busy that I keep my studio working all the time, and I'm happy with that,” explains Gatica, his Chilean accent and syntax still very much apparent. "I have a Euphonix desk here, with Pro Tools. I like the Euphonix sound, because it has a little bit of the analogue touch to it. The EQ is very musical, and in fact I recorded the first three Bublé studio albums, the first three Josh Groban albums, a couple of Celine albums, and a bunch of other stuff on a Euphonix desk. The Madison Square Garden live album was done on a Neve, because my studio wasn't ready yet, and Crazy Love was recorded and mixed on Neve consoles as well.

"As far as outboard is concerned, I'm still attached to the analogue world, even though I'm slowly discovering the possibilities presented by plug‑ins. I little by little learn to use them and I program what they can do in my head, so I know what to go for when necessary. But I'm much more in tune with analogue gear; I immediately know what I want and where to find it, whether it's EQ, compression, or reverbs. But you have to use today's technology. You can't just close your eyes and bury your head and say that you're only going to do it one way. So I chose what's available now to my advantage, and with the experience that I bring from the other side of the coin, I have finally learned to have a perfect balance. I don't have to think about it any more, it just happens naturally. The way I use microphones, EQ, compression, the way I go into Pro Tools, I've been able to program my brain to today's technology so I'm able to get what I want.

"You can do so much crazy stuff now in Pro Tools, move things around, change, shift, chop, tune, that you couldn't do in analogue. It makes me happy to use it. Pro Tools is a fantastic device if used properly and if you don't get carried away — though some people work with such average musicians that they have no choice but to work with Pro Tools and to fix and compress the heck out of things. I also think that digital now sounds pretty close to the way that analogue used to sound. I still think, though, that there is a certain spread, depth, and weight and musicality with analogue that's not reproduced today. There are some great‑sounding new records, but in the past we made better‑sounding records, with more soul. The higher sample rates help, so I've tried using 96k, but it's a pain. It uses too much space and slows down the session, and I like to move fast. So I'm now back to 24/48. I still think that the converters of the old Sony 3348 [digital multitrack tape machine] are incredible. When I worked on Michael's albums at David Foster's studio, we always went through a 3348. For my current studio I bought an old 3348, and I process my signal through its converters.

"I still lay everything out on the desk. To me, with the kind of music that I'm doing, the box [computer] is a danger. As soon as you go into the box, things have a tendency to get sterile and predictable. The box is a one‑dimensional device designed for a different kind of music. For some music it's ideal, but it destroys the musicality, the emotions, the orchestrations and the chords in the music that I do. It takes away energy and spirit. I don't care how much analogue you rent in, it's not the real thing. Michael also didn't want that approach. It's OK to record into the box, but then you have to bring the elements back out again into a whirl of feelings in analogue, and into the way you can feel the moves with a desk. For me, it's impossible to get the sound I want with just a mouse and plug‑ins. No way. It's like trying to make an incredible meal with boxing gloves on and all the food is in cans or is frozen. I can't do it.”

Purity Of Sound

The Pro Tools Session for 'You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You'.

The Pro Tools Session for 'You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You'.The Pro Tools Session for 'You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You'.

The synthesis of the old and the new, analogue and digital, the desk and Pro Tools, lies at the heart of everything Gatica does these days. It extends into the actual music‑making and arranging arena, as is illustrated by his work with Michael Bublé. "With the Bublé albums, we were able to perfectly balance the traditional and the contemporary. We were using synth sounds and loops and so on, while being cautious about how we introduced them in the mix. Sometimes they were explicit and exposed, sometimes they worked more in the background and added to the overall feel, where you can't tell exactly what's happening, but you can feel that there's something different. If we had not added these elements, we'd have made a very traditional album, à la Frank Sinatra. With all the artists we work with, we try to create their own sound, even if it is traditional music. On Michael's first album there's a track called 'Fever', and you can hear a lot of loops kicking in and giving a nice spin to the vibe of the song. There's a bit of an edge. The same in the song 'Hold On' [the forthcoming second single from Crazy Love] which has a bit of roughness in the electric guitars. Michael also writes singles that are completely outside of the swing world. He is the only artist who is able to step out of character and come back into it again like that.”

Crazy Love embodies this combination of the old and the new in many different ways. It contains old‑fashioned songs, amongst them early 20th Century classics such as 'Georgia On My Mind', 'Stardust', and 'All Of Me', mid‑century songs such as 'You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You', 'Cry Me A River' and the soul classic 'Some Kind of Wonderful', and rock songs including the Eagles' 1980 hit 'Heartache Tonight', Van Morrison's 1970 classic 'Crazy Love' and Ron Sexsmith's 2004 song 'Whatever It Takes'. There are also two songs written by Bublé with Alan Chang and Amy S Foster. The album contains a wide variety of ingredients, among them in‑the‑background Cubase programming by Jochem van der Saag, distorted electric guitars, in‑your‑face drum kits, big bands, horn and string sections and barbershop singing. The most immediately apparent contemporary characteristic of the album, however, is its sound, which is rich, bright, detailed, transparent: in‑your‑face, but not overly so.

"The vocals are the most important aspect of the entire recording for me,” insists Gatica. "I pay a lot of attention to vocal recording, and I have found the zone where the vocals behave best. With Celine it's the Telefunken 251, into one of my customised mic pres, Neve 33609 [compressor] and GML EQ. I use the 251 with almost everybody, it's my favourite microphone, but with Michael I use a vintage tube Neumann U47. My mic pres were made 25 years ago by Eduardo Fayed, a Brazilian genius. I used them for the recording of the first 'We Are The World'. It challenges every other mic pre on the planet in terms of purity and clean sound. Dave Foster had two, but somehow they died, and so my two mic pres are the only ones left in the world. Fayed's mic pres work wonderfully on Celine. She's one of the most challenging vocalists on the planet to record, because of her incredible range and the way she can sing very softly, and then suddenly she'll shift her sound to a very powerful mid‑range. If the mic and the mic pre don't respond properly, you'll get a mid‑rangey sound that she won't like. She's the most sensitive, wonderful, amazing vocalist I've ever worked with, and she'll immediately hear in her earphones if her vocals sound compressed or whatever.”

'You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Humberto Gatica

Written by James Cananaugh, Russ Morgan, Larry Stock

Produced by Humberto GaticaSecrets Of The Mix Engineers: Humberto Gatica

Humberto Gatica: "In the case of this song, I was producing, arranging, engineering and mixing, so before explaining the technical details to you, I have to stress that the technical aspect is something that I have done for so many years that it has become second nature. My primary concern when I'm producing is arrangement and performance. After the sound, which in part inspires the production, is set, I let go and completely disconnect myself from that aspect. After that, all I think about is the creative aspect, the feel, the arrangement, what the arrangement is doing to the melody, how it is affecting the vocal performance, and so on. I'm like an ice hockey player who doesn't think about skating any more, but only about the game and scoring goals. In the case of this song, my input in the arrangement was a collaboration. The arrangements were already kind of there, because Michael and his band had already performed the song live. We just upgraded the arrangement for the recorded version. We beefed it up with outside ideas from Alan [Chang] and me.

"We recorded this track at the Warehouse [in Vancouver] with Michael's live band. It was one of the first times that the band was participating on one of his albums. We were very excited about that. Playing live is one thing, but playing in a studio is much more demanding, and so we had to tighten things up and make sure they were more accurate. Everything was recorded live, there were no overdubs, apart from some fixes on Michael's vocal because there were some pops in the live take. I like the artists to sing the song with the arrangement, so I can better judge what I'm looking for. Michael always wants to do a live vocal to capture the feel. He sings in an iso booth, and the quality of his live singing is as good as that of his overdubs. I also had the drums, piano, double bass and guitars in iso rooms, and the rest of the band set up in a kind of horse-shoe arrangement, with trombones to the left, saxophones to the right, and trumpets towards the centre. I later kept that positioning in the mix. I recorded the strings at the same time, but later I overdubbed them again to have more control over the sound. The room sounded fantastic, very bright, with a nice resonance in the horns, and so I used lots of ambient mics, which allowed me to get some real live energy into the recording.

"In terms of microphones, I had a Sennheiser MD421 and [Neumann] FET 47 on the bass drum, AKG C452 and Shure SM57 on the snare, 57s on the toms, AKG 452 on the hi‑hat, [Neumann] TLM170 for the overheads, [Neumann] M50 for the ambience. The upright bass was recorded with two FET 47s on each 'f' hole and a [Neumann] KM84 close to the neck. The bass player did not have a pickup this time. The piano was recorded with an AKG C414 and a [Neumann] M49, and for the guitar I had an SM57 on the amp and also an AKG 452 right by the guitarist's hand, so I could pick up a little bit of the strumming sound.

"For anything brass I love Neumann, so trombones and trumpets were recorded with U87s, and the saxophone with 47 FETs. I used the Neumann 67 and 87s on all the strings apart from the cellos, for which I used the AKG 452. I like to have options of close, section, and ambient microphones. The room at the Warehouse has an interesting height, and I put the M50 up at the balcony, and also put up two [Telefunken ELAM] 251s as ambient mics, just to fool around and check the frequency response up there. In terms of the signal chains, I took my Eduardo Fayed mic pres with me to Vancouver and used them on Michael's vocals, as well as the trumpets, to make sure they sounded a little fatter. Other than that, I used the mic pres of the Warehouse's Neve 'AIR' desk [one of three originally designed to George Martin and Geoff Emerick's specifications for AIR Studios], which is a good‑sounding console. I compressed the bass, the guitars and the piano a bit, just to have a bit more control, but the brass, never; the brass has to breathe.

"Michael wanted from the beginning to have a record that sounded real, that sounds like the musicians are right there doing what they do best, so I recorded the band in whole takes, with everybody wearing headphones, so they could hear Michael, which was important to inspire them to a better execution and get a good take. There was no click. We set the tempo, and if the band was fluctuating or drifting, we'd regroup and try to pay more attention. I ended up with one particular performance that I felt was very well‑executed and just kept it. That was the take and it turned out to be big. There were no overdubbing edits, although I did later on use Pro Tools to make a few repairs. Players aren't perfect and they get tired. But I only did this when I felt that it was necessary to preserve the integrity of the performance, like tune a note if it affected the blend of the saxophones, for instance. I don't line up everything to perfection, because that would defeat the purpose of a live performance. Of course, I'll use technology if it is to my advantage. If players make minor mistakes, I can say, 'Don't worry, I can fix this,' and move on. You want emotion and you want feel and you want precision all at the same time.”


The Neve desk at the Warehouse in Vancouver was one of three originally built to specifications laid down by George Martin and Geoff Emerick when they were developing AIR Studios in London and Montserrat.

The Neve desk at the Warehouse in Vancouver was one of three originally built to specifications laid down by George Martin and Geoff Emerick when they were developing AIR Studios in London and Montserrat.The Neve desk at the Warehouse in Vancouver was one of three originally built to specifications laid down by George Martin and Geoff Emerick when they were developing AIR Studios in London and Montserrat.

"When I am mixing, I am very hands‑on and manipulate the dynamics by hand. When you are producing, the vocal goes through three stages: recording, putting the pieces together, and mixing. I try to capitalise on the emotion in every moment, in a very musical way. You don't hear what I do and compression is not needed. People, particularly when working in Pro Tools, put masses of compression on. Everything is bang in your face, one‑dimensional. They sometimes sound brilliant on the radio, and sometimes awful because of all the radio compression that also gets added. I want my records to sound great anywhere.

"The first thing I do when I begin a mix is work on the vocal. I make it sound smooth and make sure the articulation is correct, and so on. I spend a lot of time making sure the vocal is in top shape, and I may use a little bit of Neve 33609 compression and my GML EQ — the GML is one of the most musical EQs ever built. Everything has to revolve and sound good around the vocal. When I've gotten the vocal to sound right, the foundation is there, and the mix becomes more fun and there is room to be creative and expressive with the rest of the mix. Let's see what we can do with the instrumentation. So, after that, I work on the rhythm. I'll then work on balancing the horns and saxophones, and the bones, and the strings. I get all the balances in perfect harmony and then I start having fun with reverbs and delays and whatever creative thing comes to my mind. By this stage, I have everything up in the mix. I then dismember it again, and verify the vocal against the rhythm section, the rhythm against the horns, the horns with the vocals, and so on, to see how everything works.

"The Session of 'You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You', consisted of about 46 tracks. I mixed the whole album in Los Angeles, at Capitol Studio B on the old Neve 8068 there. It's a fabulous studio with a wonderful sound. I ended up so pleased with all my mixes on Crazy Love. They're all fat and well‑defined‑sounding, with incredible punch. I did a few things in Pro Tools, just a compressor here and there to get things to sound tight and to have more control, and I used the George Massenburg EQ plug‑in to clean up some vocal proximity [low‑frequency boost] and straighten out some other things. Michael sang some of the vocals in Vancouver and some in LA, and I needed to match these. But everything else in the mixes was done on the desk and with outboard.

"As I said before, I'm not an in‑the‑box friendly guy. I don't care what you do and how much you want to use plug‑ins: trying to duplicate the sound of an 1176 or of a vintage EQ or whatever with them doesn't work. It's never the same. So the only way to approach it is to keep compressing and in the end you have this record that when you listen to it you are like… [makes sound of being throttled] You can't even breathe. Nothing is moving. Nothing is open. It's like an addiction. So instead I stick to the old‑fashioned way of making and mixing records, while also using the sounds that the new generation is used to hearing today. That's OK. I you use compression in a musical way, you can do a magnificent job and you have the best of both worlds. But you don't want to overcook things. There is some music a dinosaur like me will never be able to do, because those kids know how to manipulate bottom end. And with some of the modern singers you need all sorts of major effects and processing, it's the only way you can make it fly. But for the stuff that's done by great artists like Michael Bublé, Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, Celine Dion, the box is not the answer, the box is the beginning of the end.

"During recording and the mix, I worked hard on mixing the drums, because Michael really likes to hear the groove and the pounding of the drums. I use some EQ, often from my GML, and some Neve 33609 compression where necessary. With songs that I have recorded myself I don't need to do much in the mix, it's more just a matter of balancing and placing things in the stereo spectrum. I mainly use the GML EQ and the Neve 33609 compressor, but very sparingly. I had both boxes on Michael's voice, and some reverb, and another EQ, that I don't want to talk about. I'm supporting kids that go to college! Vocals and the drums are the most important aspects of a mix, and the arrangement as a whole. When you understand arrangement, mixing is easy. You know what you're looking for. Otherwise you're fishing.

The live room in Warehouse Studio 2, where the session was recorded.

The live room in Warehouse Studio 2, where the session was recorded.The live room in Warehouse Studio 2, where the session was recorded."I also spend quite a lot of time adding ambience and space to the mix. I have a very interesting approach, I mix things up. I use things that give me length, and I use things that give me width. I have a colourful way of mixing things. One of the first things that Michael Jackson said to me when I did my first mix for him was, 'Great, you work in colours.' And I said: 'It's my life.' For ambience I of course used the ambient tracks that I had recorded at the Warehouse, mostly from the M50. I used two other stereo pairs of mics, because I'd never worked in that room, and I wanted to cover my back. But there was a resonance in the air that was fabulous. I had the precision from the close mics, and then when you open up the room mics you get the depth. I also added some outboard reverb from the live chambers at Capitol. They were amazing. You can't top that. And my favourite reverb friend is the [AMS] RMX16. I love it, I love it, I love it, because I think it sounds very musical.

"I mix back into Pro Tools. After I finished the mix, I made stems of everything in Pro Tools. I'd make stems of the saxophones, the trumpets, the rooms, the bones, the drums, the snares, the vocal dry and the vocal with reverb. These stems are completely clean, they are impeccable. Once I'd dissected the song like that, I'd move with confidence to the mix of the next song. Once all mixes for the album were done, I come to what I consider the most fun part of my work. In my mind I become completely an outside producer who is evaluating all the mixes to see whether they are overproduced or overexposed or whatever. I'm very relaxed when I do this, and I may say: 'This part needs to go down a little,' or 'Let's get rid of that part, it's not needed.' I make sure that everything is breathing and that all the tracks on the album form a unity. So I'm truly doing touch‑ups, this is the final stage, and when it's done, I know I can go into mastering with full confidence.” .

The Humberto Gatica Story

"I came to the US in 1968, when I was 17 years old,” says Humberto Gatica, who grew up in Chile. "I was following my dream of a better life. It was interesting in that I had no fear. I just looked up north, and left. I borrowed some money and flew to Mexico, that's how far the money went, and then took a bus to California. I located some friends and started looking for any kind of job that I could find. I come from a musical family, so I was thinking of music, but I did not want to be a performer, even though I played a little bit of guitar. Then, in 1971 I accidentally walked into the MGM recording studio, to witness a recording. This had been arranged via a friend. From that moment on I was completely in love with the whole world of recording. The studio manager allowed me to become an intern, and I did everything from cleaning to changing lightbulbs.

"I gradually became an assistant engineer, and then one day in 1973 I found myself doing a live session organised by the producer Don Costa, who worked with Frank Sinatra for many years. The engineer for that was sick at the last minute, and it was too late to cancel the session, so Costa said to the studio manager: 'I'll take my chances with the kid.' It was a three‑hour big‑band session with 40 people, so my first recording experience was with a large band. I proved that I had the desire and talent to be able to handle sessions, and continued working as an assistant engineer with the same producer, who liked me very much. A year later MGM sold its studio business, and I was laid off, and I went independent. Things went very quick after that, and I won my first Grammy award with Chicago in 1984. I also worked with Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien on Michael Jackson's Thriller and Bad, and the latter got me a second Grammy award for Best Engineer. I also won two Grammy Awards with Celine [Dion].”    

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Justin Gerrish & Rostam Batmanglij

Inside Track: Contra by Vampire Weekend

Technique : Recording / Mixing

In Contra, Vampire Weekend have made one of the more unlikely US hit albums of recent years. Guitarist Rostam Batmanglij and engineer Justin Gerrish explain how they wowed American audiences with African influences.

Paul Tingen

Justin Gerrish, who mixed 'Cousins', at Avatar Studios in New York.

Justin Gerrish, who mixed 'Cousins', at Avatar Studios in New York.Justin Gerrish, who mixed 'Cousins', at Avatar Studios in New York.

Despite the success of Paul Simon's 1986 album Graceland, music with a strong African influence has rarely filled the hit parades here or in the US. Vampire Weekend have bucked the trend: their second album, Contra, stormed to the top of the American and Canadian charts on its release early this year, as well as hitting number three in the UK, in both cases feeding off the popularity of its lead single, 'Cousin'.

The band have described their direct, in‑your‑face sound as "Upper West Side Soweto”. One of the main men responsible for this musical direction is Rostam Batmanglij: as well as being the band's keyboardist, drum programmer, second guitarist, string arranger, engineer, mixer and producer, he also co‑writes most of their material with singer Ezra Koenig.

"It's great,” he says of their unprecedented success. "Ed O'Brien from Radiohead was at the show last night [the band are touring at the time of writing], and he mentioned that we were penetrating the mainstream in the same way as they had done. At the same time, we are not ignoring pop music. We love all kinds of music: African, classical, pop. You can make anything part of a pop song if you hide it enough. And certainly what we have done is fundamentally different from what Paul Simon did. We haven't gone to Africa to work with African musicians. We don't use existing traditional African chord progressions or structures. Our inspirations are more abstract.”

Elaborating on how Vampire Weekend give form to their inspirations, Batmanglij explains that "There is often no set labour division. We feed off each other. On many songs this is true for the whole band writing together, with drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio contributing throughout the process. A big part of Vampire Weekend is the four of us working together in the rehearsal room playing our respective instruments, and working off of one another. Another part is Ezra and I working together. In some cases Ezra will start with something and it will inspire me to write another part and then he will come up with something on top of that. Ezra wrote all of the lyrics on Contra, though for 'Horchata' and 'Diplomat's Son', he and I wrote the lyrics together. Ezra may come in with a melody or a chord progression, and he and I will work together in front of an upright piano, and at other times, like with the songs 'White Sky' or 'Taxi Cab', the songwriting and production were very much integrated. I visualised the chord progressions, the instrumentation, even the drum sounds in my head, and then worked them out in Reason and Pro Tools. I immediately try to go for the finished article as far as possible, because I don't believe in demos and re‑recording. Not in this day and age. You will always try to recapture the magic of that first recording, so I don't do it.”

Hard Work

Mixing the album at Avatar. From left: singer and guitarist Ezra Koenig, Matt Herman (friend of the band), bassist Chris Baio, assistant engineer Fernando Loreido, Justin Gerrish, XL Recordings A&R man Kris Chen and Rostam Batmanglij.

Mixing the album at Avatar. From left: singer and guitarist Ezra Koenig, Matt Herman (friend of the band), bassist Chris Baio, assistant engineer Fernando Loreido, Justin Gerrish, XL Recordings A&R man Kris Chen and Rostam Batmanglij.Mixing the album at Avatar. From left: singer and guitarist Ezra Koenig, Matt Herman (friend of the band), bassist Chris Baio, assistant engineer Fernando Loreido, Justin Gerrish, XL Recordings A&R man Kris Chen and Rostam Batmanglij.

Because bands have often had years to work on their first album without any interference or expectations from the outside world, follow‑up albums are synonymous with stress and pressure. Apparently, Contra was no exception. Batmanglij: "With this record, psychologically it was very hard for me to let go of it, because I had literally spent years working on the two records before it, the Discovery record [his side project with Ra Ra Riot's Wes Miles] and the first Vampire Weekend album. Whereas, with Contra, we started recording in January and we finished it by September. It was really important with this record for us that we satisfied our impulses to make complex, intricate music, but also to make pop music, to make catchy music, to make what we think of as hits. We were trying to reconcile those things, and that meant a lot of pressure. I never worked harder in my life.”

Vampire Weekend's debut album had been recorded by Batmanglij in different places — his apartment, a friend's basement — on Pro Tools LE, often using an M Box interface. For Contra, he wanted to work on Pro Tools HD and, as he didn't then have the money to buy a system (he finally acquired one early this year), much of the hard work for the new album was done at Treefort Studios in New York, which is owned by engineer Shane Stoneback. Before and during the writing and recording sessions at Treefort, the band occasionally dropped in at nearby Avatar Studios — famed for its large, wood‑panelled recording areas and vintage equipment — for rhythm-section tracking and, eventually, mixing. They were helped out at Avatar by young staff engineer Justin Gerrish, who has worked at the studio since 2005, and trained with studio luminaries Rich Costey and Russel Elevado, among others.

"For the new album, about half of the songs were played by the band before we started recording,” recalled Batmanglij, "and the other half we wrote and constructed in the studio. My method for recording is always to record the drums first, so we began by recording the drums for four of the songs at Avatar. Then we went to Treefort, which was a great place to be, because I could spend as much time there as I wanted. Ezra and I spent a lot of time there working on songwriting and production, while Shane would come in as an engineer, as and when we needed him. It was crucial to have our own recording space.”

Happy Sound

The Pro Tools Mix window for 'Cousins', with colour‑coded tracks indicating, from left, drums, bass, guitars and vocals.

The Pro Tools Mix window for 'Cousins', with colour‑coded tracks indicating, from left, drums, bass, guitars and vocals.The Pro Tools Mix window for 'Cousins', with colour‑coded tracks indicating, from left, drums, bass, guitars and vocals.

"We didn't use a desk at Treefort, everything went straight to Pro Tools. I had bought a Neumann M149 when we started recording, and we also had a Neumann TLM103. These were our two main vocal mics. We also used the Shure SM57 on tons of stuff, especially guitar amps. There was a great old Silvertone amp at the studio that Ezra and I used for our guitars. The guitar tones on the first album were all Fender Deluxe; the new album is a combination of Deluxe and Silvertone sounds.

"After about a month of working at Treefort, we went on tour, and when we were in Mexico City we had some time off and decided to record some songs there. We ended up in the studio called Topetitud, owned by Tito Fuentes of the band Molotov. The studio also has Pro Tools HD, and Tito, who acted as engineer, had a bunch of API preamps and some outboard gear, like [Empirical Labs] Distressors, which he used on some of the snare tracks.

"One of the songs for which we recorded the backing tracks in Mexico was 'Cousins'. We recorded vocals, guitars, bass and drums to a click track. The drums were isolated in a pretty small, reflective room with lots of hardwood. The bass was in the control room and the guitars and vocals were done in another room. We recorded everything live and then re‑recorded on top of a comp of the best drum takes. Because the snare is such an important part of that song, I remember putting a couple of microphones on it, so we could pan it later on and make it as wide as it could be. We did the drums on the first day, and the next day we recorded bass and guitar. Tito had this awesome white double‑necked [Gibson] SG, and we used the 12‑string neck to record some of the guitars. That initial guitar that you hear on the track is played by Ezra through a Roland Jazz Chorus JC120, and I am using the chorus on the amplifier and miking the amp in stereo, one microphone for each speaker.

"The track is very fast, and Chris and Chris wrote some of their most challenging parts as a rhythm section. Although almost everything is played, we did one real studio trick. We wanted some of the guitar parts to sound robotic and mechanical and plasticky, in the way that a lot of Mexican and Puerto Rican guitar tones are. So one riff was played at half speed, and using Pro Tools, we squeezed it in time exactly by half. Most of the guitars in this track were played by Ezra, but the bells part that comes in at the end was something I initially wrote on guitar, and was trying to put it on top of one of the verses. It was supposed to be like a Bob Dylan kind of guitar lick, but then I had a vision that it could sound like church bells at the end — coming in over what Chris and Chris called 'the Rage part', their tribute to Rage Against the Machine. So in one speaker there are tubular bells, and in the other speaker a celesta, and in the middle you have my distorted guitar line. This was all done in Mexico.

Ezra Koenig playing the double‑necked Gibson SG that provided many of the guitar parts on 'Cousins'.Ezra Koenig playing the double‑necked Gibson SG that provided many of the guitar parts on 'Cousins'."After we came back to New York, we continued work on 'Cousins', and the last thing we recorded was Ezra's voice, using the M149, and I had that going into a Distressor. I'd heard Justin use it in Avatar and liked the way it affected the drums. I maxed out all the buttons on the Distressor to get a lot of natural distortion. Everything on our first record was recorded very cleanly, with any distortion happening in the box. On Contra, I broke out into using analogue gear for the first time, and on Ezra's vocals there are some moments where you can hear the overtones more than the fundamental. I'm really happy with that sound.”


Ezra Koenig playing the double‑necked Gibson SG that provided many of the guitar parts on 'Cousins'.

Written by Biao, Batmanglij, Koenig, Tomson.

Produced by Rostam Batmanglij

Batmanglij: "The way I work is that I am slowly mixing while recording, because I want the track to sound good. So for all the mixes on Contra it was a matter of Justin and I completing what I had already started. 'Cousins' was the one exception. We had a lot of distortion happening when we did rehearsal recordings of the song, and I realised that it would need tons of distortion in the mix as well. I'd done my best to achieve that in the box, but I was not happy with it. We'd already started mixing some of the songs and Justin clearly had a sense of what we liked, so I asked him to have a shot at mixing 'Cousins' alone. As a result, he was not starting from where I had left off, and instead did his own thing — which was nice, because he was able to use a lot of outboard gear. We then worked together on the track from there.”

Justin Gerrish takes up the story: "Rostam wanted to do all the mixing himself, but after the first day of mixing here at Avatar, he asked me to help him out. While recording, he'd already been building his mixes the way he wanted, and only a few of the songs changed drastically in the last stage. 'Cousins' was one of them. I think it was the second song we worked on, and he said that he didn't really know what to do with the mix, but that the other band members liked it and so could I have a go while he went out for a bit. When I heard the track, I felt that it had a very raw vibe, and that it would be nice to take it more into that direction, doing it almost like a punk song, very minimal, not very glossy or pristine‑sounding, but rather vibey and edgy. When Rostam came back later, he said it was the first time that he really enjoyed listening to the track.”

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Justin Gerrish &  Rostam Batmanglij

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Justin Gerrish & Rostam Batmanglij"'Cousins' is a raw track, and I added more distortion to some of the vocals and other instruments, but you can't distort plug‑ins in the same way as you can distort a piece of analogue gear. There are saturation plug‑ins that get close to the real thing, but if I'd tried to do all the distortion with plug‑ins, it would have sounded thin and I'd have had some popping and clicking. However, the band wanted to mix primarily in the box, so we could pull up any song at any time and work on it. Sometimes we'd work on one song for a couple of hours and then we'd open up another one. I therefore had to use hardware inserts for the outboard, and setting up routings for that obviously takes more time than just dialling up a plug‑in.

"Personally, I prefer working on a desk, because I can get sounds a lot quicker, and also, I find it harder to get the same spatial depth when working in the box. A certain distance between the instruments is a lot easier to achieve when working on a console. I don't know why. Perhaps it's to do with the physical act of holding a fader or pan pot and moving it ever so slightly until it feels right. When you're mixing in the box it's also hard to ignore the visual aspect of it, because you're staring at a screen the whole time, instead of paying attention to what you're hearing. While I was mixing 'Cousins', I started working with the Mackie Universal Control, but it ended up frustrating me more than anything, because the faders didn't respond right away and it never reacted like an SSL or a Flying Faders system. In the end I used it only for the transport buttons.

"When I start mixing a song, I normally listen to the rough mix first to get an idea of what the band has been listening to, and I then push up all the faders and get a quick balance, without doing any EQ or processing, just to hear what's there and how it all sounds together. Next, I work on the drums for a while, and then the bass, and after that I'll throw the vocals in to hear how they'll sit with the bass and drums. Then I'll mute the vocals again and add the guitars and keyboards. Once those are sitting nicely, I'll throw in the vocals again to check how they fit, and so on. In the case of 'Cousins', the first thing I focused on was how to get the bass and the drums to gel together. The tracks from Mexico were a little different from those that had been recorded at Avatar and Treefort, and it took a little longer to get them to sound punchy and present. There were a couple of stereo mics that had different levels between left and right, perhaps because of a bad cable or something, and I ended up splitting these and putting them on separate tracks. 'Cousins' is a very fast song, with the bass and drums being very active throughout, so I wanted to make sure that there was a lot of clarity between them and that they locked together, so that other elements would not be obliterated by a mass of low end. After that I brought the guitars in, which are also doing a lot of fast lines, and then I worked on marrying the vocals with the foundation I had built. It was sounding a lot rawer and edgier than 'Holiday', the first song we had mixed, so I really was not sure whether they would be into this sound or not.”

Drums: NI Battery, Waves Renaissance EQ & Q4, Bomb Factory BF76 & Fairchild 660, Digidesign EQ III & Expander/Gate III, PSP Vintage Warmer, Neve 33609, URS 610.

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Justin Gerrish &  Rostam Batmanglij

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Justin Gerrish & Rostam Batmanglij

Gerrish: "On the far left of the Mix window screenshot for 'Cousins', you can see the 'SnrTr' track, which was a snare-roll sample I loaded to help the song going into the choruses. I used the [NI] Battery sampler, which is on the track next to it, and the track next to that, 'Mstr1', is my stereo mix. To the right of that are all the main drum tracks. 'BD09' is the main bass drum track, which has quite a few plug‑ins, including the Renaissance 4‑band EQ, Digidesign EQ3, Waves Q4, and the Bomb Factory BF76 compressor. I find that I'm never really satisfied when I try to get the entire sound from one EQ, so I tend to use different EQs, each doing one thing. The '4409' track is another bass-drum mic with two EQ plug‑ins (I didn't use the greyed‑out plug‑ins). Then there are five snare tracks: 'SN09', 'BPRI' (the printed snare sample), '4210' (another snare mic), and 'snr05' (a pair of clean sidekick sounds), with Renaissance, Waves, and Digidesign EQ plug‑ins and the PSP Vintage Warmer, Expander/Gate III and a Fairchild 660 plug‑in.

"To the right of the snare tracks are two tom tracks, with the Expander/Gate and a Renaissance EQ, and then 'SF09' and 'SFPRI' are the result of a stereo track that I got in the Session, which was called SF and which I assumed to be a Royer SF12 stereo ribbon mic. I wasn't sure if it was supposed to be a room mic or an overhead, because the two sides of the mic were not even — the left side was 12dB lower than the right and closer‑sounding. I split the track into two mono tracks and treated them differently, turning one into an overhead and the other into a room mic. I ran the 'SF09' track through my [Standard Audio] Level‑Or 500‑series outboard compressor, which is pretty noisy. I tend to use it as a distortion box. The '4211' next to that is the snare top mic, which I had duplicated to be able to treat it a little bit differently, using, again, EQ and PSP Vintage Warmer.

"The three yellow tracks to the right of that are for parallel compression. When I'm mixing drums, I like to use parallel compression so that I can get attack and punchiness but not lose the body of the sound by over-compressing the individual tracks. For the parallel compression in 'Cousins', I created a separate set of sends in Pro Tools, sent that to an outboard Neve 33609, and then had that return on a stereo track, called 'DComp'. Once I was happy with the sound, I printed the compression track so that I wouldn't have to recall the settings and we could keep the workflow going. I also had some plug‑ins on the parallel compression tracks, including the Bomb Factory 1176 and the URS 610, which works like an API 560 EQ.”

Bass: Bomb Factory BF76, Neve EQ, Empirical Labs Distressor.

"There are five bass tracks. The first three are the original recorded tracks, which include a DI and an amp track. Chris Baio's bass line in 'Cousins' is constantly moving. He's not just playing roots, so I needed to make sure that you could hear the articulation in his playing, otherwise the song would have lost some of its momentum. I ended up compressing his bass DI quite a bit with the BF76 to keep all the notes even, but left the amp untouched. I then bussed those two tracks together so that I could EQ and compress them as one bass, which I then sent out to a hardware insert on which I had a Neve EQ and a Distressor. The two other tracks are just the bass for the bridge section.”

Guitars: Waves Q4, Digidesign EQ III, Bomb Factory SansAmp PSA1 & BF76, Digidesign Pitch.

"There are 15 guitar tracks. You can see on the screenshot that I colour‑coded them. This was to group and show the guitars that worked together, such as intro guitars, verse guitars, and so on, and therefore should be treated in a similar way. 'RG' are Rostam's guitars, the rest were played by Ezra. Most of the guitars were recorded with a close mic and a room mic, which allowed me to create an ambience in the track without using any reverb. In fact, the only reverb used on the whole track was a live chamber on the 'ooh ah' backing vocals in the first half of the bridge. In the same section, there are two guitars doing 16th‑note picking, and when I first put them up, it reminded me of a sonar ping that you hear in the movies. So I tried to get them to sound like they were in a submarine or underwater, something in that realm. For the rest of the guitars, I wanted it to sound like it was a garage band playing with the front door wide open, pissing off all the neighbours on the block. The plug‑ins I used were for the most part EQs, although the SA1 on 'GT11' is a SansAmp plug‑in, to give it some more bite and edge. To the right of these 15 guitar tracks are two tracks called 'rsnbl' and 'rsnb1', which are Rostam's tubular bells and celesta towards the end of the song.”

Batmanglij: "For one of my guitar tracks, I used the Digidesign Pitch plug‑in to double my part an octave higher. This made it sound like a horn, and it comes in right before the drums drop in. The track also comes in right before the 'Rage part' begins and where it sounds like an Appalachian fiddle.”

Vocals: Universal Audio LA3A & 1176, Standard Audio Level‑Or, Digidesign Pitch, Bomb Factory BF76.

Gerrish: "'LV' is the lead vocal track, of course, and the only thing that seemed fitting for Ezra's vocals was to get them to sound more crunchy. To achieve this, I had two EQs on the track, and then 'VoCh' is the bus towards an LA3A and an 1176. I printed that on the adjacent track, bussed that to a Neve mic pre, then compressed it with a Level‑Or, and then returned that to Pro Tools. I ended up blending this distorted signal with the clean vocal to give it more bite. 'Awawy' are the high‑pitched vocals at the beginning that sound like a monkey, and 'Voc FX' are the bridge vocals, with effects being the Pitch plug-in and the BF76 compressor. 'CPRIN' is the print of the live chamber for the 'ooh ah' background vocals.”

Master bus: Universal Audio 1176, GML EQ, Massey L2007.

"I printed the final mix back into the 96/24 Session and used some outboard on the master fader, such as an 1176 and GML EQ, and I also used a Massey L2007 [limiter] plug‑in on the track.”

Batmanglij: "What's interesting about the way we worked is that when we took Contra to mastering, with Emily Lazar at The Lodge in New York, we worked with stems and did even more stuff to it. So we'd print the stereo mix, and then stems of the drums, bass, vocals, guitars, and so on. Things got very hectic towards the end, and we'd already started mastering songs when not all the mixes were finished, and used the mastering process to finalise a lot of songs. For some songs, I simply gave Emily the stereo mixdown but, for instance, with 'Cousins' I felt that we could bring out the guitars even more, so we brought up the guitar stem and put a Waves S1 imager on it. Emily also had a Dangerous Sum & Minus unit, which allows you to change the stereo image. It basically widens everything up and clears up the bottom end. I became addicted to it [laughs], but it also changes your mix, so in using it we had to go back and revise the balance on a number of songs.”