Paul Weller's latest album was brimming over with musical creativity. The challenge for mixer Jan Kybert was to forge a coherent album from a mass of ideas.
Paul Weller is four years into a widely acknowledged creative roll, beginning with his 2008 album 22 Dreams and continuing with 2010's Wake Up The Nation. This year's UK number one album, Sonik Kicks, is his third successive creative peak, and makes extensive use of electronics, cut and paste, dub techniques, and Krautrock-style rhythms. This might sound like a strange departure for a man mostly known for British soul and guitar rock, but on Sonik Kicks the old and the new are seamlessly integrated.
The album was co-produced and in part co-written with Simon Dine, who performed the same roles on 22 Dreams and Wake Up The Nation, and features several other long-standing cohorts, such as guitarist Steve Cradock and Britrock luminaries Noel Gallagher and Graham Coxon. Sonik Kicks was mixed by Jan 'Stan' Kybert, who previously engineered and mixed Weller's 2002 album Illumination, and co-produced 2004's Studio 150 and the following year's As Is Now. Sonik Kicks was recorded at Weller's own Black Barn studios, and Kybert's work in completing the project earned him an 'additional production' credit.
"When Paul is making music, I often go to his studio to listen to it,” says Kybert. "I did this in March 2011 and he played me about 15 tracks. I remember thinking that there was a great album in there, but that there was too much going on. It was very layered and lacking in definition and dynamics. Six weeks later, Paul called me and asked me to have a go at mixing three tracks for the album, and if he liked what I did, I could do the whole album. So I booked four days at Dean Street Studios and mixed these three songs. Paul liked what I had done, and asked me to book another two weeks. This was during May, and we mixed half the album, took a couple of weeks off, then did another three weeks of work at Dean Street, took a month off, and did another week of recalls and adjustments and piecing the entire album together.
"A lot of the album came into being through a free-form writing process. Simon [Dine] would create backing tracks and loops with beats and samples and synth sounds, and then Paul would try vocal melodies and guitar parts on top. A lot of the stuff that you think is synths is in fact Paul going through several guitar pedals, often using his Danelectro guitar. They didn't use plug-ins to create synth sounds. It was all very organic, even though it wasn't a traditional approach to songwriting. Paul did write a few songs in a more traditional way, like the acoustic guitar ballad 'By The Waters', but tracks like 'Green' and 'That Dangerous Age' are very free-form.
"One reason why there was so much going on was that almost all parts started at the top and continued to the end. When they wanted to hear something, rather than take something out, they'd add something new, so there were many, many layers of material and my job became to sift through everything and arrange what was left.
"The joy for me was that they were all killer parts, by Paul, Noel Gallagher, Graham Coxon and others. I had one of the best times of my career last summer, because it was great to sift through all these fantastic parts. For me, it was dream stuff. But there would be three bass guitars on some tracks, with stereo room on the bass, for example! So everything needed to be much more defined. Paul is very encouraging and he pushed me to be bold. When I began mixing, I said to Paul that I preferred being alone while doing this, and that I'd call him when I was ready for him to come down. He was happy with that. I spent 90 percent of the time on my own, and then Paul would come in and add ideas to pretty much every mix. I never put a mix down without him hearing it first. In some cases, we mixed a track more than once, like I mixed 'Around The Lake' three times. When you are sifting through so much stuff, the way you are mixing is evolving, and it went from being this weird track that we didn't know where to fit in to a pivotal track for the album. So much so that Paul released it as the first song off the album, as a free download.”
Jan Kybert is, by his own account, "known for making music that features two guitars, bass and drums.” He began his studio career in 1993 as a runner in a tape store at the Townhouse in London, and after six months was sent to work at Olympic, where he quickly moved through the ranks. He met mix legend Mark 'Spike' Stent here, who became a friend and nicknamed him 'Stan'. Kybert became Stent's Pro Tools operator, working on classic records by Massive Attack, Björk and Oasis, and was one of the first people — if not the first person — to receive a credit as 'Pro Tools operator', on Oasis' Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants (2000). Although Kybert went freelance in 1999, he spent most of the next eight years as in-house engineer at Oasis's Wheeler End studio, where Noel Gallagher introduced him to Paul Weller. He has also worked with New Order, the Prodigy, UNKLE, the Draytones and recently Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds.
Since Wheeler End closed in 2008, Kybert has spent a lot of his time working at Dean Street Studios in central London, where he mixed Sonik Kicks on the 48-channel SSL Duality desk in Studio 1. "That board was essential. It's a great compromise between the G-series and working inside of Pro Tools. For me, it's the perfect combination, the perfect interface between old school and new school. I love it. Paul and Simon had already gone to town with lots of effects during the recordings, so I didn't need to add more weirdness or excitement. I needed to bring structure to the excitement. This meant that I didn't have to use a lot of effects, whether outboard or plug-ins. Instead, the compression and the EQ on the Duality, as well as muting, balancing and panning, were my main tools.
"During mixing, my outboard consisted only of an Alan Smart SSL Quad compressor on buses 1 and 2, for the kick drum and snare, and a Bricasti M7 reverb. The stereo mix went through another SSL Quad and the Prism MEA2 stereo EQ. Spreading things out over the board helped me to know what was going on and organise my material. I did it in a very traditional way, with the bass drum on channel 1, the snare on channel 2, hi-hat on channel 3, and so on. I always had the lead vocal coming up on channel 25 on the desk. The lead vocal is the most important element of the song, of course, so I'm always referencing it and working on that in the sound field in the middle of the speakers. I ran the vocals through a [Universal Audio] LA2A, compressing it on the insert with that and with the compression on the board. I rode the vocal quite a lot, pretty much on every word.”
Despite being in the vanguard of the Pro Tools generation, Kybert is not keen on working purely 'in the box'. He explains: "I needed to able to balance things quickly, to hear things at different levels, and what the track did and didn't need, and for that, faders are very practical. To be able to sift through things quickly, you have to have it on channels on a desk. Some sessions had more than 100 tracks, and so it was important to organise things well, also with regard to submixing in Pro Tools.
"For this reason, colour-coding the Pro Tools Session was very important on this record. I've always mucked around with colour-coding, and at the beginning of every session, Austen Jux-Chandler, my assistant and Dean Street's in-house engineer, would group everything for me, with drums in blue, bass in yellow, purple for guitars, green for keyboards, red for vocals and so on. This gave me a good visual reference. When I was sitting at the board, I could have a quick look at the screen and immediately know what I was seeing, without having to go over to the screen and sift through things. It just makes your life easier. I grouped things in a similar way on the board, though I didn't colour-code the board.
"I was one of the first who was recording bands with a computer, but I still prefer listening to looking, and that was another reason why the Duality was so important. When you're creating music, you should not be looking at a screen. Screens in studios tend to be so big now that it is hard to get away from them. And they do influence your hearing. You're talking about creative people and they're looking at a screen full of colour, which is like a revolving piece of art, so it's going to be influential! Often, when I'm talking to an artist they are listening to me and at the same time trying to work out what they're seeing on the screen, so in effect they're only half there for the conversation, let alone the music. It's a distraction that subconsciously influences you. Even if it only takes 10 percent away from your listening, you should not be looking at it.
"On average, I took two days to mix each song. I didn't want to work on more than one song on each given day, because the mixes were too intense to be able to quickly go from one to the other. I needed to be very focused on what I was doing in each song, so I'd finish a mix before I moved on to the next one. Towards the end of the project, we did do some recalls to tweak some things: as the album came together, some of the things in the initial mixes needed readdressing. It was like a jigsaw. The Duality came in handy here, and the more I got into this record, the more I loved the desk.
"I started each mix session with listening to the bass drum, and then I'd listen to all the drums to see if anything needed replacing or adding to, and I'd then mix in the bass guitar and push the guitars up, and after that I did any programming the drums needed around that. Throughout, I'd throw in the vocal to make sure it was sitting well with those elements. This was the beginning stage. After this, I'd pull everything down again and start with EQ'ing the drums in detail, then the bass guitar against the bass drum, making sure you have lots of both but that they aren't clashing. The snare is sitting on top of that, and I could start adding the ambience on the kit and hats and whatever was around that, and I'd then gradually add in all the other elements.”
"'Green' was initially placed as the fourth track on the album, but the moment I heard it I thought that if it was mixed correctly, it would be a real sonic kick and should be the album's opener and a reference point for the entire album. Paul has always been good with titles, and the word 'sonic' was a real key for me while mixing. It was a source of inspiration. The Session probably had 100 tracks. I always was given a rough mix, which I would have running alongside the Session as a reference so I had an idea of the direction and the key elements in the song. In 'Green', these are the spiky guitars and the pulse-y synth. The first time I heard the track, the synth was loud and linear from the beginning, but in the final version it is constantly panning and moving around.
"There's quite a Neu! Krautrock reference in this track, and the bass, snare and the rest of the drums needed to be throbbing, so I programmed quite a few additional drum tracks. The tracks that are marked '808' were all added by me. 'Fil11' contains some live drum fills, and the four tracks underneath are live drums. Again, you can see that there are very few plug-ins on the Session. There are a few Digidesign EQs on the drums, and 'b' on the 'Fil11' is a Bomb Factory compressor, but that's all. The main treatments on the drums were done with the SSL Quad EQ on the snare and bass drum, and everything was compressed and EQ'ed on the Duality, which has a killer sound.
"On all the mixes for Sonik Kicks, I re-recorded the bass from the DI track because I wanted a different bass sound. The DI'ed sound in this session is track 'BA11', and I sent it through Dean Street's Ampeg B15 bass combo from 1970 and re-recorded that. The 'E' on the DI track is the Digidesign EQ and the 'm' plug-in is the Moogerfooger, to add some phasing and fizz to the bass. The Moogerfooger is a great plug-in. When I effect a bass track heavily, I tend to roll off the low end and just keep the top for drive and definition. You don't want to have distortion in the low end of bass because it's too undefined, even below 120Hz. So I'd got a really punchy Ampeg bass sound, and I then mixed in the EQ'ed and treated DI track with that.
"The 'BWP' tracks immediately underneath the two bass tracks are backwards piano, which are again treated with a Digidesign EQ. Underneath that is the pulse synth. It was made up of three different sounds. It had a long delay on them and I sent them to one fader, with which I manually panned the synth every bar and then copied and pasted that in the song. The mix panning is quite extreme, I was kind of thinking of the iPod generation: it's psychedelic on that! Underneath the synth are the guitars, with 'm101' being a Monotron track, which was Paul's guitar going through a Korg Monotron pedal, which was part of the experimentation that they did. There are quite a few guitar tracks, but I hardly did anything on them in terms of treatment, other than the Digidesign EQ on some of the guitar tracks, and then EQ and compression on the Duality. At the bottom of the session are the vocals, on which there were hardly any plug-ins — only compression and EQ on the desk, and maybe some Bricasti reverb.
"At the top of the Session, you can see two stereo mixdowns. Paul wanted to put all mixes to tape, so we did both digital and half-inch analogue tape passes. The digital mixes went via the Cranesong HEDD 192 A-D converter back into Pro Tools. We first A/B'ed the Cranesong with the Pro Tools converters and the Cranesong was the clear winner. We then A/B'ed the digital with the analogue mixes, and the digital versions won in all cases. It was punchier in the bass and clearer in the high end. For 'Green', I also did two alternate digital mixes without vocals, and edited sections of these mixes into the main digital mix. You can see the cuts in the screenshots. These were hard edits on the beat, which created real punchy snaps between sections.”
"This was one of the more straight-up mixes. I could hear what the track needed straight away. I envisioned it as having a kind of hip-hoppy beat with a really groovy bass, so I needed to get the drums and bass rocking, which took quite a bit of work. I added a couple of snare and bass drum samples and again re-recorded the bass, to get the bass line really defined. The 'L's are low-pass filters. Then I mixed in the guitars, which were really spiky. The beats and the spiky guitars create something very contemporary, very modern together. Paul says that the song doesn't have a chorus, just a verse and a bridge, but in my mind the verse is the chorus, because it is really hooky.
"Once I had the drums, bass and guitars in there, it was a matter of bringing out the best in the vocals. I put some reverb spins on the vocals that happen at the end of the second bridge using [Audio Ease's] Altiverb in AudioSuite [ie. offline]. The first time it sounds like a long reverb tailing off, the second time, at the drum drop, I played around manually with the pitch of the reverb. The way I did that was by duplicating a track without audio, so it has the same treatment as the original track. I then took the word that I wanted to process, 'far' and put a really long reverb on it. I could then look at the reverb audio in AudioSuite and manipulate it.
"When you use a regular plug-in, you have to play the track every time to hear the effect, and you can ride it, but you can't put a plug-in on that reverb. You'd have to set up another aux to another send. Instead, in AudioSuite I can automate and re-treat it with another plug-in. In this case the reverb became a melody part, making the listener hopefully a little confused about what they're listening to. I apply this effect often with Altiverb, and sometimes with [Sound Toys] Echo Boy, instead of just setting up an Echo Boy track and spinning it. It helps you to be creative with plug-ins, which I think is important. Otherwise you sound like everybody else.”
"This one of my favourite tracks on the record. Mixing this track was mostly doing a clear-out. I was getting rid of a lot of stuff. It had quite a complicated drum part full of edits and with lots of looping. The rough mix for this track was very guitar-heavy, and I sifted through the material and wasn't too keen on the direction, so I took the decision to make the song acoustic guitar-led. It felt more psychedelic with the acoustic guitar leading it. In the rough mix you would not have known that there was an acoustic guitar in the Session.
"I selected an acoustic guitar part and looped that throughout the track. I then got rid of the electric guitars in the first half of the song, and made up an outro that should be uncomfortably long and that has an electric guitar coming in. Again, mixing was a matter of being creative with the audio that was there, rather than effecting it.
"The 'E' on the drums is the Digidesign EQ and the 'T' is timing correction, which was already in the Session. If it sounded good, I left it alone. 'Mr04' or 'Marco' bass was a really cool effect, where they had put the bass guitar through a Binson reverb. They had been doing lots of stuff like that, also running vocals through Binsons and Echoplexes and so on. In this Session there's the 'BN02' track, which is the lead vocal track put through a Binson. I heavily automated the volume on that. When people record the effects back into Pro Tools it makes it easier to work with because you can ride these tracks without riding the effects on them. 'Bwa' is a backwards acoustic guitar with a Bomb Factory plug-in on it and 'c105' is the main, picked acoustic guitar part.”
"Paul and I both still think of an 'A' and a 'B' side when working on an album, so after everything was mixed, we created a track order with two sides, each being different parts of the ride, with continuity in them. In our minds the break between the two sides comes after 'Study In Blue', and 'Dragonfly' is the opener of side two.
"We finished the album in the first week of August, and it was mastered by Howie Weinberg in LA that same month. We didn't want the tracks to be mastered too loud; I had put a lot of effort into creating dynamic mixes and I did not want them squashed. Howie mastered three tracks twice, with one version less compressed than the other one, and we went for the latter one. That became the theme for him during mastering, and as a result he was working more with EQ than with compression. I consider these the best mixes that I have ever done, and he still managed to step them up by 20 percent! Paul didn't want an autumn release, so the album was released in March of this year.” .
Jan Kybert is one of many top engineers and mixers who continue to swear by the Yamaha NS10 monitor speaker (see /sos/sep08/articles/yamahans10.htm), 34 years after its introduction. "I love the NS10. For me, a Bryston amp and two NS10s are it. I'm a big believer in the idea that if you can get a mix rocking on the NS10, it will sound fine on anything else. If you have a good-sounding room, and you get it pumping on the NS10, it will pump on the big speakers. The 10s are relentless and unforgiving, and those are the two qualities that make me adore them. They don't change, they don't go out of fashion, and they sound like they always have done. I know them inside out, and when you're mixing it's great to have that familiarity with the sound.
"They don't have the best low-bass response, so to check general levels of bass, as well as vocal levels, I use my ghettoblaster, which has a sub in it and which is fantastic for that. It allows me to hear what things will sound like in the real world. There are other great studio monitors like KRKs and Genelecs, and I like the Mackie HR24s. But they tend to make things sound great, and that is always a little dangerous. You don't want your monitors to flatter things too much. It's hard to make things sound great on NS10s, but that's exactly the challenge!”
In a recent interview, Paul Weller was asked whether he would consider reforming the Jam and/or performing one of their classic albums. He replied, in classic Weller fashion, that he might indeed perform a classic album in its entirety, his new one. One thing led to another…
Kybert: "I had read the interview, and asked him whether he was really thinking of doing this. He replied that he had been half-joking, but he then decided that it was a great idea, because Sonik Kicks is a killer record. So he asked me to help him put together a live show, with him playing his new album in its entirety for the first half and then playing older material, including the classics, in the second. We just did five nights at the Roundhouse in London like that, and it went down really well. The only thing that Paul said during the Sonik Kicks section was just before beginning 'Dragonfly': 'Here is side two.” But it's not a promotional idea, the idea is that it's a showcase for new music. If bands keep reforming and playing records from 20 or 30 years ago, it will kill new music. That was Paul's and my concern: if we keep focusing on the past, there will be no future. So I'm now suggesting this idea to all the bands that I am working with now. Why pour out your heart in writing 12 songs, and you only play four of them live? To me, playing your entire new album live is a simple and brilliant concept, and I'll keep pushing it, because I think it's a great way of pushing new music.”
Sonik Kicks has been described as the third instalment of a creative peak that began with 22 Dreams in 2008. "Yes, I think I am on a roll,” comments Paul Weller. "It is a very creative time for me. The more I experiment on each record, the further I want to go each time. I'm very optimistic about the future of my music, and I don't think that there are any barriers any more. It can go anywhere, really. For me, Sonik Kicks is ground-breaking because I don't think there is anything else out there at the moment, and hasn't been for a long time, that sounds anything like it. It is out on its own. I think that generally it is really original and it is very much 21st Century music. We are going through a time when music generally is very safe and very boring, and I think that Sonik Kicks just stands out. As far as I am concerned, it is fresh and cutting-edge.”
Apparently, the process of making Sonik Kicks was as ground-breaking for Weller as the result. "Each record is different,” says Weller, "but writing the new album was a lot more spontaneous. I didn't go into the studio with an armful of finished songs. Instead, I was kind of making stuff up on the spot in the studio. The writing was a lot more spontaneous than what I had done in the past. Simon Dine came up with vague, short snippets of music, almost like mood pieces, with samples or different sounds and not necessarily with chord changes written in them. I then jammed and improvised the melody and sometimes words on top, and we built the tracks up bit by bit. I was doing a lot of everything, and making arrangements as we went along.”
The most obvious thing that makes Sonik Kicks different is the elaborate use of electronics. "Electronic and avant garde music are not areas that I really know about,” Weller elaborates, "so a few years ago I bought some compilation albums and stuff — I don't even know the artists' names. Some of the music I was listening to dates back to the late 1930s and '40s, when they recorded steam trains and slowed that down, things like that. It was just brilliant, imaginative music, very textural. What influenced me most was the abstract aspect of the music, the textures and I tried to bring a little bit of that into what I do, which is essentially pop music.”
When creating his own avant-garde textures on Sonik Kicks, Weller says, "I mainly used my Danelectro, just because it is not a guitar that I use very often. I wanted to use instruments that I was unfamiliar with. For the effects, I used the Roland synth pedal a lot. Sometimes we also put my guitar through some outboard effects, but it mainly was the synth pedal and me messing with that. Did I also use a [Korg] Monotron? Quite possibly. To be honest with you, I am not the best person to ask about gear, because I don't always know the names of it. I just go: 'Let me try that one, because it looks nice.'
"I don't have a clue about any of the technical stuff. I'm interested in the outboard, from the sound point of view, but I don't know how to work it. I'm not that clever, I just play the guitar and sing. I do know that I prefer recording on analogue. The main problem for me with digital recording is that it sounds flat a lot of the time. It does not have the kind of dimensional depth that analogue recording used to have. But I think that by using a mixture of the two, you can get something that is pretty damn good anyway. We recorded the new album into Pro Tools, and we tried to warm the sound up by putting it through analogue outboard stuff. The digital mixes for Sonik Kicks did sound better than the analogue ones, I don't know why. But they did, so we worked with that. It is really hard these days, because whatever you record on, your music will end up being digitised.”
Moving on to the mix, Weller explains: "I thought we had finished the record, including mixing, sometime around March last year. I then went away for a month or so and I realised when I came back that the album wasn't anywhere near what it should be. Sonik Kicks was always going to be the title, and it was not doing either thing really. It just was not doing what it says on the label. I really wanted it to have a very bold sound and be quite out there in places, and instead it sounded very flat and not exciting. So I took some songs out, added a few new songs, and got Stan [Kybert] to remix the whole thing. He did a great job. I would come down at the end of the day, listen to his mixes, and make some corrections or whatever. He stripped away a lot of things and I think it's great what he did to it, because he brought it back to the original vision of what I thought the album should sound like.”
Analogue enthusiast Weller is not a fan of today's consumer formats. "They bug the shit out of me,” he remarks. "I don't like the idea of any of those things. A lot of the music that you hear via digital players sounds fucking awful. But what can you do? You either go with it or you stop making music. All you can do is try to make it sound as good as possible from your end, and after that it is in the lap of the gods. My older kids listen to music on their laptops or their mobile phones, and it sounds atrocious to me. But it doesn't really bother them. They are also just listening to one track, and often don't even listen to the end of that! They switch about, they listen to half of one song and then dart off to another song. It seems like the whole process of listening to music has changed for that generation. I think the digital formats are a shame, because you miss out on so much. I miss the warmth and depth of vinyl and analogue recording. And I am thinking of all the classic albums that have been released over the decades: if they were released now, people would only get a small part of the picture, and they would miss out on the whole canvas. It is a funny time. Records aren't selling like they used to, and it seems to me like there is not the same commitment or passion in rock & roll, especially for a lot of young people. There are so many other distractions, there are so many other media forms, perhaps rock & roll is just finished. I am open for it not being finished, and that this is just a phase we are going through, but I'm not sure.”