Craig Silvey: Mixing Arcade Fire 'The Suburbs'

Inside Track | Secrets Of The Mix Engineers

Published in SOS November 2010
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Technique : Recording / Mixing

Despite self‑imposed limitations, the multitrack sessions for Arcade Fire's latest album grew to epic proportions. Craig Silvey nevertheless mixed it on a vintage desk with no automation...

Paul Tingen

Craig Silvey at The Garden studio.Craig Silvey at The Garden studio.Photo: Lucy Williams

Engineer and producer Craig Silvey has been known to mix singles, such as Gabrielle's mega‑hit 'Rise' in 2000, but his mainstay is working on entire albums. His discography features names like REM, Santana, Ray Davies, Nine Inch Nails, Linda Ronstadt, Aaron Neville, Pearl Jam, the Coral, Portishead, the Magic Numbers and New Young Pony Club, along with classical acts such as the Kronos Quartet and John Adams. The most recent highlight is Arcade Fire's The Suburbs, an album that has made number one in the band's native Canada, the US and the UK, as well as wowing critics worldwide. Although the band's three albums, Funeral (2004), Neon Bible (2007) and now The Suburbs, have been increasingly successful, their singles continue to barely register in the charts. The new album's title track and first single reached number 94 in Canada and didn't even chart in the UK and the US, while the UK single 'We Used To Wait' only managed a measly 75th place. In short, Arcade Fire are that increasingly rare, old‑fashioned thing: an album act.

Analogue Freak

The Garden is based around a vintage Neve 8026 desk.The Garden is based around a vintage Neve 8026 desk.

"I can't stand the sound of MP3s,” declares Silvey, with some vehemence, and he's not a fan of digital audio in general, even the HD variety. He currently works from a studio in East London called The Garden, owned by The The's Matt Johnson, and it's filled to the brim with Silvey's antique and vintage gear, which he has collected over two decades. Pride of place goes to his 40‑input Neve 8026, loaded with 1084 and 1076 modules. There's also a Neve BCM10 sidecar, a Studer A80 24‑track, and a wealth of outboard, including EQs by Helios, John Hardy and Calrec, compressors such as the Thermionic Culture Phoenix, Universal Audio 1176 and Urei LA4A, mic preamps by Telefunken (V76, V72), Summit and Tube‑Tech, a whole posse of vintage mics, and his beloved Mastering Labs monitors, the legendary ML10s. Aptly, the place is billed by the studio's promoters Miloco as a "vintage tracking heaven”.

"Yes, I'm an analogue freak,” admits Silvey. "There is a definite sonic advantage that you can hear almost immediately when you use it. To my ears, the difference between doing my mixes in Pro Tools and then bringing them out on the desk is astronomical. The summing is very different. With regard to the digital method, we are all control freaks, and if you're given more control, you become more obsessive about it. The digital tools are great, but the key is to only use them when you need them, instead of all the time. Just because you can does not mean that you should. I prefer to record to analogue tape, when I have the time and the budget. I did it recently for the first time in about nine months, and I'd forgotten how great it sounds. But these days everybody wants to be able to do multiple takes and edits, and when you do 50 takes, you can't keep them all when you work on analogue. So you quickly end up in the world of Pro Tools. I generally use it as a glorified tape machine. As long as you keep your Pro Tools faders to zero and you don't do any summing inside, it sounds fine.”

Silvey puts his love of analogue technology down to his formative days as an engineer. Born 41 years ago in the Bay Area of California, he learned to play trumpet and piano in his pre‑teens. As a teenager, he discovered rock & roll and became fascinated by recording and production. On leaving high school, he worked in local studios and also did an internship with George Massenburg, who a couple of years later got the young man a job at George Lucas' Skywalker Sound scoring studio. Silvey quickly moved up the ranks to become chief engineer there from 1992‑95, during which time he worked with a number of great producers, among them Massenburg, Phil Ramone and Walter Afanasieff. According to Silvey, this meant that a lot of his education came from "guys who had had their training in the '60s and '70s”. He became a self‑declared "obsessive gear nut”, and after leaving Skywalker, put the extensive collection of gear he had gathered to good use in a studio in San Francisco which he called Toast, and which continued until 2002. However, by the late '90s Silvey had fallen in love with a British woman and with British music ("there seemed to be more creativity among British musicians and bands”), and relocated to London ("I am some kind of weird hybrid now: half‑American, half‑British”). For many of his London years, Silvey worked out of Ray Davies' Konk Studios, but as of 2009, The Garden is his studio home, and he's filled it to the brim with the gear he's collected over the years.

Arcade Games

Most of Craig Silvey's sound shaping is done using the outboard gear he's collected over many years.Most of Craig Silvey's sound shaping is done using the outboard gear he's collected over many years.

Apparently, Arcade Fire and Silvey are kindred spirits in their love of analogue and old‑fashioned recording methods. The first contact between the two camps was made in December 2009, when engineer Mark Lawson sent a 96/24 Pro Tools file of 'The Suburbs' across the Atlantic, with the request for Silvey to have a go at mixing it. The connection was made because of the English‑American's mix of Portishead's Third in 2008, an album widely admired by musicians, including the members of Arcade Fire. Immediately after completing work on Third, Silvey and Portishead's Geoff Barrow co‑produced The Horrors' second album Primary Colours (2009), which also had a strong impact among musicians. Arcade Fire had been working on what was to become The Suburbs since the beginning of 2009, together with Lawson and co‑producer Markus Dravs, and, after several months' work, felt that they needed a fresh pair of ears to make sense of what they had and draw the whole project together.

Silvey: "When they sent me 'The Suburbs', there were hardly any instructions, apart from 'don't do this' and 'don't do that' from a technical perspective. They simply wanted to see what I would do with it. The session was very well‑organised and named, and everything had its place. The tracks had been meticulously recorded and cleaned up: they could have given me two 24‑track multitracks. There was none of the mess that I sometimes encounter with Pro Tools Sessions, with crazy routing, inconsistent levels, dozens of plug‑ins that leave me having to decide which ones are useful and which not, and so on. Mixing 'The Suburbs' was therefore relatively straightforward. They had envisioned that I mix the entire album remotely, from The Garden, but they then decided that they wanted everyone to be together. So I had just set up my studio and gotten comfortable, and then in February this year I went to Montreal where I spent three months mixing the rest of the album, and also tweaked my mix of 'The Suburbs'.

"I did all this in a place called Studio Frisson, which also has an old Neve console, an 8034‑8014, with some interesting custom routing. Like me, the guy that owns it is an obsessive gear nut. Frisson is in many ways an identical copy of The Garden; their mind-set and my mind-set are very akin. The band had been doing a lot of recording at Frisson, but had also often been recording at their houses and at their studio in a village church an hour outside of Montreal. Most of the backing tracks were recorded to an [Otari] MTR90 24‑track I think, often through an amazing valve desk called the McCurdy AU300, which was Frisson's and which the band rented and have since bought. They wanted to record the album on one tape recorder with everyone in the room, so, for instance, people are clapping live into the overhead mics with the drums playing. They did not want the sonic elements to become too precise and too controlled, instead they wanted some wildness. It's a bit like listening to records by Sly Stone and the like, where you really can hear that they had fun while recording.”

Perspective

A composite screen capture showing the entire Pro Tools Session for 'The Suburbs'.A composite screen capture showing the entire Pro Tools Session for 'The Suburbs'.

According to Silvey, the use of the single tape recorder and the McCurdy desk was part of a number of restrictions the band and the production team had imposed on their way of working. Despite this, the multitracks for The Suburbs more often than not contained 60‑plus tracks for each song, with the overview of what was recorded, and why, sometimes in danger of being lost. Silvey: "It was their third record, and given the success of the first two, they now had the time and the financial means to try anything and everything. They needed to do that, but they also knew that this could be a recipe for disaster. This was the main reason for putting limitations on the way they recorded, and then the rest of the time they worked out how to get around these limitations. It was also, for example, why we mixed at Frisson, rather than at Celine Dion's studio in Montreal, which has a 96‑input SSL that would have, in many ways, been much easier, particularly as the Neve at Frisson doesn't have workable automation. Working at Celine Dion's studio would have given us more options, but we didn't need these, we needed restrictions.

"There were several reasons why many of the Sessions turned out to be so huge. There are seven musicians in the band, and everybody is really talented and everybody plays different instruments, and things were being recorded in several different ways, often simultaneously, and they often used several mics to record each part. It was tough keeping an overview of everything that was recorded, and Mark Lawson would have a thousand spreadsheets going about what was done when and by whom and why. Many Sessions were so elaborate that he'd need two or three days preparation for each song that I was going to mix, to compile everything and load it into one Pro Tools file. As talented as everyone was, including Mark and Markus and the other engineers that were involved, after having been involved in it for so long, by the time they approached me I think they really needed someone with an outside perspective.

"Besides mixing, my role was to make sense of all the stuff they had. I helped decide which things were necessary and which things not. I then would do a preliminary mix of each song, because they needed to hear the tracks in some kind of shape to be able to decide where some of the things they had recorded were supposed to go, or whether they were perhaps not needed after all. There definitely was an element of trying to find space in the mix for everything that was recorded. I not only mixed on the Neve at Frisson, but also the McCurdy, and at times I also had a Neve BCM10 sidecar and a Quad Eight going! They were all patched up and used in different ways. Mark Lawson was in the live space of the studio and could help out whenever necessary. At one point we had six engineers working on a mix! Because we didn't have automation, I did stems of the drums, the bass, the guitars, and so on for each song after each first mix pass. In some cases I ended up with 30 stems per song. The band wanted to be able to do a recall of each song after my initial mix pass, and you can't do a complete recall on an old Neve. The second mix would consist of maybe 80‑90 percent stems from the first mix and the rest was redone. For most songs, my original mixes were very close, and the second mix was usually a matter of level changes, rather than more radical changes.”

Mixing In Waves

With seven members playing a battery of different and sometimes obscure instruments, it's not surprising that Arcade Fire are a challenging band to record and mix.With seven members playing a battery of different and sometimes obscure instruments, it's not surprising that Arcade Fire are a challenging band to record and mix.Photo: Rama

Given that the Session of 'The Suburbs' was clean, well‑recorded and well‑organised, Silvey could go straight into mixing the song on his 40‑input Neve 8026. With the Session consisting of 50‑odd tracks, the input restrictions on the Neve meant that some prior organisation was necessary. Silvey: "I had to do some grouping in Pro Tools. But the Neve also has a 24‑channel monitor section, which I used for effect returns and any tracks that spilled over. I also used a Neve BCM10 sidecar. I also had a fair amount of hardware outboard inserts in Pro Tools. A signal would go out of Pro Tools to a compressor, come back into Pro Tools and then come again on another set of outputs, which I could automate in Pro Tools. I also did some level automation in Pro Tools — using a Pro Control, I can't stand doing moves while looking at a computer screen — but overall that was minimal, so most of the mix was a live performance on the desk. I find that if I can set up a good general balance without reverting to automation, or without having to move the faders, it means that the mix is already in a good place, because things are not sitting on top of each other. That really comes from the old school of thinking about mixing. I try to make my mixes as wide and as deep and as tall as I can, really place things in 3D, with nothing sitting on top of each other.

"With regard to my mixing method, I mix in waves. The first time I speed through a mix, trying to get a sense of what's there and a direction for the song. I then will start on the drums, but again, I won't spend a lot of time on them. I may get them to 50 percent of where I want them, and then quickly move on the bass, and then the guitars, and then the keyboards, and then the vocal, and so on. I'll then listen to the whole and do individual tweaks. I'll then go back to the drums in solo, the bass in solo, and so on, and I may repeat that process two or three times, and from that point onwards I'll listen only to the complete mix. I obviously prefer to use outboard, but there are two plug‑ins that I couldn't live without: the Massenburg Designworks EQ and [Audio Ease] Altiverb. You can see the Massenburg in the 'Suburbs' Session as MD3 and MD5 on various tracks. I use it for fine‑tuning specific frequencies, whereas outboard or Neve desk EQ is for sweetening and colouring the sound. The '662' and '632' on Aux 1 and Aux 2 are Altiverb, one being a spring reverb, the other Cello Echo Chamber 2, and the [Line 6] Echo Farm is a pre‑delay for the Cello echo chamber, which was my main reverb for this song. The pre‑delay is half mixed‑in, so some of the signals go straight to Altiverb and some of it is being delayed. I'm a big fan of Altiverb. When I heard it the first time I thought, 'Oh my god, that sounds exactly like the real thing.' It's brilliant.”

Arcade Fire's sound tends to be awash with reverb, though less so on The Suburbs than on their previous two albums, and singer Win Butler's vocals are mixed relatively low. Together, these qualities mean that Arcade Fire's recordings tend to be high on atmosphere but low on definition. Silvey explains: "The reverb has to do with the way they record things. Many of their guitars have a lot of amp spring reverb on them, for instance, and they also tend to use many room mics. Also, their block harmonies suit being big and reverb‑y, so there's an obvious gravitational pull towards using reverb. I also found when I was mixing that reverb helped me to separate things. Win is very particular about the way he wants his lead vocal to sound. He likes to have a slap echo on it, and he doesn't like other things. His voice being mixed far in the back is also mostly intentional. He's conscious of the fact that Arcade Fire is a band, and not him fronting a band. In bands, it's easy for it to become all about the singer, but Win really does not want it to be like that, so it's perhaps a subconscious thing that he likes his vocals pulled back a bit. I personally also gravitate towards vocals sitting a little bit more as part of a powerful sounding track, rather than them being up‑front and the entire focus being on them.”

Drums: GML 8900, Audio Ease Altiverb, Neve EQ.

"There are 13 tracks of drums, and you can see that there are two drum kits. The orange tracks are Jeremy [Gara] and the pink ones Régine [Chassange]. They often have two kits in one song, with one drummer holding down the groove and the other, in this case Régine, playing accents and fills. Her drumming was really effective in progressing the song. It's quite a long song but you don't realise it. A lot of that comes from Régine lifting the song a little each time, without you noticing it or focusing on it. I will usually group the drums and send them to a compressor, generally the GML 8900, which is an unbelievable compressor on drums, it really allows them to breathe while also making the groove more pulsating. It's not the most intuitive piece of kit, but once you learn how to use it, it's really controllable. I'll have a clean and a compressed drum path coming up on the desk, and I'll usually feed all drums through both paths, though things like cymbals may only go through the clean path if they sound too harsh via the compressor. Only if I find that the kick or the snare needs different or added compression for more punch will I put these individually through a compressor, like the Dbx 160X. I don't think I used the Dbx on this track, though. I did mix in some Altiverb spring reverb on the snares, with the mono spring only on the left, to make it sound starker. I also used some desk EQ, though not a lot. The claps would have been treated with the drums. They're not as distinguishable in this track as they normally are with Arcade Fire, they're just a texture.”

Keys & bass: Urei LA4 & LA2A, Roland RE501, Thermionic Culture Culture Vulture, Universal Audio 1176, Neve EQ.

"Under the drum tracks are four synth tracks, which are actually three parts: an [Analogue Solutions] Vostok, a [Korg] MS20 and a synth played by Will Butler that was also re‑amped. All these parts had their moments where they came more to the fore. I didn't do anything special on them, perhaps a little reverb and the MS20 had an L4A on it because it was a little too dynamic. There are three bass tracks, DI, amp and reamp. The reamp was already there, but I didn't use it. I felt that this track had echoes of Neil Young's 'Till The Morning Comes', and I took that as a bit of inspiration with my direction. I put an LA2A on the bass, to make sure the picked bass didn't poke out too much, as well as a slap delay from the Roland 501 and some distortion for some crunch, so it didn't sound too clean. I probably used the Roland 501 space echo for the slap and also the Thermionic Culture Vulture for the distortion. Further down the screen there's a piano track, which was the core of the song. It's a stereo part that I put through two 1176s, and I used some board EQ. I felt that the piano needed to stay dry, so it doesn't have reverb.”

Guitars: Universal Audio 1176, Neve EQ, Ursa Major Space Station, Helios EQ, Lexicon Super Prime Time, Ibanez AD202.

"The nylon guitar is another core track, which had pretty heavy compression on it with an 1176, plus board EQ. To make it jump out a little more I also used an Ursa Major Space Station, on an early reflections program. When you don't put too much feedback on, it doesn't sound like reverb or delay but it does make it sort of stand out. With regards to the other guitars, there are two sets of guitars, named 'A' and 'B', while 'R' stands for Richard [Reed Parry], just to identify who played. Those names are given by Mark Lawson. The 'A' and the 'B' guitars are the same part, played twice, and then each recorded on four different tracks: DI, two amps, and a room mic. I turned off the room tracks, because I felt they weren't needed, and then balanced the other three tracks internally in Pro Tools. I bussed guitar 'A' to track 'Master 1' and 'B' to 'Master 2', and they go to the desk and are sent to my Helios EQ modules and 1176 compressors. The guitars were well recorded and didn't need much treatment, just a little more front, and the Helios modules are great for that. You can crank 2k with 15dB on them and the guitar will sound like on a Led Zeppelin record!

"The guitars had loads of spring reverb on them already, but I added some Lexicon Super Prime Time for some more spatialising, as well as two delays. What's great about the Prime Time is that you can put super‑fast modulation on it, like a 100x speed thing, which makes the modulation so fast that you can't hear it, but it adds a beautiful shimmery blur which I also used on the strings. Finally, there are six tracks of Ebow guitar, overdubbed to build them up to a chord and create a drone. They came up on one fader on the desk, on which I used some Ibanez AD202 delay, with the original signal panned to one side and the delay to the other, to make the guitar sound like it was really wide left and right but also perceived to be in the middle, without it actually being in the middle. The AD202 is an analogue delay with some really interesting modulation. The sonic quality of the AD202 is pretty lo‑fi; there's no top end, so you don't hear it as a delay.”

Strings: Thermionic Culture Phoenix, Lexicon Super Prime Time, Roland RE501.

"I created an internal balance for the strings in Pro Tools, and did not use the room mics. I sent that balance to my BCM10 sidecar, where they were submixed before going to my Thermionic Culture Phoenix compressor, with a very minimal setting. After they went through the Phoenix they came back into Pro Tools, under Aux 3, so I could automate them, and on its return I put some of that Prime Time shimmer. I also put the strings through the Roland 501 Chorus Echo, slightly wobbling the tape speed to make the strings sound a little bit like they were from an old film.”

Vocals: Empirical Labs Distressor, Tube‑Tech EQP1A, Roland RE501, AMS delay.

"There's one vocal track and a background vocal track for the choruses. I used a Distressor on the vocals and the Tube Tech version of the Pultec EQP1A. I take out as much low end and add as much air as I can, trying not to make the vocals too thin or give them too much sibilance. Sometimes Win sings really quietly, and if you compress him you get a fair amount of mouth noise and sibilance. I'm not a fan of de‑essers, however, as they always seem to undo what I did with the EQ, so instead I usually find the 's' sounds in Pro Tools and notch them out by automating a dip in volume where they occur, so short you won't even hear it. It's the only time I do automation with a mouse. That seems to work better than de‑essing. In addition, there's the slap delay from the Roland 501 and two short delays from an AMS with a little pitch‑shift, one up and one down, which thickened the vocals, like a doubler. It was explained to me as the Phil Collins drum delay, but it works great on vocals. You can see that I was adding more 501 and dropping out the AMS in the choruses. All these were treatments on the lead vocal. On the backing vocal I would only have had a little bit of reverb and stereo delay, and I had it panned.”

Mixdown

"At the bottom of the screen, you can see the first of my stems, which were used to tweak the mix later in Montreal. There are probably about 15 stems in total. The stereo mix went through an SSL compressor and a GML EQ, and then via a Lavry A-D converter back into Pro Tools. Because we were doing stems for a possible second mix, mixing to tape wasn't very practical. We did want to have the ethos of a very physical analogue recording, so together with George Marino, the mastering engineer, we came up with the idea of printing all mixes to vinyl and then going straight to CD. In fact, each song had its own 12‑inch, 45rpm acetate, so we could get all the frequency information on them, while the acetate was played back only once, straight back into the computer, so the CD is based on the highest possible quality vinyl recording in mastering. Obviously, it was not cheap — we burned through a lot of acetate! But we had mastered 'The Suburbs' digitally as well, just like you would do for a CD, and when we compared the file that had gone via the acetate with the Pro Tools‑only file, the difference was enormous. Everybody was like 'Oh my god, this is amazing!' and so we decided to master the whole album like that.”  .

'The Suburbs'

Written by: Arcade Fire

Producer: Arcade Fire and Markus Dravs Craig Silvey: Mixing Arcade Fire 'The Suburbs'

'We Used To Wait': Mixing In Montreal

This screenshot showing part of the Session for 'We Used To Wait' illustrates how things had changed by the end of the mixing sessions in Montreal.This screenshot showing part of the Session for 'We Used To Wait' illustrates how things had changed by the end of the mixing sessions in Montreal.

As Craig Silvey explains in the main article, the title track was the only song from The Suburbs that was mixed almost entirely in London. The rest was mixed by him at Studio Frisson in Montreal, on a Neve 8034‑8014 desk, sometimes with the help of a Neve sidecar and a McCurdy desk. To give some insight into the proceedings in Montreal, Silvey elaborates a little on his mix of the second, UK‑only, single from the album, 'We Used To Wait'.

"That track was a big challenge to mix, because it was three songs into one. There were a few songs like that, 'Ready To Start' being another one. 'We Used To Wait' had three drum kits, each with a different sound, and they were not neatly separated; instead they ran into each other, so one kit might do half of a chorus, and another the other half of that chorus. Given the limitations of the mix scenario — desks with limited inputs and no automation — we had to print stems and mix in sections. It was the old‑school method where you mix the verse, and then the chorus, and then the next verse, and so on, and finally you edit it all together. An added challenge was that the band wanted the verses to be really organic, kind of Neil Young‑like, and the choruses to have a Depeche Mode‑like explosiveness, and trying to get those shifts in a non‑automated world was not easy. It took a lot of faith and vision to make it work.”

The screenshots for 'We Used To Wait' are also markedly different, much more complex and less transparent than those for 'The Suburbs'. The colour‑coding is much less clear, for instance, while many tracks are greyed out, and with 30‑plus tracks of drums in blue and purple, it's difficult to see what's happening. "By the time we got to this track we were two‑thirds into mixing the album,” explains Silvey, "and we were probably just trying to survive, and I didn't have time to add all the nomenclature and colouring. The greyed‑out stuff was muted, of course, in many cases because we didn't have enough channels on the desks to play everything back. There are also quite a lot more plug‑ins on this track. For instance, there are a lot of [Waves] L2 limiters. The drums in the choruses had these gated rooms, and the room they had recorded in wasn't the most explosive‑sounding, so the L2 helped to make things super‑loud. It was followed by a gate that was triggered by the snare drum.”

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