Catherine Marks trained in one of the world's most demanding professions — then gave it all up to make tea in a studio...
"It feels like home, because I've been around this building for so long," says Catherine Marks of Assault & Battery Studio 2 in Willesden, North-West London. The facility has been her HQ since she joined as assistant to producer and co-owner Flood in 2005. In that time, she's engineered, produced and mixed dozens of projects in here, in her own small studio downstairs and in Assault & Battery 1, the SSL mix room down the hall. Her impressive list of credits to date includes records by Wolf Alice, the Killers, St Vincent, the Wombats and Foals.
Recently, Studio 2 has undergone a refurbishment, its Neve VR console replaced by a Cadac G-series. Flood and his business/production partner Alan Moulder bought the console from Radiohead, who first used it to record their 1997 landmark album OK Computer; prior to that, it had lived at Wessex Studios in North London, where it was employed on classic recordings by the likes of the Sex Pistols, Queen and the Clash.
"I've always loved the sound of that room," says Marks, gesturing towards Studio 2's live room. "But it was very wild, quite reflective. I always embraced that. But since the refurb, everything is a lot more controlled, 'cause there's big curtains at the back now and we've got curtains for all the windows. So you can still have the wildness, but I'm really starting to hear the sound of the room more. I like using a space and capturing the sound of the space, because that's sort of unique to the room that you're recording in. It becomes like another personality or another character for what you're recording."
Born in Melbourne, Catherine Marks studied piano from the age of four, and wrote and scored pieces for her school orchestra. "I don't know how I did that, because I would have no idea how to do that now!" she laughs. "I do it more now in MIDI, or I use the Solina [String Ensemble] and I'm imagining myself playing a violin.
"Towards the end of school, there was no specific route that I could see to get into music. I didn't know whether I wanted to be a performer, and I got horrible stage fright as well, so that would have been a stupid avenue. But I was more interested in making music, rather than being the centre of attention in that way."
Adopting a safer plan, Marks ended up studying architecture for three years. For her compulsory fourth year out in the workplace, she relocated to Dublin, where she began to mix with various musicians in the city's vibrant music scene. Then, one night in April 2001, at a Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds show at the Olympia Theatre, she met Flood, and told him about her ambitions to work in music production.
"He said, 'If you're interested in working in the music industry, go back home, finish your degree,'" she remembers. "I'm like, 'Aw but I don't wanna.' He's like, 'You should and your parents will thank me as well. Go and join bands and do a load of stuff, write songs. Because if you want to do what I do, it's a big sacrifice and a big commitment. Let's see where we are in a couple of years.'"
Marks took Flood's advice, moved back to Australia, played keyboards in a '50s-inspired rock & roll band called the Harlocks, finished her architecture degree and a Masters degree, and then moved to London, where she found herself making cups of tea at Assault & Battery. "I did think that I would be walking in and suddenly producing albums," she laughs. "So it was like a rude awakening when I suddenly realised, for the next four years, I'm gonna be making cups of tea and maybe learning how to plug things in."
Starting as an assistant back in 2005, Marks had to learn quickly and intensively. The one overriding lesson she says she's learned is that record-making is all about gaining and maintaining trust in the creative process between producer and artist. "I mean, that is a lot of what this business is, I think," she says. "It's about trust in what you know, trust in the equipment that you're using. Trust in the assistants. The artist trusting you that you're going to help them deliver what they want to achieve."
Marks's real crash course in audio engineering came in the Spring of 2006 when she was given the keys to Flood's own studio (located in a converted dairy barn in Kilburn), while he and Alan Moulder travelled together to Las Vegas to produce the Killers' Sam's Town album.
"He said, 'Good luck!'," she remembers. "It was a mess... all his mates had been using it. It hadn't been used as a commercial studio at all. So I just unplugged it and then rebuilt it, basically, and that's kind of how I learned how stuff worked. I read a lot of the manuals for the modular synths and stuff. Everything was just a challenge to myself really, to learn, and also to be useful. So that if someone came into the studio and said, 'Oh, what does this do?', I could go, 'This is what this does. Let me show you how to use it.'
"Weirdly enough, by that point I'd learnt enough about how crap I was as an assistant in order to know what to do to make myself better as an assistant. So the things that I taught myself were things that I thought other people would find useful. So not necessarily, 'Oh this is what I'm gonna do when I eventually engineer my records.' More like, 'This is what would be handy if someone who didn't know the room came in.'"
At this point, Flood employed Marks to assist him in the engineering of PJ Harvey's 2007 White Chalk album to tape. Within three years, Marks had gone on to work with Editors, Placebo and, challenging her still-developing engineering skills further, Kanye West, who in 2009 came to Assault & Battery to record his vocals on the Mr Hudson track 'Supernova'.
"At 1am, Kanye turns up," she recalls. "He's incredible. He comps himself as he goes. Doing that kind of vocal stuff with those kinds of artists is a really good way to learn efficiency. And also, you're not just hitting Record, you're doing stuff on the fly. You've got to be super-quick, have tracks ready to go. I remember an assistant saying, [whispers] 'I think you're compressing the vocal too much.' Now, obviously that's four years in. My confidence is not that high. I'm like, Oh my God, this is the last thing I need. Everyone's happy with how it sounds. I'm just gonna let it go, because I'm not gonna stop Kanye from rapping, and it sounds good."
The next big episode in Catherine Marks's career came when Flood and Alan Moulder asked her to engineer Foals' 2013 commercial breakthrough album, Holy Fire. "I'm sure there were people who were way more qualified than me," she notes, "but they gave me a shot. Two weeks of me pussyfooting around and then after that I was just like, 'I'm gonna look after this area for you, so you guys can focus on the things that you do,' because they're both amazing engineers. But I was just like, 'I've got this.' Even though, I didn't have it [laughs]."
During the tracking of Holy Fire, she built a number of independent workstations, dotted around the studio, focusing on each element of the process. "Everything's sort of about efficiency," she stresses. "We had synth stations and a vocal station and guitar pedal stations just so everything was as easy and smooth as possible. Also, it was about giving them things that are inspiring as well, that they can react to sonically when they're listening on headphones. Interesting reverbs or delays or things that they can play off or sing against."
Many of the drum-miking techniques that Marks experimented with on Holy Fire remain the basis of those she still employs today. "It's changing a lot recently," she says. "But there's still lots of aspects of the way we recorded Holy Fire that I apply to records now. Having a lot of various strategically-placed room mics, often mono, with different compressions and different sort of levels of pump."
For close-miking kick drums, Marks sets up a combination of an AKG D112 for the inside, an AKG D25 just outside the bass drum and a Yamaha NS‑10 speaker used as a sub microphone. When it comes to the snare, she prefers either a Shure SM57 or AKG C414, or a mix of the two: "I have a pair of 57s I bought ages ago, which I swear are the best-sounding 57s ever. But if I want the brightness, I'll put a 57 alongside the 414. I know that sounds like overkill, but actually it's been amazing, cause then you also have the choice. Do you want the thump or do you want the top snap? I'll have the 57 almost angled horizontal to the snare, so you just get the skim of the top."
Additionally, Marks sometimes places a Shure 520DX 'bullet' mic in-between the kick and the snare, fed through a Helios Type 69 preamp and Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor compressor, for added crunch. "I'm really into sort of mono drums at the moment, but I'll have stereo overheads as well," she says. "It'll depend. Like, Neumann M7s for bright or Coles [4038s] for dark. I really love a good ribbon mic placed either behind or in front of the player at an angle. A big chunky ribbon like an [AEA] R84. I just feel like it gets that toughness. Then I like reducing a drum sound down to a few mics. But basically, at the start of a session, I like to have everything set up, so that it can just be like a quick flick, swap."
In the bass and guitar amplifier departments, Catherine Marks speaks highly of the pair of Audio Kitchen amps that sit in the live room of Assault & Battery 2. "They're really versatile and flexible," she says. "They sound really good quiet... they sound sort of loud quiet, if that makes sense. You can get drive and distortion and you don't have to crank up the output volume basically and they still sound thick and tough. Then you don't get all the rattle in the room. That's a really practical thing, but you can also crank them up.
"But I also love a good Fender Twin and Deluxe. Or the [Roland] JC‑120 Jazz Chorus, if you want that stereo spread. They're great if I'm looking for sort of top‑end guitar sparkle. Just thin 'em out, whack the chorus on, a couple of [Neumann U]67s and you don't have to have them that loud. Not too reverb-y either. Just something sort of delicate. Maybe compress them a little, just to fill that space up there just above the cymbals."
Vocal chain-wise, Marks' favourite is a Shure SM7B into a Neve 1073DPA mic preamp and EL8 Distressor. "But also I can make anything work," she cheerfully offers. "I'm happy to try anything. It depends on what's in the room. I'm really into the Sontronics Omega mic. But an SM7 is just good, solid. It's my starting point, at least, anyway. It's definitely what I used on Yannis [Philippakis] from Foals. That and the [AEA] R84."
When it comes to electronic elements, there's no shortage of choice in the vintage synth-packed anteroom at Assault & Battery 2. Marks tends to always turn to a Roland Juno-106 or Moogs, namely a Minimoog and Series III modular. "It's more just for supportive stuff," she says. "So, like a bass line in the chorus, doubling that. I'll either get someone to play or I'll program the MIDI notes, so it's doing exactly what the bass line's doing. Or it's just root notes that really kind of stealthily come in so that you just feel that low end suddenly hit.
"I love the Solina," she adds, "but again it's all just stealth for top end, or something that's supporting a melody that already exists. But sometimes I'll make a feature out of it, or happy accidents will happen, and then it becomes a theme."
Marks was keen to combine her skills as a rock engineer with programming on her production of Wolf Alice's 2014 EP, Creature Songs, at ICP Studios in Belgium. "That was an amazing experience," she enthuses. "One of those moments where when you hear what's coming through the speakers, you get butterflies. It was the start of their sort of meteoric rise. We were all nervous. None of us had been proven at that point, so we're all trying to figure each other out."
At first, Marks worked with the band out in the live room, getting her hands dirty deconstructing and reconstructing the arrangements of the songs. "We did a lot of pre-production on that," she says. "I don't remember what we changed, but it might have been that we changed things to an extreme and then gently brought it back to where it was initially. Tiny little things would've been tweaked to make it infinitely better — whether it's a drum groove that would've slightly changed by taking out one kick drum beat, or adding in one kick drum beat, or certain drum fills that then follow what a guitar line is doing, or follow what the vocal is doing. I definitely apply that to a lot of what I do.
"We did a lot of programming and a lot of overdubs. I just sort of programmed in samples and a few kind of weird little things. Some synths, but lots of layers of guitars. By the end of the seven days we were dancing around drinking champagne, singing to the songs that we'd just recorded.
"It was one of those sort of amazing moments where I feel like we'd captured something and also kind of overcome that psychological barrier that often happens when you work with an artist for the first time. You're trying to figure each other out and get to the heart of what it is that they're trying to do, and earn the trust in a really compact space of time."
Most recently, Catherine Marks co-produced, with Mark Crew (Bastille, Rag'n'Bone Man), the Wombats' 2018 album Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life. She says she found the project fulfilling since it found her applying modern pop production techniques to rock.
"I wanted to try something different," she states. "I loved their last record, Glitterbug . I loved what Mark Crew had done with them and Rag'n'Bone Man. He said, 'Why don't we do it together?' So I pulled things a little bit to the left, he pulled things a little bit to the right, and then hopefully something interesting came out of that."
The duo's method was to mix live takes with programmed parts, and then pare the arrangements down to the minimum: "I love programmed drums, and getting interesting live drum sounds and then cutting them up and presenting them in a different way. Mark is really good and quick at that. I like taking away the fat, but he really takes away the fat. He'd come into my room and go, 'You've made it sound too indie.' I'd go into his room and I'd go, 'You've sucked the life out of it.' Then we'd just massage it. That was what was so cool about us working together, and we worked really well together, because we ultimately had the same goal, but different approaches."
Marks' recent and current projects include producing the debut album by Leeds rock band Allusondrugs, and her imminent return to the studio with Berkshire indie four-piece the Amazons, after she successfully produced their eponymous debut in 2017. Having come so far, she's clearly excited by the idea that she still has far to go.
"I would like a long career," she says, "and I would like to continue to work with amazing and inspiring people, I guess. I feel I'm really lucky that I get to do that. I know that sounds like spin, but that's actually a genuine thing. I feel like for years I was working towards, 'Oh I wanna be recognised by everyone.' And then once you have that, you're like, 'Oh, hang on a second, it's awesome, but it doesn't fill that void.' And what feeds your soul is coming to work every day and working with amazing people on stuff that you really love, or find interesting, or challenging."
These days, Catherine Marks tends to work mostly in software, but having a 72-channel SSL at the end of the corridor was handy when it came to mixing 'Fear The Future', 'Young Lover' and the title song from St Vincent's Masseduction album in 2017. "She's incredible to work with," says Marks, "because she knows exactly what she wants. But I found her really easy to work with in the sense that the communication and the dialogue was really good. Because she was so direct and understood what she wanted, it was never like, 'Hmm, there's something not right.' It was like, 'This is great. I now want to make it more about the guitars in this moment.' Or we'd listen to a rough mix and I'd be like, 'I'm sort of feeling '90s Kylie Minogue-meets-Nine Inch Nails and she's like, 'Yes...' Or, 'This makes me think of the rave scene at the end of The Matrix,' and she's like, 'Yep.' So there were visual cues that we were taking from, but also sonic cues. Even if it didn't end up sounding like that, that was the inspiration.
"There is a difference," she says of working 'in the box'. "But again it's what you're given and how you make that work for you. That started out of necessity when I was working with Alan [Moulder]. Obviously, he would mix on the [SSL] desk. Then he started to get jobs which were low-budget, but that he still really liked. So we set up a little B room with a computer in there and speakers, and over the years it's grown into a proper little studio in itself as other assistants have come in. I would start mixes in there and then he would come in and finish them off. Or I'd start mixes in the box and then he'd take them to the SSL and I'd effectively have my homework marked. So it was a really good way to learn how to finish projects and the attention to detail, not just the big broad strokes. 'Cause you could make a mix sound really shit on an SSL, or you could make a mix sound really amazing in the box. You make it sound the best it can with what you've got."
Marks tends to employ one of two methods when it comes to mixing, depending on whether or not she's been the producer on the project. "If it's someone else's production," she says, "I'll spend four or five hours doing a quick kind of instinctive shaping of it. Then, I'll send it off as like, 'This is a work in progress,' so that I start the dialogue. It's usually those mixes that end up getting used. But then I'll spend another day and a half focusing on the shit that no one else hears [laughs] — I'll have just drawn out some esses on the vocals, and fine-tuned the EQ on the snare, or controlled the bass a bit more.
"Then if it's my production, I won't move too far away from the monitor mixes. I'll just sort of make it more sparkly and brighter and more defined. But I also love things that just stand out and are a bit wrong. Drums on the left and something coming in on the right. A guitar that kind of pokes out of the wall of sound. Which, again, is like the personality of the tracks. Obviously, it's got to support what the song needs, but I like things to be a bit weird. Some of my favourite records, if you kind of break down the mixes, they wouldn't be considered the best mixes in the world. But you never notice that because they just feel amazing."
Interestingly, Marks says she likes to "visualise" a mix, and see what she feels might be missing from it. "I'm very much about how a mix 'looks' as well as how it feels and sounds," she says. "The three dimensions of the mix. Now whether or not I achieve that [laughs], I'm not entirely sure. But that's definitely what I'm aiming for. It'll just be, I close my eyes... am I missing something over here?"
A lot of the work that Catherine Marks does these days happens downstairs in her small ground-floor mix/production room. Here she has doggedly stuck with using Pro Tools 9. "It's stubbornness probably, but it works," she says. "I like the way it sounds. I didn't like the way 10 sounded... a bit thin or something. Whereas 12, I think, sounds amazing. That's got the brightness and the fullness. So, I will probably have to upgrade. But that's a big overhaul."
Plug-ins-wise, Marks tends towards familiar options, but doesn't always use them in the typical ways: "I love [Waves] RVerb, [Soundtoys] EchoBoy, the Valhalla stuff — I absolutely love VintageVerb. I use this [Tony] Maserati [GTi] guitar compressor, but I use it on vocals. Ages ago, I was doing something with backing vocals and I was looking for a chorus, and this has got a great chorus on it. The compressor just thickens up the vocals. It sort of darkens it and pushes it out a little bit and sits it in really nicely."
Elsewhere in her room are two outboard workhorses: Thermionic Culture's The Fat Bustard II summing mixer and stereo processor, and a Manley Massive Passive stereo EQ. "I love Thermionic Culture stuff," she says. "That adds colour. Notch [detented controls] for me is trust. It's peace of mind. The Massive Passive isn't notched and if I come in and someone else has turned it on for me, I don't know 100 percent for sure that they haven't knocked something. And it's so sensitive. So that's more for dialling in very specific frequencies. Whereas with the Fat Bustard, I can do this [wildly twists knob and laughs] and I know I can just put it back and it'll sound exactly the same."