Mix engineer David Wrench has the rare ability to bring discipline to experimental projects, without losing their leftfield qualities.
David Wrench has been responsible for mixing three of the most acclaimed albums of recent times, namely Caribou’s Our Love, FKA Twigs’s LP1 and Jungle’s self–titled debut, and currently finds himself much in demand as the go–to guy when it comes to polishing and finishing a project. To reach this point, Wrench took a slightly circuitous route, beginning with his secondary school days in Holyhead, Wales, when he was taken under the wing of his physics–teacher–turned–record–producer Gorwel Owen (Super Furry Animals, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci).
Encouraged by Owen, Wrench ensconced himself in the music room at school, his career path effectively set. “They had an Atari with Notator,” he remembers, “and a four–track and pair of JBL speakers and a rackmount Roland D10. I was just in there all the time. I was doing music A-level anyway, and no one else seemed to have any interest in using this facility. So every dinner time, every spare lesson, I was just in there making music.”
It was the late ‘80s and the dawning of acid house and, like many of his peers, Wrench was wholly inspired by dance music, and in 1990 he released the first Welsh–language acid house 12–inch, ‘Lledrith Lliw’, as Nid Madagascar. In subsequent years, he put out a sporadic sequence of albums under his own name, ranging in style from the doom–folk of 1997’s Blow Wings Blow to the synth–pop of 2005’s The Atomic World Of Tomorrow.
Throughout this time, he was also working as an engineer at Bryn Derwen Studio in Bethesda, North Wales, where he cut his teeth on a number of very different projects, including albums by the late Scottish folk singer Jackie Leven and former Teardrop Explodes singer Julian Cope. If the former taught Wrench about good musicianship and preparation, then the latter showed the fledgling engineer that equally impressive results could be achieved through utter chaos, initially when he was involved in the sessions for Cope’s unhinged garage–metal offshoot Brain Donor.
“That was hilarious, but quite intense,” Wrench recalls. “He’s so spontaneous and creative. I’d never worked with anyone like him before, so I was thrown initially. I wasn’t used to someone wanting a [Shure] 58 in the control room standing on the control surface doing their vocals. I’d not dealt with the monitors really loud and having to control feedback while someone’s recording a vocal live.
“I learned a lot about mixing then. About two or three in the morning at the end of every session we’d be putting down these rough mixes that were really quite deranged. Half the way through it, he’d be like, ‘Aw turn the guitar up 6dB, pan it left. Yeah, that’s all right, sounds good.’ Something else would come in as I unmuted it, remembering it was there. It came to the end of the week and I asked him where he was getting it mixed. And he goes, ‘Nah, what we’ve been putting down, they’re the mixes’. And that’s cool — learning to keep accidents when they’re good and just going with it and not being too uptight about stuff.”
Before long, Bryn Derwen Studio was being hired for many other projects, partly due to the facility itself and partly because of Wrench’s skills. When producer David Kosten began using the studio for records by Guillemots, Everything Everything and Bat For Lashes, Wrench was introduced to the joys of major–label production budgets and the freedoms they can afford.
“Early on I was on a lot of records where it just had to be done in two weeks,” he says. “So it was good to work on records where there was time and budget there to explore. I’m lucky enough now that that’s the case with a lot of records I work on. There’s enough budget and time to get it right. I always allow time for that, for just exploring.”
Still, it was through his indie label connections that Wrench was first brought to the attention of Canadian psychedelic electronica artist Dan Snaith, aka Caribou, as someone who could produce more focused mixes of his laptop productions. The two first worked together at Musikbox Studios in Kentish Town, London, on tracks for Caribou’s second album, 2007’s Andorra, with Wrench helping to make sense of the often kaleidoscopic and layered arrangements.
“Dan had always just mixed himself, and felt that he wanted to take it up a notch on some of the tracks,” says Wrench. “Two or three of the tracks on that record were really complicated. Massive things with just hundreds of tracks. There’s a song called ‘Melody Day’ that was a big mix. We were using bits of EQ on the studio’s Neve and bits of outboard compression and EQ, but then automation within the computer. That’s how I worked for a long time really, partly because the computers I was working on weren’t powerful enough to do what we wanted.”
“He totally smashed the mix on ‘Melody Day’,” Snaith enthuses. “Made it so much more spacious and massive–sounding, and got the vocal sitting nicely in the track. He was probably frustrated, because as I layered things on top of one another recording tracks, I would never bother to go back and clean things up because they’d be hidden by another layer of sound on top. I remember asking him if there was anything I should do differently next time. He said that I should edit the sound of the bus going past the window of my flat out of the vocal track before applying a hall reverb to it! David can mix and engineer technically right alongside the best of them, but also understands the value of character and eccentricity in music. It’s that combination that makes him so amazing.”
The working relationship between David Wrench and Dan Snaith progressed with the mixing of the next Caribou album, Swim, in 2010, which was done at the former’s suggestion back in Wales at Bryn Derwen. “It was great to go up to a studio that he knew inside out,” says Snaith, “and where he could plug in all sorts of different hardware. I didn’t realise how much of the mixing process was surgical. He would go in and EQ tiny problem areas where different instruments conflicted with each other.”
“I generally do lots of little cuts in an EQ,” says Wrench. “It’s mainly reductive. I only add stuff if I feel it really needs it. If I can do it through reducing EQ, it feels better to me for some reason. If something wants to be brighter, I often think, ‘Well, is it just that it’s too muddy?’ And I’ll take a bit of the mud out and it’ll sound a bit more natural than just brightening some frequencies. Otherwise it’s a bit harsh on the ears. And I find I can make stuff sound bigger through just doing lots of EQ cuts.”
The psychedelic nature of Caribou’s music, particularly on Swim, meant the pair found plenty of room for experimentation while mixing the album. “The way we mixed that was quite strange in places,” Wrench states. “Especially on the track ‘Odessa’. We did a mix, settled on it, stemmed it, but then also did dub mixes. Then we’d find the occasional bars of those dub mixes that were great and we’d just chop them into the main mix.”
“When he was mixing ‘Odessa’,” says Snaith, “he had out this amazing old Russian BBD delay with all the buttons labelled in Cyrillic letters, and was jamming out the delay on the drum tracks. Then he used little parts of that in the track to add excitement. It was so amazing watching him getting super into dubbing out the track in a King Tubby style, nodding his head and both of us jumping around the room with the music cranked up.”
For Caribou’s latest album, 2014’s Our Love, a more polished take on multi–layered dance music, Wrench and Snaith borrowed the studio owned by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich for the mixing sessions, running the tracks through his Bill Putnam hand-built desk bought from Ocean Way Recording in Los Angeles.
“It was interesting, because we did split it out through the desk,” says Wrench, “but we then did a blind test with the in–the–box Pro Tools mixes. We could both tell which one was which, but the difference was so miniscule. Actually what it goes to show is how incredibly clean that desk is.”
To test the low–end balance on Our Love, Wrench and Snaith took the mixes into empty club spaces in London, namely Plastic People and Fabric, to check how the tracks were sounding. “That was a real eye–opener,” says Snaith. “The mix environment gave us an accurate picture of what was going on, but getting to hear the tracks in a club was really informative.”
“We knew it had to sound good in a club,” Wrench stresses. “That was absolutely essential with it. So there were issues to work out that only became apparent in a big club system. Things like the tuning of the bass drum. So we’d run off a couple of mixes, one with it tuned to 33Hz, one with it tuned to 28Hz, and work out where it felt good. It varied track to track, just how it sat with the bass, where it felt like it was giving the most punch. And then also just things like levels of snares and hi–hats when they were coming in.”
“Being able to listen in lots of different places and lots of different ways is so crucial to me,” Snaith adds. “But everywhere we went, David’s mixes sounded great.”
Wrench’s favourite place to mix is Strongroom in Shoreditch, London, because he finds their rooms true and particularly likes the Genelec 1031s in Strongroom 1. Interestingly, though, because he doesn’t really touch its Neve VR60 or array of outboard, he’s basically just using the facility as a room and a pair of monitors.
“I went and listened to a load of rooms in London and I just liked the sound in here,” he says. “I found with a sub in here, I knew I could take it anywhere. I mean, it’s a matter of taste, monitoring. But I found with a lot of rooms, I was a bit unsure what was happening in the really low mids and down into the bass end, and that’s so crucial for the work I’ve been doing in the last year. With the Twigs stuff it was absolutely essential to have the sub ‘cause it’s so subby. I just found that it sounded good here, and I just liked the vibe.”
David Wrench first began mixing what would become FKA Twigs’s LP1 in Spring 2014. Twigs, or Tahliah Barnett, former dancer for the likes of Plan B and Kylie Minogue, had been signed to Young Turks Records as an artist/co–producer and needed someone to pull together the various recordings that she’d done with a number of producers, including Paul Epworth, Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey, Eminem) and Arca (Kanye West, Bjork).
“I loved her stuff,” he says. “I thought, ‘This music is amazing, it’s not like anything else I’ve ever heard.’ I was desperate to be involved with it. It just sounded like the future to me. They played me eight or nine tracks and they all sounded quite different. ‘Cause they’d all been through different producers, they were done at different studios. They gave me this track ‘One Time’ and it was in a bit of a mess and they were just like, ‘Well, see what you can get out of it.’”
Perhaps best labelled avant garde electronica, topped by Twigs’s sultry, expressive vocals, LP1 features an unorthodox sound that Wrench quickly understood. “I could hear that there was stuff in all the tracks that unified them,” he says. “Because she does all the drum programming and you can tell it’s her. No one else programs drums like she does — it sounds almost punk to me — and obviously there’s her vocals and the way her backing vocals all fit in.
“Obviously Twigs had co–produced everything on it. She knows every detail in every mix, every little thing. A lot of it’s based on her dancing, so she’ll dance in the studio to it and she’ll be like, ‘That thing there, I’ve got a movement that goes with it — that’s got to be louder.’ I think she works very quickly when she’s recording and it’s really inspired, and then it just needs cleaning up to some extent. Actually the vocals needed a lot of cleaning up because there’s layers, and she wants the vocals to be really up–front and polished. The whole thing was, ‘Make it hard–hitting, bring out the weirdness.’ And it was like, ‘That’s great. That’s what I do!’”
Some elements on LP1 are surprising, such as the moment in the brooding ‘Video Girl’ when a frenetic clap sample rhythm suddenly bursts into the mix, almost as loudly as the vocal. Wrench says that both he and Twigs agreed on such unusual aspects of the sound. “I love things that jump out of mixes,” he says. “Mixes that sound unbalanced. I just like records that excite me, and if something leaps out of a mix at the wrong level, I think that’s exciting. I got where she was coming from and I think that’s why we worked well together.”
At certain points, this involved decoding some of Twigs’s more cryptic directions in the studio. “Twigs will be very specific, but also she’ll talk in terms of, ‘Turn the wizard synth up.’ You’re thinking, ‘What the hell is the wizard synth?’ And she’ll be like, ‘Y’know, the one that’s swish swish swish like a wizard’s cape?’ And you’re, ‘Oh OK, I know what you mean.’ ‘Cause they’re all just labelled ‘synth’ on there, y’know. Hundreds of tracks. And she knows every one and how she wants it to be. She’s got a very clear vision and that makes it easy.”
One of the greatest challenges was controlling the amount of sub on the tracks. “It was tricky,” Wrench admits, “on things like ‘Lights On’ where you’ve got properly played double bass. Keeping that under control but tight, that’s where multi–band compression comes in. Keeping that bass end tight but also not taking the life out of it.”
Around the same time, Wrench was also mixing the eponymous album by West London’s modern funk/soul troupe Jungle. This project offered different challenges, since the band wanted a slightly murky sound, inspired by leftfield hip–hop producers such as J Dilla and Madvillain. To this end, when self–producing the tracks at XL Recordings’ basement studio in London’s Wandsworth, they’d often resampled their own performances to make them sound like they’d been lifted from dusty old records.
“We had various versions of songs that we kind of made cuts and edits of, so they start to sound like sampled loops,” explains co–singer/guitarist Josh–Lloyd Watson. “We’re always going between high fidelity and low fidelity. Obviously analogue distortion is preferable, y’know. We’d often use the Roland RE501 Chorus Echo. When you drive the tape too much, there’s a real warmth to that clipping.”
Wrench was initially given Jungle’s third single ‘Busy Earnin’ to mix, and feels his first attempt cleaned it up a little too much. “Their rough mixes sounded good,” he says. “But there was just an extra 15, 20 percent to get out of it for me. Then I popped it up too much and they came back to me and I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right, it can go back towards where it was.’”
“He almost made it sound too good, in a way,” laughs Lloyd–Watson, “and I think we wanted to kind of retain some elements of a lo–fi nature to the recording, rather than everything being polished. We’d almost spent four or five months working on that song specifically. You get so into it, but it was great having David there to scoop the mids out of the horns or make the kick drum sound fatter. I think what David really added to our process was the actual finite EQ. When you’re producing, you just whack a reverb on something and you don’t realise you’re bringing a whole load of extra low–end rumble into a track that’s clouding up the mix.”
Jungle recordings generally feature multiple vocal tracks sung by Lloyd–Watson and his co–frontman Tom McFarland, often swimming in modulation or Leslie speaker effects. “They really know how to balance their vocals,” says Wrench. “But I’d be like, ‘Give me a clean vocal as well as your effected vocal.’ Ninety percent of the time we’d use their effected vocals, but then sometimes mix a bit of the clean one in for clarity if the words were getting a bit lost.”
Along with the emphasis on grooves and melodies, the tracks on Jungle often feature strange ‘found’ sound effects such as the police sirens on ‘The Heat’ or the creaking door on ‘Drops’, which were sometimes recorded on laptops while the band were on tour. “That’s why it sounds so distinctive,” says Wrench. “Both Twigs and Jungle, it’s like modern musique concrete. Jungle were in hotel rooms banging baths to make drum tracks.”
“Part of the way we record music is about what’s available,” says Lloyd–Watson. “So if you’re in a room in Paris and you haven’t got any shakers, you’ll end up getting some Euros and throwing them in a sink and miking that up. On ‘The Heat’, the snare drum’s made out of footsteps on gravel. We really love the idea of Foley in music. A football hitting the bedroom floor being a bass drum. You could go and record a ’62 vintage Ludwig kick drum, but a lot of other people have access to that.”
Ultimately, for David Wrench, what began as a desire to pull away from long, tiring tracking sessions and move towards mixing has resulted in him overseeing some of the most bold and original music around. “I always loved mixing,” he concludes. “I always found that quite a creative, exciting part of the process. So it suits me. I really enjoy it and I’ve been so lucky working with such creative, brilliant people.”
David Wrench kindly supplied full screen captures of his Pro Tools sessions for ‘Two Weeks’ by FKA Twigs, ‘Busy Earnin’ by Jungle and Caribou’s ‘Can’t Do Without You’. There isn’t space to print them in this article, but they can be downloaded from the SOS media page at https://sosm.ag/jan15media.
Like many mixers, these days David Wrench finds himself working almost entirely ‘in the box’. “There’s a real reason for it and it’s because of moving around,” he says. “Everyone expects recalls and various stems to be done, and there’s time constraints.”
Often a project will begin life at his home mix room in Bangor, housed in a converted garage, where he runs Pro Tools HD through Adam A7X monitors with a Focal CMS sub, alongside a secondary pair of Yamaha MSP5s. “I really love the Adams,” he says. “As soon as I got them, the first thing I did was mix an EP for Young Knives. It came back with no changes — which never ever happens. I really like subs and feel like I want to know what’s happening right down there, especially with dance music. The small powered Yamahas I’ve had for years. I’ve also got headphones that I use a lot for checking mixes on, the Beyerdynamic [DT]880s, the semi–open ones. I find them quite accurate with the low end. Then I actually have a Pure digital radio that I use to play mixes through.”
Wrench’s method typically involves him opening up a Pro Tools Session and sorting out the basic levels, if needs be. “Dan’s stuff arrives in a really good state,” he says. “But especially a lot of R&B and hip–hop production is done quite quickly, which is great and it’s got that whole energy in it. So the first thing to do is to go through and sort all the gain structure out. And that immediately opens it up and gives you a huge amount of headroom. Even just doing that to a track sometimes is enough to really open it up.”
Once he’s cleaned up a track in terms of levels, Wrench works very rapidly through a first draft of a mix. “The first phase is really quite fast and instinctive,” he says. “I’ll run through a mix — drums, bass and so on — and just quickly put EQs on, quickly get a level. I tend to do it all dry at that point. I won’t get into reverbs unless it’s absolutely intrinsic to it. And then get that bass end happening tight and the whole thing feeling like I can get a vibe off it, and then I go through it all again and start fine–tuning it.”
Since he’s normally given a rough or reference mix from the producer or band he’s working with, he tends to A/B forwards and backwards between the original and his own mix–in–progress. “Just to check that I’m not making it worse,” he laughs. “Then I’ve got a record deck and CD player in there, so I can just sort of flip between those things and just refresh my ears. I’ll often work about 40 minutes, an hour and then put on a couple of tracks on vinyl — sometimes totally different music, sometimes similar music to what I’m working on. But just to clear my head.”
David Wrench tends to work with a small, if select, bunch of plug–in processors. “I’ve got the Waves bundles,” he says. “I really like multi–band compression and I find it controls things well. Say on a vocal where occasionally it gets a bit peaky, instead of taking those frequencies out for the whole thing, I just take them out for the points where they’re a problem. You can lose warmth in a vocal by scooping out the low mid sometimes. In general, if you spend a while setting a multi–band on it, you can get a vocal to sit well.
“I use multi–band across the whole mix as well, just subtly. I’ll have an EQ and I use the SSL compressor, only on a 2:1 with a medium attack but a really fast release and then into a multi–band. But I tend to automate the type of compression or the drive into the compression between sections of the song — when it comes to the chorus, I’ll give it a couple of dBs boost. The multi–band will hold it in place, but it’ll just feel like it’s driven up. That’s my big secret actually [laughs]. Or sometimes I will just ride the master fader even after the compressor. All you want to do is lift the chorus by 1dB.”
Reverb and delay–wise, Wrench tends to favour Valhalla and SoundToys plug–ins. “On the Jungle, Twigs and Caribou albums, those Valhallas are the reverbs. They sit really well in a mix. There’s really good control on them and they have a nice stereo field. The Valhalla VintageVerb I use quite a lot. And for things like guitars and shorter reverbs, the ValhallaRoom. They’re only $50 each and I really rate them. A big sound on the Caribou record is the Valhalla berMod across the whole mix to flange certain sections.
“For delays, I generally use [SoundToys] Echo Boy. Sometimes I’ll put Phase Mistress after the delay so the delay is phasing slightly through the track. I sometimes use Waves H–Delay, but only occasionally. I quite like the EQ of those, but then they add noise which I’ve got to gate out. I wish there was a way of switching the noise off. I’ve noticed on the newer Waves plug–ins, you can dial in the noise, which is much better. I’ve also got some impulse responses. If I work somewhere cool, I’ll take an impulse response off their plate. I’ve got a really good [EMT 240] Gold Foil impulse that I use a lot.”