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Page 2: Fred Gibson aka Fred again...

From Eno Apprentice To Brit Award-winning Producer By Tom Doyle
Published November 2021

Phone Home

Although he sometimes uses Neumanns for recording vocals, Gibson typically reaches for the SM7B. “For pop records and rap records, I’ll chuck up an SM7. Some people find it surprising that, like, for Stormzy, Ed Sheeran, it’s never anything posher than an SM7. I mean, it’s the best mic ever. You don’t need to go posher than an SM7, I don’t think.”

More surprising still is the fact that even above the SM7B, Gibson prefers the sound of the iPhone microphone. “It’s the in‑built compression of the iPhone I adore,” he explains. “Like, whenever I use an SM7, I have a plug‑in chain I use to try and recreate the compression of the iPhone.”

Released in April this year, Fred again..’s debut solo album, Actual Life (April 14 — December 17 2020) is based around recordings made on Fred’s mobile phone.Released in April this year, Fred again..’s debut solo album, Actual Life (April 14 — December 17 2020) is based around recordings made on Fred’s mobile phone.In fact, the iPhone is central to the music Fred Gibson makes. “I record everything on my iPhone, or everything apart from lead vocals,” he says. “I record guitars, I record all the backing vocals, I record drums. I love being able to just capture something and then chuck it into my laptop and warp or manipulate it and turn it into something totally different.

“My mate, Johnny McDaid [songwriter/producer/Snow Patrol member], he always has this joke when we’re working together. He’ll play a part on the guitar and I just get my iPhone out and I’ll be like, ‘Go go go’. The phrase he always says is, ‘It doesn’t matter what you put in,’ which I find really empowering.”

One of Gibson’s favourite manipulation tools within his iPhone is elf audio’s Koala app. “It’s this sick kind of MPC‑style sampler that I got recently for the phone. We’ve been using it in the studio the whole time — recording random bits and manipulating them in the phone, then recording them back into the computer. These things are just so expressive as instruments, I find, and you can really quickly get really cool results. I’m most interested in those things that can just be taken everywhere and really f**k with the sound as opposed to something that gives it a little glaze or whatever.”

Another of Gibson’s — and Eno’s — current favourite tools for more extreme sonic treatments is Expert Sleepers’ Spectral Conquest plug‑in. “Brian and I are obsessed with it,” Gibson enthuses. “It’s basically a spectral EQ, but to ridiculous extremes. You can delete any single frequency, like absolutely take it out. And you can do really creative things with that if you put in a whole song. Suddenly, you get this whole new world and you can make granular synths out of it.”

Found Sounds

Gibson’s various sonic techniques are perhaps best showcased by his electronic solo project Fred again.., his first release being the GANG mixtape with Tottenham rapper Headie One in 2020, which also featured guest vocals from FKA Twigs and Sampha. “It was really effortless,” says Gibson. “It was just instinct again. I’m always obsessed with capturing the moments when people aren’t overthinking. I was really inspired by how sonically fearless Headie was.”

Fred Gibson and rapper Headie One recording their 2019 release GANG at Fred’s home studio in Waterloo.Fred Gibson and rapper Headie One recording their 2019 release GANG at Fred’s home studio in Waterloo.

Meanwhile on the 2021 debut Fred again.. album, Actual Life (April 14 — December 17 2020), Gibson fully explored a snatched field recordings approach in what he describes as a “collaborative diary”. The springboard into the project was a chance meeting in a bar in Atlanta with a construction worker named Carlos, whose enthusiastic phrases Gibson recorded into his phone.

“I was just having a beer and he came up to me and was like, ‘What you sayin’, partner?’ We were just having jokes all the time and I was sometimes hitting record on my phone, like I do on nights out, capturing moments. And he was all like, ‘We gonna make it through!’ I was laughing and just being like, ‘This is an amazing man.’

“Then I woke up, hungover, in the hotel room, with all these videos on my phone, and I just found myself dragging them into Logic and messing with them. Really quickly I loved that feeling that it was bringing to life and showing all the glory in these seemingly mundane moments.”

Gibson then began to run with the idea for the Actual Life... album, going further and sampling songs and snippets from social media to build up top lines and sonic motifs. A clip of Minneapolis poet/rapper Kyle Tran Myhre (aka Guante) performing at an open mic night featured in‑house track ‘Kyle (I Found You)’. An Instagram video of Australian singer‑songwriter Angie McMahon resulted in the melancholic dance track ‘Angie (I’ve Been Lost)’.

“She’s just sat on a bed and she’s playing this song,” Gibson remembers. “It gets to the bit where she goes, ‘I’ve been lost, I’ve been lost’, and it was just absolutely hypnotic to me. I’ve been sort of obsessed with her and that moment ever since.

“The key thing to me was just trying to find moments of what felt like real‑world honesty. I would stumble across them very naturally. It would just be in an aimless scroll, as we’re all very prone to doing. Or like, on a random night out, as I’m often the person filming bits and bobs on my phone.”

Although, as he said earlier, he rarely records lead vocals using his iPhone mic, for Gibson’s own vocal parts on Actual Life... he matched the sonic qualities of the samples by reaching for his phone.

“I just do it in a silent room a lot of the time,” he explains. “If I played the song five seconds ago, I’ll still be singing in the right key. I’ll pause the song and sing some ideas into my phone and just Airdrop them over and drag them in and see how it feels. It usually lines up.”

Inevitably, of course, sometimes pitch correction or editing is involved. “Yeah, but what I like about it is usually that leads you to creative solutions,” Gibson says. “Like you often end up doing things you’d never have done. You’ll manipulate it into a rhythm that you’d have never sung on, or you’ll pitch a note suddenly up a whole fifth that you couldn’t physically have sung. It forces your hand to play cards you don’t expect to play.”

In his vocal processing, Gibson is often trying to exaggerate the natural reverb compression of the iPhone microphone. “If you speak into an iPhone, the reverb is totally overpowered by your close voice,” he stresses. “But as soon as you stop speaking, obviously it fills up the gap with the room noise.

“Aside from quite extreme compression, I love putting the reverb before the compressor. You can do it with a massive reverb or with a really small room reverb and it means you still get that clarity and closeness. But each time the vocal gives you room to breathe, the reverb fills that space. So, it really hyper‑emphasises the space of the singer, which I find gives it a real emotional context.”

Lasting Legacy

Unusually, perhaps, Gibson favours legacy Logic plug‑ins such as Silver Compressor and AVerb. “I love Silver Compressor, which you have to hit Alt now to get. You have to load up the secret legacy menu [laughs]. And ChromaVerb is I guess what Logic thinks replaced AVerb. And it’s good, but it’s good at different things to me. AVerb has this kind of hollow longing to it. And it’s so simple. That and Silver Compressor, they’re both, like, two‑dial plug‑ins. And that really speaks to me because it’s not worrying too much about this niche thing that’s gonna make one percent of difference. I want to be making big differences quickly and easily.”

All of which underlines the fact that Fred Gibson is anything but a picky audiophile — something he shares with Eno. He remembers a funny moment from the mastering of the second Eno/Hyde album, High Life in 2014.

“We had a song that we were trying to get mastered and we couldn’t find the session,” Gibson recalls. “The way we’d been working, everything was very loose and free and jammy. And we couldn’t find the session that had that exact version. We just had this MP3 of it. And the masterer was like, ‘We need a WAV, you can’t send us the MP3.’ So we just dragged the MP3 into Logic, bounced it as a WAV and sent it off to be mastered [laughs].”

Ultimately, then, Fred Gibson is someone who feels that traditional audio engineering rules are only there to be bent or broken. “A lot of the time I think those rules that are set up were for people who were trying to record like a Stravinsky quartet in Abbey Road back in the day,” he states. “They’re not for how music is made now. Like, I get how you want to keep your signal chain clear if you’re trying to get the drum sound of [D’Angelo’s 2000 album] Voodoo, or these types of things. But for loads of what I do, all of these audio rules that we were taught do not apply. Because if the first thing you’re sampling is a YouTube video or something you recorded from your iPhone, then forget everything else. And if you can use the plug‑ins to take the harshness out of this or that low‑grade thing, then do.

“But, I mean, Skrillex, who is a friend who I’ve worked with a bunch and who to me is a genius and one of the greatest living sound designers... he is the ultimate practitioner of this. I mean, this guy works through anything. There’s absolute recklessness, as there should be.”

Looking to the future, Fred Gibson has many projects on the go, including a new collaborative album with Eno and a second, upcoming Fred again.. album — a taster of which arrived in August with the Baxter Dury‑featuring track, ‘Baxter (These Are My Friends)’. Additionally, he’s doing more of his live Fred again… performances, in which Gibson combines technology with live vocal and upright piano, and appearances from his various sampled collaborators on screen.

“I want to make a lot of music now,” he stresses. “I’ve spent a long time, three years or so, really honing what I wanted to do. And I’m still totally working that out, of course, and I will be for years. But I’ve reached a point where I’m now like, ‘OK, I understand enough that I can now start showing my work and putting it out and going, going, going.’ So now it’s like, it’s ‘go’ time.

“I feel motivated by the moment where you are just absolutely obsessed with the song you made five minutes ago,” he concludes. “It’s going around your head, and you’re going to sleep thinking, ‘Yes.’ That is all I’m ever chasing every day.”

Watch Fred again... in live performance: