Working on Muse’s hit album Drones gave Tommaso Colliva and Rich Costey unique insight into the extraordinary methods of hitmaking producer ‘Mutt’ Lange.
Few releases in recent years have been as hyped as Muse’s seventh studio album Drones. A concept album, apparently protesting about the immorality of drone warfare, it was presented by the band as a return to the guitar–bass–drums rock trio format of their early days. To get the best out of their power–trio approach, the band had enlisted producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, who has achieved living legend status through his work on classic albums by Def Leppard, AC/DC, Foreigner, Bryan Adams, Shania Twain and more.
Not only does Lange never give interviews, but such is his love of privacy that there are very photos of him in the public domain. Whether his involvement will elevate Drones to all–time classic album status remains to be seen, but it gave the band their fifth UK number one and first US chart–topper. Although the guitars are more prominent than on previous albums, Drones still has plenty of keyboards and classical influences, and sounds very much like, well, Muse, not least because the band were assisted in the recording and mixing by two long–standing collaborators: engineer Tommaso Colliva, who has been the trio’s right–hand man for the last 10 years, and engineer, mixer and producer Rich Costey, who played a central role in the making of the band’s best–selling albums Absolution (2003) and Black Holes And Revelations (2005), and also mixed three songs on 2012’s The 2nd Law.
Tommaso Colliva cut his engineering teeth at Officine Meccaniche, one of Italy’s most prominent recording studios. Starting as an assistant in 2002, he had graduated to Chief Engineer by the time he went freelance in 2006. During this time he worked with acts like Erykah Badu, Shania Twain, Manu Chao and Muse. In fact, his very first session as an assistant involved assisting Mutt Lange recording guitars for Twain’s 2002 album Up!. Colliva first met Muse and Costey in 2005, when they visited the studio to record overdubs for Black Holes And Revelations.
It was a session that changed Colliva’s life. Since going freelance, the Italian has spent a lot of his time with Muse, initially as the band’s chief equipment tech. This culminated in him setting up the band’s top–of–the–range studio near Lake Como, featuring an SSL 4048 G+ desk and tons of outboard, where most of The Resistance was recorded. Colliva is now the band’s main tracking engineer and sometimes mixes their work too. When not working with Muse, Colliva is often active with Afterhours, one of Italy’s foremost rock acts, and his other credits include Mark Lanegan, Twilight Singers, Franz Ferdinand and a whole swathe of Italian acts.
Colliva moved to the UK two years ago, where he has his own tracking and mixing facility, called Toomi Labs, at the Palm Recordings facility in North London. From there, he recalls the beginnings of Drones: “In addition to engineering their studio sessions, my job with Muse also involves designing and building all their studios and setups. Every time Matt moves house, I am called in to design a new writing room for him. I set it up so he can work by himself when he wants. We don’t use the studio in Italy any more, and Matt currently has mirrored writing setups in London and in LA, with a Pro Tools HD rig, a selection of mics and mic pres, like Neve 1073s, some outboard, like 1176s, PMC and KRK monitors, a Dangerous monitor controller, Kawai MP8 keyboard, Aviom headphone system and so on. The other band members have similar rigs.
“During the writing and pre–production phase they tend to be mainly computer–based, so Matt uses soft synths, and [Modartt] Pianoteq for the piano sounds, because it is very tweakable, and for his guitar sound he uses a Kemper Profiler amp, which they also use live. I do the profiling for them, and it means that they have the same sounds that we achieve in the studio at home, and live. For example, I have created profiles for all Matt’s Vox, Marshall, Diezel and Fender amps. During writing and pre-production Matt’s focus is more on the musical content than the actual sound, and he can easily sketch things out using these sounds. He plugs his guitar into the Kemper and that into Pro Tools, and that’s it. He may be writing for a month, and then I’ll come in and do a general clean–up of his sessions, some fixing, some sound programming of synths and beats, and perhaps some rough mixes of his ideas.”
Back To Basics
Muse appear to have fallen into a pattern of releasing an album every three years, and in the summer of 2014, the idea of starting work on a new long player began to take shape. Bellamy had written a collection of songs and, says Colliva, “the direction of going back to rock had been floating around for a bit. In pushing things on the electronic front more on the previous albums, the songs had become more and more difficult to play live, and I think the guys liked the idea of doing something more stripped–down that was easier to play live. I guess that this also is where the idea of contacting Mutt came up, because he has experience of producing rock albums that appeal to large audiences, for example AC/DC’s Back In Black.
“I wasn’t party to any of these discussions or considerations, but I know that the band went over to Switzerland to meet Mutt, and that they did some pre–production by remote, with Matt and Mutt sending songs back and forth. The decision was then taken to record the album at The Warehouse Studios in Vancouver. Mutt is familiar with it because of his work with Bryan Adams [the studio’s owner], and with [bassist] Chris [Wolstenholme] living in London and [drummer] Dominic [Howard] and Matt in LA, it was a good halfway meeting point. Also, the desk in The Warehouse Studio 1 is the same as in AIR Lyndhurst Studio 1 — two of only three Neve Montserrat desks ever built, and arguably the best–sounding consoles ever.”
Are You Really Hearing This?
Muse posted an Instagram message after the first session in Vancouver, on October 19th, saying “End of first session. It’s been emotional.” According to Colliva, this was related to many things, including the presence of Mutt Lange, but also because the session was “very intense and busy, with a sense of getting back to the studio, and to playing in a trio format. We set them up in the main live room as a trio, without screens or booths, facing each other in a kind of triangular shape that mimics how they set up on stage. Dom was on a drum riser, which was made of detachable pieces, to avoid resonances between the different parts of the kit. This was Mutt’s idea. They were listening to in–ear headphones, just like they do live, and we used The Warehouse’s excellent 16–channel monitor mixers for that.
“With previous Muse albums we have always begun tracking with the three of them in one room, but that was more a matter of laying down guide tracks, and after that there would be a long process of replacing and overdubbing. With this album, the writing was more trio–based, and also the band was very well–prepared. When they arrived in Vancouver they had a good idea of what they were going to do. This included input from Mutt that had happened during conversations before the sessions started. As a result, the live takes they did in Vancouver gave us a really good idea of how the final songs would sound. There were no major missing parts that needed to be filled in later.
“Basically, the routine for the first two weeks was that we’d set up everything in the morning, the band arrived for lunch, they discussed the approach for the song we were to work on with Mutt, and then we’d do takes until dinner. After dinner the band left and Mutt and I would stay behind to do comps. We checked these comps again in the morning, though Mutt usually does not go back very much on them. He has a surreal concentration level and an amazing ability to recall every aspect of each take. This allows him to nail comps as they are done. Once a comp is complete, he’ll listen to it once, and will tend to say, ‘That’s it.’ Mutt has the best ears imaginable. I sometimes would think, ‘Are you really hearing this?’ And it turned out he was.”
During the first two weeks of sessions with the band playing as a trio, says Colliva, “The band was in the room, and Mutt, myself and additional engineer Adam Greenholtz in the control room. At the start of the session Mutt would go into the live room with the guys to check everything was set up OK and make sure all parts were there, and then he’d come back into the control room and we’d hit Record. We planned to only keep the drums and replace everything else, but in many cases Mutt would say, ‘We have the bass.’ We were like, ‘Wow, do we?’ We also kept some of the original guitars, but in general we wanted to work in more detail on the actual guitar sounds. But a song like ‘Psycho’ still has the original live drums, bass and guitars.”
We Have The Bass
“Dom is really good at getting great drum sounds, tuning, changing heads, experimenting with cymbals and so on,” says Colliva. “He knows what he wants. We recorded him with a Shure Beta 91 on the inside of the kick drum — Dom loves that mic because of its clicky feel, and also uses it live — and we had a [Neumann] FET47 on the outside kick drum, which was placed kind of exactly in the middle of the hole in the resonance skin, and because you get that blast, we had to put a pop filter on it. We had the Sony C48 on the kick resonant head as well.
“For the snare top we had a Sony C47, which is an amazing microphone, and snare bottom was an AKG C414. There was a Neumann KM84 on the hi–hat, Telefunken 250s for overheads, and another KM84 on the ride cymbal. Toms were recorded with Sennheiser MD421s on the top and Neumann U87s on the resonant head. We had a few mono room mics, like the Neumann U47, an amazing RCA 44, and a couple of PZMs that we moved around, and then we had some stereo room mics, like the DPA 4006s and Coles 4038s, and some AKG C460s up in the balcony. So we had close mics, medium–distance room mics, and far–away room mics, which could be blended according to the sound that we wanted for each song. We were going for the final drum sound, committing to things, but we also did not want to tie our hands too much.
“Most of the microphones went through the Neve desk, and we also had some EQs and compressors in the chain. For example, I had some Pultec EQs on the kick and the snare, a GML 8200 EQ on the overheads, and we also used compressors and the [SPL] Transient Designer on the room mics. On some songs the room microphones would be quite compressed, usually using an Audio & Design Compex F760X RS. Everything was outboard; we did not use plug–ins during tracking.
“Our bass setup was song–specific, but our usual arrangement would have been one clean amp, usually an Ampeg SVT–VR, that is going all the time, and that provides the bottom end and the warmth. In addition we always have two other amps for distortion, usually Marshall Dynamics, which are high headroom, solid–state amps that react well to pedals. The distortion was mainly coming from pedals, with types which blend well and complement each other, one being more of a [EHX] Big Muff distortion and the other more modern, using the Human Gear Animato pedal, or a ZVex pedal. We use quite a few ZVex pedals, like the Mastotron and the Woolly Mammoth, because they have really crazy sounds, and while some of them are not controllable enough for a live scenario, they are really useful in the studio if you want very extreme sounds.
“The mics on the bass cabs were a Neumann FET 47 with a [Shure] SM57, Beyerdynamic M88 or Electro–Voice RE20 on the clean amp, and the same on the distorted amps, but we also tried the Shure SM57 or Sennheiser 421 on the latter. We had the bass cabs in the basement, which meant quite a long cable run, and for this reason we also had the mic pres in the basement, which usually were Neve 1081s, going into an [Teletronix] LA2A or [Empirical Labs] Distressor for compression, and then into insert returns on the desk, where we could apply some final level and EQ while bypassing the line amp on the desk. We also took a DI from the bass guitar, which allowed us to re–amp things later on if needed, and a distorted DI, taken post–pedal, and I sometimes had an LA3A or a Distressor on the DI.
“We had a fourth bass amp on some songs on this album, for a completely different kind of distortion, or perhaps for a pitching or a whammy pedal or an octave pedal effect. Everything was managed with the Little Labs PCP distro splitter. Despite this complicated setup, when people ask me what the secret is of Chris’s bass sound, I will always say that the first ingredient is Chris. It’s all about the way he plays bass!”
A second set of two week–long sessions at The Warehouse was for the most part dedicated to guitar overdubs, and there was, says Colliva, “another 10 days later on of doing vocals and synthesizers. For the guitar recordings we used Studio 3 upstairs, where Matt had his guitar cabinets during basic tracking, and recorded his overdubs. Studio 3 also gave us an additional control room where Matt could work when we were comping, editing or overdubbing downstairs. During tracking we had an amp setup consisting of hand–wired Marshall 1959, Diezel VH4, and vintage 1960s JMI Vox amps, recorded with a standard Shure SM57 and Sennheiser MD421 pair, and just a mic pre and some desk EQ, keeping things quite simple. We also had two DIs, straight from the guitar and post–pedals.”
Muse’s and Colliva’s approach to gear and recording seems directly inspired by the over–the–top excesses of the music itself, and recording the guitars was no different. “While overdubbing, the guitar array was much more involved,” says Colliva, with untypical understatement. “During our time recording The Resistance in the studio near Lake Como, we took as much time as we wanted to do amp, cabinet and microphone/signal chain shoot–outs, and the knowledge we gained from that is still an essential part of our approach. But even today I still do an extensive shootout of amplifiers and microphones before each session, and try to find the best combination possible, moving cabs and mics around, making sure things are in phase, and so on. Sometimes Matt and I do this together, but often I do it by myself, and providing Matt with starting points.
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“For the final guitar sounds we had a very extensive setup in the main live room. We used several Mills Acoustic Afterburner 4x12 cabs, and I put a huge amount of mics on them, and on other cabs, and start swapping heads to see how they react on the different mics, and we’d pick the head, cab and mic combinations we liked the best. I’m very scientific about this, making sure I replicate the sound of two of the elements exactly, so I can hear the difference the third variable makes. We ended up with two Mills cabs, one with a modified Ampeg V4, which originally was a bass amp and has a very deep sound, or with the modified Marshall 1959 head, or sometimes a Marshall Plexi amp from the studio. Another Mills cab was fed from the Diezel VH4, which we mostly use for clean sounds or highly distorted sounds. The Diezel is not the best amp for saturated mid–crunch sounds, but it’s very good for extremes. We also used the JMI Vox amp, and we had Fender combo–style amps, like the Super Reverb, plus a Watkins amp and a Selmer amp if we wanted to be a bit more experimental. We have not used many Fender amps in the past with Muse, so this was new.
“We did extensive amp research for the guitar sound for ‘The Globalist Part 1’. Matt had a very precise sound in mind, which was retro, warm and intimate. I took the DI from live tracking of the song to try out a collection of amps I rented, particularly many late-’50s Fender amps — Tremolux, Deluxe, tweeds, etc — and did a massive shootout to get the right sound. We ended up using a Deluxe and a Tremolux in combination, one with and one without tremolo.
“Pedal–wise there was a lot going on, but there are a few pedals that get used a lot, like the ZVex Fuzz Factory, the ZVex Super Hard On, which gives a nice clean boost so it distorts the amplifier, the Super Duper, and the Machsonic Thrust Drive pedal, which is made by someone in Turkey, and which we used with the Ampeg head for a very scooped–out fuzz sound, the JHS Colour Box, which mimics the sound of the Neve 1073, and a Roland SDD 3000 pedal.
“The mics we used for the final takes were the Shure SM7 and Sony C37 on the 1960s Vox, Sennheiser 421 and Royer 121 on the Fender Super Reverb, Sennheiser 421 and Josephson e22s on the modded Marshall 1959HW or Ampeg V4 with Mills cab, and Neumann FET47 and SM57 on the Diezel VH4 with Mills cab. All the amps were separated by big, foam baffles, and connected to our Radial JD7 Injector guitar signal splitter, which was in the middle of the room, and allowed us to quickly try things out. Before each session, Matt and I would go over all the amps, cabs and pedals, and Mutt would also get involved, saying what he liked and didn’t like, and making suggestions. Once we agreed on a final sound, we started recording. Matt would then have been in one of the glass booths in the live room, Mutt in the control room, and I’d have been in the live room next to the JD7, switching things over, and switching pedals on and off, based on my feelings and directions from Mutt and Matt.”
Moving on to the third and final set of sessions in Vancouver, late 2014, Colliva explained that to record Bellamy’s vocals, he “tends to rely on the Neumann U67, which Matt owns, and the AEA R44, which sounds amazing and which is really good for more intimate things. Matt always tracks the vocals by himself. I set things up for him, and the mic pre we use is always a Neve 1073, usually with an 1176 compressor. I dial in some settings and he may nudge things up or down, depending on the kind of vocals he’s tracking. We also very occasionally used a Mercury M76 tube mic pre, and on a few songs Matt wanted to hold the mic in his hand, but we didn’t like the sound of a dynamic mic too much, so we ended up using a FET47 which I took out of the mic mount and wrapped in foam. I also found a clip–on pop filter that can be attached to the mic itself, and that worked well. Matt also comps his vocals himself, so Mutt and I received a finished comp, with us being able to access all the [Pro Tools] Playlists in case we wanted to change something.
“There are fewer keyboards on Drones than on previous albums, and the ones we did use are the usual suspects, like the Buchla 200e, ARP 2600, Korg MS20, Prophet 5 and Moog Voyager. Alessandro Cortini, who plays with Nine Inch Nails, brought in some experimental synths, like the modular Make Noise. We tend to record the hardware synths DI. The synths on the album are mostly hardware, though we did keep some of the soft synths from pre–production, during which Matt likes to use Native Instrument’s Massive, Rob Papen’s Predator and Air Music’s Vacuum Pro. We also tracked live strings, at Officine Meccaniche in Milan, in December. By this time Mutt was back in Switzerland and the Muse guys were all in London, so it was easy for everyone to get to Italy.”
Unusually, Colliva did not do any rough mixes during the recordings, because everyone involved would just take copies of the Pro Tools sessions home, and open them if they wanted to hear the songs or do work on them.
All the recordings for Drones were wrapped up by the end of 2014. Following this, says Colliva, “Mutt took the sessions back to his Switzerland studio, where he prepared them for the final mix with his assistant Olle ‘Sven’ Romo. He sent what he’d done back to us, and Matt and I tweaked the sessions further and delivered them to Rich Costey.”
One of the world’s foremost mixers and producers, Rich Costey works mainly in the heavy– and alt–rock genres, and has an enviable track record, containing names like Fiona Apple, Foo Fighters, My Chemical Romance, Arctic Monkeys, Rage Against The Machine, New Order, Franz Ferdinand, Vampire Weekend, Bruce Springsteen, Pink, Chvrches, Phantogram, Haim, Foster The People and, of course, Muse. Originally from Vermont, Costey attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, then moved to New York, where he worked with Philip Glass, and a few years later a move to Los Angeles saw him collaborating with Jon Brion and engineering and mixing Fiona Apple’s second album, When The Pawn (1999).
The sound of the Fiona Apple album prompted Rick Rubin to headhunt Costey, and he ended up working for a number of years as the great producer’s right–hand man. A few years later Costey moved back to New York, where he set up shop at Avatar Studios, and then in 2009 he returned to LA, and set up shop at El Dorado Studio, where he has been based since and where Drones was in part mixed. He remarks: “I split my time between mixing and producing. El Dorado is a pretty big facility, with a good live room as well, and a B room that I use for mix prep and programming. When I produce a big project, we’ll use every corner of the building.”
El Dorado sports an SSL K–series desk, which saw some action during the Drones mixes, but not as much as one would expect, given that Costey has always been known as a dedicated out–of–the–box mixer. Surprisingly, there’s recently been a dramatic change in the mixer’s working methods, following a test of the Shadow Hills Equinox 30–channel summing mixer.
“It sounded bizarrely good,” Costey recalls. “So good that I couldn’t quite believe it. To my ears it sounded very similar to the classic Neve 8058 desk. I mixed the Death Cab For Cutie album Kintsugi , which I also produced, both through the K and through the Equinox, and the latter was used, because it sounded better. My next project was Beneath The Skin , by Of Monsters And Men, again a record I also produced, and I also mixed that through the Equinox, setting up the top part of my Pro Tools sessions to mimic my SSL K console.”
Send In The Drones
Costey’s next project after the Of Monsters And Men album was mixing Drones, a process which lasted about four weeks — a week at El Dorado in late February, followed by two weeks at AIR Lyndhurst in London and another period at El Dorado — and was completed on April 1. “We decamped to AIR because Muse were doing a club tour of the UK [March 15th–23rd],” recalls Costey, “and they really wanted to be present for the mix. We were in AIR Studio 2, with its 80–channel SSL G+ desk, and the band also rented Studio 1, where they were rehearsing, so they had pretty much taken over half the building! It was a big operation. Because we were mostly mixing through my Equinox I took that with me, as well as quite a bit of my outboard, and in particular my Burl B80 Mothership, because I can’t stand the sound of other converters. It all fits in a couple of big flight cases. We had mixed the songs ‘Mercy’, ‘Revolt’ and ‘Psycho’ during the first week at El Dorado, and given ‘Dead Inside’ a first run. Because the latter song was the first single, it was the first song I did at AIR.”
From a musical perspective, notes Costey, ‘Dead Inside’ is “a pretty atypical Muse song, even in the context of this album, because it’s mostly stripped down to drums, bass and vocals.” Despite these anomalies, the Pro Tools mix session for the song provides an excellent insight into the mixer’s current Equinox–based way of working. At the top of the 140–odd track session are 34 aux tracks, through which all the audio elements of the session are played, followed by 10 effects tracks with outboard on the insert, and then by 10 VCA tracks. Below the VCA track is a mixdown track, and then various sample tracks, with Native Instruments’ Battery and XLN Audio’s Addictive Drums. The actual audio content does not start until track 61.
Rich Costey: “This song has a little bit of a 1980s feel to it, with a wink to Depeche Mode in the drums, and a 1980s vocal treatment. This was an aesthetic that we wanted to enhance in the mix. This meant finding some treatments for the background vocals that start the song that are explosive and detailed and big, but not in a retro, clean 1970s way, but colder and more effect–laden. We also wanted the beat to sound quite cold, with a contemporary bottom end, and there’s a lot of distortion in the track, particularly from Chris’s huge bass rig. There were some songs on the album that needed me to do a little bit of work to knock them into shape, but this was a relatively straight mix, in terms of just adding some processing and taking it up a level from the rough mix, which was done by Mutt.
“Usually the first thing I do when I begin a mix is quickly get a rough mix together, and compare it against the existing rough mix that everybody has been listening to. I make sure that all the elements are there, and that I have replicated or maintained any effects that the client may have spent time creating, and that they care about. Once that’s in place I will start diving into the actual tracks, to see what can be improved. I’ll work on the drums, and maybe check the guitars against the drums; I’ll work on the bass on their own, then check drums and bass. It depends on the music. If the music is really complex I will bring up the vocals later, because managing a high track count of perhaps 120 tracks of instrumental music is a fair bit of work, and it’s hard to concentrate on vocals while I’m still working on getting the backing tracks to sound good.”
- Drums: Neve 33609, Chandler Curve Bender, Urei 1176, Empirical Labs Distressor, SSL desk EQ and compression, Mercury EQ, Slate VMR, UA Neve 1073, SSL Channel & AMS RMX16, SoundToys Filter Freak.
“All the drums, tracks 1–13, went through a drum parallel, with an outboard Neve 33609 outboard compressor, which in turn went through a Curve Bender EQ. The kick and the snare would have had additional outboard 1176 or Distressor parallel compression. These two parallels would have gone out of the Burl D–A converters, through the outboard and then to the Equinox. I also had some drums laid out over the SSL desk at AIR, for desk compression and EQ. I used the LA3A on the snare on one song, though not this one. Other outboard I used were my Mercury EQs on the toms.
“The plug–ins on the audio tracks lower down the session are in part from Mutt and Tommaso, and I added my own. The plug–ins on the aux channels are all mine, of course. In some comment boxes you see ‘plugs from psycho’, which is a reference to plug–ins I imported from the ‘Psycho’ session, which I had mixed the previous week. It’s fairly typical to import plug–ins from an earlier session with the same artist, and then see which are relevant to the song.
“The 808 would have been in the session, and the greyed–out plug–ins probably came from the ‘Psycho’ session, which as you can see I turned off. The VMR is the Virtual Mix Rack plug–in, and I have it on the 808 and the kick sample. One of my main plug–ins is the UAD 1073, which has become indispensable. It’s the first plug–in I ever heard that made me think that I could actually get away with not using a real 1073. They have the same knock and ring! It’s on the stereo snare track and kick here. I also have the UAD SSL Channel on the kick, the UAD AMS RMX16 on the toms. In general I am a heavy UAD user. I think their plug–ins are the best for outboard emulations, though the Slate stuff is also very good. There’s a SoundToys Filter Freak on the room sound which I automated, and the overheads in track 13 were sent to the SSL desk for some EQ on the top end, because it still offers something that the emulation doesn’t.”
- Music: Neve 1073, Empirical Labs Distressor, McDSP FilterBank, Standard Audio Stretch, Waves C4, UA dbx 160, Fairchild 670, Maag EQ3, Valhalla Room, SoundToys Devil–Loc, Hughes SRS.
“There’s an insert on the main bass track, 15, which has an outboard 1073 and a pair of Distressors on it. ‘E606’ is the FilterBank, taking out some extreme low. The send to 32 would have gone to an outboard Standard Audio Stretch compressor. We have four of them, and I use it for the subharmonic thing it does on the bass, and to add some top end on the vocals. There’s a sub–bass track with a C4 compressor, and the Prophet track has a synth part that doubles the bass track. The guitar track, 19, has some UAD dbx 160, because I wanted to tighten it up a bit, and the guitar solo has the Fairchild 670 outboard on the insert. 31 and 32 are piano tracks, on which I had the Maag EQ3, UAD dbx 160 and Valhalla Room. 33 are synth stabs which I dirtied up a bit with the Devil–Loc, and Nexus is a soft synth. The 5–6 send that’s on all three aux keyboard tracks goes to the Hughes SRS outboard ‘sound retrieval system’.”
- Vocals: UA SSL Channel, AMS DMX, EMT 250, Studer A800 & Harrison EQ, SoundToys Decapitator & Filter Freak, dbx 902, Avalon EQ, Urei 1176, Teletronix LA2A, Standard Audio Stretch, Neve 33609, NTI EQ, Waves H–Comp, Vengeance VMS Multiband.
“The lead vocal aux, 21, has two plug–in de–essers, one for the top end and one to occasionally grab some harshness in the upper mid–range, plus a UAD SSL Channel and a Decapitator. There’s also a hardware insert going to an outboard chain of dbx 902, Avalon EQ, 1176 and LA2A. Sometimes you want to hear one compressor hitting harder than the other. It’s all a matter of shaping the sound. The chain goes straight into the Equinox. There’s another send to a Stretch unit, and to an aux track with a UAD AMS DMX plug–in for a bit of light chorusing. Buses 7–8 go to an outboard 33609 with an NTI EQ for that final bit of glue. The backing vocals also went through the 33609. There’s a UAD EMT 250 for vocal reverb, and a vocal echo from the Echoboy, on which I had a de–esser, and a Phil Collins–like short room–like effect on which I also had the Filter Freak. The Vocoder track is the vocal break, where Matt sings in a robot voice, and it has the Waves H–Comp compressor. The backing vocals are treated with the VMS Multiband, which is made by Vengeance, and adds a peculiar, very slick sound. It’s a trick I picked up from Greg Kurstin. The Studer A800 and Harrison 32 plug–ins on the backing vocals are again made by UAD. The Harrison is a nice gentle channel strip plug–in that you can crank up dramatically, and it’ll still sound good.”
The Final Touches
“I printed the final mix via the Shadow Hills Mastering compressor, and Millennia and GML EQ and, as I always do, back into the session in the original session resolution, in this case 88.2/24, to a separate Pro Tools rig at 96/32, and a Soundblade rig at 44.1/16. The latter supplies the reference the band listens to. But even after my mix of the song was approved, I still felt that I could improve it. So during a weekend, without the band’s knowledge, I went to Studio 1, and laid the stem session of the mix out over the custom AIR Neve board, which is a ridiculous–sounding console, easily the best–sounding I have ever heard. If I was in London, I’d be in that room every day until I’m dead. Or dead broke! I did some board EQ on the mix stems, just goofing around, and sure enough, the mix started to come more to life. I added additional outboard 1176 to the vocal, and the studio also has a Smart C2 compressor so I put that on the mix bus, as well as a GML EQ, and printed the mix.
“On Monday morning Bob Ludwig mastered it for me, and when the band came back to AIR later that day I played it for them, and everyone agreed that it sounded better, so that was the one we ended up using. I thought it was a huge improvement. Sometimes when you tweak stems you’re able to work on a macro level that allows you to achieve things that are harder to do when you’re knee–deep in 100 tracks. It’s almost like pre–mastering, and the Neve desk made everything fit together in the most beautiful way possible. It brings a kind of firmness and gives a cinematic scope to anything you put into it. It took the track from sounding good to sounding like a movie.”
It marked the end of an epic mix of a song for an epic album, on an epic topic.
The Devil In The Details
During the recording process for Drones, Mutt Lange had repeatedly uttered a phrase that had puzzled everyone present: “The record begins after the recordings are finished”. Nobody quite knew what this meant, but when Matt Bellamy, Tommaso Colliva and Rich Costey received the first Pro Tools session back from Lange and Olle Romo, they began to understand. The two had taken 20 days to edit the first song, and had in the process applied a degree of editing and automation detail that none of the others had ever witnessed, in many cases leaving audio tracks literally black with edits.
Rich Costey was still coming to terms with his move to working largely ‘in the box’ when, in late February 2015, he received the first Mutt Lange–treated Muse session to mix. Naturally curious about working on a Lange–produced project for the first time in his career, and aware that, as he says, “with Mutt you expect the unexpected,” Costey nevertheless felt his jaw drop when the first Muse mix sessions came in.
“When Mutt took the sessions to Switzerland, no–one knew what to expect. For all we knew, he could have been doing all kinds of crazy overdubs, but when we got the sessions back, they basically were highly refined, edited versions of the performances that were there. What was staggering, to everyone, was the degree and detail of his editing. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. I had met him in Vancouver during the tracking for the album, and he’s a really sweet guy, a bit of a guru character — I had not expected someone who has done Def Leppard and AC/DC to be, perhaps not quite a hippy, but certainly a deep–thinking Buddha–like person.
“We didn’t go into detail about his working methods, but looking at the sessions, it seemed like he’s not a fan of using compression to restrain tones. Instead what he had done was apply volume automation and automated reductive EQ on almost everything — and I mean on every single snare hit, piano chord and bass note, and so on. You could see the EQ work, just for an instant, on every snare hit, at 1kHz or sometimes 700Hz, the moment the stick hit, so that the decay would sound as fat as possible. He also shifted things in time. And everything was clearly done by ear and by hand! There was no quantising. The depth he went into with the bass guitar was incredible. The first mix we did was ‘Mercy’, and Mutt had not only EQ–automated every eighth note, but had also volume–automated in between each eighth note to remove the sound of the fingers on the strings.
“As a mixer I’ve seen many people’s sessions, but I’d never seen anything like it. His approach in automating EQ for guitar solos was particularly inspired. Any lesser person would have gotten lost halfway through what he was doing. He appears to have an insane ability to not get lost in editing, beyond anything I’ve ever witnessed. I have spoken with Mike Shipley [an engineer who worked extensively with Lange] in the past, and he said that Mutt was already doing this in the days of analogue tape, for example EQ’ing each word on the console. So it’s obviously something he’s brought with him from the analogue world. You look at it, and think ‘Great techniques, let me try them.’ But once again, I don’t know anybody who could do that and still be able to see the big picture.”
Tommaso Colliva agrees: “During editing and comping, Mutt would go into note–by–note detail on a level that was incredible to me. It was almost superhuman. He checked everything. But it was always from a musical perspective. He’d say things like, ‘This take feels more natural,’ or ‘That take is uplifting in the right way.’ Those kinds of comments. You can tell he’s been doing this for a long time, because while everyone today lines things up to a grid, it’s not the way he works. He was like, ‘Let’s listen to this.’ He’ll close his eyes, and then say, ‘This bar is too long,’ or ‘That bar is rushed.’ And then we did our best to solve that. He does not touch Pro Tools at all. While he does occasionally work on the desk, I think in general he wants to detach himself from the technical side and rely purely on his ears.”
Some things, however, are not quite what they seem, and while Lange’s extreme approach to editing had all the hallmarks of genius, mad or not, it did not always work for the band and Costey, so in a few cases they decided to remove some of the most extreme editing. In addition, the time–frame in which the album needed to be finished did not allow for 20–day editing jobs per song. According to Costey, Lange was “really involved with sending notes back and forth” during the beginning of the mix process, but as things and time progressed, the band and Costey increasingly took the reins and finished the project more or less between them, building on what had been achieved by the band and Lange.
Since acquiring his Shadow Hills Equinox summing mixer, Rich Costey has switched to working mainly ‘in the box’, but has his Pro Tools sessions configured to retain elements of his previous SSL desk–centred working method. “It took a few months to develop this and dial it in, but we now have this Pro Tools layout as a template. I have an assistant whose job it is to load the sessions we get into the template. Part of his job also is to, where necessary, map out all drums for later sample triggering with the Massey DRT plug–in and then go through by hand to make sure everything is phase and sample–accurate. All the aux sessions at the top are similar to the way I used to lay out things on the SSL, and the outputs of the aux music tracks go to the Equinox. The aux effect tracks obviously are similar to the effect tracks I had on the desk, and the VCA tracks mimic the VCA master channels in the middle of the SSL desk. There’s no audio going through the VCAs, but they control the levels of drums, bass, guitar, keyboard, vocals, backing vocals and effects. Battery and Addictive are in the sessions by default, but I don’t use them every time.
“In addition to plug–ins on the tracks and aux tracks in Pro Tools, I am still using a considerable amount of outboard, either on the inserts of Pro Tools or placed between the outputs from Pro Tools and the Equinox, which means I am cutting out a huge amount of circuitry compared to when I was using a desk. If I’m using an outboard EQ I’m more likely to have it between the Burl D–A and the Equinox, but I also used a lot of outboard as parallels, on the Pro Tools insert, but then of course you need to do delay compensation in Pro Tools. When I started mixing Drones, I mixed through my SSL K and through the Equinox, because the band was really dubious about using the Equinox. I printed them both, and Mutt preferred the Equinox. The band had a slightly split decision because the Equinox sounds warmer, and while Dom and Chris liked this, Matt tends to like his records brighter, but in the end he had no preference.”
What Rich Costey doesn’t do is use a fader–based control surface to replicate the tactile feel of his SSL. “I do all this with mouse and keyboard now. I’ve never liked the human interface with the computer, but I find that I’ve quite naturally moved into working with mouse and keyboard, and I’ve stopped thinking about it. I miss the fun of riding a fader, but I am so busy listening that I don’t really care what I do with my hands. Because I am mainly looking at the aux tracks at the top of the session, I am not looking at waveforms either, so I can focus on what I am hearing. When you’re listening and not looking you tend to use less plug–ins. I learnt this from Rick Rubin, who listens to music like a 10–year old, completely intuitively, and I also do my best to just listen with my gut. By the way, I like to mix in the DAW that the track was recorded in, because all DAWs sound distinctly different, with Cubase for a long time sounding the best. Some mixers prefer to have the artist bounce all the tracks out for use in whichever DAW the mixer prefers. I don’t do that. Bouncing out of Logic, for example, takes a toll on the sound, so in that case I’d prefer to leave it in Logic even though it means more hassle on my end. Pro Tools really only began to sound good with version 11.”