You are here

Inside Track: Sam Smith's In The Lonely Hour

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Steve Fitzmaurice
Published September 2014
By Paul Tingen

When an unknown act such as Sam Smith hits the big time, there's often an experienced producer behind the scenes — like Steve Fitzmaurice...

"I've been lucky enough to work with some of the world's greatest singers, like Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, Cher and Seal,” says Steve Fitzmaurice, "and Sam is easily in the same league. He is the best singer I have worked with since I worked those legends. He sings completely effortlessly and natural. The first time I recorded him, laying down his vocals on 'Money On My Mind', it was immediately obvious what an amazing talent he is. So when we made his album, the vocals were the key. His vocals had to be at the centre, and we stripped away everything that got in the way.”

The album Fitzmaurice is talking about is Sam Smith's debut, In The Lonely Hour, released in May. The producer, mixer and engineer had a hand in the making of eight of the album's 10 tracks, and his emphasis on Smith's voice, as well as on economy of means in the arrangements, played an important role in the album's astonishing success.

Photo: Steve FitzmauriceSmith first caught the world's attention at the end of 2012 as the featured singer on Disclosure's hit song 'Latch', and a few months later when he fulfilled the same role on Naughty Boy's international mega-hit 'La La La'. While it was clear that someone with a great voice had arrived on the scene, there were no inklings that this would instantly lead to a successful international solo career. Yet in the first half of 2014 Smith scored two big solo hits, 'Money On My Mind' and 'Stay With Me', while In The Lonely Hour charted high in many different countries around the world. The two songs and the album all topped the UK charts, while 'Stay With Me' was number five on the Billboard singles chart in the US at the time of writing.

The man who played an important role in Smith's solo success is a dyed-in-the-wool studio professional, with an impressive pedigree going back to the late 1980s. Originally from Ireland, Fitzmaurice came up under Trevor Horn and Julian Mendelsohn. He has been nominated for five Grammy Awards, and received two, and boasts credits that include the Pet Shop Boys, Marc Almond, Tom Jones, Seal, Tina Turner, Cher, Ian Brown, U2, Depeche Mode, Craig David, Tears For Fears, Charlotte Church, Sting, Kate Nash, Olly Murs, Paloma Faith, Aloe Blacc and many more. Fitzmaurice notes that he does "a little bit of everything”, and his wide-ranging experience with a great variety of artists clearly was very useful in helping to steer Sam Smith's first album to great success. In this first-ever interview, Fitzmaurice gives a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of the making of a successful debut album, in the process unveiling many aspects of his idiosyncratic approach to music, production and engineering.

Staying Power

Fitzmaurice works from the main Neve room in Pierce Entertainment in West London, with most of his work focused on mixing. Jo Charrington, head of A&R at Capitol Records, and Nick Raphael, president of Capitol, are longstanding clients of the producer, and his first involvement with Sam Smith consisted of mixing and additional producing the demo of the song 'I've Told You Now', which was written by Smith with producer Francis White, better known as Eg White. White is one of several co-writers that Smith has worked with and whose songs ended up on In The Lonely Hour, others being co-writer and producer Ben Ash, also known as Two Inch Punch, and most of all Smith's regular cohort Jimmy Napes. In June 2013, not long after his work on 'I've Told You Now', Fitzmaurice received another call from Capitol...

"Nick was on the phone and told me that Sam and Jimmy and William Phillips, who goes under the artist name Tourist, had written this amazing song called 'Stay With Me', but that it only had a verse and a chorus and was just 1'50” long. He asked me if I could go to Jimmy's studio as a more senior influence and encourage them to write another section. So I went over the morning of Thursday, June 20th, and they tried a few ideas and came up with the organ riff in the middle eight, and Sam tracked some vocals over that as well. That became the new structure of the song. The next morning I was packing to go to India on the Saturday, where I was set to record and mix the Indian music television series Coke Studio, when Jo called me saying that she really liked the middle eight, but could I do a quick rough mix. She was planning to go to New York the following week to meet with publishers and other producers, and she wanted a good demo recording of the song. So I mixed the demo version of 'Stay With Me' that afternoon, really quickly.

"In the months after that various co-writers, producers and songwriters worked with Sam. But Jimmy and Sam had written four or five of the key tracks for the first album, and everyone kept coming back to these songs and preferred their demos. Everybody also felt that 'Stay With Me' was a key track, and many alternate versions were done of it, but they kept coming back to that rough mix that I had done on Friday, June 21st. The only exception to everyone preferring the songs Sam and Jimmy had written right at the beginning was the song 'Money On My Mind', which Sam had written with Two Inch Punch. Nick decided that the

Pianist Rueben James (left) with Jodi Milliner (right) and Jimmy Napes (standing) at the band sessions in RAK Studio 1. latter song would be the first single, as it's more uptempo and could work as a kind of bridge between the 'La La La' track and Sam's new material.

"By November they were still unclear on how to finish the record. Then the label had the idea of putting Sam and Jimmy in a room with a band and a producer. So I was asked to come in, once again as the senior party, and we went into RAK Studios in London for a week. Jimmy and I decided to bring in the piano player and guitar player from Sam's live band, Reuben James and Ben Thomas respectively, and a drummer, Earl Harvin, who is a friend of mine and who has played with loads of people including Seal, Air and Richard Thompson, and finally a friend of Jimmy's, Jodi Milliner, played bass. We recorded seven songs in five days at RAK, most of them more or less finished, including yet another stab at recording 'Stay With Me'.”

Short & Sweet

Fitzmaurice also engineered the proceedings at RAK, with help from his assistant, Darren Heelis, and co-produced them with Napes. "The first day was different,” elaborated the Irishman, "because we were setting up. But on the other days we'd listen to the song in the morning with the band, we'd talk about how we'd approach the song. After this we would play it through a few times without Sam, making sure everyone was happy with the headphone mix, and with me changing the drum sound, or trying out different bass sounds, depending on the song. Sam would arrive at 1pm, we'd all have lunch and we'd then play the song through three or four times with him singing in the same room as the piano player, in a booth behind screens. And that would be it. That would be the song.

All Sam Smith's vocals were tracked through a modified Neumann U67. Also visible here is a Placid Audio Copperphone mic."The band would leave at 4 or 5pm and Jimmy and I would do a quick comp of the different takes and/or of Sam's vocals — we had enough isolation on them to be able to move them separately from the band. By seven or eight we'd have the whole track done, and we'd play it for the guys the next day, and move on to the next song. A week after the RAK sessions we recorded some strings at Angel Studios in North London and Sam also added backing vocals on some of the songs. Other than that there were very few overdubs — the bulk of the songs we did were live recordings of Sam singing with the band at the same time. I also mixed all the tracks at my studio more or less straight away. This whole part of the record, from the moment we went into RAK to mastering, was done in about three weeks.”

Cross-pollination

The one exception to this straightforward old-style approach was 'Stay With Me'. "While we were at RAK we decided that we might as well have a go at recording 'Stay With Me' with the band. We knew that everyone loved the other version, so we recorded a new version at the same tempo, and we added some strings to that at Angel. But everyone once again still preferred the demo version! However, there were a few elements of the RAK version that Jimmy and I really liked: the bass playing was better, and we also liked Earl's drums, so wanted to use them. For some reason I had made stems of my rough mix on June 21st, and I had also made stems of my mix of the RAK version. The final version of 'Stay With Me', which I mixed on December 2nd, is a hybrid of the stems from the demo version and a few stems from the RAK version, plus some samples that I added. But about 90 percent of it is the demo version.

String sessions for the album took place at Angel Studios."The drums on the demo were played by Jimmy and recorded with just one overhead microphone, and he had quickly made a loop of a section of the drum recording he liked. The loop wasn't quite right, it wasn't tied to a grid, and so the timing was slightly off. The other instruments reacted to this, and altogether this created something magical that we couldn't get in any other way. Many people tried to put different drums on the track, and I even tried to correct the loop and fit it to a grid, and overdubbed drums to that. But when I listened to it a few days later, I immediately realised that it was no good and I took it all off again.

"Another element was the backing vocals, which were overly loud in my original mix, with Sam's lead vocals getting a little lost in them. I thought it sounded good like that, and because it was a rough mix, just left it. If I'd done a 'proper' mix I would have mixed the chorus backing vocals a bit quieter.”

Another crucial element of the demo was its simplicity: consisting of just the drum loop, a tambourine, bass, piano, organ and vocals, it gives enormous amounts of space to Smith's lead and backing vocals. Moreover, the song is only 2'52” in length. Both approaches directly informed the stripped-down arrangements of the album as a whole, and its unusually short length. The standard 10-track edition of In The Lonely Hour is just 32'47”, making it quite possibly the shortest hit album of the 21st Century.

"I like short albums!” comments Fitzmaurice. "I come from the vinyl days. With regards to the brief length of most of the songs, I have to give credit for that to Jimmy and Sam. It was the way the songs were written. As I mentioned, the original version of 'Stay With Me' was even shorter. We tried doubling a chorus in one or two songs, and then it was like, 'No, let's keep it short, so people will want to play it again.' We also tried to pad out the arrangements with a few additions, but they were all discarded. Somebody mentioned that if we wanted to get on certain radio stations in the US we'd need to have guitars on the record, so we added more guitars here and there, but it didn't work and they were ditched. As I said, we were clear that the vocal needed to take centre stage on the album.”

The Demo Mix

Earl Harvin's kick drum, double-miked with a Neumann FET47 (left) and Yamaha NS10 woofer.Fitzmaurice's eventual blend of demo and RAK recordings of 'Stay With Me' sounds open, effortless, natural and utterly simple. The process of getting this end result wasn't exactly simple, however, and required a considerable amount of technical skill and musical nous on Fitzmaurice's part. His original demo was mixed on Friday, June 21, 2013. The session is compact and transparent, with all tracks titled for instant understanding what's on them. There are 23 audio tracks in total, consisting of seven drum tracks, one "timed” bass track, a piano track, two organ tracks, a verse lead vocal track and a chorus lead vocal track, three chorus backing vocal tracks, and six 'ooh' backing vocal tracks. Below this are four aux effect tracks.

"The original session was a songwriting demo recorded at Jimmy's studio,” explains Fitzmaurice, "so I would have tidied it up, and I also added a number of drum samples, particularly bass drum samples. I did this on the other tracks as well, because my one fear about doing the album like this, very simply, with mostly just drums, bass and keyboards, was that the record would sound retro, and that was something that we did not want. Part of not going there was making the low end of the songs sound big and beefy, a little similar to hip-hop records, which sound great because there's not much going on, which means that there's a lot of space for the bass. So I added kick drum samples, and in some cases snare samples, to all the songs after the recordings. I also had already done this on my rough mix of 'Stay With Me' in June.”

  • Drums: SoundRadix Auto-Align, Softube Tonelux Tilt EQ, Massey CT4 & CT5, Audio Ease Altiverb.

"The first drum track is the 'fixed OH', which is the original drum track that Jimmy played. As I mentioned, he just picked one bar and looped it, and the loop is a bit warped, it has a kind of hiccup, and it also had a glitch. I fixed the glitch, but left the warped feel of the loop. Below that are two bass drum samples that I added: 'fitz BD1' and 'fitz BD2'. Because the drum loop had been recorded with just one overhead mic it didn't really have any kick drum in it, so I needed to add these bass drums to get some weight in the track. I made sure both samples were phase-aligned using the SoundRadix Auto-Align plug-in. The track below that is an ambient bass drum track, 'fitz AMB BD', which is a stereo sample with a roomy sound that comes in at the first chorus; 'fitz STATIC' is another bass drum that appears just in the middle eight, which you barely hear. Almost all of the rhythmic impulse in the track is provided by the kick drum, so I tried to create more dynamics and depth in the track by changing the sound of the kick drum in different sections. 'fitz CLANK' below that is a kind of snare sample that doubles Jimmy's snare, which was upside-down and had a kind of clanky sound. It has the Massey CT4 compressor on it. Below that is a live tambourine, on which I had a Tonelux Tilt EQ and Massey CT5 compressor and an Altiverb Spring reverb on send.”

  • Bass, piano & organ: Softube Tonelux Tilt EQ, Audio Ease Altiverb.

"'BASS timed' is Jimmy's original bass, played in one go, very quickly, and I lined it up because it wasn't 100 percent in time. You can see all the cuts I made in the regions. There's a piano that has a spring reverb on it, played by Tourist. He played it with a certain feel, because it was all done as they were writing the song, and it's the reason why the piano survives in the hybrid version. Then there are two organ tracks, 'hi' and 'low', and I was filtering a bit of low end and quite a bit of high end on the low organ track, using the Softube Tonelux Tilt EQ, because the organ was horribly noisy, with a lot of high. I was filtering it down to 5kHz. There also is an automatic pan on the low organ. When it is on its own it's panned slightly to the right, but when the high organ comes in as well it goes all the way to the right and the high organ is panned to the left. All keyboards have the same Altiverb spring reverb as the tambourine.”

  • Vocals: Manley Massive Passive, Retro 176, UA Dbx 160 & EMT 140, Waves De-esser, SoundToys Echo Boy, Demeter Real Spring Reverb, Brainworx BX_control v2.

"I separated the verse and the chorus vocals, and the former are coming up on channel 25 on the desk, and the latter on channel 26. I didn't make any recall sheets for the analogue part of the mix, and Darren had already left for India, so I'm not sure what I did in the analogue domain, but I would probably have EQ'd and compressed the verse and chorus vocals differently, using my Massive Passive EQ and Retro 176s. In the box I had Dbx 160 compression, a Waves De-esser, a UAD EMT 140 plate and an Echo Boy eighth-note delay on both lead vocal tracks. But I didn't actually use the de-esser as a de-esser. I have always hated de-essers, even when I had to use them. There's extensive volume automation on both lead vocal tracks, and while it's in part about turning certain words up or down, most of it is to turn down breaths and esses. I prefer to do manual volume rides in the box to get rid of them, and I instead use de-essers to get rid of harshness, kind of like an EQ. I will automate the threshold to start compressing around 2kHz, depending on the vocal, obviously. It may be a bit higher, perhaps up to 3kHz, but not any higher. This may make certain words quieter, so I then use the volume automation to turn these words up again.

A nice vocal chain: Sam Smith's lead and backing vocals were mixed through Steve Fitzmaurice's outboard gear, which includes (from top) Manley Massive Passive EQ, Chandler TG1 Limiter, Retro 176 compressor (x2), Avalon AD2044 compressor and Empirical Labs Distressor (x4). "The chorus backing vocals were bounced down from a total of 20 mono tracks of backing vocals, to three different harmonies, 'chBV1', 'chBV2' and 'chBV3'. I would have cleaned up all the separate files, making sure there were no glitches, breaths, noises and so on, and bounced them. There was panning automation, because the BVs are in mono for the first two choruses and panned in stereo for the final chorus, though the reverbs are always in stereo. All BVs have the UAD EMT 140 plate and an eighth-note Echo Boy delay, and where it says Real Spring it actually refers to a real, outboard reverb, the Demeter Real Spring Reverb.

"I used Echo Boy instead of my Roland Space Echo, which was being fixed at the time. Below the BVs are six 'oohs' tracks, which also were bounces of several tracks, and the 'oooh' tracks also have the EMT 140 plate and Echo Boy eighth-note delay, and one of them has the Brainworx BX_control V2 plug-in.

"It was quite a straightforward mix. Most of my sessions end up like this, and Darren and I always lay things out the same way. It means that you know where things are as you're scrolling up and down. I spread and balanced the entire session out over the console, and then printed a stereo mix. But luckily I printed stems as well. With a quick, rough mix like this I would not have bothered printing stems, but the label asked me to do some basic stems for use for live shows. This was lucky, because everyone ended up loving this mix, and I used the stems as the basis for the final hybrid version.”

  • Mix bus processing: Chandler Curvebender & Zener Limiter, Avalon AD2055, Manley Vari-Mu, Cranesong HEDD.

"I only have one Pro Tools system, so I print the final mix and the stems back into the session, creating playlists for the stems. I then create a new stem session and import all the playlists. The mix and the stems come back into the Pro Tools session via the stereo output of my Neve desk, and then through a stereo chain consisting of a Chandler Curve Bender EQ, an Avalon EQ, a Chandler Zener limiter and a Manley Vari-Mu compressor and finally the Cranesong HEDD AD converter. The stereo bus of the console is always patched into a couple of EQs and a couple of compressors, and what I use depends on what I think the song needs. When I am printing a mix or a stem track, I am monitoring through the print track, which is 'Monitor I/P', from which I'm listening post-everything. You can see that the monitor track has an output called 'Digi Ext 2' which digitally routes it back to the Cranesong HEDD, which

Steve Fitzmaurice's hardware mastering chain (from top): Crane Song HEDD A-D/D-A converter, Chandler Curvebender EQ & TG Limiter, and Manley Vari-Mu compressor.is also a D-A and patched into Ext 2 of the Neve. So when I'm mixing I can either listen directly to the Neve or to Ext 2, which is post-everything, and to which I listen to most of the time. It's confusing to explain, but works!”

The Final Mix

After the recordings at RAK were completed, Fitzmaurice brought the session files back to his Neve VR72 room at Pierce Entertainment for the final mix. The Pro Tools Edit window of the final hybrid stem mix of 'Stay With Me' is as transparent and well-organised as that of the rough mix, if not more so. There's once again an input track at the top, below which is the final mix, which was mixed back into the session. Below this are seven drum tracks, two bass stems, three keyboard stems, a dry lead-vocal stem track and a reverb lead-vocal track, another vocal effect track, a stereo BVs stem, a stereo 'oohs' stem, and finally two string tracks, one a close mics stem and the other a room mics stem, totalling 20 tracks of audio. All tracks are helpfully marked in the comments boxes with 'Orig' if they were stems from the rough mix, 'RAK' if they were stems of Fitzmaurice's mix of the RAK version, and 'new FITZ' if they were added during the final mix on December 2. Below the audio tracks are the usual effect tracks, consisting of UAD Lexicon 224 reverb, a quarter-note Waves H-Delay track, and a Roland CE1 chorus track. At the bottom of the session, which was mixed entirely in the box, are a number of group tracks.

  • Drums & percussion: UA Little Labs VOG, Pultec EQ & Lexicon 224, Massey CT4, Brainworx BX_StereoMaker, Softube Tonelux Tilt EQ.

"The 'OH' track is the stem of the loop Jimmy made of his original drum track, recorded with one overhead mic, and below that is a stem of all the drum samples I added to the rough mix. They have a UA Little Labs VOG [Voice Of God] plug-in on it which is like a subharmonic synthesizer, adding around 40Hz, again to try to get more bottom end and make the mix sound more modern, plus a Massey CT4 compressor. I was automating the VOG plug-in because there's a Korg sub-bass in the choruses, and when that appears I turned the VOG off. I added 'AttackBD' during the final mix, which is yet another kick drum sample to add some more attack, and it has a Pultec EQ plug-in adding mid-range and taking off a lot of top end.

"The next stem is Earl's kit from RAK, one of the elements of the RAK sessions that we liked and we felt improved the original. I added some low end to that with the Avid seven-band EQ, and there were some rides to make the drums quieter and louder in places. 'GrungeBD' is another bass drum sample I added, mainly for the middle eight, and I had the Brainworx StereoMaker on it, because the sample was mono and I wanted it in stereo. Once again, because the song was so simple, I was trying to change the sound of the kick drum very subtly in the different sections. You might not notice it consciously, but subliminally it adds something. The next stem is the tambourine from the original, with the Tonelux Tilt. It probably needed some support to be able to cut through, because there's more in the track now, and I added some 224 plate to it as well. I also edited the tambourine slightly, to make sure it fit better in the track. Earl also played a tambourine at RAK, which is the next track, and this has the Tonelux as well, and also the Massey CT4.”

  • Bass & piano: SoundToys Echo Boy, Softube Tonelux Tilt EQ, Massey CT4, iZotope RX3 De-noiser, UA Trident A-Range & Lexicon 224, Crane Song Phoenix, Brainworx BX_control v2.

"The bass stem comes from the RAK sessions and I edited it quite heavily, because it was Jodi playing with Earl and not with the loop, and as I said, the loop wasn't perfect, so I needed to edit Jodi's bass to fit with the demo version. I correct the timing of instruments manually to affect the feel. The bass has a SoundToys Echo Boy delay, adding an eighth-note delay in the middle eight. Once again, because the arrangement was so simple, I was adding subtle sonic things to add a bit more depth to the track. I hate records that start in one way and don't change, where you can hear the entire record in the first bar. The next track is the Korg MS10 sub-bass, added in RAK, which appears in the choruses and the middle eight, and it has the Tonelux and Massey CT4.

"Next is the piano from the original session, which I treated with the iZotope RX3 De-noiser, because it had quite a bit of hiss on it. It has the UAD Trident A-Range EQ, because with the drums being bigger in this session, it needed some more mid-range, plus some added space coming from the 224 plate, appearing just in a couple of places. Once again, I added this because there's more going on in this session. The two organ stems below both have the Phoenix Dark Essence to give them some more body. I have no idea what these plug-ins actually do, but they change something in the harmonic structure and I like them on some things. I suspect they made the organ tracks sit better in the arrangement. Further down the session, below the vocals, are the two string stems, and the close mics get some additional 224 plate, and the room mic stem is treated with the Brainworx BX_control v2.

  • Vocals: UA Lexicon 224 & Maag EQ4, Sonnox Oxford EQ.

"The dry vocal is the original vocal from the demo, and the 'vox VERB' all the vocal reverbs from the rough mix. Below them is a track called 'EKO', which is a stem from the Echo Boy eighth-note delay of the rough, and it gets a bit of extra 224 reverb. There is some EQ on the lead vocals from the Oxford EQ and the Maag EQ4, but in general I use less and less EQ on lead vocals. I prefer simply turning them up or down, and balancing or EQ'ing other things to make space for them. The fashion these days seems to be to compress the shit out of a vocal, then EQ it so it sounds really thin, put loads of mid-range EQ on it so it cuts through, and then turn it down. I don't like that, and instead prefer to have a good lead vocal sound on which I do loads of rides. All the main backing vocals are on one stem and so are the 'ooohs', and they both get a little bit of 224 plate, just to give them some more space.”

  • Stereo mix: Cytomic The Glue, UA Shadow Hills Compressor.

"Right at the bottom of the session are the subgroups: beats, bass, keys, vocals, backing vocals, effects and strings. You can see that all the drums are going to bus 1-2, which is the input of the 'BEAT' subgroup, the bass tracks go to bus 3-4, ie. subgroup 'BASS', the keys to 5-6, and so on. All these subgroups go to bus 23-24, which is the input of the I/O track at the top. These subgroup tracks at the bottom are like having VCAs. If I want to turn all the drums up in the chorus I can do that here very quickly, rather than having to adjust all the individual tracks. I have the Softube Tube-Tech CL1B compressor on every single one of these subgroups, just in case I want to tighten up all the drums, or bass and so on, to make that section sit better. I don't think I used the CL1B in this session, but they are part of my stem session template.

This composite Pro Tools screenshot shows Steve Fitzmaurice's original demo mix of 'Stay With Me'."The I/O track at the top has Cytomic The Glue, which is there in case I feel the need to compress the entire track a little bit. Obviously, when you separate the stems out, they don't sound exactly like they would if you ran them through a board. Sometimes I want to get back to the way it sounded — more glued together — sometimes I'm happy to leave it more open. It's the same with the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor below that. Below the I/O track is the mix print, which has two limiters on it that are greyed out here, because I didn't use them. Just don't get started me on the loudness wars! So many records today just give me a headache. But basically I have to send everything to the labels loud-ish. If the producer has sent a rough mix to the label it will often be way louder than any mastering engineer will ever make it. So in order for me to even vaguely compete, I have to send a mix that has been limited to some degree.

This screenshot shows the stems from Steve Fitzmaurice's original demo mix of 'Stay With Me'."A mix that has gone through an analogue board will obviously be way quieter because it will not have been put through all the digital shenanigans, but the problem is that our brains do initially think that louder is better. I have to partake in the loudness wars to some degree, and it's another reason for my hybrid mix setup, because I go through various stages and I'm not getting all of my volume from just one limiter at the end. Things will have gone through analogue compressors, which obviously round things off and therefore allow you to turn things up, and then they go through digital stuff, and a little bit of everything gets me to where I want to be, yet somehow it also allows me to keep some kind of dynamics. With every mix I do my ambition is to create a record that people will want to turn up and play again!”

In this, and particularly with Sam Smith, Steve Fitzmaurice has been extremely successful.  

Working With Stems

"The day that I have to mix entirely in the box, I will probably give up,” says Steve Fitzmaurice. "I love mixing on a desk, and particularly on a Neve. I've worked on Neve desks for a long time, and like the simplicity of Neves compared to an SSL. I adore the Flying Faders, though I don't use the EQ on the board. One reason I still prefer to mix on a desk is the sound, though I have to say that with HD it is pretty close now. And the sound gets so mangled by the time it ends up on a record that for me working on a desk is now more an ergonomics and feel thing. When I am sitting at a console the automation is so easy to do, and I don't sit there looking at things and going, 'I need to turn the drums 2dB up.' Instead I just move the faders until it sounds right. Sometimes you look down and you think, 'Bloody hell, I just turned that up 5dB!' By contrast, like many people, I find myself turning things up 0.3dB in the box, and then I remember what a waste of time that is because nobody is going to hear that. You seem to mix far more conservatively when you are looking at things than when you are just listening to them.

"I am also far quicker in getting an initial balance on the board than in the box. You can just lean over and adjust several things at the same time, intuitively, whereas in the computer you're endlessly scrolling and trying to find things, especially these days when you're almost always dealing with loads of tracks. I don't like this whole mouse and scrolling thing too much, and though I have worked with digital controllers, I continue to find them frustrating too.

"There's another issue that is not often highlighted, which is monitoring. I have spent nearly 30 years sitting in front of a large console with nearfield monitors on top of it, and I know what that sounds like. I've been to places where I am not behind a big console, and have a pair of KRKs pointing at me, and it's like I'm wearing a pair of headphones. I don't like the sound of it. The bass sounds completely different and overall I end up guessing a lot of the time. I'm so used to what my speakers sound like with me being in front of a Neve that I'm not comfortable mixing without that. All these are reasons for me to continue to prefer mixing on a console. There also is a romance to it; it makes you feel like you're making a record. And when people show up here, they really like being in a large room with a desk and lots of outboard gear.

"But I need to be able to do quick recalls now, without having to tell the label that they need to book the studio for a few hours or days if they want to redo a vocal or something like that. They expect to be able to call me at any point and for me to change something immediately, to keep somebody happy. So I have developed a system that is slightly convoluted, but that is designed so I can continue to work on the console and at the same time allows me to do instant recalls or quick overdubs. I start my mixes on the console, using tons of outboard. I'll spend half or maybe three-quarters of the first day on doing the main EQ, effects and balance in analogue, using Flying Faders, and I will then print stems of this mix. After that I will finish the mix by working with the stems in the box. The point at which I go into the box varies. Sometimes the mix will be 99 percent finished by the time I go into the computer, sometimes I switch much earlier, and I do 50 percent of the mix in the box, working with the stems.

The final Pro Tools mix of 'Stay With Me', incorporating stems from the demo mix and elements from the RAK recordings."The way I do the stems also depends on the genre and the project. If it's hip-hop or dance I'll have separate stems for the kick drum, and for other elements of the drums, and so on, and if it's a rock track, I may have all the close and all the room mics on two different stems. I'll also print many of the outboard effects, like real spring reverbs and guitar pedals, as separate stems. I actually quite like working with the stems that I have created. By that stage I will have sorted out any problems in the track, and I'm just dealing with blocks of audio. In some ways it's like mixing a session that's on 24-track tape, where a really great engineer had done the recordings, and you just push everything up on the desk in a straight line and it already sounds great and you're not worrying whether the bass drum in the second chorus is slightly out of time. Mixing stems like this is a bit more creative because I am not problem solving any more.”

Recording The Band

The band-recording sessions for In The Lonely Hour took place at RAK Studio 1, which sports a 48-channel API console and a huge, 100-square-metre live room. "I recorded Sam with a Neumann U67, which I brought over from the Pierce Rooms, because I had used it on him there to record his vocals on 'Money On My Mind'. The mic was modified at some stage and just sounds great. I might have tried a few other mics on him, but the 67 sounded the best. It went into one of my Class-A Neve 1066 preamps, which I think is the same as the 1073, with a different EQ. At my studio the 1066 would have gone into my very old 'blackface' 1176, which has a meter that is so knackered that I can't see how much compression is going on. But I love the way it sounds. At RAK I used the studio's LA2A instead of my 1176. I know the LA2A is a classic compressor, but I have never loved it. Yet for whatever reason it sounded fantastic on Sam's vocals. And that was it. No EQ. I went directly into the Pro Tools HD rack, with the session being at 44.1kHz/24-bit.

"A lot of the minimalism on the album is due to the playing approach of Earl Harvin, who is an amazing drummer who plays the song and not the drums. He has been doing it for so long that he never feels the need to show off. If the song only needs boom-ka, boom-ka, and an eighth-note hi-hat, that's what he'll do. He also has an amazing sound. He always hires the same old Gretsch kit whenever he comes to London and spends a long time tuning it. If the drums sound like shit, there's no point me putting on the world's best mics and compressors and EQ, because it's still going to sound like shit. So his kit sounded great in the room, and then it was up to me to capture that and not fuck it up.

"I record the kick drum with a Yamaha NS10 for the sub, and either a Neumann FET47 or an Electro-Voice RE20, depending on what sounded good with the NS10. The snare had a Shure SM58 instead of a 57, with the capsule taken off. For some reason I prefer the sound of the 58 on snares. Underneath the snare I had an AKG C414 with pad and filter. I put a Mercenary Audio KM69 on the hi-hat, which is based on the Neumann KM84i. I didn't like Neumann's KM184 remake, and the 69 is like the original 84i, but slightly better. The overheads were a pair of ribbon Coles 4038s, and I think there was one floor tom, on which I had a Neumann FET47, and rack tom with a Sennheiser MD421. In addition I had a pair of Neumann M50s placed low down, at bass drum height and at 45 degree angles. I mashed the M50s through a [Chandler] TG compressor and would have taken off some top end. But Earl wasn't really trashing his cymbals, so high end wasn't much of an issue. I also had a Sennheiser MD441 dynamic mic in front of the kit, which I sent through a Sansamp guitar pedal, and two B&K omni mics really high in the room as a set of far-away ambient mics. I would have brought in the far-away mics in the choruses, or the distorted mic in certain places. It was not a crazy amount of microphones, but it did give me a number of different sonic options that I could use. Most of the drum mics would have gone through the API desk.

"For the bass I hired a 1969 Fender Precision, because for a record like this you don't need anything else, and this went into an Avalon DI, and then into an API mic pre on the console. There was an amplifier, but I don't think we used it. I had an 1176 compressor on the bass in one or two songs, and also my Retro Instruments 500-series tube compressor. I was 99 percent sure I was going to mix the record as well, so I tried to make things sound as close as possible to the way I envisioned I wanted the end result to be. I've learned my craft working in good studios with great-sounding rooms and fantastic microphones, and this was what I applied here. There also is a Korg MS10 sine wave bass in the track, which was played by Darren, my assistant, and the piano was recorded with an AEA R88 ribbon mic. The piano that remained on the final version of 'Stay With Me' was recorded at Jimmy's studio, where he has a mini-grand, a couple of good mics and a set of eight Neve clones for mic pres.

Published September 2014