Working straight to DAT, with a minimum of equipment, Chris Denman records more bands in a year than most engineers manage in a lifetime.
One day, the world may hear a lot more of a four-piece indie band from West London called Dega Breaks. However, it's safe to say that on their first visit to the XFM studios they're a pretty well-kept secret. I've never heard of them, and more to the point, neither has XFM's resident session producer, Chris Denman. Yet it's up to him to listen to their debut single, figure out the production tricks that make up their sound, load in their gear, mic them up and record four of their songs — all in the space of three hours. And after lunch he'll be doing it all over again, perhaps for another bunch of newly signed hopefuls, or perhaps this time for rock royalty like the Cure or Queens of the Stone Age.
XFM is London's alternative music radio station, and as part of its licence remit is committed to playing a lot of live music. Denman is the man whose job it is to put that commitment into action, and in 2007 alone he recorded 341 different bands.
Everyone who finds themselves lugging their equipment to the fourth floor gets the same treatment. There's simply no time to do things any other way. "We do one pre–recorded session at 12, then an hour lunch, then our next band comes in at four. Each session's an hour setup, so we're done and dusted by half-two, loaded out by three, I have my lunch, four — next band in. That's how tight it is, so you have to get it bang on, there and then."
The combination of time and budget constraints means that all these sessions are done using the barest minimum of equipment. "It is, basically, me, on a set of headphones out of the desk, mixing straight to a DAT tape. No multitracking involved. It comes down to the age-old art of two–tracking, which is a skill in itself. I don't have any outboard, so it's just the desk. Originally we had a Yamaha O2R, and we upgraded to the DM2000 in 2002. Nothing has actually been changed on it. I've still got version 1, still got the old internal effects."
All of which makes Denman's ability to replicate a band's sound on the basis of a 10-second flick through their recorded output even more impressive. In Dega Breaks' case, that sound is an edgy indie–rock production that owes much to the Killers, but previous sessions have covered every conceivable style, from dusty blues to cutting-edge electro, from balls-to-the-wall metal to delicate folk.
"I've touched on quite a lot of different production techniques, because I've had to. About a year ago, there was a trend for quite a lot of slap-back on vocals, stuff like that, and drums are my favourite thing, because they will basically lead a mix. You have your room mics, and it depends on how you're compressing your room mics, depends on how much you're mixing your close mics into your room mics. I close-mic all the drums — snare top, snare bottom, kick, rack toms, floor toms, two overheads. I never mic up the hat, because unless you're really recording an album and you want to use it in a certain production technique, you don't need to.
"We'll all set up, and I'll mic up, and we'll run through drum sounds. So the drummer will play, and I'll get him to actually play the tracks — I don't like any drum techs playing, because they play totally differently from the drummer, and the drummer will have his own style and his own dynamics that come through. So I'll get that set up, get the bass and guitar sounds right, fit it all in, get the vocal sounds right, and the only thing you normally end up playing around with — the only thing you can play around with, really — is basically reverbs coming in and out. Maybe if they're coming into a chorus I'll wind in more delay, stuff like that.
"If you're doing covers, or if it's acoustic or stripped-back, then you'll go with something different. But otherwise you'll naturally go towards the album, because that's how they want their finished product. So if you go towards that sound, they're very happy, they're happy to play, so they do a great take. It's basically a big bit of karma you've got to deal with to make the session go well. I'm working with one hour setup, two hours mixdown. I've got to push them as a producer in getting that right. And if you go towards that, everyone's on the right path and everyone's happy. We have such a high turnover that I can't be sitting back going 'Maybe we should try that, maybe we should try this.'
"We don't have front-of-house engineers come in, because they will bring in their two reverbs that they used on tour, and I can pull up more reverbs and get closer to an album mix, even though it's a live session, a lot more quickly than they can. Obviously, this is a studio session, we're not in a venue, and when front-of-house hear stuff, they will let things go, but I'm too anal, I'll rein them in."
All the sessions are recorded in a converted radio studio at XFM's headquarters in Leicester Square. A small, soundproofed live area is available for drums, but everyone else in the band plays in the control room. Originally, guitar amps were dumped into the corridor outside, but this caused serious problems with bleed into the adjacent radio studio, and Chris's preferred approach now is to DI guitars and basses. "Because everything is muted in the room, it's funny, because the only thing you'll hear is a vocal and the guitar strings going!"
Two DI'ing options are available, thanks to endorsements from Line 6 and Sequis: a selection of Pod digital amp modellers, and a Motherload dummy load/speaker simulator. Guitarists who insist on using their own amps can be directed to the latter, while Denman has become adept at dialling in people's signature sounds on the XT Floor Pod, using the Gearbox utility on his Mac.
"If we're using the Pods, I'll go 'What amps did you use?' Then I'll know which amps to dial up, and I'll tweak it accordingly. Basically I just plug in my laptop and off I go, because it offers a deeper well of editing that you can get to easily. If guitarists haven't used the Pod before, sometimes they get freaked out about it, so it's nice just to go 'OK, I am going to sort this out, don't worry.' I've plugged it into the laptop and they can see what I'm doing, because the visual reference is there. It's a lot clearer on the software."
Nevertheless, he finds there can be psychological hurdles to be overcome when guitarists are confronted by digital technology. "Initially, guitarists get like "Oh, it's a Pod." And if you're producing someone, that brings them down, and you're like 'I don't want you to be down about this. I want you to be thinking: I'm going into a session, I'm going to get the right sound.' And then you have to work them up again, so once you've got the right sound, they go 'Oh, right, these do work!' Showing that to them is a big step to making them feel better and getting a really good take."
When it comes to vocals and drums, Chris's mic locker is not exactly bulging, and he is very thankful for another endorsement deal, this time for Sennheiser's Evolution series of microphones. "I've literally got one set of mics," he says. "They're all dynamics. You find that condensers in here are a bit too much; they just seem to be a bit too open and you get spill from other things — even hearing [electric] guitar strings over vocal mics. In the drum room I use a couple of condensers, but again a lot of it's dynamics, just going for a closer sound, I suppose."
As well as Chris's AKG C451EB small–diaphragm condensers, which serve as drum overheads, he also puts up an ancient Sony C38 in the corner of the drum room as an ambient mic. However, he warns against using too much room ambience in a radio mix. "Mixing it right for the radio is about knowing what's going to happen with the on-air compression. A lot of it is tightening up the mixes slightly more, not letting room mics open up so much, because the on-air compression will bring them out. You might think that compression will help control it on endings and so on, but when you do that, the on-air compression can make the mix sound really muddled. Basically, the theory is to make tight mixes."
Because the musicians are performing in the control room, Chris is forced to mix on headphones. "These are the ones from the radio station, the Beyer DT770s. I mix on these because they were what was given to me, but I think they're a great headphone." However, he does make use of the studio's PMC monitors for getting drum and guitar sounds together, and for checking mixes on playback. "I don't have any nearfield monitors — I've asked! — but I love the PMCs. I love Genelecs, too, but I find they sweeten things up a little bit too much, and the PMCs are very, very honest. You can hear if anything's going to trip you up or embarrass you, if something's jumping out of the mix. So I love listening back on them, getting a good reference, and then going back to the headphones again and tweaking stuff."
Setting up one mix is challenging, and there's certainly no time to create separate monitor mixes for different band members, so everyone hears exactly what is going to tape. "Everyone has a stereo mix for monitoring, which for some bands is quite funny, because they get so used to calling on what they want in a monitor mix. Initially, I will go 'OK, that's cool, but try this, see how you go,' and nine times out of 10, if they have a nice stereo mix in their headphones, which is basically what I'm mixing, they're like 'Oh, I can hear everything, that seems fine!' There's a few occasions where singers really want their vocals over the top, and then I tell them 'Slip a can off your ear slightly.' And that's it.
"I will go 'Let's run through the track two or three times,' and then we'll go for a take. From there on in, it's up to them how many times they want to do the take, and I'm listening out for how they play. I'd love to have a big studio with lots of multitracking and time to play around, but I don't get that, so I've gotten used to being extremely quick and being very accurate and getting the end result fast."
True to form, Dega Breaks have laid down their four session tracks by half past two, and the results sound uncannily similar to the original versions they sweated over in the recording studio. It's business as usual for Chris. "I've had bands going 'We want to record the album in here,'" he laughs, "'cos we'd get it done so quickly!'"
You can hear some of Chris Denman's recordings on the new XFM Debut Sessions compilation album, and at his Myspace page: www.myspace.com/chrisxfmliveproducer
Unlike a producer or engineer on an album session, or someone who's touring with a band, Chris Denman has hardly any time to get to know the people he's recording, so he has no choice but to make snap decisions about how to get the best from them. "I've become very good at seeing the dynamics of a band, like who leads the band, and you work with those people to help move along a session. I also help to load in the bands' gear. It's part of the actual process of meeting the band and crew. If I'm helping crew with the load-in, they don't think I'm an arsehole producer, and that's part of it.
"I will also talk things through with the band — how did they feel doing the album? Because sometimes you'll find they've actually let things go that they didn't like: "I didn't think this was right, I kind of wanted it a bit more like this". And you end up going 'OK, I'll take that on board'. The great thing about being at XFM is that I'll actually see a signed band about twice, maybe three times a year, because of the release of singles. They'll come in about three or four times, and it's a lot easier because I've met them before. You build up a relationship, and you know what they sound like.
"Of course, none of this is much use if the bands themselves aren't capable of playing live. There's always an element of risk here, especially given XFM's policy of giving exposure to new bands, but Chris is generally impressed with what he finds. "Because albums aren't selling, a lot of bands know that live is a key thing to getting their music over and making a little bit of money as well. Even the younger bands are going out and playing a lot more, so when they do sessions like this, they're actually a lot tighter."
Chris Denman's straight-to-DAT recordings may represent "the ancient art of two-tracking", but they make full use of the modern features offered by the Yamaha PM2000 digital mixer. Not only does it supply all his effects, EQs and dynamics, but its recall facilities are invaluable. "The scene selections are brilliant. If I have done tweaks to mixes on different tracks, I can scene-save and go back to them, and get the band to play through the actual mix on the desk again, in case they didn't feel the take was good enough and we might have a little bit of time left over. For [XFM's live broadcast] Live at Leicester Square, which is live to air, I'll actually be flicking through scenes while they're playing live, so it's quite hair-raising sometimes. I'll have different mixes for when they're talking to the DJ and obviously when they're actually playing, so it's all about getting them to cue at the right time."