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Inside Track: Blink 182 - California

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: John Feldmann & Zakk Cervini
Published October 2016
By Paul Tingen

Producer and co-writer John Feldmann (right) poses with the three members of Blink 182 during the making of California. From left: Matt Skiba, Mark Hoppus, Travis Barker.Producer and co-writer John Feldmann (right) poses with the three members of Blink 182 during the making of California. From left: Matt Skiba, Mark Hoppus, Travis Barker.Photo: Alexandra Snow

Blink 182’s chart-topping California brought Zakk Cervini his first mix credit on a hit album — but he had to work hard to get it.

John Feldmann’s Foxy Studios in Los Angeles surely must rank as the world’s busiest one-studio operation. Feldmann and his two engineers, Zakk Cervini and Matt Pauling, are in action at the studio for 24 hours per day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, with each of them regularly putting in 18-hour days.

Feldmann, also known as ‘Feldy,’ agreed that it sounds gruelling. “As a 49-year old man with a family and two kids, I can’t really do 18-hour days consistently any more. In fact, I don’t really want to work more than 10 hours per day. But there still are times when I will do 18-hour days. When we were doing the Blink 182 album, for example, I often was in the studio from about 8.30 in the morning until midnight, sometimes two in the morning. Matt would be with me for most of that time. Zakk would then work from midnight to seven editing and mixing. I’d wake up at seven in the morning and I’d listen to his mixes and write down my notes, and I’d go back into the studio to add additional production elements to the song. Zakk would then tweak the mixes. Mixing one song in this way could be a three- or four-day process.”

This round-the-clock, factory-floor approach to music production would undoubtedly run foul of health and safety inspectors, if ever they were called in. Cervini adds: “The first year I worked for John, in 2012, I was in the studio for eight months without a single day off, working 18 hours a day or more. I did not have a car, so I slept at the studio every single night. After we had done 5 Seconds To Summer’s debut album [late 2013] John got me a car, so I could go back to my apartment. That’s when I started doing slightly less, like 6.5 days a week!Inside Track

“Matt and I will often be working in the studio by ourselves, constantly recording and mixing. John has tons of meetings, because he goes the extra mile in shopping the bands we work with around to everyone he knows, so he does a lot of driving in his Tesla car, in which he will be listening to our mixes. He’ll send us voice memos, like ‘add a guitar part here,’ or ‘cut this chorus in half,’ and Matt also gives his opinions. For me it’s really cool to get this feedback, because I work so much that my ears get fatigued. I probably mix at least 10 songs a week. In some cases, after having mixed all night, I’ll still join the recording sessions in the morning. I can function without sleep if I need to. Yes, our work ethic is insane! Currently we are working on four albums at the same time, as we do one-off co-writes with people all the time. So in fact we have seven projects going right now.”

Factory Floor

Despite Feldmann & co’s conveyer-belt approach to music production, they’re not flooding the market with low-grade, substandard stuff. Instead Foxy Studios has a habit of churning out critically lauded hit singles and albums, mostly in Feldmann’s favoured pop-punk vein, with excursions into metal, hip-hop, and dance music. Feldmann and his team have had a hand in best-selling albums by Panic! At The Disco, Allstar Weekend, the Cab, the Used, Black Veil Brides, Itch, Beartooth, Avicii, All Time Low, Disturbed, the aforementioned 5 Seconds To Summer and, the main focus of this article, Blink 182’s seventh studio album. California has been one of the major hits of the Summer of 2016, reaching number one in the UK and in the US and charting high in many other countries.

Feldmann plays multiple roles on most projects, often including (co-)writer, engineer, mixer, producer and/or A&R. On California, he wrote, produced and, together with Cervini and Pauling, engineered. In other respects, however, Feldmann found himself in new territory during the making of the album, as the band were far from being an unknown young act in need of development; Blink 182 had already hit the big time years ago with their third and fourth albums, Enema Of The State (1999) and Take Off Your Pants And Jacket (2001).

Their self-titled fifth album (2003) was rather less successful, and in 2005 singer and guitarist Tom DeLonge quit the band, putting Blink 182 on, in the words of their record company, “indefinite hiatus”. In late 2008, two dramatic events pulled the band back together: Blink 182’s long-term producer, Jerry Finn, died of a cerebral haemorrhage, and not long afterwards, drummer Travis Barker was one of only two survivors of a plane crash, which left him in critical condition with severe burns.

The re-formed Blink 182 came up with a self-produced sixth album Neighborhoods (2011) and an EP, Dogs Eating Dogs (2013), following which DeLonge again drifted away from the band, stalling progress on a planned seventh album. The two other band members invited vocalist/singer Matt Skiba, of Alkaline Trio fame, to replace DeLonge, and once legal battles had been resolved, Skiba, bassist Matt Hoppus and Travis Barker retreated to the latter’s studio in North Hollywood, Opra Music, in the Autumn of 2015, and reportedly wrote and recorded more than 30 songs. There must have been a sense of something being missing, or not quite working out, because early in 2016, Barker contacted Feldmann for feedback. The result was an instant and dramatic change of direction.

“I first met Travis in 1997 or 1998, when he was in Aquabats, the band he played in before he joined Blink, and supporting Goldfinger. Early 2015 Travis felt that Blink weren’t quite hitting the mark with their new songs, and invited me for a meeting with the band and a listen to the songs. I told them what I thought of the music, and suggested they come over to my studio to try to write a song. That next day we did the first single, ‘Bored To Death’, together! We continued working together from there, and that eventually turned into the new album. We started all songs from scratch, because I did not want to go in and try to rebuild pieces of art that already existed. I don’t think Mark, Matt and Travis are capable of writing bad songs, what with all the experience between them, but the songs Matt had written sounded like Alkaline Trio, and the songs Mark was singing like [Barker and Hoppus’s side project] +44. None of it sounded like Blink. My job was to bring them back to who they were, which is the pop-punk band of 20-odd years ago.”

In The Beginning Were The Words

With ‘Bored To Death’ under their belt, the band felt inspired by the Feldmann-produced musical direction. By this stage, however, “we only had a two-month window to write, record and mix the entire album,” says Feldman. “We’d start at 9am, because several of us have kids. Mark has a very unique bass style, and several of the songs started with him playing a bass line. We’d then sing melodies on top of that. At other times I’d put up a click, and Travis played a beat to it, and we’d get some kind of drums and bass loop happening, and we’d build on that. Matt might come in with a melody and chord idea, or occasionally I did, on which the band expanded, with Mark or Matt writing more lyrics and changing the melodies. For the most part it was pretty organic, with the four of us writing together, or occasionally working in groups of two or three.”

The above will sound familiar to SOS readers, but what’s unusual about Feldmann’s writing approach is the emphasis he puts on starting songs with a lyrical concept. “There are programs nowadays which allow you to create, say, a dark song in 140bpm, in A minor, that sounds like Coldplay, or whatever. But there isn’t anything but the human brain that can give that twist to the lyrics that makes a song great. So the band and I would be talking a lot about what’s going on in our everyday lives, anything, with our relationships with our wives, kids, fans, mining these topics for lyrics. We call came up with song lyric concepts. One day I was walking around Disneyland with the kids, and was thinking that we could write a song called ‘Orange Country Girl’, because Mark’s wife is from there and Blink are a southern Californian band, and that turned into ‘She’s Out Of Her Mind’.

“At another time I had this concept about negative thinking, and how sometimes one negative thought you have in the morning, like ‘I haven’t written a great song yesterday,’ can spiral into ‘I’m going to be a homeless guy living in the K-Mart shopping centre pushing a shopping cart.’ Mark really connected with that concept, so with both of us playing acoustic guitars we wrote a line and melody that went, ‘I won’t fall down that fucking rabbit hole / I’m barely standing on the ground,’ which became the chorus for the song ‘Rabbit Hole’. The magic came when Travis put his snare on the one and on the quarter notes. That turned it into a Blink song, and I instantly knew that the song would be central in connecting the old Blink with the new Blink. After the great commercial and critical success they had gone into a bit of a slump, and ‘Rabbit Hole’ is a great transition that the fans can really connect with.”

California gave engineer Zakk Cervini his first mix credits on a chart-topping album.California gave engineer Zakk Cervini his first mix credits on a chart-topping album.

Zakk Cervini has his own recollections of the intense writing process that resulted in a whopping 28 songs, 16 of which made the album. “Many of the song ideas came from the band, but John sometimes came in with some guitar chords, which he’d play on an acoustic guitar. If the band liked the idea they then decided on a style in which it could be recorded. Matt or I recorded what was happening in the room, and immediately started building a track. The very first song idea that John came up with was for the first single, ‘Bored To Death’ and he thought it’d be cool if it has this classic Blink 182 riff at the beginning. So Matt Skiba came up with this guitar riff, and then we pretty much recorded all the guitars for the entire song, after which Mark laid down his bass, and then they recorded a scratch vocal, and Travis overdubbed his drums at the end. With most bands we program drums, but not in this case, because Travis is just so good, plus he comes up with stuff that you wouldn’t think of. ‘Rabbit Hole’ started with the bass line in the verse, which is classic Blink 182. When Mark played that, John said, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ and we recorded it, added guitars, then Travis played the drums, and finally we overdubbed the vocals. The entire album was recorded using overdubs.”

Flying Foxes

California was recorded in its entirety at Feldmann’s Foxy Studios, which is a typically Spartan 21st Century in-the-box affair: a control room with a Pro Tools HD rig and a recording space. “The studio where the Blink album was recorded was the third incarnation of Foxy,” said Feldmann. “I built the first incarnation myself, with egg crates nailed to the wall and foam from the hardware store glued to the wall. It was a total makeshift studio and I mixed a lot of stuff on headphones. I then built a real studio in the Hollywood Hills, with a real control room and iso booth and so on, and proper studio design. The third incarnation was designed by the same guy, and was close to my home, but I wanted to separate my family and work life, so recently moved Foxy to another place for its fourth incarnation.

“We work entirely in Pro Tools in the box, with a few pieces of outboard, and quite a few mic pres and mics. I have an SSL XLogic X-Rack, which I use for my stereo bus compressor on most of the rock records that I mix, and an Eventide Orville, which I still feel sounds more organic and lush than the Avid Revibe, which typically is my main plug-in reverb. Plus we have a TC Electronic Fireworx, which I sometimes use on an organ or a drum kit. But the rest is all plug-ins. The monitors are Yamaha NS10s, Genelecs for nearfields, and Dynaudio as mains, and a mono Auratone. I have an Avid Command 8, because I still like to use faders for rough level rides, but I don’t use the flying-fader automation, as I prefer to draw in the automation in the box.”

Zakk Cervini at work in John Feldmann’s Foxy Studio.Zakk Cervini at work in John Feldmann’s Foxy Studio.

Butt The Bullet

“We have a drum setup that is ready to go at any given moment,” explains Cervini, “though Travis brought his own drum kit, so we set up the mics and mic pres on that. We always have the same signal chain, which consists of a Shure SM7 on the inside of the kick, very close to the beater, which goes into a Vintech Audio X73 mic pre/EQ, which scoops out some 300Hz and adds some 10kHz, so it sounds a bit more polished. There’s a Neumann U47 on the outside of the kick, also going through the Vintech. The snare top mic is a Shure SM57 and the snare bottom a Blue Mouse condenser, which sounds amazing. It’s the best snare bottom mic in the world, and essential for a big snare sound. Both go through a Brent Averill 1073 mic pre. The toms go through Sennheiser MD421s, through Vintech pres.

“On the ride cymbal we have a Shure SM81, and we have a Shure [Green] Bullet mic placed right behind the drummer’s butt, which we call the ‘butt mic’, which sounds really crappy, and which we steer through a Distressor, compressing the hell out of it. It’s really trashy, and gives you a really cool option during the mix. I bring it up for drum fills or if the toms are played by themselves. For the Blink album I would sometimes mute all the close mics and just solo the butt mic, and put a flanger on it. That’s the sound of the drums at the beginning of ‘Bored To Death’. We have quite a few room mics, including two Royer R-121 ribbon mics, a stereo Royer SF24 mic, and two Coles 4038 mics, going through an 1176 and Vintech X73 mic pres. We put all these room mics on top of each other and this creates this crazy, weird dimension that I use a lot in the mix. Our room sounds pretty cool, but we also print room drum samples for every mix. We create a MIDI track from the drums using a program called Massey DRT, and we run that through [Toontrack] Superior Drummer, just for the room sounds, which makes it sound like a more expensive room.

“For the Blink album we recorded the bass DI, and John has this obscure bass pedal, the EBS MultiComp, which compresses the hell out of the signal, and then the bass went into a Kemper modelling amp, a Distressor, and then a [Retro Instruments] Sta-Level. In other words, the bass is compressed like crazy on the way in. The guitars for the Blink album also went through a Kemper, and then straight into Pro Tools. John recorded most of the vocals, using a Telefunken ELA M251, going through a Brent Averill X73 mic pre, and a Slate Dragon compressor, ratio 4:1, fast release, medium attack, with 3-5 dB compression. All the singers we record are very dynamic, so we need to keep their levels in check.”

John Feldmann (left) in the Foxy Studios live room, with James M Ingram and Mark Hoppus, recording a podcast for Mark’s clothing company.John Feldmann (left) in the Foxy Studios live room, with James M Ingram and Mark Hoppus, recording a podcast for Mark’s clothing company.

Hard Earned

Four mix engineers are credited on the California album. Star mixer Neal Avron mixed ‘Bored To Death’, ‘Sober’ and ‘Home Is Such A Lonely Place’; Ben Grosse mixed ‘The Only Thing That Matters’ and the title track, while Dan Lancaster mixed ‘Los Angeles’ and ‘Left Alone’, plus the Japanese-edition bonus track ‘Hey, I’m Sorry’. The remaining nine tracks were mixed by Zakk Cervini.

These are Cervini’s first major album mix credits, and were obtained only after a long and convoluted process of blind testing and repeated mastering: mixes were still being swapped after the album was mastered a whopping five times. Hailing from Monroe, Connecticut, Cervini was passionate about engineering and producing bands from the age of 14. At college in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he met the well-known metal producer Machine, who, Cervini recalls, “took me under his wing and showed me a bunch of stuff. He then recommended I intern for John, so I moved to LA at age 19, started sweeping floors at Foxy, and worked my way up. I am now mixing everything we do.

“I had no idea that so many of my mixes would be used for the Blink 182 album. I did demo mixes for the entire album, but these were rough mixes for which I didn’t really go into the nitty-gritty. I sent all the other mix engineers the song sessions and my rough mixes, and then the band were like: ‘We like Zakk’s rough mixes better.’ I thought, ‘Really?’, because I knew I could do way better. So I went back and actually properly finished all my mixes, going into each individual track and a lot of detail. I really tried to take it to the next level. I actually did a lot of things that I had never done before, mix-wise, really pushing myself. For a final mix, as opposed to a demo mix, the pressure is on! I was really stoked about the fact that my mixes were then chosen over some of the other mixes.

“I start my final mixes by muting every track, apart from the kick drum, and I then just listen to that. The kick drum is the foundation of the mix, and we always have at least three kick-drum tracks — inside, outside and a sample — and I find a good balance between them, and then send them through the SSL bus compressor. I’ll then bring in the snare drum tracks, go through the same process, and then I’ll bring in the rest of the drums, and finally the room mics, to fill out the sound and make it sound live. After that I’ll bring in the spot mics for the hi-hat and ride and toms, making sure they punch.

“I’ll be doing a lot of automation during this process, for example gating the snare drum and turning the gate off for the fills and turning up the room during the fills, so it sounds cool. I spend a lot of time getting the drums to sound and feel the way I want them, and then I’ll go to the bass, sculpt the tone I want, often using the [Bomb Factory] SansAmp plug-in and EQ, then I’ll quickly go through the guitars, and level them the way I want them, and after that I’ll spend a lot of time on the vocals, finding the right levels, EQ and compression, and also adding reverbs and delays.

“I work very quickly. A final mix for a song takes me between two and four hours, so if I really push myself, I can mix three songs per night!”

'Rabbit Hole'

The track ‘Rabbit Hole’ is, says Cervini, ”the epitome of all the mixes I did for this album. It’s one of my favourite songs and it has all the ingredients we used and everything I would do. There’s drums, bass, rhythm guitars, some lead guitars, some programming and lead vocals, as well as several elements that weren’t used that much on the album, like acoustic guitars, piano, a synth pad and group vocals.”

This screenshot shows the entire Pro Tools Edit Window for Blink 182’s ‘Rabbit Hole’.This screenshot shows the entire Pro Tools Edit Window for Blink 182’s ‘Rabbit Hole’.

The Pro Tools session is, by modern standards, a tidy 56 tracks, consisting of (from top to bottom) three drum aux tracks, (green-brown), 24 drum tracks (yellow), a bass track (orange), three 808 drop tracks (light green), seven guitars (dark red), a pad track (green), four lead vocal tracks (purple), three reverb effect aux tracks (dark green), nine backing vocal tracks (light blue) and a master track.

  • Drums: Softube FET Compressor; Waves API 550B, SSL E Channel & C4; Avid ReVibe, Trim & EQ III; Sonnox Oxford Inflator; Focusrite D2; McDSP Analogue Channel & Channel G; Slate VTM; Bomb Factory BF76; SPL Transient Designer; Toontrack Superior Drummer.

“The top aux track is my drum bus, and probably the most important track in the entire session. All my drums go to that. It has the Softube FET compressor, which has the parallel knob, so you don’t have to run a parallel compressor on a separate track. I dialled in pretty heavy compression, with medium attack, high ratio (10:1), and a super-fast release. The release on this plug-in is the fastest on any compressor plugin I have encountered. I mix the drums into it however hot I think they should be. This plug-in is very important.

Softube’s FET Compressor, as used here on the drum bus, is one of five plug-ins that Zakk Cervini singles out as being crucial to his mix.Softube’s FET Compressor, as used here on the drum bus, is one of five plug-ins that Zakk Cervini singles out as being crucial to his mix.

“The signal then goes through the Waves API 550B to add a bit of high end for clarity, because I find that with all that compression, things get a bit muddy. The other two aux tracks are a snare reverb and reverb for the toms, both using the Avid ReVibe for some more room sound, which adds some liveliness.

“As I mentioned earlier, I normally have three kick tracks, and in this session I treated the kick ‘in’ track with the Sonnox Oxford Inflator and the McDSP Analogue Channel, to add some punch and warmth. I have the Focusrite EQ on both the kick in and out tracks, scooping out some mids, because they sounded a bit too boxy. The sample also has the Focusrite EQ, cranking 6dB at 12kHz, helping the kick sample punch through and making the drums sound more modern. But despite the high fader position, the [sampled] kick is in fact mixed in pretty quietly — it was a soft signal. I didn’t really want to use samples on Travis’s drums, but I also wanted the kick to sound as modern and consistent as possible, so this is the compromise I came up with.

“There are seven snare tracks. The snare top has the Trim plug-in to bring the volume down a bit, because after I ran it through all the other plugins, it felt a bit too hot. Then it has the Slate Virtual Tape Machine, to add some warmth, and the Waves SSL E Channel, which does something I picked up from the Inside Track in SOS on Chris Lord-Alge, namely to crank at 150-200 Hz and at 8KHz, which sounds like it’s sucking out the mid-range. Then there’s the McDSP Channel G, which I am using for the compression and the gate. I set the compressor to a threshold where it pops, and then the gate is crucial.Waves SSL E Channel.Waves SSL E Channel.

“I always try to dial in the perfect gate for the snare, because I like compressing the snare, yet the snare top mic gets too much of the cymbal, so I automate the gate, opening it for every fill. The snare bottom again has the McDSP Channel G with an automated gate, plus some Focusrite EQ and Bomb Factory 76 compression. I’ve tried to do all this with MIDI triggers in the past, but it’s faster to draw in the automation by hand, and easier to mix the drums differently during every fill. The five snare samples are mixed in pretty low, and they honestly are only there to give the snare some more consistency. The sound is 90 percent live snare and 10 percent samples, just like with the kick. Some of the snare samples have some Waves SSL Channel EQ and one of them has the SPL Transient Designer to give it some more attack.

The snare bottom and top mic tracks received complementary EQ and dynamics treatments from McDSP’s G Channel and Waves’ SSL Channel.The snare bottom and top mic tracks received complementary EQ and dynamics treatments from McDSP’s G Channel and Waves’ SSL Channel.

“Next are the hi-hat and ride tracks, which have nothing crazy on them, just some EQ, from the Waves SSL Channel and Focusrite D2, filtering out the low end. Both tom tracks have the SPL Transient Designer, adding some attack and taking out sustain to get rid of some cymbal noise that was in there, and the Waves SSL Channel, cutting 15dB at 500Hz, because I hate that frequency from the 421 mics. I’m also boosting 8dB at 5.5kHz, and then both tracks have the Waves C4, which is controlling the low end, which was a bit overbearing. Then there’s the overhead track, with first the Avid seven-band EQ, filtering until 120Hz, and taking out a nasty frequency that overheads always seem to have between 4-8 kHz — in this case I’m taking out 2dB at 5kHz. My next EQ is the API 550, which adds some 12.5kHz, for some more brightness, and the Waves CLA76, which is set to the ‘overheads’ preset so that when the snare drum hits it compresses, but it lets the cymbals come through.

“The room mic track just has some Waves SSL Channel EQ, and then there’s the ‘butt mic’, which had some really nasty frequencies, so I have really sharp Qs at 350Hz and 3kHz on the Avid EQ III seven-band, and I am taking out these frequencies completely. Next are those Royer stereo and Coles mono room microphones that I was talking about, and I left them untreated. Travis has a small additional snare drum, which I treated with the Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machine. The next three tracks are the Superior Drummer room tracks that complement our own room, resulting in a really awesome sound. I don’t manipulate those very much, because they already sound pretty good. ‘Movingon’ are two additional room drum samples that I mixed in.”

  • Bass: Avid EQ III & Trim; Waves API 550B, MV2 & JJP Bass; UA Little Labs VOG & Harrison EQ; Bomb Factory SansAmp PSA1.

“Though we always record the bass through the Kemper, I tend to ditch that and go for the DI track, because I love how it sounds. I then use that as a starting point to tweak the sound from. I have many plug-ins on the bass, eight in total! The first is the stock Pro Tools EQ, boosting 5dB at 80Hz. I always boost the bass guitar at either 60Hz or 80Hz, depending on whether I want the low end to be controlled by the kick or the bass. In this case it was the latter. It’s a trick I picked up from metal mixers. Then there’s a Trim to bring the level down a bit, which had gotten too hot, and a Waves API 550B, which boosts 4dB at three frequencies — 150Hz, 1.5kHz, 2.5kHz — and 5dB at 50Hz. It’s doing some extreme EQ to hype up the bass.

Zakk Cervini cites the UA Harrison EQ plug-in as another favourite, used here on the bass DI track.Zakk Cervini cites the UA Harrison EQ plug-in as another favourite, used here on the bass DI track.

Next is the Little Labs Voice Of God, boosting a little low end. It’s not crucial to the sound, but the following plug-in, the SansAmp, is. From there the signal goes through the UAD Harrison EQ, on a setting I use every time, tightening up the mid-range and filtering the high end. It sounds great in conjunction with the SansAmp. Then there’s the Waves MV2. I’m not sure what it does, but using the two knobs, you can make the bass sound much better.

Another of Cervini’s five key plug-ins is Waves’ MV2, employed here on the bass DI track. Another of Cervini’s five key plug-ins is Waves’ MV2, employed here on the bass DI track.

Finally there’s the Waves Jack Joseph Puig plug-in, adding some 100Hz, because the bass needed to be able to cut through on small speakers a bit more. This is again something I learned from Chris Lord-Alge. Tracks like these don’t need big bass. The song is fast and I did not want a big, subby mess. The bass most of all needs to translate well on small speakers.”

  • Guitars: Waves SSL Channel, AudioTrack, Renaissance Axx, CLA-3A & S1; Avid EQ III, D-Verb; Softube Active EQ & Metal Amp Room.

“In between the bass and guitar tracks are some 808 samples, to give some more power to the choruses. I use them pretty much in every song I mix. The ‘St Ryth’ track is the main rhythm guitar track. I am not doing anything unusual on this. There’s just a Waves SSL EQ, boosting some 8kHz, CLA-style. It’s pretty much all I do on rhythm guitars: boost 8kHz until it sounds good. The next plug-in is the Waves AudioTrack, which is not doing much, and then there’s my favourite plug-in, the Waves Renaissance Axx compressor, which really slams the guitar 12dB. It widens the guitar sound and makes it feel tighter. I use it pretty much on every single guitar.

Rhythm guitars received extreme compression courtesy of Waves’ Renaissance Axx.Rhythm guitars received extreme compression courtesy of Waves’ Renaissance Axx.

“‘St Oct’ is the main octave lead guitar, with pretty much the same chain. The SSL Channel boosts at 1.5kHz, because it is a lead guitar and needs to cut through, and then I have again the Renaissance Axx slamming it. Following that are Pro Tools stock EQs, taking out 8dB at 600Hz, a frequency I did not like. ‘St Ryth2’ is an additional rhythm guitar, which has the same plug-ins as the main rhythm guitar. ‘Skibalea’ is another Matt lead guitar track, which is mostly muted out, and it once again has the Axx, plus the D-Verb, which is great to make guitars sound ambient. The EQ III takes out a bunch of low end. You can hear that guitar part in the bridge.

“Next up is a guitar feedback track, which has the Softube Active EQ, and the main effect on that is the Softube Metal Amp Room, which is my favourite software amp simulator. This feedback was a last-minute overdub. We just plugged in the guitar, went DI and through the Metal Amp Room, and it sounded fine. Next is another Matt lead track, again with the Renaissance Axx and the D-Verb. Finally, there’s the acoustic guitar track, on which I had the Waves CLA-3A, which is my favourite acoustic guitar compressor. I compressed the guitar as hard as I could, and then I have another SSL Channel EQ, boosting some 8kHz, because I love 8kHz on acoustic guitars. There’s also a pad, on which I have the S1. I wanted the pad to sit in a different position in the panning spectrum than the guitars. The S1 helps give it a different dimension, so when it comes in you think that it sounds cool and different from everything else in the song.”

  • Vocals: Softube FET Compressor & Active EQ; UAD Manley Massive Passive; Waves API 550B, SSL Channel & Renaissance De-esser; UA Ampex ATR102; Massey De-esser; McDSP FutzBox; Soundtoys EchoBoy; Avid EQ III & ReVibe.

“The first four vocal tracks are the lead vocals, and the lead singer, Mark, he sounds very low and deep. So the first track, ‘Versevox’, has the FET Compressor, which is another very crucial plug-in in this mix. I used it on 95 percent of my vocals, with a super-fast release, and I just compress the heck out of the vocal with a 4:1 ratio. The next plug-in is the UAD Manley Massive Passive, which has a really good high end, so I am boosting a little bit of that to level out the deepness of Matt’s voice. After that I have an API 550 EQ that’s boosting a little bit at 5kHz, just for some sibilance, and an SSL Channel EQ that is boosting around 2.5kHz, because I felt that the vocal needed a little bit more aggressiveness in the mid-range. The UAD Ampex ATR102 comes after that, and it has an amazing slap-back which I use on verse vocals all the time. ‘MDSr’ is a de-esser from Massey. ‘End Vox’ is a vocal at the end of the track, and it has the same signal chain as the ‘VerseVox’, apart from having no compression, because it was already so compressed on the way in.

McDSP’s FutzBox distortion, another one of Cervini’s five core plug-ins, in action on the ‘Bridge Vox’ track.McDSP’s FutzBox distortion, another one of Cervini’s five core plug-ins, in action on the ‘Bridge Vox’ track.

“The ‘Bridge Vocal’ has the McDSP FutzBox. It’s one of the five plug-ins that are crucial to my mix, the others being the Softube FET Compressor, the Waves MV2, the UAD Harrison and the SamsAmp. The FutzBox is a lot of fun to use. It has so many presets that I only mess with the Mix knob, so you can bring the filter in and out. I usually have it set around 50 percent. Then there’s the FET Compressor, which does the same thing as I’m doing on the rest of the vocals, and the Softube Active EQ, which takes out a little bit around 200Hz, and adds a little bit around 1.3 and 2.7 kHz, all of which are crucial vocal frequencies. There’s also a Waves Renaissance De-esser, taking out some high end around 5.5kHz, and a SoundToys Echo Boy, which is great to make the vocals sound ambient. Finally there is an EQ III at the end which is not that important, cutting a little bit more 200Hz, and boosting a little bit more 2kHz.

“The ‘Chorus Vocal’ track is treated in a pretty similar way, with the FET Compressor, the Waves SSL Channel EQ, with just a slightly different EQ than the verse lead vocal to differentiate them a little bit, boosting more at 3kHz and cutting at 150Hz, and the Massey de-esser. The ‘Chorus Vocal’ track has sends to the three aux tracks, which are the ‘Long Delay’ track, which has a stereo quarter-note delay from the EchoBoy, the ‘Verb’ track with the ReVibe, and the ‘DLY’ track with again the EchoBoy, set to a slap-back echo. I wanted a bit of a bigger sound when the chorus kicked in, so I had the long delay with a little bit of a reverb in there. The backing vocal tracks all again have the FET Compressor, Waves SSL Channel EQ, and the Massey de-esser, and are also all sent to the ‘Verb’ track, which kind of unifies the whole thing.”

  • Stereo Mix: Avid Trim; SSL XLogic X-Rack compressor.

“The master track right at the bottom of the session has a Trim plug-in, adding 1dB because I wanted to drive it a little bit harder into the SSL XLogic. Next is the hardware insert for the XLogic, which is the most important part of the mix. The SSL is set to a slow attack and fast release, 3:1 ratio, and is slamming 4 to 5 dB on the master, which is a lot. The [Waves] C4 and the Slate FGX are two makeshift mastering plug-ins, which I took off before the mix went to mastering. I wasn’t there for mastering, which was done by Ted Jensen, but it was a big process. They were trying to choose which mixes they liked their best, and after all the mixes were mastered, they still wanted to make more changes to some of the mixes.”

Mega Mastering

John Feldmann concludes: “We had worked for 12-16 hours for two months on this record, so I wanted some other perspectives on how the songs should be handled, which is why I got Neal [Avron] involved towards the end, and Ben Grosse and Dan Lancaster. All the mixes sounded amazing, so there was a mix shootout at the end, which happens a lot these days. Many people were involved, including the band, A&R and management, who all have different ideas. There was a nine-person steering committee trying to figure out what mixes sounded best. In the end we had at least 12 different mixes per mixer, per song! Ben mixed at least 11 songs, and Dan mixed six or seven songs. They were all insanely great, so it was a real achievement for Zakk to get so many of his mixes on the album.

Ted Jensen mastered each of these mixes, and the process got chaotic towards the end, with mixes being swapped until the very end. But it ended up with an album that sounds very much like Blink 182 in 2016, and that obviously has been embraced by their fan base, and beyond.”

All in all, another perfect product from the Feldmann factory floor.

The Man With The Golden Touch

John Feldmann’s punishing work ethic reflects, he says, “the crux of my passion: take a band from the middle of nowhere and help them make their dreams come through. To use my resources, my professional relationships, my connections with other artists to help put new bands on the road. To find what is unique about a band’s sound and help them develop that, and then see them rise to the top. Most recently I had a hand in the success of 5 Seconds Of Summer. I was working with 5SOS before they had a record deal, and to watch them go from nothing three-and-a-half years ago to selling out Madison Square Garden in an hour is an amazing feeling. That’s where I get the most joy from, even though I also love writing and playing shows.”

Feldmann started playing music at the age of 12, writing songs, singing and playing guitar when growing up as a teenager in the Bay Area in California. He played in a number of bands during his formative years, but hit the big time with Goldfinger, who have sold four million albums worldwide since he founded the group in 1994. Goldfinger released six albums between 1996 and 2003, with Feldmann writing and producing the music, and eventually also engineering, mixing and A&R-ing the albums.

“Because I was touring so much in the 1990s,” explains Feldmann, “I was in the unique position to meet all these unknown artists in different towns, who were either support acts or would give me their demos. This parlayed from a career as an artist into discovering and then developing young talent. You have to remember that this was in the time before the Internet, when you still had to physically be in the middle of nowhere to find the next new thing. Today with YouTube and Vine and musical.ly and Soundcloud it’s very different.

“In 1996 I found the band Reel Big Fish, who ended up releasing a million-selling album [Turn The Radio Off] on Mojo, the label to which Goldfinger were singed. Guy Oseary, who ran Maverick Records with Madonna, later took a risk on me and paid me a salary to find bands, and I found Showoff, Mest and later on the Used, and also Story Of The Year. The latter two went on to have million-selling albums, on which I also worked as a producer, writer, engineer and/or mixer. Even many artists I discovered who didn’t necessarily become big at the time went on to have substantial careers in the music business, like for example Jason Evigan, who I encountered as part of the After Midnight Project, and who has since become one of the biggest writer-producers on the planet. After Maverick stopped being a label the natural progression was for me to become an A&R for Warner Bros, and later on I went over to Red Bull Records, which felt new and exciting, but ultimately they’re an energy drink company, and I’m a musician, so I left. I’m currently about to embark on a new A&R venture about which I can’t say anything right now.”

The polymath producer describes how he developed his engineering skills: “Goldfinger, and the earlier bands I produced in 1995-6, were guinea pigs to get me to where I am now. For example, I engineered the first eight or nine albums I produced. I learned engineering through trial and error. I tried things like moving the mics millimetre by millimetre around the cone of a guitar cabinet to find the sweet spot. It could take me hours to get the guitar sound I was after. The first two records I did were on two-inch tape, so I learned to align and clean tape machines. Then I did a Goldfinger record on digital 48-track tape, and after that I had an Akai 16-track digital recorder to create demos on. In the early ’90s I would have considered myself a writer and a singer. In 1995 I would have considered myself an engineer/producer, and today I see myself as a writer/producer.”

John Feldmann: Working With Singers

“Vocals are most of all about attitude. Today you can fix everything, but you can’t fake attitude. You can’t do without a performance with passion and heart. So I am always concerned with getting the band, and the singer, to a genuine emotional place. Getting the lyrics to appear real for the singer is key, and a lot of the time when we’re doing vocals we’re rewriting melodies and lyrics on the fly. I have my computer connected to the singer’s iPad, and we are rewriting things in real time. I really don’t like vocalists to track more than one 16-bar phrase at a time, because I want them to have the full amount of energy for every section: for the middle eight, for the bridge, for the chorus, the verse, and so on. Once the lyrics and melody are solidified, I’ll typically do between five and 12 takes of each section of a song, and will comp those.

“You can’t tap into the creative power of the universe without trying to be still and quiet, so meditate. If I am in traffic and on the phone all day, talking to my kids, or doing business, I can’t tap into that power. I have specific candles for different types of music to help the singer get to a certain vibe and energy place. I also have throat tea, room-temperature water, and things like that at hand. Thai tea, which has caffeine, with sugar, is a great vehicle to get another hour out of a tired vocalist. Some singers can sing for 90 minutes, others can go for eight hours straight. Singing isn’t some robotic thing. Every person is different. Each singer has his or her warm-up exercises. Singing is such an intimate thing. A guitar will sound the same every day, but a vocalist may have slept badly the night before, or have gone to a party and screamed. All these things affect the human voice. Even the weather does.”

Published October 2016