You are here

Inside Track: Blur 'The Ballad Of Darren'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: David Wrench By Paul Tingen
Published November 2023

Mix engineer David Wrench.Mix engineer David Wrench.Photo: Rachel Lipsitz

David Wrench’s goal as mix engineer was to make Blur sound like themselves!

As a producer and/or mixer, David Wrench has worked with Ellie Goulding, Glass Animals, Frank Ocean, David Byrne, Manic Street Preachers, Florence + the Machine, the xx and many more. This year alone, he produced and mixed the Pretenders’ 12th studio album, Relentless, and Sahel by Nigerian guitarist and singer Bombino, and, as well as Sampha’s second album, Lahai, he mixed the whole of Blur’s ninth studio album, The Ballad Of Darren, which was a UK number one.

Inside TrackThe Ballad Of Darren was produced by James Ford, well known for his work with Arctic Monkeys, Gorillaz, Florence + the Machine, and many others. Wrench originally met Ford during a session for a Simian record, at Bryn Derwen Studio in Wales, where Wrench worked at the time.

“This was in the early 2000s, when there were crazy wild parties! It was really nice to have the opportunity to work together again. James is a brilliant producer, and you can see the fantastic job he did on this Blur album. I wasn’t there for the recordings, but from listening to the Pro Tools sessions it was obvious that he also had captured the sound of a band playing in a room, and got them to sound like a band. So this is what I tried to enhance in my mixes.

“When you work with a band, first of all you need to work out how it sounds, particularly live. I’m often disappointed when I see bands live these days because they’re too slick, it’s too polished. Everything is run off backing tracks, everything is triggered, everything is perfect. It’s not that exciting. Yes it sounds very impressive but I don’t feel engaged in any way. However, when I saw Blur perform, I was blown away. They really sound like a band in the traditional sense, and there are imperfections, which is what makes them so good. It’s the same with the Pretenders. They’re amazing musicians, and Chrissie is obviously a phenomenal vocalist, just unbelievable. And Bombino and his musicians also are incredible. When you work with people like that, you just want to capture the sound of the band in the room.”

Home Brew

Wrench mixes at his own Studio Bruxo in East London. It is a music‑making paradise, with tons of synths and other keyboards, guitars, amps, drums, outboard and so on. “I had my studio built to spec, and I have a live room next door as well. There are no big resonant frequencies in the room, as it was purpose‑built. I’ve got a lot of equipment in here, which smears the sound as well. I have two different monitoring systems, one stereo and one Atmos. My stereo system consists of a pair of Neumann KH310 monitors, with the Neumann sub. I know that system back to front.

Taken prior to the installation of his Atmos system, this photo shows the monitoring position in the Studio Bruxo control room.Taken prior to the installation of his Atmos system, this photo shows the monitoring position in the Studio Bruxo control room.

“I love the Neumanns, I think they’re amazing. They’re trustworthy, and flat, there are no bumps in the low mids, and they have a tight bass. You just have to be careful with the placement to get the stereo imaging right. They’re not fatiguing and they’re not flattering, which I really like. You actually have to work quite hard to make things sound good on them. My Atmos setup consists of 12 speakers, including Unity Audio Rock MkIIs, which were phase‑aligned by Dolby.

“I work in Pro Tools with the Avid HD Native Thunderbolt and MTRX Studio, and DADman control software. I run Pro Tools on a MacBook Pro laptop, so I can take it with me when I go travelling. I just got the latest most powerful one, although not all software runs on M2 yet, so I still have to use Rosetta. I have quite a bit of outboard, the most essential units being the Roland Space Echo, and the Eventide H910 Harmonizer. But I’m 95 percent in the box, because you’re always going to have to do recalls. It just seems crazy these days to not be in the box.”

Embrace Limitations

“I work with a very narrow palette of plug‑ins,” insists Wrench. “When working in studios back in the ’90s, we didn’t have 50 bits of outboard gear. You worked with a limited amount of EQs, compressors, delays and reverbs. You’d have a plate reverb, and a couple of digital reverbs. I think having a limited palette of reverbs creates more of a cohesive sound and a space for the track, rather than everything being in separate spaces.

Inside Track

“I’d say 90 percent of my EQ’ing is done on the FabFilter Pro‑Q 3, which is just amazing. It’s pinpoint precise, but it also has a bit of character if you want it. It has an amazing ability to deal with harsh frequencies in vocals. I also use the FabFilter Pro‑C compressor a lot, and the Pro‑MB multiband all the time. I’d say that the Pro‑Q 3 and Pro‑MB are the two plug‑ins I use the most to control frequencies.

David Wrench: I’d say 90 percent of my EQ’ing is done on the FabFilter Pro‑Q 3, which is just amazing.

“I also love UAD plug‑ins, they’re amazing. The Teletronix LA‑2A is fantastic and my main vocal compressor. If I want vocals to have a bit more bite I’ll use a UAD 1176, and for EQ that adds character I like the UAD Pultec and the UAD Hitsville, the Motown emulation. The Hitsville has fixed frequency bands, and I quite like EQs that are straightforward like that. I use the UAD Thermionic Culture Vulture on drums or bass to add some harmonics.

“For reverbs, I’d say 90 percent of the time I use the Valhalla VintageVerb, which is fantastic. It’s not expensive and it always does the job. I use the Valhalla Room as well, often on guitars, on a very short setting, just 5 percent mixed in just to give the tiniest bit of space. My favourite delay is the Soundtoys EchoBoy, which is great.

“On the Blur record I used the Soundtoys PrimalTap for pitch delay, with a bit of feedback, again to give things a bit of space, maybe with a slight left to right effect to open it up a bit, and also the MicroShift, which emulates the Eventide H3000. It’s a brilliant plug‑in. I often put a little bit of that on a backing vocal or a double‑tracked vocal, to just widen them, so the whole thing has a little bit of spread to it.

“I’ll often use two de‑essers, because one often doesn’t catch it that well. I find especially if artists have used a valve mic, there tends to be quite a bit of sibilance on records. I can always tell when someone has used a Neumann U47 because the sibilance is quite hard to control. So I use the FabFilter Pro‑DS, and then something like [Oeksound] Soothe 2 to catch anymore harsh esses. If that’s not enough, I’ll go in by hand and draw the esses out. I’ll be harsher on the backing vocals than on the main vocals so there’s not a huge build‑up of esses and t’s.”

Get It Right At Source

In talking about treating vocals, Wrench points out some home truths that are easily forgotten in a world dominated by DAWs in which every performance mistake can be corrected: “When artists have proper mic technique, it makes mixing the vocal so much easier. It’s something that’s been lost a bit. When Chrissie [Hynde] sings, she moves her head between every word so her breaths are off mic, and she knows to move back off the mic if she’s going louder, and she comes in if she wants more power.

“She’s learned to do this back in the ’70s and it has become second nature. It immediately gives a much cleaner vocal recording. It’s the same thing with Damon, he also knows how to do it because he’s been recording since the days of tape. Singers like Chrissie and Damon are amazing vocalists who also don’t need tuning. When I was working with Chrissie, she’d be like, ‘Oh, let me do it again.’ There’s no resistance to doing another take just to get it right.

“With other singers, when I do tune, I’ll use Antares Auto‑Tune, but I’ll draw it by hand. I don’t like hearing Auto‑Tune, and when recording I’ll push artists, even younger artists, to do another take. I tell them, ‘I can just tune it, but doing another take will make it sound better.’ Correcting the tuning and timing of performances is everywhere now, but when you’re aiming for perfection, you’re getting rid of what’s special about music. Especially when you’re working with brilliant performers.

“Damon is a brilliant performer, and the whole band is brilliant. That’s the thing with Blur. They’re all characterful musicians. You wouldn’t want to break up that timing, because it wouldn’t be them, and they’d end up sounding bland. Damon has his own timing, and it’s the same with Chrissie. She stretches out the timing and it’s what makes her vocals amazing. You get shivers. Can you imagine how a Nina Simone record would sound if it was put in time or in tune? It would sound awful.”

The Studio Bruxo live room is full of quirky and interesting instruments.The Studio Bruxo live room is full of quirky and interesting instruments.

The Balance Of Darren

Going into more detail on his mix of The Ballad Of Darren, Wrench explains, “I mixed the whole Blur album in 10 days! With bonus tracks, this meant 15 tracks in 10 days, including notes, and back and forth and revisions. The first track I mixed was ‘St. Charles Square’, which was actually a bit of an outlier, in that it doesn’t really sound like the rest of the record. The guitars needed to be quite aggressive, and it has a double drum kit. In the rough mix the two drum kits were panned hard left and right, but this was causing stereo issues, so I muted the bass drum of one of the kits and panned the remaining bass drum central, and then had the top of the kits left and right. It just made the whole thing more focused.

“The second track I mixed was ‘The Narcissist’, which was more in line with the other material. The trick with that mix was to get the song to build and build over its four minutes. It needed to hit from the start, and then it needed to go up a notch all the time, and build intensity until the end. This involved a lot of volume automation and compression. The compression changes for each part of the song, so I automated it.

“I’m also obsessive about automating volume. I still think 90 percent of mixing is getting volume automation right. I do all this with the mouse. And with the vocals I literally go in and sculpt every word and every syllable. But despite the short time frame I had to do these mixes in, I did not copy my settings from this mix to other mixes. I like to start every mix from scratch.

“I always reference the rough. I have a Coleman Audio M3PH MkII monitor controller, and I have my mix on one button and the final rough mix that they’re happy with on another button, and I’m constantly comparing. I’m always checking that I haven’t made it worse. There must be something in there that they like, so I listen to that a few times before I do anything. I listen to what relationships are in the rough mix that you assume the artist enjoys, and then things will jump out to you.

“There’ll be a discussion with the producer and the artist beforehand, and sometimes people just want it to sound more open and sparkly, but sometimes people are like ‘I’ve lost track of this, can you help?’ With Blur, they’d been working on this a lot and James said ‘We need someone with your level of experience to be able to open this up and see what’s there.’ So in some cases there were quite a few changes. ‘Far Away Island’, for example, was originally going to be a bonus track, until they heard the mix, and then it went on record, because it had changed quite drastically.”