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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...

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