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Inside Track: Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie 'Feel About You'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Mark Needham
Published September 2017
By Paul Tingen

Mark Needham at his custom Slate Dual Raven control surface.Mark Needham at his custom Slate Dual Raven control surface.Photo: Mark V Lord

Fleetwood Mac stalwarts Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie have enjoyed long musical careers — as has their engineer, mixer and co-producer Mark Needham.

In his fifth decade as a top-level engineer, mixer and producer, Mark Needham could be forgiven for being a bit of a traditionalist. Instead he’s an early adopter, who has eagerly embraced digital innovation. For example, he was not only one of the first to get Slate Digital’s Raven MTX touchscreen DAW controller, but he even asked the company to build him a custom dual-screen version.

Acquiring the Dual Raven was the culmination of Needham’s gradual move from working in analogue to working entirely in the box, which began in 2004. He recalls: “As the sound of digital and of plug-ins got better and better, I had to ask myself: this UAD EQP1A plug-in sounds just as good as the two EQP1As I have in my rack, so why am I paying for maintenance on those and trying to do recalls on them? The maintenance of a large format console and outboard, and the AC to keep everything cool, is a big expense.

“I initially got pushback from some labels because I was switching to in-the-box, but to me it seemed like everything was heading that way. I was fully in the box by 2010, because, with bands and labels expecting six or seven recalls, the instant recall capacity became paramount. For decades I used an SSL G console, and I can count on my hands the amount of times a recall sounded exactly the same. Instead, it usually needed an hour and a half of re-patching, and then another hour of tweaking, to get everything sounding exactly the same as before.”

Today Needham mixes about 400 songs a year, and frequently works on 10 projects in a single day — sessions that may contain 200-plus tracks with 10 plug-ins per track. This work ethic is aided by a daily rhythm that involves getting up a 4am and starting work at 5am.

Where It All Began

Inside TrackAmong his many other big-name clients Mark Needham has worked with Lindsey Buckingham since the late 1990s, and mixed Fleetwood Mac’s last full-length album, Say You Will (2003), as well as the band’s Live In Boston (2004). After singer/keyboardist Christine McVie returned to the fold in 2014, there was talk of a new Fleetwood Mac album, but in the end, this ambition transformed into a 40-minute long album simply called Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie, on which all Fleetwood Mac members appear, apart from Stevie Nicks.

Needham was called in as an engineer, co-mixer and co-producer when work began on the album in 2014, at Studio D at the Village Recorder in Los Angeles, the same place where the band had recorded their classic Tusk album in 1979. After two months of reportedly successful recording sessions, the band went on their On With The Show world tour for a year, and work on the album recommenced two years later, at the end of 2016, again at Studio D. Final mixdowns were conducted by Buckingham and Needham at the Village Recorder and at Red Oak Studios. The 10 songs that ended up on the final album feature three co-produced by Buckingham and Mitchell Froom, five co-produced by Buckingham and Needham and two produced by Buckingham alone. Needham takes the behind-the-scenes story from the top

“We recorded maybe eight or nine songs four years ago, at the Village Recorder. After they came back from tour we picked up where we had left off to wrap these songs up and record a few additional songs. Before embarking on this project four years ago, Lindsey had worked on three tracks with Mitchell Froom, and these were pretty advanced, and it was just a matter of redoing vocals, maybe making a few small arrangement changes and in general just some additional production. We recorded the rest of the songs from scratch. They usually came in with a pretty solid direction. Lindsey had recorded demos for many of the songs, and there also were demos done by Christine, who had sent them over to Lindsey to work on them. He came up with various concepts for them.

“Lindsey really is the constant thread through all of this, keeping it all organised and coming up with ideas, and we just melded everything together. We recorded all songs apart from the ones done with Mitchell from scratch, usually with everyone playing live in the studio, and then spent a lot of time going back to the demos and comparing things and sometimes finding that the demos sounded better! We recorded through the Neve 88R desk that was in the room, and kept printing mixes at each stage, so we could always refer back to what we had done on a particular day in a particular month of a particular year. There was a lot of referencing back and forth, and many collective arrangement decisions were fretted over, just trying out how to make the songs work and keep the flow of what we were doing.”

Vintage & Modern

Throughout the entire project, Buckingham in particular had a very specific vision for the sound and production for the album, combining a classic Fleetwood Mac-inspired sound with more modern influences. The balance tilted towards the latter after the idea of turning the project into a Fleetwood Mac album was abandoned. Needham: “I didn’t really have to reference the sound of the Fleetwood Mac albums of the past, because it’s what the players bring to the table. What mic I put on Mick Fleetwood’s kick drum or on Lindsey’s guitar does not define what they sound like. Mick’s drum sound and John [McVie]’s bass sound are so distinctive. Part of their thing is the way the two of them land on the beat together. This is different from probably any other rhythm section out there, and we're definitely trying to stay true to that.

With its two main participants busy touring in Fleetwood Mac, the Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie album was nearly four years in the making.With its two main participants busy touring in Fleetwood Mac, the Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie album was nearly four years in the making.

“Recording in the Village Studio D was a nod to the past, but we mixed entirely in the box, and then restricted ourselves to only using a single SSL Channel Strip plug-in on most tracks during the mix, plus just a few other plug-ins, to come up with a sound and approach similar to the 1980s, when I was working on an SSL desk and had maybe 10 compressors behind me in a rack, so you needed to really think how you allocated your resources. Normally I have far more plug-ins going on, but we really wanted to keep this approach, as if we were working on a console, from the time we were recording to the mix, and so we also established panning and EQ and levels during the recording sessions. At the same time, when the decision was made to turn this into a Lindsey and Christine album, it freed us up to use more experimental recording methods, which we would not have done if it had turned into a Fleetwood Mac album. So some of the tracks have a regular live drum kit, and some others have 90 tracks of drums with all sorts of stuff, like loops of Mick’s live playing. Overall they got a little outside their comfort zone of being a band recording live in the studio.”

Popping Snare

Most of Mark Needham’s mic choices were tried and tested, and were tracked through the Village Recorder’s Neve 88R and some classic hardware. “On the drums I used a combination of a Shure Beta 97 on the inside of the kick, and a [Neumann] TLM170 on the outside, as well as a Moon Mic as a sub mic. The snare had a Shure SM57 underneath and a Heil PR22 vocal mic at the top. It’s white with a gold pop filter, and I started using that as a snare top mic five years ago, and I really like it. It’s got great front-to-back rejection, and it gives me a nice big, fat, pop. The toms were all Sennheiser MD421s, and I had AKG C12 as overheads, and a Neumann KM84 on the hi-hat. There were three room mics — two AKG C12s and an AEA ribbon in the middle. The studio has an echo chamber right behind where the drums sat, and I had an C12 in omni position in that.

“The bass had a combination of DI and a Neumann U67 on the Ampeg B15 amp, plus a [Yamaha] NS10 as a sub. Electric guitars also were recorded DI, with a Neumann U67 on the amplifiers. I tend to use dynamic microphones on the electric guitar cabinets, but for Lindsey I wanted something a little higher quality for the crispness and extra top end, especially for his clean stuff. Lindsey’s acoustic guitars were recorded with a Sanken CU41 and a DI. The main keyboard used during live tracking was a Hammond B3, which I recorded with a Shure SM7 on the bottom and two [Neumann] U87s, and then just a stereo DI on the keys.

“I also used the Sanken CU41 on both Lindsey and Christine’s vocals. They sound fantastic, and have great front-to-back rejection. Especially if I am recording with a microphone right in front of the speaker, and the singer has no headphones, I’ll go for the Sankens. I first used them on Chris Isaak’s vocals on ‘Wicked Game’, which he sang in front of the speakers, and I now own several. The 41s also are great acoustic guitar microphones and great piano mics. They are very versatile. I also sometimes used the Manley Reference Gold mic on vocals. The signal chains during the recordings were a combination of Neve 1073s and 1081 on the drums and bass mics, 1073s on the vocals, and I also had an LA2A on the vocals and a Urei 1176 on the bass guitar. Everything else went through the Neve 88R. I use its compressors during playback, but other than that I am not doing much compression at all.”

Reference Library

During the recordings, Needham would be monitoring through the Neve desk at the Village Recorder, while creating rough mixes in the box. “All volume rides and treatments and effects were done in the box. I had a bunch of faders that I was using on the desk to return to Pro Tools, but I was trying to keep those as close to unity as possible. Of course, it does not quite work out like that, because sometimes when you want to turn something up, it’s easier to just reach for a fader. As I already mentioned, we printed reference mixes all the time. Given that the project was spread over such a long time, being able to go back to various reference mixes was very important.”

At some stage towards the end of 2016, Needham and Buckingham switched over to the final mixing stage. Needham: “For the convenience of Lindsey and the others, we initially mixed at the Village Recorder, where I set up an interim studio that duplicates my own room here, with another custom Dual Raven and the same ATC monitors. The entire mix process took about two weeks. I did a lot of preparation at my own studio, and towards the end Lindsey and I finished off the mixes here as well. I function a bit more like the mix engineer and he like the artist/producer. He has great ears and comes up with very specific ideas on EQ and panning that are really unusual, but that work well. He likes odd panning, for example, really segmenting things off. An example are the background vocals in ‘Feel About You’, which alternate between hard left and hard right, rather than being spread across the stereo spectrum. He is big on that, and it sounds cool.

“My preparation work for these mixes consisted of transforming the recording template to some degree to what normally would be my mix template, while trying to remain true to what we have been listening to from the monitoring section of the console. We had set up a tracking template during the recording sessions, which hopefully covered every recording situation we would encounter. I ended up staying with this tracking template all the way through, also for the mixes. In the end, I still had busses for things like aux returns, drums, bass, guitars and so on in the session, which I don’t normally do. We’d already set a direction for panning and placement and filtering and kept that right until the end. There were a few tunes on which Lindsey wanted to get into some different arrangements while mixing. There was one track that had eight different bridges, for example. He brought in a guitar and we recorded a new guitar and new vocals, trying to get a bridge that he was happy with.”

'Feel About You'

This composite screen capture, which is continued in another screenshot, shows the 189-track Pro Tools Edit window for ‘Feel About You’, with the exception of the aux and master tracks at the bottom.This composite screen capture, which is continued in another screenshot, shows the 189-track Pro Tools Edit window for ‘Feel About You’, with the exception of the aux and master tracks at the bottom.The final Pro Tools session for ‘Feel About You’ is 189 tracks large. These are, from top to bottom, 44 drums and percussion tracks, five bass tracks (brown), 26 guitar tracks (green and blue), 14 keyboard tracks (purple, brown, orange and blue), five lead vocal tracks (light blue), 76 backing vocal tracks (including a striking pattern of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from 114-137), the 10 bus tracks Needham says he doesn’t normally have in his session (dark green), two master tracks, four mix print tracks, and another two master tracks with EQ that adjusts for the room Needham is listening in. This breakdown includes the aux effect tracks that are located right underneath the tracks they are affecting, or in this case, effecting.

Drums

“The drums on this track are constructed by having Mick play specific parts, and me then cutting and looping these together to come up with something that has more of a modern feeling. Some of the songs were played live all the way through, but this is a song in which we did a lot of cutting, adding in some different sounds, different kick drum hits, and different effects, all to bring in the more modern elements. Normally I would be doing parallel bus compression on the drums, but we are trying not to over-compress things.

The bottom section of the Pro Tools Edit window shows various reference mixes that were re-recorded into the session, as well as the fade-out and group gain rides.The bottom section of the Pro Tools Edit window shows various reference mixes that were re-recorded into the session, as well as the fade-out and group gain rides.“As I also mentioned earlier, as a general rule, and all the way across, I was trying to stay with just one plug-in, the Waves SSL Channel, to try to stay with the sound of a console, instead of the modern approach, which involves using multitudes of plug-ins. We were trying to find a middle ground between a more traditional sound and being modern to some degree.

“For example, the intro for this song was kind of constructed. We tried several different intros, and in the end constructed one with two kick loops (1-2) and I added a snare (15). Then, track 3 is a 909 sample which I added, playing four to the floor softly in the background, and track 4 adds a kick drum accent, recorded with the NS10 mic and distorted a little bit, and I moved that slightly so it’s on the offbeat between beat 3 and 4 in the bar. You will find that a lot of Lindsay’s material, and a lot of Fleetwood Mac’s output, has soft things going on underneath that you don’t even consciously hear, but that create a subtle background pulse. It might be somebody tapping a hand on a couch. In fact, there are a lot of couches on these tracks!

“Tracks 5-9 are kick loops that go throughout the track, 10-11 are left and right overhead loops, and 12-14 are LCR room loops. All these tracks have the Waves SSL Channel. I might have started with a kick preset as a starting point, but the settings can be wildly different for each track. Five of these kick tracks also have the Sonnox Envolution, adding a little bit more attack, and cutting some sustain. The kick drum accent track has the Softube Abbey Road RS127 plug-in, adding 4dB at 2.7kHz, for some more attack.

“The rest of the drum tracks, 15-30, including snare, overhead, room, chamber and hats, also all each have only the Waves SSL Channel on them. Tracks 31-39 are claps, and a few of them have the Waves Joemeek EQ, which was something I added during tracking. I switched it out to an SSL Channel plug-in, and then listened to one of my early ref mixes, and decided that I liked the Joe Meek better. There are no sends on the drum tracks. All reverb and ambience comes from the room mics. There are some greyed-out HP5960 and HP57 sends, which are headphones sends. Tracks 43-44 contain a small cocktail kit that we set up as a second drum set, doing some fills. The tom was a little out of tune with the bass, it was one of these things that made the bottom end warble a little bit, so I just tuned that 18cts flatter with the Waves Sound Shifter, which fixed the problem.”

Bass

In a bid to recreate the experience and sound of mixing on a hardware console, Mark Needham relied mainly on the Waves SSL E channel plug-in. For a few sources, however, other plug-ins were also used, as here on the bass guitar. In a bid to recreate the experience and sound of mixing on a hardware console, Mark Needham relied mainly on the Waves SSL E channel plug-in. For a few sources, however, other plug-ins were also used, as here on the bass guitar. “Track 45 is the DI bass, and I am duplicating that to tracks 46-48, and am using a UAD SVT on that. I cut the bass tracks up in different sections, to get the sound to change throughout the song, with the choruses sounding a bit more aggressive. Track 49 is the bass cabinet mic, and I actually ended up running that through the UAD B15 amp simulator, which gave me a bit more clarity in the top end. I’m also using the FabFilter Pro-MB multiband compressor on all bass tracks, to take out some of the finger noise, and keep the bottom end in control. There’s about 3dB of compression from 180Hz down, just where it starts to get a little woofy. I am using a UAD 560 on track 49 as well, pulling out a little 500Hz and in the 2kHz range.”

Guitars

“The guitars start at track 50, with the middle eight guitars on tracks 61-70 and the end vamp guitars on tracks 71-74. All tracks again have the Waves SSL Channel, and there also are several instances of the Avid D-Verb. I put them on during tracking, not using anything fancy in an effort to keep our latency low. During mixing we tried more expensive-sounding reverbs, but then decided that the D-Verb’s sound worked. All plug-ins are just tools in a box, and the D-Verb has a very unique, identifiable sound. I also have the SoundToys EchoBoy on the guitars in the middle eight, and a send to track 75, which was a UAD EMT 140 plate, because we went for a bigger effect in that section.”

Vocals

“Tracks 90-91 are Christine’s lead vocal, with a double and an aux track (92), with a UAD EMT 140 plate reverb. Tracks 93-94 are Lindsey’s lead vocal, also with a double, and 95-96 are his chorus lead vocals. Yes, there are a lot of plug-ins on these tracks! This is how I usually do vocals, because I’m going for a more modern vocal sound here. The chain for all main lead vocal tracks starts with the FabFilter Pro-DS de-esser, set really wide, just barely hitting the vocal, then a Waves CLA 1176 set to medium attack with a super-fast release, then the UAD Precision De-esser set quite a bit tighter than the Pro-DS. After that there’s the Waves SSL Channel, and finally the UAD LA2A set very soft overall, taking off half a dB max. I use a combination of two de-essers because it allows me to get more de-essing done without it sounding like it’s being de-essed. I also like using the combination of two compressors, and find a sweet spot between the two. The lead vocal doubles are filtered out pretty hard on the bottom end.

Mark Needham achieved a  ‘modern’ lead vocal sound through extensive plug-in processing.Mark Needham achieved a ‘modern’ lead vocal sound through extensive plug-in processing.“Lindsey’s chorus vocal has the same plug-ins, apart from the FabFilter, and there definitely are different EQs and compression levels on these. All Lindsey’s vocals have a send to an Altiverb aux (101), on a Cello Chamber setting. Tracks 102-113 contain the post-chorus vocals of the song, and they have a Bus 23-24 send that’s going to another aux (146) with the Altiverb Cello Chamber, but set to a different level. The send to bus 23-24 is muted on the rest of the backing vocals, 114-145, because we decided in the end to dry these up completely. I like having slightly different combinations of reverbs between the verses, chorus and bridge. I enjoy the feel of the space changing a little bit between different sections and parts.

“The backing vocals from 116 have ‘Didrik’ in the comments section, because I used a Didrik De Geer mic to record these. I have a friend up in San Francisco who has eight of them, and I borrowed a couple for this session. It’s a kind of super-fancy C12 that is used for orchestral recordings, but I like it on vocals. The vocals on tracks 114-145 have this sharp panning where one set of tracks is panned sharp right and the response is panned far left.”

Groups & Master Bus

Although several compressors were used on the mix bus, each of them was only contributing a very small amount of gain reduction.Although several compressors were used on the mix bus, each of them was only contributing a very small amount of gain reduction.

“Tracks 171-180 are the groups from the original tracking sessions. All the drums through the drum bus, all the bass tracks through the bass bus, and so on. I don’t normally do this any more, but in the days when I was mixing on an SSL I always had eight subgroups like this. Track 71 has a reverb that we experimented with, but we ended up muting it. All these group tracks go to my mix bus, which is track 180, which has my mix bus chain, and that then gets sent to two Master Fader tracks, 181 and 182, which each have the UAD Precision Maximizer on them, one at +6dB and the other at +0. These get printed on tracks 183-184. Finally, tracks 187-189 have three different instances of the Sonarworks studio calibration plug-in, to calibrate for playback in my Los Angeles room, the room we mixed in at the Village Recorder, and my room in Nashville.

“To unpack all that a bit more, my stereo bus chain on track 180 consists of the UAD Shadow Hills Mastering compressor, UAD SSL G channel, UAD Precision K-Stereo Ambience Recovery, to spread things out a bit more when going from verse to chorus, UAD Maag EQ4 — I like to add a bit of sub with that — the UAD Precision Multiband, the UAD Chandler Curve Bender and the UAD Oxford Limiter. I use a combination of a few different compressors, each of which is very slight and subtle. It’s a combination that I use often, and it is about getting the balance between all the different things. The Precision Multiband tightens up the bottom end a little bit in some of the sections. The VariMu is in limiting mode, but hits the loudest section with only a quarter or a half a decibel. There are things that I have come up with over the years and that I like the sound of. The Oxford Limiter is maybe only coming down on some very top peaks. My master bus chain is usually a little bit more involved than this. Normally there would be a couple more things in there.

“I have the master faders after my master bus, so my master fader rides are not affecting how it hits the UAD Maximizer. I print my reference mixes at +6, and I send the +0 to mastering, which in this case was done by Stephen Marcussen. I leave the entire loudness issue to him. This is not an album that we mixed or mastered extremely loud. If Stephen can make it 10 percent better, then great.”

Given Mark Needham’s track record, Marcussen may have found it hard to improve his mixes by 10 percent!

The Mark Needham Story

A long time before Mark Needham had earned his 11 Grammy Award nominations and had scored major successes in his work with the Killers, Shakira, Chris Isaak, Blondie, Bruce Hornsby, Neon Trees, Imagine Dragons and many others, he was a kid growing up playing guitar and drums and fascinated by music equipment. “I had a room full of amplifiers and pieced-together tape recorders and things like that. I moved to San Francisco, and in 1972 I started building my own studio, which had an Altec 4:2 mixer, and I read the audio encyclopaedia front to back three times. I built everything myself in my first studios. My partner and I built our own console and even our own 24-track. We’d bought an old two-inch video recorder for $500 at a junk store and spent a couple of months turning that into a 24-track tape recorder!

“I always figured things out on my own — I never worked as an assistant in a big studio. It’s probably how I came up with my different methods of doing stuff! Though I did learn from working with some well-known people in the Bay Area in the 1970s, like Fred Catero and Erik Jacobsen. I had several moments that you can call breakthroughs in my career. I worked on my first major label album with Taj Mahal — I was so nervous! The song ‘Wicked Game’ by Chris Isaak [1990, and produced by Erik Jacobsen], was probably the first song I engineered and mixed that became big across the US. The Killers’ Hot Fuss album [2004] was another breakthrough. The album’s main single, ‘Mr Brightside’, has become a classic. I developed that band and helped sign them to Island Records. I’ve been into developing artists for a long time, and also helped sign Imagine Dragons to Interscope in 2011.

“In the days when I started, you recorded and mixed all the albums you mixed on. In the ’90s I started to focus more on mixing and by the time I moved to Los Angeles around 2000 I was still doing some recording and production and artist development, but spent most of my time mixing. When I first came to LA, I leased a room at a studio called Cornerstone. I was still on a console at that point, and working with Fleetwood Mac’s Say You Will, and developing the Killers and a couple of other bands. After I finished up the Killers and the Fleetwood Mac projects I found an old mansion here in Hollywood, and created my former studio in it, the Ballroom. Today, I work in Red Oak Studios, which is in my Los Angeles home.”

Red Oak Studios

Mark Needham’s Red Oak Studios is not your average home studio!Mark Needham’s Red Oak Studios is not your average home studio!Photo: Mark V Lord

Mark Needham’s Red Oak Studios control room is a huge space, with wood panels everywhere, comfortable furniture, and large French doors overlooking a local park in Hollywood. In true 21st Century fashion, the audio equipment occupies just a small part of it. There are a couple of ATC SCM45 speakers with an ATC SCM0.1/15 sub, an Avid S6 M10 8-5 control surface, three Avid HD I/O interfaces, four Lavry Blue 4496 D-A converters, an Apogee Rosetta 200 A-D/D-A converter, an Antelope Isochrone OCX master clock, no fewer than four UAD Octo DSP cards, and a few recording bits and pieces, like Fairchild, GML and Daking mic pres, plus EAR 660 and Urei Silverface 1178 limiter/compressors. Above all, though, it’s his custom dual Slate Raven controllers that catch the eye.

“When I first saw the first Raven,” Needman recalls, “I loved the resolution of the screens and I saw that the layout would be really comfortable for me to work on. I find that it makes my workflow a lot easier and faster. Also, the problem with [sound] reflections isn’t as strong with these screens. One of my first big-format consoles was an API DeMideo from Wally Heider’s in San Francisco, during the time I had a studio up in that city. The angle of those API consoles was quite a bit steeper than that of normal consoles, and I really liked the sound of that. The Raven matches that angle, and so the reflections from the speakers have the same feel.

“I monitor through the same set of speakers, my ATCs, 13-14 hours a day. I used to change between various speakers, but in the end I found that more distracting. I know exactly how these ATCs sound, and that gives me a lot more consistency from song to song and between projects. In the past I would go out and check mixes in the car and in other places, but today I work on so many different projects on any given day, having the same speakers gives me a consistent perspective. If I throw in too many variables it just confuses my ears. I also have a studio in Nashville, and it has almost exactly the same setup. To maintain my workflow, the most important things to duplicate in both studios are my monitoring, the Raven console, and the acoustics.”

Published September 2017