The principles behind George Ezra’s second album sound simple: great songs, great vibe, and plenty of crunch. In practice, things got a bit more complicated...
On first meeting singer-songwriter George Ezra in 2013, producer Cam Blackwood noticed that “George had encyclopaedic knowledge of Bob Dylan and is obsessed with Woody Guthrie. He was only 19, and I thought, ‘I hope this kid is good, because his references are amazing!’”
At the time, Blackwood had no idea of what was to come. Ezra was introduced to him as a complete unknown, while Blackwood himself was still busy making a name for himself as a producer, based in his studio in Voltaire Road in South London, and working as a musician, engineer, co-writer and/or producer on projects with mostly unknown artists.
“I’d done a few tracks with London Grammar in 2012, and this led to the call from Columbia asking whether I was prepared to do an EP on a budget with a certain George Ezra. They were to be his first recordings for the label. I agreed, and it so happened that ‘Budapest’ was on that EP, and when they heard it they were like: ‘We would like you to do the whole album!’ George and I started recording the album a month later. The first album took us 10 weeks to do, we recorded 19 songs, and it did ridiculous! I think worldwide it sold four million copies! The second album took seven or eight months over a period of 15 months, and we recorded 13 songs. It was intense!”
Following the success of Ezra’s debut album Wanted On Voyage, the same team was retained for the follow-up Staying At Tamara’s, with almost all sessions once again taking place at Blackwood’s Voltaire Road Studios. Most of the songs were co-written by Ezra and Athlete frontman Joel Potts. “For the first album we had 35 songs to choose from,” the producer recalls. The second time round, we had 54 or 55. The 13 we recorded were chosen between George, Joel, the label and myself. Pretty much all songs George came in with were just guitar and vocal, sometimes piano and vocal. Joel might have recorded a demo of George singing and playing guitar, or there’d be a voice memo recorded by George on his iPhone at home. The songs were mostly complete, with chords and melodies and lyrics — it’s old-fashioned songwriting! Sometimes a middle eight still needed finishing, but his lyrics were always great. George is really critical of what he does, so lyrically there’s a level that he never drops below.
“Music-wise, I was lucky that the demos were just vocal-guitar or vocal-piano, because it meant there were no preconceptions of how these songs had to be done. All George’s songs can be arranged in many different ways, whether as R&B or rock or folk. The way we approached most of the songs was with just the three of us in a room: George, my musical right-hand man and drummer Matt Racher, and me, with my assistant Liam Thorne recording. George will have a guitar, I may grab a bass, or go to a piano, and Matt will play drums or some percussion instrument, and we just jam. We find a vibe and a tempo, which sometimes changes during the song for feel reasons.
“If it felt that George was tripping over his words in the chorus, but the verse was brilliant, we’d slow the chorus down by half a bpm. Or if the verse was a bit dull, we’d speed it up and/or change the feel of the kick, with lots of accented hits. We usually ended up with decent guide bass, drums, keyboard or guitar and a decent guide vocal, and then we’d do live takes. We always did live takes, to a click. Live takes is what the Beatles and the Rolling Stones did. There’s a movement to that. You play the second chorus a bit harder, and when the singer starts to belt you do something clever to accentuate that, and so on. All that gives added value over a generic pop production in a DAW with many parts copied and pasted. I am not saying everything has to be live, but there’s a magic that you can capture when musicians play live. Songs feel different when the parts have been played from start to finish. People can feel the humanity in the music.
“Things have to counterbalance. If something cheerful also has a sweet sound, it becomes too saccharine. You need counterweight. Imperfections in the performances also are an essential part of that. For example, George’s song ‘All My Love’ has an almost Elvis-like feel, and we got a sound that refers back to Phil Spector, with tons of layers and loads of depth, and it doesn’t matter if it feels a bit rushed going into the chorus or at the end of the middle eight. Nobody ever put down a law that says you have to quantise everything to make great music.
“Having said that, we were definitely trying to make a modern hit record, so we could not only refer back to the past. It had to sound current as well. But it was difficult to get my head around how I was going to do that. I had never thought of asking myself the question ‘How am I going to make this commercial?’ I never think about whether records would sell, I just think, ‘This is wicked!’ But especially these days you also have to think about whether it will sell. So it’s a balancing act, and the hardest thing in this respect is confidence. You’re the person in charge in the room. The buck stops with you!”
Blackwood’s pursuit of the right balance saw him bring in guest musicians and singers, including Fred Gibson, the Atlantic Horns, Billie Marten, Florrie Arnold, Dan Caplen and James Wyatt, whilst also incorporating a lot of programming. “I love hip-hop, so I often programmed hip-hop-influenced beats. Some songs began with me at home with a guitar and my little Pro Tools setup there, and I programmed some beat in Pro Tools’ Boom plug-in, just for the vibe, perhaps just a hi-hat pattern or a clap or a kick, and I’d get something going, and the next day we’d play to that.
“Often Matt or I programmed things in the studio. I have an old Akai MPC60 from 1986 that also says Roger Linn on it, and I may load up a Linn LN1 drum kit, and make a sequence using the hi-hat sound. ‘Paradise’ has a LN1 snare on the two and four all the way. Or we had a live hi-hat in the chorus, and a swung Roland TR606 hi-hat in the verses. ‘Saviour’ starts with a recording of crickets from a video I made in Tuscany two years ago, that happened to be in time with the track. There also was a delay on the crunch drum microphone, which is often done in house and techno. A lot of it is just us messing around until it sounds cool. I call it ‘patchwork’. It’s a collage of styles.”
The hip-hop vibe also fed into the vocal arrangements. “The idea of the half-shouted ‘gang’ vocals that are on a number of songs, including ‘Paradise,’ came from the old-school hip-hop of around 1990, when they always had guys in the background going ‘Yeah!’ and ‘Wow!’ and so on, as if it was a party track. George and I sang most of the gang vocals, overdubbing them and pretending to be Elvis, or from Ireland, or George pretending to be from Scotland, using all these pretend accents. We liked the idea of adding these gang vocals so the songs don’t take themselves too seriously, particularly as so much of the album is about anxiety. Lines like ‘What a terrible time to be alive if you’re prone to overthinking’ in ‘Pretty Shining People’ can come across as over-preachy if you’re not careful. George and I are definitely the kind of people who may overthink things, and we talked a lot about not being preachy and getting a positive message across. We wanted the record to mean something, yet at the same time not make people want to slash their wrists!
“Finding this balance between conveying meaning yet not being preachy was one reason why the new album took so long. Another reason was because we didn’t just keep building arrangements, we repeatedly reimagined songs from scratch — and then in some cases we reimagined the song again. We did five versions of ‘Hold My Girl’! The first version sounded like something that came off The Last Waltz by the Band from 1976. It’s a really beautiful, cathartic process to keep reimagining songs, until you’ve done it five times. Then it messes with your head! We did seven versions of ‘Shotgun’, and Fred Gibson came up with such a great bass line in the chorus that we dropped what we had and left just the vocal and bass line. We did ‘Only Human’ twice. For most songs we went with the first or second attempt at arranging them.”
Voltaire Road Studios is located in a business centre, and has undergone substantial transformation since Blackwood obtained it. “When I moved in, there was a small control room with a tiny programming room, a live space of about 14x16 feet, and a lounge area. I’ve since knocked the programming suite down and created a big control room. The live room is great for about four or five people, and has a great drum sound, which I make bigger with trickery from spring and plate reverbs. I have created a kitchen in the back of the lounge area, and I also have a piano in there, because it is a really live-sounding space. The piano is an 1886 Monington & Weston from London, which does not have a metal frame and is tuned down a semitone, so it has a real esoteric ‘Bon Iver meets the National’ sound.
“Gear-wise, we made George’s first record with tons of guitar pedals, an Apogee Rosetta 800 A-D/D-A, some small ADAM monitors, and Yamaha NS10s with an old Bryston B2 amp. I had a Roland Juno 106 synth and a GEM Sprinter, which is more of a cheap organ than a synth, and some guitars and amplifiers.
“Now, I also have a small 12-channel Trident Fleximix from the mid-’70s, which I love. I send all the drum mics through that, and it is one of those desks on which not all channels sound the same. Channel 1 has the kick drum mic, and that sounds great, and channel 2 has the hi-hat, because nothing else sounds good on channel 2. As you move to the right, the channels get quieter!
“I have more guitars and amps and keyboards now, the latter including the Korg DS8, Roland Juno 6, Oberheim Matrix 6 and Korg Triton Pro. Plus I have drum machines like the Roland TR-606, TR-707, TR-808, TR-909, and the Akai S950 sampler and the aforementioned MCP60. I have tons of floppy discs for the Akai machines, and they’re all 12-bit, which results in an amazing crunchy sound that I adore!
“My monitors today are the KRK 9000B, just like Paul Epworth, and I have the original, passive PMC TB1 speakers, with a Bryston 4BSST to drive them. They sound amazing. I also have some Audio Note AN/E LX speakers that are great, and a small, cheap boombox.
"I used Logic until 2012, but then migrated over to Pro Tools HD, because I wanted to be able to monitor loads of live stuff without latency. I was always bringing down the buffer size on my old Mac with Logic to make that work, and it would start doing all sorts of juddery stuff. For a while I recorded everything in Pro Tools and then mixed in Logic, but when SSL stopped making the LMC-1 compressor plug-in, which worked in Logic but not in Pro Tools, I switched to mixing in Pro Tools. I also have tons of outboard gear, like the Manley Massive Passive and VariMu, an old UREI ‘blue stripe’ 1176, and some really nice reverbs, like the Bricasti M7, Dynacord VRS23, Yamaha Rev 7, Lexicon PCM80, and so on, which I use on inserts in Pro Tools.”
Blackwood and his engineer Liam Thorne put the above-mentioned equipment to use during the recordings for Staying At Tamara’s, as well as a number of unusual microphones. “Before we start recording drums, all the drums are tuned to the key of the song, either the root note, or the fourth or fifth. So if the song is in G, I’ll have the kick, snare and toms tuned to G or C or D. If it’s a minor key, Matt and I may tune the toms to a minor third and a fifth. To record the kick, I have an Audix D6 just inside the hole, pointing at the beater, and a Neumann U47 FET on the outside. We have an AKG C414 on the snare top, and the snare bottom is an E-V 635, which is a small mic that doesn’t pick up much under 120Hz, so it doesn’t record too much of the kick. On the rack toms I use the Sennheiser e906 guitar mic, the hi-hat has an AKG C451, and the overheads are Royer SF1 ribbons. I also have a Beyerdynamic M69 between the floor tom and the kick drum, pointing at the drummer’s feet, and that goes into an old dbx 118 hi-fi compressor that makes it sound a little bit crap and adds crunch to the overall drum sound. There also is a Shure SM7 between the snare, the ride and the kick drum. And there are stereo room mics in my studio, usually a Royer SF24, which I crank for more ambience and grit.
“My bass amp is an Ampeg V2, from the early ’70s. It’s the 120V version and it weighs a ton, and it goes into an old Peavey Black Widow cab, and an Ampeg 4x10 next to it. I use a Shure SM7 and a Neumann U87 on it, plus a Royer SF24 room mic, and also the MXR M80 Bass DI, with drive and a little EQ. So I blend two mics, one room mic and a DI, using the Waves InPhase plug-in to line everything up, which really helps to get a really tight and chunky bottom end. I also use the Massey THC distortion plug-in on the bass most of the time, and double up the bass with a synth bass, usually my Moog Taurus, and distort that too. I also often use the Waves Abbey Road TG12345 plug-in on bass. It also is great on piano as the compressor is so brutal! It has a drive setting for more crunch.”
“I don’t find guitars that difficult to record, for some reason,” continues Blackwood. “There are four amps that I use all the time, the most important being a Marshall Bluesbreaker amp that I have pimped up beyond belief. It has Weber Alnico speakers, one blue and one silver for a more 3D sound, hand-wound Mercury Magnetics transformers (power, output and filter choke), NOS Mullard ECC83 and GZ34 rectifier and GE KT66 valves. I also bought the best capacitors I could find. I just love the fact that the amp now has a really great big bottom end that is full without getting muddy.
“My guitars are a Fender Telecaster, Strat, Jazzmaster, Rickenbacker, Danelectro baritone guitar, an old Gibson SG, and a Les Paul. They go through whatever pedals for a bit of bite, and I record the cabinets with ribbon Royer SF1 mics, 1cm from the grill, one on each speaker. I phase-match them, and I have a Royer SF24 stereo ribbon about 20 feet away, in the kitchen lounge in the back, with the door open. It gives quite a boxy and toilety ambient sound, but it works amazingly. So I end up with two mono close tracks and a stereo ambient track for each guitar part, going into a stereo bus. I can bring up the faders, and adjust how much room I want, add a little compression or spring reverb, take off some bottom end, and it’s brilliant! It just sits in the mix!
“How I record an acoustic guitar depends. I have a Gibson J45, which is my workhorse, and will record that with an SM57 on the bottom part of the body, and a Shure SM7 or EV RE16 dynamic cardioid on the 12th fret, and then again about two metres away I’ll have the Royer SF24 for some natural room. On ‘Hold My Girl’ we used my old 1963 Eko, which weighs a ton, but sounds amazing. I simply cannot get a 12-string guitar to sound good, so what I do when I want the sound of a 12-string guitar is to first play one normally strung guitar and then to overdub the same part played on my Taylor guitar that’s Nashville strung [replacing the lower four strings with lighter strings and tune them an octave higher], and I pan them, and it sounds amazing. The two close mics on my acoustics will go through API or TG Electronics mic pres, and the SF24 room mic through the Trident desk, or two SSL channels, which sound quite clean. Again, no compression. I rarely compress things going into Pro Tools.
“The synths I used on George’s album were all hardware, and they often go through my guitar pedals, and sometimes amps, and then into my Trident and into Pro Tools. I tend to overdub synths later on. As I mentioned, I use the Moog Taurus regularly for bass, often as an underlying sub, to make it sound more modern. It only goes up to C4 I think, and the filters are great. You can turn down the resonance for that 1970s thump at 80Hz that really makes the track feel pumping! I use hardware synths 95 percent of the time but if I use a soft synth it’ll be the Sylenth and the Serum. The latter is ridiculously complex, but sounds great! Other plug-ins I use a lot are the Brainworx bx_digital v2, which is brilliant for widening. I don’t like stereo widening because of the phasing, but compressing the sides with the v2 to make them louder and wider and works really well. There’s also a Total Harmonic Corruption plug-in by Massey that’s great. Other favourites are the Massey TapeHead and FabFilter Saturn, for saturation. Programmed things in particular can be difficult to hear in the mix, unless you have harmonic distortion on them.
“There’s one effect that I use on almost everything, certainly guitars and synths, and that’s the Eventide H9 Harmonizer, which is an effects pedal with two ins and two outs, which you can also set to be line ins and line outs. I use that for every atmosphere on every track that I ever record. It has got the Shimmer, Blackhole, Undulator, Chorus, it modulates, has delays, reverbs, springs, room emulations, plates, and so on. It’s the pedal version of the H9000, and it sounds amazing!”
Cam Blackwood often mixes projects he has produced himself, but Ezra’s debut Wanted On Voyage was mixed by Cenzo Townshend, and for the second album, the label decided on a mix shoot-out. “We got four mixes back of the same track,” says Blackwood, “mixed by four leading, UK-based mixers. They all sounded great, but one of them was amazing, because it accentuated all the bits of grit and crunch that I had put in, with a depth and aggression that was perhaps missing on the first record. And the vocals sounded just great. The entire song sounded like a pop record and a classic rock & roll record at the same time — as classic rock & roll as you can get away with in 2018. That’s a hard thing to do!”
The winner of the shoot out was Dan Grech-Marguerat, and he went on to mix the whole of Staying At Tamara’s apart from ‘Hold My Girl’, which was mixed by star mixer Michael Brauer in New York. Before handing over to Grech-Marguerat, Blackwood did reference mixes. “I normally use lots of outboard when I mix,” says the Scotsman, “things like the SSL or Alan Smart compressor, or the Distressor on the snare, an 1176 and Bricasti on the vocals, and so on. However, in the case of George I did everything in the box, because I knew Dan would mix it afterwards, so I used plug-ins to approximate what the outboard would have done. I’d use a Waves CLA76 instead of an outboard 1176, and an Avid ReVibe plate instead of a Bricasti M7 plate.
“I also tuned very small sections of George’s vocals, but only in cases where I had great takes where maybe one note might have been flat. I’d then stick that one note in Melodyne, and I’d do some manual tuning, not touching the modulation and just nudging the fundamental a little bit, so it will still sound natural. I did spend quite a lot of time on these reference mixes, and got them to perhaps 80 percent of where they needed to be, so they felt like a track. Dan then took what I did, and just made it sound better. The bottom end would be right, the vocals would sit right, the width would be right, and the risers, the length of the cymbals, and of the reverbs, and so on would all be right. Dan didn’t do ‘Hold My Girl’ because by the time that song was finished he was producing Liam Gallagher’s album and Dan did not have the time to mix that song.”
Over at London’s Strongroom Studio 3, Grech-Marguerat recalls the mix shootout. The four mixers worked on ‘Don’t Matter Now’, and Grech-Marguerat’s mix was released in June 2017 as an album taster. Grech felt an immediate affinity with the Pro Tools session he received, which is not surprising as he describes his musical aesthetic in very similar terms to Blackwood. “I love pop music, but I also love the grain and grit of alternative records and analogue recording. So when I mix pop music, I try to introduce some of that alternative, gritty, crunchy sound. It’s why I would not be any good at mixing a certain type of very shiny American pop music. So it was great for me to work on George’s stuff, because he’s an alternative artist who operates in mainstream pop. He brilliantly straddles both worlds.
“‘Don’t Matter Now’ is a particularly gritty record, with an early Beck/hip-hop-like feel to it. My aim was to maintain that as much as possible, but also make it feel like the track can be on Radio 1. That was the challenge, as it was with the whole album. There’s a lot of grit in George’s records, because of what they were trying to achieve and the way that Cam records, with all this crazy, fun, analogue gear in his studio. All sessions also had great room sound options. The danger would have been to clean everything up too much, by pulling out too much mid-range and too much room, and by it sounding too shiny. With George’s album it was about maintaining what was there, and giving it some more shine, making sure the vocal is up front and has a pop clarity to it, while allowing the instrumentation to maintain its grit, and sometimes adding yet more crunch, for example by using the SoundToys Decapitator, which is a plug-in that I love.
“Cam is a vibe man, and he is brilliant with people, and he delivered me Pro Tools sessions that had so much atmosphere, his genius really shone through on them. He’s perhaps a little more focussed on vibe and production than on sonics, so what was fun for me was to bring the songs more to life sonically, because he had nailed every other element. The production and feel were incredible, but there was stuff I couldn’t hear well enough in the rough mixes, so I brought them up using EQ and distortion and reverb and so on.”
The first step Grech takes when he receives a session to mix is to organise the material. “Organisation is really important. Some sessions I get I can barely look at, because they are such a mess. Sometimes people send me audio files bounced out from Logic or Ableton, and in a way this makes it easier, because it allows me to start my Pro Tools session exactly how I want it. I am super tidy, because I find that a clean, simple Pro Tools session makes my thought process clearer. Some people have endless chains of busses in their session, and I tend to get rid of those. I also get rid of audio tracks and plug-ins that are not used.
“I’ll listen to what the active plug-ins do, and if I think I can do better, I’ll delete them as well. If I like what plug-ins are doing, I will often print the track, so I’ll have that as my starting point. I’ll bounce tracks down that don’t need to be separated — like if there are four hi-hat mics, I’ll bounce them to stereo. People like to give you tons of options, and send me sessions with hundreds of tracks, but from working under Nigel [Godrich] I learned the importance of making decisions, committing, and moving on. Because I come from a producer’s background, I approach things from a creative perspective and am confident to make creative production decisions and don’t mind bouncing things. To receive sessions with hundreds of tracks is every mixer’s nightmare, and I’ll do my best to reduce them. The smaller the Pro Tools session, the more energy and creative thought I can put into the tracks that are there.”
Next up, says Grech, is looking at timing. However, that does not necessarily mean quantising things to a grid. “You have to be careful, because many producers have spent a lot of time working on a groove and intentionally having certain things out of time. It’s a delicate and sometimes a political balance. It’s not a matter of ‘We got some new files, let’s put them in time and then mix them.’ It always is a case of listening really carefully to the relationship between all the rhythmic and musical elements. And I’ll always work from the assumption that things work as they are, and then I look at whether we need to do something.
“Having said that, there are cases when things not being in time can be a nightmare. For a finished mix to sound exciting is not just about the sonics, it’s also about the feel, and if something doesn’t feel right, the mix won’t work. Moreover, because of phase issues in the bottom end, if the kicks don’t all line up exactly, you get sonic problems. You can’t have a flamming kick drum, you just can’t. So if necessary I will put the kit kick in time with the samples, or if I want the feel of the live drums, the other way round. If you get the kicks absolutely bang in time, they will sound bigger and more thumping. But again, you have to be really sensitive to the feel of the production.
“I never wanted to change the feel of what Cam had done, but because the album was such a mixture of live and programmed instruments, putting the samples in time with the live kit was the one thing I had to do occasionally. A producer who is recording a track and getting it vibey isn’t necessarily going to worry about how sample accurate the real and programmed kicks or snares are. Tightening these up is really important for the sonics. I also add my own snare samples, for example if I feel that the snare needs to be brighter or a bit crunchier.
“Mixers have a sound, and I add programming to many of my mixes, because I like to make stuff sound more contemporary, more consistent, and more exciting. This gives a sound that I think people come to me for. For me, mixing is part of making sure that alternative music has a pop sensibility to it, and vice versa, and with drums it means getting it to sound crisp and up-front, and with vocals for them to sound up-front as well and not washed out. George’s first album was stunning, but it’s a much mellower record than Staying At Tamara’s. For the new album there was a conscious decision to make it grittier and crunchier and more uptempo, and, as I mentioned, still give it that contemporary pop edge.”
‘Paradise’ has been the biggest hit single, so far, from Staying At Tamara’s, reaching number two in the UK charts; the album itself was a number one. Blackwood and Grech’s Pro Tools sessions are a good illustration of their ways of working. The former’s tracking and rough mix session is well-organised, and close to 100 tracks in size. There are, from top to bottom, 40-odd drum tracks, consisting of a mixture of live kit tracks, MPC tracks, sample tracks, and several ‘crunch’ tracks. Next are two Moog bass tracks and two bass guitar tracks, while most guitar parts are represented by two close mics and a room track each. There’s an acoustic guitar overdub, to replace an electric guitar, and the keyboard tracks include GEM, Juno, DS8 and piano. Tracks called ‘Cam and G Shouty’ and more gang vocal tracks make an appearance amongst the backing vocals. The mix window shows many of the staple plug-ins Blackwood mentions, including Avid ProComp, Waves CLA-76 and TG12345, Brainworx bx_digital v2, Massey THC and TapeHead. There’s a Bricasti outboard reverb on an aux send for the vocals, a Waves RVerb on a synth aux track, and a Valhalla VintageVerb insert on a piano live track, but for the rest no other reverbs or delays, indicating how much Blackwood relies on his room mics.
Unusually, and entirely in keeping with his stated aim of keeping things “super simple” Grech’s mix session is smaller at 73 tracks, despite him adding programmed elements including four additional kick sample tracks and a fourth snare track. Grech also adds a handful of aux tracks, with delays and reverbs; but each bass, guitar, synth and piano part is for the most part bounced down to one stereo track, and 20-odd backing vocal tracks are organised and reduced to six tracks. Grech splits the lead vocal track in two, pulling out the two pre-chorus sections for different treatments. There are hundreds of plug-ins in the session, with MPC loop, bass, guitar and vocal tracks the most densely populated. Notable also is that the session is meticulously organised and colour-coded.
“I like to use as little bussing as possible,” declares Grech. “If you can’t get your sound right with 10 inserts [the number available on a single track in Pro Tools], there’s a problem. Once again, for me, the simpler the better. However, I do like to have a drums and percussion bus, on which I use plug-ins like the UAD API compressor and API EQ. Another favourite compressor of mine is the Waves RCompressor, which I use on almost everything. It’s softens things in a very musical way and it’s very versatile. I also often use a [SoundToys] Decapitator for some crunch, and to take some top off things. If I have a very shiny drum kit, I’ll throw on a Decapitator to lose some of that high end. I’ll also often have a limiter, like the Waves L2, on the drum bus, but you need to be careful not to over-limit drums.
“Not all tracks should have high end. In general, I want my drums to probably stop at 12kHz, and have only a tambourine or something for the higher frequencies. Sometimes, when sessions are super-shiny, all I do in a mix is take top end off tracks. Particularly if you are mixing something with crunch and grit, like George Ezra, you really don’t want everything super-shiny. There also always is too much low end on everything, so I’ll have a high-pass EQ of some sort on most tracks, whether as low as 50Hz or as high as 200Hz. I like using the FabFilter Pro-Q2, because it has the graph that shows you what you’re doing. That EQ will probably end up on most of the tracks. I like plug-ins with graphical interfaces, and with few buttons. The AIR Vintage Filter is also very helpful for quick hard cuts of top and bottom.
“I don’t like to start mixing sessions that are covered in plug-ins, but as I said, I will work with plug-ins that I like. The one exception is vocals. I will always remove everything other people have done, unless there’s some tape delay with a certain crunch or slapback that’s really cool. But mixing vocals is such a personal thing that I almost always choose to start from scratch and go for my own approach.
“In this case, George’s lead vocals sounded great, because he has an incredible voice, so that was a good starting point. The first thing I did was to take out some low end, because there’s very little low end in the vocals in pop music these days, and I didn’t want his voice to sound boomy. But it’s still a big, warm vocal.
“I used the FabFilter Pro-DS on his vocal, because I really like that de-esser. It’s really smooth and subtle when you want it to be. I tend to add distortion to vocals as well, but that didn’t work with George’s voice. Because all the instrument tracks were gritty, his vocals sat better if they weren’t. I did not put a lot of reverb on his vocals, again to make it sound more contemporary. I always multiband compress vocals, usually with the Waves C4. That helps to smooth out the vocal, but that wasn’t really necessary with George. One thing I did do was to add a slapback echo, and a bigger delay in the choruses than the verses. I love the SoundToys EchoBoy and Waves H-Delay for that.
“My two favourite reverbs are the Valhalla Room and Vintage Verb. Those two are brilliant. There’s probably not a mix of mine that doesn’t have some of these in them. I also like the UAD EMT plate, which is very realistic, and I love the AIR Spring Reverb on vocals. It actually sounds so bad, it is brilliant. It can add some great crunch! I have several outboard spring reverbs that sound bad and small, and that’s what the AIR Reverb does perfectly! I used a little bit of it on George’s voice on ‘Paradise’. In general, I often have my reverbs and delays on aux tracks. Usually I start every mix session with a handful of aux effect tracks, with the stock starting points being Echoboy, H-Delay, UAD Echoplex, Vallhalla reverbs, the AIR Spring, and the UAD EMT plate. It’s like when you’re mixing on a board, you don’t want to pull down and repatch your patchbay for every mix. You start with something, and then tweak and mix it up as needed.”
“I have six vocal microphones,” says Cam Blackwood. “The Brauner Phanthera, a Telefunken AK47 MkII, an early ’60s Neumann U67, a ’70s Neumann U87, an sE Electronics Gemini II, and a crappy £200 CAD GXL2200 condenser, given to me by Alabama 3. I generally find that valves work better on men, so my AK47 is my first to go to. I used it on George, though one song was recorded with the 67, and he sang into a Shure SM7 on ‘Paradise’. My vocal mic preamp is the Trident desk or a Chandler Limited TG2 dual mono, which is really great. I also sometimes use my API or my SSL mic pre. I usually just do a check between them all. Generally the TG2 wins, but put the U87 into the Trident and add 3-4dB of 12kHz, and it sounds amazing. Once again, I don’t compress going to the computer.”
Of course, putting the right microphone in front of a vocalist is only a small part of getting a good vocal take. With Cam Blackwood’s wife Lorna being one of the UK’s leading vocal coaches and producers (her credits include Dua Lipa, Liam Payne and the XX, as well as Ezra), it’s not surprising that the Scot also has some interesting ideas and strategies. “There are different ways of communicating with vocalists. You find out whether they respond best to instructions about feelings, or colours, or shapes, or talking more technical, ie. about consonants and vowels and vibrato. Some singers respond best if you approach them like a director: ‘Imagine you’re telling some five-year olds a scary story, yet you don’t want to scare them.’ Others may go, ‘What?’ and respond better to me simply saying: ‘In the third bar of the verse, lay back on the first two words and then accelerate into the third.’ It just depends on how minds work.
“George does what he does very well. I might suggest slight melody or phrasing changes, or a few ad libs. Generally it’s about getting him in the mood and pumped up, as he’s relaxed and chilled, and there are songs that don’t need to be sung relaxed! So we’ll do running on the spot, or some basketball, and then he’ll do a few takes. Or I tell him to wave his arms up in the air during a chorus. He’s like, ‘I’m going to be out of breath,’ but if it’s slightly out of breath, it will have the right passion and energy. George responds really well to that stuff. We run a whole song three or four times and get a vibe, and then he’ll do, say, four takes of verse one, four takes of chorus one, four takes of verse two, and so on. We won’t spend more than an hour at a time on each song. My wife comes in for specific things, like for example ‘Hold My Girl’: George had never done a big ballad before, and we needed to find a way to get the lyrical content across that would touch both men and women, that was neither too aggressive nor too schmaltzy.
“One thing I need to add is that all the artists that I get in my studio say that they love my monitor sound, and the reason is because they are getting a copy of my mix, rather than their own mix. I also have my headphones on, so they hear exactly what I hear, and I make it sound as amazing as I can for them, and they love it. I use the new Pro Tools ProComp plug-in on my monitoring chain, and I’ll also have some ReVibe, if the artist wants a bit of reverb. The other thing that I do is that I put the [Manley] VariMu on the monitor output, as a hardware insert, and artists love the way that feels, especially the way the compressor is hit when they sing loudly.
“In my final session for ‘Paradise’ the ProComp still remains on the lead vocal. In fact, I use the ProComp all the time now, as it’s a really great, versatile, all-round compressor, that runs off the HD card, so there’s no latency. I also put the AIR Distortion on his vocal, which is another plug-in that I love. And there’s a Massey De-Esser.”
Dan Grech-Marguerat, who featured in SOS November 2006 for his work on the Scissor Sisters’ Ta-Dah album, began his studio career as an assistant at London’s RAK Studios in London, and was Nigel Godrich’s engineer for two years, working with him on albums by Radiohead, Beck, Charlotte Gainsbourg and more. Grech’s list of credits since then, as an independent engineer, programmer, mixer and producer, exemplify the fact that he likes to work with both pop and alternative rock, as it includes names like Moby, Tom Jones, Kylie Minogue, the Vaccines, Lana Del Rey, Keane, the Killers, Liam Gallagher, and so on.
Grech has worked from Strongroom 3 since 2015. There’s an SSL in the room, and he professes to be “a big lover of analogue gear and analogue grit and crunch, and when I’m recording I try to keep everything as raw and crunchy and analogue as I possible. But when I’m mixing I prefer to work in the box in Pro Tools. Even when I mix something I haven’t recorded and I decide that there’s not enough of that analogue element in the session and to run some things through outboard, like a Distressor, or an 1176 or a Culture Vulture, I will print that back into Pro Tools and continue to work in the box. Recalls are a big reason for mixing in Pro Tools, and it also gives me endless options that I don’t have on a desk. And it is far quicker, and I love working quickly.
“I use the centre section of the SSL as my monitoring section, with the reference mix and my mix on different channels, so I can compare the two, without interference from my master track. Sometimes people send me their session as a multitrack, and I may put individual tracks through the desk to listen to what’s going on. That comes from my old-school training from mixing on the Neve VR.
“My main monitors for mixing are Genelec 1031s, and I also have two small speakers called Acoustic Energy AE1, which came from my training with Nigel Godrich, because they were the speakers that he used. For years I would listen to those speakers, and I still have a few pairs, so whenever I am working somewhere else, I can bring a pair. They are quite portable. I also have a mono Pure radio, which I find really useful for balancing and for riding vocals. For years I have used all kinds of shitty radios and stereos that I found lying around that had an auxiliary input, just because it is nice to monitor on small systems. I also have a B&O Bluetooth portable hi-fi stereo, which you can throw in a rucksack and take on holiday with you. I love that because it is the complete opposite of the Pure radio. It has tons of bottom and tons of top, and it’s the way many people today listen to music.
“Another thing that people find really surprising is that I spend nearly half my day mixing on headphones. I use a pair of Bose in-ears, the most common that you can get. So many people listen on in-ears these days, it is super-important that things sound exciting and balanced like that. I also find it helpful for stereo imaging. Once I have the general top and bottom and balance right on speakers I get a lot of detail from listening on headphones. I can pan things really hard on speakers and think that it sounds good, but then on headphones it may sound really weird, and sometimes that might make me pull some things back in, or the opposite. I also love riding vocals on headphones. A big lovely pair of monitors in the studio is brilliant, but it is just not how a lot of people listen to music today.”
Growing up in Ayr, just south of Glasgow, Cam Blackwood recalls that he “played guitar in probably three or four really bad bands while at high school. I moved to London in 1999, when I was 20, where I did a music performance course. After that I joined a couple of session agencies and played in many cover bands. That stuff teaches you a lot about how to play all kinds of different music styles. We did rock & roll, pop, Madonna, U2, funk, soul, Motown, Stax... and I also love hip-hop!”
Blackwood’s first foray into the recording world occurred in 2003, when a rehearsal studio where he spent a lot of time, Mill Hill Music in North London, asked him to help out in their studio. “They had three ADAT machines. That’s what I learned on! I then started doing more gigs and session work, I toured with Florence + the Machine for six months, and with a Brazilian band called CSS for three years, and also did live sound in a club for a bit. In 2008, I took over Voltaire Road Studios from David Gray, because I wanted to be a producer. Musicians often get treated badly, and are not paid enough money, and I always hated that. There are all these amazing musicians who are scraping by, and it was like: ‘How can I break out of that?’ I wanted to find a way to pay musicians, and myself of course.”
The thing to take away from this potted biog is, says Blackwood, that he “learned to produce from a musician’s point of view, and not an engineering point of view. I did not come through the normal channels of working in a big studio, or, as is more likely these days, having attended some music engineering course. I have over the years learned all the engineering stuff, because when you’re a producer you need to know the difference between, say, a Neve 1073 and a Neve 1084, but for me, arrangements and musical vibe have always been the most important. When you’re in a band you’re one of four or five producers, co-writing songs and co-creating arrangements, and writing your own parts, while making sure it all works and fits together.
“For me, producing is very much an extension of that — you can hear it on the records that I make. The music is never quantised or tight, and is mostly played live. I let stuff go that other producers wouldn’t, because it’s all part of the vibe. ‘Gimme Shelter’ by the Rolling Stones is probably the greatest recording ever made, in my opinion. It sounds amazing, with such a great vibe, and tons of crunch and grit. I also love Led Zeppelin, and all those recordings feel like they were performances from start to finish. And when you listen to old school, 1989 to 1992 hip-hop, the breakbeats are often slightly out of time, and again they have such a vibe and tons of crunch! I love that!”