“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.”