‘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!”