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Inside Track: Jamie Cullum's Momentum album

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Duncan Mills By Paul Tingen
Published September 2013

Duncan Mills in Studio 5 at Strongroom.Duncan Mills in Studio 5 at Strongroom.

With the aid of producers such as Duncan Mills, Jamie Cullum has left jazz standards behind for a more experimental sound.

Jamie Cullum's sixth studio album, Momentum, sees the British pianist and singer further expanding his stylistic palette. Originally known as a mainstream jazz pianist and crooner, Cullum has incorporated more diverse musical styles and influences as his career has developed, as well as writing more of his own material. Cullum wrote or co-wrote nine of Momentum's 12 songs, and worked with producers Dan The Automator (Kasabian, Gorillaz), Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys, Ladytron, Adele) and Duncan Mills. Also known for his work with Peace, Jake Bugg, Newton Faulkner, Vaccines, Lissie, Lamb, Malcolm McLaren and many others, Mills produced and mixed four of the album's tracks: first single 'Everything You Didn't Do', 'Save Your Soul', 'You're Not The Only One' and 'Pure Imagination'.

Mills' work gives these tracks a hard, percussive edge and a pop-like catchiness, with the exception of the atmospheric ballad 'Pure Imagination'. The emphasis on percussion stems from Mills' background as a drummer, while his panoramic production approach is informed by a love of the work of someone currently serving time in an LA prison. "When I was five years old, I saw Keith Moon on telly and know that that was what I wanted to do,” he recalls, "and later on, Phil Spector's Wall of Sound and mini-symphony-in-three-minutes approach became a massive influence. I then worked as a gigging drummer and a programmer until the early '00s, when I got bored with lugging gear around and my fascination with record production took over.

"I had been lucky, in that I had worked with good engineers when I played in bands. After that, many of my engineering skills developed through trial and error, but I kept coming up against a brick wall with my mixing skills. So I went to study at Alchemea College in London, who have some really intense courses and where I completely focused on mixing. I learned a lot from the amazing tutors there, but Marcel van Limbeek, who records and mixes for Tori Amos, took me under his wing and really helped me to push to another level, in terms of sonic approach and psychology. That was the final piece in the jigsaw. I knew what I wanted and I had very strong opinions on how I wanted things to sound, and doing that course filled in some of the missing gaps in my knowledge. After that, I became a freelance engineering assistant at Strongroom Studios in London, and four years ago I set up in the room at Strongroom where I still work today. It's Richard 'Biff' Stannard's old room, and 'Wannabe' by the Spice Girls was written and produced here.”


Duncan Mills' own room at Strongroom is kitted out as a 'hybrid' studio. There's no conventional mixer, but plenty of analogue outboard.

Duncan Mills describes his room at Strongroom as having a "hybrid” analogue/digital setup. He doesn't have a conventional mixing desk, but uses Thermionic Culture's Fat Bustard summing mixer and range of outboard including the Alan Smart C2 compressor, GML 8200 EQ, Thermionic Culture Vulture, WEM Copicat tape delay, Lynx Aurora converters, and so on. His room also functions as a writing, programming and pre-production space, and features huge racks of synths.

"Jamie and I did quite a bit of pre-production for the four tracks, in part remotely because his schedule was so busy, and in part at my room here or at his home in London. He sent me some initial ideas for each track, and I then would add some bits or adjust the structure and send it back to him. He'd then send me another version back. We both like quirky instruments and recording toys, like cassette recorders and a Dictaphone that we had modded so we could use the super-limiters inside of it. We used these things during the demoing and recording stage. For example, the song 'Save Your Soul' just wanted to be a piano vocal track, no matter what we did with it. Every time we added something, it distracted from the song. In the end Jamie and I decided that it would be just percussion, piano and vocal, and after getting the rhythms locked down, it was a case of getting the sonics right. The main kick drum in that song sounds massive but is a really cheap marching drum that I borrowed from a friend. We split the signal, with one side going through the Lovetone Cheese Source pedal and the other through the Dictaphone, which gave it super presence and attack. Jamie and I had a field day experimenting with all our crazy toys.”

Time To Track

Vintage keyboards racked and ready for use in Duncan Mills' room. From top: Moog Prodigy and Roland SH101; OSC OSCar and EDP Wasp; Korg M500 Micropreset and Suzuki Omnichord; ARP Solina, Roland Juno 60 and Jupiter 8.

Following the pre-production, tracking sessions took place at two separate London studios, and in the case of 'Everything You Didn't Do', tracking was completed in a single day. "The single was also intended as an advert for a San Miguel promotional campaign in Spain, and it therefore was recorded differently from the other tracks I did on the album. The latter three were all recorded in Studio 2 at Assault & Battery in Northwest London, which is their Neve room, while the single was recorded at RAK Studio 1 in central London [which has a 1976 48-channel API desk]. We had a couple of well-known Spanish rappers in the studio and the singer Nina from the Spanish duo Fuel Fandango, plus a TV crew. At one stage we had 30 people in the control room! For this reason, we had to work very fast, and we recorded the entire track in one day, and I also did the mix in one day.

"Before the studio recording sessions, we'd send the band our demos, so they could familiarise themselves with them and get a head start on what they would be playing. Jamie and I knew that 'Everything You Didn't Do' would be a very percussive track, and that Jamie would be playing almost all the instruments, because that is what the film crew wanted to shoot. In the end, he played piano, organs, guitar and bass, while the drums and percussion were played by Brad Webb, plus a few overdubs by me. Brad is very intuitive, and within 30 seconds he had figured out what to play. We wanted the track to have the fluidity of a live performance but also the swagger of an MPC-programmed kit. He overdubbed the main drum parts — kick, snare, and hi-hat — to the programmed foot-stomps and claps, and he then overdubbed the ride cymbal and rim clicks and toms and percussion, and so on. He's an amazing drummer who tracks to himself brilliantly, and it all ends up sounding like one take. We did all the drums between 11am and 2pm, and we then tracked Jamie's piano, and later in the day we overdubbed percussion. We were on a sort of samba wave and hired surdos and all sorts of weird and wonderful Brazilian percussion. All the artists and the camera crew had to go by six or seven o'clock, so we were finished by then.”

In & Out Of The Box

Numerous toy instruments and sound sources were used in the recording of Momentum.

After a frantic day of recording at RAK studios, Mills returned to his Strongroom studio for the mix of 'Everything You Didn't Do'. Mills mixed back into the 24-bit/48kHz session, so the master mix appears at the top of the Pro Tools Edit window. Below that are eight stereo master tracks, seven of which go to his Fat Bustard summing unit. "It has 14 inputs, so master tracks 1-7 go to the Fat Bustard. The master tracks will be stereo drums, mono bass, stereo guitars, stereo piano, stereo keyboards, mono vocals, stereo backing vocals, and stereo master track 8 is the returns, so I can have my monitor mix running in parallel. If I need to reference something from the session, I only have to flick a button. The session was in 24/48 because it had to be fit to picture. I normally will run 24/44.1. If you're doing classical stuff, 96k upwards does definitely sound more detailed, but for a lot of the work I do with bands I need to be able to work fast and run many tracks. I find it really limiting to run sessions at 96k. I hate slow computers!”This composite Pro Tools screen capture shows the entire Edit window for the 'Everything You Didn't Do' session. At the very top is the stereo mix, above eight Master Fader tracks which control stem levels to Duncan Mills' summing mixer. Then come a huge number of drum and percussion tracks, followed by bass, piano, organ, Rhodes, glockenspiel, guitar and finally vocals.

Drums: Waves SSL G-series, Renaissance Compressor, IR1 & C4, Avid Digirack EQ3, Expander/Gate, D-Verb & Trim, Valley People Dynamite, Sound Toys Decapitator, Sonnox Oxford TransMod, Softube Focusing EQ & FET Compressor, Chandler Curvebender, Universal Audio 1176, Bomb Factory 1176.

"There are three kick tracks [recorded respectively with an AKG D112, Neumann U47 FET and Yamaha Subkick], which go to a 'Kick Bus' track, on which I had a Waves SSL G-series plug-in, a Digirack EQ3 and a Renaissance compressor, just keeping the kick in place. My secret weapon on the kick and the snare is the Valley Dynamite outboard compressor, which gives drums super punch. The snare mics were the [Neumann] KM84 at the top and the AKG C414 at the bottom, and I also recorded a parallel distorted snare track, created by overdriving mic pres on the API desk at RAK. It gives more weight and power to the snare when I add it in underneath. I routed all snare tracks to the 'Snare Bus' track, on which I have, again, the Waves SSL G-channel plug-in, adding 3dB at 172Hz — I really like bottom end on snare drums. In fact, I like for the snare to have as much of a thud as a kick drum. I also boost at 2.5kHz and a little bit at 5kHz, plus at 10kHz. Then there's an Expander/Gate, a Digirack EQ3 doing a small surgical cut at 210Hz, and the Sound Toys Decapitator — one of my favourite plug-ins — for some more distortion, and finally the Sonnox Oxford TransMod to boost the attack a little bit, compensating for the effect of the Decapitator, which adds fatness but also flattens the transients a bit. Duncan Mills is a big fan of distortion, and Sound Toys' Decapitator plug-in (as used here on the snare bus) in particular.I normally use my [Thermionic Culture] Culture Vulture for distortion but because this mix had to be done quickly I just put on the Decapitator. The snare also goes to an aux track which has the D-Verb on it, for some ambience.

"Below the 'Snare Bus' track, there's a hi-hat track, which has the Waves SSL G-series plug-in on it, and then there are the rack and floor-tom tracks, each of which is split up into a clean and a parallel distorted track, and then fed to a bus, as with the snare. The distorted tracks sound horrible on their own, but fed in with the main signal they add a really nice attack. While I fed the snare to the desk API mic pres to get distortion, I used the Focusrite 115 preamps for the toms, which sound more brittle but add amazing transients that sound great on toms. You want something a bit warmer, like Neve or API mic pres, on snare, and also on kick. The overheads have the Chandler plug-in EQ, adding 4dB at 10kHz for some additional excitement, and the Waves IR1 plug-in to add some plate reverb. 'FOK' means 'front of kick', which was recorded with a Neumann U87 mic about two feet in front of the kick, to give a strong mono image, and hit hard with an 1176. It's like an effect microphone, as you get a pumping mono image of the kit.

"Going further down, there's a floor-tom rim track, which, again, has a distorted parallel, ride cymbals, overhead cymbals, a room recording of the cymbals, and a cymbals bus track that has the Softube Focusing EQ, which is amazing. I think all Softube plug-ins are fantastic. Their FET Compressor plug-in, which sounds very much like an 1176, responds like no other plug-in. It really sounds like an analogue piece of gear. I often use it for my overall drum parallel [bus], which I squash severely. In this session, this is track 50, called 'Squash'. Tracks 43-50 are drum effect tracks, with the 'Drum Verb' track also having the Waves IR1 on it, which is on a plate reverb setting. Normally I go for something like the Trillium Lane 'ecoplate', but the IR1 just worked better in this instance. Underneath that, track 47, is the parallel compression track for the drums, below that the kick and snare send tracks for the outboard Dynamite and then the super 'Squash' parallel. So that's 50 tracks of drum kit!

"Below that are the percussion tracks, which include claps, on which I had the D-Verb non-linear setting to extend their tails, so they sound more programmed, as well the Softube FET Compressor and the Waves C4 multi-band compressor. Track 68 is the only bit of programmed drums that remained in the session. It's a Brazilian snare drum, a caixa, that's from Jamie's original demo. It has a Trim and a Bomb Factory 1176 on it.”

Bass & guitar: Avid Digirack Time Adjuster, EQ3, Waves CLA2A, Puigtec, Maxx Bass, Renaissance Axxe & API 550, Bomb Factory Sansamp PSA1.

"Jamie played bass guitar on this track. There are five bass tracks, one being a DI. Three of the bass tracks were recorded with a [Sennheiser] MD421, U47 FET and a Subkick on the cabinet respectively, and we also did a parallel of the DI run through a RAT pedal for some grit, as there was no Culture Vulture at RAK. The clean DI has the Digirack Time Adjuster on it to phase-align it with the amplifier recordings. All five bass tracks go to a 'Bass Bus' track, which has an LA2A plug-in compressor on it, a Digirack EQ boosting at 1kHz and cutting at 200Hz, and a Pultec plug-in EQ for more super top and super bottom. The Maxx and Fuzz bass tracks below are a sub-bass and a distortion, using the Waves Maxx Bass plug-in and the Sansamp, respectively. I love using lots of layers of subtle distortion in my tracking and mixes. The guitar was also played by Jamie and is further down the session. It had the Renaissance Axx compressor, just tickling it, an EQ3 just for surgery, and finally an API 550 or 560 plug-in.”

Piano & keyboards: Brainworx Hybrid EQ, Massey L2007, Avid Digirack EQ3 & AIR Distortion, Sound Toys Decapitator, WEM Copicat, Softube Vintage Amp Room.

"The piano was quite old and really bright, and needed quite a bit of work to get it to sound right when we were tracking it. There was also a lot of EQ surgery in the piano bus. I used the Brainworx Hybrid 2.0 plug-in on itTo shape the tone of the piano, Mills used Brainworx's Hybrid EQ., which is amazing and one of my favourite digital EQs. I set a high-pass filter at 60Hz and cut some of the mud around 300Hz. I also used the Massey L2007 limiter on the piano, which I think is one of the best digital limiters out there. The other three plug-ins are surgical EQs to remove any unwanted resonances or whistles. Below the piano is the organ, which was a Vox Continental, and it also is recorded both clean and distorted, and below that is a high organ overdub. I have a Decapitor on the organ bus, and an EQ3 for a surgical notch. I sent the organ bus signal through the Copicat, and I recorded that underneath. Below that is the Fender Rhodes track, which is a MIDI track. We had brought Jamie's Fender Rhodes to the studio, but we ran out of time, so we ended up using the Native Instruments MIDI electric piano, and to improve the sound I sent it through a Softube Vintage Amp Room to give it some more character, and a Digidesign AIR Distortion plug-in.”

Vocals: Waves SSL G-series, CLA 1176, De-esser, MV2 & C4, Avid Digirack Expander/Gate & EQ3, TL Labs TL Space, WEM Copicat.

"Jamie has an amazing Telefunken microphone that was given to him by the guys at Telefunken and that suits his voice perfectly, so we used it on all the album tracks. Plug-in-wise, I had the Waves SSL G, with a high-pass filter set to 100Hz to get rid of any rumble, and I added 5dB of 14k and a little bit of 1.5kHz as well, just to make it jump out of the speakers a bit more. There's also a 1dB shelf around 340Hz to warm it up a bit. Then there's an Expander/Gate and a CLA 1176, and three tiny surgical cuts with the EQ3, and finally a Waves De-esser. The send is going to a TL Space for some ambience. Below the lead vocal track is a duplicate, going to the Waves MV2 compressor, which is amazing and set to no dynamic range whatsoever, plus there's a small 4kHz boost from an EQ3 plug-in. The parallel track helps with the diction and for the vocals to jump out of the speakers. There's also a vocal double for the chorus, and I also sent Jamie's vocals through the Copicat, not set for delays but just because I wanted that saturated tape sound. The background vocals have similar signal chains to the lead vocal, with slightly different settings for each plug-in, as did Nita's backing vocals, which I left in for the album version because they added so much to the song. Finally, there are some group vocals that were recorded with DPA 4006 mics set up as a stereo pair. The group vocal bus also has the Waves C4 multi-band compressor to counteract the 200-400 Hz peak that the room had.”

Mixdown: Thermionic Culture Fat Bustard, Alan Smart C2, GML 8200.

"The stuff at the top of the mix session went through the Fat Bustard and then through an Alan Smart C2 compressor, which has the side-chain modification. It has a pair of filters in it that allow more bottom end through and that make your mix sound better. That goes to the GML 8200 EQ on the mix bus, adding a bit of top and bottom end. Because I had one eye on it going to be for TV, I also pushed a dB at 1.5kHz.”  

Mills On Mixing

"It doesn't make a huge difference for me whether I'm mixing a track in which I've been involved with the recording, or which comes in from outside,” says Duncan Mills. "Having said that, I'm not a mixer who approaches all his mixes in the same way. I definitely approach every track as its own entity. The first thing I do is listen to the session a few times to make sure I understand what the song is about and what the artist is trying to convey. I also listen out for technical issues that may need to be fixed, as well as the bits that I really like and where the energy comes from. At this point, I can quite often hear the final mix in my head before I even start mixing. I know in my head what it should sound like, and after that it's simply a matter of doing it. The best advice I got from Marcel [van Limbeek] was that you should be able to visualise a mix in your head, so you have a clear vision of how it should sound. You don't deviate from that vision, so you don't end up with a compromise.

"I like energetic mixes. Any mix is about two things: the integrity and the energy of the song. I often think in terms of energy and listen to what is providing it. This can be the drums, the vocals, or anything. It's to do with how a song and a mix make me feel. The sonics are the easy part, because we all roughly know what balances work and how wide things need to sound. But how a mix makes you feel is open to interpretation. Many people get bogged down in the sonics and forget about the energy that actually carries the song. I tend to start the mix with where most of the energy is coming from, and this will usually be the drums, sometimes the vocal. But after that I more and more mix with all tracks playing simultaneously, looking at the bigger picture, and I try to only solo things when there's a problem and I need to do surgical EQ to get rid of nasty frequencies, and things like that.

"Whether I am producing, engineering or mixing, my focus on the drums is always pretty intense. The drums are like the foundation of a house. The session of 'Everything You Didn't Do' has 70 tracks of drums and percussion, and this is pretty standard for the tracks I produce! If you have great foundations, you can build epic structures on them and they will hold firm, but if you have a bad drum track, as soon as you put even the most basic things on top, it's all going to cave in and sound like a horrible mess.”