As producer, engineer and mixer, Andy Wallace has done more than anyone to define the sound of modern rock and metal.
Andy Wallace's approach to music is about one thing and one thing only: feel. Whether he's going for a sound image that, as he puts it, "punches you in the face” like Slayer's epoch-making Reign In Blood, or is instrumental in helping to "paint drama, dynamics, and architecture” in Jeff Buckley's amazing Grace, feel informs everything Wallace does. During a career that's now, astonishingly, in its sixth decade, he has been extraordinarily successful. As an engineer, mixer and/or producer Wallace was involved in the making of a whole swathe of now classic albums, predominantly by metal, grunge and heavy rock/rap bands such as Slayer, Nirvana, Sepultura, the Beastie Boys, Linkin Park, Guns N' Roses, System Of A Down, Foo Fighters, and so on. Wallace's super-aggressive, in-your-face, high-impact sound helped steer many of the albums he worked on to prominence. Unsurprisingly, his approach has become highly influential.
Over the course of his long and productive career, Wallace has given just a handful of interviews, of which only one, from 10 years ago, is available online in its entirety. As a result, the magic that Wallace weaves in the control room has largely remained obscured from public view, and this has contributed to the man and his methods having achieved an almost mythical status. Talking to him about his studio approach in general and his mix of Linkin Park's sixth album, The Hunting Party, in particular, it becomes apparent that Wallace's focus on feel informs an approach to engineering and mixing that is positively minimalist. Indeed, the dearth of music tech interviews may simply have to do with the fact that there is very little to report from a technical point of view.
Virtually all engineers and mixers could fill entire magazines with lists of the gear they use and explanations of how they use it, and what they like and dislike. By contrast, 90 percent of Wallace's work, which over the last 15 years has consisted almost exclusively of mixing, is done on a large-format console — usually an SSL — and the number of outboard units and plug-ins he uses rarely reaches double figures. In short, Wallace's approach is above all about listening, riding faders, and "impact”.
In lifting the veil on his approach, Wallace says he's "very concerned with power and impact, and with creating and preserving dynamics in the mix. It's all part of a greater picture that I try to paint in the mix, of drama, dynamics and architecture. That is what makes a mix interesting to me, and makes me come back to a mix and listen to it again. Sometimes you want something coming at you like a wall of sound, like with the Slayer albums I did, but as a rule I lose interest when things are very flat and lacking in dynamics. The architecture of a mix is like looking at the city skyline: some buildings are tall, there are parks, and so on, there's a dynamic development. I like the mix to feel like that, for it to almost have a visual character. Yes, the Slayer albums in particular aimed to be like a punch in your face, and therefore did not have tons of dynamics, but they weren't over-compressed or limited. They had power and impact, and were not kicked to death.”
Wallace repeatedly refers to "the Slayer albums” during our interview. The albums in question, which are clearly pivotal to his career and approach, are Reign In Blood (1986), South Of Heaven (1988) and Seasons In The Abyss (1990).
All three were produced by Rick Rubin with Wallace engineering and mixing; Wallace also co-produced the last of them. Reign In Blood in particular, which has been called "monstrously, terrifyingly evocative”, became a watershed in the metal genre, and in the careers of Slayer and Wallace.
"It was super-aggressive rock of a type that I had not encountered before, and I loved it,” Wallace recalls. "It was novel-sounding, it was exciting, and I knew exactly what to do with it, which was to make it slam. It was the most aggressive album that I had worked with until that point, and I developed something of a reputation for that sound. The album was recorded at my former studio in Los Angeles, Hit City West. I placed every microphone and plugged in every cable, so the recorded sound was all my responsibility, and it certainly moved the goalposts for me. It helped me to define and develop my procedure, even though the actual process — of creating an overall sonic architecture through riding faders on the desk and using very minimal outboard gear — was already in place. I had developed that because I started by making four-track recordings of rock bands with very little gear!”
Unusually, and perhaps uniquely, in a pro-audio world that has seen many dramatic, ground-breaking developments since Wallace's early days, his above-described minimalist "procedure” has stood the tests of time. The mixer explains that he still applies it today, including on The Hunting Party, so it pays to briefly trace the origins of the man and his approach, before detailing how he applied the latter on the new Linkin Park album.
Originally from New Jersey, Wallace's first encounter with the studio world occurred during his high school days in New York when he was invited to be present at a Tony Bennett recording session at Columbia Records. It turned out to be an overwhelming experience for him. He recalls, "I felt like, 'Oh, man, I really want to do this.'”
Nonetheless, after finishing high school in the late 1960s, Wallace first went on to study Chemical Engineering at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. During his university studies Wallace played bass and occasional keyboards in a band called First Friday, which released one self-titled album in 1969. Having caught the music-making bug, Wallace moved to Los Angeles in 1973 to pursue a career as an artist, but a record deal with Paramount fell through. Building on his positive experiences with recording, he opened Hit City West Recording Studios in 1974. Six years later, Wallace decided to move back to New York. He sold his share in the studio, and went on to work with New York club record producers like Arthur Baker and John Robie. The young engineer and mixer ended up doing club remixes for many famous artists, and because club remixes often involved quite a bit of production input on his part, he also gained a reputation as a promising producer.
Wallace began working with Rick Rubin in 1986, and the collaboration immediately provided him with two big breaks. First there was the pioneering Aerosmith/Run DMC hit single 'Walk This Way', which marked the breakthrough of hip-hop to the top of the pop charts, and later that same year, Slayer's Reign In Blood was released. Wallace's career since then has been littered with highlights and classic albums, including Nirvana's Nevermind (1991), Sepultura's Chaos AD (1993), Jeff Buckley's Grace (1996), Foo Fighters' There's Nothing Left To Lose (1999), Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory (2000, the best-selling debut album by any artist of the 21st Century) and Meteora (2003), Velvet Revolver's Contraband (2004), Paul McCartney's Memory Almost Full (2007), Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy (2008), Coldplay's Viva la Vida Or Death And All His Friends (2008), Dream Theater's A Dramatic Turn Of Events (2011), and many more. In the process, Wallace has been nominated eight times for a Grammy Award, though, oddly enough, has only received one, shared with Tchad Blake and Trina Shoemaker: Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical for Sheryl Crow's The Globe Sessions (1999).
The Shift To Digital
Since selling Hit City West in 1980, Wallace has never again owned his own studio, or gear. Instead he works for most of the time in Studio G at Soundtrack Studios in New York, on a J-series SSL board. Wallace does regularly travel to other studios, and for the mix of Linkin Park's The Hunting Party he flew to Los Angeles at the beginning of this year. The band was working at Larrabee Studios, where two of the four rooms are permanently used by top mixers Manny Marroquin and Jaycen Joshua. While the band continued recording in Studio 4, billed as the "most glamorous studio in LA”, Wallace set up shop in Studio 3, which contains an 80-channel SSL 9080 K-series desk. The presence of the SSL was a big plus, as was that of his assistant Paul Suarez, who manned the Pro Tools rig.
Wallace: "I certainly prefer to work on an SSL, though I grew up working on whatever I had to work on, so it's not imperative. But if it is my choice where we work, I will certainly go towards a room with an SSL. With regards to Pro Tools, I spent more than 20 years working with analogue tape, and the first time I used Pro Tools was in 1995, for the recordings of the Blind Melon album Soup. The album was done on analogue tape, but we used Pro Tools for vocal editing and comping. The audio quality was sufficient, but I did not feel that it was great, and I did not feel tempted to do the whole project in Pro Tools. Since then the sound quality of Pro Tools has gradually improved, to the point that I today don't have a problem using it any more. Quite frankly, it now sounds good enough to me.
"My switch to Pro Tools over the years has been gradual; as more and more projects came in on the medium, I simply used it to mix from. I never felt particularly driven to transfer things to analogue for mixing. The few times that I did do that was at the request of the producer and/or artist. For many years I used Pro Tools purely as a playback tape machine, but I now use Pro Tools more intensively, because the ability to do really precise editing is such an advantage. I actually got used to doing really precise edits in analogue, moving things forwards and backwards by milliseconds with delay lines and so on. I got really good at that, but it's time-consuming. The same things are done in a flash in Pro Tools. While I know what I'm doing, I'm not a whizz-kid in it, so I prefer to work with someone who is really fast with Pro Tools. I've worked with Paul for a few years now, and he's super-fast at locating beats that need to be moved time-wise, or fine-tuning levels or adding compression or the occasional effect.
"Pro Tools hasn't really affected my work as a mixer that much, apart from that it allows me to do my work more quickly, which is nice, because for me mixing is a bit like riding a bicycle: you can do it more gracefully if you keep moving. But Pro Tools has made a big difference in terms of the way producers put their sessions together, because they now have unlimited tracks to work with. The first time I used eight-track I thought I'd died and gone to heaven! Then eventually I ended up using two 24-track analogue tape recorders linked together, and I did a couple of nightmare mixes with three Mitsubishi 32-track digital tape recorders linked together. With Pro Tools all this has become effortless, but the one drawback is that it has led to people not making decisions while they're moving. As a producer I always liked to comp the vocals immediately after the session, even if I had to stay up all night to do it, because the performances were still fresh in my mind with all the nuances, and I also was still in touch with the feeling they gave me.
"When I was working on eight-track or 16-track I had to make mix decisions while I was recording, and today I can go back and listen to these recordings and feel that I made good decisions. But I now get sessions with 100+ tracks where there will be eight different mics on the same guitar amplifier, and you have to listen to what makes the best blend, and so on. When I get a project that's full of unmade decisions it slows me down, because I have to put my producer hat on and sort out these decisions. I prefer for the recording engineer and producer to decide on the sound for a guitar, but instead, many of them like to keep their options open because they're looking for perfection. So I spend a lot of time trying to make people understand that there's no perfect mix. You can always change a mix and not make it worse. But do the changes improve it? In my experience, a mix rarely gets better with endless changes and recalls. For me, a mix is about trying to find something that works and that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and believing in that. If you are rethinking and second-guessing that all the time you risk losing that feeling.”
Beat The Rough
Wallace's approach is aptly illustrated by his mix of Linkin Park's The Hunting Party. "I began with three days, February 19-21, during which I mixed the first single 'Guilty All The Same', and a song with the working title 'Thanksgiving' that was destined for the fouth Transformers movie. Paul and I then took a few weeks off, and returned for a second round of mixing, April 7-17, during which we mixed the rest of the album. Unless I'm dealing with a very complex mix, I generally mix a song a day. The band produced themselves and this sped up the process, as did the fact that they are very perceptive, musical and intelligent and know what they want. During both periods they were still recording in the other room at Larrabee while I was mixing, and around to give feedback on my mixes when needed. Occasionally they would re-record or fix things in the mixes I was working on, but in general they don't get hung up on second-guessing everything. It's really nice to work like that. They are not paranoid all the time as to whether things are perfect and demanding endless recalls and things like that.”
On their previous two albums, A Thousand Suns (2010) and Living Things (2012), Linkin Park had moved away from the hard-hitting, in-your face nu-metal sound of their first two albums towards a more electronic, pop-influenced sound. Yet for their sixth album, the band's main songwriter, rhythm guitarist and keyboardist Mike Shinoda wanted to return to the more guitar-heavy sound of their early days. The band also decided for the first time not work with Rick Rubin as producer. Instead, Shinoda and lead guitarist Brad Delson took over the production reins. Given that Wallace had mixed the band's first two albums, it was understandable that Shinoda and Delson returned to him for the mix of The Hunting Party. However, according to Wallace, there were no extensive discussions about the band's new/old direction, nor of what they wanted from him.
"The band didn't really make a special point of telling me what they wanted. Over the course of the entire project there were a few brief discussions during which they mentioned that they wanted to get back to the aggressive, guitar-driven vibe of the first albums, but it really was more like a kind of prevailing environment that we were all aware of. For the most part I simply let the music that I was given speak for itself, and I then did what felt good to me. Luckily, Linkin Park had the sessions pretty well sorted out. There weren't too many choices that I had to make in terms of performances and sounds. They had also spent some time tweaking their reference mixes, so I could get a good impression of what they were going for, and what elements they want to feature and how they like things panned, and so on. There always is important information to be gleaned from a good reference mix.
"When listening to the reference mix you sometimes feel like 'Oh, my God, how am I going to make my drums sound better?' but that's more paranoia on my part. When I keep working on the mix I usually end up really liking the sound of my mix. I'll reference the rough initially, but at some point I will end up flying on my own, because when you're making decisions just based on somebody else's mix it can be self-defeating. There's this syndrome that if you listen to something often enough, it will start to sound right. That's the magic of many old '50s records, which weren't necessarily balanced well, but because you've heard them so often and because they contain great songs and great performances, they've come to sound right. I try to avoid that. If you allow the rough mix to cloud your own vision, you end up with nobody's mix. I like my mixes to have character, so that when somebody hears it, they'll go, 'Yeah, that's cool!'”
Putting It All Together
According to Wallace, the first stage of mixing a song involves his assistant preparing the Pro Tools session. "Paul usually will start at 10am on the Pro Tools file, and he'll work on it for an hour or so before I come in. He knows how I like things laid out over the board and what things to group together in Pro Tools, which obviously needs doing when a session contains 150 tracks or so. Once he has laid out the mix on the board, I will go through and listen to individual tracks to get a sense of what's going on, and discuss with him what he has done. I may adjust some group balances or flip the phase on some guitar mics. In general I'll familiarise myself with the audio bits that are there. I have no absolute routine, and try not to fall into formulas, but I'll usually be throwing things up really fast, almost like doing a quick monitor mix, and balance everything very quickly, just to see how all the elements are supposed to sound together, and I have a basic feeling of the entire track.
"After that I'll focus on the things that really need attention. I'll look whether samples are provided in the session, usually kick and snare, and I'll listen to them and how they work together, and will try them in and out of phase with the kick and snare mics and so on. But it's not a matter of initially working on just the drums until they are perfect, more of listening to everything and then seeing what catches my ear. Although Pro Tools is pretty quiet, I also like to cut channels when there's nothing going on. Paul will write these cuts and mutes in the computer. Once I have things mapped out with all sections of the song feeling pretty much the way I think they should sound, I'll do a first pass of the automation. As I carry on refining the mix after that, I'll try to preserve the basic feeling that I have for the song and not to disturb it. The whole process from when I first sit at the board and start listening to what is in the session, until the time when I switch on the automation, usually takes about three hours.”
There's been a lot of speculation about the gear that Wallace uses to achieve his hard-hitting sound, with rumours of things unique and obscure. It turns out, however, that his main secret weapon is simply being extraordinarily adept at something seemingly basic and ordinary: volume rides. Rather than slam or brickwall everything, which is a common approach in trying to get things to sound aggressive, it's extensive and detailed riding of faders that allows Wallace to achieve maximum impact while not, in his earlier words, "kicking the sound to death”.
"Riding the faders is definitely a feel thing,” elaborates Wallace. "If I feel that a certain balance is not quite correct, I'll back up and ride everything again, until it feels right. In the early stages, while I am still roughing out the entire mix, I will document all the levels in the different sections with small pencil marks next to the faders. I will spend a lot of time listening to certain sections loudly, to make sure things have the right impact, and also very quietly, to make sure the balances are really coming out well. At some point, I will spend more attention on the drums as a unit, and will get them working together with the bass and the guitars to get that basic band sound. I'll usually focus on a larger section of the song, like the verse or the chorus or a solo section, and I'll often have that section loop in Pro Tools to be able to go over and over it until it is really moving me and rocking and kicking ass, and so on. It's the reason why I don't work in automation yet, because I don't want it to be writing mix settings all the time. It is just me adjusting levels manually and making pencil marks.
"After about three hours of work I'll be at a point where I'm ready to commit the mix to automation. I'll be clear on the general outline of the mix, and the detailed rides are becoming too complex to handle manually. Once I am working in automation, I'll go into more detail. For example, when there are many guitars in the track that have to work together with the bass, certain notes in the bass track will often stand out more than others. Compression just does not level that out for me. When I compress the bass, it tends to be for the sound rather than for the levels. Instead, I'll spend a lot of time riding certain notes up that seem to be getting lost, and notes down that are jumping out too much. It also makes more sense to get into this kind of note-by-note detail after I have most of the other elements in the mix balanced, because you can hear the details in the context of the mix as a whole. But even at this stage I will sometimes still drop out of automation, if I want to try something new, and I don't want to keep cancelling mixes. But overall, this stage is mostly a matter of fine-tuning the automation, riding this bit up a bit, swoop something else, maybe have a part 3-4 dB louder when the chorus hits and then bring it down gradually. I'm playing around with things that I feel add to the drama and architecture of the mix.”
It's All In The Desk
It is generally when he is working in automation that Wallace will introduce most of his treatments and effects. But once again, readers hoping for a magic bullet that they can instantly apply to their own mixes are likely to be disappointed, as the vast majority of Wallace's treatments consist of SSL desk EQ, compression and gating.
"I am not shy of using EQ, and it almost always is board EQ, though I will occasionally use an outboard EQ, or an EQ in Pro Tools when I don't want to split out to another module, or if I want to change the EQ for a specific section. Rather than patch in another channel on the board, it's easier to mute the SSL EQ for a specific section and use a plug-in in Pro Tools. I tell Paul what I want and he'll give me some EQ options and I decide on a plug-in, which will often be a Digidesign one. The EQs I do in Pro Tools are either very general, just for a high-end or low-end roll-off, or very specific, like when I want to boost or cut a very specific frequency. I'm quite happy to use the SSL compressor, though I will occasionally use an outboard compressor, like the [Empirical Labs] Distressor. But I have found over the years that I use less and less outboard for mixing. It seems that the SSL can give me what I need. I tend to use effects in relatively broad strokes. It's not unusual for me to really make a compressor slam, to hit it pretty hard. I'll often put it on an extreme setting, to get a sense of what the ballpark is, and then back it off to what sounds right to me.
"Regarding gating, I often engage the SSL gates when working on the kick and snare. Linkin Park's programming will usually include one or two kick drum samples in addition to the kick drum. I'll start by listening to the phase relationships between the miked and sampled kicks and I'll play around with the compression as well, to see how it affects the attack and body of the kick sound. I use the gate to clean up ambient noise on the kick mic, or sometimes to trim the body, so I get a punch rather than a longer sound. Depending on what the sample sounds like, I may shorten the end of the decay with the gate. Sometimes there's a click or a bump at the end of a sample that's interfering rhythmically, and I use the gate to clean that up, but occasionally I'll use a super-fast attack on the gate to create a small pop at the beginning of the sound. If I don't have a sample that fits, and the kick drum has a kind of mushy attack, I will adjust the threshold and the attack to sharpen the transient. This is tricky to do, because it varies a lot on the level of the kick drum, and that's why I do this less often.
"I may also throw in a kick sample to generate reverb, and I will then gate that, to adjust the reverb. I don't add an ambient kick sample to replace the kick, but instead I gate the miked kick so it's shorter, and the kick sample will give me a controlled ambience. I send the sample to various reverbs, sometimes drastically EQ'ing it, sometimes not much at all, to create an ambience that will fit the sonic landscape.”
Wet & Dry
The fact that Wallace adds ambience to the kick drum may raise eyebrows in some quarters, as kick drums generally are kept fairly dry, but the mixer insists it's an important aspect of his arsenal. As he goes into more depth on his reasoning and methodology regarding this issue, there's a sense of arriving at the inner sanctum of Wallace's approach and at the details that really make the difference. "Occasionally the kick needs to be bone-dry, if it's for a techno-electronic track for example,” states the mixer, "but for rock tracks I like to add a room sound. Again, this is to do with the architecture and landscape of the mix. If it's a rock track I like the sense that everyone is playing together in the same room. I always imagine the listener being in the same space as the performers. If things are very dry and clean, it can sound unnatural and lightweight.
"I love live performance, and I still occasionally play live with my college band, First Friday. This doesn't mean that I try to mix all records as if they were recorded in an auditorium, but I do whatever makes sense to me to place the listener in a space with the band, whatever that space is. Sometimes it will be a big auditorium or stadium sound, sometimes that of a small club, sometimes it will be the type of recording where you have many different ambiences going on that are interesting dynamically and sonically, without placing the band in a specific place. Sometimes I'll put the band in a room just for a certain breakdown, purely for effect.
"When I came up in the 1970s, all studios had very dry rooms, because in those days the idea was to just pad everything. There was something cool about that, and I still like that dry sound. One thing is that it gives you a lot of clarity; it's an easy way of getting definition. But it is also like a woman wearing no make-up, she has to look pretty good as she is! It puts on more pressure to make sure the dry sounds are right. When I start putting a mix together I'll usually go for that dry sound, because I'm trying to get it to sound like it's hitting me in the chest and punching me. I may use gates to make things like the drums sound really dry. Later on, during the stage when I'm working with the automation, I will fill out all the ambiences and reverbs and echoes and whatever, until the mix feels right to me.
"That first stage, when the mix is dry and I'm going for punch and clarity, is done while monitoring at higher volumes, generally speaking on Genelec nearfield monitors. I listen loud to get a sense of the general impact feeling, and to work with the low end. I also still use the [Yamaha] NS10s, because they have a small-speaker punch that I really like. But I find that when you listen to them at high volume for any length of time, they fatigue my ears. I may also briefly check the mix on the big monitors just to hear what it will sound like in a club, played really loudly. But I spend probably the majority of my time listening at low volumes, and sometimes at extremely low volumes, to the point where if there's any noise in the room, it'll distract me. I'll almost welcome ambient sounds in the studio because it's like listening in the real world.
"I have often described my philosophy as me wanting to make sure that the mix still sounds good if you are listening to it on a ghetto-blaster on the beach that has been kicked over in the sand. I want to make sure that you can, even in that scenario, still hear all the things you are supposed to hear. In my experience, listening at low volume is the best way to fine-tune my balances, making sure that I can hear that one small guitar part that plays an accent in one place, and that all the details of the reverbs work well.”
Out Of The Room
Wallace adds that when working on the Linkin Park album, there were "a few short discussions” about the live-versus-sampled drum sound issue, "for example in a case where the verse needed to have more of a hip-hop feel, which means relying more on samples and less on the live drums, or vice versa. The gist of most of that kind of talk was how far they wanted to hear room sounds on the drums or lean more on samples, so I would work on the relationships between the sampled and miked kick sounds with that in mind.
"Incidentally, I follow a similar procedure when working on the snare sound as when working on the kick drum, ie. balancing the miked sound versus the sample, often inserting an ambient sample, and working with gating, EQ, compression and reverb. Also, my own drum samples were originally created by me on analogue tape, and I used to fly them in with hardware samplers triggered by the kick or snare, and would then spend a lot of time moving things around as necessary. I now have copies of these sounds in Pro Tools, and of course, fine-tuning and cleaning up these samples is much easier. Paul often does that for me.
"Specific to 'Guilty All The Same', I used the Distressor on the vocals, but also the SSL compressor. The reverbs were the Lexicon 480 for a longer reverb, and the PCM70 for smaller rooms, and the PCM42 for delay lines. I usually have three or four 42s set up to do various things. One of them will work in conjunction with the longer reverb to give it a bit of a pulse kind of thing. I also occasionally use the doubler from the Eventide H3500. All these effects would be on sends on the board, apart from the Distressor, which I tend to have on the inserts. In general I used the reverbs subtly on the vocals and lead guitars, and occasionally on one or more of the small synth parts that the band had in their tracks. But sometimes these elements were bone-dry. I use delays on the rhythm guitars when I want to create a double in certain sections and pan the original track and double hard left and right. Normally I like to create these things from the performances that are already there by taking the double from another moment in the song where the part is played, so I actually really get two different performances. But in cases where the part is only played once, I'll use the delay.
"Apart from the brief discussions before I began the mix, just to get a general sense of where they were heading, the Linkin Park guys weren't in the room while I worked. I'd call the band back in for feedback by the time I had a mix that felt pretty finished to me. There were some more changes after that point, but they tended to be small. The band usually were happy with what I presented them with, and as I mentioned before, weren't in the business of second-guessing and endless recalls. Once the mix was approved, I'd print it back into Pro Tools, and Paul then did stems, working with the band members. How this is done varies from project to project. I'm not a huge fan of doing stems at the time of the mix, because it slows me down. But more and more bands like to have stems for live performances and other reasons. I don't mind accommodating that, but it's done after the mix. If there is a request for a recall later on, I prefer to lay the session out over the board again than mix from stems. Because most of my mix moves are on the board, this is a fairly easy to do.
"With regards to the loudness wars and making your mix sound louder, I am in agreement with people who feel that it's a shame that mastering engineers are under pressure to make everything louder than the next, because it's not necessarily going to be beneficial to the mix. If you want it to sound louder, turn up your volume button! The loudness wars are one reason why I use an Alan Smart C2 outboard compressor on the stereo mix. I found out a long time ago that when a mix is broadcast and really squashed, it changes the dynamics of the low end in particular, and if I can do some of that compression ahead of time, I can minimise the damage done by extreme compression. I like the SSL G-series compressor, and the C2 also gives me that sound. I ride the master fader during mixdown, and put the compressor before the master fader, so the compression isn't changed while I'm working. If I push the master fader up by 1.5dB I want the mix to get 1.5dB louder! I am very concerned with preserving the dynamics of each mix, as it is part of a greater picture that I try to paint. Riding the master fader during the mix is part of my emphasis on the sonic architecture of the mix and of maximising the feel that I get from it.”
Mixing Nirvana's Nevermind
Among Andy Wallace's many stellar mix credits, Nirvana's epoch-making Nevermind is perhaps the most famous. "The album has received a lot of criticism in recent years because it supposedly is over-polished, but when we were mixing the album, neither the band nor I looked at it like that. We were pretty thrilled that it sounded big and powerful and had lots of dynamics. Kurt [Cobain] has been quoted as saying that he afterwards wanted to get back to the raw punk-band vibe of their debut album, Bleach , and I guess this is true, but some of that desire may have been influenced by the incredible and unexpectedly huge success of Nevermind, and what that did to his career and his life. If that success had not happened, there might not have been the fuss about the album supposedly being polished-sounding.
"I mixed the album at Scream Studios in Los Angeles, using methods that are fairly similar to the ones I'm still using today, with an SSL G console and not a lot of outboard gear. While mixing I did not try to polish it at all. I was trying to keep the sound in your face and raw, while at the same time providing the dynamics and architecture that I like to hear. And I'm still very happy with the result.”
Grace Under Pressure
Though he is best-known for his work with hard rock and metal bands, Andy Wallace has worked in most genres, and one of the most influential albums he worked on was Jeff Buckley's Grace (1994). He not only engineered the album but mixed and produced it too.
"I didn't know that album would have such an impact, but I certainly felt while working with Jeff that he was one of the most significant and talented artists that I have ever worked with. I still feel that way. I first saw him in action playing at Sin-é, a small club in New York, and he was an engaging and entertaining performer. He was almost like a stand-up comedian in between musical numbers, and could go from doing some kind of parody to performing 'Hallelujah', so you'd go from laughter to sitting with a dropped jaw a moment later. It was the first time I heard his song 'Grace', which is brilliant.
"Jeff and I had to develop the whole approach for the album from scratch. We felt that a band thing would be the way to go, so he began auditioning people and found drummer Matt Johnson and bassist Matt Grøndahl pretty quickly, and they then rehearsed a lot. I stopped by at times and made suggestions, and we then went into full-scale pre-production, with me recording and comping the rehearsals so they knew what it was going to sound like.
"The actual recordings took place at Bearsville in New York, and I mixed at Soundtrack. A lot of the sound of the album was developed while we were recording, with overdubbing and things like that. It was not an easy album to make, in part because there's such a variety of styles on the album that it was tricky to make sure that it remained cohesive. I give a lot credit for that to Jeff, because he was such a powerful stylist, both in terms of interpreting other people's music and his own. That in itself provided cohesiveness. Another challenge was keeping Jeff focused, because he had a million things going on in his musical mind at the same time. He listened to everything, and he retained everything, which was amazing, and he also was an incredible creative soul. He had this bottomless well of musical ability and knowledge, and would have continued to develop as an artist for years.
"When I heard that Jeff had died [in a drowning accident, May 1997, aged 30] I was totally devastated. First of all, on a personal level. You develop a particularly strong relationship with some artists, and Jeff was one of them. In the week before his death I had spent five days with him in Memphis, talking about making his second album, so there also was this feeling of, 'Oh my God!' because we were about to start making what I know was going to be a stupendous album. We had been talking about the direction he wanted to go in, and had come up with a game plan for the pre-production. The next step was for the band to start rehearsing, and a week or so later I would come down and work with them. I think we would have recorded many of the songs that later appeared on My Sweetheart The Drunk [a posthumous album released in 1998, produced by Tom Verlaine], but I imagine they would have been further developed and that new songs would have been written.
"I didn't really talk with Jeff about why he was unhappy with the recordings he had done with Tom. After Grace, Jeff wanted to do something a bit more rootsy, and also his live performances had become more raucous. He was ready for a new approach. He was a big fan of Television, and he also always wanted to be part of a rock band, and I think this is why he contacted Tom. But there appears to have been some kind of chemistry issue between them. However, based on the evidence of the recordings he did with Tom, something good did happen. I was asked to mix the material, and I was very happy to be involved in that, my only condition being that the four-track demos would be released on a separate CD. They're brilliant in their own way, but limited in terms of what we could do with them. I love the songs on My Sweetheart The Drunk, it's an album I still enjoy listening to.
"On a side note, I'm very happy that the song 'Forget Her' was released on the 2004 Legacy Edition of the album. I'm very proud of that track, which was fully completed and mixed as part of the Grace album. Jeff did not want it released because there were a couple of things with it that he was sensitive about. It was intended as one of the principal tracks of Grace and everybody was trying to convince him of it being a great song and that it had to be on to the album. I was really disappointed that it didn't make it on the original version of Grace, but at least it did finally get released.”
Andy Wallace was one of many engineers who worked on Guns N' Roses' epic 2008 double album Chinese Democracy (2008) over a tortuous nine-year production period. "I've always been amazed that that album turned out as well as it did, given the way it came into being,” he says. "You'd think that any album that suffered that kind of process would have been kicked to death and not have any integrity left. But in spite of how it came into being I think it's a good album. I came in for the tail end, the mixing. The original mix process was not much different from the one I described with Linkin Park, but we did get into an exceptional amount of recalls, often for very small changes.”