In a rare interview, legendary engineer and producer Humberto Gatica explains how he and singer Michael Bublé breathed new life into big‑band swing music — with stunning results.
Still only 34, singer Michael Bublé has almost single‑handedly made swing and big‑band music fashionable again, with well over 20 million album sales to date. The Canadian broke through to the mainstream in 2003 with an eponymously titled album, and followed it with It's Time (2005), the Grammy‑winning Call Me Irresponsible (2007) and Crazy Love (2009). The latter reached number one in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and many other countries. In addition, Bublé won a second Grammy this year in the category Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, with the live Bublé Meets Madison Square Garden.
As the old saying goes, behind every great singer there's a great production team, and Bublé's team is spearheaded by two living legends of the American music industry. Canadian David Foster and Chilean Humberto Gatica were both instrumental in helping the singer update swing and big‑band music for the 21st Century. Foster is the 15‑time Grammy‑winning writer of megahits such as 'Love Theme from St Elmo's Fire', Chicago's 'Hard To Say I'm Sorry' and Celine Dion's 'The Power Of The Dream', and has also produced the likes of Dion, Whitney Houston and Barbra Streisand. Foster discovered Bublé in 2000, signed him to his label, 143 Records, and produced large parts of the four above‑mentioned albums.
Meanwhile, Humberto Gatica's 35‑year career has seen him work with almost every big‑name American artist, from Michael Jackson to Barbra Streisand, Madonna to Mariah Carey, in the process collecting no fewer than 16 Grammy awards. Gatica worked as a producer, engineer and mixer on all of Bublé's albums.
Three producers worked on Crazy Love. Foster produced half of the 14 songs, Bob Rock five, and Gatica two: the big‑band track 'You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You' and the barbershop‑inspired vocal swing of 'Stardust'. Gatica engineered the tracks he produced, and together with Jochem van der Saag (interviewed in SOS April 2009) he engineered all the Foster‑produced tracks. Gatica also mixed all of the tracks, apart from the first single, 'Haven't Met You Yet', which fell to Chris Lord‑Alge. In this article, we'll be looking in detail at Gatica's work on 'You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You'.
At the time of the interview, Humberto Gatica is juggling several projects, amongst them an album of orchestral arrangements of Diane Warren songs and work with Quincy Jones on the 'We Are The World 2010' benefit single for Haiti. In between all this, from his brand‑new studio in Los Angeles, Gatica elaborates on his work on Michael Bublé's Crazy Love, and on how both this album and his work in general aim to combine the best of the old and the new.
"I'm so busy that I keep my studio working all the time, and I'm happy with that,” explains Gatica, his Chilean accent and syntax still very much apparent. "I have a Euphonix desk here, with Pro Tools. I like the Euphonix sound, because it has a little bit of the analogue touch to it. The EQ is very musical, and in fact I recorded the first three Bublé studio albums, the first three Josh Groban albums, a couple of Celine albums, and a bunch of other stuff on a Euphonix desk. The Madison Square Garden live album was done on a Neve, because my studio wasn't ready yet, and Crazy Love was recorded and mixed on Neve consoles as well.
"As far as outboard is concerned, I'm still attached to the analogue world, even though I'm slowly discovering the possibilities presented by plug‑ins. I little by little learn to use them and I program what they can do in my head, so I know what to go for when necessary. But I'm much more in tune with analogue gear; I immediately know what I want and where to find it, whether it's EQ, compression, or reverbs. But you have to use today's technology. You can't just close your eyes and bury your head and say that you're only going to do it one way. So I chose what's available now to my advantage, and with the experience that I bring from the other side of the coin, I have finally learned to have a perfect balance. I don't have to think about it any more, it just happens naturally. The way I use microphones, EQ, compression, the way I go into Pro Tools, I've been able to program my brain to today's technology so I'm able to get what I want.
"You can do so much crazy stuff now in Pro Tools, move things around, change, shift, chop, tune, that you couldn't do in analogue. It makes me happy to use it. Pro Tools is a fantastic device if used properly and if you don't get carried away — though some people work with such average musicians that they have no choice but to work with Pro Tools and to fix and compress the heck out of things. I also think that digital now sounds pretty close to the way that analogue used to sound. I still think, though, that there is a certain spread, depth, and weight and musicality with analogue that's not reproduced today. There are some great‑sounding new records, but in the past we made better‑sounding records, with more soul. The higher sample rates help, so I've tried using 96k, but it's a pain. It uses too much space and slows down the session, and I like to move fast. So I'm now back to 24/48. I still think that the converters of the old Sony 3348 [digital multitrack tape machine] are incredible. When I worked on Michael's albums at David Foster's studio, we always went through a 3348. For my current studio I bought an old 3348, and I process my signal through its converters.
"I still lay everything out on the desk. To me, with the kind of music that I'm doing, the box [computer] is a danger. As soon as you go into the box, things have a tendency to get sterile and predictable. The box is a one‑dimensional device designed for a different kind of music. For some music it's ideal, but it destroys the musicality, the emotions, the orchestrations and the chords in the music that I do. It takes away energy and spirit. I don't care how much analogue you rent in, it's not the real thing. Michael also didn't want that approach. It's OK to record into the box, but then you have to bring the elements back out again into a whirl of feelings in analogue, and into the way you can feel the moves with a desk. For me, it's impossible to get the sound I want with just a mouse and plug‑ins. No way. It's like trying to make an incredible meal with boxing gloves on and all the food is in cans or is frozen. I can't do it.”
The synthesis of the old and the new, analogue and digital, the desk and Pro Tools, lies at the heart of everything Gatica does these days. It extends into the actual music‑making and arranging arena, as is illustrated by his work with Michael Bublé. "With the Bublé albums, we were able to perfectly balance the traditional and the contemporary. We were using synth sounds and loops and so on, while being cautious about how we introduced them in the mix. Sometimes they were explicit and exposed, sometimes they worked more in the background and added to the overall feel, where you can't tell exactly what's happening, but you can feel that there's something different. If we had not added these elements, we'd have made a very traditional album, à la Frank Sinatra. With all the artists we work with, we try to create their own sound, even if it is traditional music. On Michael's first album there's a track called 'Fever', and you can hear a lot of loops kicking in and giving a nice spin to the vibe of the song. There's a bit of an edge. The same in the song 'Hold On' [the forthcoming second single from Crazy Love] which has a bit of roughness in the electric guitars. Michael also writes singles that are completely outside of the swing world. He is the only artist who is able to step out of character and come back into it again like that.”
Crazy Love embodies this combination of the old and the new in many different ways. It contains old‑fashioned songs, amongst them early 20th Century classics such as 'Georgia On My Mind', 'Stardust', and 'All Of Me', mid‑century songs such as 'You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You', 'Cry Me A River' and the soul classic 'Some Kind of Wonderful', and rock songs including the Eagles' 1980 hit 'Heartache Tonight', Van Morrison's 1970 classic 'Crazy Love' and Ron Sexsmith's 2004 song 'Whatever It Takes'. There are also two songs written by Bublé with Alan Chang and Amy S Foster. The album contains a wide variety of ingredients, among them in‑the‑background Cubase programming by Jochem van der Saag, distorted electric guitars, in‑your‑face drum kits, big bands, horn and string sections and barbershop singing. The most immediately apparent contemporary characteristic of the album, however, is its sound, which is rich, bright, detailed, transparent: in‑your‑face, but not overly so.
"The vocals are the most important aspect of the entire recording for me,” insists Gatica. "I pay a lot of attention to vocal recording, and I have found the zone where the vocals behave best. With Celine it's the Telefunken 251, into one of my customised mic pres, Neve 33609 [compressor] and GML EQ. I use the 251 with almost everybody, it's my favourite microphone, but with Michael I use a vintage tube Neumann U47. My mic pres were made 25 years ago by Eduardo Fayed, a Brazilian genius. I used them for the recording of the first 'We Are The World'. It challenges every other mic pre on the planet in terms of purity and clean sound. Dave Foster had two, but somehow they died, and so my two mic pres are the only ones left in the world. Fayed's mic pres work wonderfully on Celine. She's one of the most challenging vocalists on the planet to record, because of her incredible range and the way she can sing very softly, and then suddenly she'll shift her sound to a very powerful mid‑range. If the mic and the mic pre don't respond properly, you'll get a mid‑rangey sound that she won't like. She's the most sensitive, wonderful, amazing vocalist I've ever worked with, and she'll immediately hear in her earphones if her vocals sound compressed or whatever.”
Humberto Gatica: "In the case of this song, I was producing, arranging, engineering and mixing, so before explaining the technical details to you, I have to stress that the technical aspect is something that I have done for so many years that it has become second nature. My primary concern when I'm producing is arrangement and performance. After the sound, which in part inspires the production, is set, I let go and completely disconnect myself from that aspect. After that, all I think about is the creative aspect, the feel, the arrangement, what the arrangement is doing to the melody, how it is affecting the vocal performance, and so on. I'm like an ice hockey player who doesn't think about skating any more, but only about the game and scoring goals. In the case of this song, my input in the arrangement was a collaboration. The arrangements were already kind of there, because Michael and his band had already performed the song live. We just upgraded the arrangement for the recorded version. We beefed it up with outside ideas from Alan [Chang] and me.
"We recorded this track at the Warehouse [in Vancouver] with Michael's live band. It was one of the first times that the band was participating on one of his albums. We were very excited about that. Playing live is one thing, but playing in a studio is much more demanding, and so we had to tighten things up and make sure they were more accurate. Everything was recorded live, there were no overdubs, apart from some fixes on Michael's vocal because there were some pops in the live take. I like the artists to sing the song with the arrangement, so I can better judge what I'm looking for. Michael always wants to do a live vocal to capture the feel. He sings in an iso booth, and the quality of his live singing is as good as that of his overdubs. I also had the drums, piano, double bass and guitars in iso rooms, and the rest of the band set up in a kind of horse-shoe arrangement, with trombones to the left, saxophones to the right, and trumpets towards the centre. I later kept that positioning in the mix. I recorded the strings at the same time, but later I overdubbed them again to have more control over the sound. The room sounded fantastic, very bright, with a nice resonance in the horns, and so I used lots of ambient mics, which allowed me to get some real live energy into the recording.
"In terms of microphones, I had a Sennheiser MD421 and [Neumann] FET 47 on the bass drum, AKG C452 and Shure SM57 on the snare, 57s on the toms, AKG 452 on the hi‑hat, [Neumann] TLM170 for the overheads, [Neumann] M50 for the ambience. The upright bass was recorded with two FET 47s on each 'f' hole and a [Neumann] KM84 close to the neck. The bass player did not have a pickup this time. The piano was recorded with an AKG C414 and a [Neumann] M49, and for the guitar I had an SM57 on the amp and also an AKG 452 right by the guitarist's hand, so I could pick up a little bit of the strumming sound.
"For anything brass I love Neumann, so trombones and trumpets were recorded with U87s, and the saxophone with 47 FETs. I used the Neumann 67 and 87s on all the strings apart from the cellos, for which I used the AKG 452. I like to have options of close, section, and ambient microphones. The room at the Warehouse has an interesting height, and I put the M50 up at the balcony, and also put up two [Telefunken ELAM] 251s as ambient mics, just to fool around and check the frequency response up there. In terms of the signal chains, I took my Eduardo Fayed mic pres with me to Vancouver and used them on Michael's vocals, as well as the trumpets, to make sure they sounded a little fatter. Other than that, I used the mic pres of the Warehouse's Neve 'AIR' desk [one of three originally designed to George Martin and Geoff Emerick's specifications for AIR Studios], which is a good‑sounding console. I compressed the bass, the guitars and the piano a bit, just to have a bit more control, but the brass, never; the brass has to breathe.
"Michael wanted from the beginning to have a record that sounded real, that sounds like the musicians are right there doing what they do best, so I recorded the band in whole takes, with everybody wearing headphones, so they could hear Michael, which was important to inspire them to a better execution and get a good take. There was no click. We set the tempo, and if the band was fluctuating or drifting, we'd regroup and try to pay more attention. I ended up with one particular performance that I felt was very well‑executed and just kept it. That was the take and it turned out to be big. There were no overdubbing edits, although I did later on use Pro Tools to make a few repairs. Players aren't perfect and they get tired. But I only did this when I felt that it was necessary to preserve the integrity of the performance, like tune a note if it affected the blend of the saxophones, for instance. I don't line up everything to perfection, because that would defeat the purpose of a live performance. Of course, I'll use technology if it is to my advantage. If players make minor mistakes, I can say, 'Don't worry, I can fix this,' and move on. You want emotion and you want feel and you want precision all at the same time.”
"When I am mixing, I am very hands‑on and manipulate the dynamics by hand. When you are producing, the vocal goes through three stages: recording, putting the pieces together, and mixing. I try to capitalise on the emotion in every moment, in a very musical way. You don't hear what I do and compression is not needed. People, particularly when working in Pro Tools, put masses of compression on. Everything is bang in your face, one‑dimensional. They sometimes sound brilliant on the radio, and sometimes awful because of all the radio compression that also gets added. I want my records to sound great anywhere.
"The first thing I do when I begin a mix is work on the vocal. I make it sound smooth and make sure the articulation is correct, and so on. I spend a lot of time making sure the vocal is in top shape, and I may use a little bit of Neve 33609 compression and my GML EQ — the GML is one of the most musical EQs ever built. Everything has to revolve and sound good around the vocal. When I've gotten the vocal to sound right, the foundation is there, and the mix becomes more fun and there is room to be creative and expressive with the rest of the mix. Let's see what we can do with the instrumentation. So, after that, I work on the rhythm. I'll then work on balancing the horns and saxophones, and the bones, and the strings. I get all the balances in perfect harmony and then I start having fun with reverbs and delays and whatever creative thing comes to my mind. By this stage, I have everything up in the mix. I then dismember it again, and verify the vocal against the rhythm section, the rhythm against the horns, the horns with the vocals, and so on, to see how everything works.
"The Session of 'You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You', consisted of about 46 tracks. I mixed the whole album in Los Angeles, at Capitol Studio B on the old Neve 8068 there. It's a fabulous studio with a wonderful sound. I ended up so pleased with all my mixes on Crazy Love. They're all fat and well‑defined‑sounding, with incredible punch. I did a few things in Pro Tools, just a compressor here and there to get things to sound tight and to have more control, and I used the George Massenburg EQ plug‑in to clean up some vocal proximity [low‑frequency boost] and straighten out some other things. Michael sang some of the vocals in Vancouver and some in LA, and I needed to match these. But everything else in the mixes was done on the desk and with outboard.
"As I said before, I'm not an in‑the‑box friendly guy. I don't care what you do and how much you want to use plug‑ins: trying to duplicate the sound of an 1176 or of a vintage EQ or whatever with them doesn't work. It's never the same. So the only way to approach it is to keep compressing and in the end you have this record that when you listen to it you are like… [makes sound of being throttled] You can't even breathe. Nothing is moving. Nothing is open. It's like an addiction. So instead I stick to the old‑fashioned way of making and mixing records, while also using the sounds that the new generation is used to hearing today. That's OK. I you use compression in a musical way, you can do a magnificent job and you have the best of both worlds. But you don't want to overcook things. There is some music a dinosaur like me will never be able to do, because those kids know how to manipulate bottom end. And with some of the modern singers you need all sorts of major effects and processing, it's the only way you can make it fly. But for the stuff that's done by great artists like Michael Bublé, Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, Celine Dion, the box is not the answer, the box is the beginning of the end.
"During recording and the mix, I worked hard on mixing the drums, because Michael really likes to hear the groove and the pounding of the drums. I use some EQ, often from my GML, and some Neve 33609 compression where necessary. With songs that I have recorded myself I don't need to do much in the mix, it's more just a matter of balancing and placing things in the stereo spectrum. I mainly use the GML EQ and the Neve 33609 compressor, but very sparingly. I had both boxes on Michael's voice, and some reverb, and another EQ, that I don't want to talk about. I'm supporting kids that go to college! Vocals and the drums are the most important aspects of a mix, and the arrangement as a whole. When you understand arrangement, mixing is easy. You know what you're looking for. Otherwise you're fishing.
"I also spend quite a lot of time adding ambience and space to the mix. I have a very interesting approach, I mix things up. I use things that give me length, and I use things that give me width. I have a colourful way of mixing things. One of the first things that Michael Jackson said to me when I did my first mix for him was, 'Great, you work in colours.' And I said: 'It's my life.' For ambience I of course used the ambient tracks that I had recorded at the Warehouse, mostly from the M50. I used two other stereo pairs of mics, because I'd never worked in that room, and I wanted to cover my back. But there was a resonance in the air that was fabulous. I had the precision from the close mics, and then when you open up the room mics you get the depth. I also added some outboard reverb from the live chambers at Capitol. They were amazing. You can't top that. And my favourite reverb friend is the [AMS] RMX16. I love it, I love it, I love it, because I think it sounds very musical.
"I mix back into Pro Tools. After I finished the mix, I made stems of everything in Pro Tools. I'd make stems of the saxophones, the trumpets, the rooms, the bones, the drums, the snares, the vocal dry and the vocal with reverb. These stems are completely clean, they are impeccable. Once I'd dissected the song like that, I'd move with confidence to the mix of the next song. Once all mixes for the album were done, I come to what I consider the most fun part of my work. In my mind I become completely an outside producer who is evaluating all the mixes to see whether they are overproduced or overexposed or whatever. I'm very relaxed when I do this, and I may say: 'This part needs to go down a little,' or 'Let's get rid of that part, it's not needed.' I make sure that everything is breathing and that all the tracks on the album form a unity. So I'm truly doing touch‑ups, this is the final stage, and when it's done, I know I can go into mastering with full confidence.”
"I came to the US in 1968, when I was 17 years old,” says Humberto Gatica, who grew up in Chile. "I was following my dream of a better life. It was interesting in that I had no fear. I just looked up north, and left. I borrowed some money and flew to Mexico, that's how far the money went, and then took a bus to California. I located some friends and started looking for any kind of job that I could find. I come from a musical family, so I was thinking of music, but I did not want to be a performer, even though I played a little bit of guitar. Then, in 1971 I accidentally walked into the MGM recording studio, to witness a recording. This had been arranged via a friend. From that moment on I was completely in love with the whole world of recording. The studio manager allowed me to become an intern, and I did everything from cleaning to changing lightbulbs.
"I gradually became an assistant engineer, and then one day in 1973 I found myself doing a live session organised by the producer Don Costa, who worked with Frank Sinatra for many years. The engineer for that was sick at the last minute, and it was too late to cancel the session, so Costa said to the studio manager: 'I'll take my chances with the kid.' It was a three‑hour big‑band session with 40 people, so my first recording experience was with a large band. I proved that I had the desire and talent to be able to handle sessions, and continued working as an assistant engineer with the same producer, who liked me very much. A year later MGM sold its studio business, and I was laid off, and I went independent. Things went very quick after that, and I won my first Grammy award with Chicago in 1984. I also worked with Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien on Michael Jackson's Thriller and Bad, and the latter got me a second Grammy award for Best Engineer. I also won two Grammy Awards with Celine [Dion].”