Despite the challenges of producing the album remotely, Dave Fridmann’s work on the latest Mogwai album saw the band top the charts for the very first time.
“Mogwai is one of those bands that’s ultra‑dynamic, that goes from ear‑bleeding volume to deafening silence. If you go to one of their shows you’ll experience a full range of emotions because of those dynamics, and because it’s so visceral when they’re loud. My job was to try to make the visceral experience of a live concert come out of a pair of stereo speakers, or tiny computer speakers, or earbuds. That’s not an easy task.
“In general, it is why I have bands come into my studio and perform their music here, and I’m in the room with them listening, experiencing their music in the way they experience it. I’m not sitting in the control room. When you do that with Mogwai, it’s absolutely mesmerising. Capturing that is not as simple as just recording them straight. There’s studio trickery involved in getting that across on a home stereo system. I hope that I can bring some added value to the table here, not only with Mogwai, but in working with anybody.”
In these two paragraphs Dave Fridmann summarises many of the essential aspects of his production and mix work on the latest Mogwai album, As The Love Continues. But Fridmann’s statement raises some questions. Visiting a concert has been impossible for more than a year, and being in the same room as a band has not been very straightforward either, certainly not with Fridmann in upstate New York, Mogwai in Glasgow, and transatlantic travel a big challenge.
Fridmann’s solution involved a combination of the cutting edge and the tried and trusted. He’s applied this approach to pretty much every project he’s worked on, from his early days as the bassist of Mercury Rev in the early ’90s, to producing said band and the likes of the Flaming Lips, Weezer, Sparklehorse, Interpol and many others, and also in his Tarbox Road Studios. The studio’s website lists an amazing amount of vintage analogue gear, with a spectacular 140‑odd pieces of outboard, dozens of mics, a Neve desk, tape, DAT and cassette recorders, but also the cutting edge with Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton Live, Reason, and so on.
Fridmann has worked with Mogwai off and on since the band’s second album, 1999’s Come On Die Young. He also worked on the follow up, Rock Action (2001), and again on their ninth album, Every Country’s Sun (2017), and most recently on As The Love Continues. The latter, which went to number one in the UK (the band’s first chart‑topping effort), came into being in a rather unusual way. Fridmann directed the recording sessions via Zoom, which may seems like a rather remote, impersonal, digital approach for someone so fond of the warmth and humanity of analogue gear. However, while countless people the world over are by now absolutely fed up of relating to others via a screen, the American has a different perspective.
“I’d actually argue that even as Zoom is a digital format, it’s an analogue experience. We were looking at each other in real time. We were hearing each other in real time. We were interacting in real time. I couldn’t pause reality. It was just like being in the room together. If we had been sitting in the room together, we’d have had the same conversations.
“Yes, it’s different because we were remote, but we were as close as we could be to each other. That’s the part of the process that is really important to me. I also was not necessarily concentrating on the screen part of it. Instead I was focusing on listening. The screen was only important when we were trying to communicate particular ideas. Really, the only difference was that we couldn’t go out for a beer together afterwards!”
It was via Zoom that Fridmann told the story of the making of As The Love Continues, elaborating on exactly how they used the medium, and how he provided his added value, both as a producer, and while mixing the album. The story starts with plans for recording sessions at Tarbox in April and May 2020, which were derailed by the suddenly exploding epidemic.
“Mogwai had been fairly well prepared. We’d done pre‑production, with them sending me demos and me commenting. Normally, the band shows up at my place and runs through the songs and we’ll make some last‑minute adjustments once I can finally hear them playing in my studio. With the previous album we had two drum kits setup with full complements of microphones, and full complements of preamps, and I have six guitar areas and a couple of vocal areas and pianos, and everything is miked up. That’s why I need all these mics and preamps in my studio!”
Like for everyone else, everything suddenly changed in March 2020, and the Mogwai members and Fridmann found themselves stuck at home. However, contrary to many of us, they actually managed to use lockdown productively, and wrote more material. “Yes,” recalls Fridmann, “and I’d check in with them every couple of weeks, to see if they had a chance to respond to my notes, and ask about people’s health, and so on.
“They were all working at home, and swapping files, but the main issue was that everything took longer. [Keyboardist] Barry [Burns] came back from Germany at one point, and had to self‑isolate for two weeks. All that decompression time that had to be built in was a big deal. Lockdown rules also kept changing, so it was difficult to plan something.
“We mostly used the extra time we had beneficially, to examine what we were doing and make sure we had the best versions. That built‑in self‑reflection was invaluable. I think the arrangements ended up better, and because of the extra time, we ended up with almost a second record’s worth of material that we didn’t use.”
Back In The Room
Finally, in July 2020, the band was able to enter its rehearsal space again, in preparation for recording sessions at VADA studios, south of Birmingham. “One issue was that Martin [Bulloch] doesn’t have drums in his flat, so he normally goes to the band’s studio to practice. He hadn’t been able to practice for months, and the drummer in a band has to be solid, so he had to go in a week before everybody else to practice for four or five hours every day to get back up to speed. Being a drummer is such a physical effort.”
Mogwai spent time rehearsing at their Glasgow studio, which they co‑own with Scottish engineer and producer Tony Doogan. Doogan and the band then descended on VADA studios on August 2nd, for sessions lasting until August 17th. They were assisted by studio engineer George Perks. The band set up in the large live area [shown in the opening photo], with Fridmann a daily presence, hovering over everyone like Big Brother, on screens in the live room and the control room.
“Tony and I have worked together on many projects,” elaborates Fridmann, “and we have a really good understanding of each other’s working methods and expectations. Because I was not in the room, I left 90 percent of what was happening to Tony. He’d already been producing a few other bands remotely, so he knows what works. He did an amazing job setting us up. He created a separate Zoom user for an iPad that sat out in the recording space, so the band could see me and I could see them.
“On a separate Zoom account I was on his screen in the control room, and listening to his stereo audio feed. So I could hear exactly what he was listening to in the control room, in very high quality. If I wanted to say something, I could also press a button on Zoom and my audio output went to the control room monitors or the band’s headphones. It worked fabulously. The delay was almost negligible and it was like being in the next room.
“They used [remote collaboration software] Audiomovers, set up as a plug‑in in their Pro Tools system, and this worked flawlessly. You can do screen sharing with Zoom, so I also had the ability to control Pro Tools. Sometimes you can talk until you’re blue in the face when it’s easier just to demonstrate what you want. And sometimes they’d go off to get some food, and I’d go in and change the mix, or solo things. I had total control of Pro Tools in this way.
“The band recorded all the tracks as a group performance. They did overdubs, but most of what’s on the album was recorded live on the studio floor. Occasionally we edited between takes, but not often. They play with additional players live, and they work with a mindset of having two guitars and two keyboards on each track, so the second guitar and second keyboard usually were the overdubs. There also was a strings overdub on one track, but this was done later in Budapest. My son Jon also overdubbed a French horn.”
With the recordings at VADA complete, Fridmann started mixing As The Love Continues at his Tarbox Road Studios. Normally this section of the Inside Track series features some DAW screenshots, but Fridmann refused to supply any, explaining that his mixes were mostly or entirely analogue, and that the Pro Tools sessions he was sent only had audio tracks and functioned pretty much like multitrack tapes.
Before delving into his mix process, Fridmann elaborates a little on his reasons for still working in analogue, as much as possible in 2021. “I still use tape. The last Interpol record we did [Marauder, 2018], was tape‑based, and that does half the job for you. It already compresses for you, it rolls off below 20Hz, and so on. All the reasons people use plug‑in tape emulations. Tape can’t 100‑percent reproduce what you put into it, and that’s the best thing and the worst thing about it.
Dave Fridmann: The biggest part of the process is capturing an actual performance, where you live in the moment and make a commitment... It’s a very different musical experience than building something piece by piece.
“For me, working with analogue is about the sound, and about the process. The biggest part of the process is capturing an actual performance, where you live in the moment and make a commitment, as in, ‘We’re going to play this song all at the same time, and even if we overdub later, we’re accepting the reality of that performance.’ It’s a very different musical experience than building something piece by piece. That stuff is valid too, it’s just a different idea.
“In general I far prefer to mix in analogue, because it’s just more convenient and so much more fun. Pushing knobs and working with physical things is just much more attractive to me. Like, I may stand at the patchbay and patch an effect in and out when it needs to happen. If an effect like that has to be done in Pro Tools, I’ll ask my son Michael, who is my assistant, to do it, rather than sit there with a mouse.
“Mixing in the box is boring for me, though I have to say that I occasionally have to do it, and I have come to terms with that. There are certain projects that have to be mixed in the box, because people have worked so long in that environment building up their track, and brought it up to such a high standard, that it really just needs the slightest manipulation. Just the fact of taking it out of the box already changes it too much.
“I’m not necessarily talking about sample‑based or programmed music. It’s about the production. If the artist and/or producer has taken it beyond a rough mix into something that only exists because of what’s happening in the box, you need to stay in the box, even if there are dumb or perplexing things happening. Take the Waves SoundShifter plug‑in. It’s a nightmare because it’s a processor hog and needs a lot of delay compensation. And if you print it, it doesn’t sound the same. You have to run it live, so you can’t take it out of the box.”
Working with tape is not always practical or affordable, so during the Mogwai project Fridmann retreated to his second line of analogue defence: Tarbox’s amazingly extensive collection of often obscure outboard and its 48‑channel Neve 88RS desk with Encore automation and recall. The latter is one of the biggest changes in his studio since he last appeared in this magazine (in SOS March 2010, talking about his work with the Flaming Lips). At the time Tarbox had a 40‑channel Otari Concept Elite console.
“We bought the Neve at the beginning of 2017. It’s a brand‑new desk, so we’re also set up to do surround. I loved the Otari desk, but it had become unreliable, and was no longer supported. There was a network of people with the same console talking to each other about how to maintain it, but that was slowly disappearing. I had the choice of going fully in the box and hating to show up for work every day, or get a brand‑new console that will carry me well into the future.
“Total recall is important for me, for obvious reasons, and the Neve is currently the only desk made with it, so I could either go for that, or get a classic console that would be older than the Otari, and also difficult to maintain. So I got the 88RS. It still has a manual recall, but it takes me half an hour to get a mix back where it was, unless I wrote down something incorrectly. We have recall sheets for the outboard, though they’re in a handwritten shorthand.
“I hope Neve won’t mind me saying this, but the new Neves don’t really have a sound. It’s an almost transparent blank canvas for me to work with. I have tons of colour boxes amongst my outboard, and many of the bands I work with, like Mogwai, have so much colour, it actually is helpful for me to work with something relatively neutral.
“Strangely enough, after we switched to the Neve, I wasn’t hearing things right anymore. I’ve always had the Westlake BBSM‑10 as farfields, and then I had NS10s for nearfields, and then the Quested H108, also for surround. I’d bought a pair of ADAM A7 monitors years ago, which I used for reamping and so on, but I hadn’t found a way to use them for mixing. But once I got the Neve desk, I switched to the ADAM A7 monitors entirely. I mixed the Mogwai album primarily on them.”
Mixing the Mogwai sessions was relatively straightforward, because the band, Doogan and Fridmann had already laid the groundwork during tracking. “When you’re working with a live band, it’s easier to simply capture the sound as you want it. So during tracking we had discussions about the exact sounds they wanted and we made sure we captured them. Tony got it as close as humanly possible to the final sound.
“With a band like Mogwai, or any band I work with, it never is a matter of just laying down something and then fixing it later. You always want it to sound right in the moment. I teach sound recording at a local college [SUNY Fredonia], and I always try to instil in the students that musicians aren’t going to make great music if what they do doesn’t sound good. You cannot expect a band to play well if they sound bad. It’s incumbent upon every engineer to make sure that it sounds good while things are going down, so that the musicians are already reacting to what the final product is going to be.
“When I got the Mogwai files and started mixing, I could lay things out over the desk and push up the faders and the song was already there. It already sounded the way it was supposed to sound. I didn’t need to spend time creating a whole new world that all the parts are supposed to live in. That world is already there.”
At this point Fridmann started talking about translating the “visceral” experience of the band playing in the room to the medium of home speakers or earpods. “You can’t just let the tracks sit there. I’m not just balancing. It’s a matter of continuously moving things and manipulating things to give you that experience of being in the room with the band. The challenge with Mogwai is the dynamics, to make them feel close and intimate in the quieter parts and completely overwhelming at the height of the songs.”
According to Fridmann, he has the basic elements of a template in his studio to help him. “Yeah, there definitely is some sort of starting template, and that has a lot to do with routing. I’m a big fan of parallel compression, so I have some tracks set up for that, and there’ll also be some aux delay and reverb tracks. But it breaks down quite quickly once I get going.
“My template changes every few years, but at the moment all my drums go to subgroup 43‑44, and 45‑46 always is a parallel compression version of 43‑44. I usually start with Harris MSP 90 FM broadcast compressors for the parallel drum compression, and then I see how it goes. On a couple of the songs I used the Gamechanger Audio Plasma Racks.”
“The Mogwai Pro Tools sessions usually were 50 tracks at the most. With the desk having 48 dual‑path channels I have 96 inputs, plus reverb returns, so I’m unlikely to run out of channels. I do use some plug‑ins in Pro Tools as well. Plug‑ins are as unique as outboard gear. And often you want to treat things in Pro Tools before they hit the desk. But I tend to use very few plug‑ins, and mostly it’s things like surgical EQ, perhaps cutting out some sub. I don’t usually do any volume automation in Pro Tools — all the faders are at zero — and typically no bussing either.”
When asked whether he has a method when he starts mixing, Fridmann replies, “It depends on the song and on the project. Something happens when I sit in front of all the faders, and I just feel my way through it. There isn’t a technique. But I generally focus first on what the featured instrument is, to get that sounding the way I want it, and then I get everything else to work around that. In the case of a standard pop song, that obviously will be the vocal, but with a largely instrumental band like Mogwai, if it’s a more electronic track, which typically are Barry’s songs, I’ll first make sure I have a full handle on the different electronic elements.
“I then mute that, and work on other elements. It’s pretty standard. I’ll listen to the entire drum kit as a whole, and will also go through individual tracks to see if there are any issues. I think in terms of groups. So I think of the rhythm section as a thing. I’ll get a drum balance, and I’ll then work on the bass, and I’ll make sure the two complement each other. I’ll set them up on a group of faders as subgroup returns, or on a VCA master, so I can quickly rebalance them or mute them.”
Elaborating on his approach to drums, Fridmann says: “I tend to start with the kick and the snare, and apply some desk EQ when necessary. Sometimes I need to add an extra kick drum return to get it to poke through. I usually do that with a slightly modified version of the kick drum that’s in the session, that I’ll put on a separate track, and I’ll then mix that in. I sometimes do the same with the snare. There are many instances in this record, and on the records I work on in general, where there’s a special snare effect that occurs at particular places, using a separate return for the snare.
“I often use a preset on the Eventide H3000 called ‘Pradiddle’ for this. It’s got a series of five delays, and I love the sound of it. It reminds me of the Frank Zappa song ‘Watermelon In Easter Hay,’ where the snare has a similar effect. I’m always trying to do something where you go, ‘Wait, what just happened?’ and then it’s over. Or there’ll be a reverb on just a couple of particular snare hits, or a large explosion or something.
“The reverbs I use most often include an old Ursa Major 282 Space Station, and spring reverbs like the Peavey Valverb, the Furman RV‑1, and the KNAS Ekdahl Moisturizer. The Space Station really is a collection of delays, but it does a wonderful job of splitting the difference between a complex delay setup and a reverb. I really like that for special effects. The Furman is great for snare effects, but also on vocals. The Moisturizer is a crazy box that allows you to make really strange sounds. To get these occasional effects I’ll sometimes manually operate aux sends, or I may stand at the patch bay, just patching it in where I want it.
“Almost all tracks have the dbx 119 Decilinear compressor on the overheads, in an extreme setting. I don’t know why. It shouldn’t work the way it does, but it sounds amazing. It does something totally unique to the overheads. As I mentioned earlier, part of my template is to send my entire drum group through parallel drum compression with the Harris MSP 90 limiter. I’ve got two Harris units, and they’re both stereo, and one is more distorted than the other. I usually start with the slightly less blown‑out version, and see how that goes.
“That’s my basic setup, but on many of the Mogwai songs I instead used the Plasma Rack on the drums, and actually the only thing you’re hearing is the drums going through that. The Plasma takes the audio and runs it through a tube of plasma, which distorts the signal. It’s got in‑built EQ and a tremolo, and one unit can control another via MIDI. Another unit I use for parallel drum compression is the MXR 136 stereo compressor. No matter how little level you feed it, it freaks out and is completely distorted. I got a hold of a second unit, and it sounds exactly the same. Terrible but wonderful‑sounding units often work perfectly for me.”
Fridmann’s love for unusual compressors is evident throughout the mix. “My tech and former partner, Greg Snow, used to work at a radio station, and knows about old weird broadcast things,” says Fridmann. “So on the bass I frequently use a Dorrough 610, which is a multiband compressor for FM broadcast. I have two mono units and driven to the extreme they do something fabulous. It’s got a four‑band EQ and the multiband is three different bands. You can really dial in exactly what crunch you want. I frequently use that on bass. The sound stays exactly where you want it. It’s mixed in as parallel compression. I’m very big on parallel!”
“I often use the CBS Automax 4440 for parallel compression on guitars. The original units only had a fast and a slow setting, and Greg modified that so it now is continuously variable. Sometimes I will switch out the 4440 for an Alan Smart C2 stereo compressor, or a dbx 118, that also works very well with guitars. Once in a while, I use Altec 1561 or 1612 units, which are mic pres or line compressors, and they do really interesting things to guitars.
“If there’s a piece of gear I haven’t used in a while, I’ll plug it in to make sure that I’m varying the sounds that I’m using. With Mogwai I came back to my old ART Pro‑VLA stereo compressors as a parallel group for all keyboards. I also often use my BBE 442 Sonic Maximizers, and the Aphex 250 stereo unit, and alternate between different channels, sometimes mono, sometimes stereo. It just gives a bit of extra sparkle to the keyboards. It feels like cheating, but sounds great, so I don’t care!”
“I go back and forth between processing or not processing the stereo bus,” Fridmann explains. “Almost everything I’ve mixed for the last 20 years has had an SPL Stereo Vitalizer Mk2‑T on the stereo bus. I don’t overdrive it. It just sounds fantastic. 99 percent of the time I’m recording back into a digital format, and I use the Vitalizer to battle the A‑D converter problem, that will make a great mix sound terrible.
“I have the best converters. I have the Lavry AD122‑96MkII, the Dangerous 2‑Bus+, and mostly I use the Prism Dream ADA‑8XR. They’re doing a great job, but I’ll have this beautiful wide mix, and then the converters sort of crush down the stereo a little bit, and it’s not as bright anymore. I’m losing that stereo field, that wide feeling. The SPL helps me regain that. I put it on before the converters and use the stereo expansion on that to compensate.“I don’t really concern myself with level very much at this point. Frank Arkwright mastered the album, and he did a great job. As long as I know I’m working with a good mastering engineer, I don’t worry about it.”