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Inside Track: Noel Gallagher 'Council Skies'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Callum Marinho By Paul Tingen
Published August 2023

Noel Gallagher returns to a more familiar singer‑songwriter approach with Council Skies.Noel Gallagher returns to a more familiar singer‑songwriter approach with Council Skies.Photo: Matt Crockett

The success of Noel Gallagher’s Council Skies owes much to his resident engineer Callum Marinho, who not only tracked but mixed the album.

Callum Marinho is resident engineer at Lone Star Studios in London.Callum Marinho is resident engineer at Lone Star Studios in London.The first album to be recorded at Noel Gallagher’s Lone Star Studio in North London, Council Skies reached number two in the UK charts. A return to Gallagher’s more traditional singer‑songwriter style after the electronic‑music influenced Who Built The Moon (2017), it attracted widespread critical acclaim. It also respresented a huge career boost for engineer Callum Marinho.

Originally a drummer, Marinho’s interest in recording led him to enrol in a Tonmeister course at the University of Surrey in the mid‑2010s. “It’s mainly classical, but there is a pop side, and because I am more into that, I ended up doing a placement year at Monnow Valley [a residential studio in Wales] as an assistant engineer. Bands come in for up to eight weeks to do an album, and I’d live and work with them. That was a big learning curve, obviously. I had a great time, graduated, and went back to Monnow Valley to work as their in‑house engineer immediately afterwards.”

Lone Star State

Tom Jones and his producer Ethan Johns visited Monnow while Marinho was there, and he ended up with an assistant engineer credit on Jones’ 2021 album Surrounded By Time, which went to number one in the UK. “It was during that time that I also did a few sessions with producer Paul Stacey, who has worked a lot with Noel and Oasis. I eventually left Monnow and moved to London to start freelancing and one job I did was as an assistant with Coldplay in their studio, doing drum tech‑like things. Three years ago, when Noel’s studio was nearly complete, he was looking for an in‑house engineer, and Paul recommended me to Noel. I’ve worked full‑time for Noel ever since.

The live room at Lone Star, where much of Council Skies was tracked.The live room at Lone Star, where much of Council Skies was tracked.Photo: Mike Banks / wwwrecordproductioncom

“The studio was pretty much ready to go when I arrived, but there were some teething problems, particularly with the monitoring. We had a couple of ATC SCM25As because Noel did not want big monitors, but they did not sound particularly good. So Noel, Paul and I got some ATC SCM150 ASL Pros and placed them on stands to see if they would work. Again there were issues, so we worked with Chris Walls of Level Acoustic Design, who designed the studio, to find a solution. We ended up soffit‑mounting the 150s. It sounded great, so we now have 150s in the wall and Yamaha NS10s as nearfields, without a sub.”

Other equipment at Lone Star includes a vintage EMI TG12345 desk, similar to the one used by the Beatles in the last stage of their career, which Gallagher acquired in Australia a long time ago. “We use that desk to record all the guitars, going through the desk’s mic pres, almost always with heavy compression on those channels. We also have 24 Neve 1064 mic pres, which are used for drums and vocals, and anything else that doesn’t need the character that’s added by the TG.

The centrepiece of Lone Star Studio is a vintage EMI TG12345 console.The centrepiece of Lone Star Studio is a vintage EMI TG12345 console.

“There also are some Neve 2254 [compressors] here, which we tend to use for tracking bass; a couple of LA‑2As that are always used when tracking acoustic guitars, and a UREI 1178, which was used on Noel’s vocal across the album. The signal chain on his vocals normally starts with a Neumann U67, or a Shure SM7 if he sings really loud. We often have both mics on him at the same time, so we can later choose which mic to use and when. The mics go into the 1178, and then an AnaMod ATS1 tape simulator.

Callum Marinho: We’re trying to add the essence of tape, because we don’t have tape machines. On drums it makes a clear audible difference on transients.

“The AnaMod is a Paul Stacey thing. He’s got quite a few of them, and he takes them everywhere. They’re the last thing on the chain, just before it hits the converters. We’re trying to add the essence of tape, because we don’t have tape machines. On drums it makes a clear audible difference on transients. It’s quite subtle for non‑transient things, but when it’s on everything, you’ll hear a difference when you listen to the whole thing. After that we go into Pro Tools. We have Avid HD I/O and the HDX system, and work with a 96kHz sample rate.”

Underground Music

Work on Council Skies started early in 2021. “Coming out of the pandemic,” says Marinho, “it was just Noel and myself during the demo stage. We recorded many demos. The formula was basically Noel playing acoustic guitar and singing to a tempo map. We’d then listen and judge what worked, so we could map the songs out as a rough guide. He’d then put a demo acoustic down, add a guide vocal over the top, followed by maybe a tambourine or a shaker.

“We did a lot of arranging. We sampled drums in the live room, and I made different sample kits out of those, one of which has a really good drum kit as a starting point. Noel would go over to a MIDI keyboard and play the kick and snare how he felt them, and then he put hats down, and cymbals and rides. After that he would stick some bass on it, and I’d play MIDI strings or MIDI piano.

“When we came to doing the actual album, we were thinking that we were going to start recording from scratch with Noel’s band. But it’s funny, we got so carried away with these demos that we ended up keeping a lot of demo stuff.

“Noel and I spent a lot of time flicking through presets on soft synths, for inspiration. There is a preset on the Arturia simulation of the Synclavier, and Noel decided that it sounds a lot like the London Underground, when the trains slow down and echo around the tunnel. That’s why he called that sound ‘the tube’. It’s on several tracks. Depending on the octave you play it in, you get different harmonics that ping out and fly around.

“I used outboard during demo’ing and tracking, and I’d then print these treatments. One unit we used a lot was the Publison Infernal Machine 90, which has a load of really good reverb presets. It doesn’t sound like anything else. We used that on almost every track. Noel got it when we started to demo things, and was like ‘Let’s play with that and see what’s in it!’

The rare Publison Infernal Machine 90 supplied many of the vocal effects.The rare Publison Infernal Machine 90 supplied many of the vocal effects.

“Many of the reverb settings are really good. There’s one called Cask which is a short, small room thing, and it also has different rooms, a plate, various halls, and at the end is something called Sound Hoarder, which is basically an infinite decay reverb that brickwall limits, so it flatlines on this wall of reverberating sound. The Publison is really fun. It works great on vocals, also with that Sound Hoarder preset.

“We also have an Eventide H3000, and an EMT 140 plate, which is in a big cupboard. Noel was really into that, so that started the sound on the record. There are several ethereal delays and reverbs on vocals. In any case, whenever we’re tracking, I always have a bit of 140 plate on Noel’s vocal, because it’s a reverb that sounds good and it’s not a plug‑in, so there are no issues with latency. It’s just Noel’s vocals going through the 140, and coming back via his headphones. At the end, I’ll record the 140 in on a separate track.”

The members of Gallagher’s band High Flying Birds overdubbed their contributions with Gem Archer contributing guitars, Chris Sharrock drums and Mikey Rowe keyboards. Paul Stacey added more guitars, bass and keyboards, and there were string and brass sessions at Abbey Road Studio 2. There also are tons of guest musicians, with eight backing vocalists, three percussionists, and Johnny Marr on guitar. The Pet Shop Boys, and the Cure’s Robert Smith and drummer Jason Cooper, worked on remixes.

Serving The Song

An unusual aspect of Council Skies is that it bucks the current trend for music to have tons of low bass. “Noel always had an idea of how he wanted it to sound. He doesn’t like the bass being particularly loud. The main thing for Noel is always the song, and that should be what everything contributes towards. I guess in some other things that I’ve worked on a large amount of bass does accentuate the song. But I don’t think that would have suited this record.

“Also, we have a 16‑channel SSL Matrix, which we use as a glorified monitoring station. Noel likes to be able to solo and change the levels of the different elements in a song himself, and have them where he wants to hear them. This happened from demoing all the way up to mixing. Noel doesn’t want to get involved in Pro Tools, so we needed to find a way to split things out from Pro Tools that allows him to balance things the way he wants them, without having to ask me every time to do it in Tools. So we ended up with him at the SSL as part of our workflow.”

Written by Noel Gallagher. Produced by Noel Gallagher & Paul Stacey.Written by Noel Gallagher. Produced by Noel Gallagher & Paul Stacey.Because Gallagher and Marinho had already developed advanced rough mixes with a clear sonic identity, the final mixes were a matter of fine‑tuning rather than reinventing. “The reference was the rough mixes of the demos that we had done. We carried on in that vein. That’s why my final mix sessions don’t have anything crazy and there aren’t 10 plug‑ins on every channel. Once it went from the rough mix to the actual mix there was no point rewriting the rulebook, and coming out with something completely different. It was very much just: take that, and iron out the little issues that I hadn’t spent so much time on.

“This album was very much a case of getting the sound right on the way in. There was no mixing through outboard, other than a couple of times when we reamped things using the TG, when things needed more juice. We did that with Johnny Marr’s guitar, squashing it through the TG and using EQ to tweak the presence and make sure it sat well with everything else. We also reamped some soft synths through the Neve mic pres to get them a bit more exciting.

“Other than that, it was just working with what we had recorded. I have all the aux tracks that I send to the Matrix at the top of the session, in green. On the title track they are drums, Abbey Road percussion, bass in mono, acoustic guitar in mono, percussion, Hawaii guitar, electric guitars, Johnny Marr, fuzz guitar in mono, strings, keyboards, Abbey Road horns, several aux tracks of backing vocals and one with lead vocal. The stereo output of the Matrix goes through a Neve 33609 compressor and an AnaMod, and back to Pro Tools, and I’d print that.

“My main mix moves in Pro Tools were to make a few adjustments and add some plug‑ins to the tracks in Pro Tools, and I’d throw some plug‑ins on the Pro Tools master bus. I was just making small tweaks, listening a bit more clinically on headphones and other spaces, trying to work out if anything stuck out, anything needed tweaking, being a bit more surgical with EQs, particularly in the midrange, and riding the levels of different bits coming in and out of the song.”

Going Large

Callum Marinho’s mix session for title track ‘Council Skies’ is gargantuan: the base count of 134 tracks includes three folder tracks for the Abbey Road strings, horns and percussion sessions. When they are unfolded the session would balloon to many more tracks. There are 16 drum tracks, six bass tracks, 25 percussion tracks and two sets of vocal tracks: a block of 19 tracks of main vocals, and a further set of backing vocals. The majority of tracks have no plug‑ins at all, and most of those that are present belong to the Abbey Road strings and Abbey Road horns, one Pick Bass bus track, and the main vocal section.

Marinho says of the Abbey Road strings: “I’ve got the Avid 7‑band stock EQ on it, with a high pass at 150Hz, and a couple of 3‑4 dB cuts around the 400‑500 Hz range. Things that are recorded in Abbey Road Studio 2 always have quite a resonance around that 500Hz range, and can take up too much space in that area. Then there’s a UAD Pultec MEQ‑5, which is just dipping a bit more at 500Hz, because it was still annoying me. I used the Oeksound Soothe 2 because when the violins played there was a bit too much of 3kHz, and Johnny Marr’s guitar is prominent in that area as well. And then I had a UAD 33609 [compressor] plug‑in to just level the strings out, because they were quite dynamic. Funnily enough I’m also using a Waves Abbey Road Chambers plug‑in!

“All bass tracks are sent to that Pick Bass aux track, and I’m treating it with a UAD LA‑2A to control them a bit, and a UAD Pultec MEQ5 pulling out a bit of 200Hz, plus a UAD Harrison 32 for a high‑pass around 40Hz. We have two Universal Audio UAD‑2 Satellite TB3 Octo units, so we always have enough processing power. I also added a Soundtoys Decapitator for some harmonics. This is probably an example of why there isn’t masses of sub‑bass in these songs. The sub comes more from the kick.

Soundtoys’ Decapitator plug‑in provided some grit on the bass guitar.Soundtoys’ Decapitator plug‑in provided some grit on the bass guitar.

“I have the Avid EQ and the SPL Transient Designer on the kick. It was recorded with an AKG D12 or D112 on the inside, and a [Neumann] FET U47 on the outside, so I had two kick tracks. The Transient Designer pulls out some sustain, while the EQ pulls out 5dB at 100Hz. There were hardly any other treatments on the drums. Halfway through tracking I put a UAD 33609 on the drums bus, but in general, the drums for this track are incredibly open. The whole record is very open. I was a little bit concerned, because obviously with modern music there are the loudness wars, and when I went from these rough mixes, which were very open, to the final mixes, I had to find a bit more level, without limiting things too much, and changing the dynamic range.

“The main lead vocal has the UAD LA‑3A and the SSL E Channel, taking out quite a bit of honk. I duplicated it, to create a parallel right next to it, and added the Soundtoys Devil‑Loc for grit. It’s at 1 out of 10, but for the Devil‑Loc that’s already smashing it! This lead vocal is actually quite different from a lot of the other vocals, because we recorded this with an AKG C28. We had to find a way of getting it more present. It was a bit more of a struggle to fit them in than the vocals recorded with the [Neumann] U67.

“These two vocal audio tracks have sends to a number of aux tracks, like one with the UAD SPL Vitalizer because we wanted to bring the vocal forwards. Others go to slap and delay auxes with the Soundtoys Little PrimalTap. There are also prints of the outboard H3000, Publison and EMT 140 plate. I ran the BVs through the EMT plate as well, but that’s on a separate print track. I’m running the backing vocals through the same Little PrimalTap slap and delays as on Noel’s lead, so they’re in the same space.

...the [Neve] 33609 is definitely my favourite mix bus compressor.

“At the bottom of the session are the Strings, Horns and Percussion folder tracks, and then my mix bus. This is where it comes back in from the Matrix, having gone through the Neve 33609 and AnaMod. Sometimes the AnaMod is too much on the mix bus and I don’t use it, but the 33609 is definitely my favourite mix bus compressor. I added another one on the Pro Tools mix bus! First there’s a Neve 1073, then the 33609, the BAX Mix and the Pultec EQP‑1A. It’s all UAD. After that there are a Sonnox Oxford Inflator and a Massey L2007 mastering limiter, to add some volume. The L2007 is doing 1dB of limiting at the end, in case there is anything that is finding its way through the gaps. It mainly affects the drums, because there’s no limiting or heavy compression on them.

“The last three tracks in the session are reference tracks. One has the latest rough that I sent, and the other two are mixes of other album tracks, so I can hear what it sounds like in comparison. I want to make sure they’re all in the same ballpark. Many of the tracks on the album are quite different, and I tried keep them somewhat in the same space, so the record sounds cohesive.”