Where did you grow up?
And how did you get started recording?
I always recorded my bands. And then I produced and recorded jazz records. I played jazz saxophone. I did pretty well. I played a lot of weddings and bar mitzvahs and jazz clubs, and whatever you could do to make money in Paris at the time.
What type of sax did you play?
Alto. And then as soon as I had the money, I just bailed and came to Berklee College of Music. I graduated with a degree in songwriting. And then, I found a job right away as a staff composer for a multimedia company in Boston. After that, I started touring, and I made a record, home made in the home studio that I built. Piece by piece. The record didn't do so well, but I toured. And then I made another record, and that record didn't do so well, and I toured. But what the record did was introduce me to other bands who wanted their record to sound like mine.
What kind of music was that album?
Weird-ass pop. Like, lots of saxophones, pocket playing, with great drummers. Pop songs with intricate lyrics. It was kind of weird. It was epic music, and really complicated to make—bits and pieces of stuff. I learned a lot making my records, and I got some calls saying, "Yo man, I'm not going to sign you, but I love the way you make your records sound. Can you make this guy’s record?” So, my day job became record producer and mixer. And my other job was trying to tour the colleges. I gave my Chevy Suburban away. The person said "Really?" I said "Go ahead. You want this piece of shit? It has 450,000 miles on it." And then I stayed and started making records, and now I make a lot of records.
You've certainly become very prominent. That's got to be a nice feeling.
I have no feelings attached to it. I don't care. I just care about the quality of the music I make. It's always been like that.
Has the knowledge of songwriting you got from studying it at Berklee impacted you as a producer and an engineer?
In what ways?
I'm able to talk with the artists on the same level. And I'm a student of songs, which is like, if you sit with David Crosby, or Michael League, for that matter, and you tell him, "Dude, are you sure want that bridge to be that long? Or could we cut those two bars there?" And I come from a place of knowledge and certainty. Producing records is just about translating the song to make sure that it feels as good to the people when the artist is not in the room. For that, it's about the song. It's not about the bass drum—nobody cares. I mean, too many people in our business care—I don't. The only thing that matters is if your girlfriend is going to listen to the song and think it's cool.
Why is it so difficult to make a studio recording that captures a band's energy?
Because it's unbelievably hard to do.
What are some of the obstacles?
The technology is in the way. The perceived sound that we have to achieve these days is in the way. These days we're used to listening to piecemeal recordings on which nobody was [recording] in the room together, and which have unbelievable separation. To capture a band’s energy is not like creating a piece of original music out of bits and pieces, like on a hip-hop track or modern pop track, where the emotion comes from elsewhere. If you want to capture a band Muscle Shoals style, you have to have everybody in the same room. That means you can't get the separation, you can't get the immediacy as easily. So, that's the first thing. The second thing is how do you capture the energy of a band, because it's hard for bands to have the same energy in the studio? The reason for that is that they get all self-conscious, and the cue system sucks most of the time. Or the layout is not right. Or the setup takes so long that by the time it's time to play they don't feel like it anymore. Maybe they don't play together enough to be able to muster the energy. Maybe they're only able to muster the energy when there are girls in the room, or when they're high. There are so many variables that make a band great at a certain point in time. So, to capture that, between 11AM and 6PM next Friday, is not that easy.
Can you name some examples of albums you've produced where you successfully captured a group’s live feel?
Yeah, the Cyrille Aimée record Let's Get Lost, a jazz kind of thing. They were all in the same room, and it's really fierce. The latest Will Knox record, The River Ink. It's not out worldwide yet, but it's fantastic. Then what else have I done recently? A new piecemeal record I've just finished, a Dutch guy named Thomas Azier. It's 100 percent layered in Ableton Live. There are no human beings, or hardly any, in the making of this record. But, it's awesome. And it's got all the energy in the world. And it all comes from the intellectual process of recreating this organic experience by piecing together a record collage. And then there’s the David Crosby record [Lighthouse].
I listened to that. No drums, just kind of ethereal guitar stuff and vocals. There was a very cool guitar sound on that on the song “The City.” How did you get that sound? Did David play the solo?
That's Michael League playing, using Jackson Browne's 1956 Strat through the DI input of an [Universal Audio] Apollo Twin. Then using a couple of Apollo plug-ins, probably the TS08, whatever their guitar pedal is, coming straight out going through the a Supro amp or some old tube amp in the live room, maxxed, then miked and recorded in Pro Tools. We used the Apollo Twin as a guitar pedal, basically.
Cool. Back to the live band thing for a second. What do you do to try to keep that energy when you're recording a band in the studio?
Make the setup super short. If I can avoid having headphones, I avoid having headphones.
How do you deal with recording the scratch vocals if the singer is in the same room as the band?
It's complicated. If you listen to those old Robert Palmer records with Muscle Shoals, you can hear weird things, and that's Robert Palmer in the live room while they're cutting tracks.
He's singing the scratch vocal?
Yeah, and then they overdub on top. What matters really is if it feels good. My records are more hi-fi, so it's hard to keep the energy going. So, if I have to have headphones, I make sure they're so badass that the cue mix is awesome. What they get in their cue is awesome. And then I make sure that my setup is as short as possible. Or I schedule it so the setup and the session are separated.
So, you don't spend three hours on the kick drum? [Laughs]
I don't do that. I usually don't have to do that anymore because I know where I'm going, thankfully. But, sometimes the drums suck. And sometimes the drummer's not so good, and that doesn’t help. But the idea for me, the energy is about comfort for the band. And the joy of being there. And so, that's why this place is awesome, because everyone wants to be here, it's paradise.
Talk about your studio a little bit.
It's called Flux. It's in New York City in the Village. We have four rooms now. We have a main room called the Dangerous Room. And then there's my room called the Fabulous Room. There's another one called the Revolution Room, and downstairs there's the Inspiration Room. The Dangerous Room is where we track everything. We have a sweet old 1974 Neve [console], a beautiful thing. I have a bit of a microphone fetish, so we have nice microphones. And then, I also help Brian [Loudenslager of Lauten Audio] design microphones, I have a lot of Lauten stuff that's great. The Eden, Atlantis and the Clarion get used a lot. I also have a lot of vintage mics that I love, that I use for color if the modern stuff doesn't work. The good thing about the modern stuff is that it doesn't break.
The Lauten Eden, the one that you use on the Crosby album, is it a tube condenser or a solid state?
Tube. The Eden is a tube mic. The Atlantis is a FET.
When you're doing a mix, do you use mostly outboard gear, or are you in the box?
I use the Dangerous 2-Bus+ for analog summing, and two Dangerous Convert-8s [D/A converter units]. That’s sixteen channels. That goes into a Dangerous 2-Bus+ that's also sixteen channels, and that's my mix. And then I go through a bunch of outboard gear. I have a Dangerous Liaison, which is kind of like a patchbay router thing. I have a Fatso and a late '70s Neumann, and a pair of LTD-2's, which are [Neve] 2254s made by Chandler. Then I have a Dangerous Bax EQ and a Dangerous Compressor, and then I have a Manley Pultec [Stereo Pultec EQ].
Nice. When you listen to recordings made in home studios, what do you think are the biggest mistakes people make from a production standpoint?
I think the number one problem is that everything is recorded too close. It makes it very complicated to make things sound good. Especially vocals. And then, I think that a lot of people spend a lot of time on the sound and forget to work on the song. And there's a lot of derivative stuff going on, but that's not only happening in home studios. It’s hard to have an original idea. Art is painful. A lot of people don't want to go through the pain. The things I hear the most are too much ill-advised compression, too close a recording, and trying to make things loud for no good reason. The combination of those three things make for a lot of questionable recordings. But it's such a question of taste, so it's very hard to pass judgement on anything. A lot of the stuff that I fix, when I make records, is where half the record was made by somebody in their home studio with just a little interface and a laptop.
And what are some of the issues you find?
Compression, compression, compression, but it's not in a way that makes sense. Compression can be great to carve a cool sound, but you have to do it in a way that actually carves a cool sound. People who say that they use compression to make things punchy but the attack speed on their compressor is at minimum, it's exhausting, because you can't undo that. There's a lot of that going around. There's a lot of button twisting looking for a sound, instead of imagining the sound in the head and trying to get there. If you know what I mean. It's like throwing paint on a canvas and trying to figure out a shape out of it, as opposed to closing your eyes, imagining what you want to do, and then painting it, because you can. Those are two different approaches. I don't think that the approach should be "twist knobs until it sounds good," I don't think helps you unless you really know what the knobs are doing.
That makes sense. When you say people are recording stuff too close, you're talking about mic placement?
Obviously, it depends on the situation, but on average, what do you think is an optimal distance for a vocalist?
Whatever distance they're using, add a foot. Here's what's going on. It's very simple. People record themselves, and they put headphones on and they put the microphone on. Unless they're super, super close, they don't get to hear in their headphones the same sound that you get to hear on a record. That's because someone like me spent a lot of time making it sound that way on the record. So, people try and emulate the sound of a finished vocal by singing very close so that it sounds fat and present. The problem is that when you record that close then you're subject to all the variations of being so close to the capsule, especially for vocals, and the capsule freaks out. You get all those peaks, you get all those esses, you get all that stuff that just ruin your mix after that—the booms and everything. And so, it's really difficult for anyone to imagine what it's going to sound like in the end, to feel secure to leave a little bit of air in the recording. It's hard.
But don’t you want to use the proximity effect to make the vocals sound bigger? You can't go back too far or you'll sound thin, right?
What’s the number one thing you do when you start putting vocals into a thick mix. You high-pass and you add some sort of room sound to it. So, what's the point of adding lows in if you're going to remove them later?
But doesn’t everyone want to sound "fat."
But there's no such thing as "fat" in the absolute. [Recording back from the mic] allows you to put the Pultec plug-in on a vocal that's a little thin, and then choose how fat you want it to be. On the Crosby record, where it was one vocal one guitar, Cros was at least a foot and a half away from the microphone.
But of course, you have the benefit of a good-sounding room, whereas a lot of home studios don’t.
Not really. The vocal booth that he was in in the beginning was fine, neutral enough for quiet songs. But there was a boom in there, which was a problem, which meant I ended up moving him to the live room after two songs, because I realized, “this is going to be hell to mix.”
Do you do your mixes with a 32-bit floating point setting?
No. I do my mixes in Pro Tools. And Pro Tools has a 48-bit mixer that sounds great, and I use summing, anyway.
Right. I forgot. Summing is obviously a controversial subject, in and of itself.
Yes. I talk to some engineers who can’t live without it, but there are others who swear that it doesn't do anything, and that it's hype. I'm referring to major people here. What does summing do for you?
It gives me more headroom, which is a huge deal. It gives me an effects playground. With a modern DAW mixer, like , say, the new Pro Tools mixer when using master faders, you could keep theoretically re-organizing your gain stage and never clip. But the problem is, whenever you start moving your gain stage, everything reacts differently. It's like, the reverb sends and the reverb returns, the parallel compression, and the 2-bus compression starts to shift. And so, the infinity is very complicated. It's very odd. We went from a DAW mixer that was underperforming to a DAW mixer that could theoretically be performing fine. But when you end up in a place that you don't know and you have an infinite set of options, you get lost. You need some sort of a playground, some sort of an area in which you're going to work. In the end, if you're really gentle, the record is going to have 10dB of dynamic range. It's going to get played on an extremely finite system. So, you're aiming towards that moment where the end result is going to get played on the finite dynamic system that's not even close to 24-bit, maybe uses 6 bits of dynamic range. So, shrinking it down from infinity to 6 bits is hell on earth. When you use summing, like I use the Dangerous 2-Bus+, it like mixing with a console. If you go too far you hear it, and push it back. It forces you to work in a sweet spot, it's awesome. So, you get this really good headroom, and if you push a little bit, you get a glow back. A certain analog glow, a little bit of saturation, and then you get to use the vintage [outboard] pieces, or these modern pieces like the Bax EQ, the Dangerous Compressor or my Neumann vintage EQ, at their sweet spot. Because the whole gain stage is kind of organized for you by the fact that you're using analog summing. And everything kind of falls in place in a very elegant manner, which is a lot harder to do in the box.
I guess when you're summing it's really important to have good converters because you're going to be going out to analog and then back to digital again.
Yes. I use Dangerous Convert. And also, it's a lot easier for people, because you start your mix, you push your bass drum, you put your fader at 0dB, and you'll be good. If you're working in the box, you put your bass drum at 0dB when you start the mix, and you're pretty much screwed, because you know you're going to clip, and you know you're going to have gain-staging problems. So, there's a certain economic quality to it that's fantastic. It just sounds great. A lot of people do this test, they do a mix in the box and then they stem it out to analog summing, and they're like "Hmm, I'm not sure that's worth the extra cost." But that's not how you do it. If you don't mix with the tool, you don't get the benefits of the tool. Because the gain staging is key, and all those tiny little differences are what make the difference between a great mix and an okay mix. And yes, you can make a great sounding record in the box. It's a skill set, though. It's easier and much faster for me to do it with summing.
It’s my pleasure.
For more of Fab's insights on record making visit www.pureMix.net