A condensed version of these interviews with each of the nominees was included in the April 2020 issue of Professional Sound magazine.
By Michael Raine
If you’re reading this, it’s a safe assumption that, like us, your enjoyment of music is enhanced by knowing the stories behind the songs, from the songwriting process through to the final mix. That’s why we’re so excited to share this series of in-depth conversations.
In these candid interviews from our 2020 Juno-Worthy Workflows Series, the nominees for this year's Juno Award for Engineer of the Year share the behind-the-scenes stories of how the pair of songs they’re nominated for came together and how each found its distinctive sound.
Originally scheduled for mid-March in Saskatoon, SK, the 2020 edition of Juno Week was cancelled due to coronavirus concerns, so a winner has yet to be announced.
In this edition, we have:
“If I Can't Have You” by Shawn Mendes
“Incredible” by James TW
PS: Congratulations! How many Juno nominations is this for you now?
George Seara: This will be the fifth and I’ve won once in 2012.
PS: So, let’s start by talking about the Shawn Mendes tune, “If I Can't Have You.” First, were you the engineer on the entire self-titled album by Shawn?
Seara: I was for I would say 90% or so.
PS: So why was this song the one that got picked to submit to the JUNOs as a showcase for your work on the album?
Seara: Well, I would say that this song was actually released first as a single in 2019, so it falls within the window of the JUNO Awards. I can tell you the song was originally written, recorded, produced, and released as a single. So, there was no attachment to the album, actually. So, the song eventually landed on the deluxe version of the album, but the song was originally just a single. Shawn is always creative and making music, so he had this song and we did it.
PS: Where were the recording sessions for this song and who was the producer on it?
Seara: So, we often get together in different creative spaces. It sort of keeps things spontaneous, if you will, and oftentimes there’s a small group of us who get together and create. I think in some ways it lends itself to be a stronger way of working because we’re not confined by, say, going to a traditional studio and it being like a 10 a.m. start and we must wrap up at 8 p.m. Like this, it’s more communal and sometimes, like in this case, we rented a house in the Hollywood hills.
We were there and there was no studio, so I will create a studio and in doing so – you know, I will bring in a piano, a drum set, guitars, and various instruments and percussion – and just make sure that we have everything ready to go at all times between and Shawn and his close collaborators.
For this particular song, it was written by Shawn along with a few of his long-time collaborators. One is Teddy Geiger, one is Scott Harris, and there’s another collaborator named Nate Mercereau who is a fantastic guitarist. Basically, the song, as they usually do, comes from Shawn and then with this tight-knit group of collaborators that Shawn likes to work with, which includes myself, we sort of vibe with it. Often, it’s very spontaneous and we just start recording things and building on things and that’s how the track came to be.
PS: That’s interesting. It answers what I was going to ask about whether the song was fully-formed when you went to record it or if it was being written and arranged in the studio…
Seara: You know, Shawn could have a great foundation. I would say he had a great hook and great lyrics already, but maybe the production and the actual sonics and feel of it wasn’t entirely established yet. I think it’s between the musicians sometimes putting on headphones and sometimes jamming out a little bit. We had an upright piano, some guitars and drums and stuff, and they’ll start jamming it out. Then sometimes we’ll record sections and I can have an eight-bar loop and then people can feel off of that and then build off of that and that’s how it develops.
PS: In terms of sonics and the overall sound of the song, what feedback were they giving in you in terms the overall vibe they were going for?
Seara: Oh my gosh; you know, I can’t say that there was anything specific. There are times where people can say, “Oh, I was inspired by this era” or a sound or this and that, but for this particular song, I can’t recall that there was any specific direction. Just that when we were going for the chorus, I do know that Shawn wanted it very uplifting and big. So, I think that is why we got it to be almost choir-like, in a way, where we have a lot of background and gang vocals on it.
PS: It’s a very dynamic song in terms of those vocal shifts throughout it. So, how was it recorded? Was it done in pieces?
Seara: Everything sort of lands into Pro Tools. In this particular case, like I was saying, there’s not really a lot of isolation. We’re all sort of in a room with the centrepiece being the Pro Tools HD system and then I would have Shawn close to me on one side and an upright piano over to my right side as well and behind me in different areas we’d have drums and some guitars and things like that.
We did put it together in pieces, I would say. So, sometimes it would start with some great guitar riff and some foundation. Then I think we would probably move to some drums – I think there was like a four-on-the-floor pattern for this or a kick drum that we would have as a driving force. You know, I think we had some piano chords and stuff in there already and then we went straight to vocals. Shawn was very quick with vocals and I oftentimes just try to keep up with him. We get the vocals and then we build from there. So yes, I would say this one was put together in pieces.
Then, gang vocals, there would be Shawn predominantly singing and then Teddy also joined Shawn a little bit for some of the gang vocals.
PS: What was the vocal chain for Shawn on this?
Seara: A vintage Telefunken ELA 251 was the microphone and the preamp was a vintage Neve 1073. Then compressor we had was a Tube-Tech CL1B.
PS: And beyond that, what plug-ins and/or outboard gear were you leaning on most?
Seara: I tend to lean towards some of the plug-in manufacturers that I’ve just used the most often, and they are the most popular, I would say. So, there’s UAD, there’s some Waves, and there’s some McDSP. Those are probably the main manufacturers of plug-ins that I am using. Of the UAD, it would be the bluestripe 1176 [limiter], I’d be using the EMT 140 Plate [reverb], and then Waves’ SSL E-Channel, which I like very much. Also, I think a little bit of Waves’ DeEsser and the McDSP F2 filter I like very much. Then there is the Channel G, which is sort of an all-in-one channel strip from McDSP, which I like using quite a bit, too.
PS: What was your mixing approach to “If I Can't Have You” once all the tracks were in Pro Tools?
Seara: You know what, I find that more often than not, when we’re together, we tend to build something along the way. So, I find when it gets to mixing, often time we’re refining things rather than reinventing the wheel. So, the approach for me was to try and keep things dynamic and, in doing so – and maybe I’m a little old-school – but I am still mixing on a console.
So, we came back to Toronto and I mixed from my studio space here at Noble Street Studios. Their Studio B, which has an SSL 6000E console, and I mixed on there. I just find mixing on console, for me, it’s fast, it’s musical, there’s lots of headroom, and I can really drive the desk and find the sweet spot.
PS: That’s interesting because, particularly in the world of pop and modern styles of music, it’s becoming rare for people to mix on a console.
Seara: It is! There’s a few, like Manny Marroquin and I think Jaycen Joshua and Spike Stent, there’s a few guys, but I do agree. But look, the newer generation of kids coming up, maybe, don’t sometimes have an opportunity to work on these consoles, so they go to what they know. So, it’s a bit of a shame. Hopefully they get a chance to work on a console. And number two, I think sometimes these consoles are not necessarily well maintained, and if they’re not, then definitely that could be a real roadblock to trying to get things together quickly. And then there’s recalls, right? We always have to deal with recalls and that’s one of the reasons why I love working on this SSL desk. The studio has a fantastic full-time tech and so the console is in great shape and the recall works wonderfully
PS: Lastly about “If I Can't Have You,” just wondering if there’s anything else unusual or unexpected you did or encountered while working on this song?
Seara: Not really. I’d just say that the main thing that I love so much about working with Shawn is the intersection of acoustic – meaning real musicians playing instruments – meeting a bit of an electronic or programmed sound. So, I think the way in which we approach things, and it’s not uncommon these days, but I think it’s very cool that we can have a chord progression on the upright piano, for example, and it becomes a part. Often times we can take that, which is played wonderfully, but we can chop it a bit and reverse it or further manipulate it and then afterwards, when you hear the song, you may even wonder if it was a real piano or not or was a sample? But it’s live bass, live guitar, there’s some live drums on there that are reinforced with some programmed drums, but oftentimes the samples that we use derive from real instruments, which I think is amazing.
PS: “If I Can't Have You” is such a catchy tune, so I’m just curious if it’s obvious to you guys as the song is taking shape that this one will be a single and be a hit?
Seara: You know, there were times, and there still are times, where I just can’t say what exactly will be a hit or not. But I will tell you, there are moments when we’re in a session and we’re all working on a song and it’s late night and maybe the speaker volume is up loud and we all look at each other and we can sort of tell, I think, without anyone actually saying anything out loud. But you just kind of know that this one feels really good. So, yeah, we didn’t go into it knowing that this one was going to be a single. I think we went into it just creating a song and by the end of our work together, I think we all knew it was a big one and that was it.
PS: To shift gears to discussing “Incredible”, I admittedly didn’t know of James TW before preparing for this conversation. So, had you worked with him before and where did this project come from?
Seara: Yeah, actually I have worked with James TW before. Oftentimes I find that projects come from word-of-mouth or direct or indirect associations. And so, in this case, firstly James is a U.K.-based singer-songwriter, but he happens to be signed to Island Records, which is the same label as Shawn Mendes. Also, James has toured with Shawn as an opening act.
PS: Ah, so it was through that connection then?
Seara: Definitely. So, I heard about James early on and actually worked with him on his EP leading up to his album and am a big fan. So, when the opportunity developed to work with him on this, I was excited.
PS: For this song, “Incredible,” do you remember the origins of the song and, this time, were you getting reference points in terms of the overall sound that James and the producer were going for?
Seara: Yeah, in this particular case the song was produced by Nick Ruth and I was not involved in the recording of this song. But I think James is a fantastic songwriter and musician and Nick delivered this song to me for mixing, again, in pretty great shape. Nick is a real pro, and James as well.
What I will often do is listen to their rough mix along with the multitrack and sometimes I’ll receive some direction. But again, in this particular case, I don’t recall receiving any direction, except that this was potentially going to be a single. Sometimes when I hear that, not that I am going to do anything different, but I know it’s a special one and so I want to try and do my very best.
PS: So, on one like this where you’re brought in after the fact to mix and weren’t involved in the recording, what are they delivering to you and how do you take it from there?
Seara: It depends. Sometimes if the producer is working in Pro Tools, then I will receive a Pro Tools session and, in a perfect world, it’s edited and ready-to-mix state. Other times, if a producer is working in another work station, they will deliver files, like wave files or what have you, and everything is starting at the same position. And then I will input them into Pro Tools and start from there.
So, I did receive a Pro Tools session for this one. Sometimes the sessions are in better shape than others, but this session was in fantastic shape. There will be times where I will receive a note from the label or something about certain things that they may be hoping could be fixed or maybe emphasized or what it is. But again, with this, I didn’t receive any notes except to say that this could be a single so I needed to do my best.
Again, I mixed on a console – the same console – and I find that oftentimes, just pushing the faders up on the console lends itself, to me, to help with things overall and just give things a nice punchy sound.
PS: On “Incredible,” James’ voice is very at the forefront of the mix. So, what was your approach to mixing the vocals and achieving the right balance on this track?
Seara: Totally; you know what? When I am mixing, the balance or the overall presence or effect and these things, I sometimes think the song steers me to what I would naturally want to do. Like, whether the vocal would be wetter or dryer or more present or a little but tucked in or a little bit more forward. So, I don’t think I am necessarily cognizant or aware of like, “Okay, for this one I am definitely doing this.” I sometimes just do it naturally and what I love about the console is everything is very immediate where I can just reach for, say, a reverb or an EQ or even just a fader.
So, I think with this song, it was some console EQ, I even used a little bit of the console compression on the vocal, and some reverb. I think the reverb I used was from a TC Electronic System 6000, which is hardware reverb. I think I used a slightly longer reverb mixed with a plate. So, I may have had a bit of a hall reverb and I would also have a plate reverb, and then I was mix them to taste a little bit and maybe just tailor the tail slightly.
PS: Throughout the process, is there much back and forth between you and Nick and James, or are you just delivering a finished mix at the end?
Seara: I’ll tell you this; typically for pop songs like this that I would say is a pretty involved mix, that I would aim to deliver one song per day. So, if I go in to mix a song and I’ve never sat down with the files before, then typically I would start the day listening to the rough mix, maybe while having a coffee, and then my assistant at Noble Street — his name is Mike Gnocato and he’s fantastic — he will help clean things up. By “clean things up,” it could literally mean even going through a vocal, say, and removing any sort of ticks or pops or little nuances that would potentially distract from the performance if it was an open, sparse sort of production and it was up loud and you heard some tick or pop or mouth noise and these little things. So, he’ll do some clean up and then I would get into mixing.
PS: Again, for this one, anything unusual or unexpected you recall from working on “Incredible” or the James TW album?
Seara: Well, I can just say that sometimes when you mix, you deliver the mix and then you’ll wait to hear back some notes. Sometimes you’ll receive no notes and sometimes you’ll need to make some revisions. So, in the case of the James song, I believe we may have made either no revisions or maybe one revision.
In the case of Shawn with this particular mix, I think we were just going back and forth a little bit to just see what we could do to get the choruses to lift as much as we could and keep things dynamic and loud.
PS: George, thanks so much for making the time to talk about this. It’s been fun.
Seara: It’s my pleasure!