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:
“Push for Yellow (Shelter)” & “There's Still A Light In The House” by Valley
PS: First, congrats on the JUNO nomination!
Dufour: You know, it’s truly an honour, especially knowing that the people who selected me are other people who do what I do – all producers and engineers – so it’s a trip! And all those other engineers, I’ve assisted a lot of them and they’re legends in the Canadian music industry. You know, this is the third time I’ve been nominated but when I saw my name – I got invited to go to the press conference – I was like, “Whoa!” It’s surreal, you know? [laughs]
PS: I’m curious, how is it picked in terms of what specific songs you’re nominated for?
Dufour: So, for the submission they want you to submit two songs and, basically, with the Valley record I worked on, the label just hit me up and said, “Hey, we want to submit you for engineer. What songs do you want to use?” I told them what songs and they submitted it for me. What goes on beyond that, I have no idea.
PS: Valley being a relatively new band, how did you get tapped for this project?
Dufour: There’s an A&R working at Universal Canada (Don Kitchen), him and I had done some previous work together for a couple of his other artists. He had signed Valley back in late 2017 or so. He gave me a call in January of 2018 and said, “Hey, I’ve just signed this band. They’ve kind of got a new sound and we want to re-release one of their other songs they previously released independently and just call it a ‘reprise version.’” Basically, they had changed their sound a little bit, with more electronic elements and tons of OP-1, [a synthesizer, sampler, and sequencer from Teenage Engineering,] going on all over their tracks.
Actually, it was pretty crazy, because these kids were young. I remember clearly that I needed the files to start working on the song and it was really large, so sending over the internet didn’t make as much sense, plus I wanted to meet them anyway. So, Mike [Brandolino, guitarist,] he kind of controls the Pro Tools sessions – oddly enough, everybody in the band is like an engineer and I think they all went to audio school and are very smart – so Mike I think tried uploading the files a couple times and it was taking too long. So he was just like, “Why don’t I just come by?” I’m like, “Sure, come by on Friday.” So his mom literally drives him there in the middle of a crazy snow storm! They live in Oakville and at the time I was working out of João Carvalho’s studio in Leslieville.
So, [Mike] stops by to give me the hard drive and I started loading everything up while talking to him about the song, production, and music in general. I literally felt like I was talking with someone who had many more years in at that point. From then, I just knew, “OK, there’s something special going on here.” I mean, this guy is very eager and there were a lot of tracks to sift through, and a lot of information that I had to do in the mix just to see what parts should be highlighted and what parts should be in the background, but I knew then that this band had
something going on.
PS: What was that original song from them that you mixed?
Dufour: A song called “Swim (Reprise)”. If you go to their Spotify, I think it’s one of the top listened to songs.
From that point, I did the mix with them and they loved working with me. So, a couple months later I got another call from the A&R (Don) and he said, “Hey, they’re going into the studio with their producer Andy [Seltzer], who’s flying up from New York. Do you want to mix the whole record? It’ll be 15 or 16 songs” and I said “absolutely.” So yeah, it really all stemmed from that first mix we did together.
PS: Where was the full album recorded?
Dufour: I don’t fully know. My understanding is that they did the bed tracks, the drums, at Tim Thorney and Adam Fair’s studio, Villa Sound. Then the rest of it, from what I gather, Mike has a home studio at his parents’ house and they did the rest of it there. I went to go visit them when their producer, Andy, was up for a bit. Yeah, he’s got this whole basement of his parents’ house morphed into this crazy studio and they had everything set up. They had a drum kit set up, an acoustic guitar station, a vocal booth set up, a piano mic’d up and they were working like that for months.
PS: So, if you were coming in after the recording had been done for the mix, was Andy or the band giving you any kind of references for what they were going for in terms of sound or vibe?
Dufour: Yeah, basically every song I’d have a call or we’d be on email talking about it. every song was kind of different. They would have references in terms of what they were inspired by for each particular song. There is a scene throughout, but we’d just have a conversation before I start and then I’d do a mix. Then I would send them the mix and we’d do a couple revisions. When the whole record was done, they came in for a couple days into the studio with me and we fine-tuned stuff.
I think there was one song we finished quickly and it went to radio in the summer time, and then the rest of the songs we worked on over a few months. They released the album in three different stages. The whole album got released as one package, but before that they dropped it as two EPs.
PS: Do you remember what the conversations were like for “Push for Yellow (Shelter)” & “There's Still A Light In The House” in terms of the direction they were giving you?
Dufour: For “Push for Yellow,” I think the whole thing for that was, there’s a lot of choir in that song and it’s very dynamic, too, so I think it was just about staying true to the dynamic of soft parts and really heavy parts. And because there’s a lot of choir in that song, it was just about finding that blend of the band’s vocals mixed with the choir’s vocals was important on that one.
And then on “Light in the House,” we were listening to a lot of Tears for Fears and that was definitely an inspiration for that song. For the drum sound on that one, they had done a lot of processing on their end and I kind of just took it even further. There’s a lot of compression on the drums, just making sure when that chorus comes in, it just thumps you. That’s what I can remember from having conversations about those two songs.
PS: There is an ethereal quality to the vocal sounds on the album. How did you achieve that?
Dufour: Yeah totally. They’re so good and Rob and Karah’s voice bend together so well. I think they were recording with an Apogee Quartet [audio interface]. I’m not sure they were using any compression or EQ on the way in. I think some vocals were with a 57s or 58 and some vocals were with a [Neumann] TLM 103.
Truthfully, most of the songs came at me with at least two Pro Tools sessions. They were using so much processing that they couldn’t even play it on their computer. So, I would get a session for the music and then a session for the vocals. Then with the really big songs like “Push for Yellow” and “Light in the House,” the really large songs, I got four sessions for those. So, there’d be one session that had all the music, one session with all the vocals, one session that had all the choir, and then another session that had, like, all the saxophones and guest guitar solos and stuff like that.
So, there were a lot of tracks and how I approach it – they were doing a lot of processing themselves – so I was going in and looking at all their processing and deciding, “Can I do that better? Can I take that off? Can I adjust it?” Obviously they got it to a certain point and they’re very specific with their sounds, so if I just start taking processing off and start fresh, they would probably hate the mixes. So, I took an approach to it of just finetuning what they had already done and then doing my thing on top of it.
As far as my vocals chains, they would probably change every single song. Some of the vocals on some songs are distorted, some of them are a little bit cleaner, but a lot of the work I did was volume panning and EQ. Just an old-school approach to make something pop. It was a lot deessing and EQing their reverbs and stuff like that, because a lot of the reverbs had a lot of high-end. So, I would go in and just tailor them a little bit and then there were a lot of reverbs and delays I added to enhance what they had already done. If I was inspired from a moment in their music, I would add a little echo or add a reverb to supplement what they’re trying to get across and what they had already done, production-wise. There is a lot of ear candy going on in their music and my job is to just sift through all that and make sure everything was blended correctly and if there was anything I could do to enhance their ear candy, then I did that.
PS: In that process, on these songs, what plug-ins or effects were you leaning on most?
Dufour: So, I’m looking at one of the final sessions right now and there’s a lot going on! I would say that the number one thing in here is that there is so much automation to make it work. I think a very important part of this record, and my sound in particular, is I use that [Ampex] ATR-102 plug-in from UAD on the stereo bus. I can’t even mix without that thing. I nearly use it on every single mix I do, it’s the glue!. And if I don’t use that one, I use a different flavour of it, whether it’s a Waves or whatever, but I’d say nine out of 10 songs I mix, that ATR-102 is on it.
Another thing I would say is important is I used Slate VCC on every single channel, and I have multiple stereo buses. I kind of treat my Pro Tools sessions almost as an SSL Duality or an SSL 9000 that has multiple stereo buses. Basically, every single audio track and every single stereo bus gets a VCC, whether it’s a mix bus or a channel. I think that is a big part of my sound and really adds to the dimension and depth.
Usually I rock the SSL console, but for instance, on the drum bus or the bass bus I might go to the Neve console because it just automatically gives you a nice thickness in the low-end that sometimes you need.
On the drums, I would say an important part of the sound is the [Soundtoys] Decapitator. I run that thing in parallel with all the drums and send different elements to it that I think need to sound more in front and aggressive. It sort of does the same thing as what compression does, it’s just a different way of doing it. To my ears, it acts like a crazy limiter because it completely squeezes the sound. I run it in parallel underneath all the dry tracks and I just think it really helps make the kick, snare, and toms speak through the mix.
There was a lot of sidechain compression on the bass because there’s a lot of drums on this bass track and I didn’t want things to get messy down there. So basically, I think I’m using the McDSP AE400 [Active EQ plug-in] and sidechaining the bass tracks with my kick drums. So, every time the kick drums hit around 60Hz with a pretty wide Q, it’s ducking the bass notes. So, when that kick drum hits, it kind of replaces the bass that was in the bass track so that everything doesn’t get too muddy. It’s a nice bass line driving this song and I didn’t want it to get messy.
On the guitars, [Waves] Renaissance Axx is my favourite compressor to just hold stuff together. Then on the keyboards, I’m just kind of filtering out frequencies that shouldn’t be there and adding some warmth with Pultecs and very broad musical boosts with other EQs.
One thing I should add is that that UAD AMS [RMX16] reverb is all over this album.
PS: To end where we started, when the label called and said they were going to submit you for JUNO consideration and asked what songs you wanted to include in the submission, why were these two songs the ones you chose to best demonstrate your work?
Dufour: I wish I had a great answer to that! I literally just listened to everything and, to my ears, they’re my favourite mixes on the album. I think I chose those two because “Light in the House” is pretty rocking and there’s a lot of energy the whole time, and then “Push for Yellow” starts nice and low and really acoustic-y and really builds. I think it just highlights what the band did, production-wise, mixed with my vision, and it really highlighted our collaboration.