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:
John ‘Beetle’ Bailey
“Dividido (feat. Silvana Estrada)” by Alex Cuba
“Shotgun” by Monkey House
PS: To start with the Alex Cuba track; first, had you worked with Alex before this album, Sublime?
John Bailey: Yeah, we did a collaboration with Sultans of String a year or two before. We did a version of “Feliz Navidad” with them. And I also worked with him again on a record with Heather Rankin — he did a collaboration with her on her Christmas album. It was an interesting tune, kind of a mish-smash of Spanish lyrics and Gaelic lyrics. You know, the two come together and sound really incredible, it’s actually kind of magical. But anyway, that’s what I had worked on with him prior to this.
But with this, it’s a very personal, kind of soulful and intimate record, so he played every instrument himself.
A few years ago, once I’d sold my big studio in Toronto, I invested a bunch of money in making myself completely mobile. So, my mic locker is basically a Pelican case and I have all my stuff – like Thunderbolt expansion and that kind of stuff – so I can basically take everything I need on a flight and go anywhere. So, I’ve taken that rig with me down to Havana a few times and over to Prague and recently to Istanbul. That is what technology allows us now.
So, I was able to bring my rig with me out there, and we were working at my friend Garth Richardson’s studio. Garth is himself a bit of a guru and he’s a very dear friend. We sort of managed to work out the schedule so that — like, he was producing this awesome, kind of epic Mongolian throat singing band, Hanggai. So, he was producing them and he was tracking over at Armoury [Studios] in Vancouver and so we managed to work it so that Alex and I were in the studio for 10 days while he was in town. It worked out great. So, we spent, basically, 10 days recording all the songs and building everything.
Interestingly, Alex is a bass player and he’s a monster bass player, but he’s also a really great guitar player and that’s how we normally see him. But having him play acoustic bass on the whole record was just beastly. The thing about Cuban musicians when they come up, you have to be able to do everything, you know what I mean?
But he is such a great songwriter and that, for me, is the thing that’s amazing. We built the songs – start with the guitar and then cut the bass and then do some percussion and then cut vocals and any other extra bits and stuff. And there was a bunch of collaborations that we organized. Among the collaborations, there was one with Omara Portuondo and then one with Pablo Milanés and then the one with Silvana Estrada, which is “Dividido.”
Her vocal was actually cut in Mexico and then we redid the track and adjusted it and got her vocal into this version.
PS: I read that Alex split the time working on this album between Mexico and British Columbia. Did all your engineering work happen in B.C.?
Bailey: Yeah, that was all in B.C. He did a lot of writing sessions in Mexico and he was going back forth, doing some writing and made a few demos and stuff.
PS: This was the first time Alex was self-producing an album. How was that partnership between you guys with Alex in the producer’s chair?
Bailey: Well, you know what, he’s a super creative individual, but he is also sort of one of those people where’s it’s a gift to have that super creative mindset but also be very disciplined. So, it was actually really great because he’s very organized. Like, he did full mock-ups of all the songs at home. He has a pretty decent recording set up at home and he’s got TLM 49 or something like that from Neumann, and an Apogee and stuff like that, so he did mock-ups of all the songs at home and then when we got to the studio, we listened to them and refined tempos and stuff like that, and then went at it.
So, he’s that rare combination of someone who’s very organized and has a very level of self-discipline but, at the same time, is super creative. So, there is still room for serendipity in the process, which is great.
Like, there is one tune, the opening track on the record called “Yo No Sé,” where he was out on the patio having a cigar and then came back in and was humming the lyrics to this thing and jamming this bass line. So, I just put it in record and we just started recording it and we arranged it on the fly and the next thing you know, it turned into a thing. So, there are things like that that happened, and that’s what I love. So, he’s very rare, I would say, in that regard. A lot of people can’t necessarily bridge those two worlds.
PS: In terms of the sonic elements and textures on “Dividido” and the album in general, was Alex giving you much direction or reference points for what he was looking for?
Bailey: Oh yeah. You know, he had a very specific thing in mind in terms of the sound of the record. He wanted it to be very intimate and organic. So, no samples, no programming, just 100 per cent authentic, acoustic stuff. And great art happens when you have some sort of limitation, you know? It’s easy to fall into the trap of just dragging in a loop or sample or something like that. So, everything on that record is something that came through the air into a microphone.
So, he had a very specific thing in mind about how he wanted the record to feel and it was very personal and as authentic as possible.
PS: In comparison to “Shotgun,” the Monkey House song we’ll talk about, the Alex Cuba song was pretty straight-forward instrumentally – just vocals, acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, and some sparse percussion. Do you remember what the recording set up was for this track and how you guys approached it?
Bailey: Yeah, for bass I think I used his TLM 49 — I think that’s what it was, one of the newer Neumann FET microphones. It was that on the bottom and then a Coles ribbon microphone on the fingerboard. I don’t think his bass had a pickup, so I think I just used two mics on the bass with one on the bottom and one on the top. I usually have one at the bridge for low-end and the other guy is just for definition.
For acoustic guitars, he has a little Martin, just a beautiful-sounding guitar, and I am usually doing a neck/body-type of thing. So, probably a [Neumann] KM 184 on the neck and a TLM 103 on the body.
PS: And vocal chain?
Bailey: Vocal was a [Sony] C 800 G. Now, when we talk about vocal chain, I need to clarify that 100 per cent of everything that I do in the last number of years, it’s a straight piece of wire from the microphone into a mic preamp and straight in. So, I was using the Grace Design m802s for a long time, and then I switched to the Merging Horus and I use Horus as my main audio interface now. So, I am using the mic preamps in Horus.
After this many years of doing it, I just see an audio install at a studio as being 100 per cent liability. Like, every patch cable and patch point is a potential disappointment for me when I get the files back and open it up and there’s some fizzle and crackle on the right side of the overhead. So, I try to keep the cabling to just one piece of wire from the microphone into my interface, if I can.
So, in terms of chain, that is literally it. it is a C 800 G into Horus. That’s it, no patchbay.
So, for percussion, on congas I was probably using [Sennheiser] 421s on the close-mics and then some KM 184s on the overheads for percussion, and then a couple [Neumann U87s] and omnis for the room. We used his deeper conga for a bass drum type of sound. So, I probably had a [Shure] Beta 52 or something underneath, just to get the bottom end.
But yeah, super straight ahead though and not a whole lot of trickery.
PS: How did you approach the mix to “Dividido”?
Bailey: For me, there’s a bit mixing as you go, because coming up with a certain vibe for something for a guitar sound or whatever, rather than bake it in I will kind of make a bunch of channels with a bunch of stuff that continues right through to the mix. But the overall thing, I set up a different routing setup for mixing.
So, I’m 100 per cent in Pro Tools, but I do use some hardware inserts with [TC Electronic’s] System 6000, just because I have yet to find plug-in reverbs that can do what that thing does.
The weird thing for me is that while I’m tracking I am using the HDX mix engine in Pro Tools, but I actually don’t like the sound of HDX for mixing. So, one of the advantages that switching over to Merging gave me was that I can change my playback engine over to Ravenna and I have my exact same A-to-D and D-to-A — same interface, same hardware inserts — but now I have a native mix engine. The difference in sound is quite striking. Also, the penalty of losing voices every time you drop a plug-in on an Aux. You know, you’re losing voices and the delay compensation gets out of hand.
PS: Anything unusual or unexpected you did or encountered while recording and mixing this song?
Bailey: No, not really. For me, most of mixing for me is decision making. It’s just choosing little bits and swapping out a word here or there, or moving a hit that doesn’t sound right or that kind of thing. But, you know, I think these days mixing, more and more, is really editing. Like, there’s about 15 minutes of instant inspiration and the rest is perspiration, you know? And I don’t mind that because it’s very satisfying for me. I don’t look back at the days of yore with any kind of romance where I wish I was doing things in a different way. I am eternally grateful for the fact that I can do what I am doing now. It’s not lost on me, because I lived through the era of cutting tape up into little pieces.
Also, I like working quickly, and I know I am a bit of an oddball with this because every time I get together with all my engineer friends, they can’t wait for the client to leave so that they can mix the record by themselves. I’m sort of the opposite because I like having people there with me. I really enjoy humans. I didn’t get into this business to be the Maytag Man and be by myself. Especially nowadays, artists are having to work so much and the second the last chord rings out, their headphones are flying off, they’re throwing their guitar in the case, and they’re out the door.
And so, part of my decision to get rid of the big studio in Toronto and be out here where the family is, is that I would find myself mixing a record for a couple weeks looking over the console at this giant room with a grand piano and Hammond organ and a bazillion mic and music stands and go, “I could be anywhere. I don’t need to be here, so why am I here?” So then I started taking my B-room system and I had it in flight cases and would bring it home. I would work on a record for days on end and the studio would be dark and then I would be back again. It was cumbersome.
So anyway, I am enjoying this much more now. Working like this is great!
PS: So, now to talk about “Shotgun,” the Monkey House track. Where were you guys recording this one?
Bailey: We recorded beds at Union Sound in Toronto and then we did some keyboard overdubs at a place called Rouge Valley, way out on the east end. Then — it’s a laundry list [laughs] — we did Hammond organ overdubs at Revolution Recording. I can’t remember if there’s Hammond on “Shotgun” or not, but for the record that’s where we did it. And then we did the horn session at Noble Street Studios. And then we cut the vocals here at my studio, [The Drive Shed], and I mixed here as well.
PS: Wow, you guys were all over Toronto for this!
Bailey: [laughs] Yeah, I know. And with Monkey House, there are always some special guests. So, we’re making stem sessions and sending it off and that kind of thing.
PS: I saw a quote from Monkey House leader Don Breithaupt where he said, “I have a tradition of having at least one poppy, quirky, outlier track on an album. This time, it’s ‘(I Wanna Ride) Shotgun,’ which is designed to be fun and funky and stick in people’s heads.” So, when recording and mixing this song, what was Don saying to you in terms of what he was looking for sonically?
Bailey: It’s a groove tune, so it’s got some quirky stuff going on. Don is pretty hands-on as a writer and arranger, so he’s usually worked out a lot of stuff in advance in terms of the arrangement and little keyboard programming bits and stuff like that, like funky sounds and stuff. So, he did that stuff and then in the process, there’s some stuff where we made a, kind of, crunchy drum thing in the breakdown section and had a little bit more sonic fun. The other stuff on a Monkey House record, maybe that isn’t appropriate, but for “Shotgun” it is.
The other fun thing” is that [producer Peter] Cardinali actually played bass on “Shotgun,” which is kind of fun. It’s right in his wheelhouse, so it’s great that Peter played bass on that one because it just gives it the right thing.
PS: And you and Peter had worked together one the previous Monkey House album, too?
Bailey: Yeah, and I’ve done many, many records with Peter.
PS: What the biggest benefits for you to working with the same producer and band on multiple albums?
Bailey: There’s just a lot of things that we don’t have to talk about. We can just get at it and there’s a high level of trust all the way around. So, when I hear something and I’m like, “Are you sure that chord is right?” That doesn’t happen that often because I know that the level of harmonic knowledge and discernment from both Peter and Don, but certainly Peter, he has perfect pitch, so you can’t get anything by him. There is a high level of trust in both directions and there’s a lot of stuff that we don’t have to talk about. We can just get straight at the work.
But you know, it’s great when you have that level of familiarity with people and you’re not looking over your shoulder all the time, worried about, “What’s he going to think about this?” We’ve all sort of done this thing enough times together that that is the real comfort factor, that we all trust each other and we can get a lot more done with a lot less worrying.
PS: There is a lot going on in “Shotgun” instrumentally and vocally. Do you remember how this was pieced together?
Bailey: The beds were recorded — so drums, bass, piano, guitar — as a bed track. We probably had a little bit of prelay from Don, just from the demo. We would’ve imported it in once we settle on the tempo and use a little bit of elastic audio to get the, sort of, preproduction elements at the right tempo. So, then we cut the track and I’ll send a two-mix to Don and he’ll maybe work on some of that stuff a little bit and send me just little blips, kind of sound-effect-y things. But, I’d say 90 per cent of the stuff you hear is all stuff that came through microphones, with the odd exception of a few sound-effect-type things.
So, that’s the process. Basically, we’d take the pre-pro stuff and cut the bed track. We cut the piano separately over at another studio. But the bed track is what it is. It’s wurly, bass, drums, and guitar. We had a guide vocal from the demo, but we very quickly replaced that with a slightly better guide vocal. Then on the process goes.
If I am remembering correctly, there’s some background vocals on that one from Lucy Woodward from Snarky Puppy. So, I made a stem session so Gary Lux cut a few of tracks at his studio in L.A. with Don.
But all of the lead vocals and all of Don’s parts and the mix, we did here.
PS: Can you tell me about the mixing process for this track?
Bailey: Yeah, the last two albums we’ve done with Monkey House, we’re recording and mixing the whole record at 192kHz. That has its challenges because sometimes you have to throw off a little bit of ballast, you know what I mean? Like sub-mix the drums and work on that. I am excited about the next round of computer upgrades because I can do more and more stuff at 192kHz and not have to worry about that stuff. But that does present a few challenges, but in the end it’s totally worth it.
The process is a build-it-as-you-go sort of thing, so as we get to the mix, it’s more the sonic presentation and the routing and bussing stuff that I am changing. The overall sonic picture of the song is on a linear progression the whole time, which is something I really enjoy about how we work now because we all understand where it’s going. So, there isn’t this pressure on the mix to suddenly reinvent the thing and turn it into something new because we already know where it’s headed.
When we get to mix, the only thing is that because we’re working at 192kHz, I’m making stem sessions for things. So, we’ve got a two-mix of the band track, so all the background vocals are in a slave session, and then some of the percussion stuff might be in a slave session, and then when we bring it all back together, that’s the assembly part of it. Pulling in all the tracks from various stem sessions into the master session. That is always a little bit of wrangling, but once we’re there it’s pretty seamless.
PS: Are you doing many albums these days in 192kHz?
Bailey: Pretty much everything I do with Peter we’ve been doing at 192kHz. So, we did Hilario Duran’s record at 192kHz and there’s a bunch of others.
I really enjoy it. It’s interesting, it’s not about the top end. For me, the biggest difference of working at 192kHz is the sound of the ambience because I feel like the complexity you hear of all the microscopic delays that are going on in a room are so much more apparent when you just flip up to 192kHz and beyond. So, my regular process is I am working in linear PCM in Pro Tools, but then I am mixing from Pro Tools to DSD. I could go on about this and I’d probably bore you to tears, but I really hate the sound of — there’s this thing I call “playback disappointment” where you have this fabulous mix running in Pro Tools and everything sounding great and you route it all down to a track and press “record” and then when you take the mix track out of record and listen to it, it’s lost a lot of its depth and the bottom end gets a little flubby and the reverb tails aren’t the same and the esses on the vocal turn into little metal beads.
It’s very frustrating for me, so the best way I’ve found to get around that is I’m basically I am going straight out of my DA, from Horus into a DSD recorder, and so I am sending my mixes to the mastering guy at 5.6 MHz DSD. You know, the mastering engineer is doing all their work, and whatever analog work they’re doing playing back the DSD and then capturing and then creating the master 192kHz release for all the HD stores and then all the downsample versions for CD audio and streaming all that sort of stuff. So, the mastering is all done at 192kHz.
So, I generally prefer that. That is the ideal workflow for me. The downside is if you’re just mixing back into Pro Tools or something, if Pro Tools craps out on you, you can just back a little bit and punch into the mix and then heal it up at the end. I don’t have that advantage when I’m mixing to DSD because if I notice something half way through the song, I have to stop and go back to the beginning and print it. It’s almost like mixing to a half-inch analog machine or something. That is the only thing about that process that is frustrating. But certainly, from a sonic standpoint, it’s the best thing I’ve found so far — that I can afford [laughs].
There are some amazing things out there that I can’t afford. I’d love to do a whole record in DSD, but from a practical standpoint, you can’t do anything with it unless you’re using an analog console. You have to go PCM even for an edit crossfade. So, I may as well be in PCM and work like that.
Anyway, sorry, that’s very long-winded [laughs]. I did tell you to stop me if I went on!
PS: Even though there is a lot going on in “Shotgun,” everything comes through in a balanced, clear, crisp way in the mix. For you, what’s the secret to achieving that?
Bailey: My general ethos is to defend the vocal at all costs. So, anything that is competing with the vocal, I have to find a place to put it where it’s not competing. So if that means sticking it on the side of or filtering it and sticking it further back but making it interesting sounding, as long as it’s not fighting the vocal in a way that’s not complementary. That is sort of my general thing.
If I’m accused of anything, it’s that I tend to mix vocals really hot. And I put a lot of effort into making the vocal presentable in a way that it works when it’s really loud. Meaning, every little spit noise, every S, every T, every noise I’m going in and cleaning all that stuff up so that I can present the vocal really, really, forward. The Sony C 800 G is one of those microphones that doesn’t do you any favours in that way because every little noise and every little crackle is there in super detail. It does make extra work, but for me it’s worth it. But I’m actually thinking about the vocal all the time and all the other stuff that’s going on around it for fun and entertainment purposes, has to be complementing.
So, I do a lot of automation on stuff like horns or Hammond organ or things that tend to have a lot of mid-range. I’m doing a lot of level automation on it to make sure it is not competing with the vocal and then when it does have its moments to shine, it’s popping out in just the right places. I like having elements that stick out in the left or right, just discrete elements that are kind of like, ‘Hey, what’s that?”
In the end, mixing is all about sonic entertainment. So, you’re kind of trying to create a journey that goes from the beginning of the song to the end of the song that is not just a static picture. You’re kind of moving a spot light around and shining it on different things all the time. that is what makes it fun and entertaining. If it’s just a documentary type of mix, that tends to get boring pretty quickly.
PS: Anything unusual or unexpected in the making of “Shotgun” you want to mention before we wrap up?
Bailey: Well, this doesn’t have to do with the recording —I guess it kind of does — but when we were doing the horn session at Noble Street, we had a visit from [film producer] Miles Dale. They had just won an Academy Award for The Shape of Water and Miles is a huge Monkey House fan. So, he came by the studio and Peter said, “You can come to the studio if you bring your Oscar,” and he actually brought it. That was kind of hilarious. None of us had ever had a chance to touch an Oscar before. So, Miles ended up doing the video for “Shotgun.” He was working at one of the big soundstages downtown and managed to create a situation where they had an off day and they could do the music video and everybody had a blast doing that. So it was fun to have a visit from Miles at the studio.
And his father was Jimmy Dale, who was a really famous jazz musician and musical director guy. He did so many iconic television shows in America and whatever. So, Miles grew up with very high-level music and so I guess it’s a no-brainer that he is a big Monkey House fan. Peter has known Miles since before he was born. So, it’s just a really fun thing to have him come by.