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:
“2 Myself” by Ludic
“Known Better” by Nuela Charles
PS: This wasn’t your first time working with Nuela Charles, eh?
Ryan Worsley: Yeah, with Nuela, the way that we’ve collaborated in the past, which has worked very well, we’ll start by talking about the sonic direction and what she wants to do and the songwriting and production kind of happens at the same time. What I usually do is I’ll build a barebones-type track of drums and bass and synths, chord progression, and then I’ll send it over to her. Sometimes she likes it and sometimes she doesn’t and then she’ll start writing based on that. So, that’s what we’d normally do.
In this case, she had already written most of the song and she sent me a voice memo with just acoustic guitar and vocals and I put it in Pro Tools and just started putting a track around that rough demo.
PS: Had she given you any guidelines in terms of what she was looking for regarding vibe or other production elements?
Worsley: She did; she sent me a few references and fairly broad genres that she wanted to stick with. She told me that she wanted to go for a little grittier sound in the instrumentation, but still with well-produced pop-type vocals. So, she had told me that, but she hadn’t really given me any specific direction. So, I was able to kind of start building it on my own. I think the original track that I sent consisted of just drums, bass, and piano as the main bones of it.
PS: It’s interesting that the original voice memo she sent you was just voice and acoustic guitar, because the final track has piano and drums as the main instruments driving the song.
Worsley: Yeah, and a lot of times I find it’s really nice to not have any instrumentation reference whatsoever, other than the track she’s playing it on, because it opens up many possibilities. I find that when someone sends me a demo that has drums, bass, and guitar already in there, a lot of times I’ll just get used to that and get hooked on it and want to use it. That’s great sometimes, but in this case, because the band had never played this song before and it was just an acoustic demo, I sort of had the luxury of creating something, which definitely veers into the production side of things.
So, that is how that songs started. When Nuela records, she doesn’t normally bring a band in, or she’s never done that with me. Part of that could be the location difference – she’s in Edmonton and I’m in Vancouver – so she’s flying out to do one-week sessions with me. I’m comfortable playing all the instruments, so I am fine to do that. So, I built the track and she came out and she essentially just recorded her vocals onto the track.
In terms of what we did together with that session, it was a very remote-style session, in the sense that the track was pretty much finished when she came out to do vocals and she sang on it.
PS: What was the vocal chain for her?
Worsley: For her vocals, we ended up using one of my vintage [Neumann U] 87s. I’ve got two, one from the late ‘60s and one from the early ‘70s. The late-‘60s one has the original capsule and then the early-‘70s 87 has a Sennheiser replacement capsule. So, they’re both vintage 87s but they sound quite different. Sometimes I’ll shootout both of the 87s quickly to hear which one works better, or sometimes I’ll just know which one is going to work. The one with the original capsule has a softer midrange to it and the replacement capsule is brighter and has more detail but can be harsh compared to the original one. I found that very interesting when I got those mics that there’s definitely quite a bit of variation in how the two sound.
But yeah, we ended up using the 87 into just a Neve 1073 preamp and then into a distressor. I usually start with my distressor on Opto mode and just take a little bit off. It was a very simple vocal chain. I find that type of chain works really well because it’s really easy to recall and if she wanted to drop in a different lyric or re-sing a line, we can easily get that back. For me, that’s a really important thing to have when I am writing and recording at the same time because, so often, things will change and you need to jump back in and retrack something.
PS: Which of the two 87s was used?
Worsley: It was the ‘60s 87 with the original capsule. I got that one cleaned a few years ago and it’s still holding up. Hopefully I can get a few more years out of it because it’s a pretty incredible mic.
PS: What was the mixing process like on “Known Better”?
Worsley: I am actually going to open up the session to jog my memory… So, the majority of the track was done. I ended up playing real drums on the track and then did additional tracking with some guitars and that sort of thing. But in terms of the mixing, I always find that when I build a track this way on my own in an instrumental format, I always find that the track has to be changed, no matter what, just to mold everything around the vocal.
So, I was mixing as I went, but the main mixing would start once I got the final vocal recorded because then I can start working with vocal production and such. Normally my vocal processing in Pro Tools gets pretty insane, to the point where I’m having to bounce things down and reprocess them again. That’s great and I love doing that and I find that it’s a great way to get more of a modern vocal sound.
PS: What plug-ins or outboard gear were you leaning on most in these sessions?
Worsley: In terms of outboard gear, I didn’t use anything in the mix because I am now mixing completely in-the-box – and I love it! I’ll never go back. The technology is so incredible now and the mixes I’m doing now I know are way better than they would be if I was mixing through a console, just because of what I am able to do.
So, when we get into the processing, typically my plug-in inserts are always full on lead vocal tracks because there is so much I want to do to them. I found myself using a lot of the Waves’ C1 [compressor plug-in] on vocals to clean up any edginess that I’m hearing. I really like to tame the vocals. The first thing I do is tame any problem frequencies, either the upper midrange or any boxiness if they’re singing low. Sometimes I’ll have two C1s running in a row to catch different frequencies and once I can turn the vocal up loud and it doesn’t rip my ear off, then I’m ready to move on to the next section, which is usually compression. I’m usually going with either an 1176 or an LA-2A plug-in, based on what I want to hear out of the vocal. I’m always listening for if that compressor or particular piece of gear is bringing out more edginess in the vocal. So, if an 1176 is bringing out that harshness, then I will try either a different setting or I’ll try an LA-2A, or just a different emulation of an 1176 because they all sound so different.
Then, I usually move on to a bit of saturation. My go-to is either the [Soundtoys] Decapitator plug-in or the Thermionic Culture Vulture by UAD. I love those two for saturation. Another plug-in that I really like and use on almost all my vocals is the Waves [Aphex] Vintage Aural Exciter. I find that can really smooth out the vocal and it can bring some clarity. Depending on the tone of vocal, I’ll know right away if the Mix 1 or Mix 2 setting will work on that. Like, one will work and one won’t. then the blend knob is so useful because you get a whole gamut of tone between three of seven on mix knob. Then usually some de-essing is needed and a lot of times I’ll manually turn down the esses if they’re still too loud.
So, that is my typical approach on lead vocals. Then the additional vocals, like the layers – whether they’re fake processed layers or real layers – I’ll do lots of processing to those.
On this particular session, I found myself using two parallel vocal tracks, where the processed lead vocals is sent to an auxiliary track and then processed further. For this one I had the Joey Sturgis Gain Reduction plug-in, which is an insane compressor. I don’t know exactly what’s going on in it, but the crazy thing about it is that when the meter is hitting 2dB of compression, it sounds like there’s 20. It’s very, very insane. So, I always use just a little bit of that if I need it.
Also, for this one I used the RC-20 Retro Color plug-in by XLN Audio. I am just adding some distortion. There are no other effects on it other than distortion on that track. So, I’ve got extreme compression and some further distortion.
So that is my approach to lead vocal. There are lots of gang vocals in this song.
PS: Were those actual gang vocals or layering Nuela’s voice?
Worsley: It was a combination of gang vocals. She sung a whole bunch of the la-la-las and la-di-das in the post-chorus. And then I sung a few and also my engineer, his name is Matt Di Pomponio, and he’s got a crazy high falsetto, so I got him to go and layer it. Then there are some fake doubles of her in there, as well, that are pitched up.
PS: Switching over now to “2 Myself” by Ludic. This has a very different vibe than the Nuela Charles song and has a more old-school dance vibe. You’re also producer, engineer, and co-writer on this one. So, what was the origins of this song?
Worsley: So, I’d started working with this band Ludic only about a year ago. I’d found them when they were playing at a little club in Vancouver and I was pretty blown away by their performance and their musicality – they’re incredibly talented musicians and super young. Two of them, I think, are just 18 and just graduated high school. We had recorded a few songs together that had already been written completely and they came in and recorded and them and I produced them. But this song, “2 Myself,” was the first track that wasn’t completely finished. There was still some writing to be done on the track and it was a very new song. They’d never performed it live and had only rehearsed it a few times.
So, I got them set up in the live room of the studio and they just started playing through the song. I would be going in and out between the control room and live room and talking about the track and what we can do to make it interesting and accessible and creative all the way through.
So, we did the song over two days of tracking. The live bed tracks were done on the first day and we also finalized some of the instrumental writing, as well as some of the lyrical and melodic changes. The second day was doing overdubs and tracking the vocals.
PS: There’s a lot happening in the song. What’s going on instrumentally?
Worlsey: Let’s see, I know it doesn’t necessarily sound like a live drum kit, but I use a lot of samples when I am getting a sound like this because there are some really cool elements in the live performance, but there are also elements I need. So, I’ve got the live drums mixed with some claps and snare and kick samples. It’s a big session; I put the drum fills on a different set of tracks, just to process them differently. The bass was live-off-the-floor, which I further processed. Then Ayla [Tesler-Mabe], the guitar player, she’ll play her guitar track live-off-the-floor and then the first thing we’ll do when doing guitar overdubs is double it. She’ll double it for the most part, but then she goes off in certain spots. She’s a really incredible player and her understanding of harmony really helps with her being able to get off the double to do something complementary. So, there’s quite a few guitar tracks in here of overdubs.
Once we get the majority of guitar, drums, and bass done, then we start experimenting with keyboards. They’re quirky, just like I’m quirky, and they like weird keyboards. Like, I’ve got this old ‘80s Yamaha keytar that I’ll usually run through pedals and we used that for the shots in the chorus with an auto filter and some reverb and that sort of thing. [Pauses to hear the song] We actually had a lot of the little red Yamaha keytar on here! It sounds really corny when you play it on its own, but when you play it through pedals it kind of takes on a whole other life. Then we had some vibraphone in verses.
One other thing that’s interesting to note is there is a vocoder in the chorus. It just becomes part of the vocal sound. I used a plug-in called Infected Mushroom Manipulator and I really like that plug-in for vocal processing because you can play the vocal on a keyboard, single note or can play it as a vocal and then play chords.
PS: For something like the vocoder, are you adding elements like that with the band or doing it on your own?
Worlsey: The vocoder was something I added in on my own. I usually do most of the vocal processing on my own because, for me, I’m just throwing stuff against the wall and finding something that fits. I am more comfortable doing that on my own than having the band sit and watch me. Really, so much of finding magic in a song is just experimentation, and I love doing that with a band, but there’s certain elements like vocoders and that sort of thing that I just prefer to do on my own unless it’s a key part of the song.
For me, I think I just need to choose the elements I want to collaborate with the band on. Like, things that are going to change the direction of the song for the better, I like to have the band present for those. There’s just a lot of inspirational vibe you can get when you come up with a really cool sound and it’s like, “Oh sweet! This is so cool.” You know, this sound that we’re never going to get again because we’re running it through a million different things and it’s a broken keyboard we found somewhere in the studio or whatever. I love that idea of just creating something that can’t be pulled up on a plug-in or downloaded from Splice or whatever. It’s a completely original sound and I find it’s really inspiring for the band to be a part of that.
PS: With something like this song where there are so many elements and so much processing, are you mixing as you go?
Worsley: I’m mixing as I go with this type of project. Normally what happens is, we’ll do a first day of bed tracking and my co-engineer, Matt Di Pomponio, will do any edits that are needed at the end of the day to tighten everything up. Then I will get the session back in the evening and open it up and start processing elements because, I want to have that sonic vibe moving for day two. I want to have the drum sound more dialed in, any processing that I would do on the bass I want to have that so that we can play to those elements. So, I definitely do mix as I go with this type of project.
PS: You’ve probably mentioned some of them already, but what would you say are the key plug-ins you leaned on most to achieve the vibe of this song?
Worsley: [Looking through the Pro Tools session] There’s so many plug-ins in this one, so I am just trying to find one or two that were instrumental in this song.
One plug-in I’ve been using quite a bit lately is called DAW Cassette by Klevgr. It’s a cassette tape emulator and it’s got tape quality, head quality, motor quality, and you can essentially make something sound like it’s coming through a little ‘90s boombox. I’ve been using that a lot because there’s a really nice warble when you turn the head quality down and then you can degrade the tape quality so it will sound really, really lo-fi. I love that plug-in and I was using it a fair bit on this session.
Another go-to plug-in that I was using a lot is the Soundtoys Little Plate. I’ve got tons of plate plug-ins but I’ve found myself going to that one. I just love the graininess of it and works really well on vocals.
Another that I use a lot is the Noveltech Character plug-in. I find myself using that on the master bus on almost every mix. I’m either getting midrange harmonics or low-end harmonics out of it, depending on what the track needs. I also use it on my vocal bus if I want to add a bit of top-end harmonics to it. I have no idea what it’s doing but I just like the sound of it.
PS: Is “2 Myself” indicative of the band’s normal sound, or is it an outlier in their catalog?
Worsley: It’s a fairly good representation of their music. I feel like with this band more than most, it’s been a really fun journey finding a sound for them. They are such a new band and it was a huge priority for me to help the band find a sound. We did that relatively quickly and just found a way to combine, kind of, ‘90s hip-hop drum elements with some more old-school classic rock vibes, but also with a current twist. It’s been really rewarding and exciting to help find Ludic’s sound.
PS: Anything else unusual or unexpected you did or encountered on this song that you wanted to add?
Worsley: Yes, one other thing I wanted to comment on; when being in the studio and working on a track, let’s say you’ve got the choice between working on a song that’s been rehearsed, written, and played for a long time by the band, compared to a song that’s brand new that they haven’t played, I find that trade-off really interesting. On the one hand you have a well-rehearsed song where everyone knows their parts and the band is tight, which is awesome. But on the other hand you’ve got this new song where nobody knows what they’re playing but the nice thing about a new song is that you can ride these waves of inspiration and freshness. I really love that vibe in the studio where you have something that is new and exciting and you can develop that really quickly when you get the excitement of working with somebody new in the studio. I just love that approach. Obviously you have to have the right group of musicians and band to make that work, but when it does work, it works really, really well.
And one last interesting note about that particular song is if you listen to verse one, there’s this sound of bubbles. Max [Cunningham], the singer and bass player, wanted to have like a watery type of sound in that first verse. So, what we ended up doing is we took a pitcher of water and a straw and I mic’d up him blowing bubbles. We have video of it and it’s pretty funny because we’re getting the perfect take of the pitch of the bubbles and when you blow harder the pitch changes and when you lift the straw up, as well, it changes pitch. So, you can kind of get this little crescendo out of bubbles and it was pretty fun.