***An abbreviated version of this interview originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of *Professional Sound magazine.
By Michael Raine
As anyone in the pro audio and music industry knows, sometimes the people behind the console have a more interesting perspective on the music than the musicians themselves. Ahead of the 2018 Juno Awards, which were handed out on March 24th and 25th in Vancouver, *Professional Sound *caught up with this year’s five nominees for Engineer of the Year.
In these candid conversations, each engineer shares the behind-the-scenes stories of how the pair of songs they’re nominated for came together and how each found its distinctive sound.
**Eric Ratz **
**Nominated for: **
“Knocking at the Door” by Arkells from the album Morning Report
“My Little RnR” by Danko Jones from the album Wild Cat
**PS: How many times is this now you’ve been nominated for a Juno? **
Eric Ratz: I’ve been nominated 10 times in total but some were for producer, as well. I think six or seven times for engineer. It’s pretty cool and, hey man, no one is more surprised than me every time!
PS:** Arkells’ “Knocking at the Door” is a very dynamic song with a lot going on in it… **
ER: Oh yeah.
PS:** What was the song like at its conception? How fully formed was it when the ban brought it? **
ER: The song was definitely there. I got an email from the band with basically an intro, the verse, the pre-chorus, and the chorus and that was it. Just sort of all in one flow and the horn part was kind of there and the vocal melody and chord changes were all there. And then in a separate email, maybe a few days later, I got the bridge, which was basically a sketch of the gospel or soul singer part. So yeah, they had kind of pre-written the song and there was really no writing in the studio.
PS**: Was the theatrical quality to Max Kerman’s vocal there in the demos? **
ER: Yeah. The general vibe was… well, no, we did a bit of that while we were actually recording. Like getting some of the character stuff and the way he sang certain lines, especially in the verse and then in the bridge. I would say that was done, performance-wise, in the studio.
But yeah, he’s an amazing singer, man. There wasn’t too much comping. I would kind of have him sing the line and we would both kind of look at each other a certain way, like, “Yeah, that was great. That was the take.” We went and then touched up a few things here and we actually used some of the stuff we did when he was doing the guide vocals for the song.
It was pretty complicated mapping the tune out before we started laying down any actual instruments on it because there are a lot of tempo changes in the song. The last chorus is actually faster than the rest of the tune. That soul section kind of threw a monkey wrench into the whole tempo format. We had him just sort of sing the tune while Tony [Hoffer, the producer,] played the piano and we kind of mapped the tempo out in Pro Tools and then we had everybody play over it.
PS:** Were the core band parts done separately or live off the floor?
ER: Most of it was done separately. Like I said, the mapping of the song was the key part of it. Getting the tempo down, getting it to flow properly, and having those sections all working together was the most challenging part of, I feel, getting that song together. Because the song was already written, the lyrics were already written, and everything was dialed from that perspective. So like I said, we had Tony, the keyboard player, and Max do a guide for us to the mapped out song and then I had Tim go in and then I did bass and then we put the horns on. Those were the next thing because I felt that was really integral to the song. We got the horns on and then the soul singers and then we did the rest of the guitars and keyboards parts and stuff.
PS**: And it was live horns, correct? **
ER: Oh yeah, it was all live guys. It was, I believe, four [horn players] and I can’t remember all their names because we did the whole song in three days. So it was literally a whirlwind, man. Live horns came in on day two and we blasted a bunch of horns and then the singers came in literally right after them.
PS**: What was the vocal chain and effects on Max? It sounds like there was a lot going on with his voice at different points in the song? **
ER: Oh yeah. Like I said, it was sort of, we had him do a guide vocal and I felt he sang that guide vocal amazingly so I ended up using a lot of what he did in the guide – especially in the choruses – in the final version of the song. And then it was more us detailing the character of the verses afterwards. So, you know, the girls had to sing in between these parts and we had to sort of set up a character for them to go off of in the verses. So we paid a little bit of attention to that thing, getting the character right, but the vocal chain was a [Shure] U67 into a 1073 Neve then into a Retro 176 [limiting amplifier] and then to, I think, an Antelope Audio Orion converter.
PS:** How long did the mixing process take? **
ER: It was Mark Needham who mixed it. He’s worked with The Killers and all these bands. We kind of sent it to him, the rough mix was a good indication of where he needed to balance stuff, and the mix came back sounding great. We loved it and it was exactly what we wanted. Mark pays good attention to detail and has great balances. So everything sat just the way we kind of had it in the rough mix, just the detailing was a lot better.
Eric Ratz in the studio with Arkells [Photo: Twitter/@arkellsmusic]
PS**: For the main band instruments and the horns, what were your go-to mics?
ER: [Neumann] U87s. I did 87s on everybody and FET 47 on the baritone and then I had a pair of Coles for sort of ambient mics.
PS**: Looking back on the recording sessions for “Kocking at the Door,” what stands out most to you?
**ER: **Just that from the time we got in there everyone had a very clear picture of where we wanted to take the song. It made that part of it, building the tracks and building the tune, that much easier. It kind of went really fast. There was no hemming and hawing about things or, “Geeze, should we do this or do that?” It was a very clear path to the end goal. It was a great process, you know. Three days top to bottom and mixed, prepped, and ready to go. It was great. And in between a major snow storm as well [laughs].
***PS: *****So the band came in prepared and knew exactly what they wanted to do with the song… **
ER: Yeah, like I said, we had a good idea of the road we needed to go down as far as getting the horns on. We felt the horns and the girls were going to be an integral part of the song and so we wanted to get those in early. Most people start with drums and then they do bass, guitars, vocals, and, you know, the standard thing. We wanted to get the key elements on so we could build the rest of the track around those key elements. It really helped us in a sense because we then knew where the guitar needed to be and the sound it needed. The original guitar lick was in the demo, but it’s just we never really started there and we went with what we felt were the key components of the song and built around that.
Eric Ratz receiving the 2014 Juno Award for Engineer of the Year [Screengrab: Juno TV/JunoAwards.ca]
PS:** Switching over to “My Little RnR” from Danko Jones. What was the song like when the band presented it to you? **
ER: Same thing. The main parts of the song were done. It was just that I detailed the arrangement a little bit with those guys. You know, trimmed some fat and just sort of detailed the arrangement a little bit. But the core of the tune was done. I’m so lucky that most of the bands I work with these days are really talented writers and from a fundamental song perspective, they really got it down, man, especially with both these bands we’re talking about. Arkells and Danko Jones are kind of veteran acts and they’re great at their craft and it makes my job a lot easier.
In the case of “Little RnR,” you know, most of the lyrics were already done and the foundation for the chord changes and the basic verse and chorus changes and melodies were already done. It was just a case of making transitions more interesting and working a little bit with the drum pattern, although Rich [Knox], the drummer, had it all down too.
For that song, it was the same thing. Pretty cut and dry. Just make it rock when it came down to it. That is sort of what we did in the recording process.
PS:** Did you have a reference of any kind? **
ER: No, not really. Danko is a straight up awesome hard rock and that’s the framework. I’ve worked with those guys for a long time and I get what they do they do what they do really well. As far as looking to other things to influence what we were doing, we just wanted to make a better version of the record we made before. Obviously, this time around I think, if we want to get into influences, it is a little more geared towards a classic rock sound than the heavier more saturated guitars we did on Fire Music. You know, that would be the only influence for those guys for reference.
As far as Arkells go, sometimes they’ll send over a reference. Like, “Think this kind of thing.” But sometimes they’ll say “think this kind of thing” but when the song starts to become more realized, it ends of becoming what it is anyway. Just out of the fact that this is the band and this is what they do and each person brings a certain thing to the table and when you put it all together, it becomes this.
So “Knocking at the Door,” not really, they just sent me this little demo that was sort of a sketch of the song and I love it and thought it was awesome. I knew it was going to be a good track for them. I was very pleased and I feel very fortunate that they called for that.
PS:** What studio were you working out of with Danko Jones **
ER: For Danko we did bed tracks art Revolution Recording [in Toronto] and then we did all the overdubs at Vespa Music in North York, which is where I mixed it as well.
PS:** For “Little RnR,” were the parts recorded separately or as a band? **
ER: For the most part, it was recorded separately. They sort of jam together for the bed track stuff but I really like… like I get gluttonous when I’m doing drums and I like really focusing on all the drum mics and all the good stuff going towards the drums and then sort of replacing the bass. Danko, when we do demos and stuff for the album, our basic sketches of what the songs are going to be like, arrangement and parts wise, I end up keeping a lot of his demo vocals because sometimes if he’s realizing the song right there and then and there is a certain edge he brings to it when he’s doing it – kind of like with Max when we were doing “Knocking at the Door” – him realizing what he wants to deliver and delivering it at that point kind of was the take.
With Danko, although he only like to record in a pair of tube socks, which is a little awkward sometimes in the studio [laughs], a lot of stuff I do keep from even just his demo takes. So I always make sure I got a great vocal chain happening with him because some of it is a keeper.
PS:** To get the big, full rock sound, what were you using for instrument mics? **
ER: For the drums, I used a lot of condenser mics for the rooms. Like two condensers and stuff like that and mostly dynamics for the tight mics. For the guitars, strictly dynamic mics, and I usually run multiple amps for the rock stuff. For bass and stuff like that, same thing. We have a certain set up that we usually use with [bassist] John Calabrese. We have this old Ampeg V-4B that we’ve been using for years and years with him and it just has that rip that is so signature to him. I think I use a FET 47 on that.
PS:** Was analog console or in the box? **
ER: For all of them it was an analog console. For “Knocking at the Door,” we did it at Union Sound, which is an awesome little studio in the east end. Great staff and great equipment and just a really cool get-in-there-and-hunker-down vibe, man. The people who run it are really great, too.
And Vespa Music I do most of my work out of and that’s where I am now. I do a good majority of my mixing and tracking out of here. Sometimes I’ll go to bigger rooms for a larger drum sound, but I do a lot of drums here, as well – like tight, punchy drum sounds out of this place.
PS:** For “Little RnR”, which outboard or plug-ins were you using? **
ER: Not too many, actually. For those guys it’s really straight up. I use a lot of outboard gear. I use Neve and Chandler stuff. I love the Esoteric [Audio] Research, the EAR compressors. I use them on bass a lot and overheads. Complex limiters are my go-to things for drums and stuff like that. So I didn’t really do too much, especially with the Danko stuff, because we want to keep that ‘70s rock feel, so I didn’t use too much of that stuff. Although I did favour the Slate plug-ins and used those quite a bit. The Slate analog tape machine. I used that, not all over the place, but on certain things like the bass and a lot of the drums mics I used the Slate tape machine on for the Danko stuff.
And for Arkells, not a ton of plug-ins, but definitely a decapitator and I like some of the Sound Toys stuff on their stuff.
PS:** Anything else that stands out to about recording Danko?**
ER: Just trying to keep it as raw and natural as we could by using single-circuit amps like 2203 Marshalls and stuff like that. Blending [Celestion] Vintage 30 and Greenback speakers together to kind of get that vintage sound. You know, not relying too much on effects pedals and plug-ins and all that stuff. We really tried to keep it as raw and natural as we could, even in the mixing process. There was not a ton of EQ and not a ton of craziness going on in the box. Any kind of shaping or tonal shaping was always done with outboard gear, like a distressor or something like that.