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 Recording 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.
**Gus van Go **
“Paradise” by Terra Lightfoot from the album New Mistakes
“Boys Like You” by Whitehorse from the album Panther in the Dollhouse**
PS:** To start with “Paradise,” when I’ve interviewed Terra a couple times before for *Canadian Musician *magazine, she spoke very positively about working with you and your production partner, Werner F. You guys must have a good working relationship at this point? **
Gus van Go: As far as talking about my approach and talking about what you just said, I think that’s my number one most important thing that I do for my work is that I establish a personal relationship with my artists. I know I was nominated for Engineer of the Year, but I never really considered myself much of an engineer. I never went to school for engineering and never took any classes or anything. I started off by being a dude in bands and when I was in the studio recording my own stuff with a producer and/or engineer, I was just like, you know, I would be on their case and ask questions and look at what they’re doing and observe. And then when I eventually kind of stopped being an artist and decided to devote my career path to being in the studio all the time working with other artists, it was a learn-on-the-job kind of thing. Werner F, my current partner, actually taught me and he’s a producer and doesn’t really come from the engineering world either, but he’s a little older than me and he knew a lot more about the actual nuts and bolts of how a studio and the gear works. He taught me the engineering side.
I think we both consider ourselves more producers who also engineer, which is kind of funny because all my friends, including Werner, kind of laugh when I get an Engineer of the Year award because I am the least engineer-y producer in the world [laughs]. Everyone gets a real good laugh out of that. Except for when it comes to mixing. I really like getting hands-on.
So cut to Terra saying good things about working with me or whatever, I think that the main thing is that what I always hated when I was in a band and an artist myself was that I hated being condescended to by the engineers and producers that I was working with, and I hated not being listened to when I would say, like, ‘Hey, I really want to sound like The Clash,’ or something like that. They would go, like, ‘Oh, don’t worry, man, you’re going to sound way better than The Clash,’ condescendingly. I would be like, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to sound way better than The Clash, I want to *like *The Clash.’ And then we’d end up sounding like something way too slick or something. It wasn’t an approach to production or engineering that was very empathetic to what I was feeling and also wasn’t listening to what we were doing and seeing as our career path as a band and where we should be, sonically and stuff.
I always resented that and so when I decided to become a producer full-time, and at first it wasn’t even a conscious thought, but I think later on I realized what I was doing, which was I really try to become the fifth member of any band or the partner of any artist that I’m working with. If you really get into the skin of what they’re thinking and I ask a ton of questions about what they like. I do it subtly so it’s not like 20 Questions or like a form or like you’re talking to a bank manager. It’s always really informal over dinners or hang outs or listening to tunes at the studio. Before we even start working we’re listening to a lot of different tunes from my artists and other artists and just casually make it into a listening session and a hang out. Really try to look at their old videos of them live and go see them live or whatever and very often the bands that I work with say that, like, ‘You really got me!’ I think that’s why I get return artists coming to do multiple records with me. They don’t work with me once and then leave and I think it’s because I really, really concentrate on that aspect, really fitting the art that we’re doing to the artist’s tastes and needs.
PS:** Terra has also told me about how helpful you are during pre-production in taking the skeletons of songs she brings to you and really helping her round them out and knowing what the full production of the song will need. With that, do you remember her first bringing you “Paradise” and what the song was like at that point?**
GvG: Well, I don’t know if I say, how much she would kill me. At first they brought me “Paradise” and it was a different song. It was the basic music, chords, and basic sort of arrangement, I guess, and it was a whole other song. We worked on it and we worked in the pre-production and then tracked with the full band and she laid down scratch vocals and everything. They were telling me, like, ‘Oh we played this song at a festival once and everyone really reacted to it and it’s a real hit in the making,’ and blah, blah, blah. Everyone was really into that song but there was something that was bothering me about it. I didn’t feel like it was fully there and, to me, it was a really good album track. Like, a super above-quality album track, but I couldn’t see it on the radio as a single.
I felt that the lyrics were cool but they weren’t moving me and I felt that the melody was cool, but it wasn’t moving me or necessarily pushing any envelope. So, to me, yeah, the song rocked, like it had a power to it, but it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi to be a real radio hit. We were in the last few days of tracking, I would say we were like 90 per cent of the way done the record, and Terra turned to me one day and was like, ‘You know, everyone’s thinking that song is going to be a hit, maybe.’ I was like, ‘That song is not going to be a hit until you change the vocals.’ She was like, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I just feel like the lyrics and melodies are not fully there.’ I was working on another song at the moment and she was like, ‘OK, well give me some time,’ and she left the room, went into our live room, and sat there with a guitar for a couple of hours while I was working on mixing some other stuff. Then suddenly she came back and, with all the same music because we’d already recorded the whole band, she came and sat down and was like, ‘I think I wrote an amazing song.’ I was like, ‘OK, play it’ and she was like, ‘But I’m not sure though.’ She basically sang the finished version of “Paradise” and I was like, ‘Oh, that is a hit.’
So we immediately re-sang all the vocals and did all the harmonies and we brought in a gospel choir to do all the call-backs and the backup vocals. Then our original guitars were more standard classic rock guitars, and I was feeling that they were cool, they were powerful, but they were just too classic sounding. Like really good Les Pauls through Marshalls and all vintage stuff. We only use vintage ‘60s guitars and stuff, but it wasn’t pushing the envelope. So my partner, Werner, who’s a great guitar player, suggested that we do a more Black Keys-type of approach. So we redid all the rhythm guitars with a Harmony Rocket going into a Sears [Silvertone] amp – the Jack White amp… Going through a smaller 2×4 amp and just cranked and some slapback on it so it’s way cooler sounding and still raunchy, but bluesier and more vintage-y. We got the whole stomp-y thing going on with it.
**PS: How were you capturing and mixing Terra’s voice? **
GvG: With Terra, technically speaking, we were just using a [Neumann] U47 and slapped it in front of her and let her do her thing. We don’t really compress. Like, we have a Fairchild compressor, so it’s a pretty just classic vocal chain. A U47 into a Fairchild, which is pretty much my go-to chain. It’s the John Lennon chain and you can’t go wrong, kind of thing. The main thing that we do is we feel we get the best performances from singers when they’re feeling comfortable and when they’re confident and when they’re feeling happy.
So, we put a lot of effort into mixing the song as we go and then making sure that the headphone send is finished and record-quality when they’re doing the vocals. When we put the headphones on and we dim the lights and they’re singing into the mic and they hear their vocals and there is already maybe some slapback or some delays or some reverbs and they feel like it’s in the record already when they’re singing, we feel like we always get an emotional response. Very often they’re like, ‘Oh my god, this is the best headphone mix I’ve ever had. It sounds so good and I’m having so much fun singing.’ When they say that, that’s the goal that you want. You can’t just give them a dry vocal, unless the dry vocal is the shtick of the song and it’s super cool, but if you want to give them a little distortion if that’s what the song calls for, then you should have it in the mix when they’re singing. Same thing with any effects that are going to probably be in the final mix, you should already be sending it to them so that they feel happy and confident when they’re doing it because they’ll sing to those effects differently.
And try to create an environment where they’re feeling loose. Sometimes the best vocal takes that I ever get are the scratch tracks because they’re not thinking. They’re not worried and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m just doing a quick scratch track’ and then often times I’ll end up using the scratch. So I always make sure I mic it right and it’s not just with a SM58 or something. They’re very often used in my final mixes because there is something magical about the scratch track when they’re not thinking or worried and they’re not putting out too much, trying to impress. So yeah, just basically let the artist do their thing and make sure they seem relaxed.
PS: Was Terra using her ‘72 Gibson SG that she calls “Victoria” and is it an easy guitar to get the tone out of? **
GvG: Yeah, I mean she would kill us if we didn’t let her play that guitar. It’s her piece and it’s part of her personality and, also, she’s a very sentimental and superstitious kind of artist. So for vibe’s sake, she’s just like, ‘I don’t care how it sounds, it’s my baby and I want to use it.’ So we, of course, let her use it and it also sounds great so we don’t have a problem with it. For a lot of the secondary guitar work, we use guitars that are in our collection. For overdubs and stuff like that, and here and there it’s not every single song has the SG on it because occasionally we’d want something that has a single-coil sound or something. So of course we switched it up throughout the record, but in general it’s that guitar.
PS**: Is it a finicky guitar to record? **
GvG: SGs are pretty hardy. It’s not finicky at all. Most guitars are only as good as the player playing them. So, like, my partner Werner, and Terra is another where what’s happening is all in their fingers and a great guitar player can pick up a mediocre guitar and make it sing. Like give Jack White any piece of shit and it’ll be amazing. Give him a Peavey guitar going through a Peavey amp and I’m certain Jack White will make it sound cool
**PS: Anything else that stands out about “Paradise”? **
GvG: Not really, other than, like I said, we hired those gospel singers to come in and sing on that and that was the over-the-top, “let’s make this sound like the angels are singing,” or like we’re in a gospel church because it’s called “Paradise” and it all fit into the pseudo-religious theme.
PS**: How many people in the choir? **
GvG: It was three but it was like, multiple tracking and using Terra’s voice as well, so four technically.
PS: Switching to Whitehorse’s “Boys Like You,” when I first heard the song, it surprised me and was not what I expected from them. Do you remember your first impressions of it when Luke and Melissa brought it to you? **
GvG: This was another weirdo type of song where they sent me like a ton of demos and stuff and this was one song where it was actually an amalgamation of two songs where we thought that one had a great chorus and one had a great verse but they didn’t really have great other parts in those other songs. But then we were like, “Oh my god! Thematically and rhythmically and everything, this chorus fits with that verse so perfectly.” It was sort of like, “Oh my god, why didn’t we think of that before?!” So we put it together to “Boys Like You” and, of course, with Melissa singing the chorus in that sort of angry way that she does, it just came together like magic, really.
PS**: Because it’s so sonically and stylistically different than their other stuff, was there a reference or any blueprint you were going after in the studio for this track? **
GvG: Not really. The last record that we did together, [Leave No Bridge Unburned], we were referencing a lot of different things. We were referencing everything from James Bond theme music to Calexico to Motown and things like that. So that last record, that was the first record that we did together and that was a big departure, too, from their previous record a lot of people were saying when that came out. That was really shooting for getting a really grand sounding thing. Like epic and everything really over-the-top cinematic as much as possible.
That was kind of what we went for and, for this record, Luke and I were chatting one day and he said, “We’re listening to a lot of, like, Portishead and Beck and we’re thinking about incorporating a lot more beats into what we’re doing.” Because everyone already associates them with, like, the looping thing they do and maybe we’d want to sort of approach it in that way but not loopy, more beat-y, and definitely a more beat-heavy record.
We enlisted the help of two extra producers, these guys are good friends of mine. These young Brooklyn R&B and hip-hop producers guys, Chris Soper and Jessie Singer. They’re like beat makers and also amazing musicians. Like, they play keyboards and bass and everything and are multi-instrumentalists but also beat makers and songwriters. The four of us, with Luke and Melissa, so we were six in all, we just woodshedded and were just crazy with beats. We had two control rooms going on at the same time and sometimes working on the same song and sometimes working on different songs. Luke and Melissa would split their time between the two rooms and I would shuffle back and forth from room to room and we just had beats being made and Werner with an [Akai] MPC. Sometimes Jessie would play the drums but then chop it all up and add samples and we would do bass in one room and another thing would be a synth bass and someone would be recording a [Hammond] B3 for something and a piano. It was just nonstop back and forth between two rooms and like a little factory of just craziness.
The beat for “Boys Like You,” Luke had said during their writing process, “Hey, can you send us a bunch of random beats just for us to maybe fuck around on?” So Jessie and Chris had sent them a bunch of little beat snippets and “Boys Like You,” that beat, that was basically the one that Luke wrote to and then it just fit so perfectly and it was already kind of janky sounding. Like shitty/cool sounding. So we were just like, “Let’s just leave that beat because it just kicks ass.”
But then when that pre-chorus kicks in, we were more referencing like Britpop because Luke was also getting back into those Britpop bands from the late-‘90s. So when it gets really big in that pre-chorus and then the beat keeps going underneath there, but we added a thicker drum samples in there and added all that sort of reverbed-out and delayed-out effects on things and made it really trippy and then it goes real super stark again for the chorus with Melissa’s distorted voice screaming “boys like you…” It was all very organically trying stuff out in the studio.
PS:** Do you remember what the vocal chain was on Melissa?**
GvG: I must have been our regular U47 through the Fairchild and then I think I just used that Soundtoys Decapitator to distort the shit out of it.
PS:** What studios were you working in for each track? **
GvG: Terra’s we worked out of a studio on a native reservation outside of Hamilton called Jukasa. So the Terra Lightfoot record was recorded at Jukasa and my partner Werner has a studio in Brooklyn and we did some stuff there. Same thing with the Whitehorse record that was recorded mostly at Revolution in Toronto.
PS**: As far as outboard gear and effects, anything else you were using on “Boys Like You”? **
GvG: We have an EMT 140 Plate [reverb] that we used a lot. We love that sort of ‘60s and ‘70s plate reverb sound on vocals and keys and stuff like that. Even on drums sometimes. Plus an Echoplex [tape delay effect] that we used all over the place for tons of guitar and vocal stuff, as well as a Roland [RE-201] Space Echo, which we used like crazy on drums. The spring reverb on the Space Echo is a lot of that Portishead-type drum reverb stuff for that breakbeat kind of stuff. On a lot of that Whitehorse record, we had the drums in a tiny 3×3 vocal booth.
GvG: Just to get that super dry, very-lightly-hit drum sound. We have a regular little vintage kit and Jessie would go in there and try out beats. Obviously there are no room mics, there are just three mics: a mic on the kick drum, a little overhead mic, and close mic on the snare. He would play beats in there and you would get this tiny, no-room sound but then you put that spring reverb from the Space Echo on it and it just sounds vast. You just compress the shit out of it, distort it, and you get that sort of old record, very Portishead-type of thing. So we did that a lot.
Those are mostly the effects we were using: plater reverb, the Space Echo, and the Echoplex. Also various fuzz pedals and stuff that we have. Werner is collector of vintage fuzz pedals and we have all the original ones. You know, go from the treble booster to the fuzzes.
We mix completely in the box. So that’s one of our things. We just found at some point that mixing on a console was impractical for all the millions of revisions that have to happen for people and to have to always want to change things up, even a month later. Not to mention that we just found that the control that we have in the box just made the records sound better. I just remember the last time I mixed on a console and was just like, “OK, never again.”