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.
“Slip Away” by Perfume Genius from No Shape
“Pain” by War on Drugs from A Deeper Understanding
PS: Let’s start with “Slip Away” by Perfume Genius. This isn’t a song I was familiar with before preparing for this interview. I actually had to listen to it a bunch just to wrap my head around what is going on in this song, sonically speaking. So what did Mike Hadreas come to you with as the starting blocks for this song?
Shawn Everett: The song was pretty much fully formed. You could tell that it maybe had a slight feeling of a Kate Bush kind of song, or something like that. I think that’s a little bit what we were going for.
So basically, there is this instrument that Blake Mills, who produced the song, has. It looks like a guitar but it doesn’t actually have strings on it. It has these kind of metal paddles. He ran that through some amps and stuff and that was the kind of foundation layer and it’s actually what starts the song. Then, that was kind of the main building block and then from there, a lot of what the song is about is these drums and so we spent a ton of time just building up drums. There was an initial, sort of, drum machine beat that was laid underneath, and I think that was eventually stripped away by the end. But then we had a guy come down and he was kind of recreating what was the initial drum machine beat.
So we did that and then a lot of it was just overdubbing layers of drums, but pretty much for months [laughs]. It was like different layers of drums and patterns and stuff like that. Even when I was mixing the song we were still adding layers of drums and tiny little percussion elements and stuff like that.
Because of how much stuff we kept putting on it, there were so many drum layers and stuff at the end that, I think, it was kind of the hardest to mix, sonically, on the whole record because it was just trying to fit all that stuff in there. It just kind of kept turning brown. You’d listen to it and be like, “Oh, it just sounds like a wash again.” Then we’d have to go back in. I think I’d finished mixing the record and then that song was mixed and I think it was still bugging us a little bit. It wasn’t quite there and then I went and remixed it again at my studio. That time it felt a lot better, but it was definitely one of the harder ones on the record to do.
It is quite explosive sounding but it’s actually, as far as story-wise, one of the less interesting process journeys, I guess. A lot of the other songs on the record, there is a real specific process and it was kind of unfolding that process. This one, the story is more or less just creating a mountain of drums than trying to arrange the rock.
PS: Between the first mix that you said was a wash of sound and the remix that you were happier with, what did you do differently?
SE: Usually when I’m not happy with a mix, it usually just feels flat and like mud. It’s usually because there is just so much stuff or the rainbow of frequencies isn’t organized properly. It’s just, like, blurred so it looks like a rainbow without glasses on. So, I guess when I’m trying to remix it, I’m just trying to focus the colours back into shape so that there is actually a place for everything and when you hear it, it’s understandable as opposed to questionable.
PS: When do that second mix, are you taking the first mix and subtracting, or completely starting from scratch and building it back up?
SE: No, I generally don’t restart. I’m usually mixing from day one of tracking. The line of mixing and tracking, if I’m tracking a song, it’s pretty blurred. If I’m tracking it, usually I’m mixing it as I go.
So when I get to the point where I’m mixing, I’m maybe 75 per cent there. But then the last 25 per cent is really tricky because then you’re really trying to just carve. But the danger of carving is you can end up making it sound super weird, like you’ve given it some weird plastic surgery and the nose is two inches to the left or something [laughs].
PS: I read an interview you did with Pitchfork and in it, it seemed like you’re really into using imagery, like photos, as a reference to define the vibe you’re trying to achieve for a song. Was that the case with “Slip Away” as well?
SE: There wasn’t a specific image for this song. A lot of times I do work with that and I’ll work to a picture, or even a film. But, I mean, like right now I’m working on a record and the guys want it to sound like Batman Forever, so I just had Batman Forever just looping the entire time. The studio is then lit like the movie.
PS: Is that the Batman movie that’s very neon coloured?
SE: Yeah, and we had the hue lights in that studio and the hue lights are lit like Batman Forever. So everything seems like that, but it really does work. As you’re doing it, as you get closer to the end point, you’re like, “Wow, that really does sound like that a little bit.”
But this one was specific. There was nothing really that specific [when working on “Slip Away.”] It was more visceral and like these huge dynamic moments and just knowing where they were lying and how to make those as explosive as possible, but still some form of clarity. I definitely in my mind, not even on purpose, have like colour shades and stuff like that that I am kind of building towards in the mix, and specifically that song. Weirdly, it’s so visceral with these drums and stuff, but I kind of had the shade pink a little bit in my head, even though it was trying to be kind of aggressive. So stuff like that a little bit, but there was no specific image or anything like that I had for that song.
PS: There’s a term for the condition where you actually see music in shades of colour depending on the sound…
SE: Oh yeah, I think it’s synesthesia.
PS: Yeah, that’s it. Do you have an element of that?
SE: I don’t think I do. I don’t know; I mean, people talk about it and sometimes I think people are just saying it to sound cool [laughs]. But I don’t think I do. I don’t see exploding colours in my brain or anything when I hear music. I mean, I wish it did because it sounds awesome [laughs].
Weirdly, I’ve had artists tell me they want something “more purple” and it’s kind of like running joke in, I guess, mixing or whatever that people will say that. A lot of people are like, “pshhh,’ and it is also ridiculous to me. I don’t think that that is, like, cool, but I definitely get off on it because it’s almost like an obstruction to me that I like working against. I like any form of prompt. I think that’s fun. Like a lot of people think Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards are kind of stupid and stuff but I love them. It’s my favourite thing to work with. I mean, something like that will change my day.
The problem, especially with modern studios, is that you can do anything. Like literally, you could just do anything it feels like. When the artist is in the room and they’re kind of stressed out about the way a song could or should sound or something like that; a lot of times, if somebody is stressed out about the direction that something is going, it’s like, “Well what do you want, because we could do anything?”
But what I like are things like that because it gives you some kind of parameter or a wall and that kind of wall is really fun to work against because it will lead you to a completely different place and it kind of forces you into a set of tools that you maybe wouldn’t normally use.
PS: To bring it back to “Slip Away,” how did you get Mike’s vocal sound on this track?
SE: I can’t remember on this track in particular. It might have been an [Soundelux] E47. On this record I switched off a little bit between an E47 and a binaural head, weirdly. It’s just a Neumann [KU 100] binaural head. I wasn’t using, necessarily, the stereo image of it. I was trying but it was super weird. I actually had him singing into one side of the head a lot. So I would have this kind of dead arm where I had this second side that was not directional at all. It was like the other side of the head. I was trying to play around with other ways to use it. I never panned it where it was like he was completely on the left and the kind of second side is on the right. I was trying to use it like that but it was really tricky. I think maybe what I did was I used the second ear as like a reverb send, maybe. And then I used the mic on the left side that I recorded him with.
PS: Do you have some go-to plug-ins and do you know what were the main ones you were using on this “Slip Away”?
SE: There wasn’t a lot of plug-ins, but maybe there was a lot of UAD stuff. But I starting mixing it in-the-box but then I finished the mix on an SSL and then I actually printed stems and then I think I reprinted the mix. Oh, and then I kept working on the mix at my place and then I finished the mix on an API.
PS: So before we get into “Pain,” I just got to say that this War on Drugs album, A Deeper Understanding, is easily one of my favourite albums of 2017. I listened to it a ton and it’s still on regular rotation at my place.
SE: Oh, thanks so much, man.
PS: One of the things that I love about The War on Drugs’ sound is that it’s classic, but it’s not pastiche. That it sounds classic and contemporary at the same time. I’m wondering, either in the recording or in the mix, how you’re able to get that sonic balance?
SE: I think there are a lot of people who do an amazing job of recreating a past sonic experience, or something like that, but I don’t know if I’m really good at it [laughs]. A lot times I think I’ll aim for that and I think that people hear that in it, maybe, but the problem is I feel I get excited about modern bigness and modern tonalities and the way that, say, hip-hop mixes sit and stuff like that. So even if I’m not trying to be influenced by something like that, it’s in my brain.
So a lot of times, if I’m aiming for one thing, the other stuff will still leak in.
I know on that record I was really aiming for the way a lot of Bob Clearmountain or Daniel Lanois mixes and stuff sound. But I think that by even aiming in that direction, it never quite hits that. It maybe touches on it, but it doesn’t really ever go there completely. So I think that’s the answer. It’s an accident. Like I’m aiming for one thing and accidentally hitting some sort of modern thing as well.
**PS: From what I’ve read about the band, songwriter and frontman Adam Granduciel seems like he’s very hand-on in the studio and very involved in the recording process, beyond just performing. So how was your working relationship with him in the studio? **
SE: I wasn’t even sure how hands-on he would be. I’d read about his process and stuff before I’d worked with him and so the first day – and actually we recorded a song called “Thinking of a Place” and “Pain” both on the first day we recorded – and I was setting up mics and I wasn’t sure how particular he’d be. I know how into it he is, so I was kind of checking with him, like, “Is it OK if I use this mic?” or something like that, and he was like, “Yeah, do whatever you want.” And so, as hands-on as he is, he also totally let me do my thing. So yeah, I just recorded it as I would any other thing. Also, he is kind of really generous and just let me do my thing completely in a way. I just kind of recorded it and I would run Pro Tools and try any experiment I wanted to try and just did it like any other session.
He’s super in it and he has a real vision, so if I would go down a path that was maybe not exactly the vision he was looking for, he would, very gently, say like, “Oh, let’s try this other kind of direction.” Or he would play a reference or something like that to just steer the ship. But other than that, I was just free to try stuff.
PS: With “Pain,” was there an image or reference track or anything like that setting the vibe for the song?
SE: I was listening to a lot of sonic reference points from the ‘80s. It always ended up coming back to a lot of Bob Clearmountain stuff. There was a lot of, like, listening to Avalon by Roxy Music and Springsteen stuff. Every time I heard a mix from the late ‘70s or early-‘80s that I thought sounded insane, it was always Bob Clearmountain. And so I was kind of using that as my reference point as to that kind of feeling that he was giving it at that point. So I was always trying to mix and get to the point where it was somehow feeling like that, but that stuff sounds so insane that it was a real uphill battle trying to get it to that.
I was kind screwing around with this sound, in particular, forever. Like, we were tracking and a lot of times we’d track something and then Adam would just give me a lot of time to mix and play around with stuff sonically and re-amp things. He would kind of hang back and I think that as he was listening to me work, he would kind of gather up more ideas. So five hours in I would be screwing around with some re-amping thing or something like that and he would go, “You know what? Let me try another guitar” and then he wold add a whole bunch of layers of guitars, which would inspire. We would then start peeling away at those and then those would inspire what was underneath. It was like carving away at this huge monolithic wall of noise that was eventually shaped and shaped and shaped into the final thing. But it was a lot of carving.
PS: Was this a band performance, or was everything recorded separately?
SE: Everything was based around a live take of a band. Most of the overdubs are vocals and layers of guitars. And other stuff, too, like little synth pieces and stuff like that. There are definitely overdubs, but the foundation of everything is an initial take of the band playing. But that doesn’t mean even that we wouldn’t rerecord the drums or something. Nothing was super precious. It’s just that we would start from that foundation and then just build around it.
PS: Was everything in-the-box, or was there was analog used?
Shawn Everett on the set of The Voidz’s “Human Sadness”
[Photo from Wikimedia Commons/Webbrand]
SE: We recorded some of it to tape and I definitely ran a lot of stuff through tape during mixing and just throughout the entire process. There was never a time when we just stayed on tape. Maybe we tried it for like a minute or something, but with this band, it’s possible that they might finish a song and then just keep playing for another 15 minutes or something. I mean, tape gets almost dangerous in a way because who knows how long it could go? You just don’t know and it would be really hard to build this record completely on tape. I think impossible.
PS**: What was the mixing process like on “Pain”?**
** SE:** It was definitely one of the more difficult songs to mix, but it actually came together before all the other mixes. I know I had like a week or something by myself and I was supposed to be mixing a bunch of songs and I kept coming back to this one because I just had a certain idea of how I wanted it to sound and it was really impossible to get there. So I think I spent a few days on it, trying to get it to that point but it was really hard. I think there was a moment where I had the feeling like, “OK, I think this might be it.”
Then we were working in New York, we were working on a bunch of songs, and I had something to the point where I wanted to play it for [Adam] but I didn’t want to play it for him while I was in the room because I was kind of nervous about it because I’d been working so much on it. So I ran a couple of things through some cool gear that was in New York when he was out of the room, because I wanted a few of the effects that were in there, and then I printed a final version and sent it to him and was like, “OK, I hope he likes this.” He heard it that night when he went home and he was really excited. That was the first time where I was like, “Oh thank god.” [laughs]
PS:** What were the effects at the studio in New York you wanted to add to it before Adam heard it? **
** SE:** When we went to Electric Lady, they had this whole rack that was pretty much older ‘70s and ‘80s modulation gear. Any time I saw a piece of gear like that in a studio, like some kind of weird old Marshall time delay or something like that, I would get excited about it. It was specific to the period I’m aiming for, so I try to find little moments or places where I could use a piece of gear like that inside of the song. I was just kind of screwing around with different effects like that on his voice and I think I was running it through some combination of modulation effects that they had at that studio. I can’t remember what it was, but I was trying to sort of secretly get it on there as quick as possible when he wasn’t in the room [laughs].
PS:** Did you use that Neumann head mic on The War on Drugs album?**
** SE:** Yeah, I think I used it a ton on this record. While we were recording, I was saying how much I wanted one and [Adam] was like, “Dude, you got to get it!” So before I bought it, I borrowed one from Neumann for me to try. So [the recording] was when I was borrowing it, but I was using it on everything. Like if I recorded a guitar, I had that in the back and if I recorded a piano, I had it somewhere. In addition to whatever spot mic I had, I always had that somewhere.