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:
Nominated for: “Midnight” & “Over Me” by Brooke Palsson
PS: Compared to some of the artists that the other engineers we’re chatting with are nominated for their work with, Brooke Palsson is less known. So, how did you end up working on her album, Midnight?
Vic Florencia: Well, I have a really good relationship with the producer of this project, Tom McKay, who’s a really talented cat. He started telling me about Brooke and we met and got along really well and we took it from there.
PS: This record has a pretty consistent vibe, so you can talk about it as a whole or these two songs specifically, but did you have a clear idea of the sonic vibe you, Tom, and Brooke were going for?
Florencia: Yeah, I knew just in speaking with Brooke that she wanted to keep things vibey and intimate, and not be too much of a slick, overproduced record. It was really about the songs and the parts. So, she felt that way both sonically and production-wise. But, a big shout out to Tom who grabbed some wonderful players for the session and arranged things beautifully. So, the majority of the sonic flavours and vibe really came from the players themselves. We were really inspired by them. Brooke and Tom picked the musicians quite carefully and I think they did a great job. They all just gelled together.
PS: Where were you working on this record?
Florencia: We were working at Revolution Recording [in Toronto] in Studio A. We did it live-off-the-floor, even Brooke’s lead vocal. Actually, Brooke’s lead vocal for “Over Me” is one take.
PS: Interesting you bring that up, because I’d read that a lot of the vocals for the album were one-takes by design?
Florencia: Yeah, I know for a fact that “Over Me” was one take and I think after the fact they might’ve fixed up a line in the bridge. But every time we tracked, I had Brooke in the iso booth and they were all recording live. I would say that the lion’s share of the vocal takes are live-off-the-floor.
PS: What preparation has to go into doing in that way and why was that the goal?
Florencia: Well, just in general when I’m recording I always try to take as much stuff live as possible, even if the singers are like, “Oh, I am still working out parts” or something. A lot of times we get some magical moments that can’t be reproduced.
But I knew ahead of time that Brooke was going to be singing with the band, so I asked Tom to bring in his vocal chain. He brought in his [Elam] 251, Great River preamp, and an 1176. What I wanted to do was basically capture her vocal like he would at his studio. That way, if there were some fixes down the line, Tom would be able to match the tone easily because it’s the same vocal chain.
I wasn’t surprised that we got a lot of vocals live-off-the-floor just because she is that singer and her vocal inspires the players. I think we did probably two or three takes of each song, top to tail, and a lot of times we got it on the first or second take and just did a third for the sake of having it in case we missed something or just needed to grab something from here or there. So, that was definitely the approach.
PS: For the band, what was the recording approach? The drum sound on “Midnight” especially stuck out to me from these songs.
Florencia: Robin Claxton is a great drummer and we tracked in a wonderful sounding room. When recording drums, it’s not unusual for me to take anywhere between 12 to 20 tracks of drums, but just because I record them doesn’t mean I end up using them. That is a very important thing. So, we took a lot of different drum options – like traditional close mics, a couple of stereo rooms and mono mics. It’s not uncommon for me to do, like, two mono room mics, like a U47 in front of the kit, and then another of what a call a “wildcard mic” that is super compressed and/or distorted to just get some character.
If I recall, on “Midnight,” in the verses I actually broke down the drums to basically a close kick, snare, and the mono room mic to just get a bit of a character shift. I really like those scene changes. Once the drums come back full, there is definitely a moment with a big scene change there. So, I like that kind of stuff.
So, I did the verses that way and then once the pre or the chorus comes in, you get the full kit and you get that pick up and it just lifts and opens up. I don’t like static mixes. Obviously, if you’re doing a punk rock record where everything is full-on the whole way that makes sense, but on these kinds of projects, having those scene changes is, to me, very pleasant. It allows you to be able to make more of a statement once you come into the chorus, pre-chorus or breakdown and makes it just that much more special.
PS: Are you mixing on the go or waiting until after everything is recorded?
Florencia: I am definitely not afraid to commit to stuff. So, when it comes to guitar tones, bass and drums I definitely commit. I always cover my ass as far as processing if I feel I am going a little extreme on something. I might do a safety of one that is less aggressive and a DI is always a good thing to have in your back pocket. But I definitely have the mix in mind. I knew when I was recording this that I was going to be mixing it as well, so that was a bonus.
With that said, a lot is done in the mix, too. Not only when it comes to EQ and effects and that kind of stuff, but arrangement and muting this or trying that. I have it in mind, for sure, without a doubt. When I’m recording, the most important thing for me is to make the musicians really comfortable and to provoke the creative process as much as possible.
PS: Regarding getting musicians comfortable to get the best possible performance, do you have any particular methods for that?
Florencia: A lot of artists who work with me always comment, “Wow man, your headphone mix sounds so good.” So, I definitely take the extra time to make sure that everyone is comfortable in their headphones, because the last thing you want is an artist not vibing something simply because he or she is not comfortable with a headphone mix or things are just not feeling right, you know? So, having that comfort factor, to me, is paramount to making the musicians really interact with each other and vibing off of each other. I definitely want to make sure that they have control of the headphone mix.
Nowadays, with all these personal headphone systems, you have a lot of control. A lot of times they don’t have to say, “Hey Vic, can you bring up the snare drum?” I just turn around and say, “Bring up channel number two” and you have it. Makes things easier for me as well. But having that flexibility, I think, is a major part when it comes to recording. And I think a lot of times that is overlooked. We have all these toys and gear and plug-ins and preamps and stuff, but if the singer or the band is not really hearing themselves properly or not really interacting with the other musicians, whether it be sightlines, the lighting in the room, the headphone mix, all those things, as little or minor as it might seem, it really does play a major part in making someone feel comfortable in the studio. So, I take pride in that and spend a lot of time making sure musicians are comfortable.
PS: This is a pretty organic-sounding album, so it probably doesn’t apply here. But I know some engineers, even if it’s a song that is going to have a lot of processing and effects, they don’t want to put a lot of that in the singer’s headphone mix because they don’t want them singing to the effect. Just curious what you find most effective?
Florencia: I think that is all dependent on the singer. You know, a lot of times singers are like, “I want my vocal to sound like I am in a church.” If that is going to inspire them to sing a certain way, then great. I won’t be hearing that in the control room because I want to hear exactly what’s going down, but it all depends on the singer. Some singers like things bone dry. Many like stuff super compressed in their headphones so they can hear their breaths and all that kind of inflection. So, I might send a different feed to their headphones. I won’t be recording all that massive processing, but me doing that and having that available to them in their headphones will make them feel like they’re on stage on they’re really vibing or it might sound more finished to them. So, it’s very singer-dependent.
I normally start by just having a conversation. Like, ‘Hey, do you like a little reverb in your headphones?” I normally don’t have delays happening for a singer in the headphones unless requested. I think delay can confuse the singer and the band a little bit when it comes to phrasing and feel. But as far as a little bit of reverb, or a lot of reverb, it all depends on the singer. It’s not uncommon to have it. once in a while I’ll go out there and listen to the headphones and go “holy mackerel!” because they have their reverb cranked. But you know what, if it’s inspiring them to sing a certain way to their liking, and again they’re comfortable, then my job is done.
PS: Can you tell me about your mixing approach and process on these songs?
Florencia: With this record, it definitely started with the vocal. The vocal is king – or queen in this case. I really built things around the vocal. As you mentioned before, the drums definitely drive the tracks, for sure. So, making those tracks really pump and bounce and drive, but again, without getting in the way of the vocal. Sometimes Brooke sings very soft and intimate, and she’s kind of whispering in your ear once in a while, so you definitely don’t want to do anything that masks that.
So, I was very conscious of the vocal. On a couple songs the vocals are maybe a bit wetter than others. But again, it all depends on the track. I always think about that vocal and it’s always right up there. Traditionally when mixing you start with the drums and bass and that kind of stuff, which I do a lot as well, but when I do that, I throw the vocal in pretty quickly. Mind you, it might not be finished as far as the final EQ or effect or whatever, but having that vocal in there really drives my decision making as far as adding parts and maybe trying a couple little rides here or there or some mutes or fx throws. But I really like having that vocal in the mix pretty early. I am not the kind of guy who mixes all the music and at the seventh hour puts in the vocal. That is just not me. But some guys do that and their mixes sound fantastic! That’s great, but it just doesn’t work for me.
PS: On “Over Me” especially, all the elements of the song come through with balance, clarity, and crispness…
Florencia: Oh, thank you, it means a lot for somebody to say that about a mix, where you can place things and “see through the forest” as people say.
PS: Were you mixing on a console or in-the-box?
Florencia: This record was mixed 100% in-the-box.
PS: What were the key elements as far as plug-ins and such?
Florencia: Well, I grew up on SSL consoles so I’m a big fan of the SSL channels trips, whether it be from UAD, Plugin Alliance, or Waves. Those are always heavily utilized in my mixes. I’m big fan of LA-2As, Pultec’s, and 1176s. Those are kind of the go-tos for me, as far as EQ and compression. Reverb wise, I like the [Lexicon] 480L and EMT Plates and even the Avid DigiVerb.
Trust me, I have a lot of plug-ins, but just because I have a lot doesn’t mean I use them all. Just like I said before with the tracks, you record 20 tracks of drums but just because they’re there doesn’t mean you use them all. Sometimes I might use one track for just a breakdown on a bridge. The same thing applies to plug-ins. I have my template where I have a whack of plug-ins instantiated on a track that are deactivated and then I just go through and say, “Hey, this flavour of a Neve is nice on the kick drum today.” Maybe it’s a Pultec or SSL or Waves EQ, whatever it be.
PS: Lastly, just wondering if there was anything unusual or unexpected that came up while recording or mixing these songs? Or that you did that is out of the norm for you?
Florencia: The biggest challenge I had in mixing was to make it modern and produced so you could hear it on the radio, but at the same time retaining the rootsy, soulful vibe of the recording. So, that meant maybe not too many obvious delay throws or fancy fx. Though on “Over Me” I did a few little production tricks to just help some of the transitions, which I didn’t know if they would like it but they ended up loving that kind of little delay things that I did. But I just didn’t want it to sound too predictable or normal. So, a lot of times there’s a lot going on that’s subtle, where you take something out and you’re like, “something has changed but I can’t really put my finger on it,” but you know that something has changed in the mix. So, I was really cognizant of that.
PS: Well, congrats on the well-earned JUNO nomination and for creating a beautiful record.
Florencia: Oh, thank you! You know, I can’t say enough about Brooke. She’s a wonderful human being and obviously a kick-ass singer and writer. And I got to say, she knows what she wants. She hears something and she either reacts to it or she doesn’t, and I value that. I don’t want someone sitting on the fence when it comes to a production or mix idea. Her initial reaction is always right. Tom and Brooke really made something special with this record. Proud to be part of the team.