It’s official! We have ventured into the world of the podcast. Our concept is “Engineers talking with engineers“. Listen to the first episode here: Part 1 with Simon Cohen & Owen Butcher…
Owen: Hi everybody, my name is Owen
Simon: And I am Simon
Owen: And we are engineers at Studios 301 and we are going to have a chat to you about music
Simon: Engineering, and talking over each other…
Simon: Hi, welcome to the 301 Podcast. This is the first episode we are trying of this. Basically the idea is just a little bit of what goes on behind the scenes of the studio here. But yes, I guess the idea of this is to have a little bit of, I won’t say insight, but I suppose kind of mimic a little bit the conversations that we always just have after sessions kind of thing. Like, “Whoa! What happened on that one?”
Owen: Yes. So what’s going on, what did you do…
Simon: What was cool and interesting, what kind of worked out, what was like “Whoa, I hadn’t seen that before.’ And I guess we’ll just pick any highlight
Owen: We’ll just pick some things and talk about a few different sessions we have had
Simon: I think so, yeah. So obviously the kind of the big headline one at the moment is that guy, Chris Martin that you met that one time
Owen: Yeah, that one time for a couple weeks
Simon: For weeks on end
Simon: So obviously they were kind of working on new material, but the kind of big headline one is the collaboration with The Chainsmokers thing
Owen: Yeah definitely
Simon: That kind of happened
Owen: Yeah, that seems to be blowing up at the moment. I think I checked the YouTube views this morning and it was about 68 million and it’s only been two weeks.
Simon: Well that always makes a guy feel a little bit better about himself in the morning, doesn’t it?
Owen: Yea, when you get up in the morning and you know that people are listening to the things you have recorded, it’s really nice to kind of have that. My favourite thing really when it comes to recording is knowing that other people are out there hearing and enjoying what I’ve done and what I’ve been involved in. So it’s really nice to kind of just get up and you literally go to the shop. Like I go buy petrol and it’s playing in the 7-11, I go to the supermarket to buy groceries, it’s playing in the supermarket, like everywhere. I went and had dinner the other night and that same song again, playing in the restaurant. So it’s really nice to just get up and go about my daily life knowing that there are millions of people out there enjoying what we’ve done.
Simon: Absolutely. I think I always find that’s quite a funny thing with songs that I work on and they just, I sort of feel like once they go out the door they just kind go off into the heater and you never necessarily know what happens with them, until, as you say, you’ll hear it at a service station at one in the morning and it’s like, “Why do I know this melody. I think I did this right? It’s like nine months ago.” But yeah, it’s nice to say it’s kind of nice to have that one song where even your parents are hearing it kind of thing.
Owen: Yeah, like you’ve got whole Justin Bieber Love Yourself, like that’s even bigger, that’s just ridiculous off the chain how big that is. So for you, I’m sure you could not escape that ever, that’s going to be something that is going to follow you for a really long time.
Simon: It’s that thing now where like when you get introduced to a set of friends’ partners that you have never met before and they just start singing it to you because obviously they have been briefed by their partner that this is the thing that you did that one time. And not say I’m ungrateful for it, but yes, I think I am definitely ready for a new song to be in my life 24/7
Owen: Well soon, hopefully we can get something
Simon: Yes. So tell us a little about this Coldplay session. So I guess with the track that’s out at the moment, was that something that was worked on collaboratively with them? Was that something they just kind of sent over, an instrumental? Had they been kind of working on it before? Did Chris kind of sit down and write it in the studio when you were with them?
Owen: Kind of both. So Chris and Chainsmokers had been working on it for a couple months beforehand. Because Chris lives in LA now, so he was working on it with them over there. And the other guys in the band knew what was happening so Chris was sort of taking the lead with them just because of location. But when the band actually gets together, it’s a good time for them obviously to record it. Because the way that Coldplay do a lot of recording is it’s a full band tracking, it’s a very traditional kind of setup. These days a lot of stuff, as you are aware, they do it individually or they’ll, especially when they are touring they’ll do parts here and there and it all comes together at the end. But this one they brought over the Chainsmokers section with Chris’ vocals on top and then the band did everything else, literally in a day.
Simon: So kind of almost using the original instrumental as like a click track
Owen: Exactly. So the Chanismokers beat was there and Chris’ vocal was there as a guide, and they sat down with their drums and the base and guitars, and Chris even sat down at the piano and did some acoustic guitar as well. And they literally played it like a band. So they would do take after take after take, full takes as a band to work out all their parts. Just kind of come up with ideas and make it feel like a band playing to an electronic track, not just have an electronic program thing, but actually something that was organically occurring through people sitting down at instruments playing. And the only thing we really ever dub was some guitar because Johnny really just wanted to get the guitar just right. And the way we had the studio set up was actually quite alien to a lot of engineers where everyone is trying to separate everything and keep it all like pristine. So you think, “Oh, you know, we got to get Chris’ piano to be perfectly isolated”
Simon: We absolutely have to make sure that we re-record these later if we need to
Owen: Exactly. But they don’t do that, they don’t mind spill. They like it when things sort of bleed into each other, because it gives a completely different feel to isolating everything. So we literally had Chris’ piano in the middle of the big old test room with Johnny’s guitar amps on the wall to like a 90 degree angle away from the piano, and they just played together. But because they know what they’re doing and they work off each other, the spill just works because they are playing off each other the whole time, and you kind of need that interaction between the two instruments and the people to make what they do happen.
Simon: Well I suppose for a band that plays kind of such a rigorous touring schedule as they do, and they are definitely known for being a band that spends a lot of time out on the road, so to kind of break it down into separate elements other than that would probably almost feel like a bit of a weird alien concept almost.
Owen: Yes, exactly. Also I think the fact that Chris lives in a different spot to everyone else means that when they have studio time it’s very crucial to them so they have to have that communication that they have on stage. Because you can’t get that if Chris lives in LA and they live in London say. Like even if they are sending tracks back and forth, you don’t get that band playing on the stage that we do every single night and that’s how things vibe if you’re sending tracks back and forth via the internet.
Simon: Absolutely. And this kind of leads into something we were talking about a little while ago. You were sort of telling me a little bit that the way that the band works in the studio was a little bit eye-opening as well, again, I suppose kind of particularly stemming from this where they have a limited amount of time and we all need to be in the same room together kind of thing. And so it kind of felt like, you were sort of saying, there’s everyone kind of chipping in ideas the whole, there were sort multiple Pro Tools were kind of running the whole time so you could sort of basically be on every moment of every day
Owen: Yes. We had… so there was the main Pro Tools HDX rig that we were obviously doing all the multi-track stuff off. I had a two track backup going on that was constantly recording. So if we were in between Pro Tools sessions, the audio cuts. But at least in between Pro Tools sessions we would flick the console into group output mode so you can hear all the sounds coming from the group out. And if Chris came up with something, or Guy came up with something, which happened at one point, we had that two-track going so that we could go back in time and, okay so 10 minutes ago we came up with this great baseline, but we missed it in Pro Tools because we were jamming in between sessions to give it something to do. What was that? Can we hear it again? That kind of thing. There was also other Pro Tools rigs set up for, let’s say they want to do some synth strings but they wanted to use software synths, so we had multiple laptops set up, patched into the console. We were actually using every single input on the console and almost every single output as well as the console
Simon: For a 71 channel
Owen: Yes, for a 72 channel console it was pretty fun, it really got a really sort of good running that week.
Simon: Well and especially to be for those of listeners that sort of know that we are in the process of rebuilding or building a brand new facility. This session, for those of you that don’t know, was essentially the last big hoorah for that studio, that was basically the last week of bookings that we had. So that was a very fitting way to send off that particular room.
Owen: Yes. It was really nice to have the last band recording that we did in that room be from a band that really is going to use the room properly and really going to use the equipment properly. So like I said, they used every single input and output on the console. Will was saying that it was his favorite drum sound even that we got.
Simon: Amazing work from that room. Do you want to share any of the secrets that went into that? I’m sure you feel like it’s just what happens every day, but I am sure there are people who would love to know what happened there.
Owen: Well, to be honest, it kind of is what happened every day. So we set up the mics, Rick Simpson, our producer, he gave me an input list with all the marks on it, but he trusted me to set up the mics in a way that I would normally set them up in a room
Simon: Knowing how that room responds
Owen: Yes. Because I use that room every day. So he was like, “Here is the input list, here are the mics I want to use. I’ve got the mics, cool. Just go set them up.” And he literally just pull the faders out and went, “Yeah, cool. I like that.” But I think the major difference is the fact that you had real drumming on it. A lot of people don’t, they sort of underestimate the value of the actual musician themselves. I think when you’ve got… like I use the exact same mics and the same console, same room every single day. But every single day you get a different sound out of it and a different feel because you’ve got that person sitting down behind the drum kit or the guitar or whatever it is…
Simon: Absolutely. It’s their touch, with the drummer, the way that they address the slide angle at that snare’s on and what that means in terms of the way they hit it, the way the shoulder and that particular guy does that particular thing, and their own little push and pull. And I guess with a band like Coldplay a lot of people kind of see Chris Martin and I suppose it must be the same a little bit with you too as well. They sort of neglect the rest of the rhythm section kind of thing and you hear covers band playing those songs, and it’s like, “Yeah! Look, it’s the song.” But it doesn’t feel like that record
Owen: No, and can’t recreate that feel, they can’t recreate that sound like…
Simon: The thing that those four guys do when they are in a room together.
Simon: So I know you have been working with Justin recently as well. That’s a really different setup to what Coldplay kind of do. Because at least with Coldplay we’ve got four people playing instruments and I think you’ve got a single vocalist with a backing track I assume. I wasn’t actually at the session, but how does the set up differ with say a Justin Bieber session to a Coldplay session?
Owen: So I’d say that when you get into that style of working, be it sort of pop or r&b or hip pop, I would say the setup tends to be very similar in that you are 99% of the time working to just like a stereo backing track, a producer has either done something specifically for that song. Or when they sort of come out of more writing style sessions you’ll be there, and anyone who is there is just sort of essentially pitching beats. Where it’s like they’re in touch with certain producers who have kind of sent them their recent catalog and everyone can kind of be fleecing through until something kind of like sparks an idea and it’s, “Cool, I can definitely hear something for that. Let’s work to that.” In this case that particular song came in as a Pro Tools session actually, and it was basically the writing demo kind of sessions that we had the individual kind of tracked out parts as much as they were, there’s only really a guitar and a trumpet and sort of the original writing demo vocal there. And yes so basically, obviously your full attention is just on vocal and vocal performance kind of thing. You’re set up essentially to kind of make everything as streamlined as possible, as little to think about from a technical point of view for the artist as possible. So, you know, it’s pretty much just a sort of a music playback and a vocal playback kind of thing. But then there is obviously a huge amount of attention paid to making sure that, you know, the headphone rigs is just right, the mood and ambiance is just so… so really hopefully we’ll be able to deliver a sort of stellar performance, and from there on you’re obviously sort of coaxing and guiding but trying as much as possible. Also stay out of the way a little bit, sort of hoping obviously that when that bit of gold happens that you’re ready and everything is kind of set and that you’ve definitely hot record at that moment, at that point.
Simon: Yeah, you know. Usually you’re a few takes in there. There is always that story of kind of like the warm-up run where there’s the bit of gold and they can never do it again, so you obviously always record. And I think that’s probably pretty standard for everyone in any sort of style. It’s like, always make sure you get that warm-up take, there is always going to be some nugget in there.
Owen: Yeah I’ve found that as well, even just for a band or whatever session, it’s like even if they are just doing warm-ups, just hit record, you never know.
Simon: You know that definitely like probably by the second chorus or something and they are really playing their ass off and it’s just kind of like, “Oh man.” As soon as we break this down into recording in sections or something like that, or we are five takes in and everyone is just looking at it like, “We’re five takes in.” The tones may not be 100% dialed in, or like from a vocal point of view it’s like, “Yeah, maybe it’s hitting the compressor just like a touch loud or something like that.” But man, there is just about not thinking that this one counts, that it’s just so hard to artificially create that. The classic thing I find with vocals all the time, and you hear it kind of all the time particularly on hip pop records and stuff, like all the time they are just sort of nonsense talk before a song starts or before a verse starts. You could not believe how difficult it is to try and recreate or coax that out of most artists. There are a few artists that are well experienced or quite good at just talking, talking, talking and happily just making stuff up on the spot like that. But for most people they find it very daunting kind of going off script. And if you get that warm-up take or you get it when they are recording the verse, and you get a few of those little things just while they’re like, “Yeah, I’m just waiting for the beat to come in” kind of thing, it’s just so much more organic than trying to go back and script the thing. And the classic example is that anytime you need someone to like laugh in the middle of a song or something, there is nothing faker than trying to make someone laugh on cue as opposed to like, “Haha, sorry, I just messed that one up” and it’s like that’s the laugh we need, we’re never going to get that again.
Owen: Well that reminds me actually I had this session yesterday where I was recording a band for Australian Music Week and this is like in Cronulla RSL Club we literally set up little pop-up studios in the RSL club right next to the old bloke sitting at the bar. And I recorded this vocal of this singer, we had the collaboration but there was one of the vocalist in particular, he was sick that day, his voice was really hoarse, it wasn’t up to his normal standard. And he sung it and we literally had 20 minutes to get the vocal down, it was super, super quick, that was all the time we had
Simon: Three round takes
Owen: Essentially yes. And there was actually a staff door in the club that people were going in and out of all the time. So every time someone opened the door it would make a big screeching sound, and it would slam shut every single time. So we hit record and he get halfway through the vocal and you’d hear this [mimics sound] in the background. So I just kept pumping him for a take, I’m like, “Just one more, one more, one more” so that we didn’t have anything that had noise in it. But then yesterday I got him back in the studio to re-record that and he couldn’t recreate the vibe that he had on the original take. Even though in the original take he was sick, we were rushing through it, he’d only just learnt the words. Like after practicing, knowing the words very well and thinking, “Okay, I really know what I am going to do” we just couldn’t recreate the vibe and we ended up going with the original slightly noisy, not as in tuned vocal, because it actually sounded a million times better.
Simon: Well, look, and this is the thing. It’s kind of the classic demo-itis. If you walk away and you spend two months just analyzing that thing you did and you listen to it again and again and again and it’s always, while it may be technically better, you’re always just recording a copy of something. And the number, particularly in kind of sort of song writing, the number of vocals that come from the song writing demo, even if it’s just like maybe sung into an iPhone or something like that, but this is like, “Oh man, there is just something about that we’re just never going to get” or ‘never going to get that again’ kind of thing. And you pull out all your tricks in terms of trying to sort of muster up a bit of vibe, and you can do a few more, you can try everything you can. And sometimes you got to just admit that there’s something super magical about that particular thing. Sort of in the same way that you listen to records from the 70s, Aretha Franklin or something like that. And although they are not demos there is definitely some little technical things going on in the takes where it’s like “If you did that again, maybe it’d something” which is like there is something about those performances and that’s why they’ll just be sampled forever because there is a mood going on there, and I think those guys were kind of experts at that as well.
Owen: So when it comes to say, if you are working with Justine Bieber or I know you have worked with Will.I.Am and people of that sort of celebrity I guess, does that change what you do compared to say if you were doing a local artist? Or is it the same kind of thing?
Simon: I think to some extent there is an element of professional trust there kind of at any level. Perhaps people who are more local artists maybe they will want you to be doing more of the storytelling during the sessions, where I tend to find that on those higher profile sessions, particularly Will for example, it’s definitely them telling the stories the whole time, and their stories are awesome because they’re about all these records that you idolised kind of growing up. I think in terms of a technical point of view there is definitely an element of just sort of sticking to your guns kind of thing. By this stage you get to, in your career of working with artists of that level, you have experimented a bit, you’re reasonably set in how you know that you can get results and get them dependably and you’re being paid for that level of professionalism. And so, kind of from a technical process, I don’t think it changes that much either way. You will find that, I suppose you’ll find that at various levels with artists though. But there are definitely artists that have more set ways that they know that they like to work. There are others who are just sort of like, “Oh, give me the regular way, the way that everyone does it.” And sometimes the more experienced guys will have been mentored by a producer for a couple of years and there is a particular way of working that they have developed that may be different to just a local artist that is more your whim in terms like. “Oh, I like doing it like this so we’re going to do it like this.” And that’s not to say there is an ego involved, it’s just that dependability thing that I guess I was talking about.
Owen: I think it’s just the way that’s going to get them the best performance and the way they feel the most comfortable.
Simon: Yes, exactly. And that may be as simple as, “Oh look, I have developed it that I really, really like doing vocals as all takes. I’ve done it the other way and this is the way that I get it best.” And if that’s the way that they get it best then you have to trust to some extent that they have recorded themselves or they have recorded more than you have recorded with them, so they will know themselves a little better than you will know them. The other end of that, Justin for example, and actually quite a few of the guys from LA or from that kind of style of working, the vocals is almost the opposite, it’s much more of like a line or two at a time kind of thing. There’s this idea with doing vocals that you have the least amount of things to focus on. So if you are thinking about that note in the bridge that you know that you have been stuffing up every time and you’re only on verse one right now, and that’s going to play in your mind for the next minute and a half worth of performance, it’s like you’re probably not going to be focused on this line right now. Whereas they’re more about let’s really, in as much as it’s common to maybe just track a verse at a time, they’ll definitely be happier to break it down even further than that, so just give me that line or …
Owen: A couple of words
Simon: At least give me this one line on loop and I really want to kind of make sure, there’s a thing in there that I really want to do. Show me the first line, let’s get a few takes and there’s less of an emphasis on comping after the fact, a little bit of like let me do a couple now and that felt really good show me, I think I can beat that, and almost kind of live comping that way, a little bit more like what it used to be in the tape days where it’s either the take or it’s not the take. And maybe you hang on to one or two other as sort of safety backups. Of course these days, not being a tape machine, it’s all recorded and it’s there in the hard drive somewhere if you want to go and kind of dig it up. So yes, I kinda guess with that, so going back to your question, there is a little element there of knowing that you have the skill set and then just tailoring it to their particular workflow if they know that they’ve got something that they really want to do. But that’s not necessarily only going to happen when you work with high profile clients, there are definitely some sort of younger up and comers that I’ve worked with where they’ve already got a very firm idea of what seems to work for them, which is always really fun as well.
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Simon Cohen and Owen Butcher are recording engineers at Studios 301
For all production and recording enquiries please call 02 9698 5888 contact Abbey@studios301.com