How and Why the Pros Commit to Sounds When Recording
Sculpting and shaping sounds on the way in — and printing those sounds — is how nearly every landmark album was made. Pushing a preamp, radical EQ textures, creative mic placement, each sound becoming a building block for the final mix, each sound informing the next. In a sense, a kind of mixing process embedded in the recording process itself.
But with so many after-the-fact processing and mixing options available, why bother? I mean, progress, right? We can decide on that stuff later.
Well, if history is any guide, fortune definitely favors the bold in audio recording.
Here, we talk with four titans of engineering and production — Joe Chiccarelli, Jacquire King, Joel Hamilton, and Trevor Lawrence, Jr. — and find out why committing to sounds during tracking is an essential part of their Platinum-approved workflow, and how UAD Unison mic preamp technology figures into it.
Meet The Producers
A Washington, D.C. native, as well 30-time Grammy-nominated and multiple Grammy-winner, King’s stellar production/engineering work has graced albums by Kings of Leon, Tom Waits, Shania Twain, James Bay, Kaleo, and more.
A Boston native and eight-time Grammy winner, Chiccarelli’s list of production and engineering credits is extensive, featuring the likes of My Morning Jacket, The Killers, Morrissey, Frank Zappa, and Jason Mraz among hundreds more.
A Grammy and Latin Grammy-nominated Brooklyn-based producer, engineer, musician, and co-owner of Studio G Brooklyn, Hamilton’s CV features credits with Tom Waits, Highly Suspect, Pretty Lights, Sparklehorse, and The Black Keys.
Trevor Lawrence, Jr.
An in-demand drummer, producer, and composer, Lawrence Jr. has worked with Eminem, Alicia Keys, 50 Cent, Mariah Carey, LeAnn Rimes, Herbie Hancock, YG, Lionel Richie, and Bruno Mars.
“Every classic album we love is the sound of commitment,” says producer Joel Hamilton. “Hitting the ‘record’ button is the commitment — using equipment on the way in to make it sound better is what we do. Period.”
Hamilton is certainly a true believer in shaping sounds before they hit “tape,” but do the artists he works with ever fight for a more open-ended approach? Evidently not.
“Look, if it sounds great on the way in, who would ever say, ‘Can we take that 4dB boost at 10k shelf off the snare? It sounds awesome, but I’m not sure I want it to sound awesome.’ Who would ever say that?”
Legendary producer/engineer Joe Chiccarelli agrees: “Making music is about having an auditory picture of where you want the finished album to be. My approach is always about committing to that end. Basically, I’m mixing the album before I even enter the recording studio. When I’m working on songs or arrangements, even in rehearsal, I’m always thinking about how these musical pieces of a puzzle all fit together. Even at this stage of the process, I am mixing in a sense. I am choosing my instruments and sounds, and thinking about their hierarchy in the song.”
Grammy-winner Jacquire King seconds that notion: “Creatively, I just think it’s always better to make firm decisions and carry them forward,” he offers. “If you’re working in a mindset and a framework where that is not the case, nothing feels final, or critical to the whole picture.” As for what types of processing he likes to do on the front-end to achieve those mix-ready results, King leans on the Unison-enabled UAD Neve 1073 and API 500 Series EQs, UAD LA-2A, 1176 Classic Limiter, and Neve 33609 compressors, and even the UAD Moog Multimode Filter, to name a few.
Highly Suspect “My Name is Human” from the album The Boy Who Died Wolf, produced by Joel Hamilton.
“The artists I work with trust the initial sound I’m going for, at least until proven otherwise,” says King. “But regardless of whether the sound is great, I’d still prefer to be bold from the start, and in the rare case that a sound doesn’t turn out to be ideal, then I deal with the consequences. That struggle can be great, too. No pain, no gain, right?”
“Indecision is the death of good art.” — Joe Chiccarelli
Commit to Each Other
Perhaps another consideration when committing to sounds on the front-end is that these are the sounds that the musicians are hearing while performing the track. While a mixing engineer typically brings some measure of artistic license to a mix, it’s hard to argue with the band’s gut instincts in the tracking room, regardless of the endless ways one could swap out amp simulations, replace drums, or add grit to vocals.
“That’s why I pretty much commit everything, especially drums, bass, guitar and keys,” says producer Trevor Lawrence, Jr.
“What you’re committing to at that moment is the sound that inspired the musical performance. Listening to it without that sound could completely alter the intent of the performer.”
Lawrence Jr. also records through the UAD Neve 1073 for tracking drums with his Apollo, typically dialing in settings from scratch, but calling up Joe Chiccarelli’s presets for starting points as well. He likewise will send drum sounds through the UAD API 550 EQ and the UAD Manley Massive Passive EQ. “I also always use a UAD Shadow Hills Mastering plug-in on the stereo bus for reference,” he adds. “It makes everything sound better.”
While the idea of committing to sounds during tracking clearly hearkens back to the days of analog tape recording — when endless tweaking in the box simply wasn’t an option — Chiccarelli sees it more as part of an artistic process that’s just as valid now as it was when he got his start in the 1970s.
“I learned recording in the days of 24 track analog tape recording,” he says. “You had to make choices. The mixing process was a balancing process. Your sounds were something you achieved while tracking not while mixing. The mixing process is quick. There is very little room for second guessing.”
"No Good" by Kaleo from the album A/B, produced by Jacquire King.
“In my experience,” he suggests, “recording is an additive process, where one element affects the sound of other elements to follow in the overdubbing process. A certain guitar or keyboard sound choice will inform me how the next element needs to sound to fit properly in the mix.”
“Like Tom Dowd and the Beatles and all the legends of record-making who really didn’t have a lot of gear — you’ve got to go boldly. Make a choice and go for it.” — Jacquire King
Commit — But Have A Backup Plan
Still, if it’s true that in love “only fools rush in,” it may be equally true that audio engineers need to have a backup plan in case true sonic love fails to endure. Leaving a clean copy of a vocal or drum part may ensure that you’ve got options in case your Plan A doesn’t quite, er, pan out.
“Vocals are the only thing where you have to be careful to leave yourself latitude to change,” offers Jacquire King. “In those cases I’ll typically print a clean safety track, but I’ll still want to hear a committed sound as I’m continuing to build a total production.”
Trevor Lawrence Jr., perhaps contrarily, finds safety in the very act of printing his drum sounds to begin with, especially with projects that may involve multiple producers and/or mixers:
“I believe in being safe,” he explains, “so I go to great lengths to get the proper drum sound for the music. Using my UAD preamps, plug-ins and Apollos are a huge part of that. I print all of the plug-ins I use going in on the front-end, precisely because I want my sound to be the same on whatever system it's mixed or recalled on.”
That level of commitment extends to the effects that a given musician may use while they’re performing in the studio, especially in the case of guitarists who get much of their signature sound from effects pedals like delays and reverbs.
“If the artist is genuinely interacting with that effect, then yes, I’ll print what otherwise might be bus or send effects,” says Joel Hamilton. “In those cases, the effects aren’t just an afterthought, or a way for the mixer to create space or add rhythmic intensity — they’re really part of the song.” The same goes for Chiccarelli, who says that guitar or keyboard effects like flangers, distortion, and delay aren’t merely flavors that he wants to wait until mixdown to add, but are rather, intrinsic tracking elements that “become my sound for that instrument.”
According to King, keeping your productions fresh and timely is about being creative with plug-ins and outboard effects, but not shying away from committing to those sounds when inspiration strikes.
“Can't See Straight” from Jamie Lawson’s album, Happy Accidents, produced by Joe Chiccarelli.
“Having the ability to print the effects and the sonic alterations you’re making is essential,” he declares “I like being in the mindset of ‘that is the sound of the track,’ that is what I’m working with, rather than, ‘that sounds cool — but I can adjust it later.’”
“If you work to make your sounds final every step of the way,” Kings continues, “at the end of tracking you’ll find that the sum of your tracks will help you identify them as ‘done,’ and then you just need to give it a great balance and space to have a finished mix.”
Chiccarelli concurs, and adds that Apollo and Unison technology are filling an important role in how he embraces this ethos of commitment, even when recording in less-than-ideal environments.
Committed, But Open To Change
Perhaps the accelerating change in the way we record has also led to a commensurate change in how we perceive the art of mixing. Unison technology may present an opportunity to reassess the traditional wisdom of what Chiccarelli calls the “additive process” of tracking/mixing, so that the movement from the tracking room to the mixing room is a more fluid and linear process. Then again, no one’s trying to turn back time; can we access the wisdom of analog recording and the bounty of digital processing simultaneously? Sure we can.
“More and more in music production,” argues Jacquire King, “we are, in fact, going for altered sonic versions of the instrumentation we are using, even if it’s coming from organic sources — real instruments.”
“Having access to high quality preamps and EQ plug-ins on the front end of the chain has allowed me to get close to my final picture, even when I am in the most remote or compromised recording environment. It allows for quick decisions on the spot.”
Trevor Lawrence Jr.’s “Lovestoned” (feat. Drumpimp, LeAnn Rimes & Nicholas Payton) from the album Relationships.
“Look, I tend to feel that indecision is the death of good art,” Chiccarelli concludes. ‘This is just my personal approach to recording, but I’m always in search of that end result from day one. I need the tools to commit to that end every step of the way. Being able to process and choose my exact sounds ‘on the way in’ will always be the way to go for me.”
— James Rotondi