Mick Guzauski On Mixing Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories" with Universal Audio
Mick Guzauski may laughingly refer to himself as an “old fart” in the music world, but don’t let his humility fool you. The Grammy-winner is in fact one of the most skilled and accomplished engineers the industry has ever seen.
Guzauski’s career began in earnest when he teamed up with Chuck Mangione in the mid 1970s, moving to Los Angeles to engineer for the composer. In the ’80s, his credit list grew to include the likes of Burt Bacharach, Madonna, Johnny Mathis, Quincy Jones, and Cher. Since then, he’s crafted recordings for artists like Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Eric Clapton, and Barbara Streisand. His latest hit — the chart-topping Random Access Memories by French electronic wizards Daft Punk.
Constructed in multiple studios across multiple countries, the unapologetically disco-flavored Random Access Memories melds acoustic live-band performances with vivid electronic elements, creating a result that somehow manages to feel both retro and futuristic, otherworldly and organic. The result has caught the ears of fans and critics alike, with Random Access Memories earning four-star ratings from Rolling Stone and The Guardian.
Here’s what Guzauski had to say about reimagining disco circa 2013, using but not overusing Universal Audio tools, and blending disparate sonic elements into a single, sublime mix.
You’ve mentioned that working on the Daft Punk album made you a better mixing engineer. How so?
I think Daft Punk hired me mainly because I’ve worked with all sorts of acoustic music over the years. In mixing this project, we created a conglomeration of different styles of music, electronica, and live band sounds. Putting it together in that way was something I’d never really done before. Years ago, when electronic and acoustic instruments were combined, the idea was mostly to make a record that sounded highly synthesized. With this album, everything was made to sound more organic, even though there were a lot of electronics in it.
How did you approach that kind of organic blend?
There was no special strategy that helped me achieve it. First off, the band arranged the music with that concept of warmth in mind. As far as engineering, during live recording, we got the sounds we wanted mostly through mic placement. Of course we used compression and EQ, but not drastic amounts of anything. We just worked to get the right sound in the room with the band.
When Daft Punk took those live tracks and added synths and electronics on top, they used those original sounds as models. They mentioned to me, “Wow, we don’t have to EQ your tracks. They sound good the way they are!” That was very flattering to hear. [Laughs.] Their overdubs worked very well. Nothing needed to be twisted very much to work in the mix. That’s why I think it sounds nice and easy, and not harsh.
“I’ve relied on hardware 1176s and LA-2As my whole professional life. We used those extensively on [Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories]. I used LA-2As on bass and vocals and 1176s to control and compress vocoder vocals and guitars.“
Can you name an example of using mics to get the right sound?
Drums, first and foremost. We used four different microphones on the kick drum. Primarily, we used the AKG D112, an old standard for a good low-mid punchy kick sound along with a Sony C-500. The C-500 is an old condenser mic that’s no longer available but can handle incredible sound pressure; it has a very clean and extended high frequency response and a little bit of hyped high end. Any definition we needed with the beater we could mix in with that mic. We used a Neumann U47 outside the drum for a little more woof, and a Yamaha SubKick outside of the drum to capture deeper resonance. A combination of those four mics gave us the sounds we needed.
For the snare, we used more standard mic technique — a Shure SM57 with an AKG C-452 underneath. For most songs, we wanted a very close sound without a lot of room, so we miced things tightly. Sometimes, though, we did back off a little bit to add in sound from the shell of the drum.
Were the songs written and arranged in the studio, or ahead of time?
At the beginning, the band had rough drafts of songs in Pro Tools that the rhythm section played to, so they knew the sound and direction to go for. Especially with the focus on capturing the right sounds through micing, we really went for it acoustically, much more than saying “let’s gate this or EQ that” to get what we want. It was mostly about getting all of the sounds very close, recorded right into Pro Tools or onto tape, and then fine-tuning in the mix.
What was the mixing process like?
We mixed the album at Conway Studios in Los Angeles over the summer. The studio had another Pro Tools room in addition to the control room that we were using, so the guys in Daft Punk could add elements to the mixes, listen to what I’d done, edit, or make other final tweaks, and then get the changes to me right away in the control room. It was a very collaborative process.
We actually worked on a song until it was done, so the schedule was nice and relaxed. Some days were long, a few were short, and when they were happy with how a song sounded, we were done. I didn’t have to do a single recall on the whole album. It was a dream project.
The mix really seems to draw the listener in. How did you make that happen?
The music and performance have to be there first. Sonically and mix-wise, I was very cognizant of not limiting a lot of things and avoiding drastic processing. I wanted to use compression sparingly so the whole thing could breathe and the dynamics could be unrestricted. This wasn’t a project where we cut the low end back and boosted the 5-7 kHz range to make it scream. We never tried to make it loud and I think it sounds better for it.
It still sounds full and rich, though.
The funny thing is, when it’s on the radio, even though it isn’t anywhere near as loud as many records, it does sound bigger. Radio compression makes the peak levels the same as something that’s been highly compressed and hyped. I don’t think we lost a lot of apparent level in keeping the low bottom end strong.
Was the “retro-but-fresh” balance hard to strike?
Not really. I found this to be a very refreshing project to work on because everybody was in the same vibe. All of the players who recorded on the album had been around since the original disco days and everybody was excited to be putting real, live playing on a record again. I don’t want to speak entirely for the Daft Punk guys, but I think they were discovering a lot of things about the old music as they were working on this. They are much younger, but for the rest of us, it was exciting to take a second hit at that type of music with all of the experience we have now.
“The Ocean Way Dynamic Room Modeling Plug-In … gives a nice, natural early reflection sound, especially if you use reverb on top of it … It just sounds like you recorded something in a room before you processed it.”
What UA hardware did you use on the album?
Because I’m an old fart and have been in this business since the ’70s, [laughs] I’ve relied on hardware 1176s and LA-2As my whole professional life. We used those extensively on this album. I used LA-2As on bass and vocals and 1176s to control and compress vocoder vocals and guitars.
Was it all hardware?
One of the ideas for this album was that Daft Punk didn’t want to process digitally. The music had to be recorded digitally because it had to be edited, but a lot of it was recorded to analog tape and then transferred to Pro Tools. For mixing, it all came from Pro Tools at 96 kHz into a 72-input analog console. Sometimes we had to combine in Pro Tools if we had more tracks than faders. But it was mostly mixed to analog and they wanted to process everything in the analog world as well.
Did you use any plug-ins at all?
Some plug-ins definitely did a better job than we had analog outboard gear for. We used the UAD Precision De-Esser quite a bit on vocals. Sometimes we used a hardware analog DBX 902 instead, but if we needed serious de-essing, the UAD plug-in worked better and gave us more control. That’s pretty much it, and the rest was analog outboard gear, though we did use a few digital reverbs — a Bricasti and EMT 250.
I have to say that the UA plug-ins sound so close to the hardware. We happened to have the physical equipment there and the guys really wanted to use it — we had a great EMT 140 reverb and if you find a good one there’s nothing like it — but when we A/B’d the real analog gear with the UAD plug-ins, just out of curiosity, it all sounded extremely close. I use those plug-ins all the time.
Which do you work with most often?
I use the EMT 140 and EMT 250 reverb plug-ins a lot, and also the Manley Massive Passive EQ Plug-In. I have a real one of those, and the physical and digital versions are very close when it comes to sound. I also use the 1176 and LA-2A plug-ins, and I’ve played a bit with the Ocean Way Dynamic Room Modeling Plug-In on a couple of projects. That one’s brand new, so I haven’t used it extensively yet, but I really like it. It gives a nice, natural early reflection sound, especially if you use reverb on top of it, so it doesn’t sound like there’s this gap between the sound and the reverb. It just sounds like you recorded something in a room before you processed it.
I use the Harrison 32C/SE Channel EQ when I’m in a nostalgic mood. [Laughs.] The UAD plug-ins sound a lot cleaner than the original hardware did. They have the same character, but the plug-in sounds good while the console sounded kind of hash-y. Then there’s the Precision Limiter and the De-Esser, both of which I use a lot. Others I’ll use once in a while, but those are the ones I go to all the time.
“I brought the Apollo with my UAD plug-ins, my laptop, and all of my files, so if there was anything I needed to tweak, I was ready.“
Have you had any happy accidents when it comes to discovering new sounds with UAD plug-ins?
They tend to be happy small accidents. The UAD EMT 140 has three 140s in it and you select between them. At one point, I was going to A/B two of them, with each on its own channel, just to see what they sounded like on a vocal, but I found that I really liked a certain combination of the two. Plate A with a certain EQ and plate B with a slightly different pre-delay made it sound a lot more dense and rich than either one of them alone. I used that technique recently with Herb Alpert. It sounded great on his trumpet.
When did you start using the Apollo?
I got that just before going to Los Angeles to work on the Daft Punk album because I had some projects that still needed recalls. I brought the Apollo with all of my UAD plug-ins, my laptop, and all of my files, so if there was anything I needed to tweak, I was ready.
Can you offer any Apollo-specific advice?
One nice thing about the Apollo is that the preamps are very transparent, flat, and uncolored. If you’re talking about recording acoustic instruments through it, listen first without any processing, dial in the right preamp and gain settings, and experiment with a couple of mics and mic positions to get the sound as close as you can to what you want to record. Then listen to the EQs and compressors and see what complements that sound.
So you don’t start messing with plug-ins right away.
You probably shouldn’t use processing until you have the song built pretty far up, so you’re hearing one sound against another. Listen to how each element works with the other instruments. Usually, in the case of compression, if the instruments all move together and only one track sticks out and then ducks back under, you can just compress that single track. Don’t process what doesn’t need it, even if you plan to do a little overall compression later.
What it comes down to is using the tools subtly. UAD plug-ins are warm and sound really good. They sound even better when you don’t overuse them.
How do you know when you’re overusing a plug-in or effect?
It can just be a gut feeling. Many people, myself included, tend to do it, since plug-ins are so easy to instantiate and chain up. Sometimes I end up EQing an instrument and then it doesn’t quite hit right, so I put another plug-in on and another after that. If you get into a situation where you have a whole bunch of chained plug-ins, like several EQs on the same frequency and channel, you might want to take them all out and start again.
What projects did you work on with the Apollo this summer?
The biggest one was Celine Dion. I mixed three songs for her. I only needed to make little changes, one at a time, but the Apollo allowed me to keep a good workflow going while I was on the road. It had what I needed — DSP for the UAD plug-ins and really good convertors so I could monitor.
How was working on the Celine Dion project similar (or different) from the Daft Punk record?
The focal point for the Celine Dion mixes was the vocal, but with Daft Punk, it was the song and production — and sometimes the vocals, or sometimes something else that causes your attention to shift. Those differences affected how I approached the mixes on each project.
Also, even though a lot of the music for the Celine Dion songs was synthesized, there are no sounds on those mixes that wouldn’t exist in the natural world. For Daft Punk, there might be bass, drums, keyboard, and then some crazy part that sounds spacey and unreal. In that way, the projects were quite the opposite of each other.
What plug-ins did you use when mixing the Celine Dion songs?
I used the EMT 140 on her vocal, along with a real AMS RMX-16 — which I wish Universal Audio would do a plug-in of! I also used the Massive Passive, the LA-2A, the 1176, the Precision De-Esser, and the Precision Limiter on the mixes.
Do you feel like you have an overall mixing strategy or philosophy?
I like to mix something that sounds good wherever I’m hearing it. These days, I’m not thinking about how a record is going to sound on somebody’s radio speaker or ear buds, or that it has to fit a certain mold musically — I spent many years doing that and it wasn’t fun, at least for me. I enjoy making mixes that I would be proud to play for people in hopes that they would enjoy it. I don’t like making things that are squashed and twisted all over the place in order to fit into some kind of specific genre.
Any final mixing advice?
All I can say is to make your mix something that you’d enjoy listening to. Be open-minded, don’t make excuses about the sound, and don’t force yourself to enjoy it. Make it something that you, yourself are going to like hearing.
Photos ©2013 Juan Patino Photography. Check out more at www.juanpatinophotography.com.
Special thanks to Electric Lady Studios.