Rik Simpson on Producing Coldplay's Mylo Xyloto
Jay Z, PJ Harvey, Natalie Imbruglia, and Portishead are just some of the acts that Rik Simpson has engineered, produced, or mixed during his career. But the biggest name on Simpson’s résumé is undoubtedly Coldplay, who, over the last 11 years, have sold over 50 million records worldwide and received seven GRAMMY® awards and 20 GRAMMY nominations. Simpson (with two GRAMMYs as a producer to his name) has worked on three of their albums, including their latest, Mylo Xyloto, which he co-produced, engineered, and helped mix.
Simpson has come a long way from his first gig at a London studio – which primarily consisted of making tea. From those humble beginnings, as well as gaining musical experience from being in bands he quickly worked his way up the studio ladder. “I ended up engineering at Mayfair Studios and Eden Studios, which are both no longer with us, I'm afraid,” Simpson says, “and gradually sort of got my producer chops together.” He first worked with Coldplay on the band’s second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, in 2002. For the production of Mylo Xyloto, Simpson used a wide array of UAD-2 Powered Plug-Ins and UA hardware. Mike Levine had a chance to speak with him recently about the production of the new album, Coldplay’s dual studios, the Universal Audio products he used, and more.
Talk about your role on Coldplay’s latest album, Mylo Xyloto.
I co-produced and engineered all of it. We had three producers for this record, working together for its entirety. I started off on the last record [Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends] as an engineer, with Markus Dravs and Brian Eno producing. By the end of the record, it was deemed that my input had been such that I was elevated in status to producer, which is great.
You started with Coldplay three albums ago?
Yeah, the band’s first album was Parachutes – I didn't work on that. I met the band on the second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head. I got on pretty well with the guys and when the record was finished they took me on tour for a while once the album was finished, helping out with extra keyboard and track duties. But I didn't really do that for that long – I got the pangs to go back to the studio, touring wasn't really my thing.
“I do sometimes go overboard with drum and room mics… that's how you get a real space and stamp… it's catching one particular moment in time, and one particular place on this earth. It's never going to happen again.”
So I did that and carried on freelancing for a bit. I didn't work on X&Y, but then when Viva la Vida came around, the guys were thinking about building a studio of their own here in London so they’d have the freedom of their own creating space and wouldn't have to use commercial spaces so much. I helped them design and build that studio, and we did the majority of the album there.
Is that the one that's in a church? It sounded like they had one studio and then went to another one.
Yeah, we had one studio for Viva la Vida called The Bakery. This time around, they found a larger space nearby. It's literally 30 seconds walk away from the original space, and this new one is called The Beehive. It's a big old hall. It used to be a church hall or village hall-type space. We did most of this new album in The Beehive. We did a few overdubs and a lot of comping in The Bakery, which they still have going, but because the space [in The Beehive] is so large and it sounds so great, we did a lot of live recording and a lot of live takes there.
Live, meaning everyone played together in that one big room?
Absolutely. Logistically it's a bit strange because there isn't a control room. I'm working in the big hall with them, on headphones. So while I have the benefits of being able to communicate much more easily with the band, I also have to make sure that all my gain structures and mic amp settings are as good as possible. It's a slightly different way of working for me because of that. Because I didn't have a control room, I couldn't get into sculpting the sound on the way in to Pro Tools. So I just sort of made sure that the mics sounded good, and recorded them pretty flat with little EQ or compression. And then on the tail end of the process, I did all of that work in the computer, which is where the UAD-2 plug-ins came in.
Since they were all in the same big hall, did you have a lot of bleed?
Yeah, there was. My thing is it's all about the performance and all about the vibe. It's like chaos management. If the tune is feeling amazing, it doesn't matter if there's a bit of spill between things. In fact, a lot of my favorite records from the past have been recorded like that. There's something to be said for having instruments on other instruments, and having bleed between mics, as long as your source is still properly defined.
Did you have phase issues?
Not really. Judicious use of phase alignment plug-ins helped as well as moving mics around. We did a lot of live takes. A lot of the stuff where it was deemed that we could do better, we re-recorded it. We often used the live take as a tempo map.
I assume you recorded only the basic tracks and did all the vocal and other overdubs later?
Yeah. Sometimes we'd just keep the drums and bass and they'd redo the other bits. It adds a certain magic. For example you can hear some of the guitar from the original take that was replaced, and it adds a weird bubbly effect; sort of an extra dimension.
Did it make it trickier for you in the mixing stage to have to deal with all of that?
Yes, sometimes, but the good thing is, I could mix as I was going along. So we'd do all the takes, then the boys would leave us alone for a day or so, and I'd mess around with stuff and get my head around what we actually sonically recorded, quality-wise. I’d do what I could to get everything sounding great, and then maybe they'd come in and we'd discuss it and decide that this one needs recording, that needs re-recording. The mix was almost being developed as we were recording. It's almost like the old days of committing to 4-track tape, when people would bounce stuff together and that would be that. So we tried not to change stuff too much once we'd all agreed that it was sounding great.
How would you say this album compares to the previous one? Is there any change of direction musically?
I think the band is always pushing themselves to evolve. They never want to stay in one place too long because they have too many ideas floating around. On this record, they've definitely moved on from the last one. There are more modern electronic influences, but it still retains a very band-like feel. I think that what they're really attracted by is using new technology to make music that really hasn't been made or heard before, but playing it as a band. It's not a lone artist or producer in a studio coming up with sounds. Everything is a performance based on the chemistry of four people playing in a room together.
I've heard the single, "Paradise," it sounds like it has a lot of synth strings on it.
But it's also very organic. It's rooted in the real world. And nothing is ever quantized, there's always life in the parts. We rarely record MIDI these days. Everything is going to be audio on the way in. That's a way of committing. It's one less decision that has to be made.
“It was a very exciting moment for me when I first started using the Studer plug-in.”
You mentioned that Markus Dravs and Brian Eno also produced the last record. What about this one? Who were the other two producers you worked with?
Markus was one. He’s produced Arcade Fire, Bjork, and Mumford and Sons. I've done two records with him now, he's a great producer and has become a great friend. The other guy who was with us was a guy called Dan Green, who I've worked with for Coldplay for a really long time. Dan's been with the boys pretty much since day one, doing front-of-house and live duties. He's always been keen on being more involved in the studio and doing studio recordings, and he's very on the level with what the band wants. He's very technical as well, he's the guy you go to if something's not working properly. He can generally explain to you why it's not.
So yeah, Dan came on board as a co-producer for this record, which is great. The last record was very stressful, I had a lot of responsibility on my shoulders. And while it all worked out, it was pretty hard going at some points, very long hours and pretty intense. So this time, having Dan to help shoulder the responsibility was a fantastic thing. And we get on really well together. We're always hanging out, talking about equipment and plug-ins and stuff.
So you all produced together, it wasn't like one did one song, one another and so forth?
No. The three of us did the whole job. And it was very cool as well, because we could work together as a unit, and we could also split the jobs that had to be done up between us. For example, Dan would be over at The Bakery making recordings on guitars, and Markus would be upstairs comping vocals while I would be over at The Beehive recording drums and bass. We just swapped sessions around. We worked together, but it was nice to be able to delegate jobs around the two studios.
What were the UAD plug-ins you used a lot on the new album?
I've always loved the EMT® 140 Classic Reverberator. The plate is pretty much on every record that I've done since I've had it. Although if I want a smaller space, I find that the EMT® 250 Classic Electronic Reverb is amazing as well. It's very intimate sounding. I used the Roland® RE-201 Space Echo Tape Delay all the time. I don't use it as much any more since the EP-34 Tape Echo came out, because that's a lovely plug-in. It's very earthy and gritty and organic sounding. I’ve been using the Lexicon® 224 Digital Reverb recently, it's very cool. And the Studer® A800 Multitrack Tape Recorder and the Ampex® ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder, I really like those plug-ins. I think they bring something to the table that nothing else really does.
Let's talk about those. What do you see as the biggest difference between them as far as how you'd use one versus the other? They're both giving you a tape emulation.
I think, I've really only been using the Ampex for the last month or two, since it came out. To my ear, the Ampex seems to be slightly more open-sounding. It's more of a 2-track; put that across your mix and it definitely adds definition, stereo depth, and three-dimensional depth, too. It's quite a deep plug-in, whereas the Studer adds the crunch on individual instruments or groups, especially on drums and bass. I find it makes them gel together better.
Do you remember what settings you use on the Studer, like which tape formulations and speeds do you like?
It depends on the source. But as a general rule, I probably start with the 456 tape formula, and 15 IPS, hitting the tape fairly hard, because that's the reason I always liked tape, when I used to use it before Pro Tools.
So you have that input control up really high?
Yeah. I'm lucky, because I was around before Pro Tools came out, because I started so young. So I remember all the benefits and the negative points of tape. It's been said a million times, but these plug-ins do what tape used to do but without all the nasty artifacts that you'd have to gate out or EQ out, back in the day. It was a very exciting moment for me when I first started using the Studer plug-in.
Talk about how you use the Ampex.
Well, I’ve just been on tour. Since I got back there's been some live mixing that I've been doing at The Beehive. And it's interesting because the whole thing about live recording to me is that it has a tendency to sound clinical and a little bit too transparent, there's no real character or crunch. There's so much spill you haven't really got enough control. You can't EQ a lot of the stuff because, for example, as soon as you start EQing the vocals, it means that probably the snare is going to get the same EQ.
So it's very much a balancing act, like spinning plates. Having something like the Ampex, I've discovered in the last three days, has been amazing to kind of gel all that stuff together. It adds that character that's missing and makes it sound more like a record.
What kind of settings were you using?
I was hitting it fairly hard. Using 456, 1/2-inch head, or maybe the 200 setting. And I messed around with the top and bottom end a little bit, which is something I would never have done with the actual 1/2-inch back in the day. But you're able to do it, you know what it's going to do. And obviously the bias control is the most important one, I think, because that's where all the crunch is coming from.
Any of the other UAD-2 stuff you use besides the reverbs and the tape machines? Did you use any of the dynamics plug-ins?
Yeah, again the FATSO™ Jr./Sr. Tape Sim. & Compressor Plug-In. You probably see a theme evolving here – it's all about character to me. Trying to get back what we lost when we switched over to digital. Yeah, so the Fatso is fantastic, does a great job. And even very subtle things like the Roland® Dimension D.
Do you guys record at 44.1 or 48 kHz?
We record at 48 kHz. We sort of experimented a lot with different sample rates in the past. You've always got to balance what you can hear with workflow. For big band that wants to work quickly, I don't think that anything above 48 kHz is really viable yet [for multitracking] in terms of track counts, and the time it takes to load sessions. However, all the mixes on the record were at 88.2 kHz. I'd have two computers running. The first one is at 48 kHz and has the whole session on it which I’d sum it through an analog board.
So the second computer, which you’re mixing to, would be recording at 88.2 kHz?
Yeah. And then in my 88.2 rig, I'd also have the UAD-2 plugs, and that's where a lot of my Ampex and Studer stuff was going on. I'd record a stereo track into the 2-track rig and I'd process it on the way in. I often used the Manley® Massive Passive EQ Plug-In to give it a bit more polish.
Those files were generally what the mastering was done from. I'd basically be recording three stereo tracks onto the second rig. I'd have the NP channel – “no processing” – which comes straight from the board, I'd have the WP channel – "with processing," – which was basically the NP mix but through the extra plugs, and then I'd also be recording an "X Mix" channel, which had some limiting on and raised the levels so I could give it to the band for reference.
Were you using a desk?
Not a massive console, we've got an SSL Matrix at the studio, which is a hybrid mixer. It's only got 16 channels, but it's got an audio path and a digital function, so it works as a DAW controller. I can use the faders to do fader rides in Pro Tools, and it's summing the audio together too. The audio path is very clean, transparent, and big-sounding which means that it reacts well to any additional crunch I want to add after the fact.
So the mix went into the second computer, using an aux track to print the plug-ins as it recorded?
I understand that you’re also using a UAD-2 Satellite?
Yes. We've got one Pro Tools rig in The Bakery. We've got two, actually three Pro Tools rigs in The Beehive, two of which are smaller editing rigs, and one of which is a big boy. All of them have the UAD Quad cards in them, which means all the sessions are interchangeable, which helped. I got hold of the Satellite fairly recently, which I've been making use of a lot on my laptop, because I did a lot of programming and just additional sound-effect-y, keyboard-y stuff. As well as comping, being able to comp a vocal on an airplane is amazing.
Does it give you enough power, do you feel like you're using one of the UAD-2 cards?
Yeah, absolutely. I've only really used the Satellite on my laptop, which restricts me a little bit anyway. But I generally use a lot more of the effects stuff on the laptop, instead of the dynamics and the EQs. A lot of the reverbs, a lot of the delays, a lot of the crunch from the tape saturation plug-ins – the Studer and the Ampex – stuff I really couldn't get anywhere else, and it doesn't sound as good anywhere else.
So your sessions can basically travel between all the computers and your laptop, and still have the same plug-ins?
For the laptop, I'd probably have to make stems of music, and just do the work I had to do, because I wouldn't be able to have the track counts that I do on big rigs.
How big are your track counts typically on this album?
Not small. By the end of the album, I was up against the end stops on pretty much every song. Working with other bands, I like to commit. I'm very much a committer. But for Coldplay, because things are so fluid and so changeable, I had to keep my options open right up until the end.
For example, we would have a song going, and Chris Martin might say to me, "I remember doing a piano on a demo version of this song a year ago that might have been in a different key or a different tempo, can we bring that in?" And then I'd have to find that and make that work. Or Will Champion, the drummer, might say to me, "I’d like to replace this fill with the alternative one I did six months ago." So I have to go and find that and slot it in, I couldn't really bounce stuff down too much because it would turn into a logistical minefield, I’d constantly be chasing my tail, wondering if the new bounce sounded as good as the old one.
How does a 4-piece band get such huge track counts? Is there a ton of layering going on?
There's a fair amount of layering but I do sometimes go overboard with drum and room mics. I always think, going back to the old character thing, that this is how you get a real sense of space and an identity stamp – that character of the real space on the record. Again, it's something that no one else could replicate, because it's catching one particular moment in time, and one particular place on this earth. It's never going to happen again.
“My thing is it's all about the performance and all about the vibe. It's like chaos management.”
Do you use any other UA hardware?
We've got about eight 6176 Vintage Channel Strips, which cover everything from bass, vocal, piano. Generally I go through the same mic amps every time for the whole project, so I don't have to repatch stuff and everything is always ready to go. We've got a couple of LA-610 MkII Tube Recording Channels across the road at The Bakery. We've got some 1176LN Classic Limiting Amplifiers at The Bakery as well. And I recently just got hold of the 4-710d Four-Channel Tone-Blending Mic Preamp, which is my new, go-to crunch machine. It's a 4-channel mic amp that has an input drive function, where you can either drive a valve or a transistor. And it's got a blend, to mix between the two.
What ratio do you typically use between tube and transistor on it?
I normally start with tube, and then depending on the source. I recorded a lot of keyboards through it, actually, and a lot of drum stuff. It's got—I'll say that word again—character.
What is it about the UA mic pres that you like in particular?
They don't sound too flat. They add a nice sense of life and reality to recordings. They've got very simple controls, they don't take long to setup, and they're just great workhorses. They just do their thing. You can leave them there in the back of the room set up, and they're always there ready to go, and you know they’ll sound great.
Coldplay’s latest album, Mylo Xyloto, is out October 24th.
Photos by Richard Ecclestone.
— Mike Levine