Stuart Price on Creating Hits for the Killers and Pet Shop Boys with Apollo & UAD Plug-Ins
With credits that include Madonna, Scissor Sisters, Pet Shop Boys, and the Killers, as well as albums with his own group, Zoot Woman, Stuart Price has been an artistic force for over 18 years. Three-time Grammy winner, producer, remixer, and synth wizard, Price and his nom de plumes, Les Rythmes Digitales and Jacques Lu Cont has continued to churn out a stunning body of high-quality music. Here, Price details his influences, the similarities between remixing and producing, and how he uses UAD Powered Plug-Ins and the Apollo interface to achieve his sonic ideal.
What was your first musical memory?
I think it was smashing up my walkman because I had taped it to a BMX bike so I could listen to the Pet Shop Boys at all times.
Did you have a musical and supportive family?
Yes. They were most supportive without me realizing it because they didn’t complain when I left secondary school and didn’t want to go to University. But I had a record out that month which I thought was a good negotiating point.
Did you play in bands when you were younger?
Yes, I was in bands at school. I played bass. But I also had a Yamaha 4-track that I would take around with me, and I was always interested in writing songs so that they could be recorded. The recordings weren't very good, but it’s a good reminder how much you can do with a 4-track and some intention.
How did playing bass inform your musicianship?
All the pent-up frustration of standing at the back came out later on!
What did you listen to growing up?
My parents both played piano so there was mainly Bach, Liszt, or Chopin. Pop music wasn’t really around in our house. When I was 19 I heard Human League’s Dare and I couldn’t believe how it sounded. Eventually, I got into Orbital and they started opening my ears to dance, which then led me to artists such as Thomas Fehlmann and Polygon Window. I also used to tape the Colin Faver show on KISS FM, which was really good.
Do you think it's harder these days for kids coming up with the mass of technology and presets at their fingertips without necessarily learning the basics first?
Well you can certainly be distracted very easily from a kind of basic learning-through-mistakes-mentality. That is, it has become harder to make mistakes when a lot of software is designed to prevent mistakes. A competent record is somehow easier to make. But competent is probably the ultimate sign of failure to make something interesting. Often, when everything is "right," something is just missing. But when a track has something unfathomable about it, the critique of its production becomes secondary, and it's just magic again.
How did you start off and transition into the world of Techno?
Adam [Blake] from Zoot Woman and I were at the same school. He liked The Who and I liked Jean Michel Jarre. A friend of ours used to collect records from UR and Metroplex, and that was some sort of bridge we could both get into.
Do you have a collection of vintage synthesizers?
Yes. But personally I only like to use a handful at a time to prevent tracks from becoming too general with a touch of everything. You need to live with each one for a while to get to its secrets. I love the Yamaha TX7, the Casio CZ-101, the ARP 2600, Ensoniq Mirage, Roland MKS-50, and the EMS VCS3. I like to have them around mainly for inspiration. In my experience, turning away and just focusing on a different object in front of you can yield good results.
With the proliferation of inexpensive or free audio programs, virtual synths, effects, and sound loops do you think people are really learning their tools or have the tools become disposable?
That’s possible. It’s more like a kind of temptation. For example, there was a store in London that once created one of the biggest analog synth collections in the country and assembled it in their basement. You could get free time there if you bought product from the shop. So you had this sort of gluttonous synth porn store. I think anyone who went in there emerged completely overwhelmed and empty handed because firstly it's hard to jump in the deep end with a Moog Modular and expect to get any decent results out of it 30 minutes later and, secondly, the level of distraction just made it one big unfocused head job for anyone. In many ways, software can be like that too.
“The 1176 plug-in seems glued to my input chain,” says Stuart Price.
How did you transition to producing?
It branched off from remixing. I love reworking songs and ideas into new directions, and doing that is an element of modern production itself. The two are not dissimilar — you are always trying to improve your ideas until you get something really good. I started producing a lot of the artists I worked with because of the remixes I had done for them, like the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside.” The band liked it, so we met up at a concert and made plans to work together more.
Why have you recorded under pseudonyms like “Jacques Lu Cont” and “Les Rythmes Digitales?”
A few reasons; a pseudonym allows you to pursue a stylistic idea, it’s a world you can disappear into outside of your own. The music can have its own personality, just like the pseudonym.
Pseudonyms can also be like album titles. You have a new direction and instead of putting it under this one big umbrella you use the pseudonym to name that record. In many ways, using pseudonyms allows the music to live on its own merits, because there might be less preconceptions about other material you have done.
What is your history with UAD Powered-Plug-Ins?
I think I bought a UAD-1 the month it was released. I go through phases of finding a batch of UAD plug-ins and they become my “go-to” plugs for a while. I could drown too easily in a long list of options so it's much easier to just use a few at a time and remove some options.
What do you mean?
For example, just resign yourself to using, say, the Pultec EQP-1A plug-in from the Pultec Passive EQ Plug-In Collection as your only EQ. I find that I get that EQ sounding right in the same time I could still be poring down a long list of other EQs. It's an important part of the flow. It also builds your confidence in them — you know them better. But with patience there is time for all!
Do you have any “go-to” UAD plug-ins?
The 1176 Classic Limiter Plug-In Collection almost always works for me. I love it. There’s a lot of variety in there from essentially one unit’s history.
I started using it on Madonna’s vocal sound, along with the Pultec. I set the 1176 at 4:1 and ran it into the Pultec with a high-shelf. It clicked really well on her sound and I’ve found that I adapt that chain and still use it a lot. And even though we used a large condenser mic with Madonna, the 1176/Pultec chain is equally useful with a Shure Beta 58 mic. It just does all the right things, and quickly.
The Cooper Time Cube Mk II Delay is another one that is great for building sounds, without making them too effected sounding. I like the “suffocated” sound you can create with it. When the delay is so short it’s almost superimposed on the original and it makes for a nice thick tone.
Also, the Fairchild Tube Limiter Plug-In Collection is great because it is unique; none of the other compressors sound like it. On the Killers Day and Age, that was often a drum compressor, for either individual sounds or the entire kit. It suits Ronnie’s [the Killers’ drummer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr.] sound well. His kit is really more like one single sound source than a collection of multi-micing drums.
The Precision K-Stereo Ambience Recovery plug-in is also excellent on a bus because you can really start altering your perception of what the group was before. It makes suggestions that, if you were thinking too logically, you wouldn’t have thought of.
It’s good to experiment making broad stereo groups a bit more subtle, and vice versa, creating unnatural ambience from sources that had little before.
“The Apollo with Unison technology bridges the gap between using 'real' preamps and virtual ones,” says Stuart Price.
Do you compress individual channels and then compress them again on the mix bus?
Although it’s so dependent on the source I would say yes, a lot of the time that happens. The irony is that a lot of the time you need to leave sounds sounding individually un-mixed in order for them to work with processing on a bus or master. Five individually “worked on” sounds that have all been "perfected," can suddenly sound wrong when put together. I find it’s better to imagine them as an aggregated sound and think how that can be treated.
I learned that lesson working on Take That’s backing vocals — too much individual processing made no sense in the mix. It was more the sound of many uncompressed voices being compressed as a group that worked. It was more interesting, if less perfect.
That’s really a bigger point about the importance of working on all sounds together at the same time than focusing in on tracks one-by-one and then expecting them to work together.
Is it safe to say you garner inspiration from not having too much of a set workflow?
What is easier to say is that repetition can get you quick results, but can also be very un-adventurous. Which means when you need some inspiration, you might not be feeling particularly ready for it. Workflow implies a restricted approach. I suppose “just mess around” is a better way to look at it.
When it comes to my workflow, however, the truth is it’s really different from day to day, and that’s why it's important not to get stuck into patterns or routine. It’s fascinating because almost any advice can be made redundant by your next scenario.
Could you describe your current setup?
Yes, it’s the new Mac Pro with an Apollo QUAD connected via Thunderbolt. I was using a UAD OCTO PCIe card in a Sonnet chassis as well which worked great too. I used that in tandem with a Neve Melbourn 12 channel board.
What do you like about Apollo?
I don’t like having things setup too nicely and I mostly patch stuff in when I feel like using it — that’s why the Apollo is really helpful. I have one cable that wherever it gets plugged in has some combination of UAD front end on it — the UA 610 Tube Preamp & EQ Plug-In Collection or the Neve 1073 Preamp & EQ Plug-In Collection, an 1176, an amp simulator, or the Boss® CE-1 Chorus Ensemble plug-in.
Do you take advantage of tracking with near-zero latency with the Apollo?
Yes. That has made a huge difference. I previously used to apply UAD plug-ins further down the line. But now working with them on the front end lets you get closer to your final sound sooner. This feature alone is worth getting an Apollo for. And with Unison™ technology and plug-ins such as the 610 and Neve collections, the Apollo really bridges the gap between using “real” preamps and virtual ones.
Are you printing effects a lot?
Yes, if it's part of what’s going on. Adding compressors or effects on the way in forces some sort of discipline as well — it forces a decision on the sound instead of leaving it for later. The way I see it, if you constructed a sound with reverb or delay as an intrinsic part of it, then print it. If it doesn’t work out, redo it.
What’s the most unconventional way you’ve used UAD plug-ins – how were you surprised with the result?
Maybe chaining amps together — say a Softube Bass Amp Room into the Chandler Limited GAV19T Amplifier plug-in. The DI feature on the Softube has quite an extreme effect, which makes the Chandler act very differently to the input it’s receiving.
When you sit down to start a session, do you have any general strategies for mixing?
The thing that always helps me the most is the thing I least like doing — turning everything down and gaining headroom. If you can “have a word” with yourself and back the input to the master bus down and mix again from there, you will probably get stronger mixes.
But it’s hard to do because I get excited where everything is peaky and pressurized! But from then it’s diminishing returns. Although it’s a bit risky, I normally set my monitor gain almost at maximum, then start soloing in elements of the mix so I’m forced to keep them low and hence gain overall headroom.
I suppose another strategy is to walk around lots. Hearing what you are working on from another room helps keep you focused on things like arrangement, as well as broadly telling you if the mix is working or not.
Photo credit: Universal Audio
— Marsha Vdovin