Thievery Corporation's Chris “Stone” Garrett on UAD Plug-Ins and Their New Album
Since their first album release, Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi, in 1997, Thievery Corporation has steadily built a worldwide following for their signature brand of chilled-out electronica, which features live musicians, world-music instrumentation, and a healthy dose of dub and reggae influences. With a GRAMMY® nomination under their belt, and a brand-new album, Culture of Fear, dropping this month, Thievery Corporation's heavy grooves and strong political messaging stand to reach an even larger audience in 2011.
Thievery Corporation’s longtime secret weapon, Christopher “Stone” Garrett, started off selling recording gear to the band, and quickly became their chief mixer and engineer, a position he's held for more than 10 years. With his background in acoustic design and traditional recording, Garrett says Universal Audio analog gear and UAD plug-ins played a huge role in the production of the band’s latest effort.
Tell us the story of how you ended up working for Rob and Eric.
I graduated from college and had a tough time getting a "real" job, so I started working at Chuck Levin's Washington [D.C.] Music Center, an iconic local music store. I actually got my first UAD card when I worked at Chuck Levin's. It had just come out, and they were competing with the TC Electronic Powercore. I had all that stuff way back then, and had been using it for all those years.
Eric and Rob came in, and I gave them some advice for what synthesizers would be appropriate for chillout or downtempo stuff, and they started asking me more and more questions. I ended up inviting them to my house, which is quite a ways outside of town. Looking back now, it's actually amazing that they drove all the way out to my place in Virginia. After they saw my studio and how I had things setup at home, they were like, “We'd like to have you come in and switch us over.” They were using a PC system at the time. They wanted to switch over to Macintosh.
It became a huge deal where I redesigned their whole studio. I was calling into my job at Chuck Levin's saying I was sick. Meanwhile, I'm working with these guys 12 hours a day.
At what point in their career was this?
It was after The Mirror Conspiracy and before the The Richest Man in Babylon album. It was while we were still making Richest Man.
What year was that?
I'd have to say it was 2001 when I started working for them.
Wow, for someone working at a music store, that's kind of a dream outcome.
I didn't even know who they were, actually. Coincidentally, I'd seen a show they did in Iceland that was only about few weeks before I met them [at the store]. They played in this huge arena, and the show was totally lame. The venue was way too huge to house this little band and had only about 1,500 people in the audience. It was a mess. So I did sort of have a bad taste in my mouth. And when I figured out it was those guys, I was like, "These guys need help."
"They're not really knob twiddlers, I'm the knob twiddler."
At the time, their studio was in the back of the Eighteenth Street Lounge [in Washington, D.C.], which was one of Eric's bars. It was a bar/club type joint. Eric's a DJ, and that’s how he cut his teeth with the electronic scene. Anyway, it was tough to have a studio in the back of the bar. Every time you walked by the bar, somebody was handing you a shot of Patrón.
What was your background before that musically?
I had a couple of electronic projects that I was working on, up until we met. I would perform at dance parties and rave parties with electronic groups, and I was combining DJ stuff and different electronic instruments and samplers. I actually went to the Columbia School of Broadcasting and majored in their acoustic field. So I have a lot of background with spatial design and anechoic design.
When I was going to school, I ended up deciding to take part of their recording program as well. I sort of double majored in their acoustic part and their recording program. Back then it was all tape, and I had to learn how to cut tape, the whole nine yards — grease pencil, and all that. I did a couple of papers on delay times where we were running tape around the room on mic stands and calculating delay lengths and BPMs.
Back to Eric and Rob, so you set up their studio, but how did you end up becoming their engineer?
They had another engineer at the time, and he was using Cakewalk. Their albums before that were recorded onto DAT tapes [laughs]. It was so archaic. For Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi (1997), which was their first effort, they had an Ensoniq ASR-10, Akai MPC3000, and a DAT machine, and that was it. And they had an Alesis MIDIVerb 4. They did the whole record with just the DAT. So I was coming into these guys, and I had worked at the music store, and I was really familiar with all this equipment that was out there, and it was a lot of emerging sort of digital technology at the time. So, I set up a Macintosh system, and sort of rewired their studio.
What sequencer did you use?
Logic. And I had actually come off an Atari ST system before that. I was using Cubase 3 and I moved to Logic when it was still Emagic Logic. We were using Logic, and I came from a Logic platform in my studio. The reason I used Logic was that the MIDI implementation was so good. It has the Environments layering, which is a really outstanding creative tool. Especially for me, who had like 30 synthesizers in my home studio — most of them MIDI, some of them CV. It was great to be able to use a sequencer that gave me so much control over the whole thing. So anyway, I did the Logic thing, and they were pretty much blown away.
Let’s talk about working with Eric and Rob in the studio. What’s the process like, typically?
Generally, they'll be chilling for a little while, they'll talk about some politically charged shit or some conspiracy theories. And then someone will pick up a bass or a guitar. And then Eric will be like, "Oh, check out this beat." And then he'll rock a beat from a turntable, and they'll sort of jam out for a while. I’ll plug the bass in and walk out of the room and let them hammer it out. I'll come back and they’ll be like, "We got something here." I'll lay that down and I'll start looping and cleaning what they've done. Then we'll start working on a B section.
Working in Logic?
Yeah. Totally. I still use a Logic control in my studio, which is their control surface, and is probably about 10 years old. It's still working great. I still use the Unitor-8 and the AMT-8, which are the MIDI interfaces that Emagic made. They work great, too. You can daisy chain them together and they're really tight. If you do a lot of sequencing and CC messaging, then it's helpful. We don't do a lot of bank and program change stuff, but we do a lot of filter sweeps, or sending audio through. We have a Sequential Circuits Prophet 2002 sampler here. We'll use the audio thru on that, but we'll send the CC messages to the filter, because it has the Prophet VS filter. It’s a really nice analog filter. We'll do stuff like that, and we'll want to send it from Logic, so that way it'll be in perfect time. They're not really knob twiddlers, I'm the knob twiddler. Rob is definitely more into synthesizers. Their two go-to synths are the Korg MS2000 and the Roland JP-8000. Eric is definitely more a DJ.
So they just kind of tell you what they want, and you try to dial it up?
Pretty much. Like, “You like that landing field over there guys?” “Yeah, let's take it down.” [laughs]. That's pretty much it. It's a pretty interesting deal, because I'm not really considered a member of the band. It’s those two guys. People that really know about the band know that there's a third guy.
"But the other ones most heavily used are the EMT® 140 Classic Plate Reverberator Plug-In. Man, that thing is incredible. I don't even know what to say about it, it sounds so good it makes you almost want to cry."
So you do all the tracking and mixing?
Yup, everything, through and through. We have a totally state-of-the-art functional studio here. We've got a little bit of traffic noise, that's our biggest problem. We do all the vocal recordings here in the house, all the mixing, and all the effects.
What do you do in the live show?
I'm the front of house guy. [laughs]
So you're on top of their mix everywhere. It must be interesting to have mixed the album and be able to mix them live, as well. Are you trying to recreate what you did on the album, given the differences between live and studio mixing?
Totally recreating exactly what we did on the album, and adapting to whatever crazy, drunken thing is happening onstage.
Is it a dedicated studio building, or is it just in a house?
It’s a brownstone in D.C. We have our record label office downstairs, and we have the studio upstairs. On the top floor we have a suite, so if we have artists come, they can stay here right in the studio.
Does the latest Thievery Corporation album, Culture of Fear, differ musically from previous Thievery albums?
We've been calling it "space rock." It's definitely along a rock vein, but it does have our only hip-hop song, “Culture of Fear,” that we've ever done. That song features Mr. Lif, who’s a really well known hip-hop artist.
Tell us about the UAD plug-ins that you used on the album.
The album starts with “Web of Deception.” It’s a space-rock groover. It's got a really cool vocal that comes in at the end of the track — it sort of surprises you. There’s a really sweet breakdown in the middle that's like a minute and a half long, and we sampled all this obscure stuff. It's a cool opener for the album because it's energetic and it's good. It does the deal. On that, we're consistently using the Pultec® Pro EQ Plug-In across the board on all of our output channels. We actually use the Pultec Pro on every output channel, all the time. A lot of times we'll just put it on, and if the EQ needs to be tweaked, we'll tweak it a little bit, but a lot of times we'll just put it on because it makes everything sound better.
So you're just running tracks through the plug-in to get the sound of the plug-in, not necessarily for EQing?
In a lot of instances, yeah, if it's on an output. Because we do a summing mix here. We'll go out of an 8-channel audio interface, and into an API 7800/8100 combo. And we sum through that and come in on the record side. So we're monitoring through the API all the time. At the end, we'll sum it all together back into Logic.
Do you ever use more than one instance of the same plug-in on a single track?
I've stacked Pultecs before. But, generally speaking, we use things more as tools. We do sound design, but when we're doing it it's very specific. In some cases we'll use the Roland® RE-201 Space Echo Tape Delay & Spring Reverb Plug-In or a reverb in doing that sound design. But for most cases, the applications that we use the UAD plug-ins for mixing applications more than effects applications.
In other words, you’re using them more like you would the hardware processors that they're emulated from?
Yeah, pretty much.
Were you using the Pultec Pro over the whole album?
Every song, for sure. And the Precision Limiter Plug-In, every song, for sure. Those are givens.
Are you using the Precision Limiter on the master bus or on individual tracks?
On the output of channels.
And then on each of those you have a Pultec plug-in?
Pultec on pretty much every one, and then the Precision Limiter on the drum track to shave off the peaks. From there on it varies. But the other [plug-ins] most heavily used are the EMT® 140 Classic Plate Reverberator Plug-In. Man, that thing is incredible. I don't even know what to say about it, it sounds so good it makes you almost want to cry.
What kind of settings do you typically use on it?
I'm kind of a short reverb guy. I stick to tight reverbs that sit within the BPM structure of the song. On the EMT-140, B Plate is my favorite.
How many seconds of delay?
Usually less than two. Or even a lot less than one. Generally, I'll use a tight room on drums. And then I’ll use a bigger-sounding room on vocals, guitars and all that stuff.
"I totally love a Fatso Sr. on the overhead mic, and we set it to obliterate or fry…A lot of times I'll use the same settings from the hardware on the UAD version."
Does Thievery Corporation typically record with a live drummer?
It's everything all together, like at a Thievery show. There's a DJ/electronic setup, then there's a drummer, then there's a percussionist or two, a bass player, and the guitar player who also doubles as the sitar player. He's really good at sitar. And then we have a horn section.
And the instrumentation in the studio is similar?
It's exactly the same. It will have real percussion, sampled percussion, real drums, sampled drums, real bass, keyboard bass, but then it all goes through the machine, so it's all chopped sliced and diced, just honed into the most finite detail. Then it ends up in the song.
Are you using UAD stuff other than the limiters on the drum kit?
Actually, on the live drums, we have an okay collection of outboard stuff. We actually have a Universal Audio M610, which is one of their mono microphone preamps. It has a high-Z input, as well. We use that a lot of times for bass.
Anyway, we used the M610 for vocals on “Web of Deception.” When you hear that vocal come in, it actually has that crunchy tube distortion on the vocal. It's pretty distinctive tube overdrive. That's their stuff, man.
What kind of UAD card do you have now, a UAD-2 QUAD DSP Accelerator card?
Yes, and we have the whole [catalog of UAD plug-ins]. It's great.
Talk about how UAD Plug-Ins were used in the title cut, “Culture of Fear”?
That’s the one that features Mr. Lif. He's got a pretty good rep — he has a lot of street credibility. And, that's the first hip-hop song we've ever done, so it's a little bit interesting in that regard. We used the Precision Limiter, Pultec, and EMT-140. We've got a Manley® Massive Passive EQ Plug-In on Mr. Lif's vocal.
You used that to fatten it up?
Well, Lif has [a voice as if] if you were to put a taser on someone's throat. That's what it sounds like. So I was trying to take care of that a little bit. I forgot to mention that we almost always use the Harrison® 32 C SE on the bass. We've also got the EMT-140 on Lif's vocal, and EMT-140 all over the drums. We've got the Precision De-Esser Plug-In on this little spoken word intro before the song kicks.
How about “Take My Soul”? Do you remember some of the plugs you used on that one?
Same kind of deal. A Pultec on every input channel. A Precision Limiter on the drum track. We're using the Fairchild plug-in on Loulou’s [guest] vocal track. Then we have a Precision De-Esser as well. EMT-140 — big surprise. Plate B, short reverb, lots of predelay. I'm giving away all the formulas here, man. You can start a Thievery wannabe band [laughs].
Talk about the song “Tower Seven”?
It’s a monster. It's an instrumental, the whole way through, and it's eight minutes long. It's sort of an epic journey. It's our longest song ever, and basically what happened with it is that we kind of pulled the "Eleanor Rigby" thing, where we had all this stuff that didn't make sense by itself. And we put it all together and it became the song.
You combined sections from other songs you were working on?
Yeah, it's all pieces of other stuff that's really cool, that we didn't know what to do with. So we just turned it into its own song. It’s just Logic project after Logic project after Logic project, squeezed into itself. It's one of my favorites on the album, because a lot of production went into it. It has our signature reverb sound for the record, which is the EMT-140 plug-in, with a really super, super long plate — a long hang time. I think it's the longest possible. And then we took away all the actual sound, so it was just the reverb. We dropped the mix. And then we layered a couple of EMT-140s.
In other words, you’re taking the audio and running it through the reverb, and then turning the mix to 100-percent wet?
Yeah, turning the primary sound off. And then a lot of times we'll layer in the original sound on another track and mix it in.
What's the advantage of doing it that way?
If you listened to a couple of the songs on the record in the transitional spots, and in this song in particular, you'll hear that reverb wash. It's sort of an ambient thing where we're playing guitar chords, but you're not hearing the strum, you're just hearing the ambient reflections afterwards. That's sort of a signature thing on this record, and it happens several times. It's buried throughout, on a lot of songs. But that would be our bed to start a song. We’d do this crazy, reverbed-out sound design weirdness.
Anything else about “Tower Seven”?
We've got Fairchild® 670 Compressor Plug-In on the guitars. I just sort of put it on there and did it on the spot. A lot of the stuff is done on the spot and then revisited and revisited and revisited. Same deal on the bass with the Harrison EQ. We've got so many UAD plug-ins on this track. We've got the Fatso Sr. Analog Tape Simulator & Compressor Plug-In on one of the drum tracks. Again, worked out a setting. Since we have [the hardware version] here in the studio, I'll have a setting that I know will sound good, for a drum, for example. A lot of times I'll use the same settings from the hardware on the UAD version.
For what type of drum tracks do you use Fatso?
A lot of times it's on loops, but when we have individual drums, I use it for those as well. Like on the snare track, if it's a live recording, or if it’s on the kick track. I would use one for one purpose on the kick, and then use another one for another purpose on the snare. And I totally love a Fatso Sr. on the overhead mic — we set it to obliterate or fry, I forget what they call it, but it's really funny. Obliterate, like the "this is your brain on drugs" setting. It really does amazing things for overhead sound. It brings it out so that the punch is just so there. It's awesome. We do that a lot. We'll use that setup a lot when we have live drums. We've got a bunch of Cambridge EQ Plug-Ins on this. We use the Cambridge EQs a lot. This one we've got Cambridge on guitar and drums. We've got the dbx® 160 Compressor/Limiter Plug-In on the drum track as well.
And the Cambridge you're using as a standard EQ rather than as a color, right?
Yes, we do, as a standard EQ.
Do you do a lot of automation of the effects?
Tons. There's hundreds and hundreds of layers of automation on all these songs, with UA and Logic plug-ins. That's what we do. I'll sit here with the Logic Control, and Eric and Rob just take a seat, and I'll just roll over stuff 20 times until they're like, "That's the one!"
To check out Thievery Corporation’s newest album, Culture of Fear, visit: www.thieverycorporation.com.
Photography by: Alyssa Vedia
— Mike Levine