Engineer Extraordinaire Mike Shipley — Behind the Board for Maroon 5, Alison Krauss, and More
GRAMMY®-winner Mike Shipley is one of the music industry’s top mixers; his hit-making career spans over thirty years. He seldom grants interviews, so I was thrilled when he agreed to speak with me about how he uses UA hardware and UAD Powered Plug-ins.
Born in Australia, Shipley moved to England as a teenager, and there became interested in recording. He started as an assistant at Wessex Studios and his first session was with the Sex Pistols. Shipley connected with producer Mutt Lange, and that collaboration has lasted two decades and produced many great records from artists including Def Leppard, The Corrs, Shania Twain, and now Maroon 5. We spoke during one of his short breaks from mixing the new Alison Krauss album.
We started working with digital back when the Fairlight came out, I don't even know how many years ago. But when Mutt and I were working together on some projects, and trying to come up with inventive, different sounds, we were using the Fairlight.
In the very early days, it was very wobbly, and had lots of problems. But we wanted to do things you couldn't do necessarily with analog, so we used a hybrid way back then. That was back in the early '80s, when Fairlight first came out.
We've used a hybrid ever since. We've used every version of Fairlight, and every version of Pro Tools. We went straight to Pro Tools for the first Shania Twain record that we did. That's when we went fully digital, just so we could manipulate a lot of stuff that you couldn't do in analog, in terms of editing, and changing the sounds, and having different perspectives going on.
We always experimented with every early version of that, and up until right now, during this Maroon 5 record, we're still in good-old Pro Tools land. It's so much easier for recalls. Like for this record, for this last song I've just done in fact, we had 160 tracks. So you can't really do that on analog so much any more. [Laughs.]
That was done in Pro Tools, and worked out great. But mixing this record is a hybrid thing. I'm mixing on an analog console, on a 96-input SSL J. But even with that, a lot of stuff comes up on the small faders, so it all needs to be EQ'd from Pro Tools. Because 160 tracks is a lot to deal with [laughs], and there's no board that big. So we use a lot of Pro Tools processing in the mix also.
Pro Tools is the tape machine, for sure, but we're using it with the analog board, and also with the Pro Tools plug-ins. So we're using both. It's kind of a hybrid..
I heard that you favor SSL boards.
I do favor SSL boards, yes. I'm a really big fan. We've been championing SSL since Colin Sanders first came up with the E board. We were among the first to get the E console when he first built it. We were looking for a new console that was different.
Mutt had asked me to build and set up a studio for him while he was away making a record. Originally I was told by the management to get like an MCI, but I saw this ad in an audio magazine in England, where Colin had put in a brief advertisement about the E SSL console. He turned up at our studio in London with a module of an E console hanging out the bottom of a grocery-store bag. It's like, "See what you think of this." There was much more to it than what most consoles did at the time. So I just said, "I want that." [Laughs.]
So we just ordered it. We had the first one of those. Then we sorted out problems with that. We were always testing and debugging consoles. We had the first J, and we had to spend a while debugging that. We've always had a really good relationship with SSL, and had the first of all their consoles, actually. So we're always guinea pigs.
But at the same time, I also mix in the box. I've got a [Digidesign] Icon board. When I want to go that direction, I go to the Icon and mix 100 percent in the box, even though we have a 48-channel tube-summing mixer that was built specially for us.
For different reasons. Sometimes it's a budget reason. Sometimes I like to work with younger bands, who don't have quite the money that's necessary to come into a place like Glenwood Place. I work out of Glenwood Place in Los Angeles, which is a phenomenal studio. It's a three-studio complex, and I love the mix soundtracking room here. These Js are very well maintained, and I know the staff very well, and it's got beautiful gardens and so forth.
But I also have this studio that's part of my house, that we built specially, which has got the Icon in it, so when bands can't quite afford to make a budget, then I'll happily be on the Icon. The signal path is very analog, in that it all goes out through a tube, 48-channel summing mixer and so forth, and comes back in Pro Tools, with the sound a lot warmer to me.
Mutt and I had worked for a while, especially for this Maroon 5 thing, to get a converter sorted out that sounded to us a lot better than the 192. Mutt spent a couple of years working with a company called Black Lion Audio, who we got all new 192s from. The new converters are just absolutely blind tested. Absolute top-of-the-line converters. So that made a huge difference to how I felt about working in the box anyway, because they're absolutely phenomenal, just excellent.
I'm using them to track this Allison Kraus record I'm doing right now. We've got it all set up so that if I'm working on the Icon and working purely digital, with a big analog path, I'll just use the plugs that I like and I swear by, and it works out great, equally as good.
It's just that I'm a little bit old fashioned, so sitting behind a big board to me is a great thing. I don't like to mix mouse-wise. I love the Icon, because of all the faders. I like to grab a hold of a bunch of faders and move things around internally at once, rather than just mouse stuff.
People like to call the Icon a big mouse, but to me it's so much more than that. It's great, I love it. We use it both ways. We use both systems, both analog mixing, which is always a hybrid these days anyway because of the track counts. And sometimes it's all in the box, as in, through the summing boxes.
Sure. Oh yeah.
Yes I have, and the thing about the older ones is that they're all a little bit different, whereas the new ones are all kind of the same. It's a little bit of a crapshoot sometimes, with the older ones. I have a favorite—at Glenwood, for example, there's an old 1176 that I like--but I still like the newer Universal ones better, and the LA-2As, because they're cleaner, and they just sound nicer. They sound more open to me. Some of the older ones, they're great, but they're a little more finicky, and they don't always…
Yeah, big time. We've got a bunch of those at the studio.
Yeah, that's right.
I wasn't out there for the tracking. They tracked for like nine months, I think, writing and tracking up there with Mutt. Then the band came back here, and we cut some vocals, and some percussion overdubs, and that kind of stuff. We’ve been in here for about four or five weeks, and we're just on our second mix. So a lot of it's been adding stuff to the record, re-doing some vocals, and adding some keyboards and so forth. Some programming.
Now we're into mixing, we're taking a long time over each mix, and it's going to be a great record. We're just working as hard as we can to make it great. It definitely isn't a one-song-a-day kind of thing. It isn't that kind of a record, where a lot of people are under the pressure to get a song done a day, or whatever. There's a lot of people who like to factory mix, in a way, to get things done, but we like to spend a bit of time, at least two or three days on each mix, and it gives us the benefit of really experimenting with changing the song around, and the drum sounds, the feel, that kind of stuff.
I'm mixing in Los Angeles, and Mutt's in Switzerland. So I'm sending him mixes, and we're making comments and doing changes, and the band are around here, so its kind of mixing internationally. But it's fun. It's a lot of fun.
Yeah, well the plugs are great. For example, for this record, Mutt has loaded up 160 tracks of information, so everything over the 96 main inputs have to go up on the small faders, including all the samples and all the mults and everything. That takes up pretty much all of the board's small faders as well. It's a huge session. So everything that goes up on the small faders, all the EQs, are handled by the UAD plugs.
I love the 1081s, the Neve EQs. They're fantastic. In fact, in the room next door, there's a beautiful, beautiful Neve where we cut the vocals, and I really liked the presence of that, the sound of those Neves, so to me, the UAD emulations of the Neve stuff is exceptional, because I can get that same top end. So clean and sweet. I love using the 1081.
I love to use the Helios EQ an awful lot, for a nice variable EQ. I love the plug-ins of the 1176, too, and the LA-2A. Especially those. And I love the Fairchild. We use those plugs on a lot of stuff. There's a lot of programmed EQ on the vocals, in certain areas, just to give different sounds to different parts, and that's all done with the Cambridge EQ. Which is really good for EQ, for dialing in very fine Qs and pulling out frequencies that need to be on a very fine Q. Even kind of subtly, I love using it.
I also love the effects. I've been trying to find a real Dimension D for a long, long time. Because back in England, we used to put almost everything in the mix through Dimension D. It's the most amazing box. But now I've got one, a UAD one, I just use it all the time. The Dimension D is a phenomenal box to me.
Basin Street, yeah, well, there you go. That's great. I used to book in Basin Street.
Yeah. It's fantastic. As I said before, we use it a lot. It's modeled great. Whose Fairchild did you model?
There you go. Everything sounds great to me.
Oh, and there’s the FATSOs. Even though I've got four hardware FATSOs, I actually prefer to use the UAD FATSOs.
Yeah, I like them a lot. As I said, I've got four sitting right next to me, regular, as part of my outboard gear rack, but I actually go to the plug-ins now, because I like the extra features, and they really sound equally as good to me. And I can keep all the settings so it makes the recalls so much easier.
We have a very convoluted drum setup for these mixes so that we can just try anything. So I love to be able to use all those kinds of things in the box. It's so much easer. And just sounds great.
Yeah, huge fan.
"The UA stuff is just outstanding to me. It's our go-to gear, hard and soft. They take it real seriously. I just like your emulations. I think they're all great. I love them all."
Have you tried the Trident A-Range plug-in?
I have. It's also fantastic. It's great, very usable for "that sound."
The [SPL] Transient Designer that you guys have, to me, is much closer to the hardware transient designer than anything I’ve heard, which I have a few of also. So I love to use that.
Oh, yeah. Actually we've just been using that one on this—we've just been getting the Space Echo down on the intro of this song, the first single that we're doing for Maroon 5. We just spent the last few days finishing that off, and the Space Echo's all over it! [Laughs.]
It's called “Misery.” We used the Space Echo on the intro, and the breakdown. I love the Space Echo.
Oh, it's great fun.
The UA stuff is just outstanding to me. It's our go-to gear, hard and soft. They take it real seriously. I just like your emulations. I think they're all great. I love them all.
Photography by David Goggin.
— Marsha Vdovin