Rik Simpson
Coldplay Producer Rik Simpson

It was a great treat to interview UK producer/engineer Rik Simpson on his use of UA gear with the band Coldplay. Coldplay’s latest album, Viva La Vida was one of the biggest records of 2008 and is nominated for seven GRAMMY® Awards, including one for Album of the Year. Rik is an extremely nice and generous guy and filled us in on how to get that incredible sound.

Tell me about your background: where you grew up, how you became an engineer …

I came fresh out of school, at the age of 16, and got a job as a tea boy in studios. That was quite a long time ago, now, probably 1990. I was always in bands, as well--quite a few actually. But I had always wanted to know how the production side of things worked. Gradually, I worked my way up from making tea to engineering. From there to production. It's been quite a long road.

How did you come to produce Coldplay?

Well, I've known the boys for about six years. I did some demos with them a while back and got on with them well, so they kept me on for A Rush of Blood to the Head, their second album. I helped out with a fair chunk of it. When they'd finished the album, I helped them get all their backing track stuff together. It was the first time they had real strings playing behind them, as well as extra percussion bits that they couldn't really play live. Towards the end of X & Y, I helped them do the same thing again. All throughout that time, I'd been working with Chris on some solo projects and projects for artists like Jamelia and Jay-Z. When this last album, Viva la Vida, came about, the band asked me if I wanted to be involved, and help build a new studio. I started out in an engineering role, but that kind of matured, I guess. I was working there so much, and apparently my input was appreciated. Since the last album finished, I've been doing loads of live mixes, and the EP as well. We're actually starting the new album fairly soon.

I'm such a fan. They seem really nice, and like real people.

They are. They're incredibly diligent, and hard working. Very fair, very generous … and very talented as well. I haven't worked with any other band that holds the work ethic that they have. They're so focused, and so willing to make everything as brilliant as it possibly can be.

You helped build their private studio in London?

Yeah, we have a studio here in London that's based around a really nice-sounding live room. It has an actual tape machine, as well as Pro Tools, Logic, et cetera.

Are you still recording to tape?

We actually do a lot of recording to tape. I really like the sound of tape. If the band is good enough, you don't have to rely on Pro Tools to edit the performance so much. You can get a really good take on tape, then get it into the computer to embellish if necessary, rather than take a shoddy performance and try and make that sound as if it's a good performance.

What kind of desk do you use?

We've got a TLA. Tony Larkin Audio 32-channel desk that we use in the studio.

That’s so a cool, an all-tube board!

Generally I record straight to tape, from a whole load of really good-quality mic amps. I tend not to use the desk for recording as much as monitoring, and a bit of mixing. Although I am mixing more and more in the box, these days.

Now that you have your UAD-2 card …

Exactly. [Laughs.] Which has been fantastic, by the way, Marsha. I'm such a fan. It's a really, really great piece of gear.

Are you using it on the songs you're working on now, on the new material?

I've been using it a lot now. If I'd had it earlier, I would have definitely used it on Viva la Vida, but it wasn't feasible at that point. I've been mixing a lot of live gigs of the band recently, and it’s helped a load. The quality of my mixes has definitely come up quite a bit since I got hold of it.

Which plug-ins do you tend to use the most?

Oh, loads of them, really. The Plate reverb, I love — the EMT 140. The Fairchild plug-in I love and use a lot. The Roland RE-201, the delay echo, I think is great. All the Neve EQs as well, I've been using loads. I find them very smooth, and very much like the hardware. The band did a single, which went on Bono's (Red) charity web site, and they just did a song with Kylie Minogue that I used the UAD-2 on, in loads. It's a really good song, actually, quite dark. It's called "Lhuna." I fully intend to make good use of it on the next album, as well.

"The quality of my mixes has definitely come up quite a bit since I got hold of [the UAD-2]."

Do you have any UA hardware?

Yes actually, in the studio we've got a couple of 6176s. Chris' vocals always go through a 6176.

That's good to hear. Can you comment on the settings?

It's generally fairly flat, actually. I just like the sound of it. I don't really pump the EQ too much, maybe shave 2 or 3 dB off, and it just gives a lovely character, a full sound. We actually moved around a fair bit during the last album. We did recordings in Barcelona, New York, and in L.A. Wherever I went, I could always find a 6176 wherever I worked, so could always recall my settings. Chris is very much a perfectionist, he'll always get the basic performance right, but there might be a few words that two or six months later, he wants to re-sing. Obviously, if I can't get the same sound that I had initially, it's going to sound off. So it was always great to be able to find the same equipment, and know that it would sound the same, so close. I could just drop in those few lines, and you'd never be able to tell that it wasn't part of the original performance.

What's the signal chain for Chris' vocals? What kind of mic do you use? Do you use any other outboard gear?

I don't use any other outboard gear when recording. It depends--Chris is a big fan of the [AKG] 414, so we use that a fair bit. He does a lot of vocals in the control room these days as well, with the monitors on, so I don't always like using a condenser mic for that. I'll use a dynamic, like a Shure SM-7 or something. We did use some other mikes other than the 414 as well, but the 414 generally seems to capture what he's about. It keeps it very organic, and earthy, and simple.

How about guitar?

I've actually been getting into ribbon mikes a lot, recently. I find that ribbons don't have the harshness of other types of microphones. If the top end's lacking a little bit, I can add loads of boost to ribbon mikes, and it doesn’t sound harsh, it just makes it sound nice. So I've generally been using two ribbon mikes, and maybe an ambient mic. I think it's very important with instruments to capture the character, as well as the "technically perfect" sound. It's all about character, and how the sound moves you. I find that recording a room, and making you feel that you're actually in the room, is much more important than just recording a dry mic and a close sound. So I've been getting into ambience a lot. I find it opens up the 3-D picture as well. It's not just left and right--you get a real sense of how deep, or how close, or far away the sound is, as well. You can layer things that way.

I love the deep layering. Such a rich layering of sound. How do you keep that from sounding like a wall of noise? How do you keep all the elements so distinct?

There are many layers, but throughout the process, all of us were very much aware of everything that was going on sonically. The whole philosophy of the record was: If it's not needed, it goes. You hear so many layers, but believe me, before we decided on which ones would stay, there were fifty times as many. It's all about the choices that were made that eventually helped the record the most.

Back to guitars. What about preamps on guitars?

Again, fairly simple. I like ADIs, generally. Just because they've got a nice crunch to them, they color the sound a bit, but not too much.

What about mic pres on the drums?

Different things for different applications. I try and use as few mikes as possible on drums. My recent discovery are ribbon mikes. Maybe three, four feet above the snare, right in the middle of the kit. I put a Chandler PG-1 across the board, which is an old, Abbey Road-style compressor, and it just sounds pure Ringo! It's really fat, and full of character. Over that, I like to add a few close mikes, just to add a bit more weight to the kick, a bit more snap to the snare. But generally the main sound is from this one mono mic.

Then there’s the UA 1176s. I use after-processing. I don't like recording with a great deal of compression. It doesn't make you work quite as hard. I try and get the sound as amazing as possible straight through the microphone. That's why plug-ins are so great. Once you've got it well recorded, you can put a digital plug-in across it, and it won't degrade the sound at all, it'll just help it shine.

We haven't talked about Brian Eno yet. How did he become involved in the project? How did you work together, or what was his role?

Brian came in for an evening, I think, on X & Y. I actually wasn't 'round, at that point. While the boys were recording X & Y, he came in, and did some of his mad synth magic. I'm not even sure if it ever got used in the final result, but the guys obviously hit up a relationship with him. He is an amazing man, such a professor of sound. Very lovely, very sweet. Though he is kind of out there, experimental, very charismatic.

You must have been so excited to have the opportunity to work with him.

Oh, absolutely. I was more than a little bit nervous. But after a few days, of course he's just a human, like all of us, just slightly more intelligent and creative. [Laughs.]

Was he there the whole time, like in an advisory role? How hands-on was he? Were there some songs that he had a bigger role on, some songs you had a bigger role on?

Basically, I started engineering the project. Brian came on board, and he's a great galvanizer of ideas. He will push the boys to be experimental, and try different things that they wouldn't normally try. I’d be at the helm, and put my oar in where necessary, if there's any ideas I have, or anything that I think will make the process more efficient. After about a month or so, we brought on Markus Dravs, an amazing producer who did records with Bjork. He did all of the Arcade Fire recordings as well. The connection is that Marcus used to engineer for Brian. He's now become a producer in his own right. Marcus is great, because both Brian and myself are fairly chill, relaxed, laissez-faire people. Marcus came in and basically kicked ass [laughs]. He motivated them to work a bit harder. There's a very good manner to him, and a way of just getting a little bit extra performance from people. Basically Brian hasn't got a great deal of patience with technicalities. He wasn't involved in the mixes at all, or anything like that. He came in, sprinkled his magic over it, then let us make what we will.

Were you surprised by the a huge success of the album?

From the first demos that they started doing, I knew that it would be a great record.

We were always striving to do something slightly different to what the guys had done before. We just wanted to add a little bit more maturity, a little bit more character into the recordings, maybe a little more 3-D character … if that makes sense.

Do you think that having the luxury of their own studio, and not having to watch the clock ticking, changed the creative process?

Definitely. We didn't just record at the home studio, though it was a great place for experimenting. We went to Air Studios, in London, George Martin's big complex. We went there for a couple of months, and did a load of live takes in their big room, a lot of which got used. But definitely having our own studio did help, especially for exploring ideas. Once we'd worked at Air, doing live takes, we'd then take it back to the studio and try things that we did need a massive room for.

So you've been really enjoying the new live room that you guys built. Have you found any other cool live spaces?

Oh yeah. We went to Barcelona, and hired out some churches and old hospitals, and did a whole lot of backing vocals in these massive spaces. That was awesome, as you can imagine. The reverbs and the ambiences were just so natural. … Brilliant.

And the UAD-2 … ?

The thing I like about it--obviously, the main thing about the UAD software is the sound. It's the closest thing in analog modeling I've heard that actually sounds like the real gear, as opposed to just an approximation of it. I really don't know how you guys have done it, but it works.