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Grammy-Winning Engineer Darrell Thorp — Golden Ears for Beck, Radiohead, Switchfoot

Producer and engineer Darrell Thorp’s workstation
at his studio, 101 Recording, in Los Angeles.

Producer and engineer Darrell Thorp has lived what so many other budding engineers have only dreamed. Working his way up the ranks in renowned recording studios in Los Angeles, such as Conway and Ocean Way Studios, Thorp found himself working with chart-topping artists such as Radiohead, Switchfoot, Beck, Outkast, Gnarls Barkley, and Goo Goo Dolls. Marsha Vdovin sat down with the three-time GRAMMY® winner to retrace his passion for music from childhood to his time in the trenches in LA’s recording scene, and how UA hardware and UAD Powered Plug-Ins are instrumental in his high profile engineering projects.

What started you off on the recording path, did you have a musical upbringing?

I grew up playing guitar, actually — which I don’t play any more. I played in several bands in my church group, throughout my high school years, and that was kind of my extent of being an active musician.

How did you become interested in engineering?

When I was a teenager back in Tucson, Arizona, I was involved with my church and I started getting into the live sound aspect. Rafael Carmany, who was the head of the sound department at the time, managed the sound department during the day but then at night he was making records. So, he was the one who took me under his wings and started showing me how things worked. From there, I started working for the church full time, and I did the live sound for several years.

So I got the bug, but I was more fascinated with the recording side than the live sound side. I took a brief detour and I joined the Navy for four years. When I got out of the Navy, I decided to go to a recording school in Phoenix, Arizona, called the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences.

That’s a really good school.

Yes it is. It’s a different program now from back then, though. It’s amazing how much it’s changed over years. When I was there, back in early ’97, it was only a four-month program.

"I’ve become dependent on the UAD plug-ins. They’re just so amazing. Sonically amazing."

So there was still a lot hardware gear and tape around?

Yeah. It was back in the day, when you had to learn more about a console and Pro Tools was maybe a two-week class. [Laughs.]

We just learned basic editing on Pro Tools. There was no, “This is how you tune a vocal and this is how you chop drums." It was more like, “This is Pro Tools and this is your basic editing function. Good luck, have fun.” And that was kind of it.

Did you intern back then?

I did. After the Conservatory, I moved to LA, and I got an internship at Track Record Studios in Hollywood. After I put in my time as an intern, they hired me and I worked there for about six months as a runner, and then I became an assistant.

What kind of projects came through there back then?

Track was a huge hip-hop house. We had Snoop Dogg, Daz Dillinger, Soopafly and Xzibit’s first record done there, back when they were just up and coming.

That must have been really exciting, especially when you were just starting off.

It was a good way to learn the basic process of recording, especially back then, when you had tape machines and you usually had to lock tape machines and stuff like that. So it was a good way to sink your teeth into the recording style.

I didn’t work in the world of hip-hop for too long before I started doing more rock sessions. They had two rooms at Track — one was the hip-hop room and one was the rock room. I bounced between the two, but started doing more of the rock recording sessions. Probably the most “normal” band that I worked on at the time was the Goo Goo Dolls’ Dizzy Up the Girl album, which was a fun record. It was a great record to work on.

Darrell Thorp’s engineering resume includes GRAMMYaward-winning albums from Radiohead, Outkast, and Switchfoot.

Was there anyone there who mentored you or was a particular influence on you?

The genius thing about assisting is you get to work with a lot of engineers who come in. You get to watch their style and you get to pick and choose what you like and what you don’t like, what’s to your taste and what’s not.

I learned a lot about general recording and mic placement, levels to take, how hard to hit tape, things like that. It was a great experience.

I learned a lot from Ken Allardyce, who was the engineer on the Goo Goo Dolls session. He’s such a sweet guy and he’s a great engineer. I really learned so much from him, just watching him do his thing. He was very thorough, very meticulous, so it was really good to see that process.

How long were you there?

I did two and half years there. After Track I went to work for Conway Recording Studios for a year.

"Having the EMT 140 plug-in, it’s beautiful, I don’t have to commit to printing the plate."

That’s such a great studio.

That was a great jump. Track was a great studio, but going from Track to Conway was just such a different experience, because Conway was such a technically proficient studio, just top of it’s game, and still is.

So it was like this whole new world. I was immersed in the technical aspect of how records were made. It was fascinating. I learned a lot about setups and more critical mic placement. I also learned a lot about the technical side of how electronics work, what they do, how they create sound, and how they also color sound.

We were still using tape, so I learned all about sync-locking multiple machines — a phase of the recording world that’s so gone now. They did have Pro Tools, but it was such a cool thing to sink into my brain about how all these other things come together and work together. I worked on some really cool projects there. I worked with [Blink 182 and AFI proudcer] Jerry Finn on several records, which was great.

After Conway I went to work for Ocean Way Studios as an assistant. I worked at Ocean Way for about three years.

How did the Radiohead gig come about?

I was working at Ocean Way for maybe eight months or so, when the band Travis came in to start their The Invisible Band album, and Nigel Godrich was there producing it. I think they were there for a month, and then went back to the UK to finish the record. But then they got to feeling like, “Oh, the weather here is so blah, let’s go back to LA.”

So they came back to Ocean Way and finished the record, mixed it, the whole kit and caboodle. I worked with Nigel on that.

Then maybe six months later Nigel came back with Beck and did Sea Change, which I was a part of.

Nigel kept saying, “Darrell, I’m going to bring Radiohead here. I’m going to bring Radiohead here.” So, sure enough he did. They worked for a month or so, and then I was invited to go back with him to England to Radiohead’s studio in Oxford, to finish Hail to the Thief for three or four months.

Let’s talk gear. Have you had the opportunity to work with Universal Audio hardware?

Oh yes. That’s my desert island stuff. Especially the 1176LN Classic Limiting Amplifier.

Thorp with the band, Kiev, during the production of their latest EP.

Is the 1176LN part of your standard recording chain?

My favorite chain of all time is just a Neve preamplifier and an 1176. I could take a pair of Neves and two 1176s with me everywhere. That would be my desert island recording setup, so to speak.

The 1176, I mean gosh, what a personal beast that thing is. It’s just incredible what it does. I use it on everything: vocals, guitars, bass, drums, overheads, and percussion. Whether you’re tapping it lightly with just a little bit of compression or you’re folding it over, really hitting it very hard. It’s just such a great workhorse.

Now you work as an independent, do you have your own studio?

My home base is a studio called 101 Recording in LA.

What kind of mixing setup do you have there? Do you use a console, or are you doing everything in the box?

I split between the two. There is a console available, an API 1604, that I just kind of tone the faders out.

Do you work with Universal Audio plug-ins as well?

Oh yeah, for years. When the Satellite came out, I was so excited because I loved the plug-ins, but sometimes it was difficult to walk in to a studio and go, “Hey, man. Can you pull your computer out of the rack there so I can shove my UAD card in?”

Now I can work at any studio. Many of my clients have their own spaces, but a lot of clients still like to go to commercial facilities to either record or mix. So the fact that I can just lug in my Satellite and plug it in with a FireWire cable — that’s genius.

Especially now, over the past six months or so, I’ve become really dependent on the UAD plug-ins. They’re just so amazing. Sonically amazing.

"The genius thing about assisting is you get to work with a lot of engineers who come in. You get to watch their style and you get to pick and choose what you like and what you don’t like, what’s to your taste and what’s not."

Do you have any favorites?

I love the Neve® 1081 Classic Console EQ Plug-In! It can be a subtle EQ if you just need to brighten something up a little bit. It can also be a really dirty EQ, if you really have to dig in and try to get some character out of something that was recorded a little bit flat or lifeless. It’s very versatile across the board.

I think it used to be in the past, if I was grabbing an EQ, I would think, “’Type A’ EQ does this and ‘Type B’ EQ does this. The 1081 does everything that I want it to do. It has all the benefits in just in one plug-in.

I know you generally compress while tracking, but are you using the 1176LN Classic Limiting Amplifier Plug-In as well?

Well, I do usually compress a vocal pretty heavily while I’m recording it.

Using the hardware?

Yes, if the hardware’s available. But sometimes I do a little of both, to be honest. Sometimes I compress lightly with an 1176 in a vocal chain on the way in, and then when I’m mixing I add the 1176 plug-in as well to get more presence out of it. So it’s a little bit of a double thing there.

It just depends on so many factors: the song, the key, the temperature, my mood. [Laughs.]

What other plug-ins have you become dependent on?

The Plate, the EMT® 140 Classic Plate Reverberator Plug-In. It’s so beautiful.

And you’ve had the opportunity to work with real plates.

Yeah, I love real plates. If I go to a studio that has a real plate, I usually cheat, because I know that I might not be able to mix with it later. So if it’s a situation where I’m cutting a vocal, I’ll record the plate with it.

But now, having the EMT 140 plug-in available, it’s beautiful, I don’t have to commit to printing the plate.

I’ve just recently started digging into the Lexicon® 224 Digital Reverb Plug-In and that thing’s amazing as well.

What kind of tracks are you using those reverbs on?

Generally on vocals and percussion-type stuff. I’m in the middle of mixing this record for a newer artist, Lauren Gillis, and I’ve been featuring the EMT 140 a lot on her vocals. It’s been really spectacular-sounding.

Actually, I’ve been using a lot of pre-delay with it as well, which normally I don’t do.

Darrell Thorp and his UAD-2 Powered Plug-Ins and vintage gear.

Why are you using more pre-delay on this album?

The producer was looking for more of a vintage sound for this record. He was the one who suggested it; he was kind of going for a ‘60s vibe, but with a more modern sound. All those ‘60s recordings have tons of reverb — tons of tons of chamber and plate all over those recordings, and it sounds amazing. So we were trying to give it that classic sheen.

The producer asked what I was using for plate and when I told him it was the UAD plug-in, he said, “Oh, good, the EMT 140,” because he has UAD plug-ins as well.

“Why don’t you put the pre-delay on?” he asked.

I asked him, “A little or a lot?”

And he said, “A LOT.”

So what did you end up setting it at?

There are a couple of songs that are 25ms, there are some that are 50, and then there was one which was really long, at 150ms.

Most engineers I’ve encountered just use enough to clear the transients, but that is more of an after-effect.

Yeah, the EMT 140 plug-in has up to 250ms of pre-delay available, which is great. That gives you a lot of room to experiment.

Another plug I’ve really gotten into is the Studer® A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder Plug-In. Just amazing. What an incredible trick in the arsenal. It’s got a sonic character that allows you to really tighten things up.

Do you use it on individual tracks or more of a mix bus finalizer?

I usually just put it on a few tracks. A great example is, funnily enough, vocals. Some singers have really good timbre and some singers have decent timbre. I usually try to match a microphone with a singer depending on their timbre, but you can’t always do that.

Using the Studer A800 plug-in on a vocal track that’s really harsh, or with too much bite, really starts to smooth out some of that really nasty 3kHz stuff that’s not very pleasant on the ear. It can really help you in that area.

And, depending on how you drive it or how hard you hit it, the tape compression becomes more apparent. The genius thing is that you can switch between a +3, +6, +7.5, and a +9dB alignment, which is just fantastic.

There are also different types of tape that are available, it’s just such a great combination to experiment with. I’ve found that some of the tape types work better for different types of songs, whether it’s a fast song or a slow song.

"Using the Studer A800 plug-in on a vocal track that’s really harsh, or with too much bite, really starts to smooth out some of that really nasty 3kHz stuff that’s not very pleasant on the ear. It can really help you in that area."

The other day I put the Studer up on some drums I had recorded — I think it was set up as a random plus with a 456 tape at 15ips, +6dB, — and then I switched the plug-in on and off and just listened to the difference.

The drums themselves, in their own their natural way, sound really big and beautiful, but they’re also kind of floppy. They’re not very tight and responsive, it was part of the kit. It was part of the thing I was going for.

But putting the plug-in on in a standard way just made everything really tight and focused. The bottom end, instead of being floppy and kind of loose as it was, where you couldn’t really tell what was going on, became really tight and very, very punchy, but not in a obnoxious way at all. It was totally smooth. The lower end around 60Hz became more apparent as well, it was really crazy.

It was a very interesting experiment, it was for a record that I’m producing.

That’s right, you’re producing now as well. That’s exciting!

Yes. I’m trying to make my way in the production world. I’ve been doing a lot more producing this year, it’s been really fun. I’m working with an artist by the name of Preston Lovinggood. I can’t wait to play his record for the world, it’s coming out amazingly.

And then there’s a band called Kiev — they’re jazz, funk, fusion, and rock rolled all into one. They have a three-song EP coming out soon that I produced and recorded with them, called Be Gone Dull Cage & Others. Kiev has been the one band I’ve been working with in recent times. Mostly, it’s been solo artists.

I’m also in talks with another few artists to start some new projects next month.

Photos by: David Goggin.

— Marsha Vdovin

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