Charlie Andrew Mixes Alt-J with UAD Plug‑Ins
As the artful studio helmsman behind British folk-hop sensations Alt- J — and their 2012 Mercury Prize-winning album, An Awesome Wave — producer Charlie Andrew found himself the recipient of Britain’s Breakthrough Producer of the Year Award for 2013. Not bad, considering An Awesome Wave was the first album that bore Andrew’s name as a producer. Before that, however, Andrew had been quietly and modestly plying his craft for years, as an assistant at the venerable Abbey Road studios, and as a drummer and songwriter for his own band, Laurel Collective. Andrew has also worked with Nick Mulvey, Sivu, Marika Hackman, and We Were Evergreen, and added his imprint to albums by Madness, Eugene McGuiness, and more — including Alt-J’s latest record, This Is All Yours. Here, Andrew details the recording process behind the band’s new release, and how UAD Powered Plug-Ins contributed to the record’s wonderful sonics.
Is there a through-line in your approach to production, or is it simply on a case-by-case basis with a given project?
Well, the very first thing I do is go see the artist live — and try to work it out from there. For me, the Holy Grail is really if I can make the band sound as natural as possible, as if you were listening to them in the room. That’s the backbone of what makes a recording believable to me, and being able to believe what you’re listening to is the key.
A lot of that comes from capturing the ambience of the room, so you feel like you’re in there with the performers — whether or not it’s a completely live take or not. Ultimately, it shouldn't sound like you just glued it together, following the usual formulas, simply to get it on the radio.
The Alt-J tracks, in particular, seem intent on avoiding clichés, in terms of arrangements and parts, vocals dropping in odd places, and melodies curling around in unexpected ways.
It’s certainly not intentional, but there is really something exciting about discovering that unexpected sound or approach when it really works.
Getting away from the usual verse, chorus, verse, structures or hearing something in a new way is always cool, and it inspires you to want to hear it again and again. In Alt-J’s case, a lot of that comes from the way the band writes. I’m a huge fan of Joe Newman’s lyrics, and the angle he writes them from is a completely fresh take on writing lyrics, drawing from phrases he may have heard in passing, or a book he read.
How does the rest of the band fit into this arrangement-wise?
The band will jam on Joe’s initial ideas — many of which start with sampled drums on drummer Thom Green’s laptop — and they explore. So rather than a traditional verse/chorus structure, you get something more akin to a poem being scored out.
What’s your role in all this?
Part of my job, especially in the early stages, is helping ride the line between that more open structure, and something a bit more intricate. It’s a balance. With some bands, that looser feel and approach to the arrangement can be really exciting. With Alt-J, although we record the basics live to get a dynamic feel, and the performances are great, there’s a lot we do after the fact in Pro Tools — like adding a bit of TR-808 kick drum, for example, to make it even more intricate.
The thought was to keep much of the recording process the same as the last album. So rather than go into some big, posh studio that would freak us all out, we recorded this record the same place as the last, Iguana Studios. I know my set-up well, it works, and as we couldn’t really afford to waste any time, I’m very happy with what we came out with. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
The drum and vocal sounds on This Is All Yours are great, and there’s a ton of warm natural ambience.
I love to mutate the sounds of the drums after they’ve been recorded, mixing the live sound in with some drum machine samples, for example. But the beauty of the Alt-J drum sound is that there are no cymbals on Thom’s kit, so it never takes your head off.
I’m also a big fan of compressing the room mic a lot, and without the cymbals, you can really hear the room around the kit. I tend to add quite a bit of distortion to the room mic as well, which really helps brings out the ring of his 10" snare.
What UAD plug-ins do you find yourself calling on, and what did they bring to the table for this production?
For starters, the Teletronix® LA-2A Classic Leveler Collection works so well. I was quite surprised how it managed to compress guitars while making them sound more dynamic, rather than less. Right there, that’s something that really helped the development of the sound and allowed me to do certain things I couldn’t have done on the first album, like really get the electric guitars to sit in the right place. The FATSO™ Jr./Sr. Tape Sim. & Compressor plug-in was also very useful in a similar way.
I used a bit of Roland Dimension-D plug-in as well. I love that for helping vocals sit in the mix as well as adding a bit of space around them. I just send a bit of vocals out through an Aux, and it helps settle them nicely into the mix. I’m a big fan of chorusy, modulating effects in general, so the more I can get in there, the better. Along those lines, I love the BOSS® CE-1 Chorus Ensemble plug-in, and I used that on the vocals too.
I have to mention the SSL G Series Buss Compressor plug-in for the mix bus. It’s great for knocking off the peaks in places, and for giving a lot of added presence. I use a very fast attack, and a very fast release, so it’s almost limiting, not even mild compression — and there’s certainly no pumping, although that can be cool sometimes.
However, the SSL G is not for everything, but it can really open up the mix, and give you that extra loudness without killing you. I’ll also play around with the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor plug-in, which does a similar thing. Also for the mix bus, I quite like the Precision Limiter plug-in, which actually makes the mix sound more dynamic, too, unlike some not-so-good limiters, which just squash everything.
If I’m looking to get a bit more fatness and bass out of something, I’ll often use the Moog® Multimode Filter / Multimode Filter SE plug-in — I love that thing, and it’s also good for getting some really weird distortions. The reverb plug-in that I’ve been using consistently is the EMT-250 Classic Electronic Reverberator plug-in. I really like that. And for certain tracks, I’ve used the EMT-140 Reverb plug-in as well.
Well, the new Alt-J album certainly sounds wider and wetter than the first one. Do you hear the same movement to a wider stereo image?
Yes, I think that’s true, and that just owes a lot to the last few years of me mixing and getting a better idea of how to position the elements of a mix, and working out a better way to enhance that image.
The EMT® 250 Classic Electronic Reverb plug-in has really helped, because it allows me to get things to sit well in the mix without having to think about it too much — it just works. Every now and then I’ve used the Precision K-Stereo Ambience Recovery plug-in, which is quite cool. Not too much, because sometimes I get a bit scared of it — as if I should have put it on earlier, and sort “mixed into” it. I end up fooling around with it later in the day, and then I wonder if my ears are going! When I first discovered it, I thought it was just amazing, and it really does do the job well, whereas some other imaging plug-ins sound a bit dodgy.
Having worked at Abbey Road, and having had experience with classic analog outboard gear, how do the UAD plug-ins measure up, to your ears?
While the graphic interfaces do give you this psychological comfort level of feeling like you’re looking at the real thing, they also react the way you would expect from the analog versions, which is really cool. I’ve used some other plug-ins in the last few years, and while I got out of them what I needed, they required quite a lot of fiddling to get there. The UAD plug-ins do what you’d expect from the analog versions — and then some! For instance, I wasn’t that familiar with the Teletronix LA-2A — I didn’t use the hardware very often at Abbey Road — but I absolutely love the plug-in. Two knobs, and that’s all you need!
Photos: Richard Ecclestone
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