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Engineer / Producer Chris Manning — It's All About That Blend Knob

Chris Manning, an up-and-coming engineer/producer, took the new UA 710 Twin-Finity Mic Pre and DI out for a little test drive. Chris and his brother Roger were in the super-successful rock band, Jellyfish, in the early nineties. Roger went on to form Moog Cookbook, crank out a few solo albums and back up recordings by Beck and others. Chris Manning chose a different route. He went to The Plant Studios and signed up as an intern. Within a year Chris was second engineer and working on such records as Metallica’s Garage Inc. and Santana’s Supernatural. These days Chris is a very active engineer/producer working in a variety of studios. We thought his current project with singer/songwriter Elliot Randall would be a good test for the 710.

Were you and your brother Roger always in bands together?

I guess you could say yes. I remember when he got his first Minimoog, we would just dork around on it and play with the little slide thing. He bought it from our schoolteacher; I think that's what it was. So the first band we were in was making little performances up for our grandparents. As far as serious bands, Jellyfish was the first one, outside of school bands. We were in jazz band, we were in marching band, and we were in regular concert band together at various times. We also took piano lessons from the same teachers, throughout our whole childhood. But we didn't do the rock and roll, pop thing until we joined Jellyfish. As you know, we were signed to Virgin Records in the UK, and Charisma over here. Made videos on MTV, got to do all that cool, fun stuff, and toured opening for the Black Crows.

What did you play in Jellyfish?

I played bass guitar.

How old were you guys? Who's older, who's younger?

Roger's older. He's two years older than me. It's so cool being in a band with your brother. It's a challenge, but it's also a total gift. It's a challenge because you're constantly around them, and these old issues that you have keep surfacing. You have to figure out ways to deal with them, and not let it get into the music space. The cool thing on the music level is, there's this mind — or spiritual — connection. I can just look at him with a brief glance, and he'll know the change to go to, or he'll know the vibe. We can talk with our eyes really well to each other. And that's so awesome, because there's an unspoken connection where you're thinking the same thoughts. And as brothers, you grow up with all the same influences.

You have the same cultural references.

Yeah, and also musical references. You have the same musical language, more than anyone else, and that's a great, cool thing. It's really understandable why so many great bands have brothers and sisters in them.

Was music really encouraged in your house? Why do you think your family produced professional musicians?

It was encouraged — and discouraged. Our uncle was in this really cool surf band called Davie Allen and the Arrows, back in the '60s. They were like the soundtrack to all the Harley Davidson movies back then. And a lot of surf movies. It was instrumental, kind of surf, trippy, spacey stuff. So he was doing that, but then our dad and mom were like, "Yeah, music is culturally cool, and learn it. But don't ever consider a career in it, because you can't make any money, and it's just going to be a nightmare." [Laughs.] So there's this conflicting message. And thankfully Roger and I both saw the truth that no, you follow your bliss, and the rest sorts itself out. And in the end, you're stoked, because every day you're waking up there doing what you love. It's odd. We have a third brother, who's even younger than me. He turned out to be a professional snowboarder and filmmaker now. He's the head of Burton snowboard's film department. Everything Burton snowboards puts out goes through him. So three really creative brothers.

Chris Manning on stage with Jellyfish
Chris Manning on stage with Jellyfish

How did you make the transition to engineering?

Being a rock star!

Yeah, well there’s that, which is a whole other discussion. But from the technical side, I got to walk into a professional recording studio for the first time in my life, and see fantastic people working. Jack Joseph Puig, who was just at the beginning of a big, huge spike in his career, he went on to record the Black Crows' next record, and lots of other great hits, and he's one of the top mixers in the world now. I got to see him, and hang with him and watch him work when he was at that important, transition phase in his career. Albhy Galuten was our producer in Jellyfish. I got to know him, and watch how he worked. He was famous for doing the Bee Gees, and Barbara Streisand, and stuff from another era. Those guys were really inspiring, and I thought, "Whoa, this is what I want to do. I want to make records." I didn't really like so much getting up on stage in front of a big crowd of people. I'm an extrovert by necessity in that situation. [Laughs.] I can turn it on, but my nature is more in the creative — the kernel of the creative sprouting, the moment when ideas are born. That's where I thrive and, I've come to learn, that's what I serve. That's why I'm here, spending crazy hours doing it.

I think making music heals vast amounts of people in the world. Music's always been a huge catalyst for change. It reaches out to lonely teenagers who need the connection that music provides. Then, of course, there's the lyrical end of it as well. I was turned on to all of that through Jellyfish. Several years later I had a difference of artistic opinion and how things should go in Jellyfish, and I realized it was time to grow on. Right away I went down to The Plant recording studios in Sausalito, and tried to get in there as an intern — just start at the bottom of that ladder — and start learning the whole craft. So that's what I did. I started vacuuming hallways, and cleaning up the control room after Metallica was working that night. Shortly after that I was asked to second engineer on a Roy Rogers album — this was about twelve years ago — and from there, it just cascaded into working on many amazing albums, tons of top-notch producers, and the best engineers in the world.

Was there anybody who was a particular mentor for you, who really took you under their wing and taught you stuff?

Yeah. Steve Lillywhite. He was a huge influence. I spent two months side by side with him at the console, making Guster's record, Lost and Gone Forever. That's the one that broke them out into where they are. Their singles are all over the place. Steve Lilywhite taught me a ton, and I know that I was just seeing the surface of all the knowledge that he's built. Another critical record was Metallica — watching the Metallica engineers, specifically Mike Fraser. He's a phenomenal mixing engineer. His understanding of mix architecture, how to organize and balance sound that has one purpose: to animate the song, and the intention of the band, the singer. What's the emotional intention here? What's the intention you want to lull the listener in to? That's what these guys knew about, and were teaching me. I guess it all culminated before I left The Plant. I was a part of recording Santana’s Supernatural, and that went on to sell like 24 million records. It won eight Grammys. It wasn't just nominated, and it actually won eight Grammys. I got to work on five of the tracks on the record. I learned so much, on every single track.

So you work freelance, and have for a while, right?

Yeah. It got to a point where I started to realize that I was learning less and less new tricks. I started to understand the process, and realized it was time to get out there and continue doing it on my own. Even when I was in Jellyfish, I was recording on my little cassette 8-track, and learning how to cut my teeth, and basically logging all my hours, and...making mistakes, so you learn to not make those mistakes later. [Laughs.] So I cut out on my own, started freelancing. And began recording the best young talent in the Bay Area, bands like American Drag, 20 Minute Loop, Minipop, and Thriving Ivory. Thriving Ivory's record I recorded three years ago, and they are now signed to Wind-up Records, which is a huge label in New York that also has Evanescence, and Creed. Anyway, Thriving Ivory, the record we recorded three years ago, is finally coming out next week. It's really exciting. They're making videos. It got to the right people. Universal Audio gear is all over that record. Actually, every record I do.

So you never really had any formal training. You learned it all on the job.

Yeah, that's a good point. I didn’t go to a recording school. I think I was probably one of the last of the generation to learn in the traditional apprenticeship way. I remember when I first started working on records at The Plant, they were still on 2" tape machines, locking two and three machines was all old school. Then one day it was like "Hey, this guy's coming in today with this new thing called 'Pro Tools.' And we're going to track the background vocals, we're just going to copy them all over the song, and we don't have to sing them on every chorus — just once." It was crazy. And now all those 2" tape machines are just sitting there collecting dust.

Chris Manning on the Ted Nugent sessions with bassist Barry Sparks

Let's talk preamps. Before you got your hands on this 710 preamp, did you have a favorite? Many people cite a 1073. I would assume working at The Plant you had a lot of experience with that.

Yeah. I've had a chance to work with all the best preamps--well with the exception of one of the newer, boutique preamps.

But you have a lot of experience with the older, classic ones.

Sure, like Neves, Calrec, APIs. All the great ones.

And you had also tried some of the other UA preamps? You had mentioned you liked that 4110 that they have at Broken Radio.

Yeah. I love the UA 4110. That was the main preamp that we just kept coming back to on the new Thriving Ivory recordings. We did the acoustic versions of three songs of various singles and those are the preamps that just had the most punchy presence, and warmth. They just cut through, ultimately in the end, when it's mixed and mastered for radio. I love that preamp.

" can zero in right on the amount of big, spongy, tube-y, 12AX7 tube saturation, and that kind of punch-you-in-the-chest solid-state preamp quality."

How about the 710? What did you use it on? How did you find its sound?

I was very curious to hear what the 710 had to offer--what it did well or not well. I have a lot of respect for Universal Audio. There isn't a record that I put out that does not have 1176LN Classic Limiting Amplifier compressors on it. And I know the 610 preamp, there's a long legacy of great pieces of audio gear coming out of Universal Audio. So I was very curious: What is this new thing going to be? The look is rad, because it has the retro knobs. Even though that's just an aesthetic look, there's this comfort zone to it, too. When I'm reaching for that knob, I'm thinking 1176, because it's got the same knobs. But what I liked was that this piece of gear has that same sparkle that I love about the 1176. The 1176, you can even have it on bypass, or really light compression settings, and still get that little twinkle, that little bite that will push an acoustic guitar or a vocal in a way that nothing else can. I found the 710 had that. Maybe in a little bit of a different way, but it was cool, because it was a new way, and very useful. But what it really all comes down to with the 710 is the almighty blender. The tone-blending knob that you can go anywhere from 100% solid-state preamp, or 100% tube preamp. Or you can go 60% tube, and 40% solid state. You can go 50-50. You can find that sweet spot. And it's not in clicks. It's not detents, you can just smoothly sweep until you can zero in right on the amount of big, spongy, tube-y, 12AX7 tube saturation, and that kind of punch-you-in-the-chest solid-state preamp quality. I did a lot of recording with acoustic guitars through it.

Where was the blend knob during most of it?

It was usually at 60% tube. I was loving that. Sometimes I found full tube was just a little too dark and tubey for the track we were recording. I could clean that up later with EQ, but you always try to get the end result as early as you can in the chain. I was finding that, with the use of the blender knob, and how hard I drove the gain, I could get all sorts of colors that were different EQ shades, and different compression qualities, in such subtle ways that most people may not even notice, but as a mixing engineer, and producer, it's very noticeable, and big decisions are made on stuff like that. So, 60% tube. Leaning more on the tube side is great for this track I was doing.

Did you do some vocals? Tell me about the project with Elliot Randall.

We're recording a single. He normally plays in a band, but this was going to be vocal, acoustic, and a B-3 organ. Played by Eric Levy, from American Drag and Garage Mahal. Elliot's got a really full voice. It's got this cool, dusky quality about it. He's sort of Americana Rock, and he's a young guy, with something important to say to the world. He says it in a fresh, new way. We're recording with him. The vocal mike was an AKG C 12. And on the acoustic guitar, I was using a KM 84i. After going through the other preamps I have here in the studio as well, I settled on the 710. Again, using the blend on the acoustic was really great, to get a shade of that tube quality in there. Vocals were already going through the tube mike, and although I swept around, I liked the solid-state sound. The transistor preamp was the one that sounded the best with the vocal. Since we were using the tube microphone, we were getting our tube on that stage. But it was cool to sweep into the tube area and hear how full two tubes are coloring it and then slowly drifting out of there with the blender knob. I was very happy with it.

What other ways do you see using it in the future?

Oh, my God. This is an exciting piece of gear. You can plug them directly in the face, and drive the tubes harder, as a direct. I can't wait to track bass with a good bass player, you know? And play with the tone blender, the solid-state transistor and tube blender knob, that'll be great for that. Even synthesizers, like a Moog synth, anything direct like that. I usually hate acoustic guitars direct. But I wonder what this would do to it?

— Marsha Vdovin

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