Producing Tycho from Studio to Stage
Scott Hansen and Count Eldridge Make Room for Vocals with UAD & Apollo
Creator of a musical language that breathes with glowing EDM synths, gurgling guitars, pliant backbeats, and almost prog-rock electric bass, Tycho, (aka Scott Hansen) has restlessly but diligently evolved since its 2006 debut, Past is Prologue. With a live band that challenges all assumptions about where live instrumentation and electronic/DJ methods collide, and a killer three-album run culminating with the Grammy-nominated, Epoch, Tycho continues to reinvent on his latest, Weather, a vocal-centric album, featuring singer/songwriter Hannah Cottrell (aka Saint Sinner).
A crucial cog in this creative streak is producer Count Eldridge, who started working with Tycho on 2011's Dive. From pioneering sides with DJ Shadow, Radiohead, New Order, Blackalicious, and more, Eldridge's arrangement and mixing acumen are legendary. Here, the two discuss how they harness UAD plug-ins and Apollo audio interfaces for their DSP‑defying soundscapes.
Count, what was your introduction to Tycho?
Eldridge: I started working with Tycho strictly out of a love for the music. I went to see Scott play when he was virtually unknown, was really impressed by what I heard, and I wanted to help him realize his vision, whether that was recording, mixing, or producing.
Hansen: When I met Count, I was writing and recording a lot of stuff, but I didn’t quite have the skills or perspective to fully realize what I was hearing — largely because of my technical limitations. Count came up to me at a show, was really encouraging, and explained that he was a mix engineer, and it’s been a great relationship.
Why did you guys hit it off so well?
Hansen: Because Count and I have a really similar working style, and we’re both plug-in/computer guys. We have a workflow where I don’t even have to leave my house anymore. [Laughs.] Count even designed the acoustic treatment in my studio so he can just mix there. I used to take my entire computer over to his house!
Sounds like a cool flow between the composer and mixer/producer — perhaps even blurring those lines a bit?
Eldridge: Well, the way we work is not the traditional process of recording everything and then moving on to the mixing stage. We’re always in a state of mixing as Scott records and writes the material. Every few weeks or so I’ll come over and spend a few days mixing what he’s composed and recorded, getting them mixed well enough. Then, Scott can decide what needs to be added or subtracted, and how the piece is evolving.
Why do you think this type of workflow works so well for you two?
Eldridge: Partly because this type of music is very much about the mix — you’re dealing with lots of textures and soundscapes, so how they’re balanced is half the battle. With Weather, we left a lot more space — not only in the arrangements but in the mixes — because of the vocals. It was tricky, but not as tricky as his previous albums, which were the most challenging records I’ve ever mixed.
“The Sonnox Oxford Dynamic EQ is incredibly useful. It has radically changed how I mix.”
– Count Eldridge
As opposed to other Tycho albums, Weather features vocals as a dominant texture. Why?
Eldridge: This was the right time to do a vocal album. Because after making three mostly instrumental albums that all kind of fit together like a kind of trilogy, there was a completion of a cycle there, and we both thought, "This is the time to do something new." And it felt great that the previous album, Epoch was nominated for a Grammy. That sort of punctuated the moment for us, as if to say, now is when we have a license to do this.
Hansen: The goal with this record was definitely to feature one vocalist, and one voice, and let that be the story. I did not want to go the usual electronic route of having a bunch of guest vocalists. I wanted a unified sound, and I wanted a very bold statement that would be entirely different from any other Tycho record.
Talk a bit about the vocals, and the challenge of incorporating them in Tycho's dense tunes..
Hansen: Count really carved out a ton of space so the vocal could "pop." Originally, I had the vocals mixed way down, more like an instrument, which is sort of how I’m used to treating them. But he really stressed, “If this is truly vocal music, you can’t hide the vocals!”
Hannah’s voice and her layering of harmonies is a huge part of why it sounds so distinctive. Each of those vocal performances are a good six to twelve layers deep, with separate tracks panned at different volumes, and with different effects.
Eldridge: Also, my advice to him as a producer was, make sure to leave space for the lead vocal — and not just from a sonic or mixing standpoint — but in terms of the arrangements. Try and intentionally hold back on introducing melodies from the synths, especially, so that the vocalist could occupy that space, and really own that role.
Writing this album was an exercise in restraint for Scott. Writing instrumental music, you naturally want to fill those holes. But by leaving space in the track, he was able to look for a vocalist who really fit the material he was writing and who could live in that open space.
As a mixer, did you find it challenging finding room for the vocals?
Eldridge: Yes. Tycho songs are dense and full of resonating tones and atmospheres. So the sounds don’t hit and then go away, they stay and they have these very peaky resonances, and are often driven and distorted with preamps. In other words, they’re fairly full-frequency, so there’s a lot of overlap with the other sounds that one needs to contend with in the mix. I mean, at times there are seven synths all playing at the same time with similar frequencies, so I need to get very surgical and carve out a space for everything.
What do you use for ultra-surgical tone shaping?
Eldridge: The UAD Sonnox Oxford Dynamic EQ is something I use a ton. I use that on every mix, and it’s essential because of that overlap and masking that can take place with all the synths competing for space. There’s often frequency sweeping going on, the synths are arpeggiating, so the frequencies are both broad and always changing. That means I can’t simply use a traditional, static EQ, because the effect doesn’t want to be so linear.
If I have a synth that’s a bit too bright in parts, well, I may still want it to be generally bright — I just don’t want it to get into those harsher sounds when the filter fully opens up. So, I’m going to use the Sonnox Oxford Dynamic EQ, which is just going to engage right where that synth opens up and gets really bright, and just give it a little high-end dip and contain it. I end up using that term a lot: “We’ve got to contain this unruly synth sound!”
Do you use tone-shaping tools for adding color?
Eldridge: One of our favorites for that is the Neve 1073 Preamp & EQ plug-in. I love the low-end response and the saturation that it gives kick drums and drums in general. The 1073 plug-in is also great for driving the crap out of synthesizers — just turn the input up and the output down and engage the EQ. We like to boost the mids on synths and bass a lot, and the Neve is just a great starting place for that.
Also, I use the Chandler Limited Curve Bender Mastering EQ on vocals, guitars, and synths — sources that I really want to push some high frequencies that would sound harsh with almost any other plug-in. Sure, you can use it subtly, and it sounds terrific, but when you really push it, those high frequencies start to saturate in a really pleasing way.
“The UAD 1176 Classic Limiter plug-in is something that I use on so many different sources, and I just love the character it gives to sounds.”
– Scott Hansen
Scott, you tracked Hannah's lead vocals on Weather. What was your signal chain?
Hansen: I used a hardware Neve 1076 preamp with an AEA R44C ribbon mic for most of the backing parts, and a Neumann U87 Ai for the lead vocals because it cuts a little more than the darker sounding ribbon mic.
Also, from the Neve preamp I went into the 1176 compressor section of the UA 6176 Vintage Channel Strip on all of the lead vocals. We also used the AMS RMX16 Expanded Digital Reverb to help shape the space around the vocal at mixdown.
Which UAD plug-ins seem to come up again and again as essential to the Tycho sound?
Hansen: I use the 1176 Classic Limiter Collection plug-in on so many different sources — I love the character it gives. Likewise, I use the Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder on individual instrument tracks, and the Ampex ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder is often on drums, synths, and the master bus.
You play a lot of guitar live. What are you using?
Hansen: I’ve switched from the Kemper Profiler to plugging into my Apollo Twin and using the UAD Marshall Silver Jubilee 2555 plug-in. The Kemper always sounded like a record, but the Marshall Silver Jubilee plug-in is more faithful to the raw, unprocessed sound that comes out of a Marshall.
You use Apollo in the studio and live, correct?
Hansen: Yes. ln the studio, I use a UAD-2 Satellite Thunderbolt and an Apollo Twin interface. I also use that same Twin live as a front-end for all my guitar processing. For the live show, we also use three Apollo x8p units along with a UAD-2 Live Rack at front-of-house. I was using an Apollo 16 for live shows for quite a while, which just had line ins, and it didn’t have Unison preamps, so this time around I decided to get the three Apollo x8p interfaces so I could take advantage of all those preamps.
Describe how you use Apollo and UAD-2 Live Rack.
Hansen: There’s basically two systems on stage: there’s my system, with a computer right next to me, which you might call the development world, which is the test zone for new concepts and new technology, and then there’s the FOH production side. We basically took what I had happening with the Apollo 16 and ported that mainly over to my system, which is processing the bass and the guitar stuff 100% with UAD plug-ins in the Console app; that then goes to Ableton Live, again onstage with me, for all the guitar and bass insert processing.
Now, all the drums are going through their own Apollo x8p and Live Rack onstage before they even get to front-of-house, too. At front-of-house, the Live Rack is dealing with vocals, master bus, drum bus, all the bus stuff. It sounds complicated, but actually, after being able to put the time into developing it, this Apollo/UAD-2 Live Rack system really feels like an instrument to us, rather than just a “tool.”
— James Rotondi
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