Spike Stent on Mixing Vocals with the UA 1176AE

Spike Stent
Engineer Spike Stent

Spike Stent is one of the industry’s most sought-after mixers, having carved the sonic landscapes of Beyonce, Madonna, Lily Allen, Goldfrapp and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in past year alone. It is said that he is redefining the art of the mix, as Bob Clearmountan did in the eighties. I caught up with Spike Stent in Los Angeles, where he and his family are currently living.

Tell me the story of how you got your nickname.

It's kind of interesting. It was back during my first freelance gig from Trident Studios. I got a gig engineering for John Paul Jones [Led Zeppelin] on an album for this band called The Mission. We were due to start recording at The Manor studio, in Oxfordshire, so JP and I turned up on Sunday evening, had dinner, and the band still weren't there. The band didn't turn up until like four in the morning. When they did come in, they were in a--how can I put this subtly?--they were in quite a state [laughs] from whatever they had been up to. So consequently, the next morning, I was setting up the studio with the road crew and the assistants, getting everything together, when the singer walked in and obviously had forgotten my name. I had very spike-y hair, so hence the name. … He called me Spike, and it just sort of stuck. We were there for three months, and everyone there called me that. We then went on to Townhouse to mix the album, and everyone there started calling me Spike. It's one of those kind of things that just kind of happened, really.

How did you start off in this biz?

I started when I was 16 at Jacobs Studios, in Farnham, in Surrey. I was there for four and half years.

You started as a tea boy?

No, actually I started off mowing lawns [laughs], making repairs and such and eventually working in the studios in my evenings and days off. The owners, Andy and Fran Fernbach--a couple of the many people who, in my career, have been very fundamental--they gave me the start in this industry, and I'll never be able to thank them enough. It was a residential studio, with two rooms. We tended to change consoles a lot, so I got to use lots of different desks, an Amek, a Harrison, an MCI and SSL. They also had, which only one other studio in England had at the time, a 3M digital tape machine, which was incredible. I still think back to those times, it was an amazing-sounding machine … although technically a bit tricky.

I had my first proper break, I guess, with a band called Steel Pulse. They wanted some rough mixes. They'd spent a long time making this record, and I just sort of went in one Saturday morning and knocked out nine rough mixes or something, for the band to hear. That evening, my boss Andy, got a phone call from their manager saying, "The band want Mark to do some mixes." So I ended up mixing half the record, an album called Earth Crisis. I was only like 17 and a half or something.

How did you become a mixer?

When I left Jacobs, I went to work for Trident Studios in London, because I was very young, and wanted to work for a London studio and experience that. This was like 1985, and I was doing a lot of extended 12-inch mixes. DJs would come in, the people who commissioned to do the mixes, and I'd kind of get it together, and do everything. Those mixes turned out really well, and the A&R people would come down and go, "Hang on a sec, why does this sonically sound better and feel better then a lot of the 7” singles they came from?" So then I got asked to do the 7”singles as well … and that's how it all started happening, really.

Why did you move from London to L.A.?

I basically came over here to do some work with No Doubt, with my family, for six weeks, and we kind of just stayed. I have four children, so while I was working, my family were on holiday on the beach and stuff.

Different projects came along that I was able to do here, people were happy for me to do them here. We were going to go back, but just kept extending it, and we thought, well, we'll keep the kids out for half a term and let them experience school over here for a bit. It was something Tracy, my wife, and I always wanted to do, spend some time here together. Then my mixing work transferred to here from the UK. I'd say 60 to 70 percent of my work in England was for the U.S. anyway, whether it was from Olympic, where I had a studio for many years and worked, or my home studio, which was down in Salisbury, in Wiltshire.

Then we got a phone call from Madonna, who I've worked with a lot over the last 14 years, saying I'm going to be working in L.A., can Spike come out to L.A.? My wife, who's my manager, spoke to her manager and said well, he's actually here already. So we stayed even longer. One thing led to another, and we just sort of decided to stay. I had to get everything in line, visas and schools, and all that kind of stuff had to be sorted out early on. We didn't plan to stay here. Definitely our houses still sit there in England, and my dog's still there.

My brother's still looking after the house and my studio's there. Unfortunately Olympic is now closed. It closed in January, which was very sad. So my home studio, where I've got an SSL room, a duplicate of the Olympic room, has now got all the equipment from Olympic as well. … It's an engineer's dream, that house.

Do you ever have communication with the engineer, or the producer, when they're tracking?

No, not normally. Well, it depends really. Sometimes it's an artist I've known, so I'll speak to the artist before they go in. With the Beyonce project, because it had so many different producers, they kind of looked to me to pull it all together--just make it feel like a record.

Let's talk about what setup you're using at Chalice Studios . You did the Beyonce and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Chalice?

Actually, I did Beyonce at Record Plant. I based myself at Chalice, pretty much, since I've been out here, but I just stepped out for a little while to the Record Plant for that one record. Here at Chalice, I run a [Pro Tools] HD rig through an 80-input SSL G Series console along with bits of outboard that I had sent over, and then obviously the bits that I love, that I've discovered from you guys.

Did you use UA gear on Beyonce’s vocals?

Yeah, the 1176AE Aniversary Edition. The first time I plugged that in was on like Day One of that record, and it's not left my vocal chain since.

Beyonce has such a gorgeous voice, it would seem like you really wouldn't do a lot to it.

Well, with the 1176AE I have it set for 2:1, and I love it--love the sound of it. It just brings vocals to life, sonically. It really excites it without it sounding over-compressed, and right in your face. I love that about it. You know, with some compressors, they just sound like the life's been squeezed out of it, but the 1176AE doesn't do that. It still sounds rich, and full. It's brilliant.

What's the complete vocal chain?

It goes from the computer into the console, then through a dbx 902, then the 1176AE . On another channel, we'll have the 2-610, and a 902. It's kind of a mixture between the two… but it's mainly that 1176AE that gives it "the sound."

Karen O [Yeah Yeah Yeahs] has a very distinctive, very different voice.

Yeah… I used the same thing, same chain. Love it.

Really? The same chain as Beyonce’s. That's really fascinating.

Yeah. Obviously the EQ changes, and I do a lot of automation in the box, whether it be effects sends, different effects, stuff like that. There's a lot of automation. The EQs are automated in and out of different sections, because they need different treatments. That kind of thing definitely happens a lot in my mixes.

How do you see using it in the future?

Basically, for me, that's my vocal chain, and it's not changing. You know, I'd always been an LA-2A man. I mean, when I built the room at Olympic, over ten, eleven years ago, I went through eight LA-2As to find the one I loved. That was the big part of my vocal sound for many years. But this 1176AE Aniversary Edition, it just does something else. It just sits--it just does it for me. The way it makes vocals sit in the track, without it sounding compressed. It's just got a presence, and a punch to it, which I love.

Do you have any secrets to mixing Edge's guitar? The big question everybody wants to know.

Yeah … LOUD [laughs.]. It all depends on the song with them. Edge's sound is so unique, the way he plays, and the effects, it's just a question of balancing it. It's not like with a lot of modern rock records where you've got to have the guitar blisteringly loud. It's more about what's sympathetic to the overall music at particular points in the song, and whether it moves you emotionally. With them, mixing is an interesting process. It's more about the emotion than making something ridiculously dynamic and larger than life, and swamping the speakers. It's more about trying to find the right sort of space for it.

I heard a quote from you that you don't look at meters, you're listening.

I use my ears, that's kind of my thing. Obviously if something's crapping out, then you check meters and things. I love G Series consoles because of the way they sort of distort. You can just drive them hard, unlike the more modern SSL consoles, which tend to spit and go [spitting noises].

Why do you think you're a good mixer? Because you listen?

No. I don't know, I've been doing it an awful long time, and I think I learned by my own mistakes, really. I don't know why I'm a good mixer. Maybe because I kind of understand artists, and I get a sense of what they're looking for. Anyone can--I say this broadly--anyone can learn how to work all this equipment. I always tell young interns, you can learn how this stuff works in a matter or months, but it takes years to learn how to "work it." Do you know what I mean? If someone like Bjork, says, "I want it to sound like a waterfall" [laughs], you've got to try and take that creative explanation of what they're looking for, and try and put it into sonic terms.

With some compressors, they just sound like the life's been squeezed out of it, but the 1176AE doesn't do that. It still sounds rich, and full. It's brilliant.

Their vision …

Yeah, you've got to understand their vision. You've got to translate that. That's the thing that takes time and experience. I've had some strange requests over the years [laughs]. You should always listen to everyone. The thing is, with mixing and making records, everyone's got a point of view, an opinion, and it's good to listen because you know what? We can all learn from this. Every day I learn a new thing.

Are there any classic recordings that have a sound you try to emulate, or try to achieve?

Oh, there were so many. When I was young, from the age 12, I used to sit in my bedroom with headphones on, studying all these records, trying to work out how they did them. I used to listen to Grace Jones records and Kraftwerk records, and all this kind of stuff, to figure out how they did them. This was the late '70s. I started in studios in 1981. It's not like with the internet now, where you can find out how things are done.

I was very lucky, when I started out at Jacobs, there were still a lot of punk, post-punk bands, and we did a lot of reggae bands, and all kinds of different things. So I got to record bands, and understand that kind of stuff. But also dealt with electronics, and computers. It was the early days of computer technology, and drum machines and stuff. I worked with Fairlight and Synclavier and all that kind of stuff.

Did you take to computers really quickly?

Yeah, I guess so. I had an early [Digidesign] Sound Tools 2 system, which a band gave me.

That must have been around '88, '89?

I got it around '90. Then when I built the mix suite at Olympic, it was totally Pro Tools based. I've always stayed on top, tried to keep everything cutting edge as possible--be ahead of the technology, ahead of the trend, as much as you can.

What are you working on now?

I'm about to start Massive Attack, again, in the next couple of weeks. So that's going to be good. There are some very exciting records about to happen but I can't really talk too much about it yet, because I'm very--what's the word?--superstitious.

Do you listen to music recreationally, or do you have to give your ears a break?

No, I do, very much so.

What do you listen to?

Oh, all kinds. I mean, I've got four children and they turn me on to things, which is great. I've got one son who's totally into rock and the Beatles and alternative things, and another one who's Mr. Urban. So it's quite good, our household.

If Universal Audio could design you your dream product, what would it be?

What would my dream product be? That'd be a very interesting thing. It'd definitely have distortion in it… some controllable distortion-type of setting. I like to hear things working. I like processing to color sound, add character. Especially now, because we're in the digital domain so much. I think it's important that any pieces of hardware add color and character. So anything that does that, I'll be very excited by. If you could design a compressor that really colors the sound, in multiple different ways, not just one, I think that'd be exciting.

— Marsha Vdovin

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