Lana Del Rey


The Yossarians


Altar Flowers

The Happy Soul

English Heretic

Ex-Easter Island Head

East India Youth


The Heartbreaks


Mountain Song

Charlotte OC

Holly Johnson

Saint Etienne

The Lone Taxidermist

Ten Mouth Electron


Bombay Bicycle Club

John Foxx


Making Music (gets geeky in here)

Black Helicopters – Diagonal Science LP

Really proud to have worked on this marvellous record by Mancunian enigma Black Helicopters.

Mostly recorded by the band themselves, and mainly a mix / master job for me. I recorded live drums on about half the tracks with percussive man-machine Luca Corda from local noise legends Locean, and I think we re-tracked a couple of small vocal parts.

Couldn’t be happier with how it’s turned out. Thing sounds like it’s carved out of diamonds.




Recording Mountain Song


There are lots of ways recording jobs come my way. Sometimes I pester people until they let me record them. Other times, I pester people til they tell me to go away, and I continue to pester them until they let me record them so I’ll go away.

What’s always most gratifying, though, is when someone comes to you because a previous client recommended you to them. This is the one and only thing that means you definitely didn’t suck. You can get paid and still suck. You can have stuff on release and still suck. But only if your bands aren’t saying “Oh man, that dude is a NIGHTMARE and the record sounds HORRIBLE”, only then do you Definitely Not Suck.

Anyway, Mountain Song mailed me out of the blue, saying they rehearsed in the same place as another band I do stuff with, and I’d come highly recommended and all that kind of head-swelling stuff. So I arranged to go and hear a rehearsal and do a bit of pre-production planning (which I always do for free, potential customers note).

By the second verse of the first song, I was already thinking “this is going to be easy”. There’s the recording task, which is one thing, but there’s making sure stuff is ready to record, and with this band, there was just nothing to fix. Great gear, great players, great tones on the amps, great sounding kit and the thing that all that’s worthless without; great songs, rehearsed to a point beyond perfection. As in, they didn’t just have the songs nailed, they had them so nailed, they could make them groove like a bastard.

The room itself is an acoustic horror-show, really, but I’ve done a number of sessions in there now, and I know how to work it pretty well. I did a bit of wandering around while they played working out how I was going to set up, and then I was out of there in less than an hour.

Come the day, I tracked the full band live with bass through DI and the two scratch guitars though the Pod X3 Pro. Fairly crappy fake amp tones, but I captured the DI output of the guitars in case we wanted to keep anything, and then re-tracked the guitars properly though the amps.

Went out for a coffee and left the bass DI re-amping through the bass rig, recorded using an SE Electronics R1 ribbon mic. Overdubbed the slide guitar part on Silo (actually a Pepsi can, not a slide). Four songs (apart from vocals) done and dusted in about six hours. I don’t think we went over two takes on anything.

There was some later tidy up – I ended up using a re-amped DI of one of the scratch guitars for the intro of “Brave”, and we did a day of vocal recording. But 80% of what you hear was laid down in the one day.

Mix went incredibly smoothly too. There’s a thing lots of bands don’t work enough on, which is: what does your gear actually sound like? Is your amp set up right? When you rehearse, can you even hear the other players?

The two guitar tones were already really balanced; Rob’s tone is kind of tight and modern sounding, Dan’s has a more valve-y bark to it. Nothing fancy about the recording method, just your standard SM57 at the edge of the speaker cone. They blended and separated really well according to the song arrangements as soon as I pushed the faders up. Bass was a beastly subby throb with just enough mid-range bite to bring out the notes clearly. And the drums were played with superb dynamic control; no weird popping out snare hits, no flailing cutlery-drawer clatter on the cymbals, just nothing to fix.

This can’t be overstated; if your mixer doesn’t have to burn time and energy fixing stuff, they can focus fully on enhancing. Some of this is to do with playing ability, but probably more of it is to do with just spending the odd hour thinking about it and turning the knobs on the gear.

To put it another way: if you sound terrible, I can make you sound good. If you sound good, I can make you sound great. If you sound great, I can make you sound like gods.

So yeah, technically, I’m very proud of this one. But I have to be honest; this is basically what the band sound like. So when they introduce a Grammy Award for “Not Fucking Stuff Up”, I reckon I’m in with a shot.

I want that on my grave actually: “Here lies John. He didn’t actively ruin things.”

Remixing Erasure’s ‘Elevation’



Another Club Clique remix, and some of the fastest work we’ve ever done. Completely done and dusted in two sessions of about six hours each (mixing aside).

Partly, this is because it came in the middle of a flurry of work, so we were leaner and meaner than Vasquez from ‘Aliens’ that week. But also partly because it’s such a great song (as you’d expect from Erasure) and Andy Bell’s vocal performance is killer.

The Richard X-produced original had a long-ish instrumental intro, so we decided to start with the vocal. Because hey, it’s Andy Bell singing, a sound which produces instant joy. We also thought no Erasure comeback would be complete without a big stomping piano house classic, in the mould of Frankie Knuckles’ remix of ‘The Pressure’ by Sounds of Blackness.

Can’t remember most of the details now, but I know the piano is 4Front’s TruePianos, there are a bunch of z3ta+2 synth sounds, and a bit of tomfoolery with a white noise generator and Tone2’s Bifilter 2 plugin. There are orchestral timpani samples in there from somewhere too. Because you can never go too far.

Recording LVLS – the making of ‘R.I.P. Joey Fritz’

Just out this week, another EP I worked on for Manchester Band LVLS, ‘R.I.P. Joey Fritz’:


This project was a shining example of the value of pre-production. Firstly, due to already knowing the band, I’d been able to follow the development of the songs through being sent home demos, seeing a couple of gigs and getting along to a rehearsal. This kind of thing is always highly beneficial. Not so I can interfere in any way, but so I can wrap my head around what a band’s intentions are, and work out how best to deliver a good result for them.

I’d also not been quite happy with the drum sound I’d got in their rehearsal room last time we recorded. This time around, I’d had a chance to re-think how to approach it. The principal difference was simply using better, less trebly overhead mics. I also made a little cloud of acoustic shielding above the overhead mics out of a bunch of SE Instrument Reflexion Filters and a load of gaffer tape. Didn’t look especially pretty, but made a hell of a difference, by mostly taking sound bouncing off the ceiling out of the equation.

The other thing I really wanted to improve on was controlling spill from the other instruments. All working in one room without isolation can be tricky, so I gave everyone headphones, stuck the bass amp out in the corridor and turned down the guitar amps to near inaudibility. These were then cranked up again in the headphones, so the band could perform as a unit. This is no way to get good guitar tones, but we knew they were only scratch tracks, so no problem. The goal at this stage was just to get good drum and bass takes.

The day went in two halves; first getting strong takes down, then later replacing all the guitar parts individually with the most optimal set-up for each.

The exception to this was Blood Dance, for which we only recorded drums. The rest of that was put together in my home, with vocals, a guitar part, and a bunch of synth parts the band had already put together.

Also done at my home were all the vocals for the other tracks. For vocal tracking, I like to have people somewhere comfortable where they don’t have to watch the clock too much. Which happened to be ideal for this project, as we ended up trying out a lot of different things with the vocal arrangements; it wasn’t simply a case of banging down parts that everyone already knew.

To me, the vocal arrangement stuff is one of the most striking things about LVLS. It’s very rarely straight harmony stuff; more often there are interlocking and call-and-response parts. It’s incredibly clever stuff that manages to sound effortless, which I really love. So I made sure to allow time to try out different things. The second part of ‘Joey Fritz…’ where Emily takes the lead vocal arose from these sessions, based around an idea she had of making the song like a conversation between two people. That wasn’t part of the original plan, but it’s a magical moment in the finished track. You should always allow enough space and time for some magic to occur.

After getting everything down, we went through a fairly protracted mix process. Not in terms of hours spent tweaking, but in terms of taking time to think things over carefully and work out a  considered plan. Again, this is enormously valuable. The only real way to assess a mix is to live with it for a while, so you can start listening like a regular listener, and stop agonising about half a dB on the hi-hat or whatever.

I did make something of a howler on the mix process at one point, in that I mixed the title track as if it was a guitar song with synths, rather than a synth song with guitars, which turned out to be an extremely subtle but profound difference in how the thing feels. But we got there in the end.

I’m very proud of having been involved in this. It’s incredibly diverse, stylistically, but still coherent. There’s an inherent LVLS-ness to everything they do, whether that’s minimal electro or jangling power pop or a moody goth-tinged synth epic. Which is something I felt I had to step up to and match with the mixing.

All in all, I think the final result sounds like the first quarter of a great, great LP. I’m always a bit surprised when it ends after three songs.

Recording LVLS and Corvids

(Session notes and musings)

BrunswickMillJust had a fantastic, exhausting, incredibly gratifying weekend recording two bands back-to-back at Brunswick Mill in Manchester using The Box; LVLS on Saturday, and Corvids on Sunday.

You couldn’t get two more different bands. LVLS make glorious stadium-sized epic pop music. Drums, Bass, three guitars, three vocalists, sequenced parts, drum pads… it’s a fairly astounding production when they’re just playing in the room, even before you get to recording.

Corvids, on the other hand, are a more stripped-down guitar / bass / drums / vocals act; abrasive, wiry, intense and a bit unhinged, frankly. So fairly different approaches were required.

The thing the two bands did have in common was this: they really had their shit together. Songs and arrangements were complete, well-rehearsed, and performed with authority and commitment. Which is really where a good 85% of making good records resides.

Bands take note: In the year 2013, we have amazing tools and tech for manipulating sound. Tone, timing, tuning, no problem, we can fix anything. And good engineers really can polish turds and make silk purses out of sows’ ears. So you really can turn up and half-ass it, and someone like me will grumble and complain, but in the end, they’ll take what you did and turn it into something that sounds like a record.

The thing is, though, for band music (as opposed to electronica, which is a whole ‘nother thing) that’s not how you make magic, and making magic is the business we’re in. Great ideas made into great songs, performed brilliantly with the microphones pointing the right way and the recording light on is how you make magic. And I think we made some this weekend.

A quick note to say thanks to both bands for their patience; I was fairly ill recovering from a gum infection, and was on such strong painkillers I couldn’t feel the ends of my fingers. So I spent the first couple of hours of each day a babbling, sweating, incoherent mess.

Also thanks to the lovely helpful people at EXR and Brunswick Mill, Manchester’s premier rehearsal rooms / haunted castle.

Anyway, here are some specifics, for the recording geeks out there.


LVLS Session Notes
(LVLS on Facebook)


The LVLS aesthetic, it seemed to me, required two things. On the one hand, this is a band that can really play, with a lot of feel and power. So I really wanted to get basic tracks down with the full band, rather than multi-tracking all the fire out of it.

Playing to a click was a given, since there are pre-sequenced synth parts, but I’d heard how they played at a rehearsal earlier in the week, and I knew they were good enough to play in and out of the click and not play robotically. I felt that if they played separately, we’d end up with a sort of dry perfect-ness, rather than the sheer ass-kickery I’d heard them achieve together.

This turned out to be the right call; there was no weeding out bad takes, it was more a question of picking out the stunning take from the merely excellent ones. We did quite a lot of takes of the first song, but only because the band decided to make a small arrangement change after a couple of attempts. The second song I think we did three takes of, and agreed that the second take nailed it.

We only had access to one room and no dividers, so we put the bass amp out in the corridor, to at least control the low end bleed. We positioned the guitar amps in the room to get the least amount of bleed into the drum mics.


Not a dream acoustic, but no guts, no glory

This worked out fine for all the close mics, in which you can barely hear the guitars. There’s a fair bit of spill into the drum overheads, but as I’m sat tinkering with it, I’m confident this will just help the mix to gel together, rather than cause any particular issues. I don’t fear bleed. I mean, if it helps the record, I’ll bleed.

As with any intelligent and capable band, a lot of the parts kind of mix themselves, or at least, tell you how they should be mixed. Jay plays kind of heavy grungy rhythm parts, Emily plays shimmery chimey stuff on a lovely Gretsch hollow-body guitar, and Paul does the effects-laden stuntman parts. And the whole band have incredibly tight timing. It all weaves together fairly magically before you even touch the EQ.

However, I also thought a bit of studio spectacle was going to really enhance things. And since everyone could be relied on to play accurately, once we had basic tracks, we layered on doubles of all the guitar parts. I also took split direct signals from every guitar, which may or may not get re-amped during the mixing phase; will have to see how dense we want to get with it.

Guitars were recorded using single SM57s per amp, apart from Paul’s. I wanted to make sure we could get some extra depth and presence for the lead parts, so when it came to his lead overdubs, I employed the time-honoured method of simply recording it as loud as possible. We had two SM57s close, one on each cone of his Vox amp, and an SE R1 ribbon mic picking up a more distant signal with more room sound. One-mic purists can bite me, it sounds amazing.

We’ve got another session to follow to record vocals, but listening back to the raw tracks, I’m extremely excited. It’s always best when, as a mix engineer, your job is just to not mess up what are already great sounds and performances. More to follow as this progresses.


Corvids Session Notes
(Corvids on Facebook)


I got a bit luckier on the Corvids session, as the room next door was also free. So we could put the guitar and bass amps in there, enabling us to get a drum recording with no bleed at all.

However, I still wanted the band to all play together with lots of eye contact, so I had everyone playing in the same room as the drum kit, with headphones on. This gave us the additional benefit of being able to turn the amps up ear-bleedingly loud without everyone getting massive listening fatigue straight away.

I opted not to use a click on this session. Some bands play with a kind of clipped timing that suits working to a click. Other bands play with a kind of loose swing that doesn’t. Corvids play like one of those cartoon dust-cloud fights:


… so there was no way a click track was going to do anything other than kill the bad-assery, which would have been very much the wrong move.

Bassist Sam plays through a guitar amp, which is a key part of the band’s jaggedey sound. But I felt there was a risk of a low end hole in the overall sound, so we took a split DI from the bass too. Even just raw coming back over the headphones, this added a satisfying weight to the bass sound, so I think this is going to be a great thing to have to play with at the mix stage.


We had originally intended to record four tracks, but we had killer takes of those within about an hour and a half of starting recording. Unlike LVLS, where we were aiming for more of a grand production, the desired approach here was a Steve Albini-style vérité recording. So with a couple of hours left before Joe (the drummer) had to leave, and a couple more hours after that for vocals and overdubs, we just kept going.

Interestingly, as the day wore on, each song took fewer and fewer takes, and the best take came earlier and earlier. One song, we didn’t even bother to do a second take of, as everyone agreed the odds of it getting any better were vanishingly small. It’s great when you get a flow going like that.

In the end, we put down ten tracks, only one of which everyone felt wasn’t working. So yeah, we essentially tracked an LP in a day, suckers. See note above about having one’s shit together.

We had also planned to lay on guitar doubles, but listening back, we decided that it wasn’t really required; Alex is a bit of genius with his pedal-board, and the array of tones he gets out of a single guitar in a single take is pretty astonishing. And I took DI splits of the guitar anyway, so if we need any extra tones at mix time, we can re-amp that.

At which point, it came to Bob’s vocals. I often worry about making things comfortable for vocalists, as standing on your own in a room singing with a bunch of people watching can be a bit of a self-conscious experience. But what transpired was extraordinary. As soon as the recording light went on, this softly-spoken friendly chap, who’d been giving slaps on the back and ego-bolstering encouragement to his bandmates all day became a screaming, snarling, howling ball of fury. Then at the end of the take, he’d change back and ask “How was that, ok?”. More than once, myself and the rest of the band were sat with our jaws hanging open; I don’t think even they were expecting it. Suffice to say, I’ve rarely seen a more immediately committed performance in a studio in my life.

Of course, the day at this point was wearing on, and about six songs in, Bob was pretty much ready for an ambulance. So we called it a day, and we’re going to finish up vocal tracking at my home. Neighbours are going to love it, I’m sure.



Studio maintenence in the 21st century

… is satisfyingly sci fi. Half expected it to start singing Daisy Daisy and throw me out of the airlock.

"Daisy, Daisy..."

Geek Life

Got home today and not only had my Palmer active signal splitters (with polarity inversion and ground lift switches) been delivered, but there was also an In Our Time about General Relativity queued up on iPlayer.

Dear reader, I PUNCHED THE AIR.

It was amazing. I finally truly understood the nature of curves in spacetime at the precise moment I first played the solo from Stairway to Heaven through two amps at once. Whatever you did tonight, I guarantee you didn’t get a head rush like that.


Mobile Studio Progress

Everything cased up and ready for testing. Currently setting up some free recording sessions to work out any minor issues. Full list of what’s in here on my Gear List page. But basically, 14 mics, portable acoustic treatment, 24 track digital recorder, 24 channel mixer, 8 output headphone amp, etc, and blah, and all kinds of other stuff that will turn your garage into Abbey Road for the day (resemblance to Abbey Road not guaranteed).

The idea is that I can come and get results for you even in fairly acoustically dodgy rooms. Why go to a studio to feel uncomfortable while an indifferent engineer sneers at your songs? Let me come to your place and help you make something beautiful in the place you play your best.



Going Mobile

Just bagged myself one of these (for a whole grand under list price, bargain fans):

Dedicated hard drive recorders seem to be dying out a bit. Which is as you’d expect now computer-based systems are so firmly entrenched. Which is fine for in-the-studio work, but for live and location, I really wanted something utterly solid and bulletproof.

It’s a bit of an ongoing money pit at the moment, this mobile studio project, as I can’t really use any of the mobile gear until I have all of it. But by New Year, I should be up straight with a pretty tasty location recording rig, of which this will be the centre. Already have an old Presonus Firepod that I’m going to re-purpose as 8 pre-amps for this. Couple more pre-amp strips, bag of microphones, and bang, 24-track studio you can put in a rack trolley and take anywhere.

It’s a strange set of considerations, compared to buying gear that’s going to stay in one place. I’ve had to really carefully think through what everything weighs.

New old toys

Just took delivery of a pair of these. Cost £700 each about five years ago, now discontinued and available for 300 quid for a pair while a stocks last.

Is the replacement Voodoo model better? To some degree*. Are these still amazing anyway? Jesus Christ on a Segway, yes they are. Long standing plans to record a gospel choir for a club track are now kicking into gear.

* Ribbon mic with extended high end response. Call me a Luddite, but that’s not what I want a ribbon mic to do. It’s very clever, and I heart SE stuff, but still.

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