Producer Stuart Stuart has guided Sheppard into commercial success by taking it one song at a time.
Story: Mark Davie
I wish I still had copies of the unsolicited music newsletter producer Stuart Stuart used to foist on his spam list. It was entertaining music industry click bait: confidence inspiring lists, Top 10s, and dos and don’ts if you want to succeed in this fickle industry.
Key to its attractiveness was the correspondence’s air of confidence buoyed by the national success of pop stars The Veronicas; Stuart Stuart’s own biggest break to that point. Unlike most studio emails offering healthy rates, formidable gear collections or expiring EP deals, Stuart Stuart was selling himself. His big idea, the tidbit of helpful industry knowledge gift-wrapped in a few hundred words or dot points, was just the lead-up to his offer: a price per song not per hour; pre-production a must; accommodation inclusive; and a producer that actually cares.
It was touchy-feely stuff; even his studio name, Analog Heart, seems more skewed towards tenderness than a fascination with gear. But it wasn’t just a marketing ploy, Stuart has stuck to the formula since day dot. He’s never seen the point in going about producing music any other way, even 15 years ago when he was charging $300 a song and still doing the same hours. “I actually had a Business degree, but obviously my accounting knowledge completely failed me because the business model I was working on made no sense!” said Stuart. “Frankly, the work I was doing in the beginning was quite bad. But I still didn’t want to be limited to the mindset of only having an hour to record a lead vocal because it’s all they can afford.” By the same token, he didn’t want to be “one of those guys all coked up in a 24-hour studio lockout.” The financials have caught up as his skills have increased, and things are looking relatively healthy at Analog Heart.
He’s had a few other decent hits since The Veronicas. Brisbane band Small Mercies signed to Sony and threatened to break through in 2007, and boy band Boystar’s cover of Lover Boy [that’s some focused branding – Ed] was a Top 10 single. But the bulk of his work has been trying to live up to his promise of delivering unsigned artists onto a bigger stage. And though a few of them have garnered some industry praise and songwriting awards, even he was starting to get cynical about his ability to control the success or reach of anything he worked on.
By the time his work with Brisbane band Sheppard kicked off, it had reached the point of ultimatums. “After we’d finished the first few songs,” recalled Stuart. “I thought, if we have any kind of music industry left, decimated as it is, this is a band somebody is going to like and do something with… or I might as well give up.”
Thankfully for Stuart, Sheppard has become a raging success, with the first single Let Me Down Easy sparking the fires a year or so ago and the latest song Geronimo off their album Bombs Away holding down No. 1 spot for three weeks and selling four times platinum.
PARKED IN THE LAST SPOT
Sheppard’s core is built around the Sheppard siblings — George, Amy and Emma — with guitarists Jay Bovino and Michael Butler, and drummer Dean Gordon rounding out the band. One of Yothu Yindi’s members used to teach the kids music where they grew up in Papua New Guinea. So when things started getting serious, and an album was essentially in the can, industry heavyweight and Yothu Yindi associate Michael Chugg was given a call. But everything really fell into place when the one thing Stuart doubted was ever possible anymore happened — commercial radio picked up the first single.
“I was just shocked at the time,” said Stuart. “I still don’t know why they did. I mean we had a great song, but I’ve had plenty of people with good songs, and commercial radio just laughed them off, ‘Of course we can’t play it, we don’t know who you are!’
“Somebody explained to me years ago that commercial radio has four parking spots every week where they can play new songs. Three of them are going to be filled with Nicki Minaj, Flo Rida and Pink and maybe there’s one last spot open at best. I don’t know why they chose to give this particular band the level of support they did. It started everything.”
Sheppard has signed to Decca Records for their international release, played on every TV show going this winter, and Stuart Stuart picked up an ARIA nomination for Producer of the Year. It’s all happening for the Sheppard camp. And for Stuart, it’s re-instilled faith in his approach.
In fact, the whole reason Sheppard got on so well with Stuart was because his process was exactly the opposite of the cookie-cutter approach their last producer took. By Stuart’s count they’d blown about 30 grand on a record they had little input into, weren’t happy with and has never seen the light of day. “They’d had such a bad experience that they were thrilled about having any creative input at all,” said Stuart.
It was re-energising for Stuart too, having become a little jaded with the industry he’d stopped listening to new music and “stagnated a little bit,” said Stuart. “They came to me at a good time, when I was ready to inject some new influences and get back in touch with why I love this job. They brought in a bunch of new music I hadn’t been listening to, which inspired me to update my tastes. I started to feel I really do like a lot of music that’s out right now. And I can make it.”
On rotation at Analog Heart Studios was a steady roll of American indie darlings to soak up their aesthetics: acts like The National, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Lana del Rey, The Black Keys and Bon Iver. But Sheppard’s stock and trade is pop hooks. “Those guys can’t write a song without a great melody,” insists Stuart. The combination meant the 11 tracks on Bombs Away all have a “pop structure and classic songwriting but with a lot of sounds that come from contemporary alternative,” said Stuart. “It comes with a certain credibility because of that.”
“Somebody explained to me years ago that commercial radio has four parking spots every week where they can play new songs. Three of them are going to be filled with Nicki Minaj, Flo Rida and Pink and maybe there’s one last spot open at best”
Coming at that broad American indie genre with fresh ears put Stuart in a unique position to evaluate exactly what makes up the sound of those records. The first big call was to dismantle the drum kit, mostly programming beats with big orchestral toms out of the Drums of War sample pack and using anything but a straight snare drum, then overdubbing live drums and injecting loads of handclaps, percussion and generally more roomy sounds. Which was also the next identifiable element — more room… in everything. “Everything I’d been doing sounded very dead,” said Stuart. “Whereas you can hear the space all that music was recorded in, or at least hear a big room somewhere, whether it’s in the percussion or vocals.”
Thirdly, there was to be no distorted guitars. And filters became shorthand for tweaking a sound. “It was a little bit unusual,” said Stuart. “There’s plenty of records where you hear the top end taken off backing vocals. But using filters in more of a dance music way and letting vocal parts, drum parts and acoustic guitars filter up was a little different.
“For instance, on the song Pebble Road I put a filter on the acoustic guitar and gradually swooped it up and down through the song and it created this background morphing texture, which helped create space and warmth.”
KITCHEN SINK TEMPLATE
Keeping every option open demands a workflow that is equally immediate. So rather than building up each session as he goes, Stuart begins with a giant Cubase template comprising almost every channel permutation he can think of, ready and routed.
Stuart: “I have eight lead vocal effects that are always there. I probably should be tweaking my short plate and longer reverb more often than I do, but I like them both. And then I have a quarter-note delay, eighth-note, doubler, all that stuff. I pretty much have those same effects for backing vocals, with maybe some bigger ’verbs.
“Then I’ve got about 16 sends of other effects, that are mostly delays and reverbs. And my different groups like acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and snares are already routed to different effects. I do change that from time to time, but it gives me something immediately workable. For instance, I’ve already got 16 tracks labelled ‘Oooh’ because quite likely I’m going to have a part featuring something of that nature.
“Lately I’ve been inserting more effects into the channel rather than using sends. I was often finding George would ask for a particular reverb on certain parts and I was never getting it wet enough, even with my biggest ’verb maxing out the send. It took me a while to realise I need to insert that reverb, then bring up the mix as we want the part and put a compressor after it. I don’t know why it took me so long to twig to that. I think I was just hardwired onto the idea that a reverb and delay must always be on a send.
“The recording process with Sheppard has helped me develop some much more interesting sounds. Just by virtue of constantly being asked to do something and never quite being able to deliver it in the way I’d done it before, which meant having to get out of my pattern.”
Another example of how he revised the way he was mixing, was to cut down on the number of group stages he was using. Stuart: “I used to mix through multiple groups, say an acoustic guitar would go into an ‘all acoustic guitar’ group, then into an ‘all guitar’ group, and another group called ‘instrumentals’ before hitting the master chain. All so I could bounce out stems or turn down all the guitars at once, but I never did that anyway. And I recently had someone tell me sub-mixing kills tone, so I decided to change it all around and go shortest path to the mastering chain for every channel. I still group 16 tracks of backing vocals together because I want to compress them all together, but I just skip all the unnecessary stages after that now. It could just all be in my head, or I could just be getting better at what I’m doing, but everything’s sounding punchier and clearer to me.”
It’s not just his new workflow that has been having a sonic payoff, IK Multimedia’s ARC (Advanced Room Correction) plug-in has also brought up the consistency of his mixes. Stuart: “I’ve got a bare minimum of acoustic treatment in my room — some mid and bass traps — because my attitude was to not do much if I don’t really know what I’m doing. But once I got ARC, suddenly the bottom end in my room evened out — the difference is incredible. The EQ curve it made is quite radical, but everything I’ve done since translates really well. I’m never shocked when I hear my mix on anything.”
YOUR OWN MASTER
If you go online and search for Geronimo on YouTube, you’ll come across two distinct versions of the single. One is a vaguely OK GO-ish video designed to punch through into the international market, and the other a cute Les Mis/Frankenstein narrative featuring a cardboard monster, glitter grenades for weapons and love conquering the divide.
On first listen, I thought my hearing was being affected by the visuals, because the hi-vis international version sounded brighter and punchier, rendering the sepia-tinged domestic version dull by comparison.
Stuart is still kicking himself over it. The original master that ended up on the domestic version was done in the US. Whereas the more forward master for the international version was his. Funnily enough, it’s the US master — which according to Stuart is “dull and about 3dB off everything else” — that has been doing the rounds on Australian radio. “It’s muddier and it’s my own fault because when we got this master back from the U.S. I just rubber stamped it without referencing anything else,” admitted Stuart. “I just thought those guys are so well-known and have mastered all of my favourite records so they must know what they’re doing. When I started hearing it on radio I thought, ‘Why are we so quiet?’
“I’d always assumed the radio station’s limiter would sort out the level of everything, but it doesn’t at all. I was really surprised by that. Geronimo has been the most played song on Australian radio this year and I kept hassling management to sub in the better master but they’re all of the mind, ‘well if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’
Stuart wasn’t in the habit of mastering his own material, but ever since that episode he masters as he mixes. Stuart: “These days you’re getting your mix together as you record. It’s certainly not like it used to be, having to pull all the faders down to zero and start again. When the mix is starting to really shape up, I’ll turn on my mastering chain and start listening to how it will influence things.
“To me, it never made sense to do a mix then send it off to a guy who’s going to put it through some other equipment and see how it reacts to what my mix is doing. It just didn’t make sense to have that as a two-stage process.
“Part of it is that once I turn on that mastering chain, suddenly I’ll notice something subby that’s sucking all my headroom down. It’s also a great time for me to start referencing other mixes I really like, and I might realise I’ve become used to a quiet kick. Or when you’re putting on that final top-end boost and suddenly the hi-hats are burning your ears but your vocals are sounding good. That’s when you go, ‘hang on, my vocals need more top end.’ It really helps your mixing, suddenly I’m finding I don’t need to compress or automate a particular thing as much as I thought because it’s getting glued together by my SSL bus compressor.
“There are certainly going to be some purists who say you’re a cowboy if you’re mastering in-the-box, but I’m getting the results I’m happy with. I managed to chance on a mastering chain that was giving me really good level without too much suck. For level, it’s just an SSL doing a little bit, into a Waves L3 doing a little bit, into a Sonnox Inflator doing a little bit. If I’m not getting level easily then something in the mix is sucking all of my level and it’s almost always the bass. If there’s any secret, it’s not letting any one thing do too much work. If you’ve got 8dB of gain reduction on an L3, something’s gone wrong.”
Working with Sheppard has been a reinvigorating process for Stuart Stuart. It’s again demonstrated that his one-song-at-a-time method works, even though some songs on the album took much longer. But more than anything, the injection of new references and positive results has reinvigorated his passion. “The idea of being chained to a chair, recording any old band for hours and hours until their budget runs out, I’d rather do anything than that,” said Stuart. “Engineering is not my passion, and I wouldn’t say producing is my passion, it’s music that’s my passion.”