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Mix Masters: Art-Punk Distress with Craig Silvey

Art-Punk Distress with Craig Silvey.

By

2 July 2013

Artist: Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Album: Sacrilege

Born in the California Bay Area, Craig Silvey cut his engineering teeth working in local studios and doing an internship with George Massenburg. Silvey went on to become chief engineer at George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound scoring studio from 1992-95, during which time he worked with a number of legendary producers, among them Massenburg, as well as Phil Ramone and Walter Afanasieff. According to Silvey, this meant that a lot of his education came from “guys who had their training in the ’60s and ’70s.” He became a self-declared “obsessive gear nut” and “analogue freak,” and after leaving Skywalker, put the extensive collection of gear he had gathered to good use in a San Francisco studio he called Toast. He’s been based in London since 2002 and calls himself, “some kind of weird hybrid now: half-American, half-British.”

During 2009-12, Silvey worked at a studio in London called The Garden, but he recently moved to a studio in West London, also named Toast. It’s filled to the brim with antique and vintage gear that he has collected over two decades. Pride of place goes to his 40-input Neve 8026, which is loaded with 1084 and 1076 modules and has 40 inputs and a 24-channel monitor section. There’s also a Neve BCM10 sidecar, and a wealth of outboard, including EQs by Helios and John Hardy, compressors such as the Thermionic Culture Phoenix, Universal Audio 1176 and Urei LA4A, mic preamps by Telefunken (V76, V72), Summit and Tube-Tech, a whole posse of vintage mics, and his beloved Mastering Labs monitors, the legendary ML10s. Recent additions include a couple of Pye compressors, several Neve 32254 modules, Cartec EQP1A units, and the Dramastic Audio Obsidian TX10 bus compressor. 

Some would argue Craig Silvey’s attachment to analogue is motivated by nostalgia rather common sense, but he continues to be one of today’s most successful, and fashionable, mixers as is demonstrated by recent credits that include Goldfrapp, Florence + the Machine, Anna Calvi, Frightened Rabbit and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Going further back in time he’s also worked with REM, Santana, Ray Davies, Nine Inch Nails, Linda Ronstadt, Aaron Neville, Pearl Jam, The Coral, Portishead, The Magic Numbers, and Arcade Fire. Silvey’s working methods clearly remain relevant, well illustrated by his mix, while still at The Garden, of most of the recent Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, Mosquito — including the album’s opening track and first single Sacrilege. 

All but one of the 11 songs on the New York art punk trio’s fourth album were co-produced by Nick Launay, and David Andrew Sitek of the band TV On The Radio. Both have rather opposing backgrounds and methods. The former has worked with Public Image Ltd, Killing Joke, Kate Bush, David Byrne, INXS, Eric Clapton, Lou Reed, and Arcade Fire, and the latter with Liars, Foals, and Beady Eye. 

“Probably the most difficult thing for me in mixing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was trying to balance Launay’s and Sitek’s very different approaches and make them sound consistent,” notes Silvey. “The tension between their approaches is part of what makes that record really good. Sacrilege is a good example. The bare bones, gritty, lo-fi live element that starts the song comes from Launay, and it then builds up with a disco bass, jazzy guitar and some delayed drums that come in halfway, which are more Sitek’s direction. His stuff is more polished and wider in the stereo field. And then two thirds into the song there’s a totally unexpected introduction of a choir, which turns it into a pure gospel tune. During the recordings Sitek and Launay were each in a different studio, doing their thing at the same time. They were bouncing stuff back and forth and the band decided what they liked about what the producers were doing. I think I was brought in as an extra opinion, to draw it all together.”

A MOMENT IN TIME SAVES NINE

“When you mix in the box, you can do recalls of several different songs on any given day, weeks after you mixed them. But my equipment and my brain don’t work that way. And in my opinion, music suffers from that approach. Music is a moment in time, and the same regard should be kept while mixing. When you mix a song for the first time, you should focus on how it makes you feel rather than how to achieve perfection. If you enjoy it, and it makes you dance around the room, it’s great. But when you hear it two weeks later and start wondering whether the volume of the hi-hat is correct or not, you have to stop yourself and wonder whether it’s relevant. It may not be. Sadly, perfectionism is becoming the norm now, so it was really refreshing for me to do something like Arctic Monkeys’ Suck It And See (2011), which was recorded entirely to analogue tape, and I mixed from 24-track tape. There was no ProTools in the room and without a screen to look at we had to use our ears again, and learn the music to be able ride the vocals effectively!”

THE BUILD UP

“I mix in waves. The first time I speed through a mix, trying to get a sense of what’s there and a direction for the song. I then will start on the drums, but won’t spend a lot of time on them. I may get them to 50% of where I want them, and then quickly move on to the bass, and then the guitars, keyboards, vocal, and so on. I’ll then listen to the whole and do individual tweaks. I’ll then go back to the drums in solo, the bass in solo, and so on, and I may repeat that process two or three times. From that point onwards I’ll listen only to the complete mix. In the case of Sacrilege, I tried to get the vocal sound right from the get-go. I built the track up gradually, getting everything up to 30%, then 60%, and then to 90% in terms of effects and quality. You can’t really decide what the drum sound is going to be until you know what all the other things sound like. Plus a track like Sacrilege really has to have the right dynamic shape from beginning to end, because it changes so much. So there was a lot of listening to it right from the beginning with everything in, and making sure it grew in the right way. I’d work on something, and after pressing stop, I’d go right back to the beginning again.”

DON’T DISCOUNT PLUG-INS

“I obviously prefer to use outboard, but there are two plug-ins that I couldn’t live without. If there’s a scene change on a track, like a kick drum that changes sound, I may do that in the box, and if I have seven kick drums or so, I’ll do a global kick drum on the desk, and may adjust individual kick drums with a plug-in. I had a Massey TapeHead tape simulator plug-in on the hi-hat and on several of the percussion tracks in the Sacrilege session. It is super cheap, but actually achieves the closest approximation of what tape does. It really does that thing of smoothing out the harmonics on instruments like tambourine and hi-hat that are difficult to get to sound both loud and pleasant in digital. Plus I had the Massenburg Design Works EQ5 parametric EQ plug-in on the drum loops, used correctively. On the desk the drums were grouped together and sent to a bus compressor, the GML 8900 — used for parallel compression. I used Neve EQ on the desk, and also a reverb called the Great British Spring, which is very cheap and looks like a drainpipe. I like it a lot. Plus I had the Yamaha SPX90 for early reflections to give some more spread and thickness.”

Probably the most difficult thing… trying to balance Launay’s and Sitek’s very different approaches and make them sound consistent

WHEN ALL THE OUTBOARD IN THE WORLD...

“The main bass track is called ‘Nakamichi bass’. Launay and Sitek had used one of those old, high-end Nakamichi cassette decks, which is six rack-units high. They didn’t actually run the sound through a cassette, but just overloaded the front end, so the distortion you hear is in the Nakamichi preamps. The producers also used the Nakamichi to heavily distort the lead vocal. I put the bass through a little bit of LA2A compression for some warmth to add to that distortion, and used EQ on the desk. I also at times probably added a little bit of sub harmonic synthesiser from a dbx 120A.

NASTY VOICES

“There are two main vocal tracks, the top one, in brown, called ‘Chico’, was recorded through a Roland Chorus Echo tape delay, and this is the clean vocal. Below that is the ‘Nakamichi’ vocal. The Nakamichi vocal track was only occasionally used, and I had to make sure the clean vocal didn’t sound dramatically different, so in certain places I added the SoundToys Decapitator plug-in to the clean vocal to make sure it had some edge to it . I also used outboard on the vocal, like the Empirical Labs Distressor to help bring her vocal forward, some Cartec EQ to add some presence, and a small room sound from the Ursa Major Space Station for early reflections and to create some three-dimensionality.  I also wanted to give the choir a nastier sound to make it fit with the song, so I added more mid-range using desk EQ, and I cut out some of the low end so it would not sound as full as a choir normally would. I then applied the Lexicon Super Prime Time to the choir, to blur it a little bit, and a Decapitator, so it wasn’t as in your face and hi-fi as on a gospel record.”

MASTERING TO VINYL

“Mastering to vinyl involves EQ-ing as one would do for digital mastering, and then pressing a 12-inch, 45rpm lacquer for each song, with maximum groove width, so you get the best-sounding vinyl possible. Then you do a single playback and record it back into the computer. It’s really hard to explain what it does, but somehow the low end surrounds you more. It also adds some harmonic distortion at the top that gives a very comforting character — certainly for my generation, which has grown up with vinyl. Many mixers run things to a tape machine before or after mastering, and I have tried that as well, but in my opinion you lose more than you gain. I’ve used vinyl mastering for several records I’ve mixed recently, including Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The National and Goldfrapp. The former two were mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound in New York, while the Goldfrapp album was mastered by John Dent at Loud in Cornwall, in England.”

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