MIX MASTERS: DAVID WRENCH’S XX VOCAL EFFECTS - AudioTechnology
Story: Paul Tingen
Artist: The xx
Album: Say Something Loving
The xx have always looked and sounded as if you’ll scare them off if you get a little too close. They like their space, it seems, and it’s reflected in their mostly spare and intimate music. Keeping with this close-to-the-chest mode, the band’s first two albums were in-house jobs. Recorded, produced and mixed by the band’s reserved beatmaker Jamie Smith (aka Jamie xx) and XL Recordings’ in-house engineer Rodaidh McDonald. Early on, the introverted collective apparently disliked the treatment of their sound at the hands of other producers, preferring to rely on Jamie’s now-undeniable production sensibilities. It was a good move. The band captured attention in large part due to their unique whisper-y aesthetic.
Then a change occurred. Jamie xx released his solo album, In Colours [see Issue 110 for our feature with Jamie], and not only was it kaleidoscopic by comparison with The xx’s releases, he also involved mix engineer Tom Elmhirst in the process. The response to the record apparently stimulated the group to open themselves up in two new ways; musically, and with the people they let work on their record.
I See You is a sophisticated piece of work with a very focused and singular artistic vision, even though it took two years to make with sessions in New York, Los Angeles, Texas, Reykjavik, and RAK Studios in London. On it, the band expand on the introverted, minimalist, atmospheric palette of their first two albums. Jamie xx’s broad production — which mixes Drake and medieval singing samples with influences from trap, house, electronic music, shoegaze and rock — wonderfully frames the full-bodied, silken lead vocals of guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Olivier Sim.
On the personnel side, The xx added cellist Peter Gregson and Laurie Anderson on viola. Australian drummer Stella Mozgawa, from the band Warpaint, plays on Say Something Loving. Hal Ritson, known for his work with Dizzee Rascal and Katy Perry, also heavily treated some saxophone and trumpet recordings that are used to dramatic effect on the opener Dangerous.
However, the main new contributor who added his touch to the record was British mix engineer David Wrench. Perhaps it was Elmhirst’s impression on Jamie that pushed The xx to use a mix engineer outside their fold. Whatever caused the shift, it’s worked.
The glacial soundscapes and chilled atmosphere of I See You sound fantastic, and far superior to The xx’s previous two albums. There’s a smoothness, depth and grandeur to the sound image — full of panoramic reverbs and subtle delays — that’s quite stunning. It greatly enhances the melancholic and romantic moods of many of the songs, and gives the album a rare stature and authority.
TWO YEARS ON
Wrench’s striking face and long, white hair graced our cover of Issue 106. In the 2014 feature he talked about his mixes of FKA Twigs, Jungle, and Caribou. At the time, Wrench was based in Wales and travelled to Strongroom Studios in London if clients wanted to be present at his mixes. Since AT last spoke with Wrench he’s been exceptionally busy, mixing albums by Hot Chip, Beth Orton, Glass Animals, Bloc Party, Bombino, and many others. These days, he works out of his own studio in London.
“I needed to be around people,” explained Wrench, “and it’s easier for people to come here when I’m finishing stuff off. I also ran out of space in Wales with all the gear I was getting. I still mix in the box, but I have a lot of outboard and synths, and a 1/2-inch tape machine. My monitors are Neumann KH310As with the Neumann sub, a pair of Unity Audio The Rock speakers, and I still use the Pure radio quite a bit. I have a laptop with a Pro Tools native HD box and an Apogee Symphony I/O, which seems to work. I now mix at my place most of the time, because I know the sound in here. It can take a couple of days before I get used to the sound of another studio.”
Despite Wrench’s preference for his own studio, he mixed all of I See You at RAK Studio 3 in London because it provided continuity for the band who had finished recording the album there. “It also meant it was much easier for the entire band to be present while I was mixing,” continued Wrench. “I mixed the album over three weeks during July 2015. In total I mixed 14 or 15 tracks, so it took about one and a half days per track on average. I’d get the mix for each song up to a certain stage, and then Jamie would come in and listen, we’d talk about it, and I’d work with his comments. By the end of the day Romy and Oli would also come in and give their feedback and I’d work that in. Sometimes Rodaidh [‘Roddy’] came in as well.”
According to Wrench, he wasn’t presented with some grand vision for his mixes before he set to work. Instead, he recalls, “my main brief was to make it sound and feel like a record. They had been working on it for a long time, on and off, so the tracks sounded a bit different from each other and needed pulling together. Getting the bass end really tight and solid was important, but my main focus was on getting the vocals to sound great and really upfront. The album needed to sound interesting and have its own identity, but at the same time it needed to work in America and when played on the radio. For that I really had to bring out the vocals. In the end I used a trick on the vocals that worked on the entire record.”
We’ll get to the details of Wrench’s vocal ‘trick’ further on; for now it should be noted that it involved some choice pieces of outboard.
Despite Wrench primarily working in the box these days, outboard played a substantial part in finessing the sound of I See You — even RAK Studio 3’s vintage 60-channel Neve VRP Legend console saw some action.
“The outboard I used during the mixing of the album were things like the Eventide H949, Roland SDD 320 Dimension D chorus, AMS RMS16, Mutron BiPhase, a Japanese spring reverb, the studio’s real EMT 140 plate reverb, and the Roland RE-201 Space Echo and Binson Echorec EC3 for delays,” said Wrench. “All these outboard units modulate and add a bit of randomness, which brings life to the music. By comparison, plug-ins are very predictable. I used similar effects from these outboard units on all songs, just with slightly different settings on each song.”
Wrench’s mix process started before he even heard a track. The first step was for Jamie xx or McDonald to export stems from their Logic sessions, which Wrench’s assistant, Marta Salogni, imported into Pro Tools. “She sat in another room at RAK,” said Wrench, “and prepped these sessions for me; cleaning up all the tracks, taking out any clicks, and making sure the combined stems matched the rough mix I was given for each track. She gave me Pro Tools sessions that were laid out exactly the way I want them, ready for me to mix.
“I would then spend an hour or two on getting a very quick balance before going into detail. I work with mouse and keyboard and I use a lot of volume automation. I go through the session track by track, balance the volume of each, and put a little bit of basic EQ on everything. Because we had the EMT 140 plate plugged in I’d also start routing stuff out to that. I had all the outboard permanently wired into the soundcard, and brought it up on aux tracks in the Pro Tools session. I would then print the outboard into Pro Tools so those tracks are permanently in the session.”
SAY SOMETHING LOVING
To illustrate his mix approach, Wrench chose to focus on the second song of the album, Say Something Loving, because “it was the most complex and the most interesting. It also was in part done on the Neve desk.” As opposed to the mix of the album’s lead single, On Hold, which was far simpler and entirely in the box.
Wrench’s final Pro Tools session of Say Something Loving is laid out in a pretty standard manner. It contains 69 tracks, with 12 drum tracks, six tom tracks, 14 percussion tracks, three bass tracks, five guitar tracks, 10 loop and sample tracks, three strings and synth tracks, 17 vocal tracks, a track for delay compensation, and a master track.
1. DRUMS ON DESK
11 of the 12 drum tracks at the top are marked ‘DESK’ because they were sent through the Neve VRP desk. The original drum tracks were removed from the session and placed in the track list. Wrench explained why the drum tracks were routed through the desk: “Jamie was hearing a certain balance and wanted to be hands-on with the drum levels by manually riding faders. I was also keen on doing that, plus I wanted to do some EQ on the desk to replace the EQ I had already done in the box. I also thought the Neve desk would thicken the drum sound a little bit. So we split the drums out on the desk, into groups, but then routed each individual track back into Pro Tools. We were also running the rest of the mix out through the desk on a stereo pair to be able to judge the drum sound in context. The outboard I used on the drums included some compressors, like the Fairchild 670 and a Urei 1176. I used reverb from the EMT 140, but some of the reverbs on the drums were already there from production.
“There was a lot of finessing during the mix to get the drums of this song to sit right and afterwards I tweaked the tracks again in Pro Tools. The first kick track has the SPL Transient Designer, to give it a bit more attack, and I’m using the Pro Tools EQ3 7-band for some extra EQ. The EQ3 has been my main EQ for a long time. However, I tried the FabFilter Pro-Q2 during the mixes for this album, and I liked it so much that it’s now my go-to EQ. There’s also a low-pass kick track, and we added an 808 kick after we sent the drums through the desk, because the kick still was not quite right. So in total there are five kicks of various types, which is quite common these days. It’s important to make sure they’re all phase-aligned.
2. TUCKING IN TOMS
Wrench: “None of the individual tom tracks have treatments, but they were sent through the H949, which adds a pitched delay that I manually manipulated as I printed them back in. All those tom tracks are sent through the tom bus, which has quite a few plug-ins: the UAD Thermionic Culture Vulture adds some distortion, the EQ3 7-band is a hi-pass and takes off some top end, the UAD LA2 for compression, and the UAD Studer A800 for tape emulation and saturation. The toms did not feel quite like part of the kit, so we had to add harmonics to get them to sit in.”
3. STELLA PERCUSSION
Wrench: “Stella Mozgawa is an amazing drummer with a very particular feel. All I did, and only on some of her percussion tracks, was use the Pro-Q2 and EQ3. The ‘Cut Up Percussion’ track already had lots of reverb on it. We also recorded Jamie playing two cymbal tracks during the mix, which are sent to the ‘Cym OD’ bus with a Pro-Q2, Waves Fairchild 670 to control the levels a bit and a Valhalla Vintage Verb, which I love because it sits really well in the mix.”
4. MULTI-BAND HOLDS BASS
Wrench: “The bass DI and bass amp tracks go to a Bass bus, which has the Waves C4 multi-band compressor and PSP Master Q2 EQ. I like using multi-band compression on bass, because sometimes you want to hold the low end without affecting the bite on the note, and sometimes you want to control the bite on the note without pulling back the bass end; the C4 is great for that. The PSP EQ is notching out some specific resonances that were sounding wrong.”
5. GUITAR EDGE
The electric guitar was recorded with a Shure SM57 and Neumann U87. Wrench: “I copied some of the 57 guitar across to a new track, ‘Guitar Distortion’, and added distortion to that using the UAD Ibanez Tube Screamer TS808 to give it extra edge. The track ‘Guitar Processed Layers’ was treated by the band in Logic with all sorts of effects. I EQ-ed that with the EQ3. The four guitar tracks go to a guitar bus with an EQ3 helping them sit right in the mix.”
6. SAMPLES & SYNTHS
Wrench: “The song uses a short sample from Do You Feel It by Alessi, that has been treated, looped and expanded upon. Those are the ‘loops’ tracks in the session. Many of them are just snippets of sound which provide a background mood in places. I used the PSP Master Q2 on the two main loop tracks, adding some saturation and a tiny bit of limiting. The ‘Loop Plate’ track is a print of me sending out specific bits of the loop to the EMT 140. Three of the loop tracks have the EQ3, with a 6dB boost around 300Hz, for some extra warmth. All loop tracks have intensive volume automation and go to a loop bus. Finally there’s a synth strings track, with the EQ3 boosting at 1kHz, to make the track cut through, and two synth pads underneath that. The one named M8 has stereo widening from the Waves S1.”
7. VOCAL TRICK
Finally, on to the lead vocals, and Wrench’s ‘trick’ to help them sound gorgeous. Wrench: “Oli and Romy are brilliant singers, but I had to work quite hard getting them to sound right in the track. So what I did was use a real plate reverb on them, the EMT 140, with a fairly short setting. I also ran pretty much every vocal through the H949, twice, because it’s a mono unit. One time I pitched it slightly up, perhaps two cents or so, and the other time I pitched it slightly down, again two cents. I printed these on separate tracks panned left and right and mixed them in 19dB lower than the main vocal. That thickened the sound very subtly, and it was a trick that worked on the entire album. You can see these H949 and plate print tracks below Oli’s main vocal, with the plate print track having an EQ3 and a Waves Renaissance DeEsser on it.
“I treated Oli’s main, dry vocal track with the PSP Master Q2 EQ, notching out some frequencies, then the UAD Summit Audio TLA 100 compressor, the Pro-Q2 EQ, and finally the Renaissance DeEsser. There’s also an aux on Oli’s main vocal on which I have the UAD AMS RMX 16 plug-in.
“Further down in the session you see Romy’s dry vocal with the prints of the H949 and EMT effects underneath. I treated her dry vocal with the Pro-Q2, the Waves Fairchild 660 compressor, the PSP Master Q2 EQ and the Renaissance DeEsser.”
8. DELAY OF SESSION
Wrench: “Because the drums had a delay on them after they went through the desk and were printed back into the session, I had to make sure the entire session was phase-aligned. This meant I had to delay everything that had not gone through the desk — by sending it to the ‘Delayed GRP’ using two Time Adjust plug-ins — to match what had.”
9. MASTER PRINT
Wrench: “I printed my Master track at the end of the mix. The five plug-ins are my regular master chain that I use on everything I mix. First there’s the PSP Master Q2 EQ which I used to add a bit of 50Hz, a little bit at 400 Hz, plus two decibels at 11.5-12kHz. I automated the Waves SSL Compressor during various sections of the song, set to a fairly slow attack and a fast release with a ratio of 2:1. The Waves Linear Phase multi-band compressor really holds the track in place. Then there’s another PSP Master Q2 EQ, taking a bit out at 200 Hz and at 2.5kHz, and boosting a little at 8kHz. The Waves L3 limiter is purely for listening purposes, and I take that off when I print for mastering.
“I use two compressors, because I can ride the level of one compressor into another. So the SSL drives different levels into the multi-band, and this allows me to sculpt the shape of the song a little better. There is sometimes a difference between pre-compression and post-compression EQ, hence I have the PSP EQ twice here. The session was in 24-bit/96k. I really like working in 96k because I think you get some more depth and detail. It takes it to an extra level, especially when you’re recording reverbs in, like I did in this case. I am quite a fan of 96KHz. It sounds brilliant.”