Wrench in the Works
Welsh mix engineer David Wrench appeals to artists with a difference. Jungle, FKA twigs, Caribou; they’ve all gravitated to Wrench to tighten up their albums, and it’s bringing the format back.
Portrait: Richard Ecclestone
“I got into engineering a bit late,” says David Wrench, with some understatement. The Welshman’s unusual career trajectory has led him to become, at the tender age of 42, one of the UK’s hippest and most in-demand mixers. This year alone several albums that he mixed, most notably Jungle’s Jungle and FKA twigs’ LP1, made big splashes and have been creeping up the international charts all over the planet. Both albums have a strong electronic music vibe with an experimental edge. With the critics raving — and Jungle and FKA twigs both being young, up and coming British acts — their respective debut albums also have an immense amount of street cred.
At his garage studio in Bangor, north-west Wales, sheltered from the music industry Joneses, David Wrench muses on how he has arrived at his current enviable position, after having spent “many years trying to work out what to do with my life.” Wrench set his first tentative steps in a recording studio as a teenager when Gorwel Owen, his high school teacher — who later produced Welsh bands Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci — took Wrench into his studio and showed him “how stuff worked.” Following this, Wrench focused on a music career of his own, singing and playing keyboards, and releasing three solo albums.
The world’s relative indifference to Wrench’s solo releases triggered some soul-searching, which was resolved in his late twenties when he landed a job as an engineer at Bryn Derwen studio, six miles from Bangor. “I didn’t really know much about engineering,” recalls Wrench, “so I taught myself. I put lots of microphones on things and found out what worked and didn’t. I worked with local bands for six months, and then did my first proper record with an amazing songwriter called Jackie Leven. The first album we did together was Defending Ancient Springs (2000) and I ended up doing 14 albums with him!” Wrench continued to work at Bryn Derwen for several more years, gaining a reputation as one of the foremost producers of Welsh-language music, which earned him the BBC Welsh radio Producer of the Year award in 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. He also occasionally mixed projects, and it was his mix of the award-winning Caribou album Swim (2010) in particular that earned Wrench a reputation as a top-level mixer.
FROM LEFT FIELD TO JUNGLE
Since mixing Caribou’s Swim, the amount of mix work Wrench has been doing has risen sharply. In addition to his Jungle and FKA twigs mixes, Wrench has this year also mixed Caribou’s Our Love, four songs on Owen Pallett’s In Conflict, Fanfarlo’s Let’s Go Extinct, Radiohead drummer Phil Selway’s Weatherhouse, the debut album of the British band Glass Animals Zaba, which was a near top 10 in Australia earlier this year, as well as Oz acts Seekae and Jack Ladder. The common thread on all these releases is a willingness of the artists in question to experiment and push the limit. Given that Wrench’s own artistic output is as left field as it gets — his recent album Spades & Hoes & Plows features what he calls “anti-recording” and his early noughties singles had titles like Superhorny and Fuck You And Your War on Terror — run-of-the-mill, hit-parade fodder clearly isn’t his cup of tea. Wrench himself calls his tastes “eclectic” and qualifies this by adding that he, in fact, quite likes some pop music. Nonetheless, given Wrench’s track record of working with left-field artists, he is predominantly hired for his eclectic tastes, and, one presumes, eclectic approach to mixing.
“Yes, I think this is the case,” confirms Wrench. “I’m not into polishing things and making them sound as smooth as possible. I like stuff that leaps out in the mix. I like things to be exciting. I don’t like mixes that are too tasteful. I like things that sound a tiny bit unbalanced in the mix, with things not necessarily wrong, but set at a volume or placed in a position where you would not instinctively put them, or EQ-ed brighter than you would imagine. I like things to rub a little in the mix, and I guess it is why people come to me. But the Jungle and FKA twigs material has been A-listed on Radio 1 [the UK’s mainstream, youth-orientated pop station], so it’s not so weird that it won’t get on the radio. Both artists make music that is very distinctive, even though underneath it contains pop songs. They are just very deconstructed pop songs!”
While Wrench’s musical tastes and mix approach are eclectic, his actual mix tools at his garage studio, which he calls Tŵr Yr Uncorn (Welsh for The Unicorn’s Tower), are entirely mainstream. No endless racks of esoteric hardware in his case, just a Pro Tools 11 system with an Omni interface, Adam A7X monitors with a Focal CMS5 sub, and a few bits and pieces, one of the main pieces being a Presonus Central Station. In addition, explains Wrench, “I also have Yamaha MSP5 monitors, and a Pure stereo radio that I also monitor through. I swear by my Beyer DT880 Pro headphones, and have a Radial Duplex DI, a Radial PRO RMP for reamping, and a Lehle splitter for separating signals to various amps, plus a few mics for when I go out recording. Finally, I occasionally send signals to my old Aria stereo spring reverb.”
Wrench clearly conducts virtually all his mix weirdness in-the-box, even though, he recalls, “I started working on tape at Bryn Derwen. The studio had a Soundtracks 24-track, and then changed to an Otari MX80. Learning on tape was brilliant. One of the things I’ve noticed that’s different between engineers who started on tape and those that didn’t is those that did are much more careful about gain structure, making sure it’s right all the way through. It’s still the first thing I do when I get a Pro Tools session in to mix; make sure the gain structure is right from start to end, because it gives you a lot more headroom to work with. You don’t end up with such enormous problems in digital if your gain structure is wrong, but being rigorous about it does make a difference.
“I stopped working at Bryn Derwen a few years ago because I was getting more and more mix work, and it made sense to do it in my own studio. There are no longer the budgets to spend lots of time mixing in a commercial studio, and also, being in-the-box I am entirely flexible, and can switch between projects easily. At the end of most projects I go to Strongroom studios in London for a few days, just to finish off. I like to mix with a sub, because I want to know what’s happening in the low end, particularly when working with dance music, and the overall frequency balance at Strongroom is very comparable to that in my studio, so it allows me to verify exactly what’s going on. Also, when working on the recent Caribou album Dan [Snaith] and I spent a week together at the end of the project. We would go into a nightclub every evening just before the people came in to blast the mixes through the club system and make sure it sounded great. Music is played on so many systems these days, in clubs, cars, on iPods, hi-fi stereo systems, radio, and laptop speakers, you need to put in quite a bit of effort to make sure it works on all of them. The low end of bass-driven music can disappear on small speakers, so I often end up boosting the low mids, or if they’re not there I distort the bass line to get some harmonics, then roll off the low end and mix that back in with the bass to make sure the bass line has enough definition on systems with smaller speakers.”
TWIGGING TO IT
In-the-box flexibility was of crucial importance for Wrench when mixing the Jungle and FKA twigs albums, as he mixed both, as well as Caribou’s Our Love, in the same time period. “It was a bit of a crazy time,” recalls Wrench. “I began with Jungle, and then a week later I started on twigs. The Jungle mixes were more straightforward, because they sounded good when they arrived, and the balances were right, so there were less creative decisions to be made. It was about getting their mixes sounding better, bigger and clearer. Josh [Lloyd-Watson] and Tom [McFarland] recorded and played everything themselves and did all the production themselves. I came into it as an outside person, which meant the main challenge in the beginning was to establish trust. I did a trial mix for the album, in fact I did the same for the FKA twigs album. I mixed just one track in each case to show them the direction I would take. In both instances I apparently got it right and finished the entire album.”
According to Wrench, mixing the FKA twigs album was far more difficult, in part because of the plethora of co-writers and producers involved, including Emile Haynie, Arca, Joel Compass, Clams Casino and the ubiquitous Paul Epworth. Wrench: “The sessions came in all sorts of different sample rates, formats, levels of organisation, and musical directions. There was a unifying element, but it wasn’t obvious to start with. Part of the challenge was to get all the tracks to sit together as an album, and yet make sure they all remained distinctive. Twigs has really strong ideas of what she wants things to sound like. She knows every single detail of each song, even things that are really buried in the mix or even muted, and where she wants them placed in the mix. Much of it has to do with the way she dances, and how she feels the rhythm and the movement of the song. She does a lot of the drum programming herself, using the Dave Smith Tempest, and she works very quickly and instinctively, which gives her music a kind of confrontational punk feel, even though it’s mostly programmed. This was another reason why quite a few things needed sorting out in the mix, with me putting things in some sort of order, while also keeping the edge and energy that typifies her music.
“Organising a session is generally the first thing I do when I get a mix in. I go through it and make sure it’s something I can work with, putting things in the right order, getting rid of clicks and other noises, making sure the gain structure is OK, and so on. I then work very quickly and really instinctively, however big the session is. I like to go through and get a basic balance as fast as I can. I tend to first work on the drums and bass, or whatever is the main body of the music, and then I get to the main chordal information, and then the lead vocals, and finally all the effects and interesting little bits and pieces, and the backing vocals. So I initially get the track to the point where I have a feel for it, where it excites me and moves me, and after that I go into all the details. I also always keep the rough mix at the top of the session, and send that out to a different pair of outputs, using the Presonus Central Station to be able to flick back and forth between the rough and what I’m doing, and reference the rough, allowing me to check whether I’m improving on it, and not making it worse.”
ALBUM ON TRACK
Time is the fourth single from Jungle’s debut album, released in September 2014. It’s the highest-charting Jungle single, at a meagre 94 in the UK. FKA twigs’ highest charting single in the UK, Two Weeks, only reached number 200, meaning both Jungle and FKA twigs are newly arrived exponents of a beast that’s been all but declared extinct: the album. Wrench agrees that the success of both albums without any high-charting singles is “very unusual,” while at the same time pointing out he mixes many complete albums these days, which, he says, “makes sense when the label wants a distinctive, unifying sound across an entire album. It also makes economic sense to have one mixer do an entire album, rather than have a different mixer for each track.”
In other words, the album may have a future after all, and the Jungle and FKA twigs albums are living proof. Many reviewers have commented on the cohesiveness and singularity of vision of both the FKA twigs and Jungle albums. It’s quite an achievement, and has a lot to do with Wrench tightening the screws on these debuts.