How To Find Tone and Texture OF Music

Since I was a kid, one of the consistent draws to record making has been
my obsession with tone. Of course, I did not know that then, but as much as
the song stuck with me there were also the tones and textures. A large part
of my tonal education came from my time spent at Ocean Way with JJP
and the chief tech Bruce Marien. I knew the instrument choices played a
large role in the sound, but it wasn’t until I got into recording that I learned
that the other part of the equation were the mics, pre-amps, compressors,
tape machines and the studios themselves. Words I use to describe tone are
warm, woolly, fuzzy, dull, dusty, woody, vibrant, shrill, metallic, glassy
and crystal clear, just to name a few. From an educational and financial
standpoint, an awesome thing about working with virtual plugins is the
ability to a get a gist of the classic pieces. The cons are, however, the access
to so many immediately. I often struggle with narrowing down the max
choices. It can be difficult to match the piece of equipment to that specific
sound in your head. In a very broad way, I think of tone as ranging from
really transparent (very true to how an instrument sounds before going
through the signal chain) to extremely colorful and vibrant. In order to
capture the spectrum of equalizers and compressors, a very general way is
to narrow down tone control choices into the fields of tubes and transistors,
along with the inclusion of transformers or op-amps to the current use
of ICs. Again, this is a very general division in order to begin narrowing
down gear/plugin choices. What you are getting from these different types
of electronics is the ability to shape the ADSR plus apply a certain amount
of color or not. Transistors provide better transient response, as well as less
color with the removal of transformers. For example, with Neve 1073 you
get transformers with a healthy amount of iron on the input and output,
resulting in some nice warmth and thickness and with a transformerless
GML a very true and clear sound. On mixes, I occasionally try to challenge myself to sticking to one model for EQ and compression. Depending
upon the sound and style of the band, with this approach you get great
tonal consistency. An analogy I like to make uses the medium of visual
arts. In drawing, let’s say you choose to stick with only pencils, charcoal

or pastels. You may find that you can still do all the dimensional detail, but
because there is only one medium being used by default, there is tonal continuity. All the records that have come out of historic studios like Olympic
with Helios, Abbey Road with EMI, Motown with Quad 8/Electrodyne
and Trident with Trident have a particular sound, a distinctive sonic fingerprint. I’m guessing this is because there were specific and unique desks
in each of those rooms. In these classic studios, they designed and built
their own consoles and gear. And if they did buy stock equipment, chances
are that the studio techs modified it in some way that aligned with their
aesthetic. Hot rodding of sorts. One great example would be the Altec
436 mod EMI, which resulted in the RS124. (By the way, there is no other
compressor that sounds and responds like the RS124.) Beck had two Altec
436s with a version of the EMI mod, and those can be heard on the overhead for ‘Ramona’, ‘Threshold’ and ‘Summertime’ of the Scott Pilgrim
soundtrack. All these studios, for better or worse, have sonic fingerprints.
Having worked at Ocean Way, I can hear the fingerprint of the chambers
on records from Frank Sinatra to Beck.
On Buck 65’s last record, the songs I worked on were done in Studio C
at Revolution Recording in Toronto. The desk at that time was a custom
Ward Beck. Sonically, it was clean and punchy, and while it had a superb
balance top to bottom EQ-wise, it did not have the ultra-round bottom of
a Neve, leaving out the ‘darkness’ on top. One very appealing factor of
working in that room and on that desk is the fact that it’s one of a kind. No
one’s going to go to the software inserts and load that plug-in. It only exists
at that studio (or it used to—I’m elsewhere now). Maybe I’m selfish, but
for me this is really cool and ties to my values of record making. Please see
the Buck 65 examples.
A concept based on this method of tonal continuity is to limit my specific model choices to the same pre/line amp, EQs or compressors on all
the needed elements of the record. For example, the Waves NLS (Nonlinear Summer) has three models of consoles, a Neve, EMI and SSL.
When starting a mix, I may put a Waves NLS on every channel. Or, for
a bit of a more modern angle, I may have all the drums routed through
the Neve setting and the guitars routed through EMI and across the stereo bus the SSL. A little mixture of flavors distributed to the instruments,
which tend to be flattered by the inherent electronics design of each model.
A classic combo is that of tracking through a Neve and mixing on an SSL.
Or, as with the Record Club Skip Spence, INXS and Yanni, those were
tracked on the custom API at Sunset Sound and mixed back at Beck’s
studio on the Neve 5315. One can start by tracking all of the warm and
woolly color of the Neve and then try to whip out the punchiness and
aggression by mixing through an SSL desk or, at the very least, using
an SSL compressor strapped across the stereo bus. A ballpark setup for
bus compression for me is a low ratio of 2:1 or 4:1 with about 3 dB–4
dB of gain reduction. Attack and release are dependent upon the tempo.
A helpful starting point is to start off with the slowest attack and fastest
release. Start increasing the attack and once the transients of the snare, for
example, disappear, back off. I will insert the stereo bus compressor fairly

early on in the mix and get some rough settings. Adjust the settings on the
loudest section of the song. If you set the stereo compressor on a quiet
section, like a verse, when a louder section, like a chorus, comes in, the
compressor will jump on it and suffocate the mix. The gain reduction will
be too much. Keep in mind throughout the mix to frequently check the bus
compressor to see that it’s not working too hard, killing needed transients
or pumping and breathing erratically. All the examples listed have an SSL
comp on the 2 mix.
I haven’t really hit on tube pieces yet—they’re all about the harmonics!
In the world of classic tubes, I think of the Pultec EQP 1A, LA-2A or the
Fairchild. These are pieces I’ll insert onto just about anything, certainly
any element that I feel is lacking what I would call ‘vibe’. For example,
acoustic guitar, vocal, piano and overheads really shine going through one
of the above. Richness is a common word to describe the sound. I’m not
even looking to do much in the area of compression, but just to add some
harmonic color. The Pultec has an amazing roundness to the low end and
a super smooth top end. The unique feature of the Pultec is the use of a
resonant shelf, which has the ability to cut and boost the same frequency.
I used the PuigTec on the Kick for Buck’s ‘Superhero in My Heart’. I like
to use it on the stereo bus with a little bump on the top and bottom. I was
lucky enough to be working for Jack when he did the PuigTec and PuigChild plug-ins with Waves. Jack sent his Fairchild to the Waves in Tel-Aviv
and once they did all the electronic measurements and coded up the first
beta, they sent us a copy. When we first opened it up, it responded like
his 670, but it was missing that ‘x’ factor. There is a beautiful open and
silky sound in the high end that comes from just inserting the unit into the
signal path without even pushing it to compression. So they sent us a version, essentially with the hood open with a variety of parameters to tweak.
Eventually the ‘shimmer’/x-factor sound got dialed into Jack’s liking—a
fascinating experience. I guess when you have fourteen transformers and
twenty tubes, something epic should occur. In the end, I think the plugs
have the essence of the analog counterpart.
So far I’ve been referring to the use of tone control from the standard
use point of view, meaning ‘the technical and user manual correct way’.
What happens when these units were used in a slightly ‘wrong’ way is
what’s fascinating to me. I grew up in the 1980s and ‘90s on hip hop, punk
rock and skateboarding, and none of those things was about following the
user manual. Mixing for me gets really interesting when you start pushing
gear past the comfort zone, like hitting the input hotter and bringing down
the output. This is when you can really start to hear the true personality of some gear. Pushing the sonic comfort zone goes hand-in-hand with
my ethos of finding the ceiling. Working with Beck on a mix once, he
said, “sometimes you just have to throw orange paint on it”. I believe that
was his way of saying the mix was too safe, boring or lame and it needed
something extreme and beyond textbook logic. One route to explore in this
way is the ability to overdrive various stages of gear from the aforementioned tubes, transistors and transformers. Thinking from opposite parts
of the spectrum from mild to extreme, a very mild palette change is tape

saturations or hitting the inputs of a mic/line amp that is transformer based,
thus overdriving the input transformer for more coziness and warmth. But
if you want something a bit more raw and ratty, overdriving the input of
the op-amp-based APIs is honing in on more edge. Many plug-ins have the
ability to do some type of overdrive. The guitars on the Scott Pilgrim tunes
‘Summertime’ and ‘Threshold’ are good examples in regards to overdriving op-amps. The Waves NLS have the drive parameter, which comes from
the ability to overdrive the line input of consoles coming from tape or Pro
Tools. Typically, overdriving the input requires you then to drop the output
as not to clip the bus or DA convertors. Throughout the recording process
to the end of mixing, there are several stages and places to attain distortion
and saturation. Some of my go-to plug-ins for tone control to extreme distortion come from Massey Tape Head, Waves Krammer Tape, SoundToys
Decapitator, Radiator, Devil Loc and iZotope’s Trash. All of these have
some nice mild settings to very extreme ones. There’s probably not one
instrument to which I haven’t tried to add some sort of saturation or distortion. The classic for me would be SansAmp, which I still use quite often on
drums, bass, guitar, keys and vocals. The king of SansAmp, hands down,
is Tchad Blake. His recordings and mixes, to me, are always a benchmark
and have unique tonal qualities.
Moving on from the sheer edge of saturation and distortion in the vein
of finding the ceiling, I hold strong to the belief that you can’t inch your
way to it! From compression to the use of delay and reverbs, sometimes
you have to have some extremes of wet and dry to develop emotion. In the
world of compression, I approach dynamic control broadly, from knocking
down some transients and tightening the overall feel to extreme exaggerating of the attack or sustain. My signal chain for exaggerated compression
is usually placed on a parallel auxiliary. I find it easier to disguise exaggerated compression on a parallel channel. Hit the compressor with a high
ratio and substantial gain reduction, hear it work, and then peel back the
gain reduction and ratio a touch. With EQ’ing, don’t look at the knob and
turn until you hear it jump. There’s no magic number, so don’t be surprised
if you are adding 5 dB–12 dB in some places. One thing that took me
some time to figure out was how what’s on paper or in your head can be
completely different from what happens when the elements come together
out of the speakers. Theory versus reality. In the ambient world of reverb,
here’s a way to push for the ceiling. For example, I was mixing a folky tune
with pedal steel playing lead, and the main rhythm was electric guitar. It
was mid-tempo, and I added reverb to the pedal steel. Although I think that
it already had some reverb from pedals and I had added even more, the two
instruments still sounded too close together. So, I just basically turned off
or turned down about 80% of the direct sound of the pedal steel, turned
up the wet reverb signal and added a slight bit of top end. This adjustment
opened up the top end and added astonishing depth and space for both the
slide and electric. An effective approach to find the ceiling of reverb use is
to think of it in terms of explicitly wet or dry. As opposed to adding a blend
of wet and dry sound in parallel, take the processing and add it directly to
the instrument fully wet. Once you find the ceiling of what’s too much,

you can just reel it back. Keep in mind, however, that sometimes you only
need to push one element to the ceiling. If you push every element, you
lose the use of juxtaposition. It all comes back to the point of arrangement:
aim for a glaring effect of reverb or delay or a crunch of distortion to get
the attention of the listener and continue guiding the ear through the mix.
My approach to developing moods that have been established in the production shall be discussed here. For example, if the song is leaning towards
the aggressive side, I might add distortion and extreme compression on
the drums, snare, bass or vocals. If there is something mysterious or unresolved, add some small pitch fluctuations in a reverb or delay. I try to play
off the moods of the song, whether they are happy, sad, ironic, pensive,
melancholic, dark or light. These are basically the same adjectives one uses
to describe the moods established by keys and chords of the song. As I have
already mentioned possible options for tonal development, another aspect
to consider is depth of space. In my head, I imagine something like the
textures and the painting technique of impasto, similar to impressionistic
paintings where you can see the ridges, valleys and blurred edges of the
brushstrokes. A way to develop depth and size is with the use of high and
low pass filters along with delays and reverbs. I start by trying to establish
the ambient setting of the piece, hopefully with any natural ambience from
the recording. For example, I’ll bring up the room mics, and use compression on the drums or any other element that I can extract some natural
ambience out of. I start by considering close and far, foreground or long
shots in composing the dimensional depth aspect. I like to see how close
I can pull elements forward in the mix. One way to do this is by adding top
end with a shelf, somewhere around 6 kHz and above along with a high
pass filter. To push elements towards the background, I’ll use a low pass filter and roll off the top end. Some basic settings I use to divide up my delays
are 10 ms–30 ms for building up size, 30 ms–250 ms for trailing highlights
of slap, 250 ms and above for the clear intention of delay. My general view
of reverbs are to develop the size and timbre of the ambient space. I’ll
set up a near (less than 1 s, nonlinear reverbs like the AMS-RMX), mid
(1 ms–4 ms) and far (4 ms and above) to divide up the distance from foreground to background. I’m a big fan of plates and chambers. I find myself
using the Rverb by Waves and McDSP’s Revolver quite a bit, along with
Dverb by Avid. It has it has a nice grittiness to it; it works great on tambourines. A mix doesn’t have to be this nice linear dissension into the horizon,
though. For dynamics and boldness you could have a couple of elements
in the foreground and just throw a glockenspiel, pads or tambourine way
in the back drenched in reverb. Treating vocals with a type of backlighting
effect is an interesting approach to developing mood. Think of the contrast
of a tree with the sun setting or rising behind it. The overall light balance is
dusk or dawn. For me, this fits into the mood of the song based on the lyrics
or the key: minor/major or something bittersweet with the use of sevenths
or sus chords. The tree from the front perspective is dark. It’s mostly a silhouette, while the sky could have some hues of pink, red, orange and blue.
By brightening the reverb up with a shelf, around 7 kHz, allows the mix to
open and shimmer and illuminates the vocals. To further contrast the bright

reverb, the vocals could have a bit of the top end rolled off. Another thought
is to take the reverb signal and add a high shelf.
One last way to avoid predictability and to establish ambiguity or unresolved type of moods in songs is with asymmetrical panning. When listening to music, it’s obviously happening over time, so we can thus include it
as a dimension that we are mixing in. For example, in a verse, the right side
could be totally empty, or possibly include some stereo overheads, toms or
hat. But the song only has one lead/rhythm guitar on the left, while in the
chorus the doubled guitar comes in on the right or a keyboard part. That
empty space creates some tension, and the resolve is the balance in left and
right attained as the doubled part comes in at the chorus. For the most, part
of what is going to musically happen in a chorus is to provide some sort of
harmonic resolve. I separate panning into two categories: left, center and
right (LCR) and internal. The idea of only using LCR has a bit to do with
the old Delcon Console that was in Studio B at Ocean Way. It did not have
variable panning, so you were forced to only use hard left, right or both.
I typically start off by panning LCR, so elements like piano and overheads
recorded in stereo will be panned hard left and right. The actual width is
determined by the stereo miking configuration. XYs will have a better center image and spaced pairs will have better width. Sometimes I’ll pan the
piano hard left and center, as a piano would be stage left in a mental image.
One distinction you can make for the image or landscape you are trying
to create is to set it up as a band would be on stage at a performance. Or,
make it more free in the sense that things are floating in this ethereal ether
of space. For example, if you have a singer/songwriter with very simple
instrumentation of vocals, acoustic guitar and percussion, you could pan
the acoustic guitar hard right, separating it from the vocals, thus creating
distance and space. This distance could, possibly, be interpreted by the listener as a loss of intimacy. On the flip side, in line with how you would see
a live performance, the guitar should be panned down the center. For me,
separation between elements creates more of a surreal, bold, dream-like
feeling, and keeping things panned closer together can be more associated
with seeing a live performance. In keeping with the LCR concept, each
portion of left, center and right can be separated into foreground (near),
midground and background. I like to reserve the center part of the spectrum for very strong mono elements, such as vocals, bass, kick and snare.
On the left and right, things like a rhythm guitar playing an eighth-note
part can sit with a Rhodes playing chords. One thing to consider when panning is the rhythm being played. Be cautious of panning similar rhythmic
parts on top of each other, because if they are not dead nuts in the pocket
together it can sound messy. If there is a shaker playing eighth notes and
the hi-hat is doing the same, I would pan them off each other, situating
one on the left and one on the right. Internal panning for me is the space
between center and hard left or right. I’m hesitant to just use every empty
space, because I think it’s a bit like cheating in the sense of not EQ’ing
properly. Also, things can get messy with every spot filled. Watch the clutter. Sometimes when you give the ear connection points from center all
the way out to the outer edges of the stereo spectrum, I believe you lose

some of the width illusion, because the ear has this straight line to connect.
When there’s information in the center and the next bit exists on the perimeter of the spectrum, you can have a better illusion of expansiveness and
width. Keep in mind that there will be information in that space if there
were stereo mic setups used. I try and keep that space for any part that
needs to jump or needs to have a little of the spotlight. For example, toms,
hats or a little lead keyboard part.
In the end, listen, listen, listen (if you are spending most of your time
twisting knobs you probably should take some time to listen and walk
around the mix/console). Sometimes I’ll just pace around the desk for
thirty to forty-five minutes just listening between the speakers in the next
room. Leave room for chance and error, use limitations to drive creativity.
Have your staples that you trust and know to move efficiently throughout
the mix process and grab the listener’s ears by finding the ceiling colored

My Time Spent with Buck and Beck
As a whole, Beck and Buck 65 allowed for lots of creative experimentation
and exploration. I would say that is a common thread between Buck and
Beck. They both have such an incredible sonic intuition and desire for the
sonic tapestry to align with the story of the song. I spent about two years
with Beck as his in-house engineer and mixer. At this time, he was spending more time at home with his family and taking a bit of a breather from
touring. Up to that point, for twenty-plus years he had been immersed in
the cycle of making a record and touring, album after album. I was hired
on shortly after he had just finished up the touring cycle for the Modern
Guilt record and was nearing the end of producing the Charlotte Gainsbourg record IRM. Most of our time together was actually spent working on other artists’ records: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jamie Lidell, Stephen
Malkmus, Bat For Lashes and Thurston Moore. We also did some film
and TV projects along with the Record Club series, where I was lucky
enough to have a first go at serious mixing. The Record Club series was
amazing because Beck and various friends would go into the studio and
cover a record in a single day. We would then mix and release a song/video
every week for each song off of the record. The mixing setup was hybrid,
Pro Tools HD through a Neve 5315 w/ 33114 pre/EQs, which is class A/B
discrete. It’s a nice desk, but compared to the 1073’s, it’s just on the ‘ok’
side of things. The first tune I mixed was ‘Grey/Afro’ of the Skip Spence
record OAR. I think my approach was to further develop the effects Jamie
Lidell was doing live. He essentially had a live dub setup, which he was
tweaking with various delay, reverb and effect pedals. I remember using
some GRM plugins to tweak the vocals quite a bit. For the some of the
tunes that Beck did for the movie Scott Pilgrim, the approach was pretty
garagey/speaker ripping, mainly coming from the guitar tones. This concept and sonic angle was developed during the recording phase. From what
I recall, a portion of those tunes were tracked to half-inch 8-track. The

mix approach was to take what came in from the tracking side and further
that vision. For this, I pushed the midrange of the guitars fairly extreme,
10 dB+ in the 2–3kHz range. It’s a delicate balance because you don’t
want the mix to be fatiguing while still remaining both forceful and edgy.
I recall Beck pushing me further and further with the tones and thinking
“really, I can EQ the guitars that far?!”
In regards to Buck 65, we met just before I moved to Canada from LA.
Once I got to Canada, we worked on a track called ‘Dolores’, and one
thing I remember doing that seemed adventurous was recording a marimba
through a Leslie cabinet. It was really spooky sounding and surely caught
Buck’s ear, as he next asked me to produce/record/mix some of the tunes
off the next record. One tune that comes to mind in particular is ‘Baby
Blanket’, a really dark and sad piece. This is one that was developed from
the recording process. At Revolution Studios in Toronto, they have a really
cool pump organ that we used; one thing we did was to make a loop of
the mechanical noise of the organ, which provides this really creaky and
dark vibe. In mixing this one, we transferred the multitrack to an 8-track
2-inch Studer. In this process, I summed the multitrack down to those 8
tracks and then printed them back into Pro Tools for some final mixing.
Going to tape helped further the warmth, depth and vibe of the final track.
At the of the day, having the opportunity to spend time growing and
evolving with such exceptional artists—and to have their trust with creative exploration—is both a huge honor and education. Throughout my
career, including my time with Jack Joseph, there are moments of extreme
tutelage and wood shopping. With Jack, I spent months simply listening
and watching, and slowly the trust formed and I moved into engineering
with more responsibilities. But it wasn’t until my time with Beck that I was
placed directly into the hands of the artist and left on my own to mix. You
must become the hands to the artist’s vision yet be guided by your own
intuition and solid foundation