Full interview with Peter Zaluzny from Australian Guitar Magazine
1. First off, just your first and last name, official job title and role(s) at the studio.
Joseph Cheek, owner/operator/chief engineer
2. And can you run me through your personal history in audio? How did you get into audio work, why, what sparked your interest in it and why did you decide to record music for a living?
I’ve always been a musician, playing piano since age 5 and picking up guitar at around age 11. When I was around 12 years old I recorded my first EP at my older brother’s house (he’s a sound engineer too – he’s always had more to do with live sound though). I guess that experience must have sparked something in me. A little while after this he lent me his little 4-track cassette recorder. I loved messing around with this; I would plug my electric guitar straight in and layer up parts. When I was 16 I bought my first audio interface: a little Tascam unit. Over the next few years I messed around with that writing and recording my own songs and gradually learning how to use Pro Tools as well as the very basics of mixing.
I loved recording and creating from the first time I experienced it. However, when I started out I intended just to record and mix my own music. A few years after messing around though a couple of bands asked me to record them. I guess being asked to record other people’s music engendered the thought that maybe I could do this for a job, not just for fun messing around with my own music. One thing lead to another, Island Recording Studios was established and since then I’ve spent all my money on studio and music gear!
3. Why did you decide to setup your own studio?
Following on from the previous question, it was quite a natural process from my initial interests in audio to setting up my own studio. It definitely wasn’t something that just happened over night though. It was a very gradual process at the start of buying gear and learning my craft, then starting Island Recording Studios and making it a welcoming and relaxed place for bands to come in and make music.
I do feel very fortunate to have my own space that I can record or mix in at anytime of the day or night.
4. And you went with a digital, analogue hybrid? Why work with both? What are the advantages to working with both (particularly with regards to rock, indie, punk and so on)? Are there any disadvantages? Which genres can really benefit from analogue?
When I started out I had a pretty basic setup as mentioned. A basic 8 channel interface and another 8 channel preamp that connected via ADAT. Without any high quality outboard I was totally lacking any analogue vibe.
For a few years soon after I started recording bands I was lucky enough to be able to do most of my mixing at Mixmasters Studio, which is an absolutely incredible studio with just about every bit of classic analogue gear there is. I guess this gave me the love for the sound and feel of analogue gear.
I then focussed on getting the best analogue setup I could for recording. Over time I bought preamps from Neve, API, Universal Audio, Phoenix and more. I’ve also collected some nice compressors including a Focusrite Red 3 master buss compressor which all my mixes now run through as well as a Retro Doublewide vari-mu tube compressor, which is awesome for tracking vocals (or just about anything else) through.
For the last few years I’ve also been using Universal Audio Apollos as my main interfaces. One of the great things about them is they allow you to track through the awesome Universal Audio plugins. This means, along with my outboard gear I can also track through Pultecs, 1073 EQs, and of course the Studer A800 tape machine. (And just about any other virtual piece of classic outboard)
5. What's your favourite bit of classic kit in the studio?
That’ll probably be the toughest question for this whole interview haha. About 6 months ago I was lucky enough to pick up a pair of vintage Neumann KM84 small diaphragm condenser (SDCs) mics. I’ve got other excellent SDCs but the KM84s are in a league of their own. Every time I use them, for just about any instrument, I’m so impressed with how they sound! So warm and beautiful!
6. With your love of analogue, do you prefer to use as much traditional/physical gear as possible, or plugins? Which one and why? What are the benefits of your preference, particularly in guitar-oriented music, and what are the detriments?
I guess I look at it from point of work flow as well as the sound. Whilst tracking I use as much outboard as possible so that the tracks have a great solid analogue sound right from the start. Then for the majority of mixing I use plugins. 99% of the plugins I use for mixing are emulations of renowned outboard gear. My mixes are predominantly made up from Universal Audio and Slate plugins. Of course the beauty about mixing predominantly in the box, is that you can easily recall the session in a week’s time, a month’s time or a year’s time if you need to.
As I mentioned previously, early on in my career I did the majority of my mixing at Mixmasters Studio, which was 100% analogue mixing. Along with giving me a love for analogue gear it forced me to make quick decisions in mixing and learn how to get to the end result with as little messing around as possible. Because it was all analogue there was no coming back later to tweak a mix. As soon as you are getting stuck into the second song there’s no easy recall of the first song. I remember there was a few albums where the artist couldn’t come in for the mix – that really put the pressure on! Luckily they were all happy with the mixes though so nothing had to be redone. There was only one song I ever had to remix from the start, which was ironically for my own band. All band members were present during mixing too! (Too many cooks in the kitchen haha)
Anyways, back to answering your question. Often I’ll send vocals, and sometimes drums, out to use some of my nice compressors during mixing. I’ll always print these tracks back into Pro Tools though to save having to patch back in the outboard and find the right settings again at a later stage.
The final stage of my mixing for every mix though is sending all the tracks out to my Phoenix Nicerizer, which is a 16 channel summing mixer with beautiful transformers on the output. This provides 16 channels of analogue output to split the mix up into before it’s summed in an analogue way (as opposed to being summed digitally inside of Pro Tools) and then sent to my Focusrite Red 3 master buss compressor. This is then sent back into Pro Tools for bouncing down.
7. “Billy Zane" by Lost Woods caught my ear. You were working with a very powerful voice on top of strong guitar with a few delicate musical intricacies. How do you make sure everything has its place in the mix in a track with strong guitars and vocals like that? How do you make guitars roar and place vocals on top without each part drowning out the other?
It’s always an absolute pleasure working with Lost Woods. They’ve always got new exciting songs they’re working on and figuring out new sounds and effects they can use on those songs. Always a surprise when they come in the studio to hear what they’ve come up with now!
Lost Woods love to layer up their guitar parts. Like really really love to! Billy Zane is nothing too crazy compared to some new tunes they’re working on at the moment, but there’s definitely still a lot of strings being strummed in those choruses to create the powerful wall of sound.
For something like that, the majority of the time there will be lots of upper mids competing for space in the mix with so many roaring guitars and big vocals. When mixing it’s about working out which frequencies you can boost to bring out the best bits of the voice or guitars, and which frequencies you can cut to make room for the other instruments. Once you’ve figured that out it’ll definitely make the job much smoother, but then it’s absolutely crucial to get the levels right. That might sound silly to say, but when there’s multiple instruments that are screaming to be the loudest and at the forefront, if the vocals are a little too loud it’ll make the band sound small and weak in comparison. Contrasting this if the vocals are too low in the mix the band will sound big but the song will now lack focus as the voice will seem much less impressive.
Lost Woods have a lot of beautiful little guitar inflections and intricacies, which really helps to give them their own unique sound. I always try and make sure these are brought out and don’t go by unnoticed. More often than not all that is required is to ride the fader up for these parts to bring them up.
8. Did compression play a part in that (forgive me if I’m wrong but the vocals sounded like they were a touch compressed, in a good way)? How does it play into balancing rock tracks like Lost Woods (and any similar examples you may have). You often hear about reverb filling gaps and things like that, but does compression play an equally important role and if so, what is it? Where is compression most important in mixing rock, indie, and pretty much anything with guitars?
Yes, compression is extremely important for any song where you want a powerful sound. In particular, for the vocal tracks and drums. Lead vocals for Billy Zane were tracked through my Retro Doublewide compressor, which is an awesome little tube compressor. It’s so great for balancing out the level on the way in in a really transparent way, whilst giving it some nice analogue vibe thanks to the two transformers and four tubes inside the little beast. Most likely in mixing stage I would’ve then hit the vocals pretty hard with an 1176 to give them the attitude and pull them right to the front of the mix. I think that’s really crucial when mixing rock, indie etc – to really pin the vocals to the front of the mix during the big sections of the song, and you really can’t go past an 1176 to do this job!
In the last couple of years, I’ve actually been compressing guitars less and less though for big rock tunes. Especially for distorted guitars. The reason they’re distorted to start with is basically due to limiting of the signal, so it’s important not to make them seem lifeless by compressing the distorted signal, which will result in zero dynamics. Just about the only time I’d run distorted guitars through compressors now is to impart the sound of the compressor on the guitar without actually compressing it. When guitars are layered up this especially helps the whole mix to move and breathe because they still have dynamics.
For clean guitars I’ll normally run these through something like an LA-3A compressor in mixing to smooth them out a little and make sure all the notes can be heard.
Compression is crucial for drums in rock tracks. In particular to give the snare some real attack and to make the room mics sound larger than life! When compressing the room mics on a drum kit the sound of the room itself is really brought out, effectively increase the reverb on the kit and extending the snare hits. That’s an example of using compression to bring out the reverb to fill out the gaps!
9. Mogerlaine, “The Divorcee: is an interesting one too. How did you get the guitars in there so bright, shiny and poppy. They have a lot of punch without overdoing it. Obviously part of that is in the performance, but what do you do as the guy behind the desk to translate that to your mix?
I have very strong feelings when it comes to the hierarchy of importance when making a record. My personal thoughts, without going into detail on each item, are that the hierarchy of importance when making a record is:
1. The Song
2. The Performance
3. The instruments used to record
4. The recording itself (microphones, preamps, outboard, converters etc)
By a happy coincidence this is also the order in which the process takes place. So assuming the song and the performance are great (luckily in this scenario we had an excellent starting point with a really solid song and a fantastic performance), the next most important step in achieving a great guitar tone is using a great guitar and great amps.
Nick, the front man for Mogerlaine, and I spent a lot of time ensuring we nailed the guitar tone from the get-go. On this track Nick used a combination of his Fender Jazzmaster and Fender Jaguar. I always run two amps when recording as I feel you can achieve such great and unique tones this way. For this track we used Nick’s Fender Twin Reverb 65 Reissue, which has superb clean tones, as well as my Fender Blues Deluxe Reissue. (Definitely a Fender-fest on this track!) We blended the clean tone of the Twin Reverb with a more overdriven tone from the Blues Deluxe. Finding the right balance between these two tones was really what achieved the tone on this track. Nick has super attention to detail and is really picky with guitar tones etc, which is great and I love working with artists who know what they want and constantly strive for the best. So that takes us through to the end of step 3 of my hierarchy.
As for the actual recording, step 4, I used AEA R92 ribbon mics on each amp (I absolutely love those mics on guitar amps) and ran one into a Neve 1073 and the other into a JLM TG500 preamp. I love the JLM preamp for guitar amps as you can further fine-tune the tone with the variable impedance knob. And of course you can never go wrong with a 1073!
Before hitting Pro Tools the guitar signal would have also passed through a UAD (Universal Audio Digital) Neve 1073EQ giving it probably just a dB or so mid presence bite before hitting the UAD Studer A800 tape machine.
So when it came to mixing, we already had such great guitar tones that barely anything was required. It was only very small EQ moves really just to make sure the guitars were sitting in the mix properly.
10. What role does EQing play in creating such a bright, punchy mix? How do you EQ something like that?
EQ is the deciding factor in whether a mix will sound bright and punchy or dark and moody. As mentioned the vast majority of the bright punchy guitars came from working hard to get a stellar tone from the outset.
Aside from guitars though, I definitely enjoy creating a bright clear drum kit. Mogerlaine’s drummer, Ash, owns a beautiful vintage Sonor kit that sounded incredible. We captured this really well, but in mixing I still pushed up the top end of most of the microphones to get it that bright, punchy sound without making the kit sound thin or weak. I often like to crank the low end on the snare and overheads too to give the kit a full sound with a lot of depth.
If I went back and looked at the session I’d probably see that I cranked some mids/upper-mids on the bass also to help it punch through the mix.
11. Sasha March, “Didn’t Have To Leave.” Another wonderful example of your work. How do you make an acoustic guitar and vocal sound so full without other instruments to work with? Again, with just two instruments, how do you balance it. What role does reverb play (I can hear a fair bit of reverb in that track).
Thank you very much! Recording this EP with Sasha was quite a remarkable experience – Sasha recorded live (guitar and vocals together) and recorded 2 takes of 8 songs in just over 3 hours. I reckon she could’ve just done one take of each, her pitch and vocal control is just incredible. She then picked her favourite 6 for the EP. My job mixing was made a breeze due to her musicianship. Of course, recording live always presents some extra challenges though, mainly due to bleed between microphones (Plenty of vocals in the guitar mics and plenty of guitar in the vocal mic). This means while mixing you just have to keep in mind that whatever you do to one instrument will also affect the other. The focus for something so intimate like this recording though should always be the vocals, especially for someone like Sasha with such a wonderful voice.
Reverb helps just to give the track a bit of ambience so it’s not too dry. I felt that this tune wouldn’t suit having a super dry sound and that the reverb helps add to the emotion of the song. Saying that, one could easily go overboard with the reverb and ruin the song. Just have to find that happy medium.
12. Are solo artists like Sasha easier or harder to record and mix compared to a full band? Why/why not? (could be an obvious question, but I feel like it could be one of those things that is difficult, that people underestimate).
I guess overall it’s much less work and less to think about when just recording and mixing a solo artist such as Sasha. However, due to it being so exposed everyone will be able to tell if the guitar is poorly recorded, for example, as there’s nowhere in the mix to just tuck it in the back.
I guess more thought has to be put into the mic positioning due to the bleed of the vocals into the guitar mics and guitar into the vocal mic. I always just whack headphones on and move the mics until I’m happy it’s the best sound I can achieve. For a live track though there will have to be some compromises made and I probably position the mics slightly differently to if I was just recording acoustic guitar to help minimise the bleed.
There are also other non-musical factors to consider for a recording like this. It’s more important than ever to make sure the artist feels comfortable and relaxed from when they arrive at the studio through until the end of the recording. For something so intimate, if the artist can’t feel relaxed and get into the right headspace the recording will never be special, no matter how good they technically sing or how good the recording setup and mix are. The emotion will always be the essence of the song and what draws listeners back time and time again. If the artist doesn’t feel it whilst singing, then no listener ever will either.
13. And how do you EQ recording like that, one with so few instruments.
Very gently haha. As mentioned, every move you make on the vocal track is going to affect the guitar and vice versa. So it’s more important than ever to EQ the tracks while listening to the whole mix (not in solo mode). For such an intimate sound you definitely don’t want to go overboard with the EQ either, you want the vocals to sound as natural as possible, like the person is right in the room singing to you.
14. Then you’ve got bands like Crump Cake Orchestra (amazing name btw), which has even more stuff going on. How do you capture, mix and translate such a broad musical dynamic range to the listener? And again, how do you find a place for each instrument in the mix when there’s so much going on? Which instrument do you tend to start with and build from when working with a band like that and why?
It is an amazing name isn’t it! I’m still not sure where Evan (the band’s creator) got the name from. We actually recorded this at a friend’s studio as they’ve got a much bigger space than I do. I took all my own gear though – microphones, preamps, compressors, computer etc. So it was really just using their lovely space.
We recorded the big band in sections, so first rhythm section together live in the main room, then trumpet section, trombone section, saxophone section and finally all other little bits and pieces, i.e. vocals and any synth effects that Evan had. Recording in sections allowed us much more separation than what would be achievable compared to recording the whole band live. I’ve actually recorded The Crump Cake Orchestra live twice with all 20 people squeezed onto a stage – that’s a real challenge!
So with only trumpets bleeding into other trumpets mics and saxes into sax mics etc, it allowed us to really balance within each section and then find the right balance between sections.
Even though there’s 20 people in the band, each section has quite a different timbre, so it’s not too hard to fit all those instruments into a mix. In fact, it’s probably less work than one of Lost Woods songs with 20 different guitar layers, each fighting for their place in the mix!
15. Do those rules change with a song like Babylon Burning, when you bring vocals into the mix with just as many other layers at work? If so how? If not, why not?
I guess once vocals are in the mix it just changes the focus of the song. And for a genre like reggae it’s completely typical to have quite effected horns, for example, compared to a big band where you’re ideally looking for a big natural sounding horn section. So it’s ok to make more drastic EQ moves on the horns to help the vocals have their own space in the mix.
Playing dynamically is also of course