A short while ago I wrote an article introducing the wonderful sounds of Fiona Bevan. Fiona managed to create a wonderful sounding, honest and contemporary pop record with interesting lyrics, lush sounding vocals with well played and well arranged instrumentation.
The album was produced and recorded by multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee and his engineer partner in crime Pierre Duplan at Shawn’s London-based TransYank Studio.
As a fan of Shawn’s previous work I always try to keep up to date with what he is up to. I noticed mid way through October he was promoting a collaboration album with ‘Mamas Gun’ frontman Andy Platts. It was billed as a throwback type album to the late 70’s, (in Shawn’s words “the pinnacle of recording”.) west coast sound, a sound that is analogue yet progressive, progressive but simple, underplayed and melodically pleasing. The album entitled ‘West End Coast’ is all those things and more. You can tell that Shawn, and Andy for that matter, studied that sound, did their homework and created something honest to that era. The album is, however, more than a nostalgia record, it stands up musically, vocally and lyrically in it’s own right in this digital age as a great listen. Some tracks grab straight away, some take a few more listens but it is a solid, consistent, appealing listen from start to finish. Shawn and Andy bring the musicality to this record, their talents and ability shine through, sharing writing and playing credits throughout but it is with Pierre, Shawn’s engineer partner where a substantial amount of credit must be given. In the recording process and mix Pierre has really added to this album’s integrity and as an almost silent participant in this process, publicly at least, I felt it would be interesting to get his feelings and thoughts on the record, his job as an engineer and working with Shawn in general.
EP: How did you begin your life as a recording and mix engineer?
PD: I was born in France and in a band from the age of 16. I was always the one to wonder how you make a recording sound like a record. So I naturally gravitated towards the technical aspect of recording and mixing. In 1995, I helped a friend record his demos in a London studio (Mark Angelo’s) where I ended up becoming a tape operator assisting sessions 7 days a week. Within 5 months, I was engineering for Laurel Aitkins and The Skatalites.
EP: How did you begin work with Shawn Lee?
PD: I met Shawn in 1995 while working on his Talking Loud ‘Discomfort’ album. Afterwards, for the next ten years, we kept on meeting on sessions in different studios where I was recording and he was a session musician. In 2005, I started working for him more regularly.
EP: What’s that arrangement like? Do you engineer and mix everything he does now?
PD: Pretty much everything. Except when I have other engagements and the greats Carim Classmann or Andrew Thornton take on the controls. I am in good company there.
EP: Do you have a specific outlook when working on a recording? I’ve seen from the few videos out there that you look to keep everything relatively simple and ensure equipment and musicians are at their best? Is that fair to say?
PD: There is a time to think and a time to feel. I am always oscillating between those two extreme but complimentary states. The source is king. I am there to massage it and encourage the gelling and separating action that needs to take place. So I’ll use any tool at my disposal to make a part feel right within its context. The music wants to sound better and I listen to it trying to understand its demands, translate my intuitions and feelings into technical actions.
EP: Talk me through the process of a project such as Young Gun Silver Fox. Is the end product one of long hours of thought and scrutiny or do you work on impulse?
PD: YGSF is mostly the work of two talented and skilled musicians. Their song-writing processes involve choosing the right parts at the right time with the right content. They are already mixing, i.e. organising frequencies and dynamics at source. I amplify, “dramatise” those choices, sometimes fix a few things. I recorded Shawn’s parts with a late seventies west coast sound in mind. Shawn played me lots of music and I analysed its yummy sounds. Snares, bass drums, reverbs, guitar effects on Telecaster, Stratocaster or Gibson Humbucker, keyboard effects, etc…I studied the frequency content and stereo depth of many a track to decide where I would place the instruments in the mix. For example, by critical listening, I found out that many of those records display a “fatter” snare than the kick is (it usually is the other way around…). I used gated white noise on the send to an early digital reverb on a few snares to create tight dense snare wires. We used real tape to compress bass and guitars. I processed Mid and Side content to tighten the stereo image. I knew it had to go to vinyl so no digital brickwall limiters were used on the mix bus! 🙂 (also, those limiters weren’t used in the late seventies…). I could go on but basically I did my homework with relish.
EP: I know plenty of recording engineers who don’t get enough of a chance to be creative in the studio, falling into similar patterns that guarantee results. How much time do you spend experimenting with the recording process?
PD: Our way of recording together is always open minded otherwise boredom creeps in and you stop learning. But we have solid starting points (set-ups) to make sure the session doesn’t come to a halt or slows down too much. We are both confident in matters of sound. We know we will prevail no matter what. Shawn knows what he wants and doesn’t want but lets me try my crazy techniques as long as it doesn’t take more than 3 to 5 minutes to set up. At the moment, I am using a lot of parallel processing, where a sound source is copied (or bussed) to another or several tracks in order to add character without destroying its original “purity”. Just watch out for phase shifts though! (sometimes ok, sometimes displeasing…). Otherwise, anything goes: Serial, Side-chain, parallel compression, parallel eq, a lot of pitch shifting, phasing, etc…..A couple of times, I delayed a side-chain to the bass compressor just to amplify the thumpy attack of notes on some songs. But at the end of the day, even if I potentially use custom esoteric techniques, the volume fader and mute are the most important tools to get a good balance (after a good performance first!). Special techniques are only called upon if something doesn’t work as well as it could or should. After all, a compressor is, not only but mostly, an automatic volume fader (…). My main obsession with this album was to keep an ample dynamic range but still sound “loud” (Peak versus RMS levels…), so tone (mostly eq) and automation of volumes was very important to create a clear “cutting” mix.
EP: What is the best and the worst thing about being a recording and mix engineer?
PD: Adventuring in the invisible and creating architectural soundscapes which hopefully makes one feel or see something interesting. The worst would be the business side of it all which can get in the way by creating anxiety about having to earn a living. I don’t work on sounds and music to make a living, I make a living to be able to work on sounds and music.
EP: If music didn’t exist what would you be doing?
PD: Anything where the goal is to make something together within a highly skilled team. But music will always exist. I love talking and theorising music, then acting on it, then fix the theory to fit the practice (and vice versa) by having a constant feedback loop between dreaming the music and making it happen in the real world. I constantly research new techniques, not necessarily new technology. There is always a new problem to learn how to fix, specially with unpredictable live instruments. The exciting bit is to come up with a solution and let the music breathe.
‘West End Coast’ by Young Gun Silver Fox is out now on Legere Recordings