In this blog takeover, legendary producer/mixing engineer Chuck Zwicky (Prince, Soul Asylum, Dead Prez and Jeff Beck) talks with us about the living, breathing quality of sound.
My mixing setup is a hybrid combination of DAW routing and Analog processing, and sometimes I let the technology dictate the decision making by showcasing the quirks and unpredictable outcomes that the interactions of various pieces of gear have with sound sources. This can seem quite subtle on a first listen, but the overall effect is that the mix is more “alive.”
A case in point: A few years ago I mixed an album for a band from Minneapolis called The Suburbs. The album was to be a comeback of sorts, as it was their first new album in nearly 3 decades. This band was a shining star in the 1980s Minneapolis music scene; their records and 12” remixes were characterized by hypnotic bass lines, sparse and sophisticated keyboard parts and wild, nearly punk guitar accents — and always with a strong sense of melody and groove.
When I received the first track to mix, a catchy tune called “Dumbass Kids,” I gave a lot of thought about how to approach it. I went for period authentic, as if it was some long lost follow-up to their previous record. I pondered what it might be like if a band like the Rolling Stones had released a new record after a very, very long break. Wouldn’t the fans want them to sound exactly like the Rolling Stones, rather than a bunch of veterans trying to re-invent themselves as something they weren’t?
To this end I didn’t use any equipment or techniques that weren’t available to an engineer working in a typical studio in the mid 1980s, except, of course, for the fact that I was using a DAW instead of 2” tape for playback.
What I want to focus on here is the drum sound. Having a recognizable drum sound is as important to a band’s sound as the lead singer (in my humble opinion). Back in the day, drummer Hugo Klaers sometimes used a deep snare with a “Duraline” head, which was made of woven Kevlar (same stuff used in bulletproof vests). This gave the snare a characteristically deep and punchy sound with almost no ring or overtones. The snare I had on “tape” wasn’t quite the sound I was hearing in my head. It definitely needed… something.
So, in keeping with my attempt to be period correct I knew I had to use the Eventide H910 to deepen the sound of that snare drum, employing a technique first popularized on David Bowie’s 1977 album Low. Alas, I didn’t have an actual hardware H910…
so I turned to the Eventide H910 plug-in, released a few years ago.
The effect I used to deepen the snare sound is achieved by turning the pitch knob of the H910 slightly flat and turning up the feedback control until the tail of the drum is the right length, sometimes using the additional delay of 7.5ms, 15ms or more to increase the “length” of the snare sound.
One of the characteristics of the H910 that was considered a “flaw” in its day was its tendency to leave audible digital artifacts, AKA “The Glitch,” when pitch shifting. This was solved by Eventide in the next model — the H949 — which featured a “de-glitch” circuit made possible by the clever use of analog and digital technology.
The effect of the glitch in my application of the H910 as a snare enhancer is that the snare hits would land at various points in the H910’s independently looping memory cycles. This has the effect of randomizing the time and duration of the feedback trail, sometimes giving a very satisfying “doooom” effect to the share and sometimes a truncated “thwack.”
Using this technique I was able to get a fat, punchy and yet heavy snare that balanced the sparse arrangement perfectly. Because the snare effect was inconsistent, it gives a living, breathing quality to the sound, something that a sample of the “perfect” snare hit wouldn’t.
And the verdict?
Well, reportedly the drummer was jumping up and down saying, “That’s what we’re supposed to sound like!”
Here’s the entire album: (I used the effect on pretty much every track)
Want to learn more?
Listen to Chuck’s Gear Club Podcast interview where he shares his unique approach to recording and tells a story or two about working with Prince.
Visit Chuck’s website.