In Tape Op #16, my pal Stephen Murray interviewed Tchad Blake while he was in the middle of co-producing Pearl Jam's Binaural album in Seattle. Nearly two decades later, Tchad and I sat down in New York to discuss the intervening years, his inspiring mixing style, and relocating to Wales, where's he's been living for over a decade. He's worked on records by Los Lobos, Sheryl Crow, The Black Keys, Peter Gabriel, Madeleine Peyroux, and many others.
It's great to see you again.
Yes, We've changed. Way older!
Well, none of us get younger. I've always been really curious how you ended up on working on Peter Gabriel's Up in 2002. Was that when you started working at Peter's Real World Studios?
There were a couple of projects that I did at Real World before that. I did my second or third production project there for a band called Wild Colonials. We had gone over there because Tony Berg [Tape Op #121] loved the studio plus I'd worked with T Bone Burnett [#67] doing his solo album, The Talking Animals. It was produced by David Rhodes, Peter Gabriel's guitar player. David and I got on really well and we became friends. Mitchell [Froom, #10] and I did a project at Real World too, so I was meeting more and more people there. Jacquie Turner, who's my wife now, was chief engineer at Real World in those days, so when an outside engineer would come in, she'd be the assistant.
Help get you up and running and everything?
Yeah. Over a long period of time we ended up falling in love and we married in California. When we started having kids, we both decided L.A. wasn't the place, so we came back to the UK. Peter Gabriel was doing OVO, a collaborative soundtrack [to the Millennium Dome Show]. I mixed three songs on that. Peter liked them so he asked me if I'd be interested in doing the Up album.
That's a sonically interesting record. It's dynamic, with abrupt shifts and changes.
Tons of what I like, plus the voice of Peter Gabriel! What's not to love? Once I got that done, work kept coming in. I ended up being parked in the big room at Real World for about six years. I had all my gear there by then. I was in there more than I wasn't.
At that point, were you starting to get more mixing than engineering?
Well, I was focusing on that. Especially with a family coming. Production gigs were popping up, but I've always been a reluctant producer. When I hear something I like, I think, "Why should I change this? I love this!" That's not usually the sign of a good producer. When you're walking into a project, you've gotta think, "I really love this, but this is how we're going to change it."
And you've worked with producers where you see how they do that. Everyone does it a different way.
Yeah. That's right. It doesn't mean that I won't change things when I produce; but, generally, if I like it enough to produce it, it also means I already like it as it is. As producer you need to be very committed to the band, which often means travel and lots of time. Anyway, mixing seemed to be more in line with the coming family life. Jacquie and I decided to homeschool our kids, which meant we'd all be together 24/7/365. We wanted a studio at home, which took several years; but eventually we got that together.
I find it awesome that Jacquie had the precognition to tell you that if you wanted to keep working, you needed to learn Pro Tools. It's also smart that you set up a room where you can work with any budget.
That's right. I had done a Los Lobos record at Real World around then, and with the studio cost all they could afford to pay for was five days of studio time. I had two mixes going at the same time on the 88 input SSL [console, in order] to do the whole album in five days. But there wasn't enough in the budget to pay me. What was I going to do? I wouldn't ever turn down a record from Los Lobos. That's when Jacquie said, "This isn't going to work. You've gotta get a home studio and learn Pro Tools." Claire Lewis, my Real World assistant and Pro Tools wizard by this time, also helped me make the transition.
You were working at Real World and building a space to work in near your house?
Yes. We lived near a three unit business park, about 500 meters from our house. We were out in the country, so there wasn't much else around. We got a Pro Tools room up and running and I mixed two or three independent bands. Then Suzanne Vega's Beauty & Crime came in at a time I was really struggling in the box.
You were mixing in the box at this point? Was that a weird shift to go from the SSL console at Real World?
It was a really hard change for me. I think Beauty & Crime might have been mixed to a SADiE unit with a Smart [Research] C2 compressor. I seem to remember switching over halfway through the record to what I do now; entirely in the box. I mixed the record, loving the songs and performances, and never thought anything special about the mixes. It went on to win a Grammy for Best Engineered Album.
That must have been a bit of validation too, to hear it sounded good!
I was surprised, to say the least. I do like the sound of the record, but it's not something where I thought, "This sounds like a Grammy." I was struggling! Before starting the mixes, I was waiting for a small analog console to use for summing, but I couldn't get it together in time, so I ended up summing in Pro Tools. It sounded fine. In the end, yes, it was a great confidence builder.
When we're mixing, all of us old people are using skills we've already developed in the analog realm. That's far more important than whether you're working on a console or in the box.
I agree. I get asked about that a lot, because of coming from the analog background. I do think that's a plus; also helps with organization. Combining tracks, keeping track counts down, etc.
Do you color-code tracks?
Yep. I used to color-code our track sheets. We had markers to color the squares. They were actually fluorescent markers and there was a black light in the control room (The Sound Factory, Studio A), so it would really come to life. I do think those analog days helped me a lot in learning to make decisions as you're building up tracks.
If you're working on 24-track, you have to plan ahead.
What do you see as the other differences in the world of digital?
Well, I guess the debate about the sonics – digital versus analog – I don't find very interesting any more. I look at them now as two totally different but equally valid technologies. Maybe if I was a millionaire I'd build myself an analog studio as well as the Pro Tools room. "Ahh, let's see... what do I use today?" It wouldn't necessarily even be a musical decision for me; it'd be for the fun of it. It really doesn't matter for me, besides just changing things up and doing things a bit different sometimes. It's like picking up different kinds of guitars and playing them. You'll play different on each one. Which one is best? I don't believe in that question; they're just different.
When you take on projects, how do you even figure out what you're dealing with? How to bill based on the amount of work? These are difficult decisions.
I can be quite flexible. I have all kinds of rates and deals that depend on what's come before or after. Track count can play a part. That can be an indicator of complexity and how long the mix might take. I also try to do a test mix, which will let me see how the artist and label reacts, what kind and how many revisions we're headed for. If they love the mix and have some small taste changes, we're swinging. If they don't love it and have major approach kind of changes to the mix, then I need to rethink what I'm doing. If it's a low budget project I'd probably pass on it at that point. Too much time would be lost with me trying to second guess what they want with each song. If there's a larger budget, I can spend more time working with the artist to figure it all out. Then there are the mix deliverables. What kind and how many alternates for each mix? Stems?
They expect it all to be included?
Yes. Full rate projects are fine for all that. Lower budgets, we need to set a plan at the beginning. For stems, I now charge a day rate no matter what the budget. It's a deal breaker for me. If you don't pay for the stems, I'm not going to mix the record.
Right. It's weird with stems. When we're mixing in the box, I feel like you really have to massage that final master stage in the digital realm with plug-ins. Then, when you print a single-element stem, and everything reacts differently in the master stage, is it still a proper stem? Do we do untreated stems?
Yeah, it is odd. What I found is that, first off, I'm not very particular most of the time! If it changes a little bit, it changes a little bit. When I do treated stems, I do each group through my stereo bus. I don't check everything, but I'll spot check. On every project I do, I listen to the first song and think, "That's pretty damn close." There might be places where the vocal seem down a little bit or it comes out too loud, but it's not by much. If you really wanted to work it in, it wouldn't be that big of a stretch. But if your expectation is that it'll sound exactly like the mix, it's not going to fly.
What are people using all these stems for? Remixes? Archiving?
Well, I do understand it. Archiving digital is important. In the analog world gear wasn't changing that fast. With digital the operating systems are quickly changing and taking the plug-ins with them. Your mix isn't playable one year to the next. Artists rely on their back catalog more now for ads, television, movies, etcetera. It can be very lucrative.
Sure, some synch.
It may be that a large company calls and says, "Hey, one of our guys heard this song the other night and we'd like it for a national ad campaign. Do you have a mix without the vocals and the guitars a bit lower in volume?" If you have the stems it's, "Yeah, we can get it to you in ten minutes."
That makes sense, so you can build a modified version. I've run into that with film use.
You never know what's going to come in, and who's going to say what. I remember editing stems of "Everyday is a Winding Road" – the Sheryl Crow song – for the film Phenomenon. They wanted to cut out the line "everybody gets high" thinking it might offend some people. So, we did that and then added "everybody gets low" twice and they loved it. Yes, stems are useful.
Do you manage yourself and deal with your own bookings, or do you have someone filtering things to you?
I've been with Gary Stamler [GSM], who was also Mitchell Froom's manager for decades. We've had a handshake agreement since the mid ‘80s. He's a lovely guy with a legal background. Neither Mitchell or I were very high-maintenance. It was mainly legal; get the contract sorted and that's it. Gary's semi-retired now, and I have the lovely Nancy Sefton at GSM who takes care of those things for me. She does all the phone grunt work!
In your career path you've seen big budgets and big studios. Then you saw it shift and change. Being able to navigate that successfully and feel satisfied in the jobs that come to you is difficult.
There was a time when so much good work was coming our way. Mitchell was really the one who made those decisions about who to work with – but he would also give me a chance to pipe in. It was a very cool relationship. Our decisions were based on how much we loved the music and how well we connected with the artist. That's changed a little over the years for me. My main criteria now as a mixer is, "Can I make this better?" and, "Will the artist let me do my thing?"
Do you listen to a rough mix right off the bat before saying anything?
Yeah. Rough mixes are so important in this internet world. I want to hear the point where the artist thought the song was cooked. The rough mix shows me that point where they were all happy enough to send it out for others to listen. That tells me a lot. It also tells me what instrument to lead with and helps me hear if I'm missing any files.
I've had that one!
Yes! I've had some screwups with not having a rough mix. "Mix finished." "Hey, where's the piano?" "What piano?"
When you get a session sent to you, are you mostly trying to get raw audio files, or do you ask for a Pro Tools session?
I used to ask for a Pro Tools session consolidated with a common start. But that didn't happen, so I stopped asking. Most people send me what they end with, and I treat it like tape. If there are plug-ins and I have them, I pretty much leave them on until I think they're a problem. If there're too many plug-ins that I don't have, then I get rid of them all and start from scratch. I try to get the artist to render or bounce essential effects because of trouble between different plug-in versions.
How did you find your own voice as an engineer?
Hmm... it was sometimes painful, but learning anything of value usually is. I was fortunate to get hooked up with Mitchell Froom early on. He was open to doing things differently, and has his own musical bent, which I love. He showed me how arrangements can alter sounds and vice versa. I've also gravitated to unusual sounds and artists my whole life. Those two things got me to here, now.
These days, production keeps getting pushed back later in the process. Do artists send you new instruments to include while you're mixing?
Yes, that does happen, and sometimes right up to the end of mixing an entire album. "Here's some new drums and vocals on six songs. Can you fit them in by tonight?"
What about track counts?
The track counts can be crazy. Personally, I don't know why you'd want to have more than one mic on a guitar. Two I can kinda understand, but three? Four? Five? On every guitar overdub as well? On the piano and organ? All of a sudden it's 200 tracks. Sending that much info to a mixer takes so much time away from the actual mix. With five mic tracks on a guitar the combinations and phase relationships are endless. If it's in Pro Tools, the Delay Compensation [phase] is quite fluid. Depending on the day, certain things can be in phase, and other things can be out of phase when using different plugins on different channels/mics.
I'm glad someone else finally said this!
You have to be on your toes. I remember someone saying this early on, and it really stuck with me: "Never turn your back on digital!" Besides that, think about having a balance of five different mics on just one guitar. The artist may be listening to it through a desk, making all the decisions on their arrangement with that particular sound for days – which might have one monitor channel out of phase (actual case history!). Then, later, when I get it on Pro Tools without the same monitoring balances (or phase switch) and start bringing faders up, to change which mic was phase reversed will change the whole sound. Eventually, if they say, "We'd like you to get the sound we had in the rough mix," I'll have a very hard time. I don't really want to spend my time trying to figure out what they did on five tracks of guitar! That's not to say don't record five mics of guitar if that's your bag. But please bounce it down for the mixer if it's an essential sound in the song, or let the mixer have fun changing it.
I assume you try to stay out of meticulous drum edits.
That's not my bag either. I'll nudge something a bit. I do that.
You don't want to say "no" to everything or be negative right from the get-go of a mix.
Well, if that happens then I'm probably not the best choice for the record. I do like to change things. The mute button is one of my best friends. If it's too crowded, I can be quite brutal with my mutes. Luckily more times than not, people say, "Hey, that's a cool idea. Let's run with it." There are other times where I can't get rid of a lot.
Every time you mute or remove something, there's more room for something else.
This gets back to what we were talking about earlier, about discovering my sound; my way into distortion with SansAmp and extreme compression. The only way to do that is with an arrangement that has space. We might get a drum sound that has a "sound," but you don't want a big kick drum with a distorted tail ringing off where there needs to be a guitar or bass note ringing. I will get projects where everything's filled up, but they'll be like, "Can you give us a sound like the kick drum on that Los Lobos record?" I have to say, "Well, not really, unless you want to edit the guitar or the bass or something."
There's got to be a place to put it.
Yeah. There are reasons why albums sound the way they sound. It's not always because the mixer made them sound that way by his design. It's because the music led you to those sounds.If you're going to change a drum sound that is going to take up the space differently, you need to get rid of some instruments or make them smaller or something. If we're back at the stack of five guitar mics, I often randomly choose one. "Oh, there's a [Shure SM]57." I love 57s; get rid of the rest. On another guitar, I don't want it to be the same as the 57, so I'll take a different mic for that one.It's about contrasts; sonic relationships.
Any record you could name as example?
Most recently I recorded an album [Lies! Lies! Lies!] at a Mix With The Masters seminar with Nick Harper. He's an amazing songwriter in the UK and an astounding musician. We recorded a band album live in 7 hours. Maybe three small overdubs. Minimal mics, most effects recorded live. That includes the drum processing, which the band could hear in their headphones. That helped us decide how busy or simple they needed to play, which then helped create the right space relationship to the effects and other instruments. Everybody played to, and with, the sounds. It does have a very cool feel to it. It's a really fun way of working that I hadn't done in a long while.It probably would have been faster, but we were fielding questions as we went. It was a seminar after all! The band [Nick Harper and The Wilderness Kids] were smashing it. Such great energy.
The musicians didn't lose their minds waiting around?
They were happy to learn too, and so happy to be there recording. It was all a friendly vibe.
I did one like that recently. It stayed on tape and I mixed mono. Three days; record's done.
Mono! Brave! I think, if you can finagle it, it would be great to do that once or twice a year. It affects how you work in other ways.I do miss that collaborative thing.
I'm mostly alone, no assistant, in the studio all day, but I like that too. I try to get out once or twice a year – just tracking – if something comes along that's right.
I went out to Mix With The Masters and visited briefly when Manny Marroquin [Tape Op #109] was doing one.
That's one I wanted to go to!
How do you like doing the Mix With The Masters seminars?
Highlight of my year. It's beautiful out there, and I think Maxime [Le Guil] and Victor [Levy-Lasne] have done it right. For me, the seminars are life-changing experiences, and I'm told the same thing by the people who attend them. These people are focused. Most of them are highly accomplished, full-fledged professional engineers from around the world, and it's pretty nerve-wracking to have 18 bloody good engineers behind you watching when you're trying to mix, especially when you don't know too much about Pro Tools! But they're all so positive, and we end up all becoming friends. I hear stories afterwards from participants about them meeting up in other countries for a cuppa! I'm still in touch with the people from the first seminar I did nine years ago! It's positively changed my life. On top of that, it's put Andrew [Scheps, see interview this issue] and I together for our pub talks.
Tell me about the pub talks with Andrew. You and he live fairly close to each other in the UK?
Yeah. The idea was to extend the MWTM vibe to those who, for whatever reasons, can't make a seminar. We wanted to expand the discussion; not just about music making or studios. We also have special guests. It can be anyone, an astronomer, a physicist, a writer, or a doctor. For the first one we did 30 people showed up. Our guest was British author Bella Bathurst. She wrote this book titled Sound: [A Memoir of Hearing Lost and Found]. It's about her journey from the hearing world, to going absolutely deaf around the age of 25 and being misdiagnosed, then 12 years later having it correctly diagnosed and surgically fixed! She had this then groundbreaking surgery and got her hearing back! It's an amazing story. I read the book and loved it so much that I wrote her to asked if she'd be interested in talking to a bunch of loser music engineers. She was our first guest. That's now a feature; to have a non-engineer guest to shake up the conversation. We've had Neil Cherian, a neurosurgeon specializing in tinnitus with war veterans. Wendy Melvoin, the guitar goddess. The Stacey brothers [Paul and Jeremy] who are music producers and ace musicians. It's been really fun.That's now an ongoing thing. We'll do it whenever and wherever we can.
How do you make sure you don't get too many people?
By being out in the middle of nowhere in a tiny little pub that's hard to find.
People might fly in from Japan to see this.
Well, we had people fly in from Belgium. That was cool. I don't know what's going to happen with it, but we'd like to keep it accessible to as many people that are interested.
When I interviewed Dan Auerbach [Tape Op #127], I asked about mixing Brothers remotely with you.
That was one of the most fun records I've ever done. First off, the tracks were amazing.
Mark Neill [#29] tracked that.
Yes! Beautifully quirky. They started with something more like a classic R&B-sounding record and then thought it might be better to expand it a bit. I didn't know them at the time, but I'd done some mixes for the BlakRoc [Tape Op #85] album, but still hadn't talked to them much. All the Brothers tracks came on a cheap old 8 GB flash drive. I think one song had 16 tracks on it, some had only 8. They wanted this new record to have some sonic elements like the BlakRoc album. I think the first song I worked on was "Everlasting Light." I don't think they knew exactly what they wanted out of it. For me, that's perfect. I really don't like having solid expectations. Expectations are like a brick wall that you're going to smash into at some point. They can hold you back if you're not good at letting go, and we had no expectations at the start. Anything goes. I did a mix of "Everlasting Light" and sent it. I thought it sounded pretty good. I got calls from both of them saying, "Man, this sounds really good. Can you take it farther?"
Patrick Carney was also certainly involved so much with the recording.
Pat's an amazing recordist himself. With this I was like, "Of course!" That's my favorite thing to hear. But I was being quite tentative to start. I didn't really know what they wanted, because of how it came to me. I sent them another mix and they said, "That sounds even better; but take it farther, man!" I think I got to the third mix. I sent it out, and before they called back, I called and said, "You know what? I'm unhappy with this. I think I'm starting to feel more comfortable seeing where you guys want to go and push the thing. I really want to do a whole other thing." Which I did. It only took a couple of hours from where I was. I went with it and sent it to them.
Yeah. But every song was different. Not every song was like that. I started feeling better and they responded to it. The whole album was them saying, "Take it farther! You're not doing enough."That's my dream.
Were you using the reFuse Lowender plug-in on that?
My friend Leigh Marble made that.
I sent him my original unit that I used on the Los Lobos records, which was by DAK Industries.I used to see them in the back of comic books. DAK Industries was like a clearinghouse for junk.
I remember those ads; they had all kinds of weird gear.
This was subharmonic synthesizer, made for home stereos, with a dbx circuit in it. I ended up sending Leigh the rackmout DAK one, because the Lowender sounded so good I didn't need it anymore.
You were dealing with a band that doesn't have a bass player.
Yes, but they had played some bass on this album. It was also when the Soundtoys Decapitator was created. I started using the Decapitator tons. With the drums, most of the tracks had only a single mic on them. I didn't know how to auto cut drums apart to do samples, so I did it all by hand; cutting out kick drums and creating Drumagog samples with distortion to drop the pitch down.
Oh, yeah. I still use that all the time!
I didn't have the Massey DRT [drum replacer] then, which does it for you. I love that thing. It would have saved my wrists on Brothers. Anything I wanted to have separately, like one hit, I'd have to cut off the track and mult it. Although most of the songs were only 8 to 12 tracks, it still took me full days, and sometimes a day and a half to get a mix. "Everlasting Light" probably took me two days, with revisions. It was actually quite a hard record to mix, not because of anything other than trying to live up to Dan and Pat's creativity. They wanted something different and for me to get creative. That lights my fire.
I've been listening to Madeleine Peyroux's album, Anthem, a lot, and your mixes are great. Anything else we should know about?
That's cool. Larry Klein produced that. I also did Thomas Dybdahl [All These Things], which Larry Klein produced as well. There's a Tony Berg-produced [Tape Op #121] Amos Lee record [My New Moon]. That came out really well. There's a record I mixed that Pat Carney produced, cowrote, and played tons of the instruments on for the singer Jessy Wilson [Phase]. Amazing album. And the Nick Harper record I was talking about, Lies! Lies! Lies!, is worth a listen for sure.