Engineer and mixer Geoff Swan has gone from university student, to studio owner, to producer Mike “Spike” Stent’s assistant, back to studio owner, and is now a go-to engineer and mixer for some of today’s most exciting artists and producers. He has had a hand in the music of Ed Sheeran, Cardi B, Mahalia, Jónsi [Tape Op #41], 5 Seconds of Summer, Paul McCartney, The Weeknd, One Direction, Vance Joy, Liam Gallagher, Duran Duran, Charli XCX, and many others.
What were your early dips into recording, and what got you interested in wanting to pursue it as a career?
When I was a teenager I was playing in bands and trying to be a guitarist. I was convinced that that was what I was going to do, but I didn’t have any plans. When I finished school, my folks were keen for me to go to university. They were unsure about me trying to pursue a career in music. I ended up doing a degree in music technology. It was a Bachelor of Science degree, so it was very technical-based. I came home after my second year and realized I needed to get some hands-on experience in the studio. I started knocking on doors, and I had a lot of doors shut in my face. There are always more people looking for work experience than there are opportunities available. I happened across this rehearsal space that I used to rehearse in with my bands when I was a teenager. It was this incredible project called Base Connection. When we were kids, you could go in and rehearse in there for one pound a night. There’d always been a recording studio of some description in there. I called up Pete Abbott, the guy running it at the time, and asked him if I could potentially get some work experience. He said, “No, there isn’t work experience available.” Fortunately, because I knew the guys who ran the center from earlier years when I played in bands, they said to him, “Hey, you should meet Geoff. He’s all right.” Pete and I developed this friendship; we’re still friends to this day. He would let me come in and sit in on sessions with him over the summer. He had this parallel career going at the time, where he was doing monitors for a band, and they were going off on tour in September when I was going back to university. He said, “I’m probably going to have to close up the studio whilst I’m on tour.” I jumped in and said, “How about letting me run the studio for you?” He was pretty unsure about it at first, but he let me run the studio. That was fantastic. I managed to finish my degree via distance [learning] while doing this. It also meant that I was doing what I was really going to university to do. I could bring in bands from outside of the youth music project, but there were all these young bands that had rehearsed there that had never been in a studio before or, if they had, it was a very limited experience. I was able to learn with them. There wasn’t necessarily the pressures or expectations that you had working in a commercial studio and having paying clients come in, expecting you to get incredible results. I was learning on the job.
Was the studio fairly well-equipped, or were there pretty limited resources in terms of gear?
This was mid-2000s. At that time a lot of the studio’s around us, operating commercially, were still tape-based and had been run for years by people who didn’t necessarily have any interest in changing from that. Pete – being a younger guy and familiar with the technology – had an [Apple] Mac G4 with a [Digidesign] Digi 002 and old Alesis ADATs hooked up to that. We were able to record 16 channels at a time. We had a Soundtracs desk and a couple of small bits of outboard, like some Behringer and TL Audio compressors. It was basic, but it was functional. Once I got confident with the gear and the routing, what was brilliant about it – and very appealing to the bands in the local area – was the fact that they could use gear that, at the time, was relatively advanced. They’d come in, lay tracks down, edit, and achieve a quality in a quicker amount of time than they could previously. That gave me a niche in the local area.
Do you hear anything now that you enjoy in your early work?
The control room was a small room – it sounded terrible. But the live room was a reasonably good size. I stumbled across some recordings from that time, over the last lockdown period. I found some drum recordings that I did, and I made my own samples from them. A lot don’t sound anywhere near as bad as I remember. When I learned some new technique during that period, it felt like such an advancement. Like grouping drum tracks together and learning that you could “tab to transients” in Pro Tools and cut tracks up. That was super rewarding. I listen back to some of those recordings and cringe a little bit at how they sound, but equally they also bring back memories of, “Oh, yeah; that’s the first time I recorded the shells of the drum kit without the cymbals or recorded the cymbals over the top.” I have such fond memories of that place, and of the experience.
Was your next step to start working with Spike Stent?
I’d been running the studio in Salisbury, in the south of England. This other producer, Neil Kennedy, was running a small studio in the next city over, Southampton. We got to chatting via MySpace and decided that it made more sense for us to join forces and build a studio that we could both work in. Build something that was better and more functional than what we each had. I was at the point where I felt I needed to do my own thing. We took over a farm building outside of Southampton and built a studio there [The Ranch Production House]. They’re still running it. It’s an amazing place. We built that over the course of the five years I worked with Neil there. We built the initial studio, and then we built a second studio so that we could both be working at the same time. Then we eventually built this 80-square meter live room so that we could record bands live; this huge space in a barn. That was brilliant to link up with somebody who had a different approach than I did. I certainly have always felt throughout my career that every time I work with someone else, they provide some mental shift. With Neil, I learned an awful lot of different recording techniques and approaches. He’s a total gearhead. He’s always buying new bits of equipment and wanting to try something new. We went through every mic preamp under the sun, and every mic, and we lived off cheap fast food to fuel our equipment habit. It was brilliant learning. Then, from there, that’s when I started working for Spike. A mutual friend of Spike’s and mine said Spike was back in the country and needed somebody to help him out for a little while. I jumped at the chance, because he’s an absolute legend and incredible talent. It was a great opportunity to learn from one of the best.
You worked on some huge records with him.
Oh, yeah. His discography is immense. It’s always nice to work on something you’re proud of, but it’s even better to work on something and know that people around the world are listening to it. That was one of the most gratifying parts about going to work for him; working on these projects that were reaching the masses, and feeling I got to play a small part in it.
You’d been running your own show and your own studio, and then you were the assistant again.
Yeah, absolutely. If you want to learn and progress, you’ve got to be willing to take a step back and relinquish control, understanding that there’s a great opportunity to learn. That’s worth its weight in gold. Before I went to work for Spike, my understanding of mixing as a process and an art form in its own right was completely different to what it is now. Up until that point, I very rarely mixed something that somebody else had recorded or produced. It’s a totally different mindset. When you’re working with local bands and artists on small budgets, everything has to be done very, very quickly. The mix process, before working with Spike, was something that I was doing as we were going. Yes, you can get good results, but that understanding – mixing is a separate process – was revolutionary for me.
When you start with something that you did not record or produce, how do you find the center of the mix? How do you begin?
My compass is always trying to listen with the artist’s and the producer’s ears. That’s the most important thing for me. When I get a production mix, the first thing I’ll do is sit down and listen to it several times to understand who the key players are within a song or a piece of music. [I want to] understand where the direction is and what’s being achieved already. Or how can we make it do that more, or understand where they want this to go and how do I get it there? I like mixing most of all, because it fits with my creative mindset. I like being in the box that I’m in when I’m mixing, because I can’t be too radical, but I’ve also got to push the envelope a bit. I make sure that there’s a channel of communication open right from the get-go. I want to make sure that if I send them a first pass and they don’t like it, or I send them a pass and there’s something essential that isn’t there, they can come to me and we’ve got a good rapport to get it to where they want it to go. Mixing is very much about facilitating and being a fresh pair of ears to take songs to that next step.
Has there been a time where you totally missed it on a mix?
They’re the ones you learn from most, when you don’t hit the nail on the head first off. I did a song for an artist about two years ago – the song came in, and the production mix felt fairly basic. When I heard the song, I thought, “This sounds like a pop smash to me.” I pushed it to be that way. But what they were going for was much more lo-fi, and something much more rough around the edges. That was a learning curve on how important it is to have a creative conversation before we get going; to understand peoples’ intentions and where they want to go with it. I heard the production mix, got excited, and went for it. That first pass was not how the song ended up. It was much more lo-fi, and much more closed in.
Do you ever do multiple mixes? One that matches the rough, and a “this is what Geoff would have done” mix?
Oh, yeah. When I get a track and I hear something very different, or I hear something that could potentially be added – some programming, additional instrumentation, or a structural edit – if it’s something like that, I will always do that as an alt pass. I always send back a pass that is respectful to the vision, and then, if I’ve got a strong idea, I’ll absolutely send an alt pass. Even if somebody goes, “Oh, no. Not quite, but what if we…?” Sometimes it can trigger ideas.
The workflow has changed in the way that the music’s being produced and mixed, especially recently during a pandemic. What are your thoughts on that?
That’s definitely been happening pre-pandemic. The ability for people to be creative on their own; to be able to cut vocals at home or record whatever they want, wherever they want. Quite often the best creative minds are not always the best engineers. That’s just the way it is; that’s not anyone’s fault. I would say, in terms of what comes through the door for me, a lot of the time these days is vocal recordings. Vocal recording is an art form, and it’s not always done brilliantly when it’s done in not-ideal locations without the expertise. I certainly say that in recent years, and certainly over the pandemic times, there has been a lot more focus on making sure that we’re working with the best starting point of the vocals as possible. Workflow-wise, I have an assistant, Niko Battistini, who’s with me five days a week and works his ass off. The parts will come in, he’ll get them into Pro Tools, set them up, organize them, clean up vocals, clean up whatever else needs cleaning up, and lay it all out in the way that I like. Not having him in the studio with me for three months this year while he was working remotely – not having that face-to-face communication – did change things slightly. It took us a while to adapt. Tools like Audiomovers; being able to stream mixes to artists, producers, and labels – whoever wants to jump on and work on a mix – has been revolutionary. Prior to the pandemic I was doing that, but it’s certainly become something I lean on more now. It allows people to listen in their own space and make judgment calls without coming into my room, which doesn’t sound like their room on speakers they’re not familiar with.
Are you mixing on a console?
I have a hybrid setup, where I’m running an [Avid Pro Tools] HD rig and a lot of outboard. I like working with outboard. You can obviously do it in the box, no question. But, for me, one of the things I love about working in studios is being able to get tactile, turn some knobs, and push some faders. That’s half the fun of it. I have a lot of gear on hardware inserts going into Avid HD I/Os. I’ve recently put in one of the Flock Audio PATCH digital patch bays. I have a lot of saturation devices I tend to use on the mix bus; or, if I’ve got a few mix buses going, I’ll be mixing that equipment up quite a lot from track to track. This gives me a simple way of recalling it, but also chaining devices together. The fact that I can mult on it is brilliant. I do an awful lot of work in the box, but nine times out of ten there’s plenty of hardware on every mix I do. I’d rather introduce the saturation in the outboard world rather than doing it in the box. Whether that’s me being precious about it, or whether there is a major benefit, it feels better to me and that’s important.
You have been working with Charli XCX for quite some time now. I just heard How I’m Feeling Now.
I think I’ve worked on every one of her albums, in some capacity or another. That album happened right in the middle of the last lockdown. It was intense mixing that record, but so much fun.
A. G. Cook produced the last Charli XCX record, and you have mixed for him before.
Yeah. We had gone into the lockdown over here. Talk of this record started. From there it happened quickly. It was produced by A. G. and BJ Burton [Tape Op #137]. The speed at which we were going towards the end was crazy. The last day, before we handed in all the mixes, I had been up for 36 hours because of how close we were getting to the deadline. Charli’s prolific with her output, and her ideas are incredible. She and A. G. have worked together for a long time. I can’t speak for how their production process works, but certainly when it comes to me, I always know where to go with it. A. G.’s vision is always clear. Having worked with him now for five years, he knows what he wants. He’s got a great vision for his records. When I get one of his productions, I know what the do’s and don’ts are straightaway. It’s a lot like playing in a band with somebody for a long time; you instinctively know what they’re going to do. With mixing his productions, I don’t have to think about it as much. I know how far to take something, what’s going to work, what is going to be liked, and what is not going to be liked. His productions and sound design are always exciting to listen to. I’m not going to be dealing with just kick drum, snare drum, hi-hats, a bass guitar, and a guitar. It’s going to be a lot more complicated than that. There are going to be sounds doing the function of those that are not necessarily going to be those instruments.
Each mix has elements in the production that have roles, but the characters can change and still serve those purposes.
It’s so easy now: You can put together something that sounds generic and okay in five minutes by downloading a Splice pack. It doesn’t take a great deal of creativity to do that, because the sounds have already been created. But the drawback is that it sounds lifeless. What I want from music, and what excites me about music, is when I hear people pushing boundaries and doing things I haven’t heard before. If you’ve got a sound that is absolutely ripping with distortion and modulating other parts in the mix, that’s cool because it’s doing something different. It’s creating these anomalies that maybe are technically wrong, but emotionally are exciting. That’s cool.
How much of what you’re getting to mix is sort of a mess but it’s awesome, or it’s causing problems because it’s so blown out?
It’s how songs translate through different mediums, in some respects. If you listen to a lot of SoundCloud demos – like mumble rap – that is often really, really blown out to the point that everything caves in when an 808 hits. That’s been happening for a little while. That works its way through to the mainstream, because it becomes a sonic thumbprint that people like. It varies from project to project as to what I receive. I have to make the distinction of, “If I remove that, does it stop it sounding as good? Does it stop it feeling as good?” If it does, then it has to stay, or it has to be recreated in some way that works without it being detrimental further on down the line. Certainly, the tracks that I receive from A. G. aren’t like that in any respect. It’s all very put together in a very professional manner, and it’s always easy to work with. But on other projects that’s definitely something that happens.
Your point of what the public finds good, bad, agreeable, or moves them; in some ways it’s all that matters.
When I’m trying to recreate a reference mix that’s slamming at -4 [dB], I can’t give somebody back a mix that’s much, much quieter than that because people won’t understand. That’s not what they want. They want you to level up what they’ve done or improve on it. In that instance I’ve got to find creative ways to reintroduce that distortion and excitement. That’s one of the reasons I love using hardware, because I can do that in creative ways. Running something out through a Black Box HG-2 is wicked for driving and creating a saturation without having everything come back and in the red.
I’ve got a bunch of those Overstayer devices.
Oh, those are so sick. I love those. I’ve got their Saturator NT-02. It’s aggressive. At the same time, these pieces of gear can be used subtly, and they add something brilliant. I love running a vocal out through a chain, because even if I can do it in the box and create the same feeling, there’s something magical about it. I do feel I’m getting something more from it.