Interview: Chris Sheldon
Chris Sheldon is a prolific rock mixer/producer based in London. His credits include Foo Fighters, Roger Waters, Pixies, Garbage, Biffy Clyro, Feeder, and Skunk Anansie.
I’ve been a long time admirer of Chris’s mixing prowess and some of his work would even make its way onto my list of desert island discs. The chance to interview him on his workflow, ideologies, and some of the specifics dealing with the renowned artists he has worked with, should make this interview a must-read.
APT: Let’s get the elephant out of the room, firstly. Analogue, digital or hybrid? How do you approach your mixing workflow?
Chris Sheldon: Hybrid. My mix set-up is Pro Tools–based, but I use two Neve 8816 summing units coupled with two 8804 fader packs so the signal flow goes from digital to analogue. The output of the Neves go to my SSL stereo compressor then back into Pro Tools. So from analogue back to digital again. All my EQ’ing and processing is done digitally within Pro Tools.
Some people swear by staying ITB completely, but for me going through an analogue summing device puts more 3D into my mixes — less flat, I suppose.
I like the Neves as they have a neat little MIDI recall system. As for the sound of them… they seem OK to me! I haven’t really compared them to anything else to be honest.
APT: It’s obvious from looking at your discography that you have been active in engineering, production and mixing but are perhaps most well-known for mixing. In the ’80s and ’90s there seemed to be a lot of specialization — do you think that you need to be a “jack of all trades” in the modern music industry?
CS: I started off engineering, taking the “tea boy, to tape op, to house engineer” route. I sort of fell into production really. I suppose some bands and record companies thought I could make a better fist of it than some of the people they had previously worked with! I seemed to have segued into mainly mixing now, which suits me fine, really.
Regarding specialization, as far as the recording side of things is concerned, of course being a jack of all trades is handy, but actually I think it’s always been a bit like that. For instance, when I started back in ’82 at Utopia Studios in London, the engineer would be expected to be able to handle everything from the beginning to the end of each session. That would include the mixing. There were a few people who started to specialize in mixing during the ’80s, but they were pretty rare. There was also a time in the late ’80s when certain engineers would start to be booked to just record drums if they were known for getting “that ’80s big drum sound”, but it was fairly rare and most recordings were all handled by the same team of producer and engineer. I would say it’s pretty much the same now.
APT: If you had to choose only one specialism, would it be engineering, production or mixing?
CS: Oh, I would definitely say mixing. It’s the thing I enjoy the most, trying to bring the most out of a recording or song.
APT: Looking at the bands that you work with you work with a lot of heavier rock music that still manages to retain a strong sense of melody. Would you say that this is one of the things you look to bring out of a band?
CS: For sure. It’s of paramount importance to me. I’ve said before that what I really like is just fucked-up pop songs! Melody is what brings a power to a song I think. You can have the heaviest sounding track imaginable, but if it doesn’t have an equally strong sense of melody, to me it’s missed the mark. I suppose strong melodies are one of those things that was very prevalent in the songs I loved growing up and so I just wanna hear it!
APT: For those reading this looking to get into the industry, how would you best advise them to get involved in the music industry?
CS: The $64,000 question! I have no idea! Write to every studio you can, and hope. The other way is to do it yourself. Start your own little studio and offer to record bands for cheap. It’s a good way of getting your chops up and making a name for yourself.
APT: How did you get into the industry? Looking at your discography, Roger Waters — Radio KAOS was one of your first major engineering/mixing credits. How did that come about?
CS: I managed to get an interview at Utopia Studios as a tea boy because a friend of mine was working there and asked if I fancied coming in as they needed someone new. I got the gig and literally started making the tea the next day. It took a while before I was even allowed to sit in on a session, but from there I eventually got to do little bits of engineering and it took off.
Working with Roger Waters came about because of the producer Ian Ritchie that I was working with a lot at that time. Ian got asked to produce Roger’s album and I tagged along. It was a great experience for me. I was about 25, I guess? Roger was lovely to work for and at that time Ian was at the cutting edge of music tech, which is why he was hired. Early, early midi systems, but syncing to analogue tape with various interfaces — pretty rudimentary stuff, but very hi-tech for the time.
APT: How do you go about picking assistants/interns and how long do they usually stay with you?
CS: I don’t — I’m a one man show! Very occasionally I’ll get someone in to help me, but as I am almost exclusively mixing at my studio, I don’t need anyone unfortunately.
APT: You’ve mixed some of the most seminal records in my collection — some that I actually use for mix referencing. Who are your influences and what do you reference when mixing?
CS: Thank you! To be honest, I very rarely reference other albums. I used to a lot, but not anymore. If I’m working away from my studio and am not 100% about the monitoring, I’ll stick up something to listen to — quite often something I’ve done that I am intimate with the sound of.
I am influenced by things I hear all the time, but I think the one person who really does it for me is Todd Rundgren. I just really like the way he mixes records, like XTC or the Pursuit Of Happiness. I love how he makes drums and vocals sound.
APT: Mixing the Foo Fighters — Colour and The Shape album must have been a highlight for you. How did that come about?
CS: I got a call from Gil Norton who was producing the album in LA. They were starting to get tight for time, finishing the album, so Gil asked me to come over to LA and start mixing as they were finishing the songs. Gil and I have done a number of projects over the years and are good friends. I think it was important for him to have someone he already had a good relationship with to mix for him as he wouldn’t be there all the time and didn’t need the extra headache of overseeing the mix as well as the overdubs that were still going on. I asked to mix at Skip Saylor Studios on Melrose Ave in Hollywood as I had worked there previously and knew it to be a great mix room.
APT: From watching the Foo Fighters documentary, it is clear that not only does Dave Grohl have a clear vision of what he wants out of a track, but also that that particular time was a transitional period for the band. Did you find that you got a lot of mix notes and had to do a lot of revisions? And did any of the turmoil boil over into the mixing?
CS: No, not really. It was pretty straightforward actually. I would mix all day to about 9pm then take a DAT (remember them?) of the mix over to Grand Master Studios in Hollywood, where they were tracking, and leave it with them. The next day Gil and sometimes Dave would pop by to make a few revisions and then we’d print the mix. It was pretty simple.
An interesting point: this album was actually tracked on 16-bit Pro Tools and then transferred to 48-track analogue for the mix. To be honest I can’t remember why they did that. It was fairly early on in Pro Tools development, I guess, and there may not have been that many rigs available or perhaps they wanted an analogue vibe on the sounds. I really can’t remember.
I know that there were some changes happening within the band during the making of the album and William, the original drummer left the group, but it didn’t really impact on the mixing.
Funnily enough I found Dave’s final mix notes for me not so long ago, which were short, to-the-point and funny!
APT: If you had to order in terms of importance to overall sonics: room, player, instrument/amp, microphone, pre-amp/console, outboard, software, monitoring and engineering personnel, what order would they be in and why?
CS: Well, without a doubt, the player comes top of the list. I had the good fortune to work very briefly with Jeff Beck a few years ago. As soon as he put his fingers on the strings it sounded, well, like Jeff Beck! Amazing! It was him, a Strat and a 50W amp, no FX, in a dead room. Sounded superb. So a great player makes the great sounds.
After that: instrument/amp, engineer, microphone, console, monitoring, outboard, then software.
A half-decent engineer should be able to get a half-decent sound with half-decent equipment, I think. I have made albums under questionable circumstances that sound pretty good, I reckon. Unless the software is utterly rubbish, there really shouldn’t be a problem. People tend to get a little worked-up about equipment, when really it’s just a means to an end. A good mic, a great and inventive player… you’re there!
APT: For the gear-heads among us, what are you favourite pieces of equipment?
CS: Well, microphone-wise, I love the Brauner VM1 mics for vocals. Extraordinary! Also, the humble Shure 57. I have recorded entire kits with those and it was OK, actually.
I love the Neve 33609 compressor/limiter, particularly on drums.
I still use my old KRK 6000 passive monitors with a Quad 520 amp and have yet to find something I prefer.
Software-wise, I am a big fan of the humble Massey Tape Head plugin. It just makes everything sound better and costs about $79! I do like Waves plugins — they just do what they say on the tin.
APT: If you were on Mortal Kombat, give us one audio “trick” that you would consider the Chris Sheldon special move.
CS: Well I suppose one thing I do a lot is put distortion on snare drums to bring life back into an otherwise dead sound. You can hear this most clearly on the Oceansize album Effloresce. I love the clangy sound it gives the kit.
The other thing I do a lot is to use a lot of compression on vocals. Some people don’t like it, but I think it adds to the expression.
APT: I would imagine that you are in a position to pick and choose the projects you work on a little bit. How do you go about deciding whether to work with a band?
CS: Well with some offers you’d be crazy to turn them down, but generally if I like the songs or vibe of the band that’s pretty much it. And second, are they serious about this? Meaning, if they are, then they’ll want to pay me for my services. One cannot live on fresh air, unfortunately!
APT: How do you go about mixing? Do you start by balancing the rhythm section and then go through guitars, keys etc. and throw vocals in last? Do you start with vocals and then maybe overheads? Or do you try and get a basic balance and panning of everything before doing any EQ or compression?
CS: I pretty much always start by balancing the rhythm section. Once I have the drums and bass cooking, it’s generally fairly easy to balance the guitars and vocals. The vocals will go in halfway through the mix, once the basics are in place. Once the vocals are sitting in well, I can kind of place the instruments around them.
When I’m mixing, the whole thing is in a constant flux until the last minute. The subtle FX, delays and ‘verbs on the vocals will generally happen last of all, once the mix is sounding good. EQ and compression is happening from the word go.
APT: How long does a mix usually take you?
CS: It depends, but a relatively straightforward track will take a day, with the following morning to check everything through before I send it to the band or whomever. Some mixes take a couple of days, but no more than that. I generally work from about 10:30am to about 6:30 or 7:00pm, then I’m done.
APT: Some mixers differ in opinion on whether to listen to the “roughs”. Do you actively listen to monitor mixes or roughs before starting a mix?
CS: Yes I do, but generally only for a vibe and to get a rough idea of what they clearly thought were important elements in the mix. These will tend to be the loudest things!
Of course occasionally I get sent rough mixes that are anything but and sound awesome! Then I have to find out what it was about the mix that they were not happy with and work on those elements. I’ll sometimes say to people, my mix may not be any better sonically, it’ll just be different.
APT: There seems to be a growing trend to have “mix-offs” with other mixers to compete for a big project. Have you ever been involved in any, and what are your thoughts on it?
CS: I think it’s a crap idea and I am very rarely involved. Particularly if the record company are not paying anybody until they choose the ‘winner’ and just pay him and everybody else can eat it. Yeah, cheers for that! It would have to be a pretty big project for me to bother, frankly.
APT: When you have produced a record, do you prefer to mix it yourself or pass it on to someone else to get a fresh perspective?
CS: I always prefer to mix it myself naturally, but there are occasions when someone else does the final mix. I don’t really mind as long as I think the mixer is great and will come up with the goods. It doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly as I would do it at all, just as long as I’m impressed with the end result.
APT: Getting to where you are, how do you balance your career with family and social commitments?
CS: It took me a loooong time to get to where I am, wherever that may be! I didn’t have proper holidays for pretty much the first 5 or 6 years of my career at least — it just wasn’t important to me. Becoming an engineer was all I wanted to do. Nerdy or not, when I was an assistant engineer, I used to come in on my days off just to tidy the studio! I would come in on my own and practise mixing other people’s projects, then take the result home and scratch my head wondering why it sounded so dreadful! It was a great way of learning, though, and I wanted to be in the studio more than anywhere else in the world.
Nowadays I have children and tend to work more reasonable hours. When I am mixing I generally only work till about 7pm and don’t work on weekends any more, which I did for the first 20 years of my career.
It all depends on how badly you want it!
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