With 30+ years in the music industry, Chris Sheldon’s veteran abilities as a mixer/producer are in great demand among rock bands across Europe. He’s someone who’s worked with the likes of Foo Fighters, Oceansize, Garbage and Feeder, and has sharpened his mixing and production skills on some pretty acclaimed albums. He was kind enough to have me over for a chat about his past and current work, as well as offer his thoughts on the Recording Connection school.
Thanks for having me over, Chris. You got your start in London, right?
Yes, that’s right. I started at a studio called Utopia in 1982, at the age of 19. I had always been making music and playing in bands at school and I managed to get the job through a friend of mine. I started out as a tea boy/intern. Utopia was a big complex, with a recording room, remix room, mastering room, and a 16-track demo studio. Some studios insist on having a definite hierarchy, where interns aren’t making any progress for years. Utopia wasn’t like that. We were allowed to progress through the ranks quite quickly, and could even take tape multi-tracks out of the tape store and practice mixing on them. So I quite quickly I progressed to being a tape op and then an assistant engineer.
I was at Utopia for 4 years, after which I decided to leave and work with a producer called Ian Ritchie. We had worked together when he brought projects to Utopia and had got on well. As he was getting a lot of work he offered me the chance to leave Utopia and work with him as a freelance engineer. I was around 24 and to be honest didn’t really know what I was doing, but you bluff your way through things and learn on the job. Ian was quite in demand at the time, so I got to work with a lot of different people including Roger Waters. Due to that work, I started getting offered more engineering gigs around London. The labels came to know who I was, and I’d get calls.
Even back then, I guess I was heading down the path which I’m on now, which is to work with guitar bands. Utopia did a lot of jazz-funk music in the early eighties. It was all about live players and you learned old-school methods of micing guitars and drums. I was lucky and got a good education from our chief engineer, John Mackswith. That man taught me so much.
At what point back then did you feel that you were starting to get fixed work?
Fairly soon after I went to work with Ian Ritchie. He had a lot of work going on and he used me pretty much exclusively. Back in those days, I didn’t have a manager and I figured out early on that the best way to get paid was to be super nice to the accounting staff and the people who worked in the A&R departments of labels. That paid off and they would put my name around if there were projects coming up. They’d call me up and ask, “what are you doing next week? Do you want to work on such and such?”. I remember getting a call one day to work with Gary Katz, who produced the Steely Dan albums, which was big for me. I happened to be doing a lot of work for Phonogram Records, and he was doing an album for them. He needed an engineer to fill in a session, so I got the call. He was easy to work with and a lovely bloke, even if the hours were crazy. We’d start at 4pm and finish at 6 or 7am everyday!
Steve Durose from Oceansize said in a past interview that you’re a bit underrated as a producer and that you probably could charge a lot more money for you work, as well as work with a more mainstream type of clientele, but you choose to do what you want.
That’s very nice of him to say. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve worked with a lot of bands that I wanted to work with. I've had periods where I did more mainstream stuff and it did well and I had a great time, but I guess I like to balance that with more esoteric rock bands. I suppose I’m known for working with bands that other bands love, which is a nice position to be in. So through my work with groups like Oceansize, I've got to know about the music they liked and that led me to work with some of those groups. There’s definitely less pressure to deliver commercially when I'm working with more left field stuff, but if the project is commercially successful, well that's a bonus! It’s been very fulfilling.
I worked on Biffy Clyro’s first three albums and even though those albums weren’t particularly commercially successful, they're still getting me work. Mind you, with their more recent mega-success, as a result, the early albums end up selling more too. Everyone wins! I’m pretty happy with my lot.
You’re quite well known for mixing the Foo Fighter album “The Color And The Shape”. Did you feel any inclination to stay on that kind of path when that project became successful?
If I had really wanted to capitalize on that, I would have moved to States straight away when the record took off. I was already doing quite a lot of work in America at the time anyway and could have picked up American management to help me get more work there, but I was busy and also having a good time living in London. I didn’t feel the need to go for it particularly. I tell you what though, that Foo Fighters album is the 'gift that keeps on giving'. I got a call yesterday from someone who was like "Can you make our mixes sound like “Monkey Wrench” from “The Color And The Shape” ?", and I thought "Well, sure, but that was almost 20 years ago. I’d think I could improve on that at this point…".
At this point in your career, would you say that you still go looking for bands to work with?
I very rarely actively look for bands. I’ve been working for so long that people know who I am and I get calls for a certain type of sound. I'm pretty sure the guys working on the next Jessie J record won't be calling me! I’m known for working with classic band setups and have a safe pair of hands that can get things done fast and on budget. So it’s not very often that I have extended periods with no work. Maybe a week or two. I don’t generally produce much anymore, out of choice I might add. I love mixing; always did. The last album I produced was the last Skunk Anansie album. It was fun to do and they’re such great players! But after a while, I felt that I was simply better at mixing. Mind you, I would never say never and if the right project came along, I'd be straight back at it!
Have you ever been in a situation where you get sent something that sounds lifeless to mix, and it’s your job to inject life into it?
All the time. Those kinds of jobs are actually the most fun; when you’re dealing with what are pretty much bedroom recordings. The advances we’ve had in technology helps with that, though like anything, you have to know what you’re doing. If you’ve got a bland recording, you can really spice it up. Drum kits may have been recorded in a dull, uninteresting room, but by using room samples or distortion, it’s remarkable what you can do to them.
Do you ever use virtual amps on guitars?
Yeah. But you do have to go in with the mentality that it’s not a real amp…don't expect miracles! I do use them though. Bands often send me recordings and include a track of their guitar DIs to work with, which they do purely as a safety net and specifically for me to alter their guitar tones as I see fit. It’s not something I've done much of when I produce albums, since I can generally get the sound I want.
When I produce rock bands I’ll always record a combo and a 4x12 at the same time, just because they have 2 different sonic characteristics. The combo is always going to have more mid-range punch to it, whilst the amp would give you fatness and presence. Put them together, and you have a great sound! But, if someone only had one of those amps and weren't happy with the tone they were getting, they could record a DI signal and process that afterwards to get a good sound to add to their one recorded amplifier. Actually, it's a pretty smart idea and I'm gonna start doing it!
When you read interviews by other mix engineers, you often hear that they use a lot less compression than most people think. But I’ve read that you like to use a lot of compression on vocals. Why is that?
Well, I think it brings character. What you said is true; people do think that mixers use a ton of compression, which can be a misconception. One of my heroes is Todd Rundgren, whose productions I absolutely love. I remember reading an interview of his and he’d mentioned that he uses a lot of compression on vocals. So I decided to experiment with that and have ended up doing some of that too. Kate Bush used to have tons of it on her vocals. It’s all about how you set it up. You might start with slow compressor, to let the consonants ring through and follow it up with a hard brick-wall limiter at the end, to push everything. If you’re careful with it, it gives you the ability to set the vocal where you want it in the mix. Of course, I’m mainly talking about noisy ass rock music. If its a ballad or a quieter song, it won’t be suitable for that. In full on rock songs, you don’t want a huge dynamic range on vocals, the vocal needs sit firmly in the middle of everything. So by limiting the dynamic range, you can make sure that it’s neither overbearing, nor hidden, although this does mean that you bring out a lot of sibilance and the consonants become very hard, but this is very easily dealt with.
Tell me about your speakers.
I’ve been using KRK for about 20 years. I have about 4 pairs of the 6000s, and I think they’re one of the best speakers ever made. A few discerning people like Kevin Shirley use them too!
How did you become associated with the Recording Connection?
It was through Brian Kraft and Tim Palmer, an old friend of mine. Tim and I went to school together and he introduced me to Brian at SXSW a few years ago. I’m an ambassador for the school. What they’re doing is a really good thing. Instead of the approach that many other music schools take, the RRF approach is a better deal for kids. You’ll at least get a definite 1-on-1 tuition. You help them out, they help you out.
Wrapping up, can you tell me what 2015 holds for you?
I’m mixing a band from Seattle in January and an album I worked on by the Xcerts a few months ago came out and it’s doing well. I’m also finishing off mixing an EP for a band called Monarchs, which I’m enjoying. Things just roll in, and I keep working!