With 30+ years in the music industry, Chris Sheldon’s abilities as a mixer and producer are in demand among rock bands across Europe. He’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 nineteen. 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. 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, but Utopia wasn’t like that. We were allowed to progress through the ranks quite quickly, and could even take multi-track recordings out of the tape store to practice mixing on them. So quite quickly I progressed to being a tape-op and then an assistant engineer.
I was at Utopia for four years, after which I decided to leave and work with a producer called Ian Ritchie, who I had worked with at the studio. We got along well, during his sessions, so he offered me the chance to leave Utopia and work with him as a freelance engineer. I was around twenty-four, 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 did you feel you were starting to get fixed work as a freelancer?
Fairly soon after I went to work with Ian Ritchie. He had a lot of work going on and he used me almost 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 out 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 was doing a lot of work for Phonogram Inc, and he was recording an album for them too, and needed an engineer to fill in a session. 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 not to.
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, then that’s a bonus.
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, the early albums end up selling more too. So 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 the US straight away after 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 was having a good time living in London. I didn’t feel the need to go for it particularly. But 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 Foo Fighter’s album? “, and I thought “Well, sure, but that was almost 20 years ago. I’d think I could improve on that at this point…” (laughs).
Are you at a point in your career where you still have to market yourself to bands, in order to get work?
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 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 generally don’t produce much anymore, out of choice. I love mixing though. The last album I produced was Skunk Anansie’s “Black Traffic“. It was fun to do and they’re such great players. But after a while, I felt that I was simply better at mixing. But mind you, I would never say “never”, and if the right project came along, I’d be straight back into producing.
Have you ever been sent lifeless recordings to mix, where it’s your job to inject liveliness into it?
All the time. Those kinds of jobs are actually the most fun. You’re dealing with bedroom recordings in those situations. 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?
Yes I do, but you have to go in with the mentality that it’s not a real amp, and don’t expect miracles. Bands often send me recordings and include a track of their guitar DIs to work with. It acts as a safety net that allows me to alter their guitar tones as I see fit.
When I produce rock bands I’ll always record a combo and a 4 x 12 at the same time, just because they have 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 wasn’t happy with their guitar tone, they could record a DI signal and process that afterwards to get a sound that they’d add in during the mix.
When I read interviews by other mix engineers, I often discover 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 tons 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 then 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 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 huge dynamic range on vocals; they need to 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 that’s very easily dealt with.
Tell me about your speakers.
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 work as an ambassador for the school, and I think what they’re doing is a really good thing. Instead of the approach that many other music schools take, the Recording Connection approach is a better deal for kids. At the very least you get a definite one-on-one tuition.
Wrapping up, can you tell me what 2015 holds for you?
I’m mixing a band from Seattle in January. Another album I worked on a few months ago by The Xcerts came out and is doing well. I’m also finishing a mix of an EP for a band called Monarks, which I’m enjoying. Things just roll in and I keep working!