Chris Allen is not unfamiliar with both critical & commercial success. As the co-producer & engineer of Sonique’s “It Feels So Good“, which became a hit in 2000, spending three weeks at #1 in the UK, his place in dance music history is cemented. But despite his past successes, he’s still looking to build on that in the present day. I was able to meet with Chris at his studio in Brighton for a chat about his past work and what he has going on at the moment.
Hi Chris. Can you tell me about your musical beginnings?
My father was a Stuttgart-based software engineer, and he opened my eyes to the possibilities that early home computers afforded – machines like the first Atari consoles, the ZX81, the Apple II and later, the BBC Micro. So I grew from being an early gamer and began to experiment with basic programming. I was fortunate enough to have an Amiga computer at home as well, and I discovered that it was able to function as a basic four-voice mono sampler. I also decided that I wanted to learn to play the piano, and at the age of nine I began classical training.
Around that same period in my life, I was drawn to the electronic records that had begun to appear in the UK charts. Artists such as Peter Gabriel, Mike Oldfield and even UK pop artists such as Nick Kershaw had a pretty major impact on my music tastes.
During my early teenage years I was swept up in the Rave scene which emerged in UK youth culture in the late 80s – early 90s. Suddenly electronic music had a real momentum and all I wanted was to become a part of it.
And at what point did you decide to become a professional musician?
I was partying and clubbing in London a lot, but when I turned 20, I decided to enroll in a one-year university course at Gateway School of Recording & Music Technology. I know that music-tech courses are a controversial thing these days, but at the time there were very few of them being offered. It proved to be the perfect place for me to develop my skills and learn what it really takes to become a music professional. Also, I think you get out of these training courses what you put in – getting the qualification is meaningless. The real value was in the people that I met on the course and I’m very fortunate to still work with several of them today.
During the latter part of my studies, a friend arranged for me to try-out as an engineer at a studio in Highgate in London. This led to me being asked to design and build a new studio later on, and become an in-house engineer, which was my lucky break. Looking back, I had absolutely no clue what I was getting into and I was in way over my head.
Being a resident engineer is a great way to learn a lot of stuff really quickly. The studio project ended up evolving into a label called Serious Records, an offshoot of a management company called Serious Artist Management. Those guys looked after people like Sonique, Judge Jules, Norman Jay, John Kelly and many other DJs.
One of the first artists I began working with was Sonique. She had already been successful as part of the pop band S’Express, and the songs we made later became her first solo tracks. We struggled for some months to get the first record finished in the new studio, and despite the lack of major label support, “It Feels So Good” eventually went Top 20 in the UK. But it took a few years before it became a hit. A Florida DJ request show had begun to play it, and within a few weeks, every major label in the US wanted to sign her. A deal was done with Universal, and the next step was to make an album. So we had to revisit her old songs and put together a complete album in around a month; it was a big challenge. Given the time we had available, I think we did a pretty good job and the album itself sold pretty well. The main single was #1 for three weeks in the UK.
Did you feel the need to top that success with more #1s?
Not at the time, but I’d certainly like to do it again now. I felt like it happened to me too early, part of which was luck. That early success spurred me on to want to learn the craft of making records and to earn my stripes, rather than letting early success go to my head. So I’ve spent a lot of time and money learning how to make good music. I’d say I’m getting there, even though there’s much room for improvement.
I left Serious Records after four years at the studios and went freelance, which I’ve remained. I set up a studio with a good friend of mine and began to do mixing and engineering work for a number of friends in the breakbeat scene, as well as with labels like Ministry of Sound, Kingsize Records and Hope Music. I developed a good reputation in the breakbeat scene and this led to me being introduced to James Lavelle, who at that time was looking for someone to mix the new U.N.K.L.E album that was in production. It was called “War Stories”, and marked the beginning of a long period in which I worked closely with the band on their albums, TV ads & score music. It was a huge jump for me to go from making underground dance music to mixing a rock album featuring some of my idols, like Josh Homme, Chris Goss and 3-D. Mixing live drums was also a massive culture shock and forced me to completely re-evaluate my perspective on what it is to be a mixing engineer.
Alongside the U.N.KL.E project, I continued to work for other artists like Pete Tong, Photek, Sasha, Adam Freeland and Roni Size. More recently I have enjoyed working with four guys called The Acid. Mixing their debut album was another turning point in my music career, and since then I’ve again been lucky to work with new artists such as Ry-X, Frank Weidemann from Âme, and other musicians from the Berlin music scene, which I am a huge fan of. It has inspired me to make my own music again for the first time in ten years.
I’ve never had a manager or an agent, and I’ve always relied on personal relationships and word-of-mouth to find work. I’ve learned a great deal by doing things that way, and have made records I never thought possible. Mixing a 70-piece orchestra for a Giorgio Moroder project last year is just one recent example.
And you’re still mixing records as your main occupation?
Yes, but I combine it with other projects. I like to work in a few different roles in music creation. For example, at the moment I am mixing a film score for a movie called “London Fields” for Pablo Clements and James Griffith, who I met back when we were all part of U.N.K.L.E. I am also producing a new London-based band, remixing for my own artist project and developing my side-project called Planet of Sound.
Tell me about the studio setup you’re working with currently.
I have an upgraded Mac Pro which houses a Pro Tools HDX rig. I decided to use the HDX because I need a system which can handle a big DSP load, and I mix at 96 Khz. I’m not a hoarder of hardware; I like having a simple setup which is easy to recall and keeps me focused on the mix. Each device has quite specific tasks and I rely on these to help me to make mix decisions and to bring their character to a record.
Here’s a quick rundown of my favorite pieces of equipment:
Neve 1073s : I use these guys a lot. They do that thing which everyone knows and there’s no secret involved there. I very much like to use them to impart color on a signal.
Dave Hills Designs’ TITAN: The Titan is the newest addition to my setup. I’m still figuring out its strengths, but it’s particularly good as a drum bus compressor. It has some innovative features and is fully recallable, which is useful for me as I often jump around between projects.
Dangerous Music’s Monitor ST controller: This is a wonderful piece of equipment. Expensive, but in my opinion it’s very much worth it – it changed the way that I hear music.
I have the Dangerous Music BAX EQ as well. It’s a very clean and musically sympathetic EQ.
Vertigo Sound VSC2 quad VCA compressor: Super clean and beautifully built. At the moment I tend to use it a lot on vocals. I’ve owned it for a few years but I’d say we’re still getting acquainted. It’s an engimatic beast.
Adding to that, I’ve got a stereo Valley People Dynamite, which is an amazing super compressor.
Softube made a plugin emulation of that.
Yeah, they did, and the plugin is good. The real hardware does a bit extra though – it distorts and generally misbehaves in a really useful way. They’re not an expensive piece of kit, if you can find them. It’s one of those machines that people never sell. Valley People even did a re-issue a few years ago as a 500 series module, but it didn’t do so well, which is a shame. But I tried it, and it sounds exactly the same as the original hardware.
What do you use the Dynamite for?
It’s a versatile compressor. Works great as a parallel for drums, and it’s incredibly aggressive attack and release settings mean that it can function as a transient shaper. It’s also wonderful for controlling guitar and bass, but I tend to use it mostly for drums though.
Thermionic Culture Vulture: This is a dual channel valve saturator box – really wonderful for adding harmonics and character to just about anything really. I would love to have a whole rack full of them.
Thermionic Phoenix compressor: This thing is a particularly exotic animal. It has a very languid response time which can be hard to integrate into a mix. But what it’s good at is bringing drums to life or for adding power to bass sources. It can create a drum groove like no other compressor I’ve used – very sleazy & heavy. It becomes a lot more useful when integrated into a signal path alongside digital limiters to control the transients it can create.
Universal 2192: This is my secret weapon. It’s a two-channel mastering converter, but it also has transformer inputs on the analog stages. It’s the converter that was used on records like Daft Punk’s “Discovery” and lots of big 90s electronic records and rock records in America. Rumor has it that Daft Punk had sixteen of them on a Pro Tools rig and used it to record all their synths, which might explain how they got that incredible sound that has never been replicated. It’s all just hearsay though (laughs). I use it for clipping the final stage of a master. It’s better than anything a computer can do.
Tell me more about clipping the master bus. This is something you aim for?
God yes; it’s how you get very loud music. It’s what mastering engineers do; they clip through a converter. However, using a limiter is different. If you run a signal though a limiter and the peaks hit the threshold, they get squashed very quickly and hammered back into the overall music, turning down the signal’s volume. Clipping is different, especially in hardware. Essentially, rather than limiting the peaks, it just removes and distorts the peak altogether. Different converters do that in different ways. The Apogee stuff sounds amazing for that – the old ones of course.
The Universal 2192 has a built-in saturation feature that distorts the signal before clipping the peaks, which means you can drive it in order to widen the stereo image and add high-frequency content by distorting transients, which is different from what an EQ does. You also get a cool overall tone to your music. There are different schools of thought on it, but if you compare the level you get out of the 2192 with the newest mastering compressor plugin that just came out, there isn’t a contest. An analog converter is better-sounding at high levels, when it’s being heavily pushed.
What you have found breathes life into dance music from a mix perspective? I’ve found that digital synths tend to be quite boring-sounding, as they essentially just trigger tiny samples that are stored in the plugin.
Well, I have to say that I really love certain synth plugin and use them a lot. Stuff like the Arturia Oberheim SEM, the Vox Continental V and Solina V. They’re amazingly good recreations and really capture the essence of the classic synths. I’m lucky enough to have access to a real Oberheim four-voice synth, and whilst it’s fun to compose with, it’s also a massive pain in the ass that never stays in tune. It’s also difficult to integrate into a music project. The plugin is just a lot easier and sounds very, very similar. The fact that the digital version is reliable means that it doesn’t interfere with your musical train of thought. With that said, I do love analog synths for their strong characters and the way that they really encourage you to play them and discover great tones. I’m lucky to have a Prophet-5 and an Oberheim OB-1 in the studio at the moment, which are a huge source of inspiration to me.
My favorite one is Synplant, by Sonic Charge. I’d use a synth like that to write on my laptop, but later when I’m in my studio, I’ll process it through some gear, even if it’s just through an amp or guitar pedal.
I have an Ekdahl Moisturizer, which is a cool little spring reverb box with a filter. It’s semi-modular, and sounds amazing. It’s grungy and lo-fi, and can add character to sounds. Several big mix engineers use it for that, and I use it for recording my synths through.
How do you handle bass content? There’s a lot of talk online about layering synth basses or kick drums. Is that wise? Wouldn’t it be easier to turn to analog drum machines for massive low end in a kick, rather than mess about with lifeless samples?
Layering synths can certainly be a good thing. I think it’s important to keep a clear objective in mind when layering. It’s so easy to get sidetracked or to end up with a too many sounds that argue with one another. One of the key things to remember about extreme low end is that layering synths in that frequency range can be counter-productive. Unless your sine waves are perfectly in phase, they’ll cancel each other out to a certain extent. Whilst that can be useful from a tonal perspective, if your monitoring is less than ideal, you’re probably creating problems for yourself. I know what you mean though. You play an 808 sample and it sounds like crap, and then you listen to your favorite record, and it goes “boom”. So how do you get the power? Distortion is your friend in those situations.
You can get massive low-end from real 808 and 909s, but you’d have to spend ages EQing, compressing and distorting it. Personally, I use Rob Papen’s Subboombass for bass enhancing, and Nicky Romeo’s “Kick“ is amazing for making kicks. I highly recommend it.
Again, you need to pay attention to phase when mixing the low-end. There’s a little “phase” button on most EQs and compressors. Just hit that button when you’re mixing. It only takes a second, and you’ll be amazed at what could happen. Not just for low-frequency stuff, but guitars and vocals too. The way the harmonics in your mix are interacting could lead to things cancelling each other out without you even realizing, and inverting the phase of a sound could help with that. When the sine wave cycle is at its peak, it’s pushing the speaker cone out, and during the trough it’s pulling the speaker cone back in. So if you have a sine bass that’s pushing the cone, and a kick drum that’s pulling it simultaneously, the overall sound will feel choked or flat, even though the signal level is still high.
Interesting. In keeping with the subject of drums, how do you inject a sense of groove into programmed beats? When you’re clicking in MIDI notes on a screen, things can get sterile and unenergetic.
Here’s a few tricks to try: micro-timing adjustments – get off the grid. An interesting thing is to move the first kick of the bar off the beat just a little. It may sound ridiculous, but things like that can create new ideas. Subtle velocity variation is also very important.
Getting a snare to sit on a kick can be particularly hard. Try to forget about the grid – I often use a delay plugin to make micro-adjustments to the position of a snare – even a few samples early or late can really change how sounds interact with one another. I think one of the big things about creating a groove is having the nerve to see it through. As in, leave it as it is and ignore the desire to fix it as you listen to it on loop for the thousandth time. That’s a big challenge to overcome.
How do you handle drum buss compression?
I generally have a kick drum on it’s own channel. I won’t put it in the drum buss, for two reasons: firstly, it squishes all the other drum sounds by how it triggers the drum buss compressor and really restricts what you can do with everything else, and you’ll always be fighting it. The computer is very precise too, so even if you get a nice mix balance when the kick is playing, if the kick drops out during the track, then everything falls apart. So I’ll keep the kick on it’s own, and use sidechaining plugins like LFO Tool, which I love. Point Blank Music School has made a side-chain plugin for Ableton which is great too. Secondly, if you put your kick through a drum buss, you’ll find that most compressors tend to kill off bottom end, which can make the kick sound thin. Adding the bass back in through EQing feels like a wrong-headed workflow.
You have to be careful with compressors though. A lot of your drum samples are manufactured with compression on them, and then you feed them all into a drum buss with a compressor on it as an insert. Maybe you’ll use a parallel compressor on the drum buss as well, followed by final mix-buss compression. So you have five compressors working on the drums, and if you change any settings on even one of them, it affects everything else. So I tend to avoid that as much as I can.
Lastly, what are your thoughts on the commonly used and abused PSP Vintage Warmer?
I can understand why people use plugins like this. It can instantly inject some pace and energy into your track at the very moment when you most need it. With that said, it can be hard to not become too reliant on what these “mix bus enhancer” plugins do to your track. As a mix guy, it can be a big challenge when I’m given a track that has a lot of this type of master bus processing going on. I have to decide whether I want to work with it or to remove it and to try to re-create it. I’m lucky to be able to turn to hardware such as the Phoenix or the Titan if I want heavy bus compression from the start.
My mindset in the mix is “the buck stops here” – whatever goes out of my door is a finished record so you better make damned sure it sounds good – no one cares about the excuses. Always give it everything – you never know who’ll be listening.