Interview: Mixer/Producer – Chris Allen

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Chris-Allen-portrait-APR15-large-v2Despite the fact that Chris Allen’s work in dance music extends back to before it became a mainstream sensation, he’s not unfamiliar with both critical & commercial success. As the co-producer & engineer of Sonique’s 2000′s smash hit “It Feels So Good“, which spent 3 weeks at #1 in the UK, his place in dance music history is cemented. 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. Pleasure to be chatting with you, and thanks for having me over. Can you tell me about your musical beginnings?

My father, a Stuttgart-based software engineer, opened my eyes to the possibilities that early home computing devices afforded – machines such as the first Atari consoles, ZX81, NES, Apple II and later, the BBC Model B. I grew from being an early gamer and began to experiment with basic programming. Added to this, I somehow got it into my head that I wanted to learn to play the piano, and at the age of 9 I began classical training. I was fortunate enough to have an Amiga computer at home and I discovered that it was able to function as a basic 4-voice mono sampler.

Around that same period in my life, I was drawn to the electronic records that had begun to appear in the UK charts. I’d say that 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. I knew from a young age that I wanted to make music as a career and I’m proud to have been able to achieve that.

During my early teenage years I, like many of my peers, was swept up in the huge Acid House / 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 turned 20, I decided to enroll in a one-year university course at Gateway School of Recording & Music Technology. I know that these music-tech courses are quite 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 further my skills and begin to learn what it really takes to become a music professional. 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 am 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 and become an in-house engineer. That was my break. Looking back, I had absolutely no clue what I was getting into and I was in way over my head! This was when I began to learn how to really make records.

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 DJ/artist management company called Serious. These guys looked after people such as Sonique, Judge Jules, Norman Jay, John Kelly and many other DJs.

One of the first artists I began working with was a girl called Sonique. She had already been very successful as part of the pop band S-Express,  and the songs we made were to become her first solo tracks. It took us some months of struggle to get the first record finished in the brand new studio. Despite no major label support, the song went top 20 in the UK. It was called “It Feels So Good“. It wasn’t until a few years later that 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 3 weeks in the UK. To have a #1 that early in my career was strange to get my head around.

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 perhaps happened to me too early, part of which was luck. That early success spurred me on to really 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 long time (..and a lot of money) learning how to make good music. I’d say I’m getting there – but there is much room for improvement.

I left Serious Records after 4 years at the studios, and went freelance, which I’ve remained till this day. I set up a studio with a good friend of mine and began to do mix/engineering work for a number of friends in the UK Breaks scene. I also worked for labels such as Ministry of Sound, Kingsize recordings 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 UNKLE album that was in production. This LP 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 live rock album featuring some of my idols – people like Josh Homme, Chris Goss and 3-D. Mixing live drums was also a massive culture shock and forced me to completely re-evaulate my entire perspective on what it is to be a mixing engineer.

Alongside the UNKLE project, I continued to work for other artists I have huge respect for, like Pete Tong, Photek, Sasha, Adam Freeland, Roni Size and others. More recently I have enjoyed working with a great bunch of guys called The Acid. Their debut album mix was another turning point in my music career and since then I have again been very lucky to have the opportunity to work with new artists such as Ry-X, Frank Weidemann [Ame] & 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 10 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 have learned a great deal by having this mindset and 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 – I find if I do too much of any one thing, I get bored and frustrated so I tend to have several projects running at once. For example, at the moment I am mixing a film score for a movie called “London Fields” for Pablo Clements and James Griffith (Toydrum), who I met back when we were all part of UNKLE. I am also busy 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 have here.

I have an upgraded Mac Pro which houses a Pro Tools HDX1 rig. I decided to go to HDX as I need a system which can really handle a lot of DSP load, as I mix at 96k. 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. I like to think of my outboard gear as ‘boundaries’ within which I mix. Each device has quite specific tasks and I rely on these to help me to make decisions in the mix and for them to bring their character to a record. Here’s a quick rundown of my favorite pieces of equipment:

Neve 1073 Pre-amps: I use these guys a lot. They do that thing which everyone knows and there is no secret involved there. I very much like to use them to impart colour 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 a 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 its very much worth it – it changed the way that I hear  music.

I have the Dangerous Music BAX EQ as well, a very clean and musically sympathetic EQ.

ATC SCM-25A’s: I love these monitors. They define what I do..having NS10s alongside works great for me.

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. Its an engimatic beast.

Adding to that, I’ve got a stereo Valley People Dynamite, which is an amazing super compressor.

Softube made an emulation of that!

Yeah, they did, and the plugin is good. It does a good impression of it. 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. Its 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. I tried it – 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 – its incredibly aggressive attack and release mean that it can function as a transient shaper. Its also wonderful for controlling guitar and bass, I tend to use it mostly for drums though.

Next up – The 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.

I also have the Thermionic Culture 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. What it is so 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 enormous transients it can create.

My secret weapon is the Universal 2192. It’s mastering converter, 2-channel A-D, D-A. But it has transformer inputs on the analog stages. It’s the converter that was used on records like Daft Punk’sDiscovery” and lots of big 90s electronic records and rock records in America. Rumor has it that Daft Punk had 16 of them on a Pro Tools sysmem, and used it to record all their synths, which might explain how they got that incredible sound that has never been repeated. It’s all just hearsay though, haha. I use it for clipping the final stage of a master. It’s better than anything a computer can do.

You want to clip the master?

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, when the peaks hit the threshold, they get squished 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 in-built saturation feature that distorts the signal before clipping the peaks. What that means is that you can drive it. As you drive the signal into the converter, it widens the stereo image and adds high frequency interest 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 though 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. The analog converter is better-sounding at high levels, when its 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 a 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 plugin synths and use them a lot – stuff like the Arturia Oberheim SEM, the Vox Continental and Solina. They’re amazingly good recreations and really capture the essence of these classic synths. I am lucky enough to have access to a real Oberheim 4-voice. Whilst it’s a lovely instrument and fun to compose with – its also a massive pain in the ass which never stays in tune and is so 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 am lucky to have a Prophet 5, Rev 3 and an Oberheim OB-1 in the studio at the moment and they are a huge source of inspiration to me.

The romantic notion of a room full of analog gear is something a lot of people like to entertain, but it adds exponentially to your workflow time because they’re hard to tune, patch and need maintenance. My favorite one is Synplant, by Sonic Charge. It’s fantastic. I’d use a synth like to write on my laptop, and then bring it to my stdio and get it out of the computer by running it through gear. Even if it’s just through an amp or guitar pedal, I think the process of making something analog can be beneficial for 2 reasons: firstly, the sound can change in an interesting way, even if it’s only subtle

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. I use it for recording my synths through.

How do you handle bass content? In my attempts to make my bass sounds as big as what I hear on mastered records, I find myself layering up different timbres of bass sounds. Is that wise? Would it be easier to turn to analog drum machines for massive low ends in a kick, rather than mess about with lifeless samples?

Layering synths can certainly be a good thing. I think its important to keep a clear objective in mind when layering – its so easy to get sidetracked or to end up with a too many sounds all arguing with one another. One of the key things to remember about extreme low end is that layering synths in this frequency range can be counter-productive. Unless your sine waves are perfectly in phase, they’ll cancel each other out to 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 a 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 EQ, compressing and distorting it. Personally, I use Rob Papen’s Subboombass for bass enhancing. Nicky Romeo’sKick is amazing for making kicks. I highly recommend it.

Another tip for mixing bottom end is to pay attention to phase. I touched on that a little earlier, but here’s another aspect. There’s a little “phase” button on most EQs and compressors. When you’re mixing, just hit that button. It only takes a second. You’ll be amazed at what could happen. Not just for low-frequency stuff, but guitars and vocals too. The way all the harmonics in your mix are interacting could lead to things cancelling each other out without you even realizing, inverting the phase of a source could help with that. On a basic level, if you think about what phase actually does to a sine wave, its logical. When the sine wave cycle is at it’s peak, it’s pushing the speaker cone out, and when it’s at it’s trough, it’s pulling the speaker cone back in. So if you have a sine-wave bass that’s pushing the cone, and a kick drum that’s pulling it simultaneously, the overall sound will feel ‘choked’ or flat – but the signal level is still high. Good to bear in mind if your goal is a powerful bottom end in the mix.

Interesting. In keeping with the subject of drums, I want to ask how you manage to inject the desired groove into programmed beats? Drummers don’t have to worry about the micro-details of the timing of their drum hits, because they’re actually playing everything by hand and creating a sense of groove on their own. But when you’re clicking in MIDI notes on a screen, things can get sterile and un-energetic.

I know exactly what you mean. 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 quantize 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. move things around – invert the phase! I think one of the big things about creating a groove is having the nerve to see it through; as in, leave it without ‘fixing it’ as you listen to it on loop for the thousandth time. That’s a big challenge to overcome.

Groove quantize presets are fun and I often experiment with them, either in Ableton or with some of the more exotic ones in plugins such as Fxpansion’s Guru or Geist.

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; you’ll always be fighting it. The computer is very precise too, so even if you get a nice balance when the kick is playing, if the kick drops out during the track, 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 has made a side-chain plugin for Ableton which is great. I recommend it. 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 it back in feels like a wrong-headed workflow.

You have to be careful with compressors though. A lot of your drum elements already have compressors on them, and then you feed them all into a drum buss that has a compressor on it, and maybe you’ll use a parallel compressor on the drum buss as well, followed by final mix-buss compression. So you have 5 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.

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, that is, when you’re just getting into the groove and its sounding cool. 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 get go. As with all things in music production, you try it, and often it surprises you. Alternatively, you try to cut a corner with a quick method, only to have it bite you on the backside later on in the process!

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.

SamInterview: Mixer/Producer – Chris Allen

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