Interview: Audio Engineer – Adam Hawkins

Whilst digging around Discogs for names of people who had worked on my favorite albums, I came across Adam Hawkins as one responsible for engineering and mixing projects like Gary Clark Jr's "Blak and Blu" and Regina Spektor's "Far". 
That was enough to warrant an interview request, and a few weeks later, here we are. From his preference in recording consoles to specifics about how the aforementioned albums were created, you can read our chat below.

Hi Adam. If I'm not wrong, your early work in the music industry took you from New York to LA. As someone who has worked in both of those places, how would you contrast their music scenes, in terms of clientele and studios?

When I was in New York, in 1998, everything was primarily done in major studios, and I was working at a place called Unique, which no longer exists. I started out as an intern, then progressed to runner, and then an assistant engineer, before finally getting engineering gigs. I always made sure that I stayed available to work if they called me up, and I said "yes" to everything, even if I didn't really know what I was doing. Four and a half years later when I moved to LA, I didn't know anyone out here and had to start from scratch with finding clients. The big studios out here didn't have any interest in me because I didn't go to school for recording, which had never been an issue in New York, but in LA they seemed to cared about that. Also, they said that it wasn't fair to other interns and assistants that I'd amassed so much experience despite not going to school for it. So I had to figure out a way to get into the industry, which is when I met Mike Elizondo. It was the right timing and dynamic between the two of us, so he kept hiring me and my career grew as his did.

So even though New York saw me working at major studios, in LA I might have only visited them 2 or 3 times a year, and the rest of the time I work at private places.

Would you say that the major studios have any edge over the private ones? If not, I can't see any reason to spend the money on booking them. It would be more a question of branding in that case.

To a certain extent it is branding, but it's also about the type of people you're surrounded by. You have a full staff of people to help you with your needs at a major studio. When you want lunch at a private studio, you're on your own.

On the gear end, I find that many private studios can compete with major ones these days, though I should also say that I get to work at some pretty well-equipped private studios.

You said in a past interview, “For the last three years I’ve been pushing the mixing side of my workDoing it all in the box makes that much faster and efficient. With the console and analogue gear it takes 20-30 minutes to switch songs, and you never get your recall 100%.” So is speed more important than color and texture of sound? Or would you say that the digital plugins can offer the same texture as analog gear?

I feel like you get the same texture now, pretty much. I almost feel like I can do better work with digital than analog nowadays, just because of the options available with that. Efficiency is a big part of what I do. If you have an idea and can get it out quickly, that's preferable over patching in gear, only to find that it's not working, and then your idea is gone. So I'd rather work with plugins, for which I don't feel like there's any sacrifice nowadays

No sacrifice at all? Even though the mixes that were done in the 80s and 90s sound quite distinct from what's being done today with plugins? If you were given the original stems to Nirvana's "Nevermind" and mixed it with plugins, you wouldn't achieve a sound similar to what it has currently, right?

If Andy Wallace mixed the same album today, you wouldn't get the same thing either. I don't even think the gear is the major factor for mixing that album. I think you could achieve just as good of a mix using plugins, but that's an Andy Wallace mix. Not many people can do what he does.

When talking about mixing 21 Pilots "Heathens" for Suicide Squad you said "I got the rough mix in the ballpark at Elizondo’s studio. But I didn’t get to dial in detailed automation dynamics or fine-tune EQ curves." To what extent are you applying those automation dynamics? To what sounds and parameters?

I end up automating quite a bit, from effect sends to gates. The EQ on a vocal has to be different for different parts of the song. Sometimes it's to battle sibilance and at other times the low-end in a vocal has to be adjusted due to the changing proximity effect from the singer moving away from the microphone during the recording. I also have to keep the frequency distribution even. I'm not a fan of using multi-band compressors to do that for me unless I have a specific issue with a frequency that's out of control. I'd rather EQ them to be consistent all the way through.

There's also the snare drum. If the song transitions into a part where the snare is being played on it's own, it might not need as much bite as when the full drum kit is being played along with the rest of the instruments. I might also put high-pass filters on different sounds, but then turn it off for certain parts where I need more low-end. Other things might be more creative, to add dynamism to parts, like using filter-sweeps.

What are your thoughts on additive vs subtractive EQing? The old guard of mixers often insist on cutting rather than boosting frequencies, as you can emphasize one frequency range by cutting another one. Do you pay attention to that, or do you cut and boost as you please?

At this point, I pretty much cut and boost as I please. Whatever gets me my desired sound quicker. I don't have any rules for cutting and boosting. For tracking, I might add in some high-end or low-end as needed, or cut out some of the low-mids. But for mixing, I'll do different things like cut out the resonances I don't like, low-pass a guitar but then put some high-end back into it at the cutoff point of the filter.

I have a question regarding room mics. When you record a drum kit with 2 room mics, is that just for panning them left and right in the mix? Or is there a purpose to keeping both in mono?

I generally do it to add depth and space, so I'd pan them hard left and right and put everything else in-between, so it sounds like you're in a room with the drums. Room mics are for panning, adding decay, ambiance and even low-end. You can boost the low-end on a room mic, and have it arrive a little later than the attack from the close mic.

On the Rilo Kiley album you said about the drums "On a couple of songs we'd record drums with just two mics and distort the mic pre's to make it sound really dirty and pan them all the way to the left. Which no one does anymore." Do you have any other drum recording techniques you use?

I have a pretty standard starting point these days that includes close mics and ambient mics. Once in a while I might use a pair of mics or an SM57, and point them at the corner of the room. They get no direct signal, only reflections. Then I'll put on a high-pass and low-pass in order to create a decay that blends in well with whole kit. That can really bring the kit to life, even though it comes with the risk of phasing issues. .

I read somewhere that you used to use the Universal 2192 converter? Is that something you still use?

I don't. I mainly work in the box now, so I don't need it. My converters are strictly for monitoring now.

There are those who use their A-D converters to achieve a certain sound for their mixes, by clipping them for example. The 2192 was well-known for that. Did you ever use it for that?

Certain converters do have a specific sound if you push them, like the stuff by Burl Audio, which sounds really good for recording. But for mixing, I probably wouldn't use that kind of stuff because what I'm hearing isn't necessarily what's going to print in the box. You're making decisions based on what the converter is showing you, so unless you're printing the analog signal out of the computer and recording it back in again, I wouldn't want to be listening to that. So I just use the Avid converters.

On the microphone side, I see the Sony C800 pop up a lot for you on vocals. Is that still a go-to for you?

Yes, it is. I think that mic goes through phases of being cool and uncool. But I think it's on the upswing again, haha.

I often use things like the U47, U67, 251 and C12. As far as modern mics go, I like the Blue Bottle. It's big and can be difficult to place, but it's won many shootouts.

What's your desk of preference?

I'll use what's available, but I'd be happy to record a whole album using an SSL E Series console, even though people tend to say "track with a Neve and mix with an SSL". But I don't buy into that.

I noticed how much additional production Mike and you added to the "Heathens" record, as far as muting sections, playing additional bits, etc. Did that occur with Gary Clark Jr too? How much of that is a band and how much is done during the mix afterwards?

There were a few songs with electronic qualities, but the rest is what it is because of the recording, which was done live in one room, with only a few overdubs. So not much post-production is going on.

What was Rob Cavallos role on production for "Blak and Blu"?

Rob produced other songs that I didn't work on. He did some and Elizondo did some, so I'd see him for time to time. He was working for Warner Bros at the time, so he was involved in the whole album. But everything I did was at Elizondo's and Rob's work was probably done at his studio with Doug McKeen. There were also songs that started at Cavallo's, came to us, and were later finished at Cavallo's.

What desks and preamps were used on your end?

An SSL 4000E. Mike also has 10 channels of Neve 1073 pre-amps, so we might record certain things through that. I also used a UA610 preamp pretty frequently for vocals on this record.

At what point does digital processing come into play? From the start, or during mixdown?

During the mix-down. I think still had my own SSL AWS 900 at the time, so I would have used that, along with outboard gear for summing. But most of the mix was done with plugins.

Let's look at specific tracks you worked on. The title track "Blak and Blu". The drums sound programmed. Is that the case?

Yeah, they're all programmed. Elizondo handles things like that, although I think Gary may have come in with those drums. But Mike will usually adjust drum samples or even recreate them.

How did you achieve the delay effect on the intro guitar? 

That was done during the mix. I duplicated the guitar track, which was pretty clean, panned the original left, and on the right one I used the Air Spring Reverb. Air Fuzz Wah and Air Distortion, which are all stock Avid plugins that come with Pro Tools.

At 1:45, there's brass playing during the chorus. Is that real brass or programmed brass from a VST?

It is real. Gary played trumpet on that record. He overdubbed himself, and there were 3 tracks of that.

Do you remember how you recorded the trumpet?

I don't really. I'm guessing I would have used a U67, or some large diaphragm mic like a U47 or U87.

How did you achieve the layered vocal backing vocals in the chorus? How many takes and what panning?

We had one lead and 6 other tracks alongside that. So 2 on the left, 2 on the right and 2 in the center.

I'll typically group the vocals, and then EQ and compress each one as is required, since the dynamics are different on each. On the group, I used a Waves SSL channel for gating and EQing, along with Massenburg EQ and a McDSP 6030 EQ.

How did you get the huge opening guitar sound for "Numb"?

I think that was mostly the amp cranked, along with Gary's pedals. He had a white fuzz pedal that he used a lot, but I can't remember the name. But there's only one track of audio for that guitar. There's hardly any plugins on it. Just the UAD Fatso with the Warmth knob turned up to tame the high-end in the fuzz. The main sound is coming from the amp with a slap delay pedal that's darker than the original signal, which gives the effect of having the guitar sound far away.

What about the vocal effect that makes it sound distorted and dark?

That was the Echoboy plugin. I also recorded the vocal with that distortion. I think the mic was a Wunder CM7 through a UA 610 and an 1176.

How did achieve the drum sound?

It was probably a similar drum setup to what was used for most of the other songs, but I may have added some samples in the form of room spaces to create a longer decay, which amplified the sound of the kit.

There's 4 room mics in the mix session: 2 mid-rooms and 2 far-rooms. This is so I can toggle between 2 different options. When I set up to record drums, I'll put up any option of microphone I think I might need later. So I'll mute the ones I don't need for different parts of the song.

Sometimes I use multiple overheads, like a large diaphragm mic to pick up more ambience, or a small diaphragm pair or single that picks up closer sounds.

Is the organ on Numb the same as the one on "When My Train Pulls In"?

Yes, it's a B3 at Elizondo's place. It's stereo, with 2 mics on the horns of the leslie, and another mic on the low rotor.

For "When My Train Pulls In", what can you tell me about the guitars?

I think we used a Gibson Falcon amp for that record. Other than that, one of things we did was record Gary's guitar through a leslie cabinet on that one. That's kind of common though, going back to Led Zeppelin days. Even Soundgarden did that on one of their famous songs. I think it was "Black Hole Sun". There are companies that make can adapter so that you can use the leslie's internal amp and cabinet for the guitar.

I know you didn't record the drums on that record, but can you tell me anything about those?

Not much really. But there quite a few triggered samples in the Pro Tools session. 2 triggered kicks and 2 triggered snares.

How did you get involved with the Regina Spektor "Far" album? 

Mike hired me to work on that. We started at Clinton Sound in New York, did most of it there, and finished off the overdubs at Mike's house. But I only worked on a few songs on that album.

You worked on "The Calculation", right? 

Yes. That song was fun. I remember it because it was the end of the day, and Regina was like "I just got this idea. Can we try it?". She played along on a keyboard connected to a VST. I honestly can't remember if we went back and recorded a real piano. It could be a virtual piano that's on the final track. I actually think it is.

What about "Eet"? It features a much wider piano, as opposed to "The Calculation".

That was one we did at Clinton, with the piano they have there. She basically played and sang, and we recorded it. We worked with Matt Chamberlain for it, and Elizondo probably played bass. We probably had 2 microphones on the piano and one mic for Regina's vocal.

On "Machine" you have another wide-sounding piano, but you also have an industrial percussion bit in the beginning that's quite eerie.

The piano is probably the same one that was used for "Eet". The percussion was something that Matt Chamberlain had. Part of it was cymbals he laid out on the floor, miced and played. I got the signal in the control room and put a gate and limiter on it, and then we sent it to a bit crushing pedal that Elizondo brought with him. Some of the clanging sounds also came from David Burn. He had a place in New York where he made sounds like that using the building itself. He would pull a lever in one part of the building, and a sound would be made somewhere else and recorded. So Regina went there to work on a lot of the eerie sounds in that song.

It's been great talking to you Adam. Thanks for dropping so much info on these albums. What's next for you, work-wise?

I'm still working with Muse, and also doing a song for the Hamilton Broadway show with Elizondo. I also have a project ongoing for RCA for the band called Winnetka Bowling League of which Matthew Koma is the singer. I also have to work on album for an upcoming DC Comics Dark Knight Metal project. So there's no lack of work at the moment.

SamInterview: Audio Engineer – Adam Hawkins