Phil Ek – The SoS Article that Really Tied the Room Together

Hey folks – how the hell are ya?  I’m good.  Been workin in the studio here and there, trying to sort out the sound we’ll use for Cody’s new record.  You know, Cody Copeland, that swell singer-song writing gentlefolk.   And it’s coming along (at least, I hope it is).  That said, there’ve been some interesting conversations and some interesting lessons.  I wanted to take a bit of a moment to tell that story.

Reverb is like Cocaine

Yes, I know, it’s a bold statement.  But I think if you’re a singer or an engineer, you’ve probably come across plenty of situations where you think you want more reverb… but you really shouldn’t have any more.  Well, maybe unlike cocaine, you should always have *some* reverb – but I’m mostly trying to get into the notion of reverb as a substance much more frequently abused, than underused.

In one of my first conversations with Cody as an engineer, I’m pretty my mouth let fly, “Hey, you’re using too much fucking reverb.”  And, you know, I was right.  But, stay with me here – this is an important part of the lesson.

Fast forward a bit – I know about Cody’s taste in reverb, and I know that I also need to synchronize with him regarding style.  I figured, the best way to put the two of us on the same page, and keep us having an efficient conversation about his project, would be to put together a mix evaluation playlist that the two of us would share.

The Mix Eval Playlist

Probably on the first day of my mixing class I was introduced to the concept of a this special playlist.  The idea is simple, you take ten songs you are really (really really) familiar with.  You make a playlist out of them, and listen to them on everything.  Everything.  I SAID EVERYTHING (err, sorry, I’ve just been on a lot of reverb).  But really, everything.

The idea is simple – you know these songs, you’ve heard them everywhere.  It’s easy for you to tell what a room and some speakers are doing to your favorite song, because you’ve heard them everywhere.  This allows you to compensate for any room situation while mixing.  Mmhmm, very important stuff.

But with Cody, this list was even more important.  This is how I would check for style.  There’s what I think is a good mix, and there’s what this genre thinks is a good mix too.  I needed to understand this, but I needed to understand very specifically what it was about these mixes that drew Cody to them.

With this, I also wanted Cody to listen to this mix everywhere.  This would help him get the same sense of balance that I do.

At least, this was my whole plan to make things easier for us on the communication front.  I think it’s working well so far.  Anywho, here is our playlist:

  1. Fleet Foxes – Tiger Mountain Peasant Song
  2. Smoke Ring for My Halo – Baby’s Arms
  3. Timbre Timbre – Demon Host
  4. Nightlife – Nightlife
  5. Illinois – Casimir Pulaski Day

Last night a playlist saved my life

As soon as I listened to this playlist, a handful of ideas became apparent:

  • There’s a whole genre of music that uses too much reverb
  • I know shit about that genre

Soo…. yea, I guess me knowing what’s what doesn’t mean a whole lot.  That said, let’s continue – my validation will come.

That said, I knew I needed to understand what was going on here. I also knew I would have to give Cody his reverb.  I started playing with my reverb collection to see if I could get something similar to any of the songs on his playlist.  Big reverb after big reverb, I tried several presets on my favorite two verbs – the R2 and ValhallaRoom.  Long story short, I wasn’t getting the sounds I was hearing in tracks like Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.  I just wasn’t.

I decided I needed to know more.  If I could understand the minds behind the sounds, I could understand the sounds.  Or at least steal a couple of tips from someone more experienced.  Phil Ek has produced at least a couple Fleet Foxes records, including the one I had been listening too.  What if Phil Ek somewhere talked about working on that album?  Could I steal his ideas?  Hell yes I could.

People talk about this stuff, too

Here’s the article I found, and this was about the later album (not the one I was mixing against), but he had some good points:

Point 1 (on reverb, duh) –

Fleet Foxes’ debut album quite possibly set new records for the amount of vocal reverb applied, and while there’s still plenty of reverb on Helplessness Blues, it sounds as if it has been scaled back in comparison. A conscious decision? “Well, in my personal opinion,” says Ek, “I think with some of the stuff on the first record, there was a little bit too much reverb. I thought it started to cloud his voice, as opposed to just sounding cool and big. He was more demanding on having more reverb on the last record. With this one, when it came to mixing, I thought, I’m just gonna do my thing. And I think it came out kinda clearer and it still had the same effect.”

Wait wait wait.  So, he thought there was too much reverb too?  So… I’m not the only one?  Yea.  But he let it through anyway, I guess the at the end of the day its about the artist.  And there’s something to using that sorta thing as a unique style.  But basically, I was validated in my understanding, and I learned that you gotta push the envelope all at the same time.  Heh, how about that.

Point 2 (right below point one) –

Given the fact that the band are keen on recording in large spaces, it seems reasonable to assume that at least some of the characteristic reverb on the vocals is natural. Not so, says Ek. “Nope, there’s no natural reverb at all. Not one single bit. It’s just an EMT plate. There were a couple of times where a little digital was thrown in here and there for a different effect or maybe a little spring of some kind. Y’know, I’ve never used Pro Tools reverbs, I never really mess with them. I use outboard Lexicons and things of that nature. But a lot of the time they sound too good or too glossy. They’re not crappy or grainy enough. They just seem so separate from the music. I have a hard time kind of tucking them in the right place where they don’t sound like there’s too little or too much. Older digitals sit in the mix cooler. But for the most part it’s just a good old noisy plate.

Ah ha, I was trying big room settings.  I certainly hadn’t thought of a big noisy crappy plate.  Heh.  I really need to think about side of the box a bit more.  I think we get so used to trying to find this natural sound for a well established genre that we can forget to reach into our bags of tricks.  So yea, another lesson – your mix can still get artsy, just make sure you’re making this decision consciously.

Now I’m playing with the UAD EMT 140 on these vocals and things are going much better.  And we’re all, you know, validated.  And learned.

So, engineers – you’re right. But you need to loosen up 😉