Australian Guitar - - Producer Profile - WORDS BY PETER ZALUZNY

Com­pres­sion. It’s not ex­actly held in the high­est es­teem in some cir­cles, but this tech­nique is ac­tu­ally es­sen­tial for mak­ing rock mu­sic sound pow­er­ful and punchy – to an ex­tent. Joseph Cheek – owner, op­er­a­tor and chief en­gi­neer at Is­land Stu­dios in Ade­laide – has sworn by com­pres­sion for years, and yet lately, he’s started to pull it back in some cases. Turns out, com­pres­sion ap­plied cor­rectly can make a rock song mas­sive. Put it in the wrong spot, how­ever, and you’ll wind up with a flat track and zero dy­nam­ics.

You’ve worked with quite a few artists that have strong vo­cals, pow­er­ful gui­tars and lots of lay­ered tones, twangs and other in­tri­ca­cies. How do you place ev­ery­thing in the mix?

For some­thing like that, there of­ten will be lots of up­per-mids com­pet­ing for space in the mix, so it’s about work­ing out which fre­quen­cies you can boost to bring out the best bits of the voice or gui­tars, and which fre­quen­cies you can cut to make room for the other in­stru­ments. If the vo­cals are a lit­tle too loud, you’ll make the band sound small and weak in com­par­i­son. Con­trast­ing this, if the vo­cals are too low in the mix the band will sound big, but the song will now lack fo­cus as the voice will seem much less im­pres­sive. With lit­tle gui­tar in­flec­tions and in­tri­ca­cies, more of­ten than not, all that is re­quired to bring those parts for­ward is rid­ing the fader up.

Does com­pres­sion play a part in that?

Yes, com­pres­sion is ex­tremely im­por­tant for any song where you want a pow­er­ful sound, es­pe­cially for the vo­cal tracks and drums. I think that’s re­ally cru­cial when mix­ing rock, in­die and so forth – to re­ally pin the vo­cals to the front of the mix dur­ing the big sec­tions of the song. You re­ally can’t go past an 1176 to do the job! Though in the last cou­ple of years, I’ve ac­tu­ally been com­press­ing gui­tars less and less for big rock tunes. Es­pe­cially for dis­torted gui­tars.

How come?

The rea­son they’re dis­torted to start with is ba­si­cally due to lim­it­ing of the sig­nal, so it’s im­por­tant not to make them seem life­less by com­press­ing the dis­torted sig­nal, which will re­sult in zero dy­nam­ics. Just about the only time I’d run dis­torted gui­tars through com­pres­sors now is to im­part the sound of the com­pres­sor on the gui­tar with­out ac­tu­ally com­press­ing it. When gui­tars are lay­ered up, this helps the whole mix to move and breathe, be­cause they still have dy­nam­ics. For clean gui­tars, I’ll nor­mally run th­ese through some­thing like an LA-3A com­pres­sor in the mix­ing phase – this helps to smooth them out a lit­tle and make sure all the notes can be heard.

Is it es­sen­tial on any other in­stru­ments?

It’s cru­cial for drums in rock tracks, par­tic­u­larly when you want to give the snare some real at­tack, and to make the room mics sound larger than life! When com­press­ing the room mics on a drum kit, the sound of the room it­self is re­ally brought out, ef­fec­tively in­creas­ing the re­verb on the kit and ex­tend­ing the snare hits. That’s also an ex­am­ple of us­ing com­pres­sion to bring out re­verb – to fill the gaps.

Do you run that through ana­logue or dig­i­tal gear?

I’ve col­lected some nice com­pres­sors, in­clud­ing a Fo­cus­rite Red 3 master buss com­pres­sor – which all of my mixes now run through – as well as a Retro Dou­blewide Vari-Mu tube com­pres­sor, which is awe­some for tracking vo­cals – or just about any­thing else. For the last few years, I’ve also been us­ing Uni­ver­sal Au­dio Apol­los as my main in­ter­faces. One of the great things about them is that they al­low you to track through the Uni­ver­sal Au­dio plug­ins. This means that, along with my out­board gear, I can also track through Pul­tecs, 1073 EQs, and a Studer A800 tape ma­chine.

At the same time, you’ve done a lot of work with acous­tic solo artists, yet you mange to make them sound just as full with so lit­tle. The ex­am­ple on your web­site is “Didn’t Have To Leave” by Sasha March. How do you do that?

Sasha recorded live and did two takes of eight songs in just over three hours. That pre­sented some ex­tra chal­lenges, though, mainly due to bleed be­tween mi­cro­phones, which means that while mix­ing, you have to keep in mind that what­ever you do to one in­stru­ment will also af­fect the other. The fo­cus for some­thing so in­ti­mate should al­ways be the on vo­cals. Re­verb helps too, just to give the track a bit of am­bi­ence so it’s not too dry. I felt that this tune wouldn’t suit hav­ing a su­per dry sound, and that the re­verb helped add to the emo­tion of the song. In say­ing that, one could eas­ily go over­board with the re­verb and ruin the song. You just have to find that happy medium.

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