RECORDING TECHNIQUES WITH JOSEPH CHEEK
COMPRESSION DOESN’T HAVE TO BE A DIRTY WORD.
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.
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.