RECORDING TECHNIQUES WITH FRASER MONTGOMERY
FILLING OUT VOCALS CAN BE TRICKY, BUT FRASER MONTGOMERY HAS A FEW TRICKS TO PLUG EVERY INCH OF YOUR MIX. WORDS BY PETER ZALUZNY.
Whether it’s a ten‑piece outfit or a singer‑songwriter with nothing but their voice and an acoustic, Fraser Montgomery can make any track sound full‑bodied and beautifully balanced. In fact, he’s got a particularly good ear for getting vocal tracks in just the right place, then building them into every unoccupied corner of the mix. That, and he knows how to build a track, reach that explosive peak and inject the perfect attack when it’s time for an instrument to punch in. In other words, if you take a visit to Aviary Studios in Melbourne, Montgomery can turn your takes into statements. One thing that characterises your work is a consistent, full-bodied sound, particularly in the vocals. How do you bring that across after the artist nails their performance?
Microphone choice, and how the singer uses it – such as using proximity effects – has a huge influence on how much space the vocal takes up. I love our Russian tube Soyuz‑017 LDC on most occasions, but to be honest, getting up close on an SM7b can be perfect. The right compression also helps.
I use the Retro Doublewide vari‑mu compressor to gain some extra weight – with 10‑20 decibel gain reduction on the metres, it really owns it. For an up‑tempo vocal, the Hairball Blue‑strip 1176 is amazing. Coupled with a Pultec‑style EQ and a Neve 1073‑style preamp, such as our Aurora Audio or Heritage Audio units, they’re the go‑to chain for lead vocals. None of these things are as important as the performance and the lyrics, but they all help. How do you fill out a vocal-oriented track when there are only a couple of other instruments involved?
Oftentimes, the most minimal arrangements are the easiest to make sound big. When every element is recorded well, has its own uncompromised tonal character, and isn’t fighting to be heard, the whole song can sound ‘bigger’. It’s dependent on the song, of course, but sometimes having no reverb can have the biggest impact. Either way, I like to visualise the vocal being wrapped up in a warm blanket, and it has to compliment the vocal at all times. Where does the reverb sit in a track?
That depends on the mood of the song and the day that it is mixed, but automation is king. I record with analogue reverbs and delays. I’ll always have my spring unit, Roland 301 and 501 running when recording. I end up with a large count, but also with effects that are unique to many elements. These can then be blended, panned and further manipulated for a rich tapestry of sounds. I also use the UAD EMT 140 and AKG Spring for global reverbs. Similarly, you’ve worked with a few artists who create songs that gradually build to an explosive ending, and yet that full-bodied sound is still present throughout. How do you work a track like that?
The key is increasing intensity in performances, rather than pure volume. A guitar player that gradually digs in harder, letting the amp break up more and more as the song goes on, is far more effective than just turning it up, for example.
Once you have the core elements doing that, adding extra instruments effectively is a bonus, along with detailed automation in the mix. Then the delicate dance begins. The trick is to make the intro sound as loud and full as it can, and engage the listener as if it were not going to get any bigger. Once you have them, you can hit them with the explosion. That philosophy is pretty prominent on “Drive” by Gretta Ray, which you engineered drums on. In that case, the gear played a small part in pulling the sound we were looking for, especially in shaping the kick and snare. We did that mostly with Neve preamps and little compression.
I remember heavily shaping the kick with a Kush Electra EQ, which really allowed me to find the sweet spots, boosting them heavily with the Proportional Q. Having said that, the drums were played by Josh Barber, who also produced the song. You can basically attribute the build and swell to his playing. At the same time, you also know how to give instruments a lot of punch if required, without allowing them to take over from the otherwise balanced mixed. Your work with pizzicato strings is a good example. How do you get that strong, but not overbearing pluck?
I generally start with a ribbon mic, like a Coles 4038 or AEA 44, then find a placement so as not to get too much attack. However, tone is key so they don’t sound too thin. In the mix, I use the Fab Filter Multi‑band Compressor a lot, where you can compress certain frequencies and get a touch of the attack, but not let it dominate. Then it’s a bit of a dance with reverb. The pre‑delay has a big influence on how much presence and attack you let through, as does using a short plate.