Darrell Thorp: It’s All About the Vibe (And a Few Plug-Ins)
Multi-platinum record producer and engineer Darrell Thorp is a self-confessed gear geek with a formidable work ethic - to which his seven Grammys and regular clientele including Radiohead, Beck, Paul McCartney and OutKast pay tribute. He declares himself a ‘terrible’ musician but works sheer musical magic in the studio, clearly passionate about the role of producer in creating the right working ambience and making optimum use of plug-ins in streamlining processes. He talks to us about his gear geekiness, harnessing true plug-in potential, and seizing the opportunities life throws at you.
Firstly, tell us how you got into the world of record producing…
I really got the bug when I was about 13 or 14 years old. At the church I was going to, I became friends with Rafeal Carmany. He was the guy that ran the Sound Department at the church, and also did the radio show, and also a lot of album recordings - they would travel to L.A. every couple of months and record their worship hymns. So I got the bug from Rafa, then I actually started working for him. The live sound thing intrigued me, but more the recording process even more so, because I really didn’t get how that worked. So that was the allure of it, what lured me in.
Have you always been more comfortable behind the glass than in front of it?
Yeah – I am a terrible musician; to this day I still suck! In recent years I’ve started playing my guitar a little bit more just for fun and it’s been a blast. Of course it’s amazing how it does help your ear training as an engineer, immensely. But the couple of times I get to be in front of the glass I’m nervous as heck and it doesn’t feel right. I can sing… I’ve sung on a couple of projects I’ve produced, but then I just end up tuning the crap out of it and drawing it in reverb and turning it way down so what’s the point!
So you’re no musician… but you’re a Grammy-winning producer and engineer working in a musical environment - what would you say you bring to the table?
I learned a long time ago that it’s all about setting up a situation for an artist or a band to walk in and to feel comfortable and start to record. You can’t force it. ‘Vibe’ is the key word we always throw around. If the vibe is wrong, then the session goes terrible; if the vibe is correct the session goes well. Maybe in the sense of finding the correct studio, the lighting being right, the temperature being right. Or if it’s a solo artist and you have to hire a band around them, it’s about getting the right band that they feel comfortable with. There’s all these variables that come into play that I think are really super important. That’s in some ways the hardest job as a producer, to get that right.
I’ve heard from friends of mine who are talented musicians in bands, or solo artists themselves, who tell me about producers they’ve worked with who go into the studio to start the record, and by week one all they’ve got are the drum sounds. The guitar player hasn’t played a chord yet even though they’ve been recording for three or four days! That’s a vibe kill. You don’t want that. You want the band to be a cohesive unit and come in and start recording as soon as you can. ‘Cos they’re excited, and that’s why they’re there right? To make a record!
It’s interesting you emphasize the importance of ambience in recording - we so often forget about that.
Absolutely. There’s something really strange about going into a brand new modern studio with no ambient lighting… it feels really sterile and stale - technically it probably works really well and sounds really good but it doesn’t feel good. Then then you might go into a vintage room that has the same look and feel – maybe a dingier smell, some cigarette smoke lingering in the acoustical treatment – and no ambient lighting either, but somehow this feels amazing, you think ‘this is the vibe, this is where I want to record!’ It’s amazing how that different environment makes your brain think a little bit differently.
So for you it’s about vibe, emotions, and energy…
Yeah, and comfort. It’s about everybody being comfortable – engineer, producer, everything. It sucks when you have a really cool space but it’s really small or you’re working with a large band so you’re all on top of each other, stepping over everyone.
You’re regarded in the industry as someone who really knows your gear and likes your gear… does that come from the desire to make everyone comfortable – you can reduce stress on your artists by doing the heavy lifting so they can concentrate on their music?
I am very geeky about gear. And I guess it does come from that. Artists are becoming more and more hands-on because they have to be, either because of budget constraints or because they just want to sit in their house and write songs with whatever they have – a laptop and a Focusrite, or a UAD interface or whatever it is; they just start writing. The problem comes if somebody finally hires me to work on their project and I suggest options, then they come in and start questioning how I’m doing it - not in a curiosity way but a constructive criticism way - and that gets a little bit annoying because it’s like ‘I thought you hired me to do this?! I don’t want the Artist thinking about the process, I want the Artist thinking about the song and performing the song!’ It’s really hard to tell them ‘you hired me, let me do my job!’ Of course if it doesn’t sound right to them then that’s a whole different legitimate and fair conversation. Sometimes I’m lucky and I go in and do my thing and everyone’s really happy but sometimes I have to fight with my artist about this micro-managing situation.
Gear-wise have you always been in the box or did you start off on boards and tapes?
I was lucky enough to start on tape. I started in 1997 so they were still doing multi-tracks, still locking multiple tape machines together then every once in a blue moon the dreaded ADAT would show its ugly face in the session. What an ingenious idea but a terrible execution!
And when did you first get into plug-ins? Was it just Pro Tools and out of the box in the early days or were you straight in with every plug-in going?I was working on a lot of tape then probably around 2001-02 we started seeing more and more Pro Tools systems coming into our sessions. Then round about the time I went independent as an engineer, in 2003, that’s when I started working more and more on Pro Tools, it was definitely becoming the medium of choice. I’d still get a project or two that would be on tape or would start on tape then get dumped into Pro Tools. A couple of projects I worked on we were just on one 24-track analog tape machine. Then we’d have Pro Tools slaving the whole time - the genius part about that was we’d do four guitar takes on multi-track then comp it, then back up all four tracks to Pro Tools. That way we always had a back-up of everything we ever did, and it kept our reels really organised. It was a great way of working. Slowly tapes started tapering off (no pun intended!) and it was more and more about Pro Tools, but even then I still had a console. Pro Tools was my tape machine; it wasn’t necessarily my DAW.
I actually went through the steps of keeping it as a tape machine for years, because I was always fortunate enough to be working in a facility where we had a console. I was still thinking of it as a tape machine – but a tape machine with benefits! You could put your drums out of 1 and 2, and then bring them up on faders 1 and 2, so you could keep your modular session minimal, even though you were running up to 48 tracks. Honestly it wasn’t until recent years, maybe 3 or 4 years ago that I thought ‘why am I splitting all this out all the time?’ I was recording with an artist and we had such a huge set-up that I used every channel on the console so it kind of limited my monitoring. I was scratching my head then I thought ‘wait a minute, why don’t I just monitor out of 1 or 2, I’ll build my mix in Pro Tools then I’ll send all my headphone sends out of Pro Tools 4 through 10 for the band for their headphone cues.’ Once I’d made that switch and did it that way, ever since then that’s how I’ve always done it. Now I use a console as a big volume knob and a bunch of mic pres I’m still using the recording functionality of the console, but I’m monitoring in a DAW situation now. It’s also easier because a lot of time, I record something for an artist or a band in the studio, then they’ll take it home to cut guitar or vocals themselves at home or in their smaller studio. I’ll spend the time getting the sounds right, the balance and the monitor mix going for them, then for them it’s just the simple double-click, open it up, and it sounds just like Darrell had it in the studio.
Process-wise do you tend to track things to sound as it will be in the final mix, rather than sticking it down clean and sorting it out at the end of the process?
Oh yeah, I’ve always done it that way. And especially now we’re in the mentality where Pro Tools is no longer a tape machine but a DAW. I’ll think to myself ‘I’m going to use that gorgeous 1073 EQ on the kick drum and I’m going to make that kick drum sound massive going into Pro Tools.’ That way if I happen to be mixing it later on I probably won’t need much EQ in the process. I might need a little bit of brightening, remove a little mud sometimes, but usually something I track is pretty close - not perfect (nothing ever is!) but pretty close. I usually find I’m just brightening things a little bit.
And how are you using Sound Radix plug-ins in mixes?
First and foremost, Drum Leveler – it’s ridiculous what that thing does! People ask me about it and kind of scratch their head because when they ask what it does I say ‘well.. it’s sort of like a compressor/gate/transient designer all in one little plug-in’, and they’re like ‘huh, why don’t I just use a compressor and a gate and a transient designer?!’ And I’m like ‘because it won’t work the same!’ If you tried to build it yourself, it wouldn’t work. It sounds like it’s capturing the samples you’re telling it to look at, and removing any ambient sound (if you want it to do that, in full gate mode), and then gating them out with the compression and the transient. Which gives it way more attack than the original source had.
It sounds like you use it as much as an effect as much as a remedial tool?
YES – because a lot of the stuff I work on is not mainstream pop or pop rock, the patterns that my clientele are doing aren’t that basic, so sampling for me doesn’t necessarily solve the issue all the time. I’m not the biggest fan of layering samples in. It gets corny. There are times and places where I have to do it in order to achieve an end result, especially in a mix, but for the most part, when I found out about Drum Leveler I realised that I could take a snare drum that was the most horridly tuned instrument ever with a really bad drummer behind it whose velocity is terrible, and then all of a sudden I could level him out and change the transient. Which gave me a transient and some attack I could work with. From there I would start compressing and EQ-ing again to get even more life out of the instrument. Drum Leveler has been a lifesaver for me, it really has.
So is it just Drum Leveler or have you enjoyed the delights of Auto Align?
I use Auto-Align once in a while. I play with it sometimes. I’ve noticed particularly on faster tunes that Auto Align helps out with the phase alignment, it really does. But then sometimes on some slower songs it almost gets lined up too well so things become too tight… something like a ballad where you want things to rumble a little bit it’s actually really good. I have Auto-Align as part of my plug drum plug in chain that I import into every new mix or song that I start. It’s set up as the first plug in the chain. So what I do is usually bring it in and I just pop it in and out and listen to it. Especially in the mix of the song. Put it on, get my mix going; put the drums, bass, vocal, maybe a guitar or two in; then I just bypass it, and see how it sits in the mix, playing with everything. And if it feels better than ta-da, keep it going. Or if it doesn’t feel as good I just take the plug-ins off.
And how do you use plug-ins in the final part of your mixing process? What’s your philosophy there?
I’m an advocate for being completely in the box when I mix, I don’t do any outside processing. The biggest reason being recall-ability. That’s a mainstay for me. The plug-in technology has advanced so much in the past couple of years to where you can model an API EQ and then test the plugin next to a real API EQ; the tonality that people are modelling from the real hardware is quite incredible. And it’s just going to get better throughout the next couple of years. I’m using plug-ins all the time. Some plug-ins sound better than others, and I use that to my advantage. Certain plug-ins are really well-modelled and pristine-sounding and their EQ curves sound great on particular instruments, but then sometimes you get a guitar that already sounds clean and I don’t necessarily want to distort it, I want it to be sort of more in the realm of changing the tonality of it to where it’ll fit in the mix without using much EQ. I realised over the course of using lots of plug-in manufacturers that some plug-ins actually kind of shift the tonality for you by just banging that particular brand on the insert of that track, so you can use that to your advantage; you’re not really doing that much EQ to change the sound, it’s just however they programmed it.
And just to finish, if you could rewind to a 14 year-old Darrell, what would you tell him had got you to where you are today? What advice would you give him?
I think part of it is my drive. My work ethic is really strong; I work really hard. That being said I play really hard too! ‘Cos gosh you need that after working really hard! I do feel so fortunate and so lucky I was in the right place at the right time, which is a lot of it. Maybe the best piece of advice I could give my 14-year-old self is make sure your eyes and ears are open for the right opportunity, and make sure you’re ready to take that opportunity when it comes across. There are times in my career I can look back and think I maybe missed a few opportunities - but then again I don’t know if they would have put me in the same situation I am right now. Maybe this is the route I was supposed to be on, and I feel very fortunate to be at where I’m at.
Opportunity knocks, and the door opens, and it’s whether you have the confidence and the brains to walk through the door, and not fall flat on your face. It’s about being ready to take risks in life, to be there, even if you’re scared shitless!