Ian Dowling: Greasing the Creative Cogs
Ian Dowling is one of the most refreshing types of creatives: those who talk about personal relationships and real interaction as the basis for making music; the empathy needed between artist and engineer, whatever the gear at your fingertips. Since recording family Christmas messages aged four with his uncle, Dowling has built an enviable career engineering, mixing and producing for an eclectic mix of the UK’s top artists, from Bombay Bicycle Club and Kasabian to KT Tunstall and One Direction - not to mention a Grammy for Adele’s ‘21’. But it’s his passion, integrity and devotion to “greasing the creative cogs” that really shine through; his desire to get right inside an artist’s head to “paint pictures together”. We talk about his creative experimentation with gear, his enthusiasm for Sound Radix, and how collaborative creativity is changing.
With such a phenomenal career you must have been born making music – is your family background really musical?
No, actually, my family aren’t really musical at all, so it’s a bit weird! My parents had a great record collection, and I have an uncle who is a studio engineer, and when I was about four we went to his house and I recorded a silly Christmas message for some distant relatives or something. I just remember he had a big reel-to-reel tape machine and a little desk. I’m not saying it was a lightning bolt moment, I wasn’t like “wow, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life”, but considering there was zero musical stuff going on in the family, it did subconsciously open up recording to me as an option I guess. Then at school I joined a number of bands - I was a drummer. I decided to leave school at 16 and went to do a performing arts course, to be a drummer, and played a bit of guitar too. After a couple of years, I realised I was much more into the songs as a whole than I was the playing… and at the same time the college got a little studio and I started playing with that. I just really took to it and felt at home. I went to university and got a BSc in Music Technology which helped me get a foot in the door at Strongroom in Shoreditch as a runner, and worked my way up to in-house engineer from there.
Even so, it’s still quite a jump from there to working with the likes of Adele and KT Tunstall – you’ve got an amazing list of creds to your name – what got you that level of exposure?
Well, after seven years at Strongroom I met a producer called Jim Abbiss who was looking for an engineer to work with. We hit it off and I started working with him, which led me to Bombay Bicycle Club, Kasabian, Adele, and KT Tunstall. I owe him so much, because it gave me the opportunity to work on a lot of high profile work under his mentorship. We communicated very well, and when you get on with someone like that in the studio it makes a lot of things so much easier. We got to the stage where I could anticipate what he needed or pick up little cues from him and react to them, which was invaluable when things are getting hectic. You need to be able to work at that pace, because you want to capture those ‘moments’. All the artists we were working with, they’re not artists that do things bit by bit, they’re artists that express themselves in a moment; and it’s the ability to capture that moment that ‘makes’ the records those artists produce.
Some engineers choose a particular genre and stick with it, but you have a really eclectic mix – do you enjoy that eclectic aspect to your work?
Oh it’s essential! I couldn’t just do one style of music forever. And in today’s climate, I think if you just sit still and do ‘your thing’, that way lies career death. There’s been no master plan particularly, opportunities come to you and it’s a matter of saying yes to almost everything, rather than thinking “oh...I can’t do that, I’ve never done that before…” When you’ve got the basic technical skills, it’s just a case of applying them to different types of music and getting into whatever the artist is doing. A benefit of working with lots of different people on lots of different styles or genres is that at some stage you may work with an artist who is ostensibly an “indie band” for example, but they want to explore different musical areas, and if you’ve got an interest in, or prior experience of, those areas that can really come in handy.
Do you find people value your input in situations like that? Is your advice received well?
Oh of course, but you do have to be very sensitive and empathetic to the artist and to your relationship to them, and to the general feeling in the room at the time. Sometimes people don’t want advice, but then again sometimes they don’t know that they need it. You have to have a lot of empathy and emotional awareness in a studio. Any emotion or energy that’s in the room, because it’s an enclosed environment with generally a small number of people, it’s amplified. Being sensitive to that is completely essential I think. When you have work experience people come in, or anybody whose first time it is in the studio, I can tell straight away who will take to it: it’s the people who blend in when they need to, and pop up when they’re needed again. It’s not the people who are chatting all the time and telling everyone about the latest great tune they’ve just written…
What have been the ‘gear moments’ in your history? What pieces have been on your journey with you the whole way, or you look back on with particular fondness?
To be honest it’s kind of boring but it’s Pro Tools for me. When I joined Strongroom there was still a bit of tape around, so I was lucky enough to do a bit of that, but Pro Tools was really coming through as I was. Over my career there has been outboard I’ve enjoyed for a time, and desks too, but Pro Tools is the defining tool of the last 15-20 years. Plug-ins have become the focus now and there are different trends for them too, but from a pure engineering point of view, the speed at which you can work and the level of detail at which you can edit with Pro Tools is magic. It’s almost like the least obvious bit of gear to pick out, but that’s because it’s so ubiquitous and so integral to everything I do.
Have you been an ‘in the box’ guy for a long time, or do you still do hybrid?
I’m mixing fully in the box now; I’ve got an SSL Sigma summing mixer so that breaks out to 16 stereo and allows me to strap something over the mix bus or a stereo channel. There’s a very audible difference between coming out of two outputs of Pro Tools and using something like a summing mixer. The last things I did using a desk were two albums earlier this year; one by a new band called Blaenavon, and a second album for a band called The Orwells who I’ve worked with before. I did that on a G series but I was essentially using it as a summing mixer with EQs, compression etc.. That was the culmination of three years of trying my best to integrate analogue mixing with digital, which was tough because there are things I liked about both. I did this really convoluted thing which I thought was brilliant at the time but was quite complicated. I’d come out of Pro Tools into the desk, then go via the direct outs of the channels back into auxiliaries in Pro Tools. It was fantastic because you had the best of both worlds: you could have the tonal benefits of running through a large console but also could do rides and automate effects etc at any point in the mix without having to print stems first. It also meant that meant I could print all the stems in one pass! I can’t begin to tell you how happy that made me. I would also take the stereo out of Tools back into the master fader of the desk so we could use analogue mix buss compression and EQ, even drive the mix buss if we wanted.
So you used Pro Tools to play back audio and to run automation - basically using Pro Tools as a computer for the automation?
Yeah, sort of. The issue is that when you’re using a lot of analogue gear you always have to do stems to make it fully recallable and tweakable. What I used to do was spend some time getting a balance that I thought was great, then print very detailed stems off the mix buss so that I could do all my rides and extra processing inside Pro Tools. But there are two major issues with that. Firstly, do you print the stems with any mix buss compression you’re using? Because it’s never the same applying it afterwards. Secondly, the process was so long-winded that you’d spend two or three hours stemming and getting everything right, which is a long time out of your day, and by the time you got to automating all the spontaneity was gone. The great thing about the way I ended up doing it was you could be balancing and doing rides at the same time - almost a throwback to doing a mix on an SSL back in the day, balancing then doing a bit of a ride on something then continuing balancing: it’s a much more fluid creative process I think, getting into a level of flow where your front brain switches off and you’re just acting on impulse almost. You can’t do that the other way. Regardless, I think it’s essential to work inside the box now because the demands on you for recalls and tweaks and different versions and everything… Recall-ability is the thing now, and speed of workflow. It’s a shame because I really like the tactile nature of a large console. The next challenge is to replicate that somehow. I’m not convinced by anything I’ve tried so far.
In a world of so many new plug-ins, how did you first hear about Sound Radix?
Well, I think it’s incumbent upon you to keep up with whatever’s new, whatever’s going on technologically; I’m always on the look-out for new techniques and new tools. I’ve never been excited by emulations of classic gear at all really. A lot of the emulations are fine - some are better than others, some sound mildly different - but I do wonder, if everything didn’t look like whatever it was supposed to be, if everything was a grey box with sliders on it whether we’d all be able to tell the difference between this company’s 1176 and that company’s 1176 – there’s a little bit of emperor’s new clothes about it. That’s not to say people are stupid; the visual aspect is a massive part of how you perceive things and how you hear things. Hearing and music are such subjective things, it depends so much on your emotional state and so much other stuff, it’s very easy to get taken in by the visual feedback you’re getting.
But anyway, the first thing I found from Sound Radix was Auto-Align. It’s not the sexiest plug-in in the world, not the easiest sell, but it does do the job which I think technology should do, which is make your life easier and grease the cogs so you can get to your creative place quicker. Auto-Align is essential for me now, for multi-mic guitars, pianos… I’m doing an album at the moment where the the vocals are recorded through an SM7 with a 58 taped to it. The 58 is goes to an amp with a load of pedals on it, and they’re being recorded at the same time so the singer can vibe off of what the amp’s doing. But obviously there’s always a bit of a phase discrepancy between the two microphones, and using Auto-Align on that just brings everything into focus. It’s one of my first steps now in getting everything ready to mix, having set-up time where I’m making sure the edits are alright, if anything needs some technical attention, like de-noising for example, and part of that process now undoubtedly is Auto-Align.
When I was starting out a producer called Dave Eringa once said to me that you become a real engineer when you understand phase. When he said that I made that my mission – I became obsessed with phase relationships. I think it’s a crucial thing to understand when you’re engineering. So Auto-Align often really helps me tighten things up and bring them into focus. You have to be careful with it sometimes though! In the past I’ve used Auto-Align while balancing a drumkit but there is so much interplay between all the microphones on drums, if you aren’t careful you might lose that special character that someone has worked hard to get. That being said, other times I’ve used it on drums and it’s been fantastic.
Have you experienced any of the other Sound Radix plug-ins?
Oh yes, Drum Leveler… and SurferEQ. Drum Leveler has a really creative side to it, but also in terms of just getting everything popping in the right way it’s incredible. In describing it to people I struggle to exactly say what it is! It’s kind of like a compressor and gate and transient designer: a lot of things all in one but none of them specifically. It’s really good if you’ve got a little loop you like but it’s just not fitting in the mix properly – it brings out those pieces you really want. It’s great when used in conjunction with SurferEQ actually. I find SurferEQ is really good for that as well, for pinpointing certain frequencies in a loop, maybe ones that are kind of in the background, and bringing those out in a rhythmic way; if it’s got a pitch to it SurferEQ will track it, and kind of make it move in a way that I don’t think anything else can. It’s almost like a groove-led transient designer, in a weird way. I find SurferEQ is great for bass. The low-end can change so much with what’s being played. If you key into that on SurferEQ you can get a consistency you wouldn’t get with another EQ. After I put SurferEQ on a bass, I thought “what did I do before!?” It seems so obvious now.
When you’re mixing dance music do you find SurferEQ works well on the big monstrous bass sounds?
Yeah, definitely. I really like the ‘comb’ – the button on the mid-EQ. If you put a bit of that on a monster synth bass it brings out all of the frequencies that you want, all the harmonics, you don’t get any of the other stuff. It just seems to sit; you can hype it up as much as you want and it doesn’t get in the way of everything else, whereas if you were to add a bit of extra distortion or a boost in the mid it would just get in the way. I think it’s a really useful thing.
Have you dared to try Pi?
I have! I don’t get it yet though! We’ve touched on my obsession with phase, so when I got Pi I thought “I can’t believe it, this is what I’ve been waiting for”. It’s going back to the thing with Sound Radix, that they don’t just do emulations, they do things that make you go “wow! Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?!” The idea of modifying phase relationships in real-time to make space in a mix was just incredible. The controls are very fine though; I’ll have to sit with it for a good couple more weeks… As soon as I get it nailed, I think it’ll be amazing.
It’s almost like the transition in going from mixing on an analogue desk to going completely inside the box, it required a real shift in psychology, and I feel like this is a whole other shift again. It’s not like just something you whack on to make your mix sound better, you’ve really got to know what it’s doing to get the most out of it. What is so exciting is once you get a handle on it you think this really is something that hasn’t been done before and I’m mixing in a way that I haven’t mixed before, as opposed to I’m mixing in the way I’ve always mixed using “the same tools”, they just happen to be inside a computer rather than outside. The thing with Pi, and a lot of the things Sound Radix do, they actually feel like they are moving things forward, creating new things, as opposed to just churning out higher resolution copies of pre-existing stuff.
Is that one of the biggest problems of modern music, that people think you can fix it in the mix? They don’t want to make the choices themselves, or they think the mixer will make it sound better?
In today’s collaborative world you can get sent anything as an engineer to make sense of - someone will ask me to do a mix for them, and I’ll receive some files, and unless you make a point of it, you might not even talk to them before you start mixing! I make sure I always phone or Skype people so we have some kind of personal relationship or connection between us, so I know what’s going on inside their head. Otherwise I just get sent files, then you’re there going “right…what now then?!” And often now bands are self-producing, and they’re a little bit inexperienced, so they’ll send you a lot of options they’re not quite sure about and hope you’ll make sense of them.
It is quite a responsibility that people are increasingly shifting onto mix engineers. We’re all working in a new and constantly evolving climate in the music industry, where budgets to make albums are vastly reduced, and that’s definitely having an effect on the way records are made. Bands are much more savvy than in the past. They don’t get taken advantage of, they get their advance or some other investment to make a record and, very sensibly, kit themselves out with some equipment so they can record their music themselves and retain ownership of it. Often they won’t have the budget for a producer so they’ll produce themselves, learning as they go, and they don’t have enough experience to feel confident in their decisions sometimes, so they’ll leave it up to me as the mixer.
So while it’s occasionally frustrating to receive files without any sort of explanation, as soon as you talk to people and broach the idea that you want them to be there and talk you through it all, people are willing to do that, because they want their art to be as good as it can be. Otherwise they assume you don’t want them there and you’re fine to do it without them – which means more tweaks down the line.
Interaction is the thing that’s been lost in modern mixing, because everyone’s in their own room, operating in their own isolated environment. Making music is as much about telling a story as it is finding a sound. You want to represent what the artist is trying to say and how they are feeling, otherwise you just end up doing a technical exercise of making things sound ‘correct’, which isn’t always the right approach.
The technical side of this job is the least interesting part of it for me. I like equipment and I like understanding how they work to an extent, but only within the parameters of how it enables me to be more creative, whether that’s fixing problems so that I’ve got smooth sailing into a more creative mix, or whether it’s using technical processes in a creative way. It’s about using equipment – plug-ins now – to achieve what you and the artist want to achieve. If we’re just here as a mouse-clicking exercise, that’s not why I got into this. I got into this because I love music and I love people; I want to collaborate with people and I want to know what that sound is in the second verse and what it’s supposed to convey. I want to know what kind of pictures we’re supposed to be painting together.
If you could go back to 16 year-old Ian, what one piece of advice would you give him?
It’s hard to boil it down to one thing… I think if producing music is something you love doing, you’ve just got to be doing it, and whatever sacrifices you have to make in order to make that happen is what you’ve got to do. It’s competitive obviously, but that’s because it’s a fantastic (and fantastically sought-after) line of work. Obviously there are occasional days where you think “why do I do this again?!”, but I think that’s true of anything. When I think about everything that’s happened to get me to this point… I’m so lucky. I literally can’t imagine doing anything else.