It's what makes you feel creative

It's what makes you feel creative

I get excited about plugins when they do something that I can't do

Dom Morley

Dom Morley's journey in music production is a vivid illustration of technical mastery meeting artistic vision. From his initial forays with cassette recorders to his Grammy-winning efforts on Amy Winehouse's 'Back to Black', Morley's career epitomizes dedication and passion for sound engineering. In this interview, we explore his remarkable path, discussing the experiences that shaped his approach to music production and his perspectives on the evolving landscape of audio technology.

First up, how did you get into this? Did you think at school ‘I want to be a record producer one day?
I was in a band and we had one of those cassette recorders where you could press record, and it had a little microphone in it, and we were recording ourselves like that, which obviously sounded absolutely dreadful.

Then I, being the techy member of the band, got a cassette 4 track, and then that grew up into an 8 track (I was around 17 at the time). I then got a book out of the library, (because this is pre-internet, I'm ancient), and it had jobs in the music industry and there was this job that said ‘Sound Engineer’. I was like, ‘wow, that's exactly what I like to do in my spare time anyway and it's actually a job. Brilliant’. 

A friend of my dad, who worked in TV, said ‘if it's got an SSL or a Neve, it's a good studio, so look there’, so I made a list of every studio that had an SSL or a Neve in London and then walked around for three days, knocking on doors, saying ‘I'll work for nothing and make good tea’, which got me nowhere. Then I went to Birmingham because that was the next biggest city and somebody said, ‘yeah, all right, see you Monday’. So that's where I started. This would have been around 1996, I think.

So the digital revolution had already kind of taken off…
Yeah, home recording was MIDI. If you wanted to record audio, you had to do it into a sampler, digitally or on tape. And then a year or two into me working in the studio, ADAT started so that was the first kind of accessible digital audio thing, obviously still on tape, but accessible digital audio. Obviously the Sony machines were kicking around, which were digital tape machines, but I hadn't seen one at that point. It was a few years before we were actually recording onto hard drives properly.

This was when you worked at DEP International in Birmingham, wasn't it?
My first gig that took me on to get work for free was actually a place called the Music Station, which had an SSL and a studio tape machine. It didn't last very long but I met some cool people including Mike Exeter who got me into UB40’s studio when they were looking for an assistant. So it was via Mike that I got my first paid gig.

So your first break was with UB40? Was that your first big charting act?
Yeah, the first record that I worked on that did something. I did a bit of engineering on that, recorded a few vocals and things. They were very good at getting the new kid to do stuff and set up mics and properly record things. It was good, and Mike [Exeter] was great as somebody that could bring me through that as well and train me up. I was quite lucky in that respect that the owners of the place, and the chief engineer, were both very good at bringing people up and letting them have a go.

At what point did you feel you’d made a break and were able to make a career out of it?
I came to London and I was freelancing a bit there as an assistant. There was a place called Master Rock in Kilburn at the time which had one of those Focusrite desks that had the compressors on it. I was there for probably a month or two doing little bits of work and then a job came up at Metropolis which I got. Obviously that was a great move and I was very lucky to get that one because it was such a big studio. It's big stuff that comes through and you learn from the great engineers and producers, but you're still on minimum wage, so there's no point where you feel like you've made it because you're still struggling to pay the gas! 

I left because I was getting quite a lot of work as an engineer from people, including Mark Ronson. I was his London engineer for a period, which included the Amy Winehouse Back to Black album, which is how I got the Grammy win as I recorded a fair chunk of that stuff. I was also doing a little bit for Tony Visconti as well when he was in town and a bunch of other people were using me a bit.

Do you think Mark Ronson was your big break?
Definitely because it wasn't just the amount of work that was happening, but also the hits like Rehab and Back To Blackand also Valerie off his album. We also did a track with Adele called Cold Shoulder  off her first album, so some quite big things to go on the CV from that period when I was recording for him.

Did you feel that once that happened, that was the moment when the emails started arriving, the phone started ringing and you could go from having to do whatever you were given to being able to choose what you could do?
To an extent. I've never felt like there was a big step change, but I think there's certain things that made life easier. I was chatting to a mate of mine about it, and he'd engineered some stuff for the Rolling Stones and it's things like the Grammy win or Rolling Stones on his CV, which people will look at and go, ‘he's probably all right then’. People think you're a certain level and they'll take a risk into using you so that’s what makes a difference and it's a bit easier to get gigs that way.

What makes you feel creative is a big part of the job.

Let's talk gear then. You’re a big hardware fan – right now you’ve got a massive modular behind you, racks of hardware gear… What is it about hardware that attracts you?
I think there’s two things, one there is a level of speed. I know this gear well, and it does a certain thing and I get to it quickly if I'm using it, so that's why I like using it and I don't want to get rid of it. I get to the sound that I like and I think people hire me for quickly using the outboard gear that I have. Like I find a sort of sweet spot on a dbx 165 compressor, I haven't changed that in years because it does that certain thing that I like to kick drums or basses, so that's one aspect of it. 

I think the other aspect of it, which ties in a little bit with the outboard here, is it's what makes you feel creative because that’s obviously a big part of the job. It's technical and creative. Do you feel creative in front of this or do you feel creative in front of something like Omnisphere or a digital synth like that? And I definitely feel more creative if I step away from a screen with things like the synths so that's why I've got a lot of hardware like that. Being more creative standing in front of a synth means I work quicker and get to something interesting quicker than if I'm pushing a mouse around.

So it's not even one of these ridiculous forum debates about what sounds better or what works better?
I don't get into that. I think we're past that point where one would be noticeably better than the other. I couldn't sit there and listen to a mix and go ‘that's been mixed in analog and that's been mixed in digital’, so in that respect, it doesn't matter. I just feel like I work quicker to get to the sound that I want when I have these things. I obviously have plugin equivalents of the 1176s and I have the hardware ones and I find I want to stick the hardware one on. With the plugin it takes me a little longer to go, okay, that's where I wanted to be.

So, given that, plugins obviously must have a very good case for themselves?
Yes. Ideally for me, I get excited about plugins when they do something that I can't do otherwise or it is a sort of creative partner; it does something interesting that I may not have thought of. A great example of that is Drum Leveler because I don't have hardware that does that clever combination of gating and compressing and all these things all tied in. I don't want to read a manual. I want to put stuff in it and play with it and turn knobs and get weird sounds out of it.

I don't think there's anything else that does what it does when you're playing with it like that and using it like a co-producer tool. You can put a drum loop in it that's fairly pedestrian or ordinary, or a synth loop or something like that, and then start turning knobs and interesting things start happening. Flick through presets that aren't named like what you think you're going for, it’s like a writing partner that starts giving you ideas that you wouldn't have come up with yourself so, in that respect, it's a hugely creative tool, and if you can get a plugin that can offer that, then I think it's worth its weight in gold.

A lot of people would approach Drum Leveler in a much more forensic way, for example, here's a snare drum, it's too loud, and I want to turn it down, or here's some hats I want to get out of this, because that's the kind of stuff it does and it does that well. It sounds like you use it in much more of a synthesizer way, in that you're throwing stuff into it and seeing what it can do to that stuff.
Yeah. How can this make my mix more interesting and what ideas can it throw at me by not using it in the way it was originally designed unless secretly they kind of designed it to do that anyway. As another example, there's the circular sequencer here [in the studio]. The manual is 150 pages long and I haven't read one of those pages because I want it to be more complicated than I can easily get to grips with because I have a few simple sequences and I dial in what I want. But with this one, it's a writing partner. I twiddle knobs until interesting things come out, and it's that happy accident that even if it isn't that idea, it spurs another idea. When you’re sat in a room on your own and you're not in a band or something like that, there aren't those other people to fire off with ideas. Tools like this can make a huge difference to adding to your ability to create and your creative output.

So there will be times you're using it in a much more specific way and say, listen, I've got to get this kick drum up or this hat, and you also mentioned you use it for more than just drums, but what you're really saying is that it has such a serendipitous nature to it – you just throw stuff at it and see what happens.
Yeah, because it is such an interesting tool. Well, it's an interesting suite of tools, essentially, isn't it? There's a bunch of stuff going on in there that's useful for what it's designed for, leveling drums, but also that can be applied to a whole different set of parameters that would give you an unexpected outcome, which is what I want.

It's often the phase issue that people aren't aware of.

You also have Auto-Align, how are you using that?
Yeah, I'm using Auto-Align on drums. I mix a variety of stuff so sometimes I get things that have drum recordings and sometimes it's programmed drums. When it comes to drum recording, I know I was very lucky to have gone through the Metropolis system of having worked with some of the best engineers in the world and we would record with drum kits every day so the ability to put mics around and get the proper phase alignment and stuff like that I was fortunate enough to have learned. I know a lot of people are now making records who have come through systems that weren't as laden with experience and they're still recording drum kits and they're sounding okay, but they're not sounding amazing. 

It's often the phase issue that people aren't aware of so I've used Auto-Align basically to be a sort of magic wand. It does this amazing job of just fixing all those issues so immediately you've got this drum sound that is fantastic from one that was just okay. I'm a fan of using what you’re given and I don't like getting a drum kit to mix and replacing the kick and snare straight away. I'm not that kind of guy because I think then everything sounds like it's got the same kick and snare and that's not quite so interesting. I want to go with what the client has recorded and get the best result from that as much as humanly possible. AutoAlign is a tool that allows me to get the best out of the sound that they've given me and get that big drum sound that they're looking for.

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Do you just use Auto-Align when you think there's something really weird going on, or do you put it across every kit that comes in the room?
To be honest, I try not to do anything as a matter of course. I know I'm slowing myself up slightly by doing this, but again, it forces me to think which I like because it forces me to be a bit more creative. But no, I'll listen to it and then decide if it needs work or not rather than just automatically sticking it on.

Would you use Auto-Align on the whole kit or do you leave the rooms alone so they keep their phase relationships?
I tend to try it and then just listen to it and decide which sounds better. I get that in theory you shouldn't because there'll be a slight phase issue which the space creates and the sense of space is created from that, but then I'll always give it a go just in case it's better.

Are you using any of our other products?
I've used SurferEQ a few times when I've needed to track something like that, and again, that’s quite a remarkable tool that I've not seen anyone else do. When you need that thing it is incredibly useful because otherwise you're spending a day automating EQ things, which is great that you can do that these days, but I'd much rather put SurferEQ on and it just looks after it when you're tracking a vocal or a bass or something like that. In fact, I used SurferEQ on the last mix I did, I used it to sort out a bass problem it was great. It was a bit of a bulge that wasn't really working for me, was making it a bit muddy. It wasn't just in one place, it was moving about a bit so it just tracked the bulge really nicely and gave it a really solid flat bottom end.

It seems in your studio you’ve got a symbiotic relationship between the old and the new. That plugins have to do something other than just replicate something, that they have to bring some magic to the table. Would that be a good summary of what makes you choose a plugin?
Yeah, definitely. I do also use the standard EQ and compression plugins that everyone else does, but they have to be great. They can't just be pedestrian, I have to listen to it and go, wow. The ones from you all do something that makes me go, ‘that's amazing, that's just saved me half a day’ or brought something that I could never have bought, like the Drum Leveler, as a creative partner.

From left to right: Russ HughesJonas Westling, Nir and Daniel (Sound Radix), Ashea, Daisy, Jed Allen, and Dom Morley in London, July 2023

As our conversation with Dom Morley concludes, his story demonstrates an enduring love for music and a steadfast commitment to audio excellence. His career, marked by significant projects and innovative techniques, mirrors the changes and challenges of the music industry. Morley's insights offer not just a window into his personal evolution as a sound engineer, but also serve as valuable lessons for budding producers in this dynamic field. With his harmonious blend of traditional techniques and modern technology, Morley shows how an open mind to both can help shape a successful career.


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Photography Credits: Lucy Morley

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