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Colliva’s travels: In conversation with Tommaso Colliva

Jon Chapple meets Toomi Labs’ Tommaso Colliva, one of the men behind the new Muse album. Dr Dre is a fan

While Muse’s four studio albums since 2006’s break-out Black Holes and Revelations have run the gamut from bombastic, sci-fi-influenced prog to dance, dubstep, chunky alt-rock and back again, one thing remains a constant: the presence of Milanese engineer/producer Tommaso Colliva. After an early career spent at the Officine Meccaniche studio in northern Italy – his first session as an assistant was with Mutt Lange producing Shania Twain – Colliva has, since going freelance in 2006, engineered “pretty much everything Muse has done in the last 10 years”.

He recently moved from Milan to London, to a room at Palm Recordings in Hornsey. PSNEurope spoke to him in mid-August, two months after the release of Muse’s seventh studio album, Drones, which he engineered and did additional production with Rich Costey for (the album was co-produced by the band and, coincidentally, Lange) and which bagged the team №1s on both sides of the Atlantic…

How’s life at Palm?
It’s great: very well built and soundproofed, which is really important given the number of rooms – 16 or 17 altogether. It’s no surprise there are lot of very good people are in the building, including Guy Massey and Adam Noble to name just two.

I’ve got a control room and a medium-sized booth, big enough to do all kind of overdubs, and small drum kits so I can track bands elsewhere but complete the rest of the process here, having my creative arsenal of amps, keyboards and mics ready to go. It took a bit to tweak the room acoustics – I relied mainly on extremely well-made panels by Oudimmo Acoustics – but now I’m very comfortable mixing here, too.

What prompted the move from Italy?
After too many years coming to London every other month I decided to permanently move here about a year-and-a-half ago. Last year I was very, very busy working on Muse’s latest album [Drones] and at the same time looking for the right place to set up all my gear. After extensive research, I found this room, which I’m very happy with.

How did you first get involved with Muse?
They came to the studio in Milan to do strings and few overdubs. I was already chief engineer at that point, but I was the only one who could speak English and I definitely didn’t mind working for a few days with Muse and [Black Holes and Revelations producer] Rich Costey. They were pretty late on the album and ended up staying two months, using two rooms at the same time, with Rich recording bits in one and myself recording other bits next door.

During that period I started chatting with Matt [Bellamy] about a small writing studio he needed help with setting up at his place near Lake Como. That writing-room idea became a full-sized studio with four live rooms, an SSL 4048 G+ console and tons of gear. Designing and supervising the building of the whole facility building was a huge project – and I was only just 25 at the time – but I’m very proud we ended up doing the whole of the Resistance album there, with Adrian Bushby and myself engineering and Spike Stent mixing. Spike said it was one of the best places he has ever worked at!

From that point onwards I’ve been involved in everything they’ve done in a recording environment. I engineered and did additional production on the last two albums, mixed a few songs, worked on soundtracks, recorded the big live show [on 6 July 2013] at the Rome Olympic stadium…

How are they to work with?
Working with the guys is really good. Matt is annoyingly gifted – he knows what he wants and won’t settle in for anything less. The whole thing can be pretty demanding […] but they are all so extremely talented that it is definitely worth it. Working with them also gives me the chance to experiment with sounds and instruments to come up with new and different things and ideas that I know may suit their vision. I love that side of the process: kind of venturing into the wild world of sounds.

What kind of kit do you use? Judging from your website, you’re a bit of a gearhead…
[Laughs] While I can’t deny I went through a gear-addict phase, I like to think it’s over now. I just wanted to know how things sounded and what the differences were: why this microphone sounded different to that microphone, why these pick-ups behaved so differently to those other pick-ups and so on.

I was very lucky to start my career in a big studio featuring a lot of the ‘classics’, both instruments and recording equipment. I’ve learned a lot, but I’ve also discovered it’s a never-ending process that is not about the gear – or not only about it, at least. It’s so easy – too easy – to think it’s just about the gear, but it’s about how you use it, when you use it and why you use it, and sometimes it really doesn’t matter: you better be quick and record with whatever is available instead of wondering what mic you should use… it’s never worth missing a take!

Having said that, I’ve selected a few things I really love and I couldn’t do without. First of all, ATC speakers: they’ve got so much detail to them and really force you to work hard to achieve what you want, because you can hear it. As for sound gear, I like to have options around on all sides of the spectrum: clean, transparent gear such as GML pres and EQs, classics such as Neve pres (I’ve got a 1073, 33115 and 31105), warm tube pieces such as the Thermionic Culture Phoenix, Retro EQs and Universal Audio LA-610 and weird bits like a Binson Echorec [as heard on Pink Floyd’s Echoes, Shine On You Crazy Diamond and all over The Piper at the Gates of Dawn – space rock ed], spring reverbs and pedals.

I also love utility tools that make experimenting very easy and flexible – that applies to instrument-orientated units like the Little Labs PCP [instrument distro] but also to line-level units such as my beloved Manley Backbone console, which allows me to try out different master-bus chains on the fly while mixing without losing time and concentration patching things around.

Do you ever mix in the box?
I grew up with big consoles but I mostly mix hybrid now: in the box with external summing and analogue gear when and where needed. I have a wonderful SSL Sigma with analogue automation post inserts so I can hit compressors as hard as I want, do parallel compression in the analogue domain or tame noisy gear on tails and outros.

Tell us about your band, Calibro 35. For English-speaking audiences who might not be familiar with the Poliziottesco movies by which it’s inspired, can you explain the concept?
Calibro 35 is my baby. I started it as a one-off studio project with guitar player Massimo Martellotta, inviting some friends to record obscure Italian soundtracks that pretty much nobody has played again since the 1970s. None of the musicians involved had met each other before the first session, but I had been working with all of them on other projects and I thought they could be a good match.

It’s mostly instrumental; we gradually shifted from those soundtracks to our own music, with the guys travelling the globe quite a lot and picking up quite a following in Italy. It’s pretty unusual to see an instrumental act playing in front of 1,000 people in major cities!

We have had our records released worldwide, and songs used in major movies such as Bruce Willis’s Red. We’ve also attracted quite a lot of attention from hip-hop producers, with both Jay-Z and Dr Dre sampling us [for his song Picasso Baby and One Shot One Kill from Compton soundtrack album, respectively]. Eight years after the first session in Milan, I’ve just finished mixing our fifth album, which we recorded on analogue eight-track tape at Toe Rag in Homerton, London.