Hey PSNEurope friends! This month I thought I’d give you all a break from my rants so I’m going to chat to my good friend Elliot Vaughan instead.
A bit of background; Elliot is a fantastic producer, mix engineer and drummer who I’ve had the pleasure of working with on a regular basis. We also share a love of fuzzy friends (follow his Insta – @elliotmvaughan – if you love doggos), and over the years have developed a super cool working relationship where I know he’ll tell me if I can do better in mastering, and I’m always happy to feedback on his mixes.
We’ve worked on a wide variety of projects together (our first was a two piece punk band called Gag Reflex, and the most recent being the absolutely gorgeous folky sounds of Lucy May Walker). But one thing that we’ve worked on together has really stood out to me, and that’s the upcoming album from South African/London duo, Stone Jets. Obviously, the music, writing, performances are all incredible, but there’s something in the production that just sounds so effortless. And this is why I thought I’d chat to Elliot to find out just how that magic happened…
Hey Elliot! Can you tell me about your involvement with this project and how it got started?
Given (bass/vocals) and Manfred (guitars) from Stone Jets were setting up to leave their native South Africa and move to the UK. They felt they’d reached as far as they could at home and wanted to change things up. They were looking round for producers in this country and I popped up, so they got in touch with me and we discussed the project. After checking them out I was really excited to be involved so I did all I could to make it happen. I told them they needed to up their game and make the new stuff work for the UK scene and that’s exactly what they wanted. It was all about getting their live energy across without compromising production values. They agreed. I heard rough demos for all the new songs and I was 100 per cent in.
The recording was all done in South Africa – did you have any input?
Yes. We did pretty extensive pre-production before getting into the studio. Even though it was all done remotely I was pretty hands-on. The guys are really good at recording so they were able to deliver great demos. I would listen to them, make notes and then we would chat on Skype and they’d go back and make changes. Some songs changed dramatically and some ended up almost exactly how the first demos were. It is so nice to be able to spend that time beforehand. It’s a luxury that doesn’t happen too often now. Once it got to the tracking stage, the guys had a couple of weeks in a really gorgeous studio in Cape Town (Digital Forest Studios). Sadly, I couldn’t attend. During pre-prod we had discussed my mic preferences, the sonic options I would want for mixing, and how best to use the gear available. I was confident as we had planned so well and Manfred has a background in engineering. With the help of the in-house guys I knew the tracks would be recorded super well. I ended up recording a few bits at my studio over here (trumpet, pads, extra percussion, etc.) but 99 per cent was recorded in South Africa and produced remotely.
At the start of each tracking day, I’d give some advice and encouragement and then let them get on with it. When it came to vocals, Given and I would talk about the lyrics and how best to deliver them. The emotion, the way they made me feel as a listener and the things that he wanted to say. He is really passionate about his lyrics and it was one of the things that made me fall in love with the songs, so we really wanted to get it right. Then the guys would upload ‘board mixes’ to me at the end of each day and I would give feedback. When I was mastering this record it was basically a dream because the mixes made it so easy.
Did you work closely with Stone Jets to get everything to where it should be?
100 per cent. The band were definitely co-producers. Because we were basically on opposite sides of the world for most of the production we had to trust each other. I think that meant that everyone felt involved and heard. The guys in the band are super organised and know exactly what they want. They work hard and really efficiently so it was pretty easy on my end, to be honest. This job is always a team effort and this project is a great example of that. It can be super easy to over process recordings when plugins and gear are so readily available.
Did you find yourself having to approach mixing this record differently than others?
This over-processing/over-thinking actually happened on the first pass of mixes. I went a bit too ‘radio’ and none of us were really feeling it. Everyone felt it had gone a little too far from the original brief. I think my basic modus operandi is big, polished, shiny, radio rock, so I had to step outside my comfort zone and think about it differently. The guys ended up coming over and spending a few days with me so we could all get involved with the mixes. It really helped. We were able to rein each other in and they could convey exactly what they were thinking and feeling. It was also really great to finally be in the same room together.
Can you talk about any particular mixing and production techniques you used to get this record sounding the way it does?
The main point was to get everything sounding right on the way in. We were pretty obsessive about instrument and mic choice, preamps, placement, etc. There was a lot of time spent auditioning things during tracking. If you could hear the original drum tracks you’d be amazed at just how incredible they sound (and how little they changed in the final mixes). The rooms, gear and engineers at Digital Forest are brilliant. This meant that mixing was all about balances (automation, too) and keeping things simple.
It was all mixed in the box because the analogue loveliness had been captured on the way in. The one big thing we did was put everything through Waves’ Kramer Tape plugin for a touch more warmth. I don’t even think we changed any settings at all. It added some glue that really helped focus the mixes. Also, Manfred is a huge fan of the Waves GTR Stomp box plugin. I’d never really used it so I was dubious but I can say that probably 75 per cent of the effects on the record are from that plugin suite. The delays have a certain something that just worked. It was an eye-opener.
Also, most of the reverbs are real. We had a mic in the bathroom and kitchen of the studio for all vocals and drum recordings, as well as the normal room mics so I had amazing, real reverb on its own fader for every song. I used it generously. It’s honestly all pretty simple otherwise. Clean EQs (McDSP/Fabfilter) and clean compression (more McDSP). I don’t think there’s more than two or three plugins on any channel on the entire record.
Do you have a favourite track on this album?
There are actually two that stand out for me. I love ‘The Lonely’ because I’m a sucker for sad songs and the lyrics really speak to me. Then ‘I Gotta Learn’ stands out as a real favourite. It’s the hit for me. It has an incredible chorus and this really great lead guitar hook that will have anyone singing it for weeks after one listen.