It’s 2019, and the last blog was aaaages ago.
With the exception of my Instagram and to a less degree my Facebook page, I have been far less active online that I used to be – largely a result of being ever busier. It’s a shame from a self-promotion point of view, as much of the guitar and recording work I’ve been doing has been very exciting and probably really interesting blog material. But the nature of being busy means less time available for it.
So there are about three years to summarise, and I don’t know where to start. The first thing the comes to mind though, is the album I made in 2018 with Liv Austen. After doing some writing with Liv in 2017 she invited me to hang out at the studio where she was in the early stages of recording her album, having signed to NUA the previous year. Liv and her multi-instrumentalist producer LOFT took advantage of me being there and I recorded some guide guitars, which turned out to be good, and they asked me back the next day in a more official guitar session role. I offered a few ideas about production and arrangement which they liked and I ended up as co-producer on those tracks.
Fast forward a few weeks and I was doing preproduction with Liv at my studio in SE London – working out arrangements, making sure keys and tempos were right, thinking about mood and sonic goals, and of course getting lots of guitar work done. Liv and I were pretty much on the same page musically and I had developed a huge amount of respect for her ability to know what she wanted her music to sound like, even if she wasn’t sure how to achieve it. It became my job to figure it out. Once we’d got a song ready we’d take it back to the studio for drums and vocal tracking. I loved working with LOFT and despite – or perhaps as a result of – coming from different places musically it was a really good combination for those songs. Here’s a little video of the first single that came off the album, recorded in this way:
Move on a few months and the ‘pre-production’ I was doing had become full on production. We were taking Liv’s voice note demos and developing them to near-commercial release level recordings. Drum sessions for new tracks required different drummers in different studios, and I had upgraded my vocal recording chain with a mic suited to Liv’s voice to enable us to record lead vocals at my place. About 20 songs were recorded like this, and they’re not simple acoustic guitar songs – they’re largely big productions, very layered and lots of details and nuance. Acoustic guitars, lots of electric guitars, bass tons of vocal harmonies and vocal production, electronic drum programming, live drums, live string arrangements, programmed keyboards, sample manipulation, the works. With the exception of the live drum recordings virtually all of the above was done by Liv and I at my studio. It was a huge learning curve for us both.
The issue of mixing began to rear its head in early 2018. I didn’t want to mix it as I felt someone more experienced should do it. To be honest, I knew how important the album would be and wasn’t sure I was confident in taking that responsibility – my strengths were in production and guitar recording. We tried a few different options but the modern country pop sound that Liv and I wanted is not something everyone understands. I tweaked a few of the working mixes as best I could – and nobody complained about them. Meanwhile Ash Howes – who has mixed a million pop records (One Direction, Dido, Ellie Goulding and so on) had mixed a couple of the singles specifically for radio. Analysing what he had done to my mixes was pretty educational. The changes were small but they made a big difference – the vocal processing was better and he always made the chorus ‘pop’. There was more energy in the high end – it was brighter and more sparkly – and he took more chances. Ash’s mixes refined the production, making more of the most important things. It just sounded a bit more confident than my mixes.
As an exercise I spent some time trying to recreate those two mixes in my sessions, and that was helpful. Even though I did realise that it was not necessarily the right sound for the whole album as those mixes can be a bit fatiguing and again those mixes were specifically for radio, it made me realise what was possible, and also some confidence that I wasn’t as far away with my mixes I’d thought. With the music now mostly recorded, it was agreed that I would mix the rest of the album. It was one of the most challenging, enriching things I’ve done and 2018 was a time of huge growth and development of my skills as a mixer. I learned to trust myself and my ears a lot more and while I’m still learning (hopefully we all are, whatever we do for a living) I’m very happy with how it sounds.
As with the mixing, the mastering was something that I DEFINITELY did not want to do. With the album delivery deadline approaching and being unhappy with the masters we’d received from the mastering engineer that the label recommended, I was deeply apprehensive about the idea of doing that. It’s widely stated that it isn’t a good idea to master in the same room as the music was mixed (let alone recorded) but we had no better option. I had bought some high end mastering plugins and some brilliant headphones that were very different to both my speakers and my other headphones – and I added the Neumann sub to my monitoring set up which changed their performance substantially, opening up the midrange of the speakers and obviously adding the lower octaves. I spent a lot amount of time going back and forth between reference recordings and Liv’s songs, switching between the monitoring that I know (my old headphones and sub-less monitors, to the different headphones and sub-on. It’s probably not ideal and not something people would recommend. I wouldn’t! Because I was learning the new gear at the time it took me a long time. But the results were better than what we had before – to me, to Liv, and to a very experienced mix engineer friend who took a blind test.
Would it sound different if I did it all again now? Yes. Would it be better? Hmm. I don’t think any recording process is perfect, and I think that once it gets to the public all those little things that annoy the creators or they would do differently now actually become part the listener’s experience of the album. It’s the album we started in early 2017 and finished mid-2018, and the songs that Liv was writing or had written up to that point. The guitar sounds and production decisions that I was making at that point. A recording that contains examples of both my limitations as an producer and mixer engineer, and my growth and imagination as one.
The album was named album of the month at Chris Country Radio, playlisted on Spotify and Amazon (‘Best of Country 2018’) and many other radio stations, got 5/5 stars at Maverick Music magazine (the UK’s #1 country music magazine) and has been generally received really well. Working with Liv has been one of the highlights of my career to date and I’m glad she had faith in my abilities!
As that record was completed I was also producing (arranging, playing, recording and mixing in it entirety) an album for a Alexis Gerred, star of the West End and TV shows. After that I did the same for an EP for singer-songwriter Nielsen Reavely. But they are another blog.
What else has changed? I was chosen out of 150 applicants to take over the guitarist role in the UK biggest Bond tribute act, Q The Music. 12-20-piece band with brass and all the works, some outrageously good musicians and vocalists, incredible music, big theatre shows around Europe compered by Bond girls Maddie Smith and Caroline Munro. In 2019 we go to Piz Gloria in Switzerland, the revolving restaurant on top of a mountain seen in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – should be fun.
I’ve done a lot of shows with Liv Austen, taking the role of guitarist/MD for her live band, and accompanying her on acoustic dates. Trips to Tuscany, Majorca, a load of festivals and live radio shows. We replaced Liv’s live band during 2018 and added some track to the live set up, so lots of change to oversee there.
While this has been going on I’ve somehow made it to the final year of part time training as a counselling psychotherapist. As part of this we are required to be in therapy for the duration which I’ve found profoundly life-enhancing and has helped with anxiety and low mood immensely. I now see clients once a week, have clinical supervision and student membership of the BACP. I hope that counselling can fit around my music career once I qualify as I find it immensely rewarding and enriching. It’s definitely enhanced my work as a producer; it’s made me a better listener for sure but also really cemented the idea that the artist is my priority and that my job is to help them achieve (and in some cases help them find) what it is they’re going for – it’s not about serving my ego or needs as a producer or guitarist, but helping people figure out what it is they really want to do helping them achieve that.
Greatly reduced, this year, have been the wedding and function gigs. I’ve had some fantastic gigs with Madhen again, filling in for Martyn Hope when he’s otherwise engaged, and they’re still the best party band in the business. A residency with the wonderful singer Megan McConnell at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in London was curtailed by a major fire, but only after we’d done about 5000 nights there! I’ve depped for a number of other bands and enjoyed that, but while I sometimes feel as though maybe it’s time to look for a more regular band slot, I’m enjoying the freedom and variety that I currently have. I’ve no idea what 2019 will bring – perhaps a tour with Liv, perhaps even a creative project of my own. It feels as though things are changing, and as though what I would LIKE to do can be what I focus on, rather than just scrambling to deal with what comes my way.
Thanks for reading if you’ve got this far! As always, if you’re interested in discussing having me provide session guitar tracks for your music, any other arrangement or programming, or indeed working with me as a producer and/or mixer, I’ll be happy to hear from you.
Ps you can see me in this music video, taken from Liv’s album. Very happy with the sound of it: