Now in its eighth year, the Music Producers Guild (MPG) Awards are one of the biggest nights of the year in the music production calendar. Reflecting on, and rewarding the outstanding wealth of talent in the music industry, the shortlist for these prestigious accolades includes producers, engineers and mixers.
In this MPG Awards 2016 ‘super-series’, we get under the skin of some of the acclaimed producers who’ve secured a coveted place on the shortlist. They’ll discuss how they rely on the industry’s audio workstation of choice, Avid Pro Tools, to create globally recognised albums.
Award-winning producer, Charlie Andrew, is first up. His work with British sensation Alt-J has won the coveted Barclaycard Mercury Prize, become certified platinum in the UK, gold in Australia and a number of other countries, been nominated for multiple BRITS and Grammy Awards, as well as achieving a UK number 1. Charlie also produced Resolution by Matt Corby that’s reached three times platinum in Australia and has won an ARIA award for best song.
Charlie is no stranger to the MPG Awards. After being presented with the ‘Breakthrough Producer of the Year’ by his peers in 2013, following his success with Alt-J, he’s since collaborated with a variety of artists, including Darwin Deez, Nick Mulvey and Rae Morris.
Here, Charlie tells us how he become the producer behind Alt-J, and why Pro Tools is the only DAW system for him.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Pro Tools?
Comfort – I know where I am with Pro Tools, and it feels very easy to use for me.
How have you and Avid/Pro Tools grown together over the years?
I’ve been using Pro Tools for 15 years, right the way through my career. When I was 18, I started working at Abbey Road Studios for a work placement. They had Pro Tools rigs and I got to know my way around them. Back at home, I invested in my own Pro Tools LE rig with a 002 rack, and did lots of recordings in my room. Some of the earliest Alt-J recordings were done on my trusty Pro Tools LE rig, but as the years have gone by, I’ve developed as a producer and now I’m on Pro Tools HDX with two Avid I/Os and various other bits.
What version are you currently using?
Pro Tools HDX with Avid I/O
How do you use Pro Tools? Song writing/composition? Mixing? What is your process and workflow like?
So many different ways. I find the best thing about Avid Pro Tools is that it’s so versatile, and I can adapt my workflow to whatever kind of project I’m working on. I’m a big fan of exploring and creating new sounds and I do a lot of co-writing, developing and creating parts, so Pro Tools is great for messing about with sounds. Other times, it’s important just to track a live band and I can do all that simply using Pro Tools as it’s an amazing tool for mixing down. Also, when I’m writing, it allows me to manipulate the audio that we’re recording.
What are your favourite features in Pro Tools?
One has to be the simplicity of the layout – the two windows just make it so straightforward. Others I’d have to say would be the addition of ‘clip-gain’ a few years ago was handy for mixing purposes and made life a lot easier. The new metering feature allows you to get a sense of what sort of dynamic processing you may or may not need. Ultimately, I use my ears for making these decisions, but it’s good to get an idea of the metering.
How has the ubiquity of Pro Tools manifested for you in terms of collaboration and working in various places and situations?
As Pro Tools is found in a large majority of modern studios, it’s so simple to take a hard drive out with you, login with an iLok for a choice of plugins and you’re away. I can also take Pro Tools out on location for example, recording a session at a country house – we just plug it in, set up a few mic amps and I’m off. The ‘inside the box’ versatility from a practical point of view really is brilliant.
Do you use Pro Tools with other software or hardware? How does that openness and synergy enhance your process?
Well, the only additional hardware I use are mic amps etc. I run a small project studio, with a headphone amp connected to all the outputs, so I can easily create different headphones mixes for different musicians from inside the box. My set up allows me to record up to 6 different musicians playing live together at any one time.
Do you use a lot of virtual instruments? How has Pro Tools recent support for more and larger VIs impacted your work?
The biggest difference for me is the thinking power with new 64 bit processing that’s been noticeable. It means I can have a number of elements of a project running at once. Before, it was sometimes frustrating to pause, bounce down, but thanks to the continuous improvements from Avid, those days are long gone!
How have you used Pro Tools on a recent project and what did you like/dislike?
Well firstly, there isn’t anything I dislike – so that’s a bonus! On a recent project, I just finished an album with a workflow that was both experimenting and tracking. Pro Tools allowed me to manipulate portions of the sound a lot, so essentially I could break down the arrangement into definite sections – drums, guitar and vocals.
As I said before, Pro Tools allows me to get creative. If I’m going back to make a tweak when mixing in the box, which happens a lot as you near end of project, I can just load the session up and don’t have to spend hours recalling parts. Offline bounce is also a really cool feature to have, but most of the time I prefer to listen to mixes as they go down.
Tell us about you, your musical tastes and influences, and why you chose a career in music production?
When I was at school, I enjoyed electronics and sciences, like physics. I also played drums and saxophone and thought wouldn’t it be amazing to marry the two together – which is what my job now does so well!
I was lucky enough to get a runner job at Abbey Road when I left school. I also took a Tonmeister course, where I learnt more about music and sound recording, developing my ability as a musician and knowledge in the sector of audio engineering. I’ve always had a passion for music – starting back in the day when I would sit in my room and create music at home on my Pro Tools LE rig.
As time went on, I was teaching drums to pay the bills, and also shared the lease of a warehouse in London that I ran as a rehearsal studio to cover the rent. When I was there, I stumbled across a demo of what was to become Alt-J. I started recording with my Pro Tools LE rig and some of those first recordings even remained on the first album, An Awesome Wave. From there I’ve moved to more professional building and have been there since 2011. Throughout my career, my Pro Tools rig has developed with me, from LE to HD, and now to HDX. And as the saying goes, the rest is history.
What are some of your favourite and most pinnacle moments of your career so far?
I’m always so passionate about every project I do, so never like to earmark a particular experience. Obviously, achieving a number one record was very exciting. Alt-J’s first album being received the way it did was astounding, as we weren’t expecting such a huge response.
When you finish a piece of work, you’re never quite sure how it’s going to translate. As a labour of love, you enjoy it, but will people get it? Luckily with An Awesome Wave they did, and it was very cool!
I always thought if just one of my recordings gets played on the radio, I’d be happy and feel a sense of achievement. Other artists I’ve worked with have made some albums I’m really proud of also, and seeing the results at the end of all the hours you’ve put in is really gratifying.
How do you differentiate yourself in order to stay competitive and ahead of the game?
I don’t try to pre-empt what I think might put me ahead of the game. I think that it could be a dangerous thing to try to predict what people want and try too hard to second guess yourself. If you’re true to yourself, and you’re creating music that you enjoy and are excited about, then it should translate to a listener. Also, there’s sometimes too many copycat sounds out there – it excites me more if we stumble across a sound that sounds fresh and really exciting. You can’t force that, and you just have to keep playing to discover those exciting sounds.
How has the evolution of technology changed the way that you work?
Yes, the Pro Tools software gets more advance, with more slick options and hot tricks that allow you to do so much more. The power has also vastly increased over time, meaning as an industry, we’re much more ambitious in recording sessions. We can manipulate sounds even more, which can lead you down different creative paths. Again, the versatility of Pro Tools means there are no real constraints any more.
What advice would you give people who want to get started doing what you do?
Don’t give up – I remember when I was working at the warehouse, I said to a friend, “If I’m doing this in a years’ time, remind me I need to pay the bills at some point”. Thankfully in that time, I had a stroke of luck and found some artists that I really clicked with. We worked together and made something we understood. Up to that point, it was a struggle, but I enjoyed what I was doing and if you genuinely enjoy it and are passionate, then you’ll make it.
How does it feel to be nominated for an MPG Award?
It’s an amazing feeling as it’s voted for by your peers. When I was at school dreaming of being a producer, I aspired to be like some of the names on the judging panel. For them to now be reviewing my work is truly wonderful.
Alt-J have a very distinctive sound and the sounds that come out from the stage is so unique. How do you create these unique sounds with Pro Tools in a studio and is there a challenge to replicate that in a live setting?
Alt-J write songs differently from other musicians, and I find it exciting to work like that. These interesting sounds come about from lots of experimentation and seeing what sticks. A lot of it is going with what feels right. Sonically, this trialling and testing whets my creative palette, and works very well for me.
Creatively, we all get stuck in. Some of the songs have a very dense sound but there’s a space to feel the hooks and noises that come in and out. What excites me and the band is when listeners get to discover subtle things further down the line.
In a live setting, it’s purely down to rehearsals. When preparing for a show the new sounds are sampled and can be replayed as if going through the same chain of effects as in the studio. In the studio there’s no worrying about being restrained by the live set up, what’s created in the studio will then be translated to the live show afterwards.
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