In the Mix: Q&A with GRAMMY®-winning engineer, Darrell Thorp

By in Music Creation, Pro Mixing

Darrell Thorp is a seven-time GRAMMY® Award winning producer, engineer, and mixer with over 20 years in the industry and multiple platinum® records to his credits. After a four-year stretch in the Navy and completing an audio engineering degree at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences, Thorp moved to Los Angeles and began interning at Track Record. Within six months, he was promoted to the assistant engineering role before Conway recruited him away. Ultimately, he landed at Ocean Way where he met esteemed Radiohead producer, Nigel Godrich. Soon, Thorp became Godrich’s engineer and went on to record Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief,” Beck’s “Sea Change,” Paul McCartney’s “Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard” and many others.

Darrell sat down with Avid to chat about his path to the console, his storied career, his favorite Pro Tools features and mixing in Dolby Atmos®.

What started you off on the path to the recording industry?

Back in high school I was really involved with my church and eventually was hired part-time to work the sound for all the youth group and Sunday services. For a while, I was also recording and editing the daily radio show the church produced.  Working at my church helped build my interest in recording. I thought about doing live sound for a while, but the studio seemed to be where I wanted to put all my effort and have a career.

Did you grow up in a musical family? What instruments do you play?

My family was musical. Mom and Dad sang a lot. My Dad bought an acoustic guitar when I was 10 and we both started to play, sharing the same guitar. I still play guitar, but I stink. I really don’t have much time to play these days. And to be honest, I was really never that good.

What spurred your interest in engineering?

I was always intrigued by the SOUND of a record.  I used to think to myself, “How the heck did they do this?!”  Huey Lewis and the News “Spots”, Queen “Another One Bites the Dust”, Stone Temple Pilots “Core”. The studio magic of putting performances together and hearing what was created—mysterious! I had no idea how these recordings were being created. I really wanted to learn.

I know you served in the Navy. How did that experience inform your approach to music… to recording?

The US Navy taught me how to deal with the long hours and no sleep. When I started in 1997, sessions could start at 10am and go until 3 am. Then, a session could run 9, 12, 15 days straight with no days off. Then, I could be booked on another session the next morning starting at 9am. It was a grind.

You attended the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences, moved to LA and worked your way into some of the most prestigious studios around. I read that you considered Ocean Way your home. Like much of the industry, it’s undergone several transformations. With budgets and recording itself changing so much, how has this impacted the way and where you work?

The budget is always the first topic to come up with recording a project or a record. Sometimes, the artist only has X to make a record and we can’t afford to spend a month at United. But, we might be able to go in for a few days and cut drums in one of its amazing rooms.  From there, we would do overdubs, guitars, keys, vocals at a smaller studio for a couple of weeks. I’m fortunate.  Many of my clients really enjoy being at large commercial facilities. It makes recording really easy. The rooms and mic selections are some of the best in the world. I realize how lucky I am and I realize how a lot of artists don’t have the same luxury.

Tell me about your home studio. What’s the set-up like? Do you use a console or are you doing everything in the box?

My studio is called 101 Recording. I do most of my mixing at 101 and I don’t have a console. I am working all in the box with an arsenal of plugins. UAD, Avid, Softube, FabFilter, Massey, Plugin Alliance, and Sound Radix are some of my favorites that I always go to for various carving, EQ, compression and effects.

What’s your take on mastering given the abundance of plugins?

Mastering is a key process to me. I rely on the Mastering Engineer to help clean things up. I also find that most Mastering Engineers have really good playback chains and EQ chains. Even if a Mastering Engineer is adding half DB at 15KHZ on my mixes, somehow that little half DB goes a long way to my ears. The track will feel done and complete to me sonically. Plus, I really need the help with volume matching from song to song in the sequence of an album.

 

What was your first foray into mixing in Dolby Atmos®? How did it come about and how does it compare to mixing in stereo?

I was asked to mix “The Sky is a Neighborhood,” by the Foo Fighters in Atmos. The first words that came out of my mouth were, “HECK YES!”  Sounded fun.  And it was fun! A lot of fun! I was invited to the Dolby Atmos Stage in Burbank, where I took my sessions and my boot drive with all my plugins and settings. Since the album was mixed in the box it was really easy to remix in Atmos. The spatial panning in Atmos is crazy. No more left and right boys and girls! Forward, up, down, center, over your head, over your head center! Back, Back right. Crazy.

 

Do you see yourself taking on more spatial audio projects?

I am always open to working in surround 5.1 mixing or now ATMOS. I hope projects in the future have me mix in ATMOS more often.

You’ve worked with Radiohead, Joni Mitchell, Lake Street Dive, Paul McCartney, Beck, Lili Haydn, Dwight Yoakam, The Goo Goo Dolls, Jay Z… it’s an eclectic list of credits. Is there a common thread across these projects? Is your approach to working with, for example, Lake Street Drive, different to working with more established acts?

Thank you! My approach is always the same, but it’s kind of a trick question. Most of Lake Street Dive, for example, was done live, in the same room, no headphones, with a few baffles—Such a fun project to cut that way. Beck, however, is usually a five or six piece band, but everything is isolated.

 

What are you working on right now?

Hmm… I don’t know if I can say! Honestly. Cool, cool things. Some things I’m tracking and mixing, some just mixing, but one or two where I am tracking and mixing the project. But I don’t want to ruin the artist’s plan to debut new albums.

What are you top five features you always use in Pro Tools?

Playlists

I can’t explain how big a part playlists play in my workflow. It’s essential. I try to be extremely efficient in my workflow while recording. Playlist ‘.01’ is always take 1. Playlist ‘.02’ is always take 2 and so on and so on. With this work flow, I can make a note that the second verse was the one. And being able to comp between performances once recording has finished is the other must-have, can’t live without, feature. Last, but not least, if I ever edit a track while recording or mixing, I duplicate the playlist, rename it, and perform the edit. This way I can always go back to what was there before with a mouse click.

A…Z Commands

One-touch quick commands are my staple for workflow. I can clean up, edit, cross fade, nudge, separate, zoom, zoom tracks with quick commands so easily and quickly. I don’t have to look at the keyboard to fade, or crossfade.

Muting regions 

I love this feature. The ability to mute a recorded section and not delete is key with production. I always work in a way where nothing is ever deleted. I try to manage my files by keeping every blurb and bleep and still lay everything out in a way where I can find anything in a few seconds. Being able to mute a part that was recorded but is not now needed in the current arrangement is a most useful tool. I can keep the part that was recorded on the track and in the timeline, but not hear the part.

Sends for headphone mixes 

The one thing that Pro Tools excels at more than any other DAW is very low latency while recording.  Even with plugins. With low latency, I can make sends or have multi-channel mixes or stems for different playback or monitor sources. When I’m tracking, either in a full band situation or just a single overdub, I like to make mixes of instruments for headphones. Most studios have a multi-channel headphone box for the artist to make a final mix of how they like to hear the song. This way, I can give them drums, bass, guitars, keys, vocals, vocal effects, and the current part they are recording and still maintain my mix in the control room. I love to mix as I go, so to speak.

Trim Automation

This is a big one for me. When I mix, I do automation rides on an Artist Mix, usually by track, or part by part. But what I have found is that with lead vocals, and sometimes other instruments, I need to go back and listen through line by line. Sometimes, the ride that I did in the second verse was not loud enough. The vocal gets lost by the musical effects announcing the second verse. With trim automation, I simply grab the line and turn up the automation in trim mode. Plus, 2 DB? Sounds good! After the trim, if I’m happy with the result, I usually consolidate trim automation. This feature applies all the trim automation that I did to the main automation volume graph. A very useful feature especially when going through mix notes for a client.

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I help bring recording artists’, audio engineers’, and video editors’ stories to life. Prior to launching my career in marketing, I was a recording artist and songwriter based in Los Angeles.