Amongst his many credits, Barclaycard Mercury Prize winning record producer Charlie Andrew is perhaps best known for his work with alternative rock band, alt-J. We chatted with him about his (and their) astronomic rise to success, capturing place and magic when recording and of course, the gear and tech he uses in his studio.
Ask: How did you start your musical journey?
I was brought up learning several instruments at school. I learned the drums and still play them. I learned the saxophone, of all instruments, and I quite quickly realized I didn’t want to perform for a living but I loved music and I loved science. My school had a small music studio which had Cubase, an Akai S3000 and a few other microphones. I used to sit in there and play around.
When I left school, I was very fortunate that I wrote the right letters to the right people on the right day and got a runner job at Abbey Road Studios for a year. Then I went to do the Tonmeister course at Surrey University and after that I lived at home and taught drums for several years. I did things like recording school concerts with my Pro Tools LE rig and to make a bit of money I’d sell the CDs to parents. I used to run a thing called Rock School, where I was brought in to record the CDs and tutor the drums. Eventually, I had enough money to rent in London and I was invited to a warehouse space in Shoreditch where I could make some noise and record bands. I had to pay the rent, but I wouldn’t necessarily charge the bands. That helped me develop my skills and then I was fortunate I met someone who went to school with Gus, the keyboard player from alt-J before they were called alt-J! He sent me a demo and I really liked it and invited them down to my warehouse.
At the warehouse I did a few alt-J recordings which stayed on the first album and then eventually it became apparent I needed more professional digs, somewhere that didn’t have a hole in the roof! So I found my current place in Brixton and after five years I managed to earn enough money from production that I was able to jack in the drum teaching.
"Being freelance does mean there's no real limit to what you can do even though I questioned my decision at the start as I was broke!"
Charlie Andrew enjoying the view and blue skies.
Ask: Did you consider staying on at Abbey Road Studios?
No. I’m not belittling it, but while there I realized I wanted to get more creative and develop my skills in a way that suited me. Being freelance does mean there's no real limit to what you can do even though I questioned my decision at the start as I was broke!
Ask: Did your Abbey Road experience teach you skills to help you move forward?
Definitely. It’s given me so much. There were so many amazing people there, and I learned lots about studio etiquette and the processes that happen in professional studios. There were a lot of film scores and high pressure stuff happening.
Ask: I heard you were involved in working on Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings while there?
Yeah. I was tape-oping on some of The Two Towers. They did the lion’s share of it at Watford Town Hall as it has exceptional acoustics, and I think they actually have a permanent control room there now. But the Lord of the Rings films were all mixed and edited at Abbey Road. I picked up so much knowledge from that and absorbed it all.
We also did Gangs of New York. That was good and we had more input on the engineering side. I didn’t engineer it, but I wasn’t just running tape machines and it was nice to get stuck in a bit more.
Ask: It’s interesting how producing alt-J was perhaps your big break and they weren’t an established band at the time. So I’m guessing you embarked on a similar stage of your respective musical journey’s together?
Yeah. Yeah. They started writing songs up in Leeds and I liked their initial demos and invited them to the warehouse. There was no label or anything at this point. We’d work on recordings together and we shaped the recording that way. Once we had 3 or 4 recordings they were put online and they picked up some buzz from labels and managers. I really enjoyed it and didn’t charge them upfront. I just really believed in it. I always hoped it’d take off and be big because I loved it. At the same time I thought maybe they'd be more of an underground band that would have their niche, but not necessarily be on the BBC Radio 1 daytime playlist.
Most producers get their breaks with bigger artists and they ride the waves they’re already on. Whereas alt-J and I have risen through the ranks together. I get a big kick out of being able to take on an act before they’ve been discovered and help them get to where they’re going to.
Ask: Something I love about the songs from the new album and An Awesome Wave is the intricacy of the parts and the sonic layering yet there is a lot of space. Everything seems to speak to me at different points of the song. I feel it’s really well mixed. Could you talk us through your approach and your production techniques from the latest album?
On the latest album it was a case of they guys would write a bit, then we’d record, then they’d write some more and we’d record, etc. They only finished touring the previous record last Christmas and they had a month off before starting to write again! There was a bit of material around as we’d worked on a film score together and some material from that remained available for us to use, and Joe came up with song lyrics and ideas on the road. Most of it had to come together post-touring.
"With this record, Thom the drummer did more programming in Ableton Live to help develop the drum patterns and ideas."
The guys and I thought that there was no need to really change anything from the process of the previous album. If it’s not broken then there’s no need to fix it, you know. We recorded in the same place, Iguana Studios in Brixton. For the writing process they wanted to go to a room, like they did in university, where they’d jam through stuff. When they felt they’d got the body of a song I’d come in and help shape the arrangement, tell them what I thought worked and we’d work it out together really.
With this record, Thom the drummer did more programming in Ableton Live to help develop the drum patterns and ideas. As a band they’ve got really good at recording their ideas with an iPhone while jamming. In different takes there would be some great ideas that pop out. So Joe would come in with a log of bits he liked and we’d sift through them and try and incorporate them into the final version.
Ask: That’s interesting, I’ve found some of the percussive arrangements really unique and intricate. So was Thom using Ableton Live and his natural talents and fusing the two?
Yeah. The two seemed to gel very well. A lot of the electronic sounds would be from a jam during rehearsal. He’d develop them in Ableton and I’d import them into the Pro Tools session and we’d build from there. Often they already sounded cool so we’d decide to keep them in the final version and build on it and enhance it with the live drums. Quite often Thom would jam over it and we’d piece together a good arrangement.
In the studio with Charlie Andrew.
Ask: In terms of your studio, what’s your DAW of choice?
Well, I’m on Pro Tools HD. I’ve just changed to HDX, but I did the last albums in HD. And I don’t have a mixing desk. I just have my mic pre’s that I’ve been collecting over time. The first alt-J album believe it or not was done on 8 channels of an Audient 1U Mic Pre and the other 8 channels with the Focusrite OctoPre. It did the job! The Audients are very transparent, very clean, no noise. Just very nice mic preamps. Now I’ve also got the Focusrite 828 from the ISA range. And I’ve got a couple of Neve 1073. For my vocal chain I like to go through one of these into an API 525 compressor. I also have a couple of Focusrite RED 500 series mic amps which are lovely too.
Ask: In terms of microphones you achieve such a beautiful intimate feeling, what do you use?
On the first alt-J album it was literally just a Neumann TLM103. But on the latest album the vocal sound was recorded with a Blue Kiwi. It’s a really nice microphone. It just seemed to really sit well in a mix. I literally didn’t apply any EQ to any of the vocals on the record. The Kiwi has a great top-end on it. On “Hunger of the Pine”, I’m quite proud of Joe’s vocal sound on the track. It really sits very well: it’s upfront but has lots of space. And that’s the Blue Kiwi through my vocal chain. I don’t apply much compression either. Just a tickle!
Ask: What about drums?
I’ve got an Earthworks drum kit with just three microphones enhanced with spot mic. It’s just two overheads that are omni. They look surgical and stereo imaging on them is simply fantastic. I use them for pretty much all percussion when I need a stereo pair. They capture the ambience of the room really well. For drums, in the far corner of the room is quite a bass area where I like to put an old AKG EB 414 which has a dusty sound to it, nothing too much on the top end.
"The joy of Thom's drumming is that he doesn’t use cymbals. The only cymbal-like thing he has is the back end of a saucepan!"
The joy of Thom's drumming is that he doesn’t use cymbals. The only cymbal-like thing he has is the back end of a saucepan! He replaces the hi-hat with a saucepan. With this second album we had a bit of a struggle trying to find the original saucepan used on the first album. It was kept in a lock-up and we eventually found it. But there was a time when we had to go into my kitchen here and sample different saucepans and see which sounded the best. But, the joy of there being no cymbals is you can really distort and mutate the room mics without cymbals just taking over, so all the nuances of the drums allow the vibrations to come out. His snare is a little 10” snare drum which has a really nice ring to it. So if you get the distortion right and the drive right you can really bring out the ring of his snare. Which is really cool. That’s what makes the drum sounds.
Ask: What about other software based plug-ins you tend to use?
I’m a big fan of SoundToys. Their distortions and Decapitator are great to put a small amount on the vocal so when he’s really going for it, it breaks up a little bit. I’m a bit of a sucker for that. The Devil-Loc is pretty mental too. Their delays like the Crystallizer provides some interesting sounds when needed.
"The UAD plug-ins are also great. They sound like how I remember the real things at Abbey Road sound!'
The UAD plug-ins are also great. I didn’t have them for album one, but I used them on album two and they’ve brought something new to the table. They sound like how I remember the real things at Abbey Road sound!
Mixing it up.
Ask: Any other hardware you like?
I’ve got access to a lovely old AC30 1964 guitar amp which actually belongs to a good friend of mine, Clive Langer. Clive is a big producer from the ’80s and ’90s and produced the Madness back catalogue, Dexys Midnight Runners ("Come on Eileen"), Bush’s first album, Elvis Costello, wrote a song called “Shipbuilding”. He’s a big of a legend and we share the same management. We became friends and we’ve worked together on some music like Eugene McGuinness’ album, Invitation to the Voyage. I’ve learned a lot from him which I’ve used on my own productions.
As well as the lovely AC30 amp he's got a beautiful Ampeg bass combo and he just lets me look after them here! So my guitar sounds and all my synth sounds just go through that AC30. It’s got the most amazing vibrato on it, which I’m a sucker for. On the record there ends up being a lot of doubling of guitar sounds with one straight and one vibrato. It can make quite a nice surrounding effect when panned hard.
Ask: What’s in your synth collection?
If we’re talking alt-J, we tried to keep it simple. In their bedroom at University they had two basic synths. There’s a Yamaha synth you’d find in most schools and a Casiotone keyboard. On paper you wouldn’t expect them to sound any good. But on the record they sound pretty amazing. That’s what I loved about the alt-J thing when we started. We weren’t trying to make the most futuristic keyboard sounds in the world. There was an almost naive, real sound. These are sounds people can actually relate to because they hear them a lot. I put these sounds through the guitar amp, processed them with vibrato and stuff like that.
"I always make a point of recording the room around any amp I’m recording because that can bring you as a listener more into the recording itself."
I always make a point of recording the room around any amp I’m recording because that can bring you as a listener more into the recording itself. It doesn’t sound like the recording is thrust upon you at great volume and compressed and limited to fuck and comes straight out of the speakers. You’ve got that bit of space between you the listener and the source and I think by recording the room it brings you into it more.
Ask: So it’s a bit like bringing the listener into the recording session room…
Exactly. The recordings themselves aren’t necessarily live takes but I hope they sound real and I’d like them to be believable.
Ask: Do you try and bring these techniques to all of your productions, or primarily alt-J?
All of them. My holy grail is to try and get a live take if we can because, for me, that’s the most enjoyable thing to listen to. For most acts we generally run it live and then go back and replace bits. We try and get everyone to play live, at least when recording the drum parts so that the drums have a natural feel to the dynamic at least. Then once the drums are all in place we go over and record everything else again and just tighten things up as needed. The arrangements are intricate so they need to be on point for them to come across.
There’s a band I’ve recorded this weekend called Francobollo who I adore right now. It’s raw and rough and ready, I just press record and they play it. Very exciting to listen to.
Ask: You mentioned you’ve been working with Sivu. Tell us about how you began working on this project.
We’ve finished the recent album with Sivu which was released in October 2014. I met James back at my warehouse and I asked to produce a band for Island and he was the bass player. He really liked what I’d done and approached me to collaborate on his own music. I asked to hear his demos and we really hit it off with the first two things we recorded. From there he picked up a label and has all come good.
Ask: Before this interview when we were chatting you were particularly excited about your work with Marika Hackman.
I’m excited because most people haven’t heard much of her music. We did some EPs together and this new album is all new material. She wanted to park the music on her EPs where we left them. That was part of her career then and this is now, which is really quite commendable for someone of such a young age. She’s just 22 and it’s like she’s been doing it for years and years. She's a real talent with a beautiful voice and very easy to work with.
With both Sivu and Marika it’s just me and the artist and we explore the arrangements that come in with the basic song and build from there. For example, sometimes James will write a song on guitar and then we’ll try and avoid using a guitar completely on that song. Quite often in one guitar part you’ve got harmony, rhythm and everything. From that you can extract sections and put those to different instruments. I’m a drummer so I can add the rhythm sections. It’s great fun and with James and Marika’s records we’ve gone for getting more of a live take on things, just me and them playing and then we build on that for a more natural feel.
Ask: Sounds like you really need to gel and connect with the artists you produce. I get a sense you value that highly.
I do. First and foremost you have to enjoy what you’re doing every day. If I thought they’re not my type of people I don’t think our relationship would’ve lasted very long. I love hanging out with them, I love hanging out with alt-J. All those acts are good friends of mine. Whenever I get a call that they want to do more recording, I’m there. I just love it.
Ask: Have you ever had situations where you’ve found it very challenging to work with an artist and yet you’ve still had to make the record?
We’ve never got to the point of, “oh my God, we’ve got to make a record and we hate each other.” With every project I’ve done we’ve always had a taste of 2 or 3 days to try a song and see how we get on. I’d never go into a situation cold and be like, “Cool. Nice to meet you, I’ll make your album.” I think that’d be a recipe for disaster and a waste of money. It’s always important to try a few days and see if it works.
"With every project I’ve done we’ve always had a taste of 2 or 3 days to try a song and see how we get on."
Ask: Are there any acts you’d like to work with? I understand if you’d prefer not to name names!
I have a few in my mind which I’d prefer to keep to myself. There are some remove 'of'? big acts I’d be honored to work with and would think about it if they were the right kind of artist. I’m more excited about working with new unsigned acts and seeing them take off.
One of my biggest idols is Beck. I love everything he does and get so much joy out of listening to his records and how he can make something like Sea Change, which is such a fucking mind blowingly heartfelt sound to something like Odelay which is so Hip Hop meets Country. He gets away with it because he’s Beck and it all works. He’s an unbelievably talented songwriter and producer. I love listening to his records.
Ask: Do you enjoy listening back to a record you’ve worked on. I imagine you’ve heard every element in minute detail countless times. How do you deal with it after it’s released?
I don’t mind listening to them once they’re released. Sometimes it’s cool if I can sit back and think that I’m happy with it. Obviously I could pick fault with every record I’ve put out. But, one of the skills in this job is learning where the finishing line is. No one else is going to tell you. You could go on forever.
Ask: A good mix is never finished?
Exactly. The other day I heard something on TV where the snare drum wasn’t quite the way I wanted it. That’s always going to plague me, but I’m learning still… everyone’s always learning. I’m able to now achieve more sounds that I hear in my head than this time last year.
"I haven’t compressed it to buggery. I haven’t done the tricks pop mixes may have. It’s quite an organic sound I think."
It’s lovely when people say the alt-J albums have been mixed really well. But when I listen to them I do find things I find didn’t end up working quite the way I wanted them to. At least with alt-J’s first album I assume there’s a more organic dustiness that’s come through… I haven’t compressed it to buggery. I haven’t done all the big tricks more pop mixes may have. It’s quite an organic sound I think.
Ask: I’m glad! It helps to make it so easy to listen to again and again without my ears being pummeled into oblivion for three minutes.
I’m happy that’s come across. Most people in this industry will shy away from that or are scared because they want it to be the loudest, brightest thing out there. I’m so glad with the team behind alt-J who have been so supportive. They didn’t come in and try and to cut a 5 minute song to 3.5 minutes. They just listened and loved it for what it is.
Charlie Andrew is wrapped up warm and ready to produce more emerging artists!
Ask: I have to ask whose idea was it to put Miley Cyrus on “Hunger of the Pine”?
That was Joe. Basically Thom was remixing a Miley Cyrus song when they were writing “Hunger of the Pine”. They decided to use it even though it seemed like a bit of a curveball at the time. Since then, it’s become one of the biggest talking points of the song if not the album.
Ask: Which is ironic as the album is so much more than that one sample! Though I must admit it really fits the song.
It works, doesn’t it? It would be a real shame not to have it on there. Getting clearance for the sample took a while, so we had to master two versions, one with and one without. It was just clear the one with was better. Joe was explaining that subconsciously the actual writing of the song was in a similar key to the actual Miley Cyrus song which was being remixed. Maybe he was taking inspiration from that and it clicked?
Ask: I’d like to talk about your creative process. Earlier you mentioned being in the studio and how you’d take guitar parts and transform them into parts for other instruments. Do you find that creative process happens there and then in the studio, or perhaps when you’re away from the studio?
A bit of both. Mainly in the studio. The irony is doing what I do is you don’t listen to enough music. If you’re in the studio all day you’re listening to what you’re doing. The last thing you want to do at home is put on another record! You need to have some downtime and to rest your ears. So, thankfully the last month or so I’ve been doing some speculative stuff in preparation for next year when I return from traveling: meeting new artists. It’s given me more time to do more listening. And that’s part of the reason for traveling, to gain some fresh inspiration.
"It’s not the sounds that pop into my head in the studio it’s the part. So, part A could work with part B, then I have a vague idea of what sound could work."
Sometimes, it’s not the sounds that pop into my head in the studio it’s the part. So, part A could work with part B, then I have a vague idea of what sound could work and we explore that a bit more. When I was mentioning snare drums before, it’s different, as I’m thinking about how to get that snare sound to sit better in the mix: to be fat but not overwhelming.
From the sound point of view, I’ve got two of my favorite keyboards of all time here: the Juno 60, which can do no wrong in my opinion, and the Roland Vocoder VP30, which is also great and has a cool string synth in it. I use various pitch shifting pedals, weird guitar effects and tape delays to explore different sounds. Ultimately, it’s “this is going to be the part, let’s explore the sound now”.
Ask: Do you sometimes stick with the demos that come your way and polish them as the final version, or do you always record it new in the studio?
There’s a song on Marika’s album which was recorded in her bedroom all on a SM58 with a cheap interface and it’s noisy and weird. But, when we attempted to record it in the studio, after a couple of takes I realized the demo just had it. So I de-noised the original and did a bit of repairing, but it was great. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, certainly from a performance point of view.
"I always try and capture the room when recording. If there’s a creak or a sound in the background it’s usually left in because that adds another angle of interest."
Ask: From a production point of view, I feel we’ve been seeing a trend over the past few years where we’re getting more clinical, more digital, cleaner and more polished. Do you think we’re starting to go back towards a live feel, performance based recording. Much like a lot of the grunge records from the ’90s?
Yeah, exactly! I find it so exciting to listen to something believable, something that can put you in the room with the players. If you go through music record history, the ones that really stand out are the most believable ones I’d say. Obviously there’s massive exceptions. Some of the records from the early ’90s like Nevermind, just sound amazing. So that’s what I try and focus on. As I said before I always try and capture the room when recording. If there’s a creak or a sound in the background it’s usually left in because that adds another angle of interest.
Ask: It’s part of the performance?
Yes, it gives you a bit of sonic insight into the setting and how the record was recorded. Just making things too clean and clinical I think loses any soul.
Ask: Thanks. What do you have planned for 2015? Is there much you can reveal yet?
I can’t talk too much about the bands we’re starting to work with yet… I’m looking forward to discovering new acts again. There’s one act I was working with this weekend which I think is brilliant: Francobollo. The recordings aren’t up yet. They’re such an exciting band because they can really play live and rock out and have such interesting arrangements. They’ve got catchy melodies too! And they don’t take themselves too seriously which is great. They remind me something like Grandaddy meets Pavement meets Weezer. I’m looking forward to finishing off their EP and I hope they get signed and they can take off!
Ask: What tips would you give to others on getting into production and the industry?
Just keep practicing your art. Just do it, no matter how basic your system. It’s what I did: inviting bands to come and record with me for free. Don’t be focused on the money aspect, instead make sure you can be as good as you can be. I truly believe everyone gets a break sometime and you just have to be ready to make the most of it. So keep listening to records, find the aspect of the record that excites or impresses you and try and do it yourself.