One of London’s most in-demand engineers, Alan Branch has lent his talents to a staggering array of acts, from U2, Nine Inch Nails, and Blur to Sinead O’Connor, Sade, and Bjork, combining wide-ranging influences to create music that is both timely and timeless. In addition to work with artists like Daniel Bedingfield and New York-based singer/songwriter Susan Enan, Branch is currently collaborating with guitar legend Jeff Beck on his upcoming release. He took some time off his busy schedule to speak with Waves’ Shachar Gilad.
What’s your studio setup like?
It’s a pretty basic setup in my studio now. I don’t use as much hardware now as I used to. I’ve gone from renting a large space with a desk to having a studio in the back of my house. I haven’t even gotten around to plugging it all in! I’ve got a new dual quad core Mac running Logic and Pro Tools. These days, I usually mix and arrange in Logic, using a Tascam controller with separate outs because I haven’t got my desk up and running yet.
What are some of the tools you’re using?
Things are changing these days; people are now mixing in the box. Which is perfect for me as I’ve grown up with the computer and I’ve always used it as a tool.
I do mostly everything in the box these days, but it depends on the job that comes in. Just last week I got a job where we will be using a tape machine. I’m a great believer in technology as long as it sounds great. It’s all about the sound. It has to sound good.
Are you doing more producing or mixing these days?
I get a lot of work as a mixer. That’s probably the main thing. Different jobs come up where I’ll be producing or songwriting. Depends what comes in the door. I love mixing because you’re the fresh pair of ears and the one who takes things to the next step. With production you have to start the whole thing off, do a budget, choose a team. With mixing, I don’t have to think about that really.
Tell us about your experience with GTR3.
I’m a big fan of Waves products, so I wanted to give it a go. We’ve all used guitar amp modelers, you know. The thing is they all tend to take you only so far. You can mess about with mics etc. and they’re OK up to a point, but they’re not a replacement for a real guitar amp. Whereas, when GTR3 came around, it really made a difference. Not to mention being able to adjust phase, mic placement, all the stuff you’d do in a studio. And that’s the key to getting great sounds, being able to experiment with mic placement and other things. There’s no set way to “put a 57 in front of it and you’re good.” You’ve got to experiment depending on what works in the song. Sometimes you’re out there moving the mic around just a bit and that’s what makes all the difference.
What do you think makes GTR different?
With GTR, they’ve really thought about how an amp is recorded and how it sounds, whereas some of the others, it’s just a plugin that makes distortion. I think when Waves sets out to do something, they really try to do it the best way they possibly can, and that’s why they have such a great reputation. With GTR, you plug it in and you’re thinking “Wow, it sounds just like an amp.” It sounds quality.
You can take a convolution of a speaker, but modeling all the circuits of an amp, combined with all the other components involved, they all interact to make the amp sound the way it does. That’s what captures the amp’s behavior. That’s the hard part. They’ve really gone to town in capturing that. With the high gains, the dynamic range, that’s where some modelers fall short, and that’s what they’ve captured in GTR3.
How do you usually use GTR?
I don’t really have a set routine. I may record a slightly distorted part and then lay GTR on top of it. Sometimes I use it to record parts into the DAW since it’s really easy to choose sounds. So it’s either pre-processing or as a part of mixing.
The cool thing about GTR3 is being able to use the Stomps separately. That’s fantastic. I did a remix of a Depeche Mode song a couple of years ago, and all it was, was a Boss pedal, a delay, and I was sweeping the delay time and it made these crazy sounds which we just love. A lot of engineers like to use guitar pedals for effect; they produce a different sound than traditional studio effects. It’s great to have this rack of stomps and route stuff through them.
Not necessarily guitars, it can be anything. If you have an effect, you can add an amp to it to add some dirt. If you have a loop, you can crunch it up with some of the stomps. Maybe add phasing or a bit of extra crunch. GTR’s delays sound different than traditional delays. Sometimes on a vocal, I’ll add a bit distorted eq’ed vocal under it to add some tonal color to it.
So you’ll duplicate a vocal track or bus it, then drive and tuck it under the main vocal?
Yeah, overdrive it with an amp, mess about with the cabinets and mic’s, even Ribbon mic’s, which seem to be all the rage all these days. You know, we used to hang some old headphones over a 57 in the studio and distort a vocal through them. So I’ve borrowed an old technique and am re-using it. Adding it underneath another vocal to lift the chorus or something.
Do you have favorite stomps or cabinets?
I do quite like the Doubler. Buzz and Distortion are cool. Metal is a bit over the top for my taste (laughs). It’s really nice to be able to change the order of Stomps in a chain.
BEND IT LIKE BECK
Have you gotten a chance to use GTR on your sessions with Jeff Beck?
Yeah, the thing about these Jeff Beck sessions, we’re working on pretty technical pieces. A lot of orchestration. For us to work out the parts, we don’t really want to keep recording the same guitar part to figure out the sound. And the essence is about finding the sound that will work with the strings. With GTR, he played through once, and then we go and find the right sound to complement the strings using GTR.
And Jeff is not a big pedal user at all. All his sounds generally come from the way he plays. He knows his sounds. I told him we can bring up an amp and just try sounds, then we tried GTR and he liked it right away. We did this one track and we brought up a preset, and he dug it right away. And if it’s good enough for him…
The key for us was, we could find guitar sounds that made sense for certain part of the song, and instead of us having to stop, set up another amp, re-record a part that was good, and lose momentum, we could swap presets in GTR to find the right sounds. I mean he can play the same part over and over and it’ll sound great, but here we didn’t have to. We could focus on other things.
And from an engineer’s stand point, this gets me as close to what I’d actually do in a studio situation: play with mic placement, use two amps, the cabinets. It’s not just an effect plugin; it’s as close as you can get to the real sound, and the real workflow, moving mics, choosing cabinets, flipping things out of phase all the time, and it took forever.
The thing is, Jeff can make the thing scream or sing. It’s amazing. He’s feeding off the sounds. It’s all about the playing and the amps. He can make it come alive. Some people use pedals and it sounds the same all the time. With Jeff, he can push and pull the amp, it’s pretty amazing. I don’t know how he does it really.