Mixing David Byrne’s American Utopia with David Wrench

Award-winning producer, mixing and recording engineer David Wrench (FKA Twigs, The xx, Frank Ocean) talks working with David Byrne and pushing the sonic landscape of the Grammy-nominated album: American Utopia.

 

“I always try to do something new and I tend to gravitate to work towards artists who want to take things in new directions. I get excited by new sounds coming out of the speakers and stuff I haven't heard before. It doesn't really matter what genre it is. If I can hear something that excites me, then I'm on board for it.” — David Wrench

David, from The xx to Caribou and Frank Ocean—the array of artists/genres you work on is extremely eclectic. How did you get involved with David Byrne project for American Utopia?

My tastes in music are extremely eclectic and I don't really think of music by genre, more by attitude. I'm always excited to work with artists who genuinely want to explore and create something new, whatever genre or style that might be in.

I was actually in bed with pneumonia at the time David [Byrne] reached out to me, and I was a bit spaced-out from being ill. I thought, "Ah! I must have subscribed to a David Byrne newsletter”. When I looked at it, whoa! I had actually received a really lovely e-mail from David introducing himself and asking if I'd be interested in working on some new music that he had. I was overjoyed like; "Oh sh*t, really!?"

When I received the first track, it was terrifying having to send a mix back off to David Byrne. I hovered over the send button for quite a long time before I sent it and just kept saying; “Ah… one more listen…and then a little tweak, and then one more listen…” Eventually I thought; “This has actually got to go, I've got to send it!” And he really loved it. But yeah, it was a bit terrifying.

Every first mix for a new project, even if it's a brand-new band or a really established artist, I'm nervous sending it off because I want to do something that the artist is going to be pleased with or that's going to feel like I've brought something to it. But I think that's just about caring about what I do. And it's quite amazing when someone that you admire contacts you. I mean working on his music and getting the chance to collaborate with him was quite an amazing thing to do.

How did you push production on American Utopia to the limit?

Across the album I would often adjust mix compression settings on the SSL G-Master Buss Compressor and Linear Phase Multiband Compressor for different parts of the song, so that I can create differences between sections. I should actually mention that I 'stole' a certain trick from Brian Eno himself!

When I was really young, maybe about fourteen, I remembered listening to an interview with him talking about mixing Talking Heads' 'Take Me to the River'. He mentioned how he'd got that sound by riding the level of the master into a compressor harder and harder at certain points of the song—so it becomes more and more compressed as the track goes on. At the time I heard it, I didn't even really know what a compressor was. But I thought; "That track sounds really good and when I get into a studio when I'm older, I'm going to remember to do that!" I then ended up using that same trick on American Utopia. So it's sort of come full circle really.

On this album, and actually every mix I work on I have the SSL G-Master Buss Compressor always on my master buss. I usually have that followed by a Linear Phase Multiband Compressor. For different sections of a song, I automate the latent gain of the SSL so that it pushes harder into the Multiband Compressor. So for example, if I want a chorus to lift, I'll just literally push. Often times, I'll write the level into the SSL so it feels like it hits harder at certain points of the song.

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Did you draw any inspiration from David Byrne's previous albums or past work?

I think too much reverence of the past isn't necessarily healthy. I've been in situations where people just want their record to sound like some old record that they love. And that always confuses me a bit because why don't you want it to sound like something new? Why do you want to sound like something that already exists?

David had been reworking the album, trying different methods. I think he got to a point of almost deconstructing and reconstructing the whole record, bit I think he wanted to take things even further—which takes a lot of guts. It's the sign of a real artist trying to push and to get somewhere, where most people wouldn't go.

'Everybody's Coming to My House' - David Byrne

How did you mix the psychedelic layers and use of multiple instruments and effects heard on “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets”?

One of the ways David worked on this album was to get songs up to a certain point, and then he would have different people send in different parts and build additional layers. That's why when you look at the credits on the album, you see there's lots of different people on each track. So all the different parts were curated by David and co-producer Rodaiah McDonald —almost in the same way that hip hop records are made, and that's what ended up there. I then received all the tracks and layers in a series of stems. Some of which were a bit dryer, others were fully-formed and already had effects on them.

When the synth wash comes in for example, I used a PuigChild Compressor on it to really squash it. Then I pushed it wider in the stereo spectrum with the S1 Stereo Imager. I used the same plugin to actually narrow other sounds like harmonica and saxophone, but not too much where I felt things sounded too constrained.

I really focused on working the spread in that mix. I really like things to grow and move in the mix and not just be static. I think my favorite mixes always sound a little bit off-balance in terms of the stereo field as well. There's something about even just a dB or two louder that's doing something you don't expect to that makes a record more exciting.

'Gasoline and Dirty Sheets' – David Byrne

 

What did you take away from working on American Utopia?

David is an inspiring person to be around. It's quite amazing when you're working on music and collaborating with someone that you admire and people who have been hugely influential on my own musical history.

The thing I learned most from David was not to just settle for anything. If something's not right, you just keep working at it. You try something different. Even if it's good, if something's bugging you about it, you can always go back to what it was, so you've got to follow your instinct and rework and try.

Learn about David Byrne's live show and his unconventional setup for the American Utopia world tour.

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