Audio Engineer Questions Chris Tuck – Interview

mixing Audio Pros: How and when did you start your musical career, give our readers a bit of background info? Who were you early influences, early recording studio you worked in etc?

Chris Tuck: My musical / studio career pretty much started after I finished high school. I would be listening to music for hours on end, and so when the conversation turned to what career I would like to follow, being obsessed by “the magic” on the albums I heard – I knew it was going to be music.

I read the names of the recording studios and audio engineers on the vinyl sleeve notes and really wanted to know more about the whole music recording process. An article in a local newspaper sealed the deal, talking about a person sitting alone in a dimly lit room, surrounded by flashing lights, in a trance like state, listening to music and making various alterations to the music. I had to be that person.

I started teaching myself guitar and started studying Electronics for my tertiary education, which in turn got me various jobs on studio installations. I bought my first guitar from that money. It was a Westone Rainbow semi acoustic, which has made appearances on almost every job that I have done… including Seether, and on the recent Yoav album – Blood Vine.

My career really started though at The Audio Lab in Johannesburg following the fit-out. It was my first ‘proper studio’, a large multi roomed facility with 2 Otari MTR 90 tape machines and a Harrison 4032 console. It was a real 48 Track analogue studio with the very same console used to track Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album. It’s here that I learned the ropes by assisting all the audio engineers that passed through. I quickly became the studio programmer, a role most the audio engineers did not want to get involved in, so a lot of my time was spent with C- Lab and Cubase on The Atari, and the facility installed Deck (the precursor to Pro Tools )

During this time I also started playing guitar in alternative and metal bands, gigging in various dodgy venues.

I suppose my early engineer / producer influences would definitely be people such as Martin Hannett, Gil Norton, Flood, Alan Moulder, RoliMosimann, John Fryer, Steve Albinietc …

mixing Audio Pros: When did you first start running your own studio and how did you make that progression from first working in recording studios to running your own?

Chris Tuck: I had already been freelancing since 1994, so the transition to having my own gear and ‘facility’ was a very natural one. So I first started running my own studio in 1996 out of the house I was living in, in the suburbs of Johannesburg. It was a thatch-roofed house and had great acoustics. It was at the dawn of the rise of Pro Tools so I bought a D24 card and an expansion chassis for the DSP cards. This sounded like passenger airliners at take off so it was placed in a spare room. The recording studio was used for overdubbing / programming and audio mixing, so I would go to the bigger recording studios to track sessions, and then take files away.

mixing Audio Pros: Do you have any particular methods or preferences of note? i.e using certain gear for certain sounds? any preferences of ways if working or even preferences of musical styles etc? do you prefer producing live bands, jazz, classical etc?

Chris Tuck: When it comes to producing, I prefer working in the alternative / electronic genres. I really like the opportunity that these genres allow for playing with atmospherics and bringing out the darker moods and emotions.Having said that, I love and can really appreciate a great pop song. I actually work as a DJ from time to time, and love mixing up the playlist across genres and decades. Having a wide appreciation of music really helps in this career as far as I am concerned. So when it comes to mixing, I am happy to mix across all genres.

As far as gear is concerned, I will make use of what’s available. During my career I have been able to make records with some of the very best gear, and at other times I have had very little at all to work with. A funny story … when I first arrived back in the UK, I had to mix a track that I had been working on for a rock band in South Africa. I mixed this in my friend’s walk in cupboard in his tiny London flat … with the aforementioned expansion rack roaring away at my feet. I had no other choice at the time. That track still went to number one on the National Radio charts, and the band loved the fact that their track was ‘mixed in London’.

I have been fantasizing about recording jazz again lately … I think it’s the part of me that enjoys the pure art of music recording. The challenge you make to yourself to capture the best result possible. You know the playing will be great, so you won’t be getting into all that fixing that the digital age offers lesser performers.

As far as preferences to recording go, when it comes to tracking and producing vocals, I am not a slap Autotune or Melodyne on it kind of person. Those solutions are a last resort for me, or a way to alter a melody line when composing.

I like to stay out of the way of the vocalist’s ‘moment to shine’ when tracking. I will obviously offer some guidance when necessary, but generally like to get numerous performances (even if from different days), and then go through them thoroughly, finding the best nuances of each performance. I think it’s all too easy these days to get a vocal that is in the ballpark, and then just slap pitch correction on it. I know you miss some magical moments this way.

mixing Audio Pros: How’s the local music scene in Cape Town. Any bands or current trends that you are enjoying?

Chris Tuck: Although the scene here is pretty small there are quite a few bands of widely differing genres and skill levels gigging at the venues. Artists that I have really enjoyed watching perform include Matthew Mole, Beatenberg, Holiday Murray, Blk-Jks, Tailor, Coal and Joshua Grierson. Something that has always been a problem in SA is that there is not much of a gigging circuit or support for bands, so they end up being very short lived and musicians end up taking alternate career paths.

mixing Audio Pros: You are obviously adapting to the changes in technology and the music industry in that you are offering online services. How do you feel that the industry is adapting to “‘remote services” such as online mixing and mastering for instance?

Chris Tuck: I feel that the industry as we now know it is nothing like the industry I joined. There is now less of a focus as to where the power lies in the industry and where the work could possibly be coming from. What I mean by this, is that the traditional record company model appears to have been turned upside down.

This is not only my challenge, but also that of most my colleagues as well. Once upon a time I would work at various studios and clients had no choice but to use these recording studios since there was not a studio in every home or in every laptop. I therefore built up working relationships with clients, as these studios acted as a central point of ‘quality services’ where you could meet potential clients and develop ongoing working relationships. A service like mixing Audio Pros can now act as a ‘virtual’ version of this scenario.

I observe that Online Mastering has become more of a normal procedure, especially since artists and labels used to have their projects mastered around the globe in the pre internet days as well.

The Online Mixing side of things is now playing catch up. This has obviously been slower to implement, due to the necessity of larger bandwidth, which is now a reality for most of us. The hardest part for someone like myself is creating an awareness of my skills and audio services and finding potential clients whose work I can mix or produce music. Something that I also come up against often, is the belief that an audio mixer or engineer is no longer relevant.

There is a belief that anyone can do it themselves since they have the tools available. While there are obviously some great talents out there that can do it all themselves, I still think these roles are very relevant for those that cannot. My plummer does not cook me meals, my dentist doesn’t do my accounts.

mixing Audio Pros: What are your future goals within the industry.

Chris Tuck: On the mixing side, I would like to connect with as many like-minded musical artists as possible, from anywhere around the globe, and be a part of their creative process. I love the idea of mixing tracks for clients from all over the world. This way I am exposed to a greater diversity of styles, and I can reciprocally offer my own interpretation of a clients sound, based on my own unique experiences.

I have also been creating a fair amount of music again recently, which is really rewarding. This is a side of my work I definitely wish to expand on. I have also started a new musical project recently, with a great vocalist, which I am certain will see the light of day by mid 2014.

On the production side of things, I wish to continue producing a small and select amount of projects in any given year, allowing a good investment of time in each project. There is nothing worse than being forced to rush through a project and therefore not allow it, it’s full potential.

mixing Audio Pros: Simple but extremely complex. Favorite band?

Chris Tuck: This is a very difficult one to answer because there have been so many over the years. Ideally I think I would have to give a list of 20 to 30 all time favorites.I’m sure anyone asked, would have the same problem giving an answer. I have to admit that Mark Kozelek and his Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon projects have been a consistent favorite over the course of his lengthy career. Low have also been another favorite. They are one band who can eclipse their recordings with their live performances. The intensity of feeling coming off the stage can be quite daunting. Their use of dynamics is fantastic. During the quiet sections, the audience remains rapt, you can hear a pin drop.

I am currently enjoying Jon Hopkins’ work. I am humbled by his ability to move emotions. The Daughter album ‘If You Leave’ is a beautiful listening experience as well.
mixing Audio Pros: What is the single best decision you have made in your life so far?

Chris Tuck: That would probably be my decision to go as freelance audio engineer at a very early stage in my career. This allowed me more diversity in my work, and also enabled me the income to start my own professional recording studio all those years ago.

Of course this is the sort of career where most of us end up as freelance audio engineers, so it would have occurred at some stage anyway.

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