Most would-be engineers and producers find their way into the studio in their late teens, as they start to work on recordings for their first bands. For Collin Dupuis, the fascination began forming at a much younger age.
"My mom was friends with Glenn Brown of Glenn Brown Productions in Lansing, Michigan," Dupuis says. "She took me in there when I was five-years-old and it was like 'Bing!' Buttons and knobs everywhere. I could feel it instantly forming in my head that technology was going to be a part of my future."
As predicted by his younger self, Dupuis would eventually work in the field, honing his engineering craft while helping to maintain gear in the studios of Carl Craig and the Bass Brothers. A fateful call from Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys would land Dupuis in Nashville, where he would win a Grammy for his work on Dr. John's Locked Up and amass a wide range of clientele from Angel Olsen to JEFF The Brotherhood.
We recently went down to Music City to catch up with Collin Dupuis and talk about all things related to the recording studio. Watch our new Make Your Mark and read an extended interview with Collin below to learn more about his method of finding sounds in the studio, working with Dr. John and more.
How much of an impact did coming up as a drummer have on your work as a recording engineer and producer?
I think that's an important aspect of being an audio engineer. You don't have to have that background, you can just be an engineer, but I think it's an important lesson in how you have to learn an instrument; the time you have to put into it, the emotional baggage that sometimes comes with it, the pressure of trying to get good at an instrument.
It's important to have an empathetic understanding of what musicians are going through when they can't perform right or they hit it perfectly. If you can understand that yourself, you'll have a much better emotional understanding of what's going on in the studio. It's music, we're just making records. To be mean to people or rude to anyone, there's just no reason for it.
What are records that you'll always look to for sonic inspiration?
It depends on my mood and the context. If I'm working on a record that's very guitar heavy and orientated around the sonic palette of guitar, I'm going to go listen to a heavier record like the first ten records by the Melvins. Bullhead is an amazingly great, bad sounding album and lo-fi in certain ways. The guitar sound is wrong, but great and loud. If you're talking about hi-production guitar stuff then Smashing Pumpkins. Gish is a really great record to listen to because it's bright, but not bright in certain ways. The mid-range isn't afraid to be aggressive. Jesus Lizard records. I think the sound of those records as just a pummeling rock 'n' roll sound, [producer Steve] Albini nailed it and the band really nailed it too. The guitar sounds and the bass sounds off those records are just phenomenal to me.
If we're talking synthesizer and more electronic stuff, a lot of [Brian] Eno's atmospheric stuff and all of the stuff he did in the early 80s. I've really gotten back into that lately. Great textures, really good sounding recordings, high-quality, big sounds and lots of interesting things going on. Nine Inch Nails' Downward Spiral is a really interestingly compressed record. Like really compressed, but really cool. It's one of those records where you're like "Wow, this is pushing boundaries."
How do you go about getting sounds in the studio?
I don't spend a lot of time getting sounds. Drum sounds, 20 minutes... Maybe. Maybe less. It's all about getting levels and then going, "What does this sound like to my ears?" It's always the context of the song. I'm not one of those people who are going to sit there and go through snare drums in the studio, trying to find the perfect snare drum sound for a song I haven't heard in any context yet. I'm not going to do that. I'm going to have everyone start playing the song and go, "Y'know what I think we need to change the snare drum," or "These cymbals are too bright and brash," "Let's try this guitar amp instead." I have to hear the song first.
I'm willing to move mics, use mics for whatever and I don't care what kind of microphone it is. The overhead mic doesn't have to be a U 47. Those sound great, but sometimes it's an SM57 or some other kind of dynamic mic is the overhead mic and that's what I choose because that's what sounds right for that moment.
Really, with equipment, I don't care. Mic preamps, I don't care what I'm using. I could go in the studio and record completely on an SSL and not use Neves or APIs or whatever. It doesn't matter. It makes somewhat of a difference, but in reality, it doesn't if you think about things in a certain way. If you're going for coloration and you need a Neve preamp for its coloration, then absolutely use it.
If you're recording something and it just needs to have level and gain to it, the amp sounds are great or interesting and the mic you choose is shaping that sound and the placement is shaping that sound than the preamp, in my opinion, has less of a say in the process. To me, the player, the instrument and the microphone are the major parts of any sound source when you're using a microphone.
You just said that gear doesn't matter that much to you, but you must have some favorites that you come back to time and time again.
If I had my way, if I was going to go into the studio to record and had the things I'd like to use, if I have a budget and can use my things, I'd have a couple of those Pye mixers which are four microphones into one. Some of those old Bogen things that are four into ones. These Altec four into ones. I have a bunch of these Spectra Sonics line/mic mixers.
I'd rather go into a recording studio with a whole bunch of those than a rack of single mic preamp things. I can puts mics on the inputs and route it by pressing a button to whatever track I want it to. So I can combine mics, which is a really common thing I do when it comes to recording. My snare drum sound is a top and bottom mic, it's always being blended together to one track so I don't have to think about it later on. If someone else is mixing the record later on, they aren't making a mistake or making it sound wrong by EQing the crap out of that bottom mic and pushing it up and blending it in.
Same thing if I ever use two mics on a kick drum, they are getting blended onto one track and it's done. Sometimes in the context of music, it's the blend of the overhead mic and the close tom mics and the snare mic being blended onto one track that needs to be the sound. All those going through a line buss amp from a console into a compressor are pushing the compressor in a certain way that an overhead mic is not going to do on its own. I do a lot of combining mics on stuff.
Same with guitar stuff. I don't do two mics on guitar amps, but if I have a whole bunch of mics set up, I can choose which mic I want by twisting a knob on a mixer or pushing a fader up and seeing which mic sounds cool for the sound and I can move on. I don't have to go, "Hold on," and spend the next 40 minutes getting guitar sounds. I can listen to each mic while the band is jamming and they won't even notice what I'm doing and be ready to record. I prefer being able to make choices quickly and not think about technically getting in the way of the process at all.
If I see I'm going to a studio where I know they don't have the ability to buss or route things together, I'm like "Alright, I need to bring a bunch of these things with me so I can do that." I don't like working in that one mic preamp per channel situation because you need to have a 48-channel Pro Tools rig memorized. You just have 16 inputs to make a record. I know in my head which mixer is in what channel. That's how everything I did at Easy Eye with Dan Auerbach was done.
Talk about working on the Dr. John record with Dan Auerbach.
The Dr. John record was amazing. Most records are amazing. They all have their magical moments and some are more stressful than others. It's just the nature of things. The Dr. John record went together really easy. We cut it onto a MM1200 2-inch 24-track dumped into Pro Tools. We did the mixing onto a Quad Eight console that was bypassing the input transformers feeding right into the faders, which fed into the EQs into the mix buss. I had to gain stage it weird cause it would overload really easily. So I figured out a way of setting it up so it got the maximum amount of tonality out of it without it being super distorted. Even though there is a lot of distortion going on with that record, it's very purposeful distortion.
That tracking went down real fast. Something like 10 days, maybe? Total. Mostly live on the floor. Nine musicians at a time. We'd have a drummer, percussion, someone playing bari sax, Mac [Rebennack aka Dr. John] playing a Farfisa in the middle of the floor, Dan on guitar, someone else on guitar, Leon [Michels] on keyboard and Nick Movshon playing bass. These guys are all playing live. The whole record went down live except for some tambourine overdubs or doubling up on baritone sax or doubling up background vocals with the The McCrary Sisters.
The sound of that record is like most records I've done. It's just bleed. Lots of bleed. If you listen to anyone of the microphones, there's everything else on it. I think that's a really important way of making records that we need to continue to do and not be afraid of. Maybe there is some splash of cymbals on a guitar part or vocals or whatever. Without that stuff there, that space disappears and everything sounds like it's in a vacuum.
If you're interested in checking out some of the projects Collin Dupuis has worked on, listen to these selected tracks from Dr. John, Angel Olsen and Nikki Lane below.