Chris Coady has been producing, mixing and engineering your favorite records for decades. He has become known for his work with indie rock icons like Beach House, TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and more.
We recently had the chance to chat with Chris for our ongoing 20 Questions series. Read on to learn more about his philosophy on producing, his affinity for vintage dynamic microphones and how he uses old VCRs to spice up his mixes.
1. How did you get started making records?
When I was a teenager I was in a band and one of my friends offered to record us. He brought his recording equipment over and set it all up. It was just a basic 4-track setup with a mixer, a couple of effects and maybe half a dozen mics that he placed around the room.
After he was finished he left all of the equipment at my house for a few weeks and I started inviting anyone in a band to come over to make records, so I ended up learning the basics on his gear.
Later I worked at a music store called Chuck Levin’s and the ADAT was the new recording media that everyone wanted. A lot of the studios in Washington D.C. were buying ADAT machines. So the store’s owner needed the shelf space in the warehouse and started blowing out the reel-to-reel machines. All of the 8, 16, and 24-track machines were heavily discounted. They let me take home a tape machine and pay it off over time, so I got a Tascam TSR-8, which was an unbalanced 1/2” 8 track. My first studio at the Supreme Imperial was open for business at $10 per hour. Later I’d upgrade the tape machine to a Soundcraft 24 track 2”. This was in the late 1990s.
In 2001, I moved to NYC and got a job working as a tech at Quad Studios, a 5-story SSL studio in Times Square where a lot of hip-hop was made and also where Michael Brauer had his mixing studio. I learned so much at this job. During this period Kanye was making College Dropout in Studio A, Coldplay was in Studio B and Roc-A-Fella Records had a long-term lockout in Studio C. At nights, I would bring in my projects and use the rooms to record albums, getting about 2 hours of sleep a night. I lived at that studio around the clock for years. This is where I became educated on how records were made in big studios.
My roommate at the time was producer Dave Sitek (TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and he was getting slammed with projects. After I helped him with some TVOTR songs, he convinced me to quit my job and go completely freelance. I was really scared to quit my day job but he insisted that it would be fine. I really have him to thank for a lot of good things that have happened.
2. Can you tell us a little bit about your space at Sunset Sound?
Sure, I have a private studio here at Sunset Sound. I’ve been here for about three years. It’s a hybrid set-up centered around a Shadow Hills Equinox summing mixer and lots of vintage hardware tied into it. This room is mainly used for vocals, overdubs and mixing… Finishing touches.
3. What made you choose a hybrid set-up?
I needed a set-up that was going to be quick to recall mixes, but not completely in the box digital. I have spent most of my mixing time on Neve and SSL desks and I love the sound of hardware (and also rely on it). Around 5 years ago, mixing sessions just got really hard and a lot of the artists I was working with found the console mixing experience to be unpleasant. They found it hard to maintain perspective during the "one song a day: mixing process. I wanted to be able to adapt to a quicker workflow and also keep my analog compression and effects. Now that I have this setup dialed in, I’m madly in love with it. I don’t think I could beat these mixes with a console.
4. As a producer and mixing engineer, you’re involved in a record for most of the process. What’s your favorite part?
My favorite part of the job is experiencing the unplanned creative breakthroughs. An unexpected detour where the sound of a song completely changes or a new musical hook or idea appears. It’s magic.
Otherwise, I really just enjoy the daily grind of working on music with people who are often strangers and then getting to know them. Many of the artists I work with are fascinating people and inspire me on many levels.
5. What’s your philosophy on producing?
Adapting to the artist. A good record is usually an artist telling their story. There's some form of narrative or theme, so I try to keep in mind what the band or artist is trying to do or say. Of course, I want to frame it in my own way. I want to elevate it and make a stronger version of what it is. I just try not to lose the plot or get wrapped up in the process technically. It's also important to invent new techniques along the way to make this project sound different than the last.
6. What kind of new techniques?
I’m always looking for new ways to create textures. I like running tracks on and off of old VCR tapes, reamping string sections through the water tower at Sonic Ranch or recording outside.
I use a bunch of vintage computer sequencing equipment, which alters the groove of MIDI timing. Hopefully making it more hypnotic.
Also, I like to slow things down. Almost every time I love the sound of something slowed down by half, but sometimes 500% you can get interesting shapes and textures.
7. That’s awesome. Have you ever heard chipmunkson16speed? Where they take those old Alvin and the Chipmunks records and play them at 16rpm?
Yeah, I love it! They made those Chipmunks records here at Sunset Sound. The studio is about to have their annual Christmas party next week and they always listen to the Chipmunks Christmas album in the room where it was originally recorded.
8. What’s an average day in the studio like for you?
No two days are the same for the most part. I am either working with someone directly, sometimes by myself or with studio musicians. I just try to stay organized and keep things moving. I work almost every single day so I try and break up the days with breaks to maintain perspective. So staying organized, trying to stay on track time-wise but also being open to the best ideas which usually come out of thin air.
9. What mics do you use most often?
Most of the time, I’m just trying to keep myself entertained with microphone choices. Instead of having the same old mic day in and day out, I try to change it up a lot. Also, I want to have a variety of sounds on a song or album.
Lately, I've been really into using really dusty vintage dynamics, like the Electro Voice RE15, the Electro-Voice 666 and the Sennheiser 409. I like a lot of older dynamic mics and ribbon mics. I’ll use the tube mics for the room ambience, but again I try to change it up and hope for unexpected new sounds.
When I travel around, I just take a SM7 and a Cloud Lifter, which is a setup I picked up from Jorge Elbrecht.
10. What EQs do you reach for most often?
In my setup, I use a lot of hardware EQs like vintage API 550s, Pultecs, Quad Eights, Amek Medici, Neve 1066s. For subtractive EQ, I’m really into Brainworx bx_digital V2 and Fab Filter Pro-Q 3.
11. What about compressors?
My favorite compressor is the Highland Dynamics BG. I use it for a lot of different things, sometimes for compression, sometimes just to add a little color to tracks. In my set-up, I also have a Neve 33609, a Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor, Empirical Labs EL7 FATSO and an old Federal tube compressor for adding some color in the mids. 1176s too!
12. What’s the least expensive piece of gear you’ve ever used on a record?
Well I’ve recorded whole albums with nothing but Casio keyboards for the most part. There’s a lot of emotion in cheap stuff.
Lots of old tape decks and VCRs and stuff. If all the tracks start to sound the same I’ll run them on and off through an old VCR to give layers different personalities.
Another thing is some of the best tambourines you find are the ones you get for $1. Whenever I go on vacation, I always try to get cheap percussion from the souvenir shop. I throw them all in my percussion box. I don’t know how many tambourines are in there (some of them are really high-end), but whenever I give someone the box they always gravitate to the cheapest one.
The mighty Alesis Midiverb2 is one of my favorites reverbs. I think mine was $25. I still have the same one I started out with all those years ago, always on setting 25.
13. What do you do in your free time, when you’re not making records?
I don’t have a ton of free time, but I do like to watch movies, gaming, cooking, also I read a lot. It may seem crazy but my favorite pastime is still listening to new music.
14. What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
I really like Phillip K. Dick books. I think my favorite is Ubik. Another is the Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich.
I read a book called The Magic in Your Mind when I was 20, and it became this book that I would read all the time when I first started recording bands. It was like this mystical self-help book- it really made an impact on me.
The last book I read was Life After Death, Damien Echols’ autobiography.
15. What’s one of your favorite albums of all time?
My favorite album of all time is probably the self-titled Velvet Underground album. The one that opens with "Candy Says."
16. What’s one record you wish that you had worked on?
Most of the time when I hear a record I feel like they’re perfect, even if they’re flawed in some way. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt like I could have made a record better if I had worked on it. One album I do wish I had worked on is my own... One of these days.
17. What new music have you been listening to lately?
Well, it’s not all new music, but lately, I’ve been listening to the newest Beak> album, Palmbomen II Memories of Cindy, the first couple Black Uhuru albums, Love Joys, Delroy Edwards and Mariah Carey.
18. What has changed most about your production style or technique over the years?
There used to be a feeling when you were making a record like that there was no looking back. You’d be recording onto tape and we had to make it as good as we could. It was the same with mixing. You made a mix, everyone put in their two cents, you got it to a place where people in the room would be happy with it, but that was it, you’d hit the button and it would be history.
It’s not that I feel that something now is wrong, necessarily, but that’s the biggest difference in what I do now. The whole service that I provide is set up so people can give me a lot of notes. There’s a lot of looking back at the demo, lots of recalls, pages of notes. It didn’t use to be that way.
I miss those days but I will also say that when I listen back to stuff that I’m working on now I feel like it is evolved, so maybe this change is for the better and I’m just being nostalgic here. Things sound really good now, but I miss being able to turn my back on everything and just work on the record. Now everyone is connected. A lot of the studios I worked in when I was younger didn’t even have phones, let alone 12 smartphones. I really hope to not sound cynical at all because I do really love the way things are going now. But it’s definitely the biggest difference.
19. What’s one piece of gear you can’t live without?
You know, if all of this equipment were to vanish into thin air at one point I don’t think I would be that bummed out. I would just start over. But, one of the first things I would get would be Auratone Cubes.
20 What’s one piece of advice you have for aspiring producers or engineers?
Don’t get too caught up in the process. Capture the most compelling thing you can and frame it in the best way possible.
Explore music constantly. Listen to music you like and listen to music you don’t like. Learn what you don’t like about it
When you’re putting resources into building your studio, just make sure that you don’t get into a situation where you have such a high overhead that it forces you to make non-experimental music to pay the bills. It’s happened to me before, and it’s happened to friends of mine. You’ve got this great studio but you end up recording the worst music in the world just to pay for it.
So make that studio, and make it really inspiring, but try to keep the costs as low as possible so you have the freedom to say no or to spend more time experimenting.