20 Questions With Chris Tabron

Chris Tabron is a multi-platinum record producer, mixer, and engineer based in Brooklyn, New York. He has worked with everyone from pop legends like Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and Mary J. Blige to indie rock icons like the Strokes, the Voidz and Lower Dens.

We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Chris for our ongoing 20 Questions series. Read on to learn more about his hybrid mixing setup, impressive outboard collection, and why he brings his trusty tap-tempo metronome to every session.

1. How did you get started making records?
I started as a DJ making extended edits of songs. I was figuring out ways to loop things and how to make the outro of one song fade into the intro of another. This was before I had a Pro Tools rig or anything. It was really just me trying to keep the energy going for the crowd.

Like most people, I was in a band. I made a bunch of demos in the studio in my apartment. I played every instrument and sang on the whole record. I wouldn’t call it a commercial success by any stretch, but I like to joke that when it was finally released, the only people who listened to it were other bands.

Around the same time, the first TV On The Radio EP (Young Liars) came out and it blew me away. They were doing exactly what I was trying to do, but much better and much more effortlessly and honestly. It didn’t even bum me out, it just made me realize that I didn’t even want to be an artist, I just want to help other people make records.

I was surprised that was even a job; I still kind of am. Bands would hit me up like, “Hey, we heard your record, can you help us produce our record?” I was like, “Sure! I have no idea what I’m doing, but I don’t have a real job anyway, so let’s do it!”

I really cut my teeth working with Alex Newport at his studio in Brooklyn called Future Shock. I worked there a lot, we did a bunch of tape sessions together. He had a 24-track Otari MX-80 and a Amek Einstein console. I was young and hungry, and was like, “Give me every indie band in Brooklyn and let’s do it.”

I was also lucky enough to meet Tony Maserati early on in the process of finishing up my record. He had me hang out with him at Chung King Studios or at Sony. So in my early 20s I was bouncing around between my little home studio, Alex’s studio in Brooklyn, Studio 1 at Hit Factory, or the Green Room at Chung King. I got to work on very different types of music, even in the course of a day. And I got to hear different rooms and different pieces of gear. I got to see how different people worked and get that cross section.

Before I even knew it, I was in it. And I just kept doing that until I didn’t have time for a real job anymore.

2. Can you tell us a little bit about your studio in Brooklyn?
It’s called Rumours, like the Fleetwood Mac album. Luckily, unlike the Fleetwood Mac record, we don’t have to have sordid interpersonal relationships to work here.

It’s a big loft space in Bushwick (Brooklyn). I like an open floor plan for studios. If I need a fancy place to work at, there are plenty of them to rent. But I can pretty much do anything here, even drums sometimes, there’s just no isolation.

What I love about it is that it’s open and has a home studio feel. It feels like a home, with a bunch of good gear in it. Artists feel inspired to pick up a guitar or to play a weird synth and get messy. It doesn’t feel clinical here, and I like that it’s become a haven for artists.

One thing that’s been helpful to the workflow is having two workstations that I can use simultaneously. I have my production rig, which is an all-Thunderbolt, all-native MacBook Pro. It’s got keyboards, MIDI, and all the virtual synths you could want. There’s a couple hardware synths, a bunch of guitars and pedals. All the little goodies.

Then I have my main rig which is in the middle of the room for when I’m mixing records and refining things. What’s really nice is to be able to switch sides of my brain, without having to disrupt a mix that is in progress. Also, since so many artists that I work with are pretty used to working independently, I’ll often have someone plug in their laptop to my B-rig and work on headphones while I’m mixing another song.

In my old studio, I would be writing on the mixing rig, which was almost intimidating because everything sounds so good. But on the production rig, I’m usually on my headphones or smaller speakers so I can still keep that innocence of when I was a kid making demos with a 4-track tape machine and I can have that sort of exploratory moment.

I also like being in Bushwick because there are a lot of artists that live here. It was important for me to be in an area in a city where artists can still afford to live. People come through here all the time just to hang out, and I like the community-building aspect of having a studio.

When people walk in here, I want them to feel inspired and safe, and just want to sit at the piano or in the lounge with my MPC and be inspired.

3. What made you choose a hybrid setup over a traditional console?
I love mixing on a console, and I still do it when I can, but it’s really cost prohibitive. They’re expensive to maintain and power. And most of the time I have to work at a pace that doesn’t allow for full analog recalls.

I like working on a console because I can do two things at once. I can grab two faders, or grab a fader and move an EQ. I love that I have to get up and walk down the end of the console to EQ the kick drum. It lets me hear things differently as I move around the room. Traditionally, in a hybrid setup, you’re always sitting in the sweet spot, so you don’t get the chance to hear your mix from all angles.

The console I use is a summer mixer, the Dangerous Music 2-BUS+. I learned gain staging in an analog domain and even though you can definitely get things sounding great completely in the box, I find it comes together a bit faster with summing and that’s typically where I’m more comfortable.

I like to work fast. The way I have my setup now is 48 I/O with Avid HD I/Os. I’ve got 16 channels summing to the Dangerous, with 24 hardware inserts. I can grab all my gear on a hardware insert and basically patch once while mixing an album. I decide which colors I want to use for the album so there’s not a lot of cross-patching.

When I was working with Tony in LA, he taught me to leave my compressor settings the same and use a plug-in before the hardware insert to adjust the gain to dial in the right amount of compression. That way, there’s minimal human error and it allows me to be faster. I get to use the external colors and flavors that I like, but an artist doesn’t have to wait all day for me to raise the snare 1 dB during a recall.

I can’t say that I’ve ever mixed something and felt like it would have been stronger on a console or in the box. At a certain point, it’s about how you want to work. I’ve done some mixes with headphones in a hotel room. Some stuff I’ve mixed on an 80-channel Solid State Logic 9000J. It’s all about how you like to work. If I can have my way, I like grabbing the gear, turning the knobs, and moving across the room. It makes me feel like I’m playing an instrument, and I’m able to achieve that at Rumours.

4. What’s your favorite part of the process?
The very beginning and the very end.

I love the beginning where we’re either making demos or I’m giving them notes on the demos they’ve made. Songs are like people; they just want to be in the world and have their own personality. They want to be loved and they want to be heard. But they each have their own quirks.

At that stage, it’s like looking at a newborn baby. There’s so much potential; this song could be anything. We can articulate the theme or motif in so many different ways. It could be just a kick drum and a Rhodes, or it could have an orchestra behind it. I love the phase where you’re free to explore with complete abandon. Anything can be anything, and you’re searching for what’s the most appropriate thing to do in the service of the song.

I like the innocence of that moment. We’re not thinking, “Is this a single?” or “Is this the right vibe for the album?” We’re just exploring a concept and trying to see it through. It feels like anything is possible, and I love that.

I also love the end. When you’re sitting at mastering and you get nostalgic. I really like having helped guide that process. No matter what we do, this record is going to be here longer than any of us. That’s pretty incredible.

5. What’s your philosophy on producing?
Producing to me is just taking an idea and making it a real thing. I think that can happen in a lot of different ways. You can play every instrument for an artist and have them sing on it. Or it can be as simple as saying, “Is this song in the right key for you?” or “We need to get this guitarist, she’s the best. You’re going to love her touch. It’s going to seal the deal on the song.” Or it could even be just saying, “Yeah, this is great, it’s done.” You’re just taking an idea and making it real.

I really try to get inside the head and heart of artists I’m working with, and know as much as possible about how they see their art as a way of entering their world. I want to know what art is inspiring them at the moment, but also what posters were on their bedroom wall in high school. I like to get to know the artist’s vision so well before we get into the studio that it almost feels like their thoughts are coming out of my mouth.

In a lot of ways, it’s like sailing a ship: they pick the destination and I set the course. That takes trust. It might look like we’re heading to Antarctica at times, but I promise we’re going to land in the Caribbean.

Maybe this analogy occurs to me because I just revisited The Joshua Tree, but I’ve never been able to be the Daniel Lanois type of producer who sits in with the band and plays their instruments better than they do. I’m more of a Brian Eno kind of guy. I evaluate things and make sure that everything on a record is there for a reason, and that no one is being too precious with an idea, or conversely, too conservative to not explore a new one.

Often times I work with bands who have never used an outside producer before. It’s a very sensitive role and I take it very seriously. A lot of artists that I work with have self-produced all their records before working with me. And I like that. I like working with artists who are also producers, and who have a production sensibility.

Again, I’m not the type of producer who comes in and unilaterally calls all the shots. It’s a very collaborative process. I need to win the trust of the artist so they know that I have their best interests at heart and know that everything I do is in service of the song instead of somebody’s ego.

6. Do you always use the same approach when mixing, or do you change things up every song?
I have a lot of the same structures when I mix so I can do something different every time. It’s almost like my rig is an old guitar. I might play different music on it, but I want it to be my guitar.

In order for me to feel creative and unbound by doing the same thing every time, I want to be in a place where I’m not thinking about the technology in my studio. I want the technology to be as transparent as possible so I can just sit down and play.

I have templates and systems set up so I don’t have to think with the left side of my brain – I can just do.

I think a lot of mixing is as much of what you don’t do. I have a lot of routines around how I approach mixing or listening to the rough mix or reference mixes to help me identify what’s magic about a song.

I like to be able to work quickly so I don’t get too precious with my ideas. In order to do that I need to have things set up in a certain way. Once you start spending more than 10 or 15 minutes on an idea, you get really attached to it, and you’re ability to objectively assess whether that idea is any good is significantly diminished.

I have a lot of habits that enable me to ignore the technical aspects of what I do so I can work more instinctively.

7. What’s an average day in the studio like for you?
That’s the cool thing. There’s no such thing as an average day in the studio. 

When I get up in the morning and have an idea, I try to get to the studio as fast as I can so I don’t lose the immediacy of that idea. Your thoughts are really clear first thing in the morning because your inhibitions haven’t awoken yet. I try to capture those ideas before I have to interact with anybody in the real world.

After that, I try to spend the next part of my day doing recalls or making adjustments on existing tracks. I’m a night owl, and I have some of my best ideas after 2 AM. That’s when I start working on a new production or new mix. After years of working in studios, my brain is conditioned to start getting ideas late at night.

If I’m tracking, I like to get in before everybody else does, even the assistant. I like to poke around the space and make sure everything feels good. I’ll listen back to what we’ve done so far or give the tape machine a touch-up. I want to feel the energy and set the tone before anyone else arrives.

8. What mics do you use most often?
I like a nice U47. That’s probably my desert island mic because I can get it to sound like a lot of different things.

I have a Sennheiser 541, which is similar to the MD-441 but it’s black and the roll-off switch is different. It’s a supercardioid dynamic mic. I use it all the time on snare bottom and vocals. It’s great for artists that don’t want to use headphones and just want to sing along with the speakers.

I have a Sony C38B that’s sitting in front of my piano right now that I really like.

Sometimes a good SM7 is all you need. I also have a brass capsule C414 EB that I like for vocals and guitars. I have a vintage U67 that I like too.

9. What EQs do you reach for most often?
For most of my subtractive EQing, I use the FabFilter Pro-Q 3. Digital EQs sound quite good to me most of the time, particularly for cutting.

For analog EQs, I have an SSL X-Rack with the E-Series EQs that I really love. I have those patched directly into the 9000 K dynamics modules, so it has the flexibility or simplicity of a channel strip. I also have an original blue face NTI EQ3 that usually finds itself across the stereo bus. Those were the original design before they switched the name to Maag.

I was lucky enough to find an original ITI MEP-230 EQ, which was made by Burgess Macneal from Sontec and George Massenburg back when they were inventing the parametric EQ. It’s an early predecessor to the Sontec or GML 8200.

I’ve only ever seen two in my life other than mine. One was at Sunset Sound and the other is sitting in Tony Maserati’s rack. I’m sure he’ll be buried with it, as will I with mine. I use that EQ exclusively for lead vocals. The top end is absolutely awesome.

10. What about compressors?
I’ve got a lot of analog compressors because I think it’s an area where plug-ins haven’t really caught up yet. I will say that the FabFilter Pro-C is very good for a plug-in. The updated MK II version of the Softube CL 1B is also great.

At the top of the outboard compressors is my UnderTone Audio UnFairchild 670. I’ve only used an original Fairchild 670 a handful of times in my life, and neither of those units sound the same, so I couldn’t tell you if the UnderTone sounds like the original... but I couldn’t care less because it sounds good. It’s been a workhorse for me on lead vocals.

I also have a pair of Highland Dynamics BG2s that I use for parallel compression on vocals or bass. Sometimes I’ll use them for what I call a “stick compressor,” where I’ll send a little bit of a few elements in the mix to a compressor to help them stick in place and not move. The needle gets buried but it gets returned on an aux that I can automate and bring up as I need; the BG2s are great for that.

The Dangerous Compressor is great for when I want very little compression artifacts, but I want to bring details forward on something. It’s unreal on piano, even with lots of sustain which is usually tough.

On the stereo bus, I have a 90s SSL G384 that usually wins for more dense or faster tempo songs. The UnFairchild has also been magic on the stereo bus with a slow attack fast release. I just got a Vertigo VSC2 from you guys that I want to try out on the stereo bus too.

I have a lot of compressors but I always think of the Michael Brauer quote: “A lot of compressors but not a lot of compression.” I don’t look for a compressor to do the work that a detailed fader ride could do better. Rather, I use them for tone shaping. I like to have a lot of flavors, and I use them as ways to change the envelope of a performance, or in some cases an entire song.

11. What’s the least expensive or quirkiest piece of gear you’ve ever used on a record?
This is kind of an unsexy answer, but I have this digital Boss metronome that I used to use all the time when working with tape. Whenever I’m producing I’m always tapping along to see how the artist is playing in relationship to the beat.

I think getting the tempo right is an under-explored aspect of a song. Changing the tempo and the key are really easy ways to globally change how all the personalities in the room interact with each other. So, the little metronome that cost me $40 15 years ago still sticks with me.

12. What do you do in your free time, when you’re not making records?
It’s been tough to have free time these days, but I will say I love to cook. Similar to music, it’s a way to communicate something without having to explain it. I can channel my perfectionist tendencies to make a meal for somebody...I think I also like the performative aspect to cooking; the timing, the plating, the presentation.

I also enjoy photography. I have an old film camera and I like to just walk around the city or go somewhere and snap some photos. It’s a nice way to have a creative venture that doesn’t have to be as perfect as I want music to be. I can still be creative but I’m not a professional photographer so I can still go have fun with it.

13. What’s your favorite place to eat?
That’s a tough one… I’d have to say home. There are a lot of great restaurants, especially here in New York, but some of the best meals I’ve had have been at home with my girl.

14. What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
It’s a tie between The Invisible Man and The Autobiography of Malcolm  X.

15. What’s one of your favorite albums of all time?
Laughing Stock by Talk Talk. That was the last record they made. Half the band had quit, so it was basically just Mark Hollis and Lee Harris. They had been dropped from EMI because they stopped making pop records and signed to Verve Records, which was a jazz label.

Mark Hollis is the epitome of a perfectionist. Even though all these things were going on, Mark kept a steady hand. He knew the vision and saw it through despite what any of his detractors said. It’s almost like he was at the end of his rope and all he had was his vision, and you can hear that in every moment of that record.

16. What’s one record you wish that you had worked on?
Blue by Joni Mitchell.

She’s a producer. She’s never worked with an outside producer on any of her records and I love that about her. I wouldn’t even want to produce her, I would just engineer. I have been thrilled to have her be the producer and help her enact her vision.

She certainly didn’t need my help but I often daydream of what it would be like to work on that record and have her be in charge. And for her to be able to work with someone who wants nothing more than for her to be in charge and to make an amazing record.

Plus, I’d get to hang out with James Taylor!

17. What new music have you been listening to lately?
I try to keep up on new music but I also like to find weirder, lesser-known stuff. Lately I’ve been listening to Be Small by Here We Go Magic, Both by OK Kaya, the new Art School Girlfriend single, Lush by Snail Mail, Clean by Soccer Mommy, In a Poem Unlimited by U.S. Girls, Room 25 by Noname, Double Negative by Low, Memories by Miskeyz, and 7 by Beach House.

18. What has changed most about your productions over the years?
I’ve embraced the elegance of simplicity.

19. What’s one piece of gear you can’t live without?
The Kensington Expert Trackball Mouse. That’s probably the least cool answer you’ve ever gotten, but if you ever see me try to use a normal mouse it looks like I’ve never used a computer before.

20. What’s one piece of advice you have for aspiring producers or engineers?
Make sure this is what you want to do because you’re embarking on a path to try and be the master of something that nobody has mastered yet. There are masters of this craft, but no one has mastered it.

If you do it right, you’ll try to get better every day for the rest of your career, and that’s a tall order. It consumes your life. It’s a great gig; I’m still surprised it’s a job sometimes. But that also means that I have to give it my all and make a lot of sacrifices. I have to study and practice. I have to listen to all sorts of music and be conversant in a lot of different styles. The price you have to pay to be able to work doing something you love, is that you work all the time, and that will take a toll on your relationships, your friends and family.

It’s an all-encompassing thing, so make sure it’s what you want to do. There are easier ways to make more money and have less stress.

But if this is what you want to do, then do that. Don’t wait for someone’s permission to be a producer. Don’t wait to graduate from audio school. Just be a producer. Start producing. Find artists. Help them. You’ll probably have to work for free, but go produce.

All you’re doing is helping someone actualize their idea and maximize their potential. You don’t need anyone’s permission to do that. There’s no real school or degree for that. It’s not like you’re signing up to be an architect and you have to have six or seven years of formal training. You can just start producing.

Same thing with engineering. Try to find a way to get in the room. Find a mentor that will take you under their wing. And if not, buy a copy of Pro Tools and start engineering at home. Offer to record friends for free and just learn. Go to shows and meet artists your age who are down to learn together and record them. Embark upon that craft and take it seriously, because it is a craft and it’s something you have to practice every day.

And if you’re doing your job right, you’ll keep that fire inside you to want to get better every day. You’re going to have that amazing idea that you have to rush to the studio to execute. You’re going to feel honored that an artist trusts you with something that’s so important to them.

I don’t know if everyone gets their shot, but I know when you get your shot it’s not going to be when you’ve had a good night’s sleep and a great breakfast. It’s not going to be when you’re completely ready. Oftentimes, at least in my life, all the shots I’ve had have been quite the opposite: I wasn’t ready at all. The best you can hope for is to be prepared.

Check out tracks from Beyoncé, the Voidz and Trash Talk to listen to the wide range of projects that Chris Tabron has engineered, mixed and produced.

 

 

 

Jason Cropper
If you’re interested in learning more about any of the gear mentioned in this 20 Questions interview, contact a Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 866.644.0160.

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