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Marc Daniel Nelson boasts an impressive 20-year music career in music, as evidenced by his Grammy nomination and an exhaustive list of music and film credits, which range from Fleetwood Mac and Jason Mraz to Blade Runner, The Vietnam War, and Mulan. The highly sought-after mixing engineer, music producer and creative director studied under Bill Schnee and Ken Caillat and is known for his innovative approach to sound-sculpting.
We caught up with Nelson while he was driving around his home in Los Angeles for our 20 Questions series for an engaging interview on his gear, process, influences, and future plans.
1. What got you into the world of making records?
Back in the 90s, I kind of started with the Beatles. I'm sure everyone has said that the Beatles were a huge influence on them, but for me, it wasn't until the anthologies came out in 94. I think I was a freshman in high school at the time. I was right in that area where if it was two years later, I would be liking girls and I'd have my driver's license. I was playing guitar and doing all these things that you would do if you didn't have your license like hanging out with your friends and stuff. So when the anthology came out, I don't know, I was just really drawn to the idea of studio banter. I liked the discussions that George Martin had with the band and listening to how they talked and how it progressed into different versions of music and I really didn't like or care about live concert audio at all. That wasn't impressive to me.
I was also a songwriter, but I wasn't very good. My dad wasn't big on building me and my brother a treehouse when we were younger, so he said, “If you want, I'll give you $200 and you can build a music studio in half of the basement.” I lived in this kind of historical district of Valparaiso, Indiana, which was 35 miles from downtown Chicago. There were all these old houses they were tearing down and they'd have these auctions to come in and claim stuff. So I ended up buying a bunch of cool stuff, like just random ceiling tiles and cedarwood for trim. Stuff to make the studio actually look really good. And then I bought a four-track cassette recorder like everyone else and I just started recording high school bands.
After high school, I went to The Recording Workshop in Ohio for audio. That was the traditional approach to getting into the industry in the 90s and early 2000s. I didn't want to go to a four-year school yet because I couldn't focus. And after that, I ended up sending 70 or 80 resumes out to studios looking for work. The only one I heard back from was, funny enough, the largest studio in the Midwest at the time, the Chicago Recording Company. I interviewed for the internship and got the job. And that was the start. I thought I was gonna jump in hands first, but no way. I had to learn the historical value of the apprenticeship.
2. What’s your current studio setup like?
My mixing setup is really simple where instead of it being just like a traditional control room with a large format console, it's basically a cockpit. I can be very fluid and the way that I work inside the box and outside the box is really complex and pretty interesting too. Everything can easily be moved around, so if I need to use one thing, I really don't do a lot of fiddling with the analog side of my gear. I also have a writing area slash lobby hangout room in an outside area too.
3. Would you say you have some sort of overarching philosophy for mixing or producing?
Yeah. I think I kind of follow the world that I grew up in—the Bill Schnee, Doug Sax camp of “less is more.” That being said, I do love these gorgeous, huge records that were made years ago, but I also love gear and compression. So I have to find ways to do both, which makes this kind of melting-pot sound. It's one thing to be really high-fi and beautiful, but I feel like you lose a lot of energy and stuff when you're doing pop or rock or anything that requires a lot of power. And so you have to find ways to mix that up. So the philosophy is the same as it's probably been for years, which is “less is more” and critical listening. The last 5% is the most important to me over the big picture because it's harder to get that last 5% right than it is to get the first half.
4. What does an average day in the mixing room look like for you?
The first thing I do is check emails and then I like to work out because I feel like that helps gets your ears relaxed. Cause you know, when you wake up, you're a little cloudy and exercising helps you focus, but then right away, I usually have some recalls. I'm usually working on a couple of projects at once. This coming week is kind of interesting. I'll be going to the Warner Brothers Stage to work on a Riot Games orchestra track and then I'll be doing drum tracking later with an LA artist. I've got three to five projects that are in the recall mode, some are fresh, ready to mix, and they're all different genres, so the next week or two will be fun.
5. What is the least expensive piece of gear you've used on a project?
I think it's crucial as an engineer that you find stuff that is unique and implement that into your system. Especially with distortion because everyone has the same distortion plugin. If you can find stuff like cheap, old line amps from a pawn shop or anything like guitar pedals that you run things through. So EarthQuaker Devices make really affordable, incredible-sounding guitar pedals that you can just send tracks through to get these super unique distortions.
6. What’s a weird technique or approach that you’ve implemented to get a specific sound?
I have an older TASCAM 388 Studio, which is great. It's got a mixer built-in with EQ and everything and I have it hard patched to my inserts in Pro Tools under a template that I could just load in. If something needs some dirt or vibe, I literally will just print it to the TASCAM 388 and then reimport it back into Pro Tools and work with it that way.
7. Who's someone you look to as a constant source of inspiration?
I would say the most important person I turn to when it comes to pushing me to do my best is my dear friend Scott Reinwand. He's Vice President of Production at Warner Chappell. He has been my guiding light to bettering myself as a mixer and engineer. He's super thorough with direction. Pat Weaver who is Head of Production and Scott are doing amazing things over there.
8. Name a dream artist that you'd like to work with someday.
There is one in my top five favorites that I think I could definitely bring something to and that is David Gray, who is one of my favorite all-time songwriters. I think it's just his temperament and his attitude towards music-making and the fact that he does exactly what he wants and not what the trend says.
9. What's one piece of gear you can't live without?
I would say my speakers for sure. Since I got a pair of ATC SCM45A speakers, I feel like my mixes took a massive step forward because I can hear mid-range and balance in general overall. I think speakers are very important. I would buy expensive speakers before I would buy expensive compressors or stuff because you can really get away with a lot in the box these days.
10. What's one of your favorite albums of all time?
I will go back to David Gray. I was listening to White Ladder a lot when I got into recording and I recently cracked it open again because it just hit the 20-year anniversary last year or so.
11. Is Pro Tools your preferred DAW?
Yes, and I'll tell you why: I'm pretty accustomed to a lot of different programs and stuff, but I'd think it's just because I could do it in my sleep. I'm really good with Pro Tools. I know that the interface is not quite as shiny as some other DAWs, but I do believe that for what I need it for, it still can't be beaten. It sounds great and it works, so why change it?
12. What's one record film project you wish that you had worked on?
I would say it would be a Wilco record. I feel like they’re one of the few bands that can play live together and create a vibe and songs that sound amazing––mistakes and all.
13. What new music have you been listening to lately?
I tend to listen to older things because when you spend all day working in a pizza restaurant, you don't want to go home and make a pizza for dinner. So I tend to just stick with the Beatles and kind of average stuff and then just put iTunes on shuffle when I work out and whatever comes up, I listen to it.
14. What mics do you use most often?
I'm a huge tube microphone guy. If I have access to older German tube microphones, that would be my first choice. My most-used microphone is probably a Neumann U 47 because it just sounds phenomenal on its own and on multiple instruments, it works great.
15. Which EQs do you reach for most often?
16. What about compressors?
I'm a huge fan of compressors. I have six stereo compressors in my room. The one I use most is the Analog Tube AT-101, which is a recreation of an original Fairchild 670. It doesn't even need to be compressing anything as much as it's just the line amplifier and the whole sound of it really makes things super thick and inviting. It sounds really good. And a new one added to my collection is the SSL The BUS+. That thing is wicked awesome. It’s got so many options and is one of those compressors that just sounds right.
17. What about your monitors?
I would go back to talking about the ATC SCM45A speakers. They're my favorite. I’ve done work on pretty much every model: the SCM150s, SCM100s, SCM50s and SCM25s, and the SCM45s seem to just always be my favorite. It's a personality thing and I know a lot of people like different speakers.
18. What is your favorite reverb?
My favorite reverb would be Bricasti M7 hardware. My favorite reverb in plug-in land would be the Seventh Heaven from LiquidSonics.
19. How do you approach working with artists you admire?
That's a tricky question only because I'm very nervous about working with people I really like because it kind of ruins the magic. That's why I always say I don't know if I would work with Paul McCartney if I was asked to. I mean, I probably would, let’s be real. But, I fear I would lose so much of my youthful memories and such. There are so many artists that thread my heart to music that I would be scared to work with a lot of them.
20. What separates competent engineers and producers from ones that truly stand out?
I mean, Vintage King has done interviews with tons of competent, incredibly talented engineers. There are billions. So it's like, how do you stand out from all of those people other than having a personality or your sound? And if you don't train yourself into it, it's hard to get it. I do believe it's connected to being super-ADHD, a little hyper-aware of every little detail, and really obsessed with design and stuff like that. So I think it's all connected to that last 5%. And I do believe that if you're gonna do this, you have to bring something to the table for people to wanna work with you. You can't just be the same as everyone else.