Chris Allen | Interview
Producer, mix engineer and artist Chris Allen has worked with Ministry Of Sound, Universal, Pete Tong, Roni Size, Sasha, UNKLE, James Lavelle, Pablo Clements, James Griffith and George Moroder to name but a few. He also co-produced and engineered the classic Sonique’s UK no1 ‘It Feels So Good’.
I caught up with him in his Brighton-based studio and chatted music, gear and what inspires him.
KMR : Hey Chris, so what are your main DAW’s of choice here and why?
- Protools HDX, in my opinion, it’s still the only game in town if you’re working at high sample rates with DSP-hungry plug-ins.
- Ableton Live 9, I use this for production and composition.
- Logic X, still gets some use, it’s a great laptop DAW.
KMR : What Hardware makes your life more difficult to adopt into your workflow BUT just is essential to your sound, and therefore you're willing to work around any idiosyncratic features it may have?
CA : Well. I have two machines that fall into this category.
- First one : Ampex ATR-102 half-inch tape machine. The maintenance, tape cost and alignment make using the old beast into something of a labour of love but the sound of it makes it worth it.
- Second : Thermionic Culture Vulture. It’s temperamental but just does a unique thing which I can’t replicate digitally. The UAD plug-in is a surprisingly good model of it but the dynamics and the mid range just aren’t quite the same as the hardware.
KMR : When working to a deadline and / or reduced budget project what tools do you feel get you to 'that place' a lot quicker, when trying to finish a mix / complete a track ?
CA : I think the addition of Protools HDX to my studio has made the single biggest difference in terms of how quickly I can get a mix finished. It’s able to cope with pretty much anything I throw at it and works smoothly even under extreme DSP loads. I mix at 96k with 32 analog i/o and HDX handles it all amazingly well.
My studio underwent a pretty radical transformation over the course of the past 2-3 years and KMR Audio’s support in this process was invaluable. Being able to call upon expert advice and tech support was a massive help and demoing hardware played a vital role in helping me decide what kit best suited my needs - particularly when it came to adding new monitoring to my setup.
KMR : Hardware v Software debate is always going on but which plug-ins could you not live without?
- Cytomic’s The Drop - For me, this is the most underrated plugin around, amazing dual filter with super-accurate gates I find it’s a vital mixing and creative tool and I’ve also made a number of videos which show how I work with it.
- Massenburg EQ5 - This is my current go-to channel EQ and one of the very few good AAX DSP plugins.
- UAD-2 Reverbs - I rely heavily on the UA reverb plugins particularly the UA EMT140 and UA Lexicon 224
- Bluecat Patchworks - this is a VST wrapper plug-in which allows me to make use of plugins like Xfer Records Dimension Expander or the amazing Sonic Charge Echobode delay.
KMR : Art v Technique - How do you balance the creative and emotional 'turmoil' that can be necessary for writing / production with the technical side ?
CA : Hmmm this is a great question! I’m a big believer in "suffering for one’s art".I try hard to invest as much of my emotional energy as I can into the music I make or mix for other people. My studio philosophy is ‘do whatever it takes’, no matter how long or inconvenient it might be to get a record to sound right I will keep going until I reach that point.
In this modern age of online music, I think you have literally 3-4 seconds to engage a listener who is skipping along a waveform or through a playlist, so you need to make sure every moment of your music is sounding perfect. So I guess to answer the question, I don’t really balance the two - it's an ongoing struggle!
KMR : Can you remember the moment you decided this was what you wanted to do with your life ?
CA : I remember it clearly. I was 13 and discovered that my Amiga 500 computer could become a 16 bit 4 voice mono sampler if I added a small cartridge to it. That was it, from that moment I have always wanted to be a studio musician and have spent my whole life dedicating myself to learning the craft of music making. I’m still learning every day.
KMR : Is there any equipment you would like to see being re-released or created? Is there something that would really excite?
CA : I’d want to see three types of equipment combined: 500 series, Hardware FX and Eurorack modular. I feel like these three things should be able to communicate with each other in the analog domain. I’d really love to have an “FX rack”, perhaps with some delay modules, a mini spring reverb, MXR or Roland BOSS type FX and rack Strymon pedals! - that sort of thing.
These could all have CV modulation inputs.. or perhaps even AD/DA, re-amping, midi, a patch-bay and USB built directly into the rack. How cool would that be?!
KMR : Favourite EQ - Favourite Compressor - Favourite FX ?
- Zahl EQ1 500 series hardware EQ - super clean and amazingly accurate 4 band parametric. The first hardware EQ that has the focus of a plug-in but the fidelity of analog.
- Vertigo Sound VSC-2 hardware Compressor - it’s wonderful and can really add some magic to the right source. I often use it on vocals or sometimes on the 2-buss for the mellower music that I mix.
- FX - tough one, the one that gets used on every track I think : Lexicon PCM70
KMR : Loudness War, do you actively compete or do you leave it in the hands of your mastering engineer ?
CA : I mix dancefloor records so yes I very much compete. It might be a controversial statement but I really love loud and powerful music. To me, it’s how dance music is supposed to sound. Loud doesn’t need to mean ‘slammed’, it is possible to mix loud but retain dynamics in recordings and I find it fascinating to experiment with how loudness shapes the music I mix. It’s easy to make a record sound good when quiet, but to retain a delicate balance when it’s big and loud is very difficult and requires huge skill. I enjoy the challenge very much.
KMR : What are you listening to currently and what has inspired you music-wise / or otherwise in the past?
CA : My favourite current band is Unknown Mortal Orchestra, I adore the second album..still getting into the third album. I think Reuben is a fantastically talented musician with a unique perspective and he deserves to reach a wide audience. I’m also really liking Foals and a techno artist called Rob Clouth at the moment.
Classics are so many. I tend to like to listen to music that is a world away from the music I work on. I often reach for records by Joni Mitchell. She is like therapy for me.
KMR : Studio is burning down! …you can only grab 3 things... What are they and why?
CA : Despite my love of hardware the first thing I’m saving is my custom Mac Pro. It’s a vital tool for me and is the centre of my music world. Next would undoubtedly be my ATC SCM25A monitors, although not sure how I’m carrying these and a Mac Pro! Of the audio hardware, I think my UA 2192 would win as this box is key to my mix sound…. I’d also be pulling the ATR102 on its trolley behind me as I run from the building!
KMR : Thanks so much for the interview Chris - please share your links and any current / future projects.
CA : Current projects are :
Ry-X - forthcoming LP
Frank Weidemann / Ame - a hero and a great friend
Howling - mixed their LP in 2015
Tale of Us - forthcoming EPs
Jonas Rathman - mixing
Bengal - exciting new Florida-based band
Jody Wisternoff - mixing for Anjuna Deep
Jagaara - new London band
Life & Death - working closely with this exciting new label
Nick Warren - forthcoming collaborations